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?

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?

 

Home for the Holidays (Postscript)

Happy New Year, everyone!

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about taking an extended vacation at home with my family. I wasn’t sure how it would work to have crash-landed into what, in my house, is a pretty stable set of routines and rhythms. I also saw a parallel between my experience of being at home in a homeschooling family and having kids home from school for the long haul (I understand, from social media, my own childhood, etc, that sometimes the haul seems looong for parents).

So, how did it go? I’m sitting here in the middle of the last day before work (weather permitting) and I have to say, quite peachy, thank you. Luckily my interventions in cooking, dishes and errands were well received. I now have a greater appreciation for just how difficult it is for a homeschooling mom to be “on” at all times. I would now like to arrange for a full-time teaching assistant as we start the new year. Any takers? I’m not paying.

I also learned that two weeks is a long time. As in, it is quite possible to settle into new routines in that time. Do I have a job? Do I know anyone else? I’m still going to be able to read two books a week, right?

What I’m worried about now (because there has to be something) is how we will all get back on track now that I’ve fixed my ship and I’m leaving the planet. Transitions are always difficult.

Plus, I’ve been sleeping in every morning until at least 7:00. Sinful!

The Family Taste

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A while ago, I wrote as a music geek about which music I’ve introduced to my kids, and which I haven’t. As I mentioned, I disagree with a lot of my peers who find it important to pass along their “good” taste to their children. In our house, music tends to be functional rather than ornamental: I play the same recording of Mozart Violin Concertos (by Kremerata Baltica, in case you were wondering) pretty much every Saturday morning, because of the way it tends to complement quiet productivity. And my current go-to bedtime music is From Sleep by composer Max Richter: it is literally music made to sleep to. And as a further sleep aid I have dug up my Buddha Machine, which plays repeated short loops of ambient music. This recently backfired when my nine year-0ld pointed out that something was wrong with the Buddha: “Dad, can’t you hear that undercurrent of dread?” Turns out the battery was running down.

For the most part, we try to let our kids find their own taste, in music as with books (we tend to keep a tight reign on what they watch, which is maybe another post). Having come across this article, however, I’ve been thinking some more about the topic. I was struck in particular by the pull quote from the piece by film critic Peter Bradshaw, which read “Watch a movie with a five-year-old and it becomes more potent.” Though they tend to cycle through a collection of favorites, mostly Disney fare, or shows like The Magic School Bus–whose value I acknowledge, though it makes me want to rip my eyeballs out–there are a few films I will always watch with them. Last weekend, at home alone with the kids, we sat in a pile and watched Muppet Treasure Island. Yesterday it was The Princess Bride*. I realized that these films had taken on a special significance for my kids because of the fact that I was present with them. I hadn’t meant them to take on this weight, but it happened anyway. I don’t think I could have done it on purpose.

A similar thing happened with The Lord of the Rings (the books, not the movies) because I had been saving a boxed set of the trilogy for years, in case my eldest daughter wanted to read them. They had become a long-time topic of conversation, and by the time she had come of age (we had decided she would have to be in double digits), she couldn’t wait another minute. By now she’s worn the bindings off the original set and the new ones aren’t long for this world. I feel proud and nerdily triumphant that she loves the books so much, but here’s the irony: I’ve never gotten through them myself.

A few months ago, on a whim, I took home a Tintin book to show to my girls. For those not familiar, The Adventures of Tintin is a series of boys’ comics published in French in the 1960s and translated into Enlish. I had checked them all out from my school library and they still hold nostalgic real estate in my heart. My kids had not been introduced to comics (though they had discovered Garfield, which was probably inevitable), so I thought this might be a good way in. All four of my daughters, from age five on up, jumped in immediately. Now it’s all Tintin all the time. This had been a casual experiment, but it was wildly successful; so much so that I’m getting a bit worried.

I still haven’t touched Star Wars. But I’ll keep you posted.

*I fast-forward through the Wesley torture scenes, by covenant with my wife; however, I still let them see Inigo Montoya take his bloody vengeance. Someday we will be able to talk about the moral problems of revenge. But not now.

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.

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

Just Playing

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In the novel The Remains of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (made into a film starring Anthony Hopkins), the protagonist, an extremely dignified but emotionally repressed English butler, resolves to learn the art of bantering in order to better relate to his cheeky American employer. Observing a group of strangers who are soon talking and laughing together as friends, the butler writes, “It is curious how people can build such warmth among themselves so swiftly… Listening to them now, I can hear them exchange one bantering remark after another. It is, I would suppose, the way many people like to proceed…Perhaps it is indeed time I began to look at this whole matter of bantering more enthusiastically.”

For similar reasons, when I am working with a family and meeting kids who are unfamiliar to me, the first thing I often do is invite them to play a card game (a favorite, which I learned at a residential treatment facility for children, is King’s Corners). I have found that it is the quickest and most efficient way to put a young stranger at ease. Perhaps more importantly, it allows me to talk to them in a comfortable, casual and gently joking way (in other words, to banter) that forms an instant sort of bond. It is then easier to draw the parents, who may be feeling the weight of their own expectations and anxieties, into this comfort zone as well.

I encourage parents to do this in their own families. Kids want to spend time with their parents, and playing card games, board games, charades, etc. (there are a variety of games appropriate for every age level) is a safe, pressure-free way to teach, converse, encourage, make jokes, and practice skills and simply, as I said, to be together. Which is always a valuable thing.

The benefits of playing games with our kids are many and varied. According to this article on the Scholastic website, games that are designed “only” for fun are also rich in educational opportunities:

They satisfy your child’s competitive urges and the desire to master new skills and concepts, such as:

  • number and shape recognition, grouping, and counting
  • letter recognition and reading
  • visual perception and color recognition
  • eye-hand coordination and manual dexterity

The aptly named Geek Dad identifies some of the higher level skills that occur while playing games, among them Taking Turns, Thinking Ahead, learning Actions and Consequences, and Making Tough Choices. All of these skills are essential to social-emotional development and will serve kids well as adults finding their way in the world.

One thing I learned early on is that kids know, always, when an adult is “letting them win.” I am of the opinion that this is not only unhelpful and deceptive, but can actually get in the way of practicing those other skills. I was pleased to find support for this elsewhere. Also, I like to win as much as the next guy. But somehow, it doesn’t always turn out that way. If nothing else, I can keep working on my bantering skills.

The Good Stuff

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As adult parents, we tend to expend a lot of thought and energy on the way our parents raised us, and much of this is focused on the negative. We are determined to do things differently with our children, to avoid the mistakes our parents made with us. Of course our parents made mistakes, assuming they were human (we’ll go with that assumption). And of course we are making our own mistakes. Sometimes we’re okay with that as long as they’re different mistakes.

I know that I do this. That’s why I wanted to take some time to focus on some of the things my parents did right, and that I am glad to pass along to my own children (keeping in mind that those right things may or may not have come about any more deliberately than the things that didn’t work. After all, if parenting is a science it’s certainly not an exact one).

Here are some things I appreciated and remembered from my own experience as a child, and that I hope to honor by passing along.

You’re welcome to eat what is being served. That’s really up to you. The sticking point with me was onions. They appeared in spaghetti sauce, they featured in meatloaf. When we ordered pizza, they were practically the star. Given that I loved all of those items, I learned to make peace with them, or do the work of moving them out of the way. This can also be translated as “not every meal can be your favorite.” After all, we know there will always be food next time.

Go play outside. Really. Spend a lot of time outside. Have fun. I’ll call you in for supper.

Let ‘em read. He seems to be really into that book. And he’s quiet, and not destroying anything. And yes, we’ll go to the library today. And yes, you obviously can’t live without your 37th Choose Your Own Adventure book. It’s not up to me to be a critic.

Wash your feet.

Here is something my dad actually said: “Whatever you do with your life, make sure that it’s something you love to do.”

And here’s something my mom told me, or at least this is how I remember it: “I worry about things a lot too. But if there’s something I can do about it, I know I’ll find a solution. And if there’s nothing I can do, there’s no point in worrying.”

And: “I love you.”

Reading Ahead

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I’m about to come across as not only a curmudgeon, but a hypocrite. Let me explain.

I learned to read quite early. I credit the constant presence of books and, of course, Sesame Street for helping me along with this. And as soon as I could I started reaching for books that were way beyond my emotional maturity. I may have been able to read, as an eight year-old, my dad’s James Bond and Conan novels, but I was not able to process them. This trend continued as I grew up, with the result that I had “book knowledge” of the adult realm of drugs, sex and the intricacies of suffering that I was in no way prepared to live in reality. If I always felt that I was getting away with something, it’s because I was. Only in later years—and especially now that I’m a parent—did I realize that, rather than gaining something from my transgressions, I actually gave up a fair bit of my childhood.

Things are different now after the explosion of what is now called Young Adult literature, or YA. Spurred on by the success of the (wonderful) Harry Potter novels, the category of books featuring adolescent protagonists, largely under the umbrella of science fiction, horror and fantasy but sometimes taking in historical fiction or even stark realism, increased exponentially. As with most styles in popular art, some of it is brilliant, much of it quite good, and most mediocre to awful (this is not the place for me to weigh in on the relative merits of YA books you have probably heard of and/or read).

The new thing about this, and something I have been noticing more and more, is how often younger readers have been encouraged to pick up YA books under the assumption that, since they are not adult books, it is always a good idea for kids to read them. But more than ever before, there is such a wide spectrum of psychological and emotional content, relationship and identity issues in YA literature that it is risky to assume that a given book is appropriate for your young reader simply because of the section of the library or bookstore it was found in.

Let me be clear: the concern here is not that there are books that address all of these things, or that kids may benefit greatly from finding them portrayed in fiction, because both of these are, I think, very good things. The issue is that readers who may be intellectually, but not emotionally, ready to take on particular subject matter will at best not get anything out of it (as I came up empty with the adventures of James Bond) and come away with confusion or misunderstanding, and at worst could be traumatized. Heck, even the Harry Potter series becomes increasingly dark and emotionally complex as its characters age toward adulthood.

As a result, it’s more important than ever for parents to be aware of what their children are reading. There are summaries and reviews online for every book that’s out there, though this can be overwhelming if you don’t know where to look (in my experience nothing is more full of contradictions that two reviews of the same novel). A reliable place for this information is Common Sense Media, a website offering “independent reviews, age ratings, & other information about all types of media.”

Another great way to find out about what our kids are taking in is much more low tech. You can take a look at the book, of course: read the jacket copy and see if there is a recommended age range. Skim it if you can. Or better yet, talk to them about it!

How to Throw Like a Dad

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I’ve been thinking about what I’m passing along to my children. And what I’m not. There is some pride in the former and a fair bit of panic in the latter. I’ll explain.

My wife and I are big readers. We both started reading at an early age, and in recent years we have made concerted efforts to supplement our smartphone addictions (an affliction of life in the 21st Century) with the presence of real books. The girls have always been surrounded by books, and we make vigorous use of our Audible account; both car rides and afternoons at home are full of audiobooks. As a result, books are an important part of their lives. The eight and ten year-old have read the Narnia series several times through, and are currently both working their way through The Lord of the Rings (this especially impresses me because I know they’re tough going; I’ve never been able to get through them myself).

Another thing I know they have down is art. I’m pretty sure this mostly comes from my wife’s contribution of genes, as she can pick up seemingly any project in any medium and excel at it. We have never scrimped on art supplies, and we give them ample time and freedom to create. A coworker has remarked—jokingly, I hope—that I must display my childrens’ drawings at work in order to shame other parents.

So, there are things my girls love to do that we have encouraged and enabled, and at which they show great skill and talent. This is good, right?

Last year I took my three oldest girls, champion readers that they are, to the culminating event of the library’s Summer Reading program. There were a variety of activities here, including crafts, games, karaoke, and, outside on the lawn, games of physical skill. It was while we were outside that I witnessed my eight year-old attempt to throw a ball at a target. To put it mildly, I was…surprised at her lack of skill in throwing. It immediately struck me (the thought, not the ball, though it was a close call) that I had never taught her to throw or catch properly. Of course, it next occurred to me that I was obviously a bad father.

I should mention that (apart from a good stretch in track & field in first grade) I have never been athletic. I grew up both physically and socially awkward; I was a nervous child. Twitchy, and not terribly coordinated. I was teased for my lack of ability and was never a preferred pick for any team captain. Needless to say, I was never a team captain. I finally learned to dribble a basketball (and make a basket) when I worked at a psychiatric facility for children. I learned from the children. I was in my mid-thirties by this time.

As the days start to lengthen and the idea of Spring starts to take root, I feel increasing urgency to teach my girls about sports. They are vigorous and active, and they love to be outside. They run, jump, and like to hurl chunks of rock into the river. They all love to swim and have had regular lessons. But unlike with reading and art, they have never seen athletics modeled in their family. Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, this has become an important issue for me.

So, going back to the idea of resolutions, I have decided it is time for me to buck up and start thinking in sports. I can’t wait to get a softball and glove, a basketball, a soccer ball, a Frisbee. Turns out that, once again, in thinking about what to teach my children they have something to teach me in return.