More on Anti-fragile Parenting

I’m trying to bring this new outlook (anti-fragility) to bear on various aspects of my life. The first, and most obvious, application is how I interact with my children. I want to encourage them to be anti-fragile. This leads me naturally to being more of a hands-free parent. I’m sure you’ve all read or heard about helicopter parenting, and how that stifles creativity. We aren’t raising Tom Sawyers any more, let alone Huck Finns. I read this entire article, for example, and while setting fires while in a designated park still feels supervised, it’s more danger than our kids typically experience today.

Anti-fragility is bigger than just having your kids roam, though. It’s having them roam with the right perspective. My wife was telling me my oldest’s biggest fear was being left alone, for instance, at a store, and not knowing what to do. I was thinking to myself, there’s a certain type of kid who would think, “All right, I’ve been left alone, what kind of experiences am I going to have? This rocks” Ok, maybe the kid would just have the last thought, but then he would go forth and do. And then I’m thinking, does that type of adventurous, come-what-may kid actually exist?

This line of thinking dovetails with the reading I’m doing with my oldest. Daddy daughter book club! She and I are trying to read the Hobbit together. I’m listening to it in the car, while she’s reading the words themselves. But I’m having to remind her all the time to read. She was excited at the outset, but then, she checked out a slew of other (dare I say, lesser) books from the library. They simply interest her more. The Hobbit can’t compete with the latest American Girl Adventure. The anti-fragile view of learning would say I should release her from the agreement to read the Hobbit, because fiction is only enjoyed (and learned from) when you want to read it. As soon as it is “assigned” the mindset changes and part of your brain shuts down. This was supposed to be an activity we enjoyed together, but I feel myself swiftly turning into a scold. “Have you read, have you read, have you read?” This is the same reason I quit trying to teach her piano.

I’m torn. Should we be done? I’m going to give it a think, and get her feedback. We already nixed one book (jointly) but this would be the second. Time for a new strategy. The daddy daughter book club is falling apart, after such an auspicious beginning.

And, of course, there’s also my son and his sports. I saw him outside practicing with the soccer ball. By himself. No one asked him to do it. I thought this was great. I need to get him more options (very anti-fragile) so he can try out as many sports as possible. But I also need to get him involved in things without rules (rules are fragile) so he can gain in confidence that he can handle anything. The artificial environment of a sports activity does not match life. I think there is some cross application, but in the end, I want all the kids to be good at life. And sports doesn’t fully prepare them.

So, in the end, my hope is that they are not afraid to be left alone in a store and, also, that they can function when there isn’t a rulebook.

And, don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten that I need to look for ways to anti-fragilize me, myself and I.

Brinley Cake

My youngest turned four on the 13th of this month, and we had her party yesterday. About sixty people descended on the homestead, we put up a bouncy house, the weather could not have been better and kids sucked down juice boxes like mosquitoes attached to a major artery.

The same cast of characters shows every year, though the guest list has grown steadily. We buy some pizza, Italian beef, my wife whips up a mean coleslaw and we stock up the fridge with drinks (besides juice boxes). My sister-in-law bakes a cake every year for the party. She calls it Brinley cake.

This cake is the the best cake ever made. Can I say that with a straight face? Yes. Because no matter what fine torte Louis the XVI enjoyed or what delightful baked sweet the Queen of England ever let pass beyond her lips, it cannot match this cake.

How am I so sure? There is an extra ingredient (besides the sour cream that makes it so moist you want to cry). The ingredient is Brinley herself.

My sister-in-law made the cake when my daughter was born to be part of the general celebration. But as it happened there was no celebration. The news was not good from the start. And oh, we were not prepared. At all.

My wife, who will willingly say she has the patience of a gnat on methamphetamines, used to joke with a friend that if she ever had a kid with special needs, the friend would have to adopt it, because my wife couldn’t handle it. (The friend is an avid supporter of Special Olympics). Be careful when big ears are listening.

The day after the birth I came home to see my older kids and my wife’s family who had gathered to welcome the new little one. I rose up from the couch in the living room, legs stiff, voice thick, nose plugged, the usual symptoms of grief. I thanked everyone for coming, and I’m sure no one understood the words, but everyone understood the pain. We tried to eat the cake then. It tasted like sand. Because everything tasted wrong that day.

The next year, the first time we had this party, the tradition began. My sister-in-law arrived with the cake in tow. My youngest daughter, who we doubted would even recognize us when she was born, smiled to her friends gathered around her. She did freak out a little when the whole group started singing to her though. Nonetheless, the Brinley cake was passed out and the people ate their pieces and closed their mouths on ecstasy, and weren’t scared to remark on it. The cake melts in your mouth, with chocolate chips strewn throughout like little nuggets of gold. Brinley had defied the doubters (including, at times, her own parents) and the cake’s flavor now had an ingredient no one, not the best European chef, could account for.

And so it was again, yesterday, that the Brinley cake arrived. We sang “Happy Birthday,” but this time remembered to sing it more Norah Jones style rather than Axl Rose, which pleased the girl of honor very much, thank you. She blew out the candles on her namesake cake, along with slightly too much drool, and then the pieces were passed around.

It was delicious. The best ever made.

Favorite Anxiety

My kids love to establish a person’s favorite things. Favorite food, favorite movie, favorite season, favorite pair of socks, favorite window in the house, favorite character in Frozen, etc, ad naseum, ad infinitum. And they’re not alone. Social media is peppered with favorites lists, where you identify your own and then tag other people to have a Favorites Festival.

I confess to having a hard time with determining my favorites. Ask me about books, movies, or TV shows, and I’ll start massaging the question. “Do you mean movies before 1950s? How about favorite classic book? Do you mean animated TV shows?”

And of course, there’s the pressure to choose a movie/book/TV show you’re supposed to like versus one you’d actually pick up and read again. You might have a hard time admitting to the one you’d pick up again, because people might judge your tastes as being “problematic.”

For example: are you allowed to identify “The Honeymooners” as your favorite TV show anymore, if the main character is always threatening domestic violence? “One of these days…” Maybe that show will one day be sent down the memory hole into nonexistence. “There were never Honeymooners. In fact, there are no honeymoons. And if you had to define honeymoons, they would be considered a remnant of a past patriarchal society where there was this thing called marriage, and a honeymoon followed that archaic ceremony. Thankfully, we’re past all that.”

Look at me, going all 1984. But back to the main point, I deal with Favorite Anxiety. I get asked the question (even by my kids) and my mind begins to race. “I could say X, but I’m probably forgetting the Y that I can’t think of at the moment. Argh! Ten minutes from now I’ll remember Y and I’ll want to amend my statement.” No one wants to hear a revision to your identified favorite later in the conversation. Learn to commit, man!

Let’s take a for instance. I have said in the past (but not always because I probably forgot it!) that my favorite movie is The 400 Blows. What? A French black and white film about a boy on the lam from school? So pretentious, Chad. Did you take a film class in college and you gotta throw that movie out there to show your cred? Full disclosure: I did watch this for a film class in college.

Ok, deep breath. I just have to own my favorites, and let them stand up on their own terms. Yes, I like, nay love, that French flick, but I have watched an American Werewolf in London more times than any other movie. I watch it every Halloween. Perhaps I’ll peg that as a strong second.

What I need to do is get a list going on my mobile phone. That’ll relieve my anxiety. I’ll just reference the list whenever I face a question. Next time my eldest asks me what my favorite vegetable is, I’ll go right to the list. “Oh, right, it’s avocado.”

“That’s not technically a vegetable, Dad.” Favorite Anxiety strikes again!

I Want a Reason!

Those with kids out there – has this ever happened to you? You’ve prepared a little something for yourself and children magically appear around you for a handout. It’s like they’ve been beamed down to join you, Star Trek style, their little chins are suddenly resting on your shoulders, their eyes pleading and their tummies empty. So, so empty.

My youngest daughter can hear the slightest crinkle caused by opening a bag of tortilla chips within a half mile radius. She’s like a shark sensing one part per billion of blood in the water. If a bag opens in her vicinity, she drops whatever Little Critter book is occupying her at the moment and begins to circle.

Last night, I had just microwaved myself some nachos when my son and daughter appeared at my elbows, little fingers reaching, mouths watering. Now, I have let them have the occasional bite in the past, but on this night, I wasn’t interested in sharing. I told them both, “no.” I’d made myself a dish I wanted to enjoy on my own.

My son said, “Ok, then make me a plate of my own.”

I again told him no. He asked me his favorite question, with just a dash of accusation to spice it up. “Why?”

“Because the answer is ‘no'” was my response.

He flung himself onto a couch in the living room, which shares space with the dining room in our home. “But,” he informed me, “I want a reason!”

“No reason,” I said. “Just ‘no.'” This flummoxed his seven year old mind. Wasn’t I supposed to give him something? Wasn’t that my duty as a caring loving father ready to talk out why he’d already eaten all the food he needed for the day?

Nope. It was that day’s lesson in “life’s not fair, buckaroo.”

Maybe a little cruel. But my nachos, all to myself, were delicious. It’s the little victories, really, that make parenting worthwhile.

 

Soccer and Cross-country: ‘burb Living Edition

Two Saturday’s ago, I debuted as a soccer coach for my son’s team. I haven’t played soccer in any official capacity since seventh grade, where I was lucky enough to be a starting defender on the Stallions. Most of the members of the Stallions had been harnessed together since they could strap on shin guards, so I was lucky to join them for the ride. We walloped the teams we faced due to our great chemistry and forwards that could fly up the field. We ended up winning the Saguaro league championship (very AZ name, eh?) at the end of the season. My assignment as a defender was to not let the ball get past me, and in the rare event a player managed to accomplish this feat, run him down.

I even picked up a few yellow cards for tackling a player from behind. This always stunned my teammates, who had me pegged as a squeaky clean, decent sort of chap. I didn’t like people getting by me, though. Held a bit of a grudge about it.

Flash forward thirty some odd years and I’m coaching my son’s team. Thankfully, I’ve got “assistant” in front of my title, because otherwise I don’t think I’d be doing the position justice. The head coach and I have players with a range of skill levels from: “Can kick soccer ball in general direction intended,” to “Can frantically dance around soccer ball in semblance of strange magic ritual without ever actually touching it.”

During our first game, we were surprisingly competitive. The most amusing moments occurred when I was walking the players who had volunteered to serve as goalie for the quarter out onto the field. I asked each one: “Do you know the rules for being a goalie?” One kid gave me the classic blank stare. The next said, “Oh yeah” like the guy with the deep voice in the Ferris Bueller song. He had so much confidence oozing off of him you could have bottled it. But I wasn’t the assistant coach for nothing. I said to him, “So, tell me what the rules are.” Blank stare. I explained how he could use his hands within the defined box laid out on the field in chalk. He gave me a squint, trying to discern why I was bothering him with these petty details, and noted, so as to alleviate any confusion I might have about the matter, “I am an excellent soccer player.”

We won the game 2-1. I can’t say that it was our excellent goalie play that made the difference. Perhaps our confidence put us over the edge.

Flash forward a week and my ten year old daughter participated in her first cross country meet. I have no hidden cross country past to report, so it was as new for me as it was for her. I joined the throng gathered at the starting line. The cheering there was fairly muted, because the weather was soggy and the female runners from our team had inexplicably taken off prior to the starting whistle. I asked a parent close by: were the teams supposed to start at different times? No. They all start together. Well, where were our girls? Apparently, our coach had sent our squad off to “run the course.” More confusion on my part. Isn’t that something they should do, say, a half hour before, not right before the race is to begin?

After a few more confused and anxious moments, the girls from our squad poured back to the line, out of breath, red-cheeked, shrugging shoulders, looking at each other with some embarassment, apparently as confused as I was. Turns out the coach had not asked them to run the course. He’d asked them to “run to the pavement.” By this, he’d meant the sidewalk about 40 feet away to get a feel for starting out, but the girls had taken him to mean the street, which was a half mile distant. They hadn’t known which pavement he meant and had been too scared to ask. Lesson for my daughter: don’t fear the coach. Ask!

I moved to the finish line to see her return. I learned that day that the finish is nearly always painful for the runner and celebratory for everyone else. Shouts of encouragement echoed around the park as the runners came in. That same anguish you see on elite marthoners’ faces as they struggle for the finish line was written all over the faces of these kids trying to finish a mile or two. My daughter cruised in with a time that was better than any she’d done in the past for the distance. Like the other parents, I went to full-throated cheering section as her face flickered between anguish and determination with the finish line in sight. She placed 11th out of 57 girls.

Afterward, we stood together by a tree. She was crying because she felt like she was going to puke. I wondered then if she’d ever do this again. She seemed stripped down by the whole experience. Then, the congratulations from her teammates and other parents began to roll in. “11th out of 57 – at your first race? Wow!” Interest flickered in her eyes. I don’t think we’ve seen our last cross country meet.

I often talk with other suburban parents about how many sports they have their kids in, and am usually shocked at the schedules they keep. Don’t get me started on baseball. Those parents are saints. My wife and I are in total agreement that we don’t want our lives consumed by our kids’ activities. But, so far, the schedule isn’t too bad, and between the comedy on the soccer field and the exalted anguish at the cross country meet, sporting events in the ‘burbs appear to be worth it.