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…

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.