Sunday, March 29, 2015

Boredom Is Good For You

"The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity." This quote by Dorothy Parker says a mouthful. And it explains why our society is becoming increasingly uncurious and apathetic. We are never bored. But boredom is good for you. It’s good for your children. Your schedule should allow time, every day, for Strategic Boredom. Why? Read on!

But first, my definition of Strategic Boredom. Strategic Boredom consists in wise parents giving their children times when there is nothing pre-arranged to entertain them, including mindless, pre-fab, technological distractions.

And now for the reasons for Strategic Boredom!

Being bored forces us to think. When we are truly bored, whatever is going on around us doesn’t hold our interest. Our thoughts fly off to other things. This leads to daydreaming, planning, musing, in short – to actually using our brains. When we are fully entertained or distracted and have every minute filled with planned activities, there is little time for in-depth thinking.

Being bored gives us time to hear God. The Bible tells us that we must “be still” to hear God, that His is a “still, small voice.” When we are busy all the time, racing from one activity to another, it is tough to hear God above the cacophony. There’s a reason that Bible study time is also called “quiet time.” We must have time with no distractions to truly hear His voice.

Being bored engenders creativity. Most people hate boredom. Even lazy people still want to be entertained. So boredom causes people to find some entertainment – and this often leads to creativity! If a child has no TV, internet, video games or smartphones to play with, he has to come up with his own entertainment. Thus (after the obligatory whining which you should pleasantly and firmly cut off) he must turn to books, projects, games, something of his own invention to occupy him. Children today (even homeschooled children) very rarely have time for developing creativity because their parents never let them get bored.

Being bored creates initiative. If you allow your child to be bored occasionally instead of constantly entertaining him, he will have to come up with ideas for entertainment all by himself. Of course, a wise parent will have provided items in the house that he can latch onto for entertainment (such a books, raw materials for crafts, sports equipment, etc.). But it is up to the child to decide himself what to do about his boredom. I am often saddened by watching today’s children (even homeschooled children) when confronted with a chance to take initiative. They often simply sit back and wait for someone to tell them what to do – because that’s all they know. They have never had to exert their ingenuity to occupy their time.

Boredom can lead to fun and fascinating hobbies. During the Strategic Boredom times planned in our childhood by our wise parents, my sister and I started digging into the how-to books on the shelf. One time, we pulled out a book on crocheting. Mom had already given us yarn and taught us some basic stitches. But it was during periods of Strategic Boredom that we actually got enthused about crocheting real projects. This led to us attempting more and more complex crocheting projects as we grew older. And finally, it led to us winning “Best of Show” ribbons at one of the largest American county fairs for our crocheting! We can tell similar stories about our other many hobbies and skills (including skills we now use to support ourselves). Most of them were developed during Strategic Boredom times in our childhood.

Boredom prepares you for real life. Is there an adult in the world today who never experiences boredom? I doubt it. Perhaps it’s a routine chore every day that gets boring, or a task at work that becomes tedious. Maybe it’s a dull evening at home, or a long commute to work. Whatever the case, boredom is unavoidable and happens to everyone.

A person who has been prepared in childhood to deal properly with boredom is much safer from temptations that the person who has been constantly entertained faces. He will be less likely to give in to time-wasters like TV and endless video games or damaging activities like online porn or shopping addictions. The children trained by Strategic Boredom will have well-developed character muscles that help them take initiative, think, be creative, try new things… or simply sit still and listen to God’s voice.

But it all starts with Strategic Boredom!

Written by Heather Sheen

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Itsy Bitsy Spider Crawled Up the Literature Page

As a kid, one of my favorite subjects in school was literature, partly because it was easier than algebra and partly because it was all about reading stories! However, I usually got extremely fed up with the questions at the end of each story, questions that I was presumably supposed to answer in my best scholarly manner. 

Wasn’t there a more interesting way to study literature?

Literature questions usually fell into several categories. First, there were the “duh” questions. If, hypothetically, the story had been about an itsy bitsy spider who crawled up the water spout, the “duh” question might be, “What did the itsy bitsy spider crawl up?” This sort of question, while posing as a Vastly Erudite Tool of Learning, is really just a crafty way to find out if the student actually read the story. If, for instance, I answered the question by saying that the itsy bitsy spider crawled up the straw of my frappuccino, my mother would instantly suspect something.

Then there were the “why” questions. I didn’t like those either because usually the story did not give you enough data, but expected a Highly Insightful Answer. If you were asked why the itsy bitsy spider crawled up the water spout, you were expected to say something like, “The itsy bitsy spider was the victim of a debilitating psychiatric disorder, and due to its failure to grasp its inner sense of self and discover who it really was, it found an outlet for its internal angst by exploring new paradigms outside of its natural habitat. Therefore, unlike its peers, who were crawling around in people’s bathroom showers and scaring them half to death, this spider sought out lonely secluded spots wherein it could sort out its past without being judged and thus chose the privacy of a water spout.” Unfortunately, there is one small problem with all this. Yes, yes, one tiny infinitesimal problem: we actually don’t KNOW why the itsy bitsy spider crawled up the water spout. Therefore, any reason we assign is pure speculation. And what’s the point of that? However, literature books are crammed full of these sorts of unanswerable speculative questions, which can be very exasperating.

And, of course, there were the “what-if” questions. What if the itsy bitsy spider hadn’t crawled up the water spout? What if the rain hadn’t washed the poor little spider out? What if the sun hadn’t come out and dried up all the rain? These kinds of questions can sound reasonably deep, but at the end of the day, they too are mere speculation. If the goal of literature is simply for students to speculate about how the story might have been different if all the pertinent facts and characters were different, why don’t we just start from scratch and ask them to write their own story?

Lastly, there are the “lessons learned” questions that give the student a chance to moralize. For instance, did the foolish spider learn his lesson about water spouts the first time? The sharp-witted student is quick to pick up on the expected answer: Alas no, as soon as the sun came out, he was right back up that spout. And like the spider, we too tend to forget consequences and make unwise mistakes when things are going right. We can all benefit from studying the hapless example of the errant arachnid. These kinds of questions aren’t too bad, but the answers are typically rather obvious and don’t require a lot of analysis.

So, you ask, since I have now thoroughly lambasted the traditional approach to literature, do I have any better ideas? Ha! Of course!

Remember, the goal of literature is to make a child think about it, analyze it, learn from it, and enjoy it, right? Well, the works I benefited from the most were not the ones where I was spoon-fed the canned types of questions listed above. Instead, they were the ones where I was told to simply write a paper about the book. The paper had only one criteria: state a thesis and support it. In other words, make a point and support that point from the story. Suddenly I had to do ALL of my own thinking. I confess I didn’t like it much at first. It was open-ended! There were no tidy instructions to follow! I could write about anything? I could make any point I wanted? Yikes! Let’s see...should I write about how the spider was indefatigable and persevered despite being rained out the first time? Should I argue that spiders have no business crawling up water spouts and he deserved what he got? Should I write about how we face trials in life, but joy comes in the morning, similar to the way the sun came out and dried up the rain?

However, once I wrapped my mind around this concept, I began to enjoy it. Not only that, I actually began to think about the story and all kinds of questions about the book popped up in my mind. Was part of the story relevant to my life? If so, how? Was there a principle that was clearly displayed in the story that I could write about? Did the author do a good job of getting his point across? How did this story compare to another similar story? Were the characters good role models? What was the story’s worldview? I could work through these questions and then choose one to write about. And guess what? By the time I was finished with the paper, I had gotten far more out of the story than I would have if I’d answered the standard literature book questions.

“Now wait,” you say. “This isn’t practical. I can’t make my kids write a paper about every single literature assignment.” Why not? Not every paper has to be a long one. It could be just a few paragraphs.  Even just a few original paragraphs that a student reasons out on his own will usually make him think more than if he simply answers a few boring, speculative questions. Maybe your child isn’t much of a writer. Good, this approach can help him become one! You can now combine literature and writing assignments!

Of course, another good option is to discuss the story aloud together. We did this frequently when I was growing up as well. Bouncing opinions about books, authors, and plots off of each other helped my sister and I to learn to really think about what we were reading. We could critique and share ideas and conclusively prove that spiders have no business being within twenty yards of MY waterspouts, thankyouverymuch!

Bottom line: feel free to be creative. If your children complain about the questions they are supposed to answer with a literature assignment, tune in. See if the questions are inane. If they are, skip them. Have your children write their own thoughts and make their own points. Talk about the stories. Help them learn to think about what they're reading. 

And watch out for those spiders in the waterspouts!

Written by Raquelle Sheen

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Handing Out Snakes

“Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?  Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?  If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”  (Matthew 7:9-11)

I once read a supposedly amusing account of a mother whose young son left the house one morning to catch the school bus.  But he returned after a couple minutes and in a discouraged voice told her that school was boring and he hated it and wanted to stay home.  Her reply was something along the lines of, "Life’s tough.  Get on the bus."

I didn't find that story funny.

Not that I think children should be allowed to dictate what they want to do for the day.  But there are often occasions when children ask for "bread" or "fish" and we are guilty of handing out a "stone" or a "snake" instead.  Are we being thoughtless — or maybe just too busy to find out what the real problem is?

Children love to manipulate their parents (of course, we adults never manipulate people, do we?!) so it is often easy to dismiss their complaints as just that: complaints.  But sometimes a child is honestly trying to tell you that there is a problem.  He simply can’t articulate it better than to say something is "boring" or "stupid" or he "hates it."  In that case, it might be wise to inquire further, rather than simply say, "Life’s tough.  Do it anyway." 

“Why is math boring, Johnny?”
“’Cuz I already know this stuff!  I’m tired of fractions!”
“Alright, Johnny, let’s skip to the test at the end of the chapter on fractions.  If you can do all the problems, we’ll skip the rest of fractions and go on to decimals.”

“Sally, we don’t say ‘hate’ in this house.  Why don’t you rephrase that?”
“I don’t like piano lessons.”
“Why not?’
“I’ve been playing the same dumb song for weeks!  The teacher makes me do it over again every week and it’s so silly!”
“Well, Sally, let’s have a talk with your teacher and ask her to give you some different songs to work on.  But I’ll expect you to go back to practicing harder if we do that.”

It is easy to have a paradigm of how things should be — and make our children follow the paradigm whether it makes sense or not.  We need to ask ourselves questions like, “Why are we doing this?”  “Is there a better way to accomplish our goals?”

Are we finishing every problem in the math chapter just because we feel we must, regardless of whether Johnny needs all those extra problems?  Remember, the math book authors don’t know Johnny’s individual needs — you do. You can customize his education accordingly.  Are we having 9-year-old Susie do written book reports because that’s the way book reports should be?  Maybe oral reports would be less daunting and more fun until her writing skills improve — after all, at this point the important thing is that she read the book and can tell you about it.

Sometimes the “snakes” we hand out have a more simple explanation — our culture is so busy that we rarely slow down to find out what Johnny or Susie actually need.  Who has time in between piano, dance, soccer, co-op and church activities to find out if Jimmy’s problems with reading are due to bad eyesight or bad attitude?  ‘Oh well, never mind, we’ll just keep giving him reading assignments and hope he gets it.”

We need to make sure we are making time to give "good gifts" to our children — gifts of focused time and attention and response to their needs.  Let’s make sure we are handing out bread and fish, not stones and snakes!

Written by Heather Sheen

Sunday, March 1, 2015

How To Seek Approval

If there’s one thing that parents, teachers and child workers drum into kids’ heads more than another, it’s that they should not be addicted to peer approval.

“Don’t follow the crowd in doing wrong.”
“Just because your friends are doing it doesn’t mean you should do it.”
“Go against the flow.”
“Stand your ground.”

It’s good to teach your children to stick to the right principles, regardless of whether their peers are doing so. But I would like to address a common misconception that goes along with this. I want to challenge the assumption that seeking approval from others is bad.

I’ve actually heard people say this: “You shouldn’t need the approval of others.” I disagree. I think that God made us to need approval, to need outside validation of our actions. The problem is not with needing this validation – the problem is that we seek the validation from the wrong people.

We need to create an “approval network” around us that will give us acceptance and encouragement in godly living.

We are first and foremost created to need the approval of God. God created us to be in fellowship with Him, and we find our true satisfaction and fulfillment in life when we know we have His approval. Of course, we can’t earn that approval on our own because we are sinful. That’s why the gift of Jesus’ atonement on the cross is so valuable. When we accept Christ’s atonement, our sins are forgiven and canceled out but even more, we can be brought into sweet fellowship with our Creator once again. As we daily try to live as the Bible teaches, we find our lives full of the strength of character that comes from knowing God has accepted us. After all, when God is for us, what can it matter who is against us? (see Romans 8) God must be the primary Person in our “approval network.”

But God also created us to enjoy fellowship with other people. The only thing that God said was “not good” about creation in the Genesis account was that Adam was “alone.” And God remedied the problem by providing Adam with another person to fellowship with: Eve. He told Adam and Eve to procreate and bring more people into the world. We are created for friendship with others.

Knowing this, we must choose wisely when we form the friendships that will fill in our earthly “approval network.” Think about the people you value and respect, the ones you seek out for fun outings, the ones you can relax around. Are they the kind of people who will validate and approve your wise choices? Will they have the courage to question you when you make unwise choices? Are their own life choices ones that show character and wisdom? Since our close friends are the people we naturally seek acceptance from, we should choose friends that will support us in living right.

This is why it is important to be in a good church body. I know that some people feel that there’s no point in attending weekly church services. But a good church body can be part of your approval network. They can be part of the team that cheers you on to live biblically, and they can also help pull you back from making unwise choices. If there is no church body in your life providing an approval network, this leaves a vacuum that is often filled by more worldly friends.

Homeschooling is a good way to help your children build the right approval network. It’s tough for an adult to have the strength of character to go against the flow of everyone around him, every day. It’s even harder for a child or teen to do so. We are not created to function well when we’re constantly fighting against the current of every person we’re around all day. That’s stressful, emotionally tiring, and wearying. There are times in life when this can happen and God gives us extra grace for those times. But it’s not a situation one should seek out.

Homeschooling surrounds your children with your handpicked approval network as they learn to make godly choices in life. God says that foolishness comes naturally to children (Proverbs 22:15). When your child’s closest friends are immature kids at school, they can be a drag on his or her desire to live biblically. Your child will find himself either constantly fighting his God-given desire for peer approval, or he will give in and be as foolish as his fellow peers at school. Neither choice is healthy.

It is much easier to “go against the flow” of worldliness in our culture when we have a godly team cheering us on. A family and a church body provide that team. Instead of teaching our children that seeking outside acceptance is bad, teach them to seek it from the right places. Their approval network should first be God and next be wise people who will cheer them on to do the right thing.

Written by Heather Sheen