Double Pointed Needles versus Magic Loop, an entirely made up (but still not completely implausible) history of sock knitting

I have recently become obsessed with knitting socks. And when I say “obsessed” I mean mostly that I knit a single pair of socks. But I have certainly purchased an obsessive amount of sock yarn and have certainly looked at an obsessive number of images of knitted socks on instagram and elsewhere (who are we kidding? mostly instagram). My first sock I knitted using a technique (new, to me at least) called “magic loop”. The second I went with the traditional “double pointed needle” method. What follows is my breakdown — and I do mean breakdown (like I was probably very close to a breakdown)– of the difference between the two.

There was a time when there was no magic loop knitting. And before that, there was a time when all socks were knit flat and then sewn together, creating a seam or two or, perhaps for those unfortunates who were “knitting with very short skeins” (which is not a euphemism but could be) from which they could only create tiny patches that then had to be grafted together into larger patches and then stitched together into something approximating a sock. And way before that there were no socks at all and people just stuffed grass into their shoes. And a long, long time before that, there were no people. We’ve gone too far back. Let’s go forward to a time when there were people, with feet, but questionable means of protecting these appendages and keeping them warm. In all these periods of time when there were people, all the people had one thing in common: they were miserable. Their feet were either cold or grassy or they spent all their days with their feet warmish but with seams digging into their skin and leaving horrid red marks and impressions when they pulled off their socks before climbing into bed (because only monsters sleep with socks on[*]) and generally making them irritable throughout the day.

And then someone (a misunderstood genius perhaps) was like “screw this! I’m figuring out a way to knit a tube in one continuous spiral so that we don’t have to have these ridiculous, uncomfortable bulky seams.” And so (cue climactic music) the double pointed needle was created. Well, no. There was probably some fiddling around for a while. Someone probably figured out how to “knit in the round” (as knitting one continuous tube is called) using two regular needles, painstakingly sliding the stitches off and on each needle as they went. But, eventually, someone (who everyone probably assumed was a sadist initially) decided that instead of sliding each stitch onto the other needle, they could use three, four, or even five! (ergo, sadist) double pointed needles (ergo: super-sadist) and just keep going around in a circle from one needle to the next, knitting merrily away. And people were probably at first like, “who is this insane person knitting with three, four, or even FIVE needles and with double the number of pointy bits?” But! But! when said person was able to create seamless socks, everyone was like, “hang on a minute, this person is on to something. I was wrong to judge them.” And then probably paid this genius knitter millions of silver coins (or quid or ducats or horses or whale fat for their lamps or whatever the currency of the time was) for pairs of seamless socks.

And so knitters happily went along knitting their socks on double pointed needles (DPNs) for hundreds, perhaps thousands, maybe millions (I never claimed to be a historian) of years. Until someone came along and said, “hang on! why are we knitting in the round with double pointed needles, we have all sorts of plastics and other bendy materials that we can use instead now?” And so they took two straight needles and joined the back (not pointy) ends together with a bendy piece of plastic and now people could knit in the round by simply going around and around and around and never stopping. Ever. No more back and forth. No more switching between double pointed needles. And it was a miracle and amazing and all the people rejoiced. Or, well, at least the knitters rejoiced. But this allowed them to knit large tubes (like the body of a sweater) faster and so their previously cold loved ones also rejoiced.

But there was one problem. Because of some basic laws of physics (like two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time), it was impossible to knit socks in the round using these new “circular needles.” Basically, in order for circular needles to work, the knitter ends up bunching the stitches that are not being worked on the plastic part and so the only way they can be used is if the circumference of the finished product goal is larger than the circumference of the knitting needles. For socks, the tubes have to be relatively small. And therefore the circumference of the circular needle would have to be so small as to make it impossible to hold the needles at the appropriate angle (which at times has to be close to 180 degrees) to knit.

But the sock knitters were fine with that. They were all like, “No. It’s fine. I’m fine with that. You sweater knitters just keep on doing your circular needle thing. We will be fine over here with our double pointed needles. It’s cool. I mean, someone has to use these old things. Amiright? Heh. Heh.”

But secretly, some of them weren’t ok with it. They desperately wanted to get their hands on some of those circular needles. They wanted to feel their stitches sliding across the cool flexibility of the plastic cords. They wanted to be able to push their stitches all on to the cord and jam their half-knitted socks into their project bags and run to make their train, their precious stitches and needles and yarn banging against their hip without the constant nagging fear that stitches and stitches were falling off of either of the two ends of the three needles they had in there, precariously jostling about. SIX! SIX! SIX! … opportunities for stitches to be dropped. Oh, how they suffered with their quiet fears and thirsty jealousy.

And so, one of the more, shall we say … industrious (but perhaps what we really mean is opportunistic) amongst them created a new way to knit socks. It would combine all of the ease and convenience of circular needles with the cachet that comes with being a creator of socks. Above all, it would be called something that would make it attractive and undeniable to knitters (and, frankly, to non-knitter as well) everywhere: MAGIC LOOP.

I must admit that I was one of those pulled in by the name. Magic? I thought to myself. You mean, I can use MAGIC to make these socks rather than hard work and meticulous care? Hand over the size 2 circular needles with an extra long cord! Amiright?

That’s right. I might as well have made a pact with the devil himself. Not that I’m proud of this. But I’m not here to sugar coat anything, least of all myself and my guileless willingness to be pulled in by a mere word: magic.

Perhaps I was naive. Perhaps I was just desperate to knit socks, to join the rarefied air that those knitters of foot attire occupy with a breezy attitude of “yes, I turn a heel and form a gusset and graft a toe” as if it was nothing. NOTHING. NO-THING.

But I digress.

I did sit down to knit my first sock. And I did use the magic loop technique. And I must have been through most of the cuff and nearing the heel when it suddenly dawned on me, “There’s nothing magic about this. Like. At all. At. All. It’s just knitting in the round and using this chintzy cord to hold stitches and then sliding the needle through your work to “turn it” rather than the elegant constancy of a DOUBLE POINTED NEEDLE!” The man behind the curtain was revealed. And I was crushed.

Lesson learned.

I hate to tell you, dear reader, but there is NO magic in magic loop. It’s all just smoke and mirrors and a fancy (and, really, all too obvious) name. And in addition? That loop that was supposed to be magic, all it did for me was create more opportunity for “ladders”, which I will not explain here NOT because it is too hard to explain but because if you don’t already know what a ladder is in knitting, we must preserve your innocence at all costs.

For my second sock, I shamefully, apologetically picked up my double pointed needles. And, almost as if by magic, the second sock practically knit itself. Not really. It was painstaking work. I had to be attentive at every phase, making sure that I wasn’t dropping stitches, picking up my work with thought and care and only when I knew I would be able to give it my full attention and putting it away when I was done for the time being. In other words: exactly what the process of making something should be. And the end result? No ladders. Instead: one cozy, slow-knit, comfy sock fit perfectly to my foot mismatched to it’s less-than-perfect companion.

I am not anti-innovation and I’m certainly not anti-circular needle. But sometimes we already have the right tools for the job, tools that, like the double pointed needle, have hit a sweet spot between adapting a previous iteration without going so far as to reinventing and adapting something that, well, really didn’t need reinvention or adaptation. Double pointed needles do the trick. And, yes, “magic loop” might be slightly faster or more convenient, but the end product also, well, sometimes kinda looks faster and more convenient. Sock knitting with double pointed needles is a challenge. And that’s ok.

[*]OK, fine, I sleep with socks on.

Turing Tumble

Ms6yo Z builds her own computer using the Turing Tumble. Perhaps one day she will build a robot that will help us clean up our mess!

This Christmas, Ms6yo Z received a puzzle game called “Turing Tumble“. Like many of the most engaging games and puzzles and educational systems, the idea behind it is simple. In spite of this elegant simplicity, there are a vast array of ideas that she learns and skills that she practices when she uses her Turing Tumble, which, at this point in time amounts to usually a few times a week.

It is comprised of a simple, white slanted plastic board that reminds me a bit of the “Plinko” game on the old Price is Right TV game show (or maybe it’s on the current one too?). Plinko consisted of a large board at a slight angle. It was large enough that it required a staircase the contestant would climb in order to stand above the board. Once up there, the contestant would drop a puck from the top of the board, which had regularly placed pegs sticking out of the board. The puck would slide down, bouncing unpredictably from peg to peg. At the bottom, it would land in a slot labeled with one of various fabulous prizes. Rather than pegs, the Turing Tumble table has holes into which the “contestant” (student or puzzler) can place various tools. The small, colorful plastic “tools”, when used correctly, behave in a much more predictable way. And rather than a puck, the student uses small red and blue ball bearings, which make a satisfying plink, plink, plink sound as they hit the different plastic pieces. Sadly, there are no fabulous prizes at the end. Although, I’m sure that the learning that happens is more fabulous than anything offered on The Price is Right.

The game is named for Allen Turing, the mathematician whose decoding work during WWII (and the tragic discrimination that he faced) was made famous by the movie Enigma in which he was played by Benedict Cumberbatch. And while MsZ is only 6 (and therefore too young for the movie), certainly some of the scenes (if we can find some) of the massive computers Turing and his team built to decode German messages might place her much smaller Turing Tumble into context for her. The Tumble website contests that with a table large enough and with enough of the given plastic pieces, one would be able to use to system to solve any mathematical problem.

Eric explained it to me this way. Coding is a language. Each of the pieces in the Turing Tumble are like parts of language: words or sentences or paragraphs. Maybe a punctuation mark. As MsZ combines them together, she’s writing a program, just as a writer might use words or sentences or paragraphs to build, say, a blog post or a short story or even a poem. Each of the pieces of language work in a distinct way and we can use them together in infinite combinations to solve a problem — or to communicate an idea. But we still have to stay within the rules of language. If we break the rules, the problem becomes unsolvable, the idea uncommunicated.

A Turing Tumble success!

The Turing Tumble also leads MsZ through the process of building a mechanical computer. For right now, she’s still in the early stages of the puzzles and so, as in early education math, the computers she is building create simple patterns. According to the Turing Tumble website later computers will solve actual computations.

The Turing Tumble allows to her both build a physical, mechanical computer, but also to practice the logic behind coding. It’s an introduction to the basics of if-then logic and also learning the rules and limitations of the language. Some of the pieces illustrate, in very concrete ways, how some of the gadgets or gears store information in the same way that information is stored in a computer.

The system comes with a booklet, which includes, of course, the rules and how different pieces work. It is contained within a sort of “graphic” (meaning illustrated) story, which I have not read, but MsZ has. She has not shown much interest in the story and would probably show the same enthusiasm for the game without the graphic story behind it. She’s only 6 and the suggested age on the box is 8 and up, so perhaps she’s just too young to appreciate the story. But more likely, I think that it has more to do with an idea inside the enclosed booklet. “Now you might think proving mathematical statements is a rather boring, straightforward task. Not at all. It requires tremendous creativity….” I think that MsZ is attracted to the creativity and problem solving of the table. For her, and I think for people who are mathematically minded in general (I would include children in that group), the process of learning the game and solving the problems is creative enough. They don’t require a story. The graphics and stories are what we adults think kids need in order to make “exciting” and “fun” what we fear they will think is “boring”. In my experience, most kids don’t need or even want the stories and colors and pictures. It’s the adults who think they need it.

That all being said, I think that the Turing Tumble would be great for adults too. We play a fair about of games and puzzles around here. Some of them are on screens, which are slick and convenient and have their place, but it’s really nice to have such a highly physically interactive puzzle that is still a challenge. She’s working on her fine motor skills in ways that touching a screen never does.

As for a six year old using this item for which the recommended minimum age is 8? It’s been fine. I don’t know if she would have been able to just pick it up and start doing it without one of us getting her started and pointing out a few things to her, so I’m guessing that the lower end recommended age of 8 is more appropriate if you are looking for something in which the child can be completely self directed. We did run into a few “glitches” initially in which some components on the back of the board were getting in the way of the pieces on the front and prevented them from working properly. And this is the sort of issue that probably requires someone older to solve. But solve them we did and it doesn’t seem to be an issue anymore.

Every so often, she asks for help, but as homeschooling parents, that’s part of our job. Obviously. So we are happy to do it. But we try to avoid doing things for her or solving the puzzle for her. We might ask a few questions to help her get to the solution. Or, as happened recently, if I end up helping a bit more I had intended to (I couldn’t figure out the solution myself so I had to actually do it), I will ask her afterwards questions about what the problem was and how it was solved. This sort of “processing” of what went wrong (and what went right) is an important component of teaching the kids to practice metacognition. As Eric likes to remind us, we learn more from failing or losing than winning all the time. But this requires a close examination of what went wrong and how to do things differently next time. In other words: one of the things we are trying to do is to teach them how to learn. And the Turing Tumble is a great tool for doing so.

The Mouths of Babes

As a homeschooling family, we eat at home a lot. Almost all of the time. And so, what my kids are and are not willing to eat is a central concern for me. It’s something that’s easy (maybe too easy?) for me to monitor. The oldest, Ms 10yo A, has always been a really big eater, or, at least, that’s how I’ve always thought of her. She’s always been big and tall and so she just seems to need a lot of calories. If anything, the biggest “problem” around food is that she can crunk pretty hard if she doesn’t have enough to eat.

6 yo Ms Z has always been more “average” sized with an appetite to match. But she’s always been willing to eat and try new things. Still, for me, lately, I have felt like there’s just more of a struggle. Or at least, it’s been the source of worry for me. Is she eating enough? Is she getting the “right” amounts of different vitamins and nutrients? Am I being too forceful with food with her? Is she healthy? Is her diet healthful? While her older sister seems to devour everything put in front of her, it seems like she is sometimes just picking and not really eating. I feel like I always have to remind her to eat her vegetables at dinner.

A few weeks ago, she came to me while I was cooking and asked if she could help with anything. I turned her away. I regretted saying “no” to her about this and told her as much later on. I realized, eventually, that this was one of her ways, which are myriad, of reaching out to me — both from an earnest desire to help but also because she enjoys the time with me and she wants to learn about food and cooking. But, sometimes, in the midst of our cramped kitchen, and while I’m rushing to get something on the table before a seemingly imminent bedtime, the “easiest” thing to do is to just say “no”, to do it myself. And part of me thinks: surely she would rather just go and play and do something else? I need to learn to say “yes” to help, especially when it comes from my kids.

Our tastes and appetites are not just a matter of size and biology but they are wound up in our relationships with people and, most particularly, with those who provide our food. I started thinking that part of what I needed to do was to invite Ms Z to participate more in preparing the food. To invite her to be involved even with the shopping. To give her more control and ownership of the food she was eating.

I had already picked out a recipe for Friday night dinner. This time of year, for some reason, I romanticize a Minnesota winter and so I had reached for my Birchwood Cafe cook book. The Birchwood is a charming, sunny cafe not too far from where we used to live (and my sister and her family currently live) in Minneapolis. The cafe focuses on farm to table, seasonal and local fare, which is ambitious in a Minnesota winter. Before making it my goal to involve Ms Z, I had already picked out the winter root vegetable hand pies with a blood orange gastrique to have with the sun choke puree. (I thought the pear chutney they recommended was more than we could handle on a Friday night.) So my first mistake was not including her in the process of picking out the meal. My second was going ahead and making the dough for the hand pies ahead of time and without her. She loves dough. She always has. Putty. Slime. Kinetic sand. Clay. You name it. If it’s malleable and squishy, she loves it. It was the most obvious entry point for her to enjoy this process: to have her participate in something that I already know that she enjoys. But I missed that. I never claimed to be the brightest bulb.

At the grocery story, I tried to involve all of them in the shopping in a more thoughtful way than I have before. I talked to them about the different ingredients, asked them to help pick out the turnip and beet. We tried to figure out which root was which root (turmeric? ginger? sun choke?) on some mis-labelled shelves. I thought I was doing a pretty good job.

Her older sister, Ms 10yo A, turned to me suddenly as we were heading towards the cash registers and said, “Mom, I think my changing.”

“What do you mean?” I asked her.

“Like, I like things that I didn’t care for before.”

“Like what things?”

“Mushrooms. Bok choy. I think my palette is growing.”

Huh. I thought to myself. I hadn’t really thought about it that way.

“Tell your sister she has something to look forward to.”

In spite of these words of wisdom from my oldest daughter, I clung to this “solution” I had committed myself to. If I just involve Ms Z in the process of shopping and cooking and preparing, she will just start to like, well, everything. I had already built up this idea in my head that we would have a magical evening of cooking together and at dinner that night she would eat with gusto and enthusiasm and enjoy everything. And also be proud of herself and her accomplishments.

So while her older sister was at basketball practice that evening and her little brother emptied out all the floor-level cabinets at our feet in the kitchen, Ms Z and I prepared dinner. She juiced oranges and measured and poured ingredients for the blood orange gastrique. She listened attentively as I told her measurements and how we had to use red balsamic because we didn’t have white balsamic as the recipe called for but that I didn’t think it would make much of a difference. She turned on the stove herself. It’s pretty great that she has the coordination and strength to do a lot of these things these days. I asked her to taste things here and there and decide what needed more salt or pepper. After my initial feeling of “I’ll just do this myself, it will go faster and be less messy that way”, I calmed down enough to let her roll out the pastry dough with the French rolling pin. The first ones she did were a little rough and she was frustrated that they were uneven. By the fourth, hers were as good as I could have done.

At some point, she turned to me and said, “Mom, I think I’m growing.”

“How do you mean?” I asked her.

“Well, I used to not like green beans. But now I like some of them.” She went on to explain how she preferred crispy ones to the mushy ones.

When her sister and dad arrived home, she proudly explained everything she had done to prepare dinner. She was chatty, as she always is during meal-time. She loves the socializing and story-telling and interaction that goes on over a meal. While her sister will mostly hunker down to eat; she likes to linger. Everything seemed to be lining up: she had been engaged in all different parts of the process of cooking, she was proud of what she had done, she had been already tasting and trying and taking control over what she was eating. My plan was coming to fruition. This would be the moment of break through. A major reversal from being a tepid eater to being adventurous and bold.

Did she hate the meal? Well, hate would be too strong of a word. Tepid might be more apt. There was a lot of new flavors to try. Root vegetables are, well, tough going, especially the first time around and for a young palette. (She picked out the beets, which she has already had a number of times, to eat without the turnips and parsnips.) She tried everything, but by the end of the meal it was clear that there hadn’t been some big turn around borne out of a lovely meal prep with her mother.

I ended up having an honest conversation with her (well, probably more with myself) about how we needed to makes some changes around food and diet in the house. The candy stash would be thrown out (some friends had just recently dropped off the last of their Halloween candy from their house). No more snacking after five. Homemade treats and fruit are fine and, of course, around holidays there will be candy. She seemed amenable and, perhaps, even a little relieved to have guidance and limits. And I think we all needed the “reset”.

And I got a much needed “reset” in my thinking about how she eats and her diet. Like any sort of physical growth and as her older sister reminded me, her taste and palette is something that will change and expand. And it’s something that can’t and shouldn’t be rushed along just to allay my fears and worries. She’s started to like green beans after all. Crispy. Not mushy.

“Handwork” or, as we say here, “stuff to do.”

Using a needle threader, which she also taught her older sister to do.

Tonight, Ms 6yo Z asked if we could “do stuff in the basement.” She explained saying that she wanted to, “you know, knit and weave and sew and stuff.” On Saturday evening, her 10yo sister and her and I sat downstairs and, well, cross-stitched and sewed and wove and stuff. Apparently, it made quite an impression because she was asking to do more of it. Later on, she referred to it as “girl time”, which isn’t entirely correct because her dad was the one who actually taught her how to cross-stitch even though he didn’t participate in the memorable and aforementioned Saturday night session beyond the periodic check in on how everyone was doing.

The girls have been knitting (the older on bamboo needles and the younger on her own fingers) for a while now. They even gave me a handmade coffee press “cozy” this Christmas, which has worked a charm. Plus, it has the added bonus of being a team project, each member of the team working at their level to contribute. (The younger finger knitted the “sash” while the older one knitted the larger piece with needles.)

A French press cozie. Handmade.

One of 10yo A’s gifts Christmas gifts this year (from her cousin) was an embroidery kit and soon thereafter we got her a “beginner loom” for her birthday. Her little sister has been hot on her heels with the cross-stitch and pulling out her finger knitting and even trying her hand at embroidery with materials her sister lent her. In the first week of the new year, we spent a few evenings, huddled together in the family room, listening to music doing these various needle-centric activities (and, at least one evening, two of us learned a new board game that had been another holiday season gift).

My own desire to knit has been re-kindled as the girls rummage through my materials and notions. I picked up my needles right before Christmas and have been working on my own first pair of socks. I’m using a lovely wool “Happy Feet”. At a local yarn store, an employee introduced me to the idea of “magic loop” knitting, which basically uses a modern materials advancements (ie plastics mean it’s possible to have two needles attached to each other with a long, flexible “wire”) to knitters to knit back and forth to create a tube (like a sock or hat) rather than using four needles to knit around in a circle. They had me at “magic”. I “magic loop” knitted the first one and, initially “just for kicks” am now doing regular old double-pointed needle knitting on the second one.

Weaving, which I do not think her FitBit calculates as “activity time.”

I’ve only finished the cuff of the second one but I’ve already decided that I prefer using four double pointed needles over “magic loop”. At first, magic loop seemed really fantastic. It felt faster and less “fiddly” than having to negotiate using four needles simultaneously with only two hands. But now, having used these lovely chiao goo metal double pointed needles, I definitely prefer the double pointed needles. I used to be intimidated by metal and by double pointed needles; the metal can be so slippery, if you’re not careful you can lose stitches or even drop a whole needle-full. But I think that’s why I prefer the metal double pointed needles: I’m forced to focus and be careful. But there are also built in opportunities to double check work three times each row as I switch needles. So the going is much slower. But the pay-off is that I have fewer mistakes, I think my tension is more consistent, and, perhaps most importantly, all that focus and attention to what I am doing makes it more enjoyable. And I think that, as we have our “girl time”, my kids also pick up on my focus and attention to this task. And vice versa. I think I’ve learned about the value in opting for the more challenging option that requires more focus — sometimes over the faster option — from watching them.

These are just a few of the types of lessons and learning that go on when we pick up our needles. Of course, there are the obvious fine-motor skills they are strengthening. (Did you know there are thirty muscles in the hands and fore-arms?) Also, on A’s loom, she is learning basic physics and engineering, not to mention all the specific vocabulary words associated with each craft. They are constantly comparing and contrasting the different tools and construction involved in each. And they are starting to get into planning bigger projects and seeing them through to the end. (See the picture above of their Christmas present.) They have to work with numbers, measuring yarn and deciding on the lengths and sizes of things they are making. Sometimes there’s even a little multiplication and division involved. And it truly is gratifying to watch them complete projects, knowing that they can create things with their own hands. They chat or listen to podcasts while doing these “tasks” (which are so much more than that word suggests). Sometimes they teach each other things or just enjoy each other’s quiet, comforting focus. On Saturday, Z sat at the sewing machine and did a few straight lines on her own for the first time. It might not seem like much is going on, but there’s achievement in there.

Tonight, I picked up my sock and double pointed needles, A cast on a few stitches for Z to make her first go on two bamboo needles. Z made a good go of it, but then decided to return to the comfort (and rapid progress) of finger knitting. I tried to offer her a few encouraging words about trying the needles, but she knows where she is and what she needs. She quickly had a few feet of finger knitted yarn. “Look how much I did!” she exclaimed as she held it up. A was planning on doing some weaving, but she pulled out her book log instead. I suspect she was writing up her thoughts on The Hunger Games (which will, no doubt, include her opinion that Suzanne Collins went a “little heavy on the romance) with Adele (her choice) playing in the background. Dear reader, I do not intend to make you jealous with this vignette, but if you are, I can assure you, you need not be. There’s nothing “special” or unique about our family or our situation that allows us to have evenings like this. As GK Chesterton said, “The most extraordinary thing in the world is an ordinary man and an ordinary woman and their ordinary children.”

Why we homeschool

“Mama, look, my shadow has a heart.”

Our family started in Minneapolis, Minnesota where the two older kids were born. And it is this time of year, winter and cold and grey, that I most often think about and even miss Minneapolis. Winters there are hard. Very hard. The snow shoveling seems endless. The driving can be hard (much less walking or biking in the icy sidewalks and roads). There were days that it felt like it took twenty minutes just to get the kids and myself dressed to go outside. But this hardship seems to create a certain feeling of camaraderie and “hygge” (or a sort of coziness). People find and create ways to be together against the cold and against the elements.

And this feeling of reliance on each other and of shared hardship creates for really lovely schools. We only had a limited exposure to the schools in Minneapolis (we moved when our kids were still young but we did attend the Early Childhood and Family Education program that the public school district offers as, I think, all public school systems should offer). Since then, however, we have watched my nephews and niece move through the system and I did my teacher training one state over in Wisconsin which, I believe, has many similarities with the school systems in Minnesota (but don’t tell anyone I said as much as I’m pretty sure it’s some sort of violation of the inter-state rivalry). I am confident that, had we stayed in Minneapolis, we would not have homeschooled our children. The winters are already isolating enough without further withdrawing from community life. And the school system there is very much community centered and offers students a very well rounded, thoughtful education.

As he posted about here, Eric grew up in rural Minnesota. I grew up in DC and attended small private schools for elementary and high school. Although we grew up in very different places, I think that our early experiences in education gave us a community and early childhood life that was somewhere in between rural and urban. For Eric, the school he attended was his one way into a larger social and learning environment away from the relative isolation of where he lived. For me, the small private schools in a large city felt like an extension of my family or home life and relatively sheltered from urban life.

I think that these experiences have a lot to do with how and why we’ve ended up homeschooling our children. We don’t live far from where I grew up geographically but suburban DC (even barely outside of the beltway) is a completely different place from the DC in which I grew up.

The school system feels disjointed here. Unlike in Minnesota, there doesn’t seem to be any experiences that pull everyone together. Some families have roots here, some have immigrated from other countries, some moved here for government work from different parts of the country and world and may or may not be staying here long term. And while on the one hand, this makes this area rich and diverse, often these different groups seem to have competing interests. Sometimes one groups seem to “win out” with little or not concern for the other groups. And the public school system, which would seem to be one place where there might be some sort of “equalizing” or at least where students would be able to be on some sort of equal footing, in fact doesn’t seem to make any decisions based on trying to improve things for *all* students and families.

And so: we homeschool. And I think part of this is that both of us have been exposed to education that works (in rural Minnesota, in DC, in Minneapolis, and in, yes, Wisconsin) and so we can see how much it fails here in Montgomery County — or at least how much it hasn’t lived up to what our family hoped and expected for our children in a traditional school setting. But when we decided to homeschool (and every day since then) our choice did not feel like a rejection of the status quo. All along it has felt like an opening up to opportunities and ways of learning and being a family. It has been a gift.

It’s getting hygge in here

We are nominally hygge here.

We used to live in Minneapolis where we gained an appreciation for the Danish idea of “hygge” (pronounced hoo-ga). Even though Minnesota in general is more Swedish and Norwegian (and Eric and I both have Norwegian, not Danish, ancestry), the Scandinavian culture in general and weather definitely are conducive to a hygge-centric lifestyle. Hygge is sometimes roughly translated as “cozy”. After a few winters in Minneapolis (and a few before that in Wisconsin), I think that a hygge way of living and being is crucial to survival (physically, mentally, and emotionally) in those cold climates.

When we bought our house there, one of the first things we did was to have a wood-burning stove installed into the fireplace. On the short, dark days of winter, the girls and I would often lie down on a huge pillow in front of the fire and take a late afternoon nap together. When A was in preschool at the time, she and I would sometimes walk through feet of snow to her class. It wasn’t quite up hill both ways and I had toasty warm “mukluks” on my feet, but the temperatures were definitely well below zero on some of those days. And while we also had the option of driving, to drive both ways every day would definitely have felt like winter had defeated us. But had we not had that warm fire, a snack, and a cup of tea to look forward to, we definitely would not have been able to make that walk.

But Hygge doesn’t entirely translate where we live now, in Maryland, just outside where I grew up in DC. It is a bit swampy here, even in the winter. My sister and her family still live in Minneapolis and last winter they installed a hot tub in their backyard, which is a very hygge thing to do. On a recent winter day, she was talking about her kids using the hot tub. It happened to be a boggy day here in Maryland in spite of the calendar and I had to admit to her that while the whole scenario of climbing into a hot tub on a dry, frigid Minnesota day was very appealing, the idea of doing the same here in Maryland was, well, gross.

We are nominally hygge here. This Christmas the older girls wanted to buy presents for everyone in our extended family. It was very generous and thoughtful of them, but we had to help them reign it in a little bit. We all finally settled on them making soy-based candles for family members. We ordered this kit (they contributed a little to the cost) and we spent a few afternoons melting wax, calculating percentages, taking temperature readings, and mixing in the fragrances. They also made and attached little labels to each candle. And the end result were handmade gifts that were super hygge.

In the picture at the beginning of this post is one of the candles that we made together. I’ve been picking up knitting again and a warm drink and something to eat round out my attempt at a hygge picture, which 10yo Ms A called, “very instagramable.” (Clear evidence that she’s been around her older cousins lately.) True hygge is very hard to capture in a picture. In fact, as I settled into my chair to knit by some warm hand-poured scented candle light, a cup of tea, and a bite to eat, as soon as I picked up my phone to take the photo, I sort of disrupted the whole hygge moment. Like most good things in life and any decent “lifestyle” philosophy, being absorbed in the moment or task and being present to the people who are around you is central to “hygge”. For me, my camera can often disrupt that.

And this, too, can become one of the challenges of homeschooling, but it also one of its gifts. We are often challenged to take a step back and to let things take their course, directed by where the children’s interests lie. It’s hard, at time, to not pick up the proverbial camera, to compose the picture, and to overly obsess on whether or not what we are teaching and doing is “right” and best. And, of course, the moment we do, we disrupt those moments of true and genuine learning. But there are moments when we are able to put down the need to evaluate, when we can simply calculate the percentages, pour the candles, read the book, give the gift, ride the bike, play the game. Those are the moments of hygge. And they are lovely.

The “S” Word

The church Christmas play this year was one of the ways in which our kids were able to spend time around kids of different ages
(and their families who often attended rehearsals).

One of the main reservations that parents have about homeschooling is that their children will not have an opportunity to “socialize”. The image that many hold of homeschool kids is that they don’t watch TV or are not otherwise exposed to mainstream culture and, as a result, don’t have the same cultural touchstones that everyone else in their generation shares.  And while this may be true of some homeschool families, it doesn’t have to be true of all. To be clear: just because a family homeschools doesn’t mean they have to move off the grid to a rural corner of the midwest and throw their TVs out the window. In fact, I would recommend against doing this sort of thing. 

Concerns about “socialization” in the context of education reveal a number of assumptions about both socialization and education. 

First, this way of thinking presupposes that “socialization” is a focal point of most traditional classrooms. This is not always the case. Many classrooms are structured with a teacher more or less standing at the front of the room, showing and demonstrating information and skills. Peer-to-peer interaction often occurs around the “edges” of these lessons and sometimes even in direct conflict with these lessons (think: note-passing, trips to the bathroom to meet friends, and other “covert” interactions with peers, friends, crushes, etc….). Sometimes peer to peer interaction is a distraction from the material. 

The second underlying assumption is that the best or only way to learn how to be social is by interacting with your peer group. But are peers really the best people to teach each other how to be social? Certainly, there are children who are able to teach and model advanced social skills, but in the absence of a larger culture which prioritizes and values healthy and pro-social interaction, peer to peer interaction even in a seemingly highly controlled school setting, can slide into a “Lord of the Flies” scenario. And this is what we found in some of the more traditional school settings near us: a lot of unmonitored peer to peer time and a lack of a larger school culture that prioritized teaching children how to be pro-social. The end result was that our children were in environments that, by default, were anti-social.

We have had to change and expand the way in which we think about socialization in our homeschooling environment. And to be clear: we probably would not be homeschooling if we didn’t live in a relatively population dense area where social interaction is an almost unavoidable aspect of day to day life. By circumstance (not at all by any sort of carefully laid plans on our part), our children regularly interact with family, friends, and neighbors of varying ages and backgrounds. They have church friends, basketball (and other sports) friends, neighborhood friends, and family all nearby. Plus, they have each other and us, their parents. They regularly interact with the same people IRL that adults have to interact with in their day-to-day lives out in the “world” when they are buying things or running errands with me or their dad. The older nine-year-old interacts with different people in (safe and parentally monitored) on-line environments. 

And, yes, they do sometimes watch TV or otherwise engage in popular, mainstream culture and, yes, balancing all of this is one of our main concerns and challenges as parents who homeschool. But what we have found is that finding this balance has felt much more attainable with our kids spending most of their time in homeschool rather than in a traditional school. 

Teachers that every student should have

A lot of conversations over “groaning” boards like this one, which features, amongst other items, cheese from Cowgirl Creamery.

This holiday season, I was chatting with some long-time family friends including a third-grader. I asked her the standard questions about school and what she had been doing lately. She described a power point slide that she had made about animal adaptation as her mother listened. I asked her what adaptation she learned about and she described how penguins have white bellies so that they look like glints of sunlight to underwater predators when they swim along the surface of the ocean.

I had to admit that I had never considered this impressive adaptation before and thanked her for sharing. Her mother looked at me and exclaimed, “Thank you so much for giving this demonstration of excellent mothering! I feel like I don’t do a very good job of asking her about school.”

Later on, I realized that I wasn’t actually practicing good mothering in that conversation; I was fully in “teacher mode”. I happen to be both teacher and mother to my children and while both often look similar and there are large swaths of territory in which these two roles overlap, they aren’t exactly the same. It is the teachers’ job to ask children about what they are learning, to find the topics that interest students, to not just “feed” children information but help them to evaluate their learning, to practice “metacognition” and to give them positive feedback when they are learning in order to create a positive feedback loop founded on social interaction.

Part of our job as parents is to make sure that our children have teachers (and other adults in their lives) who help guide them in this way: to help them think about learning.

In the absence of teachers who practice this, these responsibilities fall on parents’ shoulders. It is a lot to have parents do, especially around the “edges” of an already long school day. In our rather limited interaction with more traditional schooling here in Montgomery County, our children have not have any teachers who encouraged this sort of metacognition. As a result, much of our already limited time with our children was spent checking in with them in this way. This is just one of the many reasons we homeschool now. These conversations happen much more easily and naturally now and they are around topics towards which our children are naturally inclined. Much more of our energy goes towards not just learning what someone else has decided they should learn, but on how they can learn what they are truly and genuinely interested in. The return on investment has been well worth it.

Gift Giving

Many of our thoughts and conversations around here — with both the kids and between Eric and I — are about gifts, receiving and giving them. There are various lists being written and secret emails and whispering and furtive shuffling of packages into hiding places. They aren’t quite brown paper packages tied up with string, but they could be.

The customs, behaviors, and traditions around gifts and gift giving are likely fertile ground for anthropologists attempting to learn and quantify the values of a given culture. One community that we recently observed (I’m not actually an anthropologist, I just play one on this blog) had the charming tradition of setting up a small gift shop in which children could buy Christmas gifts for their parents. The gift items were donated and then the money earned was then put back into the community.

This ritual seemed charming, but upon further observation, it became obvious that it was unsubstantial and conveyed few values or meaning beyond those of commerce. For example: some of the donated goods were home-made “slime.” The organizers expressed that they were aware that no parent actually wants slime (or in some cases MORE slime) in their homes, but still made this item available for children to buy as gifts ostensibly for their parents or other care-givers.

Organizers rejected donations (such as art kits or projects) that a child would in some way “make” or at least “put together” for their parents. The reason given was that this would require too much supervision of the children, who were 5 to 12 years old.

Our decision to homeschool our children is based on countless factors. We consider “Education” is not just the transmission of academic subject areas but also of values, of living thoughtfully in a community. We want our children to know that gift giving is not just about spending money but also about showing care and thinking about the recipient. We found that in some of the more traditional educational settings we observed were not conveying the same values that we held. Sometimes, as above, they were even working against us, teaching them the opposite of what we wanted them to learn and how we wanted them to interact with and think about the world. This time of year, the dark and cold of consumer culture seems to grow with the longer nights. I find myself drawn to the warmth of the counter-culture of family and food and friends and togetherness. In these dark days, I’m grateful that homeschooling give us all of those.

Delegating is teaching

Yesterday was the First Sunday of Advent (Happy Liturgical New Year!). Eric retrieved our advent wreath candle holder from the basement along with the purple and pink candles and various advent season books. We were anticipating blessing our wreath and saying the first night’s prayers, but our dining room table was a disaster: covered from end to end with the flotsam and jetsam that accumulates after a long holiday weekend. While the kids played downstairs, I walked by the table a number of times and had to fight the urge to pick up an item bound for the trash anyway or to remove dishes left by one of the kids or replace a book or toy into the appropriate shelf or bin.

As parents, I think it’s easy to just do everything ourselves: to cook and clean, to put things away, to do all the daily work of a household. For me anyway, nine times out of ten it’s just easier to “do it myself”. Or at least it seems easier, in the moment, to do it myself. How many times has one of the kids come into the kitchen and asked me “is there anything I can do to help?” And I’ve quickly, thoughtlessly replied, “no” as I chop carrots or pour broth or stir the contents of a pot, all tasks simple enough that a child could do it. (Answer: many.) Perhaps I’m loathe to admit that many of the “tasks” that make up my day which, in turn, make up my life’s work are things that a child could do. More likely, most of the time, it feels easier to complete each task by myself in the solitude of the kitchen rather than having to explain, to teach, to make sure they are being safe, to delegate. This attitude isn’t doing any of us any favors, least of all me.

Six yo Z often recalls (in fact she just did tonight) the time when she asked a few times if she could help making dinner. Later on, I admitted to her that I regretted turning down her help. I could have used it.

And so I passed by our dining room table multiple times last evening, resisting the temptation to just take care of everything. I waited until the family was together in the kitchen and asked everyone to clear their things and help clear the table for the wreath. They were happy to do it. There was no grumbling and I barely had to explain anything to them. For the wreath, for the candles, for this special first night of the new liturgical year, they were more than willing and able to pitch in.

It was a particularly beautiful evening, a particularly peaceful start to the new year.