Let her be out of “control”

Robin-Vaughan-fieldSo I’m at the park the other day around dusk, and I can’t see Robin. I turn around and there she is, about 15, maybe 20, feet off the ground, perched atop the decorative arch that frames the entrance to the playground. What to do?

There were no other parents around, so I did not have to worry about any scolding looks or worried comments. There were no cops either, so no one could claim that it was against the law to climb the arch. Yet, I confess, the teacher/authority figure in me still thought (momentarily) that I should tell her to get down. Now! But why? Was she doing something wrong? Was she in serious danger? Was she hurting anyone or destroying anything? No, no, and no. So why would it matter if she climbed the arch or not?

One reason may be that those of us with power over children (teachers, parents, cops, other authorities) are expected to “control” them. I understand that desire to exercise control — a kid who is “out of control” can be a real pain. But I’d rather have my kids learn to control themselves, as opposed to simply responding obediently when an adult asserts his or her power over them, and they can only learn that sort of self-control if they are allowed to take risks on their own. Too often, we adults seek to control kids for control’s sake, not to advance any larger goal. We control them because we can, because we want them to obey, because we like being able to tell another human being what to do and how to do it. And those are just not very compelling reasons to stop a kid from being a kid.

So I just congratulated Robin on her courage, snapped a picture, and watched as Miriam followed in her sister’s footsteps.

Active but not “sporty”


If given a choice, Miriam will always climb a tree rather than chase a ball.

Being a dad of girls often means coming face-to-face with your own latent biases. For me, I’m realizing just how biased I am in favor of athletics. I love sports and still play in a competitive baseball league; I think sports are a great way to have fun and challenge yourself. When I had daughters, I thought, “Great! It’s a post-Title IX world out there — my daughters will play whatever they want!”

But what if they don’t want to play sports? It never really occurred to me. Maybe they’d prefer basketball or soccer to baseball, but I’d be fine with that. Being my flesh and blood, they would love sports and competition as much as I do, no?

Well, not necessarily. And it’s not just because the culture still doesn’t encourage girls to be sporty the way it encourages boys (though that’s true, too). Kids are not clones of their parents, and they don’t always share the same interests. I can’t (and don’t want to) force them to love sports.

What I’ve come to realize (and this may be obvious to you wise readers, but it’s taken me awhile) is that being active is not the same as being sporty. My daughters are very active — they climb trees and ride bikes and go sledding and have tackle fights and swim like fish — but they are not necessarily sporty. Toss them a ball, and they won’t necessarily chase it. Ask what they want to do on a sunny afternoon, and they rarely will say, “Play soccer!”

Yes, I confess, I feel a twinge of disappointment when my girls would prefer to thrash around in a mud hole in the backyard rather than play catch with their old man. But there’s part of me that loves it, too. They are so much more creative with their time and they have a much broader spectrum of interests than I ever did as a kid. They love cooking and gardening, they enjoy hiking and boating, they can amuse themselves for hours without a gadget or a ball in sight.

The more I think about it, the more I think that maybe I’m lucky if my girls wind up pursuing other interests that don’t revolve around balls and competition. Maybe it’s a good thing that they won’t be pressured to specialize in a single sport or encouraged to sacrifice their family time to play on this travel team or in that tournament. Maybe our lives will be richer and more varied if they were to explore drama or music or the wilderness rather than focus on sports. Maybe they’ll teach their dad how to really live.

“Boys have no fear…”


Girls, we all know, are timid and cautious, as a bare-toed Robin demonstrates from atop the covered slide that she just climbed up.

A friend and I were talking at a park as our kids ran around. She has a three-year-old boy who was playing with Aaron, now 2. The two started clambering up some bleachers, and my friend remarked, “Boys have no fear!” Girls, it went without saying, do.

I had to laugh. Sure, Aaron likes to climb and rough-house, but compared to his sisters at his age? He’s no match. Robin scaled her crib wall soon after she turned one and hasn’t looked back since; the other day, she freaked out a pre-K teacher by climbing on the top railing of a jungle gym while the (fearless) boys cowered beneath.

I hear versions of my friend’s comment all the time — boys are bold, boys take risks, boys have no fear. Sure, many girls are cautious or timid; so too are many boys. But when kids hear these kinds of comments (and, yes, they hear and understand the implications) they get a clear message about what boys and girls are “supposed” to be. Boys learn that they are “supposed” to take risks — and risk-taking helps them build important traits such as confidence and resilience. Over time, both boys and girls tend to internalize these cultural cues and shape their behavior to conform to them. Little wonder, then, that many studies have found a profound “confidence gap” between women and men that was analyzed in a recent Atlantic cover story. We prize boldness and reward risk-taking in our culture, so why should we encourage it only in our boys?

Curb your enthusiasm, kids

Scene at local elementary school the other day: I’m walking my girls into school and three older kids come running past, laughing and joking as they head toward the front door. “Stop running!” shrieks the principal while giving her best Withering Principal Look. “Stop running now! And don’t run when you get inside either!” Duly chastened, the kids halt in their tracks. The smiles disappear from their faces, replaced by sighs and rolling eyes. Back to school. Stop smiling, stop laughing, stop being kids.

robin-crazyIt took all I had to keep my trap shut and suppress a snarky, “Good job, Ms. Principal! That’ll teach those kids to be excited about school!” So many adults (many of whom seem to migrate into administrative positions) seem to feel a sort of primal need to control children’s energy and spirit. Let a kid squeal with laughter in a public place, and someone is sure to shush or shoot an annoyed look. Let a kid bounce out of her seat as she tries to share something fun with a friend, and someone will tell her to sit down. Parents often feel compelled to enforce these rules of quiet conduct, even when they don’t want to. I understand that being loud and energetic is not appropriate in certain situations, but kids are squelched everywhere they turn – even playgrounds have rules against running!  Let them laugh, let them squeal, let them bounce off the walls a bit. Then maybe they won’t feel so restless when you need them to be still.

A dad’s new school year resolutions

Now that the kids are back in school, I have some resolutions for the new school year:

• Remember that school ≠ education: When I was in 8th grade, my dad took me out of school to see Opening Day at the Baltimore Orioles’ old Memorial Stadium. I don’t remember much about that school year, but I remember that day like it was yesterday — the bustle of the crowd, the smells of the ballpark, the joy of playing hooky with my dad. I want to create those kinds of indelible memories for my kids, and that means sometimes breaking the rules by taking them out of school to do something fun and different. School is sacrosanct in American culture; if your kid misses too many days, the truant officers come after you. That’s as it should be. But school is not always the best place to learn, and I want to give myself permission to take them out when the opportunity arises.

Respect the teacher: Active, involved parents have a bad habit of disrespecting their kid’s teacher, often inadvertently. We tell the teacher how to do her job (in my kids’ school, it’s almost always “her” classroom — only the gym teacher is male) or we question her methods or we demand special attention and resources for our children. Whenever I feel that impulse, I want to take a deep breath and say, “There are 20 other kids in that classroom; she needs to teach them all.” Yes, I want to advocate for my children and do what I can to help them learn well in school, but I should be able to do that without undermining the teacher’s authority and without putting my children’s needs above the needs of every other kid in that classroom. It’s about rooting for the whole team, not just my kid.

• Defend the quiet: Miriam is an introvert like her parents — she is quiet and shy, and she generally prefers to work alone. For many teachers and other adults, this is a problem, an obstacle to her learning. They will seek to “break her out of her shell” and encourage her to “work cooperatively” and force her to be more “outgoing.” American culture glorifies the extrovert who speaks without thinking, and I realize that I sometimes fall into the trap of seeing shyness as a bad thing. I want to advocate on behalf of the introverts and encourage teachers and parents to see the value of quiet.

• Keep a sense of perspective: There will be ups and downs this school year, maybe even a crisis or two. But kids are resilient; they can overcome adversity and bounce back from failures so long as we parents don’t freak out about them. What do I remember about second grade or pre-K? Hardly anything! And neither will our kids, so long as they know that there are people in their lives who care about what kind of person they are, not just what kind of grades they get or how many trophies they win.

In defense of the much-maligned American summer break

canoeingSummer’s over. The kids are back to school. As I sat by a lake this morning, listening to loons wailing as the sun rose over the still waters, I realized just how sad I was to see summer pass.

I didn’t always love the summer. When I taught school, my voice was part of a loud chorus of critics who questioned the value of the two-month-plus American summer vacation. The break was too long, too unstructured, too empty, an anachronistic holdover from our agricultural past. Kids wasted time, forgot too much, lost ground. Better to have year-round school so that parents wouldn’t have to scramble for summer day care and kids would be able to get a daily dose of the three ‘Rs all year long. How else would we be able to keep up with the Chinese and the Koreans??

Now that I’m a parent, though, I have grown to love the much-maligned summer vacation. Maybe it’s a function of living in Maine — after enduring six months of winter followed by six weeks of mud, it would be criminal to have kids cooped up in a classroom during the most beautiful time of the year.

But it’s more than that. Summer gives kids a chance to explore the world, to develop different parts of themselves, to discover things on their own. School and “book learning” are important, certainly, but they are not synonymous with life or “education.” In an age when schools have become more and more devoted to testing, summer offers a respite from the often mind-numbing task of learning to be a “productive citizen in a competitive global economy.” Summer gives kids a chance to learn important lessons about love, nature, confidence, discovery, perseverance, power, wonder, passion, and creativity that are better learned outside of school.

Yes, I know the arguments against an extended summer, and I recognize that my family is fortunate to be able to take advantage of the time that summer offers. But instead of trying to jam everyone back into school or structured semi-school during the summer, maybe we should be working harder to give less fortunate kids a chance to explore, develop, and discover the world beyond the classroom.



Who says a four-year-old can’t handle a hundred-yard zip line? Robin (and Miriam, too) did not hesitate when given the chance to climb a 50-foot telephone pole, hook up to a cable, and jump. I don’t know what I would have done when I was four (or six or twenty, for that matter), but I’m pretty sure I would not have leaped with such abandon or been so gleeful about the whole thing. Kids really are capable of much more than we often imagine.

Here’s the video of Robin zipping:


Gay parents? So what?

Purim-SuperheroWe just got our copy of The Purim Superhero, the latest book from the PJ Library. (The PJ Library is simply awesome — every month, it sends a free, Jewish-themed book to any Jewish kid under 8 who signs up; our kids hound the mail carrier when it’s PJ-book time.) For those of you who are not up on the Jewish holidays, Purim is a late winter holiday featuring costumes, tri-cornered cookies, and the story of Esther. It usually falls in March…so why did we get the book in August?

Because there are gay parents in it! (cue spooky music)

Apparently, there was controversy in the PJ world about the fact that the main character in the story has two daddies. Folks worried that some readers (i.e., the Orthodox) would freak out if their children encountered fictional gay parents in print. So the powers-that-be decided not to send the book out to everyone; instead, readers had to opt in. And opt in they did. The Library was overwhelmed with requests and ran out of books. Hence, we got our book five months late.

The book tells the story of a little boy who faces a dilemma: whether to wear a superhero costume (which his friends want him to do) or an alien costume (which he wants to do). With his dads’ encouragement, he decides to be a special alien superhero and wins a prize for the Most Original Costume. Cute story, decent message.

My wife and I wanted to see what the girls thought of that weird, controversial family in the book. Despite our leading questions, the girls didn’t take the bait. They hadn’t even noticed the two dads. Why should they? There’s a gay couple two doors down, there are kids with gay parents at their school, we have gay friends with kids…it’s really just a part of life for them, just like the Asian adoptees with white parents, the classmates in single-parent households, the kids living with their grandmas, and other “non-traditional” family arrangements, all of which happen even in our small town. They don’t know any different, and that’s wonderful.

But they also live in a pretty welcoming little town in a pretty welcoming little state. Yes, gay parents are accepted around here, but I also want the girls to know that that is not the case everywhere — they need to understand that the battle is still going on. So we talked about how there are many places in America today — not in some strange land, not “before Nana was born” — where gay couples can’t marry, where gay people are openly discriminated against, where gay kids are afraid to be who they are. I’ve lived in some of those places, and it’s not pretty. I want my kids to understand injustice and feel outrage and ask pointed questions. I want them to know that there is ugliness as well as beauty in the world, and they must learn that part of our duty as Jews, as Americans, as human beings is to help repair the world and make it a more just and beautiful place. This book gave us another opportunity to talk about how to do that.

Kids living dangerously

Robin-bike-no-helmetBefore I start, let me just say that I like bike helmets. I generally think they are a good idea. In college 20+ years ago, I was just about the only person to wear one because I biked all over place. I am not anti-helmet.

That being said, I also don’t freak out if my kids ride their bikes without a helmet. Robin loves to hop on her bike before breakfast or after dinner and zoom around the yard and driveway, bare-headed, bare-toed, and free. At camp, she spent much of her time on her bike, sans helmet and shoes but happy. I don’t bother to tell her to put the helmet, even though I know that she crashes all the time and bloodies up her legs. Am I instilling bad habits? No — I’m giving her a chance to develop a sense of judgment. She knows that she should wear a helmet when she goes on a long trip down the hill through some busy streets to the riverside trail, and she does. But she’s not paralyzed with fear if she happens not to have a helmet handy, and she’s learning not to do crazy stunts when she’s bare-headed.

Somewhere, somehow, in the past couple decades many American parents seem to have lost their sense of perspective on danger. As our streets have become safer, as our environment has become cleaner, as our medicine has become better, many parents have determined that life is simply too “dangerous” for their children to experience on their own. Parents who never wore bike helmets when they were kids now hyperventilate if their child even approaches a two-wheeler without styrofoam propped on her head; they used to wander their neighborhood unaccompanied for hours on end, but now schedule every waking minute of their children’s lives; they cherished the freedom and adventure of their childhood, but now refuse to allow their children the same.

Kids need danger — they need to learn how to confront and overcome dangerous things in their lives (Gever Tulley of the Tinkering School in California has a great TED talk on “What Kids Can Learn By Doing Dangerous Things“). They need to learn how to take smart risks, how to be adventurous, how to enjoy uncertainty, how to manage fear. They can’t do that if they are always “safe” or if Daddy intervenes at the slightest sign of danger. I want to let them make mistakes, flail around a bit, even hurt themselves – so that they will learn, over time, how to handle failure, how to confront their fears, how to persevere in the face of adversity. Do I want Robin to crack her head open? Of course not. But I want her to risk it every now and then. 

Teaching my daughters how to challenge — and respect — authority

obeyMy wife and I spent recently spent a few days serving as temporary staff at a classic Maine summer camp. The minute we got there, the girls kicked off their shoes and joined in the camp craziness. (I’ve written about how the girls love going “bare-toed” here.) One day, I happened to overhear a counselor tell Miriam to put her shoes on. Before I could stop myself, I asked, “Why?” It’s an old habit; when I was a kid, I questioned everything. The teenaged counselor got a bit flustered and stammered, “Um, I don’t know. She just should have her shoes on.”

“Is it a rule?”

“Uh…I’m not sure. But none of the kids have their shoes off.”

She was right — all the other kids had shoes on. By this point, I probably should have given the counselor a break and just told Miriam to put her shoes on, but I was curious to see if there was any “there there,” so I asked (politely) if there was any reason for this (maybe) rule.

“I don’t know. Safety? She might hurt her foot.”

Okay, I got a reason, but not a good one — “safety” is the last refuge of the clueless, a “reason” used to justify all sorts of inane rules and regulations. Recognizing that the counselor really knew nothing about said “rule,” I eased up on her and made some jokes, but I made sure that Miriam stayed barefoot. She’s finally getting her summer feet, and too much shoe-ing makes you soft.

Part of the reason that I wanted to question the rule in front of Miriam was because I think it’s critical for me to teach my girls how to challenge authority and judge the fairness of rules (without being rude or disrespectful). I don’t want them to simply “follow directions” without taking a second or a minute to wonder whether or not they should follow directions in that particular case. I want to instill in them a sense of confidence, justice, and independence, even when faced with commands from authority figures. I want my girls to think for themselves, not simply obey (one of my least favorite words in the English language). I want them to be able to challenge authority, not so that they can get away with something but so that they can stand up for themselves and others.

Challenging authority can be a bit tricky for parents. We need our children to listen to us and respect our rules and do what we tell them to do. I’m a dad. I understand that “because Daddy said so” can be a valid enough reason for a particular order. But only rarely, and only as a last resort. In general, I want to be able to articulate the reasons why we do things a certain way in our family. If I can’t, if my rule cannot withstand a six-year-old’s questioning, then maybe the rule shouldn’t be a rule. Sometimes, the reasons are complex and maybe a bit over the kids’ heads, but I should be able to give them something they can understand. (It doesn’t always work, alas.)

When kids understand the reasoning behind rules, then they learn that rules aren’t simply random, arbitrary barriers erected to prevent their pursuit of happiness. When rules are explained, kids can learn to respect them and the authority figures who enforce them. And that is critically important, because I recognize that reflexive questioning of authority can create little monsters. I cringe when I see snot-nosed brats sassing their parents, challenging every attempt by Mom and Dad to get them to do something. That kind of whining shows a fundamental disrespect, not only of the parents but of the entire framework of rule-making. Those kids challenge authority out of a sense of entitlement and selfishness, rather than for any kind of principle. Our country doesn’t need any more of those kind of whiners…