Category Archives: Parenting Decisions

Parents: The Social Leper

Children are amazing and beautiful little creatures and for a long time I wasn’t really interested in having any of my own. I’d noticed that there was quite often a shift in the attitude of people after they have children and it made me uncomfortable. It seems like parents of young children can become more myopic than they were in their pre-parenthood lives. There seems to be an inability of some new parents to recognize that the world does not revolve around their children.

Perspectives

Shake hand
Hi, my name is parent, and all I parent is parent. Nice to parent you.

Although the world doesn’t revolve around any particular child, I fully understand that a parent’s world very well might revolve around their own child. To be a respectful social being, however, it is important to try to find common ground with people when engaging in conversation. Likewise, even though a parent’s world may start and end with their kids, it is important to maintain an awareness of others in the world.

This disconnect between a parent’s child-centered world and the world that everyone else inhabits can be difficult for parents to overcome. Before having kids, I know that there have been times when I spent significant amounts of time engaged (almost obsessively) in an activity throughout a day and then met up with a friend. In these circumstances I have found it almost impossible to talk about anything other than my project. The focus of anyone’s attention can easily become a social impediment if they let it dominate their social interactions.

Beyond the Social Awkwardness

Having a child is a life changing event. It puts everything in the world into a new perspective. Children can make you aware of things that you may not have considered as seriously before. Social and political issues may take on a new importance. Likewise, environmental concerns also seem more real, now that (through your child) you have a stake in the future that, in all likelihood, will surpass the duration of your own existence. This new outlook can have a powerful influence on how a person views the world, and can affect significant positive changes.

bunker
It’s safe inside, … but it’s inside.

Becoming a parent, it seems, can also induce a sort of sociopathic myopia and bring out a survivalist type of mentality in some people. The same issue that might make one parent take up a political cause to fight for the future of their child, can cause a different parent to isolate their child from the world in an attempt to protect their child. I think the helicopter parenting phenomenon is, at least partially, a product of this inward turning tendency of some new parents. For example, the perception that the park is no longer a safe place to play, so kids should just stay inside. The result, unfortunately, is that children can often be the ones that suffer the worst effects of their parent’s shift in perspective.

My Report Card

I guess it would be more interesting and objective if my children gave me a grade on my parenting, but personally I feel like their assessment of my abilities would be fairly incomprehensible. Honestly, I can say that I am completely aware that the world does not revolve around my kids. It is also true that my world is largely dominated by my kids. I, without a shadow of a doubt, have been guilty of indulging in the socially awkward conversation that revolves around kids and excludes those who don’t have them, but only to a point. I don’t go all nuts with kid talk when I’m in a room where most people don’t have children. At work, I’m usually all business, but I may slip a story about my kids in there if it seems appropriate.

On the sociopathic myopia front, I have some interesting observations. Because my world revolves around my kids, I often feel like I have almost completely lost touch with the outside world. I used to be a news hound, and now I am embarrassed by the things that I am unaware of. Luckily this isn’t because I don’t care, or am apathetic, but because I just don’t have time to keep up to date with current events while I am changing diapers and going on play dates. While I am not aware enough of current events at the moment to take up any particular political causes for the benefit of my children, I am also not inclined to isolate my children from the world to protect them.

As a new parent, I will admit that there have been times when I took steps to “protect” my kids from things that, in reality, were really not dangerous. There is a learning curve to parenting, and I think in the good old information age, there is a perception that there is a lot more danger out there in the big bad world than there really is. This understanding is a work in progress, and while it is true that I have helicoptered my kids a little in their first couple of years, I feel like I am a pretty quick study. I am still finding my feet in my role as a parent, but I feel like it’s because there are so many changes happening that I have to constantly readjust my role. How has having kids affected you and your social life and social skills?

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The Crapshoot of Life

When I was a high school student, there was a day that I was walking home. I was at an intersection waiting for the light to change. To successfully cross the street I had a couple of things going against me. First, I was a teenager, and therefore I was tired. Second, I was a teenager, and was listening to music way too loud, so I was down by one of my senses. Third, (you guessed it) I was a teenager, and too cool to do things like wait until the walk signal appeared and verify that there was no traffic. I anticipated the walk signal and started to take a step out and a guy I didn’t know grabbed my arm and pulled me back. My initial thought was that I was angry that someone was grabbing and pulling me very aggressively. A split second later a bus went whizzing past my face. I was breathless. I turned to say thanks and realized that Darwin wasn’t going to give me too many chances like that.

I Rolled the Dice and Won

crapsI learned a valuable lesson that day. It wasn’t calculus or a foreign language, but it was something that would help to keep me alive long enough to learn a little calculus. The funny thing is that I’d been crossing streets for years successfully all on my own by that point, but there was a new lesson that day. I had grown complacent and was using my ho hum attitude to be “cool”. If I was going to survive my youth, I was going to have to ditch my “cool” attitude and replace it with something a little more pragmatic.

Obviously not everyone needs to learn the same lessons in the same way. There are risks in life and you can’t, and shouldn’t, insulate your child from all of them. Taking chances is an important part of what makes life worth living, to a point. Risk management is an important skill that you develop over time. For example, sometimes I still listen to music when crossing the street, but I am aware that this deprives me of an important sense, and I use a lot more caution than I did when I was in high school.

Coping With the Shoulder Season

So, the world presents risks, and with time we learn to manage them with varying degrees of success. This leaves us with some chunk of time when we don’t have the best risk management skills. This period is what my wife and I have dubbed the “crapshoot of life”. Ironically, this period of a person’s life never really ends. To carry on the metaphor, generally your odds of succeeding in this game increase with time and experience.

As a parent, I have found that there is a new skill I have to learn. I have to gauge what “dangers” to expose my kids to so that they can figure out how to make some of these judgements for themselves. The tricky bit to this is that the media bombards us with reasons to fear for our children’s safety. This media induced fear causes a lot of parents to restrict the freedom of their children to the point where they are actually just inhibiting the ability of their kids to develop their own risk assessment skills. Even if you manage to somehow avoid the media induced paranoia surrounding children’s safety, there are social pressures to parent your children in a particular way. Simply “being yourself” as a parent can be quite difficult.

The Uncomfortable Truth

My kids are going to get hurt, both physically and emotionally. There is a chance that throughout their journey they may be permanently injured. There is also a chance that they may die. In order for myself to be a good parent, I feel like I have to fully accept these statements, but not obsess over them. Throughout their lives, I have to make reasonable decisions on their behalf as to how much risk they can accept. I have to accept that, over time, my decisions will have less authority over their actions, and will be replaced with their decisions. Finally, I must be okay with the fact that my kids will make some bad decisions. This is the craps game that I signed up for.

I decided to write this post today because I was reading news on the sentencing of Ariel Castro. It is one of those cases which is very rare, but that the media focuses on to the point that most people think that everyone is out to get their children. It is the sort of story that I think hits an emotional chord with parents and has the effect of working parents up to a point where they lose track of the reality that most people in the world are pretty good people.

Recommended Reading

For a very comprehensive exploration of this topic, I highly recommend reading Lenore Skenazy’s blog, called Free-Range Kids.

The “Big Talks”

Adult content is for kids too!

There are a lot of “big talks” that my wife and I are going to have with our kids and one of those talks will be about sex. I have a rough idea of how I’d like to approach the topic of sex. Very generally, my preferred approach is to start dialogue with my kids very early. In fact, some of the ground work has already been laid with my kids, as we have already given them some of the basic vocabulary that they will need to develop some of their own questions.

The (Not So) Big Talk

I don’t actually plan on having a talk about sex with my kids. Instead I plan on having a series of small talks with them as new questions arise. At the moment, my kids are really just observers that make comments about the world. They don’t really ask many questions, but they do have some of the vocabulary that they will need when they do decide to start making sexual queries.

When the first sexual questions arrive, my general plan is to provide simple answers addressing the questions that are asked. If more questions follow, then bring them on, but there is no need to overwhelm them with extraneous information. Providing simple and accurate information will be easier to present in a way that is not awkward and it will establish Jenn and I as a reliable source of information. My hope is that this will encourage good communication about sex as our children’s questions become more complex.

Starting Young

I was talking to an acquaintance the other day about this topic and I found it interesting when he told me that his parents talked to him about sex when he was very young. He said that the result was that he started trying to have sex from a very early age. Unfortunately the setting was not the right one for me to probe this topic deeper, and the conversation drifted to other topics. Without more context to this comment it is hard to make any useful commentary about this statement. I find myself wondering what kind of “talk” this person was given. I also wonder if he fully understood my motivation for opening up the dialogue about sex with my kids at an early age.

There certainly seems to be some good reasons to try to discourage your kids from having sex at too early an age.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Early timing of sexual initiation is important for two reasons. First, the younger the age of first sexual intercourse, the more likely that the experience was coercive, and forced sexual intercourse is related to long lasting negative effects. —Source

This quote seems to support the idea that people will benefit from becoming sexually active at an older age. I wonder, however, if youngsters are  more likely to have a coercive sexual experience because they are young or because they had bad sex education? More to the point, I wonder if bad sex education leads to a situation where people choose to have sex at a younger age than they would if they had better sex education?

One way or the other, the graph below shows that kids do start having sex when they are quite young. With that in mind, the intention of my approach is to provide my kids with the best information that I can give them about sex and sexuality to help them make informed decisions.

Percent of teens who claim to have had sex, by age

Age Boys Girls
14 7.9% 5.7%
15 14.6% 13.0%
16 25.3% 26.8%
17 39.4% 43.1%
18 54.3% 58.0%
19 65.2% 70.1%

I want my children to have good, fun and meaningful sexual experiences when they are prepared to have such encounters. This will not be possible without a good understanding of their sexuality and all of the implications of their sexual interactions. The point of teaching my kids about sex and sexuality isn’t so that they don’t have sex, it is so that when they do, they are prepared.

Who’s Your Favourite

Very taboo, but yes I have favourites. I guess this is primarily an issue for parents of two or more children, but I think even parents of a single child can at the very least say that their child is not their favourite person at times. I wonder if favouring one child over your other(s) is something that most parents would admit to? I suspect that we all do it, but if so, then why does it seem so taboo?

Judge and Jury

As I mentioned in some of my previous posts, people love to make judgements about people. I’m not even being specific to parents here. Judging people is one of the activities that people seem to get off on most in life. Even those that profess to dislike “labeling” people because it is akin to passing judgements on people are, themselves, judging those that do label others. Labeling and passing judgements are things that we do as humans.

It isn’t always nice or friendly, but labeling helps us make sense of our world and it is also a skill that helps to keep us alive. If we didn’t judge or label things that were poisonous to us, then we might end up killing ourselves with the “bad” berries, for example. There are significant differences between judging hazards to our safety and a person’s character. Determining something to be dangerous is vastly different to deciding that someone is socially awkward or frustrating. For this reason it seems fairly uncontroversial to be harsh towards the things that might cause us harm. It is more controversial to judge people for their personal flaws.

What Favouritism Isn’t

When I talk about favouring one child over the other, the character of my children is certainly at issue, having said that, I love my kids equally. The love I have for my kids is never at issue when I talk about having a favourite. So preferring one over the other is never a question of my love for my kids, but is rather an issue of how I have bonded with them.

As my kids have been developing there have been times when I make a bond with one more than with the other. During those times, I’d have to say that I feel closer to one than the other. I’d also say that it seems like the “favourite” child also seems to prefer me more during those times too and so it seems like it is a two way street. Jenn and I have both noticed that when one of us does bond with one of our kids more than the other it is a temporary thing and we tend to swing back and forth between both of our kids.

Favouring one of my kids over the other, is a recognition of the increasingly deep bond that I am constantly forming with both of them. The depth of the bond doesn’t increase simultaneously with both of my kids, and so it is like a game of leap frog with one being my “favourite”, but only for a time. I feel like this is a very natural and normal situation, so why do people find it difficult to admit that this happens with their children? My guess is that parents feel like admitting that they favour one child over the other sounds cold and callous. The concern is likely that some people will not understand what is meant by such a statement and the parents would be unfairly judged. Are you afraid to talk about how you favour one child over another, and if so please explain why?

Do Your Kids Play Favourites?

I’ll bet your kids do have a favourite parent, but like me, I’ll bet they go back and forth over time. Check out this hilarious video!

A Challenge That I Didn’t Expect

In hindsight, my decision to have children was about as informed as is the decision of a typical eight year old child to get a puppy. An eight year old thinks that having a puppy is a great idea because the puppy will provide companionship and a close bond. The eight year old hears that they will be responsible for the animal, but doesn’t have the adequate conceptual framework to comprehend the actual significance and meaning of this responsibility. I was much like that eight year old when I first started seriously entertaining the idea of having children. I had heard that raising a child was challenging for a multitude of reasons, but I lacked the insight to understand the implications of my decision.

The “Little” Difficulties of Parenthood

There have been many hurdles to overcome while on this trek called parenthood. To be honest, many of them revolve around the very basic idea of taking care of yourself. Having kids was, to say the least, a lifestyle change and I don’t think I fully comprehended what this entailed. Sleep, for example, is something that I had been told take at every available opportunity, but it is very hard to put myself to bed when I feel that I haven’t had adequate time to myself during the day to appreciate just being myself. As a result, I typically stay up much later than I should trying to give myself a little “me” time during my day.

Prior to having children, I had also been warned that having children might jeopardize friendships. Yet another case of hearing the words of warning, but not fully understanding their context. I think there are at least a couple main reasons that having kids can make you drift away from people that were good friends. Once you have children, you will have some pretty intense limits placed on the time you have available to partake in your pre-child lifestyle and this is likely to dig into the time that you have available for friends. Another strain on friendships is the inevitable change of your priorities. As a father, I still have all of my old interests, but since I am one of the major care takers for our children it stands to reason that the details of my children’s lives will be one of my primary interests, and I think this can be alienating to friends that don’t have children.

The frustrations that children present are another thing that I had been warned about, but that warning just didn’t quite sink in. I have worked a fair bit with slightly older kids and find them relatively reasonable. Infants and toddlers, however, I hadn’t had a lot of experience with and have since learned that they are almost entirely unreasonable. Don’t get me wrong, they are cute, beautiful and charming, but they are also incredibly unreasonable. It is both hilarious and exasperating to watch a toddler walk around and interact with their environment. They will generally make a move for anything that you don’t want them to touch; move random objects from one place to another without any obvious reason; repeat themselves ad nauseam; appear to make concerted efforts to obstruct any reasonable course of action; find that thing that is most likely to stain your carpet and hold it so that if it were to fall, it would only barely miss the table (which could easily be cleaned), and then with infuriating grace they will drop it on your carpet, thereby destroying any remaining hope you had of retrieving your damage deposit.

Although I had been warned about the aforementioned “little” difficulties, I still found that I wasn’t fully prepared to deal with them. Parenting has a momentum to it though, and I found that I certainly became prepared to deal with the little challenges very quickly. Having had the warnings was useful, because even though I didn’t have a deep understanding of exactly how these challenges would look when I was in the situation, at least I had a frame of reference. This made the act of becoming a father much less of a culture shock than it otherwise may have been.

My Unexpected Challenge

The negotiations went on long into the night

I have this underlying belief that fathers of multiples (twins, triplets, etc.) are much more engaged in the raising of their children than fathers of singletons. I know that I had every intention of being a very involved father prior to finding out that we were having twins. Once our twins came along though, there was really absolutely no choice for me to do anything other than be a very engaged father, and because of the higher work load, I suspect that I took on more than I would have if we had one child at a time. As a result of me being so involved with my kids, Jenn and I both felt like every parenting decision that either of us made became quite the negotiation, and this is what I hadn’t heard anyone mention in the lead up to having kids.

To be clear, I think it likely that the parents of any child are often involved in negotiating how to do certain things, however I also think that the amount of negotiating increases with the level of involvement of the parents. It seems like a fairly natural association, because the more both parents are around and the more involved they are, the more both parents have at stake. Although the negotiations were a natural consequence of a high level of involvement from both of us, at times it was also quite difficult and both Jenn and I found it quite frustrating at times.

When deciding how to proceed with different issues, there were obviously times when Jenn and I didn’t agree on the best course of action. Generally we’d both give the other a chance to try their method, and ultimately this was a great learning tool for both of us. Trying an approach that individually we might not have tried started yielding some good results for both of us. It was a great learning tool and we have both had times when we benefited from trying something that is outside of our usual bag of tricks.

Although it is sometimes exhausting and frustrating, negotiating with your spouse on how to deal with parenting issues it’s certainly worth it. It implies that your child(ren) have two parents who are involved enough to care about how things are done and it has helped me to remember that there are usually multiple ways to achieve your goal. Moreover, there has been a benefit to my communication skills and with luck our kids will benefit from growing up in a house with parents that communicate fairly well.

Surnames and Patriarchy

The “good ole days”, when men were men, and women took the last name of their man and of course the children would also take the surname of their father. Simple, neat, tidy and terribly old school. There are a lot of reasons and circumstances for women to keep their surname after they hook up with their partner, and when this happens, how do you choose a last name for your child(ren)?

When Men Were Men

Men proudly defending their tradition of keeping women down.

Things have changed over the last generation or two, and increasingly men are no longer the men they once were, and it’s a good thing. I can think of a plethora of reasons why a woman would choose not to take the surname of her partner, and my wife fits into this category. In our case, my wife is a scientist and has several publications under her surname and for her to change her name would, at best make it difficult for people to track her body of work, and at worst may actually prevent her career from taking off. If my wife had a career that was less dependent on her name, I would have still raised the issue of whether or not we should share a common last name after being married. In my mind, we are both individuals and to assume that she would take my name would be akin to denying her identity as a result of our relationship.

 Surname Options

Since my wife and I both still have our original surnames, we had to decide what the last name of our children would be. The following is a list of the options that we considered in choosing a last name for our kids:

  1. My last name for one, and my wife’s last name for the other
  2. My last name for all of them
  3. My wife’s last name for all of them
  4. A hybrid of my last name and my wife’s last name
  5. A hyphenated combination of both of our surnames
  6. An entirely new last name for both of our children

Jenn and I were both opposed to option #5 because we thought that if our kids keep their last names and they decide to hyphenate the names of their children, then you’d be creating a situation where the length of hyphenated surnames could grow exponentially with every new generation and that seemed ridiculous.

We, or at least I, had a lot of fun with option #4. By combining our surnames in a particular way, you could create a resulting surname of “Bakins”, which seemed awesome to me because I am a geek and saw an opportunity to name my son “Bilbo” which would have made me the father of “Bilbo Bakins”. Absolutely fricking awesome,right? Jenn, appreciated the humour, but also appreciated that this was probably not how our son would want to be known for his whole life. Option #6 was also ruled out pretty quickly, and if I recall correctly it was primarily because there would be no connection (by name) to either Jenn or myself. This left us with options 1, 2 or 3 and the concern of being linked to our children by name.

We gave a lot of consideration to options 1, 2 and 3, and ultimately opted for option #2, but I feel that all three of these options had a lot of merit. If social conventions hold, then whatever surname we gave our son would likely be the family name that survives this branch of our collective family tree. Most people who get married tend to take the family name of their husband, and so, traditionally most people probably never really consider how this affects how a mother feels about her name not being carried on through her children. Because Jenn still has her own family name, from my perspective this was certainly an important factor to take into account since I didn’t want Jenn to feel that I was insensitive to the possibility that her family name might not carry on through her children.

Honestly, thinking through this whole thought process again makes me think that we should reconsider changing our kids family name to Jenn’s. It seems funny to me, and very indicative of our patriarchal society that it is assumed that a woman will take the name of her man. Moreover, the children which she carries in her body, which are literally part of her body for the first 9 months of existence are then brought into the world and appropriated in name by the father. To be sure, this is a complex issue and I know that I am presenting an oversimplified version of the facts, but this reality does make me cringe. I would certainly not want to be a woman in today’s (or yesterday’s) society. It makes me feel very passionate about how this world will treat my daughter and how much, as a society, we owe women. What are your thoughts on surnames and the way they are dictated by a our societies patriarchal influences?

The Lesson That a Trivial Parenting Decision Taught Me: Daddy or Papa?

daddy-vs-papaWhat is in a word? Over time, I suspect that my children will call me a wide variety of things, some of which I’d rather they didn’t. Initially, at least, I have some control over how I am known to my kids and I opted for the less conventional (in my region) “Papa”. I quickly found out that this decision was taken much more seriously by some of my acquaintances than it was by me. Don’t get me wrong, I put some thought into it, but my decision actually seemed to bother some people more than, in my opinion, it ought to have.

Why Papa?

There were a few reasons that made me choose to be called “Papa” rather than “Dad”. The most basic reason was that it was unconventional in my area, so it was just a way of being a little different. This has turned out to work pretty well for me, because when my kids are with a group of kids, it is very easy for me to tell when I am being called because so few fathers are called “Papa”. So I like being unique, and I’m a lazy parent who doesn’t like having to look too hard for my kids in a crowd, but there was a more personal reason for me to go with the more unconventional option.

When I was a boy there was a time that I decided that instead of calling my father “Dad”, I was going to try calling him either “Pa” or “Pop”. My father and mother came into my room one day and I tried it out, and they both really loved it. They tried to get me to say it again and out of embarrassment I refused. It really is a shame, because I liked it and it seemed like they both liked it too. In any case, as a bit of an homage to my father, this is why I chose to be known by my children as “Papa”.

What Did I Learn?

The decision to be called “Papa” by my children was one of my first real decisions as a parent. Clearly not a big or terribly important decision, but I did learn a lot from it. As I mentioned, I took a surprising amount of heat from relatives and friends for making this fairly trivial decision, and this, my friends, is what they call foreshadowing. You’d be amazed at how many of your decisions other people will call into question when you are raising your children. Unsolicited parenting advice abounds, and can come from a close relative or the person sitting next to you on the bus.

In the end, I feel that this early “parenting” decision gave me a little bit of a heads up that it is important for me to be able to let people’s opinions about my parenting style roll off of me. To be sure, this is easier said than done and honestly, I feel that I am still fine tuning my understanding and implementation of this lesson. On the other side of this, I have also learned that I should not offer fellow parents unsolicited advice. The role of a parent is so deeply personal, that it is very hard to say things about parenting without making a person feel criticized. What sort of parenting advice have you had from relatives or strangers? Also, what is the preferred nomenclature (obscure reference to a Coen brothers film) of your child’s father: Daddy or Papa? Finally, what Coen brothers film did I just reference?