Alpha Mom » Mir Kamin parenting and pregnancy opinions and information Thu, 23 Oct 2014 11:17:50 +0000 en-US hourly 1 What Is DBT (and Who’s It For)? Tue, 21 Oct 2014 16:27:27 +0000

Today’s information is being shared with you from the point of view of a layperson (that’s me) who has both observed DBT done with my child and participated in a course of DBT, myself. Full disclosure: I’m a life-long chronic depressive who has done years (and years and years) of various therapies, and while I will never be “cured,” I have (mostly) learned how to manage my symptoms and live a normal life. Many of the different types of therapy I’ve done have been beneficial, but DBT remains, to my mind, the single most practical plan for managing difficult emotions and keeping them from disrupting my life. [That said, please note that I am not a doctor or mental health professional, nor do I play one on TV or the Internet.]

If you’ve heard of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)—and it’s quite possible you haven’t—you’ve probably heard that it’s an “extreme” approach for people with really difficult-to-treat behaviors such as suicidal ideation. While it’s obvious why this is a treatment of choice for individuals engaging in life-endangering behaviors, I’m here to tell you in all sincerity that I wish DBT was being recommended to every parent dealing with a struggling child or struggling themselves with the difficulties of parenting. But hang on; I’m getting ahead of myself.

DBT was developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan, a clinician who struggled with her own issues for years until she came to this method of both accepting oneself and changing at the same time. In fact, if you go read about it on the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ site, you’ll see this:

Who will benefit from DBT?

While DBT was initially developed to treat chronically suicidal individuals with BPD [Borderline Personality Disorder], it has evolved into a treatment for individuals with multiple different disorders. Although many people who are treated with DBT have BPD as a primary diagnosis, DBT has also been adapted for behavioral disorders involving emotional dysregulation (such as substance dependence in individuals with BPD and binge eating disorder) and for treating people with severe depression and associated suicidal thoughts.

Let’s start with a look at the word dialectical:

1. relating to the logical discussion of ideas and opinions.
“dialectical ingenuity”
2. concerned with or acting through opposing forces.
“a dialectical opposition between social convention and individual libertarianism”

The second definition, above, is what really defines this therapy and sets it apart from other approaches; DBT strives to balance acceptance and change. Other types of therapy may look to change how the distressed person feels, thereby changing resultant action, but DBT says, “Okay, you feel that way. We can accept that. At the same time, we can work to change the associated behaviors.” DBT has a huge component of self-awareness coupled with this acceptance, as many people who wind up in this type of therapy really don’t know how they’re feeling a lot of the time (they’re too busy reacting), and stopping to notice and accept whatever emotions are present is an important first step in changing behavior.

As I already mentioned, I happen to disagree with NAMI’s assessment that DBT is beneficial “for people with extreme behavioral disorders.” I think DBT is beneficial for anyone struggling with emotional regulation issues, whether it be due to mental illness or simply a difficult life situation. Point of interest: the main goal of DBT—noting and accepting your emotions, working towards still practicing behavior which is calm and productive, regardless—is very similar to the philosophy of Al-Anon. Even if you’re not mentally ill, yourself, living with someone who is (or who has an addiction or other destructive disorder) requires the patience of a saint, a heart of stone, or a really good mental toolkit for survival.

For the person struggling with destructive behaviors, DBT offers a path to change that’s pretty pragmatic. The whole “let’s talk about your childhood and get to the root of these issues” approach is a valid one, but it doesn’t work for everyone, and it can take a long time, too. Other therapeutic approaches can seek to change underlying feelings, with varying degrees of success. While working towards change via emotions can work, changing behavior regardless of emotions is not only faster, it often results in emotional change, as well. So with DBT, you start with an honest assessment of the issue, then move on to accepting your feelings and modifying your behaviors: I am engaging in Behavior X and that is [not good for me, hurting people I love, wreaking havoc, whatever]. What feelings bring me to Behavior X? Can I identify them? Those feelings are neither good nor bad, they’re just how I feel. Once identified, what different behaviors can I attempt to engage in, instead, when I have those feelings? It doesn’t make for overnight change, of course, but it circumvents this notion (that’s fairly pervasive in psychology) that people can control their feelings. We can control our actions. Not that many people can actually control their feelings, and if you already feel out of control, being tasked with controlling your feelings is probably a one-way ticket to failure.

For the person (parent) dealing with the destructive person (child), DBT offers a way to cope and ultimately accept the current reality. The mechanisms are very similar, but instead of changing obviously destructive behaviors, it helps prevent emotional overwhelm in the face of difficulty. (In my case, it also stops me from yelling. I know that yelling solves nothing, but when I’m upset I’m prone to anger and a raised voice, which—surprise!—is not useful when things are already out of control.) So here it’s more like: I am getting very upset about this thing I do not have the power to change. It’s okay to have feelings about it, but I have to note them and then let them go, because they are serving no useful purpose right now. The most helpful thing I can do in this situation is remain calm and neutral, and I can do that by noting those feelings and setting them down and continuing on with whatever I need to be doing right now. Again, this is not an overnight change or something that will always work 100% of the time, but it’s a perception shift that can be enormously useful.

The most helpful thing ever said to me in therapy came out of a DBT discussion, and it was this: “When we can do better, we do do better.” DBT is simultaneously demanding (you possess the power to change; use it) and forgiving (you are doing the best you can at this very moment). It’s a very gentle way to view yourself, and an oddly-comforting-in-difficult-times way to view the person you love who’s in crisis. They’re doing the best they can. Maybe it’s not what you wish for them, maybe it’s not what you pictured, but they’re doing their best in this moment. And so are you. And really, that’s all any of us can do.

If you’re interested in finding out more about DBT or locating a certified practitioner, visit the DBT-Linehan Board of Certification site.

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Sometimes Karma Is Furry Tue, 14 Oct 2014 16:50:22 +0000

I think a lot about karma, these days. I don’t really know what I believe when it comes to past lives and future lives and all of that, but I do feel a need to believe in some sort of interconnectedness between what we put out into the world and what we get back. (This is why—when life is difficult—my husband and I have a running joke that we were very bad people in a past life.) It just helps me to believe that somehow, there’s an underlying meaning and/or order to life, even if most of the time I have no idea what it might be.

It’s easy to forget about this in the daily minutiae of life. School, work, packing lunches, chauffeuring kids around, feeding one of the dogs every few hours so he doesn’t die, doing laundry… just getting through the day fills up my brain until I drop into bed at night, exhausted and not exactly doing any higher-order philosophical pondering. In general I am prone to a Chicken-Little-esque view of my life (“The sky is falling!!”) and I am trying very hard to change that, so now if everyone I love is still in one piece by the time I crawl into bed, I chalk it up as a successful day. The good thing about this approach is that I’ll forget about all the times I lost my temper or took a lazy shortcut or otherwise wasn’t at my best. The bad thing about this approach is that… I’ll forget about all the times I lost my temper or took a lazy shortcut or otherwise wasn’t at my best. (Personal growth requires an honest assessment of one’s shortcomings, or something. Whatever.)

Anyway. A few weeks ago I was having One Of Those Days. You know the kind; you have about 40 hours worth of tasks to be completed in a 24-hour period, and everyone needs something from you right this second. It was the kind of day where everything that could go wrong did go wrong, and my patience was worn thin.

Of course this was a day when my daughter had an appointment, and despite multiple reminders about our departure time, it came as no surprise when I found myself sniping at her to hurry up, we are going to be late, why do you always do this; don’t you know how to read a clock?? By the time we buckled into my car, I was annoyed, she was sullen, and my foot may have been a little heavy on the gas in an attempt to get us where we needed to be on time.

We weren’t all that far from home when I had to lean hard on the brake pedal to avoid… a happy-go-lucky basset hound who was trotting (yes, trotting!) down the road’s double yellow line as if he owned it. Another car was coming from the other direction, too, and we both slowed, then the other vehicle cleared the dog and sped off. I saw pedestrians up ahead, but they were watching with curiosity, not acting as though this was their dog who’d gotten loose.

My daughter was frantic. “He’s going to get hit! What do we do??”

I looked at the dog. I looked at the clock. I looked back at the dog. I pulled off the road and stopped. “We’re going to be late,” I muttered, the picture of selfless grace.

I got out of the car and called to the dog, who ambled over to me, tail wagging. He had a collar and tags, so I managed to lure him to the shoulder of the road and then tried to get a look at his ID. I was just flipping the tag over when he broke away from me, though, and sprinted (well, as much as a basset hound can sprint) behind me. Panicked, I turned around to see that my daughter had also emerged from the car, and he was apparently very happy to see her. Except, that wasn’t quite it. She’d left the car door open, and this dog must be a big fan of car rides.

He hopped into the car and sat on the passenger seat, still wagging, eager for us to take him on an adventure.

We burst out laughing. How could we not? It had been a stressful day, we were late, and now a strange dog was sitting in my car looking for all the world like he’d just won the doggie lottery.

“Alright,” I said to my daughter, “Get in, hold him on your lap.”

She managed to position herself under the dog, and I got back into the driver’s seat. Once we closed the doors, I was able to get a look at his tag. Slinky—of course he was named Slinky—had an address I didn’t recognize, but I punched it into the GPS and we set off to take him home. It turned out he hadn’t wandered all that far; when we pulled into his driveway, he wagged some more, hopped out of the car, and started grazing on the lawn. (Perhaps Slinky is a basset cow?)

We rang the doorbell and waited, but no one appeared. Just when I was trying to figure out what we should do next, a harried gentleman covered in paint came out from around the back of the house, and it turned out that he’d been painting, had left a door open, and he didn’t even know Slinky was out. (Slinky seemed pleased to see him, but also seemed pretty interested in eating more grass.) He thanked us profusely for returning him, and we waved and set back off on our way.

I pulled out my phone and called the doctor’s office to let them know we were en route but might be late. Funny, though—we didn’t hit a single red light or any traffic, and actually made it on time.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think we did anything extraordinary, nor do I think that a spur-of-the-moment dog rescue zeroes out all of the times my behavior has been less than stellar. But the rest of the day was… better. Calmer. There was less eye-rolling, fewer power struggles. Weeks later, all I have to say to a certain grumpy teenager is “Slinky wanna go for a ride??” to get a smile.

I’ll take my good karma wherever I can get it these days, even if it leaves fur all over the seat of my car.

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I Have Teenagers, Therefore I Cook Tue, 07 Oct 2014 21:54:31 +0000

“Ugh, I have nothing to write about,” I whined to my husband this morning. “Damn kids, having their own lives and privacy and stuff.”

This is an ongoing joke between us. Just a little blogger humor! “Hey, remember when the most awful thing the kids did was sneak candy? And I could write about it and no one would think we were terrible parents? Remember that??” (Hooboy, we’re a laugh-riot ’round here.)

In my writing about my children, I find myself writing less and less about my actual children. There’s lots of reasons for that, but central among them the fact that their childhood is—whether I like it or not—nearly over. Being a teenager is hard enough without Mom blabbing. And my particular teenagers have their own set of challenges making their lives even harder. I never want to be the reason things are more difficult for them.

“You should write about your terrible husband and how he never cooks,” joked my husband. It’s worth noting that this conversation was happening at 6:30 this morning, pre-coffee, as I was sautéing onions. (No, I don’t always get up and cook a bunch of onions. Tonight’s a crock pot night and I was assembling ingredients for the crock so that we can have dinner later, even if the day rises up and attacks me, which—more and more often—seems to be the norm.)

I laughed. “I don’t mind cooking,” I said. “And you’re not terrible,” I added, lest there was any doubt. Honestly, I think my husband is a saint. And if I ask him to cook, he does (and well). But I work from home, I do the grocery shopping, I’m the one who produced two somewhat finicky eaters… it makes more sense for me to be the “main” cook in the household.

Cooking has always been something I’ve enjoyed, but more and more I’m realizing it’s become something of a daily meditation for me. Let’s be clear: I’m not a stupendous cook. I’m a decent cook. Some of my creations are amazing and some are duds. Most are good but unremarkable. I harbor no illusions about my culinary expertise. What I do have is a decent set of skills and understanding about what flavors work together. What is becoming clear to me is that I find the process of meal preparation deeply satisfying in a way that almost nothing else in my current life can rival.

Think about it: I start with… nothing, usually. Sometimes we have a weekly meal plan, but most days (like today) the weekend chewed me up and spit me out and I never even went for groceries (unless we’re counting the frenzied 5-minute dash through the grocery store at 7:00 last night for milk, bread, and bananas). So there was no plan. I was up before everyone else, putting away clean dishes, thinking about what I could put in the crock pot. A bit of poking in the fridge and pantry, a quick run out to the garage freezer… then I headed to Google to find a recipe. By the time the rest of the family was stirring, I was caramelizing onions and I had A Plan. I chopped, I stirred, I seasoned. By the time everyone headed out to school and work, dinner was just about made; I’ll pull it out of the crock tonight when everyone gets home. It’s nothing I’ve made before, but I think it’ll be good. We’ll see.

And don’t get me wrong, either—when I packed up leftovers for the kids’ lunches today, my daughter got a 100% homemade meal: a thermos full of black rice and red lentil coconut curry, plus garlicky naan; but my son got… the last few slices of a (delivery) pizza. I’m not some 100% organic “feeding my children is like watering the earth with fuel for a better world” food snob. Sometimes food is just food.

But when I spend time in the kitchen making a meal, I feel productive. I feel calm. I feel sure of myself and my abilities and I look forward to the end result. I can be a little creative, but I can also rely on certain rules. I can stop and taste and adjust. And on the rare occasions when it really all goes sideways—the overcooked entree or the bomb of a recipe—well, the world doesn’t end. We throw it away and eat something else. Sometimes we even get a good family joke out of it. (The day my now-husband proposed to me, as I was having a harried meltdown in my kitchen, I burned dinner to a crisp. I feel like that was reasonable under the circumstances.)

The older my children get, the less predictable I find them to be. The older they are, the less sure I feel that I am doing right by them, or having the effect I hope I’m having, or that I am able to shield them from the world’s harsh realities or prepare them to face them on their own. My career is one I feel very lucky to have, but there’s no “oops, dinner’s burned, oh well!” equivalent—either I get things done, and done well, or I may no longer have a job. And my saint of a husband, well, romance ’round here often looks like, “Shall we watch something stupid on television before we fall into bed exhausted or should we just go to sleep right now?”

I’m not complaining, not really. My life is both terrible and wonderful, and more of the latter than the former. I wish for more control over… everything, really, and that’s just not how it works.

In my kitchen, I have that control I crave. I start with simple ingredients, I decide on a course of action, and I make it happen. I am rewarded at the end with a yummy meal (usually). Sometimes I even get compliments from my family. I create something predictable and good. It doesn’t take a huge amount of brain power or concentration, and I can do it even if my mood isn’t stellar (in fact, it almost always improves my mood). I feel a sense of accomplishment when I’m done.

If only I could figure out how to put my teenagers into my crock pot.

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Marching Band Redux: Finding A Good One Wed, 01 Oct 2014 14:09:45 +0000

Are you sick of listening to me go on and on about high school marching band? Too bad! We got a great reader question the other day on my original post, so I want to share it here and answer, as I’m sure Maria isn’t the only one wondering. She writes:

Maybe you or your readers can help…how do you evaluate if a school has a good band program? I have a 7th grade trumpeter. We are thinking of moving to another state. She loves band, and I want to make sure she continues to have a great band experience. Any insight? Here in Texas we have UIL and I know other states have similar programs. Should I look to see the schools that win the most of those contests? I don’t know if this is the best indicator. Any insight you can give would be most appreciated.

I don’t claim to be an expert, Maria, but I do think there are several pertinent areas to examine when trying to determine whether or not a band program is a good one.

Band Director

When I praised band directors in my original post, I did get multiple bitter comments from folks who insisted that not all band directors are selfless and wonderful, and of course… they’re right. I still think most band directors are in for the love of kids and music, but there are exceptions. How do you know if a band director is a good one? I can tell you that our director gives the same speech every year at the first meeting and it always starts with, “I am here to help you raise your children into productive members of society. I will use music as a tool in that endeavor, but my main goal is to produce good citizens.” Not everyone is going to say that—and not everyone is going to see it that way, either—but it told us right off the bat that we would have no worries about dealing with a tyrant who only wanted trophies. To me, that attitude tells me my kids are in good hands. From a logistical standpoint, find out how long the director has been at the school, and ask about any changes during his tenure there (good or bad). Find out what the rules are (a good director of any school activity has a set of “good stewardship” rules for the kids even outside of said activity, and sets an expectation of excellent behavior in and out of his purview). You’re looking for someone who loves teaching, loves kids, strives for excellence, and wants the band experience to be fun. Which leads us to…

Band Culture

The same director who talks about raising good citizens tells the kids they’re a family, over and over. In fact, this year he declared their “theme” to be relationships, and the kids have been encouraged to view socializing together as important as rehearsal time together. This is the sort of thing you have to both talk to people about directly and just sort of suss out around the edges. Are the band kids generally good students? Is the group pretty cohesive? Are there “stars” and “favorites” or is everyone important? Do they look out for each other? Do they respect the director and are they proud to be part of the group?

Music, Routines, and Competitions

Did I mention that marching band should be fun? It should be fun. Doing the same thing over and over isn’t as much fun as doing new things. Again, ask around for some history—is the show similar every year? Do they experiment with different genres and different formations? As much as most teens love marching arrangements of pop music, seeing your kid learn to appreciate jazz or Latin music or anything outside of their comfort zone, really, is amazing. Variety keeps them learning and keeps them engaged. I would also say that competitions have their place in the marching band experience, but less for the trophies and more for the “let’s go show off our hard work” aspect of it. Do you want them to be competing every weekend? I’d say no. But one to three competitions during the season? Yeah, that’s probably going to be great motivation and some fun experiences. Winning is nice, of course, but it’s not necessary.

Rehearsal Schedule

For as often as we talk about work-life balance for busy adults, I’m astonished at how often some people seem to neglect this consideration for our teenagers (who are, after all, still children). A good marching band will require dedication; it’s a very time-intensive endeavor before and during football season, what with rehearsals, games, and weekend competitions. Finding a balance between enough rehearsal time but allowing kids sufficient time to have lives can be tricky. To determine how you feel about this one, you’ll need to talk to the director, other parents, maybe some band kids, and—here’s the important thing—listen to your gut. My kids do an intensive band camp (that’s pretty common) before school starts, and during the season they have two full-band rehearsals a week (and occasionally an additional section rehearsal) plus a game. We do just two competitions each year and usually a parade at the end of the season. It’s a lot of hours, but does leave the kids ample time for homework, family time, and just general teenager time. In contrast, my son’s best friend attends a school where they have full-band rehearsal three times each week, for nearly twice as long as our rehearsals, plus a game and a full-day Saturday rehearsal if they’re not at competition. In my opinion that’s overkill, and my son’s friend is not having a good experience. (Lest anyone jump in here to point out that this is how excellence is achieved, I disagree. Both bands attended the same competition, and our band did much better than the practice-all-the-time-band, which seems to be composed of exhausted and unhappy kids.)

Class Composition

What are the numbers of freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors in the band? A “top-heavy” band—with many more upperclassmen than younger students—may have experienced some changes which have resulted in poor recruitment or desire of incoming students to join, and could indicate a problem. Similarly, a “bottom-heavy” band—with tons of younger students but poor retention—can indicate problems, as well. Typically a solid band will have some drop-off in the upper grades—due to jobs, college prep, changing interests—but will still be fairly evenly distributed throughout the grades.

If all else fails (or if you still have questions)… go to a football game and watch the band. Are they having fun in the stands? Are they having a good time on the field? You’ll be able to tell. Talk to some of the parents, too. I’ve found parents are very quick to praise the good directors and share their misgivings about the not-so-good ones.

Good luck, Maria, and I hope you’re able to find a great program for your daughter! Marching band rocks!

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When The Student Becomes The Master (Sibling Edition) Wed, 24 Sep 2014 12:03:29 +0000

My children are only 21 months apart. Not quite two years. I know people who say they’d never have kids that close together on purpose—heck, there are even studies suggesting both maternal health and sibling relationships benefit from wider spacing—but I’ve always liked that they’re so close. It means they’re often at the same school, often close in skill level, and can even sometimes share friends. (That last one is much more common now that they’re teens, but even when they were little, it was handy.)

I know plenty of only children who made it through their parents’ divorce intact, but I was extra grateful that they had each other when their dad and I split up. The first time they made the 1,000-mile journey back to their dad’s place after we moved, I hugged them both close and reminded them that no matter what, they always have each other. It was a comfort to me; I think it was a comfort to them, too.

Their paths diverged quite a bit during the tumultuous tween and early-teen years. My daughter battled her own demons, dealt with multiple hospitalizations, and even left us to live with her dad for a little while. In the meantime, my son left public school, and we embarked on a series of experiences with homeschooling, co-ops, and customizable education options, as we struggled to find the right overall fit for his needs. While we knew that his particular flavor of autism meant public middle school was not for him, striking the balance between the intellectual stimulation he wanted and the environment he really needed was a balancing act. Through it all, they seemed to miss each other. “She’s always so busy,” my son would lament, when things were going well. “I just want her home with us,” he’d say, when they weren’t. “Who’s going to look out for him if I’m not there?” my daughter said one day, surprising me. At times it seemed like she cared about nothing, and yet, she worried about him.

Last January, my son joined his sister at the high school. We transitioned him back with one semester of part-time enrollment, giving him a homeschool/public school hybrid for the spring. It meant a lot of adjustments all around, and as my son is not a fan of change (haaaaaa… I make myself laugh when I go all understatement, like that), he opted not to get involved in any extracurriculars that year. Just adjusting to high school was enough, for him. We did kind of strong-arm him into band, because marching band has been such a positive influence in my daughter’s life, and we knew we’d want him to try it out this year. Overall, things went well, and as of this fall, both kids are “regular” high school students (albeit regular students with some special needs and IEPs.)

My son is still easily overwhelmed and sometimes has meltdowns, and when they occur in his sister’s presence, she’s quick to try to soothe him. Sometimes she’s the only one who can talk him down; sometimes he gets angry with her and she throws up her hands and stomps away. It just depends. Now that they’re in marching band together, I see her both coaxing him along when needed and doling out some tough love when she feels like he needs to just man up. It’s also fascinating to watch her educate him on the finer points of high school; like, it’s okay to bring your Magic cards and find other kids who want to play, but only in the band room. She tells him which teachers are more flexible than others, and which hallways in their giant complex to avoid. He goes to her for questions about formatting homework, and to ask her to help him figure out the names of kids in his classes. (He is terrible with names, and somehow she seems to know everyone. The various, “It’s a boy with… hair? Maybe dark hair? About my height, in my Gov class?” “Oh, a boy with hair, okay!” sorts of back-and-forths as they work to decipher his environment crack me up.)

She is older, and arguably wiser (that depends on your point of view, of course), and he is happy to defer to her.

You could’ve knocked me over with a feather when I was working out details for my son’s new weekly Dungeons & Dragons game—some friends with teens recently opened their campaign up to some more kids—and my daughter asked if she could go, too. I raised an eyebrow at her. “You don’t play D&D,” I said.

“I could learn,” she said, with a shrug meant to convey that she didn’t care either way.

I checked with my son, worried that with this being the one activity that’s sort of “all his” he might not want her along. Instead, his face cracked into a huge smile. “Awesome!” he said. “I can get you a character sheet and we’ll get you all set up,” he added, to his sister.

Game day arrived and I dropped them both off with plenty of dice and snacks. Introductions were made—my daughter knew a few of the kids already, but not all of them—and I left as things got underway. When I returned three hours later, the gang around the table was rowdy and cheerful, fighting off giant mosquito-like creatures, rescuing one another, and unabashed in their commitment to conquering a haunted castle that doesn’t really exist.

In short: Everyone was having a blast.

As if that wasn’t amazing enough, since then, evenings have been spent with both kids poring over D&D manuals, character sheets, and spell cards. “So how many hit points do I get for this?” my daughter will ask. My son—unable to remember the name of his lab partner of the past 6 weeks in Physics—rattles off a manual’s worth of statistics with ease. She’s impressed, and asks him another question, probably just to see if he knows the answer off the top of his head (he does). “Ohhhh, what does this spell do?” she asks, showing him a card. He knows, of course. She listens with rapt attention while he talks. They laugh a lot. They are having fun together, doing something he loves, and I can see him puffing up a little bit to be the expert, for once, especially to his sister, whom he idolizes.

I never could’ve predicted this. But hey, it turns out that D20s are a lot more magical than I realized.

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Sidestep Homework Battles Tue, 16 Sep 2014 12:49:31 +0000

Confession: I have very mixed feelings about homework, especially at the pre-high-school level. On the one hand, learning how to organize yourself outside of a classroom and attend to an assignment on your own is a good and important skill, sure. With my kids’ executive dysfunction challenges, I know that homework can be a skill-building situation. But on the other hand… if you’ve already been in school for close to eight hours, is it really necessary for you to come home and keep working (especially if you haven’t even reached double digits, yet)? I don’t think so, especially for younger kids. (I like this The Case Against Homework Fact Sheet as a quick-and-dirty overview. 10 minutes per grade level, per night, maximum. And sleep is more crucial than homework.)

During the years where I homeschooled my youngest and my oldest was drowning in middle- and then high-school homework, there were bitter complaints about the fact that it’s no fair that he doesn’t have any homework. That’s when I started looking at the sorts of work my daughter brought home with a more critical eye. I mean, the “here’s a project for you which you cannot complete without your parents spending $100 on craft supplies and a minimum of 10 hours wiping your tears” sorts of things have been reviled by everyone for forever, but now I looked at the math worksheets and even journaling assignments (I love journaling!) and wondered why there was never time for that work during the school day. My daughter was right; it was unfair. But she got to do a lot of fun and enriching things, too, so I hope it balanced out.

Anyway, now both kids are in public high school together and taking advanced coursework and both kids are in the marching band (you may have heard me mention the marching band once or twice or a hundred times…?), and that means time is short and assignments are long. I’m not saying we have a perfect system going, but after years at this rodeo, here’s some Dos and Don’ts that are (mostly) working for us.

DO get organized up-front. Maybe you have neurotypical, independent, naturally-organized kids who require no assistance in keeping track of things. (If so, please tell me what that’s like… slowly, so I can savor it.) Most of us have kids with a few foibles, though, and I believe everyone can benefit from front-loading with an organizational plan. How and where will they record their homework? Make it simple and suited to their style; my son uses his school-issued agenda, my daughter prefers electronic tracking. My son has a “turn this in” folder for each class and my daughter just puts completed work in her binder. Have a plan.

DON’T make homework the center of the universe. I know families where homework time is “as soon as you walk in the door.” If that works for your kids, fantastic, but lots of kids need some time to decompress before getting back into their work. On a good day, my son will do his his work immediately to get it out of the way… but if he’s had a hard day, he needs to take a break first. No homework is so important that it can’t sometimes wait. Balance is key.

DO keep a watchful eye, but assume independence. Even with my kids’ particular challenges, I don’t want to have to micromanage their homework unless I’m planning to go with them to college (spoiler: I’m not). Even when they were younger, the two cheerful refrains ’round here were always, “I already went to {insert grade here}, this is your homework,” and “Be a problem solver!” On the other hand, if frustration reaches dangerous levels, it’s time to step in and suggest a break, a change in strategy, etc.

DON’T hesitate to contact teachers with concerns. You don’t want to be That Parent—don’t go running to the teacher for every little thing—but if you find yourself fielding a situation where homework is consistently too hard, too long, too soul-sucking, start a conversation. (Pro tip: Kindness and openness goes a lot farther than indignation, no matter what your tearful child tries to tell you about the supposed monster teaching the class.) It’s possible the class is too difficult for your child, and it’s possible the teacher is a sadistic jerk. 99 times out of 100, the reality is somewhere between these two possibilities, and communication is key in figuring out a workable solution.

DO have reasonable expectations. In our household, the expectation is that you will complete all assigned work in a timely manner, because going to school is your job. Furthermore, we expect that time and attention will be budgeted accordingly, and any “I have to stay up into the wee hours to finish this” situation will be rare (it does happen to even the best planners, sometimes). Due to the time demands of marching band, both of my kids often do homework during lunch, class downtime, and in that break between the last bell and the start of rehearsal. I think this is wise of them. And we do have some consequences here at home if I discover work isn’t being completed and turned in on time. But also… they’re still kids. Fridays and Saturdays are homework-free days at our house; they need the break. What’s more, sometimes they make the choice not to finish something, and (if I know about it, anyway) as long as they agree to speak to the teacher about it and deal with it without my participation, I think that’s okay, too.

DON’T freak out. This is good advice for just about every life situation, but especially pertinent here. Homework is not a life or death matter. The more you’re able to keep it in perspective, the better you’ll be able to help your kids stay calm and focused. Don’t get sucked into arguments or angst. It’s just homework.

But, um, Science Fair is coming up, so someone please remind me of this last one in about a month, okay? Thanks.

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The March Begins: College Planning, Ahoy! Tue, 09 Sep 2014 23:33:27 +0000

My daughter is about a month into her junior year of high school, and the inexorable march toward Operation Plan The Rest Of Your Life While You’re Still A Child—a.k.a., planning for college—has begun. She still has no idea what she even wants to study, but shiny college brochures arrive for her in the mail every day, and the pressure (at school; not so much from us) is there. As we begin this journey, here’s some of the things we’re already thinking about.

College where takes what?

I went to college (a million years ago). I also went to grad school (about a million minus four years ago). Theoretically I should be ready to do this dance with my own kid(s), but in reality I feel unprepared for what lies ahead. Some of this is because of my own unusual circumstances—I ended up transitioning to senior status just a few months before the end of what should’ve been my junior year, thereby graduating early and attending the one college to which I’d applied; I was lucky enough to have a college fund in place from generous grandparents that meant I didn’t need financial aid of any kind—and some of this is because things just feel different, now.

When I was headed off to college, where you went still very much felt like a matter of your whole future, with “good” schools assuring you a future beyond what any “lesser” school could offer. Since that time, college costs have skyrocketed, spawning a plethora of “expensive, top-tier schools aren’t worth it” think pieces. And while my children’s college savings are much more modest than what I had, we live in Georgia, home of the HOPE Scholarship. In a nutshell, kids here who maintain at least a B average in high school can receive upwards of 80% of college tuition reimbursement at an eligible public institution. That’s free money, right off the bat, for everyone, before any sort of merit scholarships or need-based funding.

All of this is to say: Our position is that the kids should plan to go to school in Georgia. We have many different public colleges and universities from which to choose, and unless they’re offered an equivalent financial package at an out-of-state school (unlikely), the HOPE funding is definitely the way to go. This means that—aside from any expectations we have for the kids about working hard and reasonable grade averages—there is a certain emphasis on maintaining HOPE eligibility (3.0 or better). Beyond that, because so many Georgia kids do take advantage of HOPE and stay in-state, admission to UGA (the state’s flagship university, and where my husband teaches) has become crazy competitive for a public institution. For this year’s incoming freshmen, the average GPA was 3.9. It’s sobering, and definitely something we keep in mind.

Testing, testing, 1-2-3

My kiddo took the SAT in 7th grade as part of qualification for a gifted/talented program, so she’s no stranger to it. She also took PSAT last year, and as a junior this year, will take it again to determine eligibility for a National Merit Scholarship (scores are reviewed and top scorers may qualify for cash grants; it’s a nice way for high scorers to get a little extra money for college without a ton of paperwork). While she doesn’t need to take the SAT again until she’s a senior, she has asked to take it this fall because she feels like she will probably want to take it more than once and she wants the practice. That’s fine by us. So she’ll do the SAT in the fall, the PSAT in the spring, and then (if needed), she can take the SAT one more time. While we’re not all that concerned about her scores, she does experience test anxiety and is, due to a processing disorder, slower in testing situations than her peers, so practice is a great idea. [Note: Beginning in 2016, the SAT will be overhauled, including a revamp of the writing section (which will also then be made optional). This delights me, but the changes will take place too late for both of my kids.]

Speaking of testing….

The good news about the high school my kids attend is that there are tons of Advanced Placement (college level) courses from which to choose, and students in the college-bound track are encouraged to begin taking those AP classes right from their freshman year. The bad news is that the College Board governs the AP exams, and although there is a formal process by which you may petition for testing accommodations (and then appeal the rejection you receive), a child like mine with an IEP in place and uncontested testing accommodations at the high school will not be allowed any such accommodations on the exam which determines if your child will receive college credit for having completed this college course. This is how my brilliant but learning-disabled child finished an AP course last year with a 105 average and then received a 2 on the exam—not high enough to receive college credit, despite her superior performance in the class.

We had a bit of a come-to-Jesus both as a family and with folks at school after this experience, because we did have to stop and consider what it might say to potential colleges if my kid has a transcript full of AP classes but never manages to pass the AP exams. In the end, we made the decision to stay the course; she’s taking 4 APs this year, because those are the proper level classes for her to take, and we’re petitioning the College Board for testing accommodations (again) which we expect will be denied (again) and we’ll just have to wait and see how that all goes. (Certainly there’s a good essay in there somewhere about effort and reward and excelling in school despite challenges, no?)

In the meantime, be interesting

While I dislike the idea of encouraging kids to do extracurriculars “because it looks good on a college application,” the reality is that even a stellar student with no outside interests/activities is not going to look like a strong college candidate compared to peers who keep busy. We are lucky in that my daughter has always preferred to be involved in multiple activities (this is going to be a harder road to navigate with my son, when the time comes, as he believes computer gaming to be a sufficient extracurricular), and her resume is pretty diverse. We did make sure to do a little guidance in the direction of community service, this past summer, as that felt like a missing component. And when we hear, “I wonder if _____ might be fun,” our response is, “Only one way to find out!” Not every activity sticks, but we’re all for exploration. And who knows? Maybe she’ll stumble across her passion while she’s at it.

We’re realists; we know we’re in for a bumpy ride. Applying to college is stressful under the best of circumstances, so my goal as a parent right now is to strike a tone balance between “this is important” and “no, this isn’t really setting the whole rest of your life in stone.” Otherwise it’s going to be a loooong couple of years.

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The Lament Of The “Perfect Dinner” Wed, 03 Sep 2014 15:18:29 +0000

My home office is literally just off of the kitchen in our house, so although I’ve managed to side-step most of the other domestic temptations of working from home—I do not, for example, find myself folding laundry or dusting instead of working—I do feel a certain obligation to make my family a decent dinner almost every night. After all, I’m right here. And I like to cook. I own five crock pots! (Yes, I really own five crock pots. It’s a long story, okay?) I’m a decent cook and I try to meal plan on the weekends and most of the meals I make during the week can be adjusted to fit into my schedule. (I do try to keep the complicated stuff to the weekends.) After the kids leave for school and my husband leaves for work, I can do some prep in the morning. (If it’s a crock pot meal, that may be all I need to do.) I can take a break at lunchtime and do some prep then, if need be. Or I can just plan to knock off work early enough to do whatever cooking I’ve planned, and three seconds after I push back from my desk, I’m in the kitchen. It should be easy.

Of course, the fantasy and the reality rarely match up. I get cocky, and then life happens.

It started with the grocery trip where the giant packages of chicken thighs were on special. “Oh!” I thought, “I’ve been wanting to make jerk chicken. Those would be perfect. I could freeze half and make jerk with the other half.” Such a good plan! And so frugal of me, too! Except that when I went looking for a jerk recipe, the one I found called for five pounds of chicken, so what the heck, I decided to make the entire package and freeze some of the cooked chicken—then I’d have an easy simple-remove-and-defrost entree there in the freezer, too. Fine.

I planned to make this meal on a work day, which was my first mistake. The recipe I used had about a hundred ingredients, which should’ve been my first clue that it was better suited to the weekend. But no. I am woman, hear me roar! (Or, at least hear my blender whirring up the jerk marinade. Whatever.) Not a problem. I took a short morning break to make the marinade, chop veggies, and put the whole mess in the crock pot.

Then I left for a while to take one of my kids to a doctor’s appointment. Ahhh, the flexibility of working from home! So great! The doctor was running late that day. Surprise! Also, we were finally back in the car when I realized we hadn’t asked for a school excuse. We ran back in, waited in line, and got the magic pass to take back to school.

I deposited said child back at school, then returned to my desk to work. Just a few hours later, it was time to head back to school for a meeting, but first I had to make sure I knew what else I needed to do for dinner. The chicken would need to be finished under the broiler, so I took out a pan for that so that it’d be ready when I got home. I put some rice in the rice cooker. I planned to heat some beans to go in the rice and make a salad and fry some plantains, too. (No, I don’t know when I became Jamaican, either. I just really wanted Jamaican food for dinner.) I’d have plenty of time to do all of that after my meeting, so that I could have dinner ready pretty much as soon as the kids finished up with band rehearsal and we wouldn’t be eating super late.

Well, I bet you know what happened. The meeting ran long, band rehearsal ran long, and by the time we got home it was already after 7. I set some oil on the stove for the plantains while I fished the chicken out of the crock pot and covered it in the last of the jerk seasoning, then stuck it under the broiler. I heated the beans and checked the rice. I put the first plantain into the oil and hey, the oil was too hot, because it sprayed everywhere and the kids asked me what was going on and the dogs started trying to lick up hot oil (my dogs are cute, but not all that bright, it turns out…) while I was turning down the stove and realizing the chicken was about to burn and then I also realized that I hadn’t even started the salad and… you get the idea.

We ended up sitting down to dinner at around 7:45 (late, for us, on a school night), and while everything was delicious, I can’t tell you for sure that it outweighed the hassle leading up to it or the trail of carnage I left behind in my wake (I didn’t use every pan and utensil in the kitchen, but it was close). Later, as my husband and I were putting food away, doing dishes, and generally setting the kitchen back to rights, he said to me, “We have teenagers. Why are we cleaning up?”

“I don’t know,” I answered. I was about to say that they were busy with homework, but they weren’t. My son was gaming online with some friends and my daughter was playing a different game and texting while she did it. Probably we could’ve asked them to come clean up. Maybe we should’ve. But they’d had a long day at school and then marching band rehearsal, and this was their first free time all day, plus I suspected their version of clean and ours would be different, and I wasn’t sure it was worth the argument. Besides, I got to hang out with my husband while we tidied up and he kept telling me how great dinner was. All I’d gotten out the kids was, “This is okay, I guess,” “Do I have to eat this?” and—my personal favorite—“Why do I have to have salad? I’m having rice.” (Good news! Rice is now a vegetable, I guess!)

After dinner I had to head back to my desk and finish the work that didn’t get done during the day, thanks to the marinade, the doctor’s appointment, the meeting, picking up the kids, and wrecking the kitchen. Thank goodness everyone loved dinner so much that it was all worth it! Oh, wait. My husband and I loved dinner. Someone else who shall remain nameless for his or her own protection later said to me, “Dinner was fine, but can we just eat something normal tomorrow?”

The joke was on the kid; we had tons of leftovers for the next dinner! Hey, leftovers are “normal,” right?

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A Tale Of Two Posters Tue, 26 Aug 2014 16:38:43 +0000

Did I mention that my kids are sharing a class this year? My kids are sharing a class, this year. An Advanced Placement science class, to be precise. Science is a strong subject for both of them, and with my son in 10th grade, my daughter in 11th, and the class spanning multiple grades, it’s not a big deal.

Rather: It shouldn’t be a big deal.

At the beginning of the year, I sent a friendly email to the teacher after hearing that she’d asked the kids if they were twins. “Having them in the same class won’t be a problem, but allow me to gently suggest that you don’t have them sit together or work together. You will quickly discover that they have their own individual strengths and weaknesses,” I shared. Then, I couldn’t resist adding: “Just wait. You’ll see.”

This past weekend, the kids had their first project for this class. The homework has been coming fast and furious since the first day of school, but this was the first multi-day endeavor for each of them. The assignment was to create a poster showcasing a given topic, and I thanked the powers that be that a rubric came home with the assignment, because both of my children will argue into eternity about anything that isn’t spelled out. Each had their topics and assured me that everything was under control.

Next comes the part of our program where I try to—as I like to put it—park my helicopter. My teens are in a college-level class and if they can’t put together a research poster, we have larger problems, I suppose. But… I wanted to intervene. Honestly, I was dying to intervene. Because…

… after years of homeschooling—wherein we had the luxury of skipping this sort of “busy work” I loathe—my son has no idea how to extract the information from his brain and arrange it in a visually pleasing and engaging format. Add to this the fact that he has dysgraphia, on top of being autistic (and therefore believing that anything not explicitly written in the rubric doesn’t matter), and I was biting my tongue so hard I was seeing stars.


… after years of public schooling—wherein she has learned that “fluff” does indeed sometimes garner the highest grade—my daughter proceeded to spend hours designing and painting her poster rather than working on the actual information it needed to contain. Thanks to her ADHD I knew this could quickly devolve into “but I have to get this line just right” before a single informative word was written, and a late-night meltdown was sure to occur, but hey, I was already biting my tongue, so that was good.

So for the first day, I stepped back. And holy crap that was hard.

On the second day, I allowed myself to step in with a few suggestions, ever-so-gently. I pointed out to my son that he should find some graphics he could print out, as I knew he was not interested in drawing anything, and a poster should have some visual appeal. (I was able to point to the rubric to back this up.) I also looked at the scant three sentences he’d produced and suggested he might want to flesh it out with some more information. (“But that answers all of the requirements,” he said. “Sometimes you need to try going a little further,” I replied.)

I may have mentioned the time to my daughter every so often. “You can always paint some more later,” I’d offer. “Why not get the info on there so that part’s done?” She rolled her eyes and assured me she was fine. (Guess who was up late finishing it the night before it was due? Go on, guess!)

My son grumped and argued and insisted his bare-bones first pass was “fine” and I should just leave him be. We negotiated a bit; he did a little more work; then he tried to sucker me into cutting out his printouts for him and helping him with layout. I was quick to assure him that he was perfectly capable of doing it himself, and I swear I heard some dark muttering about how I always want to tell him what to do until it gets to the part where he actually needs help. (I’m a monster, I know.)

In the end, both posters were done on time. If their teacher didn’t already realize how different they are, well, I think this may drive it home. My daughter’s poster is both pretty and painstaking, as well as being filled with information. When they have to do their accompanying oral presentations, she’ll be fine. My son’s poster is stark, in comparison, a little skimpy on actual info, and while he knows tons about his topic, I expect his oral presentation will be… awkward. I told the kids I expect she will get a high A and he will be lucky to get a B, but my daughter is convinced that “the teacher will go easy on him because he’s autistic.” I guess we’ll see what happens. I’m worried that disparate grades will lead to strife between them, too, but if one of them truly excels while the other does not, well, that’s life, sometimes. Meanwhile, after arguing about everything, my son promised that if he didn’t get the grade he wants, he’ll listen to me next time. So am I a horrible person for hoping that maybe he gets a C…?

In related news, Science Fair is coming up soon. Please hold me.

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Baby’s First Debit Card Tue, 19 Aug 2014 18:11:29 +0000

When my brother and I were small—more than 5, I’d guess, but less than 10—my mother took us downtown to our local bank and opened savings accounts for us. They came with little passbooks that probably don’t exist anymore, and every time I made a deposit, the teller would stick a page of the passbook into a machine and it would record the transaction, plus it would tell me how much interest I’d earned since my last transaction and my total account balance.

I loved that passbook with my whole heart. It felt so very grown-up and official!

I was in middle school when the proliferation of ATMs began. My parents remarked on how handy their new cash cards were. I was babysitting several nights a week and finally had something beyond allowance and birthday money to manage, so I asked my mother if I could get an ATM card for my savings account. “I don’t see why not,” she said. “We’ll go to the bank and get you one.” But when we went to the bank, they said that only checking accounts could have ATM cards. I seem to recall there was some spirited discussion over why this was so and whether or not they could make an exception, and finally my mother sighed and said, “Okay, that’s fine. She’d like to open a checking account, then.”

They didn’t argue. I was 13, and I had my first checking account (complete with the coveted ATM card).

Now, I probably didn’t write a check off of that account until I went to college, but as a high-schooler with my own ATM card (a rarity at the time), I felt pretty fancy. No more “can you take me to the bank before it closes” if I wanted to deposit my babysitting spoils or withdraw spending money. It was a brave new world.

Fast forward to the digital age:

My kids have had savings accounts in their names since they were born, practically, only I created them through an online bank, so it’s all managed via the Internet. I have no idea where the physical bank even is. (Or if it exists in brick and mortar at all! I suppose it must, somewhere.) Those accounts are their “savings you do not touch without permission” accounts, earmarked for college and/or buying a car, when the time comes. That’s where a designated percentage of their allowance goes straight off the top, and so far as the kids are concerned, that money may as well not exist. As for their allowance and birthday money type things, we have shared Google spreadsheets to manage their funds, and when they wish to make a purchase (more and more often, on eBay or Amazon or Etsy) or withdraw money, I handle it and update the spreadsheet. It works.

But now the kids are teens, and college is just a couple of years off (*gulp*), and my oldest does a lot of school competitions and such where she ends up needing to buy lunch or dinner and we’re always scrambling to give her cash as she’s on her way out the door. “You know,” she said, “this would be a whole lot easier if I had a debit card.” And… she’s right.

I did some research online—it looked like my bank was willing to do free “student” checking accounts for teens if I linked them to my accounts—and one afternoon we headed to the bank.

Here I must pause and tell you that my son is a saver and a careful spender, and money burns a hole in my daughter’s pocket. I swear they’ve been raised in the same house with the same sensibilities, and some of this must be inborn. Whenever my son wants a new, expensive video game (rarely), he has the money for it. Whenever my daughter wants something more expensive than a candy bar (all the time), she gives up before she saves enough. For either spending style, though, I figured their own local accounts with debit cards would be good practice. Right? Right!

Turns out that my bank only grants those student accounts to kids 16+. I have no idea why. My son—under the required age, and indignant about it—managed to make a couple of snide remarks about arbitrary rules and how he’s a much better with money than his sister, anyway, and I tried to squelch my laughter as he huffed his way back over to the waiting area. We got my daughter set up in about fifteen minutes, and then the nice banker helping us tried to sell me on overdraft protection. “It’s free unless you use it! You know, in case she gets stuck on a remote road with a blowout and has to buy a new tire but doesn’t have enough money in her account!” he insisted.

“First of all,” I said, partly to him, but mostly for my daughter’s benefit, “her stepdad and I would both have to be dead for her to be in that sort of situation with no one available to help her. And second, she is going to maintain a minimum balance which she will not touch except in case of emergency, otherwise I will close her account.” She nodded, next to me, aware of the gravity of these rules. “And finally,” I added, “overdraft protection is not free, because the fees you are charged if you do use it are exorbitant. Proper money management is a better strategy.” He backed down. I felt self-righteous. A debit card is a big deal; better for me to be overbearing and rulebook-thumping now than for my kid to experience the kind of financial pit so many college students end up falling into when they don’t realize that little card needs to have real money to back it up.

Her card arrived in the mail a week later, and she’s enchanted with it. It’s a symbol of adulthood, I guess, and one step closer to that independence that’s both alluring and terrifying. How does she put it through a swipe machine? What if she does it the wrong way? I assured her that plenty of full-grown adults who’ve had debit cards for decades occasionally swipe them through the machine backwards. It’s no big deal. How would we give her food money now? Would we put it right into her account? That’s so cool, and then she wouldn’t be stuck throwing change in the bottom of her bag, never to be seen again.

She signed her name on the back and tucked the card into her wallet with reverence. “I feel so grown up!” she said.

“Shhhhhhhh,” I said. I know that she’s still likely to buy a “lunch” of a milkshake and fries with it, and for now, that’s fine by me. There’s no rush; it’s all happening fast enough, already.

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