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.