Tag Archives: K through 12

Elementary School: Six Years of Growth

My son finishes elementary school this week. Six years ago, I cried as I sent him through those doors and down the hall into a classroom with a wonderful woman who took him under her wing and taught him everything he needed to know about getting along in the world.

Back then, he was waist high and when he smiled, his cheeks were still round with baby fat. His chubby hands grasped a pencil the right way to practice letters and write sentences about field trips, his hermit crab, and how much he loved his family. I used to smile at his primitive spelling and stick-figure crayon drawings, filing every writing away to brighten up a later day.

He told me stories of the pill bugs that escaped the classrooms and were found all over the school. Or the boy who put his foot in the toilet in the bathroom.

He moved on down the hall. He made new friends. He struggled. He discovered the joy of a really good book. He learned that he loved math and science and that all someone had to do was talk about it and he absorbed it like a sponge. He learned that sometimes he had to work hard at something and it wasn’t always easy. And even if he threw his pencil across the room and broke it, even if he said a cuss word in the process, his mother loved him anyway.

He learned that sometimes his mother said a cuss word in the process too. Damn homework.homework mominthemuddle.com

He told me stories about the kid who hid under his desk every day and the teacher who chased them on the playground at recess as they laughed and screamed.

As he moved on down the big kid hall, he learned that sometimes kids are mean. He learned that he didn’t want to be the bad guy, but he didn’t want rocks thrown at him either. He can’t always be a pleaser. Sometimes friends aren’t good at their job. Sometimes he found they could make him feel bad about himself, like when he got new glasses. Sometimes friends challenged him though. If they read a book, he wanted to read it too. He discovered a love for J.R.R. Tolkien and Roald Dahl.

He told me stories about the boys’ bathroom and the boy who licked the urinal. He told me all about the first overnight field trip he went on—he had the time of his life while I stayed home unable to breathe.

Now in fifth grade, he jokes with his teachers. He doesn’t need to be coddled. He does his homework in his room and I see it only when he needs help or when it is returned home graded. His writings are about fighters and his friends, no longer sappy and sweet. He takes pleasure in trying to teach me new math lessons he has learned, thinking he’ll stump me. And he has.

He tells me stories about kickball and monkey ball and the things I would not believe the boys do at lunch. He tells me about the science experiments with tea bags and the mock stock exchange they’re doing in math that he loves.

Now in the last week of his elementary school career, he walks down the hall confident, smiling, knowing many friends. He stands at my shoulders, lean and broad, baby fat long gone.

Six years ago when he entered that school, he was a quiet, funny, scared kid. When he walks out those doors for the last time, I’ll still recognize that little boy somewhere inside. But I couldn’t be more proud of the countless ways he’s grown.

mominthemuddle.com note

A note my son gave me in first grade.

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Can You Still Teach This Old Mom New Math Tricks?

If you read my blog regularly, you may know that math is a bad word to me. Just when I think I’m done with it, it rears its ugly head. So how on earth could I have spawned a child who by some miracle is really starting to get it? A child who not only gets it, but was so excited about something new he learned recently that he wanted to teach it to me?

You may read about that episode, where I may or may not have squirmed a little, here. (It’s a guest post for a great local—to me—moms’ site.) And you may find out whether I am or am not smarter than my fifth grader. In math anyway.

It's deceiving, I say.

It’s deceiving, I say.

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Middle School: A Time of Firsts

This is the follow-up to the post Firsts. Also, a disclaimer: This post is not intended to state that private schools are better. While my experience at my private school was sheltered, many kids there were caught doing “naughty” things. I was just not privy to them at the time.

Sixth grade. Public school. First time riding the bus. First time waiting at the bus stop, walking up those steps and down the aisle searching for a seat, hoping the person who sat with me would be nice. Then hoping anyone sat with me, just not the weird kid.

I’d just finished six years at a religious private school. What I would soon find out was that I was fresh meat. Innocent. Raw. Defenseless. It would take me three years to toughen up, to learn the way of the land, to stop pretending and ease into my own.

One of the first things I learned was that I lived a sheltered life in private school. The kids I played with and learned with didn’t come in a rainbow of colors. On the outside we all looked happy and had decent clothes. I never saw two people punch each other or pull hair and become a blurred mass of fury knocking down books and desks and making teachers and kids scramble.

The worst word I ever heard was sex and it was whispered and giggled about. During middle school I learned to laugh when the other kids did because I didn’t know what an orgasm was or a “BJ,” but they still knew I was clueless. I quickly put things together. I rolled my eyes and said no when boys joked about doing any of those things with me. I wasn’t always sure they were joking.

The first time I put myself out there and admitted to liking a boy, he didn’t like me back. Then I realized the girl I told to ask him, the boy, and probably his friends all knew I had liked him. Crushing.

A mysterious note consoled me. Once opened it read, “I like you. Do you like me? Check one: Yes or No. Sit beside me on the bus and tell me then.” Ugh. I knew who it was. And check, the answer was no. I didn’t sit with him on the bus.

The first time I was offered drugs was on the bus riding through my neighborhood. Some of the long-haired boys who always wore flannel shirts and never carried any schoolbooks asked if I wanted to come smoke a bowl with them. I had an image of a giant cooking bowl filled with something smoldering and the boys sniffing the smoke. It didn’t seem like a good time and I didn’t ever want to be in their company.

One of the first friends I made smoked cigarettes in the bathroom. I didn’t even like to talk during class because I was afraid I’d get in trouble. She talked back to the teacher. When another friend and I spent the night at her house the first time, she stole two warm beers from her parents and offered me some. I declined and watched as the girls all drank and started acting silly.

It would be another year before I tried alcohol. Tequila from a new friend’s liquor cabinet. It was disgusting. But the crème de menthe wasn’t so bad.

I remember my three years of middle school in great detail, despite trying to push the trauma back all these years. My son starts middle school next year. I know what’s coming. I fear it. Part of me wants to run screaming for the hills. The other part of me says we’ll get through this. He will get through this. I am better for having survived middle school. I faced my problems. I made mostly good decisions. Those may have been the first times I faced those things, but they certainly weren’t the last.

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Redshirting: There Will Always Be What-Ifs

Nearly a year ago, I wrote about our family’s decision to send our daughter to kindergarten on time, to not hold her back a year and give her an academic cushion. That practice, called redshirting, caused a lot of sleepless nights.

When I wrote the post, I thought only a handful of parents like me would read it, parents searching for someone else’s story. A few days later, “60 Minutes” aired a segment on redshirting and WordPress featured my post on Freshly Pressed. Then and ever since I have been getting feedback. I wish I had read those experiences and thoughts years ago when I was searching the Internet for answers. I thought some readers would want a follow-up now that my daughter is in second grade.

My daughter’s late August birthday, days before the August 31 cutoff, means she is nearly a full year younger than some of her classmates, kids with fall birthdays and others who were held back. The thing is, she was always going to be on the line, the youngest or the oldest. My husband and I had a decision to make when she was four: Could she handle kindergarten now? Yes, we absolutely thought she could.

Without sounding like a bragging momma, my daughter does really well in school. She aces her spelling tests. She reads chapter books and understands the content. She can add triple digits and do math in her head almost as well as I can, which probably isn’t saying much. She’s not the smartest kid in her class but she doesn’t have a hard time.

If we had held her back, I don’t think she would be challenged at all. My daughter doesn’t struggle with her work, but she sometimes has to think about it. Since I have an older son, I know this is appropriate.

She certainly feels more outside pressure this year to do well. She’s starting to notice the nasty world of ridicule and shame when kids giggle at others for performing poorly on schoolwork. There’s a fear of being made fun of if she makes a bad grade. I tell her it’s OK to miss things and that she will. Honestly, I don’t know how this pressure she puts on herself will translate as she gets older.redshirtpic

I’ll never know the what-ifs. What if we had held her back? Would she be more relaxed? Would she worry less? If we had held her back, I’d always think her progress was due to her advantage in age. But right now I have nothing but pride in every single thing that she does. She proves that she doesn’t need an edge to get by.

When every new school year begins, I’ll wonder whether she’ll struggle. I’ll always wonder whether this will be the year that her young age catches up to her. I’ll wonder whether every problem she has is connected to her age. I’m not sure whether I’ll ever stop wondering a little, but she proves to me that she’s developmentally on track every time.

Second grade was a trying year for my son, socially and emotionally. He had meltdowns and a total transformation from a sweet, loving kid to a near monster every afternoon. He’s back to being a sweetheart. If I hadn’t known this, I’d be much more worried now about my daughter during this transitional year filled with moodiness, attitude, and tears. Turns out she’s normal.

Having an older child has helped me see her future. I know that if she doesn’t test into the academically gifted program next year, I’ll wonder if it’s because of her age. I’ll wonder if holding her back would have helped. I’ll know some other kids who maybe had an advantage because of their age, and I’ll hate that for her. I’ll know it’s not a big deal if she doesn’t get in. And I’ll know she’ll be hurt anyway—because I know her.

Her age can never be an excuse, for her or for me. Pushing oneself to succeed is something I was never able to pull off. Watching my kid do it is something I’m not sure I’m strong enough to handle. But my daughter shows me her strength every day. Just when I doubt her ability, she’ll do her work with such ease. I marvel at her attitude and wish it would rub off on me. She is capable. She is smart. And I have no regrets about not redshirting her. My only hope is that my fears never stand in her way.

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The Writing’s on the Wall: My Kids May Never Learn Cursive

For most of third grade, my son begged me to teach him cursive writing. It’s no longer part of the state curriculum and I feel it’s a skill that shouldn’t be tossed aside just yet. Even with the advancement of technology, people should still be able to sign their names on documents, unique signatures that no one else in the world has. And cursive writing just looks so much better, so formal. It should never become a lost art that people have to ask their grandparents how to do.

I told my son I’d teach him the loops and curves of cursive this summer when we had time to sit down and practice and enjoy it.

It’s summer. My daughter, who will enter second grade in the fall, wanted to learn to write her name in cursive too. So we began our lesson the other day with much excitement. I have vivid memories of practicing letters daily in my third-grade class to precision. And because I’m a lefty, I had to turn my paper a different way from everyone else. Since I would be teaching, I could forgo the idiotic paper slant and concentrate on the basic script.

cursive writing, mominthemuddle.com

Let’s write H-E-A-D-A-C-H-E.

The kids watched as I formed a cursive a. Both formed theirs with ease. A few letters later I demonstrated how to join letters to form words. I glanced at my son’s paper, shocked to see that he had already moved on to write the rest of the alphabet without me, using our guide as a reference. Some of them weren’t right. I had lost control over one of my students and I’m not sure where I went wrong. I taught my daughter how to write her name. My son wrote his and I pointed out a few errors. Things were getting tense around the table and he tried again.

“Let me show you how to do an r,” I said. “And an n shouldn’t have a straight line.” I tried to demonstrate.

“I just want to learn to write my name!” he yelled as he tried and tried again, determined not to watch any of my examples.

“Well, that’s what I’m trying to show you. You asked me to teach you.”

He said he was right and then he cried because I wouldn’t help him. I was ambushed by homework flashbacks, a killer mood swing, and possible hormones. The lesson needed to end.

When he showed my husband his cursive writing later, my husband bluntly said, “Your n isn’t right. It shouldn’t have that line. It looks like an m.” My son suppressed a grin and tried not to look at me.

Validation. Sort of.

If for no other reason than the sanity of moms, this is why they should still teach cursive writing in school.

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I Volunteer

For the past four years, I have volunteered weekly in my kids’ classrooms. I usually only spend an hour or two there but I am exhausted when I leave. I can’t imagine what it feels like to be a teacher.

This year seems to be my last year of weekly classroom help. Second-grade teachers don’t need parents like I need them. Next year I’ll have to find other classes to help in or other ways. I’ll miss the routine.

When helping in my daughter’s first-grade class this year, groups of kids rotated every fifteen minutes. I got four to six kids at a time. They rolled on a floor covered in chunks of dirt from their shoes. They fought over who was supposed to have what book. They wrestled, took off their shoes, talked, needed pencils sharpened, sucked up strings of snot that hung to their chins, told me they didn’t need a tissue, used pencils as Wolverine claws, sang, did a little work, went to the bathroom for fifteen minutes, ate boogers or scabs, tattled, and argued over how they would pair up to play a game.

I refereed, told the kids what books they were supposed to have, told them wrestling moves were not part of their assignment, pointed out the tissue box, sharpened pencils, told them to do work, helped them read words, told them to stop singing and talking, told them to get out from under my chair, told them that pencils are for writing, listened to stories about their cat, dog, or baby brother, and said “Good job.” Then the next group came and the cycle repeated.

Every class I’ve helped in has been different. Some groups have been more challenging than others, but I did it every year because I simply love it.

English: This is one of the kindergarten rooms...

I’ve enjoyed every minute in the classroom. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I started volunteering when my son was in kindergarten as a way to adjust to long days without him. My son rarely cracked a smile when he saw me, much less said hello. But I quickly loved helping the other kids read sight words, figure out an addition problem, or just giving them attention.

I worked with kids who had trouble learning their ABCs and sight words. The teacher had me quiz them on sight words. They’d squirm. They’d all but panic. I wasn’t allowed to help them. I knew they hated it. I hated it. But I’d say nice job or find a way to compliment them during class.

Those kids who had the hardest time hardly ever talked to me. I couldn’t blame them. At the end of the year, those were the kids who came up and squeezed me around my waist on my last day. No words. Just a surprise, quick hug. I left with a lump in my throat. I knew it was worth it.

In college, I volunteered in a pre-kindergarten classroom. The teacher told me that some of the kids didn’t get much attention at home. I could tell. They all wanted to show me everything they could do. They fought over who would hold my hand. I learned more in that classroom than I did in many of my college courses, and I’ve never forgotten those lessons.

I volunteer because I know what my kids get at home every day, but I don’t know what another kid’s home life is like. Even though I had loving parents as a kid, it was always nice when someone else took an interest in me. When someone other than your parent takes notice, you take notice in yourself. Sometimes all it takes is a positive comment. “You did a great job reading today.” “Wow, look at you reading those big words.” “I’m proud of you.”

You just never know. So you do it for all of them.

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Not the Sound of Music

While I initially feared the sound of a dying cat clawing its way up a blackboard, I was relieved at the sound of a more tolerable low, moaning whistle. My son brought home a soprano recorder from school last week. He needs to learn songs as part of a music grade.

Knowing my son, he will diligently practice. Already I’ve heard the choppy notes of “Hot Cross Buns” early in the morning, after school, and before his bedtime stories, but I have to give my son credit for making the effort without any prompting from me.

My son playing a recorder

"Hot cross buns, hot cross buns. One a penny..."

I fear the reason is because anytime my kids get a whistle, kazoo, or flutophone, I firmly instruct them not to blow that thing in the house or anywhere within earshot of me. The sound pierces my ears, and it doesn’t take long for a headache to sink in when my kid’s musical attempt sounds like a torture device stuck on repeat. For years I have confiscated these things at any sign of abuse, meaning one shrill note too many, and stored them high atop our refrigerator with other illegal toys. Having a noisemaker with permission from school means my son can basically huff and puff on it whenever he pleases, all in the name of pass or fail. It’s like they’ve given him their blessing to taunt me.

Well thank you, school system. Thank you for bursts of unhinged melody, constant squeaks, and boring repetition. Two more years of this, I might add.

The bright side? It could have been drums.

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Who Learned More on the Overnight Trip: the Chaperone or the Kids?

I recently chaperoned a two-night third-grade field trip and lived to tell about it. Previous field trips have left me exhausted and irritable, so I was nervous. Never having experienced an overnight camp as a child, I set out with another mom, our kids, and a carload of more crap than we needed not knowing what to expect. I felt certain we’d get no sleep, I’d be grumpy, the boys would be wild, and it would rain to the point where we’d need canoes to get around. I was wildly mistaken, pleasantly surprised, dry, hot, hungry, tired, and eager to learn.

Here’s a recap:

1. I learned how to read a compass and follow a course through a horse pasture. Each point we found led to another point and so on. Thankfully, we found nothing else.

Thanks to a compass course, at least I know what to do if I get lost in the woods now, or a horse pasture.

2. I learned there are more than 70,000 types of U.S. soil. The kids talked about viscosity, porosity, horizons, and permeability, which is not “when you get a perm,” in case you were wondering.

3. A field of geese is an open invitation to a gaggle of boys who just had to sit quiet and still for 30 minutes and listen to a cool bird presentation. They couldn’t upset the birds being shown inside, but no one said anything about the geese outside, who I’m pretty sure won’t return to that field for a while.

4. I learned that a dark, quiet, blow-up astronomy dome showing the night sky offers a perfect place to catch up on missed sleep. Just be aware when the instructor points the laser in your direction and you’re suddenly in the constellation spotlight.

5. I learned that I can’t sleep to the sound of 11 sleeping bags swishing and plastic mattresses scrunching all night after day one, but after day two, I can sleep through almost anything.

6. When given the option, boys who don’t have their moms with them will not shower for three days, regardless of how sweaty they’ve gotten, how much grass and sand they’ve rolled around in, and whether they splashed around a little too much in the stagnant water in aquatics class.

7. When allowed to go through the dining hall line alone, boys will return with a plate full of carbs, cheese, and not much else. When you point out they could have made a salad with the lettuce, they tell you they didn’t see that.

8. When asked about the coolest thing they’ve ever done, half the kids say going to that camp, fishing for their first time while there, or catching their first fish there. I learned that for some, in their short lives, it was a lifetime experience.

9. Third graders are really smart. They knew answers I didn’t expect them to know and made conclusions I didn’t expect them to connect.

10. During the course of our stay, the parents struggled a bit to keep up, wished for better sleeping accommodations, cursed bathroom stalls that required feats of contortionism to use, and yearned for gourmet food. I didn’t hear the kids whine, fuss, or complain about the heat, the long days with no breaks or snacks, the gross food, or little sleep. For them, it was thrilling hands-on learning outside the classroom.

The camp may have been geared toward kids, but I know I learned a lot.

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Field Trip Anxiety: Two Nights, 80 Kids Equals Panic for This Chaperone

A father and I talked on the school playground the other day about an upcoming overnight third-grade field trip we are chaperoning. We both admitted to being a little nervous about it. We’ve both chaperoned field trips before. But as the conversation continued, I realized he had not thought this overnight thing through as much as I had.

I began to talk about kids who may not have ever been away from home before and homesickness and worry about how to get them to sleep.

“Gee, I hadn’t thought about that,” he said.

I talked about how exhausted I am after just a few hours on a regular field trip and what will two nights and three days of constant yammering and nonstop drama and incessant whining do to me?

Then I mentioned that I hoped the stomach bug that was going around didn’t plan a surprise attack in the bunks one night.

His face scrunched up. I’m sure he wanted to run from me.

“I was excited for this trip, but I hadn’t thought about all this,” he said. I think I took a pin and popped the air out of his balloon.

I think too much. There’s no doubt about it. I can think a topic to death. I think about every possible terrible thing that could happen and how I can possibly handle it, and then I’m pleasantly surprised when things go smoothly or things are just boring, as my life so often turns out.

But I must say I was surprised that this father hadn’t thought about these things because being with so many other people’s kids for two nights will be a challenge whether or not anything catastrophic happens.

The last field trip I chaperoned didn't require sleeping bags, just snacks evidently.

Doesn’t he remember what a normal field trip is like? The last field trip I was on, I had five boys in the rain for four hours with no snacks. In the end, I’m not sure who was grumpier, the boys or me. For four hours they griped, whined, complained, and fussed about being hungry. Like zoo animals, I really was not supposed to feed them. My blood sugar was getting low. I get headaches when I don’t eat. I had a snack. But I didn’t have enough to share with five boys and I felt too guilty to eat in front of them. So we trudged through mist and misery. The boys didn’t want to look at the historic buildings or listen to people dressed in colonial garb talk about life with no computers and no TV. They saw corn cakes cooking in the fire and wanted to reach their weak arms over and steal one out of the hot pan. The only respite of the morning: a paper-thin Moravian cookie that made our mouths water more and our stomachs pretty stinkin’ mad.

When lunchtime finally did approach, the boys had only strength enough to mosey across the entire colonial village back to the bus squatting, giggling, and cocking their rears side to side in an all-out potty-talk fest. “Pffft this” and “Pffft that.” “Oh, that was a good one!” I did not have energy or patience for this. My stomach had turned inside out and through a forced smile I begged them to catch up to me, stop that nonsense, and COME ON! My hands were shaking and food was minutes away. No silly boys and their bathroom talk would keep me from my lunch. I was ready to ditch them.

That night, my conscience got the better of me. “I feel bad,” I told my husband. “I kind of yelled at the kids today.” I decided that in the heat of their third-grade foolery, they probably hadn’t noticed or cared.

I hope this trip next week goes smoother, though I’m bracing myself for no sleep, cranky homesick kids, and whatever the days may bring. I’ll sneak snacks if I have to, for my own sanity. And I’m gearing up for lots of fart jokes. Please send happy thoughts my way.

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Homework: It’s a Bad Word in My House

Homework may be the word most dreaded by school kids every day, but it’s also one of the most dreaded words by this mom. It ranks up there with lice and vomit, two other words I don’t want my kids to come home from school and tell me about. Though those ailments may have much worse consequences in the short run, homework provides day in, day out gut-wrenching exhaustion in the long run.

Some days my first- and third-grade kids come home, finish homework without so much as a whimper, and scoot out the door like a scene from a 1950s television show. Many other days, though, someone fusses, whines, cries, or screams over homework. Sometimes that someone may even be me. As far as I can tell, no quick remedy exists to cure this homework repulsion. I’ve tried every approach and tactic I can think of, failing miserably in the process and often wanting to crawl under the table myself and join my daughter in a fit of tears. But I hold my head high as long as I can, keep my voice calm, and tell myself that if their teachers can get two dozen kids to do their work each day, surely I can get two through a half hour of skills practice.

When my kids get home from school, they’re tired. They’ve practiced things like subtraction, division, writing complete sentences, and reading comprehension all day. When faced with homework that requires them to do this yet again, sometimes they lose it and they take it out on me. And tears flow. They squirm. They writhe in agony as if some unknown force pulls their limbs in every direction. They collapse in despair, bodies sprawled across the table too weak to hold a broken pencil. They ask for my help and then get mad when I calmly explain the work. They want me to do it for them and get madder still when I don’t comply. They spend 40 minutes fussing about homework and it could have been done in 15. It doesn’t add up. My kids obviously need a refresher in math skills.

Homework, not my favorite time of day. What I've found is that distance helps.

My son and I then argue over whether other parents check their kids’ homework. He says they don’t. I say who cares. He needs to know what he got wrong and why.

Between the storms, we have had success. So what worked best to break out of our writhing, squirming, under-the-table-and-screaming afternoons?

1. Freedom. Letting the kids decide when to do their homework helps. If they don’t want to do it when they walk in the door from school, no problem, as long as they do it before dinner.

2. Location. If they want to do their homework in the kitchen, living room, bedroom, heck, even under the kitchen table or in the bathtub, I really don’t care.

3. Routine. It takes my kids time to get back into the routine once school starts. They come home from school, shove food down their throats, and run upstairs to play before they settle in with their books. If we have somewhere else to be one afternoon, such as soccer practice, I know we’re in for a rough afternoon come homework time because it messes up their routine. We have a routine, even when they choose when to do their homework, and we stick to it as best we can.

4. Time. It simply takes time for my kids to adjust when a new school year starts, not weeks but months. They do a lot in a day and they have to get used to a schedule that requires a lot of them again.

5. Independence. Once my kids were old enough, I let them do their homework alone if they understood it. Then I check it when they finish.

6. Love. I joke about it because humor helps lessen the sting, but when all else fails, a hug gets us all through those really rough times. Sometimes we just need to stop the craziness, sit on the couch, and snuggle and laugh. Refocusing breaks us out of the funk.

I tried other things that didn’t work, such as getting mad and frustrated. My kids tried things too, such as putting down any answer because their teacher doesn’t check that homework. The funny thing is, we’ve all learned lessons. I don’t know how long homework will cause an upheaval in our lives each year and when my kids will just accept it and always do it without a fight. I simply haven’t done my homework on that.

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