Thursday, December 30, 2010

From the bucket...

Due to a virulent puking bug that has worked its way through our entire family, I do not have a post ready for this week. Come back next Thursday for some post-Christmas thoughts on Santa.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Lord of the Legos

December in Kentucky is supposed to be chilly, with thirty degree days and twenty degree nights being not unusual. But over the last three weeks Old Man Winter has given us a full display of his wares. We’ve had snow. We’ve had ice. Temperatures have consistently remained at least ten degrees below normal. We’ve even had a couple of days where the mercury couldn’t push its way up into the double digit markings.

As a result of all this, Polly, Pip, and I have spent very little time outside of our apartment. It’s just been too cold. Each morning I’ve looked through our kitchen window and thought maybe I should take the kids out to at least walk around in the snow. But then I’ve felt the harsh blast of air rush in as Ava leaves for work and decided that even playing in the snow would not be fun for long enough to justify all the effort it takes to bundle the kids up and keep them warm. So we’ve made due with what diversions we can find inside.

In past years, this kind of confinement has been an unpleasant experience for Pip and me. We could usually make it for a couple of days without incident, but by day three or four we would start snipping at each other. Little annoyances would then become magnified and our frustration with being stuck inside would build up into a full-fledged tension between each other. Ava would then have to spend a couple of nights working to defuse things in order to restore harmony in the house.

That has not been the case this year. In fact, I have come to enjoy this time together. One reason for this is that I have gotten better at heading off moments of frustration and at anticipating when Polly and Pip need a shift in their activities. Another reason is that Pip is becoming less dependent upon me for direction and more capable of creating games for Polly and himself. A third reason can be located in the emerging prominence in our household of one my favorite childhood toys: Legos.


Between the ages of six and twelve, I spent a great deal of time playing with Legos. I had a moderate amount of these finger-sized interlocking blocks, and from the wings, wheels, lights, and bricks of solid green, yellow, blue, black, grey, and white I built an ever-changing array of different structures and vehicles. I had a particular affinity for space-themed constructions. The several Christmases of this period netted me a pair of spaceships, a space station, a moon rover, and a couple of smaller exploration vehicles. It was great fun to work through the instructions for one of these sets and have the picture on the box come to life in my hands. It was even more fun to then tear the thing apart and see what I could build on my own. I have fond memories of running around our house flying the armada of unusual vehicles my sister and I had created.

After my Lego fascination was replaced by other interests during middle and high school, my mother packed all my accumulated parts away in an 8” x 8” x 12” box and put it on a shelf for me to rediscover some day. I left it there when I went to college. Then, while I was in graduate school, my parents moved, and the box came into my hands once again. It has remained amongst our stored things ever since, waiting, a bit like Tolkein’s ring, for the right time to re-emerge.


When Pip was eighteen months old, we bought him a basket of wooden blocks at a yard sale. I spent much of that summer and fall trying to convince him that building something with them was fun, but he was only interested in knocking things down. In fact, he was so eager to wreck whatever I tried to build that I rarely could get more than two or three blocks stacked on each other before he would come barreling towards me with hands and feet flailing. This got so frustrating for me that I eventually put the blocks away.

From that starting point, he has gradually progressed towards a more constructive relationship with building toys. This development started with a sack of Mega Blocks (basically a toddler version of Legos) that my parents gave him the following Christmas. He took some interest in stacking these together but was still much happier ripping apart the creations of others. The next spring, Ava found a small bucket of Legos at another yard sale and brought them home for Pip to try out. Through the summer we would get them out periodically, and Pip would fiddle with a couple of pieces while I built a helicopter or a tractor or a locomotive or an airplane for him. Over the winter as he turned three years old, he began asking me to make specific things for him – a ship, a dog, a dinosaur, a sailboat. He started paying more attention to how I was putting things together and began being more protective of these creations. He also started making a few creations of his own with the Mega Blocks. These usually consisted of a single large block topped with a few stray pieces that jutted out to the left or right.

When we moved to Lexington this past summer, Ava and I put the Mega Blocks away and shifted Pip’s creative energies towards the small bucket of Legos. With these pieces he began imagining more complex structures – a railroad station, an airport – and asking me to build them. He wasn’t ready for a full project of his own, but he hovered around me and quickly began adding his own pieces to the foundations I created.

In late November, he was ready for more. One day he saw a picture of a cargo ship in one of his books and decided that this would be his first independent Lego creation. He worked on it sporadically for a couple of hours, adding some pieces here, pulling others off there, and then brought it over for me to see. In his hand was a solid 4” x 4” x 6” block cobbled together from Legos of various sizes and colors. The block rested on a small grey platform and was topped by a pilothouse defined by a pair of Lego windows. His face radiated pride.


Watching Pip work on his cargo ship, I could feel the time for the big box of Legos was at hand. Before we moved Ava had found a full cache of basic building pieces at a thrift store and had added those to the box from my childhood. Now I was anxious to see what Pip and I could do with such a massive collection, and I began to look for opportunities to finally crack into this stash.

In that respect this cold snap could not have come at a better time. After a couple of days inside we needed something new and exciting to keep us from getting stir crazy. The Legos were a perfect solution. So two weekends ago I went down to the basement during the kids’ naptime and dug them out.

When he saw them, Pip dug into the pile immediately. He was particularly attracted to the old brochures and instruction manuals I had kept because all the pictures they held gave him a flurry of new ideas. After about twenty minutes a common refrain began: “Daddy, can you make this for me”; “Daddy, I want you to make this thing”; “Daddy, do you know how to make this one?” It was like the song of the Sirens. I couldn’t, nor did I want to, resist. I happily plowed in with him and started giddily building away.


The cocktail of novelty, nostalgia, and the constant possibility of building something cool has carried us a long way over the last two weeks. We’ve made it through several days inside that might otherwise have driven us crazy. (In truth, Pip and I have probably benefited from this more than Polly. She likes the little vehicles we have built for her but gets frustrated that she can’t build more with us. I forget sometimes that she’s not even two years old yet) But what has really made these days enjoyable for me is not seeing what Pip is creating with the Legos but observing the larger developmental moves that his play with the Legos brings to the foreground. Pip’s creativity is expanding. He is asking more sophisticated and complex questions. He is learning how to share things and take turns with Polly. He is developing an awareness of how to politely communicate his interests and intentions. He is even proactively engaging Polly to keep her happy by bringing her new toys when he starts playing with something new and by finding ways to redirect her when she is beginning to bother him.

All of these things point towards the idea that Pip is becoming a person we hoped he would become. It gives us confidence that we are making sound choices in approach our parenting and makes us feel positive about both Pip and Polly’s futures. Confidence and the vague sense of certainty that comes with it can carry us a long way. They have made the last three weeks more enjoyable than I would have ever expected, and they make me feel like this winter will be a little bit better than the ones that have come before.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

This week’s post can be found at the Daddy Dialectic blog. The front page is here. A direct link to the post is here.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Getting Through the Two's

By every standard I can think of Pip was a wonderful two-year-old. At home, he was talkative and playful. He loved to read books. He loved to run and climb. He was always interested in helping me with yard work or cooking or cleaning. He was very gentle and cooperative with Polly when she came along. That’s not to say that he did not have his moments, and unfortunately, its those moments that come to my mind first whenever I think back to that time in his life. The brief periods of a given day where Pip was whiny or irritable or stubbornly uncooperative triggered in me some of the worst emotions I have ever felt. I learned a great deal about myself during the six months surrounding Pip’s second birthday and much of it was ugly.

Now Polly is entering into this same period of her life. As is normally the case, she is doing a boat load of new, fun, and astounding things: stringing four and five words together into coherent thoughts; doing simple shape puzzles without any help; building block towers that go ten or twelve high; engaging in all manner of creative play with Pip. She is also getting coyly rambunctious at bedtime, periodically tossing silverware at the dinner table, banging things repeatedly on the oven, head butting, climbing on tables, and requiring regular reminders to keep her feet off the table during meals. Last night she was showing some rare form around bedtime by first being decidedly uncooperative while we were brushing her teeth and then by giving Pip a few swift kicks to the head just before it was time to turn out the lights.

None of this behavior is malicious or mean-spirited. Sometimes it is just the result of being tired or hungry. Other times it is spurred by boredom or impatience. Regardless, it is all very experimental. Even the head kicks from last night were enacted while looking at me with a half-smile and a wide, searching look in her eyes. She knows when she is crossing a threshold and pushing out into uncharted lands. And, with each step she takes, she is watching us to see what happens.

When Pip started doing such things, I had no strategy for handling them. I had read some parenting books that made me aware of what was happening, but the books did not offer me any tools to manage these experiments in the context of getting things done in daily life. “Avoid getting into a battle of wills” is a fine suggestion but does me little good when I need to get clothes on a recalcitrant child. Walking away and coming back later was not a good option. I needed something more interactive to get me through such moments, a couple of strategies to fall back upon when our family train had jumped its metaphorical track. I didn’t really get them.

With the six to eight months of experimentation with Pip and the subsequent eighteen months of reflection time, I think I am now positioned to better handle whatever may come with Polly. My strategy is based on two principle ideas:

1. Adrenaline is my enemy

I was a competitive swimmer in high school. In college, I got into long-distance hiking. In graduate school, I ran a couple of marathons. As such, I am friends with adrenaline. It brings me a rush when I’m at the peak of exertion and follows this with a period of latent joy when I’m all through. It makes me feel more alive, confident, creative, vital, and potent. It tempts me to go running even when the temperature outside is ten degrees.

Unfortunately, adrenaline – or whatever cocktail of chemicals that are actually at work in all of this – also complicates my attempts to manage an uncooperative child. The pattern is very predictable. An initial moment of frustration with the child’s behavior prepares the stage. As I repeatedly fail to alter the child’s actions, a pressure builds up. I can feel it pulsing in my brain and pushing against my skull, crowding out all other thoughts, calling for me to explode, to shout or stomp or do something violent that will create an ecstatic release of adrenaline into my bloodstream. I can sense that the child is feeling this too, its body seeking the release that comes with unshackled tears. When we reach this point there is no painless way out. Most of the time I can hold it back, but this effort leaves me a simmering wretch for hours afterwards. Every once in a while, the beast slips loose, and I must deal with the recriminations - both external and internal - that follow.

The first few times I went through this cycle I had no idea what was going on. I would get frustrated with something and then before I knew it I would become a barely caged monster. Then, somewhere along the way, Ava suggested thinking about the role adrenaline was playing in all of this. At the time this suggestion just made me more frustrated because I had no idea how that was supposed to help me. But, gradually I came to see that by focusing on heading off my own adrenaline build-up at the outset of a potentially frustrating situation, I could keep these situations from spiraling out of control on me.

One of the early products of this realization was a modified time-out method for bringing Pip back into balance when he gets out of control. With Polly I am attempting to deploy an even more pro-active strategy. This consists of trying to be as boring as possible whenever I need to correct or alter her behavior. For example, Polly likes to climb on tables. From time to time she will sneak up on one and wait for one of us to notice. Now when Pip would do something like this, I would first politely ask him to get down. When he didn’t comply, I would ask again and again with my tone of voice getting increasingly more strident with each repetition. This would set the whole adrenaline cycle in motion. With Polly, I will start by asking politely for her to come down from the table. When she doesn’t, I walk over to her, pick her up slowly, and place her down on the floor. The key to this action is to make the picking up and putting down process so slow and so long that it become boring for both of us. This way there is no rush that might make the removal process ‘fun’ or ‘interesting.’ Polly usually kicks her feet around a little bit and hangs out without too much aplomb. By the time she makes it to the floor she is happy to run off and find something else to try.

2. Counting is my friend

One of our neighbors has a son who is about the same age as Polly. Every once in a while when we are out in the front yard, they will come over to talk and play for a few minutes. During one of these visits, the boy’s mother mentioned to me that she was having a harder time lately getting him to do what she asked of him. In particular, he would become very agitated whenever it was time to leave a place or go inside. We chatted a bit about this and then a few minutes later it was time for her to go. She went over to her son, who was playing on one of Pip’s bicycles, and told him it was time to leave. This set off a cascade of tears that eventually concluded with the mother picking up her son and hauling him away.

As they disappeared through their front door, it struck me that this mother had failed to do one simple thing that might have completely changed how the situation played out. She had not given her son a five minute warning. She had waited until it was time to go to tell her son that they would be leaving. As such, her son had not had a chance to prepare himself for the coming change. He had not had a chance to wrap things up. He had not had a chance to mentally say goodbye. The kid was basically whiplashed from one state to another. It’s no surprise that he was so upset.

Fortunately, I learned this trick early on with Pip, and we have hardly ever had a problem leaving one place for another. It doesn’t even matter how much actual time passes. Sometimes five minutes is really two. Other times it can stretch to ten. The point is to create a moment for him to get ready. Once that is accomplished, changing states has usually not been that hard for him.

I also learned over time that I could use this process for smaller state changes by announcing a number and counting up to it. This started out as a sort of threat along the lines of “I’m going to count to 10 and if you don’t come here by then you are going to be in real trouble.” Eventually I realized that there was no need to use it as a last resort. Instead, it could be a game. Whenever I required Pip’s attention or needed to move him from playing with something to getting a task done, I could tell him what action needed to happen and announce a number upon which that action would commence. Then, instead of angrily counting, I could make silly noises with each passing number. This way the counting would be fun. I could use it to get his attention, give him time to change his state, and maybe, down the road, facilitate his ability to count.

With Polly, I have started employing this strategy for almost everything – eating food, going to the bathroom, brushing teeth, putting on pajamas. Any time I need to move her from one thing to another or just move her along in a process that we’ve already started, I tell her what we’re going to do and pick a number that I am going to count to. It’s astonishingly effective. I can tell her over and over to do something without success, but if I give her the silly counting terms she will at the very least allow me to pick her up and carry her along to whatever it is that needs to be done.


These two principles and the strategies they encompass are obviously not full-proof. They work within a context of established and predictable patterns where both parent and child know what is going on and are comfortable with what will happen next. This will not always be the case with a two-year-old. At the same time, having them at hand gives me a first step, a place to go when things start to break down. They give me confidence that I have something to try and sometimes that confidence is all I really need.

I am looking forward to the next year of Polly’s life. It will be interesting. It will be fun. I imagine I will learn things good and bad about both her and me. My biggest hope when it is all said and done is that the good things will be what comes first in my memory.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Rocket Science

If someone had asked me in elementary school what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have answered: “an archeologist.” I don’t exactly when I decided this, but sometime around age 7 or 8 I developed an interest in anything ancient and especially anything that was or could be discovered by digging around in the right place. This interest began with the pyramids and all the wonders contained therein. It continued to be stoked by my discovery that our world contained full Roman cities preserved under volcanic ash, a buried Chinese tomb containing a complete army of life-sized terra cotta warriors, and ancient Mayan temples hidden under the jungle growth of the Yucatan peninsula. For a brief period my family purchased a subscription to National Geographic Magazine, and I remember flipping eagerly through the pages in search of articles about the next recently discovered ziggurat foundation or the next Viking ship found sunken in the mud near the mouth of a German river. I also remember being confused whenever I came across one of the magazine’s articles on small towns in the Great Plains or stories on Hindu dancers in Bali. These were of no interest to me. I wanted to see jeweled daggers, large earthen walls, and hieroglyphics carved into stone.

As I moved into middle school and high school, the thread to which this interest in archeology was tied quietly slipped through my fingers. I’m not really sure why. Perhaps other, better opportunities came along. Perhaps the job ‘archeologist’ did not show up on the career matching sheet used by my high school’s guidance counselors. Perhaps I merely suffered from a lack of imagination about what was possible. I was still intrigued by things ancient and buried, as evidenced by the five years I spent learning Latin, but I filed this interest under the tab of personal interest, not professional aspiration. The idea of pursuing archeology as a career had vanished from my consciousness without really putting up a fight.

I feel like this kind of thing happens to many people. As kids we wanted to be firefighters, astronauts, pilots, teachers, mechanics or chefs. Then over time these fancies drifted away to be replaced through the forces of practicality, necessity, inertia, distraction, or opportunity by careers like accountant, business manager, engineer, and chemist. It’s not like we gave up on some firmly established dream. It’s just that our ideas about what a good career would be and what is really possible for us within the range of options out there changed, subjected as they were to influence by a variety of powerful forces that felt subtly beyond our control.

While thinking about this in relation to the people I know, I could only come up with two people who had a stated career interest at an early age and went on to pursue that interest as they grew into adulthood. One wanted to become a doctor. The other wanted to be a fighter pilot. Both had clearly established visions of themselves in these careers and, more importantly, a well-defined Ur-moment, a point in their memory where they could say “that was when I knew I wanted to do this.” My doctor friend points back to a childhood visit with a pediatric allergist who was able to substantially improve my friend’s life by getting under control the wide array of debilitating allergic reactions from which he suffered. My pilot friend got hooked on the idea of flying fighter jets after watching the movie Top Gun.

This second friend and his slightly ridiculous, yet undeniably powerful Ur-moment came to mind this weekend because Pip and I experienced something together that, were he a touch older, had the potential to capture his imagination in a similar fashion.

As is our family’s custom, we spent the Thanksgiving holiday at Ava’s parents’ house. Her parents live in northeast Ohio where the weather during late November is almost unfailingly miserable. Snow is common. Cold is just about guaranteed. This year we were treated to a combination of mid-thirties temps, strong winds, and a dash of bone-chilling rain that kept us cooped up inside for all of Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. While Ava and I eventually went a bit stir-crazy, Pip and Polly handled this confinement quite well. With all the different people and unfamiliar things to play with, they mostly avoided that nagging boredom that drives children to climb on tables or swing electrical cables around over their heads.

Ava’s parents also do a good job of engaging the kids in various ways like letting them help with cooking, building play houses and caves out of pillows, blankets, tables, and chairs, and having a variety of books on hand that the kids have never read before. One of the books they had put out this year contained a story in which the main character, Alex, uses about twenty different forms of transportation to get from his house to the place where he works. The book was designed to be overflowing with things to look at, and all the cars, trucks, airplanes, trains, helicopters, hot air balloons, cruise ships, ferry boats, and submarines commanded Pip’s attention for multiple hours.

On the next to last page of the book, we learn that Alex is an astronaut and see that preparations are being made to launch his space shuttle. When Pip and I were reading this book together for the sixth or seventh time on Saturday afternoon, Pip started asking questions about those preparations. In particularly he asked why the workers had to take cover just before the shuttle lifted off. I tried to explain about rockets and all the fire and smoke created when they are launched, but I could see that he was having difficulty imagining what I was talking about.

Then I remembered YouTube.

I’ve used YouTube a couple of times over the last several months to show Pip and Polly video clips of things that I can’t describe to their satisfaction. We’ve watched hang gliders riding thermals along a California cliff and giant airport fire trucks putting out fires on airplanes. As the videos play, I usually provide some commentary, pointing out things about which I was trying to tell them or talking about how something works. As they don’t watch television regularly, the opportunity to see any video is a special occasion, and in these moments they tend to be willing listeners to anything I have to say.

On this evening, Ava’s dad was working on his computer in the opposite corner of the room. He happily plopped Pip on his knee and together the three of us flipped through the YouTube archives in search of a shuttle launch to watch. There were plenty of clips to choose from. We ended up watching one of Discovery and another of Atlantis, all the while talking about the forces at work and the immense energy needed to get one of those ships off the ground and into space.

Then we found some footage of a Saturn V rocket. This was the multi-stage launch vehicle used for all of the manned moon shots made by the United States space program. The particular footage we found was for the launch of the first successful moon shot, Apollo 11. The footage was taken using a high-speed camera that was mounted on the launch platform and whoever had posted the video had slowed everything down to about a quarter of real time speed. In the background, they had also added a soundtrack using a violin and some synthesizers whose timbre rose and fell dramatically in accordance with the action taking place on the screen.

And that action was mesmerizing. It began with the ignition of the engines. The camera frame was focused tightly on the exhaust cones and the anchors used to hold the rocket steady until all the engines were ignited and their upward thrust was properly balanced. Sparklers were fired and a massive flame leapt downward from each of the cones. Then, the anchors dropped away and the whole massive cylinder started moving upward through the screen. Passing through a halo of vapors created during the ignition process, the white rocket rose gradually up the screen, eventually giving way to a blotchy plume so intense the screen became pixilated, the computer roughing in boxes of flat red and yellow when it could not fully process the dynamics of the colors present. This plume was followed by a moment of blackness as the smoke from the flames engulfed the camera. At this point, the footage moved to another camera which tracked the rocket as it shot higher and higher into the clear blue firmament, flames spewing forth in such a way that the whole thing resembled a giant squid squirting upward from the depths of the ocean.

The three of us watched all of this in silence. We stared at the screen transfixed as the second camera struggled to keep the burning rocket within view. It slid up and bounced down and rattled back and forth for a couple of minutes, sometimes managing to show only a blackened tip or a fiery tale for seconds at a time.

The whole time I was hoping that we might get a glimpse of the second stage ignition before the rocket passed out of visible range. Near the end of the eight minute clip, a second ball of fire appeared about a third of the way up the rocket. This ball dripped orange flames down along the shaft below until a steady flow was established between it and the similarly sized ball of fire at the tail of the rocket. This blazing barbell hung around on the screen for a few seconds before moving off the screen for good, seemingly moving too fast for the camera to catch up.

The footage concluded with a second look at the initial moments of the launch from a camera perched higher up on the launch tower. This time after the rocket passed through its vaporous ring and the footage continued on through the swatches of white, red, and black, no second camera picked up the lost feed. The blackness of the smoke became the blackness of a screen gone dead.

The intensity of this footage seemed to sap all the energy from Pip. Once the clip concluded, he softly proclaimed that he was done looking at movies for now and was ready for dinner. He slid down from his grandfather’s lap in a slight daze and took a couple of shuffling steps. It was as if he was not totally sure his legs would carry him. At the same time I was coming to realize how profoundly thrilling I had found that video and how, in this random moment, I had instantly become incredibly curious about how it all worked. How, I wondered, does one create that much force and how does one actually go about harnessing it to propel an object into space?

It struck me that at some level Pip was probably wondering about such things as well. He certainly could sense the visceral excitement this video generated for both his father and grandfather. Perhaps channeling that excitement to a certain extent, he had focused steadily on the screen for the full extent of the video. As he made his way towards the dinner table, I suddenly had a vision of him in thirty years talking about how this was the moment when he realized he wanted to be a rocket scientist.

Do I actually think this will happen? No. In the four days since watching that video Pip has not mentioned it once. And, given that he is not yet even four years old, I imagine that he is too young to project himself into the future in quite that way. But that age is coming and watching that video was a reminder of how simple and unpredictable things can play such a significant role in the ways we know ourselves and, consequently, in the things we choose to pursue. Human beings may strive for logic, for coherence, for a rational and meaningful course to their lives, but serendipity, randomness, and chance are truly the kings of our experience. We ultimately build our order from the masonry that they provide.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Drugs, Sex, and Money

On Wednesday, we took Polly to the doctor for her eighteen month check-up. On the way there, I watched my speedometer closely and used cruise control on the highway because I was nervous, and I always drive too quickly when I’m nervous. Every trip to the doctor carries a bit of tension for me - there’s always the possibility that they’ll find something wrong – but this trip had some extra worry added to it. This was the first trip to a new doctor for us, and I wasn’t sure how it would go. You see, Ava and I have chosen to use a non-standard vaccination routine for Pip and Polly. This makes us less than ideal patients for many physicians, and it takes some work to find one that will work with us. I had spoken to this one on the phone a couple of weeks earlier about our choices. At the time, he was amenable to working with us, but I was still worried that once we were actually there, this willingness would come with some caveat or a lecture about how we were needlessly exposing our children to death or dismemberment.


The question of vaccinations is a tricky one. Prior to the mid-1990s, medical authorities recommended that children receive a diptheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTaP) shot, a measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) shot, and a polio vaccine. Since then, the number of vaccines recommended for children between the ages of 0 and 6 has more than doubled (see here for each year’s recommendations). That’s a lot of shots and a lot of foreign substances being pumped into little bodies. It makes me nervous, especially because we don’t really have any long-term data on what all these new vaccines will do. These vaccines can be tested for safety over relatively short time periods, but there are no long-running studies on how something like the early use of the Hepatitus B vaccine might relate to levels of cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s or other diseases later in life. And now that so many vaccines are being pumped into kids all together it will be very difficult to untangle the mess if something does come up in another twenty years. Given this uncertainty and the historical experiences with drugs like Vioxx, Ava and I are hesitant to over-vaccinate our children, especially for things like Hep A and B which are diseases associated with drug use, high risk sex, and poor sanitation and ones like chickenpox (varicella) and flu for which the most significant harm is usually the loss of work hours for a parent.

Compounding our hesitation is the reality that vaccines are big business for drug companies. Getting a vaccine included on the list of recommended shots can generate a large chunk of relatively consistent money for the company that produces the vaccine. This gives drug companies plenty of incentive to get as many vaccines included on the list as possible. Where there is incentive, there is money. It seems hardly coincidental that the rise in the number of recommended vaccines corresponds relatively well with the explosion of big money politics over the last fifteen years. Money talks in many different arenas whether it’s spent on lobbying, marketing, clinical trials, or handouts.

The drug companies are also pushing these vaccines at the individual level as well. We got a reminder of this the first time we skipped a scheduled vaccine. About a week after our doctor’s visit we received a postcard in the mail from our insurer. The postcard helpfully suggested that we had missed one of the normal shots. At the bottom of the card was a disclosure statement. The postcard had been paid for by Wyeth Pharmaceuticals.

In thinking about this recently, I’ve come to realize that I don’t blame the individual drug companies for any of this. They exist in a profit driven system where survival is predicated on selling as much stuff as possible. A good company is going to use as many ways as it can to stay in business. It is unfair to demand that they act as some kind of public trust when their ultimate survival is not protected by the public. This doesn’t make me any less suspicious of their influence. It only acknowledges that this influence is a product of structural constraints, not individual avarice.


Our concerns about vaccines and the influences at work in their usage have made finding a doctor a challenge. In Cincinnati we got very lucky. After a bad experience with Pip’s first pediatrician, we went to the internet and tapped into the social network discussions around alternative vaccinations to find a doctor who would be willing to work with us. We were pointed to one who turned out to be better than we could ever have expected. His entire practice bespoke a certain skeptical distance from the normal business of medicine. First, all appointments were scheduled for thirty minutes. Second, he had no nurses so that entire half-hour was spent with him. He did all his own measurements. He administered all his own shots. Third, he had no drug company paraphernalia or hand-outs lying around his office. There were no posters on the walls, no pens with drug ads on them at the reception desk, and no freebie drugs stashed away in a drawer of the examining room. Fourth, he made careful distinctions between conditions that should be treated with drugs and ones like common ear infections or pink eye which given the right attention and a reasonable amount of time, the human body can take care of by itself. All of these things gave us confidence in him and made us very comfortable in following his advice when it came to vaccinations (his preference was to administer the older vaccines – DtaP, MMR – and hold off on the newer ones unless a specific reason suggested itself (i.e. rotovirus for kids in daycare)).

When we moved to Lexington we had to start all over again. Going back to the internet, we searched again through the local internet discussions. Not surprisingly, there were very few names that came up as possible candidates. But again we got lucky. There was a newer family physician in one of the outlying towns who was willing to work with families like ours. After calling him up and discussing our preferences with him, we made an appointment for 10 AM on Thursday.

We got there a few minutes early so that I could fill out the new patient paperwork that is always a part of the first visit with a new doctor. There was no one else in the waiting room so I let the kids wander around and check things out. The office was a new one with cream colored walls and benches upholstered in dark green leather. On the magazine rack were several current issues of popular weeklies like Sports Illustrated and Newsweek, a requisite copy of the children’s story of the Bible, and a book on the palliative properties of different foods. Pip and Polly picked through each of these in turn while I worked my way through the various forms. During that time another family came in with a little girl about Pip’s age. The two sized each other up from opposite corners of the room.

And then came a reminder that replacing our doctor in Cincinnati will be almost impossible.

As I was filling out the final form in the stack, another person walked in the door. I looked up long enough to see that it was a woman, tall and thin with thick blonde hair that hung down past her shoulders. She wore a fashionable camel hair coat and the pressed black pants and black heels of a well-paid professional. I did not see her face, but I imagine her makeup and jewelry matched her obviously expensive and well-tailored clothes. Now, the office in which we were seated was that of a family doctor in a smaller town in central Kentucky. Most of the vehicles in the parking lot were either small sedans or large pick-up trucks. The family sitting across from us in the waiting room was dressed in jeans and sweatshirts as was the receptionist behind the desk. None of us looked like this woman. Before she said a word, I decided that she was a drug rep. This guess was verified when she asked the receptionist if the doctor was in and whether the office needed any more of something that sounded like ‘hyproxin.’


In college I spent two semesters working in the engineering division of a medium-scale electronic components factory. About once a month, a salesperson would come in and spend the day in our office. I think his name was Harry. He would usually bring us lunch and a few trinkets to share and would spend the day making his way around the office to the different engineers. He would ask what they were working on and suggest, or give a demonstration of, products he had that might be useful. Harry was a doughy guy, short and slightly unkempt, but with a likeable smile that allowed you to blow him off if you needed to. Every once in a while someone would seek him out to ask about a particular component, but usually his mode of operation was to start a conversation and see if it would lead to something. In general, the longer he got to talk with an engineer, the more likely it was that he could find a sensor or motor or electrical component that the engineer could use.

After seeing this drug rep, I pondered what would have happened in that engineering office if she had come in instead of Harry. The fundamental pattern probably would not have been different, but the promise of face time with a woman from whom these men would normally get no more than a few seconds of attention is a powerful force. I imagine the amount of time she would have gotten with all of those male engineers would have been noticeably greater. And, as a result, she probably would have sold more stuff than Harry.

Like that engineering office, the medical profession is a male heavy arena. This leads me to believe that the same principles I know to be true in that engineering office are applicable to doctors, namely an attractive female salesperson is likely to get more time and more attention from a doctor than her position as a drug salesperson might merit. And as with the engineers, more time equals more possibilities for finding or convincing doctors that she has something that they ‘need.’ As I discussed above, the potential for that kind of influence is worrisome. It’s also a troubling reminder of how screwy our health care system is that the prescription drugs we buy are being pushed to doctors using methods very similar to those used to sell sports cars and beer.

When I mentioned all of this to Ava, she brought up another salient aspect of this situation. The drug rep has access to the doctor in ways that are difficult for a patient to discern and evaluate. There is a fundamental lack of transparency about these relationships that makes it impossible for a patient to make an informed judgment. We can’t know how drugs are being marketed to the doctors, what information the rep is providing, or what the doctor does with this information. There is essentially no way for the patient to parse the influences at work in the doctor’s decision-making process. The doctor may hand off all the drug rep interactions to a third party in the office in order to keep some distance from the sales pitch. The doctor may lap up every free meal and golf outing the drug rep can provide. We just can’t know. It’s another one of the pitfalls of our current system. We are forced to trust that our doctors have the time, patience, and self-awareness to filter through the wash of information provided by a drug rep. Such trust is difficult to justify. Human beings are just too susceptible to suggestion and impulse. And the drug reps spend plenty of money and effort to sway things their way (see this article from The Atlantic for some examples).


Despite all of this, I will go back to this doctor. For one thing, the appointment went fine. The doctor was friendly and comfortable talking about our options and choices. He was good with the kids and did not try to constrain Polly too much in the process of examining her. It was a straightforward and no-nonsense visit to the doctor. For another, we don’t have that much of a choice. If we want to do the vaccinations our way, this is our guy. We too have our structural constraints. We sacrifice one set of choices in order to exercise another.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

This week's entry can be found at the Daddy Dialectic blog. The front page is here. A direct link to the entry is here.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Challenges of Children's Literature

While living in Cincinnati, I used to walk Pip and Polly down to the library about once every two weeks or so to check out some books. It was always a treat to have a couple of new stories to mix in with our own collection of kid titles. Since moving to Lexington, we had not done the library trip quite as frequently, mostly because I didn’t have the identification paperwork necessary to get a library card.

Two weeks ago I finally finished the steps necessary to get a Kentucky driver’s license and with it, my very own library card. The first thing the kids and I did after the clerk placed the new driver’s license in my hand was to walk down the street from the county clerk’s office to the rounded, multi-story black granite building that houses the downtown library. Pip was the first one through the door, and he headed immediately up the stairs to the second floor where the children’s section is located. Polly followed close behind. Walking past the computers and their games for a moment they stood quietly looking at the long wall of shelves holding all the children’s books, trying to decide where they wanted to dig in.

For all our experience with libraries, the book selection process itself is still a real challenge. First off, there is the difficulty of physically handling the books. I usually start picking up books at a random point in the shelves and flip through a couple to see if anything catches my eye. Following my lead, Pip and Polly do the same thing. As such we can pull a pile of ten to twenty books off the shelves in a matter of seconds. Keeping this from getting completely out of control requires a good bit of juggling and redirection.

More significantly, children’s literature can be an insidious product. The idea of a ‘children’s book’ carries with it a certain expectation that the content is safe and sensitive to the impressionable nature of young children. While this assumption may be true relative to the content found in adult fiction, Ava and I have found plenty of stuff in children’s books that don’t align well with what we want to teach Polly and Pip.

So over time I have learned a few shorthand keys to help ease the process of selecting out the couple of books that will actually leave the building in our hands. I tend to look first for things we have enjoyed in the past – books that rhyme, books with animals doing silly things, books about how things work. Farm settings and counting books also tend to be reliable. I then look to see if a given book has any of the material we have idiosyncratically deemed to be hazardous for our children. This includes excessive violence, romantic love, overt nationalism/patriotism, hypermasculinized things like giant cartoon trucks or military themes, and hyperfeminized things like princesses or prissy girls. If I find any of these, I slip the book down on to a table for reshelving and grab another one.

This pick and filter process works well for most books, but there is one group that continually causes me fits. These are children’s books which take a story or idea that is familiar to parents and give it an innovative twist. In some cases this twist is a flip of the protagonist-antagonist binary such as turning the three little pigs and the big bad wolf into the three little wolves and the big bad pig. In other cases the hook is that the story begins from the point where a familiar fairy tale like the Frog Prince ends. I’ve also read another particularly clever book where familiar songs, ranging from Old Susannah to the Battle Hymn of the Republic, were used as the foundation for poems about science.

I find these kinds of books to be very entertaining. In many respects they remind me of the old Warner Brothers cartoons with Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Yosemite Sam, etc. Those cartoons were great because they contained such a diverse range of possible amusements. You could get slap-stick comedy, sophisticated cultural critiques, and self-reflective experiments in artistic creation all within a five minute segment. As an adult this sort of subversive playfulness feels like being let in on an inside joke, one that pokes fun not so much at my children but at what I remember as the overly serious adults of my own childhood.

At the same time, as a family our experience with these books has been largely unpleasant. Either they are pitched too far towards adults for Pip (and very soon Polly) to enjoy them or I end up trying to explain the parental focused references that Pip picks up on but doesn’t have the context or background to understand. In both cases, sitting down with these books usually resulted in a mixture of confusion and frustration that did little to help Polly and Pip enjoy our time reading together.

Despite these problems, I kept bringing these books home with us, always hoping that the next one would not suffer from the same deficiencies as the others. It took Ava’s intervention and some tears from Pip to bring home to me the reality of what was going on. The production, marketing, and selling of children’s books is an industry like any other. To sell books, publishers target the people who actually purchase the books: adults. Sometimes this means creating something that kids want and subtly encouraging them to beg their parents for it. Other times this means creating something that parents think they kids would or should want. And sometimes, it means creating a product in the kid genre whose real audience is intended to be adults (e.g. Toy Story 3). I apparently have a soft spot for that third category and was making choices accordingly. In the process my own interests were overwhelming my evaluations of what Pip and Polly would find enjoyable.

I have since gotten much better at recognizing when such a breakdown in the selection process is taking place. All the same, the temptation is still there. This past visit I came across a book entitled “The Secret Life of Walter Kitty.” I picked it up and flipped through it because of the Walter Mitty reference. The book was about a cat who, like Walter Mitty, imagines himself taking part in a whole range of adventures while barely straying from his house. It was clever and amusing so I put it into our take home pile. Then I caught myself and took another look. The pictures were complicated. The text was disjointed and scattered around all over the page. I guess Pip and Polly will get used to this kind of presentation as they get older but for now it was definitely too much. I reluctantly put the book down on another table for the librarians to reshelve.

We came home from the library that morning with a book by Dr. Seuss, one called ‘Me and Robot,’ one about a big dog on a farm, and one where a boy imagines seeing a dragon floating in the clouds. Pip spent all afternoon with this last one. He is in the process of learning what it means to imagine things and was determined to work out what in the book was supposed to be real and what was supposed to be a product of the boy’s imagination. It’s a challenge, and we worked it through page by page. I still don’t know if it really makes sense to him, but at least it’s a project that he chose and one that he is learning from.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Opportunistic educations

Last weekend we took Pip and Polly to the local horse track. While in most places this would represent a moment of questionable parental judgment, in Lexington, KY it is a common and popular thing to do. The racing and breeding of horses is a significant industry in central Kentucky. The areas outside the city limits, particularly to the north and east, are filled with the rolling treeless fields of green grass encircled by double-layered white or black wooden fences that are the signature landscape of a horse farm. The lodestone for all of these farms and the local industry more broadly is the racing and auction facility at Keeneland. Going to the races at Keeneland is a bit like going to a golf tournament at Augusta National. It is immaculately kept and intentionally old-fashioned. The grandstands are made of painted black steel that is framed with grey limestone – the bedrock of the area. The grounds are all trimmed with dark green hedges and lots of flowers. The track officials, mostly older men, all wear kelly green sports jackets and slightly rumpled pants that make them look like friendly uncles. The facades of the betting windows are made of stained wood and contain directions handpainted in a script from the 1940s. It is a place that attempts to transport you to another world, and it largely succeeds.

One of the programs that Keeneland runs during its fall and spring race meets is a Saturday morning breakfast where people can come and watch the horses train while scarfing down scrambled eggs, sausage, and biscuits with gravy. While the food is decent, the real draw of the program is being out there early in the morning and watching the horses run as the rising sun begins to burn away the pre-dawn mists. It’s thrilling to stand at the rail as a pair of jet black thoroughbreds come sprinting down the track toward you. You can hear their hooves clomping in the dirt and their breathing pulsing louder and louder as they get closer. Then they fly past so quickly, your eyes have a tough time keeping up. Fortunately, you will get another chance as a second pair and then a third and a fourth will following in short order.

That thrill of standing at the rail is as powerful for kids as it is for adults. As such, we, along with a couple hundred other families, dragged our kids out of bed before sunrise this past Saturday morning to go have breakfast with the horses. Once we got there, Pip and Polly dutifully ate their eggs and biscuits and then reveled in trolling around the collection area by the rail, alternately watching the horses and watching the other kids watching the horses. After a while, we decided to take a walk through the stables to see what else was happening, and during that walk Pip gave me another of his ongoing lessons about teaching, learning, and the education of a child.

Every week Pip, Polly, and I designate a letter and number to work on during the week. Last week these were ‘L’ and ’10.’ Some weeks when we have some extra time we also add a shape or a color to the agenda. Last week was one of those weeks so on Wednesday morning out came the shape-sorter box and its 12 accompanying blocks. Pip fished around in the box for about a minute and then came up with a parallelogram in hand. We traced the block on a piece of paper while talking about the two main properties of a parallelogram: 1) it has four sides and 2) the opposite side pairs must be parallel to one another. I showed him that in addition to the common parallelogram that he pulled out of the box, squares, rectangles, and diamonds also fit this definition. Then I pulled a trapezoid out of the box and asked him if this shape was a parallelogram. He hesitantly said no. Then I asked why it wasn’t. I did this as a little test, both to see if he really understood what I had been telling him and to see if he could take an additional mental step by looking at the trapezoid and pulling out the significant difference between it and a parallelogram.

His response was to turn his metallic blue eyes towards me with a wide, helpless stare that I have learned means “I am no longer interested in taking part in this game. Just tell me the answer so we both can move on.” But I wasn’t ready to accept this. He had not even made a guess yet, and I really wanted him to give it a try. So, I let him play for a few minutes then came back at him with the trapezoid. He again gave me that pleading, blue-eyed stare before getting up to play with something else. When I tried to come at him a third time, Pip finally refused to sit still at all and I had to concede that he was not going to even try to answer the question.

It was a moment of classic parental overreach on my part. Correctly answering this kind of question would mean that he understood the concept and that his mind is agile enough to think around this kind of idea when it comes at him from another angle. It would also, most importantly in retrospect, validate my own efforts to teach him something. In this, his success would be my success, his failure would be my failure. Somewhere I vaguely I heard the Sirens singing.

Fortunately, by the time we went to breakfast on Saturday, this trapezoid episode had slipped from my mind. As we made our way away from the collection area and walked along the gravel drive between the track and the stables we passed a Ford F150 with an unusual horse trailer attached to it. The trailer was white and had a large half door at its midpoint. Over the top of the door we could see a series of pulleys and arms and straps hanging down from the underside of the roof. Along the side of the trailer were printed the words “Equine Ambulance.” When Ava read this out loud, it immediately caught Pip’s attention. He is an avid observer of emergency vehicles and has developed a keen ear for the subtle variations in the sirens of the fire trucks, ambulances, and police cars that regularly go down one of the busy roads near our apartment. An ambulance for horses was something Pip had not considered before, and he spent a minute or two looking this one over. Then he turned to me and said, “Daddy, why doesn’t this ambulance have any flashing lights?”

It was one of those simple, perceptive questions that require a series of verbal gymnastics to answer in a way that is satisfactory to both parent and child. The full answer is that an equine ambulance doesn’t have lights or sirens because if a racehorse is so badly injured that it would need to be rushed to a hospital, it is usually put down – i.e. killed - right there at the track. But how do you explain to a four-year old that horses aren’t cared for in the same way as humans? We opted not to and instead decided that this ambulance was for getting a horse off the track and that a second ambulance – one with lights and sirens – would be used to take a horse to the necessary medical facility. Pip seemed satisfied with that.

It wasn’t until several minutes later as we were strolling past a big chestnut horse being hosed down by a groom that I realized what Pip had done with the equine ambulance: he looked it over, compared it to what he already knew, and began asking questions to determine what meaning could be found in the similarities and differences. It was exactly what I had wanted him to do earlier in the week with the trapezoid. Now at one level I know that he does this kind of mental work all the time. But with the trapezoid failure still relatively fresh in my head, Pip’s evaluation of the equine ambulance was a welcome reminder of what he is capable of. Once I recognized this, I immediately brought up the equine ambulance again in order to compliment Pip on asking such a good question and to talk through the thought process indicated by the question. Hopefully, by making him aware of what he did, it will make it easier for him to harness that process again in the future.

Pip’s assessment of the equine ambulance also reminded me that I had gone about the whole trapezoid question the wrong way. While I have written in a previous post about the ability of parents to act as opportunistic teachers, I still possess an inclination to approach teaching as a direct linear process whereby the initiation of an educational moment is my responsibility (and also my privilege). This is largely a question of power and control. By reserving for myself the power to initiate an educational moment, I maintain control over the process and can feed the illusion that my contribution to my children’s learning is greater than it really is. The opportunist model turns this structure on its head. It is driven by the explorations of the kids. They show interest in something, then I figure out how to talk about it. With this, teaching becomes much more of a post facto and ad hoc activity, one in which I try to contextualize for Pip or Polly what they saw or did instead of instructing them beforehand on what they should see or learn from a particular experience.

The main benefit of this model of education is that I can capitalize on something which has already piqued their interest instead of trying to generate enthusiasm in them for something which I think is important or interesting. The main challenge of this model is relinquishing control over the immediate direction of learning and the vague feeling of power that goes with that control. It also means that I constantly have to scramble to keep up with them - though I am finding that with practice I can often find a way to make most things about some preferred set of ideas or concepts. It just requires being prepared with a range of ideas and finding which one fits best with the current object of interest.

This model is not fool proof or necessarily more productive than the teacher directed model. But, as a parent interested in taking part in my children’s education, it does mean fewer battles over trapezoids. Ultimately, I also hope it means more interesting conversations with my kids as we stumble together through the forest of possibilities that is the world in which we live. I just need to get better at staying out of the way.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

What's the Difference?

Before having children, I never put that much thought into how variable they are or how those variations might come into existence. Now that we have Pip and Polly, I am constantly amused and fascinated by the differences between them.

The lens that reveals all of this difference is Polly. As the second child in our family, we cannot seen her except in the context of our previous experiences with Pip. She may follow his precedents. She may tack away from them. But she can never exist separately from them. Everything she does necessarily prompts a comparison. Everything she does becomes known to us in part as a similarity to or a difference from what Pip did before.

Our knowledge of Pip is not left unchanged by this comparison either. As Polly has passed through the various stages of childhood, the wake of our memories regarding Pip has gotten disrupted. Basic certainties have become open for re-evaluation. Maybe Pip isn’t that good of a sleeper after all. Maybe Pip’s aptitude for language is more significant than we initially realized. The comparisons that Polly’s life invites have a way of turning statements about Pip into questions.

What does all of this mean for Pip and Polly over the long haul? In light of this question, I thought I’d do a light-hearted birth order comparison for this week’s blog entry. My initial idea was to find some lists of famous (and infamous) first and second born children then extrapolate a series of characteristics from them to make a fanciful projection of Pip and Polly’s respective futures. Google gave me a good start on this by providing a couple of websites dedicated to spelling out correlations between personality traits and birth position, but none of them had the comprehensive or extensive lists of well-known people I was hoping to find.

All the same, these websites did make for fun reading. The consensus that seems to arise from them is that Pip will tend to be more confident, patient, conservative, organized, authoritarian, rank-conscious, defensive, logical, ambitious, and scholarly than his sister. This puts him in the company of US presidents, astronauts, and entrepreneurs (though I wonder if these commonalities are due more to historical inheritance practices that favor the first-born son than on shared personality traits). Polly, on the other hand, will be more creative, adventuresome, rebellious, fair-minded, social, immature, liberal, and unconventional. She will follow the path blazed by a variety of entertainers (again inheritance practices?) and such luminaries as Bill Gates, George Soros, and Fidel Castro.

If I want, I can see a bit of the ascribed qualities in Pip and Polly. Pip is certainly more cautious and interested in the details of how things work than Polly is (right now). And Polly definitely is more willing to dive into a crowd of people she doesn’t know than I imagine Pip will ever be (though he does well in familiar locations). But, the more descriptions I read, the more traits like “sensitivity,” “jealousy,” and “attention-seeking” started to overlap with one another. Taken as a collective, the descriptions I found in these websites read more like the vaguely suggestive characteristics found in a horoscope than the distinctive general traits each individual site would initially lead one to believe. Some of the sites essentially indicate as much by devoting a page to caveats and exceptions. (see here and here) These pages basically say that the birth order traits discussed previously do not mean much because so many variables – like gender, culture, socioeconomic status, etc. - go into constructing an individual’s personality.

None of this vagueness is surprising or unexpected. The ability to take these definitions with a grain of salt is part of the fun. We all know that life is too complicated to assent to easy generalization since every situation can play out in such a wide variety of ways. Will Pip’s two years of single childhood may make him upset with having to share parental attention or will this sharing relieve him of some of the pressure that comes with constant surveillance? Does Polly’s consistent inability to do all the things Pip can do may make her resentful of him or does it challenge her to achieve things she otherwise might not have? Over time I imagine that we will be able to find examples of all these possibilities coming true.

The only thing we can really say for sure is that Pip and Polly will be different. Their lives will not and cannot be the same. This is partially because of their relationship to one another. It is also partially because Ava and I are not the same parents we were when Pip was born. This fact is something that particularly excites and amuses me in my dealings with Polly. In short, the second child presents me with a second chance.

I’ve been thinking about the benefits of a second try a lot recently as Polly approaches the “terrible twos.” When Pip underwent the transition from toddler to kid that kicks in between 18 and 24 months, I was unprepared. I knew about the “terrible twos” and had read about the kinds of physical and emotional changes that would be at work during that period. But psychologically I was not ready. I had really enjoyed being with Pip as a 12 to 18 month old. During that time, he learned to walk. He began to talk. He started playing in lots of new ways. And, most importantly for me, he was so excited about understanding my words that he readily did just about everything I asked of him. As he moved passed the 18 month mark, this excitement began to wear off. Pip began to develop his own set of interests and ideas. He wanted to try out things that I wasn’t crazy about – playing with light switches, climbing on chairs, running around without pants on, et cetera, et cetera. He was no longer willing to drop whatever he was doing in order to take a bath or put on a clean diaper. He also began seeking out ways to delay or avoid doing what I asked of him. While I knew that much of this was a matter of testing out my reactions to all these situations, I didn’t handle them all that well. The cumulative frustration of trying to get him to do what I needed and being unsure about what new strategies to try, what balance of praise and punishment to deploy, and what kind of relationship issues I was creating in the process of just getting through basic household chores really had me tied in knots.

The solution to this was largely a matter of adjusting my approach to Pip. First, I had to accept the reality of his personhood and the fact that he was developing his own agency. This meant working to treat him as a person and not a baby, trying to understand how my instructions would sound from his perspective, and being willing to negotiate and talk through things with him instead of just telling him what to do. It meant learning to say yes to things he wanted to do that I found annoying. It also meant preparing him before a change was coming by giving him a notice a couple of minutes beforehand. Lastly, it meant letting him win some, or at the very least allowing him to do things like sliding off the bed one or two more times before shutting him down. By letting go of my attempts to control everything all the time, I found a way to get through. I still got frustrated but not in the boiling and uncontrollable way I had before.

Polly is now 19 months old, and she has begun to wander off at bedtime. Before when we would tell her that it was time to put on her pajamas, she would happily go to the room she shares with Pip and sit down on the floor. Now, she goes to the bedroom, but consciously stays just beyond my reach for a while, tunneling into a pile of stuffed animals, sneaking around the backside of her crib, or trying to climb up on Pip’s bed. I am able to watch this with a sense of amusement because I know what to expect now. I’m ready for the change and understand that the sudden willfulness and absence of immediate obedience to my instructions are signs that her mind is growing. I also know how important my own reactions are to Polly’s behavior. My goal is to overreact to the positive things and underreact to the negative. I will still draw lines in the sand, but I don’t want to get upset when she crosses them. Instead, I will just quietly and slowly bring her back to try again. My idea is to create consequences without drama, correction without the adrenaline rush of confrontation. This has certainly helped thus far to keep me from getting worked up and hopefully it will do the same for her.

I don’t know exactly what the long-term effects of this will be, but I hope it will make Polly’s experience of the “terrible twos” different from the one we went through with Pip. Maybe it will even be an experience that is enjoyable for us all.

And if not, Polly can talk about all of this when she fulfills the destiny of the second-born child by becoming the host of her own television show.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Notes on Living and Dying

Several things have happened in the past week or so, and I’d like to catch them before they slip away. They each could probably be extended into a full post, but the nature of things is such that I fear they will get lost or forgotten or buried by the next event that comes along. So, this week’s post consists of a couple of vignettes that provide a collage of where our family is right now. It will serve to time-stamp some thoughts that I may want to come back to later on.

- Pip has hit a growth spurt. A month ago he was comfortably wearing 3T pants. This past week we had to clean them all out because they are now too small. In addition, he is reaching light switches he couldn’t before. He is washing his hands at the bathroom sink without standing on a stool. He is able to easily see now into the highest drawers in the kitchen.

All of these things seem to have given him a sense of power. It is the power of feeling more in control of himself. He is more capable of helping Ava and me with various tasks. He is less recalcitrant when required to do something he doesn’t really want to do. He is more confident in a broader variety of new situations. He is not just growing bigger, he is growing older.

- In the past three weeks, Polly has entered the zone during which she will shed the ‘toddler’ label for good. We know this because she has crossed the threshold with two big development milestones: the true start of toilet training and a sudden explosion in her experimentation with words.

First, the toilet. Polly has benefited in many ways from being the second child in our family, and the process of learning to use a toilet will be no different. We struggled mightily in training Pip to use the toilet. He handled peeing okay, but we could not get him to poop in the toilet. He would hold it and hold it until his body literally could not take any more. Then he would drop it all in his underwear. At the time we thought he just was having trouble figuring out how to get his muscles to do what they needed to do. Later we came to realize that this was probably our fault.

Pip never had a child’s toilet. He learned using a trainer seat that fit over the seat on an adult toilet. It turns out that because his feet were not touching anything when he first started using this seat, his body was never in a position to correctly use his muscles for pooping. Basically, every time we sat him down to poop, his muscles were positioned such that they could not push anything out. It wasn’t until he grew a bit more and his feet could reach a stool while sitting on the training seat that suddenly he ‘figured out’ how to poop.

Now we almost made the same mistake with Polly. About six weeks ago she started showing interest in the toilet. So, we put her on Pip’s trainer seat. As luck would have it, the second time we did this she pooped into the toilet. Over the next several days we tried to replicate this pooping with little success. Instead, she got all out of whack and seemed to be headed down the same road that Pip had traveled. Fortunately, we were in no hurry and had the presence of mind to just stop trying to use the toilet for a while. Within a week Polly was back to her normal schedule.

Last week Polly showed interest in using the toilet again. This time we got her a child’s size toilet that allows her to put her feet on the ground. Hopefully this will make the whole process easier on us all.

And now for words. Polly has been adding new words to her repertoire each day for almost two weeks now. Today she said ‘crocodile’ and ‘raspberry’ for the first time. Sometimes these words come out so clearly on the first try that it feels like magic. Other words require work. When Polly is working on one of the harder words, she sometimes kicks her head back and stretches her mouth out into different shapes. It appears that she is physically working out what configuration her mouth needs to be in to make the sounds necessary for a given word. I don’t remember Pip doing this kind of work in such a visible way. Its really fun to watch.

- On top of all of these developments, we decided it was finally time to eliminate Polly’s nighttime feedings with Ava. Polly doesn’t need to eat with Ava at night, but she was in the habit of coming to check in and suck a couple of times each night. We were waiting over the last couple of months for her to give this up on or at least drop down to one visit a night. Unfortunately, Polly showed no signs of changing her patterns on her own. So, its my job to coax her into it.

As a result, it’s been a rough week or so for me in the sleep department. Polly will go back to sleep with me, but it has taken several nights to figure out the best arrangement for doing this. I spent the first couple of nights walking for multiple hours with her half-asleep in my arms. She did not really like this and frequently called out for me to take her to Ava. The combination of physical labor and the stress of trying to keep her quiet enough for Pip and Ava to sleep left me exhausted and frustrated. It turned me into a miserable person and a very short-tempered parent.

We have since tried a couple of different configurations. The one that seems to work best is for me to suit her up in the baby carrier. This is how I put her down at naptime and bedtime, so it makes sense that she would be most comfortable falling back asleep in this way. I didn’t do this initially because it is slightly cumbersome to get into the baby carrier while half-asleep. But Polly is more patient with me in this respect than I had expected. She doesn’t cry out for Ava if I am coming to put her in the baby carrier. Kids (and people more generally) are creatures of habit. I’m not sure why I tried to do anything else.

- Finally, we have been facing some questions of life and death over the past couple of weeks. Two of my dad’s siblings, his brother and sister, recently died within two weeks of each other. Their deaths were not tragic. Both had lived fully for more than 80 years and when the time came for them to pass away, they both seemed to be at peace. As such, their deaths felt like an appropriate conclusion to lives well spent. I can only hope that my own life follows a similar course.

Unfortunately, this sense of rightness was missing from two other situations that we learned about this week.

First, a cousin of Ava’s recently found out that she has an advanced case of breast cancer. She had visited a doctor over a year ago complaining that something did not feel right. The doctor did not find anything immediately wrong with her and decided not to order any tests. Last month, one of her vertebrae ruptured, an unusual injury for a 33-year-old woman. In looking for a cause, doctors discovered her cancer. Her prognosis is not good.

There is a historical pattern whereby patient intuition is regularly downplayed or even ignored by professional medical personnel. This is particularly true when the doctor is male and the patient is female, as was the case for Ava’s cousin. Now I don’t know the details or any of the people involved so I am not pointing this out as an accusation of negligence or malpractice by the doctor. But, this pattern does exist. It generally does not operate at a level within the cognition or immediate control of individual people. Instead, it emerges in a cumulative way from the collection of unthought inclinations to do some things and not do others that is part of being human. It is a pattern of culture working largely at the subconscious level.

And so, I want to take this tragic opportunity to bring this pattern into consciousness in hopes that it might make a difference for someone else down the line.

Second, a co-worker and casual friend of Ava’s from her time working as a domestic violence advocate died this past week. I’ll call her Denise. While suicide was identified as the official cause of death, Denise was a victim of domestic violence. Ava and others here believe Denise’s ex-husband was responsible for her passing. Ava has felt Denise’s death with particular intensity because she admired the intensity and the intelligence Denise brought to her work. She also feels that Denise’s death is being discussed in completely erroneous ways. Most cases of violence are not an individual matter. They are not merely the result of bad decisions. They spring instead from the inability of a society to provide the kind of support needed for people who find themselves in desperate situations. Denise was a highly educated social worker with experience as a domestic violence advocate. Despite this, she became a victim of domestic violence. While I do not know the circumstances of her victimization and I don’t know any details regarding her relationship with her ex-husband, I do know that she did not “bring this upon herself.” She did not die because of some ‘flaw’ in her character that brought her together with her abuser. To think this is to excuse the abuser and to disclaim any broader social responsibility for a phenomenon that is neither random nor unpredictable.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

This week's entry can be found at the Daddy Dialectic blog. The front page is here. A direct link to the entry is here.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Veggie Delight

I don’t like vegetables. They don’t taste good to me. I eat them because I’m supposed to.

As a kid there were countless evenings when I would sit at the dinner table looking at the three spoonfuls of green peas my parents required me to eat and pretend they weren’t there. After eating everything else on my plate, making at least two trips to the bathroom, and watching my mother unhappily clean up all the dishes around me, I would finally relent and choke down those cold, slimy little balls. Usually, I gagged a bit on each mouthful.

It wasn’t until I turned sixteen that this approach to vegetables began to shift. That summer, I dated a girl two years older than me. Her family always ate a salad with their dinner. While I never touched a salad at home, I thought it would look childish of me to not eat a salad when I had dinner with them. Much like drinking beer, the first couple of times I ate their salad it did not taste very good. But, I gradually learned what to expect and got used to the taste and texture of all those leaves in my mouth. Eventually, I even came to enjoy a good salad on occasion (though I still can’t stand that iceberg lettuce you get at low end restaurants and in cheap bags of salad. Why does anyone willingly eat that stuff?)

My relationship with other vegetables followed a similar trajectory. After getting started with salad, I took on some of the other plants – broccoli, carrots, spinach, green beans, etc. I quickly learned to eat them first, the flavor of fresh, hot vegetables being much more tolerable than lukewarm, soggy ones. I even found that a few raw carrots or slices of bell pepper could be enjoyable when I am feeling adventurous. They’ll never take the place of a piece of beef or slice of cheese, but veggies have now found a regular spot in most of my dinner selections.

I bring this up because I am actively trying to keep from passing my vegetable aversions on to my children. To this end, once Pip and Polly started eating solid foods, I made a concerted effort to ply them with as many vegetables as possible. My hope was that by flooding them with spinach, broccoli, sweet potatoes, squash, and the like, we could align their taste buds to favor a range of vegetables and avoid the kind of drama that I subjected my parents to.

This has not really come to pass with Pip. During the past year or so, he has been gradually dropping various vegetables from his list of acceptable foods. Avocados went first. Then zucchini. Then spinach. Then broccoli. Then carrots. We’ve been able to hold the fort with green beans, green peas, corn, and butternut squash, but I live in fear of the time when these too will drop away, leaving us completely dependent upon multi-vitamins to keep Pip functioning properly.

This past week, however, things took a turn for the better. For reasons that are not fully clear to me, Pip suddenly took an interest in trying some new (and previously dropped) foods. It could be that he is trying to keep up with Polly, who ravenously demands a piece of just about anything that shows up on our plates. It could be that he has recently seen adults besides his parents eating and enjoying these foods. It could be that he has just entered into an exploratory period, one of those developmental sweet spots when suddenly he is more willing then usual to try new and different things.

Whatever it is, this week Pip happily ate broccoli and carrots again, tried spanakopita and like it, and willingly put meat sauce on his pasta for the first time. Just like that four more foods - including three vegetables - were added to his ‘will eat’ column. I felt like celebrating.

As I heated up some more broccoli for Pip on Tuesday, three different things came to mind:

First, it’s nice to have our patience rewarded. Ava and I have worked hard to not make a big issue out of Pip’s diminishing vegetable preferences. We have tried to let him be, offering new possibilities when he shows some interest, but not pushing him or punishing him when he says he doesn’t like something. Our hope was that this would enable Pip to feel in control of his food choices and leave him more willingly to try new things on his own. It is gratifying that this strategy seems to be working.

Second, this success with Pip gives us more confidence to follow the same strategy with Polly. This confidence already is paying dividends as Polly is more willing to try things than Pip ever was at the same age. She will even demand food - like lasagna, for example – that we had never even thought to give her. So, even though she has dropped a couple of foods recently – most notably, avocados – we’re not that concerned.

Lastly, I’ve been thinking a lot about teaching and learning since posting a few thoughts about preschool a couple of weeks back. One of the comments I received on that posting included the conventional wisdom that you can’t teach your own kids as well as someone else can. I’ve been pondering this question and the theory I’ve come to is this: We teach our kids things all the time – from how to address people to how to eat with a spoon to how to use a toilet. Why would formal education be any different? I’ll grant that I can’t teach my children things the same way a school teacher would. But that has less to do with a stranger vs family dynamic and more to do with a class vs one-to-one dynamic. A school teacher can do drills or regimented lessons with a class because no one student has to be ‘on point’ the entire time. The responsibility for answering questions and producing work can get passed around. Parents and children do not have the same kind of buffers. So, a different approach is in order. As a parent, I have to be an opportunistic teacher, coming at subjects like reading, writing, geography, history, or math from an oblique angle, taking advantage of moments of curiosity in my children to introduce and tie together these things.

This is how Pip came to eat four new foods this week. Ava recognized that Pip was showing extra interest in what we had on our plates. She offered some of those new foods to Pip, and he decided to give them a try. If we had played the classroom teacher, bringing out these same foods and employing our authority to make him eat them, I suspect he would not be willingly consuming those foods again for a long time. Then we would be stuck waiting for someone else to convince him that vegetables are worth eating, just like me some seventeen years ago.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Leading and Being Led

Thursday was a difficult day. For a variety of reasons, I had a negative afternoon. For one thing, I waited too long to process some avocados for Polly, and when I cut into them they had turned soft, brown, and largely inedible. For another, we were dealing with the initial onset of a cold for the kids which always puts me on edge. Then, in the background of all this, our house in Cincinnati has failed to find a buyer despite some very promising possibilities.

Finally, I really made a hash of dinner that night. I was making spanakopita (basically a spinach and cheese mix that you spread into layers between some sheets of pastry dough). To cook it up correctly, you put the finished casserole in the oven uncovered so that as it cooks the top layer of pastry gets nice and crispy. Well, I didn’t do this. Instead, after I made the thing up, I covered it with tin foil and put it in the oven. While this mistake did not ruin the spanakopita, it did create a soft, spongy mess on top that didn’t look very good to me. Now, the right thing to do would have been to admit my mistake and just serve the spanakopita as it was. I, of course, thought I could fix the problem by throwing the thing back in the oven uncovered and broiling it for a couple of minutes. This may or may not be a good idea. I still don’t know because I left the spanakopita in there too long and burnt the top to a crisp.

When I pulled the blackened dish out of the oven, I began to lose it. I started banging around the pots and crashing the silverware together as I went about trying to salvage the spanakopita and fix up the rest of the meal. Hearing an unusual amount of noise coming from the kitchen, Ava stuck her head in followed closely by both Pip and Polly. She took one look at me and, with her ever present wisdom, turned to Pip and said, “Why don’t you go reset your daddy.”

Now, resetting is something I do with Pip when he is mad, overly frustrated, misbehaving, or out of control for some reason. It is a variation on the idea of putting a kid in ‘timeout,’ except instead of sending Pip away to a corner somewhere when he gets out of control, we both go together. Once we find a quiet spot in our house, I wait for him to climb into my lap. Usually this requires some initial coaxing on my part, but once settled Pip remains in place. Then we sit quietly for a while. We don’t have a specific amount of time for this. It is just a matter of feeling out when each of us has calmed down enough. Then we talk about why we are doing a reset and what we may need to do to fix things once we’re done. Then we sit a bit longer until Pip gets ancy. Finally, we go apologize or clean up or do whatever else is needed to get things moving again in the right direction.

I developed this technique during my struggles to deal with Pip’s emerging sense of self. Starting at about eighteen months old, something changed with him. Pip didn’t become a terror. He just wasn’t as happily compliant as he used to be, and I just wasn’t ready to have to negotiate every single thing with him. As such, the process of adjusting our expectations of each other was bumpy. I can see now how parents end up bribing kids, grounding them, withholding desserts, and doing whatever else they can think of to get them to do one thing or another. I also comprehend now how such confrontations between parents and children can sometimes spiral into emotional and physical abuse. There were moments with Pip when I was so frustrated over something (usually innocuous like him taking forever to brush his teeth at bedtime) that the urge to erupt in some kind of angry display was difficult to suppress. Once that urge appeared, I could barely think of anything else to do.

I have found the reset process to be really good for me in this respect. Whenever I feel this kind of urge coming on, the reset process gives me an automatic out. We stop everything and, after calming down, talk through the situation together. It gives me an opportunity to tell Pip why I was frustrated as well as to apologize to him, if necessary, for not handling something correctly. This process of explaining my own feelings to him is more palliative than I ever would have thought possible. Over the long haul it has made me a much calmer and more empathetic parent.

With all of that said, on Thursday I didn’t want to be reset. I am the one who initiates the reset process and, for all the quiet back and forth it entails, that initiating power gives me a certain control over things. In the back of my mind, resetting was still something of a punishment, one that I use to reign Pip back in. But the moment Ava knowingly made her suggestion, that dynamic changed. Pip’s eyes brightened immediately. He slowly and solemnly walked over and took my hand. Then he gently led me back to our bedroom and over to the corner occupied by our big green recliner. After I was seated, Pip pulled out the footrest for me. Then he sat down on the floor and waited quietly while I closed my eyes for a minute or two. I did a long, slow count to ten, taking deep breaths and trying to let go as much of the frustration as I could. It was the thing that I needed to do. It got me back to a place where I could function again.

And, Pip was so proud that he was the one to get me there. When I was ready, he put the footrest back down. Then, smiling, he took my hand again and led me back into the kitchen to present me to Ava. I was his charge, and he wanted her to know that he had successfully completed his task.

Ava and I have a phrase that we use regularly when working with Pip and Polly: “You can’t lead from behind.” We cribbed it from our child-rearing guru, Dr. Sears the Elder, who, given the phrase’s koan like nature, probably pulled it from Winston Churchill or some Zen Buddhist master. For us, the phrase is a reminder. It means that the kids (and people in general) are more likely to do what we show them than what we tell them. But, just as importantly, it also means that sometimes we need to allow the kids to lead us. Independence and self-worth do not come from always being behind.

Pip got an opportunity to lead on Thursday. The pride and seriousness with which he took on this task made me realize how important such moments are. I spend an awful lot of time showing Pip and Polly what they should do. Perhaps I need to recognize how valuable it is to let the roles be reversed a bit more often.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


One of the great things about parenting young children is that every once in a while they hit one of those unmistakable developmental milestones – rolling over, sitting up, walking, talking – that marks their progress towards becoming fully functional human beings. Right now Polly is coming up on one. She is beginning to try out a whole series of new sounds and words. The words ‘dog’ and ‘frog’ have become consistently recognizable. ‘Purple’ and ‘mommy’ and ‘daddy’ are starting to round into shape. She used the word ‘home’ for the first time today. Each time one of these words comes out of her mouth I get a little thrill followed by a briefly flashing sense of accomplishment. It’s as if every word she speaks provides another bit of confirmation that I’m doing okay, that my parenting is getting her to where she should be.

While it’s nice, this sense of confirmation and accomplishment is way more substantial than is probably justified. Human beings walk and talk. They do these things regardless of how well or poorly they are cared for and largely on timelines that are their own. Certainly, the care I give them matters in a whole range of ways. But for me to take their new ability to roll or walk or talk as confirmation of my value as a parent is to grandly overestimate my role in their learning these particular skills.

(And yet, I can still barely contain myself whenever a new word comes floating out of either kid’s mouth).

On the flip side of this, there are a whole array of moments for which I tend to grossly underestimate the level of my influence on Pip and Polly. I was reminded of this recently when I took the kids to get passport photos.

Ava and I have been talking about taking the kids overseas for a while now and, after a couple of opportunities popped up on our radar screen, we decided it was time to start the process of getting passports for them. One of the more worrisome elements of this process for me was getting the necessary pictures done. Passport photos have to be arranged in a particular way. The subject has to be standing alone against a blank background and looking directly at the camera. Pip is old enough to follow instructions and not get freaked out by having some stranger with a camera standing between him and me. With Polly, I wasn’t so sure. I had visions of her being nervous and uncooperative. Then, I imagined, I would have to try and hold her while ducking down low enough to be out of the frame of the picture as the photo clerk struggled to get her to look directly at the camera long enough to get a good shot. It was not a situation I wanted to deal with. But, we needed the pictures so I packed up Pip and Polly and took them down to the local Walgreens.

Stepping inside the door, I grabbed a shopping cart and put Polly into the fold out seat. Pip hopped on the end, and we rolled over to the photo counter. When I told the hulking, 22-year old clerk that we needed passport photos for all three of us, he took a deep breath. Then, he dug a digital camera out from a drawer and pointed us over to the end of the counter where a small projector screen hung down beside a desktop computer. While we waited for him to set things up, I explained to Pip that he needed to stand up straight in front of the screen and look directly at the camera when the clerk took his picture. I then asked him if he wanted to watch me first. He said yes, so I stood in front of the little screen, looked right at the camera, and held still while the clerk took a couple of pictures.

Then it was Pip’s turn. His head did not quite reach the projector screen so the clerk set out a blue plastic milk crate for him to stand on. To my relief, Pip did exactly as instructed. He stepped up on the crate, stood straight and still, and looked directly at the camera while the clerk took a couple of shots.

After Pip hopped down, both the clerk and I looked anxiously over at Polly as she sat quietly in the seat of the shopping cart. She perked up some as I unbuckled her, pulled her out, and dropped her down on to her feet. Before I even tried to explain to her what to do, she walked over, climbed up on the milk crate and looked straight at the clerk. She didn’t move. She didn’t flinch. She stood there serenely, two small orange hair clips holding the wayward strands of her bangs away from her face. The clerk leaned over to get a level shot. She stared calmly at him as he took a first, then a second, and then a third picture. Then, she promptly stepped down from the milk crate and stuck out her arms for me to pick her up. I hauled her in, gave her a hug and kiss, and slipped her back into the seat of the shopping cart. My worries had been unfounded. Polly had obviously watched what Pip and I did so when her turn came, she knew exactly what to do.

This experience with Polly and the passport photos reminded me that it isn’t the big ‘photo-worthy’ moments to which I should be paying the most attention and for which I should be feeling the most satisfaction and/or blame. It’s the daily, quotidian situations like going to the grocery store or playing on the playground. While there are certainly some biologically given inclinations in Pip and Polly’s personalities, how they encounter, trigger, express, interpret, work out, and negotiate these inclinations are all learned through a process of constant observation and careful imitation. As the primary caregiver, I am frequently the initial data point in this process, establishing a precedent against which Pip and Polly measure and evaluate their subsequent observations. This requires me to be constantly aware of what I am doing and what I am saying because they are always watching.

I have slowly come to appreciate this and am learning how feel the same sense of accomplishment from successfully executing a passport photo as I got from seeing Pip and Polly’s first steps. In the grand scheme of things, I think I had much more to do with the former than I did with the latter.