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…

Keeping stats on 7 year-old baseball players?!

Robin-high-pitchMiriam and Robin recently finished their first baseball “season” with a rousing game at “Little Fenway,” a beautiful replica field out in the woods near Oakland, Maine. It was a wonderful way to wrap up a fun season. Our season lasted a couple months, with a game and a practice a week — nothing too demanding, and folks did not take anything too seriously.

Not all Little Leagues are so low-key. A friend of mine down in Texas recently sent me an email from the coaches in his son’s league, which had set up an online scorebook system to keep stats on the players. The coaches were all excited because this “data,” as one coach called it, would be used to set lineups and evaluate the players…who are 7 years old.

There are so many things wrong with this idea that I originally thought it was too ridiculous to comment on. But then I realized that that was part of the problem. Common sensical parents generally roll their eyes but stay silent when the over-the-top parents sail beyond the pale. Then we scratch our heads and wonder why we don’t have time for family dinners or vacations, or why our kids seem to learn the wrong values from sports.

So what’s wrong with keeping stats on 7 year-olds (or any kids, really, until at least high school)? Here’s the beginning of a long list:

• It assumes a reality that does not exist: Have you ever seen 7 year-olds play baseball? It’s a circus! A kid hits the ball and it will bounce off one kid’s mitt, or another kid will toss it to the wrong base, or the runner will trip on his or her way to first. Even the best players have trouble fielding a ground ball and throwing it to first. So what counts as a hit or an error? Who knows? Who cares? In Little League, “hits” are a function of the scorer’s judgment (or lack thereof), not the player’s actual ability.

• It’s mathematically ignorant: These coaches may think they are being all scientific and analytical, yet they display a stunning ignorance of mathematics. The “data” that they are collecting are not reliable in any statistical sense, even if there were actual “hits” that could be distinguished from “errors.” No statistician, let alone a big league GM or manager, would find value in such a tiny sample size of unreliable numbers. How many at-bats does a kid get in a Little League season? 20? 30? If they’re really playing a lot, 50? That’s a week or two of spring training. Meaningless.

• It puts undue pressure on kids: Once you start keeping stats (and posting them, as some teams do), you amplify the pressure that kids feel about succeeding. One 0 for 3 game will deep-six a kid’s average and make him or her feel like a failure. That destroys their confidence and (ironically) makes them much worse at hitting. It’s bad enough that some parents scrutinize every at-bat and dissect their kid’s play in post-game analysis. Attaching seemingly-objective (but actually artificial and unreliable) numbers to their performance magnifies the problem.

• It’s more about the parents than the players: This is “Fantasy Sports Syndrome” at its worst. You get parents (mostly dads) who are simply projecting their own fantasies on their kids, trying to put (false) numbers on their kids’ activities so that they can rank and sort and argue about who’s kid is better. Pathetic.

 It distorts a beautiful game: Keeping stats changes how adults view the game and how kids play it. It’s less about fun or even about winning as a team. Instead, it becomes about accumulating stats and encourages kids to view their teammates as competition. Kids (or their parents) start arguing about a scorer’s decision; they steal a base even though they’re up by 10 runs; they run up the score to pad the stats.

Don’t get me wrong — I love baseball stats. Most of the math I learned in elementary school came from analyzing my baseball cards. If a kid wants to keep her own stats for herself, fine. But keeping them for the purpose of ranking and evaluating Little Leaguers is simply idiotic.

Summer bodies

summer-scratchAt the pool the other day, Robin came up to me and announced, “I’m developing my summer body!”

My first reaction was to think, “What?!? Where have I gone wrong?!?” I heard “summer body,” and my mind filled with images and slogans from countless marketing schemes from fitness freaks and diet pushers and women’s magazines that prey upon (and profit from) female insecurities. For such folks, “getting ready for summer” means starving yourself and working out like crazy so you can “look good” in a swimsuit. How on Earth did Robin get such a notion? Why was she talking about a “summer body”?

Anxious but trying to play it off, I asked, “What do you mean by ‘summer body,’ kiddo?”

She laughed and started pointing to the strawberries and scars that dot her legs and elbows, as well as the nice gash by her eye. “It means I get scratches and bruises all over my body!” With that, she giggled and bounced away.


Vive la résistance!

waterfall-tadpolesWe’re back home after a few days in Quebec — it was amazing! When we crossed the border, it felt as if we had gotten off a plane in France. Everyone spoke French, the architecture turned European, and everything seemed to age a century or two. Even the landscape had a French accent. The girls loved trying out the few words of French that they know, and they embraced the Québécois spirit of résistance.

I appreciated the laid-back French-Canadian approach to hazards. In America, our lawsuit-happy culture has bred a sense of dread and excessive caution about anything remotely dangerous, particularly when it comes to kids. In Quebec? Folks seemed less worried. Take the incredible Montmorency waterfall in this picture, for example. It’s 30m (they use metric up there) higher than Niagara Falls, and it drops precipitously before casually meandering into the St. Lawrence River. We did the basic tourist stuff — the cable car to the top, the footbridge across the span, the stairs down, the playgrounds all around. But then we noticed that we could leave the official, paved area and just wander around at the base of the waterfall. Why not?

Miri-waterfallThe girls ditched their shoes and raced off to splash around and catch tadpoles. As we picked our way through the rocks, we noticed that there were some rescue boats and divers going into the base of the waterfall. Curious, we moved closer until we were just a few meters away — they were searching for someone or something who had taken a tumble. An officer noticed us and asked us to move back, but other than that there was little sense of urgency. The park remained open, people were still walking across the footbridge at the top, everyone went about their business as usual. It turned out to be a false alarm, apparently (no reports of injuries or anything). Sensing no fear from the officials, the girls and I continued on our merry way. Could you imagine the scene had that happened in the States?

Couch jumping

Robin and Miriam spend part of every day jumping from couch to couch in our living room. We long ago abandoned any thought of imposing a “no jumping on the couch rule” because, well, it’s just too much fun and what else are couches for? Their jumping is hardly remarkable, except that it’s one of those things that parents of boys (and the culture at large) assume that only boys do. I have had more than one friend mention that their boys are “such boys” in part because they jump on couches and run wildly around the house. Right…and girls just sit quietly in the corner?

I was thinking about couch jumping while reading a funny (and pointed) Huffington Post piece about how girls are “messy, naked farters too.” The author, Sara Lind, makes what should be an obvious point: girls enjoy a lot of the messy, gross, and crazy things that little boys are known for — farting (and laughing about it), running around naked, tracking mud into the house, making messes wherever they go, peeing on the floor, etc. Amen!

But even though it should be obvious, it’s not. Parents of boys often seem to think that boys have a monopoly on crazy, gross, energetic behavior (and, by extension, that parents of boys thus have a much tougher job). I’m one of three boys, so I know what life in an all-boys house is like. And, yes, I assumed (as many parents of boys do) that most of what my brothers and I did would never happen among girls.

Then I had two daughters. And I’ve spent the last six years chasing them around the house, wrestling with them, watching them catapult off couches, hearing their loud, proud farts (and ensuing giggles), cleaning up their disgusting messes, and doing pretty much what my parents had to do with my brothers and me. Maybe the difference is that we expect boys to do these things, so we accept and even embrace that kind of behavior; but we discourage girls from acting that way (it’s not “ladylike,” as the girls’ grandmother would say) and try to stamp it out. That’s a shame.

Do little girls “flirt”?

Robin is very social. She will talk to anyone, anywhere. We were hiking the other day, and she chatted with literally every hiker we encountered. At a Memorial Day event last week, she decided that our family’s spot didn’t give her a good enough view of the band, so she just walked to the front and plunked herself down next to another family (whom she did not know) and stayed with them for the event. I have no idea where she gets it from — certainly not from her mother or me — but it’s a source of regular entertainment.

So the other day this dad walks up to me after a t-ball game and says, “Your daughter is quite a character! She was over here chatting with us, flirting with me. Blah, blah, blah!” I didn’t hear a word after “flirting.” Flirting? Are you serious? Do little girls flirt? With 50 year-old men? Maybe I’m over-reacting, but to me, “flirt” has a romantic and vaguely sexual connotation; it’s not something I associate (or want others to associate) with my four-year-old (or any four-year-old). Using the word “flirt” to describe a harmless, joyful encounter unnecessarily distorts the experience by framing it in an adult lens. Little girls are sexualized enough — in clothes, on screen, in beauty pageants. Let’s let them be little girls. Can’t they just talk and laugh with a male without the experience being sexualized?

A beautiful woman

angelouAs you likely know by now, Maya Angelou died yesterday. She was an amazing woman, an inspirational woman, a strong woman who will remain a powerful role model for my girls. But when I talked to the girls about her death this morning, I emphasized one particular word: beautiful.

Ms. Angelou was a beautiful woman, in the most profound and important ways. She had a beautiful spirit that shined upon those she encountered even in the most tangential ways. She had a beautiful and often blunt honesty, about her own life and about what she saw around her. She had a beautiful courage that inspired millions who read her books or heard her speak. She embodied the kind of beauty that I hope to encourage in my girls.

I emphasize Ms. Angelou’s beauty because my daughters, like other American girls, are bombarded daily with messages that define beauty in very different ways. Take a look at the magazines or toys or clothes or videos marketed to young girls, and what do you see? Waif-thin, wavy-haired princesses with porcelain-white skin, impossibly red lips, and vacuous expressions on their faces. To be called “beautiful,” girls learn that they must wear certain clothes, put certain things on their face, be a certain shape, act a certain way. They learn quickly that the culture sees “beauty” as skin deep, something superficial that can be bought for the right price.

Ms. Angelou defied all that. Everything about her challenged our superficial understandings of beauty, and yet she exuded a grace, a strength, an inner fire that was profoundly beautiful. Thank you, Ms. Angelou. Your example will live on.

Give yourself a chance, dude

I’m supposed to be working, but I can’t stop thinking about a recent post on the NY Times’ parenting blog (which is called “Motherlode” — the NYT can’t resist a bad pun even if it denigrates fathers, apparently). The post is written by a Times staffer, Michael Roston, who just got back from five weeks of paternity leave and, boy, is he glad to be back. Those five weeks were rough, filled with “endless” afternoons when he waited desperately for his wife to return. He learned that he simply is not cut out for the stay-at-home job.

The post made me feel sorry for the guy — not because he endured any hardship but because he is selling himself so short as a father. It struck a chord with me because I remember feeling much as he did six years ago, after Miriam was born. Like many folks who have their first kid after many years of being fully adult, I had crafted a complete identity for myself as a person and as a professional. I had a full, meaningful life (or so I thought), and I was not ready to abandon that life or identity when I became a father. Those first few weeks were tough (more so on my wife, of course, but guys struggle as well and we like to bellyache about it). I shared Roston’s feelings of “helplessness.” When I went back to work (even working from home), I was relieved. “I could never stay at home,” I joked, especially with my guy friends. “I’d go nuts!”

I truly believed that for years, until I actually had the chance to try staying at home for an extended period. I realized that the early infant period is a small, small part of being at home with a kid, and that things get much, much better. Yes, it’s tough to juggle everything you need to do, and the rewards are mostly immeasurable, and your career suffers. But there’s a limited window when the kids are young and we have an opportunity to shape and share their most formative experiences. The stay-at-home life is not economically possible for many people (though I think many of us assume it’s less feasible than it actually is), and there are many in-between options that include part-time work, freelancing, job sharing, etc. But to dismiss the possibility of spending more time with your kids after just five weeks (five weeks!!) is profoundly sad.

Many of us who have our first kids in our 30s (or 40s) are reluctant to fully embrace fatherhood because we fear that we will become a cliché — the minivan-driving dad with yogurt stains and vomit on his sweats — or worse, a feminized loser who wipes up snot while his wife brings home the bacon. We hold fast to the hope that having kids won’t need to be disruptive and that we can still take them to hip hang-out spots or fit them into our snazzy condos. But kids are disruptive, and they should be disruptive. If they don’t reorient everything about ourselves and our identities, then maybe we are just a bit too wrapped up in ourselves.

I was never hip or cool even when I was supposed to be hip and cool, so maybe it’s been easier for me to jettison the idea that I needed to maintain the old image of myself. But what I’d say to myself six years ago (or to Roston and other guys who think they’d never want to be at home), is: Give yourself a chance, dude. Don’t let your fears prevent you from pursuing what could be the most extraordinary experience of your life.

The gender coding of gymnastics

Miri-flippingMiri and Robin got into gymnastics this winter and they seem to enjoy it. I have some issues with the sport (exactly why do they have to wear those ridiculous leotards while boys wear shorts or sweats?), but overall I am amazed by the athleticism and toughness that gymnastics requires. The girls are out there stretching, running, sweating, falling, climbing, tumbling. They do real push-ups (not those half-assed, knees-on-the-ground lizard pumps that are misnamed “girl” push ups). It’s fun, sometimes breathtaking, to watch.

But where are the boys?

Aside from a sprinkling of three and four-year-olds in the youngest classes, there are virtually no boys who participate in gymnastics around here (or where we lived back in Maryland). On some nights, the floors are packed with several dozen kids running, tumbling, and balancing…but there is not a single boy out there. What’s going on?

Duh, gymnastics is for girls. Everyone knows that. Right?

Maybe in some communities. But when I taught school in Mississippi, the gender codes were flipped (so to speak). I saw some of the most amazing gymnasts imaginable — kids doing handsprings literally up and down a football field without stopping, kids doing flips off of (and over) playground equipment, kids twirling in ungodly contortions in mid-air. These acrobats were all self-taught, they were all black, and they were all boys. They didn’t call it “gymnastics”; they called it “flippin’.” And girls simply did not flip — they were discouraged from doing most athletic or outdoors kinds of things, and flipping was both. (Kids practiced flipping not in gyms but out on grassy fields with stacks of mattresses instead of mats.)

So what makes a sport “for girls only” or “for boys only”? It can’t be the physicality of the sport — gymnastics is as physically arduous as any sport I ever played. It can’t be the danger — flipping onto a 4-inch-wide plank is as dangerous as catching a high pass over the middle. Perhaps it’s a matter of interest — but why would girls in Maine like gymnastics while girls in Mississippi do not?

Like many supposedly “natural” gender divisions, who “flips” or does “gymnastics” in a community depends less on biology than on culture and expectations. When one gender is discouraged or excluded from participating in a particular thing, then over time gender differences get magnified to the point where we consider them “natural” or “just the way it is.” And that applies to gymnastics and hockey, and to math and reading, and to construction and nursing, and to many other areas that are coded by gender.

Always bring a change of clothes, Dad…

Robin-treeIt takes us a while up here in Maine, but eventually Spring has made its way north to us. We had splendid weather this weekend, and the girls were out tree-climbing and stream-splashing in Vaughan Woods with their grandparents. I had forgotten my basic rule that when we’re out in the woods the girls always need a change of clothes. Sure enough, Miriam decided to cross and re-cross the stream and climb up the rocks along the waterfall until she finally slipped and went in up to her neck. She took it well — after a moment of anxious tears, she burst out laughing. Alas, no change of clothes so she walked back, soaked but smiling. Robin, meanwhile, spent 15 minutes stuck up in a tree trying to figure out how to get herself down. It was an unplanned, firsthand lesson in “Let Her Eat Dirt” parenting for the grandparents…they took it well too.



For some reason, Miri wanted to keep her lamb under her arm as she went stream-splashing.

For some reason, Miri wanted to keep her lamb under her arm as she went stream-splashing.