Share a love for the night sky with your children

(Some helpful resources are listed at the end and feel free to leave links to your own in comments!)

Fall has made its presence known through crisp mornings, our first frost warning, a house-wide bout of the sniffles and warm comforters coming out of the closet. And for a household that has been newly organized around the rhythm of the sun, it has brought along a more leisurely pace to the bedtime routine.

As the clock says quarter to bedtime, I no longer find myself out with the children herding the ducks and geese back into the hen house for the evening headcount and lock up. Instead, I’m sitting on the porch with children in their pajamas, teeth brushed and looking attentively over my shoulder.

I trace out the three triangles of Sagittarius on the planisphere we printed off the Internet and note how it looks like a tea kettle. With a pen laser, I lead their eyes along the Milky Way, starting overhead and moving down to the southern horizon where it looks like steam rising from the mouth of the kettle. As I mark the three triangles they suddenly see the constellation and make a small leap.

“There it is! I see it! I see it!”

I note that the actual constellation is supposed to represent a centaur with a bow and arrow. This is also where the center of our galaxy lies. Just to the west, the last of Scorpius for the season could be seen just above our barn. These two, for me the most recognizable of the summer constellations, will soon disappear from the sky and give way to the winter constellations.

We find Jupiter, so bright in the eastern sky that it can currently be viewed before the sun even sets. With binoculars, it is supposed to even be possible to see four of its moons this month.

The Big Dipper is out, and the children need no more direction than mom telling them which way to look. I show them the “C” of Leo the Lion’s great head and for a moment my five year old is afraid. She snuggles close to her father as he reassures her that I am talking about star pictures, not real lions.

“This is so much fun!”

I hear my son exclaim as I look at our planisphere for where to look for the “W” of Cassiopeia. Tracing it out with the laser, I think to myself that I really need to look up the mythology behind these constellations. It has been such a long time since I’ve read much about them. So I stand on the porch, telling the children what I still remember from a childhood fascination with the stars and thinking how well this all would tie in with our ancient Greek studies if only I could remember the details.

For a moment, I wonder what we are missing in this scientific age of ours when we see stars as distant balls of fiery gases and use the 88 recognized constellations merely as a road map to find planets, comets, nebulae and other distant objects in the night sky.

Once upon a time, the night sky was a  grand canvas upon which story tellers illustrated their oral traditions. Whether Navajo, Australian Aboriginal or the classical Greek we are generally more familiar with today, family groups came together around their evening fires and used the stars to entertain, educate and preserve the lore of their people through the generations such that we may still delight in their stories hundreds and even thousands of years later.

As I watch the glow in my children’s eyes, I understand why. Now I just need to learn some stories to go along with the beautiful illustrations they are already enthralled with.


Remember to print out a plansiphere and take a few minutes to learn how to use it before going outside and you can find many of the most recognizable constellations together. It can then be used as a sort of road map to find other interesting objects.

The Draconids, for example, are expected to peak October 7 or 8. They aren’t expected to be particularly showy, but they peak just after sunset, making it an excellent opportunity to hopefully see at least a couple meteorites with your children without staying up too late.

Amazing Space has a nice, brief video on highlights for each month geared at a younger audience.

Older children (or those already fascinated by astronomy) may enjoy StarDate with it’s daily information about the night sky, including scripts of the radio show and free podcasts.

Stellarium turns your desktop into a planetarium. A very cool tool for homeschoolers!

And it is always worth it to check a blog such as Sky and Telescope or EarthSky to see if there is anything of particular interest coming up that you might like to try to see with your children.

The life and death of a beloved beagle

I’ve been struggling with exactly how to write this. I mean, really, how do you express the loss of a pet–your child’s pet–the one whose death you are responsible for?

I’m the one who let him out the morning he was hit by the mailman. I didn’t mean to, but he slipped out and I couldn’t catch him.

Little Copper was all beagle.  And from the day we brought him home from the pound where someone had dropped him off for “excessive barking,” he was a well-loved little beagle. My daughter’s friend and companion.

And he hardly ever barked. There was that beagle bay when he got excited and was on the trail of something grand, but who could have a beagle and not absolutely fall in love with that half bark, half howl from a dog doing what he was bred to do? Every time I heard it, I pictured myself on a horse following a pack of Coppers through the woods after whatever game he had decided to flush.

It made the aggravation of chasing a beagle through the brush a little less annoying.

But he was a beagle. And who can blame a beagle for being a beagle? Whether he was in his kennel perched on top of his dog house or on a chain hunting voles, he did it with all the enthusiasm a beagle can muster.

He was ever-alert, ever-watchful, ever-ready to tell us what was going on down by the creek on the other side of the soy bean field or amongst the corn on the other side of the road. Whether it was three in the afternoon or three in the morning, he was on the job and let us know the whereabouts of all the local wildlife.

Inside, there were three places he loved best: snuggled up with his Mouse, perched on a windowsill where he could look out, or (my favorite picture I never got) standing with his nose against the window fan, ears flapping in the breeze.

And as I fight back tears thinking about Mouse holding him for the last time, her eyes and nose reddened as she hugged his limp body in her lap and stroked his fur, I think of one story that shows what that little beagle meant to our family.

From an old post, about a bad homeschool day:

The beginning of it all really was no big deal. Minor behavior my Mouse has been struggling with for awhile, and a minor consequence which is the same every time. A little copywork out of Psalm 15. Just four verses. It only takes her five minutes. Except yesterday when she just laid her head down and stared at the wall for fifteen minutes.

Now this is mom’s issue, not hers. When she does this, I know she is laying down her own consequences. She is wasting her time to play, go outside, read, do whatever it is a ten year old takes into her head to do in the day. But I can still feel the blood pressure rising as my temper flares.

Deep breath. Send her to her room. Ok, actually my room.

An hour later, I went to check on her. Still just sitting there, staring at the wall. An hour later, same thing. And then I lost it and yelled at her. She buried her head in a pillow and burst into tears.

That worked about as well as it always does. But as I went out, her beagle trotted in. He jumped up on the bed, pushed his little nose under her arm, and laid down as she pulled him close to her. So I left her, crying out her frustrations into the fur of her little Copper.

Twenty minutes later, she came out, apologized and went to her copywork. I bit my tongue about the three and a half hours that had been wasted, sat next to her and pulled out a piece of paper.

What are you doing, mom?

Well, I shouldn’t have yelled at you, either. So I’m doing my copywork.

And then I could see all was forgiven. She was all sunshine and smiles…and you’d almost think she enjoyed copywork or something the way she chatted and giggled while finishing it up.

Now  he’s buried at the end of the lilac hedge, not far from his kennel and one of his favorite places to investigate the goings on from the night before. After all, that is the trail the coyotes take when they pass by our property.

Good bye, little Copper. And good boy. Good boy.

Every American boy needs a shed

When I first heard the John Williamson song, The Shed, I thought it an odd subject for a folk song. After all, when he sings “Every Australian boy needs a shed…” I couldn’t help but think about a woodshed and we all know what happens when you take a boy out to the woodshed. And it’s not a subject for folk songs.  But it isn’t at all what the song is about. It’s about needing a place to get away, be yourself and pursue your own projects even if the roof leaks and the whole thing sways on windy days.

A joint to learn to read an’ write, to work on his bike at night
To grow up as he likes, to grow anything under lights
A place to keep his tools, nuts and bolts and drills
To hang a hide, to hide the dry or hang to pay the bills

I think it is why children are drawn to building forts and clubhouses and tree houses. For as much as they like being underfoot, they also have a need to carve out their own space. Their own private space. It may be in the attic, under a stairwell or even under a blanket thrown over some chairs, but it is a place to get out from under the immediate influence of parents and be themselves.

My children have been busy claiming a closed off section of the hen house, a small room with the door boarded shut and a loft area that can only be accessed through a small window. The younger ones require a boost up and help down from the older ones and there is something so very touching watching the four of them work together to slip through. I don’t really know what goes on in there aside from a bit of hammering and occasional requests for scrap lumber, but it is their small space and they seem to get along much better when they escape there.

The next project is to clear a space for them in the barn to keep all their treasures. Snail shells, antler sheds, mouse skulls…all those delightful things children come across and cannot bear to part with despite the limited room for such things in the house.

So yeah, every boy (and girl) does need a shed. Or at least a small space they can carve out as their own if only for a little while.

Come to think of it, I think mom does, too.

Where do your children escape to? And how actively do you encourage that time to themselves?

The Pearls, abuse and a false gospel

I’ve been reading over several posts regarding the case of little Lydia Schatz being beaten to death by her parents in the middle of the night.  Her loving, cheerful family, full of all the promises Michael and Debi Pearl make throughout their literature.  For Michael Pearl guarantees happy, obedient children in just two days.  (Blockquotes in italics are from Angry Child, posted at No Greater Joy.)

I could break his anger in two days. He would be too scared to get angry.

Too scared.  Beaten too severely.  For there is no upper limit on the number of spankings given a child.  No “three swift swats and sent to his room until supper.”  Instead, he is beaten until he is without breath to complain.  Beaten until he is utterly dominated.  And if he runs?  You walk through the house laughing at his vain attempts at escape.  And just to drive the point home, you place these “rods” conspicuously about the house and wear one ever about your neck so that the little child may always see and remember.

On the third day he would draw into a quiet shell and obey.

I’ve seen children in that shell.  It is a role many children (and adults) fall into when their lives are governed by fear.  And remember, we’re on day three.  Day three!  Two days of beatings?  Stalkings?  Standing emotionless, pushing the child away, denying affection, denying love?  For they emphasize in another essay: When they do something lovely, then you can love them. How heartwarming is the thought of conditional love?

When an abused child is first placed in protective custody, there is a brief period (usually about a month) known as the “honeymoon.”  The foster parent tends to feel like the child believes he is safe.  The child is actually in a state of shock.  The first stage of grief.  And it results in remarkably compliant children who are too scared to do anything but obey.  Sadly, Lydia did not survive long enough to retreat into a quiet shell.  Her sister Zariah almost didn’t, but thankfully has been released from the hospital.

On the fourth day I would treat him with respect and he would respond in kind. On the fifth day the fear would go away and he would relax because he would have judged that as long as he responds correctly there is nothing to fear. On the sixth day he would like himself better and enjoy his new relationship to authority. On the seventh day I would fellowship with him in some activity that he enjoyed. On the eight day he would love me and would make a commitment to always please me because he valued my approval and fellowship. On the ninth day someone would comment that I had the most cheerful and obedient boy that they had ever seen.

And how many times was that said of the Schatz children?  Different to other cases I have read and discussed here, people are coming out and saying they knew this family.  That they were a loving, caring, Christian family.  That their children were happy and well-behaved.

We’d been to their house a few times for church related functions, and once just Paul and I were there, for dinner. We ate shepherd’s pie, and the children were a delight [emphasis mine]. They showed us how to milk their goats.  The husband also had always taken time to reach out to Paul, who in person is extremely reserved and tends to be overlooked, and so Paul was fond of him as well.  Beauty for Ashes

No one saw it coming.

On the tenth day we would be the best of buddies.

This is what is so insidious about this teaching.  Yes, insidious.  Well meaning, loving parents can be driven to abuse, torture and even murder based on a few anecdotes supported by misapplied and misinterpreted Scripture.  I reflect on the testimony of another Christian woman, one who fortunately did not go quite so far.

And to believe that this doctrine of perfection is practically attainable not only wrung the joy out of this family, extinguishing this Mama’s heart of love and grace for my children, it led to excessive, harsh, unbiblical discipline.  Holy Experience

I do not believe it is insignificant that the child that was murdered and the child that was hospitalized were both adopted, nor that little Sean Paddock was adopted.  Children with a history of abuse will not respond the same to a spanking as a child brought up in an otherwise stable home.  And thinking back on it, working as a family support worker for a foster care agency was when I first encountered the pseudo-Christian sense of “mercy” regarding the orphans of our world.

Most felt called into other ministries, or just couldn’t picture themselves in that role, but the responses of a select few were perhaps more telling than I realized at the time.

We would love to host these children in our home, but cannot until the state will let you discipline them.

Which of course refers to spanking.  Because the state does “let” you discipline a child.  In fact, they require it.  I never saw red flags go off in a caseworker’s eyes so fast as when presented with a family that did not seem to address any misbehavior.  Is the parenting repertoire in these groups really so narrow that discipline is equated with spanking and there is no other acceptable parental response to misbehavior?

Of course, those outside Christianity are quick to pounce on this case.  It is everything they seem to want to believe about Christians.

But I’m going to argue that the continued debating over the line between forcing someone to submit and overt abuse that goes on in this world completely misses the point.  When you define entire classes of people, whether children or women, as existing to submit and suggest that willfulness is an evil brought upon your family by the devil, then abuse is inevitable.  The idea itself is abusive and dehumanizing.  Everything else that follows from it is simply logical.

I’m struck, when reading right wing Christian child-rearing advice, on how much the advice resembles the tactics that wife beaters use against their victims.

But here’s the thing.  This teaching isn’t extremist.  It isn’t fundamentalist.  It isn’t even “right wing.”  All of these terms imply that we are somehow all on the same spectrum, with similar beliefs and a fine little line somewhere that most of us choose not to cross, while others debate about precisely where to draw it.

Michael and Debi Pearl preach a different gospel, one in which sinless perfection is possible in this world.  Without Christ, even, as he shares in the opening chapters of To Train Up a Child where he points out that it is about raising obedient children, not Christian children.  It is from this philosophy, this philosophy of 100% perfection, this perfection that Michael Pearl claims to have been living in for years, that this philosophy is derived.

Not from scripture.

Not from watching Amish men and their mules.

Not from the fact they swatted their children and they presumably turned out alright.

If you apply their perfect teaching to your imperfect children, you will achieve perfection.  No need of redemption.  Only continual conditioning, a methodology I actually find much better placed within the secular behaviorist model.  Read up a little on B.F. Skinner’s radical behaviorism and then read To Train Up a Child.

In effect, the Pearls advocate making the home into an operant conditioning chamber. Not a model of mercy and grace, love and respect.  As Spunky pointed out, they have afforded the rod all the power the Gospel normally gives to Christ:  that of redemption.

More on this case, if you can stomach it:

Tragedy in a Homeschooling Family
When Parenting Kills
Senseless Deception

Are women held back by “sucking sound” of their infants?

I am far from a breast-feeding fascist, but I can’t help but take issue with Hanna Rosin’s recent article The Case Against Breast-Feeding (via the discussion at BlogHer).  My objections have little to do with whether or not you should breast-feed.  Actually, I could go on about the urban elite “ur-mother” types who strut their parenting decisions about as if they were the latest fashions just as well as Rosin, but I don’t think it adds much to the discussion.  This is what troubles me, and seems at the heart of the so-called “mommy wars:”

The debate about breast-feeding takes place without any reference to its actual context in women’s lives. Breast-feeding exclusively is not like taking a prenatal vitamin. It is a serious time commitment that pretty much guarantees that you will not work in any meaningful way. Let’s say a baby feeds seven times a day and then a couple more times at night. That’s nine times for about a half hour each, which adds up to more than half of a working day, every day, for at least six months. This is why, when people say that breast-feeding is “free,” I want to hit them with a two-by-four. It’s only free if a woman’s time is worth nothing.

It is a serious time commitment.  So is having a child.  A child is not like having a cute little bunny you can play with at your convenience and then place back in its cage until the next time you feel like playing.  Having a child is a lifelong commitment which comes with a 24 hour a day on-call status.  I don’t say that to imply that motherhood absolutely means the end of work, that you have to stay home with your child, that you have to breast-feed and that your child can never see the inside of a daycare (or school) in order to be a “good” mother.

It’s just that when you choose to have a child, you give up some of that ability to view every debate and every decision in the context of your life, your desires, your goals.  Some little child is suddenly dependent on you to make decisions on his or her behalf in the context of his or her life.

And just what exactly does it mean to “work in any meaningful way?”  Full time (or more) at the beck and call of…your boss, your customers, your editor, your anyone-besides-your-family-whose-requests-are-somehow-meaningful-because-a-paycheck-is-attached?  Of course a woman’s time is not “worth nothing.”  To me, it is worth far more than anyone could pay.  Rather than without value, my time invested in my children is invaluable.

Yes, I believe breast-feeding is better.  I believe staying home with your children is better.  I believe homeschooling is better.  If I didn’t believe these things, I wouldn’t do them.  They aren’t always the easiest choices . . . and I haven’t even always believed they were better.  But believing they are better does not have to translate into looking down on those who make different choices, either because of their particular situations or simply because of their desires and goals.

But if Rosin does not agree, has different goals, finds that breast-feeding is not fitting in with the life she and her husband have built, that is just fine.  Bottle feeding number three is not likely to condemn him or her to a lifetime of poor grades, poor health and poor skin tone.  The whole “Breast is Best” thing should be about encouraging and supporting women who breast-feed and, more importantly, helping to build a culture more accepting of breast-feeding.  Meaning that when the American Academy of Pediatrics says breast-feed exclusively for the first six months, it shouldn’t be passed around in such a way to make women who aren’t breast-feeding feel guilty, but to encourage businesses to make more creative arrangements for women with young babies.  If Burger King could do it for me, I’m sure other workplaces can as well.  Ideally, such campaigns would also raise public awareness to the point that a woman doesn’t feel overly uncomfortable or feel the heat of judgmental glances if she needs to nurse an infant in public.

I, too, disagree with the approaches of those who might be labeled “breast-feeding fascists.”  But then, I can’t look at my four week old little boy contentedly nursing as I compose blog posts in the evening and reconcile that with Rosin’s epiphany:

In Betty Friedan’s day, feminists felt shackled to domesticity by the unreasonably high bar for housework, the endless dusting and shopping and pushing the Hoover around . . . it was not the vacuum that was keeping me and my 21st-century sisters down, but another sucking sound.

Maybe the whole issue is a little too close to me right now, but I can’t look at my children as something holding me down.  And that sucking sound?  Contrary to the vacuum, it seems to me like the very sound of completeness and wholeness in this world.