Post-Fest Family Debrief

Shortish post today because I’m sore. This weekend (including cleanup, today) consisted entirely of our annual Greek Fest event at St. Anne. For the last two years, I have not been able to volunteer as much as I would like because I was with all the kids. Which is fine, because that remains my favorite job of all. This year, however, we were able to work out supervision with family members so that my wife and I could both work at the event on Saturday.

On the second day, I brought all the girls for the first couple hours, and they were able to hang out in my line of sight while I worked. This was new: when they get older, it turns out, they are able to do things! They develop, like discipline and stuff.

As a special bonus, my oldest, now twelve, was totally gung ho about volunteering. She worked most of the two days (though I pointed out that if we were paying her she would have to quit after six hours). The youngest, six and eight, were fine for the time they were there but definitely ready to go back home.

That leaves one child. The ten year-old has little patience or tolerance for big crowds (even less than I do!) and it quickly became apparent that she was not going to be able to stay.  Pretty much not for another 30 seconds.

So, she hid out in the business office with her mom while I brought her some (fabulous) Greek food and arranged a discreet exit. She was fine as soon as we were gone, thank you very much.

Her anxiety is not always at this level. It seems to come and go according to whatever age she’s at. That’s one of the interesting things about having multiple children. Their capabilities and tolerance levels can move up and down at several different points in time. What they can or cannot do now is as subject to change as their needs.

Sometimes, however, everything aligns. What we can all use right now is a nap.

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(Small) People Who Need People

How do we know, beyond a doubt, that humans are social animals?

1.) Archaeological evidence of milkshakes with two straws.

2.) Can’t read anything without sharing it on Facebook.

3.) Babies have “critical windows” for development during which parts of the brain need to be stimulated through interaction with others.

The first two are self-evident, but the third answer I  learned from our Nurturing Parenting class. What does it mean, though?

As I understand it (and keep in mind that I’m not an expert, but I play one on this blog), infant’s brains have an optimal period–anywhere between 6 months, in the case of vision, and four years, for logic and math skills–in which to make crucial connections that will carry them through the rest of their lives.

That’s one of those double-edged sword things. Clearly the stakes are pretty high, as children that don’t get what they need in the first few years–affection, interaction, a sense of stability and safety, opportunities to move and learn–will not have the skills they need to function as adults. That’s a bit scary.

To be clear, just because those connections aren’t formed in the brain during those critical windows doesn’t mean that it’s too late. What it does mean is that it will take a lot of work. And probably long-term (as in lifelong) support. See what I mean about being dependent on others? There’s just no way around it.

But this presents a great opportunity. Parents have a vision of the sort of people their children will be as adults (even if that vision is not always articulated, or even consciously crafted). Most often what we come up with is that we want our adult kids to be confident, capable, creative and well-rounded.

Those attributes don’t have to be shaped in school, or daycare, or summer camp, or anywhere outside the family. If we give them what they need when they need it (we’re talking birth to age four), they’ll be good to go.

The rest is just writing checks.

 

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Growth Mind-what?

All this research going on in neuroscience is pretty, ahem, mind-blowing.

Some of the latest studies on student achievement are focused around what is called a child’s “mindset:” their beliefs around how their mind works and whether it can grow and change. According to research by Dr. Carol Dweck, a person can have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. And the mindset we have depends largely on what we were raised to believe about ourselves and our abilities.

Writer Sarah McKay explains, “Kids with a fixed mindset believe they’re ‘smart’ or ‘dumb’, talented at something: painting, music or football, or not. They may believe the world is made of some gifted people, whom the rest admire from the sidelines. Conversely, kids with a growth mindset appreciate anyone can build themselves into anything they want to be. They recognise [sic] that people aren’t ‘smart’ or ‘dumb’, that there are no talented geniuses; only hard-working people who have chosen to take their abilities to the next level.”

As you can see, clearly it is more useful for a child to work from a growth mindset, with the belief that practice and hard work will allow them to develop. What came to mind for me was the state of music in the mid-70s.* On the one hand, virtuoso rock bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer and major-label powerhouses like Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin gave fans the impression that there were two kinds of people: rock stars and everyone else. For fans, no amount of virtuosity, charisma or sheer woodshedding would bridge the gap between the audience and the demigods onstage. On the other hand, the punk explosion (and if I may, the much more interesting long tail of post-punk and new wave) exposed the radical principle that anyone could make music. The number of bands whose members admitted they couldn’t play their instruments when they joined bears this out. Not only did it underline the power of confidence combined with practice, it engendered a great deal of experimentation, as artists played “incorrectly” either through naivety or by design (or both). This resulted in a lot of great music.

*I’ve been reading a lot of books about music in the mid-70s. If I had been reading about the history of fisheries, then mindset studies would probably remind me of salmon.

Let us encourage a growth mindset in our children by taking it on ourselves. Start by setting aside the cliche of “I can’t draw” or “I can’t cook” or “I can’t sing.” Instead, just start doing it alongside your kids. What you’re doing may not work at first, but as far as they know, this is all just healthy and normal.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

 

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Toying with Gender

I get into interesting conversations sometimes about children and gender.

As a father of four daughters, I can’t speak with any authority on how little boys pick up on certain cultural cues and end up inevitably drawn to trucks and firearms (though as a former little boy I can tell you that certain things just seemed to, as it were, stick out). My brother took on all the truck love but we could both distinguish among the national handguns of WWI-WWII. I preferred the German Mauser, with its obvious influence on the design of Han Solo’s blaster*, and the .45 Colt automatic brandished one in each hand by The Shadow (I had my grandparents’ taste in pop culture**) while my brother was partial to the Luger pistol and the British Sten gun. We learned about these things, pre-internet, because we needed to. Guns emerged into our boy-consciousness somewhere between dinosaurs and heavy metal in what seemed like an inevitable progression.

*Okay, it’s clearly just a Mauser with some extra spacey bits glued to it.

**No, really. I once dressed as Groucho Marx for Halloween and only the teacher knew who I was.

Where do these things come from? Did we like guns because we were raised in a patriarchal culture? Was it really that simple? Maybe it was all those war movies and westerns on TV. Our dad, a Viet Nam vet, actually banned any toy that was remotely gunlike until we were older. We had to make do with the most Mauser- and Luger-shaped sticks we could find.

Fast forward to parenthood, with four girls who were hit hard, one by one, by Princess Fever. How did it happen? I can only tell you what we did and didn’t do. We did not, at least at first, screen the Disney princess canon (you know how it is, though: when the eight year-old watches it later, the four year-old is on the same sofa). We did not obey the harsh gender strictures of the toy aisle at Target. We managed to block many of those toys that well-meaning family tried to send their way (they will all have grown up without seeing a Barbie outside of its package).

I’m not going to tell you that we attempted a quarantine or anything. Obviously these half-hearted measures are not going to keep the culture out. And say what you will (I’m glad to discuss it), we raised our girls as girls.

Anyway, they did grow up with the archetype of the princess. It’s just that they got it from pre-20th Century and non-Hollywood sources. The fairy tales of Grimm, as well as Russia, Sweden and even China, have surprisingly concomitant story elements and themes. The princess goes way back, and is from everywhere. Guess what? My daughters noticed. Also, they are way into history, so they know a lot about actual princesses. They are not impressed.

Were they exposed to construction equipment? Yes, they were made aware. My oldest two did spend the better part of a month watching road improvement in front of our apartment in Portland. However, they did not, at any point, ask for a Tonka truck.

What about guns? My pirate-obsessed eight year-old has a pistol but hasn’t bothered to research its provenance. Mostly, these princesses do swords, daggers and (non-Katniss-related) bows and arrows. Not the same thing at all!

So what I’m saying about all this is…really, I guess I don’t know. In the enduring Nature vs. Nurture debate, asking whether our behavior and predilections spring from our genetic legacy or our cultural surround, science currently says, “Yes.” And then says, “We’re closed!”

 

 

 

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Screens Revisited

It’s time to raise my quarterly alarm about the effects of screen time on children. Don’t worry, I’ve already laid the basic foundation of ranting, so I won’t get into that here.  Moreover, I have offered up an alternative use for a smart phone or pad that will allow you to make dinner unhindered while eliminating the perils of the screen (ie: cover it up and let it talk).

Well, it’s time to be alarmist again. New research as presented by psychologist Sue Palmer supports previous warnings about “links between excessive screen-time and obesity, sleep disorders, aggression, poor social skills, depression and academic under-achievement.” Along with this, “a rise in prescriptions for Ritalin, a drug for attention deficit and hyperactivity – a four-fold increase in less than a decade.”

So much, so familiar (at least, I hope it’s familiar: enough so that parents would not put their child/toddler/oh-my-gosh infant to bed with a tablet). But here’s what I found interesting about this particular article.

Writes Palmer, “It’s not just what children get up to onscreen that affects their overall development. It’s what screens displace – all the activities they’re not doing in the real world.” In other words, if they’re swiping a screen they’re not interacting with others. They’re not looking around at the inscrutable people and things around them. They’re not experiencing (take a deep breath) boredom, that charmed state that has led, historically, to all the great artistic and scientific breakthroughs (and not a few of its greatest crimes). In other words, if your small children are captivated by and absorbed in the screen in front of them (we know how that works, don’t we, fellow addicts?), then they are missing out on all the perception, interaction and processing that makes a brain grow, and that prompts them to seek out new information and challenges in the world.

Perhaps most important of all, they’re missing out on that most essential element in child development: play. Writes Palmer, “Each time babies or toddlers make something happen on screen, they get the same sort of pleasure hit as they would from a cuddle or a splash in the bath. When they can get instant rewards by swiping a screen, why bother with play that demands physical, social and cognitive effort?”

I recently picked up a used copy of Neil Postman’s classic work of cultural critique, Amusing Ourselves to Death. I saw that it was published in 1985, long before civilian use of email, and looong before social media, search engines and streaming claimed victory over the 21st Century human cortex. Postman’s dire prognostications about the melding of public life and entertainment technology are becoming more relevant by the second. Not bad for a grumpy old cuss.

At the risk of sharing in the general grumpiness, I imagine that our children will be at least as resentful of our current compulsive phone-gazing behavior as previous generations were about growing up with the TV as the altar of the house. Let me just raise my hand right now.

Guilty!

I can’t wait to hear what they have to say.

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Right Now, in a Galaxy Right Here

Let this complete a trilogy of posts in which I fret about whether and when to introduce my daughters to various works of art/media that I loved growing up. As you recall, I have spent way too much time and effort feeling ambivalent about this, because what really happens is that we can’t make our kids like what we like anyway.

Anyway, now that Star Trek had been met with one enthusiastic embrace (my 12 year-old, who genuinely loves the story lines and is now reading science fiction, which I never thought would happen), and three blank stares (the other three kids), I decided to give in to their curiosity about Star Wars.

After all, it’s not just a retro phenomenon, in the way that you can find a replica (of inferior quality; I’ve tried it) of the Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots game at Target. No, Star Wars has been loosed from the bonds of nostalgia and time and is now part of the genuine background fabric of our culture. Which is exactly what George Lucas was shooting for (and I promise I won’t get into what I think about how Lucas has, um…managed his own artistic legacy because 1:) we don’t have time and 2.) I would have to use language that is not acceptable in this forum. You can dig up my old LiveJournal feed if you really want to know what I think).

Face it, Star Wars is everywhere. People have stickers of the insignia of the Rebellion on their cars and either you get it or you don’t, but Darth Vader is now at least as recognizable an icon as Santa Claus. Remember when we thought it was quaint that Ronald Reagan called his anti-missile defense system after the franchise?  Nobody blinks anymore.

But how much longer could I let my kids exist in a veritable cave of cultural ignorance while all this stuff was going on? So, I thought we’d give it a go. I had a couple of goals in transitioning my kids into the filmic world. One was to explain the difference between science fiction (“in the future, we might…” which is what Star Trek is, at least at its best) and science fantasy (“a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” which is what Star Wars clearly is). This was more or less successful.

Next was to try to find a VCR because I still have video copies of the original trilogy–you know exactly what I mean when I say “original trilogy,” don’t you? Even if you’re not at all nerdy–pre-Special Edition (ie: pre-all the extraneous CGI effects that got crammed into every corner of every frame of the old movies). In this I did not succeed. But the local library had the DVDs and they weren’t too scratched up, so off we went, with Episode IV: A New Hope (otherwise known as Just Star Wars).

Here’s how it shook down: all were riveted, though my six year-old kept turning to me with her eyes crossed and shrugging in an exaggerated way; she later said that it was mostly just things flashing by really fast. Which I guess is true.

Yesterday we watched The Empire Strikes Back, which as you know is probably the only film in the entire series that could conceivably make someone cry. I found that it still gets me just as deeply as it did the first time (“Luke, Luke, don’t–it’s a trap! It’s a trap!” “I love you.” “I know.” “I am your father.” “Nooooooaaaahghghghhh”). Etc. This is why it’s important to pay attention to what your kids are watching. That stuff sticks with you.

I debriefed with my two oldest daughters after the viewing. I asked if they were totally shocked to learn that Vader was Luke’s father. The ten year-old replied, “I wasn’t, really. I’ve read tons of stories where all kinds of things happen.” I didn’t know what to say. Except that for these girls, who have read  The Odyssey and Beowulf and The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Lord of the Rings before watching Star Wars, these films are not, as they were for me, founding myths. They’re just all the old stories in a blender, flashing by really fast.

Which, you know? Is still pretty cool.

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All the Feelings

On the one hand, I think we have way too much discourse in our culture about feelings. As in, the importance of going with your feelings, following your feelings, avoiding stepping on the feelings of others. How important are they, really? Should they be the organizing principle of our lives?

On the other hand, feelings happen. They come and go like the weather, and sometimes they take down trees and flood canyons. And whether they come from outside or from deep within (“I’m a person with deep feelings who feels things deeply*”), the fact is that we can’t avoid them and we can’t deny them. As my great-grandpa might have said, “You can ignore the rain all you want until your boots fill up**.”

This is especially tricky for men, as we are generally raised to minimize and control the spectrum of our feelings.

So if our feelings are really powerful and we can’t stop them, what is there to be done?

Well, according to Nurturing Fathers, there are a couple of things to do.

First is simply to recognize the feelings when they come, and to name them. This takes practice, and as we see from our children, emotional literacy is a learned trait. We need feelings to be modeled for us; we need to see examples, and connect them to a context (“____ makes me feel ____;” “When _____ happens, I feel _____”). The therapeutic classrooms at Family Tree are dedicated to this task.

What if you grew up without very many of these models, these examples? Most likely you are aware of what sadness, happiness, fear, etc. look like, because Netflix. You simply may not associate some of these feelings with yourself. Have you ever heard anyone say, “I don’t get angry?” Back away slowly from that person.

In this case, it’s good to do a little inventory. How easy or difficult is it for you to feel: Happy, Sad, Angry, Afraid, Excited, Jealous?

Then, and this is the other thing…how easy or difficult is it for you to express: Happiness, Sadness, Anger, Fear, Excitement, Jealousy?

For many of us, there is a disconnect between feeling the feelings and expressing them. So, like, if they don’t come out (which is the definition of “express”), where do they go? Probably, we are stuffing them down. And/or piling food on top. The usual.

Do we have to express all of our feelings? The short answer is yes. Nice if it happens on our own terms, in a safe place, and not in a job interview. All of this takes practice. What constitutes a safe place for you? Who is a safe person? When is a safe time?

Here’s something that comes up in parenting. We see it in our kids, and sometimes in ourselves: should there be a gap between feeling the feeling and expressing it?

Ideally, yes.

How much?

I don’t know, one second? Let’s work on one second, shall we?

Every little bit helps.

 

* Evan Dando, Reality Bites (1994). 

**I actually made it up, but I have no evidence that he didn’t say it too.

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Wait, What Happened?

This photo is totally out of date.

Time for another one of those periodic parenting reality checks. This one’s not so focused on mortality, but as always it’s surprising. What happens is this: I realize that some time has passed, and that my children are all…different. Somehow. And I feel like I have been shirking my duties. How did I miss the changes?

Case in point: my twelve year-old is, first of all, twelve. Missed it. Secondly, she is ready to set off for a week of summer camp in Washington like it’s just what you do. And apparently it is! My ten year-old, who suddenly looks like a miniature woman, has decided not to go. “Too many people.” I get it. All she wants to do is listen to The Lord of the Rings for the I’m not even sure how manyth time because I missed it.

My eight year-old has learned to make bread from her mother. She is doing so as we speak. Most tragic of all is that I think she may be losing her childhood habit of running back and forth a short distance when she is thinking of something. No, no. Never mind. She just did it. Also, she will be a full-blown reader just as soon as she decides it is worth her while.

The most confounding transformation has taken place with the six year-old. There is a gangly, long-legged creature galloping about the house that bears an eerie resemblance to my youngest daughter. She can get herself in and out of the bath. She has picked up an entire package of new facial expressions, hand gestures and vocal intonations that belong to a much older and more world-weary person. It’s as if she downloaded the software.

This happens every once in a while: things aren’t changing, but suddenly they appeared to have already changed. For once, I’m not thinking about how little time I have left to live. Though now that I mention it, that’s a good point. Mostly I’m just glad that I am here to see it, even if I’m clearly not paying enough attention. And if they are able to do more things every day without asking for help. Or permission. Or for that matter, push notifications.

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Crossing the Threshold

The other morning I was doing what I usually do for the first hour of my waking existence (or at least what’s left of the hour after making coffee and preparing breakfast), which was to read on the sofa. As my four daughters emerge one by one, they generally grab a book from the shelves and sit next to me, until we’re a wire full of birds.

The other morning, though, it was just me and the eight year-old. She was sitting silently by my side with one of the lesser known works of Dr. Seuss: the title escapes me, but it was something he had written under sub-pseudonym Theo LeSieg. At some point she turned to me and said “Daddy” (she puts the emphasis on the second syllable, which just kills me).

When she had my attention, she said, “I think I’m reading now?”

She proceeded to demonstrate. Yup, no doubt. She was reading.

This has been a frustrating process for her, especially since she knew perfectly well that her two older sisters were both younger when they started. She had asked me one night after she got into bed: “Daddy? Do you think I’ll be able to read when I’m a grownup?”

Like most things we learn, the final hurdle is one of confidence. And she’s not quite there yet. The elder girls, by contrast, took to reading like a leap out of a plane. It was as if they had finally found the key to the handcuffs. This one is taking it slow.

I try not to imagine my kids in future professions, but occasionally the mind does drift. Of the four, it’s the eight year-old I can see becoming a writer. Not because of her reading, but because of her drawing; the way she renders people in her pictures–in their gestures, expressions, positions, hair, clothing, orientation to one another–casts each of them as utterly distinct and alive. They are characters as realized as any in a novel. Of course, she could be an artist and that would be okay too.

But not a pirate. And that’s final.

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With Teeth, and Without

I’ve been a little distracted lately. I was finally ambushed by twenty years of dental inaction when the crown on one of my front-and-center teeth snapped off. It was exactly as horrifying as it sounds. After scheduling an appointment and working out with my parents a plan to pay for the backlog of dental work that needed to be done all at once, I tried to become accustomed to making it through my work days with a gaping tunnel in my teeth. Turns out I am both too lazy to take care of these things in time and too vain to suffer the consequences with grace.

But enough about me. Let’s talk about my kids, none of which have ever had a cavity. Heck, I don’t even know if the older two even brush their teeth, and whenever I ask about it I learn that they have “lost” their toothbrush at some indeterminate point in the past. I’m sure it’s fine. Anyway, they have been surprisingly accepting of my temporary defacement; which is interesting, considering that when I periodically shave my beard there is crying in their ranks.

Also interesting is that my experience has paralleled that of my six year-old, who is just about to lose her first baby tooth. Right now, thanks to a temporary bridge that feels to me like a slightly modified version of those plastic fangs we used to wear on Halloween, my daughter and I are both contending with a disconcertingly flapping hinge in our gums that could come tumbling out at any moment.

If I have learned anything from this fiasco, other than not to eat anything crunchy ever again, it is to have rediscovered what it is like to be in a place my children know all too well: that changes are happening that are at the edge of our understanding and out of our control. Every time I attempt to chew something in the only intact corner of my mouth, I experience the helpless fear that a morsel will roll itself between my center teeth and pull my silly fake smile right out. That kind of helplessness is part and parcel of childhood, with its routine lack of answers and its sudden, jarring transformations.

To be adult is to live increasingly in a place where, ideally, the incidences of helplessness and uncertainty dwindle if not entirely disappear. It is humbling to be back in that position. I can only hope to handle it as well as my six year-old.

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