How the Internet made me a better mother

How does the Internet change who we are?

Most of my work boils down to this one question, but today, it’s nipping at me with particular urgency. That’s because it’s my 44th birthday, and as I often do on my birthday, I find myself taking stock of my life, and the past year in particular.

It has been a year in which I’ve made some dramatic life changes — changes that, a year ago, I  would have been loathe to even consider. Chief among them: leaving Vision Critical so that I can work at home, in part to be more available to our kids.

The wheels were set in motion not long after my last birthday, when the latest school crisis forced us to recognize that our highly challenging, highly gifted 8-year-old just isn’t going to thrive in the mainstream school system. After a lot of soul-searching, we opted for homeschooling, and I reorganized my work to support that decision.

A lot of people have since told me that the first year of homeschooling is, to put it bluntly, a disaster. And that has certainly been part of our experience. I started with my usual game plan: staff it out. I have honed the art of hiring great people, and we’ve had some amazing people on both the home and work fronts over the years.

But homeschooling an 8-year-old with a 99.9% IQ, assorted learning challenges and an incredibly stubborn personality isn’t so easy to staff out. “I just need to find a physics Ph.D. with special needs training who’s willing to work for $50k/year”, I joked to friends. Even I — a great believer in asking for exactly what you want in a prospective employee — knew that was a tall order.

As I struggled to balance the interlocking challenges of reorganizing my work and organizing our son’s homeschooling, my wise friend Laura Mogus reminded me: “When you’ve got too many variables, you can’t solve the equation.”

By January, I thought I had solved it. I had a contract with Vision Critical and a recurring speaking engagement that would only take me on the road a couple of days of month — in other words, enough work to keep me happy, and not so much that it would prevent me from working with our son too. I had found a caregiver with special needs experience, who could work with our little guy close to full-time, and full time on the days when I was on the road. We had even found a wonderful private school that had enrolled our son for an hour a day, so he could feed his passion for math and be around other kids.

Then it all fell apart. In the space of 72 hours, the caregiver decided it wasn’t a fit, and the speaking engagement cancelled. I still had work — just not enough work to justify full-time childcare.

But something else happened in that 72-hour period. Our occasional babysitter, a talented undergrad who comes awfully close to that fantasy Ph.D. student, told us she was now available two days a week. Just enough time, in other words, for me to get my remaining work done.

So I stopped trying to solve the equation myself, and let myself take the path that was laid out for me. I’d work during the two days a week when our caregiver was available, as well as during my son’s classes and appointments, and on evenings and weekends. And I’d be his primary teacher and caregiver three days a week.

Unlike some full-time working mothers, I’ve never fantasized about staying home with my kids. I grew up with a full-time working mother, so that’s my normal. And since I finished my Ph.D. during my first year of parenthood, I’ve always felt like I need to put all those years of investment to work — not spend them baking brownies and organizing playdates.

And yet here I am: close to a full-time working mother in terms of how I spend my hours, but nothing like a full-time working mother in terms of how I spend my days. To outside eyes, I look a lot like a stay-at-home mom: shlepping kids to class, coaxing my son through his schoolwork, wearing sweats because what’s the point of dressing nicely if you’re just going to be chasing someone through the park?

The most surprising part: I’ve never been happier. Yes, it can be brutally hard — like this morning, when I couldn’t convince my son to eat, get dressed or leave the house. But it’s also delightful — like yesterday, when I saw my little guy riding a cloud of joy because he’d successfully navigated two back-to-back classes at his new school, and we celebrated with a trip to McDonalds. “Perchance do you have the McFlurry known as Creme Egg?” he asked the baffled clerk.

Here’s where the Internet comes in: allowing me to be happy living a life — living an identity — I never thought would possibly be a fit.  Almost all the challenges that I thought would make this life utterly miserable are challenges the Internet has helped me surmount.

Like the challenge of finding advice and support from people who know how to navigate homeschooling and 2E kids (2E is the abbreviation for twice exceptional: gifted and learning disabled). I found these folks through a variety of Facebook groups, and they’ve helped me with everything from the practical (what classes are available?) to the existential (how will I survive this?) This weekend we met one of the homeschoolers I’ve bonded with on Facebook, and our kids took to each other like old friends.

Or the challenge of earning a living while working from home. I’m incredibly fortunate to have lots of experience working from home, and working independently, so I knew it could be done — but most of that was in my pre-kid life, so I wasn’t sure it would still work. Actually, it’s easier than ever, because my Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn networks (not to mention the colleagues I’ve heard from through email) have been busily bringing work opportunities my way.

And of course, there’s the challenge of isolation: something I’ve managed during previous phases of working from home by making lots and lots of lunch and coffee dates. That’s not so easy to do with a kid in tow, unless you want to construct your entire social life around the tiny circle of homeschoolers with kids, locations and schedules that intersect with your own. So I’m grateful that in between my weekly nights out with face-to-face friends (something that Rob helps me prioritize) I can now use Facebook to stay connected to other adults and friends whose interests and personalities overlap with my own.

By helping me address the biggest challenges I face as an at-home mom, the Internet has opened me to the satisfactions that this new, unexpected life can offer. I’m discovering unexpected reservoirs of patience, as I keep my cool through meltdowns that could curl your toes. I’m discovering a new use for my combined years of education, geekery and psychotherapy, which seem uniquely well-suited to the challenges of raising a brilliant, anxious would-be Apple engineer. I am discovering what it’s like to feel good about my parenting, instead of constantly feeling like I’m short-changing my kids. I am even rediscovering how great it feels to leave the house wearing sweatpants, and to spend my energy on myself and my kids instead of on my appearance. (At least some of the time: those Fluevogs aren’t going to wear themselves.)

These are the most important discoveries the Internet facilitates. Not the instant answer to where a movie is playing, or who won the 1982 Super Bowl, but the hard-won answers to our questions about what we are really capable of, and what really matters to us. Answers we may only find, and discoveries we may only make, when we have access to the people and information that make the quest possible.

That’s what the Internet has done for me this year, as I’ve taken this unexpected road and found myself at a still more unexpected destination. It’s made it possible for me to discover what it feels like to build my life around love: the pure love I feel when I see my son skipping happily out of a class he’s made it all the way through, and experience a soaring happiness unlike anything I’ve experienced.

“Who is this person,” I wonder, “This person who feels like getting her son through class is the greatest accomplishment of all time?”

I’m just getting to know who she is. And I’m so grateful to the Internet for introducing us.

A family Minecraft policy

Minecraft has become a global phenomenon because kids love playing it, and parents and educators praise the way it fuels creativity and learning. But we’ve held off on introducing it to our household because we’re concerned about the compulsive behaviour and conflict it seems to prompt in many families.

After a lot of conversation and consideration, we’re finally ready to let our kids use Minecraft. But first, we asked them them five questions about how we’d keep Minecraft obsession in check…and then developed a family policy based on their input, our experience with other games and what we read about Minecraft online. Here’s the policy that both our kids had to sign onto before getting Minecraft accounts.

Our Family Minecraft Policy

Principles

  1. Getting Minecraft is an EXPERIMENT.
  2. Playing Minecraft is a PRIVILEGE, not a right.
  3. For safety reasons, Mum and Dad need to know what you are doing on Minecraft and we will set limits on when and how you play.
  4. We encourage you to use Minecraft to CREATE, BUILD, LEARN and CODE.
  5. We will regularly discuss and evaluate the impact of Minecraft on our families and on your individual learning and development. We want to hear your thoughts on how Minecraft is rewarding for you, and we want you to listen to any concerns we have, and come up with solutions that address them.

Rules

  1. Minecraft can be played only during game time. As a reminder, that means:
    • 30 minutes per day on weekdays (Monday through Friday), between 4-6:30 pm
    • 1 hour per day on weekends (Saturday and Sunday), between 10-6:30 pm
    • holidays and pro-d days still count as weekdays
  2. Each child will have their own username, which they can help choose. Each child will have a password for Minecraft chosen by mum & dad. We will enter your password for you and you will not have your password; that way, we can manage your usage.
  3. You can only play in Creative mode or Survival mode. If Survival mode creates problems during game times, we will only let you play Creative mode.
  4. You can only play on servers we approve and sign you into.
  5. No stealing from friends or family members’ chests.
  6. No killing friends or siblings in Minecraft (or anywhere else).
  7. No trapping unless you are in a designated trapping world. If you want to play in a designated trapping world, you must first make a plan for handling any upset if you accidentally get trapped and killed.
  8. No downloading mods, maps, texture packs or anything else. If you want to download something you will need to ask us for help downloading to your computer so we can be sure the files are safe to download.
  9. You can EARN mods, maps, texture packs and other add-ons by showing us what you have created, learned, built or coded yourself. The more we see you creating, the more we will be willing to expand Minecraft for you. This applies to free downloads as well as paid mods/maps/expansions.
  10. If we ask to see what you are doing in Minecraft at any time, you will show us your screen IMMEDIATELY.
  11. It is your responsibility to save your game, progress or creations before game time ends. If you have not saved, you will lose your progress.
  12. It is your responsibility to ensure a smooth transition from Minecraft at the end of your activity without whining, yelling or requests for more time. Before you begin playing, you will need to make a plan for how you will transition from Minecraft to your next activity when game time ends, and tell us your plan before you start playing. That plan might include:
    • Taking three deep breaths
    • Going for a walk around the block
    • Getting out your favorite book, and having it waiting for you
    • Asking us to set up a board game we can play when you are done with Minecraft
  13. Violations of this policy will result in loss of Minecraft privileges for up to ONE WEEK. Violations include (but are not limited to):
    • Asking for additional time
    • Asking to play before game time
    • Tantrums when Minecraft time is up
    • Changing your password or sneaking into Minecraft
    • Downloading files
    • Playing on servers we have not approved
    • Hiding your screen or delaying before showing us your screen when we ask to see it
  14. If we have continued issues with Minecraft, we will remove it from all our machines and there will be no Minecraft in our home for at least 3 months. That policy will apply to BOTH kids even if only one of you has trouble managing Minecraft.

* These rules were adapted from Caryn Talty’s Minecraft rules on Health-Family.org. Rule #6 is taken verbatim.

5 questions to ask your kids before introducing Minecraft

Minecraft has become a massively popular game not only with kids, but with parents and educators who applaud its capacity to support creativity and real learning.

Yet as much as Minecraft appeals to us as geek parents, we’ve held off on introducing it into our own home. We have a son who already finds it a struggle to resist the lure of screens or to turn off the computer when game time wraps up, and Minecraft seems to make that a challenge even for kids who don’t have a history of screen compulsion. Our son’s few experiences with Minecraft in camp or classroom settings — and the meltdowns that took place whenever Minecraft time came to an end — has made us very leery of providing ready access.

But the older our kids get, the more we’ve felt like we’re depriving them by keeping them away from a game that is now a foundational element of kid culture. In their eagerness to tune into the game that all their friends are talking about, our kids have taken to watching Minecraft walk-throughs and “let’s play” videos whenever they can get access to YouTube (which we block most of the time, for exactly this reason.)  It seems ridiculous to let our kids spend a couple of hours each weekend passively watching other people play a video game that actually could be a creative and learning outlet, if we’d just give them access to their own Minecraft accounts.

That’s why we recently told our kids that we’re ready to think about introducing Minecraft at home. First, however, they had to think carefully about how it would work in our family. Here’s the email I sent to each of them, asking for their written input into a family Minecraft policy:

Before we can consider introducing Minecraft in our home, you each need to answer the following questions in writing so we can develop a family agreement on Minecraft. You will not make the rules of this agreement, but your answers will help us make those rules.

  1. What do you hope to get from the experience of playing Minecraft?
  2. What do you think is an appropriate amount of time to play Minecraft each day/week?
  3.  What strategies will you use to keep yourself from getting addicted — in other words, to keep from playing Minecraft more than that amount of time we agree is appropriate, and to turn off Minecraft when your time is up?
  4. How will you use Minecraft for learning and education?
  5. What do you think we should do if you break our family agreement on Minecraft rules?

In the next post, I’ll let you know where we landed.

Homeschooling as a working mom: the pie chart

It’s week two of the school year — or it would be, if we weren’t in the middle of an increasingly frustrating (though well-justified) teachers’ strike. We’re experiencing the school outage a little differently at our house, because this also marks the beginning of our experience homeschooling our younger child. And while we’re lucky to have found a phenomenal tutor and some terrific programs for home-based learners, I’m still trying to figure out tiny details like when to schedule calls, when to make lunch dates with colleagues and when to shower.

But what better way to summarize my own experience of our first few days of homeschooling than with a pie chart? Here it is.

How a homeschooling and working mom spends her time

If my workday no longer bears a lot of relationship to what normal people consider working hours, I know I’m incredibly lucky to have work that I can do at 5 a.m. or 11:30 pm or in the hallway outside my kid’s gym class. I’m even luckier to have an employer who is accommodating this setup for the next few months. Not everyone has a lot of flexibility in balancing work and kids — especially, kids with special needs — as all too many of us have realized during the current labour impasse.

Oh, and before you ask: this pie chart is based on the relaxed version of data storytelling.

Making room for messiness

For the past two weeks we’ve been in the middle of our semi-annual domestic meltdown. Meltdown features include:

  • emergency school visits necessitating precipitous departures from work
  • implementation of new household rules precipitating epically draining tantrums
  • academic and medical appointments requiring multiple (often sudden) scheduling changes.

As messy, exhausting and difficult as these periods are, what really strikes me is how much kindness and generosity comes along with them. I often think we live in a world where there’s not a lot of room for both work and family, or where family (and personal life generally) can only be accommodated if it fits within the tightly bounded box labeled “personal”. In our effort to keep our personal lives from spilling over the edges of that box, we downplay our personal challenges or try to keep them private.

But when the shit hits the fan — when it’s really not possible to keep the mess inside the space it’s not allocated — we have an opportunity to see how much mess the world is prepared to accommodate. I’ve been humbled to discover that it’s more than I ever would have expected: friends and colleagues, schools and medical professionals have all shown up — or made room — with great generosity.

I’m lucky enough to have a job, a life and a level of social and economic privilege that accommodates a lot more messiness than I thought was allowed. Along with my gratitude for that privilege comes an awareness of all the parents and kids who don’t have it: the folks who’d lose their jobs if they left work for a school emergency, or who don’t have the resources to get that urgent assessment from a skilled clinician.

 

To everyone who’s accommodated our messiness in the past two weeks: thank you. And to everyone who tries to keep their messiness contained, because you’re afraid of how the world will respond — think carefully about whether letting a little of that mess hang out might help enlarge the space for us all to live our real, full, and sometimes messy lives.

What you can learn by NOT throwing your child out of a window

A few years ago I found myself comparing vacation plans with a colleague — a single guy about a decade older than me. His upcoming vacation? A month-long backpacking trip to Hawaii, totally off the grid. When I marvelled at his bravery, he offered this wisdom: “Every year, try to do something that pushes you beyond what you think you can do.”

I chewed on this interesting bit of advice for a couple of weeks. On the one hand, I could see its value as a personal and professional growth strategy. On the other hand, something about it just didn’t sit right.

Finally, it hit me: as a parent, I have to push beyond what I think I can do every single day. I get home from a draining day of work, with only enough energy to throw myself into a chair and (if I’m lucky) mix a drink for myself….but I muster the strength to help with a forgotten homework assignment, herd the offspring into the bath, and drive hard towards bedtime. I am sick with the flu, and want to do nothing but commune with the toilet, but I tamp down my own queasiness between pukes so I can comfort my daughter while she has hers. I am at the grocery store with a six-year-old who is pitching a fit because I won’t buy him a lollipop, and instead of doing what every cell in my body is screaming at me to do — namely, telling him to f**k off, and walking out of the store — I have to pick up said six-year-old, hauling him to the car as gently as possible.

Today is one of the days where I’m particularly aware of the effort it takes to pull off these daily acts of self-discipline…to push beyond the level of energy, compassion and restraint I think I have, and find new reserves. As parents, we don’t need to run triathlons or guest star on Fear Factor in order to discover our hidden depths. These little people we have invited into our lives — along with elderly parents, dying spouses, and every other dependent human to whom we feel bound by love and compassion — are here as a daily challenge to push us beyond what we think we can do.

Recognizing and valuing that push as part of the benefit of parenthood — rather than as the steep price we pay for deciding to have kids in the first place — has helped me struggle less with its demands. And on days like today, when it still feels like it might be too hard, I try to remember: these little f**ckers are saving me from a month of backpacking.

The family that hacks together….

Saturday morning at our house: the kids are programming our new Lego Mindstorms robot. I’m installing Xcode on the Mac home media server…step one in the long road to controlling our Mini with our Kinect.

Don’t be scared to Facebook your kids: A response to Amy Webb

Amy Webb has written an important but frustrating post on Facebook privacy and kids on the Slate website. Writing about a friend who extensively Facebooks photos and stories about her daughter “Kate”, Webb worries that Kate’s parents have compromised their child’s future autonomy, particularly in light of emergent facial recognition technology that can build profiles based on photos:

The easiest way to opt-out is to not create that digital content in the first place, especially for kids. Kate’s parents haven’t just uploaded one or two photos of her: They’ve created a trove of data that will enable algorithms to learn about her over time. Any hopes Kate may have had for true anonymity ended with that ballet class YouTube channel.

Knowing what we do about how digital content and data are being cataloged, my husband and I made an important choice before our daughter was born. We decided that we would never post any photos or other personally identifying information about her online. Instead, we created a digital trust fund [of websites, email addresses and accounts].

When we think she’s mature enough (an important distinction from her being technically old enough), we’ll hand her an envelope with her master password inside. She’ll have the opportunity to start cashing in parts of her digital identity, and we’ll ensure that she’s making informed decisions about what’s appropriate to reveal about herself, and to whom.

It’s inevitable that our daughter will become a public figure, because we’re all public figures in this new digital age. I adore Kate’s parents, and they’re raising her to be an amazing young woman. But they’re essentially robbing her of a digital adulthood that’s free of bias and presupposition.

While parents need to be cautious about sharing their kids’ lives online — particularly if they want to have model digital discretion for their future teenagers — this post traps us in the all-or-nothing paradigm of life online. Yes, maybe it’s “easiest” to post nothing, but doing the easiest thing hardly prepares a parent for the difficult challenge of providing thoughtful advice and guidance to their kids in how to live in an online world.

Parents who invest a small amount of time in creating an intimate circle of Facebook friends not only protect their kids’ safety and privacy (find out how here), but also build the skills they need to be effective digital advisors and role models.  Webb is right to raise questions about how facial recognition technologies may transcend whatever protections we set up for our kids…but the way to handle that is by advocating for effective privacy policies, and not by avoiding the difficult challenges of living and parenting in a world that is irrevocably digital.

And parenting in a digital world isn’t all about dealing with cyberbullies and online predators. There are incredible joys, insights and experiences to be had for parents who dive into the social world, rather than waiting for their future teens to drag them there. Parents who (carefully) share their kids’ lives online tap the power of Facebook and other social networks as avenues for getting support , and for sharing the joy of parenting. Most importantly, by engaging their kids in conversations about what and how to share online, from a young age — as we have, by asking our kids for permission each and every time we post a photo or story about them — parents can guide their kids in making thoughtful decisions about their online presence, while their kids are still young enough to be influenced.

Parenthood is such a central experience that there’s no way to cut it out of your online life without profoundly compromising your own ability to have authentic, meaningful connections online. And that’s not an experience you can do without if you want to understand and relate to kids you are raising in 2013.

For more on whether and how to share your kids’ lives online, see my series on Facebooking the Kids.

How BrainPop prepared my son for time travel

Last night’s bedtime story was “JCat and the Time Machine for Cats”. Like all JCat stories, this one featured JCat traveling to Cupertino with Tim Cook in order to invent something. Happily, I was ready for the request to have a story featuring a time machine, since an end-of-day conversation with colleagues had digressed into a discussion of what it would have been like to be friends of the same age (they are all much, much younger).

Thus our story began with Tim Cook and JCat discussing how much they would have like to know one another as boy and kitten. While I got the story underway, Rob ran to his computer to look up where the heck Tim Cook grew up, anyhow. The answer came back: Tim Cook was born in 1960 and grew up in Robertsdale, Alabama. I realized we had a teachable moment.

JCat finished building his time machine, and after traveling back a couple of years to pick up JKitten, headed to Alabama in the mid-1960s. They met up with little Timmy Cook, and offered to buy him an ice cream. The crew headed off to the local lunch counter, but when the got there, all the white people inside the restaurant looked angry, and there was a big crowd of black people protesting outside.

Just when I thought I was going to have my star turn introducing my 6-year-old to a major historical event, he shouted, “I know what it is! It’s civil rights!” Out poured his explanation of how schools and buses and even washrooms were segregated, and how a black woman went to jail because she wouldn’t give up her seat for a white woman, and how the man who led the civil rights movement was then murdered.

Brainpop screen captureHow did he know all this? BrainPop. It’s an fantastic online resource that offers a wide range of educational videos for kids, accompanied by quizzes, and it has an app featuring a different video every day (if you subscribe, you can get web-based access to their very rich archive). Peanut loves watching BrainPop movies, so if he catches us by surprise with an unexpected area of knowledge, it’s usual thanks to BrainPop. (That was how he interrupted our explanation of the Supreme Court’s examination of gay marriage with his explanation of the Supreme Court.)

Unfortunately, even BrainPop has yet to produce a how-to guide for building a time machine for cats. But with all the time Peanut spends on their site, I’m confident it won’t be too long before he’s capable of engineering his own.

Stop sibling conflict with a tech-inspired solution

Are you tired of listening to your kids argue? Does it seem like a single ill-timed comment can ignite a cascade of escalating attacks and complaints? Are you sick of playing referee?
Tim Cook on an iPhone
This weekend we came up with an innovative strategy for stopping the sibling conflict cycle. To implement this plan, you need:

1. One or more iPhones
2. Two or more conflict-prone children who are familiar with said iPhone
3. A household in which Apple CEO Tim Cook is a familiar character

Still with me? If you’re one of the seven people in the world who answered yes, then here’s our story.

We told the kids Tim Cook asked us to beta test the next generation of Apple voice recognition. It can synthesize someone’s voice, and block what they’re actually saying, and replace it with the phrase of your choice.

Apple thinks this can be a powerful tool for conflict resolution and for business, we explained. But since they don’t want to test it only for making conflicts go away, they made us promise that just as often, we’d use the tech to create conflicts.

So if you hear your sister saying something nasty, assume it’s actually our beta technology, synthesizing her voice and blocking out what she is really saying. And if your brother says something rude, it’s probably just a synthesized comment coming from the iPhone.

I’ll admit it: the kids were skeptical. But they were intrigued enough to run some tests, and quickly became more interested in the logic of our supposed alpha test than they were in responding to successive taunts. As is so often the case, their skepticism had to do battle with the kid inclination to fully buy into any imaginary scenario.

So on reflection, I should probably add a fourth item to my list of ingredients:

4. A dedicated savings fund for your children’s future psychotherapy.