Something only a raunchy old man could love

Just when you think it’s safe to take your kids out to a public event…

I probably should have known better. We took the girls to a professional sports event, an indoor soccer game. They both play soccer (sort of), so I thought it would be fun to get up close and see what the game is supposed to look like. It started out exciting — lots of people, plenty of loud, thumping music, flashing lights flickering across a vast arena. It was the last game of the season and as the players were introduced, they ran out with their own children, boys and girls. Everyone was cheering, getting fired up. It was going to be a great night.

And thesockergirlsn the announcer boomed, “And now…it’s time…for…the Socker Girls!” As the fans hooted and hollered, a dozen scantily-clad “cheerleaders” hopped out to midfield. They pranced around for a couple minutes, gyrated their hips, and stuck their butts teasingly in the air, leaving only a little bit to one’s imagination. Suddenly an inclusive athletic event celebrating physical skill turned into a mildly pornographic event showcasing sexual desire. My daughters’ eyes widened, and my wife and I tried vainly to distract them from the peep show in front of them. The raunchy old men in the crowd loved it.

Yes, I know. It’s entertainment. The more naked (or nearly naked) women you can put out there, the more people (or men, at least) will pay for your show. Yes, I know. The people who run the sports teams are not idiots; they wouldn’t put on a peep show if they didn’t think it would make them more money. Yes, I know. Sports and sex have always gone together.

Bfightut it’s still wrong and exclusive and demeaning, particularly when you have young girls in the crowd. I feel the same way about these kind of so-called “cheerleaders” as I do about fighting in hockey. It’s embarrassing and silly and anachronistic, and we don’t need to teach our kids to enjoy it. Just as hockey fights showcase all the worst parts of masculinity — the machismo, the uncontrolled violence, the showboating anger, the over-amped testosterone — these “cheerleaders” embody the worst of our society’s stereotypes about femininity — the ceaseless emphasis on appearance over ability, the unrelenting pressure to reveal more and more skin, the shameless appeal to the leering masses. It’s long past time to get rid of both the fights and the “cheerleaders.”

There are kids walking alone! Call the cops!

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Kid walking…no parent in sight…call 911!

Washington Post article this week told the story of two Maryland parents who are being investigated for letting their kids (aged 10 and 7) walk home alone from a nearby park. Someone saw the pair and called the cops. Now the parents are being hassled by the county Child Protection Services, which threatened to take the children away (!!) if the parents did not fill out a “safety plan” and pledge not to leave the children unsupervised until CPS had scoured the house and done a complete investigation. The story has already generated more than 2500 comments, much of it attacking the parents, and one Post columnist berated them for being attention-seeking fools.

I know this kind of thing happens frequently, but this story hit me particularly hard because we used to live in that neighborhood and our kids went to that park. It stuns me to think that parents would be criminalized for doing the right thing — giving their kids an opportunity to be independent and learn to explore the world by themselves. My wife and I certainly could have been in those parents’ shoes. Our kids do all kinds of things by themselves, and we sometimes let 7 year-old Miriam walk to school alone because it’s fun and a good experience for her. Just yesterday, I let her sit quietly at the front of a grocery store reading her book while I went shopping with the other kids — it’s what she preferred, it was perfectly safe, but she was “unsupervised.” Should I be investigated?

Whenever I read these kind of things, I think, “Who was that person who called the cops?” I know that they mean well — they probably think they are being Good Samaritans. It takes a village, right? Don’t we want our neighbors to look out for our kids? Yes, of course. But Good Samaritans don’t call the cops; a good neighbor shouldn’t call in the authorities. If they are so terribly concerned, why not talk to the kids? Why not ask to see if there’s a problem? Why not call the parents rather than the police? Calling the cops without learning more about the situation is not a sign of being a good neighbor; it’s the sign of living in a state of fear where people spy on each other and report their findings to the authorities because they are too cowardly to talk to their neighbors.

The power of passionate people

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I’m a National Park geek and will happily drive the family out of our way to visit a park and get a stamp in my Parks Passport. My kids may never go to Disneyland or the American Girls doll store, but they’ve been to Civil War battlefields and civil rights sites, old factories and meeting houses, wilderness areas and mountain peaks. During our break, we visited Lowell National Historic Park in Lowell, Massachusetts, the site of numerous cotton mills during the early industrial era.

lowell1As much as I love the National Parks, I confess that they sometimes can be disappointing — musty exhibits, deteriorating facilities, outdated interpretations (don’t get me started on the ridiculous Andrew Johnson NHS in Tennessee!). But Lowell was fantastic, especially for the kids. Why? Because the people who worked there were passionate about it. The exhibits were thoughtful and the site was well designed, but really it all came down to the people. Every ranger was enthusiastic about talking to us and engaged the kids, and they made us feel as if this history really matters (and it does!). We learned about life in the mills, weaving, slavery and the cotton trade, globalization — and the rangers and exhibits taught us in hands-on, interactive ways that the kids could grasp. After three hours, we had to hit the road but plan to come back for more.

lowell2It’s a great lesson for the kids to see how one person’s passion can transform an experience. With a bored, ho-hum ranger, the kids might easily have lost interest, and I would leave grumbling about how our parks were abandoning their mission. Instead, we left fired up about history and appreciating not only the young girls who worked in the mills but also the hard-working rangers who keep their memory alive.

When good beats great

This week, we took the kids down to Connecticut for the wake and funeral of my brother’s mother-in-law (I’m not sure if English has a word for that, but she was family for sure). Not your typical holiday vacation, but an important one for all of us. As I’ve written before, we don’t shield our kids from death, and we want them not only to understand what happens to us all as we age but also to appreciate what makes a good life and a good person.

Mrs. H. led a good life. She spent pretty much her whole life in Hartford — she taught school for decades, she raised two wonderful children, she was active in her church and the community. She was fundamentally a good person who saw the beauty in other people and shared the warmth of her spirit with the people around her. We didn’t get to see her very often, but when we did she always had a smile and a story to share with us.

I want my kids to understand that good people such as Mrs. H. are what makes the world worth living in. It’s not the “great” people — the presidents and athletes and rock stars and CEOs who suck up so much of our attention. It’s the good folks in cities and small towns all over the place who give of themselves and make everyone and everything around them better. They keep the parks clean and man the tables on Election Day and watch the kids and run the libraries and do all the little things that make a community work. Our culture glorifies greatness, and we parents can feel pressure to push our kids to get the best grades and go to the most prestigious schools and land the most lucrative jobs and be recognized as “great” in their field. But what really matters is not greatness but goodness.

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”

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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…”

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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.