Growing Down: What Mothering Has Taught Me

From becoming more responsible to reliving my favorite stories with my children, being a parent has been a blast! While it has helped me “grow up” I have most certainly grown down. I am still new to the extremely rewarding field of being a mother. My oldest child is three years old and I have a set of twins that just turned one. I know the years ahead will bring much more adventure, but I’ve learned so much in my three years of motherhood.

Continue reading Growing Down: What Mothering Has Taught Me

I Need to Fun More

I know it’s not a verb, the word “fun,” but maybe it should be. Forcing me to use the word “have” before it, making it something I must acquire, adds that much more distance to the goal, an extra obstacle I must overcome before reaching my desired level of happiness.
Continue reading I Need to Fun More

STEM Strewing

You can’t go very far these days without hearing someone talk about STEM.



Why is STEM so important? Are your kids getting enough STEM at home? Should you incorporate more STEM into your day? And, if so, how? Continue reading STEM Strewing

10 Reasons You Need to Drop Everything and Build a Fort… Right Now

One time, as a child, I built a fantastic fort that withstood four New England winters.

I was so proud of it! I would spend entire afternoons holed up in that sacred place. I’d get lost in an imaginary world, or while away the hours lost in a favorite book. I’d love to know how many books were read in that space!

Of course, my brothers and I built many forts over the years, both indoors and outdoors, but the outdoor forts reigned supreme. Continue reading 10 Reasons You Need to Drop Everything and Build a Fort… Right Now

The House of Chaos: Surviving Family ADHD

One of the first articles I pitched to GeekMom, in the application to be a writer here, was a piece on the incentive program we’d set up in our house, so our children would earn their screentime through chores and good behavior.

But by the time I actually started here, our program required a complete overhaul, on account of it no longer working.

Maybe I’d wait until the new plan took hold and write about the evolution of the process. But other topics distracted me before I got around to it, and now the new improved program has tapered off, too.

Well. I could hardly be the one to plug a successful incentive program now. Not that that’s the program’s fault. It’s all on me. You see, you need a grown-up to administer an incentive program.

And I need a grown-up. It’s possible this entire household needs a grown-up. Continue reading The House of Chaos: Surviving Family ADHD

Portcullis Peeps: What They Are and How to Find Them

Do you guys remember this post in which  I shared a story about a little boy, a garden trellis, a portcullis, and Google?

Oh, and I also used the dreaded g-word.  Continue reading Portcullis Peeps: What They Are and How to Find Them

Do You Pinterest?

“No, I prefer Quarterest. I don’t gallonterest because they charge.” – my witty fourteen-year-old.

I could browse through Pinterest for hours, and have. It’s a great place to waste time, to find oodles of inspiration. As a mom and writer, I love Pinterest. And now that I can keep some boards secret, I love it even more. In addition to being the keeper of the family schedule, I also coordinate our teacher gifts, Halloween costumes, and meals. As a writer, I could use a little inspiration to get me back on task, while keeping track of all the ideas that gradually coalesce into a writing project.

I am by no means a Pinterest pro. But other than the usual Food, Fashion, and Fun Boards, here are a few ideas on how to use Pinterest to organize our crazy lives: Continue reading Do You Pinterest?

In Defense of Hypocrisy

I’m a hypocrite. There, I said it. I’ve heard it from my kids before (they’re 14, 11, and 9, and quick to point out the unfairness of different rules for different kids, and I too am included in this), and as I strive to be the perfect parent, always practicing what I preach, it’s a tough criticism to encounter.

But frankly, my kids and I are not equals, our lives are not to be viewed as being on a level playing field, and I refuse to feel guilty for it. In fact, I would argue that being a hypocrite makes me a better parent.
Continue reading In Defense of Hypocrisy

5 Things The Lazy Parenting Method Taught My Kid

I am lazy. Like, Capital L Capital A Capital Z Capital Y Lazy. All my hobbies involve sitting. I read. I knit. Here I am writing while sitting.

The last time I did something physical? I took my kid’s pink daisy Razor scooter down the ramp at the skate park and broke my leg THROUGH my leg. Let me tell you, three months of recovery on the couch reaffirmed my Philosophy of Lazy Parenting.

The Lazy Parenting Method (patent pending) is a method in which you do very little work for your child while they do a lot of work for themselves. See all those moms out there lugging their children’s things? Ohhhh no. That is Too Much Work for Me. The Lazy Parenting Method requires that you look at all the things you do and triage which ones don’t really need to be done by you. This way you save energy because that little succubus that you birthed is just waiting to steal all of it.

Continue reading 5 Things The Lazy Parenting Method Taught My Kid

Trying Not to Raise Kylo Ren

I can’t stop thinking about Kylo Ren.

There’s no way to explain this without the nitty-gritty details, so if you’re still avoiding The Force Awakens spoilers (I know, you’re a parent, getting out of the house is hard!), you might want to stop here. But even if you never intend to see it and you hate Star Wars and you just wish the hype would die already—you, on the other hand, can keep reading. You should keep reading. Because this post (like my last Star Wars post) isn’t actually about Star Wars. Not really. It’s about what it means to be bad, and what it’s like to wonder if your child could ever fall to the Dark Side. Star Wars, like all good stories, is a metaphor for real life.

Continue reading Trying Not to Raise Kylo Ren

Here’s to the Old School: A Thank You

I’m pretty sure she didn’t consider herself a geek.

In fact, if I had used the term to describe her in her presence, I probably would have gotten The Glare. Maybe not. Maybe I would just have earned a smile.

Because it was true. My mother-in-law was a geek, in the best sense of the word, and I offer that up as a compliment. I just wish she could here me say it. We lost her recently, a loss we’re all still coming to grips with.

I called her a force of nature more than once, and it was true. Continue reading Here’s to the Old School: A Thank You

The Best Trick To Play On Your Children — So Sneaky!

My husband and I have this little trick we play on our children.

Every night, we try to get our three children in bed as close to 7:00 pm as possible. Our rule is that they need to stay in their rooms quietly and lights must be off. Oh, unless they feel like using this

Are you scratching your head over there? Continue reading The Best Trick To Play On Your Children — So Sneaky!

Never in a Million Years Did I Imagine Myself Homeschooling

There are some folks in this world who set out to homeschool. Homeschooling has always been a part of their life plan.

Then there are others who, for one reason or another, gradually make their way into the world of homeschooling.

And then there are the unexpected homeschoolers.

Folks, I never, in a million years, imagined myself hereContinue reading Never in a Million Years Did I Imagine Myself Homeschooling

So Your Kid Wants a Hoverboard

It’s that time of year. If the prospect of our kids being home for one to two weeks isn’t scary enough, we also have to shop. Sure, the holidays are about peace, and goodness, and religion, and all that stuff that we wish life were always about. But it’s also—let’s be honest here—about the stuff.

And what bigger craze is there this year than the hoverboard? What do you do if your kid wants one? Do you give in? I mean, we’re now firmly set in the future of Back to the Future II, and the Hoverboard is officially a reality. And since you can’t take them to see Jaws 19 at the Holomax, can’t you at least make this dream (of yours) come true (for them)?

The easy answer is yes. Absolutely. Here’s the $400 (or $319 plus tax somewhere, I’m sure). Kids, enjoy the future and all its wonders! If that is your choice, good for you. You’re all set. Happy Holidays.

But what if, while the idea of having a hoverboard in your home sounds Totally Tubular to the 80’s kid in you, the adult in you thinks it might be kinda dangerous, expensive, or otherwise a bad idea?

What do you do then?
Continue reading So Your Kid Wants a Hoverboard

4 Amazingly Memorable Gifts That Won’t Break the Bank

We are getting down to the wire here, folks. Have you finished your shopping?

It can be so difficult to find the perfect gift. Then, sometimes, when you do, it’s way out of your price range.

Today, I’m sharing 4 amazingly memorable gifts that won’t break the bank. Continue reading 4 Amazingly Memorable Gifts That Won’t Break the Bank

Cardboard STEM: 25 Ideas for All Those BOXES

There’s no escaping the cold, hard truth: Children love to play with cardboard boxes.

As parents, we’ve all experienced this cardboard-fueled phenomenon. It’s almost become an old adage: He played with the box more than the gift.

With the holidays on the horizon, there will be oodles of boxes to contend with especially if, like myself, you prefer to do your holiday shopping online in your jammies. And, as the holidays draw near, the to-do list increases. There are gifts to buy, presents to wrap, gatherings to organize. If your home is anything like ours, it can be tricky to get all the things done with children underfoot. Unless, of course, you have a plan.

And have I got a plan this year! This plan is sure to keep your children engaged and learning and provide you with some uninterrupted time to tackle that mounting must-do list. This plan requires your kids to get creative and to think outside of that proverbial box… while playing with all those cardboard boxes that are strewn about your home just waiting to be recycled. Continue reading Cardboard STEM: 25 Ideas for All Those BOXES

How I Failed (and My Child Succeeded) at the The Hair Wars

For most of my life, my hair was manageable even though I wasn’t particularly adept at doing it. I’d hear people talking about “Jewish hair,” and I didn’t get what the big deal was. Yes, my hair was thick, but it was wavy—I could let it curl or brush it to a reasonable level of straight. Easy as pie. Easier, even.

Then I had a baby. When she turned one, we thought she was growing her first curl. “How cute!” we told each other. And while we were right, we were woefully unprepared. Continue reading How I Failed (and My Child Succeeded) at the The Hair Wars

The Dreaded G-Word: When Your Child is Asynchronous

I remember that morning as if it had happened yesterday. We were just leaving the restaurant, where we had enjoyed a leisurely breakfast with friends. I had met these women when we’d had our first babies, at a mothers’ group sponsored by the hospital where we had delivered. Those first babies were now 5-years-old and each had at least one younger sibling.

We held the door for one another and shuffled our tribe carefully out of the restaurant and into the parking lot. The kids were busy fooling around, and their laughter filled the air until one voice shouted above the rest. I knew that voice very well: It was my 5-year-old son, Leo.

“Hey! GUYS!! LOOK!! LOOK!!!! Doesn’t that latticework remind you of a portcullis? It’s SO BEAUTIFUL!” Leo shouted. He was jumping up and down, bursting with excitement, pointing toward the restaurant’s garden.

His friends paused for a moment, looked in the general vicinity of where he was pointing for a second or two, and then carried on with their play. I, too, looked at the trellis and then I grabbed my phone and Googled portcullis. Continue reading The Dreaded G-Word: When Your Child is Asynchronous

“The Force Is What Binds Us”: One Mom Uses the Greatest Power in the Galaxy to Connect With Her Son

(This is a guest post from Peggy Gilpatric, the mother of the boy who wrote to George Lucas asking him to change the rule that Jedis can’t marry. GeekDad Randy Slavey wrote up that story last spring.)

We stood behind the white line as they led him to the training area, his Jedi robe dragging on the floor behind him. I had my reservations about him attending Jedi Training Academy, even if it was just the one a Disneyland instead of in a galaxy far, far away. I thought that it might be too much for Colin. He had trouble following directions. He lacked the fine motor skills to engage his lightsaber. I knew he would get frustrated. Maybe it was the Star Wars fan in me, but autism or no autism, I believed that he could do this.

So, like a good Jedi mom, I stayed behind the white line with the other parents. A padawan helper noticed my youngling’s distress and came to his aide. He remained by his side until it was time to battle Vader. My son stood there, tiny and wide-eyed, and made wild swings at the Dark Lord. After it was over, another Star Wars fan was born. Colin was a Jedi and no one could tell him any different.

Photo: Peggy Gilpatric
Photo: Peggy Gilpatric

To a Star Wars fan, there is nothing more exciting than introducing your kid to the trilogy. This was made much more exciting by the fact that we had been living in Elmo’s World for about three years and it was making Hoth look like a great vacation destination. If you MUST watch something a million times then, for the love of Kenobi’s ghost, let it be Empire. Continue reading “The Force Is What Binds Us”: One Mom Uses the Greatest Power in the Galaxy to Connect With Her Son

In Defense of Television

Plenty declare television as a parenting plague, the bane of childhood development. To that I say poppycock and pishtosh.

Here’s why I let my kids watch television and it has to do with building connections.

But first, let’s look at why television is supposed to be so bad for us.

When we first joined the Montessori world eleven years ago, we received a flier about the dangers of watching television, taken from “Unplugging the Plug-In Drug” by Marie Winn (New York: Viking, 1987).  Here they are: Continue reading In Defense of Television

GeekMom Secret Origins: Our Weather Wizard, Patricia Vollmer

Boy, this post was a long time coming. I’ve been with GeekMom for 4 1/2 years and I’ve yet to summarize my geeky origin story for you…let’s remedy that, shall we?

I can think of numerous memories in my youth that I think contributed to my geekiness. Among my first memories is getting to see Star Wars in the theater with my parents in the late 1970s. I was a preschooler at the time, but remember, those were the days before the PG-13 rating, and there was a WIDE spectrum of what was appropriate for a PG movie back then. As a matter of fact, I went with my father to see all of the Star Wars original trilogy films in the theater.

Continue reading GeekMom Secret Origins: Our Weather Wizard, Patricia Vollmer

Between the Bookends: July 2015

Bookends © Sophie Brown
Bookends © Sophie Brown

This month in Between the Bookends, the GeekMoms have been reading about alien parasites, parenting skills, dark fantasy, climbing Everest, and the songs that tell the story of modern Britain. Check out what we’ve been reading after the jump.

Continue reading Between the Bookends: July 2015

The Most Useless Phrase in a Parent’s Vocabulary

Photo: Kelly Knox
Photo: Kelly Knox

The moment my daughter was able to move about on her own, two words have continually escaped my lips, sometimes without me even thinking before saying them.

“Be careful!”

Everything seemed like a potential place to fall or collide into something. Running on the sidewalk in flip-flops, walking on top of a tall concrete wall along the sidewalk, or sprinting downhill, I’d call out my warning even if she was being perfectly safe about it. “Honey! Be careful!”

One day as she tottered along the wall, I stopped to ask her, “Do you know what it means when I tell you to be careful?”

My daughter looked at me and shrugged. “Don’t fall?”

It had no meaning for her. So I adjusted my tactic, thinking that somehow if I said the right thing, I could prevent anything bad from happening to her. After all, “be careful” was practically useless—of course she still wiped out and toppled over no matter if I yelled it or not. I aimed to be specific instead. “Don’t touch that, it might be sharp!” “Look at where you’re running!” “Go slow and watch where you place your feet!”

I succeeded in avoiding the phrase, but the message was still the same. Use caution. Don’t get hurt. Don’t take risks.

Recently, I came across an article on exposing kids to risk and “anxiety-based” parenting, and realized injury-prevention expert Mariana Brussoni was describing me:

We have this growing movement to what I call anxiety-based caregiving—caregiving where decisions about childhood and what children need are made based on anxiety, rather than stepping back a bit and thinking about what might be best for child development. You’re in a playground and you hear, “Be careful!” “Get down!” “Watch out!” Those are things that are based on anxiety, not on stepping back and thinking: What does the child hear when you’re saying those things? What the child hears is: “The world is a dangerous place. You don’t trust me to navigate that world. I need you to take care of me; I can’t be independent myself.”

And so I’ve resolved to make another effort to adjust my over-cautioning, this time to eliminate the warnings unless they’re absolutely necessary. I’ve got to trust her to find her own footing, even if she falls. She’ll pick herself back up again.

An Interview with Ghost Hunter Jason Hawes

Just in time for Father’s Day, I was given the opportunity to interview Jason Hawes, father, founding member of T.A.P.S (The Atlanta Paranormal Society), and one of the stars of SyFy channel’s Ghost Hunters television series. My husband and I are huge fans of the show and I couldn’t have been more excited to ask Jason a few questions about his life in the parenting and paranormal worlds.

GeekMom: First of all, thank you for taking time out of your schedule to answer a few questions for me. My husband and I are longtime fans and your show is the only paranormal of anything I can watch on TV and not get freaked out.

Jason Hawes: That’s great to hear. To be honest, I’ve been to your blog site many times in the past. I like your science section! The only thing that makes the paranormal scary is Hollywood. Well, that and the fact you could see someone in your home or another location just walk through a wall. LOL. Continue reading An Interview with Ghost Hunter Jason Hawes

We Are All The Bad Mother

Recipe Rifle © Esther Walker
Recipe Rifle © Esther Walker

“I am a bad mother.”

It’s a thought that has gone through all of our heads at least once. Maybe you’re thinking it as you watch your child start their third consecutive episode of Peppa Pig, or as they stuff McDonald’s fries into their mouth sitting in their car seat, or (like me yesterday) as you watch them write out a note of apology to their teacher for being cheeky in class. It’s like a basic rule of parenting: Self-doubt and self-flagellation come with the territory. Everyone else always seems to be handling it all so much better than we are. Your sister’s children eat all their vegetables without complaint, your neighbor’s little girl is already taking her Grade Two piano at age three, another mom in the playground just proudly told you that her son is already on the second book band when yours hasn’t even been put on the first. How do all these women have it so together when you don’t? In the era of picture-perfect Pinterest parenting, the feelings of inadequacy come easily.

That’s why I’ve been subscribed to Esther Walker’s blog Recipe Rifle for the last few years. Esther is a writer and a journalist who I discovered through her husband, restaurant critic Giles Coran, whose show The Supersizers… was a favorite of mine. She’s also slightly neurotic and frequently anxious, which I think makes her my parenting soulmate or something. On her blog, Esther shares recipes along with stories about her life raising her two children Kitty (aged three) and Sam (aged one). The difference between her blog and many others is that she doesn’t hold back. About anything. With Esther you get the whole truth. It’s often uncomfortable, sometimes shocking, frequently gross, and always liberally sprinkled with the kind of language I wouldn’t dare repeat to my mother. When new posts appear in my inbox it’s like reading an email from your best friend. The honesty is more than just refreshing; sometimes it’s saved my sanity from simply knowing that at I’m not the only mother who has ever had these terrible thoughts toward my own family. Recipe Rifle got me through the toddler years—I just wish Esther would have had Kitty a bit earlier so she could have been there for the baby months too.

The Bad Mother © HarperCollins
The Bad Mother © HarperCollins

The Bad Mother is Esther’s second book (The Bad Cook came out in 2013) but this time the content is exclusively about being a mother with no recipes to be found. In it she covers almost every aspect of parenting: sleeping, eating, routines, holidays, sickness, poo. Now that I’m past the diaper phase I’d forgotten just how much the last five years of my life revolved around poo. This book reminded me and made me extra thankful that it’s all over. The whole thing reads like an extended, slightly categorized version of her blog posts, right down to the choice language (even one of the chapter titles could make a nun blush). She compares foreign holidays with very small children to being like a spy: “Having completed your training in your own country, you are then sent on a terrifying mission to a hot place, where you must complete your tasks in a totally unfamiliar environment.” I couldn’t comment myself—I wasn’t brave enough to take more than a weekend trip with my son until he had turned five.

The Bad Mother is not intended as a guide to raising children. In fact there are times where Esther points out that she got things entirely wrong and also that the things she relied on wholly for her family (such as strict routines from birth) might be totally wrong for you. Rather it is a personal story about being a mother, being hard on yourself, and realizing that you’re not a bad mother at all. That every choice is personal, that we are all doing our best and trying to make the right choices for our family. If someone else choose to call those choices “lazy” or “selfish” then, as Esther would probably say, “**** ‘em.”

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Geek Parenting: You’re Doing It Right (Yes, YOU!)

Doing It Right. Photo: Cathé Post
Doing It Right. Photo: Cathé Post

Each time I have the privilege to sit on a “raising geek kids” panel at a convention, I look out at the attendees and I wonder what brought them into the conference room. It’s certainly not to be regaled with tales of the latest cute thing my five-year-old said, and it’s not just to win a door prize. (Well, okay, maybe it’s the door prize.)

But I’m pretty sure they’re there for the same reason I also attend panels about parenting, that lingering question in my head, “Am I doing this right?”

I want to assure each of them, yes, you are. You gave up your time at a convention—often precious alone time, if you’re lucky enough to have found a sitter—to listen to other parents share their tales from the trenches and offer up advice about raising the next generation of geeks. Usually anyone willing to give their time to thinking about being a better parent is already a good parent.

We all need some reassurance once in a while, especially in those moments where we stare at our kids and wonder if we’re doing this whole parenting thing right. So here’s a handy list to remind yourself once in a while that yes, you’ve got this.

Geek Parenting: 14 Signs You’re Doing It Right

• You read GeekMom. (Bonus points if you also read GeekDad.) You could be trolling Pinterest for Chris Hemsworth photos, but instead you’re reading blog posts about doing stuff with your kids.

• You work just as hard on your kids’ cosplay as you do your own. You know that amazing feeling when you adore what you’re wearing, and you want your kids to feel that, too.

• You share your favorite things from your childhood (She-Ra marathon, anyone?) but you also give your kids the freedom have their own childhoods—not relive yours.

• You don’t hold yourself to perfect Pinterest Parenting standards and embrace the lovely chaos of childhood.

One small section of the game room. Image: Nicole Wakelin
One small section of the game room. Image: Nicole Wakelin

• The family that games together… (Video games count, too!)

• You let them break apart that 665-piece LEGO Guardians of the Galaxy set you just spent two hours building together.

• You consider GeekDad’s classic 67 Books Every Geek Should Read to Their Kids Before Age 10 a challenge to accept.

• You encourage your kids to explore the world (and moon) around them.

• You know how to build a decent blanket fort.

• You know when it’s time to put away the screen. That means the times you switch off your iPhone to play LEGO or My Little Pony (or both) with your kids.

• You cried during The Force Awakens trailer because, not only is it all the nostalgia feels for you, you know your kids will also get to marvel at new Star Wars movies at the theater during their childhoods.

• You laugh at your kids’ corny jokes.

• When your kids geek-out about something, you don’t mock or laugh—you know the feeling.

• You’ve stood in line for more than 30 minutes for an Iron Man made out of balloons or Frozen face painting that your kid just has to have.

Basically, if you give your time, attention, and love to your kids, you’re doing it right.

What would you add to the list? Let us know in the comments below!


“You Have to F*cking Eat” Is Funny Because It’s True

Image: Amazon

We all want to make sure that our children have plenty of healthy foods. Those things include fruits and vegetables and whole grains and all of the stuff the doctor asks about every time you bring your precious in for that yearly physical. But what we want, and the reality of what they eat, is sometimes miles apart. That’s what makes “You Have to F*cking Eat” so darn funny.

I once set myself on a mission to have my kids try a new fruit or vegetable every day. They were very little, and the going wisdom was to get them started young so they’d love good food forever. Whoever came up with the going wisdom never met my kids.

I tried, oh, how I tried, but after the umpteenth time that I watched them choke down healthy food, I gave up. That’s right. I just stopped and started making them things that they would eat in order to save my sanity.

Chicken nuggets, pizza, even hot dogs and all their evil whatever-it-is that everyone tells me they shouldn’t eat are all regular parts of their diet. Sometimes, even stuff they love they won’t eat, and I am totally okay with that, too.

Image: Amazon

That’s why when I saw the book, You Have to F*cking Eat, I feared someone had been spying on me during the great veggie-a-day experiment. But no, this is simply the sequel to Go the F*ck to Sleep.

Two of the great trials of parenting are getting your kids to sleep and getting your kids to eat and these two books turn those struggles into children’s books that are really for adults. Just look at all those happy, fuzzy animals on the cover eating while that little girl is clearly not interested. That’s my life, minus the happy, fuzzy animals, unless you count my daughter’s gerbil.

Go the F*ck to Sleep ($14.95) is available right now, while You Have to F*cking Eat ($14.95) can be preordered with a November 12th release date, just in time for Thanksgiving. You can take solace in its pages after you kids eat nothing of the feast save a roll and a piece of turkey so small it would leave a mouse hungry.

(via That’s Nerdalicious)

Sample Excerpt: It’s Complicated, The Social Lives of Networked Teens

It's Complicated by danah boyd. Photo credit: Yale University Press
It’s Complicated by danah boyd. Photo credit: Yale University Press

danah boyd is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society who recently completed eight years of field work interviews with over 160 youth in order to write her new book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. The book winds up being a nuanced treatise on teen social media consumption that moves beyond accepted assumptions and digs into the research to answer questions like:

  • Is teen use of social media addictive in nature or a new extension of typical human engagement?
  • Is it true that teens are uninterested in privacy and prone to over-sharing, or instead, are adults limiting teen privacy and then taking teen social media content out of context?
  • Is social media use amplifying bullying and increasing the risk of sexual predation, or are the causes of these issues more complex and less ubiquitous than we’ve been lead to believe?

Yale University Press has kindly allowed GeekMom to carry an excerpt of boyd’s new book. I found this section on social steganography particularly interesting—it would seem that while parents are trying to protect their children from danger, teens are also trying to protect their parents as they carve out their emerging social identities.

Social Steganography
By danah boyd,
Author of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens

Children love to experiment with encoding messages. From Pig Latin to invisible ink pens, children explore hidden messages when they’re imagining themselves as spies and messengers. As children grow up, they look for more sophisticated means of passing messages that elude the watchful eyes of adults. In watching teens navigate networked publics, I became enamored of how they were regularly encoding hidden meaning in publicly available messages. They were engaged in a practice that Alice Marwick and I called “social steganography,” or hiding messages in plain sight by leveraging shared knowledge and cues embedded in particular social contexts.

The practice of hiding in plain sight is not new. When ancient Greeks wanted to send a message over great distances, they couldn’t rely on privacy. Messengers could easily be captured and even encoded messages deciphered. The most secure way to send a private message was to make sure that no one knew that the message existed in the first place. Historical sources describe the extraordinary lengths to which Greeks went, hiding messages within wax tablets or tattooing them on a slave’s head and allowing the slave’s hair to grow out before sending him or her out to meet the message’s recipient. Although these messages could be easily read by anyone who bothered to look, they became visible only if the viewer knew to look for them in the first place. Cryptographers describe this practice of hiding messages in plain sight as steganography.

Social steganography uses countless linguistic and cultural tools, including lyrics, in-jokes, and culturally specific references to encode messages that are functionally accessible but simultaneously meaningless. Some teens use pronouns while others refer to events, use nicknames, and employ predetermined code words to share gossip that lurking adults can’t interpret. Many teens write in ways that will blend in and be invisible to or misinterpreted by adults. Whole conversations about school gossip, crushes, and annoying teachers go unnoticed as teens host conversations that are rendered meaningless to outside observers.

These practices are not new. Teens have long used whatever tools are around them to try to share information under the noses of their teachers and parents. At school, passing notes and putting notes in lockers are classic examples of how teens use paper, pen, and ingenuity to share information. Graffiti on bathroom walls may appear simply to be an act of vandalism, but these scrawled markings also convey messages. As new technologies have entered into teen life, it’s not surprising that teens also use them in similarly cryptic ways to communicate with one another. Texting gossip during class serves much of the same purpose as passing a note, yet it doesn’t require having to move a physical object, which reduces the likelihood of getting caught. But encoding messages guarantees only that if all else fails, the meaning will not become accessible, even if control over the information itself is unsuccessful.

When Carmen, a Latina seventeen-year-old living in Boston, broke up with her boyfriend, she “wasn’t in the happiest state.” She wanted her friends to know how she was feeling. Like many of her peers, Carmen shared her emotions by using song lyrics. Thus, her first instinct was to post song lyrics from an “emo” or depressing song, but she was worried that her mother might interpret the lyric in the wrong way. This had happened before. Unfortunately, Carmen’s mom regularly “overreacted” when Carmen posted something with significant emotional overtones. Thus, she wanted to find a song lyric that conveyed what she felt but didn’t trigger her mom to think she was suicidal.

She was also attentive to the way in which her mother’s presence on Facebook tended to disrupt the social dynamics among her friends. Carmen and her mom are close and, for the most part, Carmen loves having her mom as one of her friends on Facebook, but her mom’s incessant desire to comment on Facebook tends to discourage responses from her friends. As Carmen told me, when her mother comments, “it scares everyone away. Everyone kind of disappears after the mom post.” She wanted to make sure to post something that her friends would respond to, even if her mom jumped in to comment.

Carmen settled on posting lyrics from “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” This song sounds happy but is sung during a scene in the Monty Python movie Life of Brian in which the main character is being crucified. Carmen knew that her immigrant Argentinean mother would not understand the British cultural reference, but she also knew her close friends would. Only a few weeks earlier, she and her geeky girlfriends had watched the film together at a sleepover and laughed at the peculiar juxtaposition of song lyric and scene. Her strategy was effective; her mother took the words at face value, immediately commenting on Facebook that it was great to see her so happy. Her friends didn’t attempt to correct her mother’s misinterpretation. Instead, they picked up their phones and texted Carmen to see if she was OK.

Part of what makes Carmen’s message especially effective is that she regularly posts song lyrics to express all sorts of feelings. As a result, this song lyric blended into a collection of other song lyrics, quotes, and comments. She did not try to draw attention to the message itself but knew that her close friends would know how to interpret what they saw. And they did. Her friends had the cultural knowledge about what references were being made to interpret and contextualize the message underneath the song lyric. Thus, she conveyed meaning to some while sharing only a song lyric with many more.

The above is an excerpt from the book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by danah boyd. It is a digitally-scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.

Copyright © 2014 danah boyd, author of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.

The reviewer received a copy of this book for review purposes.

Book Review: All Joy and No Fun

Image: Ecco/Little, Brown Book Group UK

This book arrived at the perfect time for me, as my parenting confidence was at an all-time low. As a family, we’re adjusting to a new baby who abhors continuous sleep, plus a four-year-old who is currently specializing in challenging behavior. I knew that lack of sleep colors everything negatively, but I was starting to feel like I wasn’t really doing a great job. What I needed was reassurance that my feelings were normal, that other people find this parenting lark as difficult as me. Could All Joy and No Fun really help me understand my feelings about parenting?

The book grew from an article exploring why parents have been observed to be no happier than non-parents, and sometimes are considerably less happy. Children are supposed to fill our lives with unending joy and happiness, so why aren’t parents happier? Guiding us through a selection of reasons why this might be the case, author Jennifer Senior expands on the idea that actually, parenting is a difficult job, especially in modern times, and explores different ways that parents are dealing with these issues. Where this books differs from many of the other scientifically-based parenting books available is that the author looks at research on how children affect their parents, rather than the other way around. She pulls together research from a range of scientific papers, interspersed with interviews with parents from broadly middle-class backgrounds. This makes the text accessible and interesting, as it allows the reader to see how their experiences are similar. I certainly identified with stories of attempting to negotiate with a recalcitrant child and trying to balance the needs of my children with my own needs as a person, not just a mother.

One area which really struck a chord for me is that Senior explains that there is no real way to prepare for a baby. You can paint the nursery and buy a crib, but until the baby arrives, there’s no predicting exactly what looking after an infant entails. This “Transition to Parenthood” is abrupt and can be traumatic, not even taking into account the physical effects of childbirth on the mother. This was very true for me personally. I’d never looked after a baby or even changed a diaper before my daughter arrived. Although I understood the basic concept, the actual day-to-day reality of infant childcare was a shock, especially the lack of sleep. Moving far away from my family has meant that I don’t have relatives available to give me a break, and my friends have children of their own to manage. This puts more pressure onto parents—how can you cope if you don’t have the metaphorical village to help you?

Another aspect which I found interesting was the fact that the trend is for first babies to be born to older mothers. At 33 when my first was born, I wasn’t the youngest in my antenatal class, but neither was I the oldest. At that point, I’d had 12 years after finishing university where I had been an independent adult with my own life and hobbies. Suddenly, along came someone who completely subsumed me and took away my autonomy. Senior suggests that this is more of a shock when you are used to your independence, and that younger parents might find this transition easier. I think that this is something that is even harder for us geeks. We are passionate about things, our hobbies define us in some ways, and they tend to take up a great deal of our free time. For me, my darkroom became a nursery, the time to draw or photograph became consumed by the needs of my infant, and my spinning wheel became dusty in the corner of a room. When I do try to balance my need to be creative with the needs of my children, I find I’m constantly interrupted and unable to reach the state of flow in which the creative activity will actually have a restorative effect.

Flow, that lovely feeling when you’re “in the zone” as athletes describe it, is when you are so engrossed in a task that time seems to stretch and bend. Geeky hobbies, by their very nature, tend to be time-intensive and when your free time is split into two-minute chunks by interruptions, it can be more frustrating than relaxing. For example, some of this article was written on my phone, in the dark, while trying to convince my seven-month-old son that it was time to sleep. This type of interruption to your thoughts can leave you feeling like your life before children has been completely swept away, which is a difficult feeling to cope with.

I particularly enjoyed the sections which talked about how some childhood behavior can be explained by the way that their brains are developing. Biologically, children have an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex. This section of brain, which is placed just behind the forehead, controls the organization of thought, allows adults to focus on tasks, allows us to plan, and controls inhibitions. No wonder children are so different, as their brains have not yet developed the functions which we as adults consider to be normal. Even though I see this as a teacher and work round it in my lessons, to understand that some of the things which my daughter does that are so infuriating can be explained through the development of her brain was a revelation. It takes the pressure off a little. It’s not our bad parenting which is causing the behavior, four-year-olds really are just like that!

Although this is not a book of advice, one thing which really helped me was that Senior describes a theory of “ego depletion,” which explains why tempers can fray so easily. Suggested by psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and columnist John Tierny, it argues that self-control is a limited resource, so that the more you try to hold yourself together in the face of annoyance, the more likely you are to explode at the next infraction. As a teacher, I’ve always been proud of my ability to hold my temper when dealing with children and their annoyances, but recently I’ve found it harder to do that at home. As well as stressing for me how important it is for me to create time for myself, if only two minutes to have a cup of tea while the baby explores a new toy or takes one of his short naps, this theory explains why tempers become more frayed in the evenings in our house. It clarified for me that it’s easier to take a deep breath and not explode at yet another difficult episode with our four-year-old in the morning when we’re rested and have topped up that self-control somewhat overnight.

The interviews with parents are also enlightening. We see parents coping with shift work and young children while trying to divide the workload fairly, parents trying to work from home, and parents trying to deal with the way that their adolescents are moving towards adulthood. One of the most moving parts is the story of Sharon Bartlett, who had adopted her grandson Cameron after his mother had died. Sharon was incredibly committed to Cameron and when she was sadly diagnosed with brain cancer, her only thoughts were for Cameron’s welfare. It shows that parenthood is a broad brush; it comes in all colors and flavors. Sharon embraced the parenthood of a young child again, if only for a short while, and that made Cameron’s life all the richer for it.

This is a very readable book, which covers much more ground than I’ve been able to mention here. I can see myself coming back in years to come to reread the sections about adolescents and the way that their parents are coping, for example. It’s helped me think about parenting in a wider context, particularly how attitudes to children have changed as children are no longer expected to work to support the family. I don’t normally highlight books, but whole passages in my Kindle version are yellow, which says a lot about how much impact this book has had with me.

On the joy side of things, Senior describes the “bursts of grace” which pepper the child-rearing experience. These have been a saving grace for me. I try and burn them onto my brain, so that I can recall them when times are more difficult. The time when my son fell asleep in my arms, smiling, while a Chopin étude played, my daughter’s first steps, and when she said she loved me to the moon and back one hundred times. I’m cutting myself a little more slack these days, and trying to remember that my daughter’s underdeveloped prefrontal cortex is causing her outbursts, not my actions. I read the last chapter of this book in the dark while feeding my son to sleep, his warm smooth fingers holding onto my arm. These are the moments that make things worth it, and it’s these I’m holding onto as my parenting journey continues.

All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood is available now.

For more GeekMom views on parenting and parenting books, have a look at 13 Things That Change When You Go From Geek Girl to Geek MomThere’s More To A Tantrum Than You Realize, and Life With a Spirited Child: A Geek Perspective.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Observing Mini-Me: A Lesson in Perspectives

Impatience is a virtue. Photo from Flickr user dominiccampbell, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
Impatience is a virtue. Photo from Flickr user dominiccampbell, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

My 3-year-old daughter was playing with a toy. It was slightly broken, in that it was still functional but the pieces didn’t fit together as easily as they used to. She attempted to connect two pieces which retaliated with stubborn resistance against the one thing they were designed to do: fit together. As quickly as you can say “dagnabbit,” my daughter lost her patience and threw the pieces on the floor in frustration.

As my husband and I watched the scene unfold, my first reaction was one of admonishment. I could feel the parental reprimand forming in my mouth. I wanted to tell her: Don’t lose your temper. When something doesn’t work, calm down and try again. Control your emotions, don’t let your emotions control you.

But instead, I remained quiet. I remained quiet because what I was feeling, even more so than disapproval of her reaction, was guilt. She inherited her impatience from me. If anything, I had only served to cement that characteristic more strongly through my own actions.

Feeling rather dejected with myself, I joked self-deprecatingly to my husband about the apple not falling far from the tree. I told him how bad I felt when I saw something in her that I wasn’t especially proud of in myself.

Shockingly, he replied that he always viewed it as a good thing. I believe my response was the ever-so-eloquent, “Are you freaking kidding me?!” I knew in my heart of hearts that this behavior could not be good in any sense of the word.

I knew I had, on multiple occasions, gotten so angry at a piece of software with a terrible user interface that I had to hand the laptop to my husband, nearly yelling, “You handle this before I throw this thing out the window!”

That could not be good.

I knew the feeling of being so frustrated when things don’t work the way they should, the feeling that your atoms shake a little harder against each other, all wanting to shout, “Hulk, smash!”

That could not be good.

My husband laughed. He reiterated that it was good. The world isn’t improved by those who calmly put up with things that don’t work well, he said. Seeing a problem and having this uncontrollable surge of emotion against it? That’s the source of innovation.

When you meet a man who thinks you have enough spitfire to change the world, that’s how you know you’ve found The One.