64 posts categorized "Parent Involvement"

April 18, 2012

Are all our kids contestants in "The Hunger Games"?

Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor

Many kids and adults I know blazed through the The Hunger Games and couldn't wait to see the movie, but I've avoided Suzanne Collins' series until now because everything I heard about it sounded so grim and violent.

Then, last week I ran into a friend who had just read the books and seen the movie because her son is obsessed with the series. We wondered together why these stories are so appealing to our kids, given the dark world they depict. Of course, kids like scary stories, and many beloved childrens' classics — from Alice in Wonderland to the Narnia series — are beloved in part because they are so frightening, but The Hunger Games takes the menace and violence to a whole new level.

My friend speculated that kids relate to Katniss and the other charaters in the book because they feel like those kids. "It's not conscious, of course, but they get, on some level, that the stakes in their world are high, and the future is dangerous," she said.

Writer and cartoonist Bruce Handy expressed a similar idea in a recent comic in The New York Times. Poking fun at parenting obsessions in two recent books, Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and Pamela Druckerman's Bringing Up Bebé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, Handy introduced "The Hunger Games Mother." Who is this parent? "The Hunger Games Mother" devises fatal punishments for the child who doesn't practice her instrument long enough, coaches her child to eliminate (literally) other children competing for top academic spots, and sicks "muttations" (vicious dog-like creatures) on the child who receives a mediocre grade. She even dictates her child's friendships, since the wrong friends could force the child to "pay the ultimate price: enrollment in a safety school." Handy observes, "Who better to help parents navigate the brutal, futuristic dystopia that is contemporary childhood?"

Handy's comic is funny, but it hits uncomfortably close to home. Most parents these days are putting pressure on their kids to do well, get into the best high school, pursue a million activities, and earn high grades because college is competitive, paying for college is competitive, and getting a job after college is more competitive still. Even if parents try to insulate their kids, pressure and stress are part of the current zeitgeist, and our kids can't help picking it up. For every person who has struggled through the recent recession, the lesson is clear and it's hard not to pass on: it's a tough, unforgiving world out there, and not everyone is going to make it.

I'm not sure what the answer is: the pressure parents feel is real, but so is our children's need to enjoy their brief childhoods. I'm trying to find a balance between encouraging my kids to do their best, and creating interludes of careless, childish fun — late nights with friends, afternoons wandering the city, a splurge at the ice cream store, a spontaneous trip to the beach.  If you ask them, my kids will likely tell you I haven't achieved that balance yet (too many sleepless nights with visions of financial aid forms dancing in my head) but I'm trying.

I'd love to hear how it's going at your house.

April 11, 2012

Two fun family activities for financial literacy month

By Jessica Kelmon, Associate Editor

There’s a lot of talk about increasing kids’ financial savvy, but it’s not always clear where to begin. For young kids, teaching about coin value and using math skills to count change is a simple, straightforward start. But for older kids, it can be hard to determine what to talk about without crossing a line: you don’t want your children to worry about the mortgage, for example, or to be overly concerned with family finances, but you do want to instill values and build a sense of awareness.  

So I was happy to see these two money-related activities on Parent Further, a nonprofit that researches and reports on parenting issues. They have excellent information, and these two activities are a perfect example. Both of these activities can be done with kids ages six to 18 and both are interactive, so they’ll spark family discussion.

First: 10 minute Taste Test
The idea is to pick four foods your family likes and buys often. Then head to the store to buy two versions of each item – generic and branded mac & cheese, say, or beef and tofu hot dogs. When you get home, do a blind tasting to see if you can tell the difference. In this tasting, you’ll keep track of the relative prices and maybe read the labels to compare the nutrition content. It’s a lesson in shopping, reading labels, and keeping track of prices all wrapped into one fun family activity.

Second: Points for life!
Worried that your teen is overvaluing designer jeans and the coolest socks? Here’s a way to have a family discussion about relative values – and give your child (of any age) a reality check. The idea is that everyone gets 1,000 points to “spend” on what matters most to them individually – and the options range from toys and shopping to family time and creative pursuits (like drawing, painting, acting, and dancing). There’s the math and budgeting practice (the allocations must add up to 1,000) to start, but the big payoff is the chance to better understand and appreciate what appeals to each member of your family. You can read more about the activity here, and download the 1,000 points page here.

What do you think: are these activities doable in your household?

March 28, 2012

A mom fights obesity at home: would you do the same?

By Jessica Kelmon, Associate Editor

It starts as a rather common tale: woman grows up yo-yo dieting, bouncing up and down in weight and between mass-marketed diets throughout her teens, college, and early adulthood. When she has a daughter, she’s terrified that poor body image and high BMI will haunt the child like an evil legacy. And by the time the little girl turns 6, her fears are confirmed: her daughter has a weight problem.

Last fall, I wrote about a new study that revealed that many parents find talking about weight with their kids more embarrassing and frightening  than talking about sex or drugs. I also cited a stat that 37 percent of parents are worried that at least one of their children will be overweight. So I was interested to learn that the April 2012 issue of Vogue (not exactly known for promoting healthy body image, but bear with me), featured mother and writer Dara-Lynn Weiss’ story of fearing, acknowledging, and tackling her 7-year-old daughter Bea’s weight problem.

Before I saw the article, I read the reactions to it. True to form, the New York Magazine article responding to Weiss’ four-page confession was well written and compelling. After reading it I was convinced, as the anonymous writer put it, that “Weiss just handed her daughter a road map to all her future eating disorders.” I was persuaded, too, that the conclusion - “There's only one possible bright side to this maternal travesty: Years from now, when Bea is in therapy, she won't have to waste those early sessions explaining herself because she'll just be able to hand over that article and say, "SEE WHAT I HAD TO DEAL WITH?" - summed up the whole sad situation perfectly.

Other blogs and comments from BabyCenter to Jezebel make Weiss sound like a monster. “Call CPS!” one commenter proclaimed. Others lamented that adults always push their issues onto their kids.

But Weiss isn’t just projecting her own flaws. A child is “obese” if his or her BMI is in the 95th percentile for their height and age – and Weiss' daughter was in the 99th percentile. The child's doctor said the girl’s weight was a problem. Overweight kids face greater risk of debilitating health issues, like type 2 diabetes, and psychological issues, like depression and low self-esteem. One study Weiss cites found that 80 percent of kids who are overweight in adolescence remain heavy at age 25. And the kicker: “If a child becomes overweight before age eight,” Weiss writes, “his or her obesity in adulthood will be even more severe.”

Most parents want to do everything in their power to help their children live happy, healthy lives. We know the scary facts and stats about obesity – and we know that living with these challenges can hamper both health and happiness. Further, despite this article’s publication in Vogue (which typically covers only high-class “problems”), everyone from Congress to Michelle Obama is taking note of the childhood obesity epidemic and searching for solutions – some drastic. Just last year CPS intervened in a childhood obesity case – and removed an overweight child from his mother’s care. So what’s a parent to do?

Weiss is bruisingly honest about her efforts to help Bea lose weight. Sure, they saw a child obesity specialist weekly and followed a diet-for-kids regimen aimed at regulating Bea’s eating while teaching her about nutrition. But Weiss also candidly shares her public, heated responses to friends, family, and even strangers when they’ve offered Bea unaccounted-for treats, proffered Weiss unsolicited advice, or failed to provide nutritional info (in one example, Weiss angrily threw a Starbuck’s hot chocolate in the trash when a barista couldn’t tell her the exact calorie count). It has not been a happy journey, for mother or child. Weiss sounds unhinged at times – and admits her lack of perfection as a parent and as an eating/weight role model. But she also names the countless ways that parents don’t have control over their kids’ diets – especially at school, where a healthy snack of nuts is prohibited to protect allergic kids, but any number of birthday cupcakes, pizza parties, and school lunches with zero nutritional info are the norm.

I’ll admit it: I’m part of the 37 percent of adults worried that my kids will have weight problems. In fact, I think 37 percent is actually low. The more we learn about weight-related health problems (not to mention the acceptance of weight-related mocking, intolerance, and discrimination) and the inexorable memories of our fat cells, the more crucial it seems for kids to have healthy eating habits from the start. So I don’t think Weiss is a monster. I wish 7- and 8-year-olds didn’t have to worry about weight, but some do. After a year, Bea lost 16 pounds. Weiss has taught her child to think of her weight problem as a condition like asthma that she’ll have to deal with for life. It’s easy to judge - but if it were your child, what would you do?

March 21, 2012

Is your child’s school a threat to national security?

By Jessica Kelmon, Associate Editor

Positive news this week about incrementally higher graduation rates was put in harsh perspective yesterday when Condoleezza Rice named our failures in education as a threat to national security. Rice is part of a task force on education and national security that released a scary report about how ill-prepared our students are – and the threat it poses to our national standing.

Part of the problem is that we’re not producing high school grads who can fill crucial posts in our military. According to the task force’s report published this month, the Department of Defense estimates that 75 percent of American youth are ineligible to serve in the military because they didn't graduate from high school, are obese, or have criminal records. And, of those who do graduate and might be eligible for the military, almost a third can’t pass the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test.

But the list goes on, and it’s not just that kids aren’t finishing school – it’s that they’re not learning enough even if they do:

  • Only about 25% of U.S. students test proficient or better in civics.
  • About eight out of ten Americans speak only English (and fewer and fewer schools teach foreign languages).
  • A recent report by ACT found that only 22 percent of our high school students are "college ready" in all core subjects.

And, in case you’re thinking ‘well, it’s not my kid – my kid’s going to college’:

  • Even among seniors headed to college, the College Board reported that only 43 percent meet college-ready standards.

No matter what your stance on the military and national defense, the uncomfortable reality is that this isn’t just about our armed forces, we need Americans to fill crucial roles in government, intelligence, and foreign service. To this end, former Secretary of State Rice told Charlie Rose yesterday, "national security is much broader than what you can do with your military forces - but of course, even there we are falling short." The report synopsis tidily touches on five areas where our education system is failing to prepare students in ways that affect national security, they are: economic growth and competitiveness, physical safety, intellectual property, U.S. global awareness, and U.S. unity and cohesion.

Obviously, this is a national issue, and better education funding and prioritizing education as a cultural value would be crucial steps in the right direction. The task force supports expanding the Common Core Standards to encompass more subjects than just English and math as an effort to standardize what kids are learning (and raise the learning curve). But if and when such reforms will be adopted is up in the air (and it's hard to be optimistic that they'll happen any time soon, given the current budget-cutting climate).

But we don't have to wait around and hope for the best. If language programs at our schools have been cut, for example, we can work with other parents to push for their reinstatement, or, if that doesn't work, look for affordable programs outside of school. We can teach civic awareness at home around the dinner table. And we can take advantage of museums, libraries, and daily teaching moments to get kids used to learning outside the classroom, too. What else can parents do – right here, right now – to help their kids be educated, prepared, and competitive? What, if anything, are you doing?

March 15, 2012

GreatSchools investor and partner day

By Bill Jackson, CEOGS-81

Last Friday, we held our first-ever GreatSchools Investor and Partner Day in San Francisco. Thirty guests joined 10 of our staff members to explore ideas about how we can improve our services for parents. The conversation was wide-ranging and stimulating.

Some of the most interesting discussion focused on how we can better help parents and students explore school quality from different angles, including:

  • How much diversity does a given school have and how might families who attend that school benefit from that diversity?
  • What is the culture and climate of a given school? How do students and teachers treat each other?
  • How can we help families and schools find their proper match? Some schools are good for a certain type of child but not so good for other types. How can we help families understand these kinds of subtleties?

The guests shared their personal experiences and professional insights and challenged us to "raise the bar" and provide more and more value to parents.

GS-24Happily, with the support of the Walton Family Foundation, we are busy tackling these and other similar challenges. We took an important step this past week with the release of our Official School Profile, a new way for school principals to share in-depth information about the programs and culture at their school (see examples here and here). Stay tuned for many more announcements before the year is out.

What do you think are the top school information opportunities and challenges GreatSchools should work on? How would you like to see our school profiles improve? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

March 13, 2012

The future: it's a terrible thing to waste

Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor

Like many parents I know, I wake up at night wondering how I'll afford to send my three kids to college. Unfortunately, these aren't just neurotic, middle of the night musings, according to several recent reports.

Last week in the San Francisco Chronicle, for example, former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich pointed out that rising tuition costs at public colleges and universities threaten the future of a growing number of American children, and Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman made a similar point in the New York Times.

Both Reich and Krugman observe that the U.S. once led the world in providing education for all, but it has lost this leadership role in recent years as budget cuts have led to tuition and fee increases that are placing college out of reach for more and more American children. Since the 1980's, tuition at public universities has consumed an increasingly larger chunk of American families' median annual income, according to Reich — from more than 10 percent in 2005, to 25 percent today — and rising fast.

Poorer families are being hit particularly hard, according to a recent report by the nonprofit Education Trust, which found that families in the lowest income bracket today, "pay or borrow an amount equivalent to nearly three-quarters of their annual income to send just one child to a four-year college."

This isn't only a terrible burden on individual families; it's destructive for our country as a whole. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman contends that education is a more important natural resource than oil, basing his argument on research by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). He concludes, "Add it all up and the numbers say that if you really want to know how a country is going to do in the 21st century, don’t count its oil reserves or gold mines, count its highly effective teachers, involved parents and committed students. 'Today’s learning outcomes at school,' says Schleicher [of the OECD], 'are a powerful predictor for the wealth and social outcomes that countries will reap in the long run.'”

If these experts are right, parents shouldn't be the only ones worrying about how they're going to get their kids to college — it's an issue that concerns us all. Says Reich, "[P]ublic higher education isn't just a private investment. It's a public good. Our young people — their capacities to think, understand, investigate and innovate — are America's future."

February 28, 2012

Is your child’s school rich or poor? It makes a difference in childhood obesity.

Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor

Not long ago I wrote about the differences in physical fitness programs — and fitness outcomes — at a wealthy suburban school and an inner-city school (both in the Bay Area). As reported in The Bay Citizen, kids at Sycamore Valley Elementary School, who train regularly with "physical fitness experts" and have access to sleek facilities and plenty of outdoor space, do far better on statewide physical fitness tests than their peers at Cesar Chavez Elementary School, who are taught PE by classroom teachers on a fenced-in black top.

New research from Penn State provides additional evidence that schools have a major impact on kids' health. The study, published in the journal Social Science and Medicine, found that attending a poor school puts adolescent children — even children from families who are not themselves poor — at higher risk for obesity.

Health experts have long assumed that family poverty was the greatest predictor of a child's weight, with lower-income children at higher risk of obesity. The Penn State researchers found that parent education also plays a major role — that is, kids with more educated parents are less likely to be obese. But their analysis showed that attending a poor school has more influence than family income on weight problems; it also appears to undermine the positive influence of parent education.

According to an overview of the study on the Penn State website, "A parent with a graduate degree and who has a child in a poor school is more likely to raise an overweight adolescent than a parent with an eighth grade education who has an adolescent enrolled in a rich school."

The Penn State researchers don't know exactly why kids at poor schools are at higher risk for obesity, but they suggest it's because these schools offer unhealthier food choices and have fewer resources for physical fitness and athletic programs. In addition, poor school environments are often stressful, and repeated activation of the stress response is known to increase abdominal fat.

Whatever the reason, these findings underscore the tremendous role schools play in shaping kids lives. This reality could be either good news or bad, depending on our society’s commitment to children and the quality of our schools. Given the frenzy of education cuts across the country — with everything from days in the school year to arts and PE programs on the chopping block — it's hard to be optimistic.

February 08, 2012

Because you hugged them

By Jessica Kelmon, Associate Editor

Want to invest in your child’s future? Put away your wallet (for this one) – and give your child a hug.

A new study by child psychologists and neuroscientists at Washington University School of Medicine examined the brains of school-aged children and found the kids whose mothers nurtured them early in life have a larger hippocampus than kids who weren't as nurtured by their parents. In case you missed our series on the inner workings of your child’s brain, the hippocampus is integral to your child’s memory, learning, and stress response. According to the study, this portion of the brain is substantially larger – up to 10 percent larger, in fact – in nurtured kids.

Don’t let the warm and fuzzy results of this study detract from its groundbreaking findings: until now, there wasn’t any scientific proof that parental love could change brain anatomy. But it can. And in the area of the brain that assists in learning.

While the research specifically looked at moms’ nurturing (which includes hugs), the scientists noted that the positive benefits from hugs and other nurturing behavior are likely to be the same with any primary caregiver, including dads and grandparents.

So what are you waiting for? Go hug it out! Hugs only take a moment, they’re easy and fun. And the payoff is priceless, but not immeasurable. And it may be the biggest brain boost you’ll give your child all day.

January 05, 2012

How much will college really cost?

By Jessica Kelmon, Associate Editor

As an adult with major (read: crippling) student loans, I want to be a parent who pays for college, and – dare to dream – I think it’d be cool to retire someday. Full disclosure: I’m an optimist. So I’ve been following the news about the student loan crisis with interest – and some nail biting.  Defaults are at record highs and college tuitions keep going up with no sign of the education bubble popping. I read with shock and awe the stories student-borrowers (many in medical fields) have shared about their debt loads. (The comments on this article are particularly jaw-dropping.)

Yet there’s one piece of information that I’ve found wanting: the actual cost of college. Sure, you can google the tuition for UCLA or Harvard or any school, but we all know that college costs range wildly across the country and most parents don't just plunk down full tuition, room, and board without some financial aid. Say what you will about the utility of the Dept. of Education, but they’ve got a shiny new rule that aims to force colleges to answer that question for us all. As of October 2011, all colleges have been required to provide net price calculators

The net price is that elusive amount you’ll actually pay after you’ve been awarded all the grants and scholarships you’ll hopefully get – the amount that’ll have to be covered by savings, subsidized and unsubsidized loans, and, if those don’t cover it, the loan-shark-rate loans that make up the difference. There’s a handy website where you can search for any college and be linked to their mandated net price calculator, if it exists. They explain the net cost as follows:

“For decades, many parents and aspiring college students have begun the process by looking at published costs of enrollment, called the “sticker price.” However, the sticker price for college is often very different from the “net price.” Understanding your expected net price for various colleges is the first step towards making an affordable college choice.”

Despite the DOE's laudable goal, more than 250 colleges have yet to follow this rule, and many parents and future students aren’t aware of this research asset, either. To overcome this PR hurdle, the DOE has set up a contest to get the word out: $1,500 prizes for the three best videos about college net price calculators!  

Like many consumer disclosure rules that aim to create transparency about a complex financial transaction, it's easier said than done. I tried the calculator out on my alma mater (UCLA) and still can’t really find the cost. I punched in some fake-but-reasonable numbers and it generated way more grant money than I know I’d ever get, then proceeded to give an estimated net cost of around $25K per year. In both of the fake scenarios I tried, predicted loan awards were enough to cover this net cost.  However, the devil is in the details. Hover over the “awards,” and you only learn these are the amounts you might be offered: but at a reasonable, subsidized Stafford loan rate or a loan-shark private rate? Remarkably, that info is missing. And either way, the projected amount owed at graduation with capitalized interest and variable interest rates that reset every year? Similarly missing. Sigh.  For parents or students trying to calculate their financial futures, this kind of transparency is as clear as, well, mud.

My request to the DOE: Nice first step; but please enact another rule that connects these dots. Because the monthly payment that’s coming six months out of school and follows you around for a decade? That’s the number we all need to see. 

December 14, 2011

5 worst education trends of 2011

By Jessica Kelmon, Associate Editor


It hasn’t been a banner year for academic honesty. Teachers and principals were breaking out their number two pencils, erasing kids’ test errors, and filling in the accurate bubbles themselves in cases of out-and-out cheating by educators in Atlanta and DC. Then, at an “exemplary” school in Dallas, the principal tried a different tack. Dubbed “second-degree cheating” (um, what is that?), the principal ordered all hands on deck to boost math and reading scores, giving the shaft to every other subject – the students learned no music, no art, no science, no social studies, no foreign language, no PE. Just math and English.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that many kids aren’t quite sure what really constitutes cheating, either. According to a recent study, 71 percent of the students surveyed don’t think copying from a website is “serious cheating;” more than half don’t consider cheating a big deal; almost all had allowed another kid to copy their homework.

Did I miss the new sliding scale for cheating? Who’s proselytizing this movement, and may I suggest a catchy name: the New Honesty?

Beggars can’t be choosers

As homeowners, cities, states, and as a nation, we’re refusing to adequately fund education, and as a result, schools are accepting money from wherever it hails – this 5th grader’s allowance, this Superintendent’s salary and benefits, and even the white space that once graced the back of report cards (and is now lucratively populated with ad slots).

And for the “lucky” teachers who’ve kept their jobs amid all the cuts – without pay increases, and with decreases for some – more and more teachers are taking second jobs. This trend isn't new but it's on the rise: about 11 percent of teachers were moonlighting in the early 80s, it’s more like one in five now. Nothing like running into the math teacher tending bar at a local restaurant or the second grade teacher selling appliances on the weekend to inspire a child to put a lot of value on education.

Obesity runaround – with no actual running, of course

It’s an epidemic – and it’s not funny. But how we’re trying to combat obesity in schools – and epically failing – is, kind of. We’re banning soda (but not sugar-filled juice drinks), sanctifying chocolate milk, having national debates about whether pizza sauce 'counts' as a vegetable, measuring BMI once every couple of years. And where, might you ask, is the exercise component? Oh, yeah, we’re cutting PE and recess.

Sure, this takes us back to the issue of education funding, but it really doesn’t cost much to run laps. And all those food policy debates and program changes aren’t free. This year I visited a school where recess and PE were replaced with a strategic games program. While I mourned the loss of free play for those kids, at least I got to see them running around. At other schools, the kids aren’t so lucky. According to the Right to Recess campaign, 50 percent of kids don’t get recess. The CDC’s Childhood Obesity Facts page lists three bullet points for prevention – the third calls out schools as a place for kids to learn healthy physical activity behaviors. How’s that working out?

Online idiocy

The internet is wonderful, but our online behavior isn’t. In fact, it’s atrocious – and it’s coming back to haunt us (or worse). Sadly, students aren't learning this lesson quickly enough – and neither are their teachers. Should we bring back etiquette classes? Kids are sexting racy messages and pictures back and forth – with consequences ranging from public humiliation to charges filed for sexual misconduct. Teachers are posting diatribes and making sarcastic cracks about their students on Facebook – and losing their jobs for it.

Personally, I hold the adults’ bad judgment against them, but I have more sympathy for the teens. Maybe they should realize their actions are visible to all; maybe they should have more reverence for their futures – but maybe we’re not guiding them well enough. In fact, I know we’re not – because text messaging lingo is seeping into school essays (even college app essays!) and colleges are checking out online profiles (yes, that means Facebook!) as part of their admissions process. Sorry, Charlie, your dream of attending Great Future University is out the window due to a series of disgusting posts. Plus, “btw” has no place in an admissions essay. L8r.

Animal parenting

Why oh why must you be a certain character from the animal kingdom? Tiger mom started it all, of course, and she offers an interesting approach. But do we need Panda dad (which sounds pretty close to middle-class American dad to me), Lion dad, Pussycat mom, Eagle mom … the list goes on and on? Frankly, no.

These aren’t even really about parenting or a child’s success – no matter what your definition of success is – anymore. They’ve spiraled out of control, into a realm that’s self-serving and fame-seeking. Please make it stop.


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