Make her hustle to her position

I learned yesterday that one of my old baseball coaches, Buddy Burkhead, passed away. For a generation of ballplayers in D.C., Burkhead was and is a legend. A few years ago, I wrote a piece about Burkhead for the local NPR station and I’m reprinting it below in his honor. The lessons he ingrained in me have shaped how I parent my kids, and the lessons apply to girls just as much as boys (though Burkhead was famous for his colorful, even misogynistic, language).

It’s been 25 years, and I can still hear the growling voice of Coach Burkhead yelling at my teammates and me, “On the field!”

It was supposed to be a normal baseball practice with my Police Boys Club #8 team in Northwest D.C. During our previous game, Coach Burkhead had spotted one of my teammates walking off the field in between innings. Now, we all were paying for it.

For the rest of the practice, Coach Burkhead had us sprint from the bench to our positions on the field, and then back again. Dozens, and dozens, and dozens of times.

“Welcome to the real world, gentlemen,” he said at the end of practice. “You will hustle to your position every time.”

Today, such behavior from a coach might draw howls of protest from outraged parents. Back in the mid-1980s it was what you came to expect from Coach Burkhead. He was an institution within Police Boys Club #8. A gruff, thickly-built cop, he intimidated younger kids who had yet to have him as a coach — and inspired devotion among older players, who had survived a year or two on his team. He was defiantly “old school,” even then.

On my team, Coach Burkhead worked with a motley collection of hard-headed 14-year-olds from a cross-section of the city: private school kids and public school kids, white and black, spoiled and neglected. He held all of us to the same high expectations.

Unlike college admissions officers, he did not bend his rules for children of the wealthy. Unlike some of my public school teachers, he did not excuse kids from disadvantaged families when they behaved poorly. No matter our background, he treated us harshly, and fairly. You had to earn everything you got.

Coach Burkhead taught us the fundamentals of baseball, from how to hit the cutoff man to why we should always take the first pitch. He also taught us the fundamentals of manhood. Though his discipline could be exhausting, he was never arbitrary. He carefully crafted his message in a language that teenage boys would understand.

That day we sprinted on and off the field was a lesson that the little things matter, that how we act reflects not just on ourselves but also on our team, and that hustling to our positions says something about our character.

Coach Burkhead could accept errors and strikeouts. What he would not tolerate was laziness. He would not suffer carelessness. He would not excuse a lack of effort. And now, 25 years later, whatever field I happen to be on, I always hustle to my position.

Why are playgrounds so boring?

The other day, I was out with the kids and some friends at a nearby playground. It has a fine play structure, one of the standard models of modern outdoor equipment that boasts some slides, a pole, a few interesting ladders and climbing walls, all atop a layer of wood chips. These structures are like chain restaurants — they’re convenient, but you see them everywhere and after a while they all kind of seem the same. The girls dutifully played a bit on the structure, but then they migrated toward the nearby woods, puddles, and rocks, where they proceeded to create some insane game involving monsters and mud. I stayed far away — there’s no better way to kill the spirit of imagination than to have a nosy adult poking around.

As the girls have gotten older, I have noticed that this happens more and more often — they gravitate toward nature, perhaps because nature seems to offer precisely what our safe, elaborately designed, adult-approved play structures do not: the freedom to be creative and explore, preferably away from adults. Many of our playgrounds seem to be holding pens, full of rules and boundaries and monitoring parents who intervene at the first sign of distress or argument. Like chain restaurants, they’re safe and easy and you know what to expect, but kids want more than that out of their play time. They want fun, adventure, even danger.

Playgrounds don’t have to be so staid and boring. A recent article in the Atlantic described an experimental playground in Wales called “The Land,” which doesn’t have any of the structures we associate with playgrounds here in America; instead, it’s more like a junkyard, with old tires and open fires and scraps of wood laying about. A couple of adult monitors are on site for emergencies, but they generally just let the kids roam about and figure out their own things to do. What a place! We need that kind of spirit on this side of the Atlantic.

Even regular playgrounds could be more fun if we adults acted less fearful of liability (either legal or in the court of parental opinion). In New Zealand, a school principal essentially told the teachers to stop enforcing the silly playground rules (“No running!”) that had been implemented to keep the kids safe (or, really, to keep the school from being sued). The result? The kids love it — they get to be kids! The teachers love it — they can stop being prison guards! And, yes, some kids get hurt, but nothing out of the ordinary.

We’ll still go to our local playground — it’s a nice gathering place, especially as the weather warms up. But I always smile when the kids abandon the structure to go free-form in the woods.

Gotta love “mud season”


Muddy knees…a sign of a fun trip!

Since we first moved to Maine last summer, people have warned us about “mud season” — the mucky aftermath of winter that substitutes for spring in these parts. It’s finally here. The rain is falling, the snow is melting, the ground is turning to mush. So while my friends and family down South are set to enjoy cherry blossoms and dogwoods and Opening Day of baseball, we are getting down and dirty. It’s wet and sloppy and wonderfully gross. Not surprisingly, the girls love it! We went out for a bike ride over the weekend, and it didn’t take more than about ten minutes for them to find a muddy hillside to scamper up and slide down. Their clothes were a wreck before we’d gotten even halfway through the ride.

Kids have a much healthier relationship to mud than adults do. We tend to view mud for its potential energy — we see it and we can imagine all the time we will have to spend cleaning the floors and the clothes and car seats and everything else. Kids are more interested in its kinetic energy — they see it and imagine all the fun things they can do with it right now. We see a mud puddle and steer clear, as if repulsed by an unseen forcefield; they see the same puddle and plunge in, as if they’re drawn by an irresistible magnetic force. When does that shift occur? When do we stop seeing mud as an opportunity to be seized and start seeing it as a chore to be avoided? When do we start thinking old?

“Be safe”? What kind of lesson is that?!

Miri came home recently with a book that her school was giving out to students. Generally, I’m not a fan of giveaway junk (see “No gifts, please”), but books are different — we always love getting books. Well, almost always.

This book that Miri got, “Yankee, Go Home!”, is priceless in all the wrong ways. I don’t mind spoiling it because I hope none of you will have to endure reading it. Here’s the story: Yankee is a dog who lives happily in his fenced-in backyard. One day he digs his way underneath the fence and finds himself on the other side. He exults in his new-found freedom and starts exploring the unknown territory of his neighborhood, ignoring the pleas of thoughtful dogs who tell him to go home. But, oh, dangers lurk! A big gang of dog bullies menaces him and chases poor Yankee back to his owner. The cringing Yankee is deliriously happy to be back home, and he gratefully watches as his owner patches up the hole. Even better, he gets put in a doggie day care so that he never again has the chance to stray. Whew!

Let’s see if we can figure out the lessons that this well-meaning author (and, by extension, the school that gives this silly book out) want to instill in Miriam and her unsuspecting classmates (and parents):

— Freedom is dangerous. Fear it.
— Safety is the top priority. Seek it.
— Being away from your parents is scary. Avoid it.
— Bullies are mean. Run from them.

Where’s the adventure in that?

The book is a classic, a wonderful encapsulation of the be-safe-at-all-costs mentality that seems to drive so many parents and educators in America today. Its ham-fisted, didactic message is too transparent, and the story has no sense of irony or mischief or fun — in other words, no sense of being a kid. What would Tom Sawyer think of little Yankee?

Kids need the freedom to roam and explore on their own. They should have the chance to find secret hiding places and invent new worlds unbeknownst to adults. Yes, freedom can feel scary and dangers lurk in the unknown beyond, but kids need to confront those dangers and learn how to deal with them without adult meddling. Yankee, be free — it’s the only way you can learn who you really are!

Since when is “pretty girl” acceptable from strangers?

I’m a product of my times, and I had thought I’d learned that calling an unknown female “pretty girl” was just not cool. But now I have two daughters and we regularly encounter people — strangers — who insist on calling my daughters “pretty girl.” The waiter at the Hibachi place, the Target clerk, a family photographer…all kinds of folks apparently think it’s fine to refer to my daughters repeatedly as “pretty girl.” We spent an hour with the photographer, and we must have heard it a hundred times — “Hey, pretty girl, look here! Over here! Pretty girl! Woo-hoo!” My daughters’ names, apparently, were not enough to get their attention; it sounded as if we were at Hooters or something. Their boy cousin, shockingly, was never once (as far as I heard) called “hunk” or “pretty boy.”

Yes, I know, my daughters are young, so “pretty girl” is just a harmless compliment, right? These folks aren’t creeps; they just want to build my daughters’ self-esteem, no? That may be the intent, but “pretty girl” is a cheap compliment, a throwaway line that nonetheless carries profound social meaning. It’s yet another way to reinforce the notion that what matters about a girl is her appearance. That’s what other people seem to care about, that’s what they notice, that’s what they comment on. Calling girls “pretty” doesn’t build their self-esteem; it sends a subtle message that the highest ideal of femininity is (or should be) to be “pretty” — and “pretty” describes only a girl’s superficial looks. (“Beautiful” is a different, more expansive word that can have all kinds of deeper meanings, even though it’s been corrupted by its use to describe surface appearance.)

And the girls learn quickly about what is acceptably “pretty” and what is not. After a few pictures, the photographer asked if Miriam could take her glasses off; glasses, I guess, were not sufficiently “pretty.” (We refused.) My daughters see all too clearly what the social ideal of “pretty” is; I just hope that they don’t internalize that skewed, narrow, impossible ideal.

Pushing princess at the dentist

dentistI took the girls to the dentist’s office recently, and in the guise of oral hygiene the Princess Brigades rose again to foist their rigid gender stereotypes on my daughters. The folks in the office were sweet and kind to the girls — this was no “Little Shop of Horrors” kind of place — but they could not help pushing princesses on to my girls, courtesy of Disney and Oral-B. 

princess-toothbrushAs Miriam finished up, she was given a “choice”: she could have the pink Disney Princess toothbrush or the purple one. When Robin was given the same selection, I happened to be in the room and asked if there were any toothbrushes that did not feature doe-eyed airheads. The hygienist stammered a bit, then searched some drawers. “No, all I have is cars,” she reported, and of course no girl would want a car toothbrush. Surely there was nothing else? She searched again and managed to find a Shrek brush with a donkey on it, which was tolerably better but still commercial. I understand that some girls — maybe even many girls — like princesses (why shouldn’t they? They’ve been fed the princess ideology from birth!) and may indeed appreciate getting a princess toothbrush. But why is that the only choice? The message is undeniable, and it’s reinforced throughout our commercial culture: to be a girl, you have to like princesses or aspire to be one. 

This does not seem to be an isolated incident. I’ve now taken the girls to dentists in two states and one colony (D.C.), and at all three places the dentists and dental hygienists have pushed princesses — not just by giving out the princess toothbrushes but by consistently referring to my girls as princesses. All this princess pandering drives me insane (“Just don’t call her princess” was my very first blog post), and I have no problem challenging people on it, but it is annoying to have to fight it at a place like the dentist’s office. 

It’s not just the gender stereotyping that I take issue with; it’s the commercialization of every childhood experience. Why are our dentists pushing products (e.g., the Disney Princesses or Cars) that are unrelated to oral hygiene? Why should a trip to the dentist involve subjecting my girls to crass marketing as they’re stuck in a dentist’s chair? I understand why Disney wants to get inside the mouths of our girls, but why should dentists (and parents) let them? I’d rather have an old-fashioned drill.

Sledding face


Robin shows off her sledding face (and bed head to boot).


Miri got a nice raspberry while trying a new move.

Miri got a nice raspberry while trying a new move.







Our sledding hill has become a luge track, an icy slope that sends the girls hurtling toward the neighbor’s house below. They love challenging each other to see who can go the highest off the jump at the bottom, and they often come crashing down face first. The result? Sledding face — little scratches and raspberries that dot their nose, cheeks, and chin. My wife has stopped asking how these cuts happened; it’s just a part of life around here. Only a few weeks of sledding season left, so there’s no time to let them heal!

Maine makes you whiter

The picture doesn't do justice to the sheer whiteness of her skin!

The picture doesn’t do justice to the sheer whiteness of her skin!

When we got to southern California to visit the grandparents, the girls could peel away the layers of clothing that they’d grown accustomed to wearing (I swear we spend about 45 minutes a day just getting into and out of our winter gear). They stripped down to shorts and t-shirts and, whoa, were they white! Pasty, bright white, like the snow-covered hills we left behind. They positively glowed compared to their tanned playground peers. Yes, indeed, Maine makes you whiter.

I’m not too worried about their skin color (though they did get burned on their first day out West), but I confess to being a bit concerned about how living in the whitest state in the country will affect my kids’ perspective on the world. There is economic diversity here, and the extent of white poverty can be striking to folks used to equating poverty and race. But there is little racial, ethnic, linguistic, or religious diversity, at least compared to what I’m used to.

As a child, I took diversity for granted. I spent many years living abroad with my family, and my public high school in DC had 75 countries represented (and as a white American I was a small minority). Before we moved to Maine, we lived in Silver Spring, Maryland, which has been called the most multicultural city in the country. At our nearby playground, we might hear 3-4 different languages other than English. Living in that kind of environment, kids have all kinds of unplanned, unstructured opportunities to develop relationships and share experiences (positive and negative) with people who look different, speak differently, and believe in different things than they do. And I wonder how my kids will get those kinds of experiences living in Maine. Sure, we can read about different cultures and we can visit diverse places, but we won’t see much beyond token diversity on a day-to-day basis.

Why are those kinds of experiences so important for me? It has nothing do with preparing my kids to “compete in a flat, interconnected world with a diversified workforce” or any such gobbledy-gook. No, it’s much more fundamental (and fun) than that. Getting to know other people and different cultures makes life richer and more interesting; it makes the world a more beautiful and complicated place; it forces us to continually rethink our own assumptions. I love Maine and may never leave the place, but I want my kids to understand and appreciate difference and diversity.

Why don’t kids walk?

Robin-zoo-treesIt’s “February Vacation” (a New England tradition that I think is absolutely brilliant), so we took the opportunity to leave the snow for a visit to the in-laws in sunny San Diego. (Advice to the single: marry someone from southern California!) Having been cocooned in small town Maine for the last few months, we are getting re-acclimated to big-city parenting, with all the fancy strollers, yoga pants, and stressful bustle it seems to entail.

What always baffles me in this kind of setting is that so many kids don’t walk — they get chauffered from activity to activity. Even here, where it’s sunny and 70 degrees, parents schlep their kids around as if the kids are incapacitated. We were at a museum the other day, and there were four and five year-olds scrunched up in strollers, getting pushed from exhibit to exhibit. Ditto at the zoo.

As loyal readers of this blog know, Miriam and Robin walk all over the place, snow or no. They were cut off from their strollers by age 2; even 18-month-old Aaron is only pushed around in unusual circumstances — we had to fish the frozen stroller out of the car trunk before we left on this trip, having not used it in months. People will sometimes say how “impressed” they are that the girls walk everywhere, but I wish it weren’t so “impressive” or surprising to see kids making a 20-25 minute walk to school. Walking shouldn’t be a big deal.

pileated-woodpecker-male_1421_web1I could explain the benefits of walking by citing the latest scientific research or noting how the obesity epidemic correlates with the lack of walking. But for me it’s about so much more than keeping the girls in shape or improving their school performance. Walking allows us to see the world at a natural pace and gives us time to think and talk and be silent with each other. It also opens up all kinds of opportunities to make unexpected discoveries. Last week, we were crunching our way through the snow when we heard a piercing “wuk, wuk, wuk” call. We looked up to see an enormous pileated woodpecker with its stunning red mohawk. It was the size of a crow! We chased it for a while until it landed on a dead tree nearby and began bashing its beak into the trunk, sending chips flying as the sound reverberated through the woods. What a sight!

Miriam looked at me and smiled, “We couldn’t see that from a car!” No, indeed, we couldn’t. And that’s why we walk to school.

Let her get lost

The other day, I was out grocery shopping with the kids and Miriam got lost. She likes to get her own basket and get “assignments” — I tell her what is on our list and she goes and finds the items, then lugs them back to the cart. So I told her to go get some apples and off she went…and then she was gone. I looked all over the fruit department; no Miri. I sped along the main corridor peeping into each aisle; no Miri. Where had that little girl gone? Finally, we found each other near the front of the store, after I’d walked several hundred yards searching for her. She was teary but happy to see me; I was pretty much the same.

Getting lost seems to be a universal experience. Justin Roberts has a wonderful and touching song called “Never Getting Lost” about a little kid who gets lost at the mall. (If you’re a parent and you’ve never heard of Justin Roberts, go out and get one of his CDs ASAP — he’s hilarious and fun, much better than that speedin’ & drinkin’ other singer named Justin.) When the mom and the kid reunite at the end, they both swear, “I’m never getting lost again!”

That’s probably the reaction most parents have when they finally find their lost child. “Never, ever, ever do that again!” we tell our kids as we catalogue all the horrible things that could befall them if they were to wander away — they could get snatched by a stranger or hit by a car or chased by a dog. It’s a natural and understandable reaction, and I certainly was tempted to say it when Miriam finally found me. But I’m not convinced that it’s best lesson to take away from the episode. As terrifying and bewildering as getting lost can be for a kid (and a parent), I think there is so much we can learn from the experience, and I think it would be unfortunate if we never, ever, ever got lost.

These kinds of frightening experiences build us into who we are. They teach us how to deal with crises and adversity and fear. They make us aware that things can go wrong and show us the value of preparing for the unexpected. They force us to develop our inner strength. If we don’t learn these vital skills as a kid, we won’t be able to deal with them as adults — like learning a foreign language, learning how to cope with uncertainty is much easier to learn as a kid than later on.

But getting lost is about much more than just overcoming adversity and building character; it’s about embracing uncertainty as part of life itself. I don’t want my kids to freak out about getting lost or not having things go precisely according to plan; I want them to see it as an opportunity to find something exciting and different. Getting lost can help us see the world in a new way or explore something unexpected; it forces us to look up from our routine, to rethink our assumptions.

Maybe I’m just turning into my dad — he used to positively love getting lost (he called it “taking the scenic route”). He always managed to emerge from the experience happier than he started. He’d meet someone new or discover a new part of town or find some obscure and fascinating shop along the way. And there’d always be some great story to tell after it all. 

That’s the spirit I want my kids to internalize as they grow up. No, I don’t want to deliberately let one of my kids get lost, but I’m also not going to hover over them or keep them or a leash or make them stay by my side at all times. And I hope that when it does happen I can keep calm enough to remember the value of the experience.