help[less] for the homeless

We used to live near Chicago.  On rare trips into the city, it was always jarring to find men and women sitting hunched on street corners, holding a cardboard sign and a battered Solo cup.  Since all the suburbs we frequented had regulations against panhandling, though, this rare discomfort was easily forgotten.

Last year we moved to a new metropolitan area.  In this area, there are no regulations against panhandling, and every intersection near the expressway has at least one corner with a well-trodden dirt path.  In all weather, at all hours of the day–and some at night–they patrol their posts.  Mostly they are men, though there are a few women, too.  They are young, middle-aged or nearing retirement; they are black, white, or Hispanic; they are accompanied by faithful pets or by oxygen tanks.  But all of them are careworn, haggard, hopeless.

Their signs are haunting:  “Homeless – Anything Helps.”  “Hungry – Homeless – Please Help.”

From the back seat: “Mommy, that man’s sign says he’s hungry.  Why doesn’t he have food, Mommy?”  “Mommy, why does his sign say he is homeless?  Why doesn’t he have a house?”

How do you explain that life doesn’t always go as we plan?

I don’t love the notion of panhandling; Love likes it all the less, having been around more panhandlers and had more negative experiences.  We buy canned goods and bring them to a local food shelter, donate to food drives around the holidays, tell our children of the government agencies whose job it is to help those who can’t make ends meet.

But still we see them almost daily, their signs accusing.  “But those men are hungry, Mommy.  We have to DO something!”

What can a few food items do against the persistent problems of hunger and homelessness?

What can a few food items do against the persistent problems of hunger and homelessness?

So we do.  We pack gallon bags with a bottle of water; a few items of food; a list of local food pantries, shelters, and social service agencies.  (Why is it that so many food pantries require proof of residence and only help you once a month?)  “Why don’t we add a note, too, Mommy?”  So we do.

Our first bag went to a middle-aged man we saw on our way home from Bible study this week.  I handed it out the window with a nervous smile and no words–What do you say when handing someone a thimble as they stand in a sinking ship?–and he thanked me and set it near the box he’d been sitting on.  From the back seat, there was much rejoicing.  “Now he won’t be hungry today!”  “I’m so happy we could help him, Mommy!”

One small bag of food handed to a homeless man standing under clouds promising rain.  What good is one small bag of food in the face of poverty–hunger, homelessness, joblessness, prescriptions that can’t be paid for…?  My children feel as if they have conquered poverty through their act, but I feel more impotent than ever.


changing direction: when tried-and-true stops working

I used RightStart Math for my kids’ introduction to math mostly because I could do it completely through play. Peatie has always had a passion for numbers, and by the time he was 4.5 he had me scrambling to figure out how to help him feed his passion. Since I wanted to delay formal instruction and keep his learning play-based, I settled on RightStart as an ideal program.

Once upon a time, everyone was contentedly learning with RightStart Math.

Once upon a time, everyone was contentedly learning with RightStart Math.

We went through RightStart A completely informally; I would read through a few lessons on my own and then implement the activities as they fit into our play. The kids loved making patterns with the colored tiles, testing out the math balance, and playing the various card games. When we finished with level A, I happily moved us on to level B. There ensued great glory. Level B is brilliantly structured, perfect for laying a strong conceptual foundation for future math skills. It also strikes a perfect balance between hands-on discovery and games sprinkled with just enough practice pages to prove mastery and make your kid feel smugly grown-up about having occasional written work.

About a year after we began using RightStart B a few days each week, we finished the material and moved on to level C. I quickly began seeing red flags. It began with too much review, but that’s to be expected; when you school year-round, you don’t need the beginning-of-year review necessary for those who have taken an extended summer break. But when the algorithm for addition was introduced and taught exactly as it had been in level B—as if it were an entirely novel concept—that’s when I began to have misgivings. Peatie’s mutiny was constant sighing about wanting hard math, not stuff he already knew. Goobie’s mutiny was throwing fits at the very idea of math and grumping like nobody’s business through each and every lesson (as much as she believed she could get away with, since in our house too much attitude will result in your work being put away and a subsequent forfeit of your allotted Technology Time for the day). She was convinced that she despised math, but she’d also somehow decided that she was also bad at it. Math was no longer the bowl of cherries I’d been enjoying.

I sped Peatie through level C, skipping all review and only staying on each concept long enough for him to prove understanding. He finished in three months of three- or four-day weeks. I tried giving Goober options—game or worksheet? Math first or last? In the end, we bailed before she finished.

That’s right, I’ve given up on RightStart. Oh, I still like level A as an introduction, and I’ll never lose my passion for level B, but I finally came to accept that a program that worked spectacularly for a season may not be the best fit forever.

Peatie is now working through the Beast Academy math books by Art of Problem Solving. For a kid who seems to thrive on challenge, they are perfect for him. They offer problems that make you apply your knowledge in a variety of contexts, truly owning the information and showing how different aspects of math must be used in tandem—like knowledge of geometry and multiplication to determine the area of a shape.

I backed Goobie up to Singapore 2A, which was vastly too easy for her. This, however, has been the perfect solution for rebuilding her mysteriously-waning confidence, and the puzzle-y format has rekindled her love of math. We only did about half of the pages in Singapore 2A before moving on to B. Yesterday morning this math-averse child of mine came dancing from her room. “I love math so much that I was doing some leftover pages of my math book in my room this morning before it was time to get up!” And sure enough, there were her workbook and pencil, positioned on the floor in the glow of her nightlight. Today she begged me to make her some extra math pages like one puzzle she had particularly enjoyed, and when I did so later in the day, she gleefully spent some of her playtime on doing them.

Sometimes it’s hard to change course once your sails are set, but making that change might be the best possible thing to do.

when your kids think they’re awesome (and tell everyone so)

“Pretty soon, I’m going to be better than my teacher!” my six-year old declares as he practices guitar during his third month of lessons.

“I think I’m getting to be the best hand-stander in the world!” my five-year-old exclaims after she almost-but-not-quite stays upright on her hands for one-tenth of a second.

In the privacy of our own home, statements like these seem sweetly self-assured and humorously naive; in public, however, we sometimes wince at our children’s bold statements.

He really is very good...but perhaps not quite as incredible as he thinks.  (And don't mind all his scraps of paper scattered around...  His bedroom is full of "treasures".)

He really is very good…but perhaps not quite as incredible as he thinks. (And don’t mind all his scraps of paper scattered around; his bedroom is full of “treasures”.)

Our culture seems to be a confused mess when it comes to self-image. Have you noticed? We’re all bursting with pride, constantly comparing ourselves to those around us, measuring up our outfits, our waistline, our jobs, our children’s behavior and accomplishments… And yet, each of us wants to be seen as humble, debasing ourselves in front of others. “Oh, this meal? I guess it’s okay. But I’m not nearly as good a cook as…” or “Actually, I was disappointed in how it turned out. I thought it needed…”

Whether we honestly have low self-esteem and feel we never quite measure up or whether we don’t want to appear proud, our response is one that needs examining. I first realized this in college, when I had an acquaintance who exasperatedly begged me to simply accept a compliment graciously for once and move on. Never before had I realized that I instinctively deflected every compliment thrown my way, having grown up in a community in which that was seen as appropriate humility.

Now as an adult, I’m again struggling to find the balance between pride—which can be healthy or unhealthy—and humility—which is the same double-edged sword. I don’t want my children to feel that nothing they do is worthy of praise, but neither do I want them constantly going on about how amazing they are (whether true or not).

I’m still looking for a solution to this one. I’ve told my children that it’s fine to be proud of what they have accomplished, and they may gladly share with others factual information like the amount of time they spend practicing or the new skills they have learned, but they should let others draw their own conclusions about the merits of these accomplishments (whether they are “awesome,” “amazing,” “great,” or what-have-you); I also encourage my kids to not focus only on themselves, but also to notice the accomplishments of others and allow others to share their exciting news. I’m hoping that these guidelines help my kids to maintain their positive view of themselves without driving others nuts with constant self-talk; the jury is still out on results.

What’s your take?