Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Hunger Strike

People can be perplexing creatures. Shaped by a mix of social and cultural influences, biochemical fluctuations, and personal divinities, we’re creatures of routine and habit until suddenly we’re not. This irrationality seems to be a fundamental part of being human. It’s what makes each person different, lively, interesting. It is often a source of great joy. At the same time, it can be the genesis of real pain. Especially when you’re dealing with your kids.

Three weeks ago Pip stopped eating. At breakfast on that Tuesday morning he ate a half-piece of toast and then said he was full. He skipped his usual morning snack and then at lunch only ate a few bites of his sandwich before begging off with a stomachache. At dinner he said he was too distracted to eat. It was unclear exactly what was distracting him.

The next day brought the same thing, and so did the day after that. During each meal he would half-heartedly nibble a couple of bites and then tell us he was done. At first we did not think too much of it. Perhaps he was feeling sick or a little off. We figured the next day he would wake up hungry and plow through a couple days worth of food in twenty-four hours. But after three days of eating just a bare minimum of food, he showed no signs of returning to normal.

While his absence of interest in food was frustrating, what really worried us was the depressive demeanor that accompanied it. At the table, he would slump in his chair and stare blankly ahead or slowly and drearily move his food around his plate. His normal, overwhelming chatter vanished into a series of thick silences which he broke only to provide single word responses to the questions Ava and I directed at him. He asked no questions of us. He told no stories. He made no requests. He had no demands. All of the barely contained energy that makes him such a beautiful kid was drained away. What remained was an enigmatic husk.

Away from the table, things were only slightly better. He went about his normal daily activities – getting dressed and brushing his teeth, doing a reading lesson, playing with some toys, riding his bike – but there was always a crucial element missing. Every movement, every action he undertook was just slower, softer, quieter, duller than usual. It was like looking at a rainbow photographed in black and white. His form was present but his true animas, the magic dynamism of his colors, was gone.

This state of affairs continued into the latter half of the week. On Thursday and Friday I really began wondering what the hell was going on. I began periodically asking him “what’s wrong?” but this was a question he was probably unable answer even if he had been willing. I picked through my memories from the previous week searching for something that might have triggered this: was it because I had scolded him one evening for being too jumpy and out of control during our bedtime routine? Was it because I had gotten frustrated with him one morning because he woke up whiny? Was it because I had been spending more time with Polly as she was toilet-training? Was it because I had been less than understanding one night when he could not go back to sleep at 2 AM? Every little moment of negativity I had encountered with him over the past couple of weeks became, in my mind, a potential generator of his funk.

In the midst of all this pondering, I became very aware of the delicate balance I wanted to strike in my interactions with Pip. At one level, I was very conscious of the manipulative possibilities at work in his behavior and sought not to reinforce it with a heightened level of attention and special enticements. At the same time, I didn’t want to ignore the obvious and pretend like everything was just fine either. As such, I began engaging in all kinds of complex gymnastics with him, trying to do things the way we normally would do them while simultaneously probing him, asking him lots of extra questions, and trying to engage him in some kind of conversation. These efforts were not very fruitful. Ultimately, they just sucked the life right out of our house. In measuring every action and every word before moving forward with anything, I squeezed all the life out of the air around us, suffocating us in an atmosphere devoid of spontaneity.

On Friday, the situation brought me to tears. The precipitating incident came at dinner. After two bites of his food, Pip dripped slowly out of his chair and onto the floor. Then he stayed there on his hands and knees looking absently out through the windows at the front of our apartment. I got down beside him and asked,

“What are you doing, Pip?”

“Just looking at the trees,” he replied in a slow, distant voice.

I looked up at Ava and felt tears starting to build on the lashes of my eyes. I was done. Whatever it was that had gotten into Pip was now taking me down as well.

Fortunately, Ava had been working on her own theories – perhaps he needs a change in sleep patterns; maybe he is compensating for the increasing difficulty of his reading lessons; it could be he is just bored with our regular cycle of foods; perhaps he is bothered by sitting beside an increasingly active Polly at the dinner table; maybe he needs more time with four-year-olds instead of adults and two-year-olds. We talked through these and several other ideas that night and decided to take a more active approach to solving his funk the next day.

So, on Saturday morning breakfast was served with a few silly variations: oatmeal in a juice glass, egg sandwich instead of the usual egg and toast. After breakfast we moved the dining room table, pushing it from the center of the room to a position by the windows, and then rearranged the chairs such that Pip and Polly were facing each other across the table. For dinner that night we actively engaged him in the process of selecting the meal choices, preparing the food, and getting it from the kitchen to the dinner table.

The effect was not instantaneous, but there was some noticeable improvement. He ate more breakfast and seemed a touch more lively at that morning’s swim lessons. When he really perked up was later that afternoon after we ran into a new friend of his. The interaction was relatively brief - consisting mostly of showing each other how much they could hop on one foot – but it seemed to be the thing that pushed him over a threshold and returned him back to something approaching his normal vivacity.

In the wake of these changes, Sunday was a much better day. Pip ate his usual portions and went about the day with his accustomed exuberance. Then on Monday morning, he slipped. We got up at our normal weekday time – about 30 minutes earlier than on the weekends – and Ava and I started making breakfast before Pip and Polly got out of the bed. The result was not good. Pip was very upset at not being able to take part in the making of breakfast and by the time Ava left for work it looked like we might have lost some of the progress we had made over the weekend. Fortunately, Pip and I went back to the kitchen and started breakfast over again. This seemed to assuage him and, once he got some food in him, he went about things with his usual cheer.

He’s been fine ever since.


I don’t know what happened that week. Maybe it was a biochemical hiccup related to a coming growth spurt. Maybe it was a necessary break from an accumulation of unspoken grievances. Maybe it was a need to wake up differently in the morning. Or it could be something completely unrelated. We’ll never really know.

But, for the last two weeks Pip’s level of food consumption has sky-rocketed. Most meals he now cleans his plate and asks for second and, sometimes, third helpings. And the pace at which he is eating has increased as well. He used to pick his way through his food at an excruciatingly slow pace. Now, he usually finishes his first helping in about the same time as Polly and me. These changes are both a relief and a curiosity. I’m thrilled to have him eating with such gusto, but I find it hard to understand how his new appetite fits into the puzzle of his previous disinterest. Was his funk really caused by the food or the arrangements at mealtime? Or is this spurt of interest just a side effect of resolving whatever was actually at the heart of this crisis? Again, we’ll never really know.

Whatever the case, I sure am happy to see him bouncing around the house again.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Losing Childhood

In the April 2011 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, there were three review articles devoted to books about parenting and childhood. The first two covered various angles of Amy Chua’s Tiger Mother book. The third, written by Christina Schwarz and entitled “Leave Those Kids Alone,” posed a related but broader question: What happened to just letting kids play?

Schwarz took as her jumping off point a memoir of childhood originally published in 1957 and recently reissued called “Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothing.” This book, written by a man named Robert Paul Smith, simultaneously reminisces about childhood play in the early 20th century and disparages adult-organized activities of the 1950s like summer camps and Little League. It invokes a nostalgic world where a child had the space – both physical and metaphorical – to engage in kinds of play that seem foreign today, to, in Smith’s words, take the opportunity to “find out whether he breathes differently when he’s thinking about it than when he’s just breathing,” or to, in Schwarz’s words, “stare at the sky and study the imperfections in his own eyeball.” To put it simply, Smith describes a world where play was, frankly, to do nothing in particular.

In contrast to Smith’s vision of a “Tom Sawyer childhood,” Schwarz half-heartedly jokes that contemporary kids, “boxed-in by adult-imposed structure[s]” in the form of professional music lessons, high-intensity soccer leagues, and foreign-language tutoring, “apparently…have for so long been deprived of time and space to play that they no longer know how. They’re like those eyeless fish in caves.” She then argues, more seriously, that in the process of all this developmental work something of true value is being lost. “Childhood,” she concludes, “those first, fresh experiences of the world, unclouded by reason and practicality, when you are the center of existence and anything might happen – should be regarded less as a springboard to striving adulthood than as a well of rich individual perception and experience to which you can return for sustenance throughout life.”

While I might quibble with Schwarz that there is some balance to be struck between living in the now and working towards the future in all stages of life, I am in full agreement with the main thrust of her argument. Young kids get sucked into a lot of organized stuff these days, and I’m dubious that all this commotion will help them live happier lives. I say this, in part, because my own best memories from being 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 years old reflect the kind of play Smith describes: heading out with one of my friends to explore the creeks and wooded areas around my house, hopping on my bike and repeatedly riding up and down hills with other kids from the neighborhood, grabbing my sled on a snowy day and walking off in search of the best place to slide or jump or fall, playing pick-up games first of spotlight tag and later of basketball, football, and wiffleball. There were days during the summer when the only times my sister and I saw my parents were during meals and at bedtime.

Now, thirty years later, it’s difficult for me to imagine my own kids playing this way. The kind of creative play and unsupervised freedom that I enjoyed - at what now seems like an incredibly young age - was enabled and supported by a set of conditions that I believe are less and less easy to find in our present child-raising environment.

For one thing, they don’t physically build neighborhoods the same way anymore. The two neighborhoods I grew up in were both built one house at a time. Empty lots were left intact with all their trees and rocks and dips and swells. The drainage areas where the creeks ran were wooded and undeveloped. Backyards were rarely fenced in. These were the spaces in which we traveled. These were the spaces of adventure and exploration, the ones where we built forts and climbed trees, the spots where we imagined entirely new worlds for ourselves. Now, it is common practice in developing a new middle-class neighborhood to bulldoze every living thing, grade out each lot, build a whole bunch of houses at once, and fence in every backyard. The only open spaces available for play are the sidewalks, the roads, and the specifically designated playgrounds. It’s a limited and limiting terrain.

Even more important than the physical changes in neighborhood construction over the last thirty years is that the social structure that existed in my old neighborhoods is now more difficult to find. For starters, one of the things that gave my mother the confidence to let my sister and me roam was her reasonable assumption that were we to get into real trouble someone would be around to help us out. I don’t have that same confidence with my current middle-class neighborhood. So many of the households contain two working parents that people are just not around as much. The parents are occupied every day at least until dinner. The kids are in after-school programs or the assorted variety of other organized activities that fill the time until the parents’ workdays are through. This gives the space around us an emptiness that I don’t remember my old neighborhoods having. (though I can’t blame many parents for going ahead and tracking kids into focused training in music or language or sports or whatever. If you are going to have to pay someone to take care of the kids anyway, they might as well gain something from the investment.)

Another reason for this feeling of emptiness may be the labor mobility that is now so highly prized in the middle and upper reaches of our economy. The nature of the contemporary geography of employment is such that moving up often means moving out, and the constant shuffling involved undercuts the network of relations that enable us to trust our neighbors with our kids. For example, we moved into our current neighborhood last July. This in and of itself is not that big a deal. In the neighborhoods of my youth there were always a few people moving in and moving out. However, as more and more people become movers, it leaves fewer people to anchor the social community of the neighborhood. There is a tipping point where this web begins to break apart and each new family that moves in has to build a network instead being able to merge into an established one. I feel like this is the situation we are in right now.

All of these dynamics also have ramifications for our kids’ development. One of the more significant social structures among the kids in both neighborhoods of my childhood was a generational chain through which the commonly known games, stories, secret places and such of the neighborhood was passed down from older kids to younger kids. There was nothing official or ceremonial about this. It just happened as a consequence of the mixing of ages involved in our play.

If it appears that children now no longer know how to play, I would argue that this is in part because this generational chain has been ruptured. As kids have become more engaged in activities outside the neighborhood - and in the process are more and more segregated into distinct age groups – the cross-fertilization that occurs among a group of heterogeneous ages is being lost. This leaves parents like me in the awkward position of trying to fill this absence, of trying to generate games and start up adventures that stimulate and push my kids the way I was by my efforts to keep up with the older kids in the neighborhood.

Ultimately, Schwarz would see my efforts in this regard as another example of an “interfering adult” whose structures are sapping childhood of its magic. She might even see me as being just as implicated in the atrophy of childhood as the Tiger Mothers or Tennis Fathers who so adamantly drive their children toward adult achievements. In either case, her article ends with a final plea directed at people like me that we back off our kids just a bit and allow them the freedom to live as children instead of as adults-in-the-making. It is a sentiment I want to wholeheartedly embrace. Unfortunately, I think it will take more than just stepping back to give our kids the childhood Schwarz imagines they should have.

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Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Power of Reading

I want my kids to be a lot of things - smart, respective, friendly, inquisitive, creative, curious, happy – and I often look for ways to encourage these qualities in them. I read to them. I encourage them to use their imaginations to build things and to tell elaborate stories. I explain everyday things to them using the language of science and mathematics whenever possible. I strive to be friendly and respectful with them and others at all times. I smile and laugh a lot. I seek to model the kind of people I want them to become.

While this seems like plenty to expect, there is also another set of qualities I would like for them to possess: the ability to persevere in the face of adversity; the ability to accept their own shortcomings and work to improve them; and the ability to take on a challenge, to endure the inevitable failings that come with trying something difficult, and to ultimately do the labor necessary to find success. More than anything else, these are the qualities that will enable them to carve out a place for themselves in the world, to take their dreams and turn them into realities.

The problem I face with instilling this second set of qualities is that the situations necessary for developing them are not situations I want to intentionally create. I like to keep the environment around our house calm and happy. I like to use redirection to solve problems. I prefer to tell the kids what they can do instead of what they are doing wrong. This doesn’t mean that Polly and Pip’s lives are free of adversity. But, the post hoc nature of working through such moments does not lend itself to systematically developing the skills necessary for handling them.

Amy Chua’s Tiger Mother essay made me worry about this even more. If her kids gained nothing else from having her as a parent, they developed strategies to deal with adversity. I began to wonder if I should be doing something more for Pip and Polly in this regard. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the solution to my worries would come from something we were already doing: teaching Pip how to read.


Pip and I have doing reading lessons every weekday for a couple of months now. We are using a book of progressive lessons that asks Pip to do a bit more every day. The pace is fast, and this is forcing Pip to work hard. Within two months he has gone from identifying a couple of sounds to reading full paragraphs. Fortunately, he can feel this progress, and those positive vibes encourage him to keep coming back for more.

The hardest thing with the reading lessons is that there is always something that gets him hung up. This week’s challenge has been getting out the word “tame.” For whatever reason, whenever he sees this word, all he can get out is “tam.” He knows this isn’t right, but he can’t get his mouth to hold the long ‘a’ sound through the transition to the ‘m’ sound. Instead, he starts with a long ‘a’ and then morphs into a short ‘a’ before saying the ‘m’ sound. Then when he says the word quickly the wrong sounds come out.

When the reading lessons first started getting harder about a month ago, neither Pip nor I knew how to handle this kind of challenge. After failing a couple of times to get a word right, Pip would just flop his head down on the table and say “I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.” A few tears would often follow. This display would frustrate me because I felt the amount of drama was way out of proportion to the actual problem. I would have to get him a handkerchief, give him a couple of moments to compose himself, and then coax him into trying the word again. This would eventually work, but the frequency of these breakdowns meant that each reading lesson took an incredibly long time to complete.

So, we began trying some different strategies. First, we worked on eliminating “I can’t” from Pip’s reactions and replacing it with something more positive. I suggested “I think I can” from the old children’s book ‘The Little Engine That Could.’ Pip rejected this and decided on “I’m trying” instead.

Second, I found that letting him take a break for a moment when we encounter a problem only prolonged the process of working through the problem as he was less inclined to go back into the lesson if he walked away from it feeling unsuccessful. So now, we just take a breath for a moment without leaving our seats, then we dive back in.

Third, I am working to get him to go back to his basic skill set whenever he encounters a problem. One of the great things about this particular reading book is that it focuses on teaching the process of sounding things out as much as the actual sounds and words themselves. From the very start it had us doing exercises in which I said a set of words slowly and Pip then repeated them. Now when Pip encounters a word he can’t read, I take him back to the beginning. We identify each of the sounds in the word. Then we say the sounds slowly together. Then I tell him to say them together quickly. This way I can give him an assist while not actually telling him the word. More importantly, it gives us a strategy to go to when Pip stumbles on a word and falls prey to frustrated guessing.


Friday’s lesson brought together all of this factors. Pip had trouble again, this time with the word “fame.” When he did not get it right initially, he started guessing haphazardly and moving farther and farther away from his target. I stopped him and had him take a breath. Then I told him to go back to our basics. He worked the sounds again and again. He did not ask me to just tell him the word. He went through the full process, repeatedly saying “I’m trying. I’m trying.” Eventually, he got the word out and with it gained a sense of accomplishment that carried him like a wave through the rest of the lesson. I couldn’t have been more proud of him.


The gains from all of this work are twofold: 1) Pip is learning how to manage failure, how to keep himself going, and how to overcome or work through sticking points; and 2) I am learning how to guide him without resorting to meanness or anger; how to keep him focused on the task at hand; and how to walk him back without just telling him the answer. The result – while still a work in progress – will hopefully be both a kid who has gained the confidence and skills to fail at something and eventually work towards a solution and a parent who understands how to push without being demanding and how to guide without disabling.

We began reading lessons because I wanted Pip to learn how to read. It turns out that the side effects of this effort may be just as significant to his long-term success as the main objective. This is a welcome surprise that makes me even more excited to get Polly started when she is ready. I could not have planned any better way to develop their abilities to deal with adversity.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


About once a day I find myself saying about Polly, “That’s something that Pip use to do.” Usually I say this as a reminder when Poly does something I don’t like – chucking a stuffed animal across the room, flinging her feet up on the dinner table, holding her hand against a running faucet and spraying water everywhere. These are the experiments and antics of a two-year-old, and as she grows older they will disappear. The reminder keeps me from getting too worked up about them.

But, there is at least one thing Polly does for which Pip provided no precedent: Polly always speaks about herself in the third person. Unlike some other households where the chorus of “MINE!” can pound you into the ground, our house is filled with oddly royal declarations of third-person self-referentiality like “May Polly go play with Polly’s toys?” and “Polly want to do it” or when things are slipping out of her grasp just “POLLY!” For her, there is no “I” or “me” or “my.” There is only “Polly.”

How this came to be I am not sure. I would like to blame Elmo, Sesame Street’s little red monster whose own statements of perpetual self-reference I have read over and over to Polly. Ava tells me I’m being silly, and she’s probably right. Its more likely Polly picked this up from us than from Elmo.

As I pondered this, I realized that I refer to “Daddy” a lot in talking with the kids. When we’re getting ready to do something, I tell them what Daddy is going to do. When I need to run down to the basement for a moment, I tell them that Daddy will be right back. When I put them down for a nap, I tell them that Daddy loves them. At times it sounds like I’m talking about another person or that I’m trying in a subtle way to hold the Daddy identity at arms length from me. But, neither is the case. Instead, this is mostly just a habit born of my early attempts to act cute with Polly and Pip.

Another likely culprit in this situation is birth order. Polly was born into a world in which words constantly swirled around her. Much of this was driven by discussions with or questions asked by the ever loquacious Pip. As such, before she could talk Polly heard conversations about her all the time. And within these conversations, she was obviously never “I” or “me;” she was always “Polly.”


When Polly first started talking, one of the things she did was to lay claim to things by using her name. If she wanted something, she would point at it then make a clasping gesture with her hand and say “Polly.” It was so much more amusing and endearing than “mine!” that we didn’t make any real efforts to change it. Now she is two years old and in transition from speaking in sentences to speaking in paragraphs. I still find the absence of personal pronouns in her speech amusing and endearing, but it is probably time to teach her the correct way to refer to herself in everyday speech. I don’t want her to reach twelve years of age and still be talking about herself in the third person like some professional athlete with an over-inflated ego. I imagine it would not go over well with her middle school teachers when she says “Polly decided not to do her homework today. Perhaps Polly will do it tomorrow.”

Unfortunately, I don’t really know how to go about correcting her. Since this was not a challenge I had to resolve with Pip, I don’t have a blueprint to follow or a history of mistakes to avoid. I’m at square one and have to feel my way along. At first, I thought that if I corrected my own use of “Daddy” and started using the first-person more often, she would follow suit. This appears to not be working. After a couple of months of correcting myself, Polly has yet to volunteer an “I” or a “me” of her own volition.

So now I am stepping up the interference. During meals and whenever I get a chance I am asking her to repeat any sentence in which she uses “Polly” instead of the correct personal pronoun. I give her the corrected version and then ask her to say the sentence again. This is a tactic Ava and I have used in trying to get the words “please” and “may I” into the kids’ regular usage, and we’ve had enough success with this that it seems worth trying for the third-to-first person switch as well. At this point, I’m not sure what other strategy there is.


Ultimately, I’m not in a hurry to erase Polly’s self-referentiality. I figure that for now if I can get her to use “I” or “me” every once in a while then I have established the idea well enough for a more sustained push later on. As she gets older and more conscious of what she says and how she says things, then we can really work on it. At four years old, Pip has been remarkable in his ability to quickly change established linguistic habits once we point them out to him and provide him with an alternative. I imagine the same will be true for Polly. When the time comes and she swiftly dispenses with "Polly" in favor of "I" and "me," I suspect I will once again be saying, “Pip used to do that, too.”