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.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

I've posted this week's entry on the Daddy Dialectic blog. A link to the main page is here. A direct link to the entry is here.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Making Contact

Ava and I have worn both Pip and Polly since each was old enough to handle life in a baby carrier. While neither kid could ever settle into an infant sling, the moment their necks were strong enough to keep their heads from falling to the side, I threw a carrier over my shoulders and used it to strap them to my chest. For Pip I first used a standard black Baby Bjorn, then a purple wrap, and finally a black and purple Beco Butterfly. I carried him around when I did housework, during trips to the grocery store, and just about anytime a stroller might be in order. As he got bigger we got a backpack for me to carry him. I used that to take him hiking, to mow the yard (with a mechanical mower), and to make frequent trips to the zoo. When Polly was born, Ava bought a brand new Beco with an infant strap that allowed me to carry Polly around even earlier than I had with Pip. It was wonderful because I could drop her in there and still be able to move around with Pip. I still use it every day to put her down for naps and to get her to sleep at night. Eventually, Polly also took over Pip’s position in the backpack and this spring she probably spent as much as two hours a day riding around slung across my shoulders.

All of this baby wearing and baby carrying has turned the physical act of touching Pip and Polly into one of the more important tools in my parental toolbox. At a purely functional level, it has made me aware of how much information a simple touch can transmit. I frequently use a light hand on the shoulder to remind Pip of something I told him earlier. He often puts his leg over mine during meals as a way of letting me know he needs a bit more attention. Sometimes Polly will do the same. Each of these gestures is wordless, and their relative subtlety is key to their effectiveness. It is tough to feel nagged when you are the recipient of a soft touch.

There is a feedback loop at work as well in these gestures that adds to their effectiveness. To be in such close and frequent physical contact with someone is to obtain an certain intuitive understanding of that person. For me, it means I gain an extra layer of sympathy for Pip and Polly. Our daily contacts - from roughhousing, to rubbing their backs as they go to sleep, to having them playing around my knees, to holding hands when we cross the street- give me constant input on how they’re feeling and what state of mind they’re in. And, just as important, they get the same information from me. When it’s all working well, this back and forth exchange helps keep us all going in the same direction.

This connection is subtle and often times not really noticeable until its gone. Every once in a while Pip and I have passed through periods when we haven’t been in contact as much as normal. It usually is not a conscious choice. It’s just a change in life patterns that we have to catch up to. When these periods occur, I usually notice that Pip is acting out in some way. He’s louder than usual. He’s more aggressive. He’s less patient. And I am more easily frustrated by all of it. The combination makes both of us unhappy. During these periods, we lose the ability or the willingness to work together, and it just makes every task we need to accomplish that much more difficult. I viscerally feel the lack of contact in much the same way that I feel it when I forget to brush my teeth. I get a nagging sense of missing something important before I even know what it is. Once I realize it, I make an extra effort to rub his back or have him sit on my lap while reading in order to get ourselves back in sync.

As I still get to carry Polly on a daily basis, this kind of conscious effort has not yet been necessary with her. But, I can feel the end coming. Since moving to Lexington, Polly has been in the backpack only a couple of times. Much of this is because Peter rides his bike every day now, and I have to put her in the jog stroller to keep up with him. But there is also the factor that as Polly wants to be more involved in everything, she is less willing to be tied down in a backpack or carrier. Throw in the reality that in the next year she will probably start going to sleep without being walked in the carrier, and I can see the end of the line for my child wearing days. This makes me aware that my days of frequent contact with them are numbered as well. The hugs, the kisses, the random collisions, the quiet back rubs will all diminish as Pip and Polly get older. It makes me sad to think about it.

And so, I’m already thinking about substitutes, ways to literally stay in touch with them without being awkward or overtly smothering. In this, I have come to recognize the value of the high-five.

I employed high-fives frequently when I used to play basketball and soccer. It doesn’t seem like much, just a simple slap of the hands or even just a quick tap of the fingers, but that contact often had the effect of creating a bit more connectivity between me and my teammates. A quick high-five after a good play made me feel more invested in them and enabled us to transmit the accomplishments of individuals throughout the team as a whole. This investment in each other seems like a decent approximation of what I’d like to maintain within our family.

Pip learned what a high-five was from our neighbors in Cincinnati. As a two-year-old, he was not ready to shake hands with people when we would stop and talk with the folks who lived around us. Some of the men introduced him to the high-five, and he liked it immediately. The opportunity to joyfully slap hands with adults thrilled him. He quickly developed a technique whereby he would straighten out his right arm and swing his hand through the fullest possible arc before making contact. His intent in doing this was to make a really loud pop. If it didn’t happen the way he wanted, he would swing his arm again and again until he got it just right.

Polly learned to do a high-five from my dad during my parent’s visit to our house last spring. I imagine she had watched Pip closely because it only took Dad a couple of tries to get her to open her fingers and hold her hand up for him to tap it. She was so proud of herself that whenever Dad entered the room for the rest of the weekend, she would hold up her little open palm for him to give her a high-five.

With both kids getting a kick out of doing high-fives, I started using them to dole out praise and to acknowledge their accomplishments. At first it was just another fun way to connect with them, but now I am thinking strategically. I’ve started trying it out in various situations – at the playground, during meals – to see where it will work best. I hope that as other points of contact start to disappear, the high-five can slide in and provide me with that little something extra that makes our family a cohesive and functional operation. It’s certainly no replacement for the kind of contact we had while I was carrying the kids around on my chest, but every little bit of extra knowledge, every little bit of extra trust that we can glean from each other can do nothing but help us live more happily together.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Daddy, I'm Scared

Each night it is my responsibility to put the kids to sleep. And each night, after the lights are off and Polly is starting to fall asleep, Pip gets antsy. I don’t know exactly why but at that moment when Polly’s head starts to nod, Pip seeks out ways to avoid settling down. Sometimes it involves rolling around on his bed. Other times he complains about being too hot or too cold. Many times he asks random questions for which I have no answer. All of this activity is usually harmless. Pip will eventually go to sleep. He just has to get this last something out.

But, one night a couple of weeks ago, he brought out something new:



“I’m scared.”

“Scared of what?”

“There are strange noises out there and its dark.”

While this exchange felt straight-forward, the sound of his voice suggested otherwise. There was none of the halting nervousness that Pip gets when he is frightened by a bad thunderstorm. Instead, there was this tinny, searching quality, a trait that usually shows up when Pip is looking for some kind of attention.

I had expected something like this might be in the offing. Earlier that day I had spent more time than usual cooking while the kids were awake. I was trying to get some eggs and some potatoes made up so we would have them for later in the week. Pip and Polly are used to having my undivided attention, but for a time they found ways to occupy themselves without involving me. Eventually, Pip began to feel the effects of my neglect. His voice got louder. His movements became more jumpy and exaggerated. He started getting into things on the shelves that he normally doesn’t touch. The situation did not spiral out of control, but for the rest of the afternoon, I was very cognizant of Pip’s state of mind. As such, it wasn’t a surprise when he sought some extra attention at bedtime.

The substance of his complaint was not that surprising either. One of the books in our regular rotation contains a story about a little girl who is afraid of the dark. She hears sounds she can’t identify and calls in her mother to explain them away. The book ends with the little girl realizing that there is nothing to be afraid of, but its difficult to know exactly how a kid interprets the ‘lesson’ of such a book.

Oftentimes, when we encounter a situation in a book that suggests ideas we’d rather not have Pip and Polly chewing on or mimicking, we attempt some counter-programming. This usually consists of changing a few words here and there or just skipping over the questionable pages altogether. Our most successful counter-programming effort to this point has been with a Sesame Street book in which Elmo’s class takes a field trip to a doctor’s office. During the field trip, Elmo’s teacher winds up getting a shot. Before the doctor administers the shot, Elmo and his classmates are scared and they talk about how brave their teacher is. After the shot is finished, they relax and mention how much the shot will help him feel better. When Ava and I read this book to the kids, we just skip over the parts about being scared. We reason that if the kids don’t know they are supposed to be scared of a shot, they are less likely to make an issue of it when they have to have one. Since we first started reading this book, Pip has received multiple shots and has handled each one without a single tear. Also, whenever he pretends to be a doctor, he gives all his stuffed animals shots and makes no extra effort to comfort or reassure them. In his mind, they don’t need it. A shot is no big deal.

Of course, counter-programming isn’t really possible when, as with the story about the little girl in the dark, the whole premise of a book is based around a particular fear. In this case, our challenge is to present the proper reaction if and when the subject comes up.

I have learned over time that managing my reaction is one of the fundamental skills of parenting. This is because all human knowledge is based on a series of experiments. You try something. You see what reaction occurs. Perhaps you do it again and again and again to establish a sense of how repeatable that first reaction is. If the reaction happens with some consistency, you assume the presence of a pattern. Knowledge is essentially the assumption that pattern one observes will continue to hold true. With kids, this process of knowledge creation is amplified. They don’t have a large backlog of experiences to draw upon, so each act they make takes on a heightened importance. Their actions and the reactions that follow establish precedents for their future assumptions about the world. In other words, if Pip tries out the ‘I’m scared of the dark’ line and gets a reaction like the little girl in the book got, he is well on his way to learning that being scared of the dark will get him attention.

The real trick is that with something like being scared of the dark, it is very easy to overreact. Standing there in the darkened room, it was very tempting for me to either pacify Pip (“It’s okay. I’m here”) or deny his statements (“What’s wrong. There’s nothing to be scared of.”). However, both choices essentially would provide Pip the extra attention he was seeking. Silence was not option either. Pip is very intuitive. He can sense my uncertainty and will internalize that reaction. He will also still demand that I respond to him in some way. He is very tenacious in that respect.

So, after our initial exchange, I paused trying to figure out how best to avoid creating a downward spiral where Pip’s experiment with being scared of the dark eventually morphs into an actual, attention-seeking fear. Hoping to prompt a touch of self-awareness, I decided to take an indirect angle. I asked Pip if he said he was scared of the dark because of the book.

“Yes,” he said.

“Maybe we shouldn’t read it again for a little while.”

“Okay,” Pip said.

After a brief pause, he continued. “Daddy, I’m still scared.”

“Okay,” I said. “Let’s get your sister to sleep.”

The next night after the lights were out and Polly was once again starting to fall asleep, Pip said to me again,

“Daddy, I’m scared.”

I realized then that the night before I had made a mistake. By suggesting that we not read the book for a while, I had managed to provide feedback to Pip’s search for attention. By saying “Daddy, I’m scared,” Pip had made something new happen. The feedback was negative, but it was feedback just the same. He wasn’t sure how or why it came, but now he was trying again to see if he could get a similar result.

Fortunately, because knowledge is not an instantaneous thing, because it is the result of doing something again and again until the outcome feels given and predictable, I had a second chance. This time I wanted to acknowledge his words without giving them too much importance, a situation perfectly suited for the frustratingly bland “Okay, I understand.” I’ve used this many times before when Pip or Polly wants something that I am not prepared to give them. It always feels a bit insidious coming out of my mouth, but it’s an effective way to avoid saying the word “no.” And it worked this time as well. Pip and I went through the cycle a couple of times that night before he fell asleep and again every night for the next two weeks. He tried the idea a couple of different ways, but I did not waver from my blandness. Finally, Pip got bored and, to my relief, dropped the question of darkness in favor of requesting an extra trip to the bathroom. This allowed me to put ‘fear of the dark’ back on the shelf with all the other silly things I don’t want him to get hung up on.

Now, if I can just get him to eat some broccoli, we may really be on our way…