Childhood Innocence and Whimsy

The other morning #2 was trotting around asking us for a couple words. She would read the last word but otherwise didn’t explain what we were doing. After a couple rounds, she wandered off to her room for a few minutes. When she returned, she handed this to me:

#2 tries her hand at poetry.

#2 tries her hand at poetry.

Snuggl Pink Bear.
with marshmallow. Singing all night. Stars
twinkle in the sky, happy Animals
asleep in Barns. Little Piggies rolling in
mud Laughing.

I look at this and marvel at how wonderful childhood is with its unalloyed optimism and joy and whimsy. How do we preserve their innocence without impeding their maturation?

Parent-Teacher Conferences

Today was parent-teacher conference day with #1’s homeroom teacher. I’ve been to 15 of these now for #1 (and another 9 for #2). And although I have tried always to be involved in his school—I frequently help out or have chaperoned field trips or talked to the class about what I do—I still make a point of of attending parent-teacher conferences. On the one hand, parent-teacher conferences help me understand the school’s broader curricular goals and how he is progressing toward those goals: what he is learning; how he is learning; what challenges he might be confronting. On the other hand, parent-teacher conferences give me a glimpse of a #1 that I don’t see: what he’s like around his peers and in other social settings; how he behaves in public. There’s another reason I attend parent-teacher conferences, a reason that seems to get lost in the shuffle (or, for so many parents and teachers trying to carve out a few minutes from an otherwise frenetic dash through the day): I go to parent-teacher conferences because it means a lot #1.

Yesterday I mentioned to #1 that I was looking forward the parent-teacher conference. My comment was a sort of warning—our conference was before school, so we would have to be efficient in the morning and leave earlier than normal. He looked up and asked hopefully: “Is mom going?” He seemed to deflate when I said, “No. She has to go to work.”

—“Why doesn’t she go to my teacher conferences?”
—“She trusts you and me. You’re a good kid and good student. I don’t think she feels a need to check in on you.”
—“But she never goes to mine. I wish she would.”[1]

His lament reminded me how important it is to kids that parents show a real interest in their education, in what they do every day, i.e., in what we make them do every day. Parent-teacher conferences are about more than just establishing lines of communication or building working relationships between parents and teachers. Parent-teacher conferences also bolster relationships between parents and children.

Parent-teacher conferences are stressful a lot of work for everybody. Parents have to adjust schedules, often have to find childcare for a younger sibling, and have to make special trips to school, where they hope won’t be kept waiting while other conferences run long. And then there’s the worry that they’ll find out darling Tobias or little Beatrix is a terror or failing or …. Teachers have to prepare for conferences, adding to their otherwise already full day’s work, and then have to take time that they could be prepping for class, helping students who need a little extra, or grading. And then there’s the concern that some parent is going to erupt because their perfect child couldn’t possibly be failing, or be disruptive, or be an unrepentant pain in the ass. For different reasons, parents and teachers can be anxious about these conferences.

Parents who want to improve the experience can find useful advice. Grete DeAngelo offers some nice tips for parents (reposted at Huff Post (because isn’t everything these days reposted at Huff Post?) and Topical Teaching). Lisa Heffernan at the WaPo compiled her own list for parents: Learn from my mistakes. Beth Van Amburgh offers some general tips that are handy for both teachers and parents.

With all this focus on parents and teachers, on classroom performance and behavior, it is easy to lose sight of the people standing at the center of this educational, social, and by middle school hormonal maelstrom. It is easy to forget that for kids, school is incredibly important and daunting and at times disorienting. They are not experts at negotiating the dynamic and shifting relationships. Nor are they as jaded as we often think. They are kids who still look to their parents for guidance, affirmation, and approval. They want to see that we care.

This morning #1 and I walked into school. As he led me to his class, he pointed out various things hanging in the halls—art work, projects, assignments—and shared comments about some of the other classrooms and teacher. Then he returned to the cafeteria while we met with his teacher.[2] When I left, #1 walked me to my car and peppered me with questions: How did it go? Did I like his teacher? Did I see the class turtle? Did I see the fish? Did we talk about their science project? Did the teacher show me the poster they made? Did …? Did …? Did …?

The next chance you (especially you dads, since mothers typically bear the burden of school-related events) get, go to a parent-teacher conference. It‘s an easy way to show your child that you care.

  1. Two points here. First, The Mother has attended #1’s parent-teacher conferences, though not as frequently as I have. Second, part of the issue is the fact that The Mother more frequently attends #2’s parent-teacher conferences.  ↩

  2. Yes, we. I encouraged The Mother to attend the conference because it would mean a lot to #1. She met me there so she could go directly to work afterward.  ↩

We Could All Use a Compliment

Yesterday’s post was about compliments. I suggested that we parents should be more generous in giving compliments and that, pace the fathers-offended-by-compliments movement, we fathers should be more gracious in accepting them. Today, I want to reinforce that suggestion, drawing on a couple Pew Research reports, “Modern Parenthood” and “After Decades of Decline, A Rise in Stay-at-Home Mothers.”

Despite recent increases in stay-at-home dads, moms still make up the majority of stay-at-home parents: 6% of fathers stay-at-home compared to 29% of mothers. And since 1999, the share of stay-at-home moms has been increasing. Mothers still vastly outnumber the fathers as stay-at-home parents.

Percentage of stay-at-home mothers, from Pew report on Modern Parenthood

Percentage of stay-at-home mothers, from Pew report on Modern Parenthood

Fathers have begun taking on more housework[1] and childcare tasks.[2] Nonetheless, mothers still shoulder the bulk of childcare and housework. And despite the increases in the amount of time fathers spend on childcare, mothers spend more now than they did 50 years ago. Today, mothers still spend nearly twice as much time as fathers do on housework and childcare.

Time use for mothers and fathers, from Pew report on parental labor.

Time use for mothers and fathers, from Pew report on parental labor.

Let’s recognize and praise all the work mothers do. Too much of their labor remains invisible to our society, not because we can’t see it but because we have chosen to dismiss it as unimportant because a woman does it. An honest compliment now and then—and by “now and then” I mean regularly—is the least we can do. Let’s also continue to recognize the efforts today’s fathers are making to be more involved parents.[3] Not because their labor is more important or any more praiseworthy, it isn’t, but because an honest compliment now and then—and by “now and then” I mean now and then, let’s not get carried away—is the least we can do.

Next time you see a parent being a good parent, smile and say something nice. And the next time somebody compliments your efforts, smile and say thank you.

  1. We might worry about the category “housework.” Pew seems to adopt the categories used by the American Time Use Survey, which seems to exclude certain exterior activities from “housework.” Is mowing the lawn “housework?” Is raking leaves? I’ve wondered about this in my Pew Study on Parental Labor  ↩

  2. The numbers don’t actually show that fathers are taking on more housework and childcare tasks. They simply indicate that fathers are spending more time at these two activities. Perhaps fathers are really slow at cleaning and cooking and bathing the progeny and so are not doing any more, just taking longer to do the same set of tasks.  ↩

  3. We fathers need to be careful here lest we sound like the 1980s’ dad who wanted praise for taking out the garbage or replacing the empty toilet paper roll. We risk sound like little kids jumping up and down wanting praise and affirmation for the least little thing. Oh, look at me, I take care of my kid. Aren’t I special? No, I mean, I am special.  ↩

Inspire Their Minds

Verizon has a great new commercial, “Inspire Her Mind,” that reminds parents to consider how their commonplaces discourage girls from studying the science.

Verizon commercial warns parents about the impact of their words.

Verizon commercial warns parents about the impact of their words.

We see a girl at various moments exploring the natural world and hear parental voices stifling that exploration. The commercial concludes with Sam looking at a science fair poster, putting on lipgloss, and turning away with her two friends.[1] A voiceover reminds us:

Our words can have a huge impact. Isn’t it time we told her she’s pretty brilliant too? Encourage her love of science and technology, and inspire her to change the world.

Constant diligence is required to root out the many ways we discourage women from pursuing sciences.

But why do we only worry about inspiring girls (and children more broadly) to study science? Why don’t we also try to inspire them to study literature or philosophy or history? There is nothing special about “science” or the “huge impact” our words have in steering girls away from or toward certain subjects. We should expend equal effort to guard against the ways we track girls into or out of all pursuits.

Let’s stop trying to inspire girls to study science and try, instead, to encourage and embolden girls to study anything and everything that inspires them.

  1. A quick nitpick: Why does the commercial end by contrasting lipgloss with science? Is there something that prevents women from applying lipgloss and studying science? What stereotype of science and scientist is reinforced here? Why should people who care about their appearance not also care about science? And, as My Brighter Career points out, there’s lots of science in lipgloss.  ↩

Stop Making Excuses and Apologize

Seth Godin’s recent post, Might as well burn that bridge…,[1] highlights the importance of apologizing when you have wronged somebody, which we all do on a regular basis. While his advice is intended more for marking and business relationships, it is equally applicable to familiar relationships. Two points seem relevant:

  • The person you have hurt doesn’t “want an excuse, a clever comeback….”
  • “Here are some of the magic words that might help:”
    • “I”
    • “sorry”
    • “thank you”

Progeny don’t care about your adult excuses. They just want to hear: “I’m Sorry.” Similarly, partners don’t want to know how or why you misunderstood or misinterpreted them[2] or how well intentioned you were, they just want to an honest apology.

  1. with an unfortunately long title.  ↩

  2. To be sure, people often do not say what they mean and then seem to get mad at you for not divining what they meant. But at that moment, they certainly don’t want to know how they were misleading or how their half-articulated ideas were confusing. And perhaps they weren’t babbling in half-articulated thoughts.  ↩

Some Dads do Diapers and …

News sites across the U.S. have picked up Lindsey Tanner’s AP article “Dads do Diapers and More, Myth Busting Survey Says,”[1] which summarizes recent National Center for Health Statistics. Unfortunately, Tanner’s summary does not link to the original survey, which provides interesting additional information about methods and other results that Tanner did not include: Fathers’ Involvement With Their Children: United States, 2006–2010. The survey’s results are not as “myth busting” as we might hope.

The survey polled fathers living with and apart from their children and asked about two groups of children, under 5 and 5–18. According to the survey, of fathers living with their children engaged in the following daily activities:

  • Transport to/from activities: 20% (with children 5–18).
  • Read: 29% (with children under 5).[2]
  • Help with homework: 30% helped their children with homework daily (for children over 5).
  • Bathe, diaper, dress: 58% (with children under 5).
  • Eat: 71% (with children under 5); 66% (with children between 5–18) (perhaps not coincidentally, 65% of these fathers talked with their children about their day).
  • Play: 81% (w/ children under 5); .
Father involvement survey not all that surprising.

Father involvement survey not all that surprising.

The survey itself, as the researchers admit, is a bit crude in how it polls fathers. What would happen to the results if fathers with more than one child reported involvement according to child? What if children were divided into finer-grained categories, e.g., 0–2, 2–4, 5–9, 10–14, 14–18 (or some other divisions that mapped onto stages of development or childcare needs, or schooling)? The survey also relies entirely on self-reporting—who knows what these numbers would look like if partners were asked about father involvement.[3]

Regardless of its limits, and despite fathers’ increasing involvement, some trends seems slow to change. Fathers still shy away from the dirty, dull, and tedious tasks such as bathing and transporting.[4] Presumably mothers pick up the slack with these quotidian tasks. Play, long a staple of father involvement, remains fathers’ favored activity.

One final statistic from the survey:
88% of fathers think they are doing a very good (44%) or at least a good (44%) job parenting. I suspect that mothers would evaluate much less favorably their own parenting.

  1. Don’t bother looking at more than one. Those same news sites not wanting to pay staff to do any extra work (or perhaps having cut staff), have all simply posted verbatim Tanner’s article. I linked to the site that was easiest to read.  ↩

  2. I regret that the survey did not ask about how often fathers of children 5–18 read to their kids, an activity that is both important and a relaxing end to the day.  ↩

  3. Mothers and fathers often see different and different amounts of labor: Parenting by Tally.  ↩

  4. Unfortunately, the survey’s results do not distinguish between fathers of children under 5 who fed their kids and those who merely ate with them. It also doesn’t indicate how many fathers of children between 5–18 cooked meals for their kids and how many merely ate with them.  ↩

Don’t take the bait

A couple brief exchanges recently have reminded me not to over interpret a passing comment.

First, at a friends’ house this past weekend:
The husband looking at a take-out menu remarked that the same deli ran the lunch counter in his office building. He added:

I know that now that I am working in Conshohocken office.

The husband had hit a hot-button issue for them. They had recently agreed that the husband would work part-time out of the home office and part-time in the office. He preferred to work from home. She didn’t like to have his co-workers traipsing through her house. Both reasonable positions. The husband’s comment might or might not have been innocuous. I heard it as a sort of “Oh look, I know this deli.” The wife heard something like “Oh look, I know this deli because I have to go into the office on a regular basis instead of working in my home office.”

The wife spun around to retaliate. I caught her eye and mouthed the word “Shhhh.” When the wife and I were chatting the next day, she admitted that not saying anything had been the best response. She couldn’t know how he had intended the comment and no good would have come from pouncing on him for it.

Second, in my office the other morning:
The Mother forwarded me an email about #1’s upcoming appointment. She appended to the top of the message:

Don’t forget to take #1 to his appointment this Thursday.

This is a sensitive issue for me. I feel that I bear the burden of taking #1 and #2 to their appointments (who actually bears familial burdens varies, no doubt, with whom you ask and what you consider a burden, as I’ve suggested before). I often make those appointments and keep track of them. I have never missed one. I don’t need to be pestered.

I instinctively reached for the keyboard to send a terse reply, but then paused. Nothing in the Mother’s note suggested she was trying to needle me. I took a deep breath and sent, instead, a note thanking her for the reminder.

We’ve all been there. Somebody says something that recalls for us a contentious issue, a sore subject, an un- or maybe a resolved dispute. We feel attacked. We “defend” ourselves. Suddenly the passing comment has become the opportunity to dredge up and reanimate some quarrel. Perhaps my friend’s husband is annoyed and used his comment to express that displeasure. Perhaps the Mother thinks I’m an absentminded bumpkin who needs frequent reminders. But assuming they were goading us reveals more about our own insecurities than it does about their intentions.

We might all be happier if we extend a little interpretive generosity and assume, until evidence suggests the contrary, that our partners, our friends, our interlocutors in general are not baiting us.