Saturday, October 28, 2006

Parenting for Now or Later?

I just found a great community blog, Working Parents, that resides at, that covers a wide variety of topics from a great group of men and women. Bookmark it and check it out!

As I was scanning, I found a post from Anne Tergesen offering perspective on the recent American Academy of Perdiatrics study I cited in a Dad in Progress: Media Distortionism of the Average American Family">previous post, citing the importance of just letting children play over always having structured activities.

Anne claims that what the AAP study suggests seems obvious to her, but that she also feels like she's the only mom in Manhattan to think it's obvious, since other families aren't acting this way.

Is it obvious?

I tend to think it is. But most parents don't take it on board and make it reality in their daily routines. Are we afraid that, even thought it makes sense, our kids may fall behind the others? Do we worry that we'll be judged for having kids who are only okay at kicking a ball, but who can effortlessly pull random objects together to tell a fantastic story or a great looking piece of art? Maybe we secretly resent letting our children roam free and explore their inner beings while we as parents are stuck in the frantic routine of work, life and housekeeping?

Let's face it: life is all about how we stack up. From the moment we're born, we enter a competitive race to hold our own, be heard, make a difference, achieve, develop, learn, succeed. We can't help but wonder how we compare to the guy next to us. Doctors and academics tell us how we rank against the national average. Surveys and studies try to place us into categories of "helicopter moms" and "slacker dads" and we allow ourselves to be defined in these ways.

So maybe sometimes we need to stay mindful of what we're developing our children toward, which in the short-term could easily be deemed "happy, healthy, normal children," but in the long-term is "confident, respected and successful person."

I often hear in my own workplace comments like "Her creativity, problem solving skills and ability to see the big picture helped her lead the team to a strong result." But I rarely hear "Gee, he is such a great soccer player."

Now, for my common closing message: it's ALWAYS about a balance. Some structure and some free time are, in my opinion, the best path forward. But, I do think sometimes we need to remind ourselves we're preparing children for life, and then recognize those things in our daily routines that really make people stand out as a guide for what we do now.

Learning to Let Out the Leash

We went to the Halloween dance at school last night: an annual event where the kids can trial their costumes, get groovy down in the gym dancing with friends and have paltry snacks in the school cafeteria.

We took the girls last year, and the year before, and usually ended up just sitting on the bleachers watching the older children have fun. So this year, as we were walking in, my wife and I looked at each other and I said "I hope we're not benchwarmers again this year."

But what happened isn't necessarily what I had wished least, what I was really wishing for.

After a few minutes of getting accustomed to the chaos, the low lighting and the loud music, we did end up on the bleachers for about 5 minutes. But then Skylar found a friend and ran off with her. And then Fiona found a friend and went off on her way. My wife was chatting with a couple of friends, and there I was, standing in the middle of the school gym dance wondering when my kids got old enough to run off on their own.

I was jumping back and forth between "It's okay...they're having fun...they need to explore" and "My God, I can't see them in this crowd...I don't know where they are...I hope they didn't slip on the floor...are they okay?" to "It's the school gym...nothing will happen...they know not to leave the gym without us...they can find us if they need us" to "When did I become this dad?

I was wishing not to warm a bench. And my wish came true. But I wasn't prepared for what that wish actually meant: my girls are going to need some space and I have to start trusting them (and the rest of the world) to let them wander a little further.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Blasphemy and the Pumpkin Caper

Now I must admit, I am a master pumpkin carver. I have all the tools and gadgets for making the perfect pumpkins. My penchant runs deep. I remember being a pumpkin lover since I was young, when I spent hours sawing and scooping and carving and slicing. And my designs are never simple. So you can imagine my delight in finding a new battery powered pumpkin carving tool. I can't wait to try it out.

As a master carver, I have never really understood why people paint pumpkins. I've always thought it silly. That Jack is supposed to be a lantern, right? Can't put a candle glow inside a painted gourd!

But the other night, we put the vinyl cloth over the kitchen table and we all got down and dirty just painting those little baby pumpkins. I was twitching at the thought, and dying to just slice one of them open. But I watched the process, similar to carving, where each of us smirked and frowned as we tried to decide what to make of our pumpkin canvas.

My mother-in-law went micro scale and painted an intricate (and accurate!) little fence, a cat, a skeleton and a witch. The whole time, she was saying "I'm not creative. I don't know what to do." My wife hemmed and hawed for what seemed to be forever, stammering that she's not creative, before banging out a great looking cat. I jumped right in and started to paint a scarecrow head, which was coming along nicely until i realized yellow wouldn't show up to make the hair, so he ended up with black squiggly hair and looked like one of the Jackson Five -- maybe it was Tito.

But the girls, without any hesitation at all, jumped right in and started painting. Skylar painted a ghost and a witch on one, and then an elephant (!) on another. Fiona went a little Monet, smearing paint in all different colors, mixed with some pointillism and defined strokes as well. They were flawless masterpieces.

So what is it about being a child that makes you a quick and natural creator, while adults seem to hesitate, apologize for how stupidly uncreative we are, can't think of a thing to make, but then do something great that we downplay. What gives? Why do most adults admire creativity and creative people, but doubt their own ability as creators? Are we afraid it makes us seem eccentric? Childish? Why, for some, does creativity seem to equal vulnerability?

Maybe it's because creativity represents the unknown...something we can't explain and often we can't control. It's powerful and it can be overwhelming. But it's also a source of such pleasure, pride and accomplishment. Just watch a child when he or she is creating. Someone knitting a scarf or building a shelf. They're driven, focused, inspired, content. Yet most adults deny their power to create.

All I know is that we had some good fun getting creative. We laughed. We cheered each other on. We admired. We were happy.

But yes, one of us was still itching to bust out the double As and fire up the power carver.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Complacency and the Sweet Surprise

My oldest daughter had her first gymnastics meet this past weekend.

She got into her sparkly suit, mom did her hair just the right way and we packed in the van and headed to the gym.

We knew there would be a lot of people there, and we knew she was one of 6 or 7 different levels that would be meeting at the same time.

Typically, my daughter doesn't like crowds. So, as we were on the way into the gym, I looked at my wife and said "You know the problem with gymnastics for Skylar is that she's not a performer and she may not be able to do this." My wife agreed.

So after the first 2 hours of parade, warm-up and bar practice, it was time for her floor routine. She had been practicing it for weeks all over the house.

We watched her on the mat with her friends as they waited and I asked my wife if she had to do it alone or if the whole group did it together. She didn't know, but another mom overheard me and said "They each have a turn to do it solo."

I looked at my wife, raised my eyebrows and whispered "Oh well. I guess we won't see a show." She smiled and nodded in agreement.

So imagine our shock when the coach asked them who wanted to go first and Skylar raised her hand. I didn't have the camera ready. My wife and I looked at one another in utter disbelief.

She gave it a go, and she did beautifully. And I'm not just saying it because she's my girl. Others were commeting throughout her routine. She was so happy, smiling the whole time, bouncing around flawlessly on the mat. In front of about 200 people.

So, what's the point? I assumed I had my daughter all figured out, and I didn't believe she was up for the challenge. She didn't hear me utter any of those words, but maybe she knew in her heart. She proved me wrong. And it's now that I realize we spend so much time caring for our kids to the point that they become little people, and like the typical adults we are, we like to sum up, classify and categorize people so we can antcipate actions and reactions. But children grow and change every day, every minute.

I don't want to cheat my kids or myself again by assuming I ever really have them figured out. It's that mystery and that possibility that makes it all exciting. And made me feel so proud of her and so ashamed of myself.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

I Really Absolutely Positively Love This Series

Have you ever seen "Charlie and Lola" on Disney Channel? Or read one of Lauren Child's beautifully done books to your kids? I am completely smitten with Charlie and Lola, and I don't really know why.

Perhaps it's because:

- Cheeky and carefree little Lola reminds me so much of my youngest daughter
- Every mini episode is completely spot on with capturing the essence of being a curious, creative 4 year-old
- It depcits a positive interaction between brother and sister
- I adore hearing my little girls giggle and squeal throughout the entire show
- It makes my children ask questions and think further about what the show says
- It's simply a beautiful little show, packed with creative and colorful collage art and charming animation
- I just love their British accents
- I think Lola's friend Lotta's hair is awesome
- Lola's imaginary friend, Soren Lorenson, is peculiarly entertaining (and apparently Danish with that name!)
- The cute little dog's name is "Scissors"
- Lola's stuffed animal is a fox that she calls "Foxy"
- It's a great way for me to have fun spending time with my kids
- It makes me remember being a curious (and cheeky!) little boy
- It's one of the only things worth having DVR for (LOL)

I took my youngest to the Barnes and Noble the other day, and we bought 4 new Charlie and Lola books. And now, I've just stumbled across the website and spent about 45 minutes with my girls playing cute little games.

We're hooked, and if you're looking for some fun, lighthearted and educational activities, check it out!

Monday, October 09, 2006

Media Distortionism of the Average American Family

Po Bronson's essay in this week's TIME magazine takes an interesting look at how the media are quite possibly mainstreaming the niche when talking about today's "average" family, painting what almost becomes a Dali-esque view of family life that then is broadcast and interpreted by millions, as would that painting if hung at the Met.

Take for example, a story filed today by the Associated Press found on regarding a report from the American Academy of Pediatricians on giving kids more free time to play, instead of overscheduling them into different extracurricular activities.

Respected author and pediatrician, Dr. T. Barry Brazelton, said "Children overscheduled with structured activities are missing the chance they have to dream, to fantasize, to make their own world work the way they want it. That to me is a very important part of childhood."

Overscheduled children have been a media darling for a long time. As such, one would imagine the average American family portrait shows two harried parents, two or three run-ragged children in need of mental detox and burdened with extracurricular gear, strapped into the minivan and dashing from one place to another.

Until recently, overscheduling, as Brazelton points out, has been believed to be bad. But then, recently, I found that precursor to a new study that shows that overscheduling is actually a good thing for kids (see previous post).

Do I believe the pediatrician or the child development "experts?" Or do I throw in the towel and trust my own instincts as an expert in child rearing? Where does this seemingly schizophrenic view of families start? Where does it end?

A recent interview with Katie Couric reveals that part of her move to CBS stemmed from her craving something more important and serious than fluff news and segments designed to capture ratings points. She wanted to report on the things that matter.

Maybe this is why we find more solace and solidarity in reading each other's blogs than in reading the paper or watching the news. We want real information. We need validation or challenge from those we have found on our own to be kindred spirits, instead of being spoon fed what the media suppose is either what we want to read, see or hear, or, even better, that they think either reflects who we are or provides an aspirational motivation to achieve. I love to read what other dads (and moms!) are saying about their own experiences, because it's real. It's unapologetic and unassuming. And it's comforting to know we're all human and making mistakes as we go along...that hopefully we're learning from.

Regardless of where truth lies (and, for the record, I personally think it lies somewhere in between and should be a function part parental instinct and part what feels right for the family), the AP story did include some tips from the AAP for letting kids just play that are worth a read, if not some put into practice:
•Free play should be promoted as a healthy and essential part of childhood.

•Pediatricians can advocate for developing "safe spaces" where children can play and spend free time in impoverished neighborhoods.

•Overuse of "passive entertainment" including television and computer games should be avoided.

•"True toys" including dolls and blocks should be emphasized to allow children to use their imaginations fully.

•Pediatricians should help parents evaluate claims by marketers about products or programs designed to produce "super children."

•Spending time together talking and listening rather than loading kids up with extracurricular activities can help parents serve as role models and prepare children for success.

•Parents should be encouraged to avoid conveying an unrealistic expectation that every child needs to excel in many areas to be a success.

•Pediatricians should assess patients for symptoms of stress, including anxiety that may stem from being overscheduled with activities.

Giving kids a chance to explore who they are on their own time is what leads us to the dreamers and visionaries. Whether that's through painting and singing or Tae Kwon Do and youth hockey, who cares? As long as it feels right.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Social Science

I have come to the realization that our kids have better social lives than we do.

My older daughter has a ball at school, gets a different play date invite every week, has friends at gymnastics. My youngest, now that she has started school, is quickly following suit. Both are invited to birthday parties what seems like every weekend. Hell, my youngest is invited to two parties in one weekend.

And my wife and I sit around and watch HGTV on a Friday night. (By the way, who doesn't love that Suzanne Wong woman on House Hunters?)

Where in the flurry of life and careers and kids did we get lost?

Even when we're catching up with friends on the phone, we're half talking and half directing the kids. Ever talked to someone on the phone whose kids aren't in bed yet? Or gotten together with another family and had the kind of conversation that goes like this:
You: "So I was watching a show the other night...girls, please stop running in the house...and this guy was going on and on about...girls, are you jumping on the bed up there?...sorry about that, well he was talking about how..."

Him: "Hey guys, you shouldn't do that in someone else's house, come on now....sorry about that."

You: "No worries. Anyway, so he was saying..."

Girl #1: "Dad...Dad...Daddy...Dad...Daddy"

You: "Excuse me for a second...yes, honey, please remember to say excuse me if you need to interrupt when someone is talking..."

Girl #1: "Excuse me, daddy."

You: "What do you need?"

Girl #1: "Can I have some water, please?"

You: "Sure, honey, I'll get it....sorry, excuse me for a minute."

Him: "Sure, no problem"

Get up, get water, return.

You: "So how about a beer?"

Him: "Sure, thanks."

Perhaps it's the mental multi-tasking of child rearing that drives us to stay in and zone out. But I do know that the few times when my wife and I do go out without kids, we relish every second and we hardly talk about the kids. Sometimes we feel guilty, but sanity is golden.

Anyone have ideas or tips for keeping the balance?

Monday, October 02, 2006

Lickety Split, Tumble-ina

So how do you know when your child truly adores something? Well, when passion overtakes normal function, of course.

Over the weekend, my oldest daughter, who has been turning flips, cartwheels, round-offs and practicing head stands all over the house for the last week, was overcome by her passion for the sport.

She told us, "Mom, Dad, I just CAN'T even walk! I just HAVE to do gymnastics!"