Archives for December 2014

Under Pressure

What do you do when your middle school child struggles with homework? Or when the pressure and grades seem to get in the way of their education? Reflections on the struggles of parenting a middle school child, along with a crazy idea that goes against everything we’re taught as parents.

I feel kind of old saying this out loud, but it’s finals week here in the Six house. Elena is in 7th grade this year, and for the first time in her school career, finals week is a thing. And it matters.

Of course, tests and doing well in school have always mattered to us. We view school as her “job,” and we expect her to give her best effort. But we also see school as one part of the pie, if you will. Yes, it’s very important. But it also isn’t everything. There are lots of opportunities to exercise your body and mind, to grow and learn, that take place out of school. There must be time for play. And there must always be time to just relax. As seriously as we take school, and expect her to take school, we also try to emphasize the balance. Sometimes, there are things that are more important than busywork.

In past years, this has been fairly easy to balance. Until she transitioned to public school from Montessori in 4th grade, she never had homework. Upon entering public school she tested into the district’s gifted program. You would imagine that this might mean more homework, but we found the opposite of that to be true. She had some, for sure, but it wasn’t every day, and it was always reasonable.

Junior high, it seems, is where that party ends. It’s been a struggle this year, for both of us. She has 6 classes, and in each of those classes it is not unusual for each teacher to assign homework. It doesn’t seem like much to each teacher, probably – twenty or thirty minutes per class. But multiply twenty minutes by 6 classes? Suddenly she’s faced with two hours of homework each night. Add to that a requirement of 2 1/2 hours of instrument practice outside of school each week, and suddenly the concept of play and free time become something of fairy tales or mythology. Does it even exist?

It’s a struggle for her – to keep up, to not burn out, to do her best day in and day out. It’s a struggle for us. It’s hard to watch your kid be expected to do things most adults wouldn’t stand for. Imagine this: you leave for work every day at 7 a.m. From 7:30 until 2:30, you’re in meeting after meeting. You’re listening, taking notes, trying to understand the message. At the end of each meeting, you’re given a task to complete. No biggie, right? You’ll get it done after the meeting, right? Only there is no “after the meeting” scheduled into your work day. You get a short break for lunch, and forty minutes at the end of the day to tie up any loose ends. Then you go home. Now, this is where the average adult worker would call it a day. They’d spend time with their family, run their errands, take care of personal things, relax, live their life. On a hectic week at work, they might have to bring some work home, but it wouldn’t be expected every day.

That’s not what I see for these kids in my community. After 7 hours of school, they come home and dive right into another 2-3 hours of homework. If they get started on it right after school, on a good night, they might have an hour or two to relax before bed. But what if it’s a gorgeous afternoon, and they want to toss the football or ride their bikes to Taco Bell with their friends? What if they have sports or other extra-curricular activities after school? Well, you’re looking at homework into the 9 and 10 o’clock hour. Then it’s up-and-at-em again at 6 a.m. the next morning. Ask any adult to do this, day in and day out for 9 months out of the year and they’d tell you where to shove it.

There’s not a lot parents can do in this more-is-better culture we live in. You can homeschool, but that isn’t the ideal or realistic option for everyone (and certainly not for our family). If you have the means, you can look for a private school that better meets your family philosophy. You can rebel against the system, and do it your own way – maybe you draw the line at an hour of homework each day. Maybe you sit down together and decide what assignments are worth the time and which seem frivolous. But at what cost? When those grades and those classes start counting towards that all-important G.P.A., what choice do you have then? (And at this point, kids in junior high are already taking high school level classes that count towards their high school G.P.A.)

There is the valid argument that this builds character. Do we want to raise a generation of kids that can’t rise to a challenge? I’m all for giving kids at this age opportunities to hone their time management skills. It’s an essential life skill, and you know how we feel about teaching valuable life skills here at The Risky Kids. Instead, I feel as if we’re inadvertently teaching these kids a different concept: burn-out. This week, of all weeks, when Elena should be looking forward to putting her knowledge to the test and completing a semester well done, she’s simply DONE. One teacher even assigned a homework worksheet in between a two-part final!

If it were simply a matter of pushing through, and reassuring these kids that their best effort was enough, that if they’re learning and mastering concepts regardless of the grade it’s all good, then I’d probably not get up on my soapbox. But it’s not enough.

Next semester, Elena is switching math classes. She’s moving down from 2-year advanced math to 1-year advanced. The material is moving too fast for her, and she’s not mastering the concepts before they move on. Now mind you, this is a high school class, offered for 7th graders. When I told her that the move down meant that she’d take Chemistry as a sophomore instead of as a freshman, she started to panic. She had to take Chemistry as a freshman, she said, otherwise she’d fall behind. Where did she get such a notion? From a workshop on college prep that she had in school a few weeks ago. “Hopefully I’ll still get into college,” she said. And she was completely serious.

You know what I was worried about as a 7th grader? If I had my Kirk Cameron posters lined up straight above my bed.

We have a mission in our family, one that spills over into the philosophy of The Risky Kids: to raise competent, independent, well-rounded kids. Kids who love books and tech. Kids who climb trees and move mountains. Kids who can do laundry and quadratic equations. Kids who can work and play. If that means being the weird family who looks at this gerbil wheel of stress, competition, and relentless pressure that is conventional schooling and says, “Thanks, but no thanks,” then so be it. I would rather have a kid in community college that can look back fondly at their childhood (and yes, your tween and teen years are still your childhood to claim and enjoy), than one in a prestigious college with anxiety.

The easy part is deciding this path isn’t for us. The hard part is convincing these kids it will all be okay.

Those of you in the trenches with tweens and teens, I’d love to hear from you. Is this your experience as well? If you’re on the other side of this life stage, I’d love to hear from you, too. How did you get through it?


Risky Reads: The Holiday Edition

Everything is awesome! #legokidsfest

So where the heck did November go?! I was looking back through the archives to make sure I didn’t use this image for last month’s Risky Reads … and then realized I didn’t do a Risky Reads post in November! I’ve scaled back my posting a bit on both blogs. It’s not that I don’t have lots to say or share, I’ve just been making a concerted effort during this holiday season to have balance in my life. And often that means shutting the computer and choosing other things. I have a feeling you guys understand.

In that spirit, I’ve found a few things around the web that have spoken to me along the theme of “Slow down. Relax. Enjoy what’s around you.” I hope you enjoy them, and I hope you’re enjoying this holiday season.

Sometimes I look around at all that we have, and I wonder why on earth we’re buying more things for Christmas! Do you struggle with this, too? I found this article very helpful and thoughtful: Practical Advice When Kids Have Too Much Stuff.

Where do you stand on the Elf on the Shelf? While I don’t begrudge the families who Elf, we don’t have one (much to Eli’s disappointment). I do find it somewhat amusing how divisive the little guy is, though! Who would’ve thought an elf could inspire as much debate as co-sleeping or breastfeeding?! (Although I agree with my friend, Shireen. Have your elf. Have fun with your elf. But the rest of us don’t need to see a picture of what your elf is doing every. single. day.) Anyhow, if you’re not crazy about the elf, but are looking for a similar tradition to share with the kids, consider these: Kindness Elves from The Imagination Tree and gnome/troll houses from Rain or Shine Mamma.

I really want to spend an afternoon making salt dough ornaments with the kids. I love these ideas for crafting with salt dough, because they can be adjusted to any age and they’ll all be beautiful in their own way. One of my favorite holiday traditions is looking over all the handmade ornaments the kids have made over the years. They’re the best.

I wish I could pass this post from Rage Against the Minivan on to every new parent on the planet. Repeat after me: It’s okay to ignore your kids sometimes. I felt especially compelled to share this with you as we stare down almost three weeks of winter vacation. You are not your child’s cruise ship director and you are not a bad parent for telling them to find their own thing to do. As the author so eloquently puts it, As Ecclesiastes says, there is a time to be precious about your kid’s childhood, and a time when you just have to get other shit done. (I’ve loosely paraphrased that verse.)”

Over on my personal blog, I wrote about 4 seemingly innocent traps that will derail your plans to have a simple Christmas. I speaketh from experience.

If you’re still wrapping up your shopping, don’t forget to check out the 2014 Risky Kids Holiday Gift Guide!

For more risky inspiration, follow us on Pinterest and like us on Facebook.  And if you ever see anything you think we’d like, please share it with us!


The Coolest Things We Saw at the Chicago Toy & Game Fair

2014 Chicago Toy & Game Fair

The weekend before Thanksgiving we attended the Chicago Toy & Game Fair. It was our very first experience attending an event like this and the verdict? Very cool. We’re pretty serious about play around here, so having some of our favorite toy and game makers under one roof is a big deal to us. We were also excited to discover new things that are destined to make The Risky Kids play list, and discover we did! Here are the coolest things we saw and played with at the 2014 Chicago Toy & Game Fair.

Razor PowerRider 360

Razor Power Rider 360 : I would say that our Razor scooters would be top contenders for The Risky Kid Toy Hall of Fame. The kids have gotten some serious use out of their scooters. After giving the Power Rider a spin, they’re ready to clear a space next to their scooters for this puppy. I used to be against making toys that were originally body-powered into electric versions … but after seeing the glee on the kids’ faces when riding this, I had to re-evaluate. The more I think about it, if it gets kids outside (especially older kids and tweens)? Then I’m all for it.

Tenzi Dice Game

77 Ways to Play Tenzi: We love Tenzi, and have played every version that comes with the game many, many times. Did you know you can buy this deck of cards to expand your Tenzi play possibilities? We didn’t! But guess what came home with us? This is a great game for a wide age range of kids (and adults!). While you can’t play it while traveling, we like to take it on trips with us because it barely takes up any room.

OGOBILD Kit Pod and OGOBILD AnimateIt!: Both from OgoSport, a brand we absolutely love. I wish I had pictures to show you, but we were too busy playing! Elena got excited about both of these, and when the tween gets excited about a toy? You better believe I notice. The OGOBILD Kit is a construction set you can use to build forts, balls, and whatever else you can imagine. The cool part is how flexible, lightweight, and yet sturdy it is. We bought a similar product from another brand last year for the same amount of money and it frustrated the kids SO much. It was always toppling in on itself. Not this kit. It would be fun indoors for winter and just as exciting outdoors for summer fun.

OGOBILD AnimateIt! is a kit that teaches kids how to make stop-motion films, giving them fun construction parts to make kooky designs. You can buy the kit with or without a camera. The software that comes with the kid was designed by the same folks that brought us Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run.


Tapple : This game was totally new to us, but it’s officially on our Christmas list. The letters of the alphabet are arranged around a timer button. At the start of each round, a card is drawn with a topic, such as “Names of Cities.” The first player hit the timer button, then taps down a letter and names a city that starts with that letter. The next player hits the button to restart the timer and does the same, only he can’t pick the same letter. Once each player has a turn to name one thing, the first player goes again. Same topic, but this time you have to name two things – and you can only use whatever remaining letters haven’t been tapped! When all the of the letters have been used, you move on to the next topic card. If the timer goes off before you can name your things, you’re out. Last player standing wins. We really had fun with this one, and I can see families coming up with their own cards to keep the playability going.

Magna-Tiles on a Light Table

Magna-Tiles: I’m familiar with Magna-Tiles, but I’ve never actually seen them in action. To be honest, I’d kind of passed them off, as Eli was never really into building toys of any kind (other than LEGO). But he was drawn to the booth, and the young guy manning the booth was SO good with him. We ended up spending over half an hour at the booth, with Eli building the entire time. What’s cool about the Magna-Tiles is how strong they are. As long as you balance your creations, you can build as high as you want (or until you run out of tiles)! The younger kids really got into playing with the translucent Magna-Tiles on the light table. They are pricey, but everyone I’ve talked to that has them (and there are lots of you that are fans on my social media pages) swears that they are worth every penny. One mom that stopped by the booth said she’d purchased them for her 2-year-old daughter. She’s now 12 and she still plays with them!

Sphero 2.0: cool robotics toy for kids.

Sphero 2.0 : We tried out both the Sphero and the Ollie (you can compare them here). They’re both app-controlled robot toys. The kids had trouble figuring Ollie out in the few minutes they were able to spend with him, but they both got Sphero up and rolling right away. You can complete challenges and do tricks with Sphero, but the really cool part (in my mind) is that kids can learn basic programming while they play with Sphero. We’re really curious to test the claim that Sphero is pet-proof!

Cardboard playground at Chicago Toy & Game Fair

Cardboard Playground: So this wasn’t an actual game or toy that you can purchase anywhere, but it is something that anyone can do anytime, anywhere! This fun little corner of the Fair was put together by Adventure Sandwich. It was cool to see how the playground evolved as the day went on and kid after kid made their own unique cardboard creations. Eli made a tank, of course.

Cardboard playground at Chicago Toy & Game Fair

Besides having a fun day as a family and discovering some really cool toys and games, the best part was meeting the people behind the play. Everyone was so passionate about their toys and games, and about making peoples lives more playful. These people were definitely my tribe! Check them out and add them to your holiday gift lists. You won’t be disappointed!