The Old Normal, and the Imperative of Self-Defense Training for Women

In light of the countless high-profile assault charges recently meted I challenge us, individually, collectively, indivisibly, to say no. To scream no.

I was “date raped” in college. I put that in quotes because I wasn’t on a date at all. We were merely friends, or so I thought, and he had offered to escort me home after a late-night party. He was an upperclassman, a leader in our social house, respected by all accounts and ostensibly charged with the task of getting me home safely.
Instead, he brought me to his room.
The feeling that sticks with me more than any other when I look back on that experience is the shame I feel for not having done a better job of preventing it.
I blame him, too, of course, for his calculated coercion tactics (“Let me walk you back to your dorm. It’s late.”) and his psychological maneuvering (“Here, we can just snuggle…” and not long after, “You know you want this, Jill.”).
A rugby player, he was significantly brawnier than me, and back then, I didn’t know my own strength or many tools for how to use it. When he didn’t appear to hear my protests, the following notion flickered at the edges of my jangled, buzzing mind: Resist and you could instigate him further … submit and, with luck, it’ll be over quickly.
So why do I still carry the bulk of the blame 20 years later? I’m not entirely sure, but I have a few theories….
First, I have reduced this person in my mind to the basest of characters, a coarse operative, if you will, a 20th century equivalent of the nefarious Shakespearean rogue who somehow plants himself at the right hand of the King. How can you require anything, let alone decent behavior on the most basic level, from someone so odious and depraved? He is a victim of his own awfulness. He must be sickening to himself, I tell myself. We can’t expect anything from people like this, so we expect everything from ourselves instead.
Here’s how this plays out in my mind: You see, I could have taken some right action along the way. I could have had one less drink. I could have been smarter. I could have predicted and therefore prevented the assault. How ridiculous and innocent I was! How stupid and naïve! How blind.
While those things could be true of every young, trusting undergrad, this misappropriation of guilt makes me feel less the victim somehow. It helps me take back some control. It helps me believe that I will be the one in control next time, should there be a next time. I know now that I wouldn’t give a second thought to acting “unpleasant” or “making a scene,” even though society constantly reminds us that it’s “unbecoming” for a woman to get angry.
Second, I believe that each person in any kind of relationship makes up half the equation. If you’re annoyed with your partner for being irritable, think on how your behavior exacerbates his impatience. You’re angry with a friend for not considering your feelings? When was the last time you considered hers? If your child is non-communicative, what could you do to help him feel he can talk to you? While it’s easy to heap blame on others, I do my best to own my role in every interaction, whether I’m the one who’s hurt or doing the hurting.
So how does this compute when the “hurt” is rape?
It doesn’t (I repeat over and over to myself). It is not your fault if someone abuses you. You didn’t “ask for it,” whatever you happened to be doing with your hips, like moving them when you walk, which is kinetically necessary as far as I’m concerned. You didn’t toss your head back in laughter to show him your bare neck. You did it because you thought something was funny.
And no, the abuse you’ve suffered has nothing to do with how carefully you considered your reputation – my girlhood warning to avoid emitting a sexual selfhood of any perceptible or desirable kind.
Which brings me to the third, and perhaps most difficult self-inflicted guilt-wad to deal with: the memory of my father’s reaction to the incident. I told my parents voluntarily because rape felt like less of a personal shortcoming if I could talk openly about it with the people who love me the most and had worked so hard to raise me well. I would feel like I had betrayed them less if I could tell them and have them understand and still accept me, regardless.
Of course, my father was deeply worried for me, as any normal father would be, and spitting mad at the upperclassman (I remember watching his knuckles whitening as his fists clenched and unclenched involuntarily). But in his state of shock and confusion, the words he managed to conjure up came in the form of a question: “How could you put yourself in this position?”
Oh god, how? I thought in a panic. I’ve failed them. I’ve failed at being a strong woman on my first go-round, my first chance at proving myself worthy of respect and dignity and real, untainted, caring love. I’ve ruined myself. It’s over.
I wanted to crawl inside a hole.
Despite all the shame, I talked candidly to the nurses at the college infirmary about my experience and made myself available to any other students who had suffered through abuse, on campus or in life. I figured that if we could sit together in the pain, at least we would not be alone. And while the option was presented to me, I decided not to press charges. That admired, affable upperclassman’s friends and family were, and are, none the wiser.
I am fine with that. Because I am wiser now.
In light of the countless high-profile assault charges recently meted – and to shine a light on a systemic cultural sickness that we all knew was there long before the avalanche of allegations came crashing down – I challenge us, individually, collectively, indivisibly, to say no. To scream no louder and louder and louder and louder until we are finally heard and the perpetrators back the fuck off.
We must dismiss anything that insults our own souls until our souls are fully restored. We must break the chain of sexual discrimination and violence against women and children and anyone perceived as lesser or different or weak – a chain that’s made up of centuries of generational links of learned hostility, social exclusion, androcentrism, patriarchal privilege, and sexual objectification.
We do this through sound parenting and education and programs that support socioeconomic equity. But we also do it by fighting back, by taking the attacker by surprise with a palm thrust to the nose and a knee to the groin, by shocking the playground bully with a scrappy uppercut to the jaw. We’ve been fighting for a long time, of course, and we will continue to fight until a woman no longer shoulders the blame for a man’s reprehensible behavior.
We clearly have a long way to go. Prominent elected officials and so-called “civil servants” commit and even brag about sexual assault and somehow manage to retain their positions. The Women’s Action Team in Brattleboro, Vermont, galvanized in the fall of 2016 “with the explicit purpose of advancing reproductive justice and combating rape culture and misogyny,” said filmmaker and photographer Willow O’Feral in an interview on Vermont Public Radio’s Morning Edition.
“(W)e are here to say, ‘we are not going to take this,’” she continued. “‘We are fighting back.’” O’Feral’s latest film, “Break The Silence”, features women talking about their reproductive and sexual health histories. Proceeds from the film will support a transportation fund that helps minors gain access to Planned Parenthood’s medical support and abortion services.
I recently worked with my sons’ taekwondo teacher to organize a women’s self-defense class. When I polled my online network to gauge interest, the response was enormous – astounding, really, for a loosely populated northeastern state known for its happiness index and high quality of life. Dozens and dozens of women responded, admitting they’d been searching for opportunities to build these skills, to feel safer, to know they would have what it takes in case … just in case.
Last weekend, nine women managed to carve four hours out of their Sunday to attend. One of them was my mother, who has been reeling from an unsettling encounter with one of the night watchmen at her continuing care facility. We each had our nervous tics, our hurdles, our fear-facing moments, our breakthroughs, but no one practiced those maneuvers with as much vigor as my mom.
I don’t think I will ever forget the sight of her, a 100-pound spitfire of a 76-year-old grandma, feet planted firmly on the floor, her small arms raised, palms front in the universal gesture of defense. “Back off! I don’t know you! Go away!!” she shouted. “Back off! Back off! Back off!! BACK!!! OFF!!!” Over and over in a voice so angry and adrenaline-tinged that I hardly recognized it as hers.
At last, the instructor (playing the advancing attacker), stopped and backed away.
When it was over, my mother stood there visibly shaking, her eyes ablaze with fight and fury. It was as though she was rooted to the spot, riveted by the specter of her own power. Slowly and very gently, the instructor came to her, kneeled in front of her, and took her hand.
“You won,” she said, with a tenderness that dredged a sob from the pit of my gut. “He left. He’s gone. You won.”

I Teach at a University and I Unschool My Kids

Unschooling rejects the idea of replicating the school environment at home in favor of self-directed learning through engaging fully with the world.

I’ve been in school almost my entire life. I started preschool shortly before turning three, I started elementary school at age six, I followed the standard path through middle school and high school, and then went directly to college. After college I earned two Master’s degrees and then a PhD. Even after that I didn’t want to leave. I now teach at a university.

As you may have guessed by now, I love school. I’m good at school. I’ve learned a lot through school. So it comes as a surprise to some people that I have chosen not to send my kids to school. Instead, we’ve embraced the philosophy of unschooling. Unschooling is a form of homeschooling that rejects the idea of replicating the school environment at home in favor of self-directed learning through living and engaging fully with the world. Below are eight of the biggest reasons why we’ve chosen unschooling for our kids.

 1 | I want them to learn how to learn

In traditional schooling, there is a heavy emphasis on following directions. It starts in kindergarten and often continues through high school. Even in most college courses, the recipe for success is laid out for students: Do the assignments as directed and get an A. Congratulations. You’ve succeeded!

I can follow directions like a champ, which is one reason I did well in school. Give me an assignment and I will follow instructions to a T. Unfortunately, I’ve found that this skill is next to useless in the real world (aside from tax filing). It also becomes less and less useful as you progress in school. In fact, the further along I got in school, the more schooling began to resemble unschooling.

Once I started working on my dissertation, there were no more assignments to complete according to instructions. It was suddenly up to me to ask questions and then answer them. This was a big shift for me and I spent a couple of years floundering with lack of direction before figuring out how to handle self-directed learning. An unschooled person will have a huge advantage in this regard.

 2 | I want to raise leaders, thinkers, innovators, and entrepreneurs

Anyone can raise a future employee who shows up on time and does what he’s told. It’s a much bigger challenge to raise a future employer — the one with the vision and drive to make things happen in the world. Of course, my kids may not grow up to be business owners. That isn’t the goal. The goal is to raise motivated thinkers who find a place they can put their passion to work, not just execute steps according to someone else’s plan.

3 | I’ve seen the power of being passionate about one’s work

Academia is full of people who are passionate about their work. Really passionate. Not “I enjoy my job, but look forward to kicking back on the weekend” passionate. I know many people for whom their job is not only their job, but also their hobby and their life. These people are wildly successful, not just by traditional standards of having prestige and money, but also by the more important standard of loving what you do and looking forward to doing it every day.

4 | I don’t want them to be afraid of math

Unschooling parents are often asked, “How will you teach your children math?” The fact that this question pops up so frequently shows that many people believe math to be arcane form of knowledge that can’t be obtained the same way that reading, writing, music, or biology is learned. I don’t think that’s true at all. I think the only thing that sets math apart is that people are afraid of it.

As a math major in college, I quickly got used to seeing pained looks on people’s faces when I told them what I studied. Once I was doing my homework on an airplane when a flight attendant glanced over said, “Is that math? I hate math.”

The school system is clearly doing a rather poor job at instilling a love of math in its students. Given the extremely strong correlation between loving a subject and learning it, I want to keep the love of math alive and well in our household.

5 | It will prepare them better for college

Some unschooling families don’t view college as a goal for their children. Some unschoolers start lucrative businesses, do apprenticeships, embark on their careers, or continue to educate themselves outside of institutions between the ages of 18 to 22 when many of their schooled peers are off to college. I believe these are worthwhile ways to spend your time, but I also believe that college is a very valuable experience due to the wealth of opportunities it places at your fingertips. The key is to be prepared to make the most of those opportunities. In my experience, homeschooled students clearly understand that they are in charge of their own education and professors are merely there to act as facilitators. That’s what it takes to be successful in college.

6 | It will prepare them better for the workforce

When you were a kid, you were probably asked at some point what you wanted to be when you grew up. What did you answer? Social media coordinator? Canine and equine massage therapist? Birth photographer? Mobile app developer? I suspect the answer was none of these, because some of these jobs didn’t exist when we were kids. Others may have existed but were hidden from most of us. We have no idea what the world will look like in 20 years or even in 10 years. Traditional schooling prepares kids for today’s jobs. Unschooling prepares them for future jobs.

 7 | They will know that preparing for college or the workforce isn’t the point

Becoming a knowledgeable and productive adult citizen is important, but there’s more to life that that. As someone who grew up as a “good student,” I admittedly sometimes forgot to seek out fun and adventure and even put building meaningful human relationships on the back burner. I’ve been slowly unlearning that since becoming a parent.

The greatest beauty of unschooling lies in the time we have together as a family enjoying each other’s company. We don’t have homework battles, we have adventures together. We don’t set an alarm clock, we sleep until we’re not tired anymore. We don’t leave early because it’s a school night, we stay out late with friends. We don’t just prepare for life, we live it now.

8 | I know that no one has all the answers

Being in the company of some very smart people on a regular basis quickly shows you how little you actually know. After a while, you realize this applies to everyone. No one knows everything. My kids ask me questions I don’t know the answer to every single day. There is no shame in not knowing something. In fact, there is great value in realizing that you don’t know something and then going to find out.

Like anyone else, unschooling parents don’t have all of the answers, but we ask a lot of questions and we dig deep, past common assumptions and social norms. I can’t think of a better example of a true education than that.

This was originally published on Pocketful of Pebbles.

What I Learned From Being a Test Subject for the F.B.I.

I remember feeling like I should have tried to disguise my handwriting because now I was exposed. How could 10 sentences betray me so?

At the time, I was a college student looking for a quick and easy way to earn spending money. The canoe livery could only offer four hours a week; the cafeteria was gross, messy, and too much like actual work; tutoring – as in helping other students learn and understand stuff – was clearly out of my skill range. The only thing left was to be a test subject for the psychology department.   

Psychology experiment subjects were paid by the gig, not the hour, upon completion of each consigned study. Qualified applicants were chosen randomly out of a rotating applicant pool and made anywhere from $20 to $100, depending on the source of funding. If the university itself was footing the bill, it was likely to be a sleep deprivation or caffeine intake study designed by graduate students and would not pay very well. But if you managed to get picked for an externally funded experiment, sponsored by a food manufacturer or an advertising hub or the government, you got paid significantly more. My junior year, I landed a spot in a field research study conducted by the FBI, Detroit Division.

The FBI funded a grant to study the validity of graphoanalysis, and my university had been awarded that grant. There were no stipulations or exclusions regarding gender, age, race, or socioeconomic background. The only requirement was that you had to be able to “convey written thoughts by means of cursive.” Effectively, they were studying the admissibility of handwriting analyses in a court of law.

On day one of the study, 25 of us showed up to a designated classroom and wrote, in our best cursive penmanship, 10 sentences containing all 26 letters of the alphabet. They were inherently silly with the requisite “z” and “x,” but one in particular made us snicker: “Just drive quickly past the zealot’s home, and be extra sure no one is following you.”

The next time we met, many weeks later, we each received a sealed envelope with our name on it and the results of our handwriting analysis inside. We were instructed to open and read the report without looking at anyone else’s. We silently did as we were told. My report was a list of statements under the heading, “Sample-biased Summary,” and it looked something like this:

  • You are desperately insecure but don’t want people to know it.
  • You worry about disapproval from one parent in particular.
  • You frequently hate how you look.
  • You care what other people think to the point of altering your behavior.
  • You want to be famous for doing something important.
  • You have a secret from five years ago that you haven’t told anyone.
  • You currently love someone who doesn’t love you back in the same way.
  • You have gone to extreme/immoral/illegal means to give yourself an advantage over others in your peer group.
  • You often think you don’t deserve the credit you’re given and fear you aren’t as smart as those around you.

I remember feeling like I should have tried to disguise my handwriting because now I was exposed. How could 10 sentences betray me so? The lady in charge instructed us to assess our results and sign our names at the bottom if we felt they were entirely accurate. Then she asked to see a show of hands from those who signed. Everybody’s hand went up. Everybody thought his or her analysis was entirely accurate.

Then the lady told us to trade results with the person next to us. I traded with a girl who I recognized from freshman English. I read her results and they were, word for word, exactly the same as mine. The only difference between our two papers was the signature. We traded again with someone else, and then traded again. Same, same, same. The whole group had been issued identical reports.

When the lady was satisfied that she had sufficiently blown our minds, she said, “The Department of Justice thanks you for helping the FBI officially discredit the theory of holistic and integrative graphology by means of the Barnum Effect, which is a phenomenon where we interpret vague statements as specifically meaningful. So while the attributes on the list seemed to apply to you and you alone, they were actually generalized personality traits of all people your age. Your checks will be mailed immediately.”

In 1991, graphology was officially deemed a pseudo-science, and the practice was banned from use in any legal capacity. They already knew it was phony, they just had to prove it.

However, the 25 test subjects learned something we didn’t know, something that may have otherwise taken us years, if not decades, to learn. Everyone is desperately insecure, everyone hates how they look, everyone has secrets and feels slighted in love. Everyone has done things they’re ashamed of and feels they don’t deserve to be where they are.

The $100 I received for participating in this study is long gone but the invaluable insight I gained has been more useful than a room full of therapists: We’re all desperately insecure and think we’re ugly, Just admit it and move on.

Coming to Terms With My Empty Nest

Now I go home and the house is clean, lights aren’t on all over the house, and there are no dirty dishes stacked up in the sick. I miss it all.

I recently took my only child to college and dropped him off five hours away from home. I would like to say that I handled it with class and dignity but then I’d be a liar. Truth is I cried the minute we arrived on campus (the athletic coordinator had the audacity to ask me how I was holding up), during the closing ceremony – which would have made even the hardest of criminals weep like a baby – and almost the whole way home.
If that isn’t bad enough I’ve cried at seemingly insignificant occasions for several days since. For example, when I went to the grocery store the next day and realized I didn’t have to buy milk this time I started crying right there in the milk aisle, with everyone looking at me like I had lost my mind. Strangers were coming up to me asking if there was anything they could do for me.
It’s amazing to me how big the hole in my life seems right now. 18 years of having him around, picking up after him, fixing meals for him, taking him to baseball practices and games, doing laundry at midnight because he forgot he had to have his uniform for the next day – all the things I used to complain about I now realize I loved. Every minute of it.
Now I go home and the house is clean, lights aren’t on all over the house, and there are no dirty dishes stacked up in the sick. I miss it all. If you had asked me five years ago I would have said I can’t wait for my house to be clean again and I wish he could just learn to pick up after himself. What did I know then? Do you think it ever crossed my mind that I’d long for the days when my house was a mess?
We parents tend to get caught up in the daily activities and the needs of our children and forget to stop and appreciate them while we have them. Most of us are just trying to get them through school and life without doing too much damage. My advice is this: Don’t complain – just pick up the sock and put it in the hamper. Take your time. Slow down and appreciate what you have been given because one day you’ll look back and remember that it wasn’t a big deal to pick up a pair of shoes or get out of bed to make a late night sandwich – it was something to be cherished. We complain and even yell at our kids to pick up their room and go to bed, but once they’re gone who is left to yell at?
I know he’ll be home for break before long, making a mess and eating me out of house and home again. I’m looking forward to that more than I ever thought I would. We have both grown so much in these last 18 years and while I’m excited to see what the next stage of life brings for him (and me) I can’t help but be a little sad that the days of him needing me are largely a thing of the past. Don’t get me wrong – him not “needing” me is a good thing because it means that we raised a self-sufficient, strong, independent man, but it also means that my little boy is forever gone.
And that’s okay. I did my job as his mother and now it’s time for both of us to move on and grow our relationship on an adult level. I know we will both flourish in this endeavor and I look forward to the future!
So hang in there all you moms and dads taking your kids off to college for the first time. I know all too well how hard it is but the tears and the missing them will subside and they will be back. In the meantime, work on yourself, rediscover your mate and your hobbies, and start truly living for yourself again. You’ve earned it!

Baby Photo Contests: Even the Winners Are Losing

Here’s what we all stand to lose from baby photo competitions, and what a narrow few stand to gain.

“He should be a model.”

Your child’s grandparents, your friends, and even total strangers have been telling you this since your child was three months old. Your friend keeps asking you to vote for her baby in an online photo competition, and you think, “My baby is so much cuter than that one. Maybe I should enter him. We have a huge extended family, so I’m sure he’ll get a lot of votes. And if the strangers online are like the strangers in the grocery store, they’ll all up-vote him too. If I don’t submit a photo, I’m really just leaving college money on the table.”

After losing hours scrolling through your last two months of photos, you submit your favorite. You spend the next few months constantly refreshing your e-mail, sure that you’ll find confirmation of what you already know: your kid is the cutest one in the universe.

The personal let-down of losing is hard enough, because you could already picture the baby room makeover, paid bills, a family vacation, and Ivy League tuition, but you’re not the only runner-up. Here’s what we all stand to lose from baby photo competitions, and what a narrow few stand to gain.

Runner-up #2: Logical reasoning

Some contests, like those run by The CuteKid and MyStarKid, run continuously, with new opportunities each month. Most contests for individual brands, like Gerber or Parents Magazine, are annual. No matter what the submission timeframe, the overall format of the contests is roughly the same: submit a photo and wait for the praise and/or money to roll in.

Well, you’re not quite done. If you want to win the big money (usually in the form of college scholarship accounts), you’ll need to pay the websites for your entries. At The CuteKid and MyStarKid, for example, you’ll need to pay $19.95 per photo entered. Well, you have to spend money to make money, right?

Wrong. You’re not likely to see a return on that investment because of how these competitions are organized.

At The CuteKid, for example, prize amounts for pay-per-entry competitions are linked to the number of contestants. The CuteKid has five age categories: baby, toddler, preschooler, big kid, pre-teen. If any one of those categories has fewer than 50 entrants, the prize money can be reduced. Assuming you want to compete for the full prize money, the absolute best odds you have of winning an individual category are about one in 50. That means that, even with the best possible odds, 98 percent of parents are wasting their money.

More cost-conscious parents stick with the free contests, where the odds of winning are even lower. As of July 31, there were 5,651 pages of internet entries for The CuteKid’s July “People’s Choice” competition. At nine kids per page, that’s over 50,000 kids competing for one prize. Even if you spend the entire month nagging every person you know to vote for your baby, your chances of winning are low.

In all of these contests, the second runner-up is logical reasoning. Our love for our children and dreams for their futures make it easy to ignore the odds.

Runner-up #1: Your child’s college education

Even if you defeat all the odds and your child wins the big prize, you haven’t actually won the cash. If you look at the fine print, you’ll see that the scholarships advertised by many of these competitions is not in present dollars, but in future dollars. The big cash prize at MyStarKid is $25,000, except that it’s not $25,000 in 2017 dollars. Instead, it’s worth an amount that is supposed to grow to $25,000 by the time your child goes to college.

If you scroll through The CuteKid’s website, you’ll notice an asterisk next to every single use of the term $25,000*, including on the giant check given to the most recent winner. To figure out what that means, you’ll have to dig into the website’s rules, where you’ll learn that the prize money is a $10,000 529 plan, not $25,000. 529 plans are great ways to save for college, but it’s misleading to say that your child is winning $25,000 when in reality she’s earning less than half that amount.

Because the odds of winning are so low, baby photo contests are akin to playing the lottery with your child’s college savings. Instead of entering your two-year-old in a photo contest, consider opening an educational savings account. If you invest the price of a photo contest entry each month ($19.95) in an account with a four percent interest rate, in 16 years you would have over $5,000. That’s not going to cover a college education, but it’s a start.

Winner: The contest creators

Your child is not going to win one of these contests. You know who will? The contest organizers.

As parent Buzz Bishop learned after his kid took second place in a Cheerios contest, parents who submit their children’s photos may see their kids plastered over cereal boxes all across the country without any additional compensation. That’s because while you own your image, by submitting it, you’ve given the company permission to use it.

If you submit a photo to The CuteKid, you grant its parent company “the perpetual right to use and edit your photos on our site, as well as for marketing purposes.” At MyStarKid, you’ll grant “a non-exclusive, perpetual, worldwide, royalty-free license to modify, rearrange, copy, reproduce and adapt the images only to fit the format required for product web pages and marketing materials.” MyStarKid’s terms even include protection for media forms that haven’t been invented yet. They can reproduce your image in any audiovisual format “whether now existing or hereafter devised.” They can do this in “any manner without further review, notice, approval, consideration, or compensation.”

Depending on the competition, you may have even signed away your right to sue the competition for reusing your photo. MyStarKid’s terms include an arbitration clause, which means that if you feel the company has wronged you in any way, you can’t take them to court.

Even the companies that do not reuse your images can profit from them, because they can still sell you. Some of the competitions allow people to vote up to five times a day. One reason for that is that the websites can then tell potential advertisers that they have repeat visitors to the site. Your frequent votes make you attractive to advertisers, because they can ensure that you’ll be viewing their advertisements five times a day for a month, and enlisting your family members, friends, and co-workers to do the same.

You already know that your kids are the cutest, funniest, and smartest ones in the world, just look at your camera roll! Instead of entering contests with near-zero chance of success, why not invest in what matters: taking hundreds more photos to keep proving that point to yourself day after day.

It's Okay for Your Graduate to Be Undecided

It’s even more acceptable to start college “undecided” today than when I was there 30 years ago.

As our kids end their high school careers, the constant question is “What’s next?” Not only are they asking this question themselves, it seems that everyone else is as well. As they answer the question “What are you going to do next year?” with what college they plan to attend, you can sometimes sense the apprehension. They know the next question: “What are you going to major in?” While it’s often meant as a conversation starter, this seemingly innocuous question makes some teens squirm. Some 18-year-olds don’t know what they want to do for the rest of their lives and, in today’s world of four year degrees priced at six figures, not having a clear focus is sometimes seen as being irresponsible.

I disagree. I think it’s even more acceptable to start college “undecided” today than when I was there 30 years ago. I understand that, especially with costs being disproportionately higher today, many parents are reluctant to fund four years of their teen “discovering himself” without a clear objective in mind, but I believe it is shortsighted to expect that such an objective can really be formulated at age 18.

Having worked with young adults for more than a decade, I also see the effects of parental and societal pressure on them in the form of depression, anxiety, and an overwhelming sense that they must succeed at all costs. For too many, failure at anything is simply not an option. The few students I have encountered without a clear answer to the common question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” seem to be distressed that they don’t yet have it all figured out.

seeking freelance writers to submit work about families, parenting and kids

Around the time my oldest entered college, I saw a sign in an airport: “The top 20 jobs 10 years from now have not even been invented yet.” This made me pause and gave me a new way to look at the purpose and methods of higher education. In the 10 years since, the truth in that statement has been obvious.

Those over 50 browsing job listings will likely see many positions that have them scratching their heads. What exactly is a “performance marketing wrangler” or a “course mentor?” Other job descriptions are easier to decipher, but somehow don’t seem like “real jobs.” Technology has, in some ways, complicated our lives, creating the need for positions such as social media manager, content marketer, influencer, mobile app developer, and virtual assistant. Technology moves at such a fast pace that it’s likely that students graduating college may start jobs that were not needed or even conceived when they first walked onto campus as an undergrad.

Especially when you consider the ever-changing nature of business in the world today, it’s okay to be undecided. You don’t have to know at age 18 what you will do for the rest of your life. While some professions do require an early commitment (for example, careers in some fields such as teaching, nursing, and accounting involve certification tests before you can be employed), many of today’s jobs are flexible regarding what field of study you pursue. Even those planning on going to medical and law school have flexibility in what major they choose.

Up to 50 percent of students start college undecided. As one who started college with a clear path that changed dramatically after my first semester, in some ways I envy them. When I realized what I’d thought was my career path was not going to work with the life I discovered I wanted, I was lost. I had no reason to stick with the demanding major I’d chosen and had no idea what I wanted to study instead. I dabbled and ultimately found my way, but the interim was challenging. I felt like a failure.

I am seeing similar feelings in young adults today. Those who have a plan seem to have the next 10 years of their life planned out. Those who are undecided tend to mutter and avoid all discussion of college courses. When I ask what classes they are taking for fun, they look at me quizzically. The reply is generally that they have no room in their schedule for “fun” classes, they have to work on their major. Many of them seem to be hyper-focused on the goal and missing out on the wonderful learning opportunities in the interim.

Today, the pressure to have it all together is even greater. The level of anxiety and depression seen in teens and young adults has been on the rise; they seem to see uncertainty or the possibility of failure as a fatal character flaw. When college proves to not be “the best years of their lives,” many young adults assume that they are the problem. Too many are wasting the cherished opportunity of this age: to try something new with the possibility of failure (which is nature’s best teacher). We should encourage our kids to take the random class that “counts for nothing.” This may be the class that opens their eyes to new possibilities, that helps them find their place in the world, or at least provides four stress-free hours of classroom instruction.

This is the time they should be taking chances, stretching to see how far they can reach, and learning how to pick themselves up when they fall. Allowing them the luxury to explore new interests without the pressure of committing to a single topic not only reduces stress, it can also give them confidence to try new things. After all, isn’t that how the innovators of the world get started?

Should You Freak Out If Your Kid Wants to Major in Liberal Arts?

With college costs skyrocketing, parents want to make sure their children are able to get a return on the pricey investment. So how do you best guide them?

“So, do you want to be a Sunday school teacher or something?” my mom asked, confused but attempting to withhold judgment.
I had just told my parents my chosen major – Religious Studies. The degree was far from a theological one. It was more a comprehensive look at the history, development, and impact of world religions on culture. The study fascinated me, and I longed to take every course in the catalog.
I did not, however, want to be a Sunday school teacher. Or a youth minister. Or really anything working in a church. That is a special calling, and one I was not equipped for. I preferred to stay with my nose between books, deciphering Thomas Merton and the Bodhisattva.
Outside of Sunday school teacher and youth minister there are not many careers to which a Religious Studies degree naturally leads. The same holds true for many liberal arts degrees. My parents certainly were not the first to ask, “So what exactly do you plan on doing with a Philosophy/Classical Archaeology/Theater degree?”
This summer, millions of parents are having that exact same conversation with college students home on break. And with due cause – with college costs skyrocketing, parents want to make sure their children are able to get a return on the pricey investment.
Should a parent freak out when their daughter comes home and announces a plan to major in Global Studies? Probably not. But here’s a few questions parents can ask to help their children think through their decision.

What do you hope to get out of this degree?

What did I plan on doing with my Religious Studies degree? Nothing. At least, nothing directly. “This degree will teach you how to read and write,” my professor assured our class. While most people would assume that those are skills mastered before entering college, I found that I improved drastically in both areas. I learned to read a variety of texts, parse and compare opinions, and think critically. I learned how to research thoroughly, formulate arguments, and to defend my opinions. These skills have served me far better than any direct knowledge I acquired in the program.
Ask your child what she wants from the degree. “A high-paying job” right after graduating with a history degree might be unlikely, but “a better understanding of the world” is a reasonable goal and an important skill that will (eventually) help land that job.

How are you paying?

If your student has taken out loans to fund their education, a cold hard look at finances is in order. That doesn’t mean that your thespian must forfeit the stage in order to pursue a petroleum engineering degree. Contrary to many parents’ fears, liberal arts degrees do not sentence their children to a lifetime of poverty. Attending college – regardless of degree – pays off. Millennial college graduates earn $17,500 more a year than their counterparts with just high school diplomas. And between the ages of 56 to 60, liberal arts majors actually earn $2,000 more a year than workers with more “practical” degrees like business and nursing.
It’s important to remind students about the world after the ivory tower. If they have their heart set on a low-earning degree, remind them that they will do best to keep their college costs as small as possible before graduation. It’ll take a lot longer to pay off a spring break trip to Cancun on a Francophone Studies degree than on a Business one.

Will you go to graduate school, and how will you pay?

“A Master’s Degree is the new Bachelor’s Degree” my fellow seniors on campus quipped as we tried to decide our future plans. As much as I loved my Religious Studies degree, I knew I would need something down the road. So I eventually attended graduate school for a (slightly) more practical major in Medical Anthropology and Public Health. This move landed me a job in public policy, after which I eventually became a freelance writer.
I realized early on that my interests and talents were not especially lucrative. I knew I needed to keep graduate school costs low so I wouldn’t be paying off a massive debt for years. So I chose an affordable in-state school, worked and used savings to pay off my tuition as I went, and my husband I lived as frugally as possible.
Many students – even those pursuing degrees more likely to satisfy parents, such as biology or engineering – will end up requiring graduate school to pursue their chosen career. About 40 percent of students with liberal arts degrees end up pursuing a graduate degree. Even if this move makes the most sense for your child, it’s important to keep the total cost of education in the picture is important for students.

What do you envision for your future?

It’s not necessary to have your life planned out at 19, but helping your child think through what they envision for their future might help guide their decisions. Are they picturing a life in academia, researching obscure 4th century texts? Non-profit environmental conservation work? Waiting tables by day and auditioning for Broadway by night? If so, that might explain why they aren’t too concerned about your insistence they think through their future earning potential.
Even if they have envision themselves in a more profitable career, their undergraduate choice might not be the determining factor. If your child wants to become a lawyer, for instance, their choice of undergraduate major probably won’t matter much – as long as they learn those important reading and writing skills and do well on the LSATs.
Money, of course, isn’t always the key to happiness, but a fulfilling and interesting job that pays the bills certainly helps. Help your child figure out if their degree can set them on a path to finding that happy medium.

Are you sure?

Even if there is nothing wrong with pursuing a liberal arts degree, it’s a good idea to encourage your child to sleep on it for a night – or a summer. Switching majors midstream can be costly if it adds on an additional year or more or study. Taking six years rather than four to complete a degree can add on $58,000 in tuition and decrease lifetime earnings by $52,900 – a total loss well over $100,000.

What else are you taking?

Between my Hinduism and Middle Eastern music classes, I figured I needed to take some courses that were more practical, so my senior year I squeezed in a few economics classes. While the lectures were not as riveting as what I was used to, I was glad to have that knowledge in my arsenal when I ended up working as a public policy analyst. Encourage a few classes that will help your student gain competency in fields they aren’t initially drawn to.
I only ended up teaching Sunday school once post-graduation. Suffice it to say, four years of college did not prepare me for wrangling a room full of chatty first- and second-graders. But I’ve never regretted pursuing something I was passionately interested in. In the end, a college degree is not the determining factor for your child’s success. It’s what they choose to do with it.

12 Tips for Securing Those Much Needed College Scholarships

Believe it or not, it’s not if you apply, but how you apply that may make or break a student’s chance of winning college scholarships.

Ah, scholarship money. Those coveted checks that are awarded to ease the pain of college tuition – not to mention books, housing, food, and all the other expenses that come with university living. There are thousands of scholarships available to students of all levels of school, from elementary to currently-enrolled college students. With so many scholarships available, why is it that most students assume they will never win one? Or worse, what about the student who has applied for numerous scholarships but still hasn’t won any?
Believe it or not, it’s not if you apply, but how you apply that may make or break a student’s chance of winning college scholarships. The high school valedictorian with a 4.2 GPA might seem impressive, but if his scholarship application is even a day late, he will not win. How about the student that worked in the soup kitchen, once? Is that truly a commitment to help others?
 
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Creating a scholarship application that shines in every way is the key to winning scholarship money. How is a student to do that? The following 12 unique and extremely effective college scholarship winning tips will give any student a great start:

1 | The early bird gets the scholarship

Most students will apply for college scholarships in the spring of their senior year of high school. These students have already been accepted at a college and are being pressured by their parents to find a way to help pay that huge looming tuition bill. The scholarships with fall and early winter deadlines have less competition simply because fewer students apply for them. Students need to apply early and often and let no scholarship deadline pass them by.

2 | Impress right out of the envelope

Have you ever opened an envelope sealed with extra tape, crinkled from over stuffing, and/or smudged as a result of a leaky pen or wet weather? Yikes! Use a proper-sized large envelope, seal it carefully, and hand deliver it to the post office to give an application the extra edge over the others that seem to scream: I don’t care!

3 | Claim a clean email address

“Cutesexybaby@abc.com” may seem sweet and innocent, but a 65-year-old scholarship judge will probably not think so. “CarolineGSmith@abc.com” on the other hand is clean, does not make insinuations, and allows the judges to read the applicant’s name one more time, which makes that student effortlessly more memorable.

4 | Use the social media Grandma test

Just like email addresses, social media usernames and postings can be searched for and seen by scholarship judges. Profanely tweeting how you hate school and then announcing how you sure hope you win that recently-applied-for scholarship will backfire. What is posted on the internet does not go away and students need to use social media to share their strengths, talents, good works, and accomplishments. If you would not want your Grandma to read it, you should not post it.

5 | Personalize each scholarship deadline

Students are so busy these days with sports, extra-curricular activities, jobs,(hopefully) volunteering, and academics. As each scholarship is found, make a personal deadline of at least two weeks before the actual one. Submitting scholarship applications consistently early will ensure that no deadline is missed and all required materials are gathered and included without any last minute scrambling and frustration.

6 | Cash in on local scholarships

Like early scholarships, local scholarships have less competition. Find as many local scholarships as possible and even create situations that qualify your student to apply. Does a local credit union offer a scholarship? Open an account, and then apply. Is the Lions Club holding a scholarship competition but no one in the family is a member? Call them and see if someone from the local chapter would be willing to be a sponsor an area student. If you are polite, eager, and excited about college, they will be more inclined to help. Many club scholarships do not require that a student or family member has to belong to the club in order to apply for their scholarship, so always check guidelines before making assumptions.

7 | Go high school website hopping

Most high schools list local scholarships on their websites. Don’t settle for just your own high school site, however. Click on over to all other area high school websites and check out their scholarship lists. Take this idea step further and visit college websites in your state. Many list scholarships for all students in that state and not just for accepted or current students of that college. Read the guidelines for each scholarship carefully and make sure all requirements are met before beginning the application process.

8 | Label yourself

Create labels with the student’s name, address, phone number, and name of each scholarship to stick on all pages of each scholarship application. When scholarship judges have stacks of applications to read, pages often become separated, and trying to find the rightful owner is an easy reason for the application to get placed into the reject pile.

9 | Read the newspaper

Most newspapers have a “Names in the News” section announcing local accomplishments and awards won by area residents. Start reading this section daily and write down the names of local scholarships won by students who live in your area. By doing this, parents will soon have a very long detailed list of local scholarships their students can apply for the following school year.

10 | Resist the urge to text-type

Although more and more people are using texting as a form of communication, students need to resist the urge to text-type in their scholarship applications. A scholarship judge will have no patience for an application filled with lack of punctuation, non-use of capitalization, and abbreviations that require guessing. YKWIM? (You Know What I Mean? See, wasn’t that annoying?)

11 | Get past the first 30 seconds

When a scholarship judge has piles of applications to wade through, the first glance at each application can make or break its chances of being placed into the possible winners pile. Having no blank spaces, all required materials in the proper order, and nice neat paperwork will keep a student’s application out of that dreaded reject pile. This tip also goes for online-only applications. All uploads need to be attached properly and each submission guideline followed exactly as stated in the scholarship requirements.

12 | Know the numbers

Unless the scholarship guidelines specify a certain income level, students can go ahead and apply for the award if they feel they truly have financial need. Don’t assume your family makes too much money to apply. Some organizations consider any income under $100,000 as “needy” and many do not ask for financial information at all. Need I say more?
There’s no denying that smart students win college scholarships, but learning to smartly apply is the real key. Students need to use creative methods of finding and applying for scholarships and submit 100 percent complete applications. This will automatically increase their chances of winning and help them find even more money for college.

How Colleges Use Kids' Social Media Feeds

Colleges expect prospective students to have social media. And they’re probably going to look.

Hey, all you college-bound kids: What’s the easiest thing you can do to impress prospective schools? It’s not your GPA. It’s not the debate team. It’s your Facebook – and your Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube, and any other social media feeds that colleges can see. And yes, they’re looking. Get answers to the most important questions about what colleges want to see.
Should I delete my social media or make it all private?
Making it private is a good idea anyway. On most social media, a private account means your name won’t come up in search results, and it limits your digital footprint (how much stuff about you is available on the web). You don’t have to delete your accounts, though. Colleges expect prospective students to have social media.
Do I have to delete every single party pic of me and my friends?
No. Actually, colleges like to see that you’re a well-rounded person with a healthy social life. The main thing that could hurt you is posts that reflect poor judgment. When Harvard College got wind of offensive material being posted to a group chat by incoming freshmen, it rescinded acceptance letters to 10 students. That’s one reason not to post that kind of stuff. Get rid of any photos and videos that contain inappropriate behavior such as drinking, sexy stuff, and lots of swearing — and no hostile speech, rudeness, or negative tweets about a school that you’re applying to.
 
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The college I’m interested in contacted me through Facebook. Doesn’t that mean that they’re cool and won’t care about my “youthful indiscretions”?
Nope. College marketers use social media to reach teens (and maybe to seem cool, too). But be careful: Replying to the school through your social media (instead of your email account) allows them to view your account. So make sure it’s a fairly good reflection of who you are before you start the process.
I once got in a public war of words with someone not on my social media but on another online forum. Will that hurt me?
It might. If you posted under the same username that you use on your other public social media, there’s a record of your rants and hostile posts, and it could come up when the school Googles you. You can’t go back in time and revise what you wrote. So make sure that the primary account you want the college to see is clean. And if you feel like sounding off in a public forum, make your posts constructive and cordial.
Will the weird stuff I like on other people’s social media reflect negatively on me?
Probably not — unless it’s illegal, extremely antisocial, or disturbing and it makes up the bulk of your feed.
Could the school look poorly on me if I follow provocative figures on social media?
It’s unlikely that they would use this against you unless the majority of people you follow are very extreme and highly controversial. That could show that you’re not open to different points of view, which could be problematic in college. If you’re interested in a topic, seek out a range of opinions. Also, follow people who are influential in the area you’re interested in — including the colleges you’re applying to. It will help you learn about the field — and hey, if the school notices, it shows you’re serious.
What should I do if I think a school unfairly disqualified me because of my social media?
Because colleges receive so many qualified applications, they’re typically looking at social media to see if it tips the scales in anyone’s favor — not to dig up dirt. Maybe another applicants’ social media just made that person seem like a better match for the school. But if you think a skeleton in your Facebook closet came back to haunt you, you can contact admissions and find out.
Do my likes, followers, and other indicators of social media popularity help me or hurt me in the college admissions process?
If you’ve actively pursued a specific passion — say, music, photography, or even the evolution of the shoe from ancient times to present — and you’ve cultivated an active, engaged audience on social media, that’s a plus. College admissions will see that you have drive and initiative. On the other hand, having a big audience for more typical random teen interests, such as internet memes and cat videos, may not even register (and won’t be held against you).
Should I groom my social media specifically to look good for colleges?
Some colleges do want to see social media that’s more résumé-like. You can ask admissions how much it will be considered. For the most part, your social media should reflect who you really are — well, maybe a slightly spiffier you. Make sure you don’t exaggerate your achievements, though! (Colleges fact-check awards and accolades.) You probably won’t be happy at a college that chooses you based on a sanitized, highly curated version of you. But you should demonstrate that you’re aware that someone you want to impress is viewing.
Written by Caroline Knorr for Common Sense Media.

10 Things Every Teen Should Know Before Leaving Home

A strong knowledge of the things that matter most, like who we are and what we stand for, can help make our children impermeable.

Sending a newly adult child off to college or into the working world takes a bit of a leap of faith. After all, most of our kids are barely 18 when they leave for college, the armed services, or to pursue work. We know that part of them is grown up and part of them still wants us to accompany them to a doctor’s appointment or comfort them in the middle of the night after a particularly troublesome nightmare.
We are often keenly aware of the things they don’t yet know.
Maybe understanding that they’re not full grown is part of what makes it so hard for us to see them go. We wonder what will happen to them out there in the world. After all, we’ve been there. We know what’s involved. We worry that others will influence them or try to steer them the wrong way. Will they make the right choices?
It is said that knowledge is power. A strong knowledge of the things that matter most, like who we are and what we stand for, can help make our children impermeable. Here are 10 things every parent should make sure their child knows before they leave home:

1 | How they learn

It’s important that we know our temperaments and how we learn. Every teen should understand whether they are visual, aural, physical, or verbal learners. There are other styles of learning as well. Understanding how they learn will help them do well in school.
For example, aural or verbal learners will want to attend every college lecture so that they can hear the material presented while a visual learner will want to save some time to read the material on his or her own. Some learn by doing; others do better with instruction.
Knowing how they learn best also includes understanding their sleeping and waking patterns. What time of day do they feel most awake? What motivates them to study or to work hard? What offers their biggest distraction?

2 | How to live in the present

“The Power of Now” by Eckert Tolle is a great treatise on what it means to live in the present. Living in the present produces a richer life, because we are more focused on what we are doing when we are doing it. Sometimes we rush through our days so quickly that we don’t even remember eating that fresh bagel or seeing the sun come up.
Also, focusing on the present diminishes both regret and worry. Things that happened in the past and cannot be changed won’t produce as much anxiety if we don’t allow ourselves to dwell on them. Similarly, living in the present teaches us not to worry about the future.
A particularly unnerving presentation scheduled for tomorrow should be prepared today and then not worried about until tomorrow. Worrying about a scary event in the future just means that we will live through the event more than once, each and every time we think about it. Life experience often proves that things are never as bad as we anticipate them to be anyway.
 
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3 | To help others

It’s difficult to remain sad or angry when reaching out to help someone. When we focus on looking around us to find someone who might need our help, we forget about our own struggle.
We’ve all read studies suggesting that helping others produces a flow of positive brain chemicals, which make our moods happier anyway. Sometimes reaching out to someone in need reminds us that what we’ve decided is particularly troublesome actually isn’t all that bad.

4 | There’s no such thing as deserving something

We must earn what we get every step of the way. To conclude that we deserve is to stop trying. Our children should understand the hard work and sacrifice that went into earning the funds that allow them to go to college or simply to raise them this far.
One never gets ahead or does much for the world by thinking they are entitled to things. We must teach our children to have the expectation to work hard for everything they get. When we’re busy working hard, good things will come, like good grades, promotions, and financial security.

5 | There is more value in listening than in speaking

We already know our own opinions. We learn much more by listening to someone else’s.
Good listeners are people that others like to have around and are sought out as friends. Everyone likes to feel that they’re being listened to when they speak. Effective listening means paying attention to the speaker, his tone, his body language, and his message, and waiting to be sure we understand what was said before jumping in.
I once knew a professor who paused 10 to 20 seconds before ever responding to another person’s comment or question. While sometimes the pause seemed long, I can guarantee he never put his foot in his mouth.

6 | Positive energy begets positive energy

This particular lesson is one our teens often learn by doing. During the testy high school years, I would tell my moody teens to go to school and do positive acts and say positive things all day long. They would inevitably return home with stories of kind things their friends and teachers said and did back for them.
The world is like a mirror. It reflects the image we show it. The more positive we are, the more we will attract and feel positive things around us.

7 | To stand up for what they believe in

But first, they should do their research and be certain they understand and agree with what they promote. There’s a lot of bias out there, so we need to investigate for ourselves before taking a position.
Teens need to understand the importance of not taking someone else’s word for it or adopting someone else’s point of view on important issues, especially when they get to college where some students and professors are activist in nature. Chances are there will be more to the issue than originally led to believe.
Teens need to be mindful about what they take in. Everything they absorb from books, television, movies, and social media can and will have an influence on them. Just as advertising is intended to sway how consumers feel about something, often art, music, and entertainment media have a message or agenda. Encourage your teens not to take everything at face value and to understand that people sometimes act with the intent of influencing others – especially young people still trying to figure things out for themselves.

8 | They should do their best

Putting our best out into the world is a question of branding. Ask your teen to consider what they want their brand to be. In other words, what do they want to be known for? Just like Apple Inc. is known for cutting-edge technology, we as individual members of society are known for what we produce.
If a teen does sloppy work at his night job, he will be known as lazy. If a college student gets into trouble for being rowdy on campus, he will be known to the college (and perhaps to prospective employers later) as troublesome. Reputations can be difficult to erase. Teens should make sure their brand is something they can always be proud of.

9 | Where they come from and why

When teens get out into the world, they begin to see things differently. They begin to question their parents’ beliefs and why they hold them. These are important foundational questions.
Teens have the right to know what their parents stand for and why they live the way they do. Understanding where their parents come from will help young adults sort through the deluge of opinions and begin to form their own based on thought and reason. This will also prepare them for people they meet who want to sway their opinions.

10 | No one can take away their beliefs, or their honor

In the end, whatever happens to us, the only things we can always claim as our own are what we believe in and how we choose to behave. When asked to say or do things they don’t believe in, teens should understand that it’s important to hold on to their principles.
That for which we are willing to stand defines our identities. It’s what drives us. We need to identify those principles and not give them up easily. What we say and do are of paramount importance if we are to make a positive mark on this world.
Not every teen leaves home ready to think about profound issues. But, as their parents, we can at least start them down the path and know that we’re sending them off prepared for the next stage of their journeys.