So You Think You’re Good at Math

Will somebody please explain to me why children no longer memorize the basic math tables?

It seems to me that the easiest and quickest way to get an answer is to have tables memorized. Do children no longer need to be able to perform basic calculations because we have calculators? I hope that’s not the case.

A couple of weeks ago, Mary Ellen had a math worksheet for homework. She likes math and was even used in a training video made to teach teachers. I understand she could do everything expected of her. But this particular evening, she was tired and grumpy and perhaps given to a bit of laziness. She wanted my help. Now, I didn’t take a lot of advanced math courses in college because that wasn’t what interested me, but I’m good at the basics, can do a lot of problems in my head, and am a good estimator.

Mary Ellen’s second-grade work wasn’t difficult—two digit addition and subtraction. It took a long time, and her approach baffled me. I wrote her teacher and asked for a short course in how they were being taught so I could be more helpful. She said they work off doubles, fives, and tens. That seemed terribly inefficient to me.

Texas has not adopted Common Core Curriculum, but forty-five states have, so I searched the internet to find out exactly what Common Core math is. “Exactly” turned out to be elusive. I did find this answer at www.reference.com:“Common Core Math is a program that focuses on problem-solving, analytical and critical-thinking skills. The program promises to prepare students for college courses at the freshman level, workforce training classes and entry-level careers.” A worthy goal. Why did I think I’d been prepared?

I then looked at the second-grade standards and found 269 specific skills the students are expected to master including this one. “Write addition sentences for arrays: sums to 25.” I had to look up array as a math term. It is a set of numbers or objects that follow a specific pattern.

The Texas standards contain this expectation: recall basic facts to add and subtract within 20 with automaticity. Automaticity? Sounds like memorizing tables to me, so why don’t they do it?

I am beyond grateful that Mary Ellen likes math and rarely needs my assistance.

Grandma’s Musings on Takis and Pokémon cards

“Grandma, I want some Takis.”

“Some what?” I’m thinking a Shopkins rival, new sports equipment, a game? (Please notice that I actually know what Shopkins are.)

No, a spicy snack food with so little nutritional value it almost doesn’t count. And I’ve discovered since succumbing to the request and buying a package that if a second-grader dislikes the crunchy little red pipes, she really needs to have her taste buds fixed.

And what’s all the stew about Pokémon cards? I collected baseball cards when I was a kid, and I’m sad to report that my mother was not as enamored with them as I was. She threw all of them in the trash—including Duke Snyder, Willie Mayes, and Yogi Berra—when I left for college. I promise not to do that with the Pokémon cards. I think they are supposed to be the basis for games, but trading seems to be the in thing.

Then there’s music. My dad co-owned a record store, which I got to work in as a teenager. I had a great collection of 45’s and was consequently invited to a lot of parties. “Bring your records.” But that was years ago, and I’ve lost touch with the pop scene. I’m trying to catch up. It’s really necessary to listen to all the new releases. Some of the lyrics are not as tame as “Rock Around the Clock.” Remember when Elvis and the Beatles were considered scandalous? Ah, the good ol’ days.

Mary Ellen is just now getting into texting—using my phone. The Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday was a boring day for her, so she contacted her friend while I wrote and did chores. When she left for school the next day, I decided to read the texts—don’t tell. There were over 200! I guess the advantage they have over the endless phone calls I used to make is that I actually could read them. They certainly don’t improve spelling.

Looks like I’m going to be pulled kicking and screaming back to immersion in pop culture.

Heroes and Villains


Our children have role models all around them—good ones and bad ones. So, how do we be sure they internalized those behaviors exhibited by the good ones? Here are my thoughts on the subject.
Start with ourselves. We set the tone, the rules in the house, the expectations. We model the behavior they will mimic when responding to a rude person, a thorny situation, a compliment. If you don’t believe that, think of the last time you said, “I sound just like my mother.”
To do an adequate job of defining the models we want our children to follow, we have to be clear about our own values. If you are a religious person, try to state the primary values of your faith in terms a child can understand. This isn’t an attempt to convert anyone to my way of thinking on the subject, but as Unitarians we teach its seven principles to Mary Ellen. The children’s version, which they sing, is straightforward and simple. It contains values common to many faiths, and I present it here as one option.
• Each person is important.
• Be kind in all you do.
• Learn together.
• Search for what is true.
• All people need a voice.
• Be fair and peaceful too.
• Care for all the earth.

We have the obligation to set boundaries on media and electronic games—an issue I am coping with because I know so little about the current game apps. My jobs are to learn and to pay attention. I am distressed that so many of the games involve killing and being killed.

So what do we do if our child is watching, playing, observing behavior of which we disapprove? I remember when my son was about six, he loved the cartoon Speed Racer, which I knew he saw at his friend’s. So, knowing he would see it even if it was forbidden at our house, I watched it with him. I expressed dismay at the hero’s goal of killing an opponent. My son’s response was, “It’s okay. He’s the bad guy.” Not the value I wanted him to have, but it let me know his thinking and opened dialogue.

There are so many opportunities for children to observe bad models, it is extremely important to know what they see, what they play, who their friends are, and to point out those behaviors we don’t like. Of course, we constantly need to reinforce our own values by modeling. And, as always, keeping open the lines of communication is critical.

One last thought. Our children are often with us because of inappropriate behavior by their parents. When questions are asked, it’s time to be honest and not blaming. An example might be, “Daddy used illegal drugs. They have hurt him, so he can’t take care of you. And you are both sad about that. That’s why I want you to only use good medicine and only when you are sick.”

Contact With Parents

Whether or not to allow parents access to their children is a tricky issue, partly because each situation is different and partly because much of that decision is subjective. First let’s talk about the extremes. They are the easiest.
Parents who are known to abuse drugs or alcohol or who are physically or emotionally abusive should not be allow unsupervised access to their children.

Parents who have always been conscientious but who cannot care for their child because of job loss or health, for example, should be allowed to see the children when it is convenient and to the extent that it doesn’t make the child feel pulled in two directions. You can facilitate that by making the child aware that your relationship with the parents is a positive one.

If visitation is outlined by court order, follow it barring something negative not foreseen by the judge.

That leaves a whole range of possibilities. Chances are good that you and the child’s parents don’t parent alike. “But Daddy lets me,” is a good opportunity to remind the child (as well as yourself) that we all answer to different bosses. Teachers, scout leaders, coaches, church leaders all have different expectations. In your home, you’re the boss.

It is possible the child will return spoiled, mouthy, or angry. However, it seems to me that if the child’s behavior returns to your expectations shortly after coming home, there isn’t much cause for concern. If, however, you get indications that the parents are making the child feel guilty, or are undermining you, or that the visits trigger negative memories—whether or not the child is consciously aware of it—visitation might need to be shortened or supervised. I suggest you always ask open-ended questions when the child returns. Some examples might be: what did you do; who else did you see; how are you feeling. Then listen. Ask follow-up questions. If the child seems upset, expresses fear, or has nightmares ask questions—then listen.

There have been times when I wasn’t sure if Mary Ellen really was afraid, for example, or was manipulating because she wanted to put off going to sleep. I asked her school counselor how I could tell. She said, “Trust your gut.” My gut doesn’t always know the answer, but it’s the best barometer I have.

If these issues go unresolved for any length of time or get worse, I suggest seeking professional help. Your school counselor is a start. If the issues are beyond the scope of her job description, she can likely make a referral. Some mental health professionals take Medicaid.

What if the parent is in jail? Here’s my gut talking again. You and the child need to be realistic about the situation. Seeing the parent at least once would make the situation clear to the child. And he deserves an explanation as to why mommy or daddy is there. It should be factual—neither blaming nor excusing. The child needs to know there are consequences for breaking the law.

This is a thorny issue. I don’t pretend to be an expert. Feel free to agree, disagree, or add information.

Just the Facts, Ma’am


Francine commented in last week’s chat that we should never criticize Mary Ellen’s parents. I agree. She loves them, and they love her. She’s entitled to hold that love in her heart unblemished by any snarky comments from me.

There are all kinds of reasons that children are reared by someone other than parents. This discussion assumes that the parents are alive and known at least to the custodian, if not the child.

My husband and I asked a professional how much to tell Mary Ellen regarding the reasons she lives with us. She advised us to tell her the truth when she asked. Depending on your child’s age, that could be immediately or not for several years. If the child is older and already aware of the situation, it might be more important to ask him questions and listen carefully to answers. There will be a later blog devoted to possible issues arising from that talk.

For now, let’s concentrate on telling the truth. It’s important to stick with the facts and not to intersperse opinions. Many children being reared by grandparents have addicted parents. It can be difficult to remember that addiction is an illness and that addicts make unwise decisions because they are under the influence. Making the parents out to be evil is neither helpful nor accurate. The child does need to know they put something in their bodies that isn’t good for them and that the substance is not legal. And he needs to understand the effects of what his parents have done.

In other instances, the conversation might go something like this. Daddy robbed a bank, and that’s against the law, so he is in jail. Mommy is having trouble paying the bills, so we are helping out. Notice I didn’t label either Daddy or Mommy—as in Daddy is a crook and Mommy’s lazy or can’t hold a job. Even worse would be your daddy and mommy are scum. They don’t know the first thing about parenting, so we’re having to do their job for them. These are opinions and additionally imply you don’t want the child.

It is so tempting to place your own value system on the parents and then try to force the child to agree with you. But I believe that, in the long run, the child will learn the custodian’s value system and make her own judgments. And if we badmouth people she loves, we are damaging our relationship with her.

Feel free to respond if you disagree or can add an experience that would help the rest of us.

Next week I hope to post on how much contact we should let the child have with her parents. I’ve been working on it for some time. It’s a tough one.

That First Chaotic Week

We were not expecting to get custody of Mary Ellen. It happened fast. Over the period of a couple of hours, the decision was made and finalized. My head was spinning. So many things to get done.

She was staying with us “temporarily” at the time, so she expected to see us at daycare that evening. Our first priority had to be explaining that she wasn’t going home—for a long time, maybe never. We didn’t know. I couldn’t even imagine how difficult that had to be for a child to hear. We didn’t have a clue how to get it right. Fortunately, her school counselor is caring, experienced, and competent. We met with her that afternoon, explained the situation, and arranged to bring Mary Ellen to her office first thing the next morning. There were no tears—they would come later and often. There was no temper tantrum. That too was only postponed. But she went to class that morning with a clear understanding of where she would be living and why.

Also, the first afternoon, we needed to notify both the school and the daycare that we would be picking her up and that she was not allowed to leave with her parents. We needed to get her birth certificate, social security card, daycare card, Medicaid card, doctor information, medications she was taking, and the time and place of any doctor’s appointments already arranged. We contacted a lawyer to make everything legal. She met with us after we picked up Mary Ellen. My husband stayed with our granddaughter in the waiting room while I talked with “my friend about girl stuff.”

Mary Ellen had been sleeping in our guest room. We needed to make it hers. Her toys and clothes were transferred to our house.

We don’t live in the same school district as her parents. Keeping her in that school was a priority. We thought she had been through enough changes. She didn’t need another. However, we were not happy with her daycare, and neither was she, so we inquired as to which centers picked up at her school. We visited them, making a decision which was better but not totally satisfactory.

We talked to her other grandparents to tell them we wanted them to remain in Mary Ellen’s life. They love her, and she needs all the love she can get. Although we are not close friends, we wanted to be sure they knew they had access to their granddaughter. We would have wanted the same from them.

And we started compiling issues that needed work—the primary one being helping our darling granddaughter feel loved and wanted.

Please comment with other issues you faced or questions our readers might be able to answer.

Two Weeks With No School

Two weeks of Christmas vacation. What to do with the time? This is not a one-size-fits-all solution. If your child is in day care, the primary problem may be cost. Like summer vacation and spring break, the expense might need to be budgeted and saved for in advance.

If the child is a latchkey kid, as my son was when I was a single mother many years ago, supervision can be an issue. Here are some ideas to consider. 1) Take vacation time. 2) Use a neighbor or relative to babysit, but remember it’s important not to take advantage of her kindness. So pay her or—clean her house? Take her a meal? Give her a gift certificate to a spa? 3) Form a babysitter club in which each member agrees to sit a certain number of hours per month for free. You would likely use up all the hours you have coming and then be obligated to repay in kind. 4) If the child is responsible and old enough, you might consider leaving him alone. If you do that, be sure to have set-in-stone rules for behavior, like keeping doors locked and not opening them to strangers. Write down emergency numbers and be sure the child knows where they are. Go over rules for emergencies. Ask a neighbor to check on him every couple of hours. Call home at unpredictable times. Have the child call you at specific times twice a day. If you can, go home for lunch. 5) Leave plenty of constructive activities.

If you are retired, as we are, the main problem might be boredom—especially if the neighbor kids spend the week with Grandma. Once or twice, a movie or trip to the bowling alley could break-up the routine. However, there are still hours to fill with something besides whining about nothing to do. In our house, art projects are popular. Mary Ellen has plastic boxes filled with various kinds of craft supplies. In addition to the usual array of pencils, markers, and paint, there is tissue paper, glue, scissors, tape, glitter, stickers, cardboard scraps—well, you get the idea. “Magic School Bus” science club offers subscriptions to science projects for various ages which are sent periodically. Younger children need help, which is a great opportunity for a family project, while older children can do some of them alone. We like board games, although Monopoly is too long for a seven-year-old. We count the money after thirty minutes. Bikes and balls are great if the weather cooperates. I hesitate to mention slumber parties, but Mary Ellen loves them, and I’ve decided to pretend I’m still young enough to tolerate them occasionally. Turn on the music—dance, sing, practice an instrument.

Age-appropriate chores can provide a sense of accomplishment while encouraging responsibility. And helping a family member or neighbor with a chore fosters caring.

Read! Our school system is coordinated with the public libraries, and Mary Ellen got her own library card at school. If a student doesn’t read for an extended period of time, his reading level drops. If she loves to read, great! If not, find something on her reading level that interests her. Her teacher can make suggestions.

Lulu, Jr. is an online publisher that has four kits to help children create, illustrate, and publish their own books. Fun, educational, a great source of pride for the child, and a wonderful keepsake for us.

Of course, there are tablets with games and television. Some time on these can be fun and/or educational if they are appropriate. It’s our responsibility as custodians to be sure they are. However, we all know that if they’re used as full-time babysitters, kids miss opportunities for exercise, creativity, and social interaction.

I invite you to add your own ideas or your experience with these. Let’s help each other rear great children.

On Staying Healthy

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One of the first things you hear when you become a custodial grandparent is “take care of your health.” When you are seventy and the child is five, the reasons are obvious. There are numerous websites with advice on how to do that. You can find what foods to eat, how much sleep to get, and which exercises are the most productive.

I have no intention of competing with the advice doctors give on how to take of your body. Here are a few practical ideas from this old, busy person that work for me.

Continue Doing Something You Love
I’ve cut out many activities since Mary Ellen came to live with us. I did that because she needed a lot of love and attention. But the one thing I told my husband I refused to give up was my writing. I write in the mornings when she is at school and have published my first novel. Being able to hang on to my dream of getting that book, which I had worked on for years, published kept the anger at bay. Yes, I still get angry occasionally, not at Mary Ellen, but at the fact that our retirement isn’t what we envisioned and saved for. I forgive myself and remember how much joy she brings to our lives.

Spend Time With Friends Every Week
Baby sitters are expensive, so my husband and I rarely go out together in the evenings. However, I manage an evening book club and a happy hour with the girls once a month. I attend Sunday services regularly, and we all, including Mary Ellen, join friends for lunch afterwards. And the weekends she spends with her parents give us the opportunity to rest or have a date. I have lunch occasionally with a couple of special friends, people I can vent with or just “catch up.” I have no concern about the conversations going any farther and know I will get honest, thoughtful responses to questions. Of course, communication with my spouse is more important than ever, especially since we’ve never reared a child together before.

Minimize The Stress
This is critical. When my sleep gets interrupted several times a night or I find myself staring at the computer screen unable to type a sentence, I know too much stress is affecting me. Here are some actions I have found useful in getting me back on track.
*Establish a routine; *Get organized; *Utilize premade dinners once or twice a week; *Plan meals a week at a time. *Keep the house clean. I don’t mean spotless, and most kids can help some. But filth breads depression.

We try to teach Mary Ellen good habits. In retirement, mine had become a bit lax. It was time to remember how to stuff too many things into too little time. You know how to do it because you’ve done it. I realize many of you are not retired, and this responsibility is one more in an already packed schedule. *Prioritize and eliminate!

*Carve out time each day for your spouse, if you have one–for yourself, if you don’t. Having a set bedtime for your grandchild helps here.

*Exercise. I’m not an exercise person, and I feel guilty every time I hear somebody say it’s the best way to keep your heart and brain healthy. But I believe it. My dad played tennis three times a week until he was ninety-four and lived to 102 still thinking clearly. So, how can I follow the advice and not spend too much time or thought on it? I walk—fifteen minutes in a hilly area. It works! I have more energy and ability to concentrate even after that minimal amount. I tell myself that eventually it will be thirty minutes and I’ll be jogging. Don’t hold your breath.

**And a hot bubble bath with a glass of wine never hurts.

So, What To Do About Christmas?

elf-on-the-shelfI remember Christmas being a time of joy and anticipation, a time for tradition, a time for sharing with family.

Two years ago, we got custody of Mary Ellen one week before Christmas. Her parents retained parental rights and were allowed supervised visitation. They spent the night at our house Christmas Eve, and we did the best we could to make the celebration the next morning child-centered.

By last Christmas, her parents had unsupervised visitation, and we hoped they could regain custody within the year. Although we have the right to have Mary Ellen on Christmas day, we thought her parents should start their own tradition. Santa Claus came to their house. We were not invited.

This year we are establishing our own tradition knowing it may be for one year or forever. Last week Mary Ellen wrote a letter to Santa Claus, and over the Thanksgiving weekend, she, Papa, and I decorated the tree. I must say that a Charlie Brown tree with one decoration on it and a blanket around the trunk appealed to me. Lugging the boxes down from the attic has become more difficult with each year. But seeing Mary Ellen’s pleasure at helping to decorate made it worthwhile. In the next day or two, we will string cranberries.

Elf-on-the-Shelf arrived yesterday morning. (For those of you vacationing on Mars the last few years, the elf is magic. She observes the child’s behavior during the day and is whisked to the North Pole to report while the child sleeps. The elf then reappears at a different spot the next morning. The rules are that the elf is not allowed to talk and the child is not allowed to touch her. Got it?) Mary Ellen named her elf Sheila. I read Sheila the letter to Santa because Mary Ellen was a bit too much in awe to read it herself.

Christmas Eve, Mary Ellen will make glitter reindeer food with her mother and then return to us. Christmas morning, we will find that Santa visited our house and that his reindeer ate their snack. Her parents will be invited to join us.

I wish Mary Ellen could experience the stability of the same type of tradition I had. But life is full of adjustments, and I need to remind myself that this adjustment is mine. Mary Ellen doesn’t know the difference. I need to keep focused on what’s really important–that she feel loved and valued and that the sparkle in her eyes lets us know she’s happy. Of course that’s what is important all year.

Just What Is a Real Grandma

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Mary Ellen’s parents have told her I’m not her “real grandma.” So I’ve been thinking about that. I sure feel like a grandma. She and I love each other. I was at the hospital as she was being born and held her before she was an hour old. When she was five, we—my husband, the “real grandpa” and I—were asked if we would accept custody of her. We both said yes with no hesitation.

I had two terrific grandmothers. They were alike only in that they were women true to themselves who loved their families and expected the best from all of us.

Edna Melin, my dad’s mother, taught piano in rural Missouri. She kept a meticulously clean house and was an excellent cook, making everything from dill pickles to potato chips, French bread, and tomato juice. She quilted with perfect, tiny stitches and crocheted bedspreads and tablecloths. If relationships are identified through inherited traits, she’s not my real grandmother.

Myra Cooper, my maternal grandmother, was active in community projects, Democratic politics, and worked in the family business. She loved music but didn’t play an instrument. She was on the cusp of the women’s lib movement before it was named. A live-in cook prepared her meals and cleaned her house. I’m the live-in cook in my house, but except for that, my life comes closer to mirroring hers.

When I was with either of my grandmothers, I felt protected and happy. They rarely had to set rules or enforce discipline. My parents did that. They gave me gifts twice a year, but my parents supported me, although we were far from wealthy.

But custodial grandparents feel like every day is what Mary Ellen calls “opposite day”. We set the rules, enforce them, encourage positive behavior and splendid dreams. We set high expectations and work to be examples for reaching them. We pay for the food and gasoline, for clothes and soccer fees. We chauffeur to school, parties, doctor appointments, and Brownies. We get to know her friends, their parents, and often their grandparents. We host overnights and play dates. We attend teacher conferences. We make sure that teeth are brushed and bedtime is kept. This litany isn’t intended as a complaint–just the facts, ma’am.

That’s not what my grandparents did, so maybe I’m not a “real grandma” after all. But, like I said in the beginning, it sure feels like I am—and that makes me happy.