A Parent’s Search for Meaning

Viktor Frankl, in his influential book Man’s Search for Meaning, drew from his experience as a prisoner in the concentration camps at Auschwitz to assert (and I don’t think anyone would argue) that the way in which we approach our lives determines our ability to find fulfillment and purpose within it.

He writes, “What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our question must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

This conclusion is echoed by the Existentialist philosopher Albert Camus, who in his long-form essay The Myth of Sisyphus attempts to imagine what motivates the king from Greek mythology whose eternal punishment in the afterlife was to labor to push a huge boulder up a hill, near the peak of which it would inevitably slip through his hands and roll back down to the bottom. Camus argues that, when faced with even incredible, incomprehensible hardship (such as that lived by Frankl, above), we must use direct our free will to the conclusion that “The struggle itself […] is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Finally, noted (to me, anyway) writer Jeremy Anderberg, in the great blog that everyone should read, The Art of Manliness, lists a few of the many character-building aspects of fatherhood before hitting on this discovery of meaning. He concludes:

“No matter your position in life — CEO, cubicle automaton, day laborer, stay-at-home dad, entrepreneur, freelancer, trade worker, unemployed — it’s very possible, perhaps even probable, that your greatest, most important role in life will be that of parent. Of provider. Of protector. Of wisdom-purveyor. What that looks like can vary widely from man to man, but have no doubt that raising and loving your children well is one of the most significant things you will do in life.”

Parenting, as you know, can be joyful and full of fun and mirth. It can also be grinding, harrowing, even absurd, and in the march of sleepless nights and seeming lack of evidence that our children are learning or even paying attention, it can be hard to find the motivation to be nurturing, patient, humble and persistent in our work. That’s when we must let the struggle be enough to fill our hearts. Unlike Sisyphus, however, we will experience the joy, the fun, the mirth, if not over this hill, then over the next, or the next.

A final thought, from Frank Pittman, author of Man Enough: Fathers, Sons, and the Search for Masculinity:

“These guys who fear becoming fathers don’t understand that fathering is not something perfect men do, but something that perfects the man. The end product of childraising is not the child but the parent.”

Share

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?

Share

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.

Share

The Episode One

Hello, parents and caregivers! I just wanted to check in from my vacation to let you know that the unthinkable has happened. No, not that. And not that either, although…

I’ll tell you. What happened is that, contrary to the vow I declared upon first seeing it in June of 1999, I gave Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace another viewing. I’m not sure how much my perspective on the film has changed since then. Let’s just aside the considerable baggage of how George Lucas’ revisit of my childhood myths felt like a airless and tone-deaf repackaging (what helped me with this, as you may remember, was the much more airy and pitch-perfect repackaging of my childhood myths in the two recent films).

No, I understand that in the new Disney Lucasfilm reality, the prequels are canon, so I’d better learn to appreciate them. I still think that Episode I is muddled, flat, overplotted, undercharacterized, unevenly acted, and full of pointless connections and diversions (midichlorians, anyone? Plus, Anakin owned R2-D2 and built C-3PO but later, as [spoiler] Darth Vader, doesn’t seem to recognize them? Also, the kid was immaculately conceived by the Force? How did I miss that line? Etc).

Whatever. The difference this time is that I watched it with my kids, so I watched it with their eyes. And their eyes found it engaging and exciting and loved the expansion of the universe of the series. More crucially, they eyes found Jar-Jar Binks both hilarious and charming. And there is nothing I can say to that.

Just move on with my life and be a grownup.

Share

Between the Brick Wall and the Jellyfish

As we experience the rise of authoritarian regimes around the world, please read carefully as I suggest that what we need is more authoritative ones.

That suffix makes all the difference, even according to Google’s dictionary function : an authoritarian is one who goes around “favoring or enforcing strict obedience to authority, especially that of the government, at the expense of personal freedom.” One who is authoritative, on the other hand, is “commanding and self-confident; likely to be respected and obeyed.”

These are also, as you may know, two of the three parenting styles identified by psychologist Diana Baumrind back in the 1960s.

As venerable as they are, Baumrind’s observations are still widely cited in research today. They break down as follows:

The Authoritarian, or Brick Wall, parent works from a model of rules and convictions to which the child is expected to conform. Because children (much like adults) are all different and have changing needs and temperaments, this does not tend to work very well. Therefore, the Authoritarian parent is compelled to use punishment and force to make it happen. This parent wants obedience and respect, and while the application of “power over” others can generate the former, at least in the short term, the future relationship will hold disillusionment, resentment and possibly trauma.

The Permissive parent, therefore, moves as far from this model as possible, at the cost of providing too little structure and guidance. The child’s response to this Jellyfish parent is that she hungers for limits and healthy boundaries and has no one able to guide them through the vicissitudes of growing up. This is problematic enough; in addition, though, when the chips are down the Jellyfish will often snap, in a panic, into Brick Wall mode.

The healthy middle way is undertaken by the Authoritative parent. Unlike the Permissive parent he has clear rules and limits and is willing to hold them; unlike the Authoritarian, she is sensitive to the cues and adaptive to the needs of the child as they present themselves. The Authoritarian provides choices when appropriate and sets limits when needed. He also “encourages verbal give and take, shares with the child the reasoning behind her policy, and solicits his objections when he refuses to conform. Both autonomous self-will and disciplined conformity are valued.”

The Authoritative parent is like a spine: firm, strong and upright, yet flexible. I urge you to stand with other vertebrate parents in their important work.

Share

The Case of The Pillow

Here’s something that happened.

My second youngest daughter, the quintessential middle child, was turning nine. I, who have never walked by a Star Wars branded product I didn’t stop to examine, came across a pillow case that I thought would be a perfect addition to her bedroom array which includes the following:

One (1) poster from the Whiteside revival showing of Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl;

One (1) giant poster of a kitty from a kids’ magazine that reads “Keep Your Head Up,” though my daughter doesn’t understand why it needs to say that;

One (1) color copy of the cover of a Princess Leia comic, given to her by her dad, depicting the character standing over a dispatched storm trooper with a smoking blaster;

One (1) drawing of Legolas the elf and Gimli the dwarf from The Lord of the Rings, wrought by her second oldest sister;

Twenty-three (23) assorted stuffed kitties–including one (1) tiger–in a pile;

One (1) completed coloring page depicting Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia on Jabba’s sail barge.

Like I said, I thought that this pillow case I found at Target, featuring artwork from the original Star Wars: A New Hope film poster (the one that randomly added a pommel and cross-guard to Darth Vader’s lightsaber, I guess because it didn’t look enough like a sword?), would fit in nicely.

So, when the day came, I put the case on her pillow and left it for her to discover. When we got home that day we made up a pretense for her to enter her room. She came in, saw it immediately, said, “Hmmm,” and went about her business.

Later she sat next to me on the couch while I paged through a National Geographic. She began to cry softly. I have been parenting four daughters long enough to not overreact to this and just snuggled her closer. But I already had a pretty good idea of what was up.

Later I came into her room with her toothbrush and, gesturing to the pillow case, asked, “Do you like it, honey, or is it a little much?”

After a moment she replied, “A little,” and burst into tears.

For goodness’ sake, I said, it’s okay if she doesn’t like it. It doesn’t hurt my feelings!

I emphasized that if she got a gift from some other adult it was best to at least pretend that she liked it, but that she didn’t need to worry about that stuff with me. I appreciate that she likes what she likes. Once she understood that this was true, she felt better.

And really, it doesn’t hurt my feelings. What could be better than knowing that she takes our shared fandom very seriously?

 

Share

Danger Little Stranger

 

Last week I presented a lightly “humorous” take on the products that babies and toddlers absolutely need (spoiler: not really many of them).  This week it’s serious. If quoting Iggy Pop lyrics doesn’t raise alarms for you, I don’t know what to do. So I’ll just tell you.

I wanted to follow up with a survey of products for infants and small children that are not only unnecessary, but downright dangerous.

Before we get into it, I just want to admit that researching this topic online was both disturbing and highly entertaining. If you would like to know about some of the specific products considered too ludicrously deadly to exist, help yourself. I won’t be mentioning them.

Having made a tally of the toys and accessories for babies that have drawn the most ire from pediatricians and safety experts, I give you the following:

Things in cribs. Really, there shouldn’t be anything in there with them. No pillows, nor blankets, nor Grandma’s handmade quilt. No plush toys, no soft bumper pads. All of these things can asphyxiate or strangle.

Also, any vintage cribs. The slats are too far apart. As someone who once watched a toddler (not my own) get his head stuck in a dollhouse, you can imagine the concern with this.

Magnets. Because they stick together. If they can be swallowed…again, use your imagination.

Anything with small parts or pieces that can be removed or broken. This is where the minimum age labels come in handy. Look, we all love Legos, even after we step on them with bare feet. But if anyone in the house is still inclined to stick things in their mouth (aka the toddler research lab), please save them for later.

Walkers. These things a.) don’t help babies develop walking muscles sooner; in fact, they’ve been found to do the opposite, and b.) have a tendency to go down stairs and/or trap children under or against other dangerous things (hot stoves, wolves). Canada banned them 14 years ago, and we know Canada is smart. And good looking.

Bumbo seats. I have a personal vendetta against these multiply-recalled baby tippers. Putting a belt on it isn’t going to make it any safer if they fall off a table or simply tumble over backward, pinning babies underneath.

Really, if you feel the urge to just pick up a baby and carry it around, sniffing its head, that’s probably the way to go. Trust your instincts.

 

Share

What Do Babies Need?

I.  What is the most crucial accessory for an infant less than one year?

a.) a swing.

b.) a jumper.

c.) Baby Einstein.

d.) Baby Hawking.

e.) none of the above.

 

II. Which of the following are absolutely essential for stimulating physical and motor development?

a.) gym and play mat.

b.) gym and play mat that plays music.

c.) gym and play mat that plays music and transmits pattern recognition scores directly to baby’s projected future school district office.

d.) one of them I made up. The first one? I don’t remember.

 

III. What is the best and most reliable way to handle a toddler who says “no?”

a.) no.

b.) No!

c.) Noo no no no no NO.

d.) NOOOOOOOOOOOO.

 

IV. How often is too often to hold an infant without spoiling it?

a.) 10 minutes for every hour until 8 months.

b.) After lunch.

c.) Seasonally.

d.) You see where I’m going with this post, don’t you?

 

V. It is amazing that we survived for so long as a species without:

a.) The teether-rattler combo.

b.) This blog.

c.) Baby wipes.

d.) Actually, it’s baby wipes.

e.) I’m not joking.

Share

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.

Share

Give and Take

Among the nearly 2 billion humans* who observe Lent, there is an imperative, or at least an ideal, to which to aspire: to give as much as possible during this time. The idea is that all those fewer hamburgers and milkshakes (or whatever else you may be giving up) should free up extra funds for those less fortunate.

That’s always a good idea, and it’s certainly needed in these difficult financial times. There are over 20,000 charitable organizations registered in the state of Oregon, and all of them can use our help. There’s nothing wrong with a tax deduction, either.

But what if I were to suggest that it’s at least as important to use these services for your own family, if you have a need? Is there any point to accept help at the same time we’re offering it? Don’t these actions cancel one another out?

Consider that all of those organizations, whatever their size or focus, depend on the reporting of numbers for their continued operation and expansion. We know the need is out there, as 45 million Americans are still living below the poverty line (the measurement of which has itself been criticized as failing to present the extent of American poverty). But in many of these organizations, the resources are not finding themselves in the hands of families that need them. This is particularly true of food, much of which is wasted as it expires or otherwise fails to reach its intended recipients.

The way it works, in the economics of nonprofit, is that the more people they serve, the more they are able to serve. After all, they are built to serve, and they succeed when the families who need help know about their services and partake of them.

So, if you are a family, like mine, that sometimes finds it challenging to make ends meet, there are two imperatives to follow: give what you can, and accept what you need.

 

*Current estimate is 1.29 billion Catholics and 250 million Eastern Orthodox. This is not to mention between 14 and 18 million in Judaism ,  1.8 billion in Islam,  or 1.15 billion in Hinduism, all of which place a special emphasis on charitable giving.

Share