What’s So Funny?

I remember the first time one of my children made a joke. My eldest daughter was barely a year old. She placed an empty bowl, with firm deliberation, upside down on her head, and said, “Hat?”

Now they all groan at what they have identified as “dad jokes.” Or as the youngest one syllogises, “Dad jokes are bad jokes. Are all bad jokes dad jokes?”

I love that they want to talk about comedy, about how it’s made. The middle one asked me, “What makes a joke a joke?” We worked it through together:

 

A joke is a joke if:

a. You meant it to be funny; AND

b. Someone else takes it to be funny.

If b. but not a., it’s probably not nice to laugh.

Corollary: if b. but not a., you as the (non)joker reserves the right to later use it as a joke, on purpose.

If a. and not b., it is probably not a good joke (unless your Dad tells it, in which case his judgement is gold).

If a. AND b., it’s officially a joke.

 

Humor and child development are like this. Sorry, you can’t see my fingers stuck together.

When your child suddenly finds peek-a-boo hilarious, you know that they’ve crossed a cognitive threshold: object permanence has moved into place. The child understands that it’s you, still existing, behind your hand, and finds your futile attempt to hide hilariously pathetic.

At least, that’s how I understand it.

 

Later, as verbal and logical functioning revs up to higher levels, more sophisticated jokes, based on discrepancies between facts and perceptions, come into play.

I knew a 10 year-old who found this joke so brilliant she repeated it with maddening regularity: “Two muffins were sitting in an oven. One said, ‘Is it getting hot in here?’ The other said, ‘Oh my god! It’s a talking muffin!'” That one stayed funny for a while.

 

Now in my house we’re going meta, discussing joke mechanics.

And just last week my oldest, now 13, left a note for my on top of the dinner dishes:

Hurrgh rurg arrook (Wookie for “I love you”).

 

Not as good as the one about the hat, but how could you top that?

 

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Disparate Youth

Sullen tee w/dad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks to Santigold for the title of this post.

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The Intake

Here’s something that I didn’t expect to come up. I took my eldest daughter (age 12) to establish care with her new pediatrician. Though she had one when she was younger, she doesn’t really remember; lately when she needed a doctor we have taken her to urgent care. So this was new territory. She liked the idea of having a doctor who knew her and would know her needs over time, and I emphasized that if she didn’t feel comfortable with this one we could find another.

All was well until we started filling out the intake paperwork. I had my own to complete, so I was distracted when she asked me something about taking prescription drugs. I reminded her that the only prescription she had was her asthma inhaler.

Turns out, that wasn’t what she was asking. She was puzzling over a list of questions about drug use: as in, has she ever used prescription drugs that were prescribed to someone else? Once I pointed it out, she asked what to do about the answer she had already marked (“sometimes”) now that she had changed it to “never.” She seemed agitated, and I assumed it was because she didn’t like the look of a crossed-out response on what was evidently some sort of test.

I turned back to my own paperwork until I heard her say to herself, “Bath salts? I’ve done that a few times.” I intervened, maybe a little abruptly. “Just put ‘never.’ I’ll explain later.”

The appointment went well, I thought. I don’t think anyone, much less a 12 year-old girl, wants to be present for a discussion of her body mass index. But the doctor was very nice and respectful and my daughter decided to keep her.

We went about our day, joining the rest of the family for lunch, a hike, and a trip to the library. It wasn’t until we got home that I learned she couldn’t stop thinking about that drugs questionnaire. For one thing, she was dismayed that her hastily changed response about prescription drugs would be seen as suspicious, and worse, would be part of permanent medical record.

But that wasn’t all. She was upset that the abuse of these myriad drugs was prominent enough to merit a questionnaire to begin with. She said she didn’t know there were “so many bad things in the world.”

I was taken aback. Of course she didn’t know about those things. Where would she learn about them? At least, without attending public school? More importantly, what should she know? And when?

I went on the internet to look for answers. This was not my first mistake; nor would it be my last. A google search for “How to talk to kids about drugs” brought up a slew of articles about how to keep your kids from using drugs; how to tell if they (or their friends) were using drugs; how to stop them if they were.

Nothing about how to teach kids about drug use in our society for those who otherwise would not know about it (or at least, given that there is hardly a family untouched by it somehow, would not recognize it when they saw it).

How come? I need to dig deeper. I’ll share what I find next week. And please, if you have some answers, please share with us.

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Some Class

 

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

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

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

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

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

Starting this week, they are offering three separate classes.

On Wednesday:

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

Thursdays feature two classes:

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

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

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

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

Hope to see you there!

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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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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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Parenting Made Easy

Why, hello! I wanted to take the opportunity this week to share one of the most valuable resources out there for families in the Valley. The wonderful Community Services Consortium has put together a handbook of information on services for folks in Linn, Benton and Lincoln Counties, and it has been my secret weapon in working with local families.

I don’t know who did all the work to put this thing together, but I would like to thank her/him/them for making my job so much easier. The handbook covers resources like housing, financial assistance, medical and dental, parenting education, pre- and postnatal services, clothing and food boxes, childcare, and just about anything else you can think of.

So, print it out and staple it, keep it on your phone, share it with friends. It’s too good to keep secret.

Now what are you waiting for? Go out there and keep on parenting!

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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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Parent as Accessory

As parents, we want to be able to talk to our children: to give advice, to impart discipline, to encourage and challenge and teach them. As they become teenagers we may find that this is no longer as easy as it once was. We may even find that they don’t seem to want it. Our teenagers may become surly, evasive, and strangely quiet (at least around us). They may even seem to avoid conversation altogether. But recent research supports the notion that they still need us as much as ever.

There are a lot of resources for how to continue to talk to kids as they get older. One I can recommend highly is the book How to Talk So Teens Will Listen and Listen So Teens Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. But as valuable as it is to continue to make the effort–sometimes meeting them more than halfway–it is especially helpful to just be…hanging around.

A recent article in the New York Times is entitled, charmingly, “What Do Teenagers Want? Potted Plant Parents.”  It suggests that there is value in being present for our teenaged children no matter what signals we may be getting from them. In the article, Lisa Damour writes:

“Many parents feel that their adolescents hardly need them anymore. Teenagers often come and go on their own schedules, sometimes rebuff our friendly questions about their days, and can give the impression that interacting with the family is an imposition that comes at the cost of connecting, digitally or otherwise, with friends.

So here’s a complaint one might not expect to hear from teenagers: They wish their parents were around more often.”

It has long been known that it is important to an adolescent’s well-being for parents to be home when they return from school, and to share meals together if at all possible (as long as you don’t ask, apparently, “How was school?“). But as Damour explains, when you are home together it can be enough to be a physical presence in the room. “In other words, it’s great if you and your adolescent get along well with each other, but even if you don’t, your uneasy presence is better for your teenager than your physical absence.” Teenagers find comfort and safety in this presence, and if we are consistently around it is that much more likely that they will come to us when they need to.

In this, as in many other aspects, the emotional makeup of a teen is much like a toddler. Writes Damour, “Ideally, children use their parents as a safe and dependable base from which to explore the world and exert their autonomy. Indeed, studies tell us that securely attached toddlers quietly track their parents’ movements from room to room, even while carrying on with their own activities.”

So, it’s great to be a counselor or a wise elder or even a shoulder to lean on. But sometimes the best thing we can do is to just be an accessory. Who knows? Maybe eventually they’ll get curious and start pushing buttons.

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