On the state of childhood today

I recently read 2 really fantastic, but totally unrelated articles on parenting that really spoke to me.

The first is an article from Aeon magazine, called The Play Deficit, and basically talks about how essential play is to the development of our children, and how our society (mainly parents and the school system) are accidentally hurting the our children’s development because we’re misguided about how best to help them learn. It’s a fantastic article, and I don’t want to summarize the whole thing here, so you should go ahead and go read it.

The second article is called Stuff My Husband Knows About Parenting, Feminism, and How to Do This Perfectly Wrong, and it comes from the blog of a friend of mine. Kori is a really great writer who lays herself bare in her blog posts. I am always inspired by her ability to admit to her mistakes and talk about them openly in a way that takes a lot of courage. Her article is about lessons that she’s learned (or is in the process of trying to learn) from her husband’s parenting style in regards to letting go as a parent; both letting her daughter be her own person and learn things her own way, but also in being able to lean on your partner and not trying to take on everything yourself. Obviously as a father, there is a lot of positive things related to specifically fatherhood that I like to hear, but I think overall it’s just a great, personal exploration about how to parent.

So on the surface, the two articles seem to be fairly unrelated, but I read them more or less back to back and as I started to digest them, I started to realize that there’s just no way to separate out all the ideas from each other. No parenting decision is made in a vacuum; every decision you make affects a million other decisions. Decisions you make about how to parent at home affect the way you view decisions made at school. Decisions have side effects, both positive and negative, and these are the waters you try to navigate each day while you’re raising your kids.

I admit some confirmation bias in reading these articles, especially The Play Deficit. I feel very keenly the importance of unstructured time, and as a person who just went through a pretty intense period of time making some important schooling decisions, I worry about the things I hear regarding schools and testing/homework. So maybe I’m just seeking out articles that tell me what I want to hear, I don’t know.

I think the most important thing we can do for our kids is to let them learn to do things on their own. I think everyone feels this to some degree, which is why you see all of those memes on Facebook about “back in my day, we played until the sun went down, and we had playgrounds made only of broken glass and acid pits, and look how we turned out! Share if you agree!” And I do think there’s some truth to those. Despite the advances in technology and the vast stores of knowledge we have at our fingertips, on the whole I don’t think we are better parents now than we were a generation ago.

I think that we want to feel like we’re in control of things. Like we’re doing something, and having an impact. Let’s face it, most things in our world today are pretty controlled. But sometimes controlling a situation doesn’t mean we’re actually making it better. We see that sometimes kids aren’t turning out the way we want them to, so we want to take over and solve that problem and grab ahold of them force them to be better. We want them to be smarter and more successful and we don’t really know how to do that, so we think we just need more tests, or more homework, or more time in school, or maybe a few more extracurriculars, and then we will finally force the world to come out the way we want. But for some reason, the harder we try, the more the sand slips between our fingers.

As a parent I know that you always try to make the best decision you can, but often you really don’t know if you’re doing it right or not. So you do the best you can with the info available. What else can you do? But I so often feel like we’re doing it wrong right now. Can’t everybody see that? Can’t everybody see how we’re ignoring each other because of our cell phones? Can’t everybody see how disgusting all this commercialism is? Can’t we see what this is doing to our kids?

I think everybody CAN see that, but we just don’t know what to do about it. Because the answer is to do *less* not do more, and that seems crazy.

I think our kids’ brains need boredom in order to learn creativity. I think their brains need music to teach them how to be better computer programmers, and they need art to learn how to think outside the box in a boardroom meeting. I think they need to be left alone with an old alarm clock that they can take apart to see how it works. I think they need to see their parents reading books and cooking and having friends to know how they’re supposed to behave when they grow up.

Kids will dominate as much of your free time as they are able. I used to feel very guilty about not spending every minute of the day playing with them, because OMG every minute is precious and that’s what good parents do, right? But then I realized that there is value in NOT spending every minute of the day with them, both because they learn to entertain themselves, and because they see me doing things like keeping house, or reading, or practicing an instrument, and that is actually an important lesson that they need to learn.

I think it’s important to think not only about the parenting decisions you make, but also the ones you don’t make. It’s important to think about what kind of role model you’re being, of what kind of example you’re setting. Everything is intertwined, everything is affecting them. As a father, just making a decision just to be around them is an important decision, and thus it ties into the working from home discussion.

Now that the kids are both starting school in earnest, I worry about who is making these decisions for them (because it’s not me anymore) and I worry that they’re just going to get sucked into this misguided machine of high pressure “traditional” school. I hear it over and over again from my fellow parents; all the homework, all the testing, kids 1st grade or even kindergarten getting stressed out about math scores and reading comprehension. I worry that these rumors are true, and I worry that we’re ruining an entire generation of kids. I hear rumors that schools are dropping art, music, library, and gym. Every action has a consequence.

We can measure what we’re gaining, but what are we losing?

Are our schools training kids to be good, well-rounded people, or are they making them laser-focused on the single objective of fact regurgitation? Is that what we want for our kids? Anecdotally, I feel like I am better at my job because of skills that I have that are not job related. I’m creative. I’m good at writing and talking, and thus presenting. I’m social, and good at networking. If I sacrificed all of that to be a better programmer, I might technically be a better programmer, but I would not be better at my job.

We can’t keep pushing these other skills to the side. Our kids need time to learn how to be social, how to be creative, how to look at problems from a different angle. These are skills that can’t be tested, can’t be assigned as homework. They have to learn them on their own; they’re discovered skills, not forced, which means that in order for kids to learn them, they have to be given unstructured time in which to discover them on their own.

Over the past 5 years, we made the decision not to watch tv with the kids, and not to let them use the computer. Little did we know, this seemingly self-contained decision was tied to everything else, and it has so profoundly affected so many other aspects of our lives. This is tied into this discussion too. Our hope is that by not letting the kids watch tv, we have given them the gift of time: time to play, time to be bored, to read books, and do puzzles, color, and make music, and ultimately develop these baseline skills that will turn them into real people. I would say that I am pleased with the result, though of course I don’t know how they would have turned out WITH tv. But as it is, they entertain themselves, they build cities out of duplos, tell stories, and look at books. They’re honest to god interesting to talk to! They have things to say. They don’t just act out someone else’s world or characters, they create their own.

And then they start school, where there is so much to learn about interacting with other people, and all we hear about is how great it is to play with the iPads. This is what passes for a “job” these days at school, alongside the more traditional ones like “line leader” and “turtle feeder”. Those iPads aren’t just going to play with themselves, folks!

After all of our hard work (make no mistake, it is HARD work, trying to do your best for your kids, especially when it goes against the grain), here we have educators taking our kids away from the richest social learning opportunities of their lives to stare at a little advertising screen (yes, it is still advertising even if the company is Scholastic). Evie comes home singing songs she learned in music class right alongside company jingles she learned on the iPad. Games at home are one thing, but what place do games on an iPad have in school? Is that an improvement over passing notes, or doing an art project, or climbing on the monkey bars? Is listening to a story on the iPad an improvement over listening to the teacher reading an actual book, like when we were kids? What about staying out until dark on our broken-glass-and-acid playgrounds?

Maybe we were accidentally better at raising kids before, but we just didn’t know it.

We want to do the best for our kids, but in our rush to do so, I’m worried that we’re not doing the best for them. What if we’re going in the wrong direction? Maybe it’s not too late for a course correction. For my kids at least, I’m going to try to back off. Get it wrong as a parent sometimes. Let them get it wrong sometimes. Let them figure it out.

Kids are pretty good at figuring things out. Maybe better than adults.

No More Pop

For several years now, Sara has not had any pop to drink. This drastically cut down on the amount of pop I was drinking, since it mostly wasn’t in the house. She also convinced me to stop ordering pop at restaurants when the kids were around, to set a good example. Although sometimes this kind of killed me, I am definitely on board with trying to give the kids some good, soda-free role models. We see plenty of role models sucking down soda like there’s no tomorrow, trust me.

None of this ended up being all that hard, because I found a lot of other things to drink, such as coffee, a million different kinds of tea, milk, wine, Sara’s homemade cocoa, smoothies, the occasional white Russian, etc. (to say nothing of water). I’m much happier with this variety of things, I actually feel kind of foolish for being stuck on pop for so long.

Nonetheless, I steadfastly held on to my 4 cans of diet, caffeine-free Dr. Pepper for my lunch at work (one could argue that I was already hardly drinking pop at all). It’s a vast understatement to say that I enjoyed those cans of pop. I would look forward to them for hours, and often, it would be the only thing about my lunch that I enjoyed. I didn’t just love that can of pop per day, I was IN love with that can of pop. Sure, it was chalk full of the most god-awful chemicals on the planet, but it’s only 4 cans a week, and it was basically my last big vice.

And thus it continued for many years.

Suddenly, one day I took a few drinks and I just thought, “Ugh, this tastes like corn syrup and weird disgusting chemicals.” Seriously, it was just that abrupt. One day I loved it, the next day it was, “it’s not you, it’s me”. I soldiered on for a few more days just to make sure, but no, I just didn’t have the taste for it anymore. It was just too sickeningly sweet all of a sudden. At last I realized, if I was no longer enjoying this cloying cocktail of chemicals, what in the world was I drinking it for?

I could see having a pop now and again in the evening or if I went out to eat. On the other hand, I don’t see any reason to invite that particular demon back into my life. If I’ve gotten it out, what would the draw be? I enjoy so many other drinks more.

Now, it’s not totally all fuzzy unicorn rainbows. There is some downside.

Years ago, I had mostly eliminated caffeine from my diet. Now, it has come back with a vengeance, mostly due to drinking caffeinated coffee when decaf is unavailable. It’s even wormed its way back in at home, where I usually make “half-caf” coffee. Additionally, I put cream and sugar in my coffee or tea, which means I’ve picked up an extra calorie or two that the diet pop wasn’t giving me (say what you will about super-unnatural chemicals, but our bodies refuse to process them on principle, so there’s that). Also, I wonder if I’m teaching my kids a different lesson by always having a steaming cup of joe in my hand, rather than a pop.

Well, one problem at a time. For now, it’s sayonara soda.

Happiness Inflation

Inflation is a term that is usually applied to economics. Merriam-Webster defines inflation as, “a continuing rise in the general price level usually attributed to an increase in the volume of money and credit relative to available goods and services”. In short, inflation refers to the fact that, over time, you need more money to buy the same thing. These days, we pay $5 instead of $0.90 for the same gallon of gas.

However, it seems like more and more I’m seeing a different type of inflation. Let’s call it “happiness inflation”: it takes more “things” to buy the same level of happiness.

Yeah, yeah, so what’s new? Who doesn’t know that?

I know. It’s obvious, right? But like regular, economic inflation, you don’t really think about it all that often, because there’s nothing you can really do about it. Everybody knows gas costs more these days. We don’t dwell on it. We can’t bring down the price of gas, and it’s just a part of life, so on we go.

The important thing to remember is that paying $5 for gas doesn’t mean we are getting more gas. The same goes for happiness inflation; even though we are getting more things, we are still the same amount of happy.

I probably wouldn’t notice happiness inflation either, except for being a parent. It takes on a lot of different aspects when it comes to kids.

There’s present inflation. When we were younger we got a certain number of presents, and we were happy. Now, kids get 10 times that number of presents, and they are about the same amount of happy. It’s not one outfit, it’s 3 outfits. It’s not one playset, it’s the whole line. We feel embarrassed if we only got one book, or only spent $20, or if our present doesn’t have a built in computer chip.

In fact, as a parent you see a lot of birthday inflation in general. Think about birthday parties when you were a kid. Your aunts and uncles and cousins came over and maybe you had a cake. That’s it. But it was exciting, and you looked forward to it. You were happy. Now there are themes, and gift bags, and entertainers, and catering. It takes that much more for a 3 year old to be the same level of happy.

There’s candy inflation: getting 5 pieces of candy thrown to you at a parade isn’t sufficient. You have to have 500 pieces. Or a handful from each house at Halloween instead of one piece, or a full sized candy bar. You can’t have an ice cream cone in the summer as a nice treat, you have to have an ice cream cone every day, with a slice of pie on the side. But wait, you can’t just get an ice cream cone, it has to be dyed some kind of “fun” color, because, you know, ice cream cones just weren’t fun enough by themselves.

Just like economic inflation, it is impossible to fight. If I go to the gas station and say, “I only want $0.90 of gas,” I don’t get a gallon. Similarly, if I throw a birthday party and don’t give out gift bags, I don’t get the same level of happiness that we used to get before people gave out gift bags. Now I have to give the gift bags if I want to obtain a gallon of happiness.

The thing is, each person only sees what they are giving, but only the parents can see the big picture. Other people can’t see how out of control and over the top it is. They want to see a kid’s eyes light up when they hand them some jelly beans on Easter, not realizing that 5 other people gave them a handful already. Each person gives as many gifts or sweets or outfits individually as their own kids got total from everyone when they were little.

People just can’t seem to help themselves.

We’re not immune to this as parents. We want to make our kids as happy as anyone else does, probably more so. But I feel so trapped by the whole thing. Either we go along with it and contribute to the overall rise in inflation, or we deprive ourselves of the joy of making our kids happy, turning ourselves into “mean parents” who never give our kids anything. Just bow out and let everybody else get the satisfaction of seeing their faces light up. Because inflation is everywhere, and there’s so much on all sides, the only way to average it out is to never give anything.

Maybe it’s not the kids who are suffering from inflation, maybe it’s the adults. Maybe our tolerance for making a kid’s face light up has gone up over time. We need more and more “hits” to reach the same level of satisfaction, so we selfishly press that button as often as we can.

I can’t fight inflation. The only way to stem the tide is if everyone, everywhere, all at the same time, tackles the problem. Frankly, that’s not going to happen. All I can say is, look at the obese kids and the debt problems and the selfishness of the world and think about how you personally are contributing to it.

Maybe if we all did that a little more often, we could experience a little bit of “happiness deflation”. Trust me, it’s better than it sounds.

Things our kids should know (before college)

I feel like I was more or less prepared to live on my own at the start of college. However, both from our personal experiences, whether they were from ourselves or seeing others, and from seeing other parents with college-age kids, it seems that many people are unprepared to handle the day to day activities required to live on your own. In most cases, it seems it’s not because the kids are too young, or too irresponsible, or had parents that were too overbearing. I think mostly it’s just a case of overlooking things; nobody ever really discussed some of these details with them. Main things are covered, but the little details slip through the cracks.

So Sara and I attempted to put together a check list of things we’d like our kids to know by the time they start college. Granted, we’ve got a little time before this is really an issue for us, but the Internet is forever and the list will stay here until we need it. A lot of these things are probably applicable to living on their own in general, but our experience is specifically with college being the first time out on our own, and there are some challenges that are specific to that area.

In no specific order:

  • Know how to write checks and balance a checkbook.
  • Know how to wash and dry clothes. This includes trying a variety of machines, at least one of which is a pay machine, before going.
  • Expectation management: Expect to go to all your classes, buy all your books, etc. College is now your full time job; you should expect to total 40 hours/week of class or studying (which is probably less than recommended but more than needed to just skate by–this should be a good intermediate amount). Believe me, it still leaves you plenty of free time.
  • Live in the dorm for at least one year to meet new people.
  • If you have a credit card (and I think both having one and not having one are okay), do not charge more on it than you can pay off that month–EVER. Waiting until you have the money for something builds character, and being fiscally responsible means you’ll ultimately have more stuff in the long run (and live a longer, less stressful life in which to enjoy it!)
  • If you live in a dorm, enjoy the fact that you don’t have to cook, but make good food choices.  Eat a salad every day (oh, the prep-work that you are missing out on)!  Eat at least 5 servings of fruits and veggies daily.  Don’t exclusively drink pop (it is gross and full of chemicals).  When you live on your own, realize that simple meals at home are cheaper and healthier than lean cuisine and take-out.
  • This is the only time you will ever have a free gym membership!  Figure out how to use the machines, take advantage of any free or low-cost classes you are curious about, and play wallyball!
  • Know how ATMs work. Understand ATM fees (don’t use another bank’s ATM).
  • Know basic household maintenance (how to change a light switch, how to remove and clean the trap under the sink, etc.)
  • Know basic sewing skills (how to hem pants, how to sew on a button, etc.)
  • You don’t need to be the cleanest person in the world, but you do need to be responsible for yourself.  Make sure you know how to vacuum, dust, sweep, do the dishes, take out the trash, etc.

Anything we missed? Anything you wish you knew when you (or your children) went to college?

In this economy, we gave *ourselves* a raise

As I have discussed several times on this blog, we have been making an effort to simplify our lives lately. This entails not only physically decluttering our house, but also just trying to cut down on the number of distractions and complications in our life.

A lot of these things are cascading: we get rid of one thing, and that makes another thing less important, so we get rid of that thing, etc. An example of this was dropping satellite t.v., which eventually led to drastically downsizing our television, which made our Netflix subscription expendable. (You could argue this was a a chicken and egg thing, because really it was the decision to watch less t.v. that made all three of these expendable, but this is sort of the order we went in.)

Anyway, just like getting rid of junk from your house makes you want to find more things to get rid of, canceling services does the same. The more things you get rid of, the more you start to question other things that you paid for. And the more things you start to cut, no matter how small, start to add up.

Between canceling cable, switching our cell phone plans, getting rid of our land line, canceling Netflix, and a few other non-essentials, we realized the other day that they all add up to roughly a 2-3% raise! It’s kind of amazing how much you spend on all of these little things, and how much you take for granted that you just have to have them.

I can verify we’re doing just fine without them. Better, even. (2-3% better, give or take)

Putting the Salvage in Salvation Army

You know, I had this post all set to go last week, with a glowing review about the awesomeness of getting rid of stuff with the Salvation Army. But then it turns out, Salvation Army was not, in fact, awesome. Exactly the opposite. But the story still has a happy ending, so keep heart! All’s well that ends well!

Over the past year, we have been working hard to simplify our life. To that end, we have been collecting everything in our house that is not nailed down and tossing it into a designated closet and/or our guest bedroom to get rid of. Ideally we would unload this stuff at the family rummage sale, but we found out last year that we could only fit a fraction of what we had in our car. Well, we’ve collected a lot more stuff since then! Since our giant closet was filled all the way to the back at about chest high, and there’s no way we could get it all to Wisconsin anyway, we just decided we needed to unload it immediately.

But as I said, it was way more than we can fit in our car, so what do we do with it? Enter the Salvation Army: they pick up your stuff! We simply scheduled a date for them to come with their truck and pick everything up.

In preparation, we got everything all together, sorted it, boxed it up, and carried it all up into the living room. It was a massive mountain of stuff! We had > 20 boxes of books, toys, clothes, etc. as well as a computer and monitor, stereo and giant speakers, a couple of small pieces of furniture – all kinds of stuff. Seeing the entire pile there was pretty impressive, and I really felt like, “Wow, we are really getting rid of all of this stuff!”

It felt great. Always a bad sign.

The pickup window they gave us was from 8 – 4. Couldn’t narrow it down, no possible way. Okay, fine, Sara is home on that day anyway. However, I was starting to have a bad feeling about this. By the time 3 p.m. rolled around, I felt sufficiently justified in calling and checking up a little bit.

“It’s not 4 yet.”
“Well, I know, but I just wanted to confirm we were on the schedule for today.”
“If they told you you’re on the schedule, then you’re on the schedule.”
“Well, I know, but…”
“You just need to wait.”
“Yeah, but can you…”
“Is there anything else?”

Guess what? They never showed. And by the time I called back at 4:30 everyone was gone for the day. I guess I should have read the Salvation Army Chicago Pick Up Service on Yelp first. It turns out, they never show up. For anybody. Luckily for us, we hadn’t taken a day off of work, and we weren’t in that big of hurry to get rid of our junk (other than it was taking up a large chunk of our living room, and keeping little hands off it was a little difficult!). From what I could gather, they just schedule their pickups for the day, and when the truck is full they go home. No phone call, no reschedule, nothing. Sorry!

So, we had a decision to make: do we call the next day to reschedule, knowing that most of the time they simply just don’t show up with no care for your schedule? No, we do not.

Instead we found a Goodwill close to my work where we could drop off our own donations. Such a good decision! It took me three trips with my car absolutely stuffed to the gills to get it all there, but it wasn’t very far out of my way anyway. I wish we had decided to do this from the beginning, because we would have been finished that week, instead of spending days waiting in vain for the Salvation Army. The people of Goodwill were, in direct contrast, friendly and helpful, without attitude.

So we ultimately got rid of all of our stuff, and I must say, it was inspirational. You’d think that getting rid of all of that stuff would satisfy the itch to weed out the junk, but it’s kind of the opposite: I’m eyeing everything up thinking, “Do we really need this?” Almost as soon as it was out the door, we started a new pile in the closet.

Looks like we’re going to have to make this a regular occurrence!

Simplifying Childhood for our Children

I recently finished reading Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne.

I admit this is something of a confirmation bias, since I selected a book I am predisposed to agree with, but one particular section that really resonated with me was the one that talked about simplifying a child’s environment, specifically getting rid of toys:

Is this a toy that “does” so much (this button pushes the ejector rods, this button triggers the lights, this button launches the missiles), that my child’s main involvement will be sitting there pushing buttons?

And:

By simplifying the number and complexity of our children’s toys, we give them liberty to build their own imaginary worlds. When children are not being told what to want, and what to imagine, they can learn to follow their own interests, to trust their own emerging voices. They can discover what genuinely speaks to them.

Yes. That.

I miss boredom! When I think of my childhood, I remember being bored a lot, especially on lazy summer days. This was usually followed up by the creation of some fantastic game. Now we fill kids so full of activities that they never have time to be bored, the way we were. What are they missing out on?

Toys that don’t do things can become anything, in play. When we don’t try to fill children’s minds and toy chests with prefabricated examples of “imagination,” they have more freedom to forge their own, to bring their own idea into play.

So why do we do this to our kids?

Let’s say your child has a favorite stuffed elephant who sits in a place of pride on the bed when it is not being hauled about. You and your spouse and any family member who sees this human/elephant love story can be inspired to re-create it by purchasing stuffed elephant siblings, other jungle animal cousins, or stuffed “friends” of every kind.

I tell you one thing’s for sure – after reading this I definitely don’t want Evie to have the pillow pet she’s been begging for!

This book is very thought provoking. I don’t agree with everything 100% (I’m not so sure about the chapter on talking less, even if they did use Pa from Little House as the example!), but I’d say I’m there with them on at least 95%. Worth a read for any parent out there who is interested in simplifying their and their kids’ lives!