Julie is the mother of four and the founder of KidFocused.com- a site devoted to current children's isssues.
My sixth grader’s middle school spent at least a month communicating the message the leap to middle school means the children put forth more effort, without the meddling of well-intentioned parents. If they forget their lunch, for instance, let them figure it out and they most likely won’t forget it again. We were told at orientation, back-to-school night and in newsletters if our child’s homework is left at home, don’t bring it in. Let them struggle; let them learn.
In recent news stories, countless parents across the United States admit the online grading portals many districts now use have made them neurotic, addicted to checking their kids’ grades, scores on assignments and homework postings multiple times a day instead of the old school way of letting kids know the details first.
If many American children are coddled emotionally, why should we be surprised, then, that many aren’t held to the highest academic standards at school either?
As we lag behind other developed nations in all subjects, fingers point in every direction. Yet if one looks at what kids were expected to know in eighth grade 100 years ago, the answer is obvious. A test dated 1912 has gone viral recently because of its rigor. Eighth graders in Kentucky were asked questions like “Describe the Battle of Quebec” and “How does the liver compare in size with other glands in the human body?” No multiple choice questions, but effort and deep thinking, which are the only jobs our children will know once computers continue to take over rote tasks.
The shift toward Common Core Standards is a step closer to offering American students rigor once more. Common Core is essentially a paradigm shift in the way teachers teach and in the way students learn. Kids will be asked to dig mentally deeper as they cover subjects in greater detail. My son’s fourth grade teacher said it best: Common Core will make kids think.
Common Core Standards will do away with low level thinking questions like Recall the main character’s name. Under the new standards that same question might state: Why do you think the author gave the character that name? The latter begs a more complex answer, which requires critical thinking.
With 45 states adopting Common Core so far and many, like California, gearing up to implement it fully, there are bound to be trouble spots and aspects that don’t seem pure to its goal, like a planned phase out of fiction for all non-fiction (the value of literature is another topic in itself). There are lots of complaints about it being yet another education fad "teaching to the test." It is by no means perfect.
Still, already strapped states like California are spending billions of dollars preparing to implement Common Core and the money is going towards new curriculum, technology and teacher training. All the money in the world doesn’t equal hiring smart teachers though.
Look at what’s happened in Finland, a country that ranks among the best academically even after lagging behind the rest of the world just a generation ago. Studied in the book “The Smartest Kids in the World,” author Amanda Ripley found one thing Finland has done right is hire smart teachers. They’ve attracted the best and brightest to their competitive teaching colleges and have created a culture “where all teachers are admired,” not to mention compensated well.
In one section of the book, Ripley described a school in Finland as “dingy, with desks in rows and an old-fashioned chalkboard — not an iPad or interactive whiteboard in sight. What (the school) in the small town of Pietarsaari does have are bright, talented teachers who are well trained and love their jobs.”
Shouldn’t that be what we aim for as well? Common Core is a great start, but we need not throw massive amounts of money at expensive curriculum or to train teachers to engage students or to know how to ask the right questions. Hire smart teachers from the start. Then allow them to keep standards high for our children without our meddling and we too might boast the smartest kids in the world.
“Everything is awesome” for LEGO Movie’s leading character Emmet, where in his Lego-constructed world all citizens abide by the rules and optimism abounds. Chosen by a prophecy to be an imaginative “master builder,” and save the world from Kragl (a misspelling of Krazy Glue, which symbolizes no imagination or thinking outside structured, strict manual-led lives) Emmet is forced out of this utopian way of thinking and must face it that being so agreeable doesn’t always bring respect.
The beginning of Lego Movie has a nice hook and the last 20 minutes finally tie up loose ends, but the middle is just one huge promotion for the Lego franchise with a convoluted plot. When I asked my younger kids (10, 7 and 5) to explain what it’s about, all they could retell was the catchy “Everything is Awesome” song.
Kid Focused Grades for Lego Movie:
Compelling story line- C
Emmet is as b-o-r-i-n-g as you might expect a Lego man could be and he’s mocked continuously for it. Thinking he was chosen as “The Special” for a reason, the supporting characters spend the whole movie trying to figure out why Emmet received such an honor. How Will Ferrell’s adult, human character is tied in at the end with the larger story is somewhat redeeming, but it’s too little, too late.
Strong message- B
Embrace what’s special about you. Don’t try to be like other people. Trust your instincts.
Leading character is a role model- C
Emmet is a nice enough guy, albeit wimpy.
Sexual or adult content – C+
Emmet develops a crush on the free-spirited Wildstyle even though she’s dating Batman. There is some hand holding and cuddling, but no kissing.
Language and Violence- C-
The language in Lego Movie is mild in comparison to its loud special effects, fast action sequences, punching, explosions, car racing, shooting, etc.
Suited for the whole family- B-
For children ages 6 and up. Boys will likely enjoy Lego Movie more than girls will.
Overall Kid Focused Grade for Lego Movie: C+
Rated PG Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
The burning question of the week seems to be: Have you gotten a flu shot?
There’s a lot of talk of stronger strains of the flu and even H1N1 this year. Take a look at the chart above to know the differences between a cold, the seasonal flu and H1N1. Rapid illness onset, fever and severe chest discomfort are all tell-tale signs of H1N1 and should be taken very seriously.
If you’re thinking of renting a family DVD in the New Year, check out this list of best to worst choices to watch with kids.
Frozen is the best movie of 2013 because every age will enjoy it equally.
The cinematography is breathtaking and the full musical soundtrack is on par with Lion King. There are several twists that keep it fresh and supporting characters like Sven the reindeer and Olaf the snowman will have audiences, young and old, laughing out loud.
Turbo is terrific. The characters are lovable and the music will get the whole family dancing. Turbo isn’t a movie just for boys or girls, but everyone.
Monsters University, the prequel to the 2001 megahit Monsters Inc., shows how the lovable monsters studied the art of scaring children in college, before doing it for a living. Adults will enjoy the humor and benign references to college life. Teens and 20-somethings were kids themselves when Monsters Inc. came out in 2001, so will love seeing the whole story come full circle. A new generation of children aged five and above will enjoy Monsters University even if they haven’t seen Monsters Inc.
Epic is a mixture of several stories we’ve seen before-- The Littles, Avatar, The Wizard of Oz, and Honey I Shrunk The Kids. The animation is stunning and the imagination for much of the film is fun too. For young viewers the plot is confusing and it is rated PG for intense action, scary villains, and bow & arrow fighting, which results in at least one death.
42 highlights baseball, but also the first African American baseball player, Jackie Robinson’s, relationships with others. 42 is PG-13 for intense subject matter as well as for continued use of the n-word and other coarse language. If middle and high school kids are talked to in advance about these issues, it will be easy for them to see Robinson’s life through the lens of bullying to the extreme. Robinson’s story gives us all courage to be leaders too.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is truer to the book than the original Hunger Games, and not nearly as violent. Still, hold off showing children younger than 12.
The Croods shows kids what life was like through the eyes of earlier people, like when the Crood family sees fire or shoes for the first time. These parts were fun, and I wish there were more of them.
Jack the Giant Slayer, like the fairytale, is meant for children and if they’d have cut just a little more of the gore and subsequent PG-13 rating, it would have been a great film for the very audience for which it’s most intended.
In Despicable Me 2 the best parts are the original’s leftovers. There is action, a plot to save the world and a whole new cast of characters, yet Gru’s children and the zany yellow minions are the only thing worth seeing.
The Great Gatsby shows director Baz Luhrmann understands the important aspects of the classic novel from the casting of characters to how every symbol is magnified down to the weather. Still, its PG-13 rating is earned and even children younger than 16 or who haven’t studied the novel first won’t get much out of it.
Mud is a coming-of-age tale reminiscent of Huckleberry Finn. There is some language and adult themes, but kids 14 and older can get a lot out of Mud while watching with their parents.
Planes is yet another example of Disney magic on the big screen. Still, it’s use of cultural stereotypes (like in Cars 2) and words like “moron,” “idiot” and “loser” won’t have parents jumping up and down in their seats to take their little ones.
One Direction: This is Us depicts the boy band members to be as edgy as Prince Charming. Still, many critics still have valid concern when it comes to their racy lyrics like “Tonight let’s get some and live while we’re young” echoed by their young daughters.
Escape from Planet Earth is supposed to be about Earth, but it’s clear that America is what’s deemed “The Dark Planet.” Remember the saying “I can talk about my mother but you can’t?” It’s no coincidence that a Canadian film company made this movie, so therefore the jabs against America as being dumb and greedy just aren’t as funny.
Man of Steel doesn’t show the Christopher Reeve character we know and love. Produced by Christopher Nolan of The Dark Knight Rising fame, this Superman is darker, more solitary in 2013. He has lost that lighthearted smirk that won the world over in 1977.
Oz the Great and Powerful is nowhere near as good as the original. No wonder it’s taken 75 years to make another story about Oz. Images of violence and Oz having sexually charged scenes with multiple women isn’t how I’d like to remember him.
Free Birds had my kids laughing a few times, but when I told my 9 and 11-year-old boys afterward that I’d describe it as “wacky,” my 9-year-old said he’d describe it as “dumb.”
Smurfs 2 relies on bad jokes and slapstick Three Stooges violence. Besides Gargamel’s hilarious tabby cat sidekick and a fun, music-filled ending, even my kids said, “It wasn’t funny. The first Smurfs was better,” afterwards.
Oblivion shows a post-apocalyptic future, which older kids will appreciate. However, there are certainly no giggles or laughs in this film. The science fiction plot is hard to follow.
Iron Man 3 will leave kids cynical about our military and domestic safety. And, the next time you think a terrorist is an anti-American extremist, look to your own friends and neighbors instead. I’d prefer not to sink those messages into my kids’ brains. The film is generously given a PG-13 rating although it contains graphic violence, bombings, shootouts, drugs and sexually explicit scenes.
I wanted to remember the reason for the season and not slave in the kitchen all day on Christmas Day. Plus, we were leaving the next day to drive 800 plus miles with the kids to visit ailing relatives. So I ordered a Honey Baked Ham for our family and company to feast on for Christmas dinner, but, alas, when our promised December 23rd shipment didn't arrive, and my husband checked the tracking only to find our ham was still in Anaheim and wouldn't be delivered until the 27th, I knew I'd be roasting a turkey or something else with some quick thinking on Christmas after all.
Still believing in UPS's promised delivery, I didn't make a new game plan until later in the afternoon on Christmas Eve. I dashed, frazzled, to our neighborhood grocery store. Within minutes Bobby the Butcher greeted me with a friendly smile in his white apron, foreshadowing the angel he turned out to be. Very quickly I poured out my story, how I'd already bought all the sides to go with ham, but maybe I should go roast beef after all. He helped me plan a menu that was even better than before and even jotted down roasting instructions for the best, fool-proof roast ever (and I even got a little ham for the kids which he promised would be better than Honey Baked if I followed his glazing instructions).
I skipped out of the store, not before hugging Bobby and wishing him a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Another reminder to live in the moment, not to plan too far ahead and most importantly, why I should have SHOPPED LOCAL to begin with.
Did you get sidetracked from shipping delays? What did you do?
Happy New Year!
Who knew a little Christmas elf could create internal conflict and even spark a mommy war? It wasn’t designed this way. The Elf on the Shelf was created by a mom in 2005 as a promise for more magic at Christmastime. Each household’s elf reports naughty or nice behavior back to the North Pole each night. By 2011 when it became a holiday staple across America, many parents said they’d never seen their kids behave so well.
Flash forward two years later and the mere mention of the Elf on the Shelf is just as likely to draw groans. No longer is he the silent observer in the home during the holidays; these toy elves evolved to play tricks much like leprechauns do on St. Patrick’s Day. Imagine the mischief of leprachauns or Tooth Fairy visits stretched out every night for all of December. For every child who giggles and begs, “More! What will Tootsie the Elf do next?” There’s a mother nearby cursing the invention, overwhelmed by the pressure of having to make one more thing Norman Rockwell perfect at Christmas.
There are entire websites devoted to Elf on the Shelf antics. One site suggests: “Make a vignette involving your Elf and other characters.” Barbie in a convertible with Nick the Elf, anyone? Or “Make mischief around the house.” A pillow fight during the night could make a fun mess of feathers for the kids to see next morning. Oh, did Silly Skip take all the ornaments off the tree? Oh dear.
Not surprising, the same web author said it’s hard to keep up the tricks (and damage control) from Thanksgiving to Christmas so has shortened her Elf’s welcome by a week.
The reasons for not wanting an Elf vary. Parents who don’t invite elves into their home may want to focus on the reason for the season, the birth of Jesus, or they may feel Santa is more than enough. For others the Elf creates an atmosphere of pressure, not to mention competition. Whose elf is more thoughtful and fun? Children like to report back about how great their friends’ elves are. Does this mean these kids have more amazing moments to carry with them through life?
For any parent still on the fence about whether to get an Elf or wonder whether their Elf is active enough, don’t be so hard on yourself. Ask yourself instead whether you’re there for what matters. Many parents I know spend hours of time volunteering at their kids’ schools. I often marvel at how many dads attend school events held during the day where I live. Though my childhood was a pretty good one, my dad never stepped foot on my elementary school campus.
Giving kids attention won’t make them spoiled. In fact, the opposite is true. Kids whose needs are met and given love in spades are often kind and polite- eager to lend a helping hand. Now add Elf on the Shelf to this mostly harmonious scene and you get an extra, over-the-top childhood.
If you have an Elf and enjoy it, more power to you. Yet many moms have added it as another “must do” to the long list of giving their kids the ultimate childhood experience. Focus on the marathon and not just the sprint of parenting. Give kids what they need most: your time.
Meet the latest Disney princesses: sisters Anna and Elsa of the Nordic-inspired kingdom of Arrendale. When it’s discovered Princess Elsa (Idina Menzel) has the powers to freeze everything she touches, her parents, the King and Queen, hide her away much like Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty was sequestered for her own safety. Yet when Princess Elsa is named Queen, her younger sister Anna (Kristen Bell) fights to save the kingdom as well as her sister’s good name.
The cinematography is breathtaking in Frozen and the full musical soundtrack makes it the newest Disney classic, though only time will tell whether the songs are as catchy as ones in many other Disney movies.
There are several twists in Frozen that keep it fresh and the supporting characters like Sven the reindeer and Olaf the snowman will have audiences, young and old, laughing out loud.
Kid Focused Grades for Frozen:
Compelling story line- A
Themes surrounding family, love and loyalty can be discussed. How long does it take to really get to know someone? How long to fall in love? Why do some people choose to shut the world out? Discuss the different ways the title could be seen as a metaphor throughout the movie. Compare and contrast Frozen to the fairytale it’s loosely based on, The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen.
Strong message: A
It’s ok to be different. Family and good friends shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Leading character is a role model: A
Princesses Elsa and Anna will undoubtedly be the newest Disney princesses. They strike a nice balance of being strong female characters who can also rely on men.
Sexual or adult content: A
Princess Anna falls in love with two different men and shares a kiss at the end with one.
Language and Violence: B-
There is a large snow monster that could be upsetting to children under six. The King and Queen die early on in the film, orphaning the two sisters, though young children will not notice. Elsa can freeze people and there are scenes of a character nearly freezing to death. There is fighting and the use of crossbows, etc.
Suited for the whole family: A- For children six and up.
Overall Kid Focused Grade for Frozen: A-
Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes
Every once in a while a movie sequel is better than the original. This is the case for Catching Fire, the second installment of the Hunger Games trilogy based on the books by Suzanne Collins.
The heroine of the story, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) struggles to readjust to normal life after triumphing in the 74th annual Hunger Games a year prior. So as not to incite rebellion, Katniss must pretend she is grateful for her rich, new lifestyle. Though revolutionary thoughts seethe within her, Katniss must also keep up the ruse she’s in love with her co-victor, Peeta, even though her feelings for childhood friend Gale are just as strong. When the government grows suspicious, they decide the upcoming 75th Hunger Games will have a new twist…24 past winners of the games will be pitted against each other “as a reminder even the strongest can’t overcome the power of the Capitol,” thereby throwing Katniss and Peeta back into treacherous terrain.
The first half of the film is a slow build-up to the action, focused more on the psychology behind everyone’s feelings. While the first film had more action from the start, Catching Fire is truer to the book. If parents of tweens were uncertain if they should allow their kids to read The Hunger Games’ books, the first movie made it clear they should not. The violence in the first Hunger Games movie should’ve earned it an R rating. It’s dark, morose and the brutality of many of the teens is reminiscent of the kid killers in Children of the Corn, numb to pain and suffering, thrilled to kill. In the book, some children are like this, but certainly not to the level of viciousness portrayed in the movie.
In contrast, the bulk of enemies in Catching Fire are not other people but floods, poisonous gas, wild animals, etc. Because of this, it was not as violent as The Hunger Games. There are still some scary parts for children under 13- electrocutions, shooting, fights, but Catching Fire truly earns its PG-13 rating, no more.
Kid Focused Grades for Catching Fire: B (not for children under 13)
Compelling story line- A
Themes surrounding different types of government can be discussed. What would it be like to live in a totalitarian society? How does this film show the fear technology can be too invasive? Discuss irony in Catching Fire.
Strong message: A
Stay true to your self and others; loyalty is vital; never give up, etc.
Leading character is a role model: A
Katniss may not be perfect, but she’s loyal to others and puts others’ needs before her own.
Sexual or adult content: C
One character strips down and we see her naked back. She says something to Peeta along the lines of, “Do you know everyone wants to sleep with you?” Katniss also passionately kisses both Gale and Peeta several times each. There are a few times drinking is brought up. Once Peeta is offered a drink at a party that “will make him sick so he can eat some more.”
Language and Violence: D
The “s” word is used and once the “f” word is bleeped out during a television show segment. There are inferred deaths, floggings, fights and outside elements are often the enemy, wreaking havoc on others. Unlike R-rated movies, much of the violence is inferred instead of directly seen. Still, for young children, this violence could be upsetting.
Suited for the whole family: C
Not for children under 13.
Overall Kid Focused Grade for Catching Fire: B
Running Time: 2 hours 26 minutes
Last night I took my pot pie recipe and miniaturized it, thinking the kids would get a kick out of having their own little pies…I was right! This would also be good with leftover turkey.
Mini chicken pot pies
Ahead of time:
Cook 1/2- 1 pound of chicken. You can boil it or this time I popped it in the crockpot on low for a few hours that morning and then cubed it.
If you don't have time to make your own pie crust, let store bought pie dough thaw to room temperature (FYI...2 Marie Calendar shells made 12 cupcake sized pies).
Make a roux in a saucepan- Melt 1 tablespoon butter and mix with 1/4 cup flour.
Add a little bit of milk until you get a gluey consistency.
Add chicken stock or my quick and easy favorite- chicken bouillon and water (1 tablespoon per cup of water)
Rinse frozen veggies until thawed. Add to saucepan.
Add cooked chicken.
Spray muffin pan and line with pie crust. Scoop filling into each shell. Top with more crust and cinch edges.
Bake at 375 degrees for 35 minutes or until crust is golden brown.
Reggie (Owen Wilson) doesn’t fit in with the other turkeys. Though ignorance to their fate may keep them in a state of bliss, Reggie knows just what will happen to all of them come Thanksgiving. If only they’ listen!
When the President’s daughter chooses Reggie to be pardoned, and takes him in as a pet, he realizes not being part of a flock isn’t so bad after all. Yet just as Reggie settles into his new, comfortable life he gets roped into time traveling back to the first Thanksgiving to alter history. What if turkeys were never a Thanksgiving menu staple from the start?
The film is harmless, but wacky. There are spaceships, time machines, dance brawls, a waddle puffing contest, and a President who sounds a lot like Bill Clinton. Free Birds reminds me of a Will Ferris movie for kids. The plot is loopy and far-fetched, but there’s a silly cuteness about it. There aren’t many themes, but one that’s said outright: If we don’t do things, we become dumb.
My kids laughed a few times, but when I told my 9 and 11-year-old boys afterward that I’d describe it as “wacky,” my 9-year-old said he’d describe it as “dumb.” Guess he didn’t like it as much as I thought.
Don’t rush out to see Free Birds, though if you’re ever going to see it, it’s sort of fun to see in preparation for Thanksgiving. Save your money and wait for it to come out on video for kids under 6.
Kid Focused Grades for Free Birds:
Compelling story line- D (A lot is squeezed in- it gets confusing to follow and the plot is weak.)
Strong message- C
Leading character is a role model- C (Reggie is a silly, harmless turkey who tries to be brave. His character is the best part of the movie.)
Sexual or adult content – A- (Reggie flirts with his love interest Jenny, played by Amy Poehler. In a scene it is inferred a turkey dies in a fire- the only serious part of the film.)
Language and Violence- B (Words like stupid and idiot are said frequently. There are some slapstick fighting scenes too.)
Suited for the whole family- B-
Overall Kid Focused Grade for Free Birds: C
Running Time: 1 hour 31 minutes