My Teenager Was a Science Fair Experiment

Ah, the yearly ritual of the school Science Fair. For those of you parents that haven’t experienced it yet, get your kid started on their experiment NOW, even if they’re still in diapers!  The deadline will be on you before you know it! (just kidding).  For those of you that are past all that, lucky you.  No more late night work sessions and trying hard to encourage your child, yet stay out of actually doing their work, only to see experiments the next day that look like they were conducted by Bill Nye the Science Guy and displayed by Martha Stewart. The one thing comforting about the Science Fair is that I think the procedure is universal, at least in the U.S., since all the mega-chain craft stores (and even drugstores and grocery stores) sell the fold-out, three-section display boards, just waiting for your kid to put something on it. And they suddenly get in a larger quantity right after Christmas, so I’m thinking the timing of the contests is universal, as well.  I guess we can smile as we’re helping and encouraging our child in this endeavor, knowing that, at that very moment all over the country, other parents are probably spending quality time with their child doing the exact same thing.  Ah, the karma of it all. Can’t you just hear the voices filling the air? “Don’t glue that like that, it’s crooked!” “Mom, I just want to go to bed.” “What do you mean, the experiment is due tomorrow? I have to drive to the store at 10 p.m. and buy eggs and vinegar? What?”  “Well, if the crystals didn’t grow then you just have to put that. It doesn’t have to be a success to be a good exhibit. Just tell why you think it didn’t work…no, I’m not going to tell you why I think it didn’t work…it’s YOUR project!” “Dad, those glue sticks we bought were bogus– everything is falling off the board!!!” “WAHHHH! I hate this! I just want to go to bed!”

For me, there is another “comfort” to my kids’ participation in the Science Fair (other than they really do learn a lot about the experimental process).  It’s that sometimes, they find out useful information that can help me around the house.  Not like the science fair ideas they give you at school or on numerous Internet sites, like “How does temperature affect the behavior of ants?”  “What type of liquid will cause a nail to rust the fastest?” and “Can you really transmit sound through a tin or paper cup?” Bo-ring! 
I’ve said, to heck with those lists, if I’m going to spend any time, sweat or money on this, I’d better get something out of it.  Thus has spawned the experiments Does shower spray really work with “no scrubbing required“? (it doesn’t)  What keeps cut flowers fresher longer? (cutting the stems every day and changing the water does better than aspirin and just as good as sugar) and Will birds prefer a feeder filled with table scraps rather than birdseed? (results were uncertain)
For her first venture into the Science Fair arena, my 10-year-old, Emmie, recently tackled a tough one: Will playing fast music help a sleepy teenager get moving in the morning?  Our resident teenager, Allison, though usually woken daily almost two hours before she needs to be at school, regularly stays in bed until there’s only 35 minutes to spare and then makes a mad dash, having no time to make her bed, eat breakfast, or remember to grab her lunch, let alone her brains….and of course if she’s late to school, it’s MY fault…
I couldn’t wait for the experiment to begin and to see if it would work. 

Past research done on shoppers and exercisers (we looked it up on the Internet) made Emmie “hypothesize” that it would work, and let her know that the music would probably need to be 140 beats per minute or above. Man, that’s some fast stuff.  For the sake of saving this blog from boredom, I’ll spare you all the technical details and try to summarize how the experiment was set up. Basically, she used 10 classical piano songs already stored on our electric piano (I knew those built-in “demo” songs would come in handy one day!!!) and was able to increase their tempo using a metronome, also built into the piano.  (We didn’t use pop tunes ala Coldplay or Usher because increasing their tempo would have caused suspicion by the teenager– not to mention they’d sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks– and keeping said teenager in the dark about the experiment was crucial. As it turned out, we told her all the piano music playing in the morning was a music memorization assignment from Emmie’s piano teacher. “Emmie needs to soak it in,” I said. And she believed it!) Through the magic of a laptop, cables, some software we already had, our home computer, an Ipod, and a husband/Daddy who works in Audio Visual every day, we were able to get the 10 songs to play through our stereo system….every morning…beginning around 7:15 a.m. 

The first week, the experiment didn’t go so great.  Oh, Allison was heading downstairs earlier all right– a half hour to be exact–  heading down to turn off the stereo in a rage!  “This is so annoying!!!” she’d yell, then promptly head back to bed as I turned on the music again.  She was later than usual getting downstairs for her final dash to school. She was even late to school one day! I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t making her the first kid to arrive at school– that music was so fast, I was packing two lunchbags in seconds flat, all while scrambling eggs and making coffee at the same time.  But Emmie and I put our heads together to try to figure out what might be wrong. She decided it might be too loud– in the shopping and exercising experiments, the music was so “in the background” that the subjects didn’t notice it much.  If sleepy teenager was flying downstairs to turn it off in a rage, that didn’t sound like the music was “background”.  So we turned it down a bit. And Allison got downstairs earlier! Usually not more than 5-10 minutes earlier than the “baseline” data we’d collected, but she was actually having time for breakfast.

On the Sunday afternoon that Emmie assembled her experiment data and “Conclusions” on the display board, Allison and I were at a mother-daughter tea. I’d meant to tell Emmie to assemble it in her bedroom with the door shut, but I forgot.  I didn’t know what kind of mood Allison would be in when she got home (have I mentioned that teenagers are moody? ) and if it was a bad mood, I didn’t want Emmie to add to her angst by allowing her to see that she’d been the subject of an experiment.  Sure enough, that day Allison was feeling terrible with allergy problems and was “wigged out” on nose spray.  When we returned to find the experiment laid out in black and white all over the living room floor, Allison took one look at it and promptly kicked the bottom of the lovely tri-fold display board, creating a slight rip.

Rip and all, the experiment went on to win third place.  The music, thankfully, has gone away (even at lower volume, it finally got annoying to all of us, I think!).  And Allison was late to school today, as she has almost been almost every day since the start of Jr. High. 

For next year’s science fair, I’m hoping Emmie will tackle other household issues…maybe, “Does doing homework in front of the TV really improve your grades?” or “Which Girl Scout cookie has the longest shelf life?” or the one I’d really like to see done, “Will rationing toilet paper keep the kids’ toilet from clogging every week?” I’m not getting my hopes up too high, though.  She says she wants to do it completely on her own without any help from me next time.  Smart ki

A Nightmarish Carnival of Mayhem

I wrote this last week for the Blogher network– thought I’d share it with you.  Enjoy!

Friday the 13th Came Early at My House

I guess, being an uncool mom, I should count myself lucky that within the past 48 hours, both of my daughters have expressed their heartfelt wish that I was dead. The 10-year-old ran outside, screeching it loudly to the neighborhood.  The teenager’s words were something like, “I wish you were in a grave so I could dance on it and sing Ding Dong the Witch is Dead!” But lucky is not exactly how I’m feeling at present.  And all because I said no and stood my ground.

For the teenager, on Wednesday at dinnertime, it was, No, you can’t have 8 teenagers over to the house on Friday night, including 4 boys, for pizza and “backyard games”, especially since you didn’t ask me before inviting everyone, and especially since, after I initially, reluctantly, said yes, you fought with me on what time they’d arrive.  No. I told you not to badger me and you did.  No. Please go to your room and let me Shake and Bake my chicken in peace. No, your party is not going to happen.

Ding, dong, the tears and nasty comments flew.  As well as exasperated text messages across her cell phone, from all 8 teens.  And I continued to get whining, begging, bargaining, and verbal abuse from her until, I kid you not, 1 AM! (yes, the cell phone has been taken away for awhile…)

Needless to say, my patience was pretty thin when late the next night, in the middle of piano practicing, my normally sweet 10-year-old quit playing, looked me in the face and told me I’d been “so annoying” earlier in the day when I’d taken her and a friend to a park to play, to kill time between going to the post office and headiing to gymnastics class.  (I think they were hoping to stay home and sing High School Musical karaoke, but I had to get to the post office by 5 or Grandma’s Valentine would be late gettting to her, and the gym is close to the post office, so why not play in the nearby park for awhile? It’s a beautiful day! Unfortunately, they didn’t share my enthusiasm.) “She was annoyed, too!” said Emmie disgustedly, referring to her friend. A friend who normally doesn’t come over after school, but who was with us that day after I received a frantic call from her mother, needing me to watch her child for a few hours while Mom attended a last-minute training session. I’d had other plans, but I agreed. And they got to play at the house for an hour and a half before I made the “annoying” gesture of taking them to the park. So I looked Emmie in the face and told her that if I was so annoying, then her friend didn’t need to come over anymore as long as she felt that way, and for that matter, neither did any of her friends. Why would she want to ask them? I’m too annoying!!! Which prompted her to yell at me, which prompted her to get grounded, which prompted her to yell and throw things, which prompted a few Webkinz to be taken away, which prompted her screeching to the neighborhood…

As David Letterman once said, when will this nightmarish carnival of mayhem stop? I hope my husband has something relaxing planned for Valentine’s Day…

Post script: My husband bought me a fat container of bubble bath for Valentine’s Day…but didn’t notice that the inside seal had been “poked” and peeled back, and that some of the contents had spewed around the top and dried in an ooky, snot-like blob. (I couldn’t tell what the “poker” had poked into that Jasmine Flower-scented mixture, and didn’t want to find out…) So, I didn’t take a nice, hot bath, but we did go on a really fun, 1 1/2 hour bike ride on President’s Day– great weather, and so rare for him to be off work on a day when both kids are in school. Also that day, we ate breakfast out, something I don’t think we’ve done alone since before we had kids!
Friday the 13th came early, and Valentine’s Day was celebrated two days late…but it really was a happy one.

Flying Chickens, Buried Cadillacs, and Martin Luther King

Recently in my teen’s Pre-AP Language Arts class (i.e. Honors English), when the teacher was leading a discussion about the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John F. Kennedy, my daughter was aghast that she was the only one in class that knew that the location of Kennedy’s assassination was right here in Dallas, and one of the few who knew that Martin Luther King, Jr. was deceased. “He’s dead??!!” asked the girl considered by many to be the smartest in the class (the one who never has to study and gets all A’s).  I said she must have been joking.  “No, Mom,” said Allison, emphatically.  “She was really shocked and sad that he was dead.”  Well I’m shocked and saddened that a bunch of honors 8th graders, who all came from elementary schools deemed exemplary by the state, didn’t know some things as basic to our history as that.  And it’s made me reaffirm my belief in family travel– because one of the reasons my daughter knew about King’s death is because she’d stood at the site where it happened.

Carving out time to travel has always been a priority for me, even before my husband and I had kids. Travel is not only an eye-opener and mind-expander, but it’s a great relationship-builder, even with all its downsides of lost baggage, delayed flights, bad weather and clueless tour guides.  If you travel enough, the good times (and the good memories) outweigh the bad. 

Some parents think travel, good times, and kids just don’t go together, but if you really put your mind to it and plan with kids’  habits and feelings in mind, it can work.  I remember being paralyzed with fear at the thought of any car ride over 20 minutes with my kids (check out the DVD Players in Cars post), not to mention flying on a plane with one in diapers.  But you talk to others that have done it, and you read stuff, and then you get out a pen and paper and come up with a plan.  (It’s funny, because even though my kids are older now, I still have to plan, because a teen can be the worst travel companion on earth if you don’t.) Some moms tell me they don’t travel because their husbands don’t like it– but I say, take the kids anyway and go without him.  A year and a half ago I “soloed” with my girls to the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta and we had a blast– it was like Thelma, Louise and Louise, Jr.

I know in this economy that vacations are thought of as “something to put aside” by many–  I was considering having a “staycation” this Spring Break.  But now I’m re-thinking it.  There are so few opportunities to travel as the kids get older and busier, and the cost of gasoline is still pretty reasonable…and we’ve racked up lots of unused flight miles with our credit cards, plus there are so many travel deals out there right now, that we can probably go somewhere for less than the cost of a month of dance lessons…okay, I’m sold! Now I’ll start planning and then attempt to sell the idea to my husband. As I plan, I will keep the following three things in mind:

-If at all possible, book a hotel/motel with an indoor swimming pool. That way, when weather drowns our plans, it makes everything okay.  And it’s always a hit even when the rest of the day’s activities haven’t been so popular with the kids.  There’s just something “magnetic” about pools and children.   I don’t remember a huge amount about the 1969 road trip I took with my parents from Iowa to California, but I sure remember swimming with Dad in the motel pool. (Vacations were usually the only time I ever saw him swim!) I have a friend with two boys who, when unable to travel someplace far, will just travel to another Dallas suburb and book a motel with an indoor pool– they have a great time.

-Find things that are purely fun in addition to educational sites.  A trip with kids that’s nothing but museums and historical markers is totally out of touch with the reality of kids…and teens.  Is there a waterpark nearby? A restaurant with a “pirate” floor show? Or…(wince) a cool mall?  We also like to mix in something kitschy, if we can, on every trip– places like the Spam Museum in Minnesota, the Orange Show in Houston, or the Mystery Spot in California. And no trip to Amarillo is complete without a pilgrimage to Cadillac Ranch.  (The website is fun for finding out stuff like this.)

-Think outside the box as to what equals a successful vacation.  Even if we don’t get the perfect “Kodak moments” for our scrapbook, cherished memories can come in unexpected places.  One special memory I have is all of us laughing hard while rediscovering the movie Napoleon Dynamite on a hotel room TV. Or when Allison threw up in the car, and we had to pull over near a farm, and while we’re all in a fluster and she’s standing outside and I’m cleaning her off, she spots a chicken sitting high up in a tree– and we all crack up. 

Yes, we’ve been to some amazing places…but we sure won’t forget a lonely stretch of Texas highway with a resident chicken who thought it was a hawk.