Category Archives: Parenting Tips

IXL Blues

A few months ago, I was looking for a way to punish my children when they are slack in their schoolwork. I wanted something that would be measurable, tedious and difficult, without taking up any of my time.

Key Parenting Principle: When punishing your children, you should always take care that you don’t punish yourself along the way.

In my search for a corrective tool, I happened upon IXL, an online program providing a seemingly endless variety of math problems at elementary through middle school levels. At the time, the subscription cost was prohibitive, and so I mentally set it aside. It just wasn’t worth $12 a month to me to punish my children — after all, I can punish them for free, most of the time.

Some homeschoolers just cry out for punishment.

A few weeks ago, I became discouraged with my children’s math progress. One problem with homeschooling is that you don’t always know what you don’t know, or haven’t been taught. I noticed that several of my kids seem not to have a solid understanding of some foundational math skills, and it made me sad to see them struggle to learn, when I know it is because we haven’t prepared them properly.

And then it came to me from the mists of my memory: IXL is the answer! Suddenly, I realized that IXL would be the perfect solution to the problem — not as a punishment tool, but instead as a way to fill in the gaps and solidify their understanding of foundational math principles.

Doesn't the logo make you think cheerful thoughts?

As I often do with new, shiny ideas, I jumped on this with both feet. “Let’s sign up Rachel and Daniel,” I enthused to Kathy.

“Are you sure about this?” she hesitated. “They are pretty busy already with school … ”

“They can always make time for this — it will be fun for them! They’ll thank me when they take the SAT and get great math scores.”

Ancient Edgren Proverb: Waiting for your kids to thank you is a good way to build patience. I signed Rachel and Daniel up, and assigned them five sections each day, demanding they reach 100% ‘mastery’ on each skill.

Later, when I saw how much fun it was for Rachel and Daniel, I decided to sign David and Sarah up, too. Sadly, IXL ends after middle-school, and Joshua (the show-off) is taking Calculus. “Maybe they’ll come up with an IXL for Washington State History,” I told Kathy, hopefully. “We could give him a subscription for Easter, wouldn’t that be fun?”

<sarcasm>Assigning five sections of IXL per day was a wildly popular decision.</sarcasm>

Perhaps the coolest thing about IXL is the way they enforce ‘mastery’. In order to get to a 100% Smartscore™, you need to prove to the program that you really understand the skill. As you proceed, the questions get harder and harder, and if you miss one, you are given two or three more questions of the same kind, to make sure you weren’t just guessing. If you don’t make any mistakes, you can finish a section in about 30 problems — but for every one you miss, you can expect three more. In extreme cases, you might find yourself working as many as 143 (I speak hypothetically, of course) problems on the same skill.

Sarah and I dancing together, celebrating the beginning of the IXL age.

Another really excellent attribute of IXL is the way it enforces careful precision and accuracy. As with many homeschooled kids, my children are used to their teacher giving them all kinds of grace and mercy. If they can show that they understand the problem, they can often get away with small arithmetic errors without being penalized.

Not so with IXL — the computer doesn’t care if you cry — if you didn’t enter in the exact, correct answer (with the decimal in the right place, the proper sign, and in some cases, the correct units) then you get no credit for that question. Learning that sometimes there is no ‘give’ in the world is important, I think.

I wanted them to quickly get up to speed, so I told them all to go down at least one grade-level from their current grade. “Do five sections a day,” I instructed them. “You must reach 100% mastery before you can go on to the next section.”

Since there are between 200 and 250 skills for each year level, I figured we could knock off a year’s worth of math in about ten weeks, leaving the summer for their current grade level. I was so excited that this automated tool would solve all our Math troubles.

A graph showing an individual student's progress over the course of a week.

A third feature of IXL really sells it to parents or teachers — the program readily produces reports that show each child’s progress. With minimal effort, I can see how long each child is taking to reach mastery on each skill, and how many skills they’ve finished each day. You can tell which children are skating through the skills with minimal effort, and which are struggling. In less than 30 seconds, I can monitor a whole day’s worth of progress.

It wasn’t more than a day or two into the new IXL program, before the push-back began. “I hate IXL,” one of my children complained. “IXL is ruining my life!”

As it turned out, five sections was a bit of an aggressive goal. While some sections might be finished in just a few minutes, others were taking more than an hour. Sarah, my nine-year-old, was spending an average of two and a half hours a day on IXL alone.

Daniel working on his French.

Tonight, we had a meeting of the mimes, in which I gave each person a chance to speak up about IXL.

Not our actual "Meeting of the Mimes".

I tried to explain my vision for the program, and how it was going to be a huge blessing in their lives, but much of my pep-talk fell on deaf (and in some cases, hostile) ears. Eventually, we came to a compromise: each school day, each of my kids will spend a minimum of 40 minutes working problems on IXL’s website, and will complete a minimum of one skill (no matter how long it takes). Also, I will pay a bonus of $100 cash (or $200 toward Worldview Academy or a short term missions trip) when they finish all 200+ skills of a grade level.

This seemed to cheer most of them up a bit. Maybe in a month or so I will publish a progress report, so you can see who is working the hardest toward Math Mastery.


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Live at Peace with Everyone

A couple of weeks ago, I was reading the Bible at lunch, and I came across Romans 12. “What a great chapter,” I thought to myself. “I ought to memorize this.”

Bible memorization has been on my mind lately, ever since Tom Meyer (a “Wordsower”) recited all of Jonah and Nahum to us at church. He did a nice job, articulating the story of Jonah, especially, with lots of dramatic flair. “I wonder how hard it would be, to do that?” I mused to myself.

When I was a young lad, I had a great memory. One year I memorized more than 600 verses (on sheets of twenty-five at a time) so that I could earn money to attend a Christian camp. It used to be that if I scanned a page of print carefully, I could see a picture of the page in my mind for some hours afterward, and could literally read the words off the page in that memory picture.

This is true no longer. These days, memorization takes substantially more effort, both up-front, and in terms of maintaining the memorized passage.

In a family with five children, there are always relational challenges, and some even among the kids. Thinking particularly about verse 18, which talks about living in peace with one another, I issued a challenge to my older three children: “I’ll pay a dollar a verse for memorizing Romans 12, and a five-dollar bonus to anyone who memorizes it before me.”

Hold on, Buddy!

“I’ll pay a dollar if you’ll slow down, Daddy.”

Rachel and Daniel are eager to go on a youth group retreat (their first since joining the lofty ranks of Middle School), so they jumped on it, burning the ‘midnight oil’, memorizing in their beds. Daniel had the first eight verses down at breakfast the next day, and so I knew I would need to move fast if I was going to be a credible threat.

Joshua disdained the monetary prize (flush as he is with cash from lawn-work) but casually memorized the whole passage in one sitting. He was reciting it happily (and a bit ostentatiously) to himself as he biked off to do some lawn work. Sometimes we think he was accidentally swapped for some other child in the hospital. I can just imagine a set of wealthy and successful parents as they scratch their heads at their slap-dash, irresponsible son. “Maybe he takes after your Uncle Erwin,” confides the Dad to his wife.

Okay, you may take my picture, Mom.

Joshua, try Psalm 119 and get back to us.

Rachel keeps her cards close to her chest, but I think she is nearly done memorizing the passage. Kathy and I were out in the backyard yesterday evening, and my oldest daughter was inside, washing some dishes. “Do not repay anyone evil for evil … ” we heard her shouting, trying to make herself heard over the rush of the water and the clanging of the pots and pans. “Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody … ” she bellowed. Apparently Joshua was checking her progress.

Even the little two are picking up on it. “Do not be overcome by evil … but overcome evil with good …” they sing, as they run across the yard.

Where are the brakes on this thing?

It seems nearly every day, someone asks me, “So, Dad, how much do you have memorized?” All the little ears perk up as I clear my throat nervously. “Well, let’s see … Romans 12:1-21.” There is an embarrassed silence, and then another silence after that.

Finally one of them speaks up. “Um, is that all?”

I try to maintain a haughty dignity. “Yep. I’m still getting started. I do know the last verse, though.” I launch into song, accentuating my point with excessive volume: “DO NOT BE OVERCOME BY EVIL … ”

They shake their heads, sadly, fingers in their ears. “You’re not doing very well, Dad.”

Truth be told, I don’t really mind losing the wager. I’m glad to help the kids raise money to go on their retreat, and I’m delighted to incentivize Bible memorization in the lives of my children. I guess what irks me is how easily they leave me in their dust. I try to stall them, insisting that they recite the passage word-perfect. “After all,” I tell them sententiously, “the scripture is worth our best effort, since it is the living Word of God. We dare not corrupt it by sloppy memorization.”

“Do pauses count?” Rachel asked me. “No, but if I have to tell you a word (or correct a wrong word) then that counts as an error,” I told her. Already Daniel is down to five or six minor errors in the whole passage.

Some people might think it inappropriate to pay kids to memorize scripture. One of my favorite pastors was once challenged about this:

“Isn’t it sort of crass,” a woman asked him, “to pay your kids to memorize? Shouldn’t they be motivated out of love for God and respect for the scriptures?”

“Well,” he answered gently, “that’s an interesting question, but let’s look at it pragmatically. My kids know hundreds of verses. How many verses do your kids know?”

This boy knows a lot of verses.

If you’re a grown-up like me, and your head is already full of the things you need to know to work, or to raise your family, then you’ll have to apply some clever technique to overcome your handicap.

I have three strategies that I use:

  • First, I read the passage over several times, trying to fix the picture of the page in my mind, the way that I used to when I was younger. It doesn’t work anymore, but I seem to be unwilling to try my other two strategies until I’ve proven that this one is no longer effective. I think it helps a little. Maybe.
  • When that doesn’t work, I try copying it down, either writing it by hand or typing it. I look at each sentence and then try to type it from memory, going back to check after I’m done. This usually gets me to the point where I have the passage mostly memorized.
  • To get a passage word-perfect, I resort to my third technique. I write the passage on our whiteboard (or as much of it as can fit) and then I recite it repeatedly. Each time I finish reciting, I erase a word or two. Pretty soon, I’m looking at an empty whiteboard and am able to recite the whole chunk of scripture.

How ‘bout you? Do you memorize scripture? How much, and how often? What techniques do you use? Do you pay your kids to memorize, or do they do it for free?

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. -– Romans 12:1-21


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Tuesday Tip for Parenting — Passport 2 Purity

new logo A couple of weekends ago I took my oldest son away, so that he and I could complete the Passport 2 Purity curriculum. Almost two years ago, Kathy purchased the CDs and workbooks, but they gathered dust on a shelf in our mud room, waiting on my convenience.

I wish I hadn’t waited so long. At 14, my son is mature and knowledgeable, but the Passport 2 Purity materials were designed for a younger, less mature audience. Even worse, in the past year Joshua has really begun to exercise a greater level of sovereignty in his life, and is becoming more and more reluctant to talk about certain subjects. I understand it is a natural (and possibly unavoidable) process, but it still makes me sad to see it happen, and it made for some awkward silences during the time that we had.

Thoughtful boy
Still, we did have some good discussions.

We had a great weekend. As recommended by authors Dennis and Barbara Rainey, we organized the time around a recreational event, which I wrote about in an earlier post, Travels with Faramir. We completed all five of the sessions, with time to spare for questions and general discussion.

Lower Lena Lake (L3)
… and Faramir didn’t even push me in the lake!

The choice of theme verse seemed a bit unrelated to the study. On reflection, though, it provides a common thread that permeates the discussion in a very satisfying way. Christ should be the head of every aspect of your life – relationships, purity, studies, and so on.

And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.
Colossians 1:18

I’m not going to say a lot about the content of the Passport 2 Purity sessions, since there is some element of surprise to it, and I don’t want to ruin the event for any of my younger readers and their parents. Suffice it to say, that the material is an excellent way for a parent to begin to discuss the topics of sexuality, purity and dating relationships with a child on the brink of their transition to adulthood.

Backup CD Player
Naturally, we had technical difficulties, and had to scramble for a backup CD player.

One of the things I really liked about the weekend course is that it covers the basics without being too heavy-handed. The tone is light and informative, and Rainey repeatedly circles back around to emphasizing the importance of the child-parent relationship.

Perhaps the most surprising part of the material was the fourth session, in which the Raineys talk about purity. He quickly gets your attention: “I’m not going to tell you that the standard for Christians before marriage, is virginity.” Instead, he teaches that the Biblical notion of purity extends well beyond that ‘line in the sand’ which so many well-intentioned folks have drawn. Using the metaphor of a cliff-edge, Rainey walks both parent and child through an exercise of arranging various levels of physical contact in order, from ‘least dangerous’ to ‘most dangerous’. He talks about the tendency to progress through levels of physical intimacy, as a relationship extends in duration. “Where will you draw the line?” he challenges. “How much of your purity will you give away before your wedding day?”

These are sobering questions. Many parents of my generation are in the unenviable position of having to tell their children: “Don’t do what I did.”

my goodness

Were we ever that young?

Parents today cannot assume that their children will remain pure by default. Our culture bombards children with sexual innuendo and explicit images, through TV, movies, magazines and the internet. As one of my friends recently joked, a parent dare not assume that his children are innocents in this area:

Dad: Well, son, now that you’re a freshman in high school; it’s time that we had a talk about sex.
Son: Sure, Dad. What do you want to know?

Rainey works hard to bring the listener (both adult and child) to the understanding that a decision about purity must be made in advance, in order to hold to any kind of a moral standard. He warns that if you wait to decide what you will do when you are already in a relationship, you are practically guaranteeing that you will bow the knee to temptation.

I wish my parents had walked me through a curriculum of this nature, while I was still in their home. Although Kathy and I stood at the altar as virgins on our wedding day, there are lines of intimacy that we crossed, before we were married, which I regret.

Ultimately, an unmarried young man may find it helpful to think of himself as guarding his own purity and that of anyone he dates, in trust for their future spouses. I think this is a teaching that would have resonated with me, as a man who highly values honor and integrity. I think young Christian men are entirely capable of restraining their lusts, especially if they see themselves as honor-bound to guard and preserve the purity of the young lady they accompany. For some reason, this concept never took root in my mind, though it seems blindingly obvious, in hindsight.

Projects galore
The course included lots of interesting secret projects

Parents with eleven- or twelve-year-old children should rush out and purchase the Passport 2 Purity package, and start making plans to get away with your son our daughter for a weekend as soon as you are able. I strongly recommend this curriculum to your immediate attention. Kathy and Rachel are already scheming about their weekend away together.


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Tuesday Tip for Parenting — Tomato Staking

new logoIt can be rather difficult (at least over the long haul) to be a parent to five children. In spite of their shared genetic and environmental heritage, each of my children has been very stubborn about asserting their individuality. Just when I find a parenting technique that ‘works’ with one child, along comes another, totally different. It just doesn’t seem fair.

Fortunately, I’m blessed with a wife who assiduously devours parenting resources of all kinds. She reads books about child-rearing. She listens to parenting CDs and watches parenting DVDs. She reads magazine articles about child psychology. She even (gasp!) reads blogs about training and nurturing our offspring. Then she likes to bounce the various philosophies off me.

“I read the neatest parenting blog today,” she’ll enthuse. “They have some really good ideas … I’d like to talk with you about it some time this evening.”

“Um, OK … great!” I temporize. Rapidly, I switch into Supportive Homeschool Dad™ mode, which requires a cape, but fortunately, no spandex tights. (My apologies to those who are wincing at the image conjured up by my use of the phrase, ‘spandex tights’.) Mentally, I brace myself, because it usually takes a couple of hours to wring the maximum benefit out of each new discovery. As a homeschooling mother of five, Kathy is pretty immersed in parenting, and she takes it very seriously (in a fun way, of course).

One interesting concept we’ve encountered along the way, is the idea of ‘tomato staking’, as discussed in L. Elizabeth Kruger’s recently published book. (Actually, we haven’t read the book; Kathy gleaned this information off her website and discussion forum, known whimsically as The Woodshed.)

Dan the gardener
Daniel was very excited to be appointed Keeper of the Peat.

The basic idea is that as a parent, you should keep your children close to you, training them and correcting them as necessary, building them into godly young men and women. One problem Kathy and I encounter is that when a child comes to our negative attention, we tend to punish-and-isolate — that is, we send the offending child away as a result of their sin. “They need time to pray and ask God for forgiveness,” we rationalize. “Or at least if they’re going to sulk, they should do it where no one else has to pay the price.” But the truth is sometimes more sinister: we’re still angry at the child’s conduct (or they’re mad at us) and we’d rather not be around them.

Kruger suggests (and my sweet Kathy agrees) that it might be better to keep an offending child under close supervision (within a few feet) rather than sending them off to wreak more havoc. Some children, when corrected by Mom or Dad, will take out their anger and frustration on a sibling, if left to their own devices. Others will sulk in their rooms like Achilles in his tent, which rarely produces repentance or a positive change in behavior.

I’m afraid I’m over-simplifying, but another facet is a bit more proactive. “Why wait ’til your child gets in trouble,” proponents of this philosophy would ask. “Keep ‘em close and train ‘em up right, while they are still young.” Tomato staking has to do with spending lots of time in close proximity to children, teaching them in those more tractable moments, rather than abdicating their training to other influences, however worthy.

Planting the seeds
Painstakingly, we planted each of the peat disks with two seeds …

On Saturday, Daniel and I took Kathy’s van to Wal-Mart to get its oil changed, long overdue. While we were there, we browsed the garden center, since Daniel and I are full of money-making and money-saving schemes that have to do with growing things. We happened upon a cool seed-starter kit, and decided to grow our own tomato plants this year, instead of buying them from the local hardware store at $4 a pot. For about $10, we acquired enough seeds and little peat disks to start 72 seedlings.

We had a great time, when we got home, preparing the peat (it’s amazing how they soak up the water!) and planting the seeds. Now they’re under Daniel’s bed waiting ’til they sprout — we’re hoping to have enough surviving plants to generate a good, healthy crop this year. Kathy and I eat a lot of tomatoes, and they are not particularly cheap, even in season. Last year we garnered a decent crop, in spite of the cursed deer who ate the tops of most of my plants.

If only this were ours ...
Not our actual tomato harvest … sigh.

If you’ve ever grown tomatoes, you know that one of the main problems is keeping the vines up off the ground long enough for the fruit to ripen. Left to its own devices, a tomato plant will refuse to stand up tall, but will rather allow its branches to sprawl untidily across the ground. As the tomatoes grow on the vine, they are prone to rot and damage because of their contact with the ground. Small children who are sent out to water the plants routinely step on the fruit, and insects seem to delight in more convenient access to the crop. Sometimes the plants will start out with good upright posture, but when the weight of the tomatoes increases, the vines are bent and even broken. This seems especially likely in times of drought, when the branches weak and prone to be brittle.

A family project
Sarah and David could hardly stand being left out of this project.

Some gardeners put wooden stakes alongside their plants, and use plastic ties to affix the branches to the stake. Others surround their plants with metal mesh towers, training and supporting the vines as they grow upward. Either way, the intent is to guide and protect the vines, holding them to an upright standard. Kruger argues that parents who share their lives with their children perform a similar moral and spiritual function, fulfilling the instruction in Deuteronomy 6:6-9:

These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

Staking Tomatoes
A basic tomato stake.

It was a good day. When my children are filled-up with time with me or with Kathy, their whole outlook on life seems to improve. They tend to be more trusting of my heart, and more submissive to correction. They are much more apt to be patient and kind, and often will serve with a more willing spirit. The only cost is my time, which is not so bad, since I really like being around my children when they are cheerful.

Caged Tomatoes
Some tomatoes are so fierce, you have to put them in cages.

Tomato staking is a good word picture for the way that we try to infuse our children with the best of our wisdom, discipline and love for God. Thinking of how Jesus worked with his disciples, and how God works in my life, it seems a good word picture for more than just parenting. How many times have I chafed at being trained to the standard as the Gardener binds my life to His stake through the Word and the ministry of the Holy Spirit?

I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. — John 15:5-8

Project 366, retroactive, Day 82

L. Elizabeth Kruger’s book, Raising Godly Tomatoes, is available on her website for a discounted price of $14.95. Please mention that you read about it here — we’d like to build some credibility so we can, in the future, get a further discount for our readers.

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Out of Time

I wanted to post a clever Tips for Tuesday parenting blog today. Our new chore/house organizing is going GREAT and I know it would make an excellent blog.

After all, someone who’s been successful for a whole week at keeping her house clean should share the news with the world.

But, I was too busy doing school, breaking up fights, making delicious homemade meals (yes, that’s plural because I fixed grilled cheese sandwiches at lunch today), and participating in family fitness that I didn’t take any pictures that would accompany the post. And without pictures, our blog gets a little dull.

For example, it’s a little boring right now, isn’t it. You’re wishing I would break up the rambling with a picture.


Without pictures and the time needed to write a helpful blog on chores, I’m forced to ramble. Oh, I do have this one picture that I can share. It has nothing to do with parenting or chores or blogging in general but it was taken today.

soup in a bowl

I fixed a yummy stew this evening for dinner and made bread bowls in which to serve it. How cool is that! We’re practically our own Panera Bread. I made our family’s famous Mesa Manna bread recipe (created by my Nana) and then shaped the dough around over-turned (greased) glass bowls. They came out fantastic! I can’t wait to try it again.

I'll have some cheese with my bowl.

Sarah is hogging the blog photo attention these days but she’s so darn cute, it’s hard to resist taking a few extra pictures of her. Joshua is more than willing to give her his share of the photo time.

Sarah and Rachel don’t like stew so they had their bread bowls plain. Garnished with a little cheese of course. :) It’s hard to please everybody. Wouldn’t that be a great Parenting Tip post – How to Please All of Your Children without Going Crazy. Maybe next week.

Project 366 – Day 14

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