Thursday, October 19, 2017

Mom Was Right About Football


It's been Fall (officially) for a month, which means it is football season here in the US.  If you've followed the President's Twitter feed in the past few weeks, you may be aware that our highest elected official has taken some issue with the NFL recently.  More specifically, the President has voiced his displeasure with certain athletes who have chosen not to stand for the National Anthem, which proceeds each gridiron match, as a matter of protest for a variety of perceived injustices.  He's also admonished the various coaches, general managers and owners who have allowed this, in the President's view, unpatriotic behavior.  In one of his official tweets, the President suggested that fans stop going to NFL games until the players stop disrespecting the flag and the country, and in another "re-tweeted" something that included the hashtag "#boycottnfl".  The feud seemed to hit a precipice two weeks ago, when Vice President Mike Pence walked out of a game, apparently as directed to by his boss, between the Indianapolis Colts and the San Francisco 49ers, the team with which the National Anthem protest began during the 2016-17 season.

While the President and I have some pretty profound philosophical differences on a number of issues (okay, most every issue), this is actually one of his suggestions that I can support, albeit for very different reasons.  In fact, I've been on my own personal boycott of most all football consumption, the NFL in particular, for the past three years.  Admittedly, I've been considerably less public about my abstention and have significantly fewer Twitter followers* than @realDonaldTrump.  I have alluded before via this blog about my disdain for the sport, and this overdue post seems like an appropriate time to divulge more on why I would be completely fine with football (in its current form) ceasing to exist.

Growing up, my Mom was adamant that I not participate in organized football.  “It’s too dangerous and you will get hurt,” was her argument.  While her opinion toward the sport was not the sole reason I did not play football growing up, as I certainly engaged in a number of other things she explicitly told me not to, it did likely play a factor in my decision.  In retrospect (of course), I am extremely grateful that she voiced her opinion as strongly as she did.  Had I really wanted to play, undoubtedly she would have supported me with as much enthusiasm as she has done, and continues to do, with all of my other pursuits.  Fortunately, for her sake, and mine, I was as much of a "pussy" (in stereotypical terms) in my adolescence as I am now^, and never got around to putting on the pads.  Just those maxi-pads (since I was a pussy, get it?).

I know what you are thinking; "liberal, stay at home dad is a anti-football, big shocker."  The reality is that I haven't always been such a football antagonist.  Growing up I spent countless hours watching football and playing informal games (mostly one-on-one against myself) in my backyard.  As a youngster, I was convinced that I would one day play football for the Fightin' Irish.  When those dreams were dashed, I still found myself at a college with a storied football program of which I was a fervent, if not often intoxicated fan.  For a number of years I managed a chronically under-performing fantasy football team, and to this day, one of my favorite games on the Super Nintendo gaming platform is Tecmo Super Bowl.  While those memories all hold a certain level of fondness for me, they don't overshadow my belief that the sport of football perpetuates an unnecessary culture of violence that is just as dangerous off the field as it is on.   

You can certainly be critical about any professional sport, and as someone who likes to pretend to be a sport sociologist, I've become considerably less fanatic of virtually every professional spectator sport.  But in my view, football takes the cake.  Whether it is your on-field issues of excessive injuries, especially concussions and brain injuries, or the locker room culture of misogyny and homophobia with not so subtle notes of racism sprinkled in that, in my view, promote a general degradation of human value.  This is amplified by the fact that without a doubt, football is the most popular sport in America, and every time we (the Royal We) spend an exorbitant amount of time on Friday nights, Saturdays, Sundays, Monday nights, and now even Thursday nights cheering on such an environment, it becomes more ingrained in our ethos and accepted in our society.

The most obvious knock on football is the violent nature of the sport, and the increased risk for injury, especially a head or brain injury.  Football proponents often like to cite a, somewhat foggy, statistic that you are more likely to sustain a concussion playing soccer than you are playing football.  This may be true statistically, and it may not also be particularly relevant, as other studies have begun to look at the effects of other types of brain injury, like CTE, which may be just as bad as a concussion, if not worse.  To me, though, the difference lies in how these injuries are sustained.  Football by its very nature is violent.  Injuries, especially ones involving the head and brain, are almost always the result of two players engaging in action that anywhere besides the football field (or boxing ring or ice rink) would likely be considered assault and battery. 

For this reason, some scientists have started to examine possible correlations between potential brain damage and aggressive behavior among current and former NFL players, citing the league's disproportionately high arrest rate for domestic violence in comparison to other sports.  It's a pretty well established fact, as psychologist Adrian Raine points out, that a damaged prefrontal cortex, a likely outcome of repeated blows to the head, can raise the odds of impulsive and aggressive behavior.  By no means does this condone the off field behavior of players like Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson or Greg Hardy, but given the beating they take on the field, can we really be that surprised when they act in a violent manner during a tense moment?  Of course we would hope that athletes could differentiate between what behavior is only acceptable on the field, but when they are paid millions of dollars to do physical damage to others, or to have it be done to them, I can see where some confusion might exist.     

Beyond the potential for a compromised prefontal cortex, anyone who has played football or watched a football coach engage with the players, knows that football players are taught to be aggressive.  This is especially true in the NFL, where the difference between winning or losing, or even making a roster can be millions of dollars, but it can permeate to all levels of the game.  Recall the New Orleans Saints "Bountygate" which came to light following the 2011 season?  In 2012, the year Head Coach Sean Payton had to "sit-out" for his role in the scandal, he managed to stay busy by helping coach the Liberty Christian (emphasis mine) 6th Grade Team.  Don't worry, he was back to the NFL after that, signing a new five year contract that made him the highest paid coach in NFL history.

The sport creates and perpetuates this culture of violence and aggression by the collective roar of approval the fans give any time someone gets "lit up" on the field.  It encourages players to find success on the field by, as Pro Bowl Defensive Back Richard Sherman aptly put it, "going to a dark place...where there is a lot of animosity and frustration."  How else can we expect grown men to get hyped up to play a game that is, “meant to kill each other” as Dutch speed-skating coach Jillert Anema candidly described it.  I think it also perpetuates this culture when it fosters an environment of misogyny and homophobia by actively pushing out those, like Chris Kluwe, Jonathan Martin, and Michael Sam, who don't fit the desired mold of the "tough macho man", a stereotype that even found its way into this past week's episode of "This Is Us".  Personally, I never fit that mold (as if that wasn't glaringly apparent), and I see little benefit in promoting that mold as the preferred one for impressionable young boys or anyone else.        

Unfortunately, the culture created by football is one that our society seems willing to accept for the sport to be what it is.  A culture we essentially celebrate, given the amount of public and private resources that are dedicated to it.  Even my own state of Minnesota, which I've always viewed as relatively progressive, found a half billion dollars of public money to help build a new professional football stadium, while subsequently being unable to pony up half as much for a universal preschool program.  And while viewership of NFL games might be declining (and certainly not because of my or probably the President's call to boycott), an estimated 203 million (about 62%) of the US population tuned in at some point to watch an NFL game during the 2016 season.  The Super Bowl is still perennially the most watched event on TV each year, providing more than ample justification of the exorbitant fees charged for advertisement slots. 

Combine that with the number of college football games, where Division I is essentially a minor league NFL (with comparable on and off field problems), high school football games, and youth leagues, and football has a very prominent place in our society, especially this time of year.  Of course you also can't overlook the billion dollar industry of fantasy football and sports betting, and all of the time that is required to support that industry.  If there is potential correlation between playing the sport of football and being more prone to aggressive behavior, I would hypothesize that the sheer act of consuming large amounts of football would make one more prone to aggressive behavior.  If you have the financial resources and/or academic know-how to conduct such a study, let me know, I'd be happy to consult on it.

Of course there are a number of incredible things you can learn from the sport of football; teamwork, hard work, perseverance, dedication, time management, etc.  The world is certainly filled with passionate football players and fans who are incredible and kind people.  By leveling my objections about the sport, I don't mean to imply that playing the sport or being a fan makes you a horrible person prone to violence and uncontrollable aggression.  Football certainly has a lot of great qualities, but you have to take the bad with the good.  I believe that any of those benefits you can get from playing football can also be attained through other sports, or various other activities, that are considerably less violent and dangerous.     

I would also argue that the reason football is so popular, especially here in the US, is because of the violent and aggressive nature of the game, which encourages those who play it to do so in a manner that can be seriously injurious to both themselves and others - potentially both on and off the field.  It is, as author Gregg Easterbrook observes, "quintessentially American - too violent, too loud, too commercialized."  The game could no doubt be made considerably safer, but who would watch it? Would people really tune in to watch professional flag football?  Even the one most passionately, and often incoherently, calling for a boycott of the sport believes it is "going soft" due to excessive regulations+  to protect player safety.

There is a sports bar that I often drive past (en route to our girl's dance studio of all places) whose marquee last fall claimed it as "Football Heaven."  Presumably this was because of the bar patrons' ability to watch any football game they would want on any or all of the establishment's very large televisions.  As I repeatedly drove past this sign, I thought about what a "Football Heaven" might actually look like.  I wondered if that is where guys like Junior Seau and Dave Duerson end up.  Or maybe the 92 high school football players who died between 2005 and 2014.  Maybe Odin Lloyd is there (probably not Aaron Hernandez).  Maybe in football heaven everyone just plays two hand touch, or maybe there isn't any football at all.  All I know is that, thanks in large part to my Mom's wisdom, I'll probably never find out.  Before we had a son, I used to joke that I was glad we had only had girls, so I (presumably) wouldn't have to discourage them from playing football.  And while I know that my son looks like a "future linebacker" (he actually has more of an O-line build at this point), I'm going to be just as adamant, if not more, that he not play that position, or any other position on the football field.  Ever.  Not even punter.

Think again dude.

*Seeing as I lack a Twitter handle, my exact number of Twitter followers is zero.

^I actually like to say "pacifist".

+Pretty certain he actually said "rules", but given how often he talks about "excessive regulation", the term seemed to fit

Whether you are a football protagonist or antagonist like me, I'd highly recommend the following reads on the sport.  They have provided me with some valuable insight into the role football plays in our society.  I think they objectively examine the both the good and the bad of the sport.

"Against Football" - Steve Almond

"The King of Sports"  and "The Game's Not Over" - Gregg Easterbrook

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Safe and Sound

In Every Life We Have Some Trouble

As a parent, one of your primary objectives is to provide a safe and secure environment for your children, being constantly vigilant to try and keep them out of harms way.  Gestation of baby itself conjectures up the image of the mother providing a safe environment for her baby to grow.  Once that baby is born, his/her first few months are spent typically being held by a parent or other loved one or placed in an acceptable, pediatrician-approved baby holding device - swaddled in a bumperless crib lying on their back, snugly strapped in a car seat that's installation was approved by local law enforcement, never in a corner, etc.

Given that we recently celebrated Independence Day in the US earlier this month, a day when we tend to wish for it to be equally happy and safe, it seems like a good time to touch on kid safety.  Please note that if you are looking for any tips on how to keep your kids safe from harm or better baby proof your home, you can stop reading now.  I won't be divulging any of that information, because quite frankly I don't have much to divulge.  If you are interested in reading about, and presumably laughing at my own misgivings in attempting to keep my kids safe, then by all means continue.  It will likely make you feel better about yourself as a parent, or a personal in general if you lack offspring.

I've mentioned before that considering all the perils of the world was an excuse I often used in my pre-parent days to deflect the notion of having kids.  A quick pick at the news headlines can often make any parent want to apply a not-so-thin layer of bubble wrap to their children as soon as they can move, and not allow them to leave the house until age 18.  Of course we all know we can't keep our kids in a bubble, but after that first, or most recent, major "owie" there is a good chance we've considered Googling "child safety bubble".  I remember the first time our oldest had an injury that drew her own blood, cutting her lip after she fell of a bed she had been jumping on, as being a substantial threshold crossing in my parenting experience.

Over the years, we've (probably more so I) since had countless experiences where we've questioned what sort of irreparable damage may have been done following an incident that left one (or more) of our children in tears.  Just a few weeks ago, I had one of my most recent "wish my kid was wearing a helmet at all times" moment, when Gus, our youngest, was standing up in the basket of a shopping cart^ that tipped on his side, sending him crashing backward to the ground.  Despite assuring the various store employees who came to check on him that he was okay - he really did seem okay considering - I did spent a few minutes frantically searching the internet for symptoms of traumatic brain injury.  While the van was in park, turned off and the keys where in my pocket of course - no distracted operation of a motor vehicle for this guy.

As parents, it tends to be innate to assume the worst whenever your child suffers an injury.  If we didn't find ourselves overreacting at least a little bit, we'd likely question our level of empathy toward our kids.  And most certainly our fears are certainly justified on some level, considering that about 25% of kids will sustain a broken bone at some point before their 18th birthday.  Personally, my biggest fears regarding my kid's health center around things that I may have accidentally contributed to.  A few years ago, after mindlessly picking at some bubbling paint in our nursery, I subjected my kids to likely unnecessary blood draws  at the doctor's office after I was certain I had exposed them to lead paint and all the nastiness that can go along with.

But of course we can't put our kids in a bubble, or force them to wear helmets all of the time (unless advised by their pediatrician of course).  At times it takes the kids inquiring about my various scars to remind me that I sustained a number of injuries (mostly minor) during my childhood and turned out (questionably) okay.  In that respect, I've tried to stop telling my kids to "be careful".  To me, it seems like a vain piece of advice that they most certainly won't heed.  I've tried to be more specific on what I think might be the outcome if they continue to engage in certain suspect behavior, without getting too grotesque.  "If you touch that hot pan, your hand is going to get burned." Leaving out the part of how your skin will bubble and puss and you'll have to wear a huge bandage and may even loose a digit or two.  .  

Sometimes we also just have to accept the fact that experiencing those unpleasantries first hand is the best way to learn.  Not that we ever wish ill will on our kids, but instructing them to ride their bike carefully won't resonate as much as that time they are trying to ride without hands and face plant into the pavement, as happened to us earlier this week.  I've commented before on how an aptly timed fall from a playground structure can hasten an overdue exit from the playground.  It can hopefully also better demonstrate the fact that climbing up the outside of a covered slide maybe isn't the smartest decision.  After getting the tips of her fingers burned a couple of times, our oldest realized that she could use a tongs to safely remove a piece of toast from the toaster, thus making her able to procure breakfast and her younger siblings and allowing me to get a few extra minutes of sleep in the morning.

It is inevitable that our kids will have bumps and bruises and cuts and maybe even broken bones.  This certainly doesn't mean that we shouldn't adhere to some basic safety guidelines; wearing a helmet when biking, always wearing a seatbelt, lifejackets in a boat, not playing football, etc.  And as parents, we have to consider that if we are expecting our kids to follow certain safety requirements, we should lead by example.  Think you're too cool for your bike helmet, think again.  Your kid will likely take your instructions more easily if you are following them too.  

We also have to recognize that kids build confidence by taking risks and doing things they might be afraid of, or we might be afraid of letting them do.  We might not always be able to catch them if/when they fall, but hopefully they eventually won't fall anymore.  This doesn't mean that we won't worry about them, and likely overreact a little bit when bumps and bruises come their way.  But we can't keep our kids away from all of the perils of the world, nor can we discern when a jump from an elevated surface that has been landed hundreds of times before ends with a broken leg.  Bobby McFerrin's is absolutely right that in every life we will have some trouble, and your kids will have their fair share too, which will presumably become your own trouble.  His advice to "don't worry and be happy" may not always be reasonable, but try not to get too bent out of shape when it happens.   Lift them up and show them love when they need it, and hopefully everyone will stay moderately safe and sound.

You never know when dinner might get out of control.

True, you may not be able to bubble wrap your kids.
But you can bubble wrap their drumsticks to try and prevent premature hearing loss.
(for them and you)

^A place the directions on the cart specifically indicate you are not supposed to put children.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

You Can Dance If You Want To

Don't You Want to Dance?  Say You Want to Dance.

We recently received an important piece of mail in our house, the result of our 6 year-old's dance tryout.  Our two girls have both been dancing at a local dance studio for the last few years, and this spring, we allowed our oldest to tryout for the "competition" dance team for the following year.  She could have auditioned last year, but we (mainly I) felt that it would be too much with her also starting kindergarten.  Five seemed a tad young for her to start spending a seemingly excessive amount of time on one particular activity.  Six year-olds are obviously so much more mature.  

Of course joining a "competition" dance team is considerably more consuming, in nearly ever facet, than having her participate in the current "recreational" classes she has been doing for the past few years.  After attempting to explain to her the difference between continuing on with her current classes and trying out for a competition team; the increased time commitment and expectation and, somewhat more subtly, the larger financial investment that would need to be made, we asked her if she wanted to tryout for a team, which she did.  Having other classmates already involved on a competition team and others planning on trying out likely swayed her decision - she has #FOMO^ already.  

Fortunately, she genuinely seems to enjoy dance and tends to have knack for the activity.  She was "invited" to try out for a competition team the past two years, and her current instructor made it readily apparent to both my wife and I that she was very much "ready" to be on a competition team based on her dancing ability.  This year they even guaranteed her a spot on one of the competition teams, but asked that she attend try outs to see where she would best fit.  It was a flattering gesture, but I also wondered if it was part of a broader marketing ploy to get families hooked into the "comp" community, ensuring a steady stream of dancers and tuition dollars for years to come.  With a younger sister currently in her second year of dance that has the same level of interest and ability as her older sister (if not more) and a younger brother who seems to possess just as much enthusiasm for dance as his older sisters, I'm certain we are the model family. 

As a parent it can be easy to get overwhelmed by the myriad of organized activities available for young kids, at a (debatable) fair market price.  Growing up in a much smaller town and further from a sizable metropolitan area than what we currently do, my access to organized activities, especially during the summer, where much more limited.  Almost everyone played summer rec baseball or softball because it was the only thing available.  Odds are you took swimming lessons at the local pool, if you had access to one, and did a week of VBS (Vacation Bible School) at your church or another one in the community.  When you got a little older, you may have had the luxury of participating in a sports camp or league at the nearby community college, and when you got old enough, you got a summer job.

I certainly think the opportunity for kids to participate in organized activities is beneficial.  We're also very fortunate to have convenient access to a plethora of various types of activities, recreational and artistic, and have the financial means to take advantage of those offerings, both during the school year and summer.  Without doubt your kids can learn a great deal by participating in such organized activities, both about the particular activities, as well as the softer social-emotional skills of interacting with others and taking direction from adults other than yourself.  But the shear act of deciding what to sign your kid up for can cause a mild level of anxiety.  A quick glance of the summer recreation offerings available to our kids, who have a cumulative age of 12 includes (but is certainly not limited too):

Art Camp
BMX Racing
Equestrian Camp
Piano/Music Lessons
Swimming Lessons
Theater Camp
Vacation Bible School
Volleyball Camp

All seem like great options of activities to engage young kids in, and if time and resources allowed, you could certainly make a full time job of carting your kids to their various activities, and some parents likely do.  But if there is one thing the peer reviewed parent literature agrees on, Amy Chua probably being the lone exception, it's about the importance of giving your kids ample unstructured free time.  Not only is it beneficial for the kids, it can certainly help keep your parental sanity in check.  We've all seen the harried parents piloting their SUV (or minivan if they are a tad more sensible) down the street like a race car, perpetually late for their next scheduled kid-related activity.  That will never be us, we tell ourselves.

As easy as it can be to over-schedule your kids, another supposedly dangerous phenomenon in kid's activities is over-specialization, especially in regards to athletic pursuits.  The social media feed of one of my grad school classmates is filled with articles and advice, typically by very successful athletes and coaches, about the importance of engaging in multiple activities and giving each activity an appropriate off season.  However, what I've started to notice is if a kid is progressing in a certain activity, particularly a sport, the commitment (time, monetary, emotionally) goes from minimal to exorbitant in a hurry.  Almost overnight you go from being a parent whose child participates in something once a week to a "dance/soccer/hockey/fill in the blank-mom" (or dad), with the logo of child's organization adorning multiple items of your clothing and decal-ed to a prominent location on your vehicle.  In a few short years, you too may find yourself with entire walk-in closets dedicated to dance costumes worn a handful of times.  I've been told that these exist.

It can be hard not to get caught up in the over-commitment trap when you observe the vast chasm in ability levels of kids in a certain activity, likely corresponding with how much time they spend on that activity each week.  Watching our girls' year-end dance recital last spring, it was readily apparent which kids just went to dance, and which kids were "dancers".  The "dancers" were incredible, some of whom looked not much older than our oldest.  It can be hard for a parent, even someone like me who is very cautious about measuring my kids to the ability of others, to not want your own child to be able to dance like them.  The stark variance in ability was also something I noticed last summer when we attended a youth baseball game to cheer on our 11 year-old neighbor.  It didn't take long to pick out which kids had likely spent a sizable amount of time honing their four seam fastball with a pitching coach already.  Our neighbor clearly not being one of them.

Because our kids are 6, 4 & 2, and the jump into seemingly-excessive organized activity is a relatively new concept for us, I can't pretend to purport a lot of of wisdom or advice on how to best ensure that your day-to-day activities don't become a blur of moving from one organized kid related activity to the next.  Whenever I lament on my anticipated scheduling nightmare of extracurriculars to parents with older children, I tend to be, poignantly, responded with a look of apathy that tells me I'm preaching to the choir.  Without doubt, considerably smarter parents have likely come up with some hard and fast rules when it comes to allowing their kid's to participate in organized activities.  For a vast majority of us, it tends to be a "fly-by-the seat of your pants" experience (which is congruent with pretty much every other aspect of parenting for me).  However, there are a few things that I hope to keep in mind, and other parents might do well to remember too:

Establishing Priorities - Extracurricular activities are just that, extra.  During the school year, if you have school aged kids, school work should always come first and academic learning shouldn't be compromised for kids to participate in other activities.  Yes, kids learn a lot by participating in extracurriculars, but if you want them to succeed in school, you have to set the tone that school is a priority.  I also believe that responsibilities to the family also have to take precedent over organized activity.  Studies have shown how beneficial it is for a family to sit down for dinner together.  Identify  those rituals that help your family bond, and do your best to keep those intact.  Likewise if your kids have certain expectations for helping around the house (i.e. chores) or if you expect them to work a part time job when they get old enough.  This helps show your kids that the world (even their world) doesn't revolve around their activities, their activities are privileges to be enjoyed after all of their responsibilities have been completed and their commitments to the family have been honored.  Establish your priorities early because it is easy for things to get out of hand in a hurry.    

Activities are Voluntary - No one is forcing you to log a few hundred miles each week carting your kids to various activities.  If balancing all of your various kids activities is causing you excessive amounts of stress, it's time to take a step back and reassess the role that they play in our family's life. Any benefits that they get from participating in those activities will most certainly be negated by the stress and anxiety they absorb from you.  Resist the urge to sign your kids up for tons of activities just because your neighbor or co-worker or overachieving relative is doing so.  And do your best to not be that parent who gets caught up in the pettiness that can often be present in over-invested caregivers.  If you find yourself complaining about your kid's activities, or complaining about the parents of the other kids who constantly complain about their kid's activities, remember that you signed up for it.  Sure it won't always be butterflies and roses (unless if you sign them up for some Intro to Gardening class), but it should be an enjoyable experience, for you and your child, a vast majority of the time.  

They are Kid's Activities - We all selfishly want our kids to be involved in certain things - likely the things that we enjoy doing.  But allow your kids to find their own way with their hobbies and passions.  Introduce the activities to them that you are passionate about and enjoy, but if they don't take to them, help them find something that the really do enjoy to participate in.  Remember Julie Lythcott-Haims advice to "never let your parenting behavior be motivated by your own ego."  You can certainly make suggestions on what you think they should participate in, and you have the authority to make decisions on what they may not participate in, they are kids after all and you are the adult.  However if it is something you are forcing them to do, odds are they won't enjoy it and it will just create more stress trying to get them to participate.

When I was young, my parents forced me to take piano lessons and I hated it.  Subsequently, despite taking six years of piano in my youth, I hardly remember anything from my lessons, which is something I really regret now.  In effort to encourage me along the way, my Mom even signed up to take lessons herself, bless her heart.  I figure if you want kids to gravitate towards the activities that you are particularly interested in, allow your kids to see you doing those activities (and enjoying it), and odds are they will likely take an interest as well.  You'll also likely have to accept the fact that kids can have a short attention span and lose interest in something pretty quickly.  Just because they are obsessed with something now, doesn't mean they will continue to be for years to come.  But make sure that they understand the importance of honoring their commitments - if they've signed up to participate in something for the summer, make sure they stick it out for the entire summer before giving it up.    

They are Just Activities - Yes they can build character and teach certain skills specific to the activity.  But on their face, organized kid's activities are essentially just a way to keep kids busy, and often an excuse for us parents to get some adult social interaction.  At some point, the activities will cease to exist and it can be easy to wonder if all of the time, money and gray hairs were worth it.  Try to avoid envisioning where a particular activity will get your child; sending them to sports camps will ensure that they get athletic scholarship offers for college, music lessons will help get that family band a record deal, etc.  Instead think of how it will enhance their life as they grow older - participating in dance will presumably allow our girls to better enjoy wedding receptions in their later years.

Participating in activities is also a great way for kids to gain perspective on putting things into context.  I'm certainly not one who adheres to the "every should get a trophy" mindset, but too often the excessive competitiveness and win-at-all costs mentality can take hold, especially at an early age.  Kids should want to compete and work hard for the sheer sake of doing so, not just to get a medal.  The odds of a child turning a certain sport or activity into a potential career or livelihood is pretty minuscule.  Better to set the foundation of it being something that they enjoy and something they will continue to want to do, long after the organized aspect of it is gone.                            

As parents, we have to set the tone.  Remember Dr. Leonard Sax's advice that "you are the parent, and you are in charge."  Finding the balance of involving your kids without over-involving them can be very tricky (just like finding balance in most every other thing with your kids is).  But don't feel like you are short changing them if you are not running three times a day to different structured activities.  Embrace the opportunity for them to have free time.  Odds are it was something that most of us had as kids, and we seemed to turn out okay (right?).  It can be tough to realize preemptively when things are getting out of hand, but once you've made that realization, make a change.  Consider what makes the most sense for your sanity and the overall environment for your family.  Sandlot baseball can be just as beneficial to their development as playing in the Little League World Series.  Dancing doesn't only have to happen in a studio with a highly trained instructor at a dedicated time each week.  It can happen on a whim right in your living room.  If it is with somebody who loves you, its safe to assume it will be a good time.
^"Fear of missing out" is what the FOMO acronym stands for.  At least that's what the kids tell me.

*That dancing seems to come naturally to our kids shouldn't surprise us much, as their mom and dad claim the honors, in no particular order of importance, of "multiple year state dance team champion" and "senior class best dancer".

Some pictures are worth a thousand words.
This picture is worth a (few) thousand dollars
of future dance-related expenses.

At least we'll hopefully get some additional
use out of the old recital costumes.

Postscript - My Ideal Kid
In the effort of full disclosure, I should probably divulge what I honestly would want my kids to be involved in/passionate about if I had my way and time and money (and sanity) didn't play a factor.  Yes, it is absurd, and I think it illustrates how easy it can be to fall into the mindset of needing to sign our kids up for every activity lest with jeopardize their personal and professional development.  Hypocrisy abounds!

First I'd like my kids to be academically gifted.  Smart, but not too smart that they lack social skills.  I'd take top 10% of their class.  They'd have an interest in the arts - especially music and hopefully theater.  They'd play piano and at least one other instrument; hopefully different ones that could contribute to the family band - drums, guitar, violin, etc.  And they'd love to sing and feel comfortable getting up on stage to perform, but still be a little nervous about it.  They'd enjoy reading, but not necessarily those bizarre science fiction books.  They'd also enjoy playing board and card games; particularly chess and cribbage but not necessarily poker/blackjack or Pokemon.  They'd love to be outside and enjoy hiking, camping, biking, downhill skiing in the winter, swimming in the summer.  They'd be adventurous, but calculated risk takers.  They'd want to travel and have an interest in different cultures and places, and when they got old enough, be knowledgeable in current events.  They'd learn a second (or third) language.  

For sports they'd play volleyball (even Gus) and tennis for sure, and basketball, golf, soccer, baseball/softball if they wanted.  I'd also allow them to continue dancing if they wanted (even Gus).  No football or hockey.  Hopefully they would be good enough to play at least one sport in college if they so choose, but not feel obligated to do so.  They'd also be runners and competent swimmers.  Beyond activities, they'd be liked by their classmates, but not the most popular kids, as that would probably indicate that they were involved in some questionable behavior (the most popular kids are usually so for a specific reason).  They'd be empathetic and feel the urge to volunteer once in a while for a good cause.  They would notice trash on the side of the road and stop to pick it up.  They'd confront bullies, especially when someone else is being bullied, but they'd be calm enough to refrain from throwing punches.  They'd be leaders and have the courage to stand up for things they believed in, but also humble about their leadership abilities.  

Oh, and they'd be content.  Not necessarily happy, but content.  These all seem like reasonable expectations, right?               


Friday, April 14, 2017

Kids, earmuffs

I Wanna Be a Toy's R 'Us Kid

I celebrated another year of birth a few weeks ago, which gave me the opportunity to reflect on the various ways in which I've become a crotchety old man.  Following my birthday two years ago, I provided some commentary on the tell-tale signs of my personal realization of my old age.  They all still apply.

This winter we took advantage of a couple of kid friendly special movie showings at our local movie theater.  You know, the times when they have a free or extremely discounted second run kids film, typically sponsored through a local business for some good PR.  The inexpensive cost, or lack of cost, for the movie tickets themselves, help your personal justification for purchasing unnecessary popcorn and candy amounting to at least what you likely would have paid for regularly priced movie tickets in the first place.  It always amazes me how a "free" kid event can often turn into a sizable financial investment.

The movies typically shown are usually in the PG range, attempting to cater to a variety of audience age-levels.  As designated by the Motion Picture Association of America, the PG rating implies that parental guidance is suggested as some material might not be suitable for children.  During an increasing amount of these "special showings", I've found myself being somewhat taken aback at how much material doesn't seem to be suitable for children.  Or, in my view, at least not my children.  Yes, that doesn't make me sound any less like a crotchety old man, but it's a role I seem to be coming to embrace.

As someone who tends to be relatively particular about word usage (in case it wasn't readily apparent), watching my own tongue around my kids hasn't been too challenging of an exercise.  I vividly remember when Isla our oldest was about 18 months, overhearing the toddler room teacher at her daycare instruct the kids to "sit on their bumpers".  It seemed to be such a cute and folksy term, that it has stuck with us as a pretty exclusive reference term to any private anatomy part, male or female.  It has slowly faded within the past few months, as Gus, our youngest, at the ripe age of two, seemed to be the first kid in our house to learn the word "penis" and has made a point to use it whenever applicable, and not so applicable.  Ugh, boys.....

Staying home with the kids, I can obviously keep better tabs on what they are and are not being exposed to.  My kid's first amendment rights definitely get infringed upon often.  Earlier this year, we downgraded our cable options, so the only kid friendly programming accessible in our house comes via PBS^.  But even having a better ability than most to censor what my kids are exposed to, I've found you still have to be pretty vigilant.  On countless occasions I've omitted words and changed story lines in the midst of reading books to my kids to skip over things I don't entirely feel comfortable with them hearing, or me saying out loud in front of them.  Whether they are Disney classics - my kids still are a little unclear on the Huntsman's reason for taking Snow White into the forest - or even stories from "The Good Book" - I tend to make a few minor edits to the Easter story.  With Isla starting kindergarten this past year, obviously she has been exposed to some of the larger ills of society.  Fortunately, she has retained a certain level of naivete.  She currently thinks the "S" word is "stupid", and up until recently would sing the title lyric of the Walk the Moon song as, "you're so fancy."

Beyond the ad-libbing that can be done while reading stories, I've become more and more aware at some of the places where my kids can be exposed to very adult concepts.  As a somewhat regular public radio listener (again, because I am old), I was getting caught up on the news headlines one day while en route to the grocery store with the kids.  One of the news bits revolved around a murder trial for a man who cut up someone's body and put it in a suitcase.  Half paying attention to the story, since I was laser focused on getting the best gas mileage out of the van, a question came in from the back seats from our five year old inquiring, "why somebody would put somebody in a suitcase."  I've since restricted my public radio listening in the car to time when they kids have fallen asleep.  As an alternative to driving in silence, or with just screaming kids, I keep an iPod of kid's music readily available or our radio dialed tuned to the local Christian music station.

One of the more recent books I read* was Dr. Leonard Sax's The Collapse of Parenting.  The subtitle of the book is "How we fail our kids when we treat them like adults."  Dr. Sax argues that by exposing our children at too young of an age to arguably adult concepts, we are encouraging/forcing them to grow up too quickly.  To make matters worse, as parents we too often fail to help foster the development of our kids that actually turns them into capable adults.  I've personally seen this while observing parents speaking to their kids in very adult ways, but then treating them like kids.  I'm sure that I've done this from time to time as well.  It took me a little while, but I have gotten comfortable responding to my kids, when asked about something that I think is beyond their age/maturity, that we will discuss it when they are older.

Dr. Sax also acknowledges what he sees as a culture of disrespect among children and teens toward their parents and authoritative figures, highly perpetuated by our various entertainment mediums.  He points out the typical story line of a Nickelodeon or Disney channel show, where the portrayed family dynamic is a kid who knows it all and has no reservations about telling his/her dorky parents how it is.  Naturally you can't keep your kids in a bubble, but as a parent you have to set parameters on what you think is appropriate for your kids; behavior, language, hobbies, food choices, etc.  One of my favorite lines from the book was, "if you are doing your job as a parent, then sometimes you will have to do things that will upset your child.  If you are concerned that your child won't love you anymore, that concern may keep you from doing your job.  Do your job."  As the parent you get to call the shots.

One aspect that Dr. Sax discussed is his book, and is something that I've found myself baffled by as well as a parent, is the frequency of kid's apparel being littered with excessively narcissistic messages.  My daughter has a shirt that says "Princess of Everything".  Odds are if you have a kid (or two) you have in your house a kid sized shirt (or 25) that has a saying that seen on an adult could be considered mildly offensive.  But yet on a kid, it's cute.  Even if the kid can't read (thank God) and mostly certainly can't understand the intended humor, or lack thereof.  Beyond shirts with questionable script, kid's clothes tend to be geared to mimic adults, or make kids look more like adults.  Matching puffy vests for the whole family?  Ah, isn't that cute.  I learned this past fall that you can purchase a sports bra in a size 5, apparently making it a requisite wardrobe piece for some people's five year-olds.              

Something that I think may play a factor in the increased pace in which our kids are exposed to adult concepts is the way in which we've tried to make parenting work better for parents.  Take a kid's movie.  If you have seen one recently, you are probably well aware that adult humor tends to be interspersed throughout the film.  While I appreciate the nuanced references and find myself chuckling along from time to time, I can't help but wonder if by trying to make "kid things" tolerable for adults, we are inadvertently expediting the childhood experience.  Sure most of it is likely over the kids' heads anyway, but if adult humor seems to be a necessary component of a kid's movie in effort to keep parents engaged, I think we may be missing the point of family entertainment a little.

Beyond kid geared entertainment, there are a myriad of other ways that we parents tend to try to make parenting work better for us.  This is not surprising given the fact that on average people are having kids at a later age, and are typically more ingrained in a lifestyle that they expect to continue in some form after having kids.  While I am a big advocate for retaining a sense of individuality after becoming a parent, it often times seems like we try to do both at once.  And when we do this, or attempt to do it, we can open up the realms of that adult world to our kids without even realizing.  Technology and our various mediums certainly play a big role here, as we have the ability to be connected to the "adult world" whenever we please.  But if we, as parents, struggle at times to see clear lines of delineation between "parentland" and "adult world", imagine how confused it can make our kids.  If you've instructed your child not to use a certain descriptive noun to reference his/her younger sibling, then it would be wise to refrain from using that same noun to describe your boss to your spouse.  Mind like a sponge, Focker.

Or take something like the clothing aspect.  To me, the concept of "fashion" seems to be a very adult thing.  When we begin to expose our kids to these ideas of what "looks good" based on our adult perceptions of social norms, we are opening up another avenue to which they can both judge themselves and others.  It's as though we put our kids in "cute" clothes so that they will be more pleasing for us parents, and the other adults who will judge us based on the appearance of our children, to look at.  With this being our year of encouraging self-sufficiency, one of the tasks for our oldest daughter each night is to pick out her outfit for school the next day.  Once she happened to pick out a pair of pants and a shirt that didn't really go together, and while I contemplated saying something to her, I realized that as a five year old, it isn't pertinent for her grasp what color combinations pair well.  I was just happy that she had picked out clothes that she would actually put on and would work with the following day's forecast.  Even as a kindergardener though, she has definitely started to realize that there are certain brands that are "cooler" than others.  Fortunately, for our pocketbook, she currently has no qualms with wearing hand-me-down underwear.      

As Dr. Sax recommends, if we want to have good kids, we have to be better people.  Our kids may not always listen to us, or seem like are paying attention, but they are certainly going to pick up on the things they want to.  Odds are the things they will want to pick up on are the unsavory items; whether it be our foul language or bad behaviors, or that of their peers.  We can't filter out every unpleasant thing, but as parents we have the ability and responsibility to set parameters on what we think is appropriate.  They will eventually grow up and learn all of the curse words, and what behavior will get them sent to the principal's office (hopefully by watching another kid's first hand experience).  They'll also learn, sooner rather than later, what is "fashionable" and what impact apparel can have on popularity and social acceptance.  This will also likely be an introduction into the differences in socio-economic status among their peers.

To me those all seem like some heavy topics that my kids probably will have trouble grasping until their older.  And even when they are older, they still might not understand them.  But as often as we tell them to stop growing, we can't stop them from growing.  Thus I'm going to do what I can now to keep certain concepts away from them for as long as possible, or at least do what I can to not be the one provides them the introduction.  I'm going to continue to censor what they can be exposed to whenever I feel appropriate because, like Dr. Sax suggests, I'm the parent and I can.  It may make me seem a bit overly protective, and my vernacular sound a bit corny accent (ah, shucks!).  But I figure someone has to hate their fun from time to time, and it might as well be me.

Defiant act of political protest?

^My ulterior motive in reducing the variety of kid-appropriate programming my kids had access to was the hope that they'd eventually get bored with the same old shows, and no longer incessantly ask to watch TV.

*Wouldn't be a blog post if I didn't make a book reference.              


Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Real Shady

"Please Stand Up, Please Stand Up"

I have been struggling to find the time and topic for a post.  I had been hoping to finish up a piece that has been in the works for about three years regarding my disdain for the sport of football.  My intention was to have it done just after the Super Bowl, but seeing as that was over a month ago, it seems kind of like a moot point now.  I was starting to get the feeling the blog might be taking on the characteristics of the quintessential 90s rock song that can't find an appropriate spot to end, and just slowly fades out to static....

Then someone decides to put up a billboard in North Carolina that gets some people riled up^.


In case you missed it, the above billboard went up at the end of February in the Winston-Salem area of North Carolina.  It has since draw groups protesting the message they believe it says about assigning gender roles.  The billboard itself seems somewhat ambiguous, as it lacks reference to what is being provided by men and appreciated by women by failing to provide an antecedent to the existing pronoun "it".  Because the purveyor of the message on billboard has chosen to remain anonymous, we can't really know their agenda behind the ad.  A peculiar thing about free speech and anonymity.  A new billboard put up a few days ago, presumably by the same people who paid for the first billboard, hasn't seemed to make things any clearer.

Many of the opponents think the billboard conveys an attitude comparable to days gone by, calling the message sexist, misogynistic and marginalizing of women and other people who don't fall into those defined categories of "real men" and "real women".  Given historical precedence and the way in which gender is still often viewed today, even given our evolution of gender roles since the mid-19th century, it doesn't seem hard to understand why that sentiment might exist.  When we hear the phrase "Real Men Provide", odds are the image that we conjecture is the household where the man/husband/father makes the money, and the woman/wife/mother appreciates it while tending to the domestic affairs.

Because of the ambiguous nature of the billboard, we can all render an opinion on what it implies.  But even if we optimistically assume the message on the billboard is encouraging men to provide for others in whatever manner they can, not solely by "bringing home the bacon", the second line of the billboard still gives me some pause.  Stating that "real women appreciate it" seems to suggest that women have little choice but to appreciate what men are providing, no matter what "it" is.  Men can provide all sorts of things.  Some of them good - like love, support, and security.  Some of them not so good - like the vast majority of inmates at federal prisons, higher percentages of seemingly preventable deaths, and greater numbers of bankruptcy filings.  We have a saying in our house, "you get what you get, and you don't throw a fit."  I don't know how well that applies here.

I don't think it serves anyone well when attempt to box people into certain definitions, whether they be by gender, race, age, sexual orientation, or any of the various other characteristics that make us unique from one another.  By trying to define what constitutes a "real" man or a "real" woman, we are marginalizing those who don't fit that into that mold.  If the billboard message was meant to imply that "real men" provide by being the primary breadwinner, then obviously I don't qualify as a "real man".  I don't really take offense to this, though I see how many can; especially women advocating for their own equality in the work place, who even in 2016 have to listen to prominent figures question the merits of a concept like equal pay.

If anything it disappoints me.  It disappoints me that we have to try to define what is "real" when it comes to a concept like gender, suggesting that what does not match that reality is somehow fake.  It makes me wonder, who would be considered more of a "real man"; my former colleague who drives a Harley and is gay, or my neighbor down the street who can fix pretty much anything in your house with a Swiss Army Knife and also ferments his own wine.  They are both men living lives that (presumably, hopefully) bring them joy and fulfillment.  Can they not both be real?

Men can provide in all sorts of ways, but when we advance a narrative that constraints the way in which they should provide, it not only robs women of the opportunity of being able to provide those things (and potentially more and better), but it also shortchanges the men who might rather provide for those he loves in a different manner.  Either because it is a better use of his passion and talents, or it just makes more sense.  I've written before why I think my being a stay-at-home dad is good for my kids.  It's certainly not for every dad, but I would hate to see a dad who thought staying home and taking a more active role in the child rearing would be best for his family, not do it because he felt society was saying that wasn't the right way for him to provide.        

Ultimately it is up to us a society to decide what we will accept as "real" or not.  Research shows that despite drastic improvements in dads increasing the amount of time they spend per week on "stereotypical mom" duties, like housework and child care, moms still spend about twice as much time per week.  It also shows that a large chunk (46%) of fathers feel as though they spend too little time with their children.  I would hypothesize that if you surveyed wives (without their husbands present) a vast majority would indicate that they wished their spouses, especially if they are male, would spend more time assisting with the house work and child care.  Even though you can pass a law (or sign an executive order, more precisely) to make it easier for dads to change diapers, it doesn't mean they'll necessarily change more diapers.  

 A former colleague of mine, a very intelligent and well respected tenured professor at a prestigious institution*, forwarded me an article about the phenomenon of Sweden's "Latte Pappas".  Sweden has long been a bastion of gender equality, especially when it comes to parenting.  Sweden provides some of the most generous parental work leaves, and allocates, and highly encourages, six months of leave that can only be taken by fathers.  In examining the results of various other studies, scientists and others have presupposed that encouragement of hands-on-fatherhood has very likely changed the hormone balance of Sweden's "Latte Pappas".  Presumably a decrease in their testosterone levels, the hormone that encourages risk taking, and increased levels of oxytocin, the "cuddle" hormone.

I would argue on the whole that we would be well served by having a little less testosterone and a little more oxytocin fueling the decisions of how our society moves forward, especially for the sake of our children.  As someone who has been able to assume a role similar to the "Latte Pappa" for the last few years, and very likely has significantly decreased levels of testosterone, my viewpoint is obviously a bit skewed.  But I will continue to encourage any father who wants to use their unique talents and passions to best provide for their family in whatever way they see fit, regardless of what they may be providing.  If that is something you can get on board with, then I'd encourage you to do the same.

I'm hopeful that my experiences can show other men, especially fathers, that they don't need to be bound by what the societal narrative often deems as "real" if they don't want.  I consider myself a man, and last time I looked down in the shower, what I learned in anatomy confirmed that observation.  If the way in which I express my "manhood" make anyone else insecure in their own, then I figure that is their problem, not mine.

I provided these muffins for my family.
They appreciated it.

^This even happened a few weeks ago, but that's more akin to the standard amount of delay I usually have when trying to comment on current events.

*Yes, it's my alma mater so I'm a little biased.    

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Waiting for the Mornin' Sun

Still Waitin' for the Morning Sun

My wife informed me that social media informed her that it was two years ago this time of year that we were on our Florida adventure.  We both commented on how nice it would be to be back there right now, excluding the 26 hour one way drive of course.  Two years later, our attitude is more or less unchanged on how we've viewed that trip.  We were glad we did it, but we're probably not going to attempt something like it ever again.  At least not in the near future.

Before we had kids my wife and I liked to travel.  We weren't globetrotters by any means, but we liked to travel when we had the chance and made it a priority to take at least 1-2 trips a year.  I had the opportunity to study abroad in college for a semester, and like a lot of people, got bit by the travel bug.  When we found out we were expecting, I was convinced that having a kid would not hamper our ability to take exotic adventures (or long weekends to see the fall colors).  I bought the Lonely Planet's Guide to Traveling with Kids*.  I read books like How to Fit a Car Seat on a Camel and A Year Off to find inspiration on how to be those cool parents who had their kid's passport filled up before age 5.

And then reality set in.  Little kids, especially babies, are a lot of work, and the comforts of being in your own home while doing that work becomes very, very enticing.  In hindsight, a trip like the Florida one we took two years ago would have been so much easier had we done it with just one, or even two kids.  But before that trip, we'd only made it out of Minnesota a few times with Isla & Havi, and it was typically never further than a state sharing a border with ours.  Even then we found ourselves in cities that were just across the border - La Crosse, Wisconsin; Fargo, North Dakota.  The furthest from home we ever ventured with one of our kids was when Havi was three months old, and she accompanied us to a wedding in Kansas City, an 8 hour road trip (12 on the way back in a snowstorm).  We had yet to cross that threshold of attempting to put our kids on a plane and flying somewhere.  

This past fall we finally did it, taking our first family vacation adventure out to San Francisco.  We had some good friends who had relocated out there a few years ago, and knowing that they likely wouldn't be there forever, we figured we should try to go see them.  Gus was still under 2, so theoretically he could still fly for free.  I say theoretically because even though he just turned 2, he is about the same weight as Havi, our four year old, coming in at almost 40 lbs.  Imagine that sitting and then squirming in your lap until it finally falls asleep in a position that allows you limited range of motion and causes excessive sweating for the next 2-3 hours.  We took a nuanced approach, figuring that if we didn't have to pay for a seat for Gus, we'd have my mother-in-law (you remember, the saint) come with as an extra set of hands.  So we still purchased five seats, just with six people to fill those five seats.  Gus actually did a fair amount of rolling around on the floor in the aisle during the flight out anyway.

When traveling with his kids, comedian Jim Gaffigan says he is always amazed at "how much money it costs to be uncomfortable all day and listen to your kids whine and complain."  If ever there is truth in the axiom of "needing a vacation from a vacation", traveling with kids is definitely it.  Not that you can really ever call traveling with kids a vacation.  Traveling with kids is "any port parenting" at it's finest.  The time when standard parental operating procedure gets thrown out the window.  Flying with kids takes that notion to the extreme.  Or as a friend of mine advised, "flying with your kid is not the time for carrot sticks and hummus."  Our kids did relatively well on the flight because we gave them excessive amounts of their favorite S's - sugar and screen time.  And gum.  They chewed a wad of gum.  Our flights were also direct, about 3 hours each way, and time somewhat nicely over nap time, so Gus did sleep (a little) and I did sweat (a lot).

Similar to my approach in a number of other things in life, like purchasing groceries, I tend to be somewhat of a frugal traveler.  I don't couch surf or sleep in my car (regularly), but I'm typically looking for ways to keep travel costs down whenever possible.  To me it adds something to the adventure of the trip.  Going into our San Francisco trip, I knew I needed to adjust my mindset.  Not only were we taking our first flight as a family of five, we were also traveling to one of the most expensive cities in the U.S.  We wouldn't be able to crash at our friend's place because their apartment was approximately the size of our kitchen, and we were a group of 6.  We'd need to rent a vehicle, and it would have to be a van, because I wasn't to keen on trying to navigate the BART with three small children.  I knew that if the kids got hungry, we'd need to stop and eat, even if that meant a round of $20 sandwiches.  This would not be a trip where we would be able to cut any corners.

Mentally preparing myself for some of these inevitables definitely helped me lower my expectations for the amount of things we'd be able to do in a city that had so much to do.   In all, the kids did really well throughout the whole trip.  We scored an awesome (and reasonably priced) accommodation in a great location that we found out used to house an in-home preschool and had a bunch of toys on hand.  It also had a hot tub in the backyard which, after the excessive amount of snacks and screen time, was probably the kids' favorite thing about the trip^.  The time change to the West Coast did wreak a little havoc, as instead of being up at their usual early hour of 6am, the first two days found the kids rousing at around 4:30am.  Fortunately, they got into West Coast time just as we were ready to return home to Central time, creating a whole new set of issues when Isla had to go back to school.

Yes, we've been up since 4:30am!

During the trip, we did quite a bit of "touristy" stuff, like the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman's Wharf, an overpriced trolley ride (during which 2 out of 3 kids fell asleep), Golden Gate Park, and Chinatown.  We patronized the Haight Street Market, drove down the crookedest street in the world, ate sourdough bread, got Chinese take-out and authentic Mexican at the place that serves the "best burrito in America".  We also spent a significant amount of time just hanging out at the beach, with the kids doing some unintentional swimming in the Pacific.  Our friends admitted that the five days we were there was some of the nicest weather they'd had in their three years there.  Our trip happened to coincide with the Navy Fleet Week, so one of our days at the beach included a free air show featuring the Blue Angels.  Having a grandma along allowed us the luxury of having an adults night out with our friends, and doing some of the more "touristy" things made me excited for the possibility of returning (sans kids) to explore more of the city and surrounding area.

Blue Angels?  Meh, we got bananas.

When you're down at Fisherman's Wharf before 9am on a Thursday,
you can pretty much have the Venetian Carousel to yourselves.

When we returned home, both my wife and I agreed that the trip went about as well as expected, but that it wouldn't be something we'd attempt to do every year.  Both from a sanity and sound fiscal policy standpoint.  But then we got talking about where we'd possibly want to go next with the kids, and the topic of Iceland came up.  Jess' grandmother has always wanted to go to Iceland as her mother immigrated to the US from there.  A few glasses of wine later we were about ready to book some flights for this coming June, a few months after her grandma's 80th birthday.  Luckily we realized that no one in our family currently has a valid passport, but have tentatively slated a trip for June of 2018.  With a 6 hour direct flight, we figured it could be a good first international trip for the kids, and great opportunity to take Jess' grandma (and probably mom again, because she's a top notch travel companion).  If you've been to the "Land of Fire and Ice" and have any recommendations, I'd love to hear them.  I've already been informed that we should start saving now.

Having the chance to take our kids on these trips at relatively young ages, while stressful, is a great opportunity to expose them to travel and other places and cultures.  It's a much different experience then what I had growing up.  I remember going to Washington D.C. when I was in 4th grade, and vaguely remember flying to Milwaukee to see family before that trip.  My first trip out of the country was at 13, when my sister somehow signed us up for a cruise to the Bahamas that resulted in my Dad sitting through a day of time-share presentations.  My first flight out of the country, and first solo flight ever, wasn't until my semester abroad in Europe my junior year of college.  Obviously, our circumstances are a little different now than that of my parents when they were my age.  While we likely have more resources, like money and time, that allow us to travel more than they did, we've also been more exposed to the idea that traveling with our kids is (stressfully) feasible.  I doubt my parents ever considered the possibility of taking my sister and I on a cross country flight before we hit double digits.

"Really, Grandma, that was a prison out there?  Interesting."

Fortunately though, while my parents definitely didn't get a chance to travel as much as I have as a young adult, it has always been something they've encouraged me to do.  Both my sister and I were able to take a semester abroad in college, and since we've left the roost, my parents have both done some extensive traveling themselves.  Maybe they've been jealous of the various adventures my sister and I have been able to have.  Maybe it was something they've always wanted to do, but didn't think they had the time or the money before.  I'm thankful for the trips that they took us on when we were growing up, even if they were somewhat limited and I was adamant about how much they sucked at the time.  My hope is that if my kids take a mild interest in traveling while they are young, that will hopefully continue to grow as they do, and encourage them to make it a priority in their lives.

And while it can seem like an expensive endeavor, especially to be uncomfortable and have your kids complain most of the time, as Gaffigan suggests, I think the return on investment is definitely worth it.  I recently read (probably in a travel magazine) that some of the fondest memories young adults have of their childhood are the family trips they took.  Sometimes they may be memorable for the wrong reasons, but given our propensity to selective remember things better than they were, and our ability to find humor in retrospect, in the most Griswald-esque family trips can certainly have their highlights.  Making a conscious effort to take those family trips also, I think, helps your children see what it is that you value.  We choose to utilize our finite resources, mainly our time and our money, on the things that we value.  If we prioritize having those family adventures, no matter if they involve circumnavigating the globe or heading to the next town over, we are showing our kids that making memories as a family, good and bad, is something that is important to us.

Thus we'll still try to travel with our kids as much as we can.  It won't be often or a lot, but it will probably be enough for us to question why we are doing it.  If anything it will put things into perspective on the (even more) seldom times when we travel without kids.  Yeah, that sucks our flight is delayed, but hey, at least we don't have three kids to deal with.  Let's go to the bar!  Hopefully, the more we can travel as family, the less crazy our (my) crazy travel ideas will seem.  It should also give the kids some good parental griping material as they move through adolescence.  Oh, you think your parents were strange....  

Our gracious tour guides, Ben & Katie, who gave us
a great reason to engage in such foolishness

And the real star of the vacation, the hot tub!

*This is one book about "parenting" I would actually not recommend.  There is a little bit of practical advice in it, but the excerpts about "kid friendly destinations" leave a bit to be desired.  Unless if you are looking for some validation to take your kid to Disney World.

^Havi actually commented the other day that she wanted to go back to San Francisco so she could watch movies on the plane and swim in the hot tub.

Monday, January 9, 2017

2017 - The Year of "Do It Yourself"

"Get It Yourself, Bob!"

Another new year upon us.  Of course all of my resolutions to eat healthier, exercise more, be nicer, more generous, etc. have already fallen by the wayside this week.  Good thing there are only 51 short weeks left in this year so I can try again next year.  2018 is going to be my year!  I've commented before that I'm actually not much for resolutions, more for "year themes".  Last year I didn't really get around to a year theme, so it was probably just the year of survival.  2015 I dubbed "The Year of Do", and we did some stuff.  I've decided this year's theme will be "The Year of Do It Yourself".  A year in which I parent myself out of a job.

I recently finished the book, How To Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims.  Shocker, I know, I read another parenting book.  I've gotten into the habit when I read that if I see a quote/passage/idea I like, I take a picture of the page.  I'm sure this is some sort of copyright infringement, but since I get most all of the books I read from the public library, I figure it's better than highlighting and underlining the book, especially considering I'll probably never check it out again (too many other books on parenting to read).  Far and away, this book set the record for number of page photos taken.  The book has a number of incredibly salient and worthwhile points, and if you have a child a living under your roof (no matter their age), I would strongly encourage you to read it.

The central premise of the book discusses the overparenting phenomenon that exists primarily in affluent households in the United States and the detriments it can cause.  As the former Dean of First Year Students at Stanford University, the author had a significant amount of experience interacting and dealing with 18-22 year old "people" (call them what you want, kids, adults, emerging adults, spoiled millenials, etc.) who lacked the ability to think independently or wanted to do so, but had parents that were unable and unwilling to give them that freedom.  Having spent almost a decade working in higher ed myself, I was no stranger to the existence of "helicopter parenting", and even had my own experiences interacting with students who seemed unable to make decisions on their own.

Dean Julie (as she was often referred to at Stanford), makes the observation that a lot of our overparenting is done with the best of intentions.  We want to be there for our kids and we feel like a bad parent if we aren't, especially when we observe other parents.  I've read quite a bit of commentary on how our attitudes toward parenting have become that of a "concerted cultivation", so it seems only natural that we tend to be personally vested in the successes and failures of our children, often times seeing them as our own successes and failures.  But failure is inevitable in life, and as the author and others have pointed out, if we can't allow our kids to fail and learn from those failures early on in life when the stakes are considerably lower, it will only become more challenging as they age, when the stakes are much higher and they've likely become accustom to never failing before.

While the book had a number of good points, there were a few in particular that resonated for me as I encourage my kids to increase their independence and self sufficiency, and seemed pretty concise and easy to follow.  Lythcott-Haims offers up the following suggestions from child psychologist Madeline Levine on how to avoid overparenting:
  1. Don't do for your child what they can already do for themselves
  2. Don't do for your child what they can almost do for themselves
  3. Never let your parenting behavior be motivated by your own ego
In the book, Lythcott-Haims also recommends the Family Education Network's Age-By-Age Life Skills Guide.  I'll be completely honest that reading the list was a needed wake up call in how I can/should be doing a better job of helping my kids acquire good life skills.  Obviously our kids can't develop these skills overnight, and it takes some work to get them to a desired level of competency.  But the sooner you teach them the skill, the more confidence they will gain and the more it will help relieve some of the stress you feel as a parent.  Too often we do things for our kids because it is just easier or quicker.  I'll admit that I do this a lot.  But consider if you take the time to teach them something, like tie their shoes, while it might be an insanely frustrating process and may make you late for work/school/social event, once they get it down, you can expect them to do it themselves.  

In encouraging kids to strive for self sufficiency and independence, Lythcott-Haims offers up a four step approach.  First, you do it for them.  Second, you do it with them.  Third, you watch them do it.  Fourth, they do it on their own.  With this, you have to learn to let go of some control.  I've heard before that you can't control your kids, you can only coach them and hope that they make good decision.  If your expectation is that your kid dress themselves, you have to learn to be okay with the fact that their outfit might not match.  But as most parents can attest, when attempting to get a kid dressed in the morning can often range from a hostage negotiation to a Greco-Roman wrestling match, just having a kid with clothes on is a parenting win.

So what have we done in our house to encourage kids to be self sufficient?  Even before reading this book, I read about making things more accessible to your kids so they can be more independent.  I relocated all of our "kid tableware" (plastic cups, plates, etc.) to a cupboard that they could easily reach, instead of a cabinet that I was constantly lifting them up to so they could leisurely ponder what cup they'd like to drink out of, only to change their mind about 20 times.  I also moved all of the kid-approved food items to shelves in our cupboards and fridge that they can reach without needing to precariously climb on the counter tops.  At first I questioned the idea of allowing them easy access to food they could eat (and potentially spill all over the floor) at will.  But then I figured if I was concerned about them eating something, or too much of something, I probably shouldn't even have it in the house.  If they spill it all over the floor, I'll show them where the broom and dust pan resides.

Beyond the kitchen, I recently installed some temporary coat hooks by our back door that the kids can easily reach, with the expectation that they can hang up their own coats instead of throwing them on the floor.  I've also tried to stand firm about making them put their own clothes away (the older two at least) and tried to come up with some easy organizational solutions, with the kid's input^, to help them do a better job of putting away their toys, lest any left out toys go mysteriously missing.  It only seems to make sense that if you want kids to be independent and do things for themselves, you have to make it feasible for them to do so, by creating an environment where they are not completely dependent on you.  I'm also hoping to get Gus out of diapers, or at least proficient in changing his own diaper, before the snow melts.    

Encouraging self sufficiency has also forced my wife and I to be extremely mindful of not doing things for our kids that we know they can do themselves, or almost do themselves, as Levine recommends.  This is probably the biggest challenge and can often be the most frustrating as a parent.  Just last week when I brought Isla to her weekly dance class, she realizing that she didn't have a hair tie, a necessary accessory according to her dance teacher.  She proceed to melt down, exclaiming that she wanted me to drive her home so we could get one.  When I suggested that she could ask one her classmates or their parent if they had an extra, she told me she couldn't do it because she was too scared and informed me that she no longer wanted dance that night.  After spending about 15 minutes trying to ensure her that she could indeed ask a parent of her classmates, and that I was not going to do it for her, she eventually relented.  Once she secured the small circle of rubber, she wiped the tears from her eyes, put her hair back and bounded into the room with a smile on her face like she nothing ever happened.  I sometimes wish I had a short-term memory like that.

Those moments are hard, and those are times we all too often just give in and do it for our kid.  Either because it is easier or because we want to prevent the inevitable meltdown we know is about to ensue.  But we can't shield our kids from the challenges of the world forever.  We have to prepare them for hard work, as Lythcott-Haims suggests, for doing things that are uncomfortable for them, and probably even more uncomfortable for us to watch.  While they may not be happy with us, or the situation at the moment, developing these skills of resilience and self sufficiency is one of the most essential tools for attaining lasting happiness, and ultimately will help our kids become more successful later on in life.  If we are constantly trying to make our kids happy when they are angry and frustrated, instead of learning how to control their own happiness, they will always look to others (people and things) to do it for them.

When we step back from trying to overparent, we allow our kids to flourish on their own, finding their own passions and interests.  When we allow kids to try things that they want to do, not necessarily the things we want them to do, it helps our kids find a purpose, which educator Bill Damon sees as something that is "essential for achieving happiness and satisfaction in life."  If we give them room to explore and experiment, they are bound to make mistakes, and get hurt in the process - emotionally and physically.  But if we "wince instead of pounce, if we recognize that set-backs and failures build character, just like bumps and bruises build (hopefully) foresight.  Then we help show our kids that they can achieve their dreams, along as they are willing to work hard and learn from their experiences.

As parents, taking a step back from overparenting also helps us reclaim ourselves, as one of the chapters in How to Raise an Adult imparts.  "It's not selfish to make ample room for the things we value in life: It's critically important.  In order to be good role models, we need to put ourselves first."   If we want our kids to find their own purpose and passion, we should make sure that we demonstrate to them what our passion is and how we find purpose.   As psychiatrist Carl Jung put it, "nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent."  Or as one mother chided her adult daughter who was complaining about all of the time she spent at her kid's activities.  "Go get a life.  Your kids will observe that and think, 'Okay, that's how you get a life.'  And they'll want to go get one of their own."  When we look at our life, is it a life that we'd want our kids to emulate when they become adults?

Ultimately, we have to decide how we are going to help our kids become productive members of society.  I love my kids, and I love spending time with them.  But once they turn 18, I'd much rather them be interested in leaving the house willingly, equipped with the life skills necessary to be a productive member of society and eager to have their own adventures.  Sure their Mom and I will be available to help and offer our advice when it is appropriate,  But by that point, they should be capable of doing things without seeking parental approval, something author and professor Bill Deresiewicz considers the defining act of becoming an adult.  Based on the modern trend of overparenting to ensure that kids become "successful"*, especially among those affluent enough to have the opportunity to overparent, allowing your child the independence to become their own person and embracing them for what they become may seem like a precarious endeavor.  But as Deresiewicz points out, "If we want our kids to turn out differently, we have to raise them differently."

Well, there's your breakfast, and lunch, and dinner.

I resisted the urge to tell her she missed some spots.

If you want frosting on those cookies, pipe it yourself.

^One of these solutions was to drastically reduce the number of toys that they have.  This was obviously done without their input, but they don't seem to have noticed much difference.

*In the parents eyes or in the eyes of the people the parent is desperately trying to impress.