Category Archives: Parenting

Following our interests – drawing

Evolution of a Drawing Parent

When I was pregnant I had dreams of all of the cool things I would do with my child. We would sit together and color, go for long walks and do a lot of drawing. All of the parents can see where this is headed, right? My first child was born and he hated to color; he refused to pick up any writing instrument. He wanted to build, destroy and take things apart. He was fascinated by machines, noisy toys and television. So, I quietly put away my own interests (art and drawing) for his interests. We bought him wood blocks and spent hours building. We jumped into legos and computers. We taught him to create with these things, rather than to passively consume them.

a picture of a kid's drawing

Drawn by R, age 11. We’ve done some prep work from the book, Drawing with Children.

Same Parents, Different Kids

A few years later, we added another son to our family.  He seemed quieter and more willing to pick up a pencil, but he was enthralled with his older brother’s antics. And so I waited. My older son showed an interest in drawing (around age 8) and my younger son (now age 7) is also showing a strong interest in drawing and art history. I can’t say that I am an especially patient person, but I am thrilled that their interests are finally dovetailing my own.

A picture of a kid drawing a skyscraper.

C, age 6, drawing an Atlanta building for the city project.

Drawing Instruction at Home

Four years ago, a friend turned us onto Mark Kistler’s online video lessons. Since we’re homeschoolers, we buy a yearly subscription through the Homeschool Buyers Co-op. The videos are separated by skill level and novice artists can stop the videos as much as they want. He takes the students step-by-step while infusing his lessons with the language of art. He speaks of perspective and shadowing. He addresses the importance of direction and the size of foreground objects. He does all of this while drawing – it’s his natural language and the students don’t realize they are picking up art terms. It gives them the confidence to add these elements to their own drawings.

a picture of a blob monster, drawn by a 7-year-old.

Drawn by C, age 7. Instruction by Mark Kistler.

Returning to Drawing

Although I incorporated art into our daily life anyway – it was to help the kids learn to love art – not really to increase my own drawing ability. During their younger years, I felt like I needed to become an expert educator/parent and so my art took a back seat for the past eleven years. But, after a little bit of soul-searching this past year (mid-life crisis, perhaps) and thanks to a few other resources (the book Essentialism, and the web site, Craftsy), I have brought art to the forefront of my life. I am drawing more and refining my ability. Thankfully, my kids are on board.

A picture of a hand-drawn, pencil drawing of a lily.

Drawn by Liz looking at a color picture of a lily.


Growth Mindset for the Elementary Child

As a homeschool parent and part-time technology teacher, I am firmly entrenched in the world of educational pedagogy. Recently, the topic of grit education has been at the forefront of many education discussions.

I am a strong proponent of a growth mindset, and think that it can be a life-changer with regard to attitude and one’s belief in the ability to learn. However, we need to be sure we are using it appropriately for our audience. Often, I have seen it applied solely to school work, whereas I think this is a lifestyle mantra. Elementary-aged kids need to see it in action.

Yes, we can apply it to plowing through school work (and I do a little of that at home), but rather, I want my kids to be encouraged to continue with their dreams and keep working through a problem, knowing that failure may be inevitable, but there might be a resolution out there too. Just because you aren’t good at – math, reading, river dancing – doesn’t mean it will always be that way. I don’t want them to give up on their dreams because it gets too hard. You can get better, but you have to believe that you can.

I’ve talked about it before, but we are a growth mindset family and I try to incorporate the vernacular during the classes that I teach. I only have students for a week or two at a time – not quite long enough to establish a growth mindset classroom – but long enough for students to know that making mistakes can help us learn. When we discover a mistake, we stop and reflect on why it went wrong and how we can change the product. (Sometimes we know the answer…and sometimes we don’t).  I’ve found the following ideas to be helpful when applying the concepts of helping elementary students to begin to develop a growth mindset.

Talk (briefly) about how the brain works
This can be anything from a formal presentation, complete with video examples or just an in-class demonstration and discussion. Use play dough to represent the two parts of their brains and make a new connection, or try magnets as a way to show how once you get it – the connection occurs.  I rarely do that in my camps because my time is limited. Rather, I favor incorporating the language of a “growth mindset” into my teaching. When I see my kids getting frustrated, we identify the feeling and reassure them that it’s normal – that’s just our brains growing and making new connections. It’s supposed to be hard! And, if it’s not, then you need a challenge!

However, my oldest son (the skeptic in our family) was moved by this handout and keeps one by his work space. Whenever we get down on ourselves or get too frustrated, we remind one another about the different types of mindsets. Is this a fixed way of looking at the problem? or is there another way? Parents – expect to say this often with kids. They forget. They get overwhelmed. They need reminders. Over and over and over again.

Our oldest son does not always find written math to be enjoyable. He would rather be building and figuring it out in his head. A few days ago, he said that math didn’t come as easily to him as it does to others, so he’s not good at it. My husband and I reminded him that those people who seem to be good at math are truly interested in it and practice it more often. We then asked him how much attention he gives to math (outside of written work) and he sheepishly acknowledged where his problem might be. The next day, he said he was ready to tackle a little more math each day.

Praise the specific effort
I didn’t learn this in Nurture Shock or Mindset. Instead, I learned it during my Montessori training as this is the language of a Montessori classroom. I still let slip the occasional, “good job,” but I try to find something specific to mention. For art work, it might be, “oh, I like how you used the color yellow.” Or, “Tell me about it” – to hear about the process of how it was created. I might ask, “are you happy with your work or would you like to practice one more time?” “I like how you wrote down information from the problem to help you solve the math problem,” or “I like how you kept trying even though you were frustrated.”

Forgive and learn and try again
Although I have been “living a growth mindset” for a couple of years now, I am far from a master. My Montessori training has helped, but I still make a lot of mistakes. We teachers (and parents) miss cues, have bad days and just plain interpret things incorrectly. In short, we are human. We can learn from our mistakes and it’s important for us to show our kids that we aren’t perfect. We all need reminders and it’s important to remember that life and learning is a process, not an end product.

Help them to realize its importance
I am a huge fan of Daniel Pink’s book, Drive, which talks about how autonomy, mastery, and purpose are the most important motivators for human beings. Although the last one may not readily apply to young children, I do think it’s important that they take responsibility for some of their own learning. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work if our only answer to why someone has to learn something is because “that’s just what it means to be a kid.” Help them to make the connection. Maybe your child wants to be a pilot and so they need to conquer their fear of math. Maybe they want to be a marine biologist, so help them to understand that they need a college degree and will need this “tough” math to get there. (Can you tell that math is a hot button issue for us?) This doesn’t work for all kids, nor for those younger than eight or so, but it can be a powerful tool.

Live the mindset yourself
In your words and in your actions, show your students or your children that you want to have a growth mindset for life. That doesn’t mean tackling everything with gusto, but it does mean accepting that some things might take longer. You can still accomplish that goal, but it might take you longer than the person down the street. That’s okay. Talk about it. Express your frustrations and then outline how you are going to keep going. Help your children to see that the person who is “good at history” might like it better and so they pay more attention to it. It’s not that they are smarter – it’s that they think about it more often, therefore strengthening the connections in their brains.

If you have a chance, please go out and read Dweck’s book or at least some of the research on growth mindset. It’s one of my all time favorite topics.


for the kids :: screen time during summer

IMG_0151First, I need to be clear that there is no right way to set limits in regards to screen time. I have seen unlimited screen time result in polite, studious young adults and I have seen horrific, ill-behaved children with absolutely no screens in the house at all. As a parent, you need to do what is right for your family – and own that decision.

This post is about how my family approaches “screen time” and digital technology use. In my personal life, I find that it takes more work to be a limited screen household. Not only do you have clingy children wondering “what to do,” but you also find yourself wanting to go out and explore the world with them. This is fabulous, but it does take more time. Also, it is not your job to entertain the kids. Boredom is good for them, so steel your nerves.

This list is not meant to make you feel like a failure if you let your children spend hours on screens each day. Rather, it’s my hope that this list will provide you with some tools to guide your own family onto the path of balance.

1. Prepare Your Environment.
We have an ipad mini, three computers, and a monitor that is connected to a DVD player with a very old Wii (to play Amazon Prime or Netflix videos). I also teach computer programming classes for kids and so we have constant access to Lego® robotics, Ozobots and Scratch. We are not hurting for technology, but in my house, books reign supreme. We have more books in our home than digital devices. Books are displayed (and used) quite prominently in our living room. This sends a clear message to our kids – reading and discovering new information in print form is important.**

Picture of Books2. Be the Change You Want to See in Your Home.
You know that old adage, “actions speak louder than words?” Well, it is definitely true in this case. Our children are keen observers, even when it seems that they never listen to us (they don’t), but they are watching…constantly. I am the mother to two boys and as my kids get older, they will look more and more to my husband to determine how to act like a man. So, he needs to model the behavior he wants to see, especially when it comes to reading.

One of my favorite quotes is from Dr. Seuss, “the more that you read, the more that you know, the more that you know, the more places you’ll go!” Many times our children see us on the computer, and we may be reading that really long Salon article, but they don’t see that. All they see is that we are on the computer…and why can’t they be on it too?  Books allow a child to help themselves. No adult needed.

This doesn’t mean you can’t still be a video gamer (or Facebook junkie). My husband loves his video games, but he plays them when the kids go to bed. They know that Daddy likes his games, but they see that he puts his work and his family first.

3. Take a Break. Strive for Balance.
Like all children who live in Florida during the summer, sometimes my boys (ages 9 and 6) will rely too heavily on the screens to entertain them, but usually a strong suggestion of legos®, riding scooters, or reading will straighten them up. When that doesn’t work, we talk about keeping a balance between our digital screens and the other activities in our life. When that fails, we take a break from all screens (and that includes the creating and composing ways we use the screens, such as computer programming or researching).

Sometimes our breaks are only a couple of days. We might return from the buffet-like screen time at the grandparents’ house to find that we all need a digital detox. So, we’ll take a few days without movies or Minecraft or excessive computer use. The boys will rediscover their Legos® and Contraptions and even “school work” becomes a viable option.

A messy room that speaks of being creative

A messy room that speaks of being creative

4. Don’t Consume. Create.
Lumping all “technology” together is not conducive to our digital life. Rather, we need to be active consumers and advocates for the “right” type of technology…at least with regards to our children. I ask myself these questions before  allowing my children to watch TV, download that app or purchase the latest video game.

Are they creating rather than consuming?
There are a lot of really cools ways to create with technology. Apps for drawing and making movies, to name a few. There are also sneaky ways to get them to learn about 3D modeling in order to download their creation to Minecraft. The educational programming language, Scratch, is another way of creating, rather than consuming. Look for things where they can make their own stuff, not just play out a predetermined scenario.

Is there a right or wrong answer to the game/toy/TV show?
This should be pretty obvious. If there is only one outcome to win the game, then they are probably consuming. But, if it’s a video game and they are learning how to work with others to win the game…well, that might be a good thing. (As long as it’s not too violent for the youngsters). In our family, we have set up a personal Minecraft server and my boys and a friend (who lives more than 1,000 miles away) work together to build in their Minecraft world. They meet every Wednesday and using FaceTime, they interact and learn about the world of compromise through digital devices.

Do adults find it interesting? (Even just a little bit?)
The “Crash Course World History” videos from Kahn Academy are absolutely hilarious. My 9-year-old loves these and I have found myself watching over his shoulder because John Green is just too funny.

Can they learn something?
Documentaries? Reality-based cartoons, like WildKratts or Peg Plus Cat? Harry Potter movies? Since your child has read the books and wants to see what the movies are like? This past year, my older son was studying polyominoes and I downloaded Tetris for our ipad. Something fun that reinforces a bit of past learning.

5. Know that Technology Use Will Change.
When my children were very young, we limited their technology intake severely. As a Montessorian, I believe that children under the age of 5 need lots of hands-on materials and experiences. We still allowed them 30-60 minutes of TV from the time they were toddlers, but the type of TV was strictly controlled. Some of our favorites were Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, Caillou, Jeff Corwin, and lots and lots of nature documentaries. We did not purchase an ipad for our home until our youngest was almost five. The temptation to hand them the device and get some well-needed rest is just too great.

However, as our children have gotten older and are out in the world, we have changed our technology use to focus on creating and using technology as a tool. We are always talking about keeping a balance. As they get older, they need to make the decisions to self-regulate. They will only be in our house for a short while and they will have to face these choices on their own.

Ozobots at home

Ozobots at home


**For the naysayers who will counter with the idea that you can find anything on the Internet. I agree. You can find almost anything you need on the Internet — if you know how to find it. And, most kids (and lots of adults) don’t know how to find high-quality, reliable, and accurate web sites. Wikipedia is fabulous, but that’s the first stop on a path to finding information, not the last. In case you think it is too expensive to have that many books in your house, I want you to know that it is possible. Many of the books pictured are from used book sales or borrowed from the library. I know that we spend more money on books than the average family, but we also seek out gently used books.



My Thoughts on Reading

I was trying to think about the activities that we focus on at my house…why do my husband and I think these are more important than others? And, well, quite frankly, I could come up with no good reason, other than they are important to him and me. I have read a lot of books on parenting, homeschool, teaching, learning and most of it boils down to one thing: personal interest.

We have found this to be true in our own household as the topics and activities we value are reflected in our children’s learning. And, not just because we choose to “teach” them, but rather, because we are actively learning about and participating in them. At our house that means French language study, playing guitar and computer programming. The kids have their own interests too (robotics and animals) and they pursue that type of learning through the books they pick out at the library, items they choose to ask for, etc.

However, the one “skill” that I consistently teach, beginning at birth, is the importance of reading.
DSC_0807We give books as presents – to reinforce the idea that books are special

As I am a trained librarian, reading has always been important to me. It was a key point in my decision to be a librarian, as the keeper of knowledge, the defender of the everyday rights to knowledge – regardless of income or race or language.

It is the one goal that I have for them at an early age – to love books. I was lucky enough to come across Jim Trelease’s book a few years before my oldest son was born. It validated my thoughts and helped me to preach to others. And, since then, there are a number of other books (this is one here) that support this research-backed opinion.
DSC_0659My younger son, age 3, with an interactive book he received for his birthday

We all know that reading to a child is important. And, yet, even I struggle to find the time on certain days to read aloud to my youngest child. He is learning to read, but he still needs a lot of exposure to books, reading, content. This is key. It’s not just that by reading, you are showing them you think books are important. You are. They are. Another key purpose to reading aloud is to introduce them to content.

My oldest son, looking through a homemade content book at age 6

Dr. Montessori said that true reading was being able to match up the word with understanding (hence, comprehension). An easier way to put this, I might technically be able to read a 2nd year medical school textbook, but I wouldn’t be able to understand it, therefore, rendering the “reading” of it, useless.

In addition to the books my children choose from the library, I also bring home some reality-based picture books for them as well. This is where we are “just reading,” but also imparting real-life content. I am building their vocabulary and helping them to figure out how the world works around them. Dr. Montessori called this the absorbent mind, and she said this was the main way a child, aged 0-6-years, learns.

So, while we have Dr. Seuss books in our house, they are mostly for the capable six or seven-year-old. We focus on non-fiction books and reality-based picture books for five and under (which is not to say we don’t read those other books, if asked, just that we don’t offer those books first).

To recap: 1) read to them, 2) read to them a lot – especially reality-based fiction or non-fiction books,  and 3) let them see you reading.

DSC_0739A picture of my oldest son’s bed, taken September 2014, age 8.5


“Man himself must become the center of education and we must never forget that man does not develop only at the university, but begins his mental growth at birth, and pursues it with the greatest intensity during the first three years of life.”

– Dr. Maria Montessori, Absorbent Mind





Do I need a tutor for my young child?

Most of the time, the answer is no.

Ironically, there are so many answers to that controversial question, but for many of us, the answer is no. Are we worried about the development of our children? Yes. Are we worried that if they don’t master (sight words, blends, subtraction facts, chapter books) by a certain age, they will never catch up? Of course we are concerned. We are parents (and teachers and well-meaning grandparents and friends). That’s what we do. However, the fact that you as a parent are seeking out a tutor implies that you are doing what you need to do as a parent. Unfortunately, it’s the parents who assume that a child only learns from a teacher that is in the most danger as he or she grows up. But, I digress…


If your child is having difficulties – whether with reading or school in general – I would like to recommend that you read two books before seeking out a tutor. From a personal standpoint (and as a Montessori teacher and homeschool parent), these books have been immensely life-changing for my own family. The first book is called Mindset and it’s written by Dr. Carol Dweck.

Dweck is an educational psychologist who studies how and why children succeed in school and life. To sum up her main argument, she found that those people who had a “growth mindset” were more successful in life. A growth mindset encompasses a train of thought that embraces challenges (rather than shying away from them because “they just aren’t my strength”). This mindset also sees effort as the path to mastery, accepts criticism as a way of learning, and finds lessons and inspiration in the success of others. It also tells us why we should never praise our children for being smart or assume that someone else just has “natural talent.”

So, when your child comes home from school on Friday, and you ask how they did on the spelling test, you say, “How did you feel about the spelling test? Did you try your hardest? Were you happy with your results?” You ask this, rather than praising them for only getting 1 wrong, or get angry about them getting 3 wrong. Then, you make a mental note to talk about those words and their meanings at dinnertime (with your spouse) and perhaps your child will join in and point out what she did wrong.

The other book I would recommend (especially for the oldest and only children) is The Birth Order Book by Dr. Kevin Lehman. This book is invaluable for helping those of us firstborns to recognize our own shortcomings as perfectionists with a fear of failure. And, for those of you who are not firstborns, it will help you to recognize why your own firstborn, or only child is struggling (in school, in dance, at home, in homeschool, etc.). They look to the adults as peers and find it exceedingly frustrating that you make it look so darn easy!

In my family, we found these two books extremely useful in helping our energetic and independent-thinking eldest son. We have a printout of the lessons of the growth mindset and routinely invoke that in discussions (with him, with ourselves, at dinner, etc.) We are constantly challenging ourselves to become better – even if it is hard. And, to be able to recognize when it is just a difficult phase of learning – or if perhaps this isn’t that important after all? (A side note: we found this worked well at age 7 and above).

Before engaging a tutor, check out the above-mentioned books and discover if you recognize those behaviors in your children (and yourself). Then, use the helpful hints given in the book to change YOUR mindset and YOUR praise and assistance to help your child overcome his fear. And, if you find that you have changed your mindset and your child is ready to advance her knowledge, then you can happily engage a tutor, and know that your money will be well-spent!


Last year, we asked Ronan wanted he wanted to be for Halloween. He said a bear. So, I procrastinated and found myself looking for a ready-made bear hat a couple of days before Halloween. (In my defense, Calum was still pretty young). He ended up seeing train conductor overalls and decided that was much cooler. Whew.

This year, we asked again…starting in September. It changed from a lion to a character from the Wizard of Oz (in hope that we would agree to read it to him this year instead of next). And, finally, he settled on a turtle.


Thank goodness I have an engineer-minded husband who likes to create costumes for his kids. He cut out the shape from cardboard (we still have a ton of moving boxes). Then, he and Ronan taped it, paper-mached it, and painted it. We put the finishing touches on the details the night before his school festival. I made the pants.


Most importantly, he really liked the costume. And, we think he actually looked like a turtle. Calum was a lion – borrowed from a friend – thank goodness. They are both so adorable. Really.


And, now I must go and throw away most of the candy…

birthday wreath

Somewhere along our journey as parents, I decided that we should place more of an emphasis on our birthday celebrations. After all, now my time is measured based on my children's ages, milestones and achievements. However, it needed to be enjoyed in a way that would tread lightly on the earth, but still be something to get excited about. I started researching some old traditions – German, Irish, Polish, Italian, French, and Scottish. (That pretty much sums up our blended heritage). In doing so, I discovered the birthday wreath (ring) – an old German celebration.

Many of these rings were wooden and in a modern twist, each year a new figurine is added, either bought or handmade. It seems like a wonderful tradition, but not exactly what I was seeking for our family celebration. After much thought and discussions (thanks Heather), I settled on a wreath, wrapped in ribbon, with floral wire curled up to hold four photos. These photos should include the person throughout the previous year and should be chosen by all other members of the family (Ronan was quite excited about the photo choosing).


As I am not skilled in the ways of wood-carving, I bought a pre-made wreath from the craft store and wrapped some ribbon. Since the potential for fire is quite high (what with all those paper photos strewn about), our candle is contained.

True to tradition, we get up early and place the photos and light the candle before the birthday person awakens. Then, the person blows out the candle, we eat breakfast and open presents.

At least, that's the way it's gone this year. We started with Ronan's birthday and it's gone through three of us, so I hope that it has stuck as a tradition. It's relatively easy to remember, gets the whole family involved, and is heavy on the memories and less on the stuff. I love it.

(Poorly taken photo from Joe's birthday)

In addition to the birthday person's favorite dinner and birthday wreath pictures, a good cake always makes for a great birthday. So, for Joe's birthday – a mere four days after my own – we celebrated with another millet/orange marmalade cake and lots of singing. I don't think anyone said it better than Homer (Simpson, that is):



Blockbuilding Today, Architect Tomorrow?

Or maybe an engineer? Or a career in home renovation? He definitely likes the demolition part – a lot. Hmm…now that I think about it, he and his dad have that in common.

Regardless, there's always a lot of building (and demolishing) going on around here. Always. Sometimes it's the easy to clean up kind, and sometimes, well, let's just say that sometimes, I bite my tongue and realize that he is getting something out of his work and it will eventually get put away.

A few months ago, I stumbled across the book, Block Building for Children. It was literally a browsing accident and I am ever so thankful that I found it. Almost immediately, I had ordered it and stashed it away for Christmas. And, then, right before Christmas, I opened up the book and noticed that a particular set of blocks was needed to complete most of the structures. A little searching and my boys have been building (or chewing and destroying, in Calum's case) with this set ever since.


And, the best part…Joe and I really love building these structures as well. Many of them are a bit sophisticated for four-year-old Ronan to do on his own, but it's a great family activity and if the structures don't look exactly like the picture, well, we like that just fine too. In fact, our foreman will often call for some last minute changes and since he's the boss of these projects, we adjust the building plans.

Besides, there are lots of other buildings to be made…infinite, one could say. These are heavy blocks (and will leave marks on your younger brother if you accidently hit him with one) which makes them perfect for intricate structures. Or, maybe it's just another way to play with the other toys.


And now that the tiger has a cage, he needs a zookeeper…and some food, of course.


From the hand to the the heart

Our house seems to be a very busy place. I know we don't have the monopoly on activity – in fact, we probably can't even come close to lots of situations. (Especially since I have a cousin who is the mother to four boys). FOUR! Oh goodness…

…but, they love her a lot and are fiercely loyal to her (two are grown up and out the house and they are still this way). I want that for my boys. And, so, I quiet the "messy" voice in my head and turn up the "let's go outside" voice. I try to listen to the "he's learning something" voice. I place special emphasis and value the "homemade" voice the most.

So, of course, we've been busy…

(Winter squash medley for Calum…ready to be frozen)

(a 1st birthday crown for a friend)


And, in my house, homemade can't be complete without a sewing project (or two) left out on the table. Waiting for a few minutes here and there to be eventually be finished.

It's completely normal to listen to the voices in your head, right?

leading the way

(Photo take by Natalie's dad )

This kid's got confidence. There is no doubt about that. After watching the adults figure out the map, he asked for it and began plotting our way. (Of course, his friend Natalie helped too).

One of the many things I love about this parenting journey is being able to sit back and watch the thought process unfold. Ronan is an observer. Give him a room full of children and he will sit and watch their actions for a long time. It takes him many, many sessions to decide to participate in any organized type of event. 

He is the child who, when given three choices, will suggest a fourth (much to the occasional frustration of his parents). If it involves building/fixing/demolition, he is the guy for you. He will jump right in and help you install a sprinkler system or put together a cabinet. He has a confidence about these activities – he's not afraid to jump in and try and fail.

With other activities, he needs that time to figure out how it works. Thankfully, we are able to give him that time. He can follow his own map for his life journey. Its path has yet to be determined and right now there is only a pencil to use – easy to erase and make a new mark, a new a path.

We will continue to offer choices and make suggestions. We will be his guide on this journey – helping him to recognize that we are one big community – responsible to each other in the choices we make. But, as the same time, he is already leading the way. 


(A car he made from his building supplies. He designed it to work on the carpet.)