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.