Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Why? Why? Why?

Pip likes to ask a lot of questions. He constantly wants to know what is going on, why a person is doing what they’re doing, how something works, or why something is the way it is. As Ava and I have tended to encourage this inclination, he sees all this questioning as something quite normal, even when the person in the wheelchair about whom he just asked is sitting right beside us.

Of the many different forms this questioning can take, the most challenging, and often most revealing, is what I’ve come to call the “why cascade.” A why cascade starts off as a single, innocent question. For example, on Saturday when Pip and I walked into the locker room at the local YMCA to put on his bathing suit for swim lessons, Pip asked me,

“Why are there lockers in here?”

It was a reasonable question, particularly since we usually change him and then carry all of our stuff with us to the pool. I took a moment to start untying his shoes and then gave him a simple answer:

“So people can leave their stuff in here while they’re swimming.”

And then the cascade began:

“Why?” Pip asked.

“Well,” I replied, “they don’t want to take their stuff with them.”


“Because they’re afraid their stuff might get wet if they do.”


“Um, well, the area around the pool is very wet.”


“Well…when people get out of the pool they often splash water on the pool deck.”


“Um, you know, bathing suits and hair when they get wet, carry a lot of water with them. Water is kind of sticky in that way.”


“I don’t know, Pip. It has something to do with water’s chemistry.”


The why cascade contains two key elements. The first is that once he has started it Pip will keep going no matter how esoteric or banal the subject matter becomes. The result of this is that every why cascade becomes a kind of micro-scale analysis of both the subject matter at hand and my thoughts about that subject. Such an analysis has a way of revealing things that I had never before considered. For example, on Saturday I could have made an argument about clutter or safety around the pool or people’s concerns about having things stolen. Instead, the most immediate thought I could access while trying to get Pip out of his clothes and into his bathing suit was one about keeping everything dry. I guess that’s my biggest concern when it come to my things and the swimming pool.

The second key element of the why cascade is that it almost always concludes with me saying “I don’t know.” Unfortunately, this is an unsatisfactory conclusion for both of us. I want to win the game by providing the answer that finally makes Pip say “Huh. Okay” (a feat that I know will never actually happen). For his part, Pip wants me to keep giving him answers because he like hearing me talk about new things. Sometimes he will even get upset with me when I tell him that I don’t know something because he thinks I am hiding thoughts from him. When that happens he will ask the last question over and over again, trying to pry some more substantial answer from me.

In moments like that, I become slightly envious of those who possess a strong religious faith. If I was Christian (or Muslim or Jewish) and I faced that impending conflict at the end of the why cascade I might be inclined to resort to the all encompassing answer of “Because God made it that way.” This reply would sound so definitive and conclusive, so much more powerful than the wimpy repetition of “I don’t know.” It makes me understand better why religion is so important and so vital for a great many people. The certainty, the finality, the closure that such faith can bring is a very potent experience. Next to this, the openness and uncertainty that comes with agnosticism or atheism feels flimsy and weak. They force me in the face of my child’s questions to say over and over “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know,” an exercise that is intensely demoralizing.


As he gets older, Pip is deploying the why cascade less and less. When he first started using this technique, there was a very purposeful and exploratory intent to his process. Now, when it shows up, it is usually a sign that Pip is excited, nervous, tired, or otherwise feeling too distracted to articulate a coherent question. Such was the case in the locker room on Saturday.

In place of the why cascade, he has begun to ask questions that take us in more complicated and abstract directions. Over the last two months A few of these questions have jumped out at me as particularly interesting and worthy of reflection. Next week, I’ll delve into three of these and reflect on what challenges they present to me as a parent.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Shifting Tides

Since Christmastime, there has been change afoot within our household. I have felt it come to my attention gradually, like when the ocean tide reaches its lowest ebb and, even before the waves begin crawling up the beach again, you can sense a new flow of activity around you. Things that used to go in one direction, now seem inclined to follow another.

Polly and Pip have started truly playing with each other. Our world will never be the same.


Two recent moments have brought this imminent change to my immediate attention.

First, the week after New Year’s Ava went back to work and Polly, Pip and I spent a couple of days engaged in the kind of undirected play that helps the kids ease back into the familiar patterns of life after all the excitement and unpredictability of the holidays. On Thursday morning this meant goofing around in Polly and Pip’s bedroom. For much of the morning Polly played amongst the blankets and pillows on Pip’s bed – alternately burying herself in them, hiding beneath them, pretending to sleep among them, and rolling around on top of them. Pip took this time to collect all the Cabbage Patch dolls and stuffed animals he could find into a pile at the foot of the bed and then proceeded to roll, slide, and fall into them in a number of creative ways. Every once in a while the two of them would take a break from their respective endeavors to perform a series of synchronized belly flops into the sky blue sheets that had become bunched up in the middle of the bed.

At about 11:30 I got up from my assigned spot along the fringes of all this commotion and went in to the kitchen to cook up the grilled cheese sandwiches we were going to each for lunch that day. Usually when I do this, Polly and Pip will play for a few moments longer and then make their way into the kitchen with me – Pip likes to find ways to ‘help’ me make lunch and Polly likes to beg for pinches of cheese from whatever pile I’m using to make the sandwiches. This time however, they stayed in the room. After about five minutes I stuck my head out of the kitchen doorway and around the corner towards their room to see what they were up to. It wasn’t anything new. They were just rolling around together in the middle of the bed and laughing about something. Figuring they were just finishing up, I slipped back into the kitchen and continued making the sandwiches.

Fifteen minutes later I was done, and they were still playing. I carried the sandwiches out to the dining room table and then headed back to their room. When I walked in, they were still situated in the middle of the bed, though now they were laying side by side in the rumpled sheets and blankets while looking up at me with big smiles. I’m still not sure what they were doing during those twenty minutes, but whatever it was they were reluctant to come out for lunch. They were having too much fun to be interested in food.


The second moment that caught my attention happened last week. I was doing some dishes in the kitchen while Polly and Pip were playing in the living room. Earlier in the day I had pulled a long thin strip of wood paneling out from the basement for the kids to use as a ramp, and now the whoosh of matchbox cars, fire trucks, and LEGO vehicles repeatedly rolling down the incline and across the hardwood floors filled our apartment. In between one of the rounds, Polly’s voice came calling around the around the corner:

“Daddy, help.”

There was no urgency in her tone and I guessed that she probably needed some assistance with one of the LEGO figures she likes to play with. One of her favorite games is to pull the hats, helmets, and hair off of these figures, but sometimes she has trouble putting them back on. I called back to her that I’d be there in a minute and went back to washing the soap off the casserole dish in my hand.

As I turned off the water and set the dish on the drying rack, Polly called to me once again:

“Pip help Polly, Daddy.”

This was said with such casualness and nonchalance that I chuckled a little bit as I walked around to the living room to see what had taken place.

In the living room I found Pip setting up his fire truck for another run down the ramp and Polly, as I expected, fiddling with some LEGO figures on the floor near the base of the ramp. I smiled at Pip and told him thank you for helping Polly. Then I turned back into the kitchen to finish the last few dishes.

Standing back at the sink it struck me that while this was certainly not the first time Pip has helped Polly with something, it was the first time that such a scenario had played out in this way. Usually Pip would come running to tell me about Polly’s difficulty – either before or after helping her – in order to receive some positive attention from me for the help he did or was about to render. This time, I guess, helping Polly out generated enough of its own positive feedback that Pip did not feel the need or the desire to seek this out from Daddy. While this development came as a surprise to me, neither Polly nor Pip found it remarkable. It was such a natural act that they didn’t even look up when I first stuck my head out of the kitchen to tell Pip thank you.


This changing flow in the patterns of our life is a bittersweet experience for me. On the one hand, it is very exciting to see Polly and Pip start to build a more substantial relationship with one another. Through actions like playing together in their room, helping each other work out different problems, and even just talking directly with one another during meals, they are engaging in the kinds of shared, everyday experiences that are fundamental to developing bonds of trust and understanding between them. They are learning what it means to share the world with another person and are beginning to discover the joys and compromises this entails.

Unfortunately, every ‘us’ needs a ‘them’ against which to define itself, an external other which demarcates the boundary where ‘us’ begins and ends. This means a slight change in identity for Ava and me. Up to this point, Ava and I have been in the middle of everything Polly and Pip have done. We have been playmates as well as parents. While this positionality is sometimes a burden, it has enabled us to really know our kids, to keep track of what they are up to, to understand how they are feeling, to anticipate what they are thinking. This arrangement is still largely intact, but Polly and Pip’s growing relationship has given me a glimpse of what is to come, of the time when being a parent most often will mean being on the outside looking in. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong about this exclusion, but it still makes me sad. I love the level of intimacy I have with the kids right now and hate to think of it drifting away into the realm of memory.

One of the very few universals in the world is that today will be different from yesterday and tomorrow will be different from today. In all this difference there is some gain and some loss. Parents feel this persistent state of change with particular acuteness as our children constantly develop new capacities and leave behind old patterns. Polly and Pip’s growing interest in one another is an exciting development for Ava and me, but I can’t help mixing this excitement with a splash of nostalgia. Their time as babies is coming quickly to the final curtain, and I will miss it when its gone.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Daughters and Sons; Sons and Daughters

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, January 13, 2011

This week's entry will be posted at the Daddy Dialectic blog on Friday or Saturday. It is running late because I wanted to get some extra feedback on the entry prior to publishing it. I will put up a link here as usual once the entry is complete.

Next week things should be back on schedule.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Silliness of Santa

It will be one of the enduring contradictions of our family’s identity that we “do” Santa. The jolly old elf of ‘Twas the night before Christmas’ with his miniature sleigh, twinkling eyes, and goodie-filled peddler’s pack does not easily fit into the world Ava and I are trying to build for our kids. It’s not that we find him devilish or antithetical to some ‘true’ nature of Christmas. It’s just that bringing the world of Santa into Pip and Polly’s lives means having to fudge around with some things that we usually would just avoid. For example,

1) Santa is not real.

Polly and Pip have wonderfully creative minds. They can turn a plastic crocodile into handyman’s drill and kitchen utensils into violins. Frequently, they will imagine themselves to be different animals – a dog, a bear, a spider, a woodchuck – and will crawl around the house making what they feel are the appropriate sounds and movements. They also spend a great deal of time pretending to undertake a host of real world tasks from serving food to building skyscrapers to caring for sick babies.

Ava and I love all of this creative energy and constantly encourage them to explore scenarios they have not considered before. At the same time, we strive to draw clear lines between the real and the imaginary. Oftentimes this line drawing comes into play while we are reading a book. We will come across something like a talking animal or a flying car or a Dr. Seuss creature, and Pip will want to know something more about them. At this point I will be sure to mention something about the author’s imagination in order to establish the realm in which we are working before continuing on to answer his question. I feel like this helps him better understand the workings of his mind and the minds of others as well as heads off any fear-inducing confusion about what creatures the world actually holds.

With Santa all of that care must go out the window. Elves, flying reindeer, toy factories at the North Pole all become possible and plausible because we don’t claim otherwise.

2) The naughty and nice lists

People are complicated. They do things we think are good. They do things we think are bad. Often there is a lack of consensus about which of those things fall into which of the categories. Even more frequently people do things in different ways that are neither good nor bad. They are just different.

All of this can be confusing for the kids when it comes to Santa’s naughty and nice lists: Is Santa tabulating all of these differences and deciding which are good and which are bad? How many bad things must one do to end up on the bad list? If I get fewer presents than another kid does that mean Santa thinks the other kid is better than me?

3) Santa’s ubiquity in holiday advertising.

Santa is an exquisite pitchman. During the holidays he shows up everywhere – shopping malls, supermarkets, the drug store, the bookstore. And where ever he goes his presence reminds you that you need to buy stuff for Christmas. In this he is the henchman of the market. Santa spreads happiness and cheer by showering everyone with gifts, and so you too must do the same. His presence urges us to buy more stuff because that is how we are supposed to show our love for one another at Christmastime.

And yet, Santa arrived at our house two weeks ago loaded with gifts and spreading cheer. The precedent was established last year, just as Pip was turning three and becoming old enough to remember things from one year to the next. Ava and I debated Santa’s merits and initially decided not to bring him into our home. But something about that decision did not feel right to me. I had a history with Santa, and it made me wonder if cutting the kids off from him was really the right thing to do.


When I was sixteen, my mother announced that she would not be doing Santa anymore. That Christmas my sister and I were going to be playing some music for midnight mass at the local Catholic church, and Mom had decided the logistics of creating a visit from Santa were going to be more than she wanted to juggle. It seemed a good time to bring Santa to a close.

It was no secret to us that Santa wasn’t real. That had been established long ago. But through the years we had fallen into a kind of Kabuki arrangement whereby we continued to play our roles with respect to Santa in spite of his obvious immateriality. We still set out cookies and milk before going to bed on Christmas Eve. My sister still got up at 5:00 AM on Christmas morning to see what Santa had brought. My mom still wrapped the Santa presents in their own special wrapping paper. All of this was part of our Christmas ritual, and we played our roles with knowing smiles and only a few judiciously selected side jokes.

Mom’s declaration of the end of Santa ripped through all of this, and I wasn’t ready for it. Though I could not have articulated this at the time, I really enjoyed the process of a visit from Santa. It added an extra bit of mystery and excitement to Christmas morning. It filled those early morning moments before my parents woke up with a feeling of exuberant expectation that often outlasted the excitement generated by the presents themselves. It also added an element of playfulness to the day and the season. Talking about what Santa brought and what Santa did was like being in on an inside joke – we all knew what was going on but could have fun talking with each other as if we didn’t. It was a bit of silliness, but a silliness that we created together.

My immediate disappointment at Mom’s bringing the era of Santa to a close must have been obvious because the moment I said something about enjoying Santa’s visits with us, she began to backtrack. She had thought that this decision was going to be no big deal and that my sister and I had stopped caring about Santa a long time ago. If we still cared, she said, then she would figure out how to get Santa to come around that year as well. I told her that I would really like that.

That Christmas Santa made his regular visit to our house. We played our roles and had our fun. I don’t remember what I got that year, but I do remember being particularly happy. Santa continued to return to our house each Christmas for the next decade or so, stopping only when I no longer made it to my parents’ house for the holiday.


I think it was this idea of Santa as an enabler of silliness that made Ava and I reconsider doing Santa with Polly and Pip. Beyond everything else that Santa is or has become, having him visit brings us together into a shared world where playfulness is the rule. He encourages us to be fanciful by leading us to talk about elves and flying reindeer. He allows us to be silly and coy at a population scale that few other idioms can reach. In many respects Santa really is the spreader of merriment and cheer during Christmas, not because he brings gifts, but because his presence tinges everything with a layer of childlike playfulness that may be the true magic of the season.

As a parent this kind of playfulness seems like a quality worth passing on to our kids.