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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Play By Play

Here is something that kids should be doing more of:

Playing.

At school they need to double down on:

Recess.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to suggest that they should be eating ice cream for all three meals. I’m not an anarchist. Just thinking about developing brains.

Let’s pull back a little bit. Or zoom in. Whatever. You’ve seen those little announcements on the packaging of toys that claim their product is helping children to advance their motor skills, memory, hand-eye coordination, and what have you? Well, there’s some truth to that, potentially, in the same way that Count Chocula is part of a balanced breakfast (really! Can be!).

Without examining the veracity of any particular products, it has to be admitted that they do help kids develop if kids play with them. But just as the finger that points to the moon is not the moon, it is not the toy that provides the learning but the act of playing itself. In that sense, a rock’s as good as a Leappad for our purposes (a bonus is that if you throw a rock, it won’t break!).

Recently I’ve noticed a phenomenon at our house that illustrates this perfectly. It’s the noticing that new, not the phenomenon. The older girls, ten and twelve, continue to play with our set of wooden blocks as much as, if not more than, the younger ones. They have continued to be available, rather than put aside for more “age-appropriate” (this usually means “more electronic”) toys. So, they’ve just kept playing with ’em.

And, I believe, they continue to hone their spatial recognition and gross and fine motor skills just as much now, at their own level, as they did all those years ago when they first figured out how to stack them (and of course, immediately knock them down again).

Crucially, I think, there has never been any sense that the blocks are something that they could outgrow; that some toys were just “for babies.” They’re just another tool at their disposal.

By the same token, since the picture books are still on full display for the six and eight-year olds, their older sisters continue to put them–new acquisitions and old favorites alike–in rotation along with their endless fantasy novels and 19th Century classics.

One of my (amazing) professors in the Education program at Western advocates for the use of picture books all the way through high school (and by extension college, given that she, you know, used them. In a college class). Once we get over the stigma of directing our attention to something that was made for younger people, their value and beauty are simply obvious.

 

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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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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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Stir it Up

This week’s post includes a recipe by guest contributor Jessica Sager. We hope you find it useful and look forward to future posts by Jessica.

One should never underestimate the power of activities when interacting with children. They want to feel a connection with us, and making them the focus of our time and attention, even for a short period, has lasting value.

Jessica Sager shares a favorite activity for use in the classroom, on home visits, and for families to use on their own. It is quick and simple and the process of making it can be as fun as working with it afterward. I can also attest that gluten free flour works just as well.

***

1 Cup Flour
1/2 Cup Salt
2 Teaspoon Cream of Tartar
1 Cup Water
2 Tablespoons Vegetable Oil
Cook over medium heat until thickened. Add a few drops of food coloring. Stir, cool slightly, then knead and have fun. Cookie cutters and rolling pins make play-dough more enjoyable!
Jessica Sager is a Family Support Specialist in the East Linn Toddler classroom at Family Tree Relief Nursery. 
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A Dinner Conversation

I’ll admit it. There are some weeks I just don’t know what to write about. I thought I’d quiz some of my coworkers (especially the ones that have promised to write a guest post and are still procrastinating) about a topic. There was a lot of interest in aspects of teenagerdom about which I’m simply not qualified. But I thought I’d go with it, and when I got home I tried something that has proved fruitful in the past: I talked to my kids.

At dinner, I asked my older ones (nine and eleven) what they were most looking forward to when they were teenagers. The nine year-old was pretty decisive. “Not a thing.” She went on to explain that she would prefer not to be any older than she is right now.

My eldest daughter equivocated. Finally I made a suggestion: “Learning to drive?” It was something we had been talking about recently. She was unsure. “It just seems so complicated.” This set my wife and I on stories about our misadventures experimenting with independence. Here’s one of mine.

When I was thirteen I was able to bicycle all the way to an area shopping mall, in which there was a diner we had frequented as a family. I was proud to finally have the chance to dine alone, sitting at the table with my book (something I still enjoy whenever I can manage it). I walked out when I was finished, only to realize several hours later that I had forgotten to pay for my meal.

I was mortified. Seized by guilt, I was not able to tell my parents what happened. I barely slept that night. As soon as I thought it might be open for the lunch shift I sped my way to the diner, cash in my pocket, and made my way, panting and dripping sweat, to the counter. I breathlessly explained what had happened and offered to make immediate recompense.

The boy behind the counter, by the looks of it not much older than I was, was not impressed by my story. He did not immediately have me arrested; nor did he seem to know what to do about it. He left me at the counter and returned with a waitress, who said that she had been working yesterday but didn’t remember any criminal activity. They declined to take my money.

At this point my five year-old interjected that she had no concerns about adulthood because she would immediately find a husband, have many children and collect farm animals. The seven year-old looked forward to having the opportunity to dress like a pirate and not have to wait in line, as she would just threaten to run people through.

Surely there’s nothing to worry about. Right?

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Tending the Childhood Garden

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Most of us would appreciate having some rules for good parenting; some ironclad procedure to follow in order to give our children the best of what we have. New research in the burgeoning field of neuroscience is taking what we know about the brain, how it works and how it grows, and giving us some clues. But because it’s the brain we’re talking about, there are no simple answers. What has been emerging is some support for certain approaches over others. And often this research brings us back to older ways of thinking about children and what they need to grow, thrive and succeed.

Alison Gopnik, in her new book The Carpenter and the Gardener: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children (say that three times fast) offers this very thing. Her central metaphor contrasts the model of the carpenter–the parent who attempts to construct their child through micromanaging and fine-tuning–with that of the gardener, who allows space and nourishment for a child to grow in the way it naturally wants to. Guess which one is more effective?

I have written about the metaphor of nurturing as cultivating the things we want to grow. We give our positive attention to the traits we want to encourage rather than focusing on the negative traits we would like to see less of. This is both a good and useful thing. However, there is more to it than that, and also less.

As Gopnik tells us, it is easier to allow children to do what they do best–learn–than try to will them into the shapes we want to see.  It sounds great, and quite a relief besides, to just move out of the way and let children grow. But that’s when we see that some approaches work better than others.

I encourage you to read the linked article, which provides a great summary of Gopnik’s research. And, of course, to read the book (I have it on hold at the library). Here’s how it breaks down:

  • Let children under 6 just…play. Academic preparation is just not effective for small children. It’s not a matter of getting them ready earlier, because that’s just not where they’re at. They learn through play. So give them ample opportunity to do so.
  • School age children are ready to learn. So give them things to learn: cooking, building, cleaning, making. Show them, watch them, offer ways to improve the skill.
  • Teenagers benefit from practical skills. Less homework, more real-world experiences. Teens used to enter the adult world through apprenticeships, and we can offer them internships, community service projects, and guided projects such as putting together a newspaper or, heck, starting a garden.

In each of these stages, children learn by doing. Our job as parents is to let them do, in a safe and nurturing environment. Sounds simple, right? Simple work is often the hardest. But really, the hard part for modern parents is just letting it happen.

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Halloween and the Social Contract

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I have fond memories of Halloween. There was always something magical about the social contract of trick or treating: it was widely agreed upon that a child could build up a surplus of candy through a ritualized exchange of words. It was almost unearned: free candy (or other, let’s face, it, inferior offerings, things that are not candy), just for showing up at someone’s door!

We made the parental decision starting last year that we would not be celebrating the holiday. And this year, partly due to this decision and partly because we’ve just been busy, we didn’t even make our trip to the pumpkin patch. It sort of snuck up on us, and we were of a mind that it would just pass by unnoticed.

And then it happened anyway. The children–oddly proportioned superheroes, little ninjas, junior Sith Lords, the stray Elsa–began to mass in our neighborhood. We had put a friendly sign up on the door: “No trick or treating here. Sorry!” and an enterprising, probably pre-literate child was banging on the door in anticipation of having his end of the social contract fulfilled. “I can see you in there!” By the time I had come home from work my daughters had lobbied successfully to join him. After all, they are already masters of dress-up, and within five minutes they were costumed and geared up from the dress-up basket. I grabbed my coat and hat (they decided I was a sailor) and joined Hermione Granger, Princess Buttercup, Cinderella and unnamed Medieval Lady as we made the rounds of the neighborhood.

We circled a couple of blocks, avoiding houses that a.) had no porch light on and b.) had decorated too enthusiastically (the girls have a strict “no hanging skeletons” rule) and I have to say they made out pretty well. In addition, my take of the non-gluten-free candy (in which the girls are also mysteriously well schooled) rivaled their own. It was…fun.

So, the kids got to experience the peculiar joy of a holiday in which we do not invest. I was reminded of the show of community that takes place on this day and, really, no other in this fragmented and isolated culture. I would love for there to be more of this: for strangers to receive each other on their doorsteps in mutual giving. For the time being, I guess I’ll take trick or treating.

And the next time an enterprising kid in fake muscles shows up, I’ve got some non-gluten-free candy to share.

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Bored Games

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A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the importance of giving your children the opportunity to learn during the Summer. I hope that I did not give the impression that this should be, like, work. There is a real temptation to fill the days up with all those activities—soccer, swimming, camp, workshops, playgroups—that would normally be taken up by school. For one thing, someone is going to have to do all of the driving. But more importantly, all of that busy-ness may keep our kids from discovering for themselves what it really is they want to do.

From where does this tendency to fill up Summer days come? The intentions are good, to be sure. We want to provide them with something like the structure that supported them through the school year. Structure is good, right? That’s all I ever write about. Also, we might be used to our own schedule, which does not include having the kids around us at all times. And you might remind me that there is a thing called childcare, and we still have to work (otherwise, how could we afford childcare?).

Finally, there is another noble impulse at work here: we don’t want our kids to be bored. Because that would be…what? Bad? Sometime back in the mists of parenting history boredom became a dirty word. But is it really?

Looking back at my childhood, I remember things like swim lessons and even, one magical year, art school. But mostly I remember days and days filled with the imperative to simply go play outside. Those days, endless and each much like the other, left it up to me to wander the yard and the neighborhood, awash in the backdrop of changing light. There was so much time, and this was a gift I simply did not have during the school year. As idyllic as this seems to me now, looking back, I am sure that being left to my own devices involved a great deal of boredom.

A recent article extols the benefits of letting kids be bored. Though this is hardly a new idea (the author cites a book from 1930 by philosopher Bertrand Russell), there has been plenty of contemporary research into the richness of boredom:

“Your role as a parent is to prepare children to take their place in society. Being an adult means occupying yourself and filling up your leisure time in a way that will make you happy,” says Lyn Fry, a child psychologist in London with a focus on education. “If parents spend all their time filling up their child’s spare time, then the child’s never going to learn to do this for themselves.”

The author suggests sitting down with your kids at the start of the Summer and helping them to come up with a list of things to do when boredom arises. We did this at home, and have a long list that includes the following:

Go outside

Play a board game

Draw

Paint

Knit

Write a letter

Make a map

Stage a play

Make a code

Read

Listen to an audiobook

Bake

Do math practice (no, really)

Create something out of recycling

Some of these require more adult intervention than others. But all are on the list with my childrens’ blessing, and all are free will activities that engage the mind and the imagination. It is working well, but one thing I’ve noticed is that it often doesn’t come up, because they have decided to spend an hour in the grass watching bugs.

That works, too.

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You’re a Poet

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Kids like words. They use them all the time. They put them together in different combinations. Some are funny. Some are very serious, because they describe how they think and feel and see the world. Some are magic, because they make things happen (“what’s the magic word?” We know it, right?).

Thus kids like poetry. They may not know it, but they do. After all, poetry is made of up words that are funny and very serious and, most of all, magic. So why not read and say and write poetry with them?

Wait. You like poetry, right? Oh, did you have to learn poetry in school? Right. Sorry about that. I hope you like poetry. You like songs, anyway, right? That’s poetry. You like jokes and Quentin Tarantino movies. I know you do, because. Poetry.

According to Merriam-Webster, poetry is “writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm.” Hmm. Not very poetic.

According to Emily Dickinson, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” That’s more like it. It sounds pretty alarming and painful, but imagine that it is painless, and there’s no mess, and then the sky can get in. There.

Where to start with kids? You have probably passed along those nursery rhymes that you learned inexplicably yourself, and which are also poetry. You may have played the game in which you and your child try to one-up each other with how much you love each other: “I love you to the moon and back.” “Well I love YOU to the end of the universe and back.” “Yeah? Well I love you infinity.” And so on. That’s poetry and also math! There’s math in poetry, but that’s okay.

Here’s an easy way to make poetry: start with a formula. There are many ways to do this, and some of them have been used for hundreds of years. You can try a haiku. Haiku are Japanese nature poems, and there are a lot of rules that would apply to you if you were an ancient Japanese poet, and I don’t want to make any assumptions, but for our purposes it’s all about the meter.

It goes:

Five syllables

Seven syllables

Five syllables.

 

Without getting into what a syllable is, if you’re with your kids you can tap it out together.

 

Try one yourself.

 

Is this my new friend,

Nodding with its hornless head?

No, snail. It’s my toe!

 

Cat on the rampage

Flips backwards off the sofa:

“I meant to do that.”

 

We’re getting hungry

But it’s too hot for cooking

Ice cream for dinner

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