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Mar. 27 2010 — 1:36 pm | 484 views | 1 recommendations | 21 comments

Practicality or passion? How to choose a foreign language

Lenin's Tomb Red Square Moscow 1994

Image by wordcat57 via Flickr

Should 11-year-olds be allowed to choose what foreign language to study or should it be up to the parents?

My son brought a note home from school the other day which said that 6th graders must now choose which language they want to start studying next year. The choices were French, Spanish, Italian and Latin.

“Italian!” my son said enthusiastically, no doubt propelled by his affections for Parmesan Reggiano, our former and very lively au pair from Rome and the descriptions of Venice in The Thief Lord. “Great!” I said, and considered the case closed.  And then I started hearing from other parents.

“My son wanted to do French, but I vetoed that,” said one. “Spanish is way more practical. More useful for the future.”

“I don’t know what to do,” said another. “My daughter wants to take Latin!”

That’s a problem? A daughter who wants to take Latin?

My friend’s husband continued, proving that parents can make anything into a problem, “And wait until you hear why she wants to take Latin — to improve her SAT scores!”

And so, being the impressionable mother that I am, I started thinking about my son’s choice of Italian. Spanish is the second-most spoken language in the world, after Mandarin. Italy is kind of small. I work at the UN and often wish my French were better…..

And then I remembered just whom I was talking to when I talked to myself this way.

When I was 16, on little more than a whim, and a desire to do something my older sisters hadn’t done, I started studying Russian. This was completely impractical. It was during the Soviet era, when the choices for Russian speakers were limited to academia or the CIA, neither of which interested me.  A lot of people asked why I wanted to take Russian, but my “why not?” answer was deemed perfectly reasonable, at least by my parents.  Russian language led me to Russian literature and history, a Russian Studies major in college, and later on a ticket to Moscow. I had amazing travels and experiences and then, lo and behold, the Evil Empire crumbled and Russia became not only an obscure destination but a place I could live and work and have even more incredible experiences and encounters with people who changed my life.

Thinking about this, I realized there was no way I was going to dissuade my son from taking Italian if that’s what truly interests and excites him. But it did make me remember one other thing: my Russian teacher was an amazingly gifted and dedicated teacher. I talked it over with my son and we decided that before he commits to a language we need to do a little reconnaissance and find out who are the teachers most likely to not only teach him to conjugate verbs in another language but also to show him a whole new world.

Oh, and my friends decided to let their daughter take Latin — in exchange for her promise that she will eventually also learn a language that people still speak.



Mar. 26 2010 — 3:52 pm | 263 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

Why do kids covet expensive, electronic toys?

This, in no particular order, is the list of things my son has requested for his 10th birthday: I-phone, I-pad, X-box 360, laptop, any cool-looking cell phone, and a motorized mini-motorcycle known as a pocket rocket that can take you straight to the ER at 30 miles per hour. In response, I asked him if there was anything he wants that isn’t electronic and expensive. He thought for a second and said, “nope.”

I think I got off easy with my older son, who was thrilled on his 10th birthday to get a Swiss Army knife, a book about whittling and instructions that if he was ever seen whittling toward himself, the knife would be taken away.

But this year I am left wondering why my son thinks he wouldn’t like anything he might actually be able to use during a black-out. What is the continued appeal of the gizmo, gadget, electronic toy, even though I can list several (UCreate computer animation screen, Nintendo DS, even the Wii), which for my sons were, ultimately, more exciting in the wanting/receiving than the having? Why don’t they see that the gifts that are often underwhelming to get, like the book about how to draw cartoons that I gave my younger son for Hannukah, are often the ones they end up spending the most time using? Clearly, they don’t remember those toddler years when they never had as much fun with the big gift as they did with the giant cardboard box it came in.

Maybe my son has become addicted to what those judges on American Idol always say they are looking for: a “wow moment.” My son wants something over-the-top stupendous, something he never thought he’d actually get, something that gives this year’s birthday the stamp of bonafide greatness. Unfortunately, I think he equates greatness with great expense, a misconception I hope is more a sign of his immaturity than of being terribly spoiled.

I want my son to have a “wow” birthday, too, but I’m just not sure how to achieve this given his current wish list, which I don’t think accurately reflects how he likes to spend his time, which is outside and in constant motion. Yet at the same time, I want my son not to over value the “wow.” I want him also to appreciate the thoughtful gift that was purchased as an act of love — even if it doesn’t require electricity to operate.



Jan. 15 2010 — 3:40 pm | 460 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

Reading, writing and abduction prevention?

You’ve got to keep asking your kids “how was school today?” even if the answer is almost always “fine.” This week, I asked my fourth-grader how his day was and he said “Weird. A lady who runs a funeral home came and taught us what to do if we get kidnapped and thrown into the trunk of a car.”

Say what?

Had I noticed the email from the school last week, I would have known that the school was hosting a special visitor,  a representative of an abduction prevention program sponsored nationally by the Dignity Memorial network of funeral providers.  According to the overlooked email (gee, how did that happen?) the program aims to “empower children and their parents by teaching them how to recognize, avoid and escape potentially dangerous situations.”

I appreciate how challenging it must be for funeral homes to find appropriate public service/marketing opportunities, but isn’t it a little creepy for kids to learn about safety from a funeral director?

But what really bothered me as I listened to my son’s account of the program was the extremity of it. It’s hard to know when common sense safety lessons cross over and become alarmist fear-mongering, but I’d say it’s probably when you switch from talking about what to do when you can’t find your parents in the supermarket to how to locate a wire and cut it so you can disable the car that is speeding you to your doom while you are trapped in the trunk. continue »



Jan. 13 2010 — 7:11 am | 523 views | 0 recommendations | 11 comments

Four-year-old boy suspended from school for long hair

A suburban Dallas school district has suspended a 4-year-old from his prekindergarten class because he wears his hair too long and does not want his parents to cut it. via Boy, 4, Chooses Long Locks and Is Suspended From Class – NYTimes.com.

What is it with adults and long hair? I’ve blogged about this before, wondering (and getting wildly divergent responses) when a child is old enough to choose his/her own hairstyle. Now we have parents supporting a boy’s penchant for long, curly hair while the school district says no way, it’s too distracting. The double standard is obvious here; I’m sure there are girls in the class with long, curly, distracting hair who have not been told to chop it off.

In our house, the battle rages on. Our middle school son loves his hair long — and stringy and greasy. I don’t mind the long hair, if he would just wash it properly. He is showering at the moment and I swear if I weren’t occupied at the computer I would not be able to resist sticking my arms behind the shower curtain and giving his head a proper scrub. His hair is super thick, but it’s still somewhat miraculous (not in a good way, obviously) how he manages to come out of a long shower and shampoo with hair that is still stringy and greasy.

My son thinks his hair looks awesome. I don’t want to undermine his confidence at his tender pre-adolescent age but there are days when he truly has a face/head that only a mother could love. What to do? Let him be until the hormones kick in and he suddenly cares what he looks like? Lop it off? Give him a hat? I think that last option would be against school policy. Too distracting.



Dec. 18 2009 — 11:24 am | 346 views | 0 recommendations | 8 comments

Mom Announces Child’s Death on Twitter

I can’t imagine criticizing the actions of any mother in the moments after her child dies, but apparently a lot of people are taking issue with a Florida woman named Shellie Ross who tweeted her more than 5,400 followers a half hour after her two-year-old son was found at the bottom of her pool.

Not long after that, a firestorm erupted on Twitter, with strangers wondering what kind of mother tweets during a crisis. The debate has been going on for days around the Internet, with critics calling Ross callous (and suggesting that if she had been paying as much attention to her child as she had to her Twitter account, her son would not have come to harm) and supporters (many who know her in real life, and others who have never met her) describing her as a caring mother who reached out to her virtual community during a tragedy. Announcing a Child’s Death on Twitter – Motherlode Blog – NYTimes.com.

My heart goes out to Ross, a military mom with a popular blog, mostly because of her tragic loss but also because she is, as noted on the Motherlode, experiencing the dark side of opening up to a virtual “community.” Even in moments of utter despair and misfortune, people who don’t know you or even read your posts will not hesitate to use their anonymity to take you down.


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    About Me

    I’ve been a tour guide in the Soviet Union, a newspaper reporter in Florida; an editor/writer/magazine publisher in Russia; a marketing director for Men's Health; a book reviewer for USAToday; and am currently a consultant for the United Nations Development Program. I'm a married mother of two living in a suburban house with a piano, a dog, and a refrigerator held together by a bungee cord. Unlike the people in charge of my children’s school, I think kids should be allowed to play on monkey bars even though some slip off and get hurt. Parenting is not an extreme sport; this blog is about trying to find balance.

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    Contributor Since: November 2008
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