Creating balance for my kids

I assume, that, much like 911, life will come to be known as before COVID-19 and after COVID-19. Today is, different, and I’m trying to be as conscious as possible about how this new life plays out. The chart above is one my wife posted in response to a question from someone stuck home with two small children about activities they can do to keep from going crazy, and I’ve already started making a list in my head of things I want my children to do.

I had a conversation with my oldest last weekend where I tried to explain the importance of attention. There’s a quote I kept seeing in the Waking Up app: “There’s a multi-front war on our attention, and we’re losing.” It’s resonated with me. I thinking about it much lately, whenever I’m feeling guilty about spending too much time on Twitter, or when my youngest is trying to get my wife to pull her nose out of her phone. But what especially irks me is the way my children act with regard to the television.

My oldest does not exhibit much, let’s say, resiliency, when it comes to not getting her way. She’s very prone to defiance and tantrums, and entitlement. Lord, the entitlement. Especially around television. I’ve tried various tactics over the years, both the carrot and the stick. I’ve put it (the television) in “timeout” for one or two weeks, we’ve tried Friday to Saturday night Shabbats. Lately I’ve been allowing them thirty minutes right after they get home from school that they can have a show, with the understanding that they’ll do their chores without any fuss afterward. Even that is starting to lose it’s efficacy.

As part of our drive to FIRE (financial independence, retire early), we’ve cancelled all of our subscription services, Hulu, Prime, and Netflix was the last to go a few weeks ago. The library has an app with short films and movies, mostly non-Disney animated versions of fairy tales, that they’ve been enjoying, and I recently purchased a ProtonVPN subscription so I can torrent anything else that we really want to see without worrying about my ISP cutting off service.

We take them to the library weekly, usually leaving with twenty or more books. My girls are readers, that is for sure. My wife and I are voracious readers, and we’re both glad to have handed that habit down to them. And my oldest has finally found something that she likes better than watching TV: Roblox, which I would describe as a Minecraft-type game.

During our conversation last week I tried to explain to her the difference between active and passive activities, why TV was a passive one and doing things like Roblox and learning apps was was not. It was a Saturday morning, and she had already spent more than half the time she’d been awake watching TV, and I tried to tell her that I wanted her to have some balance. I tried to sketch out a pie graph to show her what her waking hours looked like and what I thought a good balance between active and passive activities, screen times and chores, inside and outside play. I’m not sure how much I got through her head before she lost interest and started fidgeting, but I think some of it stuck.

So we’ll use the activities chart as a starting point, but make it a bit more dynamic. We’ll play with the timing and activities and see how things go for the kids. It’s also not a bad idea for me to put something together like that for my own time. I’m going to have to keep focused also.

Dad blog

My kids are so different from each other. Some researchers have used birth order to describe some of these differences, but I tend to think that stress hormones during pregnancy and early childhood are more responsible. During my wife’s first pregnancy, we were living in a small, seven hundred square foot home in a lower income area of town. I lost my job several weeks before she was born, and was unemployed for three months after she came to us. In some respects, it was good to be around to help with the baby during those first couple months, but the stress of the firing didn’t help my wife relax.

Like all first-time parents, we didn’t know what we were doing. My wife worked in daycare when she was younger, and studied early childhood education when she was younger, so she has more experience dealing with kids that I do. Still, we fretted over sleeping arrangements, worried about SIDS and whether it was safe to co-sleep. My wife nursed, and the constantly re-evaluated whether to have a bassinet in the bedroom, keep the kid in her crib, or let her sleep in the bed. Her maternal instincts were often at odds with my sleep needs, and I was constantly trying to sleep train the kid.

After our daughter was old enough that we could start thinking about weaning, I ferberized our baby. This procedure, named after one Dr. Ferber, hypothesizes that the reasons young children have problems falling asleep is because they aren’t conditioned to do so on their own. Ferber’s method is to leave the child alone in their room for increasing lengths of time, five, ten, fifteen, and so on, until the child finally falls asleep on their own. I had no problem following this plan. Listening to my child cry for a few minutes in order for the promise of sweet, sweet, sleep for my wife and I was worth it. My wife, however, found it very difficult to bear.

The first night, it took me over forty-five minutes for my daughter to fall asleep, so it must have been when I set my timer for twenty minutes. After a few more nights of progressive success, our child was able to go to sleep without much fuss. Now my wife and I have differing accounts as to the ultimate success of my attempts, so whether she stayed asleep throughout the night or whether this is all a sleep-addled delusion on my part is very well up in the air.

We moved into a larger house before we decided to have our second child. The two girls are four years apart in age. I’ve been gainfully employed since our first was born, and my wife scheduled regular prenatal massages during her pregnancy. And the way we’ve handled our second daughter has been completely different that our first. First off, we were way less worried about SIDS, and my wife eventually began co-sleeping very early on, purchasing bed rails and special pillows to prevent any falls. We introduced daughter number two to solid foods very early, letting her gnaw on large pieces of vegetables long before she had teeth. And my attempts to sleep train her have been rebuffed by my wife.

I must have spent well over a year sleeping on the guest bed, giving my wife and younger daughter the master king size to themselves. My daughter had a tendency to sprawl horizontally across the mattress, pushing her feet or knees into my back. And she also wants to fall asleep with an arm or leg on top of me or her mother, and sometimes, if she finds that she’s not in contact with one of us, she’ll swing an arm across her body. I’ve gotten more than one hand across the face after coming to bed.

So she’s almost four now, and even when we get her to fall asleep after laying with her in her own bed. She always wakes up a few hours later, crying, before coming to find her mother. My oldest child has no problems falling asleep know.

All of this is just a long way of getting to the point about the differences between the these two during the rest of the day. Our oldest child is very difficult, mostly pessimistic, and very headstrong. My wife, taking the feminist perspective, says this latter quality means that she’s got leadership potential, but we both agree that she is extremely negative and unpleasant. I struggle with her behavior. My parenting style, inherited from my father, is rather authoritarian. She rebels, much as I did, and I’ve browsed books on child behavior with words like defiant and oppositional in the title.

Number two is like the sun to her sister’s moon. She usually cheery, happy, and helpful. This morning I was meditating while she was in the kitchen eating breakfast. She was having a conversation with herself and imaginary friends, singing songs, making up stories. It was all so rapid-fire, and it make me think about the so-called monkey mind that I meditate to quiet.

That’s not to say that daughter number one isn’t beautiful and fun to be around. I just wonder if we broke her somehow. I read once about childhood stresses causing changes in the amygdala, affecting behavior throughout life. It causes individuals to be very responsive to stressors and respond negatively. I would also describe it as a lack of resilience.

So she’s a challenge, as all children are. My boss has two girls who are both in their teens, and he listens to my stories and responds with a “you have no idea what you’re in for”. Perhaps not, but all I can do now is be the best dad that I can be, give my girls my love and do everything I can to make sure they have the skills to be kind to others and successful in life.

Parental payback

I’m not sure whether it’s seasonal affective disorder or just the holidays, but I’ve had a bit of ennui lately and have had trouble keeping up with things. I know it all stems from bad behaviors tending toward staying up late which has just been screwing with things the next morning, interfering with my good morning habits. I’m sure I could come up with lots of excuses as to why I didn’t exercise or have been consuming lots of sugar, caffeine and alcohol; staying up late on screens and so forth, but I’m not going to bother justifying it.

One of the thing that I’ve learned from meditation is the illusion of the self, specifically the storytelling that we all do to ourselves throughout the day to try to make sense of our lives. Our post-hoc justification for the way things are the way they are, or our apparent lack of free will. It’s so easy to fall back into old traps, old habits, and living with the cognitive dissonance between the way we are and the way we want to be can be disorienting if we pay too much attention to it, so we find ways to justify the way things are.

When I was younger, in my adolescence, I used to have these unhealthy behaviors with relationships — for whatever passed for relationships back in high school. Part of it was an inability to communicate, or even be able to acknowledge what I wanted, let alone express it when it came to another person. Eventually these unrequited feelings poisoned the relationship, a pattern that played out time after time until later in my adult life. I still struggle with it in my marriage now. But a few experiences opening up over the past few years have proved that a lot of the fear of acceptance that I might have felt were unfounded. It seems silly to say it as someone who has been married for almost ten years, or almost sad to thing that feelings of self-worth that I formed as a child are still affecting my ability to be happy as an adult. It just emphasizes the huge importance of being a parent.

Ultimately, I feel like I’m failing in that respect in some ways as well. It’s easy to slip into detrimental patterns in response to the way my children act, and it’s tiring to pay them the proper type of attention that they need. I have this need for authority in my household, for my children to obey and help with things like setting and clearing the table, doing laundry, and so forth. My children are so young, though, I wonder whether I’m pushing them too hard, but I always suspect that I’m not pushing them enough. I could tell stories for hours about my own experiences growing up, and I’m just emulating the behaviors that my father expressed, even though I have plenty of first-hand experience with how that backfired.

Or did it?

I won’t say that my dad was abusive. We get along fine these days. He just has a lack of, how do you say, couth, in many respects that I’ve managed to escape, thankfully. But he no doubt grew up in a much different world than today, and his daddy’s method of discipline would no doubt be considered child abuse today. Somehow, though, I feel like I’m failing as a father whenever words and reason fail me and I have to resort to physical discipline. But there are some times when my child just will not listen, becomes belligerent, and it feels like backing down is the wrong thing to.

My wife is a bit of a trained professional when it comes to kids. She’s worked in daycares and counseling with a background in early childhood development. I didn’t know shit about kids until I had one. She tries to tell me what’s ‘appropriate’ behavior for their ages, but even she resorts to less than ideal responses when our kids are being particularly difficult.

When I was younger, back home in the rural county where I grew up, I was around my cousins almost all of the time. We used to take great pleasure in driving the adults around us completely insane. Acting up to see how we we could push the limit, driving the adults around us to cursing and yelling. We thought it was a game.

Turns out payback is a bitch.

Gaming for dads

I have been a gamer literally all my life. I remember my dad’s IBM PS/2, it had a game that taught me to type, it was like missile command but letters were falling from the sky: a, d , s, f then later: j, k, l, ;. There was another that I was horrible at, it was a robot that turned into a jet and flew around in some underground cavern with enemies. Then came the Nintendo, the Gameboys. Final Fantasy and Mario Brothers. The second-gen consoles, then back to the PC and simulators. Practically taught myself to fly a plan for real — I have the video to prove it! — and still waiting for an opportunity to take a car out on a real track.

The height of VGA excellence in 1987. I was eight.

Anyways, I don’t have time much for games these days. Not with the side hustles and other projects going on. What I have enjoyed is playing games with the kids. I’ve managed to avoid most of the Candyland and Chutes and Ladders type of games, for the most part. I taught the older one to play Carcassonne. Not that she’s good at it, mind you, but she can at least get the hang of it. Forbidden Island was another that she likes to play, although it’s mostly me directing and doing most of the work. So of course I went out and bought Pokemon for eldest’s last birthday, and ran through a couple games. Takes practically 90 minutes with all the setup and stuff, which is hard to do with the little one wanting to have a hand in it. So I put on the computer version, and so far we’ve been pretty good with that. Safe, from a parenting perspective, but the Pokemon show, and the books, are about the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen. Not to mention the other copycat shows with things like fighting tops and whatnot that are all designed to sell crap to kids. Of course, G.I. J.O.E. and He-Man were just as bad, but we’ll leave that for another day.

So anyways, I decided to let the eldest start taking a play through some of the games on my Steam collection. I put on some simple, E for Everyone things that I thought she would enjoy, and she eventually took to Hexcells, a great logic puzzle game, and has been playing through that for the past couple weeks. Just an hour on Saturday or Sunday. Eventually she started getting up early during the week, doing her chores without asking in order to play for fifteen or twenty minutes before we go into daycare.

Well earlier this week I heard about WOW Classic getting released this month, and I thought I’d see how well she did with that. We had a bad experience with Minecraft where she kept getting killed by zombies and got really frustrated and I had to cut her time short due to a tantrum, so I wanted to keep a close eye on her and see how well she could do with a close eye on her. So I created an account for her, enabled parental controls, — no chat, time limits — and let her play Hearthstone while WOW downloaded. She got the hang of it after an hour. Not that she was very tactical about it, but she managed to play through the tutorial and and a few practice rounds with me peeking over her shoulder and explaining things. So I thought everything was cool.

We took a break and I told mom what we were up to, and BOOM!! Big fight. “World of Warcraft is not appropriate for a six year old!” “Well, maybe, but I’m gonna watch her and play with her and see how she does.” “World of Warcraft is not appropriate for a six year old!” “Well, I turned off the chat and put on a time limit so…” “World of Warcraft is not appropriate for a six year old!” And things just went downhill from there until I was repeating back “World of Warcraft is not appropriate for a six year old”.

So we were done with games for the day, so I cooked dinner, went outside with the kids to let them play while I read, and they went inside while I finished reading, cleaned up, and snuck in an ice cream sandwich. I went inside, to find the three of them sitting on the couch, watching Jupiter Ascending, with guns and shooting and blasting and torture and all kinds of other stuff.

I just sat on the couch and read my book till it was time for baths.

On parenthood

I haven’t written too much about parenting, or being a dad, in this space. Maybe because more than half a decade being one, I still feel like I’m not very good at it. There’s a saying I’ve heard mentioned about meditation: if you think you’re enlightened, spend some time with your family. And my kids can push my buttons like no ones business. I suppose it’s only my fault. I was a grade-A hellion when I was younger, taking absolute pleasure driving the adults around me batty. I remember my cousins and I would take immense pleasure driving our grandmother to swear at us. And I seem to have to inherited the paternal authoritarianism that I rebelled against when I was a child, having turned into some sort of dictator toward my children: driving them to take over more and more of the daily household chores; limiting their dietary choices away from sweets and carbs; depriving them from screen time, or at least the passive kind.

I don’t suppose any of this is worse than what most parents go through, I surely don’t think it’s anywhere near the type of corporal punishment that I used to receive when I was younger. Yesterday’s newspaper headline told of a mother sentenced to 20 years in the death of her five-year-old after his head was knocked through sheet-rock. I know there’s monsters in the world, and I know I’m not one. But damn if my kids don’t test me some times.

It’s a bit paradoxical that it seems almost easier to handle the kids when it’s just me, versus when my wife and I are sharing parenting duties. I think part of it is due mostly to differences in parenting style, but I really think that the kids are playing us against each other in some respects. Not just that standard kid stuff where I’ll say know so they’ll go and ask mom instead kind of stuff, but just knowing on some level who is likely to let them get away with horseplay (dad) or who’s more likely to let them eat crackers on the couch while watching TV (not dad).

And the tantrums my oldest gets when she doesn’t get her way! Every denial is a betrayal and is the END. OF. THE. WORLD. Taking away TV is like the worst possible thing on earth, and the mere suggestion that she turn it off to do a chore can turn into a maelstrom of whining and pouting.

So it’s with mixed feelings that I have to say that things actually tend to go a bit smoother when the girls know it’s just them and dad. My wife has been out of town since Friday, and I’m proud to say that we made it through the weekend alive. I’ll have to save the glamours of 2AM bed-wetting for another day, but I am pleased to report that it is 9:30PM and both of my children are in bed asleep. In their own beds.

My wife and I definitely differ on sleep strategy. She’s content to lay down with the youngest for ‘nuggles’ until she falls asleep, but the process of getting the girls down for bedtime to dreamtime can run two hours, and I’ve got stuff to do, y’know? And the youngest knows that daddy doesn’t want her to sleep in the big bed. So much so that if my wife is home and I try to bring the youngest upstairs for bedtime, she will scream bloody murder to no end, until eventually mommy will come and get her. But with the wife gone, it’s a completely different story.

There’s been a bit of sleep deprivation here lately, to overcome any challenges to night-night time. No nap today and plenty of activities to wear her down, and she was ready before dinner was even on the table. And with half a melatonin gummy for dessert, she was out before the sun went down. And she’s already been up a few times since then, but went back down in her bed with no fuss. And I didn’t even half to lay there with her while she did it.

Sounds like a win for me.