A New Hope

By Gregory Keer

When it comes to donating money, I want to be impressive. Every December, when I send most of my biggest donations during the season of giving, I gather my children around and show them the websites and brochures of all the organizations I choose to support. In this way, they see what I value in the world and, hopefully, they think I’m a pretty nifty guy for sharing with those in need.

Sometimes, though, the philanthropic gestures of the dude they see eating potato chips in their living room at night is not impactful enough to truly teach how powerful giving to others can be.

Which is why, this year, I called upon the example of a hero my children and I have in common – the Star Wars navigator himself, George Lucas. This is a guy my kids relate to because he has entertained them with light-saber-bearing protagonists, wild alien creatures, and lots of swashbuckling space adventure.

So when I told them he is giving the entire $4.05 billion dollars from his sale of Lucasfilm to an educational charity, they were suitably impressed. Just think about what this says to the countless people influenced by the righteous rebelliousness of Luke Skywalker, the elegant leadership of Princess Leia, the daring bravado of Han Solo, and the Zen-like teaching of Yoda.

Lucas has dealt a serious blow to the dark forces Darth Vader represents by demonstrating that some people who hold great power really do want to heal the world. Already committed to education innovation via his Edutopia company that researches and promotes learning strategies, Lucas makes an even bigger statement about his belief that education must be a priority.

“I feel honored that he cares about kids even though they’re not his children,” my 11-year-old, Jacob, said. “He cares about how kids are going to be in the future.”

Through his donation, Lucas follows the Chinese proverb that says, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Although my wife and I have yet to find ourselves with a multi-billion dollar windfall to play around with, we do put a lot of thought into our philanthropic approach. Last December, as we gathered our sons around the table to select charities we wanted to emphasize, my kids were most taken with Save the Children. Not only did my boys like the idea of giving to other kids, they loved the catalogue that equated certain donation amounts with funding classrooms, buying goats and sheep, purchasing medicine, and making micro-loans for small businesses. These options helped my boys see the direct impact on families in America and throughout the world. So, instead of giving money, which often seems intangible to my kids despite all our best efforts to explain the value of it, my children gave animals that provided dairy products for a family and books for a village library.

During the year, my sons wondered how the recipients were doing with the animals and books. We discussed how the children would learn to milk the goat and sheep we bought for them. We imagined them laughing and being caught up in the adventure of the stories we made possible for them to read. The children we donated to were not “those poor people in underprivileged areas” — they were kids like our sons who got some important stuff because we shared with them.

While my sons and I can’t donate billions like George Lucas, we are inspired to continue giving to children so that they have a brighter future. This year, we’ll once again select gifts that will educate and sustain young people in need. In this way, we hope to ensure there’s more than “a new hope” ahead.

Posted in Columns by Family Man, Education, Ethics, School, Social Action, Values | 1 Comment

The Tortoise Wins the Race

By Gregory Keer

TortoiseHareimages (1)At my son’s middle-school graduation, my wife and I performed our finest rugby moves to fight for seats with 2,000 other attendees. We were there to see our child walk across the stage in his suit, a little small on him but still dapper, and smile for the cameras we told him would be somewhere in the sea of smiling faces. After two hours of waiting, we saw him up there for an instant, a fleeting moment of culmination after three years of homework battles, shifting friendship circles, and adolescent changes that felt like alien transformation scenes.

During the ceremony, a few graduates gave entertaining speeches and administrators provided some touching words before reading an endless parade of 600 student names. Aside from the proud chatter of the families in the audience, people whispered one sad fact of the day – almost 200 kids could not participate in the proceedings because of academic issues.

How is it that 25% of this public-school 8th grade class did not pass muster? My thoughts ran the gamut for reasons, including lack of parental or teacher attention, student learning or behavioral challenges, and the intervention of trouble-making gremlins who force children to play video games instead of going to class.

Then I remembered that, 28 years ago, only half of my own high-school class graduated on time.

It makes me nuts that there exists such a long-standing tradition of kids not finishing school. I have lots of ideas of how to improve the state of education, from smaller class sizes to more creative educational methods. I know this takes a lot of money, but I believe good education pays amazing returns for the society and its economy.

I’m such a big believer in education that I became a teacher. I did it because I love learning and wanted to share it with students. I also did it because I wanted to learn ways to guide my own children toward academic success.

For all of my first-hand knowledge about teaching, the most important lesson is that those students who work really hard get results that include graduation, but go far beyond that. Sure, we teachers take pride in those who come up with high scores and brilliant ideas, but not all of those students have to labor for terrific results and, sometimes, those same kids leave a lot of potential untapped.

What really impacts educators are students who slog away, who may not get an “A” or “B” every time out, but who never stop fighting through difficult or – dare I say it? – boring material. These kids come to class on time, participate, show up at office hours, meet homework deadlines, and ask questions. Teachers recognize effort and want to help the kids who appear to want it the most. All of this adds up to students who know that hard work leads to better understanding of the material and a lifelong sense of what it takes to succeed in the years ahead.

During my son’s last year of middle school, he often wanted to get through his work as fast as possible. Sometimes, hastiness had no ill effect. But often, as in the case of assignments that required more detail but not necessarily more cognitive challenge, he lost steam and his grades fell. He regularly got less than excellent comments on his work habits, which, of course, drove me crazy. In the meantime, other students for whom great grades did not come easily, kept at it, tortoise style, and the outcomes were much better.

So, after a lot of errors on my part to motivate him, I focused on the value of effort. I told him I didn’t care about the grade as long as he pushed himself through the process with greater care. For the most part, this worked and – not surprisingly – things improved. Sure, I was happy to see the nice letter grades on the final report card, but what really had me beaming with pride were the work habit marks of “excellent.”

As Benjamin begins high school, where grades and achievement are ever more important, I must continue to stress the value of effort above all else. I think it will help my son arrive on time at graduation day, but I also believe it will work for more of those kids who may somehow give up – or be given up on by others – before they reach culmination.

If I have any advice for parents as we all embark on new school years, it is this – find your own ways to reinforce the goal of getting E’s for effort. Real effort that sometimes causes frustration, tears, and arguments are worth the price. We all benefit from it in the end.

Posted in Adolescence, Columns by Family Man, Education, School | Leave a comment

What Dads Need to Know – Prep for Preschool

By Michelle Nitka, Psy.D.

Preschool-images (1)Never mind college. How do you get your kids into preschool?  In many cities, choosing a preschool, and being chosen, has come to feel like a competitive sport. Several articles and news shows have fanned the flames of parental panic. Nightline aired a segment entitled “Inside the Cutthroat Preschool Wars”, the San Francisco Chronicle headlined with “Preschool Wait Puts Parents In Panic” andThe New York Times ran an article entitled “In Baby Boomlet, Preschool Derby Is the Fiercest Yet.” Even without articles and news shows like these, the process of applying to preschool  is enough to push parents of hearty constitutions to the edge.

But it does not have to be this way. Despite what some overachieving parents think, admission to the “right” preschool will not set your child on the road to Harvard. What is vastly more important is to finding the preschool that fits your child and your family. Given that the preschool search often begins when a child is not even a year old many parents may well ask, “How do I know who he is yet?  He can scarcely eat without drooling!”  It is important therefore to pay attention not only to your child’s needs but also to your own. The following tips will hopefully start you in the right direction.


1)  Do you want your child in a half-day program or a full-day program? How much flexibility do you need in terms of number of days your child is in school and hours your child is in school?

2) How far do you want to drive? There are many outstanding preschool programs, and unless you have a pathological desire to listen to Barney or Elmo during long car rides, the closer the better.

3) How much do you want to spend on preschool? Don’t forget hidden costs like the annual fund drive, capital campaigns, endowment funds, galas, etc. They all have different names but add up to the same thing – you are writing checks which can add thousands of dollars to your tuition.

4) What is the educational philosophy you are most comfortable with (remembering of course that you are looking for the best fit for your child)? There are lots of choices out there, including but not limited to traditional academic, developmental, cooperative, Reggio Emilia, Montessori, and Waldorf.

5) Would you consider sending your child to a preschool affiliated with a church or a temple? Remember that just because a preschool is affiliated with a religious institution does not necessary mean it is a religious preschool. If you are interested in a preschool affiliated with a church or temple, joining the congregation can give you an advantage in the admissions process.

6) Is diversity important to you, and if so, what kind of diversity is important to you?  Some schools are founded on the idea of having a diverse student body, while others are extremely homogeneous.

7) Does your child have any special needs that might affect whether a preschool is a good fit? Some preschool directors are exceptional at working with and including children with special needs, while others seem to regard it as a burden.

8) How much parent participation do you want to see in the preschool? What are the opportunities for parent involvement, and what are the expectations? There are some preschools, for example cooperative nursery schools, that by definition require a good deal of parent participation. If you have a very inflexible work schedule this may not be a good choice. On the other hand for a parent who has quit their job to be involved in their child’s early education, a school with little to no parent involvement might be quite frustrating.

9) What is the school’s policy on toilet training? Some preschools have a very strict requirement that a child must be toilet trained to start preschool while others are far more lenient and realize that peer modeling will probably accomplish the task rather rapidly.

10)  After preschool do you plan to send your child to public or private school? There are some preschools where everyone will graduate and attend private elementary schools. Those directors typically help their families with this application process and are very well versed in it. On the other hand, there are many excellent preschools where no one continues on to private school.

11)  Apply to the toddler program of the preschool you are interested in. Many preschools have toddler programs that start when the child is about 18 months old. Toddler programs generally meet once a week and the parent stays with the child. These programs are an excellent way of getting to know a preschool program. Although it is not a guarantee, many preschools acknowledge that attending their toddler program does afford the child an advantage in terms of admission to the  preschool.

Finally, try to remember that although these first decisions regarding your child’s education are important, no preschool can ever replace you. There are no golden tickets – no preschool will guarantee success. It is far more important to be a loving, involved, present parent.

Michelle Nitka is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in children and families. She is the author of the book Coping With Preschool Panic and maintains a private practice in West Los Angeles. She is also the mother of two small children and has survived the preschool application process twice. Her Web site is PreschoolGuide.com and she can be reached at mnitka@preschoolguide.com.

Posted in Child Development, Education, Featured Moms & Dads, School | 1 Comment

A Father’s Food Blog

Food and parenting mix beautifully on this blog, written by single dad, school principal, and marvelous cook Don Wilson. Feeding Andrew chronicles how Wilson parents his teenage son and provides delectable recipes for a wide variety of foods he plates for his kid. A recent blog entry is about Wilson’s own dad, himself a writer, who tells a story about a bond with his late dog.

Posted in Adolescence, Blog, Food, School, Single Fathers, Work-Family Balance | Leave a comment

Middle Earth

By Gregory Keer

My oldest son is entering middle school and I’m wondering who tinkered with my clock? Wasn’t it just the other day that I was in middle school? Wasn’t I so afraid of talking to other kids that I lugged a heavy book bag to avoid locker conversations and never showered after PE because of embarrassment? Wasn’t I too clueless to appreciate the smiles of Jaynee Strickstein and chose to sit alone in my room reading about The Hobbit’s Middle-earth?

For me, reality is sinking in. I’m middle-aged. And if my son’s transition to the next level of school isn’t symbolic enough, there are other signs. Two icons of my junior high years, Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett, prematurely exited the world. My back muscles spasm if I look the wrong way. Facebook reconnects me with friends and pictures from my elementary through high-school years (did I really part my hair in the middle and wear such tight swim trunks?).

I stop the 8-track rewind to consider my first born. The one who had baby thighs like the Stay Puft marshmallow man and giggled hysterically when I crawl-chased him through our apartment. The one who liked to flash his size 4 superhero underpants to everyone because he thought he was cool. The one who just yesterday learned to read the picture book George Shrinks.

Benjamin isn’t shrinking. He’s 11 years old, more than five feet tall, and hipper to the jokes on The Colbert Report than I am. But over the past six months, he’s been going through his own reflection.

It started last winter, as he joined Wendy and me at meetings for the public middle schools we were considering. Benjamin looked so small as he walked through the halls of much-bigger institutions than the one he was attending. He listened to us, looking a bit lost, as we explained the various magnet and specialty programs.

“I don’t know if I’m ready to do homework all the time,” he said, sounding a little stressed. 

We worked hard to whittle down the details and help him decide. My wife made countless trips to school offices to turn in paperwork and ask questions. I went to a two-hour science meeting and brought Benjamin to see an exhibition of one program’s student projects.

The deciding factor, in addition to Benjamin’s greatest interest in learning about community work and social studies, was that a number of his good friends would be joining him if he went to the civics program of our neighborhood school.

Being with friends became increasingly vital for Benjamin in the spring as he experienced a flurry of activities to mark the end of his elementary education. He went to Yosemite National Park with his schoolmates, teachers, and mom. He ignored Wendy most of the time, but she got to be a fly on the wall to watch the social politics and see him laugh with his buddies. The trip was wonderful for Benjamin, but it heightened his emotion about leaving his cohort.

The final school weeks were marked by a host of “lasts.” There was Benjamin’s last orchestra concert after three years of playing trumpet and a hip-hop dance performance in which Benjamin shared a stage with his middle brother for the final time they’d be on campus together. Then, the elementary school culmination ceremony arrived. It showed the deep mutual adoration between the kids and their teachers. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, and Benjamin’s eyes were two of the wettest.

Year-end parties went on for at least a week, causing Benjamin and his friends to be alternately celebratory and wistful. Wendy and I grew weary of shuttling our son to so many get-togethers, yet we also were impressed with the level of connection he had made with his contemporaries.

And this is one of the important truths for me. For all his crankiness about hygiene and homework, forgetfulness about chores, and biological attachment to the cell phone we caved in to buy him for graduation, my son has a greater ease with people than I ever had. He makes friends quickly and keeps up relationships.

As he heads to middle school, I know he will not shy away from locker-side chats or ignore girls out of fear of talking to them (though he forbids me from detailing his communication with females just yet). He may be headed for big adolescent and academic challenges in the sixth through eighth grades, but he’s ready for the transition — even though I’m not so sure that I am.

Posted in Columns by Family Man, School | Leave a comment

Sibs At School

By Gregory Keer

For three years, my sister and I went to the same school. Kimmy was especially proud of that fact, as I witnessed one day when she told another kid that if he wasn’t nice to her, her big brother was going to beat him up. Truth be told, Kimmy was the only person I was ever really mean to back then, but somehow she knew that, on campus, we were on the same team.

In those mid-’70s years, I loved having my sister with me at school. I got a chance to show off my basketball skills at recess and my student-council speeches in sixth grade, but I also noticed her laughing with her friends at lunch and leading her third-grade class in the newspaper drive. It was great to be part of each other’s lives outside the house, even though it was just for a short time.

As a new September unfolds, my two oldest boys will converge on the same campus for the first time since Jacob, 6, was in preschool. Benjamin, 10, will begin his third year at his public elementary school and will be one of the reigning fifth graders, who will graduate at year’s end. Although he had big hurdles to jump when he transferred to the school, he has since become an expert on every nuance of the teachers, grounds and events. Jacob has soaked up his big brother’s experiences by seeing Benjamin do complicated homework and attending open houses.

“I know he’s going to annoy me,” Benjamin said in a late-summer talk I had with him about Jacob joining him on the schoolyard. “He’ll drag me over somewhere to show me something like a bug he found under a tree.”

This scenario is likely, yet even the little guy who sometimes goes all “kung fu” on Benjamin is welcome to the big brother’s kingdom. “Jacob’s good at art, so he’ll like that we do a lot of it at school,” Benjamin explained. “He’s pretty fast, too. He’ll love sports day when we do relays and obstacle courses.”

While he expects Jacob to be a bit sad and confused at a new place with people he doesn’t know, Benjamin said, “(My classmate) Sean’s brother will be going into first grade. Maybe I can get Jacob to be friends with him so he’s not alone when I’m not around.”

When I talked with Jacob, he seemed mellow about not having old pals with him at the start. “I like challenges,” he offered, as if he were vying for a corporate management position. He cannot wait to ride the bus for the first time so he can talk with the other kids and trade game cards with them. He’s also eager to check out the classrooms as a student and not just a visitor.

“Will I go to the same after-school programs as Benjamin?” he asked hopefully. Jacob has been chomping at the bit to try out a comic-book drawing class and a “rock star” program ever since Benjamin bragged about them. Jacob has even begun learning the violin so he’ll be ready to join the orchestra like his brother did in third grade.

“I hope Jacob knows it’s not easy to make it in the orchestra,” Benjamin said, showing territorialism about this particular area. “I had to practice a lot for two years before I could be a first trumpet.”

Sibling rivalry will certainly find a home away from home at school. I expect to hear competing stories about what Benjamin may have said to a cute fifth-grade girl at recess or what Jacob may have done to overflow a toilet. The key is that they will be together, if only for a year.

Today, I call my sister Kim, not Kimmy, and she’s been able to handle her own battles for years, even without her big brother down the hall. But we did build on that shared school time as part of what is now a close bond. For Jacob and Benjamin, I hope they too will learn they can depend on each other even when they’re not under Mom and Dad’s roof.

Posted in Columns by Family Man, School, Siblings | Leave a comment

Sarah’s Garden

By Gregory Keer

We have this 70-year-old wooden chest that houses bundles of our memories. Inside are photos we have yet to press into books and a handful of art projects from our sons’ early childhoods.

One of the pieces is a handmade photo album of Benjamin (now 9) during his daycare tenure. Glued to the fading colored construction paper are pictures of him showing off his superhero underwear with his toddler friends, building sand castles as if real people were preparing to move into them, and dancing in the middle of circle time. On the cover of the album is a picture of a chubby-cheeked boy and the painted words, “Good-Buy Benjamin.”

The misspelling of “goodbye” is what makes me most wistful, especially now. English is the second language of Sarah, the daycare teacher who assembled that album and helped stack the building blocks of each of our three boys. For the last eight years, she has been the third parent to our sons. With the last of our boys heading off to preschool, I attempt to craft words of gratitude and admiration with melancholy tugging at every keystroke. I do not want to tell Sarah goodbye, no matter how it’s spelled.

We came to Sarah in 1999, after weeks of struggling to find the right care for our precious firstborn. As working parents, we had cobbled together maternity and paternity leaves, grandparent assistance and babysitting options for as long as we could. And finding one nanny sunbathing in our back yard while our son cried his eyes out in his crib was our last straw. Besides, Wendy and I believed in the socializing powers of daycare, so we researched every facility we could before we found our match – less than a mile from home.

From the start, the almost 6-foot tall Israeli was Benjamin’s tower of security at the daycare. She led our son and his United Nations of friends (the children hailed from El Salvador to Trinidad) in arts-and-crafts activities that rivaled those of the best preschools and in imaginative play on a sprawling yard most day camps would envy. Although her prices were modest, she had a tendency to dig into her savings to outfit her place with the latest equipment and for visits by that rock star of the preschool set, Mr. Al.

A year after Benjamin left Sarah’s garden, our middle son joined her band of merry kids. Sarah had to raise her accented voice a bit more with our pinball of a boy, but she and her honey-hearted assistant Efrat channeled him into painting and gymnastics. Adding to all the developmental benefits to our son, Sarah allowed us the flexibility to bring Jacob late if we had a morning off and her keen observations gave us insight into the complexities of Jacob’s nature.

Not long after Jacob’s graduation from daycare, Ari became our youngest child for Sarah’s tutelage. By this time, Sarah was so comfortable as the third parent that she peppered our older boys with familial questions, about their schools and friends, whenever they joined me to pick up their little brother. For his part, Ari walked around daycare like a grinning prince of his mini-kingdom, along with his fellow royal cousin Aaron.

Sometimes, Sarah drove us crazy with her persistent advice about tempering Ari’s tendency to push the other kids around, but we always knew she was hardest on us because we’d become so close. And it didn’t hurt that Sarah brought in the ebullient and funny Ziva to help keep up with our mischievous tike.

Sarah has given so much to our children. She’s taught them and protected them, nurturing them like her own. We are humbled by the fact that, without her, our kids would not be quite as proficient at friendships or manners or even singing (despite Sarah’s famous penchant for warbling off key). Although we will continue to visit her and have her over for dinners, I feel a dull ache as we adhere the last memories into the album of Sarah’s daycare. So, we will delete the “bye” – or even “buy” – from our farewell, because what remains is the “good.”

Posted in Child Development, Columns by Family Man, School | Leave a comment