Risk Taking 101 for Parents of Homeschoolers

Yes, that is my 9 year old in that picture.  Yes, it is high and steep.  Yes, I am brave (and she is, too.)  Managed risk taking is a skill we value in our family.  Since I took this picture, and began writing this post, so much has happened that saddens me to think about the huge risks we take every day, usually just by doing things we take for granted.  We risk when we get into our automobiles, and yet we rarely think that this could be our last ride.  Parents risk every day when they wave goodbye to their children at the door of the schoolroom.  So if we live with so much risk, why would we encourage our children to be risk takers?

  • Risk takers enjoy life more.  A person who cautiously doesn’t dare to try a new sport, learn a new task or climb a little higher doesn’t get the thrill of achieving his goal and seeing the view from on top.  You cannot achieve if you do not start.  Just because you start, doesn’t guarantee achievement, but non-starters never achieve.
  • Risk takers are high achievers.  Those who have risked and achieved goals in the past have more confidence toward the next challenge.  They are able to reach higher and gain more.
  • Risk takers find fulfillment.  Knowing that you did something you set out to do leads to fulfillment and happiness.

How can we help our children to be risk takers, but in a controlled, managed way?

  • Help your children evaluate the risk.  Is the risk is a tumble down a sandstone hill, as shown in the picture above, or is it a life-threatening chance?  What are the benefits to be gained?  If the benefits outweigh the risks, why not take the chance?  Even very young children can be taught to think in this way, and choose which risks are worth taking.
  • Ask your child about how he feels while taking the risk.  As he climbs higher on the jungle gym, don’t just demand that he descend immediately.  Ask if he feels safe.  Be there to assist if necessary, and help him to be careful, but don’t insist on his complying with your feeling of safety.
  • Sometimes it’s better not to look.  I have a 16 year old that just received his first driver’s license.  While he has driven many hours with me beside him in the car, I am better able to cope with his driving when I am not alongside him.  I am not sure I even make him safer by “co-piloting” the vehicle.  After all, when he cannot rely on me for a second opinion, he is forced to rely on his own sense of caution.  Our children need to be able to feel safe inside their own bodies and with their own decisions, and sometimes this involves a parent turning a blind eye.

While none of us can guarantee safety throughout our lives or our children’s lives, we can live each day to its fullest, living confidently and happily in the present.

Is risk taking something you encourage for your family?  How do you cope with the emotions brought on by letting go? Please leave me a comment below.


Hiking (and Life) Advice from Annie Dillard

Advice:  (from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard)

When I was six or seven years old, growing up in Pittsburgh, I used to take a precious penny of my own and hide it for someone else to find.  It was a curious compulsion; sadly, I’ve never been seized by it since.  For some reason I always “hid” the penny along the same stretch of sidewalk up the street.  I would cradle it at the roots of a sycamore, say, or in a hole left by a chipped-off piece of sidewalk.  Then I would take a piece of chalk, and starting at either end of the block, draw huge arrows leading up to the penny from both directions.  After I learned to write I labeled the arrows:  SURPRISE AHEAD or MONEY THIS WAY.  I was greatly excited, during all this arrow-drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe.  But I never lurked about.  I would go straight home and not give the matter another thought, until, some months later, I would be gripped by the impulse to hide another penny.

It is still the first week in January, and I’ve got great plans.  I’ve been thinking about seeing.  There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises.  The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand.  But — and this is the point — who gets excited by a mere penny?  If you follow one arrow, if you crouch motionless on a bank to watch a tremulous ripple thrill on the water and are rewarded by the sight of a muskrat kit paddling from its den, will you count that sight a chip of copper only, and go your rueful way?  It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stop to pick up a penny.  But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted with pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days.  It is that simple.  What you see is what you get.


Eat every wild raspberry you see.

Hope you find a few pennies today!

Encouraging Bravery While Teaching Caution

Maybe you, like I, hope that our children will grow up to be stronger and braver than we are.  In my case, that doesn’t take much. As a child, teenager and young adult,  I passed up many opportunities for fun adventures because I was afraid.  I didn’t go water skiing because I was afraid of how I would look in my grandmother’s swimsuit (I had forgotten mine.)  I didn’t go on the hike because I was afraid of heights.  I would never have considered touching a snake.  Since I regret the way I acted, I spend much of my time now encouraging my kids to be risk takers.

I encourage my kids to climb trees, hike to the top of the mountain, and pick up the snake.  They catch lizards (yuck!) touch toads, and wriggle up to their knees in mud.  But as we hiked along today, we saw this:

It made me stop and think about how in encouraging our children to be brave and strong, we also need to teach caution.  Honestly, the most dangerous snakes they will encounter in life are not the ones that could bite them and inject venom into their veins.  We need to encourage them to be risk takers but teach them which risks to take.  Here are some ideas I have about how to do that:

  • Talking to our kids about what things are truly dangerous, or how to help themselves out of a dangerous situation is terribly important.  So when we are hiking in the desert, we talk about how to orient yourself (see those mountains over there?  If you were lost, you would need to keep walking toward them until you reached the road.)  When we are climbing a cliff, we talk about the careful steps we would need to come back down, and about making sure we CAN come back down before we start up.  When we are inside a slot canyon, we talk about where we could climb up if a flash flood came down canyon.  When we are walking through the city, we talk about making eye contact and looking at people who scare us so that we don’t look like victims.  We talk about letting a thief have our money rather than fighting for something unimportant.  We hope that all this talk helps give our kids a more adult outlook on risks.
  • Ask them the question, “What is the worst that could happen?”  If the answer is, “I would get really wet and have to hike out with wet clothes,” it’s probably an acceptable risk.  On the other hand, if the answer is, “I could fall and break both legs,” it may not be an acceptable risk.  And if the answer is, “Death,” then it certainly is not an acceptable risk unless the reward is equally great.
  • Education is everything.  To help our kids be confident about which risks are acceptable, they must be certain of their knowledge.  If they are certain what a rattlesnake looks like, they won’t be afraid to touch a little garden racer.  Have you considered a short self-defense course for your daughters?  Have you thought about what a little training with climbing ropes could do for your family?  What about fire drills?  All of these things help certainty.  Certainty builds confidence and caution — but in appropriate situations.

Do you think risk taking is an important character trait to teach our children?  How do you encourage your children to bravery?  Is caution easy or hard for you to teach?  Please leave me a comment below.

Teaching Our Children to Be “Passionate Observers”

I wanted to share with you today one of my main goals in teaching my children at home.  Have you noticed how little attention most adults and older children give to the beautiful world we live in?  Maybe you have heard someone say, as I did once, “I’ve seen trees before.  Where’s the mall?”  That complaint was made while we were driving through some of the most beautiful mountains in Utah.  I believe that many people in our world would agree with that sentiment, however.  One of my goals as a mother, then, has been to help my children to retain their natural sense of wonder and to really observe and appreciate the beauty of the natural world.  To steal the words of naturalist Jean Henri Fabre, I would like them always to be “Passionate Observers.”

Anyone who has watched a toddler watch an ant knows that kids are born with natural powers of intent observation.  Soon, though, most kids feel they already “know everything” about ants, and aren’t interested in observing them (or anything else) anymore.  How can we help children to continue to be interested in the world around them as they grow older?

  1. Really look at common things.  For example, the big black bird we see all the time in the Walmart parking lot caught our interest by the noisy talking it did while we were waiting in the car one day.  Instead of forgetting about it, we came home and found its name in a bird book. The common grackle has a very unique way of using its tail as a rudder.  Next time we went to Walmart, we did some wildlife watching in the parking lot.
  2. Slow down.  Observation takes time.  Walk slowly.  Take time to sit on a rock during your next hike and look at the things that are going on around you.
  3. Share your own observations.  While walking or driving with your children, ask, “Did you see that bird?”  or, “Was that a hawk that just flew over?”  Your children will imitate your enthusiasm.
  4. Listen to their observations. Instead of stopping an excited narration with, “Yes, I know,” let your child tell you all about the thing he has been observing.  When he is finished, maybe ask a question or two that will prompt more or more careful observation to continue.
  5. Don’t allow material things to dominate family life.  While going to movies, playing video games and shopping may have their place, they should not be the center of our entertainment. Humans need the natural world for mental health.  Take time to be outdoors regularly and often.

Reading books by and about amateur naturalists can really inspire kids to look at nature.  Picture books for younger kids are easy to find at the local library.  We also enjoy read-alouds on this subject.  Some books we have enjoyed reading include:

  • Books by Farley Mowat.  Especially for kids include Owls in the Family and The Dog Who Would not Be, but equally wonderful are Never Cry Wolf and A Whale for the Killing.
  • A Passionate Observer by Jean Henri Fabre.
  • Secrets of the Nest by Joan Dunning
  • Books by Gerrald Durrell, including My Family and Other Animals; Birds, Beasts and Relatives; and A Zoo in my Luggage.

As I continue to work toward this goal, I am excited to see my kids really look at the world around them and express their appreciation for the beautiful things they see.  I am determined to continue working toward the goal of being “Passionate Observers.”

How do you help your kids maintain their interest in the natural world?  Please leave me a comment.

Book Review — Divergent by Veronica Roth

Divergent is the latest in a series of distopian young adult novels Eden and I have been reading.  She started out reading Brave New World and 1984, and we continued through Uglies by Scott Westerfield and Birthmarked by Caragh O’Brien.  Many of the current distopia novels for young people are fairly unimaginative, playing over and over again on the ideas of eugenics — selective breeding of humans — and plastic surgery.  Divergent was more interesting to me because it focused on personality and how different personality styles affect life choices.

Beatrice lives in a world where people are divided into five factions:  Amity, people who believe in showing kindness above all else; Dauntless, people whose chief quality is courage; Erudite, people who believe all problems can be solved with intelligence and learning; Candor, people who belief in honesty and revelation of all one’s thoughts; and Abnegation, people who endeavor to live selflessly.  At the age of sixteen, each child chooses which faction he or she belongs to, based partly on aptitude tests.  They must then pass an initiation, after which their job choices are limited by their faction.  If they fail to pass the initiation, they are considered outcasts, factionless.

During her aptitude tests, Beatrice tests as Divergent.  Her tester warns her that this is very dangerous, and that she should tell no one that she has had these test results.  Beatrice choose to leave her parents’ faction, Abnegation, and join Dauntless.  Her brother, Caleb, also chooses to leave their parents’ faction, but joins Erudite.  During the initiation tests, she discovers that she is a very courageous, even fearless person.  She also begins to learn that focusing on one quality to the neglect of all others can change a whole society for the worse.

One of the surprises that made this story interesting to me was that although many parents purposely chose never to see their children again if they changed factions, Beatrice’s parents did not change toward their children although they had changed factions.  (Spoiler alert.) In fact, Beatrice’s mother had changed factions as a youth herself.  The idea of a person choosing a specific society over a family seems interesting to explore, especially as the extended family life of the past gives way to the splintered nuclear family of today’s society.  It seems realistic to think that one day in the future even maintaining contact with one’s sibling or parents would be a rarity.

The real reason I enjoyed this book, however, was the daring involved in the initiation to the Dauntless faction.  Leaping onto and off of moving trains, zip rides from high buildings and climbing to the top of Ferris wheels left Beatrice wanting more challenges.  I identified with this character not because I am daring, but because I have forced myself to be more courageous so that I don’t miss out on wonderful opportunities — like staring off the top of the high cliff in Canyonlands National Park.

This book comes recommended by 3 Floyds — Brett, Eden, and I all enjoyed it.  Leave a comment and let us know your thoughts!

Healthy Homeschooling: Why Whole Foods are Important, and How to Get Your Kids to Eat Them

How many times have you heard someone say, “Fresh fruits and vegetables are just too expensive!  I can’t afford to eat like that!”  I have heard that statement several times over the past few days, and in fact, I used to feel that way myself.  After I had spent my food dollars on the slab of meat that I thought was the necessary center of every dinner, I hated to spend any extra on vegetables.  We ate frozen vegetables or potatoes with most dinners, and garden vegetables when they were available to us.  I just felt I couldn’t justify the extra expenditure on fruits and vegetables.

My diet has changed a lot since those days, and we buy fruits and vegetables first.  Occasionally, we buy meat.  I can tell you exactly how much we have spent on meat in the last two months.  $15.00.  That made a wonderful steak dinner that we shared with our parents.  We have also been given a spiral cut ham, which made about 10 meals (ham is wonderful flavoring), and a two pounds of lamb given to us by my parents.  Our basic diet has consisted of fruits and vegetables, beans, and grains.

While whole foods can include meat, most people using this phrase are talking about including more fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains in their diet.  We also are talking about eliminating highly processed foods from our diet.  Why is this so important?

Reason #1:  Vitamins in context.  Our body is built to use vitamins and minerals in combinations that are best found in foods.  According to the ADA, vitamins and minerals including Vitamin E and selenium have been found very beneficial and necessary to human health when found in food, but do not seem to be absorbed from supplements.  This may have to do the other nutrients contained in the same foods.  Scientists have long put magnesium in calcium supplements to aid absorption, but whole foods include many trace elements that may aid our health even more in the long run.

Reason #2:  Fiber.  One of the main results of processing grains is the removal of fiber.  Fiber is necessary to the human body for cleansing reasons, as well as to promote a feeling of fullness as we eat. Fiber also changes the way sugar is converted in the blood stream, allowing blood sugar to stay more controlled.

Reason #3:  Less sodium and sugar.  According to the Mayo Clinic, processed foods contribute over 75 percent of the sodium to the average American diet.  If you are a careful label reader, you will understand why, as varieties of sodium show up on the label of nearly everything processed: sweet or salty.  This is because salt, besides being a flavor enhancer, is a preservative.  To give processed foods longer shelf life, more sodium is added.  In addition, sugar and high fructose corn syrup are key ingredients in many processed foods, because our bodies have an innate craving for sugar.  Sugar is a “selling” ingredient.

10 Easy Ways to incorporate more whole foods into your diet:

1.  If you cut it, they will eat.  Make a sliced fruit and vegetable plate to put on the table with your meal.  Include some old standbys, like carrots and apples, and some new ones to try, like golden bell peppers or jicama.  Make sure everyone “chooses a vegetable,” just one, to eat with their meal.  If the plate is not empty by the end of the meal, leave it on the table for nibbles and snacks.  My teenager recently commented that jicama is like chips — easy to eat too much of– except healthier.

2.  Invite your kids to pick a new fruit or vegetable to try when you visit the produce section together.  At a recent grocery store trip, we spotted blood oranges, pomelos, and honey tangerines.  We bought one of each (they were quite expensive), and had a family taste test at our next meal.

3.  Serve fruit with breakfast.  This is a great time of year to eat a grapefruit every day, but breakfast is a great time for berry smoothies, bananas, or applesauce as well.

4.  Make a pot of vegetable soup to serve as a “first course” with dinner.  If everyone is hungry when they sit down, the soup will go down  quickly while you wait for the rest of the meal.  Remember, just half a cup of vegetable soup is a whole serving of vegetables.

5.  Buy whole wheat pastry flour.  Use at least half whole wheat pastry flour next time you make cookies or cake — most likely, no one will even notice.

6.  Use regular whole wheat flour when making pie crust, pasta, or yeast breads.  I always use at least half whole wheat flour in baking, and sometimes all whole wheat, depending on the recipe.  Sometimes it makes the dough a little more difficult to handle (pasta especially), but the nutty flavor of the whole wheat is a wonderful addition to almost every recipe.

7.  Try different beans and grains.  There are a wide variety to choose from.  We eat polenta (stone ground corn) for breakfast with maple syrup, or fried with spaghetti sauce for dinner.  Quinoa makes a wonderful, grassy-flavored casserole.  Barley, oats and rye each have their own individual flavors.  We recently tried Madagascar pink rice for another unusual treat.  Beans also come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and colors.  Each one has its own distinctive flavor.  Experiment to find your favorite.

8.  Serve a new whole food alongside an old favorite.  Don’t try too many new things at once.  A palate overwhelmed by change cannot enjoy it.  Savor the new while using the old.

9.  Throw out the can opener.  On this website, as well as many others, you can find recipes to make your own cream sauces and soups so that you can avoid the preservatives, sodium and sugars of canned foods, as well as the BPA in the lining of the  cans.

10.  Use honey instead of sugar.  Honey can be used instead of white sugar in many recipes — usually you need only half as much honey as you would sugar, and reduce the liquid a little.  This substitution requires a little more experimentation, but once you become accustomed to the flavor of honey, you will never go back to just plain sugar.

Soon you will find that everyone in your family is enjoying these whole foods together, and reaping the health benefits.

Happy Healthy Eating!

Homeschooling: Why Music

One of the questions many of my friends wonder as they look at the way we spend our time is why we put so much emphasis as a family on music.  The kids spend hours practicing every day.  We spend hours driving to and from lessons, participating in group events and competitions.  We spend a large portion of our income on lessons and music-related events and books.  We frequent the symphony and other concerts.  We talk about music and listen to music all the time.  Why put so much time and effort into just one subject?

There are a huge variety of answers to this question, but they all boil down to two important things: value and enjoyment.  Music has great value to us.  It is a subject that requires concentration, coordination and talent to succeed.  As  my children practice, they build character skills such as patience and self control.  They build small and large muscle coordination, and hand eye coordination.  They learn to listen.  They begin to appreciate beauty.

As they grow older and become more accomplished on their instruments, they do reap more enjoyment.  But even the six-year old who is just beginning finds real joy in making good sounds come from the piano.  In fact, as I write this, he is enjoying himself at his piano practicing.  They begin sitting down to play just for their own enjoyment, and some of the best times at our home are when Grandma and Grandpa come over for a concert.

We stopped having practice wars several years ago with the two oldest, but occasionally one of the younger ones will protest that they “hate the piano!”  Lucy never says she hates violin, only piano, and perhaps someday she will be able to concentrate only on the violin.  Until then, it is up to me never to give in, but to keep requiring her daily practice.  After all, if she does not practice, she will never enjoy her music.

An important path to enjoyment of practicing and music is listening to other musicians.  We are not able to dream of being something we have never seen or imagined.  When the kids see the musicians at the symphony, or at a local fiddlefest or jazz concert, they are able to project themselves into an adult life where music plays an important role.  In fact, the two oldest are considering pursuing careers in music.  Of course, not everyone who enjoys music has to be a concert performer, and in fact most are not.  But wouldn’t it be a fulfilling life to be able to teach what you love?  If they do truly love music, this is a good choice for them.  Many adults wish they had learned “when they were younger” to play an instrument.  Luckily, my kids won’t have to wish this!

Do you think music is an important subject for homeschoolers?  As an adult, do you continue to enjoy listening to and playing music?  Please leave me a comment.


Along with Self Discipline: Live a Life of Exertion

I recently read this poem called “Men Untrained to Comfort” by Wendell Berry.  It made me think about how self sparing our society has become, and how important it is to instead spend oneself in work and play to live a life well.

Jane Addams described the life of ease and idleness which was the fate of most of her class of women as comparable to eating a sweet pastry before breakfast every morning.  In our society, that same life is available to people of all walks of life.   In Addams time, women of a wealthy class were condemned to spending their lives in embroidery, “visiting” and other activities which she did not view as important.  But now, people spend their leisure time, of which most of us have 5 or 6 hours per day, in front of the television, numbing our brains and watching other people live.  Just like eating that sweet pastry before breakfast, it dulls the appetite with unwholesome food and leaves a feeling of inertia and lack of energy.

What, then, would be like a wholesome breakfast that would energize us for the work at hand?  For our family, we have found that physical activity such as running or hiking, leaves us energized to work hard at other tasks.  During the time we are running, the mind “free-wheels” relaxing and brainstorming so that ideas flow freely.  Often, I come home from a run with all sorts of new creative ideas, and the energy to pursue them.  While that may seem counter-intuitive, ask almost any runner and they will tell you the same.  The run actually leaves them with more physical energy.  Hiking does the same thing to a greater extent because being out in nature is rejuvenating in itself, and compounded with the extra physical activity, leads to more energy.

Just as many people in our society do not have an appetite for a breakfast of oatmeal, but would gladly have a donut and coffee on their way to work, it requires self discipline to eat our “wholesome breakfast” of physical activity.  When the alarm rings to roll us out of bed, we have to require of ourselves to get out of bed.  But just as a wholesome breakfast is not enough to carry you through the day, continued self-exertion is at the heart of a happy life.  Of course it takes effort to choose a task and complete it, but the reward is a feeling of satisfaction that is not available in any other way.

What motivates me to self-exertion is thinking about the end of my life.  I think about whether I will be glad to think back on having watched several documentaries about summiting Everest, or if I would rather think about the time I climbed the mountain closest to my home.  Will I be happy to remember the sitcoms that I watched, or would it be better to look back on quilts that I made for my children.  I am convinced that only a life of action will leave me fulfilled at the end.  I imagine a grandchild asking me “What did you do?” and I want to have DONE something.

Are you a stay at home mom?  Lucky you!  Instead of letting the television keep you company and sap your strength and energy, why not choose some extra task you can do  with your children today?  Why not make cookies for Daddy when he comes home from work?  Take the time to play with your children at a park.  Get every room in the house cleaned.  Choose a difficult book to read for your own education, read it sitting at the table and taking notes.  Work hard!

Are you a working mom?  I know you come home tired from work.  But try out the energy building qualities of exertion.  Get started on a task that won’t take too long, and you will find when you have finished, that you have energy to go on to another task.  Set a timer and wash dishes for twenty minutes.  Iron 4 shirts.  Fold one load of laundry.

How much better to spend our time working hard at something!  Jane Addams started Hull House and devoted her life to social reform.  While this may not be an option we would desire to pursue, could we find an activity to work hard at and really give meaning to our lives?  Instead of watching others act, could we act ourselves?