Family Tripping, Part Two


Frank Smith, in his classic book on education, The Book of Learning and Forgetting, writes:

“We are learning all the time–about the world and about ourselves. We learn without knowing that we are learning and we learn without effort every moment of the day.”

I was reminded of this premise while we were on our family vacation last week. We had rented a cabin at Silver Falls (in October, because it is our unanimously favorite month and because it was not likely to be crowded; and fortunately, we don’t mind rain). My four daughters took advantage of this time away from school and the routines of ordinary life to learn, vigorously. Here are some of the things they learned.

The five year-old learned to climb up, and eventually down, the ladder to a top bunk. From this vantage point she proceeded to conduct experiments with gravity and velocity using her stuffed animals.

The nine year-old discovered a new species of slug that is exactly the length of a pine needle (she checked) and dubbed it a “pine needle slug.” I think it is more commonly known as a “baby slug.”

She also demonstrated to her sisters that course silt and fine silt could be found in different depths of the stream and they speculated on why this was so.

They all learned the properties of various foods and other substances as they burned in the campfire. They kept “accidentally” depositing them in the fire and took advantage of this opportunity to observe them.

The seven year-old sampled rosehips and found, via droppings, that several different animals had done the same.

Later she found the jawbones of a mouse and declared this to be the coolest thing ever.

Various field sketches were made of the leaves, ferns and rocks along the trail.

Also on the trail they discovered that the mud was actually a fabulous sort of clay, and they brought samples back to the campsite. They fired their sculptures on the grill.

The nice thing about homeschooling is that, depending on how you look at it, you are never really in school and are always in school, whatever you are doing and wherever you go.

And yes, as I had written earlier, vacations are rarely relaxing.


A Few Words on Empathy


If nurturing means watering the plants you want to grow, what is at the root of those plants?

Okay, I’ll tell you. It’s empathy.

In our Nurturing Parenting programs, empathy is the cornerstone, the trigger, the fuel, the baking mix. See? I could have used a lot of different metaphors. But the root sounds good so we’ll go with it.

What is empathy?

It sounds like “sympathy,” but should not be confused with it. Sympathy is the act of feeling sorry for someone. Empathy is the act of feeling what that someone is feeling.

It’s walking in their shoes.

Even if we can’t understand another person’s exact experience (and we probably can’t, most of the time), we can understand the feeling they have. Maybe we have been through something, good, bad or more complicated, that put us in the same state. And the ability to go there with someone else is empathy.

Empathy is learned.

Some things are determined by our genetics and our family history. Things like whether you will cheer for the Beavers or the Ducks. Empathy is a skill that must be learned. It gets stronger with practice, and more powerful with intention.

Which is not to say that we start out with nothing to work with. When a baby sees and hears another baby crying, they will begin to cry too. Is this empathy?

In any case, it can certainly be unlearned. And that’s where Nature passes the ball to Nurture.

So how do we learn it? And how do we teach it?

Like a lot of learned behaviors and skills, we pick it up from the people around us. Or, and this is important, not. As children, we need to see it modeled by other people, particularly adults.

As adults, we can give kids opportunities to act with empathy. We can discuss with them what another person must be feeling. This person can be real or fictional (how does Sleeping Beauty feel when she pricks herself on the spindle? How does Maleficent feel when she is excluded from the birth celebration?).

More importantly, we can approach them empathetically. We do this by helping them to identify their feelings (“Your words sound angry.” “You must be very disappointed.” “That’s scary.”) and to–and I like how the Nurturing Parenting curriculum puts it–to honor those feelings.

When children know that what they are feeling is acceptable, and normal (even if they don’t know why), it helps them to respond empathetically to others.

Telling this to ourselves doesn’t hurt, either.

Family Tripping

Baldhill kids

For a family (and a parent) that relies so much on routines, going on vacation can be…complicated. A vacation means that, almost by definition, the rhythms and the certainties of day-to-day life are going to be altered, for the benefit of a new setting and a new set of experiences. One could argue that this is kind of the point. Nevertheless, this perfectly appealing and reasonable argument is going to fill me with anxiety.

Cardinal among the routines that drive our family’s engine has been bedtime. Our kids like their own beds, their own ways of arranging their covers and stuffed animals (and in the case of the oldest daughter, stacking her books next to her head so that they will not topple onto her face in the night but so that, I guess, she can smell them?). They do not as a rule share beds well. This came through during our big trip to my parents’ house in Colorado a couple of years ago, during which we all shared an upstairs room. Much sleep was lost. I still haven’t found it anywhere.

This year, we have planned a week in a cabin in a local State Park. Our goal has been to allow for as much relaxation as possible. There are no timetables; no obligatory trips to see things; no appointments with other relatives. We plan to hike, and play, and read, and that’s about it.

The planning itself has been underway since February. We spent an afternoon checking out all the rental cabins and picking just the one we wanted. We placed our reservation right away and deliberately set it out past Labor Day to our mutually favorite month in the Northwest, October. Once this was done, we slipped back into life and the year sort of whooshed by. Now here we are, on the cusp of our reasonably-sized adventure (State Park camping is just about my speed: a heated cabin, with paved paths and showers nearby. In a previous life I was a British officer who shaved and took tea every day in my tent).

All this leisure and sloth takes a surprising amount of preparation. There are meals to plan, supplies to gather, batteries to replace, books to decide on. And there is the question of keeping our cat fed and to be reasonably sure that she will be alive and still like us when we return.

One thing that was important to us was to get buy-in from the kids. As they know exactly what we are getting into, from the location and layout of the cabin to their fond familiarity with the park, they are excited to help shape our trip and to contribute to its fruition. They spent the weekend polishing boots, washing out coolers, cleaning out the car, and gathering books on birds, animals, flowers and mushrooms we are likely to encounter. They have been practicing being in the same room and making sounds and looking and breathing in each other’s direction without freaking out (more drills will be needed).

Regardless of the outcome, we will only be an hour away from home. We have picked the day with the highest probability of rain to come back into town, check on the cat, and replenish our groceries.

This trip is for them, after all, and their vision made it happen. As for me, I have books to read. And I won’t be checking my email.

The Boat Shaped Bookshelf


The nine year-old has been asking for a bookshelf for Christmas. When I came across one at work–a wooden shelf in the shape of an upturned boat, which knowing her was literally the most perfect bookshelf that had ever existed–and got permission to take it home, there was no way I was going to be able to save it until then. So I set it up against the dining table so that she would find it in the morning.

She has the best reaction to gifts she really likes. I remember her fifth birthday, on which her older sister, aged seven, had bought her a miniature plastic Schleich unicorn that was very fancy, with rainbows blazing in its mane. The birthday girl silently took it out of its wrapping and, after a pause, ran into her room to introduce it to its new friends. After five or so minutes, she ran back to her sister, hugged her silently but firmly, and ran back into her room, where she stayed for some time.

I tried not to have an expectation for the bookshelf, but her reaction did not disappoint. She stopped in front of it and gazed at it silently. Within 15 minutes, she and her sister had set it up between their beds, under the window, having miraculously rearranged their entire room to accommodate its placement.

I had hoped that she would share it, and had been prepared to dictate to her that she would do so. My big parenting moment was that, taking her cue, I had remained silent. She decided on her own to offer one of its three shelves to the older girl, and to preserve the third for decorations, to be mutually selected (they chose a seasonal theme, as you can see).

Having faith in the grace of which my children are capable (at least when they are not engaged in an endless war of attrition over who was looking at whom the wrong way), is an act I can stand to do more of. These are the children, after all, who routinely use their birthday money to buy each other gifts or take us all out for frozen yogurt. It made me wonder how often my expectation that they would not be up to this affects their behavior. For once, I left the door open and kept my expectations to myself.

Now I have no idea what to get her for Christmas. But she says she just wants to spend time with her family. And, you know, to read.


Voting for Kids


I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s an election coming up. No, really!

Even if our kids aren’t exposed to the back-and-forth of politics at home, whether from discussions between adults (they listen) or from TV news (they watch), they are taking in the political climate. It’s almost ubiquitous this year. My daughters are pointing out signs along the road for the various candidates, both local and national. If your kids are going to school, they may well be privy to instruction about the election in their classes, but they are certainly getting it from other kids, who are absorbing what they can from (again) discussions at home and from TV, radio and social media.

What is the best way for parents to approach this? According to a Time article, it depends on their age:

“[I]n elementary school classes, ‘kids parrot back everything’ parents say. So setting the right tone from a young age is important… Kids may also have deep emotional responses to political conversations, like hearing that a candidate will be bad for women, or get the country into a war. Parents can help by asking kids what they’ve heard about the election, and talking through their reactions.”

If they’re in middle school, we can help “by asking kids what they think, which lets kids know two key things: it’s important to think through political decisions, and it’s O.K. to come to your own conclusions.” Again, it’s important to let them lead with their own interests. In another article, politics professor Steve Snow says, “The thing about kids is, if you start talking about something they haven’t asked about—if they don’t open up the conversation themselves—it turns into a sort of lecture and they’ll tune you out.”

By high school kids are at the ideal age to become invested in the process. After all, they will ideally be informed enough to vote when they come of age: “‘knowing the candidates, how they’re different.’ Kids may form different opinions than parents around this age… or hold similar positions, but for different reasons. But for parents, the goal is to keep kids engaged, both with the political process, and in conversation.”

In Oregon, we have mail-in ballots, and I like to present mine as an exciting piece of mail (who doesn’t like mail?) and an opportunity to affect the world with my choices (without getting into the whole Electoral College thing. Not there yet). Talking about why I would choose one candidate over another should ideally reflect values that are already practiced in our family. Not that there isn’t room for polite but spirited debate. From the Time article:

“While a nonpartisan approach may seem ideal, recent studies show that growing up in a bipartisan household may have its benefits, as well. According to a study published earlier this year in The Journal of Politics, ‘Those whose parents are divided politically tend to become more, not less, engaged in politics…’ the fact that two sides of an issue are represented equally in the home, sparking discussion and greater awareness and understanding of the issues.”

The key thing for me takes us back to the point about “polite conversations.” We are living through the most contentious, volatile and sometimes downright nasty political campaign of our lifetime. And regardless of who or what we may be voting for, it shows our kids that America is a free and pluralistic society, with room for a full spectrum of views. I like to remind them–and myself–that these views go straight to what is important in peoples’ lives. Whatever the outcome, our democracy is something to be celebrated. And who doesn’t like to celebrate?

Who Cares for the Caretakers?


I have written in this blog on several occasions that in order to fill our childrens’ cups, we have to keep our own cups full. In other words, we can only take proper care of them if we’re taking proper care of ourselves.

Parenting is hard. I don’t think any of you are going to argue otherwise (although, if you do, I would love to find out how you make that work. Really). It is hard on us. It costs money. We lose sleep, we lose solitude, we lose at least some of the ways we used to live our lives as single people. For women who are pregnant, it literally takes nutrients out of our bodies. That is because parenting is the most important job.

And that is why it is especially important that we are getting what it is we need. Sleep? We have to weigh the importance of having that time after kids go to bed (and there should be time, because they have regular bedtimes) against getting enough rest.

Solitude? Sometimes it means getting to use the bathroom by ourselves. Or giving our partner a break. We have instituted “rest time,” in which the kids are occupied with an audiobook or a movie or a BBC historical show (as you do), and the parents are thus free to take a breather.

Sometimes it means taking specific steps. I understand that babysitting is a popular choice. For whatever reason, we rarely take advantage of this, though we do have family that can take the girls for an afternoon or even, recently and gloriously, overnight.

Spending quality time with your spouse, partner or coparent of choice is crucial. Having small children makes adult relationships a challenge. Having older ones makes adult relationships…well, challenging. We have taken up reading aloud to each other, and recently my wife has taught me to play gin. Sitting on the porch with a cup of tea seems to be working nicely, though it is hard to let go of the parent mind (“What was that noise? Was it a cat or a child?” “It was the house settling.” “Was it an earthquake?” Etc).

Sometimes it means getting a counselor. Sometimes it means going together.

We don’t stop being people when we have children. Parenting changes us, and that makes it all the more important to keep pace with the changes.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to settle in with a book. As soon as I investigate that noise.


The Family Taste


A while ago, I wrote as a music geek about which music I’ve introduced to my kids, and which I haven’t. As I mentioned, I disagree with a lot of my peers who find it important to pass along their “good” taste to their children. In our house, music tends to be functional rather than ornamental: I play the same recording of Mozart Violin Concertos (by Kremerata Baltica, in case you were wondering) pretty much every Saturday morning, because of the way it tends to complement quiet productivity. And my current go-to bedtime music is From Sleep by composer Max Richter: it is literally music made to sleep to. And as a further sleep aid I have dug up my Buddha Machine, which plays repeated short loops of ambient music. This recently backfired when my nine year-0ld pointed out that something was wrong with the Buddha: “Dad, can’t you hear that undercurrent of dread?” Turns out the battery was running down.

For the most part, we try to let our kids find their own taste, in music as with books (we tend to keep a tight reign on what they watch, which is maybe another post). Having come across this article, however, I’ve been thinking some more about the topic. I was struck in particular by the pull quote from the piece by film critic Peter Bradshaw, which read “Watch a movie with a five-year-old and it becomes more potent.” Though they tend to cycle through a collection of favorites, mostly Disney fare, or shows like The Magic School Bus–whose value I acknowledge, though it makes me want to rip my eyeballs out–there are a few films I will always watch with them. Last weekend, at home alone with the kids, we sat in a pile and watched Muppet Treasure Island. Yesterday it was The Princess Bride*. I realized that these films had taken on a special significance for my kids because of the fact that I was present with them. I hadn’t meant them to take on this weight, but it happened anyway. I don’t think I could have done it on purpose.

A similar thing happened with The Lord of the Rings (the books, not the movies) because I had been saving a boxed set of the trilogy for years, in case my eldest daughter wanted to read them. They had become a long-time topic of conversation, and by the time she had come of age (we had decided she would have to be in double digits), she couldn’t wait another minute. By now she’s worn the bindings off the original set and the new ones aren’t long for this world. I feel proud and nerdily triumphant that she loves the books so much, but here’s the irony: I’ve never gotten through them myself.

A few months ago, on a whim, I took home a Tintin book to show to my girls. For those not familiar, The Adventures of Tintin is a series of boys’ comics published in French in the 1960s and translated into Enlish. I had checked them all out from my school library and they still hold nostalgic real estate in my heart. My kids had not been introduced to comics (though they had discovered Garfield, which was probably inevitable), so I thought this might be a good way in. All four of my daughters, from age five on up, jumped in immediately. Now it’s all Tintin all the time. This had been a casual experiment, but it was wildly successful; so much so that I’m getting a bit worried.

I still haven’t touched Star Wars. But I’ll keep you posted.

*I fast-forward through the Wesley torture scenes, by covenant with my wife; however, I still let them see Inigo Montoya take his bloody vengeance. Someday we will be able to talk about the moral problems of revenge. But not now.

Happy Anniversary

Processed with VSCOcam with a6 preset

So I realized that I have been writing and editing this blog for Parenting Success Network for two years now. I am too lazy to count the number of posts I have written (several have been guest posts, and many of the best were from our featured contributor Esther Schiedel), but we’re in the neighborhood of ninety or so. Mind blown! Ninety-ish weeks of doing what I love best, and sharing with you my routines, successes and struggles. I appreciate all the feedback and comments I have received, and I am honored that you are reading. Thank you.

Something else is happening now. At Family Tree Relief Nursery we are about to launch several new Nurturing Parenting classes. I will be teaching a class for fathers. This has been something close to my heart, and the reason I started a support group, Dads United, around the same time I started writing this blog. Resources just for men who parent continue to be scarce in our community.

So it’s fitting, I think, to present my first post for Parenting Success Network, from back in September of 2014. I stand by it still.

Three Principles for Fatherhood

Howdy! My name is Rob, and I will be blogging for the Parenting Success Network. I’m happy to be here and I hope that you will find my posts useful.

I am father to four daughters, and one thing that is often pointed out about me is that I am male. In my other job I work with children and families at a Relief Nursery. This is maybe more unusual than it should be. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2012 less than 6% of people who work in childcare were men; in Preschool and Kindergarten, it was less than 2%. There are a number of reasons for this, and this is not the time to go into them. But I find it disheartening, given that around 100% of fathers are men, and they have real work to do.

I wanted to start with a couple of principles to which I subscribe in my role as a father. I didn’t make them up, and I can’t say that I stick to them with anything like total compliance (we all have days, right?). But I think they’re important and worth discussing.

  1. Be on the same page with your wife or partner.

This may take some explaining. My wife and I decided, while the first one was on the way, that it was absolutely essential we were both on board with the hows, whens and whys of raising our children. Having had no experience as a parent, or really being around kids at that point, I took it as a given. Anyway, she seemed to know what she was talking about. It turned out to be one of the most important decisions we have made as parents.

On what did we need to agree? It started before the birth, as we were lucky enough to be able to choose a natural birth with few complications. She wanted to stay at home, at least for the time being, so this required my cooperation (to say the least). I signed on to such practices as breastfeeding and co-sleeping with at least a partial understanding of the work this would entail. And later, the importance of consistent routines such as mealtimes and bedtimes. Later still, decisions about potty training, discipline, and education were made with mutual and conscious deliberation. This is not to say that what we had decided to do always worked, and that we didn’t have to go back to the drawing board again and again. The point is, fathers need to know what the plan is, and what it entails, in order to provide the support that the mother and the children need. We are a team, after all.

  1. Share the duties.

I can’t stress this enough. Fortunately, I have the research to back me up. A recent study found that, when men take part in housework and chores, it has a clear and positive effect on the child—specifically, that “when fathers take an active role in household work, their daughters are more inclined toward picturing themselves in leadership and management roles in potential jobs, as opposed to stereotypically feminine careers.” I was okay with doing the dishes before, but knowing that it actually expands the horizons for my girls’ future lives takes the edge off.

  1. Be present for the kids.

What does present mean? A colleague once shocked me by telling me that my kids were so lucky to have a father like me because, she went on, I was there. Like, physically there in the house. That’s present. Go me. But as I am reminded more often than I’d like, just being there leaves room for improvement. Am I distracted by work? Am I focused on getting the beds made and pajamas laid out for the night? Am I thinking about the episode of The Sopranos I’m going to watch on my phone later? Am I conscious of the fact that, though I just worked an eight hour day, my wife’s job runs to 24, with no overtime?

Kids need time with their father. They need him to ask about their day, to look at their drawings, to listen to what the warrior princesses were doing outside under the picnic table, and how the tea party went. They need him to be patient with bedtimes and give the extra hug, tell the extra story, and know that Tony Soprano will still be up to his shenanigans later. That’s presence. And it’s hard.

Those are my big three, but there are all that and more to be found here.

The Gift of Validation


I went to a memorial service for a friend today. He was a husband and father, and an exceptionally good one, on both counts. A lot of what I have learned about working with children came from his example. He was gifted in the art of validation: he would listen without agenda to a young person’s feelings and reflect them back, then help to come up with solutions that worked for everyone. In the four years that we worked together, in a residential facility with some of the most “difficult” and “troubled” children in the state, I never saw him lose his patience (perhaps because he also knew when it was time to walk away or to seek help).

Working in this field can give a lot of people the idea that maybe they don’t want children of their own. But it can also instill, or reinforce, the foundation from which a parent can bring these skills home, to the benefit of their own kids and to parents all around them. My friend was an example of the latter (I am fortunate to know others as well).

It can be difficult for a “parenting expert,” regardless of one’s knowledge of child development and strategies for turning conflict into cooperation, struggle into growth, to make these skills translate to their own parenting. I often say that I forget to take these skills home sometimes to my own kids, in my own home. This is why the cobbler’s children have no shoes.

When I am in these moments, I often think of what my friend has taught me about the virtue of really listening. He would sit with an escalated child, through minutes and sometimes hours of rage, confusion and hurt, and that child would come to know that he was there as a witness, validating his or her feelings and holding out quietly for the time when they would be able to move on together.

I try to do this. In some cases I am more successful than others. Sometimes I picture my friend next to me, helping me find the strength to lend to the child.

I’ll miss you, friend. But I’ve got that.

Screening the Screens

Gabe first day

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about bedtimes and how to make them work. I hinted ominously about the importance of keeping electronic devices (“screens”) out of kids’ bedrooms. This week I want to talk more about those screens and what battles to pick around them.


I am not going to tell you that you shouldn’t let your children use a phone, laptop or tablet. It’s the 21st Century, they probably use these devices in school, you’re using them, I’m using them, and Grandpa is downloading old war movies on BitTorrent right now as we speak.
I am going to suggest setting firm limits around the use of these devices and I am going to SUGGEST, in all caps, two places where they should not be in your house: at the table during mealtimes, and in the kids’ room at night.
Last things first: keeping phones and other devices off the table allows mealtimes to be quality interactive time for your family. This is mostly up to us as parents, because they do what we model to them (I have to remind myself frequently not to do this). Sharing food with your family is a crucial time to stay connected—in the human relationship sense—and to keep up with what is happening in kids’ lives. Those screens are jealous of our eyeballs.
As for the bedroom, why should these devices be taken out at night?
Because of sleep. There is a strong correlation between sleep deprivation in kids and the presence of devices in their rooms. Dr. Leonard Sax, in his punitively titled The Collapse of Parenting (I recommend reading it, but prepare to feel guilty), presents a stark example:
“He’s staying up ’til 1 or 2 in the morning playing video games night after night. He’s sleep-deprived. And if you’re sleep-deprived you’re not gonna be able to pay attention and all the standard questionnaires, Conners Scales, etc. cannot distinguish whether you’re not paying attention because you’re sleep-deprived or because you truly have ADD.”
Sax suggests that much of our nation’s overmedication of children (and the rates here are way, way higher than anywhere else) could be a misdiagnosis of what is actually lack of sleep. And that, thank goodness, is easier to treat. If we know how to help. And now we do!
Regardless of how we use them, iPhones, tablets, laptops and old-fashioned TVs (remember them?) emit light that disrupts the tendency of kids to wind down. Dr. Claire McCarthy writes:
“Not only does it get in the way of sleep because kids are, well, watching it, but it gets in the way of sleep because the blue light from the screen tricks the brain into thinking it’s daytime–and delays the release of the natural chemical melatonin that helps us fall asleep.”
But how we use these devices is important. Many adults have difficulty with addictive behavior around games, social media and other uses of our phones and computers. And children, especially under the age of 10 or 11, are much more susceptible. In the dystopianly titled Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids—and How to Break the Trance, Dr. Nicholas Kardaras raises the alarm:
“Video games, computers, cell phones and tablets are all ‘digital drugs’ in Kardaras’ estimation, and there is more and more evidence to back him up—recent studies have shown that electronics activate pleasure circuits in developing brains. The amount of dopamine in the brain doubles (food and sex have the same effect) while the amount of gray matter shrinks, compromising the frontal cortex (the decision-making center of the brain). This leads to delays in neurological development and verbal intelligence.”
The upshot is, no screens at bedtime, kiddos. Sorry. We’re the parent.
Being the parent, setting limits around our kids’ use, is the key. There is no reason that our children need to do anything on the internet outside of our supervision.
The hardest part, of course, is to model it. Put down the phone and pick up a book instead. Or a tennis racket. Or a watering can.
We can do it. We’re the parent.