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.

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Why I Go Camping with the Progeny

Cleaning up this afternoon, I found our camping journal. I read a couple pages and was immediately transported back to our summer trips. Then I found this page, which captures all the reasons I take #1 and #2 camping. It does’t get any simpler or clearer than this:

#1’s thoughts during a recent camping trip.

#1 jots down some thoughts during a recent camping trip.

I can’t wait to go camping with them again.

Camping with the Progeny

Over the past year the progeny and I have started camping together. When I first took them, I hoped they would have fun. I could not have predicted how much fun we all would have. Now, once each month we pick some state park and head off for two or three nights. After a couple weeks without a camping trip, both #1 and #2 start asking when we’re going again and where? They pull our Best Tent Camping in Pennsylvania off the shelf and start flagging places they would like to visit.[1]

We take a journal—the Field Notes “Expedition” journal because it’s weather proof and strong—and set of waterproof pens with us each time and each evening take turns writing in it or drawing pictures of things that interested us. I recently looked back at our first journal and marveled at what they noticed and chose to record (our drawings are a bit more rudimentary, but we all mean well).

Looking out over Lake Jean one lazy Thursday afternoon.

Looking out over Lake Jean one lazy Thursday afternoon.

In our hyper-connected society where people check their smart phones 150 times a day (or about 10 times per waking hour) in any context,[2] in our screen-saturated society where it is difficult to escape the barrage of moving images,[3] a few days without cell reception and without electricity is indescribably pleasant. I cherish the undistracted time with #1 and #2, sitting by the fire, hiking or exploring, skipping stones across a pond, turning over rocks hoping to find little creatures, looking at stars, lying in our tent telling ghost stories. The days are filled with conversation and laughter and questions. Just the three of us. I learn a lot about what interests them and how they explore the world. I realize just how wonderful they are—as children and as people.


  1. As we make our way around the state parks we are slowly updating the Best Camping in Pennsylvania book. Stay tuned for a link to a new, “Camping PA” page.  ↩

  2. The Meeker report is the source of this commonly repeated number. The report includes all sorts of other interesting information, e.g., the percentage of internet traffic that is moving to smart phones and other mobile devices, the amount of information we “share” and the number of social networks we use to share that information. Regardless of your thoughts about social networks and (over)sharing, time and attention are zero-sum games. You cannot simultaneously be present in your experience and be sharing that experience. Every moment spent online is a moment not spent offline.  ↩

  3. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey found that people spend another 2.8 hours of leisure time a day watching TV (this doesn’t include computers or tablets). Recent research has raised real questions about the effects of so much time in front of screens (see also the NPR report, “Kids and Screen Time”).  ↩

The Difference Between With and For

Two recent episodes prompted me to think about how parents can confuse doing something for children and doing something with children.

Episode 1:
#1, #2, and I were playing UNO at the local bagel shop. A couple tables over a mother sat across from a father and young daughter. At one point, the mother said: “What do you mean? I do all sorts of things for you.” She then cataloged the many things she does for the daughter: takes her to school and playdates, makes her lunch, takes her to the mall, ….

I don’t know what prompted this response, but I’m going to go out a on limb here and say the daughter accused the mother of not playing with her or not spending enough time with her or not doing enough something with her. Whatever the charge, I think many of us can sympathize with the mother’s reply. Some version of this scene occurs regularly.

Episode 2:
On a whim one recent afternoon #1, #2, and I made gingerbread cookies. Out of the blue yesterday, #1 hugged me and said: “Thanks for making cookies with us.”

In our harried, chaotic, over-scheduled adult worlds it is easy to equate doing for children and doing with them. Taking a child to a “playdate”[1] is, after all, doing something together. So too is taking a child shopping at the mall. But making cookies with children is, I think, qualitatively different. Just as playing with them is, whether sliding down a slide together or kicking a ball or playing hide-and-seek or coloring or whatever.

We have all suffered accusations of not spending enough time with them. We often defend ourselves, entirely justifiably from our adult perspective, e.g., Arguing with a six-year-old. In defending ourselves, however, we lose sight of an important difference between doing things with our children and doing things for them. Our children, by contrast, make a clear distinction between doing something for them and doing something with them.

Children would rather we did things with them.


  1. A term I don’t like and a social encounter that I find awkward at best: The Dreaded “Playdate”  ↩

It’s all about tone

Once we have distinguished between “I can’t. I don’t have…” and “I won’t. I don’t want to…,” we might also think about how we reply to our progeny’s request for attention, both the words we use and the tone in our voice. Do we sound like we are acquiescing, that we are shouldering some parental burden? Or do we sound like we care and we want to see whatever it is the progeny are trying to show us? Do we respond with an eager (or at least engaged) “show me” or with a beleaguered “okay”? We need not be ebullient, exuberant, or giddy. But if we accept our progeny’s invitation, we should be gracious about it. We should probably be happy that they want to share some little corner of their lives with us.[1] Don’t make them feel put upon.

This morning at breakfast, a mother and daughter were sitting across from each other. The daughter wanted to show the mother something—her doll’s clothing, or shoes, or something. The mother sighed, “Okay, show me.” The daughter sort of deflated into her chair. It was clear the mother didn’t really want to see whatever it was the daughter had wanted to show her. The mother asked: “Were you going to show me something?” “Never mind,” the daughter mumbled.

We can’t simply yield to their requests for attention. We have to care, at least a little. And we have to show that we care both in our words and our tone.


  1. It is an invitation, sort of a juvenile version of “the pleasure of your company is requested” or “please join me as I share this important part of my life with you.” We should be flattered, at least a little, that they care about us enough to share, as we generally are when invited to an adult function. And we should be generous when we accept that invitation, just as we are when we accept an invitation to an adult function. All too soon our progeny will find other people who are interested in the furniture of their lives. We needn’t hasten the process.  ↩

“I can’t. I don’t have …” vs. “I won’t. I don’t want …”

The progeny regularly ask for attention at inconvenient times—typically when we are all running late for something or when I have just started a project. I am convinced they have devised a game in which they earn points proportional to some inconvenience factor. I imagine a rule in this game explains:

Earn extra points:
+1 for asking as dad is heading out the door for any reason.
+3 for asking as dad heads into the garage to get tools to work on something.
+5 for asking as dad returns from garage with hands full of tools.
+7 for asking just after dad has stuck his head in some hard-to-reach spot, e.g., climbed under the sink to repair it.
+100 for asking when dad has finally got a wrench or other mission-critical tool in just the right spot and is with his other hand holding some piece above his head while holding the flashlight in his mouth so he can see what he is doing, and he seems, if he’s lucky, to be on the verge of finishing the job that should have taken 30 minutes but has consumed the entire afternoon and has required two trips to the hardware store for parts.

Maybe I’m projecting, but I suspect (or perhaps just hope) that my experience is not unique, that #1 and #2 aren’t punishing me for some past-life crime I committed. In any case, The Mother and I say with some regularity: “I can’t right now. I don’t have the time.”

How often when we say “I can’t right now. I don’t have the time.” do we really mean “I won’t right now. I don’t want to take the time.”? We (or at least I) could do a better job distinguishing between “can’t/don’t have” and “won’t/don’t want to”?

I was reminded of this at 7:45 AM the other morning when #1 was excited about the sprawling network of tunnels the ants in his ant farm had dug (it was really neat, as was the inexplicably bisected ant whose head and trunk lay discarded on the surface while his fellow ants climbed over his metasoma at the bottom of a tunnel). His “Mommy. Mommy. Come look at the ants’ tunnels.” was answered with the standard “I can’t. I don’t have the time.”

The Mother’s response was justified and understandable. Mornings are hectic. Getting everybody ready and out the door takes concentration and focus. Equally justified, however, was #1’s comment: “You always say that.”

Arguments for not dropping everything to fawn over progeny are easy to construct. We are not being selfish if we want the occasional time to ourselves. We are probably better parents and certainly happier parents if we have some “me time.” They are not neglected if they do not get our undivided attention all the time on their schedule and according to their whim. They might learn to moderate their requests and learn to ask for attention when it’s convenient for everybody. But we might also ask ourselves: Are we really too busy? Could we take a minute and look at some ant tunnels? Is our current task time-sensitive or will it wait? Do we need to finish reading that article or do we just really really want some time to ourselves? Maybe. But either way we should be clear and honest with ourselves and our progeny.

When our instinctive reply is “I can’t right now. I don’t have the time.” we risk obscuring the difference between “can’t/don’t have” and “won’t/don’t want to.” We also risk confusing the progeny.

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.