Happy Columbus/Indigenous Peoples Day

Columbus’s four voyages to the Caribbean and American continents changed the world, opened contact between millions of people, and were major antecedents to the creation of the United States. They also led to the deaths of millions of people, the extinction or severe restriction of many cultures, and the enslavement or peonage of others. In more and more localities, celebrations of Columbus’s achievements–and his voyages were achievements, requiring persistence, courage, leadership, and skill–are being replaced by celebrations of the suffering of those who had come to the Americas several thousand years before. Such a celebration of victimization, by the way, negates the achievements of these same peoples, since it very pointedly focuses on the end of their cultural dominance.

I’m giving my kids Columbus Day off, not Indigenous Peoples Day off. This is not to whitewash Columbus’s rather appalling record as a governor or agent responsible for enslaving native Americans. It is also not to deny that European-American contact wiped out a great many people and civilizations, either by deliberate European action or by disease. Today we are celebrating a great explorer who changed history in a manner equaled by few; the history of the Americas marks 1492 as the end of the “pre-Columbian” era.

Columbus was not one of the fathers of the American republic. Nevertheless, for anyone who loves the United States–as I do–it is necessary to remember why a bunch of religious dissidents, fortune-seekers, and Enlightenment idealists had the opportunity to create a society based on freedom and equality. Yes, I hear the sneers from here; “What about slavery?” “What about genocide?” As far back as the American Revolution Samuel Johnson called out the American colonists for hypocrisy, saying “How is it that we hear the loudest¬†yelps¬†for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” (Taxation no Tyranny) But cruelty, bloodshed, and oppression are common to humanity. The Bill of Rights is not. The separation of powers is not. The sentiments espoused by the Declaration of Independence are not. Columbus could not have known the consequences of his discoveries, but he made these things possible, nonetheless.

Happy Columbus Day.

SEL

In the “before time” last year, my daughter came home with some worksheets on “Social-Emotional Learning” (SEL). She got Dojo points for every sheet she completed.

“Make an angry face,” I read. “Go ahead, baby.” My daughter rolled her eyes, thus demonstrating her mastery of “contemptuous,” then gave a half-hearted frown. “Uh huh. Okay, now I’m supposed to make an angry face–whoops, sorry, I was supposed to do that earlier. Now you need to think of situations that make you angry.”

“Doing this stupid worksheet?” offered my daughter.

“Yeah, but we’d probably better not write that down. Um, how about when your brothers annoy you?”

We half-assed our way through the worksheets and got the Dojo points (the person and group with the most points at the end of the week got a “Dojo of the week” certificate). I am not sure that my daughter learned anything new about identifying and dealing with anger, however.

The situation did not improve when classes started meeting remotely, in spite of the obvious emphasis the teacher put on this subject; much of the hourly semi-weekly video conferences focused on feelings, best ways to handle the social situations kids were no longer facing, and practicing “belly breathing” to calm down. My daughter loathed these activities and discussions. Telling her to “belly breathe” when she’s upset has about the same effect as telling an overwrought woman to “calm down.”

We work on social-emotional learning a lot at home, sans worksheets and kumbaya-circle groups. Recognizing and naming feelings, being able to separate emotion from action, having healthy strategies to deal with negative emotions, becoming resilient, not being oversensitive, delaying gratification, knowing how to interact with others in a kind, wise, and healthy manner, being able to apologize and make amends when necessary, and accepting disappointment as a part of life are all important skills. They are absolutely skills that every parent should be inculcating in their spawn. And school should be a place where children practice and develop these skills, as well; the interactions with non-family peers and authority figures allow children to navigate a wider world, provided the school isn’t totally toxic.

I therefore have no objection to teaching SEL as such. Yes, parents should be doing the heavy lifting of cultivating good social-emotional skills in their children, but it does not seem harmful to have these lessons reinforced by teachers. I do, however, have some concerns with how SEL is being taught and, I think, fetishized in schools.

The first concern is effectiveness. Perhaps my daughter’s teacher was using unusually bad curriculum or methods, but given that she was pretty competent at teaching my kid other skills I am doubtful that this is the case. Whatever the situation, for my daughter at least the whole thing was a complete waste of time. The way my daughter learns social-emotional skills is by adult modeling, sympathetic listening when she wants to share something, discussions of actual situations that went well or didn’t, judicious handling of various kinds of distress that may sometimes include ignoring the distress, and consistent reinforcement of reasonable behavior expectations. (Example: It’s okay to be upset at your brother for breaking your toy. It is NOT okay to hit him.) It also makes a difference that our teaching is rooted in a Christian worldview, which emphasizes change from the inside out.

This brings me to another point: Which traits are universally desirable in children? Surely such traits as honesty, diligence, courage, wisdom, discretion, strength, curiosity, love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control–but all of these traits are expressed in very different ways in different people, and SEL seems to privilege only certain modes of expression–and definitely feminine versus masculine modes of expression. In my (admittedly tiny) experience of SEL, I saw no room for dealing with an issue by ignoring it; bonding over an activity with little verbal communication; or allowing rough play. In my slightly larger experience of life, these can all be effective strategies for dealing with an issue. Think about it: Is it really healthy, really, truly a good idea, to brood over every slight and “discuss” it until it’s resolved?

“John, I feel upset when you leave your cereal bowl on the counter.”

“What makes you upset, Mary?”

“I’ve asked you to put your dishes in the sink and run water on them so that food doesn’t harden on them, but you keep on leaving them out to dry.”

“I’m sorry, Mary. I just forget to do this.”

“It makes me feel like my wishes aren’t important to you, and I feel disrespected.”

“I will try to remember to put dishes in the sink, but it is hard for me to break old habits. I feel upset when it seems like you don’t make sufficient allowance for this.”

“I am sorry for upsetting you, John. I will try not to take something personally when I know you are working to improve.”

“I’m sorry too, Mary, for not making this more of a priority.”

“Thank you for listening to me, John.”

I retched a little writing this wretched little dialogue. My ideal handling of the situation would be: Mary puts the damned bowls into the sink and runs a bit of water on them, and never speaks of the matter again to John or lets it fester into resentment. The end. And I don’t think I, personally, want to be married to someone who wants to talk through every. Single. Thing. Ever. I like being married to an engineer-type, who thinks in terms of problem-solving rather than endless navel-gazing. This is a stereotypically male trait, although it is far from universal among men, and we somehow believe that men need to be trained out of it, which is ridiculous. “Social-emotional intelligence” is not the same thing as “exalting feelings over all.”

Even aside from this misguided focus, some techniques are touted as universally effective when they are not so. As aforementioned, belly-breathing does not make my daughter calm down. Depending on how highly-strung she is at the moment, the best techniques we have for her are a good, hard hug; asking her to please vent her emotions elsewhere; ignoring an outburst; and distracting her. My middle child calms down when we use a firm, steady tone of voice or offer a distraction. My youngest child responds best to a hug or some other kind of physical touch.

I’m also disturbed that schools think they can replace actual social interaction, playtime, and hands-on learning with SEL. “Kids have been through a tough time! They’re more stressed than ever! Their home life may be more difficult! They may even be traumatized! And this is why social-emotional learning skills are SO IMPORTANT!” But worksheets, naming emotions, and belly breathing are no replacement for offering children the opportunity to run around, have fun, and play with each other, which are all ways they practice SEL. No worksheet is going to fix trauma. Kids have been given a raw deal in this time, and the kind of support they’re being offered simply doesn’t seem effective to me.

Finally, I think that even well-done SEL is overhyped. It is not the One True Thing that will magically make our kids mentally healthy, send test scores way up, and turn out well-adjusted, productive adults. In truth, no school is equipped to do this for most children, although good teachers can make a world of difference to children stuck in a bad family situation. Families ought to be developing character in their children, and a family that through word and deed teaches virtue to its kids is much better-positioned to encourage healthy social-emotional growth than are our schools.

Restoring Independence

“Right, kids, here’s what I’d like you to get done while I’m gone: Writing, times table practice, and copy-work for you, journal and read to your older sister for you. You may each make yourselves a Hot Pocket. If you have time left over, you may watch Woody Woodpecker, but I expect the work you do to be done well or you’ll have to redo it.”

Then I kissed my kids goodbye and hopped in the car to visit the obgyn’s office, which does not permit anyone but the patient to attend appointments. My husband was, of course, in the home with the children, but since he was working he was there to make sure that they didn’t drink Drano or burn down the house, not to feed, entertain, or educate the children in my absence. That was up to the kids themselves. And they did it. My second grader produced a page-long letter, copied a couple of verses of the Bible, and practiced her 7-times table; my kindergartner read Daniel Gets Scared to the second grader and wrote a couple of words about his swim lesson yesterday, illustrated with a spiky pen drawing of him in the pool. The three-year-old pretended to be a firebird attacking bad guys and didn’t pee his pants, and they all microwaved Hot Pockets and got to watch a couple of Woody Woodpecker episodes.

I theorize that COVID-19 has made parents less helicopter-like throughout industrialized nations. Mind, in some ways, they may “hover” even more, such as during distance learning or homeschooling time; I have spent more hours engaging intensely with my older two children since starting to homeschool them, and I do not traipse gaily about abandoning the kids to meet my coffee klatch. Nevertheless, the reality of having to juggle kids and employment or keep kids out of public buildings means that we have somewhat reverted to an earlier time when parents were not expected to manage every second of their children’s day. Necessity makes parents and onlookers less judgmental about leaving kids to their own devices, to a certain extent.

In this sense, we have stepped back from a “best practice” approach to a “good enough” approach when it comes to childrearing. I think this is generally a good thing, as long as the parents can provide a safe environment. Kids are capable of meeting higher expectations than we set for them in many cases. I hope this development will outlast the lockdowns and reset American parenting norms.

Yelling at Children

What does it mean to “yell” at your child? Does volume or content matter most, and how much loudness and communicated anger is appropriate? I just yelled from my chair in the family room “You can come down!” to the kids in their bedrooms; is this inappropriate, especially since I don’t particularly want my kids to be yelling down to me? (Answer: Yeah, probably; I’m not modeling what I want to see; but how would I type this deathless masterpiece if I had to go allll the way upstairs to tell each kid that quiet time is over?)

Most parents agree that screaming insults at the kid or otherwise denigrating him is a terrible idea. Most also agree that a child who’s about to run into traffic or otherwise endanger himself or another should be stopped by whatever means necessary, including yelling. A few believe that raising your voice is abusive, no matter the circumstances, and a very few intimate that a parent who ever even FEELS angry at a child is doing a poor job.

We can ignore those last few parents, who are clearly either liars or who don’t spend more than approximately 10 minutes per day with their children. We can also ignore those parents who think it’s acceptable to scream that their children’s existence has ruined their existence; these are not models of good parenting, to put it mildly.

But there is a wide range of “acceptable” between those two extremes. Some of it appears to be cultural; the stereotypes of the loud Italian family and the quiet WASP family have some truth to them.

I wonder if the debate about “yelling” should be reframed in terms of function and dysfunction. If a parent is getting angry at her kids several times a day, something is not working right; it is up to the parent to identify the problem and make progress toward resolving it, relying upon outside help as needed. If a child’s behavior is getting worse over time (barring “phases” or puberty), the child seems frightened, perpetually angry, or depressed, ditto.

There are also methods of childrearing that are much more damaging, in my opinion, than using a raised voice to a child. Excessive permissiveness harms the child far more than barking “Kid! YOU DO NOT HIT YOUR BROTHER! No dessert tonight.” Making a child responsible for your emotions or otherwise manipulating the child is much worse than yelling “ARRRRGH! HOW MANY TIMES HAVE I TOLD YOU TO PUT AWAY YOUR TOYS AFTER YOU PLAY WITH THEM?” And I would argue that it is okay, nay, desirable, to sometimes make a child feel bad about their behavior; we hope that our children will grow up to try to behave right, and to be sad or ashamed when they have done wrong. This is perfectly compatible with reinforcing positive behaviors and validating children’s feelings and all those awesome parenting techniques that we’re supposed to use. There is a time for saying “I see you’re working through some big feelings,” and a time to say “Knock off the whining and GO TO YOUR ROOM! I’ve had it UP TO HERE with your nonsense.”

What about when we parents are undoubtedly in the wrong? When, perhaps, we’ve had a lousy day and respond to a series of infractions by screaming at our children, perhaps frightening them or making them cry?

Children aren’t rare orchids who will wither at the slightest mistake in nurture. If their family is usually loving, warm, responsive, and appropriate in correcting them, kids will not be scarred forever by Mommy or Daddy losing it on them very occasionally, especially if we apologize later. (Not a non-apology, either–we need to confess when we’ve done wrong to our kids, express sorrow, ask for forgiveness, and do better next time.) Fits of anger cannot, CANNOT be our default mode of parenting; we are not creating a healthy environment by forcing our children to walk on eggshells around us, and these vulnerable human beings deserve better at our hands.

But neither, I think, are we failing at parenting if we react with more emotion than Marvin the Martian would find it appropriate to show. As with most other aspects of parenting, there is room for many different “ways” of speaking to our kids when they have behaved badly, and within the context of a loving relationship most will be good enough.

Meditations on Teaching Kids to Read

My second child is beginning to read. It’s thrilling, just as it was with his older sister, to watch him decode and recognize words. Aside from occasionally confusing lower-case bs and ds (which I believe at this stage is not a red flag), he seems to do a pretty decent job navigating the crazy patchwork that is the English written word. He has a good memory and comprehension but is apt to try to guess at words from their context, so I deliberately focus on phonics, phonics, phonics, since that is the skill that I think he needs to cultivate the most rather than worrying about sight words.

As I did when helping his older sister learn to read, I wonder just how much expertise is needed to teach reading. On the one hand, personal experience intimates that the answer is
“not much”; my mother was no educator* and taught us all to read at early ages, and there have been plenty of cases where an older sibling has taught his younger sibling how to read. For many children, reading to them early, modeling interest in books, providing a wide variety of books to read, and sitting patiently with them will allow them, sooner or later, to figure out the mysteries of literacy. In such cases, no specialized degrees are needed. On the other, I would not discount the evidence that indicates that there are right and wrong ways to teach reading, and I absolutely believe that professional educators are needed to identify and help out those kids who have dyslexia or other developmental issues that may make it more difficult to learn to read.

One skill that I believe is crucial for professional educators and parents alike is to be a student of the student. Even when I was not homeschooling my oldest child, I knew what came easily to her, what required more work, what she found enjoyable or boring. My second child has roughly similar abilities, but differs from her in some important ways; he will have an easier time connecting with the characters, plot, and concepts of a text, but he doesn’t have as much stamina and, as aforementioned, is more inclined to guess at a word based on context rather than do the difficult work of sounding it out.

What about reading material? Past generations of children learned their ABCs from hornbooks and progressed to MacGuffey readers or the Bible. A survey of the rich, complicated writing of the past suggests that even children were expected to read more complicated texts than they are today; Treasure Island has a Lexile level of 1070, corresponding to about an 8th-grade reading level, but was most probably intended for children younger than that, while George Orwell fondly recounts enjoying Gulliver’s Travels (Lexile level 1150) at the age of 9. That said, history (and literature) indicate that there were an awful lot of illiterate adults in the good old days, so I think the lesson I take is not that the methods of past centuries were superior so much as that, given opportunity and lack of obstacles, most people can eventually acquire literacy. (I imagine dyslexic folks were bang out of luck.)

Our house has Dick and Jane, Dr. Seuss, Children’s Bibles, fairytales, actual Bibles, Richard Scarry books, and a wide variety of other children’s books for me to read to the kids and for the kids to pick up and read when they are able to do so. We also visit the library. I read “good” stuff to my kids, especially while they’re still too young and ignorant to know that something is supposed to be above their developmental level, but I also allow considerable freedom in permitting them to choose their books. This is an approach that I take from my parents, who read all kinds and levels of books to us and allowed us to freely select from what was available to us, and whatever the flaws in my upbringing they were outstanding at instilling in us a love of reading and the ability to read many different kinds of books.

Finally, whatever my flaws as a reading teacher–and I am sure that they are many, and that I am ignorant of most of them–I do have one quality in my favor as a teacher: I love reading, and love teaching my kids to read. I truly do not mind sitting with a child and puzzling over a particularly knotty word, and I enjoy rereading books and hearing them reread. (Except for Green Eggs and Ham. I hid that book.) It’s a joy to see them connect letters and sounds and put them together, and help them take their first steps toward being able to swim in the wide ocean of literacy for themselves.

*My mother’s attempt to teach me how to knit and drive were disastrous.

Getting My Children to Eat Fruits and Vegetables

I’m not a nutritionist, my kids don’t have sensory or other food-related developmental issues, and I don’t have any stories of transforming picky children into fruit-and-veggie eaters. That said, my kids eat more fruits and vegetables than I did as a child, so I’m probably doing something right. (Or I just got lucky.) I don’t use a lot of widely-praised strategies to increase their veggie intake,* but I have happily adopted others that have turned out to be good ideas. So, for your edification:

Strategies I Don’t Use:

Smoothies

I don’t like smoothies. My kids say they like smoothies, but have only a couple of drinks/bites of the smoothies I’ve made, even those without greens. Waste of fruit, vegetables, and dishwashing labor for us. My neighbor, on the other hand, gives her children fruit-and-greens smoothies every day, so this can obviously be a successful idea.

Fake Starches

I do not spiralize zucchini, rice cauliflower, or use any other vegetable in place of actual pasta or rice. Just…no. Some people like these perpetrations…er, preparations. I don’t. Maybe I should. Then again, my kids enjoy zucchini and cauliflower even when it’s not pretending to be something else, and none of us has celiac disease or diabetes, so never mind.

“Hiding” Vegetables

Kids have good taste buds. If they ask what’s in something, don’t lie by omission. They’ll taste the kale or whatever you’ve tried to sneak into your dish without their noticing. Then they’ll be mad at you for trying to trick them and suspicious of new dishes. You are the parent; be honest and straightforward. (Don’t fake enthusiasm, either. “MMMM! This eggplant is SO YUMMY” is not good for your authority and dignity.)

Having Children Help Make the Vegetables

In theory, children are readier to eat something that they’ve helped with, and I’ve found this to be true with gardening (see below); also, I have my children assist me with all kinds of food preparation because I want them to learn how to cook. I have had no success, however, in getting a child to like something simply because he or she has sliced or sauteed it.

Strategies I Do Use:

Early Introduction

My experience has been that babies and young toddlers are much less picky than older toddlers and preschoolers, which is why I inwardly smile when a first-time mother smugly announces that her 14-month-old eats anything. Just wait another couple of years, lady. Or have another kid. That said, as a parent you absolutely can give your children early opportunities to taste a wide variety of foods, and it may help them accept more than mac-and-cheese later on. During their first year, I introduce to my babies lots of different kinds of vegetables and flavors, including juuuuust a little spice when they’re at least 8 months or so. Since I’ve been fortunate not to experience heartburn, I eat lots of pungent, spicy foods when I’m pregnant and nursing, too, which supposedly helps children’s palates become accustomed to those tastes. That isn’t actually a strategy, though–I simply enjoy strong flavors myself.

Keeping Snackable Fruits and Veggies in the House

I know what my kids like and what they don’t. Sweet peppers, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, baby carrots, stone fruits, oranges, apples, berries, and bananas are all easy for even my 3-year-old to grab and eat. Fruit cups, olives, and pickles tide us over during the winter months. (Yeah, yeah, the sugar and salt. Oh, well.) Unlike most other snacks, which are to be eaten only midway between breakfast and lunch or between lunch and dinner, I permit kids to eat fruits or vegetables any time of the day; if they’re really hungry, they have a healthy snack available any time they want, and I’m not too worried about them spoiling their appetites with carrot sticks. It sounds too ridiculous to say, “Honey, you won’t have room for mashed potatoes if you eat a sweet pepper now.”

No Battles…

My daughter doesn’t like leafy green vegetables. I do not make her eat leafy green vegetables. She can help herself to some vegetable thing that she does like; I try to keep frozen peas or broccoli for her to heat up if she wants, and she can always have a snackable vegetable. (I do not make separate meals for each kid.) Honestly, a meal without A Vegetable isn’t miraculously going to destroy a child’s health if the child’s been eating vegetables regularly, so I don’t see much point in fighting over an unwanted squash or green bean. The idea is to get the child accustomed to eating and enjoying vegetables, and it seems rather self-defeating to force a few greens down the kid’s throat.

…But You Have to Try It

Caveat to the point above: If we’re having something new, or something that we haven’t had in awhile, every child must take a real bite of it. Just one bite. I offer disliked foods at distant intervals. Sometimes a child ends up liking something that used to be “yucky”; the opposite situation also occurs, of course, alas, but it seems to me that the children’s tastes are generally expanding rather than constricting.

Show You Care About the Vegetables

As with any behavior you want to encourage, modeling is important. My mother was an excellent cook, but she cared nothing about vegetables and knew only that Good Parents Served Them. Result: Dinner was always accompanied by a mushy frozen (or occasionally canned) vegetable that had been boiled and given an enormous pat of margarine. Yuck. I was an adult before I discovered that zucchini actually tastes GOOD if you get it fresh, slice it up, and saute it in olive oil or butter with salt and garlic. In fact, a lot of vegetables I thought I disliked taste good that way. Brussels sprouts roasted with garlic, bacon, and sprinkled with parmesan cheese are yummy. Beets! Beets are wonderful! Wow, beets are wonderful. Roast them with a little olive oil and salt, and no one feels they’ve gotten enough. Okra! Amazing!

Integrate the Vegetables

Another concept that took me far too long to grasp was that vegetables could be united with meats and other ingredients, rather than being the Obligatory Healthy Dish next to one’s steak and potatoes. I mean, yes, I knew that stirfrys, curries, soups, stews, and sauces often incorporated vegetables, but it took me awhile to forego the separate meat, protein, vegetable combination in favor of something more complex that treated vegetables as valuable ingredients in their own right. As mentioned above I do not “hide” vegetables in smoothies or powders, nor do I pretend that they are noodles or rice; I do, however, love building gumbos in which the okra, bell peppers, and celery are co-stars with the shrimp, chicken, and sausage. I love making curries with lots of different vegetables arranged in various proportions and textures. When considering what sort of stirfry sauce, I try to think what will make my veggies shine. Boring ol’ instant ramen can be pretty darned good with a passel of herbs and some minced ginger, garlic, and onions.

Gardening

Yes, I know not everybody can do this. And frankly, if gardening means for you some pain-in-the-butt procedure like renting a community plot or giving time you just don’t have in a pursuit that you don’t enjoy, don’t do it; gardening per se makes no one healthier or more virtuous. (NOTE: If you have any sunlight at all, keeping a couple of pots of herbs is much cheaper and tastier than buying them from the grocery store, and the expense and time investment are tiny.) However, if you can grow edible plants and are inclined to do so, there are a few advantages. Most fruits and veggies are more delicious when picked fresh, and kids love the feeling of being vaguely transgressive when they wander out and pop sweet peas or tomatoes directly into their mouths. Plus, they tend to appreciate vegetables that they have watched grow from a seed more than vegetables grabbed from a produce aisle.

So, what brilliant ideas do you have to share about getting your children to eat more vegetables? Do you have any inspiring tales to share, or harrowing stories of selective eating? Were you a fruit-and-veggie eater as a child?

*Do kids really need strategies for eating fruit? It’s sweet. It’s tangy. Barring atypical development, there probably aren’t that many kids who’d pass up a nice peach. Or are there? I used to babysit children who would eat literally nothing but Cheerios, peanut butter, and chicken nuggets–I’m not exaggerating, during the 10 hours per day, 5 days per week I watched them, that is ALL they’d eat–but they must surely be outliers.

The Problem of Correcting Children Who Aren’t Yours

Thinking on my previous post, I realized that society today has another point of confusion that contributes to conflict between parents, non-parents, and children. That is: How much may/should adults correct the behavior of children who are not their own? An official babysitter, nanny, or other person acting in loco parentis generally has well-defined guidelines as to what kind of discipline is or is not acceptable (though not always, which can generate some amusingly aggrieved advice letters). But what about supermarket employees who see children throwing things onto the floor, or restaurant workers who narrowly avoid dumping hot soup on kids running into them? What about people on airplanes whose seats are being kicked by the children behind them?

In all of the above situations, most reasonable people would say that of course a child misbehaving in this manner can and should be corrected, especially when it’s a safety issue. Either saying something to the child, or directing the parent’s attention to the child, seems the obvious thing to do. Unfortunately, not all parents are reasonable, and no one wants to deal with nasty folk screaming at them not to target their precious angels. Employees are especially vulnerable, since they have a job to keep and even ridiculous complaints could hurt them.

In addition, there are cranky adults who unreasonably offer correction; maybe the child is wearing something they disapprove of, or drinking soda, or doing something else that isn’t really the business of anyone but whoever is caring for the child. Some examples are obvious, but there are plenty of gray areas where stepping in may or may not be the right thing to do. The current fluidity of social roles and the fact that we interact with so many strangers compared to past ages does not make this easier.

I’m not fond of the saying “It takes a village to raise a child,” but I think it would be easier for everyone if the limits of non-parental adult authority were more widely agreed-upon. Situations where we know the other party are much easier than situations where we are dealing with strangers. When my kid is playing at our neighbor’s house, I expect our neighbor to put a stop to any mean, dangerous, or otherwise forbidden behavior, and I also expect my neighbor to tell me about it. I do not expect the neighbor to levy serious punishments; if my child has done something really awful, then the visit needs to end and I need to collect my child to hand out appropriate consequences. (Happily, this has never happened–yet.) It is awkward to say to a child’s parents that “Suzy was having trouble sharing,” but most of us, I believe, want to know about our children’s misbehavior so that we can correct it. Personal relationships with the other adult allow us to make these exchanges without anyone taking it personally. My neighbors have known my kids since birth, as I have known theirs, so we are well aware that no one will take offense or perceive any reports of bad behavior to be the result of bad parenting. I like my neighbors; I think they’re good parents; I like their kids, too, and if they act poorly on occasion it won’t cause me to believe that the children are rotten eggs, or that their parents are doing a lousy job raising them. My own dear little paragons of virtue have sometimes let their halos slip, too.

It’s much more difficult when I am being annoyed in public. In that case, I have to ask myself: Is the kid’s behavior dangerous? How much does this affect me or the people I’m with? Is property being damaged, or are living things being hurt? How risky is it for me to intervene? Where are the responsible adults? All of us have to perform this kind of calculation, and we have to do so without knowing how the kids in question have been raised, what sort of special circumstances they may be in, or how their parents are going to react to any sort of reprimand.

At any rate, if you see my kids climbing on statues, annoying ducks, or playing where they shouldn’t, feel free to say something to them and to me. I will be mortified, but grateful that you have brought this matter to my attention, because I want my children to grow up to be reasonable, considerate human beings. I think that most parents want the same for their kids, but an unknown parent or child is like an unknown dog–you have to be cautious, in case it bites.

Children in Public

I’ve been hearing of a good many conflicts between childless people and parents in which both parties have behaved badly. It goes without saying that people should not be entitled or rude in public spaces, whether they are parents or not. Parents are responsible for their kids’ behavior and should either stop poor behavior or remove children from restaurants, grocery stores, church services, etc. Non-parents should not be annoyed at the presence of well-behaved children, and should assume until proven otherwise that parents are trying their best with their kids. Children are, after all, human beings.

There are a couple of deep problems leading to such conflicts. One, of course, is selfishness and obliviousness to the needs of others. Parents who allow their children to run around a restaurant, pester other patrons, and get underfoot of the waitstaff are exhibiting a breathtaking amount of callousness toward others’ wellbeing, including that of their children; there are plenty of hot items and pointy objects in a restaurant, and the kids are being shamefully treated if their parents are not teaching them how to behave well in a public setting. On the other hand, nonparents who believe that children shouldn’t be allowed past the doors of any restaurant fancier than a McDonald’s are also obnoxious; a child’s presence does not contaminate one’s dining experience. And if a child starts crying but his parents respond appropriately (by soothing or removing the child as needed), then it is in poor taste to glare daggers at the parents or make irate comments.

But beyond pure selfishness, there may also be a mismatch in expectations. Decades ago, more people had and raised children, and parenting philosophical differences occurred within a more homogeneous set of cultural norms. There was a Place for children, an estate, if you will. They were a recognized part of society, and the places at which they would be present, as well as their behavior at each place, was widely understood by parents and non-parents alike. Now we have in many countries a lower birthrate, meaning that many people have not been raised alongside multiple siblings or habitually been around their own kids, nieces, nephews, or young cousins. They don’t know what’s age-appropriate development in children, and they may find kids’ voices and constant activity annoying.

There’s also considerable variety in childrearing practices; an American parent might follow attachment parenting, free-range parenting, tiger parenting, some mixture of their own traditions and the neighborhood culture parenting, or who knows what. Parental expectations for their children differ greatly, and this can only add to the confusion of a nonparent who watches a family enter a movie theater and wonders if they’ll talk through the movie or kick seats. When I see a family sit near me in such circumstances, I cannot help regarding them as something of a potential bomb that may go off any moment–and I am a parent.

Perhaps there’s no greater venue at which mismatch of expectations can lead to bad feeling than in church. At what age ought a child go to church? Nursery, cry rooms, children’s church–yea or nay? Once at church, what is reasonable behavior from the child? Those who have raised children are not likely to be upset at an 18-month-old squirming, occasionally babbling, and playing with toys during the service; those without experience of children may be.

I have attended various churches, and the ones which offered no children’s church and only nursery through ages 2 or 3 had many families who were generally pretty successful in getting their kids to sit through hour-and-a-half to two-hour services, plus Sunday School before or after. But success did not mean that each child sat perfectly still, eyes straight ahead, with nary a peep or a fidget; generally, the toddlers and older babies played with toys or drank from a sippy cup or ate non-messy snacks, the preschool and young school-aged children colored or did activity books, and the older kids drew, knitted, or took notes on the sermon. Young children sometimes talked and had to be shushed by their parents; very quiet whispering or cooing or babbling was generally tolerated. Parents would regularly escort kids to the bathroom and back or step out to nurse, and occasionally a child would throw a screaming fit and promptly be removed to another room. I do not think I ever saw a disruption so great that the pastor or elder had to stop what he was doing.

This setup worked because everyone involved both cared about the needs of others and knew, more or less, what was expected and what wasn’t. The parents of children in these churches worked very hard to ensure that their children weren’t making too much noise or kicking seats or otherwise distracting other worshippers. Those without kids, on the other hand, were used to the presence of the children, who always made up a sizable proportion of the congregation, and did not expect adult behavior from 2-year-olds.

Neither parents nor non-parents should set children up to fail. This is, of course, mostly the responsibility of parents. Those who know that they have rather noisy, rowdy kids shouldn’t go out to eat at 6:30 at a fancy restaurant with their kids; they should have a decent idea of their children’s abilities and limits, and they should disabuse themselves of the notion that their kids’ presence is such a gift to the world that they need not concern themselves with the kids’ behavior. Non-parents do not have this responsibility, unless they have agreed to babysit; however, if they live in a fancy house with lots of delicate, expensive items and then host children, they should exercise a little forethought and put away or cover those items that might be damaged. If the parents then allow their kids to wreak havoc, the hosts need have no compunction whatever in refusing to extend another invitation. (It should go without saying that parents should never bring children over uninvited, unless there’s an epic emergency.) And when all of us–parents and non-parents alike–are out in public spaces, we should all do our best to act with consideration and charity toward others. Life would be much more enjoyable if we did so consistently.

And Here We Go….

In the checkout line, I idly overheard an elderly couple telling the clerk in an indignant manner that “The schools aren’t opening.” This is sort of true, but I wondered why the couple was bringing this up with the clerk, since they looked too old to have school-aged kids.

My question was answered when the clerk finished scanning my items and gestured to a small pile of Hershey’s bars with a “support teachers” message printed on the wrapper of each. “Would you like to support our teachers…” she started to say before I answered, with gritted teeth, “Today is the wrong day to ask that.”

The clerk hastily replied, “Of course! Of course! No pressure!” and began bagging my items. I felt sorry for her having to ask people to buy the stupid candy bars all day, especially on that day. See, after weeks of stating that parents could choose whether their children would experience 100% distance learning or attend in-person school 2 days per week during the fall 2020-2021 school term, after a “town hall” and a packet explaining how the “hybrid” option would work, the school board suddenly announced last night that they would be removing the in-person attendance option and making everyone learn 100% virtually.

We received no warning before last night. Neither did the teachers. And after being yanked around in this manner, not to mention the absolute dog’s breakfast that was the distance learning last spring, my husband and I realized that we could not trust the school system to provide our rising second grader and kindergartner with anything like an adequate education this year. We’re supposed to be assured that teachers will be able to correct all the deficiencies of last spring’s “distance learning” disaster, when given evidence that the school system isn’t even keeping principals in the loop? Riiiiight.

“I guess we’re homeschooling,” said my husband, and I grimly sat down to plan my list of subjects and order a few resources that I’d had saved, just in case. I really hadn’t wanted to homeschool with a Christmas baby coming, but we’d always known that we might have to do it if the schools proved they couldn’t be relied upon.

My daughter really enjoyed public school. It was good for her, and I believe my son would have thrived in it, too. I don’t know what learning is going to look like after the schools reopen, or how much teachers will be scrambling to play catch-up; in the best case scenario, this will be just a one-year hiccup, and next year will be “normal.” But there’s the potential for a whole cadre of kids to fall behind and make it very difficult for teachers to give them the education that they need.

I homeschooled my daughter last spring to supplement the ridiculous “distance learning” program, which seemed mostly to focus on naming feelings and using belly breaths when stressed. I’m a novice and will surely make mistakes, but I know many veteran homeschooling parents whose brains I can pick. My children will be okay.

But I’m not buying a Hershey bar on teachers’ behalf. Not today.

“We’re Pregnant”

I’ll admit I don’t like this phrase. Unless multiple women are saying it who are all gestating babies, it isn’t accurate; biologically, XX women get pregnant, XY men don’t.* “We’re expecting” is better, although I associate this wording with saccharine couples who post drippingly gushy things on Instagram.

However, my prejudice against “We’re pregnant,” “We’re expecting,” etc has become a great deal weaker than my prejudice against those who go on and on about how it is THE GESTATIONAL PARENT (we can’t say “mother” anymore) who is pregnant, who emphasize that she, and she alone is undertaking the risks and pains of pregnancy and delivery. “Does the man have to undergo nausea, cramps, possible hypertension and diabetes, swollen ankles, and heartburn? Does the man risk dying in labor? Nooooooo.” (I don’t think I’ve heard nonpregnant lesbians berated in the same way.) Yes. Okay. True. Nevertheless the man is expected to support his pregnant partner; he is expected to pick up the work if she’s unable to do it, take her to the hospital, be with her when he can, and help ease her discomforts if he can. When the child is born, he’s supposed to be an involved father and help with the baby. If the couple separates and he is not awarded custody, he is expected to pay child support. In other words, he’s supposed to act like a father, as regards responsibilities.

But it is entirely unreasonable to give a man a set of responsibilities with regard to his child without also recognizing his rights to the child. A woman on some defunct Reddit thread complained that her husband seemed to take no interest in their baby and didn’t help out, and then stated that she wouldn’t permit her husband to take the baby out for a few hours when he asked to do so. Every attempt he made to spend time with his child was stymied by his wife, who was then confused by his seeming detachment from the baby and his unwillingness to change diapers.

I should add, by the way, that although a biological, gestational mother has a prolonged, physical connection that facilitates bonding with the baby, this does not mean that fathers or adoptive parents cannot bond; indeed, in the absence of neglect or abuse, a baby and its caregivers will almost always form a deep, lasting bond, whether or not there is any biological or gestational connection between them. And unfortunately, there are plenty of birth mothers who never bond with their children, whether because of mental or mood disorders or drug use or other circumstances. The point is not that fathers are second-class parents, but that they are often treated as such; not that fathers have to be coerced into acting like caring, involved parents, but that they can be prevented from so acting by people who deny the stake that a father has in his child.

The double standard is strong here. Men’s rights advocates have long pointed out that when it comes to pregnancy, it’s “her body, her choice”; whereas a woman should be permitted to jettison her unwanted child, a man has little recourse if he wants his child to live, and a man will still have to pay child support if he fathers an unwanted baby. “Oh, he didn’t want to be a father? Should have kept his pecker in his pants,” say the same pro-choice people who would be absolutely horrified to hear “Oh, she didn’t want to be a mother? Should have kept her legs shut.” It is worth repeating that there is a clear double standard here; at this point, people go back to whining about how the mother is the one who has to go through all of the unpleasantness of pregnancy, blah blah blah.

Fatherhood is important. Study after study after study shows that fathers are more than sperm donors with wallets. Children without present, involved fathers are at a disadvantage. No amount of hurt feelings should make us pretend otherwise. As a society, we scold fathers who fail to live up to their responsibilities, but in the same breath minimize their rights and access to their children and wonder why we end up with so many deadbeat dads. Although there are nasty, lousy men who are incapable of being good fathers–as there are nasty, lousy women who are incapable of being good mothers–most men, flawed as all human beings are, want to do right by their children, if given a chance.

I am pregnant. In this and in past pregnancies, when I considered doing something that might be a risk to the baby–consuming a small amount of alcohol, getting on a ladder, eating a rare steak–I have checked with my husband. He is far from controlling, and generally leaves such matters to my judgment. Where he has expressed his wishes, however, I’ve done my best to follow them. This isn’t just because he is my husband and therefore the head of the marriage (which he is); it is also because my baby is his. It is because he cares deeply about the development and wellbeing of our children. If he were to say “We’re pregnant,” I’d probably cringe inwardly, but I’d know exactly what he meant; it’s a biologically inaccurate, overprecious phrase, but it expresses a truth that should be obvious but somehow is overlooked today.

*I would classify transmen as women, and transwomen as men. There are, however, a small number of intersex people who would still be described as “women” but do not have XX genotypes, such as XY people with androgen insensitivity that causes them to develop female habitus, or females with Turner syndrome who are missing all or part of an X chromosome. All of the former and most of the latter are infertile.