Archive for the ‘parenting’ Category

Taking a Five-Year-Old to Paris

April 13, 2011

Ruby and returned yesterday from a 12-day trip to Paris (with a dogleg to London). The vacation was amazing: Ruby is an energetic, enthusiastic, resilient and amiable travel partner.

Planning a trip like this with Ruby was a little daunting. I was excited to take her away to a foreign culture and experience it through her eyes. The Eiffel tower! Walks along the Seine! Stepping into a tiny shop, sampling the wares, exploring the bits and pieces of life that make that somewhere else so exciting … but I was also nervous: how would she handle the two long plane rides there and back? Would we find a way to meet in the middle of how a child experiences a foreign place and how an adult does?

Well, the answers are mixed.

The Plane Rides

I was so nervous about the plane ride — just she and I for 10 hours trapped in tiny seats — that I splurged on an iPad 2 and loaded it up with movies and games. The iPad turned out to be a great travel computer anyway, but on the long international flights it mostly supplemented the in-flight movies. Ruby watched the Yogi Bear movie 3 times in a row on the flight out of Paris, and only turned to the iPad between showings. Still, it was the perfect distraction and Ruby could explore whatever movies and games she wanted at her pace, leaving me to nap and read. A few minor inconveniences (and inevitable exhaustion) aside, the flights were painless.

Attitude

I’m still in awe at Ruby’s attitude and energy. She was, for the most part, a non-stop bundle of go-go-go. Whatever we suggested, wherever we wanted to go, she was up for it. The movement of travel appealed to her; riding the metro and tube and train and plane were all exciting. It was a simple joy to hold her hand and just walk the streets of these big, crowded foreign cities. At times we both wore down, of course, and got too hot or tired or crabby. But in general, this trip really did reinforce what a special kid Ruby is: she can take something like a 15-hour travel day totally in stride and still be perfectly pleasant and social at our first bistro dinner in Paris. Damn, I’m one lucky Papa.

Travel and Play

Even though Ruby loved the trains and planes and (to a lesser extent) just walking, the destinations didn’t really impress her quite as much. Travel is so much about context that it’s really hard to appreciate why we should go out of our way to see the Most Famous Painting In The World when it looks just like all these other ones. Our trip up the Eiffel Tower was terrible; it was hot and crowded and the lines took forever. As soon as we were at the top, Ruby wanted to descend again. “But,” I said, “this is the Eiffel Tower! It’s … it’s the Eiffel Tower!” And the same happened for the Mona Lisa, and the Venus de Milo, and Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain”, and Buckingham Palace, and the Crown Jewels and a score of other destinations. We’d get there and I’d try to explain the significance and context and why it’s so cool that we are currently at This Important Thing, but a five-year-old can’t relate.

A five-year-old wants to play.

So we did: Ruby spent a lot of time each day at a playground, running from slide to swing to bouncy thing, just being a kid. It’s hard to be a kid when you’re in a strange city and your parent has an iron grip on your hand so that you don’t get dragged under a bus or smear snotty fingers on the Picasso. It’s hard to understand why this tiny butcher’s shop is any different than the meat case back at our local Safeway. But a swing and a slide: now that’s something Ruby understands.

Independently Traveling

My parents and sister met up with us in Paris and they took Ruby to parks and gardens and playgrounds as well, leaving me free to explore Paris’s museums and cafes and tiny shops and just walk and sit and go at my own personal, grown-up pace. There really is a difference between how a kid and an adult relate to being somewhere new; and making sure we each had room to take care of our needs really made the trip worthwhile. I couldn’t really explore the modern art of the Pompidou with Ruby by my side; I wanted to do the audio tour and read every placard and really absorb as much of it as I could. Dragging Ruby through the museum for several hours would have been a terrible experience for both of us. And meanwhile Ruby really needed to run around with other kids at a playground, but several hours each day watching her climb the exact same equipment we’d find in Seattle would have made me regret the $2000 plane tickets. Getting some time apart was necessary.

If It’s Important, Be It

It’s an inevitable attitude of parenting: you want to do something special with your child, but you want to make sure he or she is old enough to “really appreciate it”. It’s an easy trap to fall into, and it’s something you need to fight against. If something is important to you — if an activity espouses the values you hold dear — then do it. And then do it again. It doesn’t have to be Paris every time, but if you want to raise a traveler, you need to be a traveler. If you want to raise a hiker or camper, you need to get out in the woods. Don’t wait to read her your favorite novel; read it to her every few years.

The question of whether Ruby would remember this trip often came up when discussing it with friends. I think that’s a bit of a red herring; 33 years later, I remember just a few tiny snatches from a Disney world trip I took with my grandparents when I was five. But to me the question isn’t whether she’s going to remember this trip in 30 years: it’s how it’s going to color her life next week, next month, and next year. She’ll carry the confidence of having traveled well. She’ll have the context of knowing what a real-life Paris looks and sounds and smells like.

And, most importantly, we’ll both appreciate and cherish the bond she and I reinforced every day we spent together, holding hands, walking the crowded streets of Paris.

Who We Are

November 7, 2010

Ruby and I stand on the warm sand beside the ocean, the sweet swells breaking mildly before us. I crouch before her, get her attention, and tell her this:

When you enter the water, walk straight out. As that first wave swirls around your knees reach down and grab a handful of that foamy stuff and press it to your heart.

The ocean is bigger than us.

* * *

Ruby and I stand on the mountain, hot summer sun and sweat. Around us is air and clouds and wind, below us is dirt and forest and rock. I give her a high-five, then crouch before her, get her attention and tell her this:

When you climb a mountain, find the highest point. Then pick up a rock — any rock, it doesn’t matter — and place it there on the highest point of the peak. Thank the mountain by making it that much taller. We are not conquerors.

The mountain is bigger than us.

How To Explain DADT to a 4-year-old

September 22, 2010

This morning, in response to a story on NPR, Ruby asked me what “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” means. Never one to shy away from an opportunity to explain extraordinarily complicated issues to a young child, I dove right in…

First I started by explaining that the people in the army and navy don’t have as many rights as we do. For example, if I wanted to quit my job, I could do that any time I wanted. But people in the military aren’t allowed to quit. And if my boss told me that I had to move to Kansas, I could just say no. But in the military, if your boss tells you to move to Kansas, you have to do it. Ruby asked why people weren’t allowed to quit, and I said it’s because sometimes people in the military have to do really difficult things, and that too many people would want to quit. “Couldn’t they let just one person quit?” she asked.

Okay, now that we’ve established that people in the military have fewer rights I started explaining about love. I said there are some people who love other people who are the same sex as them. I said my friend Justin at work is married to a man and he only loves men. And I told her that I only love women. I asked her what kind of people she thought she would love, and she said she’d want to marry a man — not surprising given her age, gender, and that I was in the car with her. 🙂

Then I gave her some examples of people she knows who love both men and women — maybe that’s the kind of person she is? And she immediately said that *that* is how she is. She loves both.

Note that through all of this I wasn’t using any labels: no “gay”, “straight”, “bisexual”, “homosexual”. Those are shortcuts that are handy when talking with adults, but I think they’re too rigid to use when introducing this kind of a concept to a child — especially when I’m framing the conversation in terms of the individuals you love.

Okay, next step was to talk about where love comes from. I told Ruby: “love isn’t something you choose. It comes from deep inside you and it just makes you love someone. Do you think you could choose to not love Mama?” She said no, of course. “And do you remember when you started to love Mama? No, it was just there and it happened without you thinking about it. You didn’t choose it — it just happened”.

Moving on, I told her that some people don’t like it when a man loves a man or a woman loves a woman. I told her it makes them feel weird or uncomfortable or angry, or that it isn’t something they’re used to. And I told her that older people are more likely to feel this way, and that people in charge of the military are older and so they think a man loving a man is strange and don’t like it.

Finally, tying everything together, I explained that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” means that if you’re in the military, it’s okay for a man to love a man or a woman to love a woman, as long as it’s a secret. But if they find out about it, then they’ll fire you. And that’s bad because the people who are getting fired really love their jobs.

I told Ruby that all of my friends and just about everybody I know thinks that it’s okay for a man to love a man or a woman to love a woman, and that we think “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is a bad idea. But there are people in other parts of the country who disagree, and sometimes it takes a long time for the country to change. I said sometimes, this country changes too slowly.

“But Papa,” she said, “it just changed to fall yesterday!”

The Transparent Parent

May 22, 2009

A few weeks ago, I was walking to lunch with a coworker who has a son about Ruby’s age. He mentioned that he and his wife have been trying to avoid using spelling or oblique references in their son’s presence. For example, if there’s a debate about whether to have ice cream for dessert, they won’t start spelling I-C-E C-R-E-A-M while they hash out the details.  Instead, they try to involve him in their conversations even if the subject might be one they’d rather avoid or where their decisions might not mesh with their child’s easily predictable desires.

The notion of transparent parenting stuck with me as an interesting ideal, and it’s something I’ve thought about a lot since then.  Part of it is giving Ruby an honest presentation of how the world works; before decisions are made there is a conversation that is a critical part of the process.  Exposing her to the complete process teaches her about compromise and empowers her by bringing her into the process.  Decisions don’t spring fully-formed from Papa’s forehead; instead there is back and forth where we talk about feelings, desires, how close it is to bedtime, and whether we should save the treat for a more special occasion.

But transparent parenting isn’t an absolute ideal.

Kate, Ruby and I were driving back from a camping trip and about an hour down the road we stopped in a little town to stretch our legs and explore.  As we were getting back in the car, with a three-hour stretch of driving ahead of us, Kate suddenly realized that we’d left Ruby’s water bottle back at the campsite — and stated as much.  Ruby’s favorite water bottle, the only water bottle she’d ever known her entire life, with the cute picture of the backpacking dog and handy protective cap, was now gone.

Ruby cried for an hour.   She’d compose herself, grow quiet, and then think about her lost water bottle and start wailing again.  If you’ve ever been cooped up with a crying toddler in a small car you’ll know what kind of a drive that was.  So yes, there are times when you want to withhold information from your young charges.

It’s certainly easier to be a less-than-transparent parent.  Involving a toddler in decisions can be frustrating, exhausting, or just plain cruel.  Three-year-olds in particular are just beginning to learn about their own independence, and their psyches can be frail as a result.  I know that mentioning the words “ice cream” or “playground” will immediately fix those conclusions in her head, even if they are just remote possibilties in mine.  There is a tricky line one needs to negotiate.  But as parents, I think we can lean towards the convenience of opacity a little too often.

We were sitting around the breakfast table this morning and Kate was telling us about her previous evening, when she’s spent some time with friends at a bar.  Apparently some of her friends had gotten pretty “drunk“.  That was just how Kate said it: whispered, under her breath, so Ruby wouldn’t hear.  But really, saying the word “drunk” around Ruby isn’t a bad thing — it’s exactly the kind of information about how the world works that we want her to have.

Transparent parenting isn’t a hard-and-fast philosophy, or even a general rule of thumb.  It’s just something to consider as your child matures and becomes more appreciate of the world of adults around her.  It adds a new challenging layer to parenting, for sure, so it is best applied judiciously.  But keep the idea in the back of your head; soon you’ll find yourself spelling less and dealing directly with your child more often.  After all, isn’t that what parenting is all about?

Princess Party Redux

April 27, 2009

The Princess Party has come and gone and Ruby is none the worse for wear.  Despite the omnipresent generic princess decor, Ruby has yet to ask to be saved from any dragons (although she does need rescuing from the occasional uncooperative button).

Pretty Passive Posing Princess Pastry<br>(yes, that's a cake)

Pretty Passive Posing Princess Pink Pastry (yes, that's a cake)

Ruby chose to dress in her bee costume (her other option was ladybug) and she was the only non-princess among the half-dozen girls.  But crinoline and satin bodices notwithstanding, it was about what you’d expect from a gather of three- and four-year-olds: chasing, screaming, stickers, face painting, and juice boxes.  Ruby made the most of being a bee among the lilies of the kingdom and spent her time chasing everyone around.  She didn’t seem to mind that she was the only non-princess among the girls.  The fact is, I really wasn’t worried so much what she would think — it was the parents I was worried about, and what they’d think of the dork who brought his kid in a bee costume to the princess party.

Which brings us to the best part of the whole experience: spending time with Ruby’s classmates and their parents.  I only get to make a very brief appearance at Ruby’s school once per week before rushing off to catch a bus, and so I don’t get much opportunity to chat with the parents or get to know them or their kids.  But Ruby is going to be spending lots of time around these people for the next few years, and she’ll be invited to more birthdays, playdates, and the like.  It was good for me to have some pleasant conversations with several of the parents and get to know them a bit better.

The Bee Gets A Bee

The Bee Gets A Bee

p.s. The decor (princess decals strewn about the house) and a Princess Pageant Castle Cake did confirm my earlier conception of the Princess meme (or at least the way it is marketed).  These ladies do nothing but stand around — can’t one of the them hop on a horse, pull out a book, or even, you know, walk somewhere?  Even a model’s strut would be a step up from the static subvervient pose these princesses present.

Pretty Pretty Papa Princess

April 22, 2009

It was bound to happy sooner or later. Try as we might to shield Ruby from the infectious outside world, we knew that eventually she’d be exposed.  Sending her to preschool only increased the odds, and now, finally, it has happened:  she’s been invited to a Disney Princess Birthday Party.

original by flickr user PinkMoose

original by flickr user PinkMoose

Kate and I both anti-princessification, for reasons I’ve mentioned before. Looking at the cheap invitation (printed at home, not Officially Licensed Merchandise) a whole new objection sprang to mind: they’re posers.  Literally — all they do is pose.  They’ve been stripped of their original, entertaining and worthwhile myths and stand inactive and vacant. Instead of watching their actions, you should just watch them…  as they do nothing.  Added to our original objections over the cultural appropriation, incessant marketing, pressure to conform, and rigid gender roles and segregation, and you can guess how we want to RSVP.

But ultimately, we decided she should go. These are friends she sees at school every day and it’s good for her to also see them outside of school.  And she’ll be exposed to the princess culture whether we like it or not, so at least one of us can go along and frame her experience in ways that we think are important.

Still, we’re not going down without a fight.  And so, gender roles and pretty princesses be damned, it is I who will be escorting Ruby to the Disney Princess Birthday Party. I won’t be surprised if I’m the only non-related adult male in attendance.

Actually, I’m kind of looking forward to it. Ruby is just starting to learn how to play with (instead of alongside) her peers and it’s a pleasure to watch her social skills develop. I don’t get many opportunities to watch her play with her schoolmates — complete strangers (to me) she’s developed complex personal relationships with. It’s fascinating to see her trying to flex her leadership muscles, or be polite and kind, or be totally socially oblivious.

I’m sure Ruby will have fun, and I’ll do my best around the grown-ups, and this little foray into the world of princesses will soon be forgotten amidst our summer of swimming and building and jumping and thinking.

Oh, and the invitation encourages children to wear costumes. Do you think Princess Ladybug will work?

Swimming Lessons

July 29, 2008

Ruby and I are spending every Tuesday this summer down at the Green Lake pool, taking a half-hour swim class. While Mama is off playing racquetball, we get to bob and bond among the splashing toddlers.

Ruby can’t swim, of course, but she’s getting more comfortable in the water.  She generally hangs onto me as we wander around the pool (Ruby occasionally shouting “Ride the Papa!”).  On the second day, though, something incredible happened: she let go!

She was hanging on to a water noodle at the time, her arms draped over the top for buoyancy. For just a second or two she panicked as she drifted away, kicking madly, but then she realized that she could do it by herself! A light went on and she broke out in a big grin. She was swimming by herself!  She spun around a few times, getting the hang of things, and then, legs thrashing under the water, started making some progress towards her destination.
I was incredibly proud and happy. Not just proud of the physical feat, but happy to have gotten a chance to see that moment of doubt turn into a moment of triumph.

During and after the swim class I told Ruby how proud I was.  It was also gratifying to see that she responded to my statements of pride as well — that she was happy to hear how proud I was.

Since then she’s continued to swim around on the noodle by herself. Every time she climbs on her legs start kicking wildly and she turns away from me to explore the pool on her own. Of course, she doesn’t get very far — she’s not very fast. We have also done a class with a lifejacket and had a similar, but better result: now, Ruby could use her hands as well as her legs to slowly thrash around the pool.

As an added bonus, now that she’s on the noodle I can use it to give her some gentle dunks in the water. I lift her up slightly, just a few inches, and her momentum then carries her down under the water. But she kicks her legs and hangs onto the noodle, and quickly comes bobbing to the surface, a big grin on her face.

Trust and Failure

April 13, 2008

Earlier this month, the NY Sun published an article by Lenore Skenazy, a woman who let her nine-year-old son ride the bus home from Manhattan, unaccompanied, as an exercise in building confidence and independence. She was subsequently labeled the worst mom in the world.

I’m totally in support of her goal to break us out of the deer-in-headlights state of fear that so many parents fall into: “Children are precious. The world is scary. We must protect them at all costs…”

Except, of course, that we shouldn’t protect them at all costs. That’s a conscious choice I made when Ruby was born: that I would not do everything in my power to make her happy, comfortable, and safe. She will, for the most part, be given a relatively luxurious life (globally and historically speaking) but she’ll also be given the opportunity to fall off the monkey bars, trip on the sidewalk, embarrass herself, fail, and have her heart broken a few times.

I don’t wish these on her, and my heart will be broken every time hers is. But I also understand the importance of letting her choose and take her own risks so that she can truly appreciate the consequences of her failure and her successes. When she wants to, and when we think she’s ready, we’ll let her take the bus home too. And of course we’ll sit anxiously on the porch awaiting her arrival. But that anxiousness is the price we pay for the joy of parenting the best way we can.

[Ms. Skenazy now has a blog devoted to this subject: Free Range Kids]

Missing Ruby

November 28, 2007

Work is ramping up for a big release next week, and so I’m working longer hours than usual. And that means I’ll be spending less time with Ruby.

Right now my work hours are shifted a little early than in the morning so that I can come home and have dinner with my family. That tends to not work so well during crunch time, though, as the principals tend to work into the evening and things can really get interesting at work around 5pm or 6pm. So, for this week I’m working into the evening and not getting home until around Ruby’s bedtime.

Ruby’s day is only about 12 hours long, and with the bus ride I can easily be away from home for all of it. Today I managed to catch her for a few minutes at each end of her day but I could, theoretically, go an entire day (or days) without seeing Ruby.

It seems particularly hard to spend significant amounts of time away from Ruby — harder than it is to be away from Kate. I’ll think about Ruby and Kate spending time together and feel like I’m falling behind. I want to be just as important a figure in Ruby’s life as Kate is, but of course in reality that’s impossible. One of us needs to work (and actually, I’m quite happy to be the one earning a paycheck right now).

This Morning On The Bus

November 7, 2007

On this morning’s bus ride there was a woman with two little girls (2 or 3 years old?) in a double pram.  One of the girls was unhappy and would occasionally scream.

This was a bus at 7am, full of morning commuters.  The pram took up a bunch of extra space.  Screaming on a bus at seven in the morning is kind of hard to tolerate.

But still, one can only assume that she wasn’t happy about the situation either.  It’s hard to imagine that she wasn taking a 7am bus ride with two unhappy toddlers just for the sheer joy of it.