Thursday, December 14, 2017

You Ain't Gotta Go To Work, Work, Work, Work

But You Gotta Do the Work, Work, Work, Work

I've been at this stay at home parenting thing (and subsequently a world renowned blogger*) for over three years now.  My current supervisors don't have a formal annual performance appraisal process in place, but they tend to be very good about giving my ongoing feedback.  As they say, you should never be surprised about anything you learn at an annual performance review, as any areas of improvement should be pointed out on a continual basis, with suggestions for action items to help you improve on those areas.  Believe me, I get plenty of these.

On multiple occasions, when I've told people that I am a stay-at-home parent, some have commented on how it is great that I have the opportunity to raise my own kids.  I never really thought much about this idea, as we thought our kids were in a great daycare while we were both working, and part of my own hesitation for staying home with them was taking them out of that environment and subsequently learning all of my bad habits.  As I've perfected this parenting thing (please note that was laden heavy with sarcasm), I've realized that there is certainly some truth to that statement.  What I have appreciated has been my opportunity to raise our kids in the environment that my wife and I have created, which I'll, somewhat unfortunately admit, seems markedly different than today's norm.  

It seems like the new normal for a family with dependent kids is a frenzied, stressful environment of rushing between home, school, work, and various activities.  While we certainly have our fair share of stress in our house and do our fair share of frenzied rushing to various things, I've said before, and recently reiterated a number of times to various people, that me being home with our kids has reduced the collective stress level in our house.  Just as kids pick up on the stress level of their environments, I think our kids have in turn become some pretty easy going children, at least when mom and dad are not around.  Whether this is attributable to the vast amount of reggae music we listen to on a daily basis, I cannot make a definitive judgement.     

Of course I've suggested before that being a stay-at-home parent is not for everybody, and focusing primarily on the children and domicile duties comes with its fair share of stress in other areas.  This is also not to say that working outside the home has little merit beyond the monetary compensation that one receives to support his/her family.  It does seem though like we'd (all) be better served with a little more balance, as hard as that can be to attain.  Before I left my job, a colleague recalled a remark he made to his wife when their kids were young.  He thought they should both work 20 hours per week, as opposed to him working 40 (or often more) and her not working at all.  I agreed with him very much at the time, and still do.  It is also a comment that my wife has often made, wishing for one or two days off per week, so that she could spend more time with the kids, while also being able to work and provide the Bruns Family Foundation with an operating budget.    

Work is good, and it is certainly a defining part of our life in a lot of respects.  Most of us (hopefully) feel a calling to do our work beyond just the paycheck (if we earn a paycheck for the work that we do), and find fulfillment in using our talents and being challenged.  I've said before that as much as I don't like comparing "stay-at-home parenting" to a job, it draws a lot of similarities.  I have good days, and bad days, just like I'm guessing those of you do who work outside the home do.  Often though, we can really let our work define us and consume our lives, even when we wish it wouldn't, or we know we should try to find some better balance.  I had the opportunity to go out for happy hour with some former work colleagues a few weeks ago.  It was great to see them all, but as expected, once we covered the formalities of how our various families were doing, and what hilarious escapades my kids had been up to, the conversation naturally turned to work related topics.  It was great to not have to worry about their work issues (that's what happy hour is for right, to complain about work), but I felt a little left out that I couldn't gripe along too. 

Of course when us stay-at-home parents gather for our "playdates", a bulk of our discussion centers around kid related topics - school, child development, sleep schedules, the latest Odd Squad episode, etc.  It's good to commiserate, but because we all parent in different ways and raise different kids, it can be hard to feel that connection at times to something larger.  One of the challenges I've found with being a stay-at-home parent, and focusing primarily on child rearing and domicile duties, is the goals of your day to day can seem relatively abstract.  Yes, you have concrete things that need to get done; kids dressed/fed/kept alive, house somewhat clean/not on fire, etc.  But beyond that, and how you get to those various points, can be open to some pretty liberal interpretation.  Fortunately, for me as a stay-at-home dad, and unfortunately (and unfairly) for the stay-at-home moms, the societal interpretation is probably even more liberal than it should be.

I found this past summer to be both my easiest and hardest summer as a stay at home parent.  As our kids have grown, they've gotten pretty good at entertaining themselves, and most days this summer, they would be happy to go in the backyard and play with the neighbor kids.  I was happy to let them, because I think that free play is vitally important, and it gave me a break from the unrelenting requests and questions that lacked easy answers.  It was great that they would do this, but after a while, I would start to wonder what I was supposed to do.  Sure I could do all sorts of things - read a book, fix a drink, write a blog, but inevitably I'd tend to gravitate toward things that seemed like they needed to be checked off my list, or added to the list so they could be checked off, providing me a measurable sense of accomplishment.  This usually meant doing more laundry or spending more time in the kitchen prepping a meal that would cause my kids to recoil when I put it in front of them.  My wife probably wishes it meant more time cleaning the house, but if there is any goal that is the most abstract when you have young kids, it's attempting to keep your house clean.   

While we all seem to pine for a vacation, or even just a little free time from our regular live demands to do what we really want, when we find ourselves with that time, we don't always know what to do.  This may be one of the reasons Americans failed to use half of their vacation days last year.  We want to escape the grind, but seem to secretly need the structure that the grind provides us.  With our technological advances, even a day out of the office can easily turn into answering emails and taking care of work related things.  I recently read a couple of books that discussed the paradox of how our burgeoning societal affluence has created a wealth of other problems for us - a perceived lack of free time and more work, the obesity epidemic, general dissatisfaction with our current situation, higher stress levels, etc.  What was striking was how James Wallman pointed out in his book, Stuffocation, that we hit a point following the Industrial Revolution, where our society could have chosen a culture of contentment, which may have led to economic theorist John Maynard Keynes' prediction that we'd eventually be working 15 hour work weeks.

Obviously, we've instead embraced a conspicuous consumption culture, in which our own economic livelihood is dependent on us using things, discarding them, and buying new ones.  It's not nearly enough to have a phone (or, should I say, mobile device) that makes calls, can take pictures, and surf the web, but we need the newest version to replace our most recent version, whose product life was likely designed to only last about a year.  But of course, the cyclical nature of this arrangement is what allows for jobs to exist in the various sectors of manufacturing, sales, support, management, product development, human resources, etc, so we can earn money to purchase those products.  I don't want to discredit the merits of these products, and the relative usefulness they can have in our lives.  As Gregg Easterbrook points out in his book, The Progress Paradox, technological advances have attributed to a lot of time saved (and lives saved) doing various day to day tasks.  But I have wondered more than once, given the vastness of our technological advances, especially in the last 20-30 years, why 40 hour work weeks are still the norm.  I've also found the concept of working 40 (or more) hours per week for 40 (or more) years to subsequently retire and not work anymore a bit bizarre.  While some studies have examined a possible correlation between retiring earlier and dying sooner, I would hypothesize that any such link is likely due to the prominent role that work plays in our live, which might not be all good. 

Maybe we could all be working 20 hours a week, or 15 hours, like Keynes suggests.  This would obviously take a drastic change in our attitude toward our cultural norm of what work is, and what role it plays in our society.  I would venture a guess that most working parents wished that they could work less and ultimately spend more time with their kids and family.  We make decisions though on what we are going to prioritize, especially based on our most limited, and arguably valuable, resource, our time.  When we typically spend a third of our day working and another third sleeping (or at least we should), that leaves just 8 hours (the remaining third for you fellow non-math majors) for us to spend time with our families, make meals, exercise, volunteer, engage in our hobbies that bring us additional fulfillment.  Obviously, a vast majority of people work more than 8 hours a day, especially when you factor in commute times.  Also obvious is that a vast majority of people do not sleep 8 hours a day, in detriment to our own health and well being, usually to try and cram more "productivity" into their day.  I'll certainly acknowledge the fact, and if you've ever worked a "white collar job" I'm guessing you'd agree, that a fair amount of 40 hour work weeks don't always entail 40 hours worth of actual work.

Unfortunately, considering the tax code re-write recently passed by Congress, we've seemed to double-down (or however many down) on economic growth being best marker of the "good life".  It certainly is the easiest to measure.  Even if, as the President contends, the legislation can produce continuous growth of 4% and create millions of new jobs, claims that have been highly contested by many, will it make us any better off on the whole?  It might raise wages, another concept many experts doubt, or create a new employment opportunity for someone who was previously without work, which probably won't make it any easier for all of those fast food places and gas stations who all seem to be hiring.  But I can't imagine 4% GDP growth doing much to curb our rising spending on high care or increasing rates of depression.  I'd certainly welcome a few extra dollars in my (wife's) paycheck.  Maybe we could buy an iRobot, and decrease the amount of time I spend on vacuuming the house. Likely though, this would just give me more time to stress about other things, or stress about the fact that I don't have an imminent task to complete, causing me to question my purpose as a stay-at-home parent^.

This time of year, which tends to be considerably more stressful than the rest of year, if not also more joyous, seems to illuminate the type of environment that we've created.  We will consume a lot over the next few weeks - both culinary and stuff made in China.  To do so, it requires that we have the means to do such consumption, or the wherewithal to grow all of our own food and manufacture all of our gifts (homemade Christmas sweater anyone?).  To achieve those means, or any means, it usually requires work, and typically that of the paid variety.  The more we work, the more we can consume, but the more we consume the more we have to work.  It's up to us to decide if this is the environment we want to be a part of.  It can be hard to break the cycle, but as Tim Ferris, the author of The 4-Hour Work Week suggests, "to do the impossible, you need to ignore the popular."  Decide what type of environment you want your family to live in.  If it's different than start making some changes.  It will take some work to put those changes in motion, but you might even get a promotion and you can do it from home, home, home.

"Well, the kids seem to be entertaining themselves.
Guess I'll just tear some siding off the garage for the hell of it."

*I've seen the Blogger audience stats, people have read this thing overseas.  At least one person did.  Once.

^Considering the infrequency with which I actually vacuum our house, any time savings realized from having a iRobot would be very negligible.

Liberal sampling taken from Fifth Harmony in the titles and final paragraph.   

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Sugar, No Thanks

Candy Makes You Not So Dandy

We're more than two weeks past Halloween, which, if you have little kids and took them Trick or Treating, you likely find yourself along the candy consumption spectrum somewhere between "completely consumed (with some parental assistance)" or "hardly consumed and essentially forgotten about."  Our household is probably somewhere in the middle, trending a little closer to the "essentially forgotten about", or so I like to tell myself until my kids remind me that they still have a bunch of Halloween treats yet to be consumed.

We've had a busy fall, and I found myself having a hard time getting into the Halloween Spirit, which is unfortunate because my wife has become widely renowned for her ability to put together family themed costumes.  I actually thought there was a chance we would get out of taking our kids Trick-or-Treating, as Halloween fell on a Tuesday night, the same night our girls have dance class.  Apparently though, the prospect of getting free candy trumps the importance of having kids honor their prior commitments, or the ones us parents have signed them up for.  I'll refrain from my customary rant on what seems to be the arbitrariness of why we send our kids to collect candy on Halloween.  Likely from at least a few strangers, something we've repeated told them not to do, and in disguise no less.  October 31st does sound eerily reminiscent of another approaching holiday that has religious roots, but has, in my opinion, gone full blown secular.

Off to solve the mystery of how my kids
ended up with so much candy this year.

I don't want to necessarily come across as a huge Halloween Humbug.  I have very fond memories of my own Trick-or-Treating adventures growing up - of course the Halloween blizzard of 1991, which is referenced at least a dozen times each year.  But again, when you become a parent, you look at most things through your parental lens.  I probably wouldn't be so hesitant to allow my kids to collect excessive amounts of candy on the last day of October if it didn't seem, at least to me, that Halloween could exist nearly every single day for a kid.  The USDA estimates that the average child under the age of 12 will eat about 49 pounds of sugar each year, which more than half what the average 12 year old weighs

While the exact effects of sugar consumption are certainly debatable, it's widely accepted that too much is bad and we (the Royal We) eat too much.  I think you'd be hard pressed to find a parent who could tell you with a straight face that they don't think their kid eats too much sugar.  Even those health-nut parents who feed their kids nothing but kale and quinoa.  The problem is that we live in a world that is essentially coated in sugar, and kids are sugar magnets.  Whether it is the grocery store^, the bank, or even the post office (the post office!), I can hardly take my kids anywhere without them being accosted by "well-intentioned" adults (likely with their own kids) offering them free suckers or cookies.  Even when I try to teach my kids a little altruism, by bringing food to our local food shelf or delivering meals to homebound elderly, they usually leave with fistfuls of sugary treats.  And if a 90 year old grandma offers your kids some candy, no matter how far it is past its expiration date, it can be tough to say no.

Of course I've been complicit in my own pouring of some sugar on my kids, and not necessarily in the name of love.  I've resorted to using candy and treats as bribes to my kids for a variety of reasons, the most counter-intuitive likely being giving them suckers to keep them occupied while I take them for a run in the stroller.  On more than one occasion I've pulled out the ice cream or the candy bucket in attempt to stave off an oncoming nap too late in the afternoon.  Mornings though, tend to be my most vulnerable.  When your primary goal is getting everyone out the door with as few tears as possible, allowing your kid to consume sugar-laden cereals or toast with 4 servings of jelly per piece* seems like a battle not worth fighting.  This morning, I actually allowed my kids to have a Reese's peanut butter cup as part of their breakfast - my compromise to discourage them from eating it last night at 7pm when it was given to them by (someone else's) grandpa.  I figured it's essentially peanut butter toast with chocolate taking the place of the toasted bread.

Yes, that was a bowl of chocolate.
Yes, it was eaten at breakfast.

We all probably want our kids to eat healthier, and some of us (probably most of you, not so much me) do a great job of feeding our kids healthy, well balanced meals and snacks.  I'm guessing you've also seen the aftermath of when our kids have overindulged on too much sugar (or too much screen time).  It's not pretty, and can be eerily reminiscent of the belligerent drunk.  But rewarding (or bribing) your kid with candy (or screen time) can be such an easy out, and unfortunately, we parents don't make it any easier on ourselves.  Once your kid sees my kid consuming a lollipop the size of his head, they are obviously going to want one too, and will probably throw themselves on the floor kicking and screaming until you eventually give in.  Well, you might not give in, but I would - hence the reason my kid would have the massive lollipop in the first place.  Not surprising then that cases of juvenile Type 2 diabetes (the preventable kind) have risen at almost a 5% yearly increase since 2000.  Or that the number of cavities in kids age 2-5 increased by 17% from the late 1980s to the early 2000s.

This doesn't mean that we don't try to exterminate the sugar bugs, or at least keep them at bay.  We convinced our kids to take a bulk of their excess Halloween candy to a "candy buy back", where kids could get a dollar per pound of candy they brought in.  Providing some incentive for your kids to part with some of their sugary booty for some actually coins seems good in theory.  But as I watched the bed of a full size pick-up truck being filled with taffy, Bit o' Honeys, and every other type of candy kids don't like, I couldn't help but think that maybe such events wouldn't be necessary if we just didn't give so much to the kids to begin with.  I'm not so sure most of the kids even understood the main premise behind the "buy back", as our 4 year old wondered aloud why they were only giving out free toothbrushes and not treats.  Of course I did my own candy promulgation when I used the collection of candy my kids received from various Halloween celebrations earlier in the week to hand out to the Trick-or-Treaters who came to our door on Halloween.  I made absolutely zero attempt to hide the fact from my own kids that I was doing this, just as I've made it no secret that any remaining candy will be going in our daughter's birthday pinata this weekend.   

Deep down we'd probably all like to be that parent, and wish every other parent would be that parent too, that doesn't bring in birthday cupcakes for class snack time or can host a family friendly bonfire that doesn't require the making of S'More's (or just the straight consumption of chocolate and marshmallows like my kids do).  A few days before Halloween, I heard a radio ad from Trader Joe's suggesting that people hand out their all natural, anti-plaque toothpaste.  The ad made the unsubstantiated claim that four out of five parents prefer toothpaste to candy, but I would hypothesize if you actually conducted some scientific research, that percentage might be higher.  Despite this, it can be really hard to bring ourselves to actually do it, even if we know that other parents would likely be appreciative (and hopefully want to follow suit).  Not surprisingly, my suggestion last year to dress oranges up as Jack-o-Laterns for Halloween treats for our girls' dance classes was met with considerable eye-rolling.

I thought it was a clever idea.....

In attempt to make myself feel somewhat better about my choices, I've certainly been duped by the marketing and gone for treats that sound healthy, or could be construed as healthy.  This year I noticed that the packaging of a Ring Pop lets you know that it is both nut and gluten free, as though it is some sort of healthier alternative to other products that contain either or both of those things.  Spoiler alert though, organic fruit snacks have the exact same nutritional value as those classic dinos and sharks (or the Scoody Doo fruit snacks we gave out this year).  You can also always opt for a non-food item, like those plastic spider rings, temporary tattoos or anything else from the Oriental Trading post that has a 110% chance of ending up in the garbage.  At a certain point I find myself having zero qualms even throwing away any candy that remains in our house due to either our kid's bad behavior or them just seeming to have forgotten about it.

Wait, this thing is nut free and gluten free?
Let me have a taste.

Obviously if you can keep the candy out of your house, you decrease their ability to consume it, at least when they are in your presence of course.  But like most acceptable behavior we want our kids to engage in, if we don't model that behavior ourselves, we can't expect much from them.  A few years ago, someone told me that they do "no treats" November to combat the prevalence of sugar-filled holidays this time of year.  It seemed like a wise, if not masochistic, undertaking, so this year my wife and I are giving it a whirl.  I tell you this not to try and impress you, but so that if we happen to find ourselves in each other's company, and I'm housing a bag of family size Peanut Butter M&Ms, you'll call me on my shit.  While public shaming might not always work, I could certainly see it being warranted in my case.

Personally, cutting back my own sugar consumption has become a necessary evil as I've aged and my #dadbod has become more prolific.  I have a pretty serious sweet tooth, as exhibited by the abundance of a particular precious metal in my mouth.  Eating sugar laden things becomes a slippery slope for me, and I've found that it is easier for me to abstain completely, then to try to limit myself, which ultimately turns into consuming the entire row of Oreos.  I can't pretend that I'll be able to, or want to, cut out all of the sugar from my diet, or that using natural sweeteners like honey or maple syrup instead are inherently any better for my health.  And while we can have a complex, and somewhat unnecessary, conversation about the merits of agricultural price supports, as doctor and author James Hamblin points out in his book, If Our Bodies Could Talk, he's never heard of anyone using US ag policy as a basis for a diet.

Hopefully, beyond any potential health benefits that I might (conceivably) gain from trying to limit my own sugar intake, my kids might pick up on some healthier eating habits too.  It's unrealistic to assume that we'll become a sugar free household, and I'll still do my fair share of giving them sugar to keep them awake when I should have been more forceful about making them nap earlier in the day.  But hopefully, when they offer me a bite of their ice cream, and I routinely tell them I can't, it will resonate after a while.  Or I suppose they'll just stop trying to be generous.  If anything, trying not to eat sweets myself while limit the number of times I suggest to the kids that we head to the bakery for donuts, or go to the Dairy Queen to make use of the free ice cream cone certificates they got from the local police for wearing their bike helmets.  It may also mean that if you come over to our house for dinner, we might not be serving a customary dessert.  I'll completely understand if you want to decline any future invitations. 

I'm all for encouraging kids to wear their helmet while riding their bike,
but do they have to get free ice cream when they get "caught" doing it?
You'd think keeping your head intact would be reward enough.

^Aldi being the exception of course, which is another reason why I f#@&ing love that place.

*I recently started purchasing the "low sugar" jelly to attempt to combat this.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Me Too

Of Course, Me Too

If you don't spend a lot of time on Facebook or Twitter, then you may not have been aware of the recent prominence of the hashtag #metoo.  In light of the flood of allegations of sexual assault and harassment by Harvey Weinstein, actress Alyssa Milano encouraged sexual harassment and assault victims to use on social media to come forward with their own stories.  The goal of the campaign, which was actually started before hashtags even existed, was to raise awareness of the sheer number of people, especially women, who have been victims of sexual harassment and assault.  Sadly, the odds are high you probably know someone who used the hashtag, or even worse, used it yourself.  On the day of Milano's tweet, the hashtag was used more than 100,000 times.   

While sexual harassment and assault can happen between any dynamic of people, we most commonly think of it as women being sexually harassed and assaulted by men.  Yes, men can be sexually harassed and assaulted by women, as well as other men.  Women can also be sexually harassed and assaulted by other women.  Transgender and those who do not eschew to the gender binary can be sexually harassed and assaulted by men, women or other trans individuals.  They can also obviously be the ones doing the harassing.  But given the precedence of high profile men or groups of men committing the disturbing acts, our stereotypical view of sexual harassment and assault is understandable.  The sheer number of victims sharing stories and using the hashtag tends doesn't do much to challenge that view.

I did not Tweet or use the hashtag #metoo, although I likely could have in its suggested context.  Even if you are a straight guy like me, odds are you have been sexually harassed or assaulted at some point in your life - likely by your male peers in a locker room or as part of some hazing ritual.  Or, as has happened to me before, by someone whose sexual orientation is different than your own.  That certainly happens, and it should not be tolerated any more than the widespread sexual harassment and assault that women endure on a daily basis.  If I thought long enough, I could probably also recall a time when I was sexually harassed, and maybe even assaulted, by a woman.  Even despite my #dadbod, I've been "cat-called" or had my ass grabbed without my consent.  Likely when I was mistaken for someone considerably more attractive.

When I first read about the #metoo campaign, I wondered if a potentially more powerful and probably more insightful use of the hashtag would be having those of us, especially us men, acknowledge the times that we've been the perpetrators of sexual harassment and sexual assault.  If that was the case, then I have to admit that I would be using the hashtag.  My guess is that if you are a guy, and you thought long and hard and really considered what sexual harassment and sexual assault can consist of, you probably would have to use it too.  Apparently I was not the only one who has had a similar thought.  Not long after the #MeToo campaign came out, a #HowIWillChange campaign encouraged men to take some onus on stopping sexual assault and harassment.  As with seemingly everything today, it was also immediately met with its own criticism

While the #MeToo campaign has certainly raised more awareness of the issue, it's tough to predict what impact, if any, it will have decreasing sexual harassment and sexual assault, especially in the stereotypical view of which we think of it - men as the perpetrators and women as the victims.  Especially considering that a number of anti-sexual assault/harassment PR campaigns have existed since the 1970s.  Some people, especially men, have commented on the personal nature of the #MeToo campaign.  We hear about the high profile cases that become public, but #MeToo has given all victims (another) platform for sharing their stories - which can easily include our own family, friends, neighbors and coworkers.  The fact that we should be surprised that someone we personally know has been a victim of sexual harassment or assault shows our complete obliviousness to the magnitude of the problem, given the staggering statistics that 1 out of 6 women in America will be the victim of rape or an attempted rape.  Non-scientific, conservative guesstimates put the percentage of women who will be sexually harassed at least once in their life at 105% (margin of error 3%). 

I became aware of my own predatory behavior a few years ago while reading Michael Kimmel's book, GuylandA prominent voice on men, masculinity and the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, especially on college campuses, Kimmel's book made me see that my own behavior at times could easily classify as sexual harassment or even sexual assault.  Granted most of those incidents happened under the influence of mind-altering chemicals, but just as consent can never be given while intoxicated, at least in some states, intoxication cannot be used as a justification for committing sexual harassment or assault.  Even before my days of imbibing, which I'm somewhat ashamed to admit started much earlier than they should have, my raging pubescent hormones and desire to prove myself to my peers, and myself by way of my peers judgment, led me to misogynistic behavior that probably should have landed me a short stay in a juvenile detention center.  Herd mentality being about as legitimate an excuse as drunken stupidity.

Since becoming a parent, I tend to look at social issues, especially the unsavory ones, through the lens of its impact on my kids.  I do not want my kids, especially my daughters, to be victims of sexual harassment or sexual assault.  But at this point, the statistics don't look very promising.  The fact that their mother is incredibly attractive does little to ease my concerns.  Equally though, I do not want my kids, especially my son, to be perpetrators of sexual harassment or sexual assault.  I can't guarantee that they won't, but I can reinforce my belief that that kind of behavior will not be tolerated.  If I want to effectively do that, I have to acknowledge the fact that I've been, as Michael Ellsberg puts it, "That Guy".  It's shameful, embarrassing and uncomfortable to admit, but it pales in comparison to the pain that those who have been victimized experience.  And while my actions have been no where near those of Mr. Weinstein, or Mr. O'Reilly, or Mr. Cosby, or the countless other male celebrities, sports stars, current and past politicians; any sexual harassment or assault, no matter how small or "innocent" it can seem to the one doing it, is too much. 

If we really want to change the culture of sexual harassment and assault in our society, we have to change our perception of who it effects.  As Angelina Chapin points out, "sexual harassment and assault are always framed as a women's issue."  But in reality, more often than not it is an issue created for women by the predatory behavior of men.  A campaign like #MeToo, and the countless other campaigns before it, bring the attention to the victims but also tend to make it their problem to solve.  The problem won't be solved, or even probably get much better, until those of us who have been perpetrators acknowledge our role in perpetuating the culture, either implicitly or complicity.  It draws similarities to author/activist Tim Wise's reasoning to why he, a white man, works so hard to end racism.  He sees racial discrimination as a problem created for people of color by white people, and subsequently a problem that needs to be fixed by white people.

As a married, father of three who is no longer searching for a reproductive mate, it may seem easy to fess up to my own transgressions and, as some have critiqued, give myself a self-congratulatory pat on the back for how I have changed and don't do that anymore.  But my job as a parent is to help my kids avoid the same mistakes I made.  I can't go back and undo the things that I've done.  Maybe had I been more considerate of the the fact that one day I would likely be a father, and would not want those things done to my daughters, or done by my son, it might have deterred some of my own  offensive behavior.  Through my experiences though, I can show my kids how even someone who purports to have a lot of respect for women can be easily advance the all too familiar misogynistic narrative.  Considering the myriad of ways in which we objectify and sexualize others, especially women, in some of our most prominent institutions, it is something that seems to need continual addressing. 

When asked about the Weinstein allegations, President Trump, who said he "has known Harvey Weinstein for a long time", admitted that he "wasn't surprised".  With the President himself having been accused of sexual assault and harassment by over a dozen women, it seems to be something he may be familiar with.  During the 2016 Presidential campaign, when the infamous Access Hollywood tapes surfaced, then candidate Trump classified it as "locker room talk", something he did again when asked to compare his remarks in 2005 with the Weinstein allegations.  In my view, Trump's denial of actually doing what he says he did in the video is more disturbing than him merely claiming he did, or could do it.  If he did it, it's sexual assault.  If he didn't do it, he felt the need to say that he did and can (which is still sexual assault).  Thus suggesting that he thinks it is okay and others, like the impressionable Billy Bush, should do the same.  Given the President's track record in respectful behavior toward women, I doubt he'd be leading the charge of tweets, despite his fondness for the platform, in any #MeToo campaign that focused on the perpetrators.

Sadly, I don't think the issue of sexual harassment and sexual assault, especially against women, will be going anyway anytime soon.  I would like to think that this time around, the #MeToo campaign will really have some positive effect, and I think that any campaign raising awareness of an issue so prevalent in our society has plenty of merit.  We've certainly come a long way from the time of when "Mr. Weinstein came of age", but we've definitely still got a long ways to go, and we tend to be reminded of this weekly, as the next big sexual harassment or assault story comes to light.  That certainly doesn't mean that we shouldn't try though.  If we want to make this world a place where our daughters, and our sons, aren't viewed as sexual conquests based on the way they dress or express their sexuality, then we need to shut down the behavior of the perpetrators that leads to that.  If we don't want to find out that our sons, or our daughters, have been the perpetrators of sexual harassment or assault, we have to demonstrate why that behavior has no place in our society. 

While I want a place like that to exist for my kids, it would be hypocritical to not want it to exist for everyone else's kids, which is everybody.  Continuing the push to get to that place, which women have been advocating for far too long, requires men and especially us fathers to acknowledge how we've contributed to the culture of sexual harassment and assault that exists today, either through our own actions or lack of action.  We need to realize that we have just as much, if not more, responsibility to bring it to an end.  And not just by tweeting about it.

This was a pretty heavy topic, and obviously not one that lends itself well to humor for good reason.  Before recognizing that I myself had been a perpetrator of sexual assault and harassment, I was like most guys and didn't really even understand what constituted sexual assault and sexual harassment.  You can obviously read the legal jargon and try to make sense of its ambiguity, which likely perpetuates the problem.   I thought this popular meme of Comedian Peter White seems to sum it up pretty succinctly though.

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.