Thursday, February 26, 2015

Ignoring My Kids

You Do Not Always Have My Undivided Attention

I read this article a few weeks ago about the notion of "Free Range Parenting."  Apparently, some parents have been making headlines recently with a parenting approach that some would argue isn't really parenting at all.  The notion behind "Free Range Parenting" is you give your child or children a significant amount of autonomy at a relatively young age to encourage independence.  Critics of the philosophy obviously see this as neglectful and dangerous for the children.  I've read a lot about various modern-day parenting philosophies, but this was the first I'd heard the term "Free Range Parenting".  While I don't agree with all it seems to entail, I do find some of the concepts intriguing and have found myself incorporating them into my daily interactions with my own kids.  Let's call it "Free Range Parenting Lite".

Before I ever seriously considered staying at home with our kids, one of my biggest concerns was always being able to provide them with enough activity.  I figured they had so much going on at the daycare center they were at, if they stayed home with me they'd be bored out of their minds.  This was still a concern I had when I decided to transition to staying at home and continues to be something I contemplate almost daily.  How much could I be stunting their development by forcing them to spend numerous hours with me as often their sole source of interaction?  Even I get bored with me after a while.

My Dad made a seemingly casual (to him) comment that really struck a chord with me just before I started staying home.  After mentioning that I hoped the kids wouldn't get bored spending time with me at home, he pointed out that for the most part, my sister and I were left to our own devices when we were younger and seemed to turn out fine.  Sure, my Mom was around and it wasn't like she had no clue what we were up to, but for the most part she let us be and we found ways to entertain ourselves (imaginative play as they like to call it these days).  Besides, she had other things to worry about - laundry, meals, cleaning, feeding the baby pigs, etc.  Oh, you didn't have baby pigs that needed to be attended to when you were growing up?

I think I've mentioned this before, according to Jennifer Senior in her book All Joy No Fun, the actual term "stay at home parent" is a relatively recent phenomenon.  In the '50s & '60s, women who didn't work out of the home (which were most of them) were called "housewives", implying that their first priority was to look after the home.  Even my Mom, in the '80s, was considered a "homemaker".  She actually was part of a group of "homemakers" that would meet regularly for coffee to swap recipes and cleaning techniques.  I remember they would usually take a weekend in December where they would all go to the "big city" to get their Christmas shopping done.  I'm seriously considering starting up my own "homemaker" group if anyone is interested.

So I took my Dad's comment as advice, and coupled it with what my friends in the marketing biz always like to preach to help guide my philosophy toward structuring (or not structuring) my kids' day - "keep it simple, stupid".  My Dad also told me he thought the fact that I already had thought about how I would foster my kids' development while I was at home with them was an indicator that I was already on the right track.  To paraphrase Dawn Dais for her book, The Sh!t No One Tells One (which has become one of my new favorite parenting books), bad parents don't worry if they are being bad parents.

When I put this approach into practice, I realized that practicing my "free range parenting lite" actually involved me somewhat consciously ignoring my kids (gasp!).  This has been a challenge, because it will often still leave me feeling like I should be doing more to actively engage them, especially at this delicate age of their development.  However, there are a few reasons I think it is good for both them and me, and those who have to interact with me (i.e my wife).

Why I think It Is Good for Them:

On some levels, giving your kids autonomy is definitely a good thing as it promotes a certain level of independence.  When our oldest transitioned into the preschool room at her daycare, the directive we received from her new teacher was to encourage her to be as independent as possible, especially when it came to doing everyday tasks like getting dressed.  It obviously takes kids a lot longer to dress themselves, and the clothes they pick out might not always be appropriate, but it gets them headed in the right direction and bolsters their confidence when they finally get it.  You do have to draw the line somewhere though at a young age, like using the cutlery.

I also think/hope/pray that any positive behavior modeling I am attempting to do for my kids will inevitably resonate with them.  For better or worse, I am the coolest person in the world to my kids right now (after my wife of course).  I'm also the person they spend the majority of their waking hours with.  So if they are going emulate behavior of someone, it's likely going to be me.  This can provide serious pressure in that you always have to be mindful of your actions and your language.  But to me, this also helps with the notion of keeping things simple.

Let's take music.  Most of you know I'm really into music, and want my kids to be into it as well.  At this point, instead of spending a ton of time and energy in attempting to teach my kids various instruments, or shelling out money to hire a professional to teach them, I figure it's enough if I occasionally, but consistently pull out my guitar to strum a few chords or sit down at the piano to plunk a few keys - and not just kid's sing-a-longs (I love it when Isla asks me to play a song she doesn't know).  I figure if they see me enjoying (and at times struggling at) making music, one day they too will want to make music.  Sure we'll get them some formal lessons at some point, but for now I think the exposure works just as well.

Similar with encouraging them to be active.  I like to run and bike, and as much as possible, and sometimes against their will, I will put one or two of my kids in the jogger stroller/Burley and have them accompany me.  At times there are tears of protest, but those usually subside after a few blocks or when they eventually fall asleep.  I figure if I want them to be active, I don't have put them on an exercise plan.  I just have to show them that I like to exercise and make it a priority in my life and hope that they will as well.  We'll wait on the strength and conditioning for a few years.

This has seemed to work for us so far - the kids love music and they love to be active.  And I have to believe this works on all kinds of levels.  Want your kids to enjoy eating healthy food?  Eat healthy food (and like it).  Want your kids to like books and reading?  Read to them, obviously.  I've actually started to intentionally "read around" my kids more in effort to show them that I like reading for my own personal pleasure as much as I enjoy reading to them.  Want your kids to do drugs (or not)?  Do drugs (or don't).  Obviously they won't pick-up on all positive (or negative) behavior you attempt to model, but I would venture a guess that the likelihood of them not modeling your behavior is a lot less then them developing other behaviors that you don't model, especially positive ones unfortunately.

I've also decided that it is okay for our kids to complain about being bored.  Our four year old started throwing around the "B" word last fall (I think before I even started staying home), and at first I got really concerned about how the next fourteen years were going to go.  And I questioned if she really knew what the word meant.  But then I stumbled upon this great article about "The Disease of Being Busy", where the author flatly stated that he wants his kids to experience periods of boredom because that is how life works.  I also then found about this other article about the correlation between boredom and brilliance.  Now, when Isla says she is bored, my response is, "Great!"  Your kids will be bored.  I do not believe it is our responsibility as parents to constantly entertain, or even intellectually stimulate our kids.  

Why I think It Is Good for Me:

Obviously by intentionally ignoring my kids from time to time it has allowed me opportunities to hold on to some of my own interests.  As I mentioned in a previous post, one thing I was adamant about was retaining my own personal identity as an individual through parenthood and not being completely defined through my parental duties.  Continuing to pursue those interests as much as possible and as time allows has been a great outlet and probably helped me hang on to some of my sanity.  I would encourage all parents, especially new ones, to try to make sure they are holding on to some of their interests and hobbies throughout parenthood so they at least having something to go back to when the kids leave the house.  Or, when the kids get old enough, they will have passions and interests that can be shared within the family.  I'm already looking forward to the day when I'll be able to run 5Ks with my kids (and hopefully still beat them).

I also think taking this approach now, while the kids are still relatively young, will help me be a better supporter of their own independence as they grow older and want to be more independent.  Having worked in the higher ed environment for a number of years, I've definitely seen the effects (mostly negative) of "helicopter parenting" and how it has inhibited some students' ability to develop their own independence and sense of self.  I want to support my kids as they grow, but I know that they will need to fail at times in order to grow.  My parents took a similar approach with me during my adolescent years, and I'm thankful that they did.  If I don't allow my kids to start growing on their own at least a little bit at this age, it will become more challenging for me to step back, and probably for them to step forward, as they grow and mature.

Lastly, I've become more comfortable saying "no" to them, without always having a good reason.  The other day Isla asked me if she could play with the Play-Doh set that Havi go for her birthday (in our house a gift for one child is typically used more often by a different child).  The Play-Doh set had "disappeared" because it was not cleaned up following its last use (I don't know if our kids grasp the concept that we do this, but it helps keep some of the toys at bay on a small level).  I wasn't really thrilled about the prospective of taking it out and cleaning it up again after they played with it for 30 minutes and moved on to the next thing, so I told her no.  Was this selfish?  Yeah, it was.  But I explained to her that she had a number of other things she could play with and Play-Doh was often a mess to clean up, so we weren't going to take it out at that moment.  Maybe not the best justification, but it felt okay to say "no" to one of their requests, as small as it seemed.  I figure if we can't get comfortable saying no to them now on occasion, it will become increasingly harder to do so as they get older, get better at poking holes in our reasoning, and the requests become more demanding, and likely larger and more expensive.  

Why I Think It Is Good for The People Around Me:

Part of the allure of staying at home was the idea that along with spending more time with my kids, I'd also be able to take care of some of the day-to-day necessities of home life - cooking, cleaning - to make things less stressful around the house.  By allowing the kids to fend for themselves occasionally, it allows me time to get these things accomplished, and hopefully provides good modeling to our kids.  We try to get them involved with some of these tasks whenever possible/logistically feasible, so they hopefully start to understand that clothes don't magically clean and fold themselves or dinner doesn't just get dropped off at your doorstep (most nights).  When I'm at home with my kids, if I'm not actively engaging with them in something, a bulk of my time is spent doing things I view as constructive - cleaning, meal prep, blogging(?), etc.  My hope is that if they aren't helping (or trying to help while actually hindering), they are at least recognizing that I'm doing a task that needs to be done and something they might be responsible for doing some day.  Contrary to popular belief, I don't spend all day sitting around and watching trashy daytime TV - it's usually just half of the day.

So that's why I ignore my kids sometimes, and would encourage you to do the same.  Not all the time, but sometimes.  Try it.  I'm sure they will be okay.  As long as it is not to the extent of being neglectful, like leaving them to forage for their own meals, it is promoting independence and hopefully sparking their brilliance.  If you are questioning if you actively engaging your kids enough, think about what approach your parents took with you growing up.  If you think you turned out fine, then you probably have a good basis to start from.  Odds are you don't even remember those years, and your kids likely won't either, so take a break and go do something constructive or that you find fulfilling.

If you leave your kids alone, they may get into Mom's make-up bag.
They probably did better than I would have.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

There's No Place Like Home

I Guess That This Must Be The Place

Well, we returned home from our Florida adventure.  We rolled back into town on Sunday afternoon, and after taking the requisite three days of recovery after our three days of travel, I figured I should get back at it.  Thanks for your patience.  There will be plenty more musings from our excursion that I'll try to work into some upcoming posts.  Believe me, the material is there.  And it's pretty good.

The return trip was, thankfully, pretty uneventful.  Our biggest surprise came Friday afternoon just outside of Atlanta.  We were able to meet up with one of Jess' friends and her family who were on their way to Florida to essentially do the exact same thing we just finished doing in a different location.  We rendezvoused at a kid's bounce place named Monkey Joes, where we attempted to impart any words of wisdom we could offer them over the blaring Kidz Bop music.  While we were there, and the kids were bouncing themselves into a bliss-filled oblivion, I got a call from our neighbor who had been keeping an eye on our house while we were away.  They stopped to check things out, and noticed that they could see their breath inside the house and the thermostats were reading a tepid 35 degrees.  Being the amazing neighbors that they are, they contacted the local HVAC company who was able to come out and remedy the problem.  We considered turning around and heading back to Florida at that point, but decided against it. This visit from the plumber marked the third time in the last month and a half that they had paid a visit to our house to address a heating issue, and the service tech has deemed us the "lucky ones".  It was Friday the 13th so we should have seen it coming.      

When we were house-hunting for our first home a few years ago, the last thing we (mainly, me) were looking for was a fixer-upper.  I am the antithesis of handy.  I once used the word "utensils" to reference my pitiful excuse for a tool set.  I've long accepted that I am not good when it comes to working with tools (especially those that require power), and I have no desire to improve.  In middle school, I actually convinced one of my buddies to do all of the cutting for my projects in our mandatory shop class, while I wrote a few papers for him in return.  I wanted a move-in ready house, and I wasn't that picky either.  I had lived in, too put in kindly, some "shit-holes".  They contained such luxuries as metal spiral staircases, carpeted doors, registered sex-offenders as neighbors, and four grown men sharing one bedroom.  Well, what did we end up with?  Of course a fixer-upper.  Oh, but it had so much character and potential!  Still has plenty of potential.

When we were searching for our first house, I thought about how different the experience probably was for my parents when they were looking for their first home.  Nearly every house we went into, if it was "move-in" ready or not, we always identified things that we would need (read: want) to redo.  We got a pretty good deal on a foreclosure that needed some serious updating, but at the same time it seemed a little strange (and somewhat narcissistic) to being considering some of the enhancements - a brand new kitchen with granite counter-tops and stainless steel appliances, an addition, new flooring (that scratches like crazy) - we felt were needed in the first home we ever purchased.  Granted we were at a different stage in our life than my parents when they bought their first house, and the housing market has changed drastically in thirty years, but I'm sure they didn't walk into a house and see everything they could redo.  They were probably just happy to have a house that they could afford.  To be out of their parent's basement.  Who cares if the wallpaper print was a hideous floral and the carpets were shag?  They were living the American Dream.

It's also an interesting concept to see how the average size of a single-family home (in square footage) has doubled since the 1950s, while the average size of a household (in number of people) has steadily declined since the 1970s.*  Bigger houses with fewer people occupying those houses.  We are no exception, as we have a larger than average house.  We also now have a larger than average household size (we figured if we had the space we might as well fill it with people).  But it does, at times seem like more space than we need.  I often joke about our overabundance of couches.  We have four, which means that everyone in our house that can walk can lay on a couch at the same time.  Over the last few years we've finished our basement (meaning we paid professional contractors a handsome sum of money to unfinish our existing basement and refinish it to a layout that better suited what we wanted) and redid the deck on the back of our house (again, paying professionals).  Once those projects were completed, I found myself somewhat baffled that we hardly seemed to use them.  But at least they were done - if there is one thing I dislike it is an unfinished house project.

The increase in the house sizes, and decrease of people in those houses, obviously means more space to clean/upkeep and fewer hands to do it.  When we were both working full-time, my wife would occasionally make a comment that she wanted to look into hiring someone to clean our house.  I was adamantly opposed.  After reading Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel & Dimed a few years ago, I told myself I would never hire someone else to clean my house.  I thought if I couldn't keep my own house in tact, my priorities were out of whack and I likely needed something more manageable.  I've probably softened on this a little since we've had kids, and the invisible toy monster comes through every 30 minutes to vomit toys all over every room.  When you have kids your time at home tends to fall into the cycle of: make a mess, clean up said mess, make another mess, leave that mess to the morning in hopes that it will magically clean itself up.  Despite my wife's accurate assessment that we have different definitions of "clean", I'm sticking to my guns - no professional house-cleaners in our house (unless they are fluent in foreign languages and can teach piano-lessons too).

One of my good college friends and his wife just returned back to Minnesota after spending a few years of living abroad for his work.  While they were away, they rented out their home in Minneapolis.  After returning, my friend commented that they had at least a year's worth of various house projects to get the place back into the condition they wanted.  I quipped with him that it seems ironic that we often spend so much time (and money) working on our homes but so little time actually enjoying them.  Figure your home will likely be your biggest financial investment in your life, and the inanimate object that require the most work to upkeep.  Each week has 168 hours.  If you work 40 hours/week and sleep 8 hours/night, that consumes over half of those hours.  Factor in time for meals, commuting, your "recommended" daily physical activity, and the actual amount of time you park your ass in front of the TV,  and it doesn't seem to leave you a lot of time to enjoy the fruits of your labor.  
Now that I am home more with the kids, this has certainly been something that I've enjoyed.  Feeling like we are actually making use of the space we have spent so much time, money and energy to create.  I also think we've been able to keep the house a manageable disaster (you can ask my wife for her real opinion).  After some strategic rearranging of our rooms, I feel like we have our house in a good spot - everything seems functional and usable to its own degree.  We now eat regularly at our dining room table instead of piling it up with laundry in transit from the bedrooms to the wash.  We go in the basement much more frequently because it is the only place in our house with carpet, and I didn't get any knee-pads for Christmas (see 12/18/14 blog post).  I've also come to enjoy the opportunity occasionally tune-out and do something mind-numbing like wash the floors while the kids are napping.  This usually involves me throwing in the ear-buds and cranking up my jams to a volume level where my phone likes to tell me that "listening at for long periods may cause hearing damage."  Heaven forbid I wake the children from their peaceful slumber.

As much as I sometimes despise this house, and the amount of disposable income it has drawn from our bank account to fix its issues (essential and cosmetic), I feel very fortunate that we are blessed to have a roof over our heads and a place to call home.  We've had the opportunity to make this house our home, and I'm glad it was still standing when we pulled up last Sunday.
"The Money Pit"
We bought a house in the same city where we went to college - a quintessential college town.
Despite the way it looked upon purchase, we assured our friends it was not one of the houses that we frequented on weekend nights to consume keg beer in the basement.  To the best of our recollection, at least.

*I know I should cite a source here, but I recall reading this in a book somewhere and am too lazy to go back and find it.  I have couches to sit on.           

Thursday, February 5, 2015

As Long As I've Got My (swim)Suit & (clean)Tie

Let's Be Reasonable

We've been in Florida for almost two weeks now, and we've got about a week to go.  It's been a nice change of pace, but I think when we depart for balmy Minnesota next Friday, we'll be ready to head back.  We'll be ready to be home, not ready for the three days of return travel.  Obviously one of the things that has been nice about being in a warmer climate, especially with children, has been the ability to spend our days in more casual attire and not have to worry about winter coats and snowpants everytime we go outdoors.

Shortly after we arrived at the place we are currently staying, Jess made the comment that you could definitely tell the house was a vacation house, because while they had an ample supply of things you need to go about your everyday life, nothing was excessive.  They provided us with towels, but not eleven different sets to choose from like Monica on "Friends".  Everything seemed pretty simple and straightforward.  Everything you need, nothing you don't.  Okay, we likely won't use the formal dining area at all during our stay here, but you get the point.  Jess mentioned that might be a good way to declutter our own home when we get back.  Keep only the items we would use on vacation and purge out all of the extra stuff.

From an apparel standpoint, this can be easier said than done, especially because when you are on vacation you likely don't need much because you aren't doing much.  If you are going to the beach everyday or every third day as we've been doing, you can usually opt for the same thing - swimsuit, flipflops, floral shirt and oversized hat.  Obviously that would not fly, even on a casual Friday, at most places of employment.  Except at my "job", where the dress code is considerably more lax.  This is one of the very seemingly small things that I think can make parenting incredibly less stressful.  I would think that anyone who has shown up at the office with baby spit-up all over the shoulder of their dress shirt might agree.  My kids don't care what I wear, as long as I wear something - they're not to the point of being embarrased by me in public yet (more to come on that later).  I have been known to wear the same clothes for multiple days in a row.  As Andrew McMahon likes to rhetorically ask in song, "When did society decide that we have to change and wash a t-shirt after every individual use?"

There is something to be said though about the simplicity of mundane decisions, like getting dressed, when you are on vacation or traveling.  When I spent my semester abroad, I lived out of a backpack for four months.  My options were pretty limited, and this was great because the making the choice of what to wear was often times made for me.  I have three shirts; one is dirty, and one I wore yesterday, so naturally I'm going to wear the third (I think I had like five shirts, but you get my jist).  Author Barry Schwartz points out in his book The Paradox of Choice, that while we believe having numerous options is a good thing, often times we suffer from choice paralysis when it comes to some decisions.  There was a great article a few months ago about why some of the smartest/most influential people wear/wore the same thing day in and day out.  One less choice to make.

I also think there is an aspect of reasonability at play here as well.  Here, in sunny SW Florida, it seems reasonable to see people in shorts and Ft. Myers Beach tank tops going about their day because, well, it's SW Florida.  Back in Minnesota, it seems reasonable, espeically this time of the year, for someone heading to the office in a suit and tie to also be sporting (at least while outdoors) some massive snowboots.  What I often find perplexing are the clothing-related societal traditions we tend to hang on to for nonrationale reasons.  At my last job, I worked a lot of wedding receptions, most of which took place in the hot and humid summer.  It always amused me when a sweaty (often intoxicated) groomsman or father of the bride/groom would come up to me during the reception and demand to get the air conditioning cranked up more.  It seems reasonable that he should expect to feel comfortable in a three-piece wool suit on a 90 degree day in late July, right?  Or the whole concept of women wearing high heels to look more attractive.  And of course those doctors that wear ties must be better at what they do.

When it comes to getting kids dressed, reasonability is my first concern, and that means it seems reasonable that my kids should be dressed in clothes.  Period.  The next concern should be if they are within a reasonable margin of error (plus or minus one season) for weather appropriateness.  It is merely bonus points if those clothes match or are what a Gap ad deems as "cute".  My general operating procedure is that I only dress my kids in things that I have seen them wear before.  I recently learned that this results in a lot of "color blocking" which my wife informed me, "isn't necessarily a bad thing."  Luckily Isla has been able to dress herself for some time now, so my objective with her is convincing her to actually get dressed.  Getting Havi dressed draws many similarities of a Greco-Roman wrestling match.  Gus screams and kicks too (obviously), but my goal with him is a little different (avoid getting urinated on).  Both Isla and Havi are perfectly comfortable traipsing around the house in their undergarments like someone else in the family (I'll let you guess who); even in the winter when we keep the thermostats at a brisk 62 degrees.     

When we get home I'll put away the swim trunks (Jess will probably throw them in the garbage) and resume my routine of wearing either the jeans with the stitched up hole in the crotch (Thanks, Mom!) or the other ones.  I haven't yet found the male equivalent to yoga pants.  I suppose I could just start doing yoga (or say that I do) so I can wear the pants.  I hear they are pretty amazing.  If you seem me out and about with the kids and I'm wearing the same thing you saw me in last time I was out and about with the kids, go ahead and pass all the judgement you want.  I'm just glad that we're wearing clothes.  You should be too, considering the alternative of course.   

Suits optional?
Maybe for the 4 & under crowd.