Category Archives: raising children

Learning Through Friendship: One Man’s Story (Part 5)

June 2017 Reunion

We had planned to have a reunion in October 2015 in Palo Alto but Yus took a bad fall and I had a pinched nerve and could not walk. We canceled. In mid-2016, Yus, Dave, Sam, and I began talking about setting another reunion date. I traveled to Pittsburgh in December and spent five days with Yus and Nancy, had dinner with Sam and Hannah, and attended a Sunday morning book club discussion of a new graphic novel. Yus and I talked a lot about a possible reunion in Palo Alto in the spring.

Those discussions continued after I returned home but became more than talk when Yus’s son Bruce volunteered to go with Yus and Sam on the trip to help his Dad negotiate the walking in airports and around my home. Had Bruce not decided to join his Dad, the reunion would not have occurred.

And that brings me to another AK reunion of octogenarians taking place in Palo Alto in June 2017.  

And what a four days and nights it was! The time we were together consisted of long conversations around meals at home and in restaurants (my daughter Janice joined us one evening), taking walks in the neighborhood and at a nearby park, sitting on the patio sunning ourselves as we conversed and in the living room in one-on-one discussions about family, friends, politics, and life in general as AKers. Bruce, the youngest of all of us, walked with us and joined in these discussions. Once a day, Yus, Sam , and I would use my phone to do FaceTime with Dave in LA to see one another and talk.

Talk about losses from both age and disease in what we can physically do—one of us is on a walker, another has a pacemaker, another uses a cane—and dealing with the emotions accompanying such losses wove in and out of our conversations.  Sometimes the talk veered into the bits of wisdom we had accrued over the decades. And, of course, there were the inevitable health reports. The latter, however, was minimal.

Yes, there were nostalgic moments about our Jewish youth group and that club’s enormous influence on our lives—nicely supplemented by photos and articles that Sam had brought. We looked at photos of Victory members in the late-1950s and saw those who had died, asked about what happened to so-and-so (usually answered by Sam who has an encyclopedic memory of the Pittsburgh Jewish community over the past three generations). The closeness that we felt with one another and the openness in conversing about family, friends, end of life issues, and what is important to each of us in our daily lives is what I mean by intimate friendships.

Intimate friendships, such as ours, are secondary to family ties. While family bonds often trump close pals, the glory of friendship is that it is not chosen for us as blood lines are; we choose who we want to be close to year after year.  And the four of us, two in Pittsburgh and two on the west coast, have remained together out of a group of about a dozen since our early teens. We are grateful to one another for the continuing friendship. I, especially so, for what I learned from my friends about life and living it fully.

This is that story as I remember it. These are the people I have learned from for nearly three-quarters of a century. What an education!*

Larry Cuban

July  2017


*For Joel “Yus” Merenstein.

Biography (2017):

Joel H. Merenstein, MD is Emeritus Fellowship Director for the University of Pittsburgh Faculty Development Fellowship Program. Dr. Merenstein does consults with residents, fellows and faculty on an as needed schedule.

Dr. Merenstein is the founding Chief of the Division of Family Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and is presently Clinical Professor in the School of Medicine and the Graduate School of Public Health. He has published reports on “Educating Residents for the Future” and was recognized by the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine as the recipient of the 1994 Excellence in Education Award and the 2012 Marian Bishop Award honoring individuals who have significantly enhanced the academic credibility of family medicine by a sustained, long-term commitment of family medicine in the academic setting. In addition to over 50 published articles, he has recently co-authored a book, The Human Side of Medicine.

Dr. Merenstein is married, has four children, six grandsons and two granddaughters. He maintained a clinical practice in the same community for over 42 years.

Obituary (2019):

Dr. Joel H. Merenstein, on Friday, Sept. 27, 2019. Beloved husband of Nancy (Weintraub) Merenstein. Caring father of Gary Merenstein, Bruce Merenstein (Karen Strand), Danny Merenstein (Traci Reisner) and Beth Merenstein. Brother of Sherree (Marc) Drezner, the late Hershey (late Zelda) Merenstein and the late Dr. Jerry (Bonnie) Merenstein. Brother-in-law of Reva (Stanley) Horn. Loving Zaydie of Alex, Carter, Zachary, Simon, Jordan, Levi, Maya and Caleb. Also survived by many loving nieces and nephews.


Filed under raising children

Education Through Friendship: One Man’s Story (Part 4)

Parts 1, 2, and 3 trace the arc of my close friendship with a small group of Pittsburghers beginning in the late-1940s. Far beyond the schooling I have had, my friendship with these “buddies” of mine has educated me and made possible my living a full life.

Turning Points in the Group’s History

Moving from a bunch of teenage boys in high school and college who had learned over years to accept both strengths and flaws in each other to a group of husbands and wives coming together monthly was a huge leap. Most adolescent friendships that survive college, I would guess, founder as couples form and marriages occur.   

In our group, many wives did not know one another well before they married into the group. It was a Pittsburgh Jewish community divided into Oakland, East Liberty, and Squirrel Hill where different B’nai Brith youth groups straddled neighborhoods so some wives had met and knew of one another but not as close friends. Surely, many of us knew the wives when they were dating one of the guys especially as dating evolved into engagements and then marriage. Our annual New Year’s Eve parties brought the women we dated together. For example, I brought Barbara to her first New Year’s Eve party in 1957, a year before we got married.

Wives expand group. Why did the group of close pals accept wives as integral members of the group and make it a joint venture in forming the book club in 1960. Had this move not occurred, I believe, the group of Victory buddies would have slid into the familiar obscurity of teenage friendships remembered in holiday cards, birthdays, and funerals. Once part of the group, women took active roles in nourishing the crew’s identity and pride.

I do not know why this group of young men accepted wives as integral members of the group. It would be self-serving to slip into the cliché about how accepting the men were or how hard the wives worked at overlooking issues that would divide us. At that time in our marriages with kids arriving, I would guess, the idea of the ex-Victory guys getting together for a night out from their wives went against the grain and getting of us together sounded like a worthwhile idea to try out.  Beyond that guess, I simply don’t know. But it did occur.

Of course, tensions surfaced periodically as our group doubled at parties and other annual gatherings.  One wife or husband found another wife or husband in the group awful, i.e., too loud or too quiet; too assertive, too reticent; too picky, too careless, and on and on. Over the years, such differences submerged or were ignored or were accepted as, well, that is who so-so is. And, of course, genuine friendships arose between the wives as they discussed books, shared recipes, and pursued professional jobs.

Why conflicts didn’t split the group, I just don’t know. Perhaps it was because at some level individuals knew that dragging politics or personal peeves into discussions would ultimately destroy the group. Perhaps the terms of the unwritten social compact and the trust at its foundation that we had worked out informally avoided such confrontations. Or perhaps it was because each couple had networks of friends and family and did not solely depend upon the group for closeness. What I do know is that had those differences continued to surface and had they gotten rubbed raw, they would fragmented the group. That did not happen then and has not occurred since. But there were close calls.

Tensions surfaced over the book club, for example. Each discussion over a book was accompanied by a full meal in the early years—venues changed monthly among the group as each couple took its turn at hosting—but in later years the group scaled back to desserts and coffee. Some couples took responsibility to read a book, do background reading, and make sure they were prepared for the monthly discussion. Others felt more relaxed about the obligation; if they could read the book, they did; if they could not finish it in time, they would still come and contribute or keep quiet. Often, for some couples, the social time together over eating became the primary reason for getting together.

This see-sawing between those that valued highly the intellectual side of the monthly get-together and those who prized the social interaction rose and fell in intensity until the mid-1970s when a few couples dropped out of the club. Book discussions stopped for a number of months. The group still gathered for picnics and the annual New Year’s Eve party yet strains, while mild, were just below the surface.

After almost a year, a few couples who had liked the intellectual exchange decided to reconstitute the monthly book discussions. They also decided to invite other couples, a few years younger and not part of the original group. The book discussions again flourished and the new couples began to attend picnics and other parties.

By broadening the original group beyond the men to include wives, constructing a social framework for interactions, and, later, adding new couples, the group demonstrated, I believe, a solid core of inner strength, self-confidence, and mutual trust to continue the strong network they had created over previous decades..

Retreats. In the late -1970s and for the next two decades, the Pittsburgh group started having weekend Fall retreats in West Virginia. Begun with an exchange of phone calls, the plan grew into a search for a moderately priced place, the right dates for as many that wanted to come and detailed plans for who should bring food and wine for meals through Friday evening and Sunday morning, pull together the Shabbat dinner, lead discussions (not about books but built around topics we chose), conduct the Saturday morning service, and plan the entertainment for Saturday evening. 

At the first retreat in a state park, seven couples from Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. (where Barbara and I lived at the time) traveled to a state park to spend a sunny, mild October weekend. Without children, 14 adults gathered Friday evening in one of the four-bedroom cabins for services to welcome the Shabbat. Followed by a dinner punctuated by jokes, spirited conversation, and laughter over a stubborn fire that almost smoked us out. The evening ended with a quiet moonlight walk.

The next day, a morning service was followed by long hikes in woods filled with rich autumn colors. Some couples tramped paths just to search out quiet spots to either talk with a friend or be alone. In the early evening, a service brought the Shabbat to a close and then dinner. In the evening, by a fire that flamed slowly and evenly this time, a group discussion took place. Spirited and intense, the group wrestled with the strengths and weaknesses of Jews as an ethnic group assimilated into a larger Christian culture and the centrality of religion or lack of it in modern American Jewish life. Lasting a few hours, afterwards we took a midnight walk.

The next morning, there was another breakfast with much laughter and camaraderie and then sightseeing elsewhere in the state park. By early afternoon, everyone had departed. The retreat was over.

We found mutually agreeable dates over the years and different couples drove to the hills of West Virginia to be together as Fall colors bloomed. While the California contingent made a few of the retreats, it was the Pittsburghers who did all of the heavy lifting insofar as food and planning. At each retreat, we hiked, talked to one another, shared meals, played board games, and renewed connections.

I have gone on at length about these retreats to convey, if only a fragment, the whirl of activities, the time to be alone with a partner or friend, the warmth that flowed from long friendships and the confidence of a group that springs from self-direction. We needed no Rabbi to lead services. We needed no expert to guide our discussions. We needed no social director to organize the retreat. Pride in many years of friendship spurs these statements, not arrogance.

Yet this brief summary cannot capture the renewal of ties that have bound us together for many years. The easily tapped laughter flowing from recall of old times that prefaced deeper exploration about parenting adolescents, what being a Jew meant in a Christian world, career goals, death and a host of issues that harried middle-aged men and women seldom have a chance to share, much less think about with anyone back home. Within the womb of close friends, things can get said that would, in other company, be swallowed. There is little fear of that cocktail party repartee that jabs or clutches at the jugular. Or fear of revealing something that will return as stinging criticism. The teasing that does occur comes from the acceptance of human flaws and not from probing for weaknesses.

That first of many retreats was refreshing, a moment of renewal in the daily grind of events. It brought to those of us who were there a deeper sense of friendship and intimacy. For the group, self-confidence grew in knowing that we have ties to one another that gained in strength as years pass. Such ties are a gift from each of us to one another.

The retreats lasted into the late 1990s. Growing children, the appearance of grand-children, the large amount of work that it took, mostly by wives who had to do the buying and preparing of food and other reasons diminished the size of group each year and finally it was no more. But oh ,what a run it was for our still unnamed group of ex-Victory “buddies” and there wives.

Continuing, however, were the monthly book club discussions, New Year’s Eve parties (now with septuagenarians making decisions a group decision to shift the party from New Year’s Eve to a New Year’s Day brunch), and picnics, theater and symphony dates, and the like. The group still exists.

This history of Victory when Sam, Yus, Dave, and I joined in the late-1940s and its evolving into a social network of close friends and wives meeting decade after decade is one that I have constructed—others could recall different details and offer other interpretations–give the background for four of us becoming intimate friends over the years with periodic reunions on the east and west coasts.

The final part of this series on friendship’s power to educate me is next.

Leave a comment

Filed under raising children

Education Through Friendship: One Man’s Story (Part 3)

Parts 1 and 2 of this series describe the origin of a group of teenage friends in Pittsburgh (PA) in the late-1940s. It is also a story of my education outside of schools and how I learned to live a full life with people I loved.

Deciding to Stay Together

The idea of a group of close friends who worked at staying together did not emerge among us until after college when many of us left Pittsburgh to attend graduate school, work in other cities or serve in the U.S. military. While we had already begun annual New Year’s Eve parties in the early ‘50s while in college (much food, little liquor and awfully amateurish but hilarious entertainment staged by ourselves with the obligatory game of charades after midnight), the notion of a cohesive group beyond annual parties had not taken hold.

By the early 1960s, most of have us had been married a few years.* Children arrived. We were building careers. Some of us lived in Cleveland and Youngstown (OH) and Elizabeth (NJ). A few of us in Pittsburgh and Cleveland got together to establish a book discussion group. As to who would join, a core of seven couples who had kept in touch by phone, letter, visits, and being at each other’s weddings became the book club (Yus, Sam, Dave, and I along with our wives were among those founding couples).

We had no name. No president, dues, or business meetings. No rules save those agreed upon by consensus. Intellectual and social interests had merged.

Once the book club formed and met monthly, even traveling to Barbara and Larry’s home in Cleveland on a few occasions, the idea and its existence grabbed our imaginations. We began to pride ourselves in sticking together even though our careers diverged, a few of us lived out of town, and each of us had created other networks of acquaintances and friends at work, in schools our children attended, the synagogues we joined, and neighborhoods in which we lived.

In effect, what we did unselfconsciously over subsequent years was to build a group folklore, enriched initially by common experiences in Victory but extended to include incidents involving wives and children, joint vacations, annual picnics New Year’s Eve parties, and, of course, the book club. We had learned to do for ourselves as a group. In little bits and pieces we taught ourselves how to survive as a group, creating more ties that bind through book discussions and annual events.

We had an identity but no name. We had a history with no written record only an oral tradition. We had learned without teachers. And we had pride in lasting as long as we did without anyone’s guidance or approval.

A wealth of images, some manufactured, some embellished, some remembered through photos and slides were embraced by all of us to define who we were as a group. A common history of experiences meant that recall of a particular New Year’s Eve party, a certain picnic, a slide-sharing evening—often exaggerated for effect–would trigger gales of laughter, knee slapping and elbow pokes of shared warmth. And, yes, we also shared children and career achievements, disappointments, and sadness in family member illnesses, the death of siblings and parents. Without basic trust in one another built up over the years, such sharing would not have occurred.

Who We Were Two Decades Later

Here’s a snapshot of the group in the 1970s. Ten couples made up our group. Jewish, middle aged, married and nearly all with children. No divorces had occurred except for one in the late-1980s. All of us had married within our faith and raised our children with varying degrees of religious observance.

College educated, all of us were in the mid-to-late stages of their careers. Among wives and husbands in these years, there were four social workers, five school teachers, one administrator, two lawyers, a college professor, a family physician, three housewives, a college student, a manufacturer’s representative and a public information specialist in a large organization. The core of the group—now eight couples—lived in Pittsburgh where all of us had grown up. Barbara and I lived in Washington, D.C.  for 16 years and then relocated to northern California in 1981;  Dave moved his family to Los Angeles in 1976.

Of course, these few facts sketch out little more than the bare outline of who we were then. For those who find comfort in categories, I guess we would be classified as Jewish, middle-class business and professional types, indistinguishable from contemporaries in big cities. In religion, families, sports interests (especially Pittsburgh teams), we were probably no different than others with similar backgrounds, families, stable friendships, careers, and quite predictable daily rhythms in our lives. All of us had other friends, of course, but what I believe made us unique was that a core group of individuals strove to stay together in subsequent decades.

Working at Staying Together

Groups such as ours do not jell magically. It takes time, commitment, and trust. Surely a common history and chemistry of sorts must be present for cohesive relationships to initially meld, evolve over time even as membership changes, and cement the group together.

No single leader mobilized and consolidated our group. Leadership was casual and distributed among the couples during these years. Informally, leadership flowed from some couples to others over time when it came to planning book club meetings, New Year’s Eve parties, summer picnics and later, weekend retreats. Everyone somehow did things and leadership, often shared, emerged naturally without prodding. Organizing chores fell to some folks while operating tasks fell to others. Starting and maintaining a book club required different skills and time, for example, than the important work of keeping it on course. Conflicts arose over the years. They ebbed and flowed and only once rose to the level of ending the book club that by the end of the 1970s was nearly twenty years old.

What prevented conflicts from splitting the group irreversibly was that an informal, unsigned social compact had emerged for staying together in the group’s decisions to begin, continue, and expand the book club, maintain annual New Year’s Eve parties, and annual picnics. Politics, for example, seldom was discussed within the group. Nor did simmering divisions in the group over how much work for events some people did (or did not do) or spotty participation by other couples ever get discussed explicitly.  Raw and open conflict was tamped down. Within that social compact, anchored in mutual trust the group would gather more than a dozen times a year. In between those gatherings, individual couples would go out for dinner, get theater and symphony subscriptions, and see one another adding more stitches to the social fabric of the group.

Since in these early decades, almost half of the group was at times away from Pittsburgh, patterns of contact emerged.

Those of us who lived far from the group such as Barbara and me worked at staying in touch. Letters, monthly phone calls, cassette tapes (remember this is before the Internet), exchanges of photos, and, of course, visits kept alive memories while creating new ones. Birthdays, anniversaries, bar and bat mitzvahs, and, yes, funerals, were events that each of us noted and cared about—further enriching our bonds. Thus, Dave, Sam, Yus, and me grew close especially with playing tennis in SLO and having occasional reunions on the west coast.

As Yus once observed about those of our AK group who had moved from Pittsburgh (I at the age of 21 and Dave in his 40s) and had lived in various places since, the close “buddies” of those day became an extended family that I could turn to time and again for solace, sharing fears, and seeking advice.  Knowing that I had such intimate friends made each move to Cleveland, Washington, and then California one in which Barbara and I didn’t worry about making new friends in each new location although we did through our professional work and synagogues we joined. I always had my rock of faith in my long-time Pittsburgh “buddies.”  **  


*Evidence of our closeness and a footnote to the social norms of the day that we adhered to was a betting pool on getting married. The first to get married would collect five dollars from each of us. While hardly an economic incentive to get married ($50), it does illustrate how we viewed the inevitability of marriage in the 1950s. Not so, today.


**In our rough-hewn taxonomy of friendship, there are acquaintances, friends, and buddies  (or the phrase “intimate friends” which we did not use then). All of us in the group reminded ourselves occasionally that each of us had acquaintances and friends, but it was “buddies” that encompassed what we had.

Leave a comment

Filed under raising children

Education Through Friendship: One Man’s Story (Part 2)

This is a five-part story of a long friendship in which I learned a lot about life outside of the schooling I received. See Part 1 for why I connect my friendships with an education that goes beyond schooling.

How We Began

Our origins are familiar, if not common. A group of urban teenagers, first and second generation Americans from homes of working men, small businessmen, and stay-at-home mothers, joined a local chapter of Pittsburgh’s B’nai Brith youth called Victory in the late 1940s. Passions for sports, girls, driving cars, and being accepted by the “guys” filled our lives. For some, practicing Judaism was part of the mix; for others, less so. Getting through high school and graduating was important but no more than a blip on radar screens dominated by our club.

High school and Victory were intertwined in our daily lives.  While we spent far more time in classrooms and corridors of our nearby high school, few of us were members of the popular in-groups. Much of our social and athletic life revolved around club activities. We played each sport in its season, attended weekly meetings, and double-dated while gnawing nails over how to carry off a goodnight kiss. In the four years each of us were members of Victory, what we probably did most was talk.

And did we talk! Over hot dogs at the local deli after club meetings or at one of our homes after a football game that we had played or in cars late at night after dropping off dates, we would talk about everything. For some of us, this club served as family; for others it was another prized activity in an already busy life; and even for others it eased the stormy passage through difficult years. No matter which purpose Victory served in our lives, the club glued us together. Here is where some of us learned the basic requirement for an intimate friendship: trust.

Not only did we learn to trust one another, but we learned life lessons also. I remember one meeting vividly when Sam was president of Victory. On the agenda—we learned well Roberts’ Rules of Order—was an item to vote on new members. Because you aged out of the club at 18, there was constant turnover in this group of about 25. We recruited new members and sometimes teenagers simply wanted to join because of the full array of sports teams that we fielded over the course of a year, the B’nai Brith tournaments we went to in Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia and many social activities we sponsored. So we voted unanimously to accept the handful up for membership because they brought athletic and social skills that we felt the club would benefit from.  Except for one teenager whose nomination for membership triggered a vigorous discussion that I remember to this day.

There was a split in our group over whether Merle should become part of Victory. Those who argued for him saw his speaking skills as a solid addition to our debate team that went to B’nai Brith regional and state tournaments. One member of that team had aged out of Victory; Merle would be useful to the club. Those who argued against him pointed out his argumentative skills went too far and he was constantly talking and trying to make his point. Moreover, he was too talkative and didn’t pick up what others were saying and feeling. He was not a listener. There was a deadlock over admitting Merle, a highly unusual situation, one that in my experience had never occurred while I was in Victory.

Sam presided over the discussion. He listened carefully to each point made by advocates and opponents of Merle’s entry into Victory. At one point, one of us—I don’t remember who—asked Sam what was his opinion of Merle. Sam answered by saying that he uses a principle when he considers each nominee for membership. He asks himself not only what the candidate can contribute to Victory but also what Victory can do for him. He felt that Merle would surely help the club given his verbal skills but more important, Sam felt, who we were as a club could help Merle be a stronger, better, and less antagonistic person.

I, for one, had only asked one question of myself whenever I voted on new candidates: how will the nominee contribute to our athletic, social, and religious activities? Sam asked another one as well: what can the club contribute to the candidate? I had never thought until then about the club culture and activities having significant influence on how I think and what I do. The concept of the club helping someone be a better person I simply had not considered. It was a light bulb moment for me that I have never forgotten. Sam’s response brought the discussion to a close and we voted. In a close vote, Merle became a member of Victory.

Common to many teenagers, such intense club life was put behind after high school graduation.  Most of us went to the University of Pittsburgh, a short trolley ride from our homes in Squirrel Hill, and spent the next four years there. Those in our group who didn’t go to college, eventually drifted away.

About ten former club members, however, continued to see each other periodically either in part-time jobs on campus before and after class, in playing sports, and occasional double dates. Some of us not yet 18 still participated in club athletic and social events, some of us joined college fraternities and some of us now seriously dated young women. 

With little continuing contact weekly, sub-groups among the dozen of us formed and re-formed throughout the four years of college. Some of us, more than others, remained close sometimes drifting away for a year only to return when classes, playing ball, dating, or a summer job drew us back together (e.g., Dave and I sold magazines door-to-door the summer of 1953).

Exuberant and fun-seeking as most others our age, we were not hell raisers. Few of us smoked or drank more than the absolute minimum to prove our manliness. In our group, no one smoked pot, weed, or whatever else it was called in the early-1950s. It was unknown to us as were other drugs. I didn’t hear the word “beatnik” until after I got married in 1958.  In short, we were—there are no other words—hard-working young men, children and grand-children of immigrants, who saw going to college, getting married, and having a family the fulfillment of our dreams as well as those of our parents.


Filed under raising children

Education Through Friendship: One Man’s Story (Part 1)

I have been writing this blog for over a decade. It has focused nearly always on how state and district policies–most of which aim to reform practices– are formed and what happens to them as they trickle down into classrooms. In other words, I have described and analyzed the institution of schooling both past and present and how policies, if at all, shape classroom lessons and student learning. I have been a historian of “schooling” more than a historian of “education.” In analyzing formal schooling I have not fully captured how the young are educated.

Readers know that schooling is not the same as education; it is only one part–albeit an important one–to becoming a full human being who keeps learning throughout life. Consider that of the 6,000 hours that children and youth are awake each year, about 1,000 (or less than 20 percent) are spent in age-graded public schools.

There is, however, an array of informal institutions that also educate. They are the furniture of daily life that are in the background and taken for granted. Family, workplace, congregations, libraries, museums, neighborhoods, clubs, television, social media–I could go on but readers know what I mean–educate both children and adults. Each of these has their own “grammar of instruction” but without attendance being taken, individual desks to sit at, homework, report cards, and lesson plans.

I have been thinking of the distinction between formal schooling and informal education for a long time. As a historian of education, I have been an institutionalist, that is, I have concentrated on formal school organizations, professionals and non-professionals involved in governance, curriculum, and instruction.

There are other historians, however, who have described and analyzed how children and adults learn from a rich array of American social, cultural, religious, economic, and political institutions. Lawrence Cremin, building on the work of Bernard Bailyn, has written about how Americans have learned informally before tax-supported schools even existed in the 19th century, and since (here, here, and here).

Even while tax-supported public schools now occupy a central part of four year-olds’ to high school seniors’ lives and even at a time when parents, political activists, and policymakers see schools as both the escalator to higher social class and crucial to the economy and social stability, there are historians and social scientists who explore how children and youth become educated informally (see here, here and here)

That’s the big picture about schooling and education. In the following posts, I offer a far smaller picture in recounting how I learned a great deal outside of school through friendships that began as a teenager and have lasted until now–nearly three-quarters of a century. Learning from friends is not new. Philosophers, adult educators, and sociologists have pointed out time and again how friendships educate beyond what formal institutions do (see here, here, and here)

I dedicate these posts to one of my friends who died in September 2019. I append his biography and obituary to Part 5 of this series.*

In early June 2017, I drove to San Francisco International airport to pick up my long-time Pittsburgh friends for an AK** reunion we had scheduled months ago. Sam, the oldest, is 85. Yus, the youngest, is 82. Yus’s son Bruce, in his early 50s, took off from his law practice to help his father negotiate the four-day get-together in Palo Alto. The fourth member of our group, Dave, is 83 and lives in Los Angeles. He could not make it because of a recent series of falls.  I am 82.

The four AKers have known one another since the late-1940s in Pittsburgh where we grew up. We became close as members of a Jewish youth group that we had joined while in high school. Over the decades, we have stayed in touch by seeing one another on vacations and holidays, family get-togethers, phoning and writing periodic emails. Long ago, we had become emotionally intimate friends (see here and here).

Beginning in the 1980s, the four of us began getting together on the west coast in San Luis Obispo—midway between Los Angeles where Dave lived and Palo Alto where I lived. We would meet in SLO over a weekend to play tennis at Cal Poly University. Dave was the best of us since he regularly played, Yus was the most competitive to the point of once throwing his racket up in the air when he and his partner lost. Sam and I were happy to return the ball over the net inbounds. We would follow routines of having breakfast at the motel, playing tennis in the morning, going for frozen yogurt afterwards, returning to the motel for a shower and nap and more conversation, go out for dinner and then see a film that the four of us would agree on. The following morning, we would have breakfast with more talk, perhaps play one set of doubles, and then the two Pittsburghers would either go with Dave traveling south to LA or me traveling north (depending whether they had flown in to Los Angeles or San Francisco) for another night with each of our families before they flew home.

As we aged, we made adjustments. We dropped tennis (although Dave played until he was 81). Instead, we would take walks to and from the campus. Two of the reunions occurred at my home in Palo Alto. The Pittsburgh friends would fly in, stay at the house, have meals together, take walks, talk and more talk, go out for dinner and see a film. One of my daughters who lived nearby would join us for a dinner. She had known all of the AKers since she was a toddler.

So the airport run in 2017 was to pick up Pittsburgh friends for another AK reunion in Palo Alto.  While I know that others have experienced long-term, close, and deep friendships as we have, they have their own story to tell.  Here is ours as I remember it over the past six decades. Yus, Sam, and Dave could well write their accounts of our friendship and they would, no doubt, differ in details and interpretations. So this is my rendering of what I have learned about living a full life through friendships experienced for nearly three quarters of a century.



*I thank Sondra Cuban for pointing me to the adult education literature and other readings that examined friendship as a way of learning outside of formal institutions.

**AK is an acronym for a Yiddish phrase “alte kocker” which loosely translated means old man.


Filed under raising children

At Your Wits’ End With A Screen-Obsessed Kid? Read This (Anya Kamenetz and Chloee Weiner)

This article is based on a podcast episode that appeared in National Public Radio’s Life Kit. It was published June 30, 2019. Anya Kamenetz and Chloee Weiner are NPR journalists.

Geoff and Ellie live in a suburban Chicago neighborhood that looks familiar from movies like Pretty in Pink and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off — both filmed in the area.

They have three kids — Nathan, 5, Benji, 11, and Abby, 14 — and they’re worried that all three are too into their screens.

An all-too-common experience

Ninety-eight percent of families with children now have smartphones. Young children Nathan’s age consume over two hours of media per day on average, tweens take in about six hours, and teens use their devices for nine hours a day, according to the nonprofit Common Sense Media.

Technology overuse ranked as the No. 1 fear of parents of teenagers in a national survey last year.

As we sit in the family room, Ellie tell us how it feels to have a houseful of tiny electronic devices that travel with her kids into their bedrooms, to the table, in the car — everywhere.

“We’re the first generation of parents that has to do this monitoring,” Ellie says.

Case in point: Nathan, her 5-year-old, is tugging at her sleeve:


The problem with time-based rules

How did Geoff and Ellie get here? They are not hands-off parents, nor are they lacking in rules. In the kitchen, Ellie has posted color-coded schedules for all three kids, which show when each child is allowed to use screens.

But the kids don’t listen. They fight back and complain. And sometimes, with dad working full time, mom part time, and three kids with three different schools and three different schedules, the rules fall through the cracks. “Give them an inch, and they’ll take a mile and you’re in trouble,” Ellie says. “It’s exhausting.”

At one point, all three kids are sitting in separate corners on the sectional couch in the family room, each on his or her own device. Nathan, the little one, is playing on his iPad, totally hidden under a blanket — head and all. As I talk with Abby, Benji looks up and comments, “This is the most I’ve heard my sister say in a while.”

Ellie puts it this way: “I lost my daughter when I gave her the cell phone.”

I’ve brought an expert to observe and to give Geoff and Ellie some tips. Devorah Heitner has a Ph.D. in media, technology and society from Northwestern University and is author of the book Screenwise.

Heitner says she hears this kind of thing all the time. “I think all parents are like, ‘Can you just tell me how many minutes?’ Or I’ll go speak at schools, and people will say, ‘Can you just tell me the device I can use to fix the problem?’ ”

This misconception comes in part from the media, she says, and from companies — Apple, Google, Amazon — that advertise parental controls and settings as a magic solution.

Heitner and other experts do say to draw a bright line — and be a little authoritarian if you have to — over two times of day: bedtime and mealtime. Research says that more than two hours a day of screen time for young children doubles the risk of childhood obesity. Staring at screens can interfere with sleep, not only because of blue light but because of the emotional excitement of media content and the feeling of urgency about responding to messages.

But in general, Heitner advises that families like this one need to switch from monitoring to mentoring. Policing their kids’ device use isn’t working. They need to understand why their kids are using devices and what their kids get out of those devices so they can help the kids shift their habits.

The relationship between teens, screens and mental health is complex and multidirectional

The real lightning bolt of wisdom on this comes from the oldest child, Abby.

Abby, who has braces and a short crop of curly hair, is snuggled in a hoodie. She starts our conversation speaking softly, but when asked what she wishes grown-ups knew about the phone, she speaks right up.

“Taking it away won’t eliminate problems, ’cause it’s not the sole reason that they existed in the first place.”

Abby’s mom has sent her articles about research linking teen depression and suicide to screen use. A 2017 article in The Atlantic magazine — “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” — drew a link between negative trends in teens’ mental health and the rise of smartphones and social media.

But Abby has a point: The relationship between screens and kids’ mental and emotional health may not be so simple.

“[People always say] the iPhones are the only reason kids are depressed and can’t sleep and have all of these problems — not stress from school, from other people, from other things happening,” Abby says. “It’s never the only reason.”

More recently, a paper from Oxford University analyzed the same data featured in that Atlantic article — more than 350,000 participants in three huge surveys — and arrived at a different conclusion.

The negative relationship between teens’ mental health and technology use is real — but tiny, the researchers found.

“It is extremely, extremely small,” says Amy Orben, the lead author of that paper and two other related studies. “A teenager’s technology use can only predict less than 1% of variation in well-being. It’s so small that it’s surpassed by whether a teenager wears glasses to school.”

In Orben’s view, Abby is dead-on. As Heitner says, “If you hand a happy kid a phone, they’re not going to turn into an unhappy, miserable kid.”

Heitner does caution, however, that devices can “turn up the volume” on existing issues. Children who have special needs or mental health challenges are also more likely to have problems with screens.

This goes for Benji, the middle child. He has anxiety, ADHD and emotional disabilities, and he is prone to meltdowns. Heitner says, in cases like his, parents should consult a professional who knows the child, be it a psychiatrist or occupational therapist.

But there’s another side to that dynamic as well. Some children and teenagers who struggle with mental or emotional health may find that zoning out and playing a game helps them regulate their emotions and avoid meltdowns. For this family, for example, letting Benji bring his iPad allowed him to sit through his big sister’s eighth-grade graduation, and that’s a trade-off the family is willing to make.

And kids can use smartphones to connect with others and therefore feel better too.

In a national study of teens and young adults, Vicky Rideout, a longtime media-effects researcher, found no significant relationship between the young people’s self-reported mental health and how often they used social media.

The young people in the study who were depressed didn’t use social media more often — but they did use it differently, sometimes to feel better. “One of the things that teens are doing online is searching for information and tools to help promote their well-being,” Rideout says.

This has been Abby’s experience. “When you’re really upset, you can use your phone to distract yourself, or contact a friend who can help you, or use it to get your mind off the bad thoughts.”

How to strike a balance? To start, try mentoring, not monitoring

Heitner’s work emphasizes a concept that’s also put forth by the American Academy of Pediatrics in its guidelines for parents: media mentoring.

As opposed to monitoring — with charts, schedules and parental controls — mentoring means understanding the media that kids use.

“Mentoring is knowing the difference between Minecraft and Fortnite. Mentoring is looking at the emotional effects of playing in a competitive mode versus a collaborative mode,” Heitner says.

“It’s understanding that … what your kids are doing is part of their identity, whether it’s through the kinds of people they follow on Tumblr or the kinds of things they share.”

Abby, for example, follows YouTubers who talk about important issues — emotions, mental health, body image, self-esteem. It’s important that her parents understand what she is looking at so they can talk to her about it, share their own values and offer support if needed.

This goes double if your kids encounter stuff that is more questionable — porn, video bloggers with hateful messages or bullying or drama with peers online. Parents can’t step in and solve social problems, but they can be sounding boards for advice.

Look for the good in your kids’ media interests

For Benji, Minecraft is a social space where he plays with other kids and pulls pranks. He says he wishes his parents understood more about his screen use — “why it’s entertaining and why we want to do it. And also, for YouTube, why I watch other people playing games. When you watch sports, you’re watching another person playing a game! Why is it so different when you’re watching a person play a video game?”

Abby points out that as kids get older, having their own private worlds online is kind of the point. “There’s a language that teenagers have formed though memes — it would be hard to explain” to adults, she says. But Geoff, her dad, jokes with her about it: “There are things that I understand, even though I’m super old.”

Heitner reminds Geoff and Ellie that the distance they feel from their oldest is also a normal part of growing up. Ellie responds, “That’s a really important fact. I didn’t think of it that way. I just thought of it as it’s the phone’s fault.”

Work together as a family to make changes.

A few days later, Heitner gets on the phone with Geoff and Ellie.

She tells them to get the devices out of sight and out of mind more often. This goes for mom and dad too, she says. Her advice:

  • Ban devices at mealtime.
  • Take Abby’s phone away at night.
  • Impose more chores. Even the 5-year-old can put away his own toys, Heitner says. The older kids can do their own laundry and load and unload the dishwasher. Send the 14-year-old into the grocery store with a list. “It’s a source of self-esteem to get things done for the family and to be valued in the family.”
  • Introduce new interests. For Benji, Heitner says, set a goal this summer to try to reduce screen time and add something else in.
  • Try more screen-free whole-family activities like board games, a trip to the water park, or just a walk after dinner to get ice cream.
  • Ask Benji to monitor his own mood after he plays video games, say, on a color chart. Heitner says this can help him develop self-regulation skills. Instead of just fighting against the limits his parents set, “it would be good for him to start to see, OK, an hour is good, but two hours starts to make me a little crazy.”

Little changes, big differences

Two weeks later, we checked back in with Geoff and Ellie to see how things were going.

They said that they sat down with all three kids with “a bribe” — their favorite Ben & Jerry’s ice cream — to talk about making some changes to the screen-time rules.

Nathan, the little one, was pretty easy — he’s playing more with his toys now and reading books during snack time.

Benji has made the most progress. He tells us he has been reading a lot more. He found a book series he loves, Wings of Fire, about dragons.

He has advice for parents who want to help their kids cut back on screen time. “If you have kids who are interested in fantasy games, maybe they’ll like fantasy books, or if they’re interested in sports games or animals, maybe they’ll like realistic fiction.”

His parents say his mood is much better. They’re amazed.

Abby, the oldest, has been the toughest nut to crack. But she has been helping out more around the house and doing more projects like cooking.

She made edible cookie dough from a recipe she found online, and the whole family ate it together while watching Ferris Bueller’s Day Off — a bit of sanctioned screen time, because it counts as a whole-family activity.



Filed under raising children

The Problem with Too Much Screen Time And Too Little Privacy Is Parents (Anya Kamenetz)

Anya Kamenetz is an NPR education reporter and the author of “The Art of Screen Time.”

This appeared as op-ed in the New York Times, June 5, 2019

Parents this year were introduced to a goblin for the digital era: Momo, a bird-woman with an eerie grin who commanded the children who watched her videos on YouTube to harm themselves. The story turned out to be essentially a hoax, but it went viral in the first place because it seemed to validate a widely held belief: Our kids are in danger because of threats associated with the dark corners of social media and risk of addiction to phones and tablets.

The annual American Family Survey found last fall that “overuse of technology” had risen to the top of the list of concerns for parents of teenagers, above drugs, sexual activity and mental health. Viral headlines like “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” and books like “Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids” are resonating with parents. One of the authors of the original American Academy of Pediatrics “no screens before age 2” rule (it has since been softened) has written a book with the fearsome title “The Death of Childhood.” Screens are his main culprit.

The truth isn’t so simple. Smartphones and social media may be, in fact, transforming the experience of childhood and adolescence in some ways. But the hard (for many adults to hear) truth is that many of technology’s effects on kids have less to do with screen time per se than they do with the decisions grown-ups are making — many of which place children’s privacy at great risk.

First, there’s surveillance. Children are now under intense scrutiny from a young age, from platforms and advertisers, but also parents and other authority figures.

Many public schools use online gradebooks, and sometimes app-based communication systems like Class Dojo. Depending on their settings, these systems allow parents to instantly see the score on every quiz, and a record of every time their child is disciplined or praised. Family dynamics vary; these updates may be the catalyst to an important conversation, an invitation to hover or get overly involved in a child’s progress, or a prelude to harsh punishment.

Even more worrisome is the widespread use of software from large tech platforms like Google in the classroom. Some privacy advocates have expressed concern about how the data collected on students who are required to use these apps and email services to complete assignments might be used.

As I reported for NPR in 2016, GoGuardian, a form of school-based security software, monitors kids’ online searches on school-issued computers. Middle-school students who searched topics related to suicide, even at home, have been referred to mental health services by school webmasters. Benjamin Herold detailed in Education Week how private companies are monitoring student assignments, emails and even social media posts. Students have become accustomed to the surveillance. One wrote his concerns about a classmate acting strangely in a Google doc, and added profanity to make sure it was flagged by the automated system.

Meanwhile, just a few years since it became possible, checking in on your children as they surf the web and stroll to school is in many circles seen as the basic obligation of a responsible parent. The average age at which a child gets her own smartphone has dropped to 10.3 years. In other words, just as kids start to expand their physical boundaries and spend m ore time with peers, it’s suddenly become standard practice to equip them with a tracking device. The message could not be more mixed: You can spread your wings, sure, but we’ll be banding your ankle, using products like Circle at home and Find My iPhone when you’re out and about.

Then there’s “sharenting.Today, many children’s social media presence starts with a sonogram, posted, obviously, without consent. One study from Britain found that nearly 1,500 images of the average child had been placed online by their fifth birthday. Parents get a lot of gratification from telling kids’ stories online. Advertisers, and platforms like Pinterest and Instagram, get a lot out of it, too. Baby pics drive clicks. “Millennial moms are the holy grail,” one marketer told me.

It’s less clear what our children have to gain from their lives being broadcast in this way. Stacey Steinberg, a scholar at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, wrote in The Emory Law Review that parents’ rights to free speech and self-expression are at odds with children’s rights to privacy when they are young and vulnerable. “A conflict of interests exists as children might one day resent the disclosures made years earlier by their parents,” she noted.

This is especially true when the information is potentially damaging. Imagine a child who has behavior problems, learning disabilities or chronic illness. Mom or Dad understandably want to discuss these struggles and reach out for support. But those posts live on the internet, with potential to be discovered by college admissions officers and future employers, friends and romantic prospects. A child’s life story is written for him before he has a chance to tell it himself.

Even if you confine your posts about your children to sunny days and birthday parties, any information you provide about them — names, dates of birth, geographic location — could be acquired by data brokers, companies that collect personal information and sell it to advertisers.

Finally, there’s display and commodification. In 2018, the top earner on YouTube, according to Forbes, was a 7-year-old boy who brought in $22 million by playing with toys. It’s never seemed more accessible to become famous at a wee age, and the type of children who used to sing into a hairbrush in the mirror are often clamoring to start their own channels today.

What’s the harm? In most cases, none. Maybe even some benefits. But there are horror stories, too. YouTube’s algorithms make it easy to discover ever-more-extreme content, and videos starring children are no exception. Some channels have been taken down from the platform, and parents have even lost custody of their children for harassing and humiliating their own children in videos that earned millions of views. Or, you could post a completely innocuous video of your daughter doing cartwheels and a pedophile could comment with a time code of a particular split-second view as a signal to his fellows.

The most egregious abuses are just the tip of the iceberg, though. For every moneymaking influencer, there are millions of less-successful stage parents and wannabes scratching for followers on YouTube and Instagram. They’re out there shoving cameras in children’s faces, using up their free time, killing spontaneity, warping the everyday rituals of childhood into long working shoots.

Forget Momo. When it comes to childhood and technology, we adults are the horror show.


Filed under raising children