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.

In the “Crazy, Complicated” World of Special Education, Parents Turn to One Another for Help — On the Internet

In this article, I look at online groups that special ed parents form to help each with the crazy, complicated world of special education.

When Stasi Webber decided it was time to uproot her family from their Michigan home to find a better school for her 11-year-old son with autism, she turned to the internet for answers.

The public schools in her state don’t provide the specialized behavioral and life skills training, known as ABA therapy, that her son needs; he skips school every Tuesday and Thursday to receive these essential services. But recently, Webber learned from parents on social media that her son could get both academics and ABA training in schools in New Jersey, where she grew up.

With a tentative plan of returning to her childhood home in Mahwah, she found three or four local social media sites run by special education parents and asked about ABA services at the local district, its willingness to send students to specialized schools and comparisons with nearby towns. She put her house on the market.

“I knew I had to reach out to the internet, because moms are willing to help other moms,” Webber said. “You find out the most information that way.”

More here.

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.

Summertime with ASD and OCD

Summer is never simple with a kid with special needs. With Jonah, there were sports camps and town camps and science camps and music enrichment. All sorts of opportunities for him to grow and prosper and keep out of my hair. With Ian, there are very, very, very few options. Almost none of those places take kids with special needs. If they do, it’s with a grimace and raised eyebrows and nose holding.

After I dropped off Jonah at the local YMCA this morning, I drove past the town recreation camp. All the little kids gathered in the shade with matching t-shirts. They were getting ready for swim lessons at the town pool. There were no kids in wheel chairs. No spacy kids being trailed by aides.

After a couple of seconds of anger and bitterness where I contemplated discrimination lawsuits and imagined firy speeches before the town council, I moved on. At least, I have a place for him this year. In the past, he went to extremely lame special education summer schools. Schools are obligated to provide special ed kids with programming in July, but they do a crappy job of it. This year, they wanted to shut Ian up in a classroom for half a day with two lower functioning kids where they would do math worksheets all morning. He would be stuck with me for the rest of the day. Other kids get to have fun, why doesn’t my kid get that?

I went back and forth with the school district about the inappropriate-ness of their summer program. I was fighting with them about it up until the last day of school. We were fighting it out on my cell phone, while I was at the doctor’s office getting Jonah’s wrist bone set in a cast.

For the first time in his life, Ian is at a regular camp. He has a shadow that helps him out as he makes art projects and takes swimming classes. He is around typical kids. He’s active and busy between 9 and 4, every day for four weeks. It’s a pain in the ass to get him to this camp. 4 hours per day of driving. But this was the closest place that I found.

And it’s worth it. Not only is Ian getting his fair share of fun, but he’s growing so much more than if he was shut up in a sad classroom. All that physical exercise is good for his brain. He has to deal with change. He is surrounded by people who are chatting with him. He’s a little stressed out with the heavy demands (he keeps biting holes in his t-shirts), but he’s doing it.

Do You Believe Children?

Ross Cheit, a professor of political science at Brown University (and a friend of Apt. 11D), has a hot new book, The Witch-Hunt Narrative, that looks at an old case, The McMartin preschool abuse scandal in 1984. Emily Bazelton discusses the book and the history of the case in the New York Times today.

While this case is ancient history, the topic is very current. Just a few months ago, Dylan Farrow and Woody Allen fought over the same issue in the opinion pages of the New York Times. Can we believe a child?

Children have active imaginations. The lines between reality and imagination are fluid and changing and easily manipulated by adults. When the stakes are small, it’s probably best to believe a child. Child abuse, however, is a high stakes accusation. An adult who is accused of child abuse is utterly devastated. There’s jail time and a destroyed reputation. Can we believe a child, when the result means the total devastation of an adult’s life?

On the other hand, child abuse happens all the time. And the victims are also utterly destroyed. I’ve seen recovered memory happen in a friend. It’s a real thing. We cannot discount the child’s point of view entirely and allow horrible predators to continue their crimes.

Cheit believes that abuse did happen in McMartin childcare center. His book reviews the old material and makes a compelling case for the victims.

While the methods for investigating these cases have improved since the 1980s, the process of getting the truth from a child remains more of an art than a science. As a parent of a child with special needs who goes into men’s restrooms alone, this ambiguity makes me incredibly nervous. As someone who likes to think up solutions to problems, I suppose the best route is to try to establish rules that make abuse impossible (or at least extremely difficult), so we don’t have to rely upon a child’s testimony at all.

Training Children

Chinese Mother Second only to news about Congressman Gifford, the hottest exchanged link of the weekend was this article in the Wall Street Journal about Amy Chua's pareting philosophy.

Chua makes the distinction between Chinese and Western mothers. She says she using the term, Chinese, loosely to include various ethnic groups that all embrace a common parenting philosophy of demanding high academic achievement for their children and allowing them very few choices about recreational activities.

I know this type of parent very well. My best friend in high school had a mother who conformed to the ethnic and philosophical requirements of Chua. Let me just say that the end result was awe-inspiring rebellion at college, once her mother was out of reach.

In a momentary pause between grad school programs years ago, I taught at any after-school enrichment program for smart kids. The kids were drilled in math and writing for two hours after school. The entire class was Asian. The parents frequently told me that Western schools were too lenient.

Chua is an extremist with an inkling of truth. We could all demand a little more from our kids, teach them to value hard work, and get them to step away from the bag of Pringles and the xBox. At the same time, there is also a place for creativity and free time and dreaming. High achievement comes at a cost, and maybe our kids will be happiest if they don't quite reach their potential.

The best parents can navigate these extremes. It's too bad that the MSM only gives voice to the extremes.

UPDATE: Thanks to Ben for pointing us to this remarkable comment thread on Quora.