Never Give Up

When Ian was really little, like five years old, I had a meeting with a high level special education administrator. I was pretty miserable at that time. I didn’t feel like he was getting enough support for his disability or being appropriately challenged. We knew that he was smart. His test scores were in the 99th percentile. But he had SO MANY issues at that time.

He could barely understand what people were saying to him. His ability to comprehend language went down to zero when he was upset. His pre-school teacher would pass him written notes during those times, because he could read, but he didn’t understand what she was saying.

He frequently screamed or got upset, but couldn’t tell people what was bothering him. Looking back on it, he was just scared all the time. You would be too, if you didn’t understand what people were talking about. He had lots of sensory issues; he couldn’t tolerate loud sounds, bright lights, clothes.

Now, when he hears songs from that time or an old movie pops up on the TV as we’re flipping through channels, he runs out of the room. He said that those images and music trigger “nightmares.” He said that he gets flashbacks. I think he suffers from PTSD from autism.

Anyway, I was in this office with the administrator to request that he be held back for a year, so he would have another year to grow and catch up with his peers. She said no, because it would cut short his time in high school when they would have to train him for a job. In other words, she looked at him and saw someone who would need lots of training to stack shelves in Walmart. She had sized him up at age five and wrote him off.

Twelve years later, Ian took his PSATs this month. He spent an entire day at a band festival yesterday, playing bass drum and marching around the field. He blended in. He still has language deficits, sensory issues, and nervous tics, but he’s also rocking his talents in music and computers. He has a future ahead of him. A good one.

Every year, he gets better. This year’s band festival went much better than last year. He’s less likely to get irritated with peers who do random things. He doesn’t need an aide to supervise him. He chatted with classmates. I get lovely notes from his teachers, who tell me that he’s continues to surprise them.

Here’s what I’ve learned from raising a kid with autism — brains heal. They don’t heal completely, of course; Ian will always have his struggles. But with lots of work and opportunities, brains do get better. So, sizing up a five-year old and predicting adulthood is not only useless, it is harmful.

That administrator urged me to stop being so miserable and accept my kid’s limitations. She suggested that I spend more time on my career. Just the week before, another administrator had told me to stop worrying and to get a manicure.

I am so glad that we didn’t listen to them.

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OPINION: Out of necessity, I taught my son to choose a college for its value, not its prestige or vibe — My latest in The Hechinger Report

Without photoshopping his face onto the body of a water polo athlete, like some of the parents caught up in the recent U.S. college cheating scandal, I could have prepped my older son, Jonah, for college like a prize pumpkin at the county fair.

Starting when he was in middle school, I could have taken a stronger role in overseeing his schoolwork by editing his papers, re-teaching certain subjects and hiring tutors in others. I could have checked his online gradebooks daily. I could have supervised homework and nudged him to schmooze with teachers. In high school, we could have hired one-on-one tutors to prepare him for standardized tests. I could have pushed him to take on leadership positions in clubs he didn’t care about. I could have written his essay and filled out the Common Application for him.

Lots of parents do these tasks; most aren’t even considered cheating. It’s just how things are done these days among many upper- and middle-class families.

With our backgrounds in higher education, my husband and I have more relevant skills than many other families in our community. We likely could have micromanaged our kid into Harvard. But we didn’t. Between our son’s stubborn resistance to our help, and our own ethics and laziness, we did very little to turn our kid into a tidy package for colleges. Instead, I taught my son how to be a good education consumer.

More here.

Prepping The College Kid For College (and Life)

The kids are on the way out. Jonah goes back to college on Saturday. Ian is lingering until next Thursday. Sigh.

Getting boys ready for school isn’t very tough. My kids got new sneakers, a new backpack, new binders, and, boom, we’re done. They honestly don’t give a crap about how old their t-shirts are. I think Jonah knows that his charm is in eyes, not his clothes, so he’s cool with Old Navy’s best.

But there’s more to preparing a kid for college, than just handing over the credit card for textbooks and the dining hall pass. There’s also preparing them to be good students.

As a dual-PhD family, we assumed that Jonah would know what he was doing once he got to campus. I guess we thought the knowledge about college would pass to him by osmosis or something. Sadly, that didn’t happen, and his first semester included some painful learning bumps.

But college is nothing like high school. There are strange offices — what’s a bursor’s office? — and jargon. There are dozens of majors with confusing names. In some schools, like Jonah’s, it’s possible to major in public policy in three different departments. There’s more reading than lectures and few deadlines. Tracking down elusive professors to ask questions takes patience and cunning.

After we figured out that Jonah needed direction, Steve and I swooped in to help. (Yes, my kid is ridiculously privileged.) We created a lecture about how to be a successful college student and still repeat our key points from time to time.

One lesson was about the importance of talking with your professor. Showing up at office hours and having the professor get to know the student is worth half a grade.

Tom Ferriss, in one of his self-help books, said that he would show up to every office hour in college and fight over every point on his exam, so that the professor would avoid pain the next time and give him a better grade. I don’t want Jonah to do that, but establishing a relationship with a professor does make it harder for them to give you a bad grade.

We’ve also been talking lately about the benefits of clubs. See, Jonah thought that students belonged to clubs to pursue hobbies and interests that they found genuinely fun and recreational. He thought a good club should be something like a frat, that would boost one’s popularity. Well, maybe, but mostly the purpose of a club is to put another line on your resume that signals to future employers that you’re a serious person. He had no clue. So, he’s signing up for clubs this semester.

In this week before school starts, I’ve been sending him to various workplaces of friends and relatives to sample work environments. Yesterday, he was at an engineering firm and an architecture firm. Today, he’s on Wall Street with Steve.

We made his first resume. I made his summer busboy jobs look like a NASA engineer. It was fun. Then we sent to him to these jobs in chinos and a button down Oxford shirt. We talked about how every company has a wide range of jobs. You don’t need to be an architect to work at an architecture company. So, he should shop around for the type of environment that he liked working in and for a company that revolves around a passion of his.

Last month, I met a woman who crunched numbers for the Bronx Botanical Garden. She wasn’t in love with the spreadsheets, but she loved working in such a beautiful place, so she was a happy person. I told Jonah her story and few others.

Jonah’s leaving us on Saturday about ten pounds heavily than he was back in May, when he staggered home after finals pale and skinny. He’s a lot smarter about many things. I’m sure he’s ready to have a couple of days to hang out with his friends before school starts on Tuesday. I’m putting off the sadness of losing him again with mini life-lessons. I think that’s what I do.

Parenting Right: It’s Hard to Find Time to Make Dinners, Take Hikes, and Be With Grandparents, But It’s Worth It

For a long time, I’ve complained about the toxic environment that our kids inhabit today. On Sunday, Kim Brooks in the Times wrote that schools need to change — longer lunches, recesses, less emphasis on tests — to make kids’ lives better.

But we need more than some simple fixes in the school day. WE need to change. Schools are democratic institutions; they reflect the will of the community. And the community wants their kids in the best college possible. So, that means squeezing in more desk time and padding the resume with lunch-time bogus clubs. In order for schools to change, we need to change. And even if schools change, that’s not enough.

I hesitate to talk about how Steve and I have parented our kids, because I don’t want to parent-shame anyone. And we’re not perfect. I love my cellphone way too much. So, let me talk about what we’ve tried to do, not always perfectly.

We have family dinners about five or six times per week. I cook a meal, we sit at a common table at the same time, we eat it, and we talk a bit.

It sounds really simple, but not many families can do that anymore. I haven’t considered job openings in NYC, because there’s no way that my family would have food on the table if both Steve and I walked in the door at 7:00.

Even cooking at a beach house.

Aside from the benefits for mental health, with 2 teenage boys, we would very quickly be broke if I didn’t cook dinner regularly. They seriously eat VAST quantities of food. Last night, I made a chicken stew with about 4 pounds of chicken, 12 carrots, 3 onions, 3 celery stalks, wine and chicken broth, herbs from the garden, 5 potatoes, loaf of bread. It cost about $20. If we step into a restaurant, even McDonald’s, it’s a $60 minimum. I hope to squeeze it into a second meal by putting the leftovers on rice tonight.

Dinner time is a good time to debrief everyone at the same time about their days. It’s a time when we can catch problems or put a bandaid on a mental boo-boo. It’s a transition time for Steve, who is still sometimes in work-mode when he walks in the door. But even with pressure cookers, it’s very hard for families to do what I do every day. That chicken stew meal took about 2-1/2 hours to prep and cook; very few people have that time today.

We do a family activity together every weekend. Sometimes we go on bike trips or hikes. Sometimes we visit extended family. We go to museums a lot. None of it costs a lot of money, but it’s hard to have the time to do those things if the kids are in lots of high pressure sporting activities and are working on school projects. Or if the parents are catching up on household chores on the weekend.

Weekend hikes are fun!

We live near extended family. Again, this was a sacrifice. I didn’t put myself on the national market for an academic job, because I wanted to live near family. It’s good for the kids. And it’s good for me. My mom is driving Ian to band camp today, so I can get in a full day in front of the computer.

Always celebrating something.

I think we all know that these things (and more) are important for kids, but it’s hard to proscribe cures that are unworkable for most families. People need (and want) to work long hours. It’s also very hard to run in a different direction from other people in your community; if their kids are in all weekend sports programs, then your kid is going to want that, too.

In some ways, we’ve benefited from having a special needs kid and have always been on the outside of suburban life. Still, I think even with the limited time, families could step off the fast lane a little more. It’s actually super fun.

The Wisdom of Teeth

Ian at the Tate. Photo Credit: Jonah

On Monday, Ian sat in a reclining chair in the Oral Surgeon’s office and stared at a five foot x-ray of his teeth. Dr. Song, the jolliest oral surgeon in three counties, pointed to Ian’s wisdom teeth under the gum line, which in their infinite wisdom, were pointing sideways, instead of up and down like any self respecting tooth should do.

“Those teeth have to come out now. Like today. Like right now. Like I would do it this minute if I could,” said the jolly doctor.

So, when we got a call on Tuesday afternoon from the office saying that Dr. Song had a sudden opening in his schedule at 11:30 the next day, Steve and I went into emergency mode. We cleared work schedules. A teenage computer programming class at the community college came to abrupt end. We filled out massive amounts of insurance paperwork.

And then the worry kicked in. How was Ian going to handle sharp needles and pain? Was he going to sit in the chair and be appropriate? Or would the Flight or Fight instinct kick in? And then who knows what could happen. He processes fear and pain differently than other kids, so there was a huge random factor surrounding this operation.

That morning, I distracted myself with a trip to the supermarket for supplies – pudding, jello, a chicken to make some homemade broth. We sent Ian to his computer class for an hour. And then we drove the old Subaru to the doctor’s office.

Ian panicked for a moment when he got a look at the IV needle, but he stayed still, so the doctor got it in his arm. And then Ian’s lights went out. His eyes fluttered down.

Watching your kid go under anesthesia for a routine operation, like wisdom teeth or tonsils, is so unexpectingly upsetting. We haven’t had to do it often, thank God. Watching your kid slowly lose consciousness makes one think of death. It’s a blow to the stomach.

I said, “Oh, I’m going to cry.”

“Don’t do that! I’m a social crier. I’ll cry, too, and won’t be able to do the operation!” said Dr. Song. And the staff kicked us out of the room.

In about 30 minutes, they came to the waiting room and told us it was done. Steve and I dropped our books and ran in. Ian was dazed and stuffed with cotton.

The nurse started giving us directions for caring for him for the next few days. She must give this drill about ten times a day, so she droned through the rules.

“No straws. No toothbrushes. Put gauze on the cut for 24 hours. Don’t eat crunchy or chunky foods for a few days. Just smooth stuff like Jello and pancakes and scrambled eggs —

Ian piped in “and hot dogs and sauerkraut….”

“No you can’t do that!”

“… and sushi and sashimi… “

“Listen, I have to give the rest of the directions!”

“…and pizza and burgers…”

I couldn’t stop laughing. Steve gave me a dirty look, because the nurse was giving us some very important about medications and dosages, but I couldn’t stop listening to my boy. Then on the way home, he was asking trippy questions, like “Mom, why do you have three eyes?” “Are operations time machines? How come it’s 12:30 now?” “What’s that rubber thing in my mouth?” [It was his bottom lip.]

And we’re so very grateful that our boy not only made it through an operation smoothly and is free from sideways wisdom teeth, but that he’s making me laugh and beam with pride every day.

For Things You Don’t Need

On Saturday night, my buddies and I rewarded ourselves for a long walk – my Fitbit was already way past 20,000 steps – with a beer and a burger at Fraunces Tavern, which is one of the oldest pubs in Manhattan and worth a visit if you’re in town.

After several hours of talking, which included such lovely topics as the new studies that found a connection between menopause and Alzheimer’s Disease and flaky college students, we started talking about politics.

I asked, “So, what do you think about the proposals that Democrats are starting to float about student loan forgiveness and free childcare?” Two of us have kids who are nearly done with high school, and the other never had kids. “Would you vote for someone who was putting forward proposals that wouldn’t benefit you at all?”

Our town pool has a special section that is just for older people. Nobody under 18 is allowed to be there. Every couple of hours, the life guards blow a whistle and everyone under 18 has to get out of the pool for 15 minutes, so the older people can do the side stroke in peace. The public library has senior reading clubs, introductory classes on email, and daytime movies. Without the buy-in from older citizens in the community, there’s a fear among local politicians that old folks will vote for people to defund those services. I’m sure those fears are justified.

People care about schools for a relatively short period of time. There care from the time that their oldest kid is five to when they’re about a sophomore in high school. Typically, parents are much more involved in schools for their oldest; subsequent kids are on auto-pilot. And then they stop caring about the local schools when they start thinking about SAT scores and colleges for their oldest and after their oldest fails to become the class president or the football captain.

Schools make a lot of enemies. For every kids that becomes the class president and the football captain, there are the parents of the hundred other kids who sit at the unpopular table in the cafeteria who want to throw a pitchfork into the school principal. Parents who aren’t in the audience for High School Awards Nights will never, ever vote for a school bond issue ever again. Screw ’em.

So, there’s only about ten to twelve years, when a person has a real stake in making better schools. And that’s why there are places in the country where teachers are paid around $30,000 per year and students have few chances to make it to college.

Childcare affects a family for three or four years, if you have multiple kids.

Student loans can haunt a person for ages, but for every person that defaults, there are nine others who paid off their loans working boring jobs and doing overtime.

And let’s be honest. Our grandparents didn’t have the material comforts that we have today. I mean we put in more hours at an office and have invested more in education, but that generation cut coupons and never bought prepared meals at Whole Foods. So, when they look at younger folks complaining about childcare costs, they’re thinking about how they survived on one income and never ever went on a vacation that involved an airplane.

So, really the question isn’t “”Would you vote for someone who was putting forward proposals that wouldn’t benefit you at all?” Instead, the real question is “would you vote for something that you worked really, really, really hard to pay for on your own, making lots of personal sacrifices, and destroying your own health in the process. And then the benefits went to people who you perceive to be privileged, entitled, smug, and unwilling to help you?”

My generation is in the middle. Gen-Xers have a foot in both worlds. We can remember the difficulties of juggling childcare and work, but we’re also done with it. It wasn’t easy, but we did it.

Self-interest is a basic component of human nature. The founders knew that and created a democratic system based on that notion. With a system of checks and balances, ambition would counterbalance ambition. A large nation, divided up with federalism, would create a large state with a multitude of interests, all checking each other, so no one group would dominate and abuse others.

So, lecturing people that they should vote for schools, student loans, and childcare because virtuous people do that, is pointless. I think we should look to the model of the local town pool and figure out ways to make sure that everyone benefits from childcare centers, schools, and colleges. I’ve always thought that childcare centers and senior citizen centers should be housed in the same buildings. Invite people from the community to give lectures in the high school on their expertises and careers. Colleges could provide job training to people with autism or provide free tickets to concerts to people in the community.

Free childcare and student loan forgiveness might get headlines and tweets from the 30-something crowd, but it’s a tough sell to those who are freaking out about menopausal plaque on the brains and are counting their steps on a Fitbit.

Grooming (Tale One)

I always seem to find out about tasks that I should be doing as a parent way too late.

Last December, Jonah returned from school for a month-long break. He spent the first three or four days mostly horizontal in bed. Which was FINE by me. Every college kid needs a bit of recovery after a long semester. Then there were the holidays and grandparents to entertain, so he was busy with family stuff.

After that, he had almost three weeks of nothing to do other than hang out with friends, go to the gym, and get in my way while I was doing my work. There wasn’t enough time to get a job. Maybe I yelled at him to clean his room or read a book, but it was mostly just downtime. I wasn’t terribly concerned though. I seem to remember that I spent my winter breaks from college being mostly slothful.

Turns out college kids around here don’t waste time anymore. Around the last week of that break, my friends starting asking me whether Jonah had used the break to find a summer internship or was taking a quick online class. Uh… what?

One friend told me that her daughter had used that time to line up interviews with alumni from her school. Every college now has a website of alumni who are open to giving students informational meetings. They host groups of students, tell them about their jobs, give tours, and then the students discretely leave their resumes on the worker’s desks with the hope — fingers crossed — that someone will call for an unpaid internship over the summer.

When I was in college, I worked as a secretary’s assistant in a local solenoid valve company. No, no, that’s not done any more. Your first job has to be at a fancy company in Manhattan. Jonah’s summers spent waiting tables are not resume-worthy. And in order to get those jobs, it’s necessary to pound the pavement all through January.

Now, I don’t mean to be judgy about kids getting internships and having a fully professional resume before they graduate from college. That’s just the new normal. But you know what was interesting about all those conversations with my friends? They all helped their kids with the task.

The parents found out about the alumni websites through the college’s parents newsletter. They told their kids to look on it. They helped them navigate the websites. They helped them create resumes. They nagged them to get out of bed and find an internship. They told them that they didn’t need a job to bring in spending money for school. The parents arranged the whole thing.

Grooming children to become UMC professionals is a Herculean task. It starts in utero and doesn’t end until the mid-20s. (This is just one tale. I have more.) How much of it is bullshit? I’m not sure. Maybe in ten years, I can line up Jonah with his friends – some have parents who are more clueless than we are and others have parents who actually read the parent newsletter — and see who’s successful and who’s happy (not necessarily the same thing.)

I’m a little suspicious about over-prepping kids for a career. I’m a huge believer in the benefits of downtime and exploration and random goofiness with friends. I think it’s good to be bored for a while. But do I believe in those values enough to let my kid sit on the sideline again next January break? Or will I also be surfing the God-damned alumni website for potential job prospects for my kid? I’m not sure.