Game Theory

A funny thing happened on the way to Thanksgiving this year. We had been saving two games intended for our four girls for Christmas. However, the prospect of a long weekend with a lot of digestion prompted us to give them out early. For the younger set we had the whimsical card game Sleeping Queens, and for the eldest the strategic board game Dominion. We had anticipated some interest, but not the full-blown obsession, with both games, that ensued.

What struck me was not the (relatively) recent yen for formal games that has manifested in our house. Rather, it was the way they took to it with so little guidance from the grownups. They just figured it out. For those of you not nerdy enough to know it, Dominion is a game intended for ages 14 and up. And granted, I had to study the instruction booklet (a fat one) for a couple hours and take some notes before I figured out how to set it all up. But once we got going, all were in, even the eight year-old as she sprung her bandit on our unsuspecting parties and the six year-old as her witch bestowed curses on our now doomed estates.

Now, the point of this is not that they’re especially smart or anything (though of course they are, writes their dad). It’s that they’re all increasingly independent. It’s another one of those lines that have been crossed without anyone taking note of the crossing. First no more diapers, then reading, and now this! Strategizing, scheming, abstract thinking in full bloom.

It shows up in other areas as well. Doing chores without prompting. Cleaning and organizing of their own volition. Finding and replacing new rolls of toilet paper. Plans for making or acquiring Christmas gifts that are, from me anyway, completely secret. Once again, it’s apparent that they’re getting older. What next?

What if they decide to take over?

 

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Sick Days Revisited

We have managed to make it nearly two years without a major bout of illness: you know, the kind that circles the family like a brush fire, touching off some of us maybe more than once before it’s spent. My lovely wife claims it was the strictness of our vitamin regimen that did it.

Those vitamins had been notably absent this year, which is maybe partial but certainly not adequate explanation for Coldfest 2017, which currently has its tents and vendors set up in our house, evidently for an extended run.

I have written before about the generous and enlightened illness policy at my work, so I will just say that gosh do I appreciate it. Sick kids + sick parents = one big bubbling pot ‘0’ sickness. As for me, I had been staggering along for a couple of weeks already, going to work and pretending that my cough was actually someone else in the next room. Now, after having ruled out pneumonia and the alarming (but kind of awesomely Victorian-sounding) pleurisy, I understand that I just have a cold. Possibly the biggest, baddest beast of a cold I’ve ever hosted, but still. Nothing to be done.

A sick house still has to function, so even if the normal routines are disrupted we still have to function somehow. Meals mean that we prepare a lot of one thing and eat it all day. Laundry, vacuuming and other pretty important jobs happen when I’ve stored up enough energy from leaning against a wall and moaning (it’s the new sleep).

Having everyone at home all day, with no plans to go anywhere and no energy to do so, can be strangely liberating. “What are we doing today, Daddy?” “Let’s sit around in scarves and drink broth and watch movies.” “Again? Yaaay!”

We did get to watch Singin’ in the Rain for the first time, so it hasn’t been all bad. Who knew that it was, like, about something?

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The Big Reshuffle

I never did believe it, not really: that rearranging your space can help you to rejigger the rest of your life. Sure, I thought, it’s nice to see things looking a little neater and more symmetrical, but with four kids in a two-and-a-half bedroom house one can’t expect this new state to last more than a day or so.

So when I volunteered (after about six months of “mulling it over”) to take a full day to tackle our “spare room” (there is no room to spare in our house; the term refers to its former life as a garage), my wife undertook to remove herself and the girls from the premises for the duration. I had thought this was a little extreme, but appreciated the lack of distraction and the chance to queue up several of my Spotify playlists and crank them at unsettling volume.

After an indeterminate period that passed like a drugged dream in which I was forced to play Tetris with boulders attached to my limbs, I emerged covered with sweat to find that a vast, unmanageable pile of objects had been assembled into something approaching order.

I rested on my laurels for as long as it took for my family to return home, convinced that I would not have to do any more of this kind of work for months (providing I could spend a few minutes each day assuring that my arrangement of the spare room remained intact). I soon learned, though, that my efforts, greatly appreciated they may be, were only the beginning. It would be a new, glorious era of rearranging in our land.

Now that the spare room–our primary storage space–was in order, my wife could shift all the furniture everywhere else. We could clean the girls’ rooms and wash all the bedding. And then the real work could start: changing out the hundreds of books that double as the interior walls of our living room.

I dreaded the prospect, and asked if we could save the book wrangling for the next weekend. I continued, to say the least, to not look forward to the work. I had boxed and meticulously sealed all the books in the spare room, and they were stacked just the way I wanted them. To bring them out again would erase the sense of order I was holding in my mind like a fragile egg. Why did one good deed have to lead to a deluxe economy pack of new ones?

You know what? It was fine. In fact, it was really, really great. The bookshelves are pristine with room to grow and the spare room looks better than ever. The peace of mind we have gained is no mean thing.

For a close, largish, homeschooling family, this kind of organization amounts to a total reset. I have undertaken projects like this before. But finally I think that I get it, and can genuinely enjoy the results.

Also, I should mention that no one is allowed to touch anything from now on. Wish us luck!

 

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When Super Dad Isn’t

It’s time to talk about something that makes me really uncomfortable. As you may know, I’ve been teaching the Nurturing Fathers class, which emphasizes the value of men being present–really present–in the lives of their children and their partner. And where we are as a culture right now is a tricky place. Because it is still the case that a disproportionate number of children are parented by unmarried women, the fact is that any involvement, any effort exerted by men in the lives of their family is of great benefit to all. And we have to start somewhere, right?

Let me be clear: I cannot overestimate the importance of this involvement and effort on the part of men. Our society really is changing, and while more women are working, earning degrees, buying property, etc etc all while raising children, more men are taking part in the most important work of childcare. This is a big deal and worthy of celebration. And I particularly want to bow deeply in the direction of any single fathers out there.

But without getting into a whole thing about privilege (honestly, I just googled it to try and find a good article on the topic and what I saw just made me tired, which is itself probably an indicator of my privilege), I can tell you that as a dad I get a lot of recognition for what I do. In fact, I was once told that I’m a fantastic dad simply for the fact that “I stuck around.” As nice as it is to feel supported for my attempts to be an involved, connected father and an equitable partner, I know that I have the crowd on my side. I get noticed, in a way that a typical mother does not. “Aw, isn’t that cute? Look at that that guy with his little girls. He’s such a good daddy.” How often do mothers get recognized that way in public?

I get that male privilege gives me an advantage as a parent. It’s like my superpower is that I just get up and do it every day (following coffee, of course). The bar, in other words, is pretty low.

So how do I explain the literal physical pain I felt when I came across this comic by French cartoonist Emma? The comic describes, in lucid detail, the sociological concept of the “mental burden,” that constant storm of decisions, calculations and consequences that mothers usually take on and that fathers not only don’t share but often aren’t even aware of.

When I first skimmed it, I began to feel increasingly nauseated; I felt as if my bubble of daddy privilege had just been popped. I felt so uncomfortable I couldn’t even finish it. Though the term was unfamiliar, both the argument it laid out and the picture of my marriage that it painted seemed obvious, even inevitable. But it was too much. It was a piece of knowledge about myself that I just didn’t want to accept. I pushed it out of my mind and tried to move on with my life.

Weeks passed. I couldn’t stop thinking about the mental burden that my wife, clearly the person who runs our household, carries with her. I wondered why, for example, it took an internet comic for me to begin to absorb a problem that she has been telling me about for years. Telling words right into my ears.

I can’t say I’ve fully processed it yet, and I certainly haven’t sprung into action to take on some of that burden myself. My casual claims that I do at least a half-share of the housework and the parenting ring pretty hollow now. But here’s something I vow to change right now: may I never utter the phrase “Just let me know if you need help” again.

Anyway, read it. It’s good. No, really.

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Parenting From the Bleachers

My favorite week of the Nurturing Fathers class is the one I spent a year preparing for. When it came up in my training, I knew I would be in trouble if I didn’t bone up on a sport. Any sport. This was desperate.

Let me back up a little. Usually when discipline is brought up in a parenting class it’s on the level of, “how do I fix this behavior? How do I stop it? How do I get more of this or less of that?” There’s probably a bit about how discipline is not the same thing as punishment, as we tend to conflate them in our culture. And this class, just like its parent curriculum of Nurturing Parenting, takes care to emphasize that the root of discipline is disciple: it’s about teaching and learning, not retaliation. There will probably be time to discuss the merits of spanking (there are none) and time outs (it depends).

All that is well and good. Where Nurturing Fathers tips over from “well” and “good” into “genius” is the part where it taps into the male brain just tells it like it is. Namely, that discipline is a sport. Your family is a team. The parents are coaches (player-coaches, to be precise). Behold:

Just like any team sport, your family has rules. Ways to win and ways to score points. There are do’s and there are don’ts; the don’ts are the penalties and fouls. And because you’re a team, you all want to win. Right? So as a coach, Mom and/or Dad, you want to be sure that everyone knows the rules.

And, um, they should probably make sense.

From this model, the game of discipline becomes ridiculously simple.

  1. Explain what the rule is. For example, “Be home by 10 pm.”
  2. Name the consequence for breaking the rule. “You won’t be able to go out next weekend.” Note that this is logical and follows from the rule itself.
  3. Follow through.

If each player follows the rules, it benefits the whole team.

Cool, right? The only problem is that we (as in, the class facilitators) are supposed to talk about this stuff in terms of the sport of our choice. And that’s where I was in trouble. Nothing is more an impediment to learning than a teacher who is obviously full of crap (as I learned trying to score points with some metal-savvy high schoolers with some discipline issues when I misidentified “Rainbow in the Dark” as Dokken [obviously it’s Dio!!]. Seriously, I still cringe when I think about it).

And I literally do not know anything about any sports. So I had to do some homework. I decided that baseball had the most going for it, socioculturally and aesthetically (I’ve always liked baseball movies, anyway). I read some books, watched some Ken Burns. Then I mentioned casually at work that we should start a softball team. Interest was high (immediately and alarmingly so) and even more alarming was that somehow I ended up as head coach and manager. I started reading faster.

Our team is in its second season now, and going strong (the fact that I am no longer in any way involved with its functioning has, I’m sure, a lot to do with it). And in the bargain, I am now able to talk about discipline as baseball for a whole class period.

That’s all I have to say. Let’s get out there and win!

 

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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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Fathers, Real and Imagined

So I know Father’s Day was last weekend, but we can still talk about them, right?

Fathers. We all had ’em at some point. Some of us are one! I mentioned a while ago that I was about to start teaching a Nurturing Father’s class at Family Tree Relief Nursery.  Well, we’re a few weeks in now and I am happy to say that it exceeds my highest expectations. There are so few places for men–fathers, grandfathers, stepfathers, godfathers–to get together and talk about the experience of being male and having children your care. Every week I see light bulbs of recognition or the shock of the new. Both are valuable.

The currency of fatherhood is devalued in our society. Worse, this has happened even while the expectations for men to care for children and participate in household labor have increased. At least part of the problem is that it is easy–and largely tolerated, if not encouraged–for men to opt out of parenting altogether. There is a price, of course (in the form of child support payments). But the real cost is borne by children. When it comes to fathers and male caretakers, any degree of (safe) presence and involvement makes an outsize difference.

There are a lot of mistaken assumptions about fathers and fatherhood (and many of them are carried on by the men in question). Here is an excellent piece from the Washington Post last weekend called Five Myths About Fatherhood. Among the takeaways is this explication of the dilemma of men who, like many mothers, want to “have it all:”

“Men with children say they feel continued pressure to be the primary providers for their families (in opinion polls, about two-thirds of Americans say a married man should be able to support his family), and at the same time they want to meet modern fathering ideals (in polls, they are just as likely as mothers to say that parenting is ‘extremely important’ to their identity). Even when flexible schedules and other family-friendly work arrangements are available to men, there’s often a stigma associated with taking advantage of them.”

Workplaces in America obviously have a lot of catching up to do. But so do those very institutions–government and law–that have traditionally not exactly been seen as ignoring the needs of men. I, too, will be a post-feminist in a post-patriarchy. But when it comes to the rights of fathers, misconceptions about men and children can skew things the other way. As a parent coach working with families seeking reunification, I sometimes have to explain to state agencies that a father engaging in wrestling and roughhousing with his kids is not necessarily “unsafe” (that’s what I’m there for), but a perfectly valid way for men to nurture their children.

Guys, I hope you had a good Father’s Day. Keep celebrating.

 

 

 

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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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To Boldly Go

There’s a topic I keep coming around to because evidently I think about it a lot. Namely, what parts of ourselves do we share with our kids? What’s appropriate? How much should we try to guide their tastes and interests? Previously, as in the post linked above, I was critical of those parents who wanted their children to like the things they liked at the same age. I think about this every time that I’m in Target and I see shelves of retro-styled board games and toys from my childhood. In this case, Star Wars was the main example. Not that I have received any angry emails or anything, but you should know that, as my daughters get older, I find myself shifting my position.

Case in point: a few weeks ago I told them about Star Trek (the Original Series, or TOS, as the nerds term it) (and I’m enough of a nerd to know that we like to be called Trekkers rather than the pejorative Trekkies) (but not enough to, like, dress up and go to a convention or anything, not that there’s anything wrong with that). Where was I? Right. Well, surprisingly, they told me last night at dinner that they were very interested in watching Star Trek. So I counted it as a win and went to work.

What was the best way to introduce kids–who had limited experience with a.) science fiction, and b.) TV shows that aren’t documentaries about wildlife or running a Medieval farm–to this pillar of mid-Twentieth Century popular culture? Going through synopses of the episodes, I settled on “The Trouble with Tribbles,” one of the lighter and more humorous ones, and we watched it in the evening after they got into their jammies. It was a hit.

What do I want my kids to get out of this artifact that had given me so much pleasure and food for thought in my own upbringing? Given that I habitually watched it in the afternoons while doing my math homework, I could make an argument that I was trying to stimulate their left-brain functioning. Or, I could cite the liberal humanist framework of the show that presents a multiracial, (sort of) gender-integrated crew working together to examine ethical dilemmas across the galaxy.

But who am I fooling? What I really wanted to do is to introduce them to one of my heroes, one Mr. Spock. His relentless logic, vacuum-dry sense of humor and valiant attempts to master his half-human emotions are ideals that I had long since absorbed into my personality. Maybe I want them to know in some small way where I’m coming from.

During bedtime my eight year-old, after determining that his ears must be prosthetic, pronounced him “pretty cool.” I’ll take it.

And I promise to not be so dismissive of Star Wars dads (and moms). Even though Star Trek is way better.

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Parenting, Mortality and Stuff

A number of events came together this week into a sticky ball of parenting anxiety.

First, while ill-advisedly biting into a chocolate bunny (turns out it was solid, the real deal), I broke a crown that constituted most of one of my top front teeth. I can’t blame years of dental neglect, starting in college and continuing up to last week, on age or mortality. But I thought, nevertheless, about how I am going to die. And because I am a parent, I thought about how my children might deal with that.

The second event is that I began reading Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, a slim but potent book-length essay on the death of her adopted daughter and her doubts about the stolidity of her own body and mind. As Didion writes in the first chapter,

“When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children.”

Exactly. In Didion’s case, she has experienced what she considers the reverse of the “appropriate” sequence of events: the child should not die before the parent. Reading this, I thought about the many ways in which I have shirked my responsibility to ensure a long and healthy life, so that I can continue to be there for my children.

Didion has more to say about this shirking of responsibility, and I am going to quote her at length, largely because she is my favorite writer and can do prose like no one else.

“I do not know many people who think they have succeeded as parents. Those who do tend to cite the markers that indicate (their own) status in the world: the Stanford degree, the Harvard MBA, the summer with the white-shoe law firm. Those of us less inclined to compliment ourselves on our parenting skills, in other words most of us, recite rosaries of our failures, our neglects, our derelictions and delinquencies. The very definition of success as a parent has undergone a telling transformation: we used to define success as the ability to encourage the child to grow into independent (which is to say into adult) life, to ‘raise’ the child, to let the child go.”

The third event is that the two oldest girls got the results for their benchmark exams (3rd and 5th grade). As they are not public school attenders, we arranged for them to take the test with a professional proctor in Salem. The results were encouraging but not surprising: they are reading at the level of 10th grade and college, respectively. Guess what is important to our family?

This should not be grounds for further anxiety or thoughts of mortality, but leave it to me. Literacy is one thing we have managed to consciously and deliberately imprint on them. That’s one. Mostly it makes me think of all the unintended, or even unknowable, other things that are imprinted alongside it.

As I have said before, there are particular mistakes I am determined not to make as a parent. It’s going to be different ones that come back to haunt me.

Goes with being mortal, I guess?

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