On Chores: The Revenge

Howdy all! It’s time for my semi-annual update on chores.

I would like to remind you that this is only my family’s experience with trying out a system for chores, and that what worked (or didn’t work) for us may not apply to you. It’s a process.

If you look back at the earlier entries (which, by the way, automatically multiplies the value of this post!), you will see that my wife and I had decided to abandon the large whiteboard, with magnets representing each child that moved around the chores in age-appropriate fashion. We discovered that they liked to keep their own stable chores, so the next iteration was as follows:

“Instead of rotating chores, each child now had their own laminated sheet with a list of duties. They could mark them off as they went with a pen, or draw pictures around them, or pull them down and lose them under the sofa. Their choice!”

That was last year. Here’s how it has panned out.

They still like having their own lists. After choosing to lose them under the sofa several times, all four of my daughters have asked us to affix their list on a wall or door where they can see and/or notate it: the seven year-old has added “hug Mama.” I don’t know how that wasn’t in the first draft.

The seven year-old also can’t remember what’s on the list from day to day. Part of this, I think is the literacy bias, which posits that what is on the page is more important than what she perfectly well has in her motor memory by now (given that fully half of her chores consist of getting dressed and brushing her teeth and hair). Part of it is that she can’t actually read yet, so she has to check with someone every time she undertakes her chores.

Next time: pictures instead of words? That she can move from one side to the other with velcro? That sounds like a fabulous idea, but I will leave it to you crafty parents that I know are out there.

Anyway, there has been some revision of chores, and some elimination of redundancy. But for the most part, I think this system is working.

What works for you?

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Urgent Issues of Our Time, Part II

So, as I was saying. The X-Men were always my jam. They appealed to me because, unlike other superheroes with their fantasies of power that came about usually through accidents (gamma rays, cosmic rays, radioactive bug bites), the X-Men (and -Women, and -Girls and -Boys) were who they were. In the comics, a mutation usually became active with the onset of puberty, which is just about the perfect way of talking about what happens to the adolescent body and brain. Think of Rogue, for whom intimate contact could have deadly consequences for the other person. Or Shadowcat, who in her social awkwardness could become a literal wallflower, fading into the wall and out the other side. Or Cyclops, who had to keep his vision (feelings?) covered up or risk causing limitless damage. Like millions of readers, I identified with these young adults who hadn’t asked for their powers, struggled to understand and control them, and in some cases would give anything to get rid of them.

What happens in adolescence that leads to such perilous places? We have long understood the changes that our bodies go through during puberty, with those new combinations of chemicals; those strange and powerful feelings; that hair.  It would be easy to think that you were going through this by yourself, and were suddenly separate from the human race. A mutant!

Recent work in neuroscience has been trying to understand the changes that take place in the teenage brain. NPR’s Dina Temple-Raston, in her extensive reporting on terrorism, wanted to understand the appeal of extremist groups like ISIS to adolescents. What would make a seemingly “normal” kid from a typical suburban background want to leave everything they knew and enter a life of secrecy and violence? Her excellent piece on reformed ISIS recruit Abdullahi Yusuf (seriously, it’s really good) shows how these questions must lead inevitably into teenage brain development. The teenage feeling of invulnerability, the aggrieved sensitivity to injustice, the penchant for risk-taking, the lack of consideration for consequences, can take an adolescent into any number of far-flung places. What’s missing during this time is that still, quiet voice that (tends to) guide us as adults. In the piece, Temple-Raston identifies it as the “part of the brain that neuroscientists liken to an internal compass, called the insula, can be built up during adolescence through critical thinking and self-reflective practices.”

This kind of strengthening practice, provided in Yusuf’s case through a reading list and assigned poetry, is what the X-Men find under the guidance of Professor X at the School for Gifted Youngsters (having a responsible adult mentor is clearly important as well). With these opportunities for reflection and control, those scary changes can become powers.

Now if only the films could get it right.

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Urgent Issues of Our Time, Part I

I would like to talk about one of the most urgent issues of our time.

It affects young and old, male and female, 1% and 99.

It’s called Superhero-Movie Fatigue, or S-MF.

It’s a feeling that relates to getting exactly what you wanted when you were a child, as an adult, and just getting more all the time without stopping. For me, this relates absolutely to the Marvel movies. For years, attempts to bring my favorite comics to the screen ranged from “good enough, considering” (X-Men, the first two) to “as good as can be expected, really” (Spider-Man, again the first two) to “no” (Hulk, the first one; Fantastic Four, all). Since Iron Man somehow wandered into the proper pacing and tone, thus launching the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a sustainable concern, geeks like me finally won. We get movies made to our exacting and deeply embarrassing specifications. And they cost hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s right: the entire economies of nations rendered into grease poured onto the gears of a gigantic nostalgia machine.

Before we continue, I just want to say that now that I have seen the most recent Star Wars films, even knowing that Disney plans to make Star Wars films at the ridiculous pace of one per year for the foreseeable future, I will never get tired of Star Wars. There is no such thing as SW-MF. Not now that I have successfully passed my childhood obsession to my own children.

But we’re here to talk about super heroes. I like all those Avengers. None of them were really my favorites growing up, but it’s, they’re fine. And come on, no one read Guardians of the Galaxy. Don’t even lie.

Now that they’ve figured it out (Disney, I mean, which has figured out, and owns, everything I ever liked as a kid), there’s just nothing to look forward to. Going to see a Marvel movie in the theatre is now pretty much exactly like buying a Marvel comic at 7-11. And much more expensive.

What does all this have to do with parenting?

I meant to get to it, but I ran out of space. To be continued. Hint: it has something to do with the X-Men. And the teenage brain.

Excelsior!

 

 

 

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A Beautiful Life

Illustration by Willa Mead

Long-time readers (I like to think that I have one) will remember when I raved about some of my favorite authors of children’s books.

Well, recently I came across this great appreciation in The Atlantic of Barbara Cooney, probably my favorite of all. Cooney, author of Miss Rumphius, Ox-Cart Man and other classics, has a singular style (her illustrations, always recognizable as her own, graced books by other authors such as Alice McLerran’s Roxaboxen) and a stolid refusal to “talk down to—or draw down to—children.”

Miss Rumphius (1982) has long been my go-to answer when someone asks about my favorite children’s book (I get asked! However, no one asks about my favorite book overall except my own kids; I just say Moby Dick because I have to have an answer. It’s good. You should read it). In the book, a young girl narrates the life of her great-(great?)-aunt Alice Rumphius. Alice, whose own grandfather had tasked her, around the turn of the 20th Century, with “making the world more beautiful,” lived a life that alternated between globetrotting exploration and bookish solitude.

What I love about the book is what separates it from, well, pretty much any other children’s book I can think of. Our heroine spends several pages in the middle of the story recovering from an injured back. This very realistic adult situation is shocking in a quiet way: that can happen, can’t it? And yet she continues, in spite of and around her new limitations, to live a beautiful life.

Though she clearly had friends and companions along the way (one, unmentioned but seen on a snowy mountainside, is a dude), Miss Rumphius remains unmarried and childless and apparently comfortable with the oddness that would have surrounded this situation for a women of her time. In fact, she goes on to be known as “that crazy old lady” due to her carefree pursuit of aesthetic expression (in the form of planting thousands and thousands of lupines across the countryside). At the end, our young narrator herself is given the task of making the world a more beautiful place. How will she do it?

And how, reader, the implication goes, will you?

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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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Girls, Boys and Books

“It is a good rule after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”

::C.S. Lewis

I had a friend whose grandmother was a bit of an icon in the early Feminist movement. She used to make frequent book recommendations for her granddaughter, who was a voracious and curious reader. Among them were a number of science fiction novels by the likes of John Wyndham (including Day of the Triffids, about a doomsday invasion of intelligent alien plants. It was a movie; knock yourself out). Reporting back to her grandmother, my friend asked how she could stand the way women were regarded in these novels, with their hoary gender roles and casual misogyny. Mostly, she wanted to know what to make of the absence of women as protagonists or characters with agency. Her grandmother replied with genuine surprise: she said she had never noticed, because she just identified with the male characters.

I have always kept that in mind as my daughters begin to read widely across genres. The fact is, books written in the past reflect the political and cultural limitations in which they were written (and for some reason science fiction, supposedly dealing with the future and the perfection of human societies, tends to be the worst offender). There’s no way around it, really.

Driving around today, we were listening to an audiobook my wife had selected because it was Fourth of July-themed: a recent book about a girl growing up in the era of the American Revolution. In the book, our young heroine neglects her studies, her housework and her etiquette and her baking–in fact, all the markers of femininity in the 18th Century–in favor of more “boyish” pursuits (namely, mud and horses). Which is fine, because surely there were tomboys in every age. But this is a marker of contemporary historical fiction written for girls and young women: in order for modern readers to identify with the protagonist, the assumption goes, she will have to escape or reject the gender roles we now regard as confining (in some cases literally: these women don’t wear corsets). But as my wife pointed out, there were many ways for girls and women to be strong in the lives and times in which they lived. It is unfortunate that today’s writers and publishers don’t trust that we can go there.

And let me be clear that there is nothing wrong with swashbuckling heroines. My daughters will meet Katniss soon enough, and I am sure they will get along. But in new fiction for young people they are crowding out all the regular girls.

One solution in the interest of widening the experience of girlhood in literature is to go backwards. Books about girls written a century or more ago–including heavy hitters Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, the Little House books, and as they get a bit older, invincible O.G. Jane Austen–are about girls who live as girls, and grow up to live as women, within the circumstances of their time and place. There is much of value to be gained from this.

What else are they reading, as long as we are rummaging about in the past for entertainment? Robinson Crusoe! The Three Musketeers. Around the World in 80 Days. These stories have hardly a girl among them, but it’s okay. Like my friend’s grandmother, they see themselves. After all, they’re only human.

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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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How Do We Even Know Anything About Parenting?

Okay, so this piece from Longreads, My Bad Parenting Advice Addiction, is pretty funny (be advised of a single strategic use of profanity within). In the essay Emily Gould spends the first few months of her new motherhood desperately reading parenting books. She finds, as one would, that there are rough schools of thought around parenting practices that cancel out, if not fiercely oppose, others. Without pledging loyalty to one camp or another, then, it can be mighty hard to find a way forward that isn’t mined with confusion and contradictions. Gould explains her dilemma in this way: “There seemed to be only two options: to raise a patchouli-scented wild child, or to engineer a dead-souled automaton whose early ‘sleep training’ paved the way for a lifetime of blind obedience.”

Of course, it isn’t really like that. As someone who participated in a fair amount of attachment parenting (holding our babies or slinging them, breastfeeding, co-sleeping) I find this assessment of the movement, as embodied in print by the prolific Dr. Sears, to be unfair, if kind of hilarious: “Critics of this approach tend to assume that there is a natural progression from babies who can’t fall asleep unless they’re rocked and nursed and cuddled up next to their parents, to children who are going to scamper all over a restaurant, ignoring their parents’ weak-willed cries of ‘Rowan, please sit back down!’ Wrap carriers, food co-op membership, hollow-eyed mothers whose looks and dreams have drowned in an ocean of their own breast-milk—these are the things, rightly or wrongly, that most people associate with ‘attachment’ parenting.”

I can certainly understand Gould’s feeling of being overwhelmed and bullied by so much disparate parenting advice. She claims to have read 25 parenting books in a row, which strikes me as fairly reasonable (she does not mention looking at parenting blogs, forums, social media groups, or other online sources; this means either that she was careful to keep herself out of that endless swirl of potential madness or that she just didn’t want to talk about it).

What Gould highlights in her entertaining and often insightful piece is how difficult it is for a parent to find what works for them. There are no lack of authors, experts, companies, organizations and agencies who are ready and willing to dump advice on us (and in the process, generally make us feel as if we are failing and/or totally irresponsible if we don’t follow their path or buy their product). There is certainly nothing wrong with reading books and taking what we find to be useful. And no parent can be expected (heck, is even able) to go all in with one particular method or another.

Rather, what Emily Gould leaves smartly between the lines of her essay is that instead of turning to experts on how to raise our own children, we ultimately have to just get to know them, and figure it out, day by difficult day.

Much easier to read a bunch of books, right?

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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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In Defense of Screenless Media

I have written on various occasions, including recently, about screen time for children and exactly how much we should freak out about it. As much as I’d like all our kids to be able to spend their days in the outdoors, collecting songbird feathers and building hideouts out of sticks and moss, the fact is that we mostly live indoors, and inside those places we need to cook dinner and study for online classes and stuff. And while we’re doing those things, it can be VERY USEFUL for our children to be occupied with a movie/video game/computerized learning opportunity.

What if, like Morpheus, I told you that there is a third way. A screenless form of media that can be engaging, educational AND leave you with time to collect your thoughts, do chores, and/or catch up on important parenting-related social media discussions.

They call it…an audiobook.

Yes, audiobooks have been around for a while. Prior to their digital incarnation on platforms like Audible, they used to be called (depending on how far back you want to go) “books on tape,” “radio plays,” or “a person telling a story to some other people.”

We use audiobooks heavily in our already book-crammed household. We started the same way I would recommend you starting out, which was to check out CDs from the public library. I believe we started with The Chronicles of Narnia and never looked back.

There continues to be a fierce debate over the value of audiobooks versus the paper kind (and that’s without even pulling ebooks into it). The jury is out over whether listening to a book “counts” as reading it: and this is grown adults arguing about these things. I would certainly expect to hear the objection that children are missing out on crucial literacy skills if they can’t see the words on the page. And I get that. I think children should have real books as well. Tons of them.

Excellent. So let’s move on. Here are some advantages to be found in audiobook listening.

  • Vocabulary expansion. Case in point: last night my six year-old told her sister, “I hope you can overcome the ominousness of going potty,” before giggling at length to herself. Audiobooks.
  • Storytelling is at the heart of literacy. We have words in order to tell each other stories (as well as to warn about sabertooth tigers, I’m sure). We can practice many crucial prereading skills using audiobooks, such as oral language, phonological awareness and listening comprehension. Kids will also learn the structure of stories and the many arcs of meaning embedded in how language is put together.
  • Listening to a story leaves room in the brain (my scientific term) to engage in other activities. My kids like to draw, build with blocks or work with modeling clay while an audiobook is on.
  • Accents. I’m not sure if this is more advantage than warning. Many of the books we listen to are read by British performers, and I’m afraid this has left its mark on the kids’ verbal development. I can tell when my ten year-old is upset about something when she starts to mumble in a posh English accent. And they can all do a passable Irish brogue, a thing I cannot claim for myself.

Finally, while your children are absorbed in an audiobook, you may be able to go in the bathroom by yourself. Have I sold it?

 

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