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.