Friday, August 28, 2015

Forty-Six



            For reasons that will remain obscure for now, Ava measured Polly’s height yesterday. This is not something we’ve done on a regular basis except at doctors visits, and those numbers go flying out of our minds by the time the doctor moves on to looking in their ears. They have always appeared to be growing at appropriate rates. They’re about average among their peers, maybe even a bit taller though only if you look really closely. Their clothing sizes have progressed as we’d expect as well. Pip’s wearing 8-10’s. Polly’s wearing 6-8’s. With all of these other markers giving us positive returns, there’s been no impetus to keep a close eye on their actual heights. If you’d asked me before yesterday how tall each child is, I’d probably have guessed that Polly clocks in at a little over three feet, and Pip somewhere around four.
            That estimate would have been wrong. According to Ava, Polly is now forty-six inches tall. Forty-six inches; as in only two inches below the four foot barrier. That’s incredible. She’s six years old. I didn’t think she’d hit that level until she was at least eight. She’s huge.
            Except that she’s not. My expectations were obviously out-of-whack, and that ignorance left me open to being dumbfounded. Again Polly is about the same height as most of her classmates. Four feet must be about average for a six-year-old girl.
            All the same that number, forty-six, was a shock. I don’t know how old I was when I passed four feet as a kid, but I remember feeling like it was a milestone. I remember looking in the mirror and trying to imagine what I’d be like when I passed five feet. I must have felt pretty old because in my mind crossing that barrier seemed like a big step towards growing up. To have Polly already approaching that line was something for which I was completely unprepared.

****

            Kids grow up fast. It’s a horrible cliché, and every time I use it (which, with the start of school last week, has been awfully frequent) my stomach churns a bit. But every once in a while something makes me feel that way all the same. I think what’s really at work in this are two discrepancies between the way the kids are actually growing and the way I perceive them to be growing. The first is that when the kids were babies there were obvious developmental milestones: rolling over, crawling, pulling up, saying words, saying sentences, eating solid food, using a spoon, using a toilet, sleeping through the night, running, reading, riding a bicycle. As we ticked through these we always had a sense of what the next one should be, what the next thing we should be looking for. It was a regular check-in for growth. We could anticipate them and look out for them and be excited when they arrived. Growing up was a process of almost daily change, one filled with hurdles to overcome and successes to celebrate.
Now the milestones are more subtle and ambiguous. The kids read a little better than they did several months before. They speak a little clearer. They run a little faster. None of these things are marked by a definitive shift of any sort. None of them contain the same celebratory, “we made it,” kind of sense of achievement. Instead, they’re all sort of impressionistic. We guess that something has changed from one month to the next, but it’s hard to be sure until one of these random markers come along. Last week it was Pip trying out the role of facilitator in a game ofMastermind. This week Polly clocked in at forty-six inches in height. Next week it may be something else. Or nothing at all. We may go several months before something else strikes me.
And this is where the second difference comes into play. It’s largely a corollary to the first, but it’s worth elucidating all the same. For the last two years or so, we’ve been doing mostly the same kinds of things. What I mean by this is that we’ve been getting up at about the same times, eating the same kind of foods, riding bikes places, going to school, doing homework, playing in the yard, etc. The general scope of our activities has followed a regular pattern. The kids like to go to the library and the park. They enjoy swimming and hiking in the summer and going sledding in the winter. They add a few new wrinkles and games to the patterns from time to time and both are both doing things at increasing levels of sophistication but all these things are still fit within a general frame of likes and dislikes that has remained largely unchanged over the past couple of years. This consistency lends itself to a feeling of stasis, even timelessness to a certain extent, as if we can and will keep doing these things this way for eternity (which would be okay by me). Then a reminder comes around – forty-six inches! – that such timelessness is an illusion, and sometimes it takes a few moments to recover my senses.
I’m glad Polly and Pip are growing tall and smart and strong, but, my goodness, what I wouldn’t give to have it all happen just a tiny bit slower.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Challenges of Growing Older

            This summer Polly and Pip have started looking older to me. It’s been about two years since this last happened. When they were four and six respectively, they started losing the softness around their stomachs and growing longer limbs. Now, those limbs are becoming more and more muscular. Polly’s arms slope outward at the shoulder, and Pips legs have gotten tautly bunched above and below the knees. Their faces have changed, too. They’re more engaged and articulate, more complex. They’re no longer cute. I look into their eyes, and I expect a level of sophistication from them that I never had expected before.
            It is not a coincidence that as Pip and Polly have come to look increasingly older, Ava and I have come to expect a greater level of responsibility from them. We’ve started asking them to take on more aspects of household maintenance – helping with dishes, making beds, laying out clothes for school the next day, cleaning bathrooms. We haven’t made any big speeches about these things or tried to tie them to particular ideas like “being older” or “being in first/third grade.” Instead, we’ve just started asking them more often to do things to help us out around the house. Right now it’s actually kind of fun because things like filling the water jugs or cracking eggs or tearing up lettuce for salad are new activities for the kids. They get to figure out how to do them and what these previously unknown experiences feel like. Plus, Polly and Pip both like feeling useful and we make a big deal out of how helpful they are being. I imagine all of this will get harder once the novelty has worn off.

****

            This gradually emerging sense of being older is bringing with it some bittersweet moments for the kids as well. A couple of mornings ago just before school started up again, I was making lunch in the kitchen while Pip and Polly were hanging out together in the living room. They were playing a kids’ version of the classic game Mastermind in which each player has a secret stack of different animals and the opponent has to deduce the order of the stack by asking questions such as “Is the lion above the giraffe?” or “is the penguin below the monkey?”
            Now, we’ve been playing games like Memory, Go Fish, Bingo, and Chutes and Ladders for several years, and usually Polly’s interest in these games trends towards being silly with them rather than trying to win them. She likes messing around with patterns, making goofy faces, laughing at odd coincidences that come along. It isn’t that she doesn’t like to win, but she’s never gotten particularly invested in winning as a measure of whether something was fun or not.
            But that morning was different. Whether it was because the game came from Grandma or because it involved animals – her self-proclaimed area of expertise – or because it was just her time, that morning Polly decided winning was important. She was going to be the Mastermind champion or the world was going to end.
            This development wasn’t terribly surprising. When Pip was six years old, we started playing Checkers together, and it was one of the more tortured experiences of his life. Because he had never played a game through to the end, he couldn’t see past the immediate visceral emotion of each and every move. He would gloat over every successful jump and get teary every time he lost a checker. I was constantly having to coax him along by making silly mistakes that gave him a jump or by offering obvious hints about where he might best move to get closer to getting kinged. This coaxing I found to be especially hard because I wanted to try out some of my own strategies to see how they would work. I wanted to be able to win. But I also wanted to keep playing. I was enjoying thinking through things and talking with Pip over the game board, and if I always pounced on Pips mistakes he’d get so frustrated he never come back to the game again. I struggled constantly with finding the balance and often finished an evening feeling like I’d done more harm than good.
            Listening in from the kitchen while I flipped grilled cheeses in the skillet, I heard the sound of Polly celebrating as she won the first two games. She was jumping up and down happily while Pip clicked the animal tiles back into the pile. A few minutes later as I went to pull some bananas from the fruit bowl, I was surprised to hear Pip bellow like an elephant and subsequently give a gentle lion’s roar. Following another celebratory dance by Polly things seemed to get quieter and more serious. I put some corn on the stove to cook and tried to listen in to the background of their game but all I could hear was the volley of questions – “Is your hippo above your peacock?”, “No. Is your snake below your alligator?” Then while the corn was finishing up, there came this huge wail from Polly. A moment later, Pip came around the corner with tears in his eyes, saying “I just wanted to win once Daddy and now she won’t play anymore.”
He had held back for three full games, coaxing Polly along, giving her hints, watching her celebrate when she won. He had played my role and had done it well. They were having fun together, talking and playing, but there was this little bug in the back of his mind. He wanted his chance to win, too. He wanted to be able to turn it all lose and just play the game and not worry about the larger picture for a few minutes. And so he did. And he won. And now he was feeling hollow and horrible because Polly’s aura of invincibility had been shattered and she didn’t want to play anymore while all he really wanted was to go back to the genial back and forth they’d had going while she was winning. He was miserable because this is exactly what he knew would happen and yet he couldn’t quite rein himself in and let her keep winning.

****


            Pip and Polly haven’t played Mastermind again since that morning. I don’t know whether that’s because of how things ended that day or because they got distracted by other games (we’ve been playing a lot of Uno recently). Whichever the case, they’re both a bit older now. Polly got an exposure to handling sudden reversals of fortune which will hopefully make the next one easier to deal with. Pip began to figure out a new complication when it comes to playing games. In both cases I think they are getting another step closer to the kind of people we ultimately want them to be. 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Nana Cannonball



            This past weekend Ava, Polly, Pip, and I made a surprise trip to visit my parents in order to celebrate my dad’s seventieth birthday. I’m not a big fan of surprises – they tend to require a lot of extra effort for a relatively small amount of extra return – but my mom wanted to do things this way, and she got the reaction she was hoping for. Dad was happily befuddled when he came home from playing nine holes of golf to find us all gleefully splashing around in the lake along which they live. He was even more surprised when my sister arrived a couple of hours later, having flown in from out west for the weekend.
            Between the birthday celebrations and all the time available to swim and play in water, it turned out to be a very fun weekend. Mom and Dad stayed up late on Thursday night drinking wine and hanging out with friends. Pip got to paddle all about the cove on Mom and Dad’s newly acquired paddleboard. Polly experimented with jumping from the dock and letting her head go under water. Ava and I bounced around in the middle of the water on a large purple inner tube.       
But the image I’ll remember the most from those couple of days is the Nana cannonball.
            Nana, as Pip and Polly call my mom, likes to play with the kids. She splashes in the water with them. She creates daily scavenger hunts for them that end with silly dollar-store prizes. She chases them around the yard with water squirters. She fills up water balloons for them to throw at her and each other. Part of this represents the engagement of a former kindergarten teacher with her grandchildren, but much of it is also her personality: playing with the kids allows her to be silly in a way that playing with adults never does.
            So it wasn’t that surprising on Friday afternoon when she decided to join Pip in doing a series of jumps off the dock. Now Pip had been periodically hurling himself off the dock all day, doing cannonballs, karate kicks, long jumps, spins, and several other falls that defy quick description. I’d gone with him from time to time because there’s something infinitely fun about flinging yourself out into the air and flying for a moment before crashing down in a massive splatter of water. I think Nana had been watching and wanted in on the fun, too.
            She started off with a placid hop, just kind of jumping off the edge and dropping down into the water feet first while covering her face with her hands. This prim little jump was treated as a pretty big deal by several of the neighbors and friends who were hanging out and floating around the dock at the time. It’s unusual for any of that group to jump into the water at all, much less get their hair wet. Nana made this point herself several times as she climbed back out of the water and pondered whether to do it again.
Fortunately, the exhilaration of that first leap had gotten into her, and she soon walked back around to do another jump. The second time she followed Pip and I into the water, Nana stretched herself a little and did a toothpick, hopping out and straightening her body while again covering her face then plunging sharply down through the surface with barely a splash. Pip was quite enamored with this and scurried out to try it for himself.
            Then, after doing a second toothpick, Nana announced that she was ready to go whole hog; she was going to do a cannonball. This earned a cheer from the assembled neighbors as she set herself up a couple of steps back from the edge of the dock. Then, she took two or three jogging steps forward and hopped up into the air. It was something to see, this sixty-five year old woman, wiry and tan, hair dyed a blondish brown to hide the gray, who just the night before was the gracious hostess for a party of upper middle class country clubbers, curling her legs in against her chest, pulling her arms around them, and rolling her shoulders into a ball to plunk through the surface and send big fat drops of water showering into the air. When her head popped back above the surface, a goofy smile growing on her face, she received another full round of cheers from us all.
            After the cannonball Nana turned it all loose. She did crazy spider jumps. She did long jumps. She did another cannonball. She came back the next afternoon and did some more. Pip was thrilled to see her go, and I think Nana had way more fun than even she would have imagined at the start.

When I was a teenager I had a poster hanging over my bed with the image of a mansion and a garage filled with exotic sports cars. The caption across the top read Motivation for Higher Education. It was silly and ridiculous, but it served an important function all the same. By giving me an image of who I might become, by giving me a target if you will, that poster became a touchstone for making choices about my life. It served in many ways as a measuring stick to help me decide which opportunities were worth going for and which ones to let slide on by. Over time my ideas about what’s important have changed and that poster no longer hangs on my wall. All the same, the importance of having an image to look forward to, having an image around which to crystallize a certain concept of my future self remains strong. When I saw my mom pull off that cannonball, I knew immediately that’s the kind of person I wanted to be: the kind of person who is interested in doing silly things with the kids, the kind of person who is playful without being obnoxious, the kind of person who is willing to get their hair wet because the fun of the moment is absolutely worth the clean-up later on. These were not new revelations. These were things I’ve known about myself for a very long time. But still, I hadn’t had a good image to bring them all together, to remind myself in moments of indecision who I really want to be.
Now, I do.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Fields of Joy

            Last weekend we went blackberry picking in former pasture land that has been turned into an ecological research area by Ava’s university. The area is usually closed to people not doing some kind of research in it but for two weeks or so each summer the overseers open up the trails for folks like us who want to harvest blackberries from the various patches that dot the open meadow. Picking the berries is something of an adventure as they grow on stalks full of thorns that grab at your hands and clothing as you try to get at their fruit. It can be quite painful if they get stuck in your skin. In addition, as the area is being allowed to regrow from pasture into forest and brushland, wild things abound. You have to be smart about how far into the brush you’re willing to reach to get at a berry. Last year we went in a bit too far and suffered the consequences. Pip, in particular, acquired a distinct arcing trail of chigger bites all the way across his back. This year we were more cautious about stepping off the trail and managed to stay largely free of bites. We did, however, collect our share of ticks along our pant legs and were warned off from going down one branch of the trail by the agitated huffing of what we now think was a wild boar.
            Despite all of that we managed to fill a gallon sized Ziploc bag with berries after about 90 minutes of picking. Ava and Pip took the lead on this, plunging ahead along the path and grabbing most of the ripe berries within reach. Polly, dressed in a long sleeved shirt and red stretchy pants with little pandas on them, was a touch overwhelmed by the heat and hung back with me as I gleaned through whatever was left. The two of us had a nice time of things casually strolling through the meadow, Polly pointing out dark, plump clusters for me to pick, and the both of us stopping to examine anything interesting that caught our eye.
            It was particularly nice because as Ava and Pip rounded the bend and eased out of sight, Polly and I had some one on one time together. Moving by ourselves we found numerous June bugs, a brown, leaf-eating insect tucked under a briar, and a silvery green grasshopper that was smaller than a peanut. We listened to cows mooing and a donkey braying in a field across the way. We watched as red-winged blackbirds swooped low across the head-tall growth around us and finches rode back and forth on the stalks of purple flowered thistle. Polly was particularly intrigued by the numerous strands of Queen Anne’s Lace that lined the path and we found opportunities to compare its various stages of growth from fibrous stalk to hairy bud to delicate bouquet of croqueted white flowers.
            For half an hour or so, it was just the two of us together, and she was perfectly content going along with me. Her normal impulse is to stay close to Pip so as to make sure she doesn’t miss out on anything he might be doing. However, for that time, being with me was interesting enough or attractive enough to override that impulse, a fact that gave me an endless feeling of joy. At one level it’s always nice to feel engaged with someone in a process of mutually exchanged attentions. This is especially true when it comes to parents and children as I usually find myself being either the giver or demander of attention. It is the rare time that my kids and I come to a truly collaborative moment that hasn’t been engineered by Ava or me for some larger purpose. At another level, I’m always a slight bit unsure about what to expect from Polly in those kind of moments. With Pip, I’m his best friend. We talk. We play. We work together. He always wants me to do something with him. With Polly, there’s a touch of distance. I’m much more conscious of being her parent than I am with Pip. I’m always aware that she has a lifeworld that is distinctly separate from mine. She doesn’t automatically jump at the opportunity to go run errands with me or play in the yard together. She enjoys playing with me but sometimes she’d rather do something else with Ava or play on her own. This feeling of separation doesn’t create problems between us, but it does make me feel as if I have to earn things a bit more with her. I tend to coax her more when it comes to things like learning how to read or figuring out how to ride a bicycle. I’m less certain about what games she might and might not enjoy. I’ve let her do things like climb up a ladder with me that I would not have done for Pip. In this way we probably re-enact a fairly typical father-daughter relationship.

And so, to get a half-hour with Polly and to get it right, to not be overbearing or too eager, to find our rhythm together, make me feel like our time in the berry field was time well spent. Polly and I didn’t leave that field with many berries in our bucket but that’s not really why we were out there anyway. Picking berries, going on vacations, playing in the park, these are things we do in order to spend real, decent time with our kids. It doesn’t always come together in the way that we want, but happily on this trip it did.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Growth, both personal and communal

            Over the last two weeks we were mostly on the road visiting my parents. They’re living the retirement dream on a lake with a dock, a boat, and a jetski, and it means that whenever we visit them water plays a large role in whatever we do. For me this is great. I love swimming and water skiing and messing around on the jetski. I’ve done those things for over half my life. For the kids it’s a more fraught proposition, as we are constantly having to balance what different adults – me, Ava, my parents – want them to do and what they’re capable of enjoying. They’ve had a gradual introduction first to the dock then the next year to the boat and last year to the jetski. This year it was time to go all in. We strapped lifevests on them both and let them hop into the water to swim around with relative freedom. And they loved it. In fact, they could not get enough of the water. We had to drag them out each day to get food into them. We spent almost four full days at my parents and never got into our cars to go anywhere. Every time we asked either child what they wanted to do the answer was, “Swim in the lake.”
            I wasn’t surprised that they liked it. It just caught me off guard how much they did. I guess I’d forgotten how much fun it is to splash and jump and paddle and kick and bob in the water. Polly in particular was giddy. She would bob up and down and do circles in the water over and over again. She blew bubbles and dunked her face. She practiced her doggie-paddle and even stretched her arms out for a couple strokes of freestyle.
I’d been a bit worried coming into the summer about getting them both into swim lessons because we had not had much water time last year and being 6 and 8 years old the window for getting comfortable in the water is wide open. It turns out that all we needed was a full week of hot weather and a body of water close at hand. By the end of our visit with my folks – which included a three day jaunt down to the glorious beaches of South Carolina – Pip was jumping in deep water and treading with the calm of one who knows he can keep his head above the surface and Polly was leaping from the wall and willingly letting her head go underwater before I caught her. They were both experimenting with what they could do, inching along a little further without us having to push or cajole. It was the kind of learning one hopes for, the kind of learning that really sticks, perhaps the only kind of learning that really works in the end.

            The one non-water related event of interest for us that came out of our visit to my parents was the opportunity to watch a couple of games of the Womens World Cup. At home our television is not hooked up to any outside source of programming so we don’t have the ability to watch sporting events as they happen or even tape them for later. My folks have both and so we took the opportunity to watch the US-Australia game on tape and the France-Germany game as it happened.
It was hard for me to watch these games and not view them through the lens of the last time I’d really paid attention to women’s soccer: 1999 Women’s World Cup. In 1999 the discourse around women’s soccer was something along the lines of, “Hey, women can play exciting soccer, too.” It was a kind of defensive posture that indicated that this idea was something of a novelty. As we watched the games this past week, I was reminded of this a couple of times when my father – not a caveman but prone to occasionally making a socially dated remark – made a big deal out of one of the German players spitting on the field and then later asked if everyone was wearing shin guards. It was as if he was surprised that what we were watching was a hard-fought athletic endeavor and not some kabuki theater presentation put on for the sake of gender equity.
Now I don’t believe that this was his actually thought process. His words came out of habitual reflex more than intent. And my immediate feelings of defensiveness were just the same. I wasn’t just watching some games. I was purposefully giving my attention to these teams as part of a larger social project. It was politics as much as it was entertainment.

Fortunately, Polly and Pip have no such habits. They haven’t watched enough sports to care whether the players on the field are men or women. They don’t hear the title “Women’s World Cup” and think of that as some lesser version of the “real” World Cup. They got to watch the games and enjoy them for the entertainment they are and not the politics they represent. They got to watch France play Germany and get attached to their attacking style and feel crushed when the final French shooter missed her penalty kick all without the baggage of wondering how it compared to a men’s game. They got to cheer when Megan Rapinoe scored that first goal for the United States against Australia and ooh and aah when Hope Solo made a couple of diving saves early on. And while we didn’t watch the final on Sunday night, they’ll get to see highlights of Carli Lloyds spectacular hat-trick and revel in the pure stunning amazement that sports can bring without being bothered by any of the old questions. Frankly, it makes me jealous.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Lessons in What I Really Think

            The kids got out of school three weeks ago. Since then we’ve taken them to one grandmother, I spent a long weekend in Pittsburgh with my friends, and we are now preparing to take them to visit more grandparents. Put all this in combination with the reduced amount of time available to write and I haven’t been able to get anything together for a while now.
Of course that doesn’t mean things haven’t been happening that are worth talking about. We’ve been to museums. We’ve played on the playground with school friends and hashed over the dynamics of who got in to the accelerated program and who didn’t. We’ve been to hipster festivals and faced the contradictions of being old and being cool. We’ve had dinner with friends and come home wondering when we’ll ever let our children go to someone else’s house without one of us coming along. We’ve changed our naptime to rest time and have reaped the benefits of a happier afternoon Polly. Each of these was worth more than one sentence and maybe in a quieter time I’ll come back to them.
Today, however, I wanted to write about the challenges that having kids constantly presents to what we know about ourselves. As a person, I have a well-established sense of what I believe about the world and what values should - in general - guide my choices. Until I had children I didn’t have to think about these things too much because I moved within worlds that only challenged my values sporadically. Now, however, I feel as if Pip and Polly bring such challenges to me almost every day, from deciding how much candy I’m willing to let them have to what clothes they should wear to how much roughhousing is too much. In the process I’m constantly surprised about which choices I actually make and the unrealized assumptions that underlie them.
In the last three weeks I have stumbled into two moments in particular where this dynamic between what I thought I knew about myself and what I actually do has been brought into contrast.
The first came during a hike the kids and I took two weekends ago. We went out to a gorge about an hour outside of town that has a wonderful array of sandstone arches, rock shelters, and little creeks and spent a full morning going working our way across a ridgeline, down to a creek, along the gorge floor, and then back up past a huge arch. The whole loop was about three and half miles long and to keep the kids interested I gave them a pretty free rein to run up ahead and explore. When the path made it down to the little rocky creek it did so in this beautiful spot where the creek curved in a large arc and the space between was filled with large old-growth trees and soft beds of pine needles. The kids wanted to play in the creek, hopping along its banks and pulling up rocks to throw into the deeper pools, but I hesitated. When out in the woods we try to practice Leave No Trace hiking. We stay on established trails. We pack out our trash. We don’t bring rocks home with us. By doing this we hope to preserve the wild spaces we travel through for others to enjoy as we did.
Certainly, tearing up rocks from a creek bed qualifies as leaving a trace. Not only that, if every group that came through that spot tore up rocks and splashed them in the pools it would distinctly change, if not ultimately destroy, the very thing about that spot that made it wonderful. At the same time, I want Polly and Pip to enjoy being out in the woods. I want them to see it as a living place where they can explore and learn about the world and themselves. If we treat the woods as a pristine place where things cannot be touched and moved around, where we can only walk and look then they become as sterile and distant as a museum. Loving the woods is as much about getting dirty, feeling the wind in one’s hair, experiencing the rain on your skin, hearing the crunch of things around you, feeling mud between your fingers. To not fear the woods you have to touch it.
So I let them play and splash and run and laugh. They wound up with wet shoes and mud stained clothes and very large smiles. I’m not sure it was the right decision in the grand scheme of public preservation, but I know it was the right decision for our family’s further interest in going out into the woods.
The second moment of political difficulty involves playing soccer. Polly enjoyed playing soccer this spring and is interested in continuing to play this fall. The league in which she would play has a co-ed division and an all-girls division posing an interesting gender dilemma. Ava is inclined towards the former arguing that she (and the boys) would benefit from having her in there working and battling side-by-side. She would conceivably have to fight more for her place in this environment, but Ava felt like this was an important aspect of the world for her to learn to handle. By the end of the spring season I was leaning the other way. In joining an all girls league I felt as if Polly will get more time to handle the ball during games and will probably find more immediate success. I felt as if this would lead to her enjoying the game more in general and might incline her to continue playing longer. Throughout the season I felt as if the girls on the team deferred to the boys or waited for them to do something on the field before following along.
While we haven’t yet made a final decision (Polly has raised the possibility of doing gymnastics but hasn’t yet indicated which shed select), I have come to the realization that Ava is right. Polly should be in the co-ed league. More importantly, I am finding that my observations about the girls’ experiences on our team may have been more colored by certain mistaken assumptions than I understood. The two older girls on the team were a year younger than the oldest boys. When I think back over the season and compare those girls to the boys who were their same age instead of too all the boys, the picture that emerges looks different that I originally thought. The younger players, boys and girls, were always having to claw the ball away from the older ones. Age was the great divider, not gender. The seven year old girls were doing all the same things as the seven year old boys. Their skill levels and strength levels were equivalent. Their successes and failures were all very similar. Even their relations to the kids who were older and younger were largely the same. I was just seeing the girls’ frustrations with the older players through the wrong lens.

Raising children is eternally humbling. It is forever revealing things about me that I never fully understood. Some of these things are wonderful and some of these things are roundly disappointing. Either way, it’s quite an education in itself.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Imagining new parenting metrics



           Sometimes an idea needs to germinate. Last week I mused about the perpetual uncertainty that parents face in understanding what things matter when it comes to raising their children. Unfortunately, I feel like I didn’t get any farther than saying that successes and failures come from some mix of biological capacity and cultural training and that it’s hard to know which matters more in a given situation. I did start to talk about the emergence of advanced metrics in the NBA but only used that to whine that no such metrics are possible for parents. What I really should have done was to build on the comparison and imagine what such a system might look like anyway. So, that’s what I want to do now.
            To start with let me back up and talk briefly again about the NBA system. Owned and run by a company called STATS, LLC, SportVU is a system of motion tracking cameras and data collection software that was fully installed in all NBA arenas for the 2013-2014 season. It creates a data set 25 times a second, allowing for a host of experimentation and development in the analysis of player activity on the court. While the development of new metrics in baseball – where each play can be broken down into discrete moments of individual input-output measures - took off back in the 1990s, it wasn’t until the development of this technology enabled an analysis of holistic secondary and tertiary effects that such metrics began emerging in basketball.
            What I’ve been playfully imagining over the past several days is something akin to ParentVU wherein the secondary and tertiary effects of parenting activity could be analyzed and accounted for.  While plenty of studies have attempted to correlate discrete parental actions with various measures of child success – for example, time spent reading to children or meals eaten together – much like the rough measures of points scored and rebounds gained, these measures don’t really tell us much about how these things happen and consequently can only give us rough feedback about what parenting strategies are most effective. A good player scores a lot of points and grabs a lot of rebounds but that doesn’t give a team a good sense of how that player fits together with other teammates most effectively. Similarly, a good parent reads a lot to their children and eats meals with them but that doesn’t amount to much of a strategic guide when it comes to the full array of challenges that come with being a parent.
            What one would hypothetically want to do instead is, like an NBA team, record every move made by a parent and child over time and look for ways to correlate parental inputs with filial outputs.  This, of course, would require a level of surveillance that feels downright terrifying on the face of it, but for the sake of this post I’m going to skip past the privacy/ethical/logistical quandaries for now and imagine what kind of metrics we might be able to develop from it. I’ve come up with several from my own experience that I’d love to track.

            - “Do as I say” ratio – tracks the consistency between what parents ask children to do and the things parents do themselves
            - Eye contact percentage – tracks quantity of eye contact during time parents and children are around each other. Would be a proxy for how attentive parents are to children in various contexts – the playground, the dinner table, etc
            - Touch matrix – tracks the number and types of physical contact between parents and children as well as categorizing them into negative and positive groups. The number would be some kind of ratio per hour and positive/negative ratio.
            - Consistency index – tracks similar situations over time and determines the consistency of parental response. This would make no value judgments about the quality or nature of these responses. It is merely looking for whether responses are the same or different over time.
            - Conversational exchange rate – tracks number of conversational exchanges versus other exchanges such as corrections, instructions, punishments, etc.

As I put this list together a couple of caveats came to mind. One is that I am imagining metrics from a parental experience point of view and not a quantitative measures point of view. There are probably all kinds of interesting twists to be measured by someone better versed in the math of these things than I am. Second, this list reflects a very particular, very personal version of what makes a good parent. There are no metrics listed above for ‘one hit wonders’ such as buying spectacular presents or undertaking big displays of affection. To me these things smack of parental self-aggrandizement and I don’t think statistical tracking of such things isn’t going to lead to any great revelations about parenting strategy. Third, the metrics also reflect the current age of my children (6 and 8) and might be somewhat different if they were much younger or older. Fourth, I’m favoring percentage and ratio measures over cumulative ones. While something like number of diapers changed or soccer games attended could tell a good deal about the time a parent spends with a child, such measures would also get skewed by the different roles parents have in the household and could also tend to mistake quantity for quality. I’m less interested in how much time a parent spends around their children and more curious about what they’re doing with the time they do spend.
            Another interesting challenge – and one that I’ve thought less about – is how to measure results and draw correlations between them. This requires its own set of value choices regarding what kinds of personalities one wants their children to have, which strengths one values, which weaknesses one can live with. Then too, parenting is so much about investing ahead of time to produce results down the road that connecting the dots between input and output would be especially difficult. With all of that said, here are a few possible output metrics that I would love to connect to my parental input variables:

            - self confidence
            - respect for others
            - willingness to listen and incorporate the ideas of others
- ability to follow directions

The data provided by SportVU has changed a great deal about the strategies NBA teams employ in this day and age. After analyzing shot percentages and per possession scoring data, teams now work especially hard to create shots within 8 feet of the basket and beyond the three point line, disdaining longer two point jumpers as inefficient and less likely to produce positive results. Fluid passing and the management of court space have become more important than ever as teams look to get defenses scrambling around before they dump the ball down low or out to high percentage spots around the three point line. In turn, defenders who can quickly drop into the paint and then jump back out at shooters have become high valued as well.
            While a comparative ParentVU system would be complex beyond measure, it’s fun to speculate on what new strategies for improvement might come from them, particularly if the data could be collectively analyzed and shared across a large population. Would parents check their stats the way they do their Fitbits to see how well they’re doing on the various metrics? Would they compete to see who had the best touch matrix for the month? Would such a system spawn a whole new approach to parenting akin to the NBA’s embrace of ‘pace and space?’ Would that actually give parents a better sense of which things they can do to positively mold their kids?