Wednesday, September 29, 2004

The Smart Kid

I was "the smart kid" in school. I got the best grades, knew almost all the answers, raised my hand all the time, etc. I was the Hermione Granger of my time, only I was a guy and didn't even have to study the way she does. My lovely wife claims she wasn't that way in her school (something I doubt -- I suspect she was bored), but she does have her PhD and can see way deeper into a millstone than most (unless she's looking for her keys, but that's a different sort of thing).

So while there were no guarantees it would happen, Jacob was very likely to get a double dose of the gray matter. So far, that seems to be the case. We met with his teacher today for the regularly scheduled parent-teacher conferences at his school. And with one small exception, he's tops in everything. When it comes to reading, he's actually off the scale. Her main concern is keeping him from getting bored.

Pardon me a second while I strut...okay, I'm done.

Now, I do worry about this a bit. By the time I was in 4th grade or so, I had learned to wait and see if anyone else had raised their hands before raising mine. I'd also learned to be very careful about the answers I gave. I wasn't wrong much, but when I was wrong, people seemed to enjoy it a lot. It wasn't as if I was ridiculed for being smart as much as people resented what they saw as showing off.

And I did get bored. Eventually, I took to reading in class after being done with work and daydreaming a lot when the teacher spoke about something I already knew. And I think either thing can cause a kid to get turned off from learning. It didn't happen with me, but it could have.

I don't want my son to have to deal with either of these issues. In many ways, I think schools (at least the ones around here) seem to have striven to deal with that, but there is a limit to what they can do. And I really don't have the foggiest idea what I can do to help out.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Not for My Convenience

One thing that has become something of a refrain in the modern era is the issue of kids and their activities keeping families constantly on the go. I'm not sure who new this is; my wife describes times her mom spent the entire day shuttling her, her two sisters and her brother from one thing to another. Things weren't so bad in my family, but then I was an only child, and in my two-horse town, there wasn't a whole lot to do outside of school activites and the Little League.

Early on, my wife and I decided that we were going to restrict Jacob to two activities at any one time (preferably one physical and one cerebral), to prevent precisely that sort of shuttle existence we read about and occasionally saw. For about two years he did gymnastics, which he discovered while at the birthday party of one of his friends (a local gymnastics school allowed members to have birthdays there, pretty good way to drum up business). At the end of the summer, though, he finally tired of that wanted to do karate. I promised to look into it.

But before karate could happen, he expressed an interest in music. And so after some discussion, he began taking drum lessons about 8 weeks ago. He seems to have a reasonable aptitude for it. So we do that one day a week, plus 15 minutes (minimum) practice 4-5 days. And the time has come for me to get him ging on his karate classes. I've even done my due diligence and selected what seems to be the best place around. But karate is not a one day a week thing; its a two day thing. I hadn't known this at the time.

Which means that three days a week we will be trekking somewhere for an activity, not the two my wife and I originally had in mind.

I confess this issue has almost certainly caused me to procrastinate getting him in a class. Oh, I've had my excuses; wait until he had settled back into school, this was a week too busy for me to deal with the karate people, etc. What I'm really dealing with here is a desire to keep my own life simple, not his.

And thus I am reminded of something important. Despite our responsibility as parents to set appropriate limits, our kids need to be allowed to live their lives for themselves, not for our convenience.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

I Coulda Been a Contenda!

I've discussed mostly nice things about being a stay at home dad, so I suppose its only fair to consider some downsides as well. Or at least potential downsides.

At all but the most toxic of workplaces, you have a group of friends you can commisserate with. You go to lunch, you occasionally have a few beers after work, stand around the coffee machine, that sort of thing. Naturally, no workplace, no circle.

Granted, there are these sorts of groups, where dads can get together to recreate that workplace socializing. And some guys seem able to break into and be comfortable in the "mommy club" (for lack of a better term).

The other possible downside is a bit more tricky, and also, I think, a lot more insidious. Let's call it the "mid-life crisis". Most of us have something that we're good at. Some of us even know what it is. And most books about getting the right job try to find a combination of things you can do and things you enjoy doing.

While I think most people enjoy parenting, I would hazard a guess that relatively few think they have a flair for housework (for lack of a better term) or that their talents run in that direction, or that they truly enjoy sweeping the floors and folding laundry.

At some point, sooner or later, I think for a fair number of people the question has to arise: "Is this the best use of my abilities? Am I wasting my talents?"

There is a distinction between someone who "works from home" and someone for whom home is the work. And sometimes figuring all that out can be relatively easy. In his entertaining book Housebroken, writer Dave Eddie quickly realized that he was not a good fit for almost any kind of typical job, and that his wife was better suited to be the family breadwinner. He became a writer/stay at home dad.

For Dave, it was fairly easy. But if you read Po Bronson's excellent book What Should I Do With My Life?, we find a lot of other people, some of whom did not find it so easy.

No one wants to wake up ten years later feeling like they made all the wrong choices, and stay at home types are as vulnerable to that as anyone else. It's a truism that no-one facing death ever seems to say "I wish I'd spent more time at the office" but somehow I don't you'd be human if you didn't sometimes wonder if you would have been happier or more useful to society doing something else.

Certainly this is a feeling anyone can get, but I bring it up because I think stay at home dads are likely to be particularly vulnerable to it. There is a tendency, I think, for people to sort of "end up" in careers they had neither expected nor planned for. Sometimes this works out great, sometimes its neutral, but it can be disastrous.

Some SAHD's have already thought about it, and power to them. I'm thinking about it now myself, wanting to be sure whatever I choose to do is what I want to do and what will be best for my family. You be sure and think about it too.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

The Cable Monster

This isn't a problem unique to SAHD's, but its one you're going to have to deal with. Television. How much of it? And for that matter, how much computer time, playstation time, and whatever else is out there that isn't akin to white-water rafting followed by a ten-mile hike in full packs.

People like to complain about how much TV kids watch, and what they watch, but who's in charge of the TV? Hmmm? Helloooo? Yeah, you are, and as tempting as it is to just park the little beasties there as long as they want, we all know we really shouldn't do that.

We decided that our son can have two hours, total TV and computer time in a day. How he splits it up is up to him, but that's all he gets. There are exceptions for special movie nights, colds and injuries, rainy days, sick dads, etc, but the point is that there is a limit.

And in addition to time limits, there are limits on what he can watch. Well, no duh, we aren't going to let him check out Naughty Night Nurses or pretty much anything on Spike TV, but even kids programming can be exceptionally lame or even offensive to my wife and I. And very little of it is educational in any sense of the term. SpongeBob is reasonably inoffensive to me, but its just cotton candy. And our view is, if we limit his time on the TV, what he does watch should be of some redeeming value.

It gets trickier as they get older. As insipid as it is, Barney (is that still on) and its cousins do fairly well at hammering home the idea that you should be nice, share, etc. But these shows tend to be for the really younger crowd, from 2-4. You have to move on, and find something else that might engage their minds and be entertaining. We're not trying to run a joyless Gulag here, after all.

PBS kids shows (once you are safely past the Barney stage) and the Disney Channel are pretty safe if not always terribly inspired. A lot of the Nickolodean shows are actively good, like Blues Clues and Dora the Explorer.

Other shows that I found really good in the past, in that he liked them and they actually taught you something besides "be nice to people" were shows like Stanley on Disney, Liberty's Kids, now syndicated on the WB (previously on PBS), the Magic School Bus (also a way cool set of books. Note there are two sets, the originals, plus newer ones based on TV show episodes) running on The Learning Channel, and right now, CyberChase on PBS.
Stanley is about a 6-year old who loves animals, and each episode contains two short stories where Stanley learns something about life via animals.

Liberty's Kids is a totally cool show covering the American Revolutionary War, from the Boston Tea Party through the creation of the Constitution. Its seen mainly through the eyes of three (miraculously non-aging) kids who are apprentice newspaper reports for Ben Franklins Pennsylvania gazette. It strikes a nice balance between being rah-rah and noting the occasional warts of the Americans.

The Magic School Bus (theme song sung by Little Richard -- no joke) is about the science adventures of a class and their wacky teacher Ms. Frizzle. They get shrunk, go back in time, inside volcanoes, etc. learning about all sorts of science stuff along the way.

Cyberchase is a a show about three kids who work to foil the schemes on the evil Hacker to take over the cyberworld. Along the way, it does a cool job teaching math and logic concepts.

As I noted earlier, kids grow.

Some of this stuff (the Nick shows especially) are not geared for a 6-year old. Jacob finds them boring and babyish. Perhaps in some cases its just because he's seen every episode ten times. Even little kids have their limits when it comes to repetition.

Timing is a bit of an issue as well. Magic School Bus comes on at 7:35AM CST. Jake is on the bus at 7:15. School starts at around 8AM all over the state of Texas. MSB is a great show, but who's watching? The Mountain and Pacific Time zones, I suppose, but those of us further east are stuck unless we Tivo it or manage to work the VCR. Other of the Nick shows come on later, geared to younger stay-at-home kids.

At our house these days, we do CyberChase at 6AM, then follow it with part of a VCR or DVD rented from Blockbuster for the remaining half-hour. We let him watch these things while eating breakfast, getting dressed, and generally emerging from the early-morning coma that characterizes my wife's side of the family (she jump-starts the process by fixing a double-size mug of coffee that probably violates certain FDA regulations) and also affects me to a lesser extent. Without the tube to provide him a bit of groggy focus, I truly think he would fall right back to sleep, face-first into his organic-wheat waffles. And we're putting him to be about as early as we can already. When he gets home from school, he typically hits it again until time's up or his buddy from across the street comes over (TV and/or the computer always goes off if someone comes to play. That rule is iron-clad), and depending on homework, etc.

So anyway, think about your kids TV, give my shows a try, feel free to suggest some others, and remember that, when in doubt, Scooby Doo is eternal.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Food Selection Issues

One thing about doing more of the shopping on your own is that you pay more attention to labels. And you really start to wonder about how things are presented. "Fruit snacks" for kids are an example. They generally say the things contain real fruit juice and are a good source of vitamin C. A better source than what they don't say. I suppose 10% of your child's daily allotment of C isn't bad for a little bag of chewy things, but you pay for that with an insane amount of sugar.

Don't get me wrong, I'm no sugar Nazi (my morning tea or coffee probably contains enough sugar to power the local hummingbird population for weeks). But its kinda crazy to present these snacks as healthy when they really aren't much more healthy than your old-fashioned Hershey's chocolate bar.

Organic foods are a small but fast growing segment of the food industry. I don't think I had even heard of the organic food movement before I met my wife, almost 10 years ago now. Granted, as a certified sandal-wearing graduate of Cal-Berkeley, she had a head start on me. After many years of shopping together and being alternately enlightened or befuddled by the nomenclature, I've begun to garner a better appreciation of all this.

The basics of organic are: no chemical pesticides, no artificial fertilizers, no antibiotics, no growth hormones, etc. etc. As close to natural as possible (there many variations, but let's stick to the simple case for now). I suppose the exemplars of this trend are the grocery stores like Whole Foods. WF sells non-organic stuff as well, but its all pretty clearly labeled. And they are one of the fastest growing grocery chains in the US.

Organically grown food is still a bit boutique. I'm not sure we can feed the whole world this way, but I'm happy enough to do my bit for the environment by spending a little bit more.

Trish had told me that orgo chicken tasted better than regular. Swore by it. To be honest, I'm not sure I was able to tell the difference. But you know where I can tell the difference? A big difference? Beef. Orgo beef tastes better. Whether because its grass-fed or all the other stuff, its just flat tastes better and is more tender (tenderer?) to boot.

So I seek out the natural beef products when shopping. And I treat "fruit snacks" like candy.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Clean Up on Aisle 4

Because it makes sense, I do most of the shopping these days. Grocery shopping is one of those skills we guys sort of lose upon marriage. Well, I did anyway. Granted, this assumes I ever really had grocery shopping skills to start with, which is not certain.


Once you're doing this again though, you realize the importance of the List. If you don't have a List, you're to buy all kinds of stuff and get home to discover that no matter how hard you try, potato mix, rice pilaf, and cous-cous simply don't add up to a satisfying meal. So you've spent twice what you should have, and all you get out of it are overfull shelves. And another trip to the store.

So first you need a Menu. Whether for 3 days or for 7, you need a menu of meals. Then you make your List, based on that menu, and what you know you're going to need of other stuff, like paper towels and what-not. Then you go to the store and try to stick to the List. This is hard for me. I can enter a store intent on only buying a half-gallon of milk and stagger out with three bags of chips, some cookies, breakfast cereal, toothpaste, etc. Oh, yeah, and the milk.

But as bad as it can be even with a List, doing without is much harder. Trust me on this one. Stick to your List! But don't get anal about it. I mean, if you walk down the aisle and realize you need more ziploc bags, don't leave them on the shelf just because they didn't make the List. But as much as possible, if you need to deviate from the List, deviate with stuff you know you are going to use.

While I haven't actually tried this yet, it seems to me that it would be okay to try different things if you set an amount to play with first. Say $10 or $20, or whatever your budget allows for. You can try as many non-staple non-list things as you like, as long as you don't go over your limit.

Next time, a word about organics.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

What Do You Do?

America is a place where people seem to define themselves by their career. When talking to people, inevitably the question arises "What do you do?" meaning: what is your job?

So far, my answer has been, either one of two, depending on my mood: 1) "I work at home" which is true, if a tad misleading, or 2) "I'm a trophy husband".

I don't think the out and proud RebelDad types would especially like either answer. But if you're going to do this, you need to decide what your answer is going to be. In my case, I can at least make the excuse that I've not fully committed to the SAHD lifestyle. I might decide to go back to full-time work come January. I might decide to become a writer or an actor or something that allows me most of the benefits of the SAHD way of life while still technically working, allowing me to answer the WDYD question differently.

But its about roles you know? SAHD types are assumed somehow to be...wimpier than the average. But average what? Accountant? Insurance salesman? Computer programmer? I've done that last one myself, and people, despite our atavistic notions that this somehow stands in for hunting bears and defending the tribe from rampaging lions, it just ain't the same thing. I've actually done real He-Man work like herding cattle, and let me tell ya, I don't care how underhanded you can be at office politics, feeling like a stallion because you just pulled the rug out from under Marketing is not the stuff of which legends are made.

Still, even if people figure that out, its going to be a while before being a SAHD becomes even as accepted as either of choices women get to make -- and any woman will tell you that no matter what they choose, someone is going to take issue with it. So you need to make your peace with whatever you choose, because people aren't going to make it for you.

Friday, September 03, 2004

Miscellaneous Friday

First, a thank you to RebelDad for noticing me. If I can ever figure out how to change my template without frying my dialup connection, I'll add him to my blogroll. Heck, I'll actually get to have a blogroll.

Today was Shield Parade day at my son's elementary school. I was working the last time and didn't get to see it. It's also hamburger cookout day, and I'm going to be there to help out. Didn't get to last time because I was working. Are we seeing a theme here?

Trish my wife, says that I need to make clear that one reason I'm getting to be a stay at home dad (unless we/I decide to change) is that she loves her job. If she didn't she'd feel jealous and resentful, irrational as that would be (as she fully and freely admitted). Also, more positively, she also feels that there is no reason I shouldn't love my job as well, whatever job that turns out to be -- including continuing a full-time stay-at-home track.

Its funny, because if the situation were reversed, I wouldn't feel resentful -- but that's because I'm a guy. I grew up with my mom at home, and that's still the norm. If someone is at home, its the mom. And if you (the man) have a job that sucks, too bad. Find a better one or stick it out.

Next week, I think I'm going to try talking about what this sort of thing means financially, unless something more compelling occurs to me in the mean time (even as I write this, I'm getting some idea about role issues. Hmmm). Enjoy Labor Day weekend!