Issue #9

We don't face any major high stakes testing for 2 more years. This is the quiet before the storm. If you're just joining the readership of Competitive Parent Magazine, you're joining at a good time.
Issue #9

A month ago, high school enrollment letters were issued and we met our goal. We sluffed off 5th grade (step 1) and then started in earnest with test prep at the end of 5th grade. While my current 5th grader refused my offer to blow off 5th grade, he's starting the program today whether he wants to or not.

From the Editor
Issue #9 is getting back to the basics.

Today we kicked off the long slow ramp up to the high school selection process. There is a lot of work to do now (end of 5th grade) until game time (middle of 7th grade). Yes, I know how to do high stakes testing on demand with little to no preparation. However, I can't type that fast. It will take me at least 2 years. In addition, growing the core cognitive skills that are needed in high school is much more important than passing a test, and growing cognitive skills takes longer than faking them on a test.

In this issue, I'm closing out 8th grade (data point number one) and getting organized the soft topics like projects, activities and chores, while I gear up for 6th and 7th grade (data point number two). I'm older and wiser now by 3 years. So it's not just about test prep anymore. In the next two years I also want to answer the question, What will it take now so that my future high school child excels academically and socially, in a high pressure environment, and has enough other material on his high school CV to prove that he didn't have to spend all of his time on the AP course load?

Activity Update

It's a bit early to be worrying about college applications. Instead, I'm worrying about laying the groundwork...

Activity update

Activities have unfolded nicely in this house, almost naturally. Like everything else, behind the scenes with a concerted effort on a daily basis to arrange our values, activities, priorities and sanity toward a desirable end goal. The end goal is the exact same thing college administrators are looking for on a college application: fortitude, sociability, hard work, giving back.

I'm going to recommend one mandatory activity and then demonstrate how we pursue two others that have a very high payout. Your chosen activities will vary. I'm make a strong case for the two we picked based on numerous conversations with parents who have little to go on except for a few sensational outcomes taken out of context.

Start with chores

Chores are the foundation of all the qualities that you want your child to take into their clubs, sports, and organizations. A lot has been written about chores. Think 'opposite of the spoiled, privileged child'. Think hard worker. The principles are similar to everything else that's worthwhile.

  • Lead the way. If you hire someone to clean the house, you're sending the wrong signal to your child.
  • Slowly transition all chores to your child, like over a period of two years.
  • Do not assign chorse that involve with hazardous chemicals. I'm not worried about an accident, but I prefer that my lungs bear the brunt of noxious fumes and not my child's.
  • Allow plenty of room for ineffectiveness and sloppiness. Be proud of a vacuumed room even though you can still see dirt on the rug. There will be time later to point this out, but chores are discouraging enough in the beginning without you being a jerk about it.

My favorite benefit of chores is watching the child learn to get things done. The vacuum backpack was their idea. My second favorite benefit of chores is free appliance repair. We've ratcheted up the bar on chores;this is a competitive gifteness blog, after all. Vacuuming is just a start.


Music and math success go well together. This is well known. There are two routes to go with music after that, and I'm going to argue that band is the better of the two.

If you've read the Tiger Mom book, you've seen the first option. Long hours of practice, lessons, stellar performances. I think this route applies to a few people who like this sort of thing and is oversold to the rest of us.

Option B has a much easier entry point. To be a contributing band member, one simply has to practice about 15 minutes a day. It's more of a social activity than reaching excellence. While option A is teaching kid not to quit in the face of relentless rigor, option B is teaching the kid not to quit in the face of bordem.

Or so one would think. We discovered contests (memorize the last and hardest piece in the book), honor band (a weekend of fun, as it turns out), and city band. We found about about city jazz band too late. Lesson learned. In other words, you can work as hard as you want with option B. Based on sitting at math competitions, 90% of high performers in math are perfectly qualified to sit alone for hours working on things, but need more practice in the social skills department. Thus option B.

My proudest moment as a parent happened a few weeks ago at contest. My son had an hour to kill before his performance, so he decided he would memorize the piece. He spent an hour screwing it up, but went into the contest room and nailed it. I'm not proud because he succeeded, I'm proud because I saw him fall short many times before, including the previous year. Option B has a low bar and kids naturally step up on their own without nagging.


Some of the benefits of obtaining Eagle Scout are well known. It's a rare and highly respected little addition to a college application. It represents 7 or 8 years of training in all sorts of things, teamwork, discipline, giving back.

My personal selling point for Scouting is this: on Monday night, most kids are sitting at home in front of screen. My kids are at a Scout meeting learning CPR or planning a trip or teaching the other scouts how to tie rope. We've done enough math. I need my kids to review the achievement list of the younger scouts, grill the newby's, and then approve the list. It's all social and leadership skills and no screens. Weekend activities are even better. When I said 'discipline' above I was thinking about the time we showed up to a campsite at 9:30 pm in freezing rain and the Scouts had to set up the camp as fast an organized as possible while I sat in the car admiring their work. I personally slept in the back of my SUV, but I was thinking proud thoughts while I did it.

Here's the best part of Scouting. It's our little secret. Scouting before 5th grade is nice (aka no screens etc.) but doesn't matter. If you join Scouts any time between the end of 4th grade and 5th grade, your child is starting fresh as the other scouts start from the beginning. In other words, 'Cub Scouting' doesn't count. In my opinion, it just burns out the kids before the real fun begins.

There are thousands of activities to choose from. This summer my older Scout is going to spend a week on a research vessel off the coast of Florida with one of the scout leaders (my wife). Cheap cruise vacation and learning experience all rolled into one. I'm looking forward to herding cattle with the little brother in a few years on a large ranch in New Mexico but some of the other scout leaders are thinking about mountain climbing or the Appalachian trail.

Even better, Scouts accept girls. I am personally cursed with only boys, but if I had a daughter, she'd be a Scout.

If anyone wants to ask questions about scouting, I will answer them. In the Midwest, the scouts own 4 sailing sailboats and 25,000 adventure camping site. When we go to a nuclear lab or an airfield or to launch rockets, 60 year old Eagle Scouts show up to lend their expertise in that field. It's like we're in some secret society that rules the world secretly. The only caveat is that anyone can join. Here's the website for our troop (in addition to hiding in my car during campouts, I'm the web master).

Advanced Projects

All those years of projects and crafts and science experiments with vinegar and baking soda is finally paying off. Today while doing dishes...

Advanced projects

We have an old set of rules that govern getting out of math. I've never spoken these rules, but I think my kids know them.

  • Rule #1 - You can get out of doing math if you do a project of any kind.
  • Rule #2 - If you stall or defer math by reading a book, I won't bother you.
  • Rule #3 - Neither of these rules in any way impact the 'No math, no computer' rule.

Recently my son and I found ourselves staring at each other from opposite ends of the hall way, me rubbing my fingers above a math book, and him slowly reaching a hand into the project closet. He won the duel. I added a corollary to rules #1. If you're going to do a project in the kitchen while I'm trying to eat breakfast, I'm going to up the ante.

How to make candles

The first step in making candles is getting out the candle making kit that we got him when he was the inappropriate age of 6 or 7. Our candle making kit is in the closet with two dozen other age inappropriate kits of all kinds. You can get directions and ingredients on the web and under your kitchen sink for projects, if you prefer, saving you hundreds of dollars.

A bit of science

The next step in making candles is for me to remove as much fun as I possibly can from the activity by turning it into a hard core science project. The only thing I could come up with on such short notice is emulsifiers, since we're combing wax and peppermint oil (don't know why), which probably don't combine. Unfortunately, there was only enough wax left for 3 little candles and we don't stock emulsifiers, with the possible exception of the spray I use to loosen up rusty screws. Instead of charting the results of 30 different recipes, we had to think through not screwing up our one recipe. I call this the NASA approach.

What is the melting point of wax? According to our constant companion wikipedia, parafin wax melts at 320 degrees or so. According to our thermometer, our wax melted at about 160 degrees. What explains the difference? Our wax is obviously not parafin wax. Thinking in action.

Mr. Science wanted dye, but all we had was food coloring. We thought about emulsification, and decided not to risk food coloring. Peppermint oil was risky enough.

Once again, the magic of vocabulary saves the day. If I would have said 'wax melts at 320 degrees', we probably would have boiled the wax and ruined the candles. Knowing the term 'emulsifier' made us skeptical of adding anything to the wax. In 18 months, during the summer before 7th grade, I'll demonstrate taking the Vocabulary Approach to it's insane conclusion. For now, we start everything with vocab.

The difference 7 years make

We've been doing crafts and projects for many years. If I could sum up Postulate One of my pedagogy, it's that learning takes place doing projects and it doesn't take place reading a book, for most subjects, most kids, most of the time. Our school program is all projects all the time. I once asked my oldest how he learns science concepts if all they do are science labs. 'Once a month my teacher hands out a few definitions or makes us read something for about 15 minutes. Then it's more lab work.'

A few years ago, I would have watched my child spend 15 minutes doing nothing in response to being asked to put away the dishes. Putting away the dishes is a daunting task, what with all those individual dishes. Which one to select first? Now, I've got a dish putting away machine. Same with candle production sans directions (couldn't find them). Instead of being lost in the steps as would have been the case a few years ago, he was brainstorming how to upsell his candles. Here is the result.

A note on problem solving skills

When I teach higher order problem solving skills, the lower order problem solving skills like algorithms and solution strategies tend to emerge on their own, with a few exceptions. When you do projects at home, the higher order problem solving skills emerge on their own. Think about that. Projects provide the best learning environment for higher order problem solving skills. Really hard new math problems are a close second.

The High School IQ Leap

With high school four months away, it's time to outline academic goals. I only have three important ones so far....

The high school IQ leap

Years ago when I was studying cognitive skill growth for ages 3 to 5, I came across research that demonstrated a mystery leap in intelligence at the macro level. Roughly 15% of teenagers gained 16% intelligence for no apparent reason. Since then professors have retired, websites have been removed, and I've lost the studies. In 2011, a study was published in the journal Nature that once again showed this effect with a smaller sample size.

I've found in my own research that positive effects on the population as a whole can produce a stunning impact on a population of one. In other words, there is a brass ring worth grabbing and we plan to grab it. I surmise that there is a magical time period where brain development intersects with academic work, hormones, and socio-emotional development to produce the leap. It could be that some academic sleepers wake up to their potential at this age. It could be that IQ tests are flawed. But I'm taking no chances. I'm on the quest for another holy grail.

Where to begin

What is it that produces such a big change in high school sophomores? Is it finally seeing academic material that is worthy of effort? An inspiring teacher or a really good book? Is it sports or other job that teaches hard work and the reward for effort?

I'm quietly organizing a list of things that might help. I've got to keep this super quiet. If word gets out that a PARENT is trying to motivate their CHILD, it will backfire into a big fireball of lameness.

Currently I'm evaluating adult sized books that might be inspiring and lead to endless hours of reading. That's all I got so far. I've managed to keep my son from quitting the trumpet for 5 years, and he's going to high school with a jazz band in a school districts with a deficit of trumpet players. In high school, I became very interested in sports, but I didn't attend a high school of 4,000 with world class athletes. The school doesn't have a Video Game Esports team, which will be primo college app material for the kids who start it.

Progress so far

To pave the way for this breakthrough in my child in a few years, I've done two things. First, I wrote a PC virus that shuts down video game programs every 2 minutes except weeknights from 8pm to 9pm and weekends from 1pm to 4pm. I'm really proud of this. I wrote it in powershell.

Next I set up a guest network and changed the regular network password. There are 2 phones and one computer in the house on the regular network (the parents' devices), and every day I change the guest network password. This not only regulates internet usage, but it makes PS4 playing impossible because the poor PS4 can't keep video games up to date in off hours like it used to.


No, this isn't competitive. This is way beyond competitive, unless you have no internet in the house at all, in which case it is competitive, somewhat.

Begging Summer Math

We begin 5th grade summer math today. We're two months early as usual so I can prep my readers for this activity...

Begging summer math

We're beginning a 2 year math program. This is a repeat of teaching 2nd grade math to a 5 year old in many ways, including the complaining, the pain, the constant 'I can't do this' and the string of incorrect answers. As you can see, we're using a high school SAT test prep book.

In order to gear up for this, I've spent the last 2 months getting mad at internet usage and video games. This is really hard for me to pull off. I started a new job 6 months ago and I've been in front of the computer day and night all weekend fixing problems at my new job. Today I announced no internet usage until 10 hours of chores, music, jogging, and other activities are completed (2 hours of actual activity and 8 hours of complaining and wasting time doing things like reading, the Kindle being the only screen available).

Did you notice that the article's title says 'begging' and not 'beginning'? I didn't notice this until I published it.

The program

Welcome to the SAT program. Here is a little primer on how it works. Between now and next summer, we're going to do about 5 math problems a day from whichever test and problem we finished the last time. This time next year, we'll start in on the reading comp tests and repeat the whole painful ordeal.

The work is both impossibly hard and really easy at the same time. The easy part is our pace of about 5 problems a day. I don't care if my child wants to do the problems and then redo them all a few times, or if he wants to talk through each problem with me as he goes and ask for help, which is "what do I do?" followed by my answer of "the problem", or "how do I do this" followed by "by reading it and doing it". If we get to a problem that requires some knowledge, like exponential operations, we may take the day off and do exponential problems instead. I'm looking for about 30 minutes of effort, not necessarily any achievement.

The hard part is having to do new, unknown, hard, thinking problems on a Saturday morning when other kids are playing video games. But, we're in a gifted program, and the secret of a gifted program is that the top 2 or 3% of academic performers do a lot more than just school. That's why we're here. We're like the travelling team of academics.

Right now my son is trying out various forms of whining and moaning looking for a response from me. My response to him and to you, the reader, is that we will muddle through for the next year, moaning and all, and magically my son will be doing high school level SAT problems with some skill and success. He might even finish the SAT some day and get a decent score.

Why am I doing this insanity?

My goal is that my son is challenged with some insanely hard and new work each day in order to make him think. There isn't a course in school called 'Do new insane work' so we fill this gap at home. When he goes to math competition, he will be blown away by kids who practice routine calculation problems like 1/x or probabilities so that they speed through the timed competition test. I envy these kids; I love competition and if we had the time and effort, we would do both long slow problems and practice on timed tests. But I won't let my son go the speed route because it will have negative consequences to his future academic work.

During our SAT work, week by week, my son is going to pick up a complete set of formidable academic skills along the way. There are some really big ones like jumping into the unknown with courage and fortitude, knowing that the effort will be rewarded with success. There are lots of little skills like reading a problem and knowing whether the easiest way to address it is just to guess or check each problem. (This is a subset of time management skills as well). Since my child doesn't know the correct way to do things, he will solve a few problems the wrong way, and I'll be proud. He'll need this skill in graduate school. There are so many more. I'll point these out when I see them.

Here is a short list of skills that I don't want my son ever to learn. The skill of being able to do something because I just told you how to do it. The skill of being able to do something fast because this is the exact same problem you just did 72 times previously. The skill of doing a problem quickly because it only requires the application of some stupid math calculation or concept. The skill of doing a one-step straightforward problem. The skill of doing math quickly because you practiced your math facts and in doing it quickly without thinking, you don't appreciate the actual math thing on the page because you're too busy calculating the correct answer.

The Big Five are back

My main skills goal right now is just to refresh the Big Five Problem Solving Skills that we learned starting with COGAT test prep at age 4. When you put a 10 year old in front of an SAT test, each problem is going to have a light bulb experience, and it may take 10 minutes and 3 question readings to get there. These are all multi-step problems with unfamiliar math concepts. A high school sophomore would have a completely different experience. When you do grade level work, you don't get need to use the Big Five skills.

Here is an example from today. If mxm7 = m28 and (m5)y = m15, what is the value of x + y? When we tried this type of problem 6 months ago, we ended up backtracking on exponents and algebra for about 3 months. Now we're back. After getting yelled at, I asked him to explain exponential operations to me. This shut him up, because the last time I asked it took him 3 weeks to work out exponents. If anyone cares, let me know. There is an easy way for little kids to work these things out without knowing anything about exponents and never see or memorize a formula again. Nonetheless, this was a hard problem.