Tuesday, December 20, 2016

In God We Trust

Jesus Loves the Little Children

So it's Christmas, all over, again.  While I would argue that Christmas has essentially become a full fledged secular holiday, it obviously does have some religious roots.  It's also that time of year when churches that might otherwise be half-full on your average Sunday have to bust out the metal folding chairs to accommodate all of the prodigal sons & daughters who tend to return on a biannual basis - sometimes to referred to as the C & E Christians.  It's also the time when we can all get bent out of shape about whether it's more appropriate to say "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays" or "Festivus for the rest of us!"  If you're worried about offending someone, you can just wish everyone you see a "Happy Gus' Birthday".  Just please, no gifts.  Seriously.

The most recent data I could find (based on my 10 second google search) found that in 2015, 75% of Americans identified as Christian.  While still a relatively high number, that percentage has been on the steady decline since the 50s, when nearly 90% of Americans identified as Christian.  As the article points out, in a very easy to read chart, the age groups with the lowest percentage of people who identify as Christian are the youngest demographics - the 18-34 range.  Not surprisingly, this demographic also has the highest percentage of people who don't claim a religious identity.  It may not seem like it based on my boyish good looks, but I am soon to be at the very top of that age demographic.

I grew up Presbyterian, just like the President-Elect apparently.  Ours was a pretty religious household in that we went to church every Sunday.  My parents weren't fanatics, but they valued the importance of instilling Christian morals in us.  They were involved in the church community and encouraged/forced my sister and I to be active members too.  We went to Sunday School and Bible School, participated in the Youth Group, even sang in the choir when Mom was really mad at us.  Believers definitely weren't in short supply in our community either, as our small town of 1,500 people had six churches available to its residents, with the neighboring smaller towns boasting a comparable person/church ratio.  Growing up we went to the same church that my Dad attended as a kid, the one my 95 year old Grandma still goes to today (when the roads aren't too dicey).  A small church country church just outside of town where every Sunday used to be an extended family reunion*.

Like a lot of young adults who have recently left the daily supervision of their parents, I pretty much stopped going to church when I went off to college.  I went to a Catholic college, but certainly not because it was a religious institution.  I liked the community feel of the school, which in hindsight, was probably fostered because of the religious nature of the school and the monastic community that supported the school.  There is no way I had the intellectual capacity to understand that at the time.  Even though it was a Catholic school, they welcomed heathens like me, along with various other religions and those who claimed no religious affiliation - I met both my first Jew and my first actual Atheist there.  I did have to take a required religious course or two, but no one was dragging me to chapel on Sunday morning.  I even went to mass on my own volition a few times, usually when my weekend behavior was highly suspect.

I did my fair share of questioning of my religious beliefs during my college years, like your typically obligation-free 18-22 year-old who is searching for the meaning of life.  I hadn't done so before because it never occurred to me that I could.  I went to church because my parents told me to, and for the most part, I did what my parents said.  I followed the Ten Commandments (to the best of my adolescent ability) because I had to memorize them, along with the books of the bible, the 23rd Psalm and the Apostles Creed, in Sunday School.  I didn't contemplate the pastor's sermon or the words of scripture because was I spent most of my in church fantasizing about the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Models.  Like I said, best of my adolescent ability - that tenth one is tough.

During college I did take a philosophy class, in which one of the topics was discussing the existence of God.  As I started to critically think, I began to consider the somewhat arbitrary nature in which we become socialized, or not, into a religious belief.  For a large swath of people, myself included, we do what our parents did, who likely did what their parents did, and further on down the line.  While "religion switching" is becoming more common, if you were raised in a certain faith, you are more likely than not to practice that faith as an adult.  Currently, I consider myself to be a Christian unaffiliated with any particular denomination.  I have some personal beef with some of the religious doctrinal interpretation and implementation by some of the more mainline Christian denominations.  However, as I wrote in a paper for that philosophy class 12 years ago, I believe in God because having faith in something is a way to help me explain things I lack an ability to explain, particular the good things.  Jesus also seems pretty cool in my view - nonjudgmental, accepting of everyone despite their flaws, a make-love-not-war pacifist, etc.  I seem to have heeded Macklemore's advice to, "find God, but leave the dogma."      

If you get married it would serve you well to consider the religious beliefs of your spouse, especially if you decide to start a family.  My wife is Catholic, and luckily, the overall resistance to interfaith marriage is not what it was of the good old days pre-Vatican II.  Nor did we have any relatives boycott our ceremony because it took place at a Catholic Church and included a Lutheran minister^.  Comedian Jim Gaffigan, himself a practicing Catholic, has said that "kids and disease are the true gateways to faith."  I can't really recall my wife and I ever having a conversation about what our approach to religion would be with our kids.  It seemed well understood by both of us that they would be raised Catholic, my wife would be taking them to church, and I was welcome to join them.  If I had any strong opinions about a different course of action (which I didn't and still don't) then I would have to make a case for it and take the responsibility to follow through.  Seemed like a lot of work to me.  In her book Til Faith Do Us Part, Naomi Schaefer Riley points out that mothers are typically the ones in charge of a family's religious practices, and children of interfaith marriages are twice as likely to adopt the faith of their mother over their father.  

So we go to church, all of us.  Not every Sunday, but most Sundays - typically always on the Sundays when they have donuts after.  We also sit in the front pew, or as close to the front as we can, as we were once told by another family with small children that your kids pay better attention up front because they can actually see.  It's not true 100% of the time, but it certainly has helped.  Plus the front pews are usually open anyway when we come strolling in midway through the opening hymn.  I go because my wife appreciates the fact that I go, and trying to wrangle three kids at a Catholic Mass can probably draw similarities to purgatory at times.  I guess I'll find out when I get there.  I've likened taking small children to church like walking on ice.  You can be doing just fine, until you, or someone, falls flat on their ass, or backside, I should say.  Fortunately the church that we go to has a fairly young congregation, so the frequent child screams tend to blend into the joyful noise being made to God by the rest of attendees.  I did have to remove one our children (who will remain nameless) after he/she sucker punched my wife in the face in a fit of rage.

I've found that I've come to appreciate these weekly doses of religion that my kids are getting.  I figure for the abundance of secularism that they get everywhere else, it's nice to have them be exposed to the Bible and the tenets of Christianity, because in the aggregate, they are pretty good things.  Havi even goes to the preschool at elementary school run by the parish, and Isla did as well for two years.  Less because it is a religious school, and more because it is two blocks from our house and we adore the teacher.  But any place that has; care deeply, share generously, serve willingly, and speak kindly as their core values is a great community to be a part of.  Yes, these values are not exclusive to Christianity, or any religion, but essentially all religions have, at their core, messages of love, peace and service to one another.  If exposing them to a religion is going to help them better understand how to be a kind and thoughtful person, then I'm willing to surrender an hour on Sunday mornings.  We're up anyway.

From a parental perspective, there can be a sheer superficiality to it all.  It's cute when our kids make the sign of the cross and fold their hands to pray before dinner, even when Gus adamantly refuses to join us.  It's heart-warming when Havi sings and signs "Away in the Manager" after learning it in preschool.  Or when Isla sings along with the songs in church that she has heard multiple times or tries to recite the Lord's Prayer.  It's reassuring when an elderly couple come up to you after church to inform you that your kids were "just little angels" during the service - since they're a little hard of hearing, they weren't privy to all of the empty threats.  Certainly this is all a titch vain, but a silver-lining nonetheless.  And then there is the convenience of using Christian teachings as parenting tools.  When Havi was having a hard time dealing with the fact that she couldn't be first for everything, I evoked Matthew 20:16 (yes I had to google it), where Jesus says that the "last will be first, and the first will be last."  Obviously she doesn't get it, but it has averted a meltdown or two.              

As I've aged I've realized more and more things in hindsight that I'm glad my parents did, like make me go to church.  While I very much disliked it at the time, I certainly see its value now, especially since I have kids.  Even though I'm not necessarily practicing the faith I was brought up in, having been exposed to a religion like Christianity has helped me understand the benefits of exposing my kids to it, with major assistance from my wife of course.  They are too young now to question, and typically they are eager to go to church or read one of the bible story books at bedtime.  There will probably come a point when they will do their own questioning of their faith and beliefs, and I look forward to having in depth and thought provoking conversations with them on the subject.  While my own skepticism on organized religion will likely persist, I'm glad that they will have been exposed to religion and the virtues it can teach.  Whatever they ultimately decide to believe in, or not, is fine by me, as long as they use what they've learned along the way to bring more joy, peace and love to the world.  Based on most of the Christmas cards we've gotten this year, that seems to be the consensus pick for the reason for the season.

Sorry, dude, you have to wear this dress for baptism.  It's tradition.
But mom made you this delicious cake.  You just can't have any.


*A few years ago, I went back to the church Christmas Pageant with my Grandma, an event I played a variety of lead and supporting roles in during my tenure at Ebenezer Presbyterian Church.  She proceeded to point out every kid in the program and explain to me how I was related to them in some form.

^If they had any reason to boycott our wedding it would have been because we got married in January in Minnesota.      


Tuesday, December 6, 2016

'Tis a Gift

"You'll Shoot Your Eye Out, Kid."

My wife and I were having a discussion^ a few weeks ago about the things our children put on their Christmas Lists.  The Holiday Season tends to become a complex web of gift giving arrangements for us, as all three of our kids have birthdays within about a month of Christmas, with a lucky one having a birthday on the holiest of consumer holidays.  It also seems like we've begun to associate solely with people who's kids also have birthdays during that time frame.  The last six weekends of the year for us have become an interesting rotation of Thanksgiving gatherings, kid's birthday parties, and Christmas celebrations.  I've gotten into the habit of always asking for a gift receipt whenever I make any purchases these days, just in case.

I've commented before on how the exorbitant consumerism around the Christmas season, which can turn the most wonderful time of the year excessively stressful, has a tendency to get under my skin.  The paragraphs below will not make me seem like any less of a curmudgeon-y, self righteous cheap-ass, but I'll opine nonetheless.  You may vehemently disagree with my point of view or you may find pieces of it insightful and thought provoking.  It's not that I don't want to buy gifts for my kids or other kids, or for people not to buy gifts for my kids.  I just think we can all be a little more intentional about the process, and consider what impact those gifts might have on the kids they are bought for and the people who frequently interact with those kids.  As someone who frequently interacts with those kids, it's probably something that I'm hypersensitive to, as I live with the chaos that tends to follow the vast amount of stuff that small children accumulate.

A few months ago I did a pretty sizable reduction of our kid's toy collection.  I had just finished the book Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne, and one of his instructions was to take you kid's toy collection and half it, and then half it again.  I've long been a fan of the "simplicity ethos" and decided to take a week to assess the things they actually played with.  When I realized that at least 75% of the time they weren't even playing with "toys"*, I figured we could part with some of ours.  So one day while the two older ones were at school, I took advantage of the van's excessive storage space (seriously, there is so much), and hauled a bunch of stuff to one of the local thrift stores.  Gus may have been aware of my conniving deeds, but he kept quiet - he didn't have the vocabulary to describe such heinous crimes yet.      

When it became readily apparent a few weeks ago that new toys will be undoubtedly be entering our house, it certainly gave me a little hesitation.  One of my main goals as a parent is to raise kind-hearted kids who don't feel the need to amass a bunch of stuff to try and make them happy.  As Michelle Borba points out in her book Unselfie, "a preoccupation with possessions is associated with decreased happiness as well as increased anxiety."  This doesn't mean that I don't want them to get presents for their birthday or Christmas, but I don't want them to expect that they will get them or get everything that they ask for.  Of course getting them a few (or most) things off their list for Santa won't immediately turn them into greedy, self-centered little shits, but it is a little concerning to me when I see them flipping through a toy catalog pointing out everything they want, which happens to be everything in the catalog.  I do have to reconcile this though with the fact that I did the same thing when I was young.  I showed a little more restraint and humbleness as I aged by limiting myself to only selecting one item per catalog page.   

Fortunately, as Borba writes, empathy and selflessness can be taught, but the earlier you can instill those virtues in a child, the more likely he/she will embody those traits as they grow through adolescence and into adulthood.  Consequently, they will also be happier, more popular, and more successful, according to the scientific data.  To me, it runs parallel to setting limits for your kids now, and being fine saying "no" to their requests at times just because.  If your kid isn't taught empathy and how to put other's needs in front of their own at a young age, it will become increasing challenging to do so as they age and become more ingrained in their opinions and biases from the experiences that they have.  To me, it seems like the Christmas season provides a fantastic opportunity to try and nurture the notion of selfless giving, considering what the "spirit of the season" is all about.  Unfortunately, it can also be one of the most challenging times considering what the season has really become.

This past weekend, we attend one of the aforementioned birthday parties for the daughters of some good friends.  The instructions on the invite specifically indicated not to bring gifts.  Of course, nearly everyone brought gifts, ourselves included.  Our friend decided to institute a rule for the next party that if you brought a gift when directed not to, you would also need to bring your own food, cake, silverware and beer.  He was joking of course, but he really had a point.  Despite people telling us not to bring gifts, we still feel obligated.  Even when we genuinely know that they'd really prefer not to have one more thing that will ultimately serve as an additional tripping hazard.  We don't want to be that family that shows up to eat the cake without bringing something.  It's like Halloween when we gripe about how much candy our kids get, but yet can never bring ourselves to be the house that gives out baby cut carrots and dental floss, even though we would totally love it if someone did.

The kids were not impressed with my suggestion of dressing oranges
up as pumpkins for their Halloween treats for their classmates.

As I've alluded to before, a big frustrating part of it for me, is the feeling of overwhelm that I get when I look at the state of my house, as it currently is right now - a mess of toys, kid's clothes, half-completed craft projects and children's books strewn about like a piece of (very) abstract 3D art.  And because I'm home all day, it is a constant lived experience for me, and something I feel I can never stay on top of.  The other day I wondered how many books I could have read to my kids in the total amount of time I've spent picking their books up off the floor and putting them away.  Of course you could suggest that I should do a better job of teaching my kids to be responsible for their stuff, but as Payne suggests, when they have so much stuff, nothing can really hold that much value for them.  I'd also rather not have others spend seemingly unnecessary resources (time and money) on something my kids may or may not play with.  It just seems a little simpler for all involved to limit the amount of things that can be potentially thrown on the floor.

Now I can't reasonably expect that I will eliminate all of the "junk" from my kid's life.  It would also be hypocritical for me to attempt to do so, as I had my fair share of "junk" growing up - some of which has been returned to my possession.  As a kid, I definitely wanted material things, and for the most part, my parents provided me with those things when they were able to and felt like my behavior warranted it.  As I've grayed, I've become much more conscious of how I feel I can live a more fulfilling life with a simpler existence, and it's something I hope to impart on to my kids.  But this will also have to be a growing process for them.  No doubt they will put some excessive things on their Christmas list, and sometimes they might get them and sometimes they might not.  Hopefully, at an age early than I did, they'll be able to understand what is truly important about the Christmas season - that making it bright for others can make it brighter for you than any wrapped package you'll ever receive.

As a parent of young kids who dislikes having excessive clutter in the house, and believes that too many toys (even the "educational ones") and too much stuff can have an adverse effect on a child's ability to see beyond their own perceived wants and needs, I'm going to offer up some gift suggestions for Holidays and Birthdays.  Most of these will probably be considered boring and practical, and you may be concerned about the level of excitement the gift receiver has when opening a gift like this.  But I think if you start at a young age, the more likely the kid will begin to grasp the concept with less protest.  Little kids also have incredibly short attention spans, and no matter how cool of a gift you think you got them, the excitement will wear off as soon as they tear into that next gift.  If you need proof, ask your kid if they remember what you got them (or anyone else for that matter) for their last birthday/Christmas.

Get Them an Adventure/Outing
Give a gift of something the kid can do, with their family or their friends - movie passes, a gift certificate to the indoor trampoline park or their favorite restaurant, admission to the zoo or local water park, etc.  Yes, gift cards and certificates are not very exciting to open.  Even more so if you are little kid and don't know how to read.  This has definitely become one of my go-to options though for birthday presents for my kid's friends.  Instead of getting them something to be played with and then put in the toy box, you're giving them an opportunity to get out of the house and make some memories having an adventure - something they'll likely recount with more excitement then the time they spent cutting off all of Barbie's hair.

If it is logistically feasible, I suggest making it so you are the one taking them on this outing/adventure if you are giving to a niece/nephew/child of a friend, etc.  This has a doubled impact, as it gives you the opportunity to make some fun memories with them and can provide the parents a probably much needed break.  We got this idea from some friends of ours, who in lieu of birthday gifts for their nieces and nephews, would designate a day around their birthday when they would take that child out for a day filled with adventure - amusement park, ice cream, baseball game, etc.  When our friends relocated for work a few years ago, one of the nieces expressed serious concern about what would happen to "Gracie Day".

For parents, this approach can also serve as a gift to be given to others.  My Mom always says she doesn't want anything for Christmas, but can never seem to spend enough time with her grandkids.  This year, I'm seriously considering getting her a "coupon" redeemable for a whole weekend of uninterrupted quality grandkid time.  I'd even leave her the van with a full tank of gas.  Shh, don't tell her.

Put Money in the College Fund
If you think a kid would have a hard time getting excited about opening a gift card or certificate for something, you can imagine that a kid opening a note that you put some money into a college fund would get an even glossier blank stare.  But, we are all likely aware of the importance of investing in our kid's future.  This also hopefully helps the child understand, at a young age, the importance of saving and delayed gratification, which are more traits that lead to happier, better adjusted and more successful kids.  A gift like this can even be coupled with a gift that the child finds a little more exciting.  If you going to get a kid a cheap plastic toy made in China, why not get them a cheaper plastic toy and put the remaining money in a college or educational fund where it can grow with interest over time to be the gift that keeps on giving.

Make a Donation in the Kid's Name
Again, something that will likely be a lost concept on kids that are pretty young, but as they grow older, they would hopefully understand the significance behind it at an earlier age than most.  If you want a kid to be altruistic, it's much easier to teach them ways to be altruistic when they are young.  Try to make it something the kid can connect to.  If they are really into sports, maybe a donation to the Special Olympics.  If someone in your family or social circle has or has had cancer, a donation to the American Cancer Society or the Ronald McDonald House.  Like giving money to a college fund, they probably won't get it at first, but hopefully the importance of it will resonate as they get older.  Especially if giving back is something that your family values.  Christmas and Birthdays can be an excellent time to help teach kids about the things they are fortunate to have, and that some kids may not be as fortunate as they are.

Invest in an Activity or Hobby
Kids are more active than ever these days, and with those various activities (swimming, dance, tae kwon do) comes the expense of participation.  While I don't think you should try to deter a kid from wanting to participate in various activities by pointing out how much you think they are a drain on the family resources, you can make your child aware that these things are not free and require some investment.  If you help them grasp the magnitude of how those activities effect your daily routine, and how it isn't feasible from a time or monetary stand point (for us at least) to participate in everything, they might develop an increased level of commitment to the activity.  It makes it seem like participating in the activity or being able to pursue a hobby is a privilege, just like getting a gift, and not something they should have the expectation of being able to do.

With any of these somewhat "non-typical" gifts, the effect will probably not be realized right away, and will likely need to be continued for a few years for a tradition to set in.  Like the special days our friends set aside for their nieces and nephews for their birthdays.  Of course the kids were skeptical at first, but over the years, they've really come to look forward to this fun tradition.  As kids get older, these traditions can morph into really valuable life lessons that help kids understand the importance of giving and being empathetic.  Ones that can at times be initiated by the kid's themselves.  We all love hearing stories about kids who started a coat drive at their school or donated all of the toys they got for Christmas to a Toys for Tots drive.  But the desire to do those actions of altruism don't just appear out of nowhere.  They come from kids being exposed to and educated on the importance of those values.  If we want those kids to be our kids, we have to make a conscious effort to help them understand the things that we really think are important.  I think how we approach addressing their list from Santa can be a very challenging, but good place to start.  

Straight cash, homey.

^You maybe could have called this an argument, but both my wife and I are much too passive aggressive to argue about anything.

*Sharp knives actually came in at the top spot.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Two Years Down

"Four More Years, Four More Years!"

I recently surpassed my two year mark as a stay-at-home dad.  Luckily, I wasn't up for re-election this year.  Actually, I think mine is an indefinite appointment, removable only by impeachment or all kids being in school.  It has certainly been a whirlwind of the last two years, with many ups and of course a few downs.  If anything it has been a series of transitions over the last two years; staying at home with the girls, having a new baby and everyone being at home, Jess going back to work and me trying to keep three kids alive, figuring out that first summer, and then that second summer, and now our oldest hops on a school bus at 6:30am and doesn't come back until 3pm.  Even two months into the school year, I still feel like we're trying to find our footing for routine.

People will often ask me how it's going, or what's it like, being a stay-at-home parent.  While I don't like to compare it to a job, it draws similarities in the fulfillment department.  Some days I feel very accomplished as a parent, and I'm certain I'm doing exactly what I should be.  Other days, I wonder what the hell I got myself into and worry about how much I might be screwing up my kid's future.  I felt the same when I was working (outside the home).  Some days I felt incredibly fulfilled by my job, and other days I felt like walking out the door and sending someone back for my personal items.  Like anything, you have good days and bad days, but in the aggregate, the good has definitely out weighed the bad.  I'm certain there won't be any part of me that will regret my decision to stay home with my kids at this point in my life.

Of course eventually I'll probably have to go back to work once they are all in school.  Jess let's me get by with a lot of stuff, but I don't think she'd allow me to just sit on my ass all day once the kids have all gotten on the bus in the morning.  At least now when I sit on my ass all day, I can make the argument that I'm "watching them".  Truthfully, I've never had much of an end game in mind.  People will ask me if I'll go back to work at some point, and what I think I might do.  Honestly, I haven't given it a whole lot of thought.  I'm sure I'll go back to paid employment in some form, but I haven't made any sort of plan as to when or what that might be.  The more we've been able to operate on a schedule that revolves primarily around the kids, as opposed to one that is dictated by a job, the more enticing it seems to find a job that allows me to be on their schedule.  I've given serious consideration to following in the footsteps of my mother-in-law, who became a teaching assistant, or my own mother, who drove school bus, once their kids went off to school.  Maybe I could do both.

While I think every parent could be a stay-at-home parent (see earlier post for reference) deciding whether or not it's the best decision for your familial situation is a completely personal one.  I'll share below some of the impacts I feel the last two years has had on the various components of our family.

My Kids
Of course our kids are the main reason I am a stay-at-home dad.  Without them I'd just be a stay-at-home husband, or, in layman's terms, lazy.  I get the general sense that my kids being at home with me has been a net positive for them.  But then again, my opinion is pretty biased since I think I'm pretty awesome.  It certainly has allowed them to connect better with me, which in turn has made me better parent.  Of course they still love their mom the most, and would pick her over me in a heartbeat, but I've definitely drawn to a closer second than I otherwise would be.  I commented before on how I think the generous paid parental leave of my former employer helped me better connect with kids and make me a better father.  My opportunity to be home with them has continued that betterment in my view.

The practical positives of my kids being at home with me all day is they certainly don't get sick as often.  Unfortunately when they do though, it tends to wreak havoc on our house and doesn't provide me much relief (see earlier post for reference).  I also get to control the types of things they are exposed to; what unhealthy foods they'll eat, the type of bias of their media outlets, and how much physical aggression toward their siblings is socially acceptable.  There is also the relatively stable continuity that comes with having a parent at home.  This has become more salient now that Isla is in kindergarten.  She knows that dad (and usually everyone else in the family) will be there to see her out the door in the morning, and for sure dad will be there when she gets off the bus in the afternoon, probably still in his pajamas.  The continuity is good for kids.

Of course, having the luxury of being at home with our kids has allowed me to have more experiences with them, whether through adventurous outings, trips to the library, or impromptu (and probably ill-advised) patronizing of the local coffee shop.  These experiences can be fun filled, memory making outings, and they can be epic failures.  Similar to other "creative" things I might try to get them to do around the house.  Being a stay-at-home parent is definitely not a continuous Instagram feed of architecturally amazing forts, Etsy worthy craft projects, or viral YouTube videos.  I would average that for every "creative" idea I have for something to do with my kids, about 18% of them probably end up working out.  I often like to post on social media about my #realworldparenting moments.  The goal is to balance those annoyingly cute posts of parents and their kids in their "my heart is full" moments with a check of reality.  Like, "my hair is full....of the lice my kid brought home from school".            

Certainly there are some drawbacks, and having our kids at home with me full time has likely increased some of the separation anxiety they have when they go to school, or do an activity without the direction supervision of my wife or me.  They're usually limited to interacting with those who are around them, which, during the coldest days of winter, can be a pretty small group of very closely related people.  And as nice as it is to have some flexibility with their schedule, too much can sometimes backfire.  If your goal is to get them dressed by 10am most days, it can make it that much harder to get them up and at 'em by 7:30 on the times it's actually necessary.  They also have to put up with my mediocre culinary talents, but then again, so do I, so I can empathize.

My Wife 
My decision to be a stay-at-home parent was obviously made in consultation with my wife (sort of, at least).  One of the contributing factors in my decision to stay home was that it would (hopefully) make things a little less stressful for my wife and I.  Overall I think it has.  One of the nicest aspects about having one working parent in the family is you have only one schedule you need to work around.  It has also allowed me to attempt to do some of those domestic tasks necessary to keep a household with multiple inhabitants functioning - cleaning, cooking, grocery shopping, etc.  Without a need for me to put on pants most mornings, I can also do romantic things like get her lunch ready for her workday^.  I'm sure there are times though when my wife wishes she had a wife of her own who stayed at home with the kids and undoubtedly had a higher standard of cleanliness, was better at folding laundry, and didn't eat as much.

Of course, having a spouse at home with your kids is not always rainbows and unicorns, especially probably if you are a woman and your spouse is a man.  While I've never really felt emasculated as a man being a stay-at-home dad, I know my wife can at times feel like she is not living up to the societal norms of what a mother and wife should be doing.  Often this will revolve around the amount of time spent with our kids.  Her standard for if she is spending enough with her kids is based on how much time I am spending with them, which is an excessive amount of time.  I try to point out that a vast majority of my time spent with them can hardly be considered "quality time", as it usually entails cleaning up their perpetual messes or constantly telling them not to climb on the furniture/table/countertops/roof, etc.

I can certain understand how those feelings of "parental guilt" can persist though, despite my attempts at insisting that they shouldn't.  Our society puts a ton of pressure on moms, and we're while we're evolving to a point of putting more pressure on dads, which will hopefully relieve some of the pressure for the moms, we are certainly a long ways out.  Of course I think part of the problem is that our expectations of what constitutes an incredible mom have gotten blown way out of proportion.  Much of this is self induced, but the prevailing accepted narrative around parenting roles is still focused heavily on the mom doing a lion's share of the parenting and the domestic necessities, while also being expected at times to contribute to the finances.  So, I can understand when my wife occasionally wonders if she is a "good mom" or a "good wife".  But thankfully she's not either of those things.  She is an "amazing mom" and an "incredible wife"*.      

For Me
Of course everyone is most concerned about me, right?  I mean, I'm the one staying home dealing with my disgustingly adorable and annoyingly well-behaved children.  How does he do it every day?  It has to be taxing.  Honestly, some days I don't know.  You just do what you have to do I guess.  In the aggregate, it has been amazing.  Sure there are plenty of frustrating moments, but I also get to experience a lot with my kids that other people don't, and for that I feel very, very fortunate.  I'm certain that once my stay-at-home tenure is completed, I will certainly look back on the years (however long they happen to be), as some of the best of my life.  And I've had some pretty awesome years already....

The pros of being a stay-at-home parent as plentiful.  Of course you get to hang out with your kids all day, but the auxiliary perks, like the fact that I've not worn a collared shirt on a weekday for almost two years, are pretty sweet as well.  I also get to (typically) listen to whatever sort of music I want to around the house during the day, without any disgruntled coworkers unplugging my computer speakers.  I get the benefits of "working from home" without having to make annoying sales calls or listen to boring webinars.  This is good because the decibel level in our house usually hovers between 80-110 pretty consistently.  While there is certainly chaos aplenty in our home, it has not contributed to any elongated spikes in my blood pressure or stress-induced ulcers.  My annual check-up this past week confirmed this.
Obviously there are cons as well to staying home, and I certainly have my bad days.  Kids can be a fickle bunch, and it can be mentally exhausting trying to reason with people who can't reason because their pre-frontal cortex is still developing.  It can also be an isolating experience too.  As a fellow stay-at-home parent once commented, "being a stay-at-home parent can be as lonely as you want it to be, since you get to choose who you interact with."  Some days I'm more than happy to only interact with my kids, but every once it a while some adult conversation is a welcome change.  Fortunately, I've had the opportunity to get to know a number of incredible parents (mostly moms, but also a few dads) who are at home with their kids, and often encountering situations similar to myself.  It took me a little bit of time to realize the importance of making these connections and how it has helped me to stay sane at times.

In his book, Dad is Fat, comedian Jim Gaffigan discusses the difference between how men and women cope with the challenges of parenting.  He comments that moms like to commiserate, through playdates and mom's group, while dads like to escape, through activities like eating and watching football (in his case at least).  About a year ago I was making cordial chit-chat with a mom at one of the library story hours I frequented with my kids.  After commenting that I was a stay-at-home dad, she replied that "it must be hard to meet other stay at home dads".  It wasn't something I had given a lot of thought about before that, as I didn't much consider how being a part of a network of other stay-at-home parents would be that beneficial.  In my view, my kids and I just kind of went about our day doing our thing, and that was that.

About a week after that interaction, I recall having a particularly challenging week.  A week when I wasn't feeling very accomplished as a parent and the kids were driving my absolutely crazy.  That was the point when I realized how important it can be to have those supportive people around you, beyond just your spouse and your close family.  Other parents who can relate a little more closely to what you might be dealing with because they are also interacting with their kids for a vast majority of the day.  As a guy, I think it can be challenging to admit that at times you need help, even when it comes to parenting your own kids.  But when you open up and allow yourself to be vulnerable about your fears and insecurities, you often find you're not the only one struggling with those things.

So that's what I've tried to do more consciously, to make those connections, especially reaching out to fellow stay-at-home dads, and challenge myself to be open about the aspects of parenting that I struggle with.  Interacting with other parents can often be a very superficial experience, focused solely on the nuts and bolts of the familial experience - how old the kids are, the activities they are involved in, what milestones they've hit, etc.  But as parents, we know there is so much more that constitutes the dynamic of parenting, and at times it just takes a little more willingness to be okay broaching those topics.  It can be scary and awkward, but it can also be extremely helpful and validating.  I recently started up a Stay-at-Home Dads Facebook Group for Central Minnesota, as a way to try and reach other dads in the area who may also be looking to make those connections.

At this time of the year when we are reminded of the many things we can be thankful for, I think of this opportunity I've had to be a stay-at-home parent.  It has certainly given me a different perspective on my life and the world around me, and I believe, positively impacted the relationships I have with others.  When I was in grad school, I had to come up with a sort of "mission statement for myself" as part of my professional portfolio.  One of my goals was to learn everyday by having new experiences and adventures.  This experience as a stay-at-home parent has certainly allowed me to do that, and for that I am very thankful.  At some point it will certainly come to an end, but if I make it until Gus goes off to kindergarten in 2020, I'd be old enough to throw my name in for another important position that might be opening up around that time.  I'll probably have a little more free time on my hands then.


^I've gotten pretty good at making turkey & cheese sandwiches these days, so I suppose I could always see if Subway is hiring sandwich artists.

*These balance my abilities as a mediocre dad and a slightly below average (on a good day) husband.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

"Back to School, Ring the Bell."

To Prove To Dad That (He's) No Fool

We surpassed our 10th day of the school year this past week, a day my former higher ed colleagues always anticipate.  For our house the start of this school year definitely marked by a serious amount of anticipation, as this year Isla, our oldest, would be starting kindergarten, while Havi, our middle, would be starting her first year of preschool.  Like most every other parent who had a kid (or more) head off to school this fall, I also did the obligatory pondering of, "How did we get here?"  Luckily, after more than 10 days, we're still here.    

Last summer, after (questionably) surviving my first summer of stay-at-home parenting, I started to understand the sentiment of parents being ready for their kids to go back to school.  Last year, I was definitely ready, even though it was one kid going to school, three mornings a week.  This summer, I don't feel like I got to that point.  Yes, I was excited for Isla, as I knew she was ready and excited for kindergarten.  I was also excited for Havi, as I knew she was ready for something a little more stimulating and challenging (intellectually at least) than putting up with me all day.  Of course I was also selfishly excited to have a little lighter of a load at home so I could maybe, just maybe get a little more accomplished (or watch more trashy daytime television).  I think that fact though that this was going to be new territory for us - having one kid in school all day - I wasn't quite sure what to expect.

Or course before we could send our oldest off to kindergarten, we actually had to pick a kindergarten.  Growing up in small towns, this was somewhat of a foreign concept to my wife and me, where there was a school in your town (or maybe the next town over), and you went there.  Despite living in a "quaint" town not much bigger than my wife's hometown, we are apart of a larger school district, adjacent to a number of other smaller school districts and have a few private and charter school options in our larger community.  I think there are at least buses from at least six different schools that come through our neighborhood, trying to entice families to allow them to educate their kids.  All of the options have their pluses and minuses, and it certainly speaks to the privilege that we have to be stressed out about picking the "right" school for our kids.

Ultimately we decided on pursuing one of the language immersion programs offered by the public school district we are a part of.  Yes, not only did we have a variety of schools to choose from, we could also decide if we wanted our child taught in English, Spanish or Chinese.  We chose Spanish.  This did mean that Isla would be attending the elementary school in our district that is furthest away from our house, and not the brand-new (or less than 10 years old), state-of-art school that is only 1.5 miles down the road.  Again, the problems of the privileged.  Because her school is a solid 25 minute drive via the interstate, the bus picks her up at 6:30am, which has turned us into earlier risers than we already were^.  While the distance and the early wake-up gave us some hesitation for enrolling in the Spanish Immersion program, we wanted to at least try it and see how it goes.  I also vaguely recall getting on the bus at an un-Godly hour and riding for much longer than necessary (uphill both ways) during my school days.  It seems to be a rite of passage.

Fortunately, for our kids, no matter where they go to school, the odds of them having a successful school experience are pretty high.  It is often said that parents are the most important educators in a child's life, and one of the biggest indicators of future academic success is the support that they get at home for their education.  Yes, quality schools are incredibly important, but as one high school counselor once said, reassuring me that picking a school for our children wasn't such a monumental decision; you have great kids come out of some pretty terrible schools, and you have some terrible kids come out of some pretty great schools.  We likely have at least a few years before we start to see if our kids will turn out like eager overachievers like their mom, or lazy underachievers like their dad.

Coming from an upper middle-class, two parent household that strongly supports the educational experience - given that my wife and I have a combined 13 years of higher education, the chance of our kids being complete fuck-ups are pretty slim.  Not to say that it can't or won't happen, and we won't someday be bailing one (or more) of them out of jail.  The odds are just pretty heavily in their favor; to not be fuck-ups that is.  We're also fortunate that one of those two parents (that's me!) has been able to make the conscious decision to stay home with the children, having more time to support their educational experience, help with homework - the English stuff at least, and be involved with their school.  PTA anyone?  

Of course, like most parents, we have our fears in sending our kid off to school.  A lot can happen during the day when you see them off on the bus at 6:30 in the morning and they don't get back until 3 in the afternoon.  Oddly, most of the fears I've had tend to revolve around the logistical stuff - will she make her bus transfer, what if she doesn't like what they are serving for lunch that day; and the social stuff - will she make friends, will anyone play with her at recess.  We found out after the fact, that on Isla's third day of kindergarten her bus broke down on the way to school, and they had to wait for another bus to come and pick them up.  This caused her to miss breakfast at school and, because she has to get up so early, she typically doesn't eat anything before getting on the bus.  When I found this out, I had a mini-freakout.  "So, you didn't eat anything until lunch?*  Weren't you starving?  How'd you survive?"  She just kind of shrugged her shoulders.  Heaven forbid she ever have to experience hunger.

Gus has a book, Elmo's First Day of School, that he insists on us reading almost every day (I think he just really likes to say "Elmo").  On Elmo's first day of school, he is a little hesitant at music time because he doesn't know the words to the song the teacher is playing.  Elmo's teacher reassures Elmo by pointing out that school is all about learning new things.  It's somewhat rhetorical to say that school is all about learning new things for the students, but I also think it's as much a learning process for us parents as well.  Of course our kids are learning how to read and write and do math.  They're also learning how to be independent and make choices and interact with others in various settings, not always in the purview of adult supervision.  Most importantly, I think they are learning how to cope and deal with the circumstances and situations that they are in.

As parents we're learning, or should be at least, how allow them to cope and navigate those situations on their own.  It's not as though we're sending them out into the world on their own, but slowly we're giving them more independence.  In one of the many parenting books that I've read, the author pointed out that we cannot control our kids.  We can only coach them, and hope that their behavior and actions will reflect how we've coached them.  I think this is particularly true when you send your kid off to school.  We can't control everything that they do or foreshadow every situation that they're put in.  We can't keep them in a bubble, filtering what they are exposed to (more on censorship later), dictating their actions, or deciding what crowd they decide to pal around with.  Am I somewhat concerned that Havi, who habitually waits too long to relieve herself might have an accident while at school?  Sure, but there isn't much I can do about it if it happens.  Odds are she wasn't the first and most certainly won't be the last.  

The sooner we can learn to gradually let go, the more independence and confidence they will gain (which presumably is a good thing in the long run).  Will it always go smoothly?  Of course not.  It can be excruciating to watch our kids struggle and at times ultimately fail at something.  We've already experienced two such moments with Isla during her first two weeks of kindergarten when she broke down in tears because she couldn't figure something out.  As eager as a parent can be to rush in and try to solve the problem for them, that is part of the process of school, and life.  I think our role as parents shouldn't always be to solve our children's problems, but to support them through their failures.  When I feel the urge to come "helicoptering in" to rescue one of my kids, I like to think of the line from the Frou Frou song, "Let Go" - "there's beauty in the breakdown".

Of course we as parents will fail at times too.  That is how we learn and grow as parents.  On Isla's first day of school, because it wasn't raining at 6:30am when she got on the bus, we neglected to send a coat with her.  It proceeded to rain for pretty much the rest of the day, and when I found out that they still went outside for recess, I was a little taken aback by my lack of foresight.  "So you went outside for recess.  In the rain.  Without a jacket because we didn't send one with you.  Interesting."  Note to self, double-check the forecast each morning before sending kids out the door.  Luckily my kids can't grasp the concept of micromanagement just yet, trusting that I will (someday) learn from my own mistakes.    

Not only do we have to learn to trust that our kids will be able to figure it out, we also have to learn to trust the educational structure that has been created to support and nurture them.  The teachers, the bus drivers, the administrators, the resource officers.  We have to trust that they have the safety, security and best interest of our kids in mind every day, while also being mindful of everyone else's kids too.  We have to believe that they want to see our kids succeed as much as we do, but that they might have a different perspective on our child and how they can support their pursuit of success.  It can certainly be hard to develop this trust, especially when you hear about tragic events like the Jacob Wetterling abduction that took place in our "quaint" community over 25 years ago, and only recently came to a very sad and tragic close.

When most of our news headlines are dominated by terrifying and heart-wrenching stories about the things that are most precious in our lives, it seems justifiable that we as parents have a desire to embed GPS chips into our kid's socks or conspicuously follow a block behind the school bus the entire way to school.  I think it would be informative, likely soothing, and certainly funny if we could watch our children navigate the school day through a hidden camera without them knowing.  Observing would hopefully ensure us in knowing that they're okay, and likely provide a little validation to us as parents that we're doing at least an okay job raising our kids.  But we have to find a way to give them that space to develop themselves and their personalities. Or, to paraphrase Martha Beck from her book Expecting Adam, we have to transform into parents who can accept our children, no matter what.

Right now, I will graciously accept our kindergartner who was excessively excited to get her first homework assignment this past week.  And who is disappointed that she doesn't get to go to school on Saturdays and Sundays, even if that means the notion of sleeping in on the weekends is lost on her.  I'll also graciously accept our preschooler, who is a little hesitant to leave the comforts of her mom and dad's presence (mostly mom's), even though she always has a ton of fun in school.  In a few months/weeks her excitement will probably (hopefully) mirror her older sister's.  And our little guy, who certainly notices when his older sisters are gone, saying their names with an inquisitive look on his face, and responding with a somber "oh" when I tell him they are at school.  His time will be coming certainly fast that we can expect.  However it is that we got "here", we're here. Soon enough we'll be "there", wherever "there" is.  "Everybody on?"

Havi started the school year for us with her first day of preschool.

Isla followed the next day with her first day of kindergarten.
Poor Gus is just stuck at home with dad.
It will give him some time to grow into his glasses.

^I will completely understand if you never again invite our family to be overnight guests at your house.

*Bear in mind that they eat lunch at like 10:30am.    

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Why I Think We All Could Use A "Special" Someone In Our Lives

"If I Cannot Win, Let Me Be Brave in the Attempt"

The Rio 2016 Summer Olympics have been done for over two weeks now, and I'm assuming we've all gotten back to our regularly scheduled programming (thank goodness the football season has restarted, right?).  For the most part, they seemed to be a success - the Russian delegation, Ryan Lochte, and Hope Solo notwithstanding.  The Olympics came at the perfect time for our house, as we had our third bout of the stomach flu this year during the first week of competition.  When you are awake at 3:30am because your child doesn't want to fall back asleep for fear that she will throw-up in bed (again), the Olympic weightlifting competition can serve as a great distraction.

Just before the Olympics kicked off, I was reminded via social media that it was two years ago that I had the chance to work with the Minnesota Special Olympics and their Summer Sports Camp, which was hosted at the college I used to work at.  The post reminded me that among all of the various events and groups I had the opportunity to work with during my tenure at the school, the Summer Sports Camp was hands down one of the most inspiring groups I had the privilege of working with.  While the athletes that participate in the Special Olympics may not have the same level of athletic prowess as those competing in the Olympics, from my experience, their passion for competition is just as strong.

The reminder also popped up just as I was finishing Martha Beck's fantastic book, Expecting Adam.  I had never heard of the book, and it was given to me somewhat by accident, when a friend offered to loan me a book she thought I'd enjoy, only to discover that she couldn't find it.  She gave me Expecting Adam in it's place, and it has become one of my (many) favorites.  The book centers around the author and her husband, finding themselves expecting their second child at a very inconvenient time in their lives - trying to balance graduate coursework and teaching responsibilities at one of the most prestigious universities in the world while also raising a toddler.  Martha has a very difficult pregnancy, and when they find out that their unborn son has Down Syndrome, the emotional toll of defending their decision not to terminate the pregnancy, despite nearly unanimous suggestions from family and colleagues to do so, compounds on Martha's constant nausea and dehydration.  In the end the author concludes that she must "unlearn virtually everything Harvard taught her about what is precious and what is garbage."  I would highly recommend it to anyone - parents with special needs children, parents without special needs children, people who don't even have kids.

One of my favorite quotes from the book is when Martha observes that in contrast to the cut-throat, accomplishment-obsessed culture of a place like Harvard, "it is amazing to live with someone who genuinely couldn't care less about Getting Ahead, someone who is absolutely committed to finding joy in the present moment."  That quote recalled a vivid memory of one of the athletes from the Summer Sports Camp a few years ago.  Participating in a flag football game, and decked out in a Minnesota Vikings jersey with a matching headband, armbands and receiver gloves, he made a diving catch in the corner of the end zone to score a touchdown for his team.  Had it taken place in an NFL or major college game, it might not have made Sportscenter's Top 10, but for this young man, this was his moment.  His reaction and the subsequent mobbing by his teammates could have had you conclude that he just caught the game-winning touchdown in the closing seconds of the Super Bowl.  Never mind that it was ten in the morning on a Thursday at a tiny school in central Minnesota, hardly a fan in sight.

As someone who (typically) possesses the cognitive ability to put something like that guy's catch into context and the physical ability to (likely) do something similar, it gives me goosebumps to watch the emotion that follows something that might seem relatively ordinary from my perspective.  Interacting with people who have physical or intellectual disabilities is a humbling reminder of the many ways in which I am blessed in many abilities that I often take for granted, even if I'm not LeBron James or Albert Einstein.  I think these abilities, the ability to go about my day, cognitively and physically capable of doing most anything I need to be self-sufficient with relative ease are the privileges that I most often overlook^ because they come as such second nature.  To see someone struggle through what seems like a routine daily function can be a real eye-opener as to just how good you have it.    

Now if I were in any way suggesting that we should use those who with special needs to develop a pious mindset that things could always be worse, it would be incredibly callous and insensitive.  Or, if I attempted to claim that I wish I had a special needs child for all of the nuggets of big-picture wisdom they could bestow upon me, I would be naively lying through my teeth.  We are blessed with three healthy, relatively highly functioning (at this point) children, and we feel very fortunate that that is the case.  My interactions with special needs kids or adults is very limited and is definitely not a daily, or even weekly occurrence for me.  While I'm sure the parents, siblings, and caretakers of those with special needs have learned a great deal about life, just as Martha has from Adam, the challenges are no doubt overwhelming and both physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting.

What I do think though, is that we as a society would be better served if all of us had more frequent interaction with those who have special needs, whether they are physical or intellectual disabilities.  I think that we could learn a lot about how to better develop feelings of empathy and understanding, and exercise the virtue of patience - all things that often seem to be in short supply in our frenetic, fast-paced and relatively selfie-absorbed world.  When we take time to think about the ways in which we are more fortunate than others, it makes us mindful of those privileges, helping us to (hopefully) not take them for granted and recognize that others often struggle with things that are instinctive to us.  Often times, our inability to empathize with others comes from our lack of understanding or indifference to those who are faced with different circumstances than we are.

There exists, I believe, a unique opportunity to help our kids overcome these attitudes.  I read an article a while ago about raising a "respectful" child, someone who is mindful of others. It highlighted a family who had decided to enroll their preschool son in a school that was half students with special needs and half students without special needs.  When I originally read about this, I wondered about the quality of the education their son was getting, assuming that a lot of time was spent addressing the behavior of the special needs students or providing them extra assistance for any physical disabilities.  But then I thought about the incredible emotional intelligence (EQ) those students are building, and how a high EQ is often a better predictor of future success than a high IQ.  No doubt it can be a powerful experience, at any age, to watch your classmate struggle through something you can do with ease, like wash your hands, even if you don't completely understand why.

The article also discussed the importance of talking about differences that your kids observe; skin color, language, physical ability, behavior, etc, and exposing them to diversity at a young age.  As much as we might not always think it, kids are cognizant* of those differences.  The great thing though, is that the differences they observe do not come with any preconceived notions about what those differences can mean.  They will notice someone with a different skin color, but (typically, hopefully) at an early age, it carries no connotations for them, negative or positive.  A child might notice that their peer with Down Syndrome looks different than they do, but can't necessarily grasp what that means.  We have an opportunity to teach our kids and help them understand that different doesn't have to be bad or scary.  If we're nervous to talk about those differences with them, because of our own preconceived notions or "uncomfortable-ness", then we allow them an opportunity to fall into a prejudiced mindset that can only become harder to change with time.  

I also see the opportunity of exposing my children to diversity as a conduit to overcoming my own fears and lack of comfort in those settings.  Growing up in a very small, very homogeneous area, I had very little exposure to any sort of diversity.  Over the years, as I've had more first hand experiences, with people with physical or intellectual disabilities or people of a different race, ethnicity, religion or political persuasion, my comfort level with those interactions has increased, but I certainly still have a long way to go.  My preconceived prejudices were allowed to become ingrained in my beliefs for a good chunk of my adolescence.  However, when I see my kids interacting with other kids who may look or act different then what they do, it pushes me to overcome my fears and anxieties about those differences.  It can serve as a way to break the ice to talk to the parent who might look different than you, or speak a different language, or be experiencing parenthood in a completely different way because of their circumstances.  I can't imagine what it is like to be a parent of a special needs child, but I can't let my fear of being insensitive to that parent, deter me from engaging with him/her and trying to understand their experience so that I can attempt to better empathize with them.

This past spring, we attended an Early Childhood class that was geared toward parenting across cultures.  Not only was I the only dad in the class, I was the only Caucasian, and one of two parents who was not a recent immigrant or refugee.  This class was a phenomenal experience for me, because it gave me an opportunity to interact with and discuss parenting topics with other parents who had a completely different outlook on parenting based on the experiences they've had in their lives.  It also allowed my kids to be immersed in that diversity.  It was great to see them comfortable playing with kids who looked and acted differently than they do, or trying to navigate informal play dynamics with kids who didn't speak the same language as them.  Because they lack the knowledge of how our differences can create anxiety among each other, they're not worried about saying or doing something that could be construed as insensitive or offensive.

Without doubt, our kids are aware of the differences that are around them, especially when it comes to other people, and most especially their peers.  Think of the adage, "mind like a sponge".  As parents, we have the opportunity to help our kids feel comfortable with those differences, and see them through a lens that makes our world brighter and, by trying to understand those differences, a more inclusive and peaceful place.  Or, we can choose to ignore those differences or try to tell ourselves that our kids don't really notice them.  While it is good to allow them to come up with their own conclusions, those conclusions can often be influenced by their friends and the narrative advanced by the "cool" kids - who don't usually seem to be the ones with the highest EQs.  If we allow our anxieties and fears of difference trickle down to our kids, undoubtedly they will become their anxieties and fears too.  I try to be proactive in exposing my children to diversity and diverse situations, so they can hopefully avoid developing the fears and anxieties that I have as an adult.

But if we take the time to talk with our children about it, and even take the time to proactively address the our own fears and anxieties that may come with interacting with those who are different than us, we can hopefully increase our children's empathy and understanding, and our own.  It is most certainly not easy, and as I liked to say to the student employees in the office where I worked; "uncomfortable situations won't get any more comfortable until you continually put yourself in them."  It takes time, but I think it is something we could all benefit from - having a little more patience, a little more understanding.  We may not always get it right, but we can at least try, and we can always be brave.
Subtitle of this post comes from a speech by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and is the motto for the Special Olympics.  If you have any interest in supporting the Special Olympics, you can do so via their website.  I would also encourage you to help "Spread the Word to End the Word" by taking the R-word pledge.    

Isla carrying the torch during the Opening Ceremony
of our good friends' annual Yardlympics competition.

Gus has been showing some promise on the rings.

^Beyond my white-privilege, male-privilege, socio-economic privilege and all of the other privilege I have that I'm unaware of.  We'll probably get to those later.

*Cognizant used to be one of my favorite words to use when I was working, and my staff would mock me relentlessly for it.  I think this is the first time I've had the opportunity to use it in a post.  

Friday, August 5, 2016

If You Build It, They Will Climb

They f@#%ing better...

I would say, and I think a few others may agree (my wife included), that I'm an "idea guy".  Now, I would certainly not say (and my wife would adamantly agree) that I am a "good idea guy".  I just have a tendency to get "wild ideas" every now and again, typically pertaining to some sort of endeavor I or our family should embark on; like travel the world for a year or move to Canada^.  Thankfully, for the sake of my marriage and the safety of my family, only a small percentage of my "wild ideas" ever come to fruition - usually the craziest ones.  My wife has perfected a process of taking a deep breath and waiting a few contemplative minutes before responding to any statement I make that begins, "Hey, I've got an idea!"

One of my most recent "wild ideas" recently came to fruition, after much talk and relatively little planning, a few weeks ago.  I alluded to it in my last post as something that would hopefully provide our kids with some backyard entertainment this summer.  At some point over the last year, I became convinced that I was going to build my kids a climbing wall on the outside of our garage.  Apparently this idea was one of the lucky ones that survived the R&D stage and was fast-tracked for approval and completion.  Okay, maybe not fast-tracked per se. 

As with most of my life, there are a few odd layers of irony that went along with the project.  To start, I'm not really much of a climber.  Sure, I've climbed on a few indoor climbing walls, but it's definitely not something I would consider a hobby.  I'm also, and some of you may have gathered from previous posts, the self-proclaimed antithesis of handy.  I don't do projects that require elements of construction* nor do I tend to derive much pleasure from trying to attempt projects of that nature.  Thus it made perfect sense for me to try and build something where my kids could climb to heights that would surely break bones if they fell off.

Part of the impetus to build the climbing wall came from watching Isla, our oldest, absolutely take to one at a playground we stopped at during our road-trip to our Florida adventure (which I would like to point out, was my wife's idea).  The other thought that pushed the idea along was looking at the back of our garage one day, and realizing that it was a big empty space, a blank canvas if you will.  Why not put a climbing wall there.  I figured if it was to be something that could be utilized this summer by the kids, I should probably propose the idea to my boss (wife) and make it a top priority if approved.  As fate would have it, I learned that our local Menard's, where I would be purchasing a bulk of my supplies, was currently offering an 11% rebate on all purchases.  It's like I was destined to "save big money".

Now, if I attempted to claim that I came up with the plans for this project all on my own, I would be lying through my teeth.  I had the idea of building a climbing wall for my kids, but I had no idea how to actually build a climbing wall for my kids.  Luckily, someone who is considerably more adept when it comes to building things was a few years ahead of me, and posted a step by step tutorial on her DIY Blog, even down to the quantity and types of screws I would need.  My objective was to replicate exactly what she built, or at least something that somewhat resembled her wall and would stay attached to the exterior of our garage.  I even took the easy way out and ordered my climbing holds from the exact same company that she used.  To try and be different, I did opt for the bolt-on holds as opposed to the screw on holds.                   

I'd also be making a fraudulent statement if I said that I built the wall myself - with my own two bare hands.  We all know I'm not "manly", but luckily I have some neighbors who fit the much more commonly used definition of masculine.  While I certainly took the lead on the planning and execution of the project, they did provide me with some very worthwhile feedback and assistance with some of the heavy-lifting.  They also let me use some of their heavy duty power tools, which was key in supplementing my meager supply of "utensils".  I possibly could have built the wall without their physical help, but I really doubt I could have done it without their tools.  It also helps, apparently, when trying to build something 8 feet tall using your 6 foot frame, to have this very complex device called a ladder.  Fortunately they did.

In all I was pleasant surprised with how relatively smooth the entire process went, especially given my lack of technical aptitude in the carpentry trade.  I made a healthy amount of mistakes that I learned from for the next time I construct a climbing wall - which will most certainly be never again.  While not attempting to gloat, what I was most impressed with was my unwillingness (could also be categorized as stubbornness or foolish stupidity) to be deterred from actually building it.  Especially given the fact that on my first trip to Menards to purchase materials for the wall, the only thing I came home with were tomato cages.  I made no fewer than six additional trips to various home improvement stores (I had a rule about not visiting the same store twice in one day) throughout the construction process.

But it's done, an 8ft tall by 20ft wide climbing wall has been constructed and we can again park our vehicles in our garage.  Well, it's pretty much done.  It's usable (mostly).  I still plan to paint it this fall - I've been informed by those who know (my manly neighbors) that you are supposed to let pressure treated plywood dry out before applying any paint or sealant to it.  We are taking submissions for mural ideas for the wall.  Thinking some kind of "mountain-esque theme" to really complement the climbing experience for the kids, but also abstract and modern so it has a hip feel to it.  If your submission is selected, we would of course grant you the privilege of painting it.  I suppose we could spring for the paint and supplies, and maybe even throw a small "artist's reception" once it is complete.

We also figure we should probably try to find some mattresses or crash pads to put underneath the wall when the kids are climbing - you know, safety first I guess.  The wall ends up being just over 8ft tall, so they certainly aren't attempting to summit K2, but if they fell off and fell wrong, there would mostly certainly be tears and maybe a compound fracture or two.  At this point, we haven't put the holds all of the way to the top of the wall until we find a good solution to satisfy the safety committee.  My initial thought that the wall would be another good way to keep my kids occupied has also proved somewhat ill fated as we made the rule that "no climbing can happen without an adult watching".  It's a smart rule (I kind of have to agree with it since I came up with it), but it means that when they climb, I have to be present, ready to catch them when they start to make panicked, whiny noises.  It also means that I'm probably going to spend a fair amount of time transitioning from watching the older kids on the wall to sprinting across the yard to grab Gus before he ambles into the street.  I haven't yet looked into rope-belay systems for the wall, but I'm guessing it's probably comparable to the cost of an invisible fence/dog collar (see previous post for reference).  Given the total cost of the materials for the wall, and cases of beer purchased for my helpful neighbors, neither are in the budget at this point.

I am pretty certain I do not have a future in building these for a fee for other interested parties.  It's not that complicated of a project, and if you have some technical know-how, and the appropriate tools, it shouldn't take you that long.  Beyond purchasing the materials and a little front end prep work for the wall, the actual construction of the wall took me a weekend.  For someone who knows what they are doing, I'm guessing it could be done in a day, starting around mid-morning, taking a leisurely two hour lunch, and stopping every couple of hours for a union 15 coffee break.  Below are some chronological photos and descriptions of the project.  Please note this is not intended to be a step-by-step guide for anyone looking to build something similar - far from it.  This is so you can laugh at me and hopefully avoid the same mistakes that I did.

Training for American Ninja Warrior
After you decide on where you are going to put your wall, you obviously need to purchase the materials - 2x4s, plywood, and appropriate screws.  Make sure you look at your plywood to find sheets that are in good condition.  My wife and I made a late night run to Menards after the kids went to bed to purchase our wood and screws.  We had to pick out our own plywood in a dimly lit lumber yard with a thunderstorm quickly approaching.  We probably didn't pick the best quality of wood - something that became much more apparent in the daylight.  Also, 4x8 sheets of plywood are heavy.  I thought I would somehow be able to purchase and load 5 of them, as well as a dozen 2x4s in our van by myself with Gus as my own assistance.  Hence the reason I only got tomato cages on that first trip.

Back of the garage, pre-climbing wall

Our garage has vinyl siding, which some contractor (who was trying to sell us new siding) told me was essentially just plastic.  I thought it would be much easier to try to build the wall on a flat surface instead of the beveled edges of the siding, so I decided I was going to remove the siding where the wall was going to go.  What I didn't realize, until one of my construction savvy neighbors inquired about how I was going to keep water from rotting the plywood and studs that hold up our garage, that that plastic siding serves more than just a cosmetic purpose (which is debatable itself according to my wife).  The finished product might look a little nicer, but taking the siding off added a few extra hours of work, at least another $50 to the cost of the project, and numerous additional expletives.  I also caulked all of the seams between the trim and the 2x4s and between the plywood, or anywhere I thought water could penetrate and compromise the integrity of the garage once the entire wall was up.  If the garage falls down, I highly doubt I'd be approved for a repeat of the project by upper management.

Siding Removed
Once the siding was off and the sides were trimmed out to help keep the rain out and make it look aesthetically pleasing enough for my wife, the 2x4 furring strips went up so the plywood sheets could be attached.  One benefit of removing the siding was the location of the studs on the inside of the garage were marked.  I do have a stud finder beside my wife (ouch), but I view its accuracy with a healthy dose of suspicion.

2x4s attached to studs of the garage
  A ladder certainly comes in very handy for installing the 2x4s and the plywood.  It may want to be climbed by curious onlookers though.

Gus distracting the ladies so dad can get some work done.
Once the plywood was up, we had a neighborhood "climbing hold screwing-in party" - it sounds worse than it is.  I got 100 holds for the 5 sheets of plywood.  Since I opted for the bolt-on holds, I pre-drilled 300 holes (60 per sheet) and hammed in t-nuts into each hole on the backside of the plywood.  This had to be done before the plywood was attached to the 2x4s.  Now we can move the holds with relative ease by taking out the bolt and attaching at another hold location.  The climbing hold company had a great schematic of how many hold locations to make on each sheet of plywood.  I modified mine slightly because I'm cheap and lazy.  

Attaching the holds - many hands makes quick work.

And they're climbing.... no broken bones yet!

^For the record, I have long expressed an interest in moving to Canada, and my motive has in no way been dictated by any previous or future presidential election results.

*Destruction is another story.

Friday, July 15, 2016

"Summertime, the livin's easy"

"Run to the party, dance to the rhythm"

With the 4th of July already come and gone, we've hit the commonly referred downward slide of summer.  It seems a little ironic, considering the "official start" of summer, the Summer Equinox, occurs less than two weeks before the oft-proclaimed mid-point.  But I guess in a state like Minnesota it tends to seem like summer only lasts for about four weeks^.  Even though only one of our three children is enrolled in a formal educational institution, and she was only there three hours/day, three days/week, I was eagerly looking forward to "summer break", a time when we could be even less encumbered by schedules and timelines.  At the close of summer last year, before our oldest started her rigorous nine hour/week academic schedule, I did comment that I had finally realized the feeling parents have when they say they are "ready for school to start again".  No doubt the end of this summer will likely bring on that feeling again.

Summer is great because it gives us parents in the northern realms of the Northern hemisphere the opportunity to take our kids outside with requiring excessive amounts clothing.^  Although summer does require applying just as excessive amounts of sunscreen on your kids, which will make you wonder if it would just be easier to put them in their snowsuits.  But the ability to be outside certainly has its advantages in that it allows you to "run the kids ragged" with a strong likelihood that they'll crash hard at bedtime.  This becomes somewhat of a parenting survival tactic considering that during most of the summer, the sun stays out past your own bedtime and with few pressing morning activities (save the new Dinosaur Train episodes), trying to get your kids to bed at a reasonable hour during the summer can prove relatively futile.

Being outside with the kids during almost every available moment does present its own complex challenges.  Last summer, Gus was 5-8 months, and not yet mobile.  Initially I was excited for him to be outdoors and able to explore as he pleased this summer, but then I realized that because he was mobile, he could explore as he pleased.  While one side of our backyard is fenced in, the other is not, giving him easy access to one of his newly found favorite places - our neighbor's garage.  I've seriously considered putting up some temporary snow fence between our house and garage for the summer months in better effort to keep him penned in.  Sure it would be somewhat of an eyesore, but it would be significantly cheaper and likely more humane than an invisible fence and shock collar*.

Even beyond Gus,  I struggle at times to find my comfort level of letting Isla (5) & Havi (3) play outside relatively unsupervised in our yard.  While I have a general level of trust in them following the instructions I've dictated, and when outside they are typically engaging with some of the responsible older neighbor kids (or their parents), I can still feel leery at times of the kids being outside and not knowing their exact GPS coordinates.  A feeling of guilt also sets in when I realize our neighbors have been outside supervising both their kids and my kids for a good portion of the day.  I know they don't mind, and probably appreciate the company for their kids, but on multiple occasions I have not allowed my kids to go outside when our neighbors were out because I was busy with something else (about to set a new personal record on Pokemon Go) and didn't want to be the parent who sends their kids out to be watched by the neighbors.

I have to balance these feelings with the reality of my daily life - I have three kids; one who is pretty self sufficient, one who is self sufficient when she feels like it, and one who relies on me for most everything.  None of them can always be trusted to make rational decisions and each has his/her own agenda and specific needs.  If we're all playing outside and Havi needs to go potty (and insists that I assist her), Gus has to come in with me too, much to his protests.  Both Isla & Havi can operate the door knobs - if they really want to go outside (or inside) despite my instance that they not, they are physically capable of doing so, and pending my current state of affairs; changing a poopy diaper, wielding a sharp object for meal prep, taking care of my own business, I may not be able to do much to stop them at that moment.  Luckily we have a few items in the backyard (one that I'll hopefully be able to share more about in the coming weeks) that can hold their interest while I wipe (Gus or myself) or stow the deadly weapon.  

Of course no summer is complete with out the requisite summer vacation, which, because we live in 'Murica and not one of those god-forsaken European socialist enclaves, is usually like a week.  Maybe two.  But certainly not contiguous.  I've commented before (here and here) on how a "vacation with kids" is essentially a work of fiction.  As a stay-at-home parent, a vacation with kids is essentially parenting in a different environment on a different schedule, which makes parenting about 20% harder.  Fortunately, the constant use of "any port parenting" can be rationalized by the fact that, "It's vacation!"  Go ahead, have another cookie.  

When we come upon a few days off of work (my wife's work, that is), we will often have thought provoking discussion as to whether we should attempt to fill that day with a conceivably fun activity, which will likely produce an abundance of tears, or go the more cost effective route of staying home and doing nothing.  Because we're always eager to broaden our children's perspectives through diverse experiences, and consequently raise our stress levels, we typically opt to do something.  This year one of our "somethings" was a trip to a local "zoo" that we hadn't yet visited.  It was overpriced and overwhelming (while simultaneously being underwhelming - it had a lot of birds and animals that were close relatives of the deer), but kids seemed to enjoy it.  At least according to the photos of the outing that we didn't delete from our phones.

Living in the Land of 10,000 Lakes and being good Minnesotans, our summer "vacation" also always includes a trip "up north" to "the lake".  Every year my mother-in-law's respectable-size family descends on a quaint family-owned resort in the Northwoods of Minnesota for a week of reuniting, eating and drinking, and more eating and drinking.  This adventure typically requires at least 1-2 days of prep work beforehand - to ensure that every conceivable child request has been stuffed into the van (thank God for all of that storage).  It also always requires, upon returning from "the lake", uttering the comment, "we need a vacation from our vacation" at least ten times when recounting your time away to your acquaintances.  When we returned home from "up north" this past June, we spent the better part of a day cleaning up the destruction the kids had done to the house before we left.  They had spent a good chunk of time unsupervised while my wife and I packed and frantically finished up our quota of baked goods to bring with.
Our days of lake-going have long changed from our childless days of baking our skin and saturating our livers.  Now, partly sunny with a nice breeze provides such a pleasant environment and decreases the kids' non-stop desire to swim and your obligation as the beach lifeguard.  I'll admit I wasn't too shook up when our kids caught swimmers itch - recognizing that a justifiable dose of Benadryl would lead to an early bedtime for them and me too.  Like any other kid-filled adventure, being "at the lake" has many ups; fun to be had with the cousins, staying up later than normal, having dessert with most every meal, the standing 4pm Happy Hour (primarily for the adults), and downs; crabby, overtired, overstimulated, oversugared kids, severe bloating from the excessive eating, and emergency room visit worthy bug bites.  This year we even managed to squeeze in another "something" while at the lake, making a family trip to visit Itasca State Park.  We crossed the headwaters of the Mississippi River about a half dozen times and hiked just long enough (about a half mile) to justifiably say we were out in nature.  Of course we were back in time for the 4pm Happy Hour.  

Our annual lake trip tends to be a microcosm of how our summer goes.  It's something we look forward to every year, stress about when the trip is nigh, enjoy the experience once there while simultaneously retaining a steady level of stress, somewhat look forward to our return home while also begrudging the fact that we have to leave, be happy to be home while also feeling stressed out about returning to a dirty house and an empty fridge.  Less than a week later we repeated the process by heading to another lake (we actually had to drive south this time) to celebrate the 4th of July with my Mom's family.  The time was shorter and the crowd was smaller, but the happy hour was more of a daily affair and crazy Uncle Tim coordinated the annual fireworks display.  There were still plenty of tears.

The remainder of our summer will be filled with lots of activity and little activity - happy mediums seem non-existent in parentland.  From soccer to t-ball to theater camp to bible school, fun doesn't seem to stop.  Until it does, all at once.  I've found on the days you are busy, inevitably your kids will have no interest in getting dressed and on those days that are void of activity are the days they (and you) are likely going stir crazy.  At some point, by the end of July, I'll inquire out loud and to no one in particular if it is time for the kids to go back to school.  A few weeks after that, when it is actually time for the kids to go back to school, I'll wonder in a dumbfounded manner where the summer went and how it can be time for the kids to go back to school already.  And then we'll start the countdown till the next summertime.

The local area "zoo"
As it was perfectly described to us by some friends,
"It's funny and sad but awesome.  All at the same time."
M - I - Double S - I - Double S - I - P - P - I

Fireworks in the daylight - not quite as visually spectacular but still loud.

^Staple Minnesota joke about the weather.

*Had I made this investment four years ago, the economics might have made a little more sense.

Titles courtesy of the late Brad Nowell