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Stop Summer Slide

Tuesday, July 1st, 2014

“School’s out for summer.” I used to play that Alice Cooper song for my son on the last day of classes (the Muppets version) as a celebration of his 10-week break from homework (and pencils, books, and teacher’s dirty looks). But as it turns out, I probably shouldn’t have been hailing his educational break. The National Summer Learning Association says that students lose about two months worth of skills in mathematics during the lazy days of summer. And as we reported, kids of all ages score lower on the same standardized reading, spelling, and math tests in September than they do at the end of the previous year in school.

The reason for this “summer slide,” a.k.a. “brain drain” or “summer slump,” is obvious: Kids—and, to an extent, parents—tend to view July and August as a break from learning, a time to enjoy the beach and the pool and recharge. R&R is all fine and good. The real problem is that many children wile away the days watching TV, playing video games, or surfing the Web. Kids spend three hours in front of a screen for every hour they crack a book during the summer—and more time than they spend outdoors. According to a new survey from the nonprofit kid’s literacy group Reading is Fundamental, only 17 percent of parents say reading is a top summer priority for their kids, and 60 percent don’t worry about their child losing reading skills during this time.

Actually, you really shouldn’t worry, because it’s easy to do something about it. A nonprofit organization called TRUCE (Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment) offers lots of screen-free ideas to inspire your family to play and learn together. Try incorporating some of these fun, mind-building activities into your kids’ break. Also consider downloading these educational apps, which at least turn screen time into learning time. And check out ideas here and here, along with a video chat with Soleil Moon Frye (the former star of “Blossom”) about how to stop summer slide.

I don’t pretend to have any magical suggestions for preventing this phenomenon. I worry about my kids and their tendency to gravitate toward watching sports events and Disney shows. To minimize this, we encourage reading and writing for pleasure, try to get them out of the house as much as possible, and look for teachable moments in leisure-time settings, such as digging for hermit crabs at the beach and calculating batting averages and ERAs at baseball games. Granted, these are no substitute for cracking the books, but at least they should leave our children be better prepared when their teachers see them in September.



Two little girls with magnifying glass outdoors in the daytime via ShutterStock

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Yes, Margaret, Fathers Do Matter

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

Anthropologist Margaret Mead famously said, “A father is a biological necessity but a social accident.” In effect, she meant to suggest that dads are irrelevant in a child’s life (beyond conception, of course). That likely was never true, but it is an even greater fallacy today.

A new report by the Pew Research Center indicates that there are 2 million stay-at-home dads in this country (some father groups estimate the number would be closer to 7 million if it included caregiver dads who work part-time out of the home). And a growing number of them do so by choice rather than by economic necessity.

Whatever the case, men are more involved and more accepted as caregivers than ever. A new book by Paul Raeburn, Do Fathers Matter: What Science is Telling Us About The Parent We’ve Overlooked, analyzes research showing that dads have a profound influence on their kids—socially, developmentally, economically, psychologically. They are role models and companions, and their positive presence is a big plus for kids. Here’s some of what we know now:

• Men use bigger words and longer sentences around babies than moms, which may help boost their language development.
• Dads’ tendency to let kids figure things out for themselves helps them become better problem-solvers.
• A father’s early involvement with his daughter leads to a reduced risk of early puberty and teen pregnancy. Higher math scores, too.
• Healthy interaction with dad helps a child forge strong, fulfilling relationships later in life.
• Kids who feel close to their fathers are twice as likely to go to college or get a steady job after high school.
• Kids with nurturing, involved fathers develop stronger social skills, are better at sharing, and make friends more easily.
• The more physical, exciting play style of dads—playing tag, wrestling—helps teach kids emotional self-control.

Although the research on this subject is still in its infancy, it’s clear that dads aren’t merely relevant but essential to their kids. I know. I’ve seen the impact my actions—both good and bad—have had on my two kids. On balance, I’d like to believe my daily involvement, engagement, and influence have had a positive impact on their development. And I know for certain the great joy, wonder, purpose, and fulfillment that they’ve brought to my life.

I’ll bet a lot of guys feel the same way. So does our magazine. That’s why our June issue featured a dedicated section for dads only. It explores the challenges modern fathers face in trying to juggle work and family (sound familiar, moms?). A humorous chart shows how guys evolve from denial to acceptance during the early years of fatherhood. We chronicle 12 skills kids learn best from dad, from telling a joke to throwing a baseball (also check out All-Star Adam Wainwright’s pitching 101 video). And one dad’s list of the 17 things he’ll miss most when his kids gets big is touching—and something that, a decade or two ago, would far more likely have been written by a mom.

So as Father’s Day approaches, let’s hear it for the dads. We may still be praised (and, in some cases, expect praise) for doing the same caregiving tasks moms are expected to perform, and we may never get to a point where the work of parenting is shared 50-50. But dad, you’ve come a long way, baby.

Find out more about new research on fatherhood from Paul Raeburn. Learn why involved dads are important and what happens when men become fathers

Kids Talk about Loving their Daddy
Kids Talk about Loving their Daddy
Kids Talk about Loving their Daddy

Father’s love photo via Shutterstock

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College is Just Around the Corner

Wednesday, May 21st, 2014

Last night I asked my tennis partner, whose daughter is a junior at a private college in the Northeast, how much he was spending on her education. He estimated around $60,000 per year. If that sounds like a shocking figure, just imagine what college will cost in 18 years, when your baby is ready to attend. It’s enough to freeze many new parents into inaction. That’s natural: If you can’t envision saving enough to pay for college, why even try—especially when there are so many other, more-pressing expenses? Besides, you can always worry about college later.

Well, that thinking is wrong. College savings needs to be a priority as soon as your child is born. Socking away even $100 a month could add up to almost $50,000 (assuming a healthy 8 percent return) by the time your newborn is ready to leave the nest. Granted, that’s still only a small chunk of the big bill, but it could make all the difference to your child when the time comes. Keep in mind that you don’t have to fund college entirely on your own. Your could be eligible for financial aid and your child could earn scholarships and be eligible for student loans and work-study programs. So opening a college fund—early—is a vital first step.

That’s the idea behind National 529 College Savings Day, which is set for May 30. It’s designed to raise awareness about the importance of saving for higher education and the many advantages of 529 plans, which are the best way to save for college. This map shows what’s happening in your state. One example: Virginia is offering a $50 match for new accounts as well as a drawing to win a $2,500 bonus for your child’s future.

I won’t bore you with the details of how to choose the right 529 plan or open an account. You can read about it here  and here as well as watch this video.

But I would like to offer these suggestions:

Pick a plan with tax advantages. Granted, not every state offers a credit or a deduction. But if yours does, trust me, you’ll be grateful come April 15.

Set up an automatic deduction. You won’t miss the money as much if it’s being taken out of your paycheck and will be less likely to forestall a contribution from your checking account if you’re forced to budget for it.

Get Grandma and Grandpa to help. Your parents and in-laws want their grandkids to go to college. So don’t be shy about asking them to contribute to your account or open their own in your child’s name. And at birthdays and the holidays, suggest that they give a small present and write a check for his 529.

I’m lucky: My parents believe strongly in education and have been contributing to my kids’ accounts since they came into the world. Even with their efforts, and ours, it’s unlikely our 529s will cover more than half of their tuition. Still, that’s a darn good start.

Create a monthly budget with our spreadsheet.

Baby with mini laptop via Shutterstock

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From Here to Paternity (Leave)

Wednesday, April 30th, 2014

As I write this, the executive editor of is taking five weeks off to care for his kids and ease his wife’s transition back to work (a decision he admitted he grappled with). This comes on the heels of New York Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy receiving heavy criticism from sports commentators earlier this month for taking full advantage of his three-day paternity leave (yes, you read that right) to be with his wife following the birth of their first child. And just a few months after The Atlantic made the case that paternity leave is actually more beneficial for women, since it boosts men’s participation in household tasks and baby care and thus improves moms’ quality of life and economic opportunities.

That may be true. But it also misses the point. Yes, dads staying home in the early days after a baby’s arrival can ease the burden on new moms. But the real reason it’s worth the potential sacrifices—financial and, potentially, in worker perception—is that it makes new fathers feel more connected to the idea of being a parent and all it represents. When my son was born, my company only offered a week of paid leave, and I foolishly thought that would be sufficient time to spend at home with my wife and child. I was wrong. Although I did my best to share the duties, I can’t lie: It was a huge challenge trying to handle 3 a.m. feedings and still be able to function in the office the next morning. My wife ended up handling far more of the caregiving load, and, in retrospect, I know it was a difficult and at times isolating period for her that I could have made better.

I resolved not to make the same mistake the second time around. Granted, as an editor at Parents I had an easier time making the request than I might have in some places. Even so, I found the fortitude to ask for six weeks leave, and my request was granted. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It enabled me to share in the feeding and changing and cleaning more willingly and evenly (even if it never quite got to the 50-50 ideal). It eased our adjustment to the increased demands of raising two kids at once. It helped me connect with my beautiful newborn daughter in a special way that, years later, I believe has still made a difference in our relationship. Equally important, it allowed us to make for a smooth transition to big sibling for my son, who had enjoyed a five-year run as an only child.

It saddens me that more fathers don’t get to enjoy a similar opportunity. Only three states—California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island—offer paid family and medical leave. A mere fifteen percent of U.S. firms provide some paid leave for new fathers. And while a Boston College study revealed that 85 percent of new fathers take some time off after the birth of a child, for the vast majority it amounts to a week or less. Of those who took time, 92 percent of respondents found being at home with their new baby to be a positive experience, and more than three-quarters said they would liked to have taken longer.

I’m sure Daniel Murphy would agree. Perhaps he’ll have better luck timing the birth of his second child to baseball’s off-season. Or maybe, more hopefully, it will become broadly acceptable for dads to take a longer leave without feeling judged negatively by their bosses, colleagues, the media, or anyone else. California has seen a rise in bonding leaves among new dads, from 18.7 percent to 31.3 percent during the past seven years. Even so, that means two out of three new dads is missing out on a magical, and irretrievable, experience.

Young father having fun with his little baby via Shutterstock

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Rotten To The Core

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

As I write this, my daughter, a fourth-grader, is finishing her last day of the ELA (English Language Arts) exam of the Common Core, a new standard that is being implemented in 45 states. The purpose is to raise the level of America’s students, who don’t measure up to the international standards of other developed nations, particularly the high-achieving Asian student from China, Singapore, and Japan.

As with many big educational initiatives, including No Child Left Behind, the Common Core’s goals are laudable, but its execution is not. The problems are manifold. First, the Core is not a curriculum at all but rather a set of standards that students are expected to meet year by year, starting in third grade. That is problematic, because without being instructed in the specific skills kids are expected to master, teachers have no choice but to teach to the test, which, as we all know, is hardly the best way to learn. That they do, to the best of their ability.

But as we pointed out in Parents, teachers in New York State (which was one of the first to implement the Core last year) didn’t know until late in the game what the expectations were, so they didn’t have ample time to prepare kids for them. This year, they were better prepared for what was to come. However, this brings up the second problem: They’ve had to spend weeks—and, in many cases, months—getting kids ready for six days of testing that, depending on where they live, has a tremendous impact on their future. So in addition to regular homework, children have been bringing home practice exams to work on. And they’ve been forced to adjust the way they solve problems, lest they lose out on credit (even if they get the right answer). For example, in solving 104 divided by 4, I was told it wasn’t acceptable for my daughter to see how many times 4 goes into 10 (2) and then carry the 2, yielding an answer of 26. That’s the way my wife and I learned it, and it takes about 15 seconds (I know, because I tried it out on my daughter, who said, “This way is easy.”). But I was told this method shows an ability to calculate but not a deep understanding of processes and relationships. Instead, she needs to estimate through multiplication (4 x 10 = 40, another 4 x 10 = 40, add them up and you get 80, which leaves 24; 4 x 6 = 24; so the answer is 10 + 10 + 4 = 24). Not only does this approach take eons longer, but it’s infinitely more confusing—and, with the multiple numbers and steps involved, far more likely to result in an error that yields the wrong answer.

Let’s skip to the English, which should be a more straightforward reflection of a child’s grade-appropriate reading and comprehension. But left in the hands of a for-profit company like Pearson, which makes up the tests (not to mention the workbooks and practice exams, which, conveniently, need to be updated every year to reflect its changes in the exam), it is a mess. Pearson has free reign to do field-testing of questions at select schools, and to put “dummy” questions on the exams that don’t count and are merely used to determine their aptness for the future (which subjects kids to yet more testing). But the real issue is how the company decides what is grade appropriate. Looking through the workbook, I was shocked to find a reading passage from King Lear with follow up questions based on the text. This is one of Shakespeare’s most complicated and debated plays. I remember poring through annotations and interpretations of the text (Cliff notes, anyone?) in an attempt to understand the nuances (not to mention struggling to keep names like Cordelia, Goneril, and Regan straight). Then I saw one of the questions, which had multiple-choice options to describe what was meant by Lear’s “guilty mind”: Angry? Confused? Wasn’t he both these things? Isn’t the correct answer the subject of endless scholarly conjecture, much less something a 9-year-old should be expected to know? Then there was a passage about two men trying to escape from jail, with one worrying about whether to leave his injured buddy behind. It’s heady stuff for a child who doesn’t even watch PG movies yet.

The results of these tests are being used to evaluate schools and teachers, so neither has a choice but to play ball. And the stakes are high for students as well. In New York City, the tests are a key factor in middle school and, later, high school admission for kids (yes, you heard that right). The kids know this and feel the pressure. They stress about the tests, worrying about the results and its impact, and feeling unintelligent because some of the material is clearly beyond their level (and they’ll never know what counts and what doesn’t).

It’s little wonder that parents have pushed back. Some have decided to opt out their kids, skipping the tests altogether and facing the consequences. Others have hired tutors to help their kids get through—believe me, it’s the norm rather than the exception in my area. Still others have attended protests or blogged about the ridiculousness of some exam questions. The debate is far from over. Indeed, as more states implement it next year, I expect to see further controversy, and can only hope that adjustments are made, not only in the exams—which need a thorough overhaul, under the guidance of educational experts with a child-development background—but also in mentality. Yes, our students need to achieve at a higher level. But they won’t do it via a top-down mentality that suggests making tests harder will force them to up their game. They’ll get there by improving teacher training, and by giving schools the freedom to teach them a deeper, broader-based curriculum without being made to narrow their focus toward ill-conceived tests that, in the end, are unlikely to help them close the gap.

On Friday, our community school district will hold a demonstration expressing dissatisfaction with the nature of the ELA exams. Among the objections: The tests are not well-aligned with the Common Core Learning Standards; the questions are poorly constructed and often ambiguous; teachers are not permitted to use (or even discuss) the questions or the results to inform their teaching; and students and families receive little or no specific feedback from the test. I’ll be there, making my voice heard.

Photo of boy in school about to take a test via Shutterstock

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