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



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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.  

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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.



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Online preschool: another bad education idea that is so American


My daughter on a kita field trip with friends–a preschool experience not found online .

We want our kids to be competitive in America, and to do that we keep turning to technology. It was one of the biggest differences I noticed between American and German education systems. Despite persistent budget problems and the constant pressure to fundraise to make ends meet, American schools have a ton of technology: Chromebooks, interactive boards, and many video games with dubious educational value. (My son’s “technology” class in elementary school seems to be a course entirely in Minecraft.)

Now, there is a state senator in North Carolina who just won’t give up on the idea of creating online preschool to help address his state’s early education problems. His intentions are good. He’s worried about kids developing pre-literacy and math skills.  Yet, this misses the main benefit of the preschool experience: playing with other kids.

Online preschool is another example of the American obsession with early “cognitive skills.” We’re obsessed with what can be tested. Can the kids learn something and spit it back? The problem with this approach is that there’s little evidence it works. As Paul Tough describes in his book How Children Succeed, research shows that kids do better when they develop qualities such persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, and self-confidence. These are hard to put on a test, and you definitely can’t learn them by sitting in front of a computer.

Children can learn these skills through play. The importance of play for young kids is backed by research, and I’ve seen it in action at my kids German “Kita” – as I describe in Achtung Baby. “Kita” is short for a word that translates into day care, but Kita is essentially preschool and kindergarten all rolled together. In Kita, the kids pretty much play all day. At Kita the learning emphasis is on social and emotional skills—these are important for school readiness, according to my kids’ Kita teacher, Annika.

“It’s not really learning ABC’s or numbers or things like that,” she said. “It’s knowing how to communicate, knowing their strengths and weaknesses, knowing how to get help, how to solve problems and conflicts. These are the basics they’ll need for when they start school.”

If you doubt it works, check how the US compares against Germany on the PISA test. Finland kids rank even higher and their preschools are all play too.

So why do we keep pushing screens on kids at very young ages? We know too much time in front of a screen can have negative effects, and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends very limited screen time for kids in the under 4 crowd.

I could be cynical and say that we push computers in schools because it feeds our consumer culture: we are prepping future screen addicts and high-tech worker-bees (does your 6-year-old code?)

I suspect the real reason we turn to screens for kids’ education because it sounds good: it’s modern, forward thinking! It’s also easier and cheaper than investing in real preschools with buildings, teachers and playgrounds. In the end though, online preschool is neither cheap nor easy because it doesn’t give children the experiences they need.

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Do Parents Matter? Recommended reading for raising free kids

DoParentsMatterFair warning: this book may shake any strong convictions you have about the right way to parent.

The LeVines have studied parenting practices in cultures all over the world. One of my favorite examples is the Nso people of Cameroon — there mothers don’t believe in face-to-face interaction with babies is valuable, which is incomprehensible to Western parents – but these same mothers were horrified to learn that German parents don’t often sleep in the same room as their children.

The LeVines show that many of the things we assume are universal truths about raising kids are actually cultural. What a relief! Right now, many Americans are still caught in the idea that the most intensive, extreme style of parenting is the best – even as young adult’s problems with anxiety and depressions rise — and even to the point where parents are committing crimes to buy their kids way into elite colleges.

It’s good to know that America’s hyper-parenting style doesn’t travel well—parents do not practice it everywhere, nor do they even aspire to it. The idea that helicopter parenting is best is driven more by our culture than anything else.

While this book doesn’t definitively answer the question of its title, it does give compelling evidence that American parents don’t matter as much as we think we do. Our children will survive if we don’t engage in all the intensive parenting activities our culture seems to demand—in fact, they may even do better without it.

I am recommending some of the many books and authors that influenced my own book Achtung Baby See previous recommendations for Mommy Laid an Egg! by Babette ColeFree Range Kids by Lenore SkenazyFree to Learn by Peter Gray and The Wave by Todd Strasser.

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Mommy Laid an Egg! recommended reading for raising free kids

Mommy_Laid_An_Egg_imageMommy Laid An Egg by Babette Cole is a silly book that tells kids the basic facts of life, and yes, it includes some ridiculous illustrations.

When my daughter was in first grade, her teacher read this book to her entire class. I only found out because my daughter pulled the book off the shelf at the library and started showing it to her little brother. This may sound shocking, but we were in Berlin.

Sex ed is considered a right in Germany. Germans believe children have a right to know how their own bodies work, especially as they grow. Parents can’t opt their kids out of sex ed and information is given at different age levels throughout a child’s education. So that means Mommy Laid an Egg for first graders!

In the U.S., parents have to provide access to information about sex. It’s a rare school that would even pick up this political hot potato. If you feel hesitant, please consider why you are holding back–and the dangers of ignorance. They will get information from elsewhere –from ads, the TV, the Internet, music videos, even the kid down the street — all these sources are less than ideal, and what they tell your kid will likely give them a distorted view of sex.

Why shouldn’t kids know about how babies are made? As my seven-year-old once said to me – “somebody has to tell us some time!”

I am recommending some of the many books that influenced my own book Achtung BabySee my previous recommendations for Free Range Kids by Lenore SkenazyFree to Learn by Peter Gray and The Wave by Todd Strasser   More to come, so check back here.

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Want to change our overparenting culture? Read Free Range Kids and Join Let Grow

freerangekids_coverThis book is serious fun.  Serious because no other book – and arguably no other personality – has done more to help loosen the lock-hold helicopter parenting has on our kids than Free Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy.

Fun because this book is hilarious. You might not expect that given the heated debates about parenting in this country, but this book is battling fear, and there’s no better way to do that than with laughter. It’s like the riddikulus charm against boggarts in Harry Potter.

In 2008, Skenazy let her 9-year-old ride the New York City subway by himself – and when she wrote about it, people went crazy. They called her extreme reckless, the world’s worst mom… And yet, when I lived in Germany every mom was like Skenazy. Children regularly take the Berlin “subways” –the U-bahn and S-Bahn– by themselves. They walk to school. They play by themselves. They buy things in stores. This is considered good parenting as it fosters self-reliance. Without Skenazy’s work, I would not have understood very well what I was experiencing in Germany. In fact,  when I first wrote about how Germans raise their kids, I compared it to ‘free range parenting.”

Skenazy continues to be a voice of reason, constantly speaking out to advocate for change and help diffuse the hype around helicoptering (including this recent post against the idea that “helicoptering works” that features a quote from yours truly).

She also helped found a nonprofit Let Grow to help like-minded people band together to create change. I highly recommend joining. To be able to experience independence, our kids need the support of their parents and an entire community – other parents, educators, neighbors and yes even politicians, so they can do simple things — like walk down the street, take a bus, or just experience a few moments of unsupervised play. Parents are still getting visits from the police or CPS for letting their kids do these things that German kids do every day.

That’s right, German kids are more free than American kids – I still think that fact should startle us into making some changes.

I am recommending some of the many books that influenced my own book Achtung Baby. See my previous recommendations for Free to Learn by Peter Gray and The Wave by Todd Strasser   More to come, so check back here.

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