Like Baby Steps, Only Tinier

“It takes 30 days to form a habit.” It’s always somehow shocking to me when these cliches turn out to be more or less true, as if the truthiness (thank you Stephen Colbert) rubs off in the repetition. But what if it’s backed by science? Turns out the facts are more complicated (AGAIN). Certainly too much so to comfortably aphorise.

So let’s put this another way: “It takes 66 days to form a habit. Or broadly, 18 to 254.” Doesn’t trip off the tongue, does it?

Anyway, I’m glad I didn’t bother to do this research before I started forming my new exercise habit. Because I was going by the 30 day thing.

Let me back up a little bit. I just turned 45 and I was thinking about, like, mortality, and things. In my parent-mind, I was thinking about how nice it would be to still be around when all my kids were doing grownup things and thinking about their mortality, and things.

Related to that thought was the one about how well I’ve modeled literacy and learning for my kids at the expense of other things like movement, sport (in the phenomenological sense), and exercise. Sure, we like to take hikes and go for walks, but that’s more about being in nature. And they do love to swim. So. But I have not prioritized those things, and I want to turn that around.

My brilliant wife is right on board, and has instituted a morning walking/jogging regimen for the girls, supplemented by yoga and frequent trips to the pool. It’s going…okay. And by okay, I mean that about half the kids are into it on any given day. Granted, it hasn’t been 30 days, much less 254.

As in all things parental, I had to start with me (we fill our own cup so that we can yada yada). As much as I cherished my morning ritual of making coffee and reading on the couch with a pointy cat on my lap, I knew I had to get moving. My aforementioned wife–the brilliant one–got me some workout clothes for Christmas (I HAVE NEVER OWNED workout clothes). I visualized myself waking up, suiting up, and heading out for an early morning jog, frost, rain and snails be darned (really, tried to be careful of the snails though).

I kept visualizing it every day as I made my coffee and sat down on the couch with coffee and a pointy cat, trying not to look in the direction of my workout clothes, which were balled up in a corner.

Finally I tried another way. Less ambitious, more…tiny. In this case, doing some research would have been helpful because I would have found something like this.

What I did was this: I got a gym bag. I put my workout clothes inside. I left the bag on the dining table when I went to bed. When I got up in the morning, I saw it there, taunting me like Mickey.

After a few days, I opened the bag and put the clothes on. And once I had done that, it just seemed silly not to go outside.

And the rest is…ongoing. Every morning, I put on the clothes and head out for a brisk walk. When I return, in 20-30 minutes, I feel awake and ready for the day. And also ready to do things like bend over and walk up stairs without wheezing.

My kids have noticed all these things. After (insert number of days here), it becomes just something that is done in our family.

Sometimes there are advantages to kids watching everything we do.

 

 

 

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The Replacement

After some reminders about the importance of self-care (including one from Parenting Success Network boss Aoife Magee), I was thinking about some of the things I’ve been trying to do for myself. As I have written–and said–countless times, we can’t fill someone else’s cup unless we have filled our own.

In case this image is not clear enough (or if you still consider your cup to be half empty), imagine sitting next to your child on an airplane. If God forbid there should be an emergency and the oxygen masks come down, whose will you attach first? If you answered “your own,” you are in the company of the approximately 2/3 of respondents I just made up. Our instinct is to meet the child’s needs before your own, so it’s natural to want to put their mask on first. However, it’s also the wrong choice. Because if something goes wrong you need to be able to help, and you can’t help if you can’t breathe.

So there. How does this apply to the day-to-day? Without plane crashes and such?

I remembered that I hadn’t told you about my new car. New to me, anyway. It’s a 1993 Toyota Tercel, and it’s pretty much so uncool that it comes back around to cool again. To say it is an improvement on my previous car, a Volvo that could allegedly not be repaired following a crash into a curb one icy day because the company no longer made the parts. I took to calling it The Death Car and refused to take on passengers unless absolutely necessary, believing it would someday kill me, Christine-style.

Thankfully, this did not happen. It did not happen because I finally resolved to replace it and finally bought the Tercel from a mechanically inclined friend who had driven it for years before passing it down to adult daughters. The Volvo I donated to my workplace, using the great company V-DAC, for which they netted $25. Sorry, workplace!

Anyway, the point of this story is that once I decided to focus time and energy (and a surprisingly small amount of money) on my own needs, namely a reliable commuter car capable of more than 8 miles per gallon, I was able to shrug off a huge burden of shame and anxiety that was interfering with my ability to parent.

Am I recommending that you go out and buy a new car, for parenting purposes? Sure, I guess. But wait, there’s more. The Tercel is a manual transmission, something I hadn’t driven in about 20 years (ask me about that someday). I have been rediscovering the joys of riding up a learning curve. Between practicing driving a stick (thanks once again to the mighty Art of Manliness blog) and taking as many different routes to and from work as I can (thanks to decent mileage), I’m keeping my brain healthy and burning some new neural pathways. And that’s a good way to fill your cup.

Also, did I mention it has a tape deck?

 

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A Parent’s Search for Meaning

Viktor Frankl, in his influential book Man’s Search for Meaning, drew from his experience as a prisoner in the concentration camps at Auschwitz to assert (and I don’t think anyone would argue) that the way in which we approach our lives determines our ability to find fulfillment and purpose within it.

He writes, “What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our question must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

This conclusion is echoed by the Existentialist philosopher Albert Camus, who in his long-form essay The Myth of Sisyphus attempts to imagine what motivates the king from Greek mythology whose eternal punishment in the afterlife was to labor to push a huge boulder up a hill, near the peak of which it would inevitably slip through his hands and roll back down to the bottom. Camus argues that, when faced with even incredible, incomprehensible hardship (such as that lived by Frankl, above), we must use direct our free will to the conclusion that “The struggle itself […] is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Finally, noted (to me, anyway) writer Jeremy Anderberg, in the great blog that everyone should read, The Art of Manliness, lists a few of the many character-building aspects of fatherhood before hitting on this discovery of meaning. He concludes:

“No matter your position in life — CEO, cubicle automaton, day laborer, stay-at-home dad, entrepreneur, freelancer, trade worker, unemployed — it’s very possible, perhaps even probable, that your greatest, most important role in life will be that of parent. Of provider. Of protector. Of wisdom-purveyor. What that looks like can vary widely from man to man, but have no doubt that raising and loving your children well is one of the most significant things you will do in life.”

Parenting, as you know, can be joyful and full of fun and mirth. It can also be grinding, harrowing, even absurd, and in the march of sleepless nights and seeming lack of evidence that our children are learning or even paying attention, it can be hard to find the motivation to be nurturing, patient, humble and persistent in our work. That’s when we must let the struggle be enough to fill our hearts. Unlike Sisyphus, however, we will experience the joy, the fun, the mirth, if not over this hill, then over the next, or the next.

A final thought, from Frank Pittman, author of Man Enough: Fathers, Sons, and the Search for Masculinity:

“These guys who fear becoming fathers don’t understand that fathering is not something perfect men do, but something that perfects the man. The end product of childraising is not the child but the parent.”

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Disparate Youth

Sullen tee w/dad

An interesting issue came up in our Nurturing Fathers class recently: is there a right time to introduce a concept to your child when they might not otherwise know about it? Some examples: terrorism, drugs, political protest, gender ambiguity, racism.

Granted, this is a disparate list of topics, and the answer is going to be different for each situation (and for each family). But in each case, the parent did not know what, or how much, the child knew or from whom they might have learned it.

I described the scenario a few weeks ago in which I took my daughter, 12, to the doctor and she got tangled up in a list of questions about substance use. She didn’t know what they were about, but knew enough about how drugs could be harmful that she was upset by the questions. I felt like I should have prepared the ground for her, given her more of a context for what she was being asked to think about (she doesn’t go to public school, by the by). But what should I have told her? And how much? And when?

So many questions! What’s the best way to approach a difficult topic with your kids?

The first step, because it can determine what course to follow, is to turn it around:

Ask your kids what they know about it. What do they think? How does it make them feel? What’s important here is not to identify the source or cast blame, but to find out what your child has to work with. Listen non-judgmentally, for content and for emotion. You might be surprised at what you learn!

Now, remember not to render value judgments on what they have told you, even if it is inaccurate or offensive. You don’t what them to shut down and quit sharing. Instead, offer to help them to find out the truth behind the subject: look it up together on the internet or at the library. While you do this you can teach them how to discern good sources of information from bad (we know how to do that, right?).

What if your conversation is not pure research, but touches you or your family directly? How do you give difficult information? I came across a helpful post on this very thing.

By approaching the problem in this way, you get to teach your that it’s possible to learn and process challenging or even scary topics. And you get to spend some time together, to boot.

Thanks to Santigold for the title of this post.

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Rough Patch

I don’t think I’ve mentioned this lately, but my wife Kyrie is super well trained in child development. We’re talking the whole gestalt ball of wax: Waldorf, Montessori, Charlotte Mason, the regular OSU kind. So when she tells me that what is going on with our youngest daughter is not an extraterrestrial brain-swap or demonic possession or something equally drastic, but just an expected shift in the child’s growth (known in Waldorf arcana as “the seven year change”), why then I believe her.

Never mind that we have seen nothing like this with her older sisters. The next one up went through a rough patch at around the same time (in fact, I covered it pretty thoroughly while it was happening). That one didn’t want to sleep without an adult in the room even though she had been doing so just fine for a couple of years now. My solution to that had been to 1.) shunt her younger sister into our bedroom and sleep in her bed, which required me to be quite a bit shorter than I actually am, or 2.) move the seven year-old into the grownup bed and take hers, thus allowing the younger one to continue sleeping. Neither particularly worked, and the whole operation was almost certainly prolonged by my accomodationist method.

So when this one adds an inability to sleep for more than an hour at a time to a complete loss of her words to express a need for help (the words having been replaced by loud grunting and yelling), I tried to wait it out. I can get up once an hour, no problem. Get her some water, get her a homeopathic lozenge, pack her back into bed. Repeat.

The results were apparent after a couple of nights of this plan. She continued not sleeping and so did I. Turns out that neither of us do well on sleep deprivation. Something had to change, but I was fresh out of empathy. We were both pretty sure that she was just never going to sleep through the night again. And we both felt terrible.

It was at this time that I was preparing for the Nurturing Fathers class and came across the following passage: that we as parents want our children to know that “you are lovable, and you are capable.” Let’s read that again.

“You are lovable, and you are capable.”

It was enough. That night I reminded her of how good a sleeper she is and that this was a temporary phase. We would get through it. In fact, it was already better. Her hard work had already paid off.

I’d like to say that it turned around right away. We’re kind of still working on it.

But boy, does it suck less. I’ll keep you posted.

 

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The Episode One

Hello, parents and caregivers! I just wanted to check in from my vacation to let you know that the unthinkable has happened. No, not that. And not that either, although…

I’ll tell you. What happened is that, contrary to the vow I declared upon first seeing it in June of 1999, I gave Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace another viewing. I’m not sure how much my perspective on the film has changed since then. Let’s just aside the considerable baggage of how George Lucas’ revisit of my childhood myths felt like a airless and tone-deaf repackaging (what helped me with this, as you may remember, was the much more airy and pitch-perfect repackaging of my childhood myths in the two recent films).

No, I understand that in the new Disney Lucasfilm reality, the prequels are canon, so I’d better learn to appreciate them. I still think that Episode I is muddled, flat, overplotted, undercharacterized, unevenly acted, and full of pointless connections and diversions (midichlorians, anyone? Plus, Anakin owned R2-D2 and built C-3PO but later, as [spoiler] Darth Vader, doesn’t seem to recognize them? Also, the kid was immaculately conceived by the Force? How did I miss that line? Etc).

Whatever. The difference this time is that I watched it with my kids, so I watched it with their eyes. And their eyes found it engaging and exciting and loved the expansion of the universe of the series. More crucially, they eyes found Jar-Jar Binks both hilarious and charming. And there is nothing I can say to that.

Just move on with my life and be a grownup.

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The Case of The Pillow

Here’s something that happened.

My second youngest daughter, the quintessential middle child, was turning nine. I, who have never walked by a Star Wars branded product I didn’t stop to examine, came across a pillow case that I thought would be a perfect addition to her bedroom array which includes the following:

One (1) poster from the Whiteside revival showing of Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl;

One (1) giant poster of a kitty from a kids’ magazine that reads “Keep Your Head Up,” though my daughter doesn’t understand why it needs to say that;

One (1) color copy of the cover of a Princess Leia comic, given to her by her dad, depicting the character standing over a dispatched storm trooper with a smoking blaster;

One (1) drawing of Legolas the elf and Gimli the dwarf from The Lord of the Rings, wrought by her second oldest sister;

Twenty-three (23) assorted stuffed kitties–including one (1) tiger–in a pile;

One (1) completed coloring page depicting Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia on Jabba’s sail barge.

Like I said, I thought that this pillow case I found at Target, featuring artwork from the original Star Wars: A New Hope film poster (the one that randomly added a pommel and cross-guard to Darth Vader’s lightsaber, I guess because it didn’t look enough like a sword?), would fit in nicely.

So, when the day came, I put the case on her pillow and left it for her to discover. When we got home that day we made up a pretense for her to enter her room. She came in, saw it immediately, said, “Hmmm,” and went about her business.

Later she sat next to me on the couch while I paged through a National Geographic. She began to cry softly. I have been parenting four daughters long enough to not overreact to this and just snuggled her closer. But I already had a pretty good idea of what was up.

Later I came into her room with her toothbrush and, gesturing to the pillow case, asked, “Do you like it, honey, or is it a little much?”

After a moment she replied, “A little,” and burst into tears.

For goodness’ sake, I said, it’s okay if she doesn’t like it. It doesn’t hurt my feelings!

I emphasized that if she got a gift from some other adult it was best to at least pretend that she liked it, but that she didn’t need to worry about that stuff with me. I appreciate that she likes what she likes. Once she understood that this was true, she felt better.

And really, it doesn’t hurt my feelings. What could be better than knowing that she takes our shared fandom very seriously?

 

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Some Class

 

What’s that old joke that isn’t as funny as we think it is? About how kids don’t come with a manual? (Also, why are there always a couple of extra grommets? Was it just me?)

A corollary to that joke is a serious question: if there were classes on how to be a parent, would you take them?

I know what you’re thinking. You’re already a parent and you don’t need no outside learnin’. Life is the best teacher. Your child is the best teacher. You are the expert on your kids.

All of those things are true. And that’s exactly why you should consider taking a class.

In a plug of epic shamelessness, I would like to recommend the Nurturing Parenting classes offered at Family Tree Relief Nursery.

Starting this week, they are offering three separate classes.

On Wednesday:

  • is the general Nurturing Parenting class. It is for moms, dads, grandparents, and caretakers of all stripes (even with stripes!).

Thursdays feature two classes:

  • Nurturing Fathers, for dads and male caretakers only and co-facilitated by yours truly, and the
  • Nurturing Parenting class for parents in Substance Abuse Treatment and Recovery.

All three classes are FREE, and offer childcare, dinner and bus and transportation assistance.

All three classes focus on doing the work on ourselves that help us to help our kids–nurturing ourselves and each other so that we can nurture them.

To enroll in a class, simply call Family Tree at 541-967-6580.

Hope to see you there!

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Volunteers

As much as I write about ways to guide and structure the lives of our kids (as much as that is advisable or possible), I am always surprised by the ways in which our kids can influence the course of our own lives.

On the most basic level, the fact of becoming a parent will (ideally, I believe) stop your life in its tracks as it takes on new passengers. No doubt (also, ideally), you have done your best to prepare yourself for what is to come.

But as you might remember, no amount of preparation really made you ready. Right? No reading, no financial reinforcement (getting a job, say), no supplies, no advice (especially no advice) is sufficient for the journey. Learn all you want about an expedition to Mars, you haven’t done it ’til you’ve done it. And even then, having one kid (or two, or five) is no indication of what the next one will bring.

As the years go by, the compass continues to spin. Kids’ needs change and the ground keeps shifting. Keeping up with the routines, figuring out what they need at each stage, can be exhausting.

What can a parent do?

Sometimes, the only thing to do is let go.

It took me a while to realize that when my oldest daughter kept asking to volunteer–at my work, at church events, in response to other family’s request for help–it wasn’t a whim, but a trait.  And since she’s 12 and can’t drive, she needs someone to go with her. And that is me.

Eventually I saw the pattern. Volunteering makes her happy. As someone who can barely cross the room without the expectation of a reward, I only came around to this gradually. It took me even longer to realize that volunteering is good for me as well. In fact, I’d say it’s still in process. My daughter’s easy selflessness reminds me of how self-absorbed I am.

And that I can change. Still! Who knew?

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The Force Awakens

(No spoilers below)

It’s past time to keep you updated on the ongoing saga of introducing my four daughters to pursuits from my childhood. I had felt some ambivalence about this, as is well documented. However, while some of my childhood obsessions–Tintin comics, Jonny Quest cartoons, prog rock–had met with, shall we say, spotty reception, my decision to show the Star Wars films (Ep. IV-VI, of course) set off a lil’ bit of a pop culture bomb in our house.

Observe: within three months of first viewing, the eight year-old was dressed as Princess Leia for Halloween. She is in possession of a lightsaber (which her sisters have protested Leia wouldn’t have, prompting a conversation about how she might have started training after Return of the Jedi: after all, she is Luke’s sister [spoiler! Just kidding. I hope]). She once sent me off to a day of work with the phrase “May the Force Be With You.” She’s got it bad. And the others are right there with her.

My wife, who, though she is of an age with me, was never exposed to the Star Wars phenomenon and is inoculated against geekiness in general, has been very patient with this (while making clear that any consequences of Star Wars-itis are on me alone). But what a benefit this has been, with its opportunities to talk about heroism, morality, the power of spiritual fortitude, the importance of speaking out against injustice. Plus, thanks to her Star Wars workbooks, my daughter’s enthusiasm for math has gone up considerably.

So, we’ve now got a Star Wars Christmas (without, mind you, the Star Wars Christmas Special) lined up. The Original Trilogy DVDs, a new upgraded Leia costume, a cloth Leia doll handmade by the 10 year-old, now that she’s finished her Hobbit collection. We’re cleared for lightspeed, right?

Then I went a parsec too far (unbeknownst to Han, a parsec is a measure of distance, not time). With the new movie The Last Jedi coming out soon, and my indignation over the prequels having finally settled enough to countenance the idea of a new trilogy, I decided to watch The Force Awakens. Which I had not yet seen. And with my children.

Was this a bad idea? Well, let me tell you about it. I had not screened it beforehand, which I heartily recommend for any film not made expressly for children (and frankly, many that are. Ask me sometime for my feelings about the Shrek franchise). And it is PG-13. I consulted the Parents’ Guide on Imdb, but this was not very helpful. And really, my six year-old might have gotten caught up in the mythology of the series as much as anyone–that’s her pretending to be a droid in the photo–but to her this is all just a mass of zooming and flashing and explosions. I should have approached it more carefully.

They…liked it. So did I, though I had some real problems with it that I won’t go into. We each emitted audible gasps and whoops at various points in the film (even me!).

However. For my eight year-old, who so loves the characters from the original trilogy, there is something that happens in the film–and I’m not going to give it away, as I can’t be the only one who hadn’t seen it yet–that is potentially upsetting.

Potentially very upsetting.

And it was. Very upsetting. As in bursting into tears at regular intervals.

So, I failed at parenting for all time.

I was afraid that everything had been ruined for my daughter, and that she would cast Star Wars aside as vehemently as she had Frozen (seriously, don’t even mention Frozen in her presence).

I gave it a few days, then we had a little talk. It was about the theory of multiple universes. In the particular universe portrayed in that film, the upsetting thing happened. In others, it didn’t. In others, Leia trained as a Jedi and carries a lightsaber. In still others, Lucas never made the prequels. That’s right. In those universes, Jar-Jar is fake news.

I think we’ll be able to watch those DVDs come Christmas.

 

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