Thoughts on Schools, Jobs, and the Upcoming Generation

A few days back, I had the opportunity to take my kids to a Step Afrika performance at the UW-Green Bay campus. What a vibrant display of culture, physical fitness, and dynamite excitement! The performance was exclusively for students, and the venue seated homeschoolers together in one section. Across the aisle were public school kids and teachers. Both groups were polite audiences, and it was clear everyone had a great time.

As a bystander, it was also a fascinating social experiment. The experience offered an organic, side-by-side comparison of two large groups of students from differing educational models. Predictably, the adult to student ratio was higher among the homeschoolers. The age range of students was also greater and in general, it was a chattier crowd. The public school kids were also talkative, but less so, many of them preferring to interact with their phones until the performance commenced. At one point during the show, the leader asked the audience for a show of hands: “How many of you want to go to college?” he asked. In the public school section almost all of the hands went up. On the homeschool side, it was around a a third of the audience.

Observing the outworking of differing ideologies in the two groups sparked some thoughts about many of the interrelated issues facing our schools, business owners, and national leaders in the days ahead.

Lately, a week does not go by where I do not chat with public school parents who express a growing concern over their kids and how hard life in public school has become. The parents aren’t happy with what’s being taught, their kids are facing crushing social pressures, and on top of that, academic proficiency is low. Most of these conversations are with friends here in Wisconsin, but similar complaints are resounding across the country.

Equally hard to ignore are all “Help Wanted” ads and business owners lamenting the available workforce. Finding employees who show up and do their job is difficult; finding ones who actually show up on time and perform well borders on the miraculous.

When my dishwasher broke down this summer, the repair man was booked out four weeks. Regardless of how many hours he and his father put into their appliance repair business, they cannot keep up with demand. They are drowning in work but have to turn business away due to staffing.

Everyone from the chiropractic office to the auto mechanic down the road to a manger at our local Target tells the same story. National grocery store chains have even run ad campaigns during NFL football games aimed at attracting workers–not customers–to their stores. Despite competitive pay, job security, opportunity for advancement, and great incentives, businesses cannot find or keep employees. Even the United States military struggles to attract new recruits. It seems the grandchildren of brave men and women who served their country in the ’60s and ’70s would rather sit at home playing Call of Duty than respond to the actual thing.

Meanwhile, the parents of today’s young adults offer yet another compelling perspective. Some complain that their adult children declined further education after high school and are thus stuck in low-paying jobs, unable to afford much of anything, depressed over what their futures hold. But the more common and surprising narrative among parents of young adults is that a growing number of their college graduates are no better off! After school, these new grads find themselves living back at home, often working jobs outside of their fields, shackled by debt, bemoaning their meager salaries, long hours, and cost of living. These parents are quick to believe that their children are “worth more” than their non-college educated counterparts, but in truth, most of these kids simply hold an extremely costly piece of paper, often without any real-life experience that make them attractive to prospective employers.

Take, for example, this statistic: in 1979 the percentage of high school students that had a job at some point during the year was nearly 60%, and in 2000, 51%. Today that number is around 30%. Allegedly, high school has become more intense since then, with more expectations that take up the time in a day.

But the supposed increased rigor isn’t producing better students. Test scores nationwide are falling, with roughly 1/3rd of 4th and 8th grade students performing at or above grade level in math and reading. That means nearly two out of three students are below grade level. The real shocker is that compared to scores from 30 years ago, there has been an increase–not decrease–in these deficiencies. Over 1/3rd of high school students have failing grades in the U.S. and 4/10 have at least one D or F on their report cards. Yet the graduation rate in the U.S. is at an all-time high of over 85%.

The academic tailspin of Covid shed a stark light on the fact that teachers and school administrators are passing failing students and have been doing so habitually for years. Any number of factors are to blame, ranging from overwhelmed classrooms and inadequate resources to crumbling home lives and negative socio-economic outcomes. For one reason or another, holding kids back until they achieve proficiency has become an antiquated practice across the board in U.S. schools. More often than not, we pass students regardless of their performance.

Parents are not doing much to help matters. In a study conducted by the Pew Research Center the percentage of parents who said they read to their school-aged child every day was 31%. Thanks to declining parental oversight, kids are getting less sleep and have poor diets. Parents who grew up doing regular household chores themselves are far less likely to enforce them on their own children. Instead it would seem these kids are either parked in front of a screen (average screen time for kids is between 5-7 hours per day) or commuting between school, activities, or care providers. When they are home, kids and teens have seemingly limitless boundaries, demanding leniency from mom and dad, often facing only empty threats or arbitrary consequences for poor behavior. (A simple trip to your local park will be demonstration enough.)

While it’s true that kids have always pushed boundaries, fewer moms and dads are actually parenting and cultivating stable family environments that promote healthy levels of work, play, and rest. Is it any wonder that by their high school years these kids are academically behind, detached from their families, and indifferent about both?

It’s not hard to put the two pictures side by side and see the relationship. In school, kids can either do or not do the work. They generally matriculate through the system all the same. Armed with smartphones their defunct parents pay for, these kids are shuffled through the mill of their various activities, their real-world merit or academic practicality notwithstanding. These kids grow up, obtain higher education or don’t, and then apply the same ethic they’ve been conditioned to their whole life: work hard or don’t; it doesn’t matter either way. Employers begrudgingly keep them on because it’s not worth the effort or cost to replace them.

As a both a former high school educator and now a seasoned homeschool parent, I have never put much stock in judging potential or mastery based on test scores or grade levels alone. Rather, I look holistically at the evidence, and sadly in this case, it’s clear. Our decrepit educational system coupled with parents who are asleep at the wheel has created the most apathetic, depressed, socially-confused, ill prepared, and under-literate generation our nation has ever seen.

In fairness, I believe there are excellent public school teachers, schools, and parents out there. I know many and earnestly respect them for their efforts. But the reason a recent photo of the coal miner father at a basketball game with his young son went viral is because it depicted a rarity: a father who works hard to make ends meet and still shows up for his boy at the end of the day. Unfortunately, these scenarios are becoming the exception to the rule.

It’s time Americans realize that the plummeting academic performance, the workforce crisis, and arguably the worst mental health among young adults we’ve ever seen are interrelated issues unlikely to turn around anytime soon. No amount of funding, school referendums, minimum wage increases, or waived student loans will fix the problem. In a social climate where ideas like tolerance, equity, diversity, and inclusion are plastered on the walls of our schools and employee handbooks, we need adults who will teach kids discipline, commitment, loyalty, and old-fashioned hard work, and then expect it from them.

Our kids deserve better. Our businesses need better. Our future as a leading nation hinges on whether we can innovate our broken systems and employ the now unfashionable values that served us well for generations.

The post-pandemic world we are waking up to is changing. It’s going to take sharper minds and stronger spirits to weather the global storms that lie ahead. Let’s get the next generation ready for it.

The Mountains Among Us

The day we left the mountains behind us broke his heart a little. We drove away with all our possessions crammed in a moving truck and said goodbye to those majestic peaks. It was all he could do not to sob like a baby heading up the canyon and away from our home as we knew it.

Mountains are his thing. Growing up in the flatlands of Kansas as a kid, he found himself in the mountains when he left home as a young man. He built trails, he led trips, he hiked up to the places where the oxygen is thin and makes your lungs burn with every step. He even donned a backpack and trekked for weeks in a place so remote it literally hadn’t been mapped. There aren’t many places left like that. Fresh ground never trod by man’s footprint. Places where a man can conquer the world simply by stepping forward into it. 

The mountains called to him, and he went out into them. Exploring and finding himself, his vocation. He would return from his explorations bent on etching out a living from the crags and cracks that loomed high above his head. He learned that a livelihood could be made from photographing an adrenaline rush. That entire budgets existed to show off the grandeur of the streams that flowed from the hallowed peaks down to the mighty oceans. The mountains–they became his destiny. They were his food. They were his religion. They marked his identity and gave him a purpose to pursue something greater out there in the Wild. 

The mountains shaped my husband and called out something within him that nothing else ever will. And he misses them, I know. 

We left the mountains behind for the rugged shores of a great big lake. It’s beautiful here. And cold. No fast-paced city at the foot of a lofty range. The country sky is our night scene now. There’s no real skiing or climbing. We have state parks and scenic views. The gardens are breathtaking and the winters have an untamed raw beauty all their own. Summer is heaven at the lake. Trees tower overhead, bluffs poking out into the rippled waters below. The people are honest and kind. And our family is here too, so he’s learned to morph his business into something that survives the rocky shores and lush forests of our new home.

Some would say he went soft. Gave up a life of freedom and adventure for the chains of a family. He collected a wife who doesn’t earn an income and a lawn that needs to be mowed. He’s got four kids, with appetites and needs and little legs that can’t go fast. Can’t go far. Certainly can’t climb up to those high places where he once stood surveying his life, the world literally at his feet.

And he’s ok with that.

You see, out there in the wilderness my husband discovered what so many men have missed on their coming-of-age treks through the woods. As a young man he may have found himself in the mountains, but he did not lose himself there. While he may have left behind a scenery so special to him, he took along the lessons of that landscape. 

Now he looks out on a different vista, fraught with all kinds of new challenges to tackle and majesties to behold. In one direction the view sweeps off into the future, four little peaks, all uncharted. All untamed. Each day the sun rises on these glimmering little mountains, promising adventure, treachery, and hope for the years yet to come. And though the journey is slow and the slog is long, he knows the thrill of making it to the summit. That’s what keeps him going on this path of fatherhood. The climb he is on now is one that will make him a real man, one who can lead generations onward into the unknown, laying down his own rights for the benefit of those who come after him. These four peaks are the toughest terrain he has ever tackled and the most rewarding footprints he’s left behind.


And at their center stands a mother mountain, the one landscape he must learn to navigate so well, he could do so with his eyes closed. It will take a lifetime to map her out. To learn her highs and lows, her vulnerable spots, her rocky slopes, her glowing meadows where her heartbeat can be felt underfoot. The mountains may have called him out, but she calls him home.

They say there aren’t many uncharted, wild places left in the world where a man can really go searching and find himself. But my husband would disagree. For him the most life-changing mountains are not the ones he left behind, but ones living, breathing, and rising up in his midst. He would say it’s  the mountains among us that make us who we are.

And as I watch him traverse his way through life, really it is him who has risen up, becoming a mountain himself. A man of enduring resolve, an icon on the frontier that is our family, and a majestic pointer to the One who’s glory he reflects. 

A Mother’s Prayer

The Lord bless you, and keep you,

The Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you.

The Lord turn His face toward you, and give you peace. Num. 6:24-26

My His blessings rest upon you and a thousand generations, for your family, and your children, and their children, and their children. Generation after generation.

When you wake up, when you lie down, when you go out or come home, when you cry in pain or laugh in delight, know that He is with you. Always with you.

May His presence go before you, behind you, and beside you, surrounding you forever, and filling you deep within. He is for you, like I am for you.

May He show you His face, and turn your ears to His voice. May you know Him, may you seek Him, may you find Him, and may you love Him.

In your triumphs and your failures, in your weakness and your victories, in your wandering and your resting, He is working goodness for you.

Dwell in His lovingkindness, search out His wisdom, walk empowered by His breath, rest in His promise.

Yahweh, bless them. And keep them. And make your face shine upon them, and be gracious to them. Please turn your face toward them, and give them peace. Let your favor rest upon their shoulders, generation after generation, to their families, and their children, and their children, and their children. May the legacy of the gift and inheritance of renewal be to them a promise that endures and a blessing that multiplies. Give them a home and a life in the realm of your glory, a house along that mighty river of life, and a spirit made whole.




*Portions of this prayer were inspired by Kari Jobe’s song, “The Blessing.” Highly recommend!

The Best Part of Parenting No One is Talking About

The other day I sat down with a friend and listened to her tell me about her fears of raising kids. She is knee-deep in toddlerhood, where tantrums and choking hazards are the biggest struggles of daily life. I listened as she shared her doubts and worries, the messiness of her life at home with young kiddos. It was the standard “the days are long but the years are short” condundrum, one that any mother worth her salt will face. Through our chat she expressed to me her fears about her little people growing up and the days when there are no more toddlers or preschoolers around her home anymore. She worries about wishing these little years away and dreads the hole her children will leave when they outgrow babyhood.

Her fears have merit. Every single person I’ve ever met has told me how much I should treasure these young years and how fast they go. Anyone can get misty at the thought of a bright-eyed, beautiful baby suddenly grown up, gone from their life in a blink. But it seems to me that in sapping about over the days of cuddles and coos, we’ve missed the best part of parenting that no one is talking about. We’ve missed the quiet, gentle days of big kids.

It sneaks up on you, that phase. You don’t see it coming. And as quick as it comes it’s over, and you’re off to the precarious transition of tweens, and then into the full-blown teenage years that everyone seems to fear. But this year I realized what a beautiful season I’m in right now. For the first time in almost nine years, half of my children are big kids.

Like their little brothers, my two oldest kids are still fun and lively. Their imaginations and possibilities are limitless, and their main goal in life each day is pretty much just to have fun and discover something interesting. It takes very little to make them happy, and for the most part, a simple routine full of rich explorations satisfies them.

But unlike their baby brothers my big kids have the stamina to really go for something. They have attention spans and cognitive abilities that make conversations stimulating, even for an adult. And while not every moment is a bright one, for the most part they have enough maturity to navigate the ins-and-outs of the disappointments and thwarted plans that daily life brings.

While everyone is quick to tell me not to miss a beat with my two youngest, they never tell me about the ways in which my heart nearly bursts when I see all that my big kids have grown up to be.

Resourceful, responsible, kind. Humorous, welcoming, gentle. Creative, hard-working, useful. Empathetic, independent, self-controlled.

And then there are those moments where I truly have to pinch myself. The ones where I walk into a room and my 8 year old has dressed his little brother, taken him to the potty, brushed his teeth and hair, and generally made my morning faster by at least 15 minutes. Or when I discovered the two big kids, working together in harmony, just randomly cleaning up the kitchen. And it’s then that I realize that I won’t be a slave to little tyrants forever.

We still have a long way to go. There is still plenty of character shaping and hard parenting in front of me.

But with two littles and two bigs, I find myself resting in the beauty of the truth no one tells: big kids are just as magical as babies.

The best part of parenting isn’t the phases we look forward to or leave behind; it’s the phase we’re in. It’s those everyday moments we don’t notice that shape us and shape our children. And after a while all those moments add up and transform into something that–surprisingly–we didn’t expect to see during our time in the muddy trenches of the little years.

And so I savor the moments I have. I soak in those snuggles and the simple play with my tiniest ones. But I also bask in the awe of the two in my home who are no longer little. And I delight when one of them walks into the room and I just love them more than I ever thought I could. I will cherish them for who they are, and step into the fresh season ahead, loving every moment of being with these babies I’ve raised.

When my friend finished telling me about her fears of her toddlers growing up, I smiled. “Yes, your babies will grow up,” I said. “But do you know what happens then? You get to marvel at the big kids they’ve become. That’s the best part of kids. They grow.”

Lessons from the Little Bear

Dusky blue shadows hang in the space between us. The last rays of the sun have gone to sleep, and twilight looms, a lazy, late-summer night. We sit in the quiet, just looking at each other. I hum a lullaby over you and study all your sweet features. Soft, dark hair combed over to the side of your white forehead, roll poly arms, a blocky face with a perfect little, round nose and pointed chin. Your eyes stare back at mine, as if you’re begging me to tell you the story.

Because there’s a story in you, Little Bear. Did you know that? We all have one. It’s yours–beautiful and rich with all the light that makes you human. I may not know just quite how it goes yet, but it’s there inside you, waiting to be read.

Rocking back and forth in the familiar chair I hold you in my arms. What a sweet lump you are. Soft, warm, with that baby smell I would exchange oxygen for if I could. I try to decide what I love most about you, but hopelessly give up because there is just too much goodness in you to choose.

Goodness. Your story starts with that, Little Bear. So much goodness. Very goodness, in fact. And that is the best part.

Snuggling you, breathing you in, kissing your forehead and hold your hand…it’s intoxicating because it’s full of so much goodness. Your little life unmarred by the world, full of potential and creative power. And even though you don’t know it yet, all you have ever known is love. Perhaps that is the best part; the wholesome and unattached love with which you see me. Love and joy simply because I am your momma. Simply because you love my face. My voice. My fingers intertwined with yours.

Sitting here in the shadows of the night, you stare at the tired woman who carried you in aches and bore you in quite a labor, and somehow you just know to delight in me because you came from me. With you, I don’t have to pretend away my feelings. Don’t have to deny my own desires or hopes or wishes. I can feel my needs because you can’t reject me. You can’t unlove me.

Yes, your story starts with goodness. The shadows, aches, pains, and weariness are all apart of the process. Nothing in life is perfect. But you, Little Bear, you are a glimpse of the perfect human. The one who lives to love and be loved. The one I hope to someday become.