School’s out, forever?

girl wearing VR headset

COVID at Home: Day 81

My kids are constantly running around the house while I’m on the phone with clients, I usually wind up making apologies to whomever I’m speaking with. Everyone’s been understanding, usually with a sympathetic “I know”. So it’s clear I’m not the only one struggling to work from home while trying to run a daycare and elementary school. I want to get a sense of how other families have been coping the last three months, and share my thoughts on where we go from here.

There are two things that have been made perfectly clear to any parent who has been forced to pull their kids out of day care. One, teachers and day care providers are not paid anywhere near enough what they should, and two, the education system as we know it is completely ill-suited for today’s day and age. I’m limited about what I can do about the first problem, but I do have some thoughts about how we’re going to deal with the second one.

Our daily life

I’ve got two kids, a second grader, Elder, and a rising pre-schooler, Younger. Elder has been finishing out her public school classes via Zoom meetings, which usually run from an hour to ninety minutes in the afternoon. She’s also involved in the gifted program, which is one day a week in the morning. Based on what I’ve seen, the conferences are a mix of the teacher and students chatting, a math lesson, maybe a physical activity, followed up by a reading lesson. I don’t get much of a sense that the focus is on academics, which is fine. The kids need the interaction. Elder’s attention on the lesson varies from day to day. Sometimes I’ll see her sewing, or working on a typing lesson while the class is going on, and I’ve caught her playing video games on several occasions. I usually make her start on the computer a half hour early to do whatever assignment the teacher has, and let her have some free time to play a game after class is over.

The teachers use Class Dojo to communicate with the parents, and Google Classroom for assignments and archived Zoom videos. When the Great Lockdown started, the schools here sent out work packets for all kids. We were originally told that the kids were supposed to bring them back when school reopened, so Elder actually did a lot of them at first. After the second order came out closing schools for the rest of the year, more packets went out, but they’ve mostly languished on a shelf with the rest of the scrap paper. Especially since we figured out how to use DocHub to edit the math PDFs and turn them into the teacher via Classroom.

Younger requires more of a hands on approach. We’ve got flashcards and printable worksheets for letters, although I rely primarily on Khans Academy Kids on the iPad to keep her busy. It has a ton of interactive lessons on letters and words, numbers, stories and such, with rewards for completing them. She likes it, when she gets to browse through the library to pick what she wants, but I prefer that she follow the pre-selected lessons for the day. I presume there’s some sort of algorithm that’s tracking her progress, but she’ll often complain that it’s ‘too hard’ and fall back to picking and choosing stories and songs. I try to keep it balanced, and let her switch over to PBS Kids videos after she’s done twenty or thirty minutes of Khans.

The rest of the day is mostly free time, although I do have a number of chores the kids do, and I try to limit their free time with the television to two hours a day. We live on a quiet street with a big back yard, and plenty of things for them to play with both inside and outside the house. So long as they’re not fighting or destroying things I pretty much leave them be. I try to fit in a bike ride every day, or spend time playing football or soccer, wrestling or other horseplay. If it’s raining I pull up GoNoodle, for some dancing activity, or Cosmic Kids for some yoga. My wife, fills in when she can, and usually does some sort of craft activity with them, while I tend to focus more on their meals and making sure that they’re doing their chores.

Public and private education options

It seems a lifetime ago that Missus and I were looking over summer camps and dreaming about sending Elder off for a week of fun with the Girl Scouts, and plotting which of the grandparents we thought were most likely to take Younger for a few days so that we could have a break of our own. Alas, it is not to be. Since the kids have only been spending a couple of hours a day during the week on “academic” work, my wife and I don’t see any reason why we should change things up and are going to continue their education over the summer.

man using silver iPad

Tobi Lukte, the CEO of Spotify, made a really good point on a recent podcast appearance about the velocity of learning that struck me. He said there’s no limit to how quickly people can learn if they just have the teachers to help them. It is a factory model system, designed to produce workers, not citizens, and to “educate” children as a group, making sure they have the basic skills that they’ll need to perform their factory assembly line jobs.

I’m generalizing, of course. Today’s schools have lots of steps to provide resources and opportunities for both “the gifted” and those with special needs. And there seems to be a trend spreading around the country for academy-type schools with a focus on industry-specific skills. Still, we are still a long ways from wholescale self-paced learning in schools, and there’s plenty of evidence that students perform best when they are able to proceed at their own pace, at their own direction. The public education system is still locked into this factory farming style of learning. They’re trying to change, of course, however the pace of political change at the local, state, and national level, makes this a slow process.

I’ve been reluctant to break away from the public schools for several reasons. One, my wife and are both products of it, and “we turned out great”, as Missus like’s to say. Recently though, as I’ve grown up, I’ve come to realize that is not quite the case, and now, as a parent and engaged adult, I’m more aware of the issues inherent in the system. And besides, the world is not the same as it was thirty years ago. Secondly, private school is expensive. We’ve been spending a large percentage of our annual income on day care for the kids at a “learning center”, and we’d been looking forward to Younger entering public schools so that we could save that money. The savings there during the lockdown have been immense, and are one of the prime factors driving me to home school. It’s for that reason that we’ve ruled out Montessori. Too expensive, and in our case there are too many logistical issues about getting the kids there and arranging care outside of their hours.

And also, there’s a political factor to choosing public school. In my hometown, and in many areas across the American South, many of the private schools are segregation academies, opened in response to Brown v. Board of Education so that white parents didn’t have to send their kids to school with black ones. And home schooling for me has long been associated with religious fundamentalists, who pulled their kids from school to prevent them from being taught evolution or sex-ed. Attending public schools taught my wife and I a working-class, dare I say liberal education, and sending our kids there has been an act of solidarity with the working class. Choosing public schools has been a political act.

COVID, current and future

Of course, COVID has changed how we think about these issues especially within the context of class economics. Not only are the poor being hit hardest by the lockdowns, but it also seems to be making more affluent families such as mine more well off. The disparities between economic class correlates directly to the types of people most affected by the pandemic: aside from front-line hospital staff, essential workers like those in grocery stores, shipping warehouses and meat processing plants are the ones most exposed to the disease and others, such low-wage workers in food service, have joined other furloughed employees on unemployment. Meanwhile, tech and other knowledge workers like my wife and I are mostly uneffected, working from home remotely. And since we’re not forced to go into work, as some are, we are literally saving hundreds of dollars per week in daycare costs. I imagine the same is true for others in higher income brackets.

Beyond the economic effects, I wonder about increasing academic inequality. There’s no shortage of broadband or computers in my house, so Elder has no problem accessing her online schooling, unlike some of her peers who may be limited to using their parent’s cell phone. Then there’s the technical support that I am able to offer to her, and assistance I can provide to her teacher when needed.

And yes, I realize how fortunate my family is.

I already expect that we will be dealing with COVID for another year, likely until a vaccine is available for mass production. A second wave is almost an certainty now that lockdowns are easing, and may force states back into shutdown as cases and deaths rise. Our blue-state Governor seems to be handling it rather well, but I fear others are not. And I am not optimistic about public schools reopening next year, either. There are too many logistical issues around how to maintain social distancing during busing, instruction and lunch times. As one commented remarked, whoever wrote the safety guidelines for the schools apparently doesn’t have kids.

Daycares are currently under capacity restrictions, one teacher per nine children; two for infants. I suspect that most of the spots are being taken by the children of essential workers, or WFH parents who just need a break from the kids. We’re maintaining, and I’m considering keeping the girls home, even if restrictions are eased up enough or we can figure out a way to deal with the logistical issues. If I had to guess, I would wager that the schools will offer parents the option to home school their children, keeping them home, but allowing them to participate in class time via teleconference.

And if not, then I suppose that I’ll be sending Elder off to school, and her sister back to day care as well. Or perhaps not. This summer will tell how well the kids handle themselves. My wife is skeptical that I’ll be able to keep it up permanently, especially if she has to return to work, but to be honest, I’m enjoying keeping the kids at home. I understand the appeal of the home school crowd to have more direct control over their children’d upbringing, and watching them play every day is magical. It’s not all roses though, it is hard. I lose my temper at them and we fight about how much screen time they can have, what they eat, and their chores, but nothing beats spending more time with my kids and watching them grow up. As I’ve remarked often, it doesn’t make sense to work so hard, to spend so much money to pay others to raise my children.

With resources like Khan’s Academy,, and others providing math and knowledge resources, work from home parents have tons of tools available for homeschooling. How many parents like me, forcibly exposed to homeschooling by the pandemic, are going to choose to opt out of the traditional public school system, even after things return to “normal”? Will we once again count on public workers to watch and teach our kids, or we we instead choose to maintain this more direct role in our children’s education and upbringing? For me it’s exposed us to the joys of what some might call unschooling, and we will be reassessing things as the summer goes on, before the kids are called back to school.

Daddy Day Care: COVID Day 64

boy wearing gray vest and pink dress shirt holding book

Well we are off to a good start this morning. Had a bit of trouble falling asleep last night, but woke up (was woken up) feeling pretty good. Got my morning meditation done, my cup of tea in hand, and I’m ready to kick ass today.

It’s still unseasonably cold and windy outside, so we’re looking at being stuck in the house again today. I think I’m resigned to this being my life for the next few months, at least until schools open back up. Part of me thinks that they may not open. I went to pick up Elder’s stuff from school yesterday and the teachers were handing out grocery bags while wearing masks. I can’t imagine they’re going to send kids back to school and try to keep them separated using plastic dividers on their desks or something. And I can’t imagine Younger going back to her preschool and not being able to keep from hugging and touching other children.

The most likely scenario, I think, is that families that can afford it are going to keep their kids in some sort of remote homeschooling class, while the rest are going to have to send their kids into whatever public schools there are, or worse yet, just keep them home. Missus has told me on several times that we’re lucky for my tech background, cause I’ve been able to deal with her and Elder’s technical issues. Lots of other families don’t have the same options, and probably aren’t getting exposure to the limited options that schools are offering. It’s going to increase our already divided nation, leaving a good number of kids behind.

The daily Zoom meetings that Elder is participating in are mainly just serving a social function right now; there’s maybe a half hour of math instruction, followed by another half hour or more of the group reading Harry Potter. Half the time, Elder gets bored and I catch her playing video games, so I’ve tried to redirect her to doing Khan’s or lessons. Sometimes she’ll sit there and sew, which I don’t mind. The longer this goes on though, the more concerned I am about the progress that her generation may lose out on.

Younger is a bit more of challenge. Elder had a great preschool, and I’m not sure where her sister should be, developmentally. She’ll be four over the summer, can sing her alphabet, and knows about a quarter of it by sight. And she’s already riding a bike, without training wheels. Her education right now is me going over alphabet flash cards, doing Khans Kids activities and watching PBS Kids.

The worst part is just the sheer lack of exposure that she has to other kids her own age. It’s like our world has collapsed down to just the four of us, and the proximity forces the worst out sometimes. The children are like two Tasmanian Devils that leave a path of destruction around the house with their playing. And the fighting, Lord, the fighting. The two of them get into it constantly, and it seems that nigh an hour goes by without the one of them pestering the other into a crying or whining fit. It is so exhausting.

Which gets back to being cooped up in the house with them during days of inclement weather, like we’ve had the past three days. They don’t have many outlets for physical exertion, so it usually winds up being Daddy Jungle Gym time, wrestling and such. We’ve been doing GoNoodle a lot lately. It’s still not as good as them being able to go outside and ride their bikes or play in their clubhouse, but what else is there?

I’m about ready to sign us up for being foster parents for the local cat shelter. Negotiations continue with regard to a trampoline, I just don’t want to mar our already packed yard with a fifteen foot monstrosity. I told them that I would consider it once I remove an old stump near the back of our lot, but it just seems like one of those things that will make things harder for us if we decided to move in then next four years.

For now, the kids are watching their morning hour of television, which means it’s time for me to get to work. Hopefully I’ll be able to stick to my priorities today instead of reacting to whatever tickets have come in. We’ll see.

Genius dad

So this is a late post for me today. Woke up the same time as the kids, and forgot to turn my phone on DND before I started meditating, and got a text in the middle of it about an outage at one of Zombie, Inc.’s cornerstone clients. So I felt obliged to take it, and the morning was just shot from there. The day actually improved from there, even though I wasn’t as productive as I wanted to be. So here I am, trying to finish what is for me one of the most important parts of my day. I finished meditating after I put the kids to bed, and I want to put down some thoughts before I get to work on coding. No TV today.

I had a good day with the kids. One of their friends came and knocked on the door. They hadn’t seen her in several weeks, so I let them out for some socially distanced bike riding. I chaperoned. Then after lunch Younger and I took a ride to the pier nearby. She’s totally comfortable on her new pedal bike, only took four or five days. I’m so proud, she’s not even four yet and riding a pedal bike; didn’t even need training wheels. I feel like genius dad.

Elder had a good day also. She had a nine-thirty call with the gifted teacher, which probably broke up our routine for the better. She has this idea that she’s been bringing up for the past couple days about turning the house into a hair salon. I’m trying to humor her but explain the reality about what that really would mean. We also discussed writing a book. She came up with this idea for a story called “Cave of Gold” or “Treasure of Gold”. Her description of it sounds like The Goonies, which we watched over the weekend. I told her the most important thing about making it happen was getting it out of her head and into the real world. We discussed typing it, writing it, and I even showed her some voice dictation options, both on my iPhone and a electronic voice recorder that I have. She wound up writing a scene just before bed. It was a dialog between a mom and an older sibling being asked to take care of their little sibling. Sounded like something right out of our house. Seems like she’s already learned the rule, “write what you know”.

Getting work during the day is hard, though. There’s the distractions from the kids that make most deep work impossible. By the time I actually have the time in the afternoon, my energy is dead. I moved the needle on a few small tasks: ongoing domain migration woes from a crappy reseller; and got a copy of my resume added to my CV site and made a few edits. I’ve got no excuses to start applying now.

I’ve started refactoring my value averaging code. The main function is a hundred lines long, and there’s no tests, so I’m going to to spend some more time on that again today. I run it every day when the market opens. I’m having some problems with it. I give it a list of positions to process, and it takes each one and goes through several steps of calculations before sending a buy or sell order to the exchange. Some of the positions are failing and I’m not sure why, so I’ve got to decouple several of the functions so that I can debug it better. After that I need to pull it out of the package that it’s in and make it a separate library. Right now it’s in my trade plan library, which has turned into a bit of a junk drawer over the past year or so. It’s also tightly coupled to the TDAmeritrade brokerage, and that needs to be abstracted out at some point. I’m getting ahead of myself though.

Tomorrow, I want to get up by six so I can get my meditation and writing done. After the kids are settled in and I’ve done all my morning checks for Zombie, I’m going to focus on the software design pilot project I’m working on there. Then the afternoon, I want to find the best job posted on LinkedIn and apply for it. We’re going to make this happen.

Mother’s Day: Halvening Edition

Today is Mother’s day. Everyone is up and in a good mood — it seems. After I finish this I’m going to make mimosas and cook breakfast. We don’t have anything planned today, but I imagine it’s going to involve a lot of movies and sweets. I’m going to keep the kids productive, though, there are a couple rooms of the house that are in dire need of tidying.

It’s also been over six months since I did the house accounts. I use GNUCash, to keep tabs on the house expenses, mainly the mortgage and utilities, but it also let’s me stay on top of contributions between my wife and myself. She’s put up large lump sums in the past, for the roof and the HVAC, and I have to balance that against my monthly deposits until we’re more or less even. Things are even more complicated because she pays the health, car and home insurance and has also made the daycare payments. We split those payments and I credit her on the house account, but we’re not very disciplined about keeping up with adjustments.

We don’t track groceries or clothes for the kids or anything like that. We tried once using an app, but she just spent more than me, and it became too much of a conflict when it came to buying groceries, or eating out, or buying things for the kids. So we just try to take turns with the groceries and call it a day. We also make our own contributions to the girls. Missus prefers our state’s 529 plan, and I have bitcoin wallets for the two of them on my hardware wallet. Like driver’s licenses, I don’t think the kids will have a need for either by the time their old enough to use them.

I’ve managed the other bills through the joint account, but we’d never been able to keep much of a buffer in our savings. My individual account usually hovered just above water, maintaining tenous balances on my credit cards that I would struggle to pay off each month. She’s since started building it up through her side job, and with the addition of our stimulus payment and a hefty tax return, we’re sitting on close to six months expenses in that account.

I told Missus about my Sixty Days to Six Figures goal, and we wrote up all our debt on the board, which is about two hundred and seventy grand for the mortgage, my student loans, and my car. We wrote it up on the fridge. I also wrote up the current price of Bitcoin, and where we needed the price to be in order to pay all that off. Without disclosing how much I’m holding, I’ll just say it’s between a new all time high and six figures.

One of the responses above reminded me that mortgage interest on a $250,000 house is more than the house itself. It seems absurd now that we would have done such a thing, but given where we were coming from when we bought this place five years ago, I don’t think we could have fathomed any other alternatives. We know better now, so we’re going to do what we can to get out of this trap. And more importantly, teach our kids how not to get caught up in it either. There’s so much that could be written about this aspect of the American Dream, how the banks get rich off of servicing this loan debt, both mortgages and credit cards. The banking economy is driven by this extraction. It remains to be seen whether Bitcoin will fulfill the promise of P2P currency; it looks like it’s getting swallowed up by traditional finance. I am, however, more confident than ever of it’s worth, and am looking forward to the upcoming halving, now in about one day and eleven hours, early Tuesday morning.

Life goes on: Day 51

Life imitates art, as they say, and Groundhog Day is probably the movie that life most represents right now. Life has collapsed to this house, and our street, and while it’s not just me that’s stuck in this time loop but the entire world. Routine has become destiny, and everything seems to be about structuring the day to make things as low-friction as possible. Kids are acting up during morning scrum calls? Move their TV time up an hour so it’s not ending when then call starts. Kids want to horseplay before bed? Don’t forget the afternoon bike ride to let them get it out of their system. Make a little progress on this project, do a little bit here. Pretty soon, ten thousand days will have passed and we’ll masters off the universe.

At the start of this lockdown, I thought I was going to be able to settle into some sort of rhythm between working and taking care of the kids, but deep work is proving impossible to come by; the sisters are fighting. Younger smacked her sister in the face with a doll yesterday, Elder has a mark under her eye now. The crying and whining and yelling pulls me out of whatever I’m trying to do and breaks my train of though. Even now, they’re in the other room. Elder is trying to get her sister to help with some task, and the only way her sister knows how to negotiate is by yelling back at her like some toddler Earl of Lemongrab. I can’t help wondering where they get it from, and fear I know the answer.

The DadPoint bribes have done little to help them focus on picking up after themselves. If anything it’s made me less high-strung about it. Yesterday was a bit much since I slept horribly and needed two naps just to get through the day. We’ll see if today is better. I’ve given them a goal to allow them to get a cat, which Missus and I have been talking about with them for many months, and Elder is very excited about it, although she seems to be more focused on the less routine tasks that I’ve set up for her; mopping the floor is still new enough that she’d rather do that then actually set the table.

Last night in bed, as I was reading about technological unemployment in The Future is Faster Than You Think, Missus remarked that we were so lucky to have chosen the fields that we’re in. “Everyone needs therapy at this point,” she said. I’m still not convinced that the current situation has been traumatic for the kids, any more so than average. We’re just lucky we have a large house with a backyard, and not holed up in some Italian apartment. I can only imagine what that’s like. I keep thinking about the bomb shelters of the Cold War era and thinking it amazing that people thought they were going to survive like that? Life goes on, I suppose.

Grades came in for my numerical methods class: A-. I got penalized because I couldn’t submit my solvers as single files; this was expected. I sent one last email to my professor to try and milk a bit more out of it, I’m not sure quite why, I suppose it was just to say goodbye. Perhaps I was looking for some kind of acknowledgement from him, after much of the extra work I did was ignored. Last night I wrote up a Docker guide for independent study. I have one or two more pages to write, guides for students and faculty on using GitLab for collaborative learning. Degree conferral day is Saturday, and then I will have my BSCS.

I’ve got two retainer clients now, and have a third to sign up. $250/month for two hours a week is not where I want to be in the long run; I’ll start charging more as we start making results. Maybe some project work will come. After I wrap on the schoolwork, I’ll put some more work on the CV site and get a resume posted, then start applying to jobs on LinkedIn and Monster.

Mother’s day is Sunday, and I haven’t bought gifts. I was going to get my mom a pair of socks with my brother and my faces on it — a gag gift — but I haven’t ordered it yet. I think I’ll go ahead and order them along with a copy of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. I think I’ve seen her do everything related to art: craft painting, stained glass, now felting, but I think drawing is about the only thing I haven’t seen her do. My wife, on the other hand, just wants a clean house and sleep.

Parent hacking: Chores with Rooster Money

One of the biggest challenges being home with the kids during “the Great Lockdown” is keeping them out of trouble and keeping them busy. It would be super easy to let them watch TV for eight hours a day, but I’m determined not to rely on that. Missus and I have very different outlooks on this, and it’s one of the ongoing sources of frustration in our marriage, along with what type of food we eat. “We both watched and ate garbage all the time,” she likes to remind me, “and we turned out fine.” While I’ll not argue about our shortcomings in that regard, I think the environment in which we grew up is much different from the one which our children are growing up in, and I think it calls for different rules.

At the risk of sounding like an old fogey, we grew up in the days when cable TV was just becoming prevalent, and video games were fairly primitive. There was no internet, no smartphones, and the battle for attention hadn’t reached the level of warfare that we have today, with cognitive neuroscientists being employed by tech firms to make apps more addictive. And we’ve learned a lot more about how the brains of children form, and how screen time can stunt emotional and cognitive growth. So I try to set limits.

Of course, enforcing those limits is another set of challenges. With the whining, complaining and temper tantrums that accompany them. Trying to maintain consistency, while making allowances for the carrot or the stick type of motivation, is a hard balance to pull off. It’s even harder when my spouse is often all to willing to just let them have it when she needs a break. We’re still working out the kinks.

We’re obviously very privileged to both be working from home. Since her job provides health insurance and provides her less freedom than mine, I’m primarily responsible for the kids meals and schedules during the day, while she’s locked in the office. I try to let the kids play on their own as long as they’re behaving, and try to make sure they get outside time, snacks, and some learning time in. Elder has daily school conferences and some homework, so I try to spend half an hour with Younger, doing alphabet flash cards or Khans Academy Kids before I let her watch PBS for an hour.

The kids are usually pretty good about getting themselves ready in the morning, getting dressed, brushing their teeth and eating breakfast. I don’t want them watching TV as soon as they wake up, so I’m making them wait till 8:30 and have an hour of free screen time. They can have a second hour in the late afternoon, to watch whatever show or play games on the computer.

One of my main peeves is the importance that screens seem to play in their lives. I get especially triggered when they throw tantrums when I ask them to stop a show, or when every day turns into a negotiation around how much they’re going to watch. It turns me into a tyrant.

Today I’m starting something different. I’ve been using the free version of the Rooster Money app for several months to track the kids’ allowances. They get a dollar times their age each week, split between save, spend and give buckets. Spend is (mostly) unrestricted, give is for spending on gifts for others, (we’re not charitable givers,) and save is reserved for treating themselves on their birthday or budgeting big-ticket items. This latter one we’re still figuring out. In addition to dollar allowances, Rooster also allows children to earn “points”, which it also considers a currency, so profiles can’t be mixed between both. Kids can earn automatically as a weekly allowance, or a parent can boost their accounts.

One thing I decided early on was that I was not going to tie chores to their allowance, or use it as a punishment. The whole goal around giving them an allowance was to teach them financial skills. Teaching them work ethic and how to contribute to the household is another thing entirely. Motivating them to do so has been hard. Everything has turned into a transaction for Elder. She keeps trying to demand some sort of reward or tit for tat when I ask her to do something. “I’ll do x if you let me do y,” she’ll say when I ask her to do something. I won’t have it. We fight all the time.

Missus has been having some luck getting them to do work with a “MomPoints” system. She wrote a few tasks up on the fridge’s dry erase, with MomPoint rewards and TV time. It worked great for a while, but it seems like the kids lost focus after a few weeks, and the dry erase has been overwritten. So, this morning, after weeks of delay, I finally implemented a DadPoints system. I upgraded our RoosterMoney account ($20 annually,) created a DadPoints account, and loaded up a bunch of chores. One DadPoint is redeemable for a minute of screen time, and I’m trying to maintain a four to one balance between the amount of time it takes to do the work and the reward. Things shouldn’t be that easy, should they?

It’s going to take a while to tune the tasks and the reward, and figure out the best way to implement this system. Rooster is a bit limited; tasks can be either daily, weekly, or monthly, and I don’t want to have to maintain individual lists for each kid. Getting them excited about helping with the kitchen, doing chores, or special projects that need to be done will prove priceless, and will help remove any ambiguity around what they should expect out of me.

We will see what kind of change this has. Hopefully it will be for the better.

Nothing punny today: Quarantine day 42

So we’ve begun week six. Writing has proved difficult recently, as I’ve been getting up roughly the same time as the girls and have been unable to focus on writing until later in the day, after my day seems to have filled up with tasks. Saturday marked the first real bit of restlessness I’ve felt since we started the lockdown, a bit of ennui and listlessness about what to do.

We’ve rearranged the room over the garage. My wife’s desk is setup and she’s able to telework. I took one of my old workstations and set it up for Elder. I tried using Wine for the first time, but had trouble with some fonts and wound up wiping it an installing Windows 10. I’m hoping she’ll take interest in computer art or music production, but she’s mainly interested in playing Roblox. I gave her a free pass yesterday and asked her what she wanted to learn about. She said “music”, so I threw on a YouTube video lesson for children.

She’s been accepted by the gifted program and will be going to the city’s gifted center for third grade. Her teacher called me Sunday to ask if I would be interested in letting her be part of a small group in the class that would be doing more advanced math, and of course I said yes. I’ve managed to get her to do piano without too much fuss, but I haven’t pushed too much. I can’t say for sure, but it seems that there’s been fewer tantrums.

We’ve discovered Amazon Music and that it has Trolls and Disney music, so the girls have been playing that a lot.

I’m in the midst of my final exam for my numerical methods class, and have been getting my solvers working. Right now the Gaussian elimination is the only one working, and I’ve got 3 more days to get the others working. The professor wants us to generate surface plots in Excel, of all things, and to turn those in for our answers. Since all the solvers are supposed to return the same results, I could just turn in the answers I’ve generated thus far, but I still need to turn the solvers in for assignment credit. The problem here is that I’ve built a large build and test suite in CLion, and my professor just wants a single CPP file that he can run in CodeBlocks. I’ve painted myself into a corner, but I’m not concerned with grades since I think the professor is going to grade on a massive curve.

One of the graduation requirements is financial aid counseling, and I got the first look at my student aid totals in a long time: over fifty-seven thousand dollars. There seems to be some discrepancies that I’ll need to review, but this is obviously a lot more than I was expecting. I hurt myself by taking cash payouts for personal expenses. These went to pay credit cards, and quite a bit to bitcoin. I’ve already accrued five grand in interest charges. It puts my post-graduation plans in a bit more context. The status quo will not hold.

I’ve got until next year before I’m expected to start paying these loans back, but the interest is well over four percent, so the first thing I’ll be looking to do is refinance.

I’ve decided that I need a proper professional presence online, so I’ve registered a few domains and started setting up a new CV site. This blog will remain separate for now, but I’ve started reposting some articles on Medium, and will be linking to my Github repo on it. I’ll worry about the ramifications of a recruiter seeing my Tweets and blog posts later. For now, the only thing that comes up when you Google my real name is my political work, so I’ve got to work on changing that.

I’ve also started trying to use LinkedIn more. There are a lot of jobs for software developers and engineers lately. About twenty new ones a day. I’m not saying I can take my pick, but there’s been about one or two each time I look that I’d be interested in. Not that I would necessarily be qualified for, but once I get through my exam and independent study requirements, I’ll be finishing up my resume and applying to some. Not that I really have any desire to work for another firm full time, but I doubt I would turn down an eighty thousand dollar a year position right now.

Or would I?

Privilege and child rearing

boy sitting near glass wall

Our family has been extremely fortunate so far with this pandemic, and it has reinforced the great privilege that we enjoy. Beyond the threats to our health, this lock down has actually left us more financially stable and brought us closer together. At the same time, it’s proving hard not to raise two spoiled children.

Between the savings from taking our children out of daycare, the stimulus bill payment, and our tax returns, we’re looking at enough cash on hand to pay our mortgage for six months. We’ve been stocking up on groceries for six weeks or so now, and another pickup today has us with more than we need to get though the next several weeks: a full fridge, chest freezer in the garage, kitchen pantry, dining room shelf; and another closet upstairs full of “hurricane supplies. With the help of the LDS food calculator, I’ve even started putting together a prepper list of bulk sized containers of salt, grains, and nuts, as well as stuff I would never have ordered ever, like canned cheese, powdered butter and eggs.

We’re expecting peak infections to start in another week and to run through the first week of May. I took Younger for a ride down the street yesterday, Easter, and saw way too many people gathered together. Lots of cars parked in front of houses. I can’t blame people for wanting to be together; at least the churches were closed. I’ve seen the news, and I’m sure we’re going to be seeing a lot more cases near the end of the month.

Of course my wife is very concerned. She’s been gathering PPE for her union members via social media. One guy donated one hundred 3D printed face-masks; she said the line of people waiting for them when she handed them out today was ridiculous. Still, today she asked me about taking unpaid leave for the next two weeks. I told her ok — more privilege on our part.

Today was Elder’s first day “back at school”. We had a real bad morning with her talking back and had to engage in a battle of wills. I felt miserable about it. I didn’t push anything, but she wanted to do a logic problem that the school had recommended, and I sat down to help her. She got frustrated and wanted to quit, and when I sat down to help walk through it with her we both got into one of our power struggles. Sunday I asked her to clean her room and wound up spending an hour sitting in the hall listening to her wail. I’m not sure what I think I’m doing other than making her dig in, so I’ll need to refine my approach. It’s just that my wife an I have completely different, and somewhat contradictory, parent styles. I thought it would be good for me to have them during the day so they couldn’t play the two of us against each other, and I’m not sure how I’ll feel when she’s working from home and here with us full time.

Just the prospect of it is going to cause some logistic problems. She’ll need a private space due to confidentiality requirements for her WFM approval. The only place in the house with doors besides the bedrooms and bathrooms is the finished room over the garage, which was originally my man-cave and guest bed. It’s going to require some reorganization. We’ll probably lose the bed and bring another desk in. We had planned to put a laptop in Elder’s room, but I’ll probably pull my old Windows workstation from downstairs and make it into something she and I can use for music and gaming.

I’m trying to be less of a tyrant with the things I’m asking the kids to do, but be more firm when I ask them to do something. In spite of the practice I’m working on to be a better parent, I still cannot abide them telling me “no” when I ask them to do something, or being picky about their food. Obviously I’m less strict with Younger, and usually only put her in timeout when she’s making a game of disobeying or having an actual temper, but I think that’s because I can easily pick her up and move her for timeout. Elder is harder to handle. And more likely to fight with me in the first place.

My wife had gone out of her way to make sure the kids had nice Easter baskets waiting for them when they came downstairs yesterday morning, and when we got down the first thing Elder said to her was that Younger had more eggs in her basket than she did. It was my fault, some of them had shuffled between baskets when I brought them down the night before, but the sheer lack of gratitude from her has been an ongoing issue, and one that I’m not sure how to correct. Is withholding the solution? I don’t know.

Elder and I woke up early this morning, she disappeared to her room while I was meditating. Halfway through it I realized she had probably taken a tablet to her room, and saw it missing when I finished. I found her lying on her bed, I asked her if she knew where it was, she said no so I lifted the sheet and found it right in front of her. She had pulled the sheet over it right before I walked in the room. Busted.

We were out of milk this morning, so I told the girls I was making oatmeal with what was left. I think that’s what started the fits, and I’m wondering whether I did it to be petty. I picked up groceries before lunch, they wanted ramen and I told them to eat some rotisserie chicken and leftover carrots and rice. Elder picked at it, which I knew she would, so I picked the meat off the bone and put it in her seconds of ramen. It set her off, which I knew it would.

I told them that they were going to have to get used to eating what we gave them. I don’t want them throwing out food, and I’m not sure that we’re going to be able to get what they like. If it gets to the point where we have to eat emergency supplies I can’t have them being picky eaters. But I guess I should remember the old programming axiom about premature optimization.

You ain’t gonna need it. Hopefully.

Raising successful kids

Having the girls home from daycare has really given me more hands on with their education. The little one is still too little to do much formal learning, but I’ve been trying to engage my second grader with various activities to help drive her creative and technical talents for some time. My wife and I have always made reading a part of their daily routine since they were in utero, and it’s paid off. We got Elder’s acceptance letter to the gifted school earlier this week.

I had behavior problems when I was in primary school, mostly due to me being ahead of the class in some way or another. I can see the same issues with Elder when she’s doing her Zoom conferences with her class. She’ll be distracted by messing with her camera background, painting her face, or working on something else and constantly interrupting what’s going on to chime in with a progress update. It’s hard for me to witness without trying to correct her, so I’ve taken to leaving her alone to it.

Once she had the dexterity and reading skills to starting using the computer and keyboard, I got her a typing game to play. I had one when I was little, and want to make sure she has proper technique. She finished it, but I still catch her two finger typing, so I need to reinforce it, or find something to mix it up a bit. I hear speed typing is a competitive thing now, so I’ll see if she’s interested in that. Of course I realize that voice first is now a big thing, but I want her to have the underlying skill.

To that end, I’ve started asking her to do morning pages. I gave her one of my Ubuntu laptops and set it up for her with Atom, and tasked her with doing twenty five written words, as a sort of morning pages exercise. I don’t put any requirements on what she writes, and she’s still struggling with it. I’m not sure I’ve really made the case for why I’m asking her to do it. She sees me writing these blog posts in the morning, so I think she gets what I’m doing, but she complains about not having anything to write.

Music is very important to both my wife and I. I’ve played guitar for twenty five years, and we both love singing. The girls enjoy their cartoon musicals, and will often make up songs. I wanted the girls to have access to the tools to make their own music, so I bought a ukelele for them early on. It didn’t take — they haven’t figured out frets — so I bought a piano and got Elder doing Playground Sessions. She still complains about it, but I keep encouraging her to push through the lessons. Getting to the point where she’ll be able to play her favorite songs and create her own is hard, but I want her to see through it. Younger seems to enjoy the song modes on the piano, and likes to “play” along with The Muffin Man. Lately we’ve being taking turns with the pre-programmed rhythm and accompinament options and have been holding dance parties. It’s super cute.

I started Elder on’s lessons about a year ago. Most of the exercises are centered around moving a character, say a bee, around a path using move forward, turn right, repeat and while blocks. It was fun working with her to solve the puzzles using the minimum number of code blocks, and one of them took us several tries to optimize.

A few months ago I started picking up a few Python For Kids books from the library and tried to entice her into taking a look at it, but she wasn’t interested. We had talked about making programs for various things, but I guess the timing wasn’t right and we set it aside.

Perusing Barnes and Nobles kids gaming section in the pre-COVID days, I came across books about Roblox among the Minecraft and Fortnite books. So I finally set it up on her shared computer a few weeks ago, hoping to give her an alternative to watching TV. And man, she loves it. I pretty much leave her to it, although I have walked in on her playing shooting games on it. She really gets sucked into some of them: a pizza shop simulator, a mansion building time sink, and some sort of boat builder river obstacle course.

I took a look at the Roblox developer docs; it’s actually a sophisticated gaming platform. It incorporates 3D modeling for the various game assets, as well as Lua scripting for the game logic. Elder and I have spent some time playing with the Roblox Studio, placing models and messing around with terrain generation, then letting her playtest by running around in them. We’ve talked about making a game together, and she wants my help building one. I have to question why she wants to make a hunting game where the goal is to shoot bears and lions and “sell their meat” for money, but I’ll take it one step at a time.

Roblox is free to play, but it does have in game purchases using Robux. You can spend this in game money on items for your avatar, or powerups in game, but we’re not doing that. Instead, I decided to see what we could do by creating our own assets. I found out that you can import and export models from the Studio, so I went and downloaded Blender on her computer. We spent Friday and Saturday night watching tutorial videos on YouTube, and took turns sculpting faces in Blender. I even broke my old Wacom tablet out of the closet to play around with. The package is way to sophisticated for her, but I’m glad she took a little bit of interest in it. She says that she has no interest in any of the animation features, but I can tell you that it’s spurred my interest!

Of course making sure the two of them get plenty of non-screen time is important, so I’m making sure they get plenty of outside time. It’s hard since we’ve been isolating for the last two weeks, cause it’s just the two of them. We’ve been taking daily bike rides for exercise and I’ve been trying to get them to sit through some mindfulness lessons via Anaka Harris on the Waking Up app. It doesn’t seem possible for Younger at this age, but Elder at least seems capable of about thirty seconds max before she starts fidgeting. We’ll see how practice goes. All I can really do now is set an example and try to encourage three to give minute sessions.

I want to wrap up by mentioning a Knowledge Project podcast I listened to yesterday with Esther Wojcicki, author of How to Raise Successfull People. Ester’s learning model goes by the acronym TRICK, for trust, respect, independence, collaboration and kindness. There’s a lot of good points in here, although, as other’s have noted, Esther’s privelege and affluence is quite grating in some respects. Still, it’s something that I shared with my wife last night and am going to share with the girls also.

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.