Why Studying the Past Helps Children, Teens View the Future

By Gail Kittleson

It goes without saying that war changes people. I would add that studying war can change a person, too. I’ve experienced this myself, and shudder to think of the real facts of our historical record being altered or whitewashed for students. How can they ever come to appreciate the common humanity we all share if they’re sheltered from the veracity of history, including the cruelty humankind afflicts on its own?

As an historical fiction author, I focus on the World War II era, where individuals learned about evil by surviving when that maliciousness was unleashed upon them. Those who lived to tell the story longed for justice and peace, and to put the hatred behind them.

One brief example of this transformation is memorialized not far from my Iowa home. Camp Algona, in a town by the same name, was built on farmland to house German troops captured in North Africa and Normandy. The citizens of Algona, as anti-Nazi as any other normal Americans of the time, had no choice but to accept the presence of the enemy in their area.

Thousands of German troops were processed at this main camp, and some were sent to smaller branch camps across the Midwest. But some of the most virulent devotees of Adolph Hitler, including officers from his North Afrika Korps, remained at Camp Algona for an extended time.

The army assigned a commander and guards from various parts of the United States, MPs and others who could not deploy for one reason or another. But a large share of the workers came from civilians, ordinary people from Algona and the surrounding area.

What transpired fascinates me—the prisoners worked in crews to help farmers plant and harvest, make hay and weed their fields. They saved Minnesota’s 1944 pea crop. Because Camp Algona treated the prisoners according to the Geneva Convention, many of them experienced deep gratitude—enough to fashion a three-quarters size nativity scene as a gift to the city of Algona before they were sent back to Europe.

In business interactions, friendships were formed. Some prisoners kept in touch with Iowans after they returned home. A few, facing utter devastation in Germany, worked hard to return to Iowa and start over.

This is just one side-story from a horribly cruel war. And here’s the irony—I grew up about an hour and a half from Algona. A couple of branch camps were about half an hour away from our family farm, but I never heard about the POW camps until the last decade. When I share about Camp Algona with book clubs, most people are not aware of this unique thread from the war here in Iowa.

As parents, we can help our youth learn from history and recognize themselves in stories like Camp Algona. Through research and proactive interaction with our school systems or home school organizations, we can help bring history alive to our children and teens—and bring home the thread of humanity that runs through us all. But one thing is sure, if we sweep the past under the rug, vital lessons about our common humanity will be lost.

About Gail Kittleson
When Gail’s not steeped in World War II research or drafting scenes, she does a limited amount of editing for other authors. She also facilitates writing workshops and classes, both in Iowa and Arizona, where winters find her enjoying the incredibly gorgeous Ponderosa forest under the Mogollon Rim. Favorites: Walking, reading, meeting new people, and hearing from readers who fall in love with her characters. Visit Gail at http://www.gailkittleson.com/ and www.facebook.com/GailKittlesonAut.

The Friend Question

For a video version of this question, go to https://youtu.be/C0EsCSnbCwg.

Q: My daughter is in third grade and is very different from her peers. She loves to play by herself at school and plays imaginatively in her room at home after school. I embrace her unique qualities, as does she. I assure her that God made her exactly the way she is supposed to be and she doesn’t need to change to fit in.

However, she is sad because she does not have any friends. There are none nearby for her to play with, and I have considered moving. I know she needs some down time after school, so I don’t schedule many playdates, maybe one a month. She’s so awkward around other kids that it is harder on me to have the playdate but I keep trying. She is in Brownies, which helps a little. She and I have been through a friendship devotional series and have read the American Girl book, Friends: Making Them and Keeping Them. When she has playdates, they are never reciprocated. She has never been invited to anyone’s home, even after multiple playdates at our house.

So I’m not sure what my question is exactly, other than do you mind telling me what you would do in this situation? I am struggling between just leaving her to make her own friends and working hard myself to try and find her a friend. Maybe I should invite friends from church over instead of school…I just don’t know what to do!

A: It’s always hard on the parent when we see our child ostracized or seemingly alone in the world, isn’t it? My second daughter (Second) was much like yours at that age—more comfortable being by herself than with others, making up stories in her head and spending time by herself. Now my daughter did have an older sister to pal around with, but Second did a lot by herself most of the time. I well remember several teary conversations with Second around third grade/fourth grade about her not having any friends.

A couple of things come to mind to help your situation, which I did with Second. It’s great that you’re talking with her and encouraging her on how to be a good friend. That’s important, even when there’s no one with which to practice.

I would sit down with Daughter and ask her what she wants to do about this friend thing. So far, it sounds like you’ve made all the efforts—arranging playdates, reading books together, etc. And that’s good because we have to take the initial lead in these things. But since it’s your daughter’s life, she ought to have a say in how to go about it. Ask her if she wants to continue with the once-a-month play dates or try something else.

One thing our family enjoys doing to help with the friend thing is to have “just because” parties. For example, one year, Second daughter invited six or seven girls from her class to come over after school to make chocolate-dipped pretzels for the holidays. That took the pressure off to invite just one girl, provided something fun to do, and allowed Second to shine in a different situation than a normal playdate.

I also gave Second permission to not do anything for a while. Trying too hard can be exhausting and discouraging, so sometimes just letting life flow by naturally without making playdates, etc., could be a welcome break.

It could just be that she hasn’t clicked with anyone in her class, and in third grade, she pretty much spends time with the same group of kids all the time, rather than switching classrooms like upper elementary classes start to do. I encouraged Second to seek out other kids who looked lonely or that they needed a friend—compassion is never wasted, and sometimes, thinking of how to help someone else can be the best antidote to overcoming one’s own problem or circumstance.

There’s not a magic bullet to get our kids to have friends (or even one friend), but helping them to see that there are options, that their current status isn’t permanent, and that they can decide what to do about it can help them navigate these friendship waters. And Second? She’s an eighth grader now who has started to spread her wings…and she has friends. Not a lot, but just enough.

Appropriate After School Schedule

Q: What is an appropriate afterschool game plan for a first grader and third grader? Can you give me some advice on how to handle homework, chores and bedtime for this age? What type of expectations should we have?

A. I love this question, mostly because so many parents start the school year without even considering what kind of afterschool schedule their kids should have. We get so focused on school, we forget there’s other hours in the day that need our careful consideration as well.

I’m of the firm belief that less is more when it comes to kids and their schedules. As a result, our four kids do very little compared to my kids’ peers–and frankly, they like it that way. Maybe because that’s what they’ve always known, but I think it’s because we give them plenty of time to be kids–carefree and footloose, so to speak.

Here’s how you can come up with a schedule that will work for your entire family. Jot down your priorities as a family. For us, it’s eating dinner together and having time to relax (in other words, free time!) and having a flexible schedule that allows us to visit grandparents frequently and do things together as a family, and keeping Sundays blocked off for church and family. That means we tend to avoid signing up for things that involve dinnertime practices or that have regular Saturday events or games.

Our kids have lots of daily and weekly chores. For first and third graders, such chores might be loading the dishwasher, setting/clearing the table, taking out the trash, making lunches (and making their own breakfast), being responsible for their belongings, sweeping floors, mopping floors, taking care of a family pet’s food/water, etc. I have a chore book that outlines age appropriate chores in my webstore (only $2.99) that also gives instructions on common chores.

Bedtimes for these ages should be between 7 and 8 p.m., leaning toward earlier. They will be more tired at the start of school and kids need lots of sleep! Sleep should be a top priority, over sports and other activities. Kids who don’t get enough sleep don’t do well in school, etc.

Some elementary schools are finally seeing the wisdom of NOT assigning homework or very little homework, especially in the lower grades, but if yours isn’t one of them, then my advice is to stay out of homework as much as possible. I set an end time that homework had to be done (generally a half hour or so before the child’s bedtime), and then let the child decide when to do it. Some kids like to tackle it right away after school, while others need to play in the fresh air before their brains are able to handle more school work. If your child is struggling with homework directly after school, you might need to suggest a break before homework. Give the child space to do it, and don’t hover, etc.

One rule in our house that has served us well is that we never signed any papers or helped with any projects, etc., in the morning—that cut down on the AM chaos and also helped our kids to make sure everything was ready for the next day the night before. Yes, there have been tears when a child realized she’d forgotten to get our signature on something, but when we stood firm on that policy, the child learned not to wait until the last minute on things.

Overall, make sure your kids have plenty of free time. Play is essential to their well-being and academic success. I’d go so far as to say that free time for play is even more important than organized sports. Free play develops your child’s imagination and rejuvenates their mental and physical well-being.

A Child’s Frustration

Q: My 11-year-old son has autism. Recently, he told me that he should not live because he will never be able to achieve his dreams, that he will not be able to have a wife and children because he can’t have friends and he has problem to follow simple rules. He’s also said that he should not belong in this world because he can’t stop doing noise with his mouth even if he tries. He can’t stop putting his fingers in his nose, and everybody finds him disgusting. He can’t stop reading at night when it’s forbidden. He doesn’t want to do chores because it’s boring and he finds it really difficult. He said his sister is always on his back and she is not playing as the rules (he’s right).

In the last year he has changed and become more frustrated. He reacts to everything like it’s the end of the world, where he used to smile and laugh. A lot of people intimidate him at school. Tonight it crushed my heart. Any suggestions?

A: It’s always difficult when a child expresses his fears and anxieties in such a way—kids feel things so keenly and they don’t have the adult experience to know that what’s their reality now doesn’t have to be their reality tomorrow or the next day or the next month, etc. And they lack the skill set to enact change, especially bad habits.

At 11, your son is probably starting to experience puberty in some ways, so his emotions are likely to be all over the map, which means he’s not able to moderate his feelings. Everything’s a crisis!

How can you help as a mom? Along with the following suggestions, I’d also recommend talking with an autism specialist to see what you can do to help him navigate this time as his body starts to change and grow more.

  1. Ask him to identify which habit he wants to change the most, then help him devise a plan to conquer it. Don’t offer suggestions, rather guide him into finding solutions that he can work on.
  2. Share some of your own struggles to change something about yourself—how you tried and failed and keep trying.
  3. Read stories or books about people who overcame hard things by perseverance, etc. Watch movies on the same theme. The more you expose him to other stories of perseverance, the more he’ll absorb that storyline for himself.
  4. Stop trying to talk him out of feeling like he can’t have his dreams. Instead, ask him what he wants to work on to achieve those dreams—show him how to break things into small, tiny steps. He wants to follow simple rules. How does that start? By breaking those rules into steps.
  5. Also tell him that following through with his chores will help him in other areas, like his conquering his bad habits. Show him more clearly the line between cause (do your chores even though their boring) and effect (he develops a stronger ability to keep with something).
  6. Remind him that Rome wasn’t built in a day—that things take time. That he’s been doing these bad habits for a long time, so stopping will take time too.
  7. Above all, remind him in both words and deeds that he’s loved and that he’s exactly who God made him to be, warts and all. If you’re a believer, then reading Bible stories of heroes who fell but God still used them can be of great comfort to kids.

A Parent’s Back To School

At the start of the school year, it’s not just the kids who face an adjustment—parents do too. From homework to teacher conference to after-school activities, this time of year can be overwhelming and chaotic.

But don’t despair—help is right around the corner! Join me, along with five other parent coaches, on Friday, Sept. 15, for A Parent’s Back to School Facebook Party, from 5:30 p.m. to 9:10 p.m. Eastern time. Here’s the lineup of topics each coach will discuss, along with giveaways and answering audience questions. Note: All times are Eastern time.

5:30 to 6 p.m. Coach introductions—the giveaways start.
6 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Parent Coach Laura Gray on Getting Your School Day Off to a Great Start
6:30 to 7 p.m. Parent Coach Susan Morley on Creating a Family Mission Statement
7 to 7:30 p.m. Parent Coach Trinity Jensen on Avoiding Homework Hassles
7:30 to 8 p.m. Parent Coach Sarah Hamaker on Scheduling Your School Year
8 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Parent Coach Liz Mallet on How to Avoid Micromanaging
8:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Parent Coach Wendy Faucett on How to Have a Great Parent-Teacher Relationship
9 to 9:10 p.m. Final thoughts.

On Friday, visit https://www.facebook.com/events/1892016571016178 to join the fun–you can ask questions, interact with the coaches or just enjoy the party. Hope to see you all soon!

 

Back to School for Parents

School all over the country is either in session or about to start, which means parents are gearing up for another academic calendar year much like their children. Here are some back-to-school tips for parents.

Image courtesy of digitalart/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net
  1. Don’t project. Whether you loved school or hated it or fell somewhere in between, parents should try to keep their own thoughts about school to themselves, especially the first few weeks. We can’t predict how the school year will go, so encouraging a child to have an open mind is the best thing we can give them.
  2. Don’t worry. All too often, if something goes wrong the first few weeks of school, we’re off worrying about the entire year. Kids pick up on our anxiety, so stay calm and remember that the school year is long and things can turn around for your child.
  3. Remember who is going to school. Hint: It’s not you. Your child is the one who needs to learn to navigate the school, teachers, classes and homework, and your child should shoulder that responsibility.
  4. Offer guidance at a distance. Don’t get overly involved in homework, etc. Provide structure when necessary but avoid becoming essential to the task or solution to academic problems.
  5. Emphasize your expectations. I’m not talking about grades, but about the kind of student you want your child to be. We’ve always told our kids that they should not be the reason a teacher can’t teach—that they should behave in the classroom. We’ve also told them that we expect them to do their best in school, but that we realize that will look different on a report card from child to child and subject to subject.
  6. Provide support at home. Through interest in their schooling to a good place to do homework to helping them develop an inquiring mind, let them know you’re invested in their academic success.
  7. Be true to their school. Help their school succeed too by volunteering where you can, being responsive with paperwork and teacher requests, and supporting the school in the community.
  8. Encourage reading. Whether it’s a magazine or the local team’s stats in the newspaper or a book, promoting reading will help your child grow and prosper.

What else would you add to this list? How do you prepare for back to school?

Homework Hassles

Q: My 8-year-old daughter is not doing her homework by herself. I have to remind her to do it, and she is always complaining and trying to find something else to do. She can pass two hours on one line of math problems. I know that she has some difficulties, but I always have to fight or remind her to do the work. I remind her I can help her to revise her writing and math but not when I am cooking dinner and not two minutes before going to bed the night before.

It’s been that way for three years and I am sick to push her. If I don’t tell her, she will not think about the work and will not do it. I have tried for two months and no success. 

Do you have any suggestions? She is not concentrating on anything she is doing. She is bright and very talented, but she is not concentrating on anything.

Image courtesy of photostock/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A: Until she starts caring more about her homework than you do, nothing’s going to change. You can’t make her care and you can’t make her do it. However, you can make her life uncomfortable enough that she’ll decide to straighten up herself.

How to accomplish that? By moving the homework monkey off your back and onto hers. I’d start with a chat with her teacher. Tell the teacher that Daughter has not been doing her homework on her own and that you will not be helping her complete it any longer. Explain that you fully expect teacher to give Daughter the grade and enact any consequences for not completing the work—and that you will support teacher in this matter.

Then sit Daughter down and tell her that you’re sorry you’ve been too involved with her homework, that from now on, her homework is her responsibility entirely. She must have her homework done by X time each evening (at least 90 minutes before bed would be good), that you will not sign any school papers after that time, and that she can ask you one homework-related question per week.

Then step back and let her handle it. Sure, she will likely NOT do her homework…but wouldn’t you rather her learn time management and how to motivate herself when the stakes are low in elementary school? This is a problem that will only grow bigger the longer you enable her in this matter.

One further thought: One of the reasons teachers assign homework is to see what kids are learning and retaining in class. Parents who hover and correct a child’s homework until the work is done to perfection are not allowing the teacher to see what the child might be struggling with and what the child has mastered. Teachers have a pretty good idea as to what lessons might need reinforcement when children do their own homework.

Should Parents Seek Counseling for Socially Inept Ninth Grader?

Q: My son’s a 14-year-old ninth grader. His principal has mentioned to me a couple of times that he thinks my son could benefit from counseling on social issues, as he is socially not doing too great. By not great, I mean his interactions with others are often tense and negative. However, he has plenty of friends and enjoys hanging out with them.

The principal said he’s heard murmurings from other students that my son stirs up tensions. But there isn’t anything that can actually be pinned down, like “You lose all privileges until you go four weeks without punching and hitting.” It’s much more subtle.

His teacher also mentioned something along the same lines. I’ve already been advised three times to take him for counseling (once from the teacher and twice from the principal), but I have little to no faith in the profession (based on past experience).

Just wondering if you have a good idea how to handle such a vague situation?

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A. There’s nothing worse than trying to combat rumors, especially in a high school where things can be easily distorted and murmurings take on entirely different meanings. I don’t blame you from feeling confused.

Remember, recommending counseling is their default position—it’s one that’s probably drilled into them as necessary for liability issues, etc. They’ve forgotten that most of the stuff like this can be resolved in the home with parents who are aware and who care about their kids enough to do some of the hard work. To many parents, counseling is the easier route because it doesn’t involve them directly.

If Son has plenty of friends, why is the principal concerned? What, exactly, does he think Son is doing to “stir up tensions”? And what does the teacher think Son is doing to stir up tension?

First, I would press them for better examples aside from rumors from other students because that, to me at least, has shades of the telephone game, where something someone said gets so distorted it has no relation at all to the original sentence. Since by your account, he has friends and enjoys doing things with said friends, I would question what they think a counselor would do. Most of the time, counseling is recommended for kids who have NO friends and refuse to do things with anyone (no activities, social events).

To have a 14-year-old boy who has some social issues is, well, normal, right? I mean, 20 years ago or more, no one would have been concerned if the boy had friends but made some social errors from time to time. Who doesn’t in ninth grade?

Once you have more concrete examples, then you can address it directly with Son. I would take him out for ice cream or coffee, shooting basketballs or whatever he enjoys doing, and just mention one or two incidents, that his teacher or principal is concerned, and get his thoughts on what happened. If there’s a clear pattern (like he defaults to sarcasm, for example), then talk about how that can be perceived by others. Then ask what Son could do differently in that situation. Help him think through how his own solutions would solve the problem.

For now, I would stress to the principal and teacher that you appreciate their concern—that you welcome their observations about Son—but since the school year is nearly over, you’re going to address this with Son yourself and see how he matures over the summer before considering counseling. You want the principal and teacher on your side even though you disagree with their conclusions.

Playing School

Q: My 9-year-old son is getting in trouble at school for playing games. He has also started missing assignments. He went to his room at 4 p.m. last Friday and Saturday evening for the remainder of the day. On Sunday, he had to sit in our formal living room for two hours to think about his choices. He has had no electronics of any kind, and still went back to school and played the games again. What more punishment will work?

A: You’ve fallen into the trap most parents stumble into at one point or another: looking for the magic bullet consequence to get a kid to change his behavior. But the fact of the matter is, there is no one perfect punishment that will make your son stop playing games at school when he’s supposed to be doing something else.

That’s because he doesn’t care about stopping that behavior.

Let me put it this way: Until Son cares about not playing games at school, he’s not going to change his behavior.

But that doesn’t mean you stop trying to influence him to change his ways with consequences. Parents should continue to do the right thing even when a child does the wrong thing. This is one of the hardest lessons for moms and dads to learn, because we want to fix the problem immediately. We want Junior to straighten up and fly right. And most of the time, children whose parents are consistent in applying punishments (but inconsistent with what those punishments are) will behave themselves. Not always, not all the time, but most of the time.

Image courtesy of nalinratphi/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Now, back to your son and his game playing at school. You don’t mention what the response of his teacher has been to his playing games, and you don’t mention what kind of games he’s able to play during class without the teacher noticing (which I assume is happening). Without some of these facts, I’m not sure how helpful I can be in addressing this problem.

So here’s a starting point. Use something like the report card method. Each day, your son has to bring home a piece of paper with either a Yes or No written and signed by his primary teacher. A Yes means he can go about his day normally. A No means he’s on lock down—restricted to his room without any of his toys, games, music, etc., and to bed very early (like 6 p.m.).

To get a Yes, he has to complete and turn in all assignments due that day or given in class to do, and to stay on task (no game playing, etc.). If he misses just one assignment or fails to stay on task, he gets a No for the day. He automatically gets a No if he fails to bring home the paper for any reason.

Each day starts new, with no carryovers from the previous day. Furthermore, you are only to ask about the report—not if he has homework, was on task, etc.

Plus, you support whatever the teacher or school wants to do in terms of punishment for his playing games in class. It’s essential to know that you are not going to bail him out for his own mistakes.

This might take a while to resolve itself, but consistence on your part without drama or overreaching to “make him care,” should get through to Son and provide enough of an impetus to change his game-playing ways.

Is the Pen Mightier Than a First Grader’s Attitude?

Q: My 7-year-old first grader received notice that he did not meet district standards for penmanship/writing the past two quarters on his report card. I have printed out worksheets for him to copy what direction pencil strokes should be made, but he just throws a fit and cries rather than try to work through the worksheets. We practice spelling words 15 minutes a day, five days  a week. He seems to have a laissez fair attitude about most things and seems to just not care. He is a left-handed writer. He could put more care into how he holds his pencil. He could put more effort into it. I ask him to leave a space the size of two fingers between words and he doesn’t. How can I get him to care? BTW, his reading level is ahead of his peers.

Image courtesy of kdshutterman/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A: I don’t think you’ll like this, but the short answer is you can’t get him to care about something he doesn’t want to care about. This is true of the child who is 7, 10, 15 or 26. You can’t make anyone care about something, so stop trying to make him “care.” He’s not going to, and the more you pressure him to care, the more he will dig in his heels and refuse. Save yourself some angst and quit trying to make the kid care.

Now, about that not meeting district standards. Our school system also has the same “grading” system that you refer to, and I get that you’re concerned about his “failure” to improve his handwriting. But good grief, Mom, he’s seven. He’s left-handed. He’s reading well above his peers. What more do you want from a first grader???

If you want him to begin to hate school and learning, then keep doing what you’re doing. If you want him to love school and learning, I recommend implementing the following changes pronto.

  1. Stop making him practice spelling 15 minutes every day. His time after school would be much better spent playing outside, jumping on a mini trampoline inside, reading for fun, etc. In other words, doing typical boy things (but without electronics) for most of his time at home after school. Don’t think of him as “wasting time”—there have been numerous studies that show the value of free play in a child’s overall mental, social and spatial/motor skills development. This is part of his job as a kid—to decompress, to let off steam, to figure out how the world works, so don’t deny him a good healthy dose of play each day.
  2. Let go of your expectations for “grades” at this age. It sounds like he’s doing very well overall, so please, stop harping about his handwriting! Sure, leave the handwriting worksheets around, but don’t make him do them. Again, at his age, his motor skills have probably not caught up with his brain, so forming proper letters is probably frustrating and hard for him. He’ll outgrow this—but he won’t outgrow the resentment and stress of your standing over him making him do handwriting worksheets.
  3. Get some perspective. He’s not going to fail first grade because he gets consistent low marks in handwriting. My youngest son went through the same thing in first grade and he still gets the occasional low marks related to handwriting in the third grade. While he has improved, we didn’t make it the be-all, end-all of his academic career in first grade (or second grade, or third grade…). We focused instead on helping him to care about doing his work to best of his ability, to follow the teacher’s instructions, etc. In other words, we’re more focused on ensuring he becomes a good student, not that his work receives high marks.
  4. Think of the future. Some people simply don’t have good handwriting. While penmanship is important, it’s not the most important thing your son will learn or accomplish. Think more about the kind of person you want him to be at age 30 than on the fact that he got several low marks in handwriting at the age of 7.
  5. Finally, make it fun. Last summer, I bought my son a handwriting book for boys so that he could practice on his own. Writing things like “Girls are weird” and other boy-things was fun for him. I didn’t hound him about practicing in the book, and I did catch him a time or two doing it on his own. Usually, my kids all participate in a writing club during the summer, where they spend time writing stories together. Those kind of things are low-key and provide practice in a non-academic, low-stakes atmosphere.