How To Be Wrong

May 12, 2020

This morning one of my daughters was wrong. Shocking, I know, but it happens from time to time.

Our girls have been learning some simple ASL (American Sign Language) through YouTube videos. Our four-year-old, Maeve, who can sing her ABCs but not identify most of the letters yet, has made it from A to C in ASL. As she was showing us the letter D, she was making the wrong shape with her hand.

Evely, our six-year-old corrected her, but Maeve was resistant. Evely offered to replay the video they watch- a little girl who teaches ASL to her mother and then signs and sings an off-key and slightly reggae version of the ABCs- in order to help her learn to shape her D correctly. Again, Maeve was resistant and starting to get a little upset at the idea that she was wrong. She insisted that she would continue to make the D her way.

This is where my wife and I differ as parents. My wife is more of a pacifier. She sees my daughter getting emotional and assures her that it’s not a big deal, she doesn’t have to learn the correct D right now if she doesn’t want to. I’m much less of a pacifying presence. I simply remind my daughter that it’s OK if she doesn’t learn it right now, but… she is doing it wrong and therefore technically is not making a D with her hand. I think it’s pretty clear how that went over. My daughter went into emotional lockdown, buried her face in her stuffed donkey, and only responded in grunts for a few moments.

This is parenting, this is educating, and unfortunately, this is what happens regardless of how you parent or what educational philosophy you follow. There are no right answers in homeschooling (or any schooling), and unfortunately, most of life comes down to these sorts of social interactions where it matters less who is right and matters more how you talk to someone who you think is wrong.

I recently read an article about how to handle relatives who believe in conspiracy theories. Most of the tips (be empathetic, don’t make them feel less intelligent or try to debate each minor point) made me feel like the perfect example of what not to do when confronted with disagreements in real life. It felt like the author watched footage of conversations I’d had, saw how completely unsuccessful I was, and took copious notes to bring back to the others. Empathy in place of condescension. Understanding in place of exasperation.

Whether it’s my daughter or my adult relatives, it’s important to learn how to be wrong. And I’m not talking about them, I’m talking about myself. Being ‘correct’ isn’t the same thing as being in the right. Sometimes we have to be wrong, because we very often are. Even on the off-chance that we did get all of our facts straight (which can also be unlikely), it’s more often the social interaction- and the relationship with those around us- that we don’t want to get wrong.

Roosevelt on Parenting

May 4, 2020

From Morris’s Roosevelt biography, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, came this quote:

…the highest idea of the family is attainable only where the father and mother stand to each other as lovers and friends. In these homes the children are bound to the father and mother by ties of love, respect, and obedience, which are simply strengthened by the fact that they are treated as reasonable beings with rights of their own…

Theodore Roosevelt

Roosevelt is a fascinating case study in family dynamics, and a regular preacher of moral virtue, especially seen in the relationship with his alcoholic, philandering brother. But he was not without his own massive faults.

His first wife died days after giving birth to his first daughter, in the same house and on the same day that his own mother died. Roosevelt went into such a long period of internalized mourning that he gave his daughter to his sister to be raised and hardly looked at her or talked about her for the first few years of her life.

It wasn’t until he remarried (to his childhood sweetheart) that he began to have more kids and turn into the father figure who would eventually write the lines above. His own father was described as both loving and imposing, charitable and demanding, and was always seen by Roosevelt as a genuine specimen of a good man.

Roosevelt himself was raised without formal education for the majority of his early childhood, but being the son of a wealthy New York family, he still had plenty of access to a large family library where he taught himself to read and write. He didn’t attend an actual school until adolescence, and was always said to be the most passionate, energetic, and articulate as compared to his classmates. In his life, he’d become an important academic scholar, prolific writer, and famous legislator, as well as a capable cowboy, rancher, scientist, and soldier.

It’s hard to know exactly how Roosevelt raised his own children, but they are said to have been given a lot of freedom to, like him, follow their curiosities without the overwhelming structure and responsibility hoisted on kids today. They weren’t in preparatory kindergartens or given constant homework. It’s not that respect and obedience aren’t expected, but true respect and obedience can only be cultivated in the presence of free will rather than dogma.

For Roosevelt, one of the most important values under his umbrella term of Americanism was freedom– often seen as expansion into new frontiers outside of the strictures of society. In those days, East meant the stuffy, formal, and even effeminate life of London and the rest of Europe. Roosevelt was a doer- someone who constantly pushed West towards the wilderness. For someone with such a strong internal moral code, he really seemed to believe that morality come from inside, and a man proves his morality when faced with the open freedom of the frontier, and apt metaphor for releasing our own children into the world around them.

Role Play

February 18, 2019

We’re outside in a queue, my family and I, about twenty people ahead of us, along an ancient rod-iron fence protecting one of those perfectly manicured Disneyland garden beds. Behind us come the occasional screams from the Matterhorn, a perfunctory sound that’s been added to my memory after the fact, like a laugh track on an I Love Lucy episode. Every few minutes the monorail punctuates the sky overhead: Disneyland’s inherent nostalgia has protected its own public transportation from being overtaken by Uber or Lyft, at least for now. We’re all in line to meet Mary Poppins, or at least a Mary Poppins, one of a few Marys we see throughout the day. By now, we’ve already met a half-dozen princesses, one villain, and a cartoon dog, and it’s only eleven a.m.

On any given day, there are people who are going to Disneyland (around 50,000 of them) and then there are people who go to Disneyland. Living in Southern California, you become keenly aware of the annual passholder type, much the way you become aware of someone who was just vaping a second ago. It’s a look and possibly a smell. For the passholders, it’s a difference in enthusiasm, but also a difference in how you see yourself and the world around you. A trip to Disneyland is either something you vaguely suffer through for your children’s sake, or something you relish, like a hobby or even an identity.

These days it’s normal to see pop culture behemoths taking the place of religion or group identity. Star Wars and Harry Potter get their own theme parks, temples of worship for an annual pilgrimage of their adherents. Comic book movies now require intricate knowledge of a made-up mythology that spans a dozen interconnected films and television shows each year. Real religious rituals have nothing on Tony Stark and Christopher Nolan. It’s all the same hero’s journey, but Stan Lee and J.K. Rowling just seem to offer a much fresher take than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. At least the special effects are better.

As someone who grew up loving the literary world-building of Tolkien and Lewis, I’m always waiting to see if that next thing I loved as a child is going be given the Transformers treatment. Though if someone could make an honest Tolkien-inspired theme park, one where we mostly smoke pipeweed and listen to trees tell stories in poetic verse, I would get the annual pass.

Speaking of authenticity, I should take a moment to note the mind-boggling professionalism of these character actors in Disneyland. Even when saddled with a stunned two-year-old, their verbal diarrhea of princess-sounding jabber, replete with references to movie scenes and other characters, is astoundingly effective. They ask a few questions along the way, mostly to pause for air, but when faced with a frozen smile instead of a response, they gladly forge ahead as if to ensure that the child wouldn’t later be worried about having made such a social faux pas as standing with their jaw agape. To see them please child after child, an assembly line of successful acting, is to see a performance as captivating and mentally excruciating as Leo wrestling the bear.

As we’re standing in line for Ms. Poppins, we can’t help but watch each group ahead of us. Most are like us, exhausted parents with their overexcited children, stroller full of packaged snacks in tow. But you catch a few glimpses of the others, the I Go to Disneyland people. I notice one such group, a husband and wife in their fifties or sixties, no children, no excuses for taking up precious space in the already too-long line. We get used to seeing this throughout the day- people without children standing in line to meet a Disney character- and it’s unnerving every single time. The older they are, the more unusual it feels, as if proximity to death is in negative correlation to how much fun you should be allowed to have.

And yet it’s in these moments that we see mere role play move into complete role reversal. Mary Poppins, who couldn’t have been more than nineteen or twenty years old, is play acting that infamous adult, her fake British accent dropping references to spoonfuls of sugar or offering to fly a kite in the park. And standing on either side of her is that older couple, smiling like children, posing for a photograph. I just want to shake them and ask them: Who is the photograph for? What will you do with it? Will the husband bring it back to the office to show his coworkers? Will he frame it and put it on his desk? Will the wife post it on Facebook? Will it be part of their Christmas letter they send out every December? What is the picture FOR?

Yet Mary Poppins’ acting is so successful that for just this moment, she’s brought them into her altered reality, she’s made them feel like kids again. She’s brought them back to the childhood moment when they first watched Mary Poppins on the big screen. And I don’t think it’s that embarrassing of a metaphor to say the Mary Poppins must’ve been something like the Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets of its time.

It’s hard to write this down without appearing, without actually feeling, like I’m judging these people. There’s a part of me that wants to pull them aside, let them know that this is all meant for children. That since they haven’t any with them, they shouldn’t be holding up the line because those of us with kids have eighteen more princess-meetings to go before the end of the day. It’s easy to see fun and pretend as the realm of children, and children alone.

What’s worse is that by the end of the day I myself was having fun, a different, though similarly sinister form of fun. I was having the fun that a parent has when living vicariously through their child. Like a dance mom standing in the wings of a stage, mouthing the names of the movements to herself, I was watching my daughters faces light up, and breathing in their excitement as my own.

It’s a reminder of how narrow my lens is, because I’m at a point in my life where most of my time is bound up with my children. The quality of my time is often subject to the quality of theirs. But as they grow older and eventually move on, my wife and I will be alone. Without our kids demanding so much of our time and attention, what will we do with ourselves? We’ll suddenly be so free to do anything. I guess then we could go to Disneyland without the stroller and the snacks and the three-month old baby. I guess that does sound kind of nice.

Charlotte’s Web

January 9, 2019

Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year – the days when summer is changing into fall- the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change.

In the course of one year, new spring to dying winter, Charlotte’s Web explores the feelings that come with facing our own mortality. I’ve been reading it aloud to my daughter for the last week or so, and am struck by its simplicity- both the clarity of E.B. White’s writing and the idyllic farm life he portrays.

It’s hard not to get lulled into the nostalgic dream of pulling up the stakes and starting over on some wild frontier. Fern, an eight-year old girl, is given free rein to roam the countryside, as long as she returns home for meals and sleep. There’s not even a hint in these pages that something bad or dangerous might happen to her. Instead, the parents’ biggest concern is that their daughter sits on a milk stool in the corner of the barn and stares at the animals all day. The town psychiatrist explains that in her age group, most of the boys have far less interesting things to say than farm animals, which sounds about right.

But of course we suburbanites can have a golden-age nostalgia for farm life, seen through the lens of an Americana past, having only experienced it through books or their respective film adaptations. As Charlotte says, “People are very gullible. They’ll believe anything they see in print.” In a world of Snapchat and selfies, it feels easier to hope that your daughter would rather sit in a barn all day, insulated from the Henry Fussys of the world.

Meanwhile Wilbur spends most of the time fretting about his impending slaughter, trusting in his friend Charlotte to save him. As we were reading it I searched my memories for how the story ends. Wilbur can’t die, and yet I’m certain it must end with tragedy, as it clearly foreshadows. And then I remember the unhappy twist at the end.

Remembering that, I found myself eager to finish it. Not to see the look of devastation on my daughter’s face when (spoiler) Charlotte dies, but to watch how she processes it. To see what she makes of the transition from the sad death of Charlotte to the new birth of her children. As someone who thinks about death a little too often, I wanted to know how she’d handle the idea that Charlotte wouldn’t be around forever. Well, of course my daughter was determined to deny it flat out, arguing to me that of course Charlotte will come back by the end of the book, flipping ahead and pointing to the illustrations of Wilbur talking to spiders as proof. Well I would never turn down a chance to talk about mortality to my five-year old, so away we went.

And yet imagine my surprise when it’s Fern’s journey that ends up hitting me so profoundly. Fern has such a good time on the ferris wheel with ol’ Henry Fussy that she turns into a positive brat, whining to her parents for more money to spend with Henry and intentionally missing Wilbur’s big moment. If Charlotte’s death is a useful lesson for children, then Fern’s sudden transition from childhood into adolescence was written for the parent reading along. One one level, the message is the same: seasons change, nothing is forever, so treasure your relationships with others.

We’ve read a few bittersweet books recently. After reading The Giving Tree the other day my daughter said she loved it because it was a “happy and sad one”. That describes everything, it seems.

Camera Carousel

January 7, 2019

I stood next to my daughters as they rode in circles on a carousel. It was the ultimate forced move into helicopter parenting- I’m required to stand there in case my two year old gets thrown from a plaster panda bear, even though she’s four feet off the ground, affixed with a massive leather strap, and all on a contraption moving at the brisk pace of three miles per hour.

As we turned in circles and I searched the horizon for balance, I thought about taking a picture of them. We’d been on carousels before and the natural inclination these days is to snap a few shots to archive as digital proof- See! Your childhood was fun! We gave you magic for only three dollars a ticket! Show that to your therapist when she starts to blame us!

But then I remembered, I already have pictures of my daughters on a carousel, I’m sure of it. One of the girls at least. So do I really need another picture of a kid on a carousel? I mean, it’s not like they’re climbing Mt. Everest here. It’s a goddamn merry-go-round. Maybe if they were actually doing something impressive, like a magic show or a spot-on Christopher Walken impression, then I’d get out the camera. But they’re just sitting there, mildly enjoying themselves.

What would I do with a picture of my kids on a carousel? I could send it to my wife, but she knows what they look like on a carousel. I’m sure she’s taken a few of these pictures herself. She’d get the text message, she might smile, then she’d scroll on by, not even saving it to her phone.

What about sharing it? I haven’t posted to instagram in months, so I’m not going to break that fast with this. Even if I could catch a truly authentic moment of happiness- hopefully with a little lens flare or golden hour glow, find just the right filter, a witty caption and ironic hashtag, etc- what would be my time investment here? One simple picture would turn into a series of jobs that may take my entire afternoon: photographer, photo editor, art director, copy editor, social media strategist. How long is this carousel ride anyway? Could I even look at a phone for more than a minute while spinning in circles? Just the thought of it makes me dizzy and overwhelmed.

So I didn’t take a picture. I stood a few feet away, at the request of my 5-yr-old, who wanted the world to know how independent she was. I watched as they went up and down, as we all traveled in circles between a pretzel cart and an H&M. And I wondered if I’d finally reached peak photography, peak social media, peak sharing. If we’d all start to feel dizzy from spinning in circles, bobbing up and down, staring at our phones.