Friday, January 29, 2016

The Power of Holding Hands

            One of the things I try to do with my kids is make physical contact with them as often as I can. When we walk places together we often hold hands. When Pip is standing nearby, I usually pull him in to bump against me. When we brush our teeth together, Polly sits on my lap. I give them kisses each morning before sending them into school, hugs whenever they do something well, and piggy-back rides when things around the house get particularly slow.
All of this contact is strategic. As Pip and Polly go out into the world each day, I want them to feel connected to me. I want them to feel my presence - my touch on their shoulders, my hand in theirs – wherever they go. I want them to know that when they need support or help or care, I will be there. I want them to feel it – in their skin, in their skulls, in their bones. I can tell them these things in words all I want, but there is something infinitely more convincing when that knowledge is more than mental, when that knowledge is visceral as well.


            On most days we ride our bikes to school. We live about a mile from the school building and it usually takes about ten minutes or so to get down there. Polly has a pink bike she has named Taffy which she likes to pretend is a horse carrying her swiftly through the fields. Pip has a red mountain with gears and handbrakes that he got over the summer and he can really move when he puts his mind to it. During the early fall and late spring the ride down to school is really fun. The sun is rising. The birds chatter. The air is warm. We whip down the sidewalks and cruise happily along, bouncing over curbs and racing along the open stretches between streets. During the intervening months from late fall to early spring the ride is more of a challenge. The mornings are significantly darker. The air is significantly colder. Over time we’ve built up the proper equipment to handle these conditions. Each of our bikes has its own light that flashes brightly in three directions. Sometimes we look like a line of ambulances going down the sidewalk. We’ve also evolved the proper assortment of clothing to keep the cold at bay – hats that go under helmets and cover our ears, scarves to cover our mouths, thick gloves to keep fingers from freezing, and good coats to push off the chill. This allows us to ride almost every morning.
            However, there are some mornings when it is just too cold to ride even with all of our gear. Last year after too many frozen fingers and some collisions with stationary objects – a trash can, a parked car - because hats were pulled down almost over our eyes, we determined that when the temperature drops below fifteen degrees Fahrenheit, we should bundle ourselves up in all our gear and walk to school.
            Last week brought us two of those mornings. On Wednesday Polly in particular went all in, putting on three layers of sweaters and fleeces before donning her heavy coat then adding a thick scarf and a second hat over her first. This second hat was shaped liked a horse’s head and with its eyes and mouth protruding from her forehead she looked a good six to eight inches taller than she actually is. Running down the street with her hands at her sides, her skinny legs clad only in a pair of khakis and everything from her hips up layered in all that cloth, she looked top-heavy and a bit unsteady like one of those sausages that race between innings at baseball games. As Pip bounded up the sidewalk ahead of her she kept up a solid pursuit catching him from time to time before he sprinted off again. I walked briskly behind them, my gloved hands balled up in my pockets and my nose tucked down tightly into my scarf.
            About halfway down to school Polly stopped chasing Pip and asked me to hold her hand instead. In the darkness and with her face almost completely covered with the scarf I think she wanted to have me guide her along for a while, helping her keep her balance and providing some moral support as the cold began to overcome her initial burst into the dark. I was happy to do it. There’s a strength in doing something like that together. It makes the cold less painful. It also helped keep the two of us on pace, her moving forward and me from going too fast. It was nice to be helping out each other.
            It was nice for another reason as well. The previous week or so Polly had gotten in a negative rut. She’d started whining and complaining about things, pouting whenever something small didn’t go her way, finding something wrong in whatever was going on around her. What was particularly frustrating in all of this was that she wasn’t really sad or moody. It was more that she had gotten into the habit of talking about things in this negative way and had literally forgotten any other route through which to engage the world. At dinner she would want to become part of the conversation and her go-to starter would be to complain about something – the food, the cold, being tired. We’d ask her to try another angle and she would have a hard time coming up with anything else.
This streak of negativity had a very gendered feel to it. Polly was starting to sound like a prototypical whiny girl - a caricature of one even – who shrieks at the slightest provocation and groans whenever she’s asked to do something that doesn’t immediately interest her. This made Ava and I think that much of this was coming from being back at school with some of her friends after the holidays. For whatever reason, those moments of reconnection tend to intensify Polly’s sensitivity to some of her friends’ less admirable qualities.
After a week or so of eye rolling, complaints about food, and a general unwillingness to say anything that wasn’t negative in some way, Polly and I sat down and hashed out how these things were making everyone feel. We grabbed some time on Saturday morning when she was fresh and I was not yet frustrated over constant corrections and talked about ways to change the general scope of our interactions. What we came up with was an agreement that I would signal her anytime she made what I felt was a negative comment. However, I would not try to correct it. In this way we could make her aware of the things that were concerning us but avoid moving into the patronizing lines that we were all more than tired of hearing. Only after she had a better sense of what these things were would we then move towards finding alternatives. It took about two days of this for Polly to begin catching herself and by Wednesday it felt like things were on an upswing.
That she wanted to hold my hand that morning as we walked down to school gave me extra confidence that we were all going to be alright. The emotional bond between two people is never a permanent thing. It’s always subject to the emotional swings of a given day or week, and I’ve never been more aware of this than I have been as a parent. You have to push your children to do things they don’t want to do, to fix things they’re doing wrong, to learn lessons that no one wants to have to teach. These things are not pleasant, and they test the connection between parent and child. You want them to know that you love them even as you push or punish them. But it’s easy to mix things up, to say one thing and do another, to undermine one’s seriousness by switching too quickly to expressions of love, to bring your expressions of love into question by dwelling too heavily on the serious. You break the bond a little each time you have to disappoint them or punish them or point out when something’s wrong. And you never know for sure if those breaks will heal or eventually lead to a much bigger tear. So it was a relief to have Polly reach out for me to help her. In doing so she gave us the chance to heal over the smaller breaks between us and maybe even help make our bond grow a little stronger.
We walked on towards her school quietly and without speaking. This too felt right. Words would have been too abrupt, too quick, too definite for the work that needed to be done. Words would have required a rehashing, an articulation of feelings gone past, a dredging up of the past week that would either revisit our frustrations or minimize their importance. Without words in that moment we were able to keep walking forward, leaning on one another, helping keep each other upright and going in the right direction.

Friday, January 8, 2016


            There are plenty of times in life when your children can make you proud. They get a good grade on a test. They finish a puzzle you’d thought they’d struggle to complete. They share a toy with a friend without anyone having to suggest to them that they should. While these are pretty standard moments in the course of raising a child, they are still nice to have. But then there are the moments that really mean something, the moments when you learn something specific about who your child is and, just as important, what things really matter to you. We all want our kids to do well and be happy, but what does that look like in everyday practice? What skills, attitudes, or interests constitute at a fundamental level what it means to be good? These vary from family to family, from parent to parent, and it’s often not clear what they are until you see it in action.


            One day before school finished up for winter break, I went to Polly’s class to help out with their holiday party. The party ran up to the end of the school day, and so we decided to stay after and help clean things up. Just before the dismissal bell, I stepped over to Pip’s classroom to let him know that he should come over to Polly’s class to meet me instead of going outside like he usually would. When I got there, Pip’s class was already lined up at the door. They had their backpacks on and three boys were jostling playfully with each other at the front of the line. One had his arms and legs spread across the door frame blocking the way. The other two were squirming all around him – sticking their hands through the gaps between his limbs and tugging back against his chest. They were laughing and giggling as they struggled, periodically knocking back against a pod of girls behind them. The girls regarded this jostling with a combination of amusement and disgust. When the dismissal bell rang, all three boys stumbled out into the hall and scurried off to their various points of departure. They were followed by the pod of girls, a second clutch of boys who were hopping up and down and jabbering excitedly, and a second collection of girls who filed passed me in a secretive huddle. Then came Pip.
            In the last six months Pip has undergone a regular and consistent stretch of rapid growth. He has busted through shoes and outgrown pants in what feels like the blink of an eye. Fortunately, this growth seems to be occurring in an even way. His arms and legs haven’t gotten out of proportion to the rest of his body. His feet seem to be about the proper size. And since he’s slender and wiry, he just doesn’t look that big when he’s standing around on his own. As such I hadn’t realized how tall he’d become until that moment when, as he walked out in the line of kids, it was clear he could look out over every one of them. His eyes were about level with everyone else’s skull.
            Seeing me standing on the other side of the doorway, he smiled. He’s been fighting off a cold for a while now and there was an extra touch of pink in his cheeks. His straw blond hair, still cut in a simple, neat-around the edges fashion by Ava, was brushed straight forward and down with no part. The tips of the hairs around his ears were darkened by a shadow of sweat leftover from playing tag on the playground.
            As he made his way over, it struck me, not for the first time, that unlike everyone else that had passed before him, Pip didn’t seem attached to anyone. He wasn’t part of a group or palling around with a friend. Instead, he was moving in a kind of quiet bubble, his head up and those sparkling marbled blue eyes that everyone had said he’d lose as a newborn locked right in on me. I’ve wondered before at this distance he seems to have from the ruckus around him. I’ve worried that he doesn’t have a close friend or two in his class or that he doesn’t know exactly how to connect with the other kids. I’ve worried that he might be lonely. However, he doesn’t look it. The smile isn’t forced and his posture doesn’t reveal any unnatural rigidity. Instead, he looks like a person who isn’t fighting against things, isn’t hiding things, isn’t rushing to get away. He looks like a person easing through the chaos, an ocean tanker gliding steadily along regardless of the tide. He looks like someone who is exceedingly comfortable in his own skin.
            And I really liked it.
I don’t think this quality would have made such an impression on me had I only seen it once that day. But later that evening, I saw it again. On Wednesday and Friday evenings, Pip goes down to the Episcopal cathedral downtown for choir practice. These rehearsals tend to run ten to fifteen minutes longer than scheduled and instead of hanging out in the car until he finishes, I usually park and go inside the vestibule to wait. It’s usually empty in there – just me and the stony-faced kid who works the front desk – but it’s a pleasant enough place to hang around. If there’s something going on in the sanctuary or one of the chapels you can listen in to the music and most of the time there is some small art exhibit displayed along the halls. As I wait I usually pace slowly around perusing the church message board to see what activities are coming up or examining this exquisite recreation of an image from a medieval illuminated manuscript called the Book of Kells which hangs on the wall. In the painting the gospel saints, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are depicted as an angel, a lion, an ox, and an eagle respectively and colored in vibrant waxy reds, blues, and greens. They have a cartoonish aspect that makes them appear almost satirical, like the work is some weird postmodern cross between an Andy Warhol print, a Looney Toones poster, and a sacramental banner. The quiet of the space is broken only by the periodic arrival of members of the men’s choir who begin their practice after Pip’s group is done. Some of them will say a muted “Hello” as they pass but most just give a quick nod and smile.
Then the boys choir finishes rehearsal. The choir practice room is down a hallway, around a corner, and up some steps so you can’t hear them singing from the vestibule. However, the moment they break out of the practice room door you can hear them coming. The first three or four of them are usually moving quickly, bouncing against one another and talking in loud voices. In their wake come the rest moving along in various states of hurry. It’s easy to think of all this racket as disrespectful or careless but mostly the boys are just oblivious. They spend enough time in the church hallways that the place doesn’t seem any different to them than their homes or schools.
Somewhere in the middle of this Pip comes around the corner. Once again, he’s not walking with anyone and once again this doesn’t seem to be a problem. His head is up and his eyes are wide. Sometimes he smiles. Sometimes he doesn’t. He isn’t rushed by the speed of the others around him. He doesn’t stare after one kid or try to talk to another. He’s aloof in a happy, floating way, a way that seems absent of longing or jealousy, a way that feels comfortable.
And I love it. I love the steady calm. I love the happy distance, the sense of peace. I know this isn’t a constant state for him. I know he worries about things and gets hurt by people and feels uncertain about where he is and what he is doing. But the fact that in these bustling moments he’s capable of catching an air of peaceful self-assurance, even of delusional ignorance, that is something I love. He doesn’t need to fill the place with his noise. He doesn’t need to be cool. He doesn’t need someone else to give him confidence. He walks along. He smiles. He takes my hand and we walk out the door together. It is a moment of quiet strength that I didn’t realize was so important to me until I saw it firsthand.
I hope he can hold on to forever.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Ready for college?

            The physical education teacher at Pip and Polly’s elementary school likes to play a game where he lines up a class of students along the baseline in the gym and then calls out a simple yes or no question. Students who answer ’yes’ run to the other end of the gym and back. Students who answer ’no’ stay on the baseline. The questions are sometimes silly like “Do you like pizza?” and other times stray into how they view themselves. One of his favorites in this second strain of questions is “Will you go to college?” Two days ago Pip was talking about this game at the dinner table and commented that when that question comes along he always runs. “In nine years,” he said, “I’ll be ready to go to college.” My immediate reaction to this statement was that I’d prefer that he not be quite so sure.
            In the No-Child-Left-Behind era, everyone is expected to go to college. This is not just a social expectation. It is an economic necessity. Virtually every entry level job requires a college degree as one of the basic credentials. It is a marker of rudimentary educational achievement and an easy way for filtering out the first layer of applications from stack of resumes.
            But college was not designed to be like primary and secondary school. Attendance in kindergarten through twelve grade is a legal requirement. As such schooling in those levels is provided free of charge to all children. The quality of this instruction certainly varies and what a student gets out of it depends greatly on how much of themselves they invest in learning the material, but there is no choice involved when it comes to taking part. The legal and structural framework views an elementary or high school student as being too young to make a decision about this for themselves. They are required to go.
            At its core, an institution of higher learning, however, presumes just the opposite. The very nature of the college environment assumes that a student who is attending college does so of their own free will. The most prominent indicator of this basic assumption is that all colleges charge tuition. Students are paying for the educational instruction, the skills training, the exposure that colleges provide. Students are not taking part in a grand social project. They are investing their own financial resources – sometimes delayed through the use of loans - in a product. They are buying the services the college provides.
            As such it is ultimately the student, as customer, who decides how much of that product he or she is interested in using. They can go to class or not. They can pay attention and take notes or not. They can do the work or not. College instructors have a responsibility to provide quality material and support for students to learn that material but unlike primary and secondary school teachers they do not have a responsibility to get all students to a certain level of competency. In college, the final responsibility for learning things shifts heavily towards the student.
            This shift in responsibility for learning – the shift from no will to free will when it comes to one’s education – requires a readiness that goes beyond having the ability to do college level work. This shift requires a student to understand why they are doing the work and what it is supposed to be doing for them. This is a tricky proposition. In my own case, when I entered college I didn’t have particularly strong feelings about what I wanted to do after it was all done. I chose to study electrical engineering because it was a challenge and I figured I could get a good job with that degree. But that wasn’t enough to push me into getting the most out of my college education. I did what people told me I needed to do to get a good grade but I didn’t engage the material on my own terms and for my own purposes. As such I struggled with motivation at various points and rarely pushed myself to do the kind of extra work – reading ahead, exploring a topic on my own, asking questions that branched off from the presented material – that leads to something more than a degree. This did not make my college education a complete waste of money, but it did mean I got much less out of it than I could have.
            With Polly and Pip I hope to make the understanding of this shift in responsibility for learning a part of their own evaluation with regards to when and where to attend college. At this point the subtleties of a discussion about free will won’t make sense to them but encouraging them to imagine what they might do when they are older does. I want them to get into the habit of looking beyond college to craft a vision of what they want to do with their lives then figuring out how college can help them do that. I don’t want college to be a default next step in the already programmed slate of education – a thirteenth grade if you will. I want them to see college as a choice they have made for themselves to get them started towards whatever it is they want to achieve.
            To accomplish this, I have made it a habit to regularly ask them about what they want to do when they grow up. This seems like a simple and almost childish question on the face of things but it is fundamentally important, not just because it gives me a sense of what they like but because it forces them to repeatedly articulate a vision of their future. The key to making this exercise work is to get them to tell me why they want to do something. For example, Polly has frequently said she wants to be a veterinarian and when I ask her why she tells me that she wants to help sick animals feel better. For me the second part of this vision is vital because there is plenty of boring administrative work that goes into being a veterinarian and without having a strong sense of why that work is important, of why she wants to do it, the administrative aspects can grind her into the ground.

            All of which brings me back to Pip. Unlike Polly, Pip doesn’t have a real missionary view of what he wants to do in life. He’s curious about lots of things and enjoys learning for the sake of learning. At various times he’s expressed an interest in designing airplanes and rockets or building robots or experimenting with chemicals. This week when I asked what he wanted to do when he was older he said he might like being a chemist working to develop new medicines. All of these are great ideas, and they indicate certain directions of interest that we can explore. However, none of them yet qualifies as a strong vision for what he wants to do and who he wants to be. This isn’t a problem now but it is something we will have to help him develop before he will be actually ready for college.

Thursday, November 12, 2015


            Twenty years ago this fall I started my first year of college. In the dorm room next to mine there lived another freshman, let’s call him Rick. Rick was a pugnacious kind of guy, short and muscular, a wrestler in high school. He could be charming when he wanted to, but he also had a tendency to cross into the territory of the obnoxious windbag. He wasn’t really sure what he was doing in college – I think he was planning to major in business - and I always imagined him eventually washing out and winding up selling cars or vacuum cleaners or insurance.
            What I remember most clearly about Rick is that he loved to talk politics. He was the first real, hardline conservative I ever met, an acolyte of Rush Limbaugh when Rush’s act was still confined to AM radio. Rick would poke and prod at almost anyone in an attempt to get them into a political discussion then overwhelm with a bull rush of numbers, policy positions, and odes to the greatness of Ronald Reagan. If you weren’t prepared for it, he could leave you speechless. He’d answer every half-hearted objection to the free market’s distortion of everyday life or uneasy defense of the role government in giving people a chance to succeed with a torrent of sneering counters that came so quickly it was hard to single out any one crack to push back against. He knew the contour of the ideological positions on both sides and dared you to match yours against his.
            The thing was, however, I never felt like Rick actually cared that much about the ideas themselves. Where I was inclined to take a position and chew on it some, tweaking the possibilities, looking for ways to make one group’s ideas work toward the goals of another, Rick wasn’t looking to actually solve a problem. He was looking for the confrontation that could be created by the problem. What Rick really wanted was the fight. He wanted to draw you in, punch you down, and walk away smirking. He wanted the power that came with winning. He liked politics for the sport of it and taking up a position on the angry right allowed him to come out firing at just about anyone.
            When I see Donald Trump on the campaign trail, I can’t help but think about Rick’s approach to politics. Trump is showman, not a politician. His ideas about tax policy, immigration, social issues, and various other topics often lack any cohesive logic, are impossible to implement, or are just plain incoherent. He doesn’t have any allegiance to the broader goals of the Republican Party nor does he have a fine-tuned vision for what the future of America should look like. (I think a Trump presidency would ultimately be a giant money grab for those who have the right connections. He would actually make worse the very thing people are looking for him to change.)
            What he does have is a fighting attitude. His appeal to voters is mostly based on the idea that as a rich guy he isn’t owned by anyone but himself and that gives him the freedom to say what he really thinks. To prove this, he plays a sensationalist game. He’s aggressive, mean, and rude. He’s a classic bully stomping around the playground calling other kids names, making fun of their clothes, and stealing their balls from them. He picks fights because he knows the other candidates are not prepared to face his aggressiveness. He can overwhelm them without having to know anything more than his chosen lines. It’s Rick’s playbook writ large.
            And because of that, I can’t decide whether Rick would love Trump or hate him. Trump is essentially playing Rick’s game on a national scale. As a candidate Trump is the rhetorical spawn of Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and the like - conservative personalities who have built up identities where attitude is much more important than thoughtfulness. Their political strategies are based on taking the frustrations many people feel in their daily lives and giving those people targets - liberals, women, gays, immigrants - for expressing that anger. They seek to create an emotional blowtorch and keep feeding it with whatever they think will generate more heat. It’s what drew Rick into political discussions in the first place.
            But I wonder if Rick’s own sense of righteousness doesn’t go kick in when he actually listens to what Trump says. It’s so far off from the lines Rick used to spout that I wonder if Rick feels a disjuncture. Trump’s tone sounds right, but the policies Trump proposes don’t. Does this bother Rick? Does it prick his instinct to chomp down on anything that doesn’t align perfectly with his own? I don’t know. The answer to that question, I think, will go a long way to determining how far Trump will go in his presidential campaign.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Singing in the Choir

            Pip likes to sing. Within two weeks of entering kindergarten, he was performing “This Land is My Land” every chance he got. When the big winter show came along, he put the songs on a loop in his head and constantly brought verses to the dinner table. In the springtime, Eva cobbled together a soundtrack of the 1980’s pop songs in that year’s end of the year show and we belted out “I Just Called to Say ’I Love You’” and “Beat It” whenever we went anywhere in the car.
Interestingly to me, this attraction to singing wasn’t something he talked about in specific terms. He didn’t consciously identify himself as being good at singing and didn’t look to show it off as something he knew a lot about. He just enjoyed doing it and gravitated towards doing more when opportunities arose. He tried out for solo parts when he could and when he didn’t get them, he didn’t go on to something else. He kept coming back and trying again. Last spring, when the school did an arts evening and invited kids who were interested to perform a short piece of music, Pip signed up. He sang God Bless America and did so with a sweet joy that made me smile.
            Back at the end of September a note came home from Pip’s music teacher at school. She and her husband are the conductors for the music program at one of the churches in town, and the note invited Pip to audition for the boys’ choir if he was interested. We like the music teacher – she is one of those people who manages to be serious without being mean – and were willing to let Pip check things out. A strong musical education isn’t one of the priorities we had for our children, but we liked the idea of Pip working in a situation where excellence was expected and performances were taken seriously. For his part, he was very interested in seeing what it was all about though it was hard to separate the privilege of being invited from a true interest in the choir itself.
             So a week ago he went to a trial practice. It was a full one, starting at 4:30 and running past 7:00 with a short break for dinner in between. It was a full exposure to the grind of a choir practice and when I picked him up, he was ecstatic. He talked about the numbering system for following the music and the psalm the choir was working on for that Sunday. Then we took him back on Friday for another practice, and he came out happy once again. There was this whole new world of symbols and structures for him to absorb. He spent the weekend asking what a perfect fourth meant and what were the differences between major and minor scales. He was ready to keep going back as much as he could.

            I’m glad he’s excited. Performing music is one of humanity’s more life-affirming acts. It requires concentration, finely detailed workmanship, and persistence in the face of failure. It can bring one a special awareness of the world’s myriad contours and emotional striations. Plus, it’s expressive, energetic, and fun to turn one’s body into an instrument of beautiful sound.
            With all that said, I’m not yet completely onboard with Pip doing choir. For one thing, we’re suddenly trying to insert a three-to-four-time-a-week activity into an established schedule of eating, sleeping, doing homework, and playing that has been working quite well for us. Meals are getting out of whack. Schoolwork and play expectations are not properly aligned. We are ferrying him back and forth a lot while trying to figure out what to do during the time in between. While there is nothing extraordinary about all of this in the grand scheme of things, I just wasn’t ready for it yet. I’d had the idea that we’d gradually ease into a busier schedule as Pip moved into middle school, and I don’t like having that timeline blown to smithereens.
            But, more importantly, there is a growing up moment here for Pip that makes me irredeemably and irrevocably sad. For almost nine years, Pip has been a constant presence in my life. We did little situps together when he was an infant. We watched construction equipment demolish and rebuild a school when he was two. I wrote a large chunk of my dissertation with him sleeping in my lap. I mowed the yard with him on my back. I taught him to read. I taught him to ride a bike. When Polly was a baby we entertained her together with stories and stuffed animals and silly games. All three of us went on runs together, me pushing a double stroller while Pip and Polly pointed out wildlife along the way.
After kindergarten started, our time together was reduced, but we still have time to run around outside, play ball-tag and hide-and-seek. Pip kicks balls around as I rake the leaves or the two of them will play with the hose while I wash the car. The shouts, giggles, thumps, and whirls of Pip and Polly’s play is the soundtrack of my working life.
Now suddenly I’m losing another large chunk of the time we have left together. On Wednesday and Fridays now it’s come in from school, have a snack, do some homework and then go back out the door. When Pip gets back he eats dinner and goes to bed. Sunday mornings will be much the same.
            And what makes me even sadder is that he’s doing it without me. One of the things I loved about having him do soccer is that I could be there with him, coaching and playing. My favorite moments from soccer were always the ones where we had a few minutes together to kick the ball or shoot before everyone else arrived or after everyone else left. Choir doesn’t allow me to do that. I have to drop him off and pick him up. I have to watch from out in the audience and let someone else have the joy of helping him learn. I don’t like it. He’s my kid. Ava and I worked hard to get him to be the kind of person we want to spend time with and now that time is getting siphoned off by other people. It’s the way life works, but it still sucks.

            Now, I know that just as with school, we’ll get used to the new patterns and find new joys within what Pip learns and does. (In fact, it’s happening already. On Saturday morning while Polly went to gymnastics, Pip sat down at the piano and played for fun. Then we played some short duets together. He was focused on the rhythms and cognizant of the various markings in the music in a way he had not been a week before. It was a really wonderful hour.) But for all the good things about school – and there are lots of them – I’m still tempted from time to time to pull both kids out and teach them at home. At this point it isn’t even about the speed or efficiency with which they could learn. I’d do it to grab as much working time with them as I can. I like this time in our lives together, and I can see it slipping away. Choir practice is only a symptom of a much larger pathology. 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Pollysaurus Rex

            For the last several days, Polly has been in a tonal funk. Everything she says seems to come out with an edge of shrillness, whininess, or disdain. Her attempts to be funny come off as mean. Her patience for anything that does not go her way exists somewhere in the range between very limited and non-existent. She has teared up at not having as much pepperoni on her pizza as she might have liked and has complained frequently about being tired or cold or hungry - though not for the food that’s in front of her. And she’s been pushy about being right, making an issue of silly things such as the time being 6:47 instead of 6:45. On the whole it’s been a rather unpleasant week.
            This kind of harshness is symptomatic of a person who feels a bit off, and Polly has certainly had her share of annoyances to manage. To start with, she has a tooth in her bottom jaw that is exceptionally loose. For the past week, it’s been flopping around in her mouth and jabbing into her gum whenever she tries to bite into something. At least once at every meal she’s been giving a small yelp of pain and having to swish blood out of her mouth. On top of that the replacements for the two front teeth she lost a couple of weeks back have started to push their way into view. While this kind of cutting doesn’t keep her awake at night like it did when her baby teeth came in, it seems to be enough of an irritant to disrupt her sleep from time to time. She got up in the middle of the night last Thursday to use the bathroom, something that she never ever does, and spent an hour or so after that rolling around trying to get back to sleep.
            On top of the pain from teeth going out and teeth coming in, Polly is also dealing with a case of the sniffles. She had a mild fever during the middle of the week and a hacking cough towards the end that led us to keep her home from school on Thursday. (We dealt with an extended cough this past spring and wanted to head this off before it got too established in her lungs.) The cough hung on throughout the weekend, and Polly still felt off enough on Saturday to skip out on her gymnastics class.
            Lastly, amidst all the off-kilterness of being sick and having a mouth in pain, Pip had his last two soccer games of the season. Polly enjoys the idea of going to watch Pip play soccer, but I think she feels left out as well. It isn’t an immediate or conscious reaction because she gets excited for him and asks to go to the games. However, I think the waiting around and watching, the feeling of being outside of the main action of the day, wears on her in subtle ways that wind up making her feel unfulfilled and anxious. As a result she often gets snippy and short towards the end of a soccer day. When you combine this with an already volatile situation, it can make for a very unhappy child.


            This is not the first time we’ve cycled through such a situation with either kid and in the process we’ve found that the only real solution to all of this irritation is patience. The loose teeth will fall out. The new teeth will come in. Her cough will subside. Pip’s soccer games will end. Polly will get a couple of good nights of sleep and she will return to being the happy, effervescent sprite who draws animal pictures for friends and sprints joyfully out the doors of school each day.
            The challenge is what to do in the meantime. The habits of making mean faces and using harsh words have a tendency to hang around long after the irritants that initially triggered them are gone. If you’re not careful they can become normalized to the point where no one in your immediate circle even realizes how ugly they are. At the same time, we know that constant correction only grinds everyone down and runs the risk of grounding in a child the idea that they just don’t do things right. This latter result is the worst of all worlds in that the child may stop even trying to do what you ask of them because at some level they’ve come to believe they’re incapable of it.
            Being aware of this balance Ava and I have made it a habit to frequently tell Polly that she’s a “good kid” even in the midst of another line of whiny complaints. We work with her to come up with non-inflammatory ways of correcting unwanted behavior such as asking her to tell us what kind of signal we should use when she’s doing something wrong. Her current choice – a single finger tap on our chin - is a good one because it’s wordless and allows us to smile at her while also providing the necessary reminder about how we want her to act. We’ve also used taps to our noses and talked about throwing a hurtful phrase or negative attitude “out the window.” She seems to particularly like this image.
            How much of this effort really matters in the long run is difficult to discern. As with any parenting technique, we don’t have a control group against which to measure the true effectiveness of any of these interventions. At the same time, it feels better to be doing something positive than just sitting around waiting and wondering when things are going to get better. Perhaps keeping ourselves from grinding down is what really matters in the long run.