Tag Archives: parenting

The Wages of Chronic Distraction

An astute friend of ours is visiting, and over coffee, the conversation turned to the challenges of raising our respective 13-year-olds. Wonderful kids, they are, who give us very little real trouble. But like many kids their age, they are pulled from either end by ambitions toward adulthood and the comforts and habits of childhood. It’s hard to instill, the kind of organization that fosters discipline and would leave them more time to do the things they want, even when you argue convincingly that there will be more goof-off time if only they will put work before play a little more often. Reason alone is not enough with some people, especially young teens, especially when it emanates from the mouth of a parent.

“I can come around the corner into his room,” I lament, “and he’ll be mid-video-game while there’s still science or social studies pending.” Our friend commiserates. My wife adds that even if the gaming interlude was a short jaunt away from work while looking up a legitimate homework question, this extra electronic time adds up. Sleep suffers, ours and his.

It often comes back to the electronics, doesn’t it? My son doesn’t even have a Facebook page, yet he is active on Skype, gaming and chatting with his friends. He is a big looker-up of things on the way to looking up other things, a good sign of a smart kid. I don’t want to restrict access to his computer and iPad in a ham-handed way; I’d rather he slowly build a lasting discipline on his own. Parental pipe dream? Maybe. But taking the blinky things away completely has to be a last resort, to my way of thinking.mommy_texting

Our friend has observed a more serious electronic wedge being driven into child life, though, this one by people who are beyond the disciplinary direction of others. She has seen parents like the one pictured, wheeling a stroller down the street and completely engrossed in the on-screen goings-on of their smartphones. The baby in the stroller is pretty much on her own.

Take away any safety concerns (not watching for cars, etc.) and you still have serious cause for discomfort that perhaps only a mother would divine. Before handheld computers, a Mom walking her child in a stroller would likely be singing a little song, remarking how lovely a day it is, pointing and saying, “See that bird, honey? It’s blue!” In a word, engagement: the basis of language, observation, interest, a mental foothold on the world and the path to enlightened alertness. It’s also a special brand of love.

I wouldn’t suggest that every moment in the presence of a baby needs to be filled with speech. (My wife and I still joke about a friend who had a baby about our son’s age. That little girl learned to talk way early because her mother had a habit of narrating her entire day like a sportscaster on caffeine. By the time she was 14 months, that kid had heard everything.) But the sound of a parent’s voice, the little facts, rhythms, and affections it conveys — these are the bricks and mortar of a well-grounded mind. The fact that parent and child enjoy such interactions makes them all the more precious.

But silently locked into smartphone torpor? It doesn’t work. Of course, the baby doesn’t know enough to be as upset as I am at the thought, the image of a child waiting for interaction, but just sort of…left out there to drift.

We all love the convenience and “neatness” of our smartphones, sure. No harm in that. But moderation in all things, right? Well…except in what’s good for our children.

Right.

© 2014 Adam Barr

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Lighthouses, Navigation, and Family Rituals

I grew up inland, but I have spent some time on the water, like many, in everything from canoes to cruise ships. If fear were a liquid in a spray bottle, the unexpected list of a boat would be like a quick shpritz. Most times I can talk myself intellectually out of what my soul fears spiritually. (Other times, such as when I am learning to row an unstable single scull, I just flop into the drink.)

When people who have been around boats all their lives have bad dreams, does the nightmare scenario involve choppy seas, night fog, and an invisible leeward shore? The rocks are there, and you can hear surf…but how far?

rowboatMy unsettled dreams can be like that, even in my thoroughly inland life. During the week, the nightmare metaphor can pop up, laden with symbolism about the uncertainty of what will be, where to go, what to do, when and whom to trust…and on and on.

Where are the lighthouses? One beacon would do the trick, orient us, keep us on course.

Families build lighthouses, day by day and year by year. Without even knowing they are doing it, families raise tall towers that look out over life’s waves and throw a powerful light, a confident Fresnel to whoever might need it.

One of ours: Saturdays, my son and I both have rowing activities. He has on-the-water practice; I have a land workout (weights, stretches, endurance, core work, all with my boat’s crew). After, we come home, where my wife delights in making the best scrambled egg burritos you will ever have. She has a technique, about which she is intentionally vague, that fluffs up the eggs remarkably. Their heat melts the shredded cheese inside the flour tortillas, and we slather on sour cream, medium salsa, and Cholula hot sauce. We top it all off with sliced oranges or fresh strawberries.

And for 20 minutes, we are together, laughing, going over what happened at practice, talking about the week or the weekend. No matter what else Saturday brings, we have that. And we look forward to it all week.

It’s a beacon. Fortunately, my shoreline is dotted with them.

© 2014 Adam Barr

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Guns: My Son Has an Escape Route

It’s Friday. I had slotted something lighthearted for this spot, something funny, perhaps heartwarming. But I’m sorry. I can’t.

My son has an escape route.

I found this out at dinner the other night. My son, 12, was done eating and had returned to his homework while my wife and I lingered at the table. It was then that she informed me that he had an escape route planned in case of a shooting at his school. He had told her about it on the ride home at the end of the day.

assault_rifle_ammo“You mean they have a procedure for the kids in case of an armed-invader emergency?” I said. My son’s school is conscientious about student safety.

“No, I mean he planned one himself,” my wife said quietly. “Out the back way and through the gym, and he thinks he can get out that way if he has to.”

I fingered the stem of my wine glass and took this in, pursing my lips. An escape route. From a locked Catholic school. Age 12. My kind, gentle boy.

The wheel of randomness, which spins in partial fog, has been kind to us as a family. We are healthy and, as far as we know, safe. We have no complaints worth stating, no problems worthy of the name. God has been good.

Still, when I was 12, I felt no need of an escape route. To this day, I haven’t. But my son does.

We cannot, should not even, shield him from all the news. It was impossible to keep Newtown from him. Then with this week’s gun idiocies — the poor Australian kid gunned down for fun in Oklahoma, the wacko in a school in suburban Atlanta with an AK-47 assault weapon (thank the good Lord no one was hurt) — well, my son got wind of those too.

Imagine yourself at 12. How did your mind work? Wouldn’t you imagine bullets ripping into children? Wouldn’t you imagine being one? How could you help imagining it, if only for a terrifying second? There is a realness in your imagination at 12 that is hard to control; you can’t blunt it with adult cares and distractions.

I discuss the news with my boy; my wife does too. We give him a chance to get his concerns out where we can see them, pin them down, tame them if necessary. But there is only so much I can do without intensifying the very effect I want to dissipate.

I will not pluck the perpetually oozing gun-control scab here. But I will say that the “if guns are criminal/controlled/regulated, only criminals will have guns” canard has been disproved by the experience of nearly every nation with gun control — and I mean controls even more stringent than the reasonable regulation that most Americans want here. That includes the United Kingdom after the Dunblane incident and Australia…where a family sent their boy on what was supposed to have been the adventure of a lifetime, and instead have had to endure the end of that lifetime.

The village that is supposed to help raise my child has failed him. The National Rifle Association has failed him. Congress has failed him. Timid gun owners who favor reasonable regulation, but will not browbeat the stiff-necked Second Amendment torturers and the insurrectionist fantasizers into submission, have failed him.

My son. Has quite seriously. Planned how. To escape. From a school shooter. He sincerely feels the need.

Think about that. And how we, as a nation, are going to escape from that need. If ever.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr

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Commencement Speeches, Translated

‘Tis the season. Notables don cap, gown and sash, accept an honorary degree, and then grip the podium for dear life for 40 minutes while imparting congratulations and wisdom to college graduates about to take on the world. Mortarboard tassels still swinging from being shifted, the kids endure (or, if it was like my high school graduation, pass around a Daily’s Juice bottle full of orange juice and vodka). Parents in the audience lap it up. Damn right, they think. I paid, or am still paying, for this.

Trouble is, an important component of the audience is missing: employers. To my knowledge, no employer of recent college graduates has ever attended a commencement speech. Reason I know is, they simply don’t understand. They could not have heard what was said there. Millions of grads who have started new jobs can confirm this. The mental process goes something like this:Commencement

“What? Why are you so perturbed?” the graduate thinks when a boss upbraids him. “My memo couldn’t have been that bad. Didn’t you hear the commencement speech at my graduation? I’m the hope of the future. We all are. We worked hard, persevered, learned, grew, became enriched. We have energy and verve. We’re different than all the classes that came before. The world isn’t just our oyster; it’s one of those boffo roasted oysters from Drago’s! No one with these attributes could have written an anemic memo. Especially when you look at some of the know-nothing slackers who you’ve carried on the books at this place for years! I mean, some of these people are…ugh…fat.”

And on and on.

Now surely, there are plenty of arrogant graduates whose sense of entitlement and oh-so-flat tummies combine to make them as annoying as a sinus infection. But there are just as many industrious youngsters who want to put in their time and make good, honestly. It has always galled me that the last thing we tell them as collegians is, “You are a perfectly formed creature, full of knowledge and energy!” and the first thing they often hear as employees is, “You know NOTHING, you’ve done NOTHING, and you’re worth NOTHING, and you likely won’t survive no mater what you do. Now go pick up my lunch.”

Who has time for that crap? I’m here to help. As a public service, here is a translated commencement speech that will end up being a damn sight more useful. Parents listening to it may need a drink; they should ask their kids to pass the Daily’s Juice bottle.

“Graduates:

“A great writer once noted that we tell college graduates one story, then flip it around into something nasty once you get a job. If you’re lucky enough to get a job. In the words of that writer, who has time for that crap?

“So I’m going to tell you what’s what. Fact is, you are a magnificent group of people. Compared to other classes? I have no idea; I just flew in last night. But it’s true: you reached a formidable academic goal while negotiating massive shoals of temptation, recreation, love, sex, sports, financial turbulence, parental expectations (really demands) and biggest of all, occasional self-doubt. Congratulations for coming through.

“You have knowledge. You have energy, maybe more than you will ever have in your life. You don’t have experience, but it’s not your fault you’re only 22. Get the experience, don’t be disappointed if it’s a different color than the little digits in the paint-by-number dream you’ve always had, and bank it all.

“Heed this warning: when you enter the workplace, you will encounter the accomplished and admirable. You will also meet the mean and mendacious. You will be insulted, denigrated, marginalized. You will be disgusted and abused by people who once had dreams and aspirations like yours, but who can no longer see them through the hills of shit they have built around themselves.

“These are the small people, the weak, the ones who allowed disappointment to take over the whole game instead of just one inning. I won’t lie to you: some of these people will have power over you. All I can say is, put your head down, glean what experience you can from these picked-over fields, and get out as soon as you can.

“You will hear a lot of people tell you that following your dreams is better than riches. Do what you love and the money will come, they will say. They are right. But when you hold in your arms in the maternity ward a life you created with someone you love, that child has become the doing-what-you-love, and the money has to come. Find a way to rejoice in that, and not rue the missed opportunity to become the solo free spirit that so many people seem to think is the only version of a happy human. To love and be loved by a child, I can tell you, is the pinnacle of existence, even with all the pressure to support that precious creature.

“Hold fast to your friends. In the next few years, you are going to need each other very, very much. Be prepared: as years, marriages, and children go by, some of those bonds will stretch, fade, and crack. Others will add rings year by year like mighty oaks. Cherish these; nurture them.

“We’re all thirsty, so I’ll wrap up. Whatever joys or indignities lie ahead for you, follow the best advice my Dad ever gave me (among a motherlode of gems): it doesn’t matter how many times you get knocked down, as long as you get up.

“Enjoy your families today. Your parents are ready to bust with pride. Let them. Enjoy all the parties. Be safe. Thanks for letting me speak to you. God bless you.”♦

© 2013 Adam Barr

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The Secret Lives of 12-Year-Olds

We all have troubles, but I really can’t think of a time when my burdens have exceeded my blessings. Two of the gems in my menagerie of good fortune are 1) my son Joseph, who is 12, and 2) the career change that allows me to spend more time with him at this crucial stage in his life.

If you have visited this space before, you likely know that I am very glad to be a parent, especially of this particular kid. That’s not to say that parenting is easy, or even pleasant every moment. Such is the way with many worthwhile pursuits in life. (Think of running or weighlifting. Multiply by 30ish. There you go.) One wants to be accurate about this, but I wouldn’t even describe the joys/tribulations of parenting as a dichotomy; that would require the coexistence of two markedly different things. The good and bad of parenting are so mystically melded that it can be hard to see where one ends and the other begins. It’s always a blurry, moving border.

An example: upon becoming a parent, it’s natural to want to establish as much solidity as possible in your life. You naturally want to do this job without being knocked off balance by the winds and earthquakes of adult life’s mounting uncertainties. You want to lash yourself to a rock of safety and decency, an island with a big harbor, safe from storms.

And most of us do a good job creating some certainty. But it’s less secure than we think, although not necessarily because of any failing of ours. No, it’s because of the nature of the task. The fact is, as parents, we have much less control than we think of our children. To a great extent, they raise themselves.

The dude his bad self, taking a brief break from studying.

The dude himself, taking a brief break from studying.

Don’t get me wrong. The boundary business is strictly ours to control as the moms and dads. We set the limits, the rules, the benchmarks of behavior and achievement that promote health, safety, self-respect and many other personal assets. But to allow ourselves to believe we know our children’s minds wall-to-wall is folly.

This revelation need not be an occasion for panic. But it does untether you from that rock. When we say, “What is he thinking?” we are usually wondering out loud which synapse failed to fire to keep a child from misplacing his math book again. But more and more, I find myself in moments of repose truly wondering, “What is on my Joseph’s mind? What is he thinking about? What conclusions is he drawing?” Of course, I talk to him as much as I can. But unless safety is concerned, my curiosity alone is not reason enough for poking my mental flashlight into every corner of his privacy. He has to be allowed to be his own person in his own brain.

Still, a parent wonders. We watch behavior for cues and clues the way a hunter in the forest watches the subtle turning of leaves in the breeze. And how do I know there’s even something to watch for?

Simple. Same as you. I was once him. At 12, I had a full-blown mental life, same as any 12-year-old. I had my views on what adults did and why, and whether it was smart (I was right about half the time). I heard the news and drew my own conclusions. I went out and got the information I wanted — before 12, I was riding busses by myself all over Pittsburgh, often to the Carnegie Library to get out books and listen to music. I walked five miles to the soccer field at the high school to play with my friends. When I wanted to, I bought Rolling Stone and National Lampoon and read things that my parents might have been considered contraband.

The fact that my son is less self-mobile than I was (times are not as safe) doesn’t change the overall analysis. He can use a keyboard better than I ever used a library card. He has all the info he wants, whenever he wants it. (Only rule: clear your History on Safari or Chrome, and you’re automatically grounded from electronics.)

So what are his views on….Syria? God? Abortion? Jobs? College? Girls? Sex? Ben Zobrist against lefties with runners in scoring position? Some of these things, it’s important for me to know, so I can be ready to help. But by this age, he has to meet me halfway. And if he chooses to build walls…I can’t stop trying, but there’s not much I can do about it.

Except…be available, be welcoming, and provide an example of enlightened parenting based on love and respect. This is a job that does not involve consistent daily reward, and takes more faith than just running or weightlifting. But so far, so good.

Here’s how I know. Joseph, who is ever-increasing in size and manliness, comes to his mother and me with questions. And he still gives, accepts, and asks for hugs from his Dad. One day I know the physical hugs may stop. I pray every day that the spiritual ones never do.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr

Photo by Adam Barr

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Marital Political Science: Peace in the Valley

The longer a marriage lasts, the more its participants wonder what the central thread really is that keeps them together through the decades and the seasons of life (of which there are a great deal more than four per year). You will get all kinds of answers on this — the friendship, the mutual reliance, habit, laughter, touch, and on and on. You may even get different answers from members of the same marriage. (If this happens, take my advice: turn off the tape recorder and quietly leave the room.)

Whatever consternation may arise between my wife and me, I can tell you one thing it won’t be about: the division of marital labor. For some reason, we have never fought or even disagreed significantly about who should do what, when. I don’t think we’re any different than most couples in the marital skill department, but we definitely have this part down. (Also, I have a well-honed survival instinct.)

Us. That's not our house; if it were, she would be vacuuming it. But see how nice my shirt is?

Us. That’s not our house; if it were, she would be vacuuming it. But see how nice my shirt is?

Here’s how most things fall (or fell) out:

  • Laundry. She handles hers and Joseph’s. I do my own. Back in the Worsted Wool Age, I was particular about my shirts. So I did my own. It just never stopped. No biggie.
  • Cooking. I end up doing most of it because I like to. But if I say, “I’m crushed today; can you manage dinner?,” I never get an argument. Or we order Chinese. Either way, it works out.
  • Dusting. I may make an occasional feint at it, but she’s the maven here. I suspect there are particles from Biblical times reposed on some of the furniture in my office; who am I to disturb them?
  • Vacuuming. As some men are with their Lamborghinis, my wife is with her vacuum. It is hers. You can’t do it right. Get out of the way. I hate the noise anyway.
  • Kid to School. Me as often as possible. This is a holdover from the time when I was seldom home and wanted to maximize every minute with him. Now I get up early out of habit, and I like making breakfast for him. Besides, she likes to sleep.
  • Angus. She takes our dog to the park in the mornings, since I take the kid to school. I will occasionally fill in, but the dog says I don’t throw the ball like Mom.
  • Dishes. No clear rule, but often me while she walks Angus in the evenings.
  • Dealing with evil health insurance companies. Sorry; I was redundant. She does this. Thank the sweet Lord in heaven, she does this.
  • Decorating. I like her tastes. See note about survival instinct, above.
  • Travel planning. Her quote: “Tell me what the weather is going to be like there and where to be when it’s time to leave.” I got this.
  • Short game: She comes to me for putting advice. I try to hide my golf game under a rock, but she always finds it.
  • Lawn mowing. Me, of course. She’s no fool.

There’s more, but I can see you’re already calling your spouse on your maybe-I’m-not-so-smartphone. Kidding aside, we have seen some marriages nearly reach the cracking point on these issues. We feel fortunate that we never got onto those rocks.

In his excellent book Family Man, Calvin Trillin says that married couples doesn’t really have to share the same tastes, just the same values. Pitching in as a team is clearly one of those values. One of my single friends once heard me on the phone, wrapping up a conversation about scheduling kid pickup, groceries, and dinner. When I hung up, he deadpanned, “Hm. Running a household. Sounds so uplifting.”

Mister, you have no idea.♦

© Adam Barr

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We’re Cookin’ Now…and Most of the Time, Actually

Thoughtful food journalist Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and other books, is out with a new one called Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. In it, he admits with typical modesty that he doesn’t really know what he’s about — but he dives in anyway, examining the basic techniques people use to convert raw food into meals that are safe, palatable, enticing, and/or comforting. (Here’s a brief and revealing interview with Mr. Pollan. Click on the media player and listen to the whole 6:19.)

To tackle such a huge subject, Mr. Pollan uses the ancient scientific framework of the four elements: fire (broiling, grilling), water (boiling, etc.), air (baking) and yes, earth (fermentation, fungi, and such — think sauerkraut and kimchi).

This method of breaking down the breaking down of food’s molecules intrigues me because, against all odds, I love to cook. It approaches a need.

Me in one of my favorite roles. That's my bride in the foreground, sampling some appetizer we made.

Me in one of my favorite roles. That’s my bride in the foreground, sampling some appetizer we made.

I say against all odds because not many people do this anymore, at least not according to the social data-gatherers. In one interview, Mr. Pollan cites a survey that says home cooking — something more than microwaving a frozen meal — is down something like 77 percent over the last two decades. But foodie-outlier that I am, I choose to buck the trend. Here’s why:

  • I like good food. So does my family. The industrial food movement (of which Mr. Pollan has fomented a healthy suspicion over the years) has mastered a couple key functions, shelf stability perhaps being the chief success. But for freshness, taste, and very often prime nutritional value, nothing beats a homemade meal.
  • Cooking is a perfect wind-down. Chopping onions and browning chicken breasts isn’t mindless. But it’s different enough from promoting premium golf clubs to draw a nice dividing line between the work day and the evening. And if, because of grander culinary plans, I have to get going in the kitchen earlier and tack on some evening work time afterwards, it’s always worth it. Playing music and drinking a little wine while assembling shish-ka-babs and seasoning rice pilaf simply enrich the experience.
  • I’m good at it. I make the occasional mistake, and an experiment falls on its doughy face from time to time. But most of the time, I rock in the kitchen. Years of experience have made me pretty confident. I like the fact that I can survey an open refrigerator, pluck out what’s available, and manufacture a tasty, nutritious three-course meal (protein, starch, vegetable) without too much trouble or delay. If you’re lucky, there will be fresh fruit for dessert too.
  • The rapid rewards of accomplishment. Daily work in a business corporation –even a small one — involves moving things to their successful conclusion in steps. Projects require cooperation, and time. I push several boulders up several hills. The results may be invisible beyond any number of ridges. Similarly, as a parent, seeds that I plant by declaration or demonstration may take years to bear fruit. But with cooking, laudable results (and gratification) come the same day, sometimes in the same hour in which I began. Yet the effort is a recent enough memory to make me feel as if I’ve earned something.
  • It’s a daily way to show my family how much I love them. I very much want to do a good job for them. They deserve it. The repay me with appreciation and constructive criticism, which I definitely employ the next time. I set the table (or ask one of them to do it); I pay attention to presentation and how it increases enjoyment; I encourage them to try new things and comment. I promote the enjoyment of eating together.
  • Corollary to the daily way above: Academic breakfast. I firmly believe that if I make Joseph a satisfying, nutritious breakfast, he will do better at school. I have a repertoire of simple but subtsantial dishes I can whip up for him in minutes. Each exceeds the bald, just-pour-it barrenness of cereal and juice. Example: scrambled eggs and shredded cheese wrapped with tomatoes in a warmed flour tortilla, served with a cup of salsa and side of sliced strawberries. Yogurt too, or chocolate milk made with Ovaltine.
  • It gets us all together. I have heard all about the death of the family dinner. Not in my house. I refuse. My memory of family dinners with my parents and brothers and grandmother is too valuable. I’ll never be in so much of a hurry that I can’t make that happen — with the occasional exception for school play rehearsals, etc. Even when Joseph has honors band rehearsal Wednesdays at 6, I just back up the schedule so we can eat at 5.
  • Going out back and cutting fresh basil from our own plant makes me feel like a badass chef. Uh-huh. Sage, stevia, chives and mint, too.
  • I love this exchange. TERESA [coming in from garage after a client visit]: Whoa! What smells so good? ME: Fresh rosemary, garlic, your mother’s canned tomatoes, and ground veal. JOSEPH: [coming in from school]; Whoa! What smells so good? ME: Everyone just be ready by 6.

I could go on and on, but I have something simmering in the slow cooker….♦

© 2013 Adam Barr

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