Slowing Down Time

Despite all the moments we parents capture with our smart phones, ours is a fool’s errand. We are powerless in the face of time’s inexorable passage, a passage that seems to speed up with each passing year. We can’t stop our children from growing up, making mistakes, moving on.

Yet I cling to each moment. I savor my time with #1 and #2. Not because I want to impede their progress, but because I can’t, and I shouldn’t. One day all too soon they will be gone—like little Jackie Papers they will come no more. No longer will their horizons and mine coincide. No longer will it be us against the world. Instead, they will have formed a new us’s looking out over new horizons.

I know our time together is slipping away. I want to stop it or at least slow it. But I can’t. It breaks my heart. All I can do is relish each moment we have together and hope they will, one day, cherish those moments.


Parcheesi and Breakfast

As we often do, #1, #2, and I went to breakfast armed with a game of some sort. Today, we took our retro-Parcheesi (I say “retro” because it’s not very old, but it has been styled to look old). While enjoying our bagels, hot chocolates, and coffee at the local café, we played a handful of no-holds-barred Parcheesi, laughing and chatting about this or that throughout.

Early in another exciting Parcheesi match.

Early in another exciting Parcheesi match.

I miss weekend mornings when it was just me, a cup of coffee, and a newspaper or book (fortunately, #1 and #2 are old enough now that we can, now and then, enjoy just sitting beside each other while we read)[1]. But I know that I will miss these mornings too, when #1 and #2 have moved on and no longer want to spend a couple hours with their dad. So it goes.

  1. If I am being honest, weekend mornings by myself are just one thing I miss about my former existence. I am, however, aware of how much more pleasant those mornings are in hindsight than they were when I was living them. The past is always better when viewed from the distant future.  ↩

Playing Cards

Uno has long been a staple pastime in our house. Most nights before I read to #1 and #2 we play a few quick hands. In the past week, we have revived a handful of games I played as a child. Most popular are 99, Golf, 31, and double solitaire, which we have renamed “Duotaire” (head-to-head Klondike).

A recent (teaching) hand of 99 moments before #2 whipped me.

A recent (teaching) hand of 99 moments before #2 whipped me.

I marvel at how much #1 and #2 like playing cards. We seem always to be playing cards these days—at home, at the cafe, at the bagel shop, waiting for food at the local pub.

I could argue that they are developing math skills (99 requires on-the-fly addition and subtraction) or strategy and memory (Golf and 31 require paying attention to which cards people are collecting and judging probabilities). But in the end, what I enjoy most is simply the time together. Just the two or three of us playing cards.

It’s the simple things.

The Dreaded “Playdate”

#2’s “playdate” today has prompted me to wonder about this odd social encounter between parents with little in common beyond having had successfully reproductive sex at some similar time in the past. I did not grow up with the “playdate” and still have an uneasy relationship with it.[1]

Apparently, “playdate” is a relatively recent term describing yet another way parents schedule their children’s free time.[2] We justify the “playdate” by invoking “safety.” The world is, we fear, too dangerous to leave children unattended. Unattended children are targets for abduction. Unattended children injure themselves and others. This anxiety has pruned childhood of its autonomy and adventure.[3]

There might be other contributing reasons for the rise of the “playdate.” On the one hand we parents no longer wander cities. If we are unlucky enough to arrive somewhere without a pre-arranged ride from the airport or train station to our destination, we hail a taxi. When we travel further afield, we increasingly prefer the full-serve tour packages, which often include organized transfers from airport to hotel. Tour buses filled with other tourists conduct us around the city while we listen to some expert describe the scene passing by our windows. We have acquired a taste for the sanitized, timetabled, air-conditioned door-to-door service, so our children must too prefer the same service. We schedule their “playdates,” load them into the car parked in the attached garage, drive them to their “playdate” in climate-controlled comfort and a DVD playing on the in-dash or in-seat screen. Whether that drive is just a few block or across town.

On the other hand, children’s quotidian experiences have changed. When I was young all the kids on the block as well as the next four blocks down attended the same school. We all walked to school the same way. We all walked home the same way. We cut through the same grumpy old woman’s yard who threatened us each afternoon. Childhood was defined by neighborhoods which were linked to our school by trails of kids walking to school each morning and home each afternoon. Today, as I see more and more parents sending their kids to charter schools or private schools or home schooling their kids, that sense of neighborhood as shared social and academic experience is fading. By necessity and by design kids are bused around incredibly complex networks of bus routes or driven to school by their parents. Today, for example, #2 and I were in the city for a “playdate” with a classmate.[4] While #2 and her friend spend much of their day together, they have no shared sense of neighborhood or social experience. They don’t ride the same bus. They don’t walk the same routes.[5] The kids our street attend more than a half dozen different schools—only two families send their children to the same local school. Even those kids who attend the closest of the schools, a private school roughly at the end of the block, are driven there by parents.

We parents have changed childhood’s topography.[6] In the process, we have also thrust ourselves into strange, sometimes awkward social situations. For me, because I am the more visible parent, other mothers typically arrange the “playdate” with me. I find myself at homes with very nice mothers with whom I have little in common other than, as mentioned, having been guilty of procreation about the same time. The whole experience reminds me of some double date arranged by a friend whose boy/girlfriend had a friend who needed a date. Once again I am fumbling for topics of shared interest, grasping for threads of the conversation when one unravels, trying to be interesting while not revealing so much that might look like a lunatic. Maybe mother-mother “playdates” are less awkward. Perhaps mothers can more naturally find common interests and topics of conversation.

Despite the latent discomfort, I am generally happy to have the chance to get to know these mothers. I have found most of them to be nice, smart people with interesting lives and experiences. In some cases, we the parents have become friends, which is more than I can say for any of the blind dates I endured.[7] I will never be comfortable with the “playdate” and I look forward to when I can stop “playdating,” but I have come to appreciate what it can offer.

  1. For example, I find it hard to say. I prefer convoluted circumlocutions like “I’ve agreed to take #2 to play with a friend today.” or “#1 has arranged to spend a couple hours with so-and-so this afternoon. I’ll take him. Do you want to pick him up or shall I?” I find it equally difficult to write without surrounding it with scare quotes. Just this evening, when responding to an email about my day, I couldn’t bring myself to write the efficient but viscerally off-putting “We were at a ‘playdate’” and wrote, instead, “#2 and I were at her friend’s house in the city.” My discomfort was aggravated recently when I heard two couples arranging another “playdate” for their parrots.  ↩

  2. The OED traces it back to ’70s U.S. parenting (according to Wikipedia, the playdate remains primarily a U.S. term). Like so many compound words, early orthography favored the hyphenated pair. Today, perhaps out of some primal need to fill empty spaces, orthographic convention seems to favor a single word.  ↩

  3. Michael Chabon offers a wonderful reflection on how we have curtailed childhood in “The Wilderness of Childhood.” For anybody over 40, Chabon’s essay evokes memories of an unsupervised childhood. Alone or in small bands children marauded around, played, or just loitered in parks and empty lots for hours day after day. After dinner, streets became once again a cacophony of shouts, skidding bicycle tires, and the “whumpf” of somebody kicking an under-inflated ball. Tonight was beautiful and yet none of the more than 20 kids who live on our block were playing in the street or in each other’s front yards. Now and then you catch a glimpse of siblings playing in a side yard. Now and then I can coax some of the kids out when I’m out playing ball or frisbee with #1 and #2. My presence, apparently, allays neighbors’ anxieties and somehow makes the street a safe place to play.  ↩

  4. For the record: we took the local regional train line into the city and walked from the station to the “playdate.”  ↩

  5. Again, for the record: #2 could perhaps ride her bike to school but it is too far to walk. Her friend lives too far to ride a bike or to walk. Tellingly, however, the school discourages students from riding bikes by providing no place to park and lock bikes. By contrast, my grammar school had racks and racks for bikes, which racks were filled most days.  ↩

  6. Or, we middle and upper middle class parents have changed our progeny’s childhood topography. I would be interested to know if “playdates” are as common in lower income neighborhoods.  ↩

  7. Yet again, for the record: whatever I endured almost surely paled in comparison to what the unfortunate woman suffered. My aversion to “playdates” is merely the latest manifestation of my aversion to dating. I was not only awkward, I rarely hid my indifference and made little or no effort to participate in the social conventions that structure a date, blind or otherwise.  ↩

Don’t Cheer for Average …

Dadmissions worries that Cheering for Average (cross-posted here) sugarcoats the truth (about sports? about life in general?). He is right: sporting events are competitions defined by winning and losing and, by extension, winners and losers. And he’s right, you can’t hide that fact from the players. Kids know whether they won or lost, whether they are winners or losers. Average players are rarely winners. Parents shouldn’t be cheering for average.[1]

But I fear that invoking “average” might be missing the point. That already frames the issue in terms of success and failure as measured by winning and losing. Parents should be cheering for and rewarding and thereby fostering “habits of success” and dedication and perseverance (Seth Godin’s “Red Latern winners”).

While Dadmissions might have been sufficiently motivated to persevere through basketball and football, despite lacking the typical markers of success (e.g., making baskets), most people are not so motivated. Perhaps his motivation stemmed, at least in part, from his fortunate experience of being neither berated nor rewarded for his mediocrity.[2] Maybe his parents, friends, and coaches recognized that demonstrable skill is not as interesting or worthwhile as effort, determination, and commitment. Maybe they helped him develop those “habits of success.”

As a parent, I don’t cheer for average. I also don’t reward “success,” if by success we mean nothing more than having scored lots of goals or baskets, having won a game, having placed first in a running race, or having triumphed at any of the many other competitions that fill children’s lives. I have been seen to reward “failure,” if by failure we mean having missed a shot on goal or a basket, having been defeated in a game, having placed 2nd–10th in a running race, or having otherwise not triumphed at some competition. For me, winning and losing is incidental. What matters to me is learning, developing habits of success, improving.

So don’t cheer for average. Likewise, don’t cheer for excellent. Cheer for tenacity, dedication, doggedness, and stick-to-itiveness. Cheer for the effort and the labor and that seemingly interminable slog—habits that will help kids succeed in life.

  1. Dadmissions is absolutely correct, at least in my experience, that most parents are mindlessly cheering for average. Like some parody of Monty Python’s Every Sperm is Sacred, parents now consider a child’s every performance, every piece of “art,” every word and deed as sacred, good, and priceless.  ↩

  2. This seems a childhood utopia somehow devoid of typical Little League Dads, Beauty Pageant Moms, and peer hierarchies based on athletic prowess.  ↩

What makes a “Stay-at-Home Dad/Mom”

Despite the fact that both of us work full time, I just learned: “Mom’s not a stay-at-home mom because she doesn’t play with us. You’re a stay-at-home dad because you play with us.”

Apparently the criterion for “stay-at-home” status is not whether or not you work, but whether or not when you are around you play with your children.

There’s a lesson here.

Breakfast with the Progeny

This morning #1, #2, and I walked over to breakfast at a local cafe. On the way over we collected “acorns with hats” and imagined what sort of person they would be. We walked across a field filled with goose poop and had a contest to see who could step on the fewest “green worms”—we all lost. Over breakfast we wove coffee stirrers into fences, which enclosed our cups. The fences then became corrals for our acorn-with-hat people. The fences became teepees, which reminded #2 of summer camp (see picture below). The teepees fell apart and had to be reassembled. It was midday before we worked up the energy to stroll home, avoiding the “green worms” but still looking for “acorns with hats.”


Coffee-stirrer Teepee

Parenting doesn’t take a lot of money. It doesn’t require a special kit with pre-cut, ready-to-assemble crafts and hands-on projects. A little imagination, and some time and attention go a long way.