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):

Archery
Art Camp
Basketball
BMX Racing
Chess
Dance
Equestrian Camp
Fishing
Golf
Gymnastics
Karate
Photography
Piano/Music Lessons
Robotics
Soccer
Swimming Lessons
T-Ball
Tennis
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.
#RealMenProvide


^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.



Tuesday, December 20, 2016

In God We Trust

Jesus Loves the Little Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

           

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

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


    

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

'Tis a Gift

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Straight cash, homey.



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

*Sharp knives actually came in at the top spot.