Bored kids during COVID-19 isolation

boredWe are fortunate that our biggest problem right now is boredom. We are healthy and safe. We just have to get through this period of isolation with our relationships, and our sanity, intact.

I recently had the opportunity to interview a boredom researcher Elizabeth Weybright, through my job as a science writer at Washington State University.

And I learned something. Given my experiences in Germany, I tend to give my kids a lot of freedom and responsibility, but sometimes I fail to recognize when they still need a little help.

My son has been super bored, like in my home office every 20 minutes bored. I told him to make a list of things he could do. He came back with a sheet of paper and the word “nothing” written on it.

“From a development perspective, younger kids are likely to need more structure than older kids,” Weybright told me. “When you try to impose too much structure on teenagers, you may experience some resistance.”

In other words, my 10 year old needed some guidance. My 13 year old not so much.  Weybright recommended sitting down with younger kids to help them think up ideas on that list, and to show them where the things they might need would be: markers, sketch pad, board games, and other toys.

I always thought that boredom can was good for kids as it can spur them to creativity. While that can be true, Weybright also pointed out that boredom isn’t inherently good or bad. It’s a signal that the situation they are in isn’t very satisfying.

So yes, letting kids be bored can give them the space they need to figure out what it is they really want to do, but it takes time to develop skills to find healthy solutions to boredom. If they don’t develop that capacity, boredom can lead to bad behaviors, especially in adolescence, including substance abuse and other risky behaviors.

Boredom is particularly challenging now because we can’t do too much to take ourselves out of the current situation. We’re stuck the very familiar: same four walls, same stuff, same people.

I’m looking to strike a balance with my son, giving him some structure while still giving him some time to figure some things out on his own. We’re also giving him and ourselves some slack. These are difficult times.

Read more about Weybright’s work and advice here.

How are you handling the boredom of COVID-19 isolation?

Posted in parenting | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

“What is the scariest thing your kids have ever done?”


This was one of the best questions I was asked when I visited St. Paul recently to give a talk on raising self-reliant kids. And it was from a kid in the audience. Earlier in the day I visited the Twin Cities German Immersion School, a great public charter school where kids learn auf Deutsch.

I answered a range of questions from how long it took me to write Achtung Baby (9 months for the first draft) to how old was my dog (2 years). Parents also asked a lot of thoughtful questions but this was one of the best:

So what was the scariest thing my kids have ever done? At the time I answered the thing that scared me the most:

When my son Ozzie got a concussion. He was running and either not looking where he was going or maybe somebody bumped into him and he hit a pole, hard.

I talk a lot about risk—about letting kids evaluate risk for themselves before doing something that scares them.

Running into a pole was not a risk evaluation. It was an accident, not something that can be prevented beforehand, other than bubble-wrapping the pole or him. It was a good reminder that nothing is 100% safe – and for him a reminder to be sure to look where he was going.

Here are more ways I could have answered the scary question because as my husband sometimes reminds me “kids are meant to do things that scare their parents”:

  • At age 6, Ozzie walked home by himself from school in suburban California where this was not done. He ran the whole way the first time because he was scared. But he’s gotten much more comfortable with it since then. Maybe too comfortable…
  • In third grade, Ozzie once took two hours to come home from school. He was fine, just throwing snowballs with his friends. The lesson here was about communicating with your parents about where you are.
  • At age 10, Sophia managed to climb to the top of a 25-foot tall pine tree. My kids are always climbing things in ways I find frightening. See photo evidence. At the top, that’s my daughter on the outside of a tall climbing structure because I guess it wasn’t risky enough on the inside.
  • Both kids go sledding on a very steep slope, so steep I can’t watch. They say they fall off on purpose if they go too fast.
  • My daughter played middle school football this year. She was the only girl on the team. It was a very nervous autumn for me.

I’m sure there will be many more instances where my kids do something I find scary. It’s part of growing up.

What were some of the things that your kids have done that scared you? What did they learn from the experience? What did you learn as parents?


Posted in Commentary, parenting | Leave a comment

What I learned in Minnesota

When I was invited to visit the Twin Cities, I expected to share what I know about raising self-reliant children, but I also walked away inspired by the people and places I encountered there.

Here are some of the things I learned, many of them hopeful:

1. There are still public schools in the U.S. that are innovative



My host, the Twin Cities German Immersion School, is a public charter school in Minnesota. There are actually a handful of immersion schools in the Twin Cities. This type of school easily in Berlin, but they have been hard to come by in the U.S. especially ones that are public.

2. Fun playgrounds are making a comeback


This two-story climbing structure was outside the Immersion School, and a park in St. Paul also recently installed a 24-foot-tall tower-and-slide structure that kids have to climb to through a bunch of ropes. It’s a little controversial, but it’s also very popular with kids. I’ve also seen a very German-style playground pop up in Seattle.


3. A lot of people are interested in giving kids more freedom.


More than 150 people came out for the evening event on a weekday, and many of them asked thoughtful questions about ways to raise self-reliant kids with both more physical and intellectual freedom.

4. Kids ask some of the best questions.

2020-01-30 (2)

I visited several classrooms where I fielded many great questions from how long it took me to write Achtung Baby (9 months for the first draft) to how old was my dog (2 years). At the evening event, one boy also asked me “What was the scariest thing your kids have ever done?” That question has stuck with me, and I’ll answer it more fully in another post….

Thank you Katharina Schirg, the Twin Cities German Immersion School, the University of St. Thomas German Program, and all who helped make my visit so special and educational!


Posted in Achtung Baby, education, parenting | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Achtung Baby in the Twin Cities 1/29


I’m headed out soon to lovely St. Paul, MN. Come join me to talk
about raising self-reliant kids!

Wednesday, January 29, 7-9 p.m.
O’Shaughnessy Educational Center
Cleveland Avenue North
Saint Paul, MN 55105

More info – visit the St. Paul Achtung Baby event site 

The event is co-sponsored by the Twin Cities German Immersion School and the University of St. Thomas German Department.

There will be books for sale there, but you can also bring your own, and I’ll sign it!

Don’t have your copy of Achtung Baby yet? Get it now at your local bookstore or order at one of these sites:,  Apple / Itunes,  Barnes and Noble, Books a Million, Indie Bound,  Powell’s Books


Posted in Achtung Baby, Germany, parenting | Leave a comment

I Hate Football. I Let my Daughter Play It Anyway.


00TIESFOOTBALL-jumbo My latest essay in the New York Times is a little controversial. I don’t expect everyone to agree with the decision to let our 13-year-old daughter play football. But at its heart, this is a story about letting a teenager start to make some decisions for herself.

Give it a read and see what you think. When do you decide to hold the line, and when to let go?

Read the full essay in the NY Times: I Hate Football. I let my Daughter Play it Anyway.

Illustration: Lucy Jones



Posted in parenting | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

What parents can learn from the Westboro Baptist Church

Some thoughts on the value of obedience:

Westboro church member holding offensive protest signs saying "You're going to hell" and "Fags doom nations"

Photo by David Shankbone

I expected Unfollow, Megan Phelps-Roper’s memoir about leaving the extremist Westboro Baptist Church, to be a book of hope, an argument for the power of free speech, and in some ways it is.

Afterall, in leaving the Westboro, Phelps-Roper did what few people seem to be able to do: she listened to well-reasoned arguments – on Twitter of all places – and changed her mind.

Yet at its core, Phelps-Roper’s memoir is a tragedy—and a uniquely American one. Few cultures outside of our own so vociferously defend freedom in public life while tolerating tyranny in the private confines of the family. Children growing up in strict or extremist families like Phelps-Roper pay a high price for this contradiction.

Our defense of the hallowed right to freedom of speech allowed the Westboro Baptist Church to picket the funerals of dead soldiers with signs “God Hates Fags” and “Pray for More Dead Soldiers.” Yet, these same rights were suspended at the threshold of Westboro’s family homes. The parents had complete dominance over their children. As Phelps-Roper writes: “Our duty was singular: to obey them.” 

Unfollow book coverThere is no free speech or freedom of religion in Westboro. Those rights aren’t even conferred at age 18. The only way to gain them is to leave. Ultimately, that’s what Phelps-Roper does when she realizes the hate and hurt her family inflicts on others, and it tears her apart: “Losing them was the price of honesty. A shredded heart for a quiet conscience.” 

Westboro may be extreme, but it is not alone. Many people in America have similar experiences growing up in strict households.

It should give parents pause: How important is your children’s obedience? Do your children have to believe exactly what you do? What price will they pay if they don’t?

If you have a belief system that is “the one true way” —be it religious or political, right or left it doesn’t matter — if you require strict adherence, your family may have a lot in common with Westboro even if you don’t take to picketing funerals.

We all have lines of course. I would like my children to have the same values I do. And there are certain things I might expressly forbid them: like joining a hate group or participating in a violent protest of any kind. Yet, I accept that they will likely have different ideas or beliefs than I do.  

What do you think about obedience? How much freedom exists in your own family?

Comment here, or in the spirit of Megan Phelps-Roper, tell me your thoughts on Twitter.  

Posted in and my super opinion, Book Review, Commentary, parenting | Leave a comment

Outdoor preschools catch on in U.S.

girl in a tree

Some good news in American education! Washington recently became the first state to license outdoor preschools. These are preschools where kids play and learn in nature all day. The very fact that kids aren’t sitting a tables being drilled on reading and math skills is a good step forward. But giving kids the chance to explore and muck around in nature all day is huge.

This isn’t exactly a new idea. Germany has had Waldkindergarten and Waldkitas (forest kindergartens and forest day cares) since the 1960s, and they could be found in Sweden and Denmark even earlier. So yeah, the U.S. is a little behind, but hey, better late than never. It’s funny that one of the people interviewed by the Today show even quotes a version of the German saying “There is no bad weather only bad clothing”  — “Es gibt kein schlechtes Wetter, es gibt nur falsche Kleidung” which I understand is also a saying in Scandinavian cultures.  

Washington State University is also conducting a study on these preschools which is brilliant. (Full disclosure: I recently started working as a science writer at WSU, but I would love this either way.)  I suspect the value of time spent in nature will be validated by research. It’s also something most of us know from our own experience: we just feel better when we spend some time outdoors.

I hope to see not just more outside preschools in the US but also more value placed on outside time in general for all of us — but especially for kids.

Let’s put more “garden” back into kindergarten!

About the photo: My daughter at a park in Berlin some years ago. While they didn’t attend a Waldkita, my kids’ schools in Germany made sure the children went outside every day.



Posted in and my super opinion, education, parenting, science | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment