Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Counter-programming on the soccer field

            This past weekend brought Pip and Polly’s first two soccer games for the spring season. It was a full weekend for us all.
            Pip had a very good weekend. Not only did he score his first ever (and the team’s only) goal, but he also began figuring out how to deploy his energies on the field. In the defensive box he used a combination of confidence and assertiveness to thwart oncoming attacks. During his quarters upfield, he moved well, largely avoiding getting sucked in to ball chasing and instead playing his position and moving into open spaces. It was this movement that enabled him to score the goal as he and one other player on his team were spread across the top of the box when the ball squirted along the line towards them. Pip stayed a touch wider and when his teammate’s shot bounced off the goal keeper, he was able to gather the carom and lift the ball over the keeper and into the goal. It was not a very graceful play but more often than not that’s how goals are scored. Pip was in the right place and was rewarded for it. He also spent a quarter playing goal during the second game, stopped a couple of shots, re-distributed the ball well by throwing instead of kicking it, and took command of the defense. The general success of playing well made the weekend as a whole very fun for him.
            Polly also had a good weekend, though she did not have as many definable moments of success as Pip. She spent most of her time on the field staying out of the way of others, moving around but largely sliding to the side before too many people got around her. Later she told me that she was scared of getting into the scrum of kids. As the youngest player on the field and someone who has only seen three to four soccer games in her life, I can’t fault her for feeling that way. It was the first time she’s been surrounded by such an environment and amidst the swirling chaos it’s hard to understand the underlying order much less what one should do to try and shape it. In the Saturday game she had a couple of chances to stop a ball in the open field and she did well handling it and sending it back in the correct direction. This leads me to believe that in time she’ll be more willing to get into the middle of things and work to clear the ball away.


            What I find myself needing to do with Polly now to make her into a better player is to undo some of the half-decade’s worth of behavioral training she’s undergone thus far. In other words, I have to encourage her to become more aggressive.
This goes against everything we’ve done with her since she was a baby. Our family’s general approach to living is one of exercising patience, calm, and respect for others. These qualities obviously doesn’t come naturally to children (or us to be honest), and Polly has been known to jump on Pip’s back for no particular reason or slam down a LEGO in frustration when it doesn’t go together the way she wants it to. Ava and I have worked steadily and consistently to replace those impulses with ones that lead Polly to stop, take a step back, and collect herself when faced with a problem. And this has largely worked. She’s a kind and considerate friend to her peers and – when not tired and cranky – a conscientious and respectful kid with adults. She still gets upset when her LEGOs fall apart, but she doesn’t slam them about the way she used to when she was younger.
            Now, as I had to do with Pip, I have to figure out how to undo some of this training to get Polly in the right mindset for the soccer field. In Pip’s case, an increased familiarity with the dynamics of a game did most of the work. In the fall he was reluctant to bump into any one because he didn’t want to make them upset or violate the spirit of the rules. He understands better now the dynamics of when contact is necessary and useful after getting banged around some towards the end of the fall season. He came into the spring looking to make an impact, and he has learned take the ball away from people through them with determination and persistence. This requires a touch of meanness, a touch of fury that wills one to keep banging away at things even when the ball doesn’t immediately do what you want. It also requires finding a touch of darkness inside yourself that for a brief moment hates the person with the ball and wants only to exert your power over them. This seemed to crystalize for Pip during a defensive series during Sunday’s game when it took four tries to finally dislodge a ball from the box. He went after it each time with a focused and furious determination that was exactly what he needed in that situation.
            Polly possesses that kind of spirit as well, but it may be some time before she’s ready to channel it. She loved being able to bounce around on the field and celebrate when her teammates did something well. She was a happy pixie with a long pony tail, smiling and laughing and having fun. In some ways I’d rather her just stay that way, but that’s not going to do her much good as a soccer player.
          At the same time, she’s not yet big enough to crash into people effectively and not yet strong enough to exert her will physically in a scrum. What I’ll really need to do with her is get her comfortable with staring down another player in the open field and sticking her foot in his way. I guess that will come as long as I’m patient with her. I can’t let my own aggression undermine the aggression I want to emerge in her. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Learning to speak the truth the hard way

Two weeks ago Hillary Clinton held a press conference in which she attempted to explain her decision to use a private email server located in her house for all of her email communications while she was Secretary of State. Because this decision had given Clinton complete control over what correspondence made it into the public record and what was destroyed, it raised serious questions about her activities while in office and about her respect for the kind of public transparency that is necessary for a democratic government to function. Unfortunately, the press conference itself was a sham because whatever explanations Clinton gave for squirreling away her correspondence, it was clear from the beginning that she would not discuss the actual truth. Her explanations would consist of strategically innocuous reasons that could possibly be true but in the larger context would make no sense at all (really, you were just scheduling yoga classes?). They would be the politician’s answer wherein the kernel of truth, the nugget of intent, is hidden away beneath layers of strategic denials, disingenuous phrasings, and winking ambiguities. They would contain the kind of language that works great when no one’s paying close attention and makes you look absolutely ridiculous when everyone is.
And no one comes away from that kind of farce unscathed.
            The best example of such damage comes from the impeachment trial of Clinton’s husband. For all the good Bill Clinton did as president – the Dayton accords, the Irish peace process, a sustained period of economic growth during which the federal government actually had a balanced budget - he will always be defined in so many minds by the verbal contortions he used to avoid admitting that he messed around with Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office. It was a shambles of idiotic proportion. He would have been much better off coming clean and moving on. People will forgive the doing of stupid things if one admits it. They will not forgive being treated as if they were too stupid to understand the meaning behind the contortions.
But that view of the world doesn’t fit the politician’s training, and they rarely can see the damage they do to themselves until it’s too late.
            This is certainly the case with Hillary Clinton and her emails. I was a solid Clinton voter. She has the experience and the skills to be an effective president (which is more than can be said about any other potential candidates out there in either party). I also appreciate the work she has done in the past with women’s and children’s issues. I would like to see what a person with such a background might do while in the White House. But, in the wake of this whole email debacle, my vote is less assured. I don’t know what she’s hiding – and I don’t really care - but the knowledge that she’s ducking and weaving to avoid talking about it is making me wonder if I should vote for her. It keeps reminding me that she’s just a politician and has me looking around more seriously to see who else is out there. I imagine many others are doing the same.


I've taken a particular interest in Hillary Clinton’s travails with her email because Pip has recently been trying out some disassembly of his own, altering the truth about his intentions or his actions when he realizes he’s stirred up some trouble. The most recent example of this dodging and evasion came a couple of mornings back as we rode our bikes down to school. Pip and Polly were jacked up after having fun at an Easter egg hunt the night before and just before we reached the final crosswalk, Pip diverted his bike from its usual path to run over a newspaper lying on the edge of the sidewalk. It was a little move and probably didn’t do any damage to the paper, but it felt destructively mischievous. Once we made it to school, I confronted Pip about this little shenanigan, asking him why he went out of his way to run over something that belonged to someone else. His stumbling reply was that he thought he would try to jump it. This answer, while not particularly good, seemed plausible enough in the moment, but as he wheeled his bike down to the bike rack I realized that he’d made no effort to actually bounce his bike in any way. This would not have been a big thing except he’d been bouncing his front tire a good deal over the past couple of weeks, and this move would have been the first thing to do in any effort to jump something. I had the distinct feeling that Pip had given me a line.
            In reality I imagine Pip didn’t know why he decided to run over that newspaper. He was flying along in the world and probably felt an impulse to see what would happen if he bumped over it. I doubt there was much thought involved and when pressed by me for an explanation, he didn’t really have one. So, he came up with something. Now if this had been the first time he’d come up with some half-truth to explain away something, I’d probably have let it pass without comment. Or, more likely, I wouldn’t have even noticed the ambiguous nature of the explanation at all. However, this wasn’t the first time. It was more like the third or fourth and as such Ava and I both were on the lookout.
            At the bike rack I made Pip go back through his explanation again and then told him I didn’t believe it. When he didn’t protest, I made him go back and try again. I told him how I felt about half-truths. I told him how such moments chip away at the foundations of any good relationship, how they undermine our future ability to trust and believe in what he is saying, and how without that trust, things quickly fall apart. Everything becomes uncertain. All answers come with an asterisk and our bonds of love get shredded and bulldozed by suspicion.
            This was a little thing – both the newspaper bump and the thoughtless evasion of responsibility – but, I told him, the little things are where we practice for when the big things come around. If you don’t do the little things right, it’s too late to change when the big challenges appear because in that moment your instincts will lead you astray. They can only tell you what worked in the past, not give you guidance on how best to handle the future. And then you’ll wind up like Hillary Clinton, doing something dumb and then only making it worse by trying to explain it away while no one in their right mind believes a word you say.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Finding patience on the soccer field

            Today, I want to write about this one kid on Pip and Polly’s soccer team because there was a moment during practice last Thursday that I feel is important to record. This kid – let’s call him Harvey - is one of those kids who can drive a coach nuts. On the field he is quick and aggressive. He’s not big, but he bulls into things in such a way that he knocks stronger kids around. He goes after things and takes chances. Sometimes this works out for him. Other times it doesn’t. During practice he has a tendency to make a scene, jumping into the middle of his teammates when they’re circled around a coach or throwing out things like ‘I hate that’ before doing a drill to see what kind of response might come. I don’t find him to be necessarily malicious – he usually goes ahead and does the drill, he doesn’t loaf, he’s trying more to be funny than mean – but it is easy to get frustrated by his antics. This is particularly true because he’s good enough now that with a little focus he could become really good.
            Last fall as an assistant coach on the team, I found myself more often than not feeling annoyed with Harvey. This was mostly because he was strong with the ball and I wanted him to build on that by starting to build on the next set of skills – passing and moving into good scoring positions. But he wouldn’t pass. I found myself defending him much more closely than others during various drills to force him into passing. I did this to show him the advantage he could gain by passing to a teammate then moving into a spot where he could receive a pass in a better position. Unfortunately, these efforts did not meet with much success. Instead, Harvey took them mostly as a challenge to put his head down and see if he could beat the coach. He generally was not successful, but in the end neither was I.
            This spring we both get to try again.
The first practice didn’t start off any better. Harvey dove into the pile of kids sitting around the coach. During a relay race he pushed his way to the front and then got in the way as his teammates tried to complete their turns. And during scrimmage time, he continued to bull his way around. If he had the ball in the offensive end, he was heading for the goal, no matter how wide open his teammates were, no matter how many defenders were stacked up in his way. I kept telling him to pass. He kept on plowing ahead.
            Then came Thursday’s second practice. It was a rainy, wet afternoon and the practice field was pretty muddy. I had decided I was not going to get drawn into trying to coerce this kid into doing exactly what he was supposed to do. I figured that ultimately he’s looking for the extra attention that comes with adult attempts to keep him in line so, while I’d call him out for messing around, I decided I would do so in as placid a voice as I could muster. I wanted to make my corrections quick, dull, and uninteresting and then keep moving the practice along. The less time and energy expended on nuisance moments the better. I wasn’t going to assert my authority and demand his obeisance. I was going to act as if I knew he would do what I asked of him and didn’t have to dwell on it to make sure.
            How effective this strategy was, I’m not really sure. Harvey threw a stick at one point – he was far away from others – and at another point knocked over the small goal we have on the field. Each time I corrected him and went directly back to what we were doing, pointedly not waiting to see if he would follow my instruction. Whether or not this mattered to him, I can’t say, but it helped me a great deal. I didn’t have to worry about trying to win a confrontation with him. I could just go on doing the work I wanted to do. Because I knew that he didn’t want to be left out of anything, I figured that he’d come back in to the team as long as I kept going. And if he didn’t, well that would be okay too. I would just keep working with the rest of the players.
            As it turns out, he did come back in, and a little while later, in the midst of a round of sharks and minnows, his shoe came untied. This is a pretty common thing with soccer cleats. Every game there seems to be at least two or three kids running around with their laces flopping or their shoes halfway off. It’s frustrating, uncomfortable, and dangerous for the kids so we try to stop things when we can to get their laces re-tied. I used to ask kids to do it themselves, but now I just go and take care of it because I have a better chance of getting the laces to stay than the kids. So, while everyone is resetting, I go over and kneel down to tie Harvey’s shoes. I quietly say some meaningless words to him about how tough it is to run with shoes untied, and he replies that the laces use to be better but recently they’ve been coming undone a lot. It wasn’t until later that evening as I was drifting off to sleep that I realized this was probably the first time I’d talked to him one-on-one outside the context of coaching. It was a very human exchange in both its banality and its significance. The words were meaningless, but the act of quietly conversing itself mattered in some way.
            In the next round Harvey said that he wanted to be a shark and started to knock his ball out of bounds. As he did this, I told him that wasn’t going to work, that he would have to earn it instead. To my surprise, he shrugged and took off dribbling the ball, making it safely to the other side. So, on the next round I gave him what he asked for. I came after him hard. He dodged a couple of times but I was able to knock his ball away and thus transform him into a shark. It was a little quid pro quo intended to show him that I appreciated his doing what I had asked.
            Later, when it was time to let a couple of the kids start off the game as sharks, I chose Harvey as one of the first three. There was more than a bit of prodigal son narrative at work in this choice as there were plenty of other kids who had listened well and done exactly what I’d asked of them. But I was feeling the presence of a window of opportunity with Harvey and was willing to risk some frustration or jealousy from the other kids in order to positively recognize his earlier effort.
            Ultimately, I don’t know whether that moment of tying his shoes made any real difference in Harvey’s attitude towards things – that will remain to be seen. But it did impact the way I look at him. In the wake of that meaningful exchange of meaningless words, I think of him now as someone who gets yelled at a lot and as such has learned to largely tune that kind of communication out. So, I have decided to be patient and grab what opportunities I can to praise him when he does something well. This means I’m no longer going to yell at him to pass the ball. I’m just going to wait. He’ll do it as some point – probably inadvertently or without thinking – and I’ll be there to praise him for it. I willing to bet that catching a couple of those opportunities will get me a whole lot farther than constant harping has so far.

And if it doesn’t, at least it’s a much more pleasant way to handle something he’s going to do anyway.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Mini-blog montage

            Ideally, I want this blog to do two things at once: 1) I want it to be a record of our lives and an archive of the stories that come out of that living and 2) I want it to connect those stories to broader issues and trends at work in the world. My ability to bring both of these goals together in a single post varies greatly from week to week as I struggle to find the right line between the narrowly parochial and topics that stray too far afield.
            And some weeks I just run out of gas.
            This is one of those latter entries. The last couple of weeks have had their share of little dramas and minor stories, but the things that have largely occupied my mind – school redistricting, Pip’s accelerated program application – I’ve already written about. This leaves me with a set of smaller stories and thoughts, none of which rise to the level of a full post. In light of that, I decided to collect some of them together into a line of mini-posts that capture some recent moments without trying to expand them into something bigger than they are. Think of this as an impressionist montage that when blended together perhaps finds its own organic logic.

Snow: During the month of February we got hit by two very large snowstorms each of which brought us somewhere between 10-14 inches of snow. As a result I spent a good deal of February working a snow shovel. At the same time, we also learned that Polly now really loves snow. This did not use to be the case. Two years ago, Polly would grudgingly come out and waddle around in the yard while Pip and I threw snowballs at each other. Last year, she got a chance to go sledding a couple of times and decided that that was pretty fun, but otherwise she’d rather just stay inside. This year when we let the kids out into the backyard Polly went galloping out into the drifts like a puppy. The snow was over her knees and she had trouble going more than a few feet before falling over, but this didn’t faze her one bit. She stumbled and rolled and frolicked and dove. She climbed up the piles we had shoveled off the driveway and went sliding headfirst down them like a penguin. She built a snowturtle with me after the first storm and a snowfort for Pip after the second. She ran up the sledding hill over and over until her body gave out and she couldn’t stand any more. This was Polly’s year when it came to snow. I can’t wait to see what she does next year.

Soccer: This spring Pip and Polly are both playing soccer and it should be very interesting to see what happens. First of all, since last fall Pip has grown bigger and stronger. He’s kicking the ball with more force. He’s plunging into our backyard games of chicken with more confidence. He’s using his hands and body more when I come at him with the ball. These are all signs that he’ll be a stronger, more aggressive player than he was last season and I’m interested in seeing what that means on the field. He played a great deal of defense last season, getting more solid in the back as the games went along. Now he wants to push forward into the midfield and get into the offensive action as well. He feels like this is his chance to shine, and he’s probably right. Next fall he’ll have to move up an age group.
            On the flip side, Polly is making her first efforts at soccer this spring and it makes me crazy nervous. Although she could play in the under 6 age group, we requested that the league bump her up to under 8 so she could join the same that team that Pip and I are a part of. She has a good friend on the team as well which I think will be good for both of them.
Polly is an agile and determined kid. If she’s committed to playing and finds it to be fun, she will do well. My biggest fears are that 1) she gets frustrated during the first two or three practices because she can’t do something right away or as well as the others and I don’t have the ability to work her through that frustration, 2) she feels left out during scrimmages because the ball doesn’t come her way as much as she would like it to, or 3) she can’t make the separation between me as ‘Dad’ and me as ‘coach.’ While any of these hurdles could derail the experience for her, I also feel that if I can get her through the first few weeks, then things will smooth out. I think ideally we would have started her in the all girls league but logistically having her play on the same team as Pip makes more sense. If she really does enjoy it this spring then when the fall comes around and Pip moves up to U10, we might consider other options.

Books: Pip and Polly are both very good readers. Polly spent much of the winter huddled over a heating vent in our living room paging through the likes of Geronimo Stilton, the Penderwicks, Tinker Bell adventures, and Magic Tree House books. Pip has cruised through the Rick Riordan young adult anthology, gobbling down the Percy Jackson books, the Heroes of Olympus series, and the Kane Chronicles. The speed with which he consumed each of these books led Ava and I to wonder how closely he was actually reading the texts, but whenever we asked him about this he seemed to be able to give a pretty good summary of what he’d read.
Now that he’s finished off those books, he doesn’t know what he wants to read next. I’ve brought home a couple of possibilities – The Three Musketeers, The Egypt Game, Magyk - and nothing has really taken. He’s mostly interested in rereading the Riordan books, picking out whatever is available on the library shelf and spending time revisiting familiar scenes. At one level this is fine. Knowing the plotline allows him to read more slowly and fully, taking in the characters and examining how the plot works. At the same time, it worries me that he’s not interested in exploring further afield. There are plenty of good books out there, but you have to take a chance on something new to find them. He isn’t interested in doing that yet. I imagine he will finally break out when he stops finding new things in the books he has already read. But I’m anxious for him to get on with it. Rick Riordan is fine for a cheap thrills kind of read, but there’s plenty of better stuff that I want him to get around to.

Spring Break: This year Ava’s university shifted its spring break week to align with the spring break week of the local county school system. This means that both Ava and the kids will be out of school for the entire week before Easter. To celebrate, we’re going to take an actual week-long, family vacation-style trip to Washington, DC. It’s still two solid weeks away but the anticipation is already pretty high. I’m looking forward to seeing the Air and Space Museum annex out at Dulles Airport (It has a Concorde, a Blackbird, and a Space Shuttle, three machines I’d drive all the way to DC just to see). Polly has spent a goodly amount of time over the past two weekends packing her things and then adding more stuff to the bags she wants to take with her. By the time the trip arrives, she’ll have half her worldly possessions stuffed away in her luggage. Pip has combed through several guidebooks to identify all the restaurants we could possibly eat at and Ava, in her usual way, has been organizing the food we will actually eat into boxes for the car.

            With all the work, thought, and planning that’s going into this trip, it will be a relief to get there and actually be able to go about doing all things we have in mind. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Culture, Biology, and Headlines on the Increasing Success of Women

            This past weekend two bits of interesting gender commentary arrived on my doorstep. The first came in the form of an essay in The Wall Street Journal’s Review Sectionentitled “A Better World, Ruled By Women.” The second was an article on genderand education published in this week’s issue of The Economist. In light of my recent post about Polly and her math scores, I thought it intriguing that such discussions would come up in two different places.

            Let’s start with the article in the Economist. This article looks at a recent report fromthe Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) – what the author calls a “rich-country think-tank” – that analyses the achievement gaps between teenage boys and girls in both literacy and mathematics. Spanning 64 countries, the report finds two things that are particularly interesting with respect to the argument I made in the post about Polly’s math against biologically determined capacities. One is that in general the gap in mathematic achievement between school-age boys and girls is lessening. There are even some countries like Sweden, Iceland, and Norway – countries which have in recent decades made concerted efforts to address equity issues related to women – where the gap has basically disappeared. To me this data shows that concerted efforts to create cultural change with respect to girls and mathematics can and do work. It also supports my thinking that the distribution of boys to girls in Polly’s math group is a product of various social influences and not an essential aspect of their biological capacities or inclinations.
The second point of interest in the Economist article is that in conjunction with this leveling in mathematics a new, reverse gap is opening in literacy. Teenage boys are now doing much worse than teenage girls in reading and writing. While this is certainly a massive concern with respect to how boys in general will fair in the continually evolving information economy, for my purposes this finding also reinforces the idea that biology has very little to do with educational proficiency. Girls have scored ahead of boys in literacy for a while, but that gap is now getting wider and wider. Their biologies haven’t changed during that time, so what’s driving this growing difference? According to the OECD, we need to look to their social environments.


            Unfortunately, this conclusion does not seem to have reached the author of the Wall Street Journal essay. Written by Dr. Melvin Konner, PhD, an (old, white, male) anthropologist from Emory University in Atlanta, “A Better World, Ruled by Women” takes the likely presidential run of Hillary Clinton and the one that might be made by former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina as a jumping off point to make the case that more women are coming into positions of power and that the world will be better off for it. While this claim is hopefully true, and I’m all in favor of getting more women into the upper reaches of our political, economic, and academic worlds, the way Konner goes about arguing for this conclusion is wrong and probably does more harm than good in reaching for that ideal.
First, he looks to biological differences between men and women to explain their varying suitability for managing power. Men, according to Konner, are essentially mutant creatures. In his words, “The mammalian body plan is basically female. The reason males exist is that a gene on the Y chromosome derails the basic genetic plan.” He goes on to say that testosterone warps the brains of unborn males making them prone to “physical aggression” and emotionless, destructive sexual cravings. Women, in Konner’s taxonomy, are not subject to such warping and thus have brains that can function calmly.
Now, it wasn’t so long ago that this dichotomy between a crazy, irrational gender and a calm, reasonable gender was flipped the other way. It’s taken a tremendous amount of intellectual and social effort to break that binary stereotype apart and see men and women as possessing numerous and varied capabilities. Going back to thinking in terms of a simple good-bad split is a step backwards, regardless of which gender falls on which side.
 Konner then goes on to support his interpretations of these biological differences by pointing to a study of small city mayors that showed women mayors were more likely to seek broad participation in the budget process than men and by providing an anecdotal example in the United States Senate where women senators brokered an important compromise. Along the way he dismisses the famously aggressive likes of Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandi, and Golda Meir as products of hyper-masculine political processes but fails to discuss any of the cultural and structural influences that may be at work in the examples he favors. Aren’t the women senators working in a similarly masculinized political process? What common experiences might lead women mayors in small cities to be more inclusive in their decision-making processes than men? I understand that Konner was writing a short article summarizing a much larger book, but it still feels to me like a sloppy case of seeing a trend where you want to see it and dismissing contradictory data as irrelevant.

I was also particularly struck by this article because it seems representative of a trend in popular media towards talking about the reduction of male dominance (and Hillary Clinton’s coming campaign will probably bring more). The problem with many of these articles is not necessarily their observations, but their tone. We should absolutely be celebrating the ascension of more women into positions of power within our society. The diversification of experience, background, and perspectives in board rooms, government bodies, and university offices is a necessary and positive development. The more different types of voices that can be heard in these arenas, the more opportunities we have to create a more fair and responsive society. However, if this discussion is framed as an opposition between the rise of women and the failure of men – as both Konner’s article and Hanna Rosin’s 2012 book The End of Men and the Rise of Women do -  then we risk falling back down the same rabbit hole we have worked so hard to climb out of. The goal should be to rupture the very question of whether men or women will better wield power and instead to provide as many opportunities for all genders to have a chance. As the (white, male, not yet old) parent of a son and a daughter this is what I want: the balance of opportunity that comes with the balance of power. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Snapshots in Time

            One of the great benefits to being a full-time father – and despite their time in school each day and the other projects on which I am working, that is still what I am - is the amount of time I get to see my children in close quarters. This time together means that I know a great deal about who they are and lots of details about their characters, preferences, and typical reactions to given situations. I feel like I have a pretty good handle on who they are at home or when they are operating within our family context.
Beyond that context though is another matter. I don’t actually see my kids at a distance very often. I don’t really know how they interact with their friends at school or how they handle themselves in a crowd. People act differently depending on the people around them, and I am constantly curious what that means for Pip and Polly. It also seems like an important measure of how our parenting is working. Character, as the saying goes, is what you do when no one is watching.
            As it turns out, over the past week I have had opportunities to observe both Pip and Polly from a distance, interacting with peers and playing out some of the roles we don’t usually get to see. For Polly, this took place at Skye’s sixth birthday party. For Skye’s party, her parents hired a pair of college-aged girls to come to their house dressed up as the main characters from Frozen. Skye got to invite six or seven friends to join her. Polly and Skye are best friends at school where the order of the classroom plays to Polly’s strengths. But it was interesting to see them interact in an environment where chaos was a prominent theme. What I saw as the girls sang and danced, ate cake, put on costumes, and bounced about the house was that Polly turns out to be a very capable facilitator. While the other girls all dressed as Elsa, Polly took up the one Anna costume and made it fun. She patiently waited for her turn to get her face painted, turning her version of the coloring pages each kid worked on into a birthday card for Skye. I was proud of her because she handled things so well, making herself present and part of the fun yet not going too far and grabbing the spotlight from Skye. That’s a delicate balance.
When it came time to open presents, the girls all sat together on the couch with Polly on one side of Skye and all the rest on the other. In that moment I felt like you could read the future of these two girls. Skye would grow into being a ‘cool’ girl, in possession of an array of up to date clothing and gadgets, following the latest social trends, and linked in to an extended network of other girls (The gifts coming in from her parents, grandparents, and the other guests – lots of Friends LEGOs and her own tablet computer - suggested that). Polly will probably continue to be on that other side of Skye, the one Anna in a world of want-to-be Elsa’s. I’d like to think that is a good thing. I can imagine how from that position Polly can float between worlds, hanging out with Skye but also going elsewhere when she sees fit. I can see her being confident enough in herself, in her smarts, in her ability to function in the world that she can be best friends with Skye without being overawed by all the stuff and the people Skye is going to have around her. That’s what I saw in Polly on that Saturday, and I hope that’s what continues to stay with her as she grows.
            Pip’s turn in the Daddy telescope came a couple of days later. This past Thursday, the second and third graders at Pip and Polly’s school put on a musical celebration of Black History Month for the school and parents were invited to come watch. This was a smaller event than the big winter and spring shows, and it allowed me to sit in a place where I could easily see Pip through the entire thirty-minute production. He was standing in the second row, his red polo shirt buttoned all the way up and tucked tightly into his black pants, his white tennis shoes pointing out below in a slightly duck-like angle. Ava’d recently cut his hair so he looked clean and trimmed all around, like a golf pro making his first appearance on tour. This impression didn’t change when he started to sing. His eyebrows crunched into a slight scowl as he focused intensely on getting the words, the notes, and the corresponding dance moves all working together. He worked earnestly to get every bit right and the effort involved gave his movements a halting quality. Instead of feeling and inhabiting the rhythms as they came, it seemed more like he was hunting them, stalking after their every measure in a determined effort to get everything right.

            This image seems to foretell something of his future as well. He didn’t joke with the girl to his right or whisper things to one of his friends in front of him. He was focused on the task to the exclusion of everything else. He wasn’t stand-offish. He wasn’t aloof. But he was slightly uptight, earnestly hard-working, and nerdy in that clean-cut, teacher’s pet kind of way. Only when the show was done did he momentarily break from this state, sliding his chin down into his shirt and popping it out again with a little grin on his face. I might have wished to see him enjoy things a little bit more, but given the multitudinous array of other things he could be, I’ll take this version any time.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Prepping for the Test

            Four weeks ago I wrote about Pip and the letter he received about the accelerated program at his school. At the time I was feeling powerless with respect to a selection process that seemed heavily dependent on a single number generated by one unknown test given on one unknown day. I wanted to Pip to get into this program because he likes school and he likes learning and the accelerated curriculum would give him an opportunity to do more of both. While getting in isn’t the do-or-die situation that it is in some places (we use to live in a rust-belt city where you either got your kids into the accelerated programs or you took them to private schools – there was no in between) I felt like he deserved one of the small number of spots available. Not only has he consistently worked at the leading edge of the curriculum, he also treats others around him with genuine respect. The teachers trust him to take care of his business and do what has been asked of him. He contributes productively to the class and willingly helps others. Pip is the type of kid that these kinds of programs should be accepting.
None of these qualities though show up on the quantitative measurements that are used to determine who gets a place and who doesn’t. The test is the only thing that matters.
            A day or two after writing that post, I decided to get over my paralysis and embrace a moderate Amy Chua approach to taking on this thing. While I didn’t know exactly which test Pip would be taking, it didn’t take a big imagination to go to the internet and figure out which ones he might see. After reading through a couple of different possibilities, I went about putting together example questions that would cover the general scope of what he might see. Each day after dropping him off at school I’d come home and spend about thirty minutes drawing up a set of questions, some of which came from the internet and others of which I made up on my own. When Pip came home each day, we would work through the questions together. It took a couple of days for us to figure out how many he could reasonably do and how best to go through them, but we eventually fell a good rhythm. I even started splitting the questions into an easy practice group and a more complex group to give him some work both at getting used to the types of questions he would face and at working through problems that didn’t immediately make sense to him.
            The most valuable aspect of our work together over the ensuing weeks was what I came to think of as the post-completion review process. After Pip finished all the problems on a given page, I had him explain to me his thinking on each problem before I told him the answer. This process had two benefits. The first was that it forced him to slow down and articulate what he was thinking regardless of whether the answer was right or wrong. This was particularly important for the questions he got right as those he tended to know without really understanding why. The second benefit of this process was that it gave me insights into his routines of thinking that I could then pick at in subsequent days.
            Ultimately, we didn’t have long enough for Pip to really reconfigure his thinking processes to match those of the test or even develop a regular set of procedures for addressing various kinds of problems. However, he did get to see enough problems to demystify the test itself and for him to become aware of which approaches he favored in solving certain types of problems. For the time we had available this was a satisfactory result. As I told Ava the night before the test, I felt like we’d done well. He was prepared for the type of questions he would see. He would be able to spend his time figuring out answers and not having to figure out exactly what the questions were asking of him. This was the best position we could get to without having the test take over our lives.

            All of this work together had a couple of interesting side-effects that I had not anticipated. For one, it temporarily made me into a less friendly person. Usually I’m inclined to talk with other parents just before pick-up time to see what’s going on and to learn how they are feeling about various things taking place at school. It’s mostly an exercise in collaborative competition as people talk about what their kids are into, how they’re doing, things like that. There’s usually some soft bragging on all sides (mine as well) which is fine because it helps give each other a sense of what other kids are doing and what we might expect of our own. And for the most part, the kids are not competing with one another in these moments. It’s mostly just parental pride at stake.
But with respect to the accelerated program tests, I didn’t venture any questions. I decided I’d rather not talk about how Pip was preparing on the off-chance that I’d give someone else the idea to do the same. I preferred to preserve that (possibly imagined) edge for Pip. Of course, without talking about it, I had no idea what others were doing which may very well have prevented me from doing something else that was beneficial, but that was a gamble I decided to take. All of this made me edgy and less talkative than usual. When you’re thinking so much about not letting others know what you’re thinking, it becomes hard to actually speak like a normal human being. In the last couple of days before the test, I couldn’t help but think of Bill Belichick, the coach of the New England Patriots, and his gruff exercises in ambiguity and non-disclosure with the media. Standing around waiting for Pip and Polly to come out from school, I found myself doing much the same thing.
            On the flip side, now that the test is over, I’ve found that I am missing getting to spend extra time working with Pip. For the past couple of weeks, we’ve had a moment of comradeship each day when it was time to work through the questions I’d put together for him. Polly would come in and sit on my shoulders (literally) and look on while we talked through each of the problems. Pip would be proud when he got the hard ones right, frustrated when something didn’t fit his logic, and excited to do more the next day. The weekend before testing day he even asked for me to put together an extra set of questions for him. We both felt invested in the work and enjoyed having something to work on together in a focused and determined way. The day after the test was over and there was no more prepping to do, the afternoon felt kind of empty and directionless. It was missing the espirit de corps that had become part of our routine. Without that half-hour of intensely close work, I feel like I know him a tiny bit less at the end of the day and that makes me sad.

            So the test is done and now we wait. On the afternoon after the test, Pip said he felt comfortable with the questions and came up with reasonable answers to them all. The tricky thing with this whole test – and the reason it worried me so to begin with – is that the measurement is all relative. He could have done incredibly well and still not make it in to the program. Its all a matter of what everyone else does. Maybe this year was a good year. Maybe it was not. Maybe it won’t matter at all. We just have to wait and see.