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WHEN KIDS ASK UNCOMFORTABLE QUESTIONS

What’s sex? Did you take drugs in college? Why did you vote for George W. Bush* the second time?

Kids ask questions all the time, but there’s a difference between the ones parents can’t answer — “Does God need to shower?” — and the ones (some) parents don’t want to. The solution? Perhaps we can take a cue from politicians, their press secretaries and the so-called “bipartisan” pundits we see on TV and use the same simple strategies for answering without answering.

1. Give a detailed, thoughtful response, just not to the question they ask.

Campaigning politicians are particularly good at this, and the trick is to remember that your answer can be anything, just as long as you can loosely relate it to the original question.

For example, if asked about drugs, begin by saying “I’m glad you asked me about smoking pot in college…,” which makes it sound like you’re going to admit that for most of your sophomore year your best friend was your bong, but then say “…because I think it’s important that we be open and honest with each other, especially now that you’re older and starting to ask hard questions. It seems like only yesterday when the most important thing on your mind was which Power Ranger you wanted to dress up as, or if a certain Pokemon could beat a certain other kind of Pokemon. I have to admit that watching you grow up has been one of the most satisfying experiences of my life, and I look forward to helping you continue on that journey towards adult- hood by providing you with the information and insight I myself have gained over the years…”

If you haven’t lost them by then, just keep talking.

2. Focus on “the larger issue.”

Which can be pretty much anything you want it to be.

3. Ask your kids what they think the answer is.

Also known as the therapist approach.

This works well for things you don’t really know how to explain, but not-so- well for things you’re just not comfortable talking about.

4. Lie.

Time was that people who didn’t tell the truth were called liars and they were looked down upon, but thanks to all the CEO’s, athletes, politicians and ce- lebrities who’ve been caught with their pants down (or off, or filled with drugs, etc.) those days seem to be over.

The best thing about this approach is that if your lie is later exposed, you can claim you just “misspoke.” As in “Yes, I can see how my response to the ques- tion ‘Did I vote for George W. Bush?’ might have been confusing, because when I said ‘No,’ I actually misspoke. In point of fact – and because it’s im- portant to me that the record accurately reflect my views – I didn’t mean ‘No’ in the traditional sense of the word, and I can see now how my incorrect use of that word might have been somewhat misleading, because what I, in fact, meant was that I felt that in light of the specific challenges facing the Presi- dent at that time, it was important for me – and really, all of us as a nation – to remain united and strong, and because of that, I did my duty as an American by going to the polls and casting a ballot so my voice could be heard, and even though that ballot was nominally in the affirmative, it was really more a show of support for the country as a whole than a specific endorsement of any one candidate. I voted because it’s the duty of every citizen to vote, and for that I will never apologize.”

5. Use a spokesperson.

Either a hired professional or your spouse, if he or she has the BS skills required.

This has the added benefit of distancing you from your answer, whatever that might be.

Plus, if you are later confronted about the answer your spokesperson gave on your behalf, you can say you didn’t actually mean whatever it was they said and that you must have been “quoted out of context.”

*Or, increasingly for many, Barack Obama the first time.

LITTLE IRRITATIONS: THE PAPER CUTS OF EVERYDAY LIFE

  • Door dings.
  • Trash bins that are supposed to be animal-proof but aren’t.
  • Dropped calls.
  • FEDEX drivers who double-park.
  • Stores that post the wrong hours online.
  • Meter maids.
  • Parents who bring their kids to daycare when they’re sick.
  • Traffic.
  • Drivers who make phone calls instead of turning.
  • Construction delays.
  • Drivers who don’t wait their turn at 4-way stops.
  • Tele-marketers who claim they don’t have to heed the “Do Not Call” registry because you’re a customer of their subsidiaries’ off-shore cousin’s shell company.
  • SUVs parked in compact spaces.
  • Chatty baristas who don’t seem to care/realize there are now 37 people in line.
  • The drive-thru (especially McDonald’s).
  • Golf.
  • People who don’t pick up after their pets.
  • News promos that use the words “deadly,” “outbreak,” and “protect yourself” when all they’re actually talking about is the flu.
  • Parents who call before 8:30 am.
  • Activities that are canceled or postponed by e-mail a few hours before they’re supposed to start.
  • Radio stations that have 25 minutes of commercials every hour.
  • Things at the supermarket that are still on the shelves days, weeks or months after their expiration date.
  • Cable-company DVRs.
  • Apple Airport Extreme Wi-Fi.
  • Universal remotes.
  • Spellcheck.
  • When your kids hide your keys.
  • Saran Wrap.

If Eskimos have a thousand words for snow, shouldn’t we have a thousand words for life’s little irritations?

For most of us, a day doesn’t go by that God, the universe, fate, karma, quantum physics or all-of-the-above don’t needle our emotional well-being, usually when we’re running late, just had an argument with our spouse or suddenly realized we forgot to get a babysitter for tomorrow night so we could go to dinner and a movie and finally get a break from all this crap.

It doesn’t help that these cosmic paper cuts never seem to be isolated one- offs, either, but instead come in sets, like celebrity deaths and unsolicited parenting suggestions from opinionated strangers – it’s not just the long line at Starbucks, it’s having them mess up your order twice and then spilling your extra-hot, half-caf hazelnut mocha down the front of your shirt as you pull out of the parking lot.

The impact of these little irritations – and they are little, even if we can’t figure out how not to sweat them – increases exponentially as the day progresses, to the point where we find ourselves cursing some 82-year-old women with a walker because she’s not crossing the street fast enough, or threatening to ground our kids for the rest of their natural lives if they EVER give the dog another peanut butter and jelly sandwich again, or contemplating divorce because our spouse forgot (again) to fill up the car when it got close to empty, leaving us in the position of having to coast down the hill to the Shell.

Psychologists say the only reason any of this stuff annoys us the way it does is because it reminds us that we’re not really in control (no matter how thoroughly we’ve managed to convince ourselves otherwise) and that ultimately mastering the moment isn’t nearly as important as just being in it, regardless of whether that moment is good, bad, satisfying, awful, rewarding, stressful, happy, sad, amusing, aggravating, etc.

But as nice as that sounds (in a zen-like, higher-consciousness kind of way), who has the time to learn how to do that? Or the energy? Or the patience?

If learning to live in the moment can’t be accomplished in one 30-minute session two times a week, in the car on the drive home from work, or during one of those rare moments when every kid in the house is quietly pre-occupied, then it just becomes one more thing we don’t have time to squeeze in but try to do anyway – or would try to do if we didn’t have to wait for the knucklehead in the car ahead of us to get off the phone and go.

Note: It’s easy to complain about life’s little irritations, but it’s also important to point out that we could probably eliminate entire categories of irritation if we really, really wanted to – just moving to a remote cabin in Montana and living off the land, for example, would instantly rid us of driving-, shopping-, neighbor-, school- and work-related annoyances (though it would probably more than make up for that by adding starvation-, bear attack-, hypothermia-, and isolation-related irritations, so maybe that’s not such a good trade-off. Plus, let’s not forget that Unabomber Ted Kaczynski moved to a remote cabin in Montana so he could get away from it all and look what happened to him).

IF I'M NOT IN SCHOOL ANYMORE, WHY DO I STILL HAVE HOMEWORK?

Most school districts have guidelines for homework, which are generally 10 minutes per night per grade. This information is usually included in the “Back to School” handout, or available on a web site.

What they don’t tell you is that they don’t mean students are expected to spend 10 minutes per night per grade doing homework, they mean parents are expected to spend 10 minutes per night per grade — usually just to get your kids to sit down and get started, too.

Add to that the time it takes to make them double-check their work, re-read the directions so they do it right this time, call a classmate when the finally admit they can’t re-read the directions because they “forgot” them at school, re-do everything one more time… and then suddenly it’s 10:30 and you’re wondering where your evening went.

And that’s on a good night.

On a bad night, you have to factor in the additional time it takes to wipe away the tears your grade school kid sheds because they’re afraid that when you scream you’re going to throw all the video games and game players in the house in the trash if they don’t focus “RIGHT NOW!” you actually mean it, or the time it takes to think up the increasingly harsh forms of punishment you threaten your jr. high or high school kid with to get them to quite screwing around and get their assignment done — note to Dick Cheney: getting a terrorist to write a detailed confession isn’t all that different than getting a kid to write a history paper, so imagine all the controversy you could have avoided if you’d just asked the nation’s parents to tell you what really works?

There’s also the time it takes you to work through the shame and embarrassment you feel when you realize you’ve forgotten so much Math, Science, History and Social Studies that even when you finally snap and scream “Here, just let me do it!” you can’t actually do it.

Cosine? Pi? The atomic number of ruthenium? The capital of Botswana? Uh…

There was a time when students got homework and if they didn’t do it they’d get yelled at the next day by their teacher, paddled, given detention, or forced to stay after class while everybody else went outside to play so they could write “I promise I will not forget to do my homework again” 100 times on the blackboard.

Now parents are responsible.

Which means when there’s a note that gets sent home because there’s a problem, it blames you, asking what the Hell kind of uninvolved, uninterested, unfit parent you are for failing on such a regular basis to get your kid to sit down every night to complete such a simple thing as each day’s assignment.

Or worse, all of the above plus the reminder that there’s a 25 page Social Studies report due on Friday:

YOU: I just got a note from your teacher.
YOUR KID: I know. I brought it home.
YOU: It says you have a paper due on Friday.
YOUR KID: Yeah, for Social Studies.
YOU: Have you started it yet?
YOUR KID: No.
YOU: Why not?
YOUR KID: ‘cause it’s only Wednesday. Duh.

What’s a parent to do?

If you’re like many, you’ll eventually turn to your own parents for help, asking them how they endured homework’s Long March.

But the only thing they’ll do is laugh and say there’s nothing you can do, and that as awful as your kids seem, they’re not any worse than you were when you were their age:

YOU: Wow.
YOUR PARENTS: Yeah, sometimes helping you with homework got so bad we had to stop and walk around the block.
YOU: I’m sorry I put you through all that.
YOUR PARENTS: We forgive you.
YOU: Thanks.
YOUR PARENTS: And when your kids call you in 20 or 30 years to say the exact same thing, you’ll forgive them, too.
YOU: I guess.
YOUR PARENTS: Besides, every minute of stress and frustration they cause you now, they’ll suffer when they get older and have to help their kids.
YOU: That’s supposed to make me feel better?
YOUR PARENTS: No, but it finally makes us feel better.

Ouch.

(On the other hand, whether it’s Math, Science or Social Studies when you’re a kid, or Parenting, Perspective and Anger Management when you’re an adult, it’s nice to know that you can still turn to your parents for help you with your homework.)

STORY PROBLEMS FOR MODERN CHILDREN

Since educators are always looking for ways to make lessons more relevant to students, how about using more realistic scenarios in story problems?

For example:

  1. Billy’s parent’s mortgage is $2200 per month. But since Billy’s Dad lost his job and Billy’s Mom had her hours cut, their monthly take-home pay is only $3200. After subtracting $1400 for food, $80 for cell phones, $440 for a car loan, $340 for cable, gas, electric, water and trash pick-up, and $700 in credit card interest payments, how much do they have left to pay their mortgage? And how long can they keep making this payment before the bank decides to just foreclose?
  2. If 10 people apply for 100 different jobs, what chance does any of them have of getting hired? And how many times do the other 90 have to be rejected before they just give up and stop looking?
  3. Alison’s Mom’s therapist wants her to start taking two anti-depressants. If anti-depressant X reduces anxiety and takes 3 weeks to start working and anti-depressant Y reduces depression and takes 1 week to start working, how long before Alison stops finding her mom sitting on the sofa in the dark at 2 am crying uncontrollably?
  4. Two men discover large masses growing out of the back of their spines. If one is 25 and the other is 85, which one will get the go-ahead from his insurance company for experimental treatment? Hint: keep in mind that most 25-year-olds don’t have health insurance, and while the 85-year-old gets Medicare, he lives in a swing state that’s been bombarded with so much health care propaganda he’s worried he’ll be euthanized by a Death Panel the second he steps foot in the hospital.
  5. Two men run for president. One wins handily by promising to change things. How long does the winner have to come through on that promise before his party gets crushed in the mid-terms and he follows in the footsteps of Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush and only lasts one term?

As if homework wasn’t depressing enough…

ARE YOU SMARTER THAN A 5TH GRADER? APPARENTLY NOT

>When did the Civil War start?

>What’s a dangling participle?

>How do you find the radius of a circle?

Homework may be be good for kids, but it’s bad for parents — what else could make an educated person feel like such an idiot?

KID: Is this answer right?
PARENT: What are you supposed to do?
KID: Find the slope of the line.
PARENT: Um… geometry wasn’t my best subject.
KID: This is algebra.

It’s one thing to forget something you only learned once, a long time ago, like what year World War II started, but it’s another to blank out completely on an entire subject.

(No wonder that nightmare where you find yourself back in school taking a test is so scary — you know for a fact you can’t pass.)

There was a time when parents could conceal their ignorance by telling their kids “Don’t forget to finish your homework!” before disappearing into the other room to watch TV for the rest of the night. But today’s schools send home so many hints and reminders it’s pretty clear they expect parents to not only actively check their kids’ homework, but participate in the doing of it, too.

PARENT: Any homework tonight?
KID: I have to measure the effects of pressure on memory by having you recite as many capitols as you can in under 60 seconds. Ready?
PARENT: I don’t need 60 seconds: Olympia, Washington; Sacramento, California; and I forget the other 48.
KID: Seriously?
PARENT: Geography wasn’t my best subject, either.

It’s not like you can defend yourself by admitting the real reason you’re not smarter than a 5th grader is because you don’t have to be, and that outside a limited number of professions, nobody really needs to know Π, the central theme of Dante’s Inferno, or how to say “Good Morning” in German.

(In Chinese, maybe, with the way the world is going, but definitely not in German.)

That’s worse than telling to a pre-schooler there’s no reason to be good because there’s no Santa Claus.

Leaving two ways to handle the homework knowledge gap: shrug it off and remind yourself that your kids are being graded, not you,* and that part of learning is learning how to do assignments on your own with no help from your parents.

Or hire a tutor.

For yourself.

*Parent-teacher conferences aside.

WHEN ARE THEY COMING OUT WITH WII HOMEWORK?

If Nintendo can make ping pong, paper airplanes and bass fishing addictive, why can’t they do all the parents who pay for those games a favor and come out with Wii Homework?

Every subject could be covered — Wii Lab for physics, biology and chemistry (where if kids blew anything up, they wouldn’t get detention and you wouldn’t get a bill for repairs); any number of Sim City knock-offs for Social Studies and History (e.g. Sim City: Jamestown, in which kids would have to decide between starving to death and turning cannibal); and some kind of battledome for math, where famous mathematicians from history fight each other to the death using the powers of Euclidean Geometry, Algebra, Calculus, etc.

Even grammar could be a game where, say, kids rescue dangling participles, or help a peace-loving race of “nouns” defend themselves against the evil pronoun horde that’s trying to assimilate them, or even assume the role of an ancient wizard who teaches adjectives to stand up to verbs by uttering the magical incantation “l-y.”

Levels would be the same as they are now, K -12, only instead of “graduating” kids would “level up.”

Parents would have to pay a little more attention to what they’re saying, too, as some of those unconscious responses would lead to confusion:

KID: Can I play Wii?
PARENT: Not until you finish your homework.
KID: But… Wii is my homework.

The main problem with Wii Homework would be that as with all Wii games, kids would eventually fight over it. And while this would be satisfying on an ironic level, it would also mean parents would end up taking the Wii away for a week as punishment, leading to an awkward situation where the teacher would ask “How come you didn’t finish your homework like you were supposed to?” and instead of saying “The dog ate it” or “I forgot,” your kid would say “Because my parents wouldn’t let me.”

Game over.