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Science of Parenting

Picture Day

Few days during the year carry as much weight as school picture day. Think about it, this one day each year is the most prominent record of your existence for that moment in time. Years later, when people blow the dust off their old yearbook or thumb through a family photo album, they will see your school picture in there and that is the image they will remember. Not your sweet breakdancing moves. Not your rad pegged acid washed jeans and Generra hypercolor t-shirt. They won't even remember that hilarious thing you said in social studies class that made everyone laugh and earned you a trip to the principal's office. They will remember your school picture that was taken right after gym class the day after the worst haircut you have ever gotten. Picture day is not just an event ... it's part of your story. It's a big deal, and it must be memorialized. Picture Day, I salute you.

Australia

For some reason, my 5-year old boys have become obsessed with Australia. To be specific, they don't actually care about the country of Australia. They are more concerned with all the things one might do ON THE WAY to Australia. These conversations typically come out ... you guessed it ... in the car. And they never end up where they started. Here is a synopsis of typical conversations we have had for the past two weeks.

Boy 1: Daddy, which takes longer, Australia or Antarctica?

Me: What do you mean?

Boy 1: How long does it take to get to both places?

Me: Oh, well, Australia, I think.

Boy 2: How many movies could you watch on the way to Australia?

Me: Ummm, 10, I guess.

Boy 1: Is that 10 Phineas and Ferb or 10 The Hobbit?

Me: I was thinking more like 10 Wreck-It Ralph.

Boy 2: How many The Hobbit's could you watch to Australia?

Me: 7

Boy 2: How many Phineas and Ferb?

Me: Way too many.

Boy 1: No, Daddy, this is serious. How many?

Me: 50, I don't know.

Boy 2: Which is longer, The Hobbit or Wreck-It Ralph?

Me: Do the math.

Boy 2: What's math?

Me: Good point, The Hobbit is longer?

Boy 1: How old do we have to be to watch The Hobbit?

Me: Eleven?

Boy 2: How old do we have to be to see Wreck-It Ralph?

Me: You've already seen it, so 5, I guess.

Boy 1: What takes longer, going to Australia by boat or airplane?

Me: Boats take longer.

Boy 2: How long would it take to get to Australia in a boat?

Me: Probably 2 weeks, I don't really know. We need to ask Uncle Tommy about that one.

Boy 2: How many times did Uncle Tommy watch The Hobbit when he went to Australia by boat?

Me: None. It wasn't even made yet.

Boy 1: Then why did you say we need to ask Uncle Tommy?

Me: Because he was in the Navy and went to Australia on his ship.

Boy 2: But how many movies did it take to get there?

Me: I have absolutely no idea. I don't think they watched movies on his ship. It was the Navy, not a cruise.

Brief Pause

Boy 2: Who's better at cooking, you or Mommy?

Me: Mommy

Boy 1: Who's better at fixing stuff?

Me: I am, most of the time. But Mommy is better at fixing stuff that needs to be sewed, like buttons and holes in your clothes.

The gender stereotyping is getting deep up in huhrrrr. Please change topics, please change topics, please chan....

Boy 2: Who's faster, you or Mommy?

Me: Driving or running?

Boy 1: Running.

Me. I am.

Boy 2: Driving.

Me: Mommy.

Boy 1: Who's faster, me or him (nodding toward his brother)?

Me: You are both the same fast.

Boy 2: But who's just a little bit faster?

Me: I'm not going there. This conversation is over.

Boy 1: Why is it over? We're not even at school yet.

Me: Because it's driving me crazy.

Boy 2: But who is driving you just a little bit more crazy?

 

Always and Never

The following list was the result of a conversation I had with the boys on the way home from school today. This started because we were having dinner with some friends tonight, and I wanted to quiz them on what they should not say and what they should say when being hosted by another family.

Me: So boys, what happens if our hosts serve something you have never eaten?

Boys: We say "thank you" and try it anyway.

Me: Very good! And what should you never say?

Boy 1: You should never say, "I don't like this!"

Boy 2: Yeah, you should never say, "This tastes yucky!" That's rude.

Boy 1: And you should never say, "Will you cook me something else instead?"

Boy 2: And you can't ever tell the person you HATE their food!

Boy 1: You should always say you love it, and you should never go spit the food in the toilet!

Boy 2: And you should never tell someone their hiney smells like a toilet! They will probably punch you in the guts!

Boy 1: You should always tell people "I love you!"

Me: Well, I don't think you have to say that to everyone.

Boy 2: Yeah, you can tell some people, "I hate you!"

Me: No, that's not what I meant.

Boy 1: Telling people you hate them will hurt their feelings.

Boys 2: You know what else hurts people's feelings? Telling them you can see their stupid underwear.

Boy 1: Daddy, he just said stupid AND underwear!

Boy 2: And you should always use the word "hiney" instead of "butt."

Me: Wait, are you just telling me this stuff so you can use words you know you aren't supposed to say?

Silence.

Boys: Yes.

 

Benchmarks: The Basics

IMG_1486It never dawned on me that four years after my precious twins were born I would be responsible for planning and implementing - and funding - an afternoon of entertainment for my children's friends. I knew they would have birthdays, but the only image that ever popped up in my daydreams was that of a single child blowing out candles at his kitchen table while friends and family watched. That was it. Come in, watch the birthday boy blow out his candles, eat some cake and ice cream, and go home. Now that I have been in the birthday business for almost five years, my perspective on this momentous day has changed quite a bit. I love my children very much and look forward each year to celebrating their arrival in the world, though I find myself getting more sentimental each year as they pass from babies to toddlers to preschoolers to elementary school children. No, I don't mind birthdays. It's the parties that have been causing me headaches. What seems like a simple event to plan - cake, ice cream, games, presents, party favors - is actually not that simple. It's a series of questions wrapped in dilemmas shrouded in considerations.

The first item to address as your child's birthday approaches is where to have it. Your house? Someone else's house? An off-site location? The simple answer is to have the party at your house, kind of like my parents did for me. We would clean, move some furniture into corners or other rooms, and prepare for a two-hour onslaught of little humans running, screaming, and rummaging through the house. As a kid, it was great fun, but I now know how much anxiety that creates in a grown-up.

If you have the party at your house, you better have enough room. Parties these days don't just involve the kids. Oh no, the parents come too, and trust me, you want them there. Do you want to be the person repeatedly telling that darling little cherub to stop jumping on your new furniture or sticking his snot-encrusted fingers in the cheese dip? Actually, never mind that question. Even with his parents there, you might still be the one to reprimand him. But in most cases, the parents do the discipline, you do the party. So, if you have a lot of room, or if you can keep the numbers relatively small, or if you like re-enacting a third-world country bus ride in your living room, by all means have the party at your own place.

Once you decide where you will have the party, you need to decide what you will do to entertain the little creatures between their arrival and the cake. If you shell out the bucks to have your party hosted somewhere other than your house, then the activities may be decided for you. Bowling, bounce houses, <<insert name>> restaurant with a playground... each of those has built-in entertainment which will keep your guests happy until it's time to carb load them and send the rascals home. All you have to do is sign the check. No games, no broken home decor, no red punch spilled all over your carpet. But choosing this method has its costs. Oh yes, this is not your party. It's their party. Consider this scenario from a couple of years ago ...

My children were invited by a school friend to her birthday party at one of these bounce warehouses. It's a massive room filled with way more bouncy contraptions than you could ever fit in your own yard at once. The kids were in heaven as they climbed, slid, and bounced until their little brains were the consistency of soggy Cheerios. The parents stood around and talked, occasionally telling one of them to stop doing this or that. After about an hour and a half of bouncing, everyone was herded into a "party" room with tables already set up with cupcakes and drinks. We sang the birthday song, and everyone proceeded to eat their treat and guzzle their Capri Sun. After about 10 minutes, we received the universal sign for "go home now," the bag of party favors. Just so you know, once you get your bag, you're done partying. I sensed something was missing, and I was right. As we left the building and said our thank-you's to the birthday girl and her parents, I noticed one of the workers quickly ushering something out of the building and into a car. Upon closer inspection, I realized it was the presents! They were being escorted to the car more quickly and covertly than Brittany Spears from a fitness center. I felt betrayed. How will the boys ever get to experience their friends trying to fake delight when opening a shiny new puzzle of the mid-Atlantic states when the unopened gifts are all shoved into a trunk like contraband? Like I said, they make you think the party is for your child, but they call the shots. It's like The Matrix, except Agent Smith is a 16-year old kid wearing skinny jeans and a t-shirt from 6th grade summer camp.

Note to not-yet parents: Do everything in your power to ensure your children are born during a warm month, and hopefully toward the beginning of the school year. Why? Well, warm weather opens up countless opportunities not available to those of us born during the winter months. Swimming, parks, dude ranches, sky diving, your back yard. It's like the difference between Phineas and Ferb and Beavis and Butthead. One is full of endless summer opportunities; the other spends countless hours in front of the TV in some dude's living room. If you can't time things just perfectly and a have a summer birthday, then at least shoot for the beginning of the school year. That way you get to set the standard when it comes to inviting people.

You see, whoever has the earliest birthday sets precedent for who gets invited. In a public school, the typical rule is that if you pass out the invitations at school you have to invite everyone. Many parents don't read the fine print and assume they have to invite the whole class. Even the kid who eats glue. But if you have an early birthday, you can invite only the kids you want to invite. Just make sure you mail the invitations.

If you happen to have a later birthday, then you will feel pressured to do what other parents have done already. If they invited everyone and you went, you almost have to invite them to your kid's party. If every parent has invited the whole class all year long, do you want to be the Scrooge who makes your kid hand-pick three or four friends? How do the other kids feel? Then again, how do you feel about the possibility of having 50 people in your living room, half of whom are running around screaming? You could always fork over a few hundred dollars to let someone else host the party, but you will get essentially no say when it comes to the details. You're no different than a guest, in that respect.

You see, birthdays can be perplexing, or perhaps we've made them perplexing. I know I have this thought every time my boys' birthday comes around. I want it to be fun and memorable and special. I also want them to know they are special and loved, and I hope I'm not relying on a party to instill this message in their hearts. As Gretchen Rubin says, "What you do everyday matters more than what you do once in awhile." So go ahead and plan whatever birthday party you want, big or small, then spend the other 364 days doing the little things that make your child know beyond all doubt he or she is loved and cherished in a way not even the most humongous birthday celebraveganza blow out could ever match.

 

Framing the Question, Revisited

If you believe everything I write, there is a chance you are under the misconception that children do the asking and parents are stuck with the burden of coming up with acceptable answers. This could not be further from the truth. Children are not the only humans in your household who have a knack for asking the impossible, the obvious, and the absurd. Yes, I'm talking to you, parents. Consider the following questions you may or may not have ever asked your child.

The Rhetorical Question

The first time I noticed myself asking these types of questions was when I was a school teacher. I would ask things like, "Do you want your name on the board?" or "Do you want to miss recess?" As a parent, we know why we ask these kinds of questions. But have you ever wondered what children think about these threats posing as rhetorical questions? Do they really have the meta-cognitive awareness to know the motive behind our questions? As one of my 3rdgraders innocently asked me once, "Am I supposed to answer that question?"

The Obvious Question

"Are you listening to me?" "Do you understand me?" "Am I making myself clear?" Well, obviously not if you are having to ask those questions. Perhaps these questions lie dormant in a specific region of the brain until we are suddenly in a position of authority over children. Maybe it's wishful thinking, hoping even one kilobyte of data is making it past the firewall when every nonverbal signal their 50-pound bodies can muster is telling us otherwise. No matter what our reasons are for asking the obvious question, nothing screams psuedo-authority like a hollow question at the end of a lecture. "Have I made myself clear?" In the words of that thug from The Breakfast Club, "Crystal."

The Interrogation

I know we parents don't think of these questions as the 3rd degree, but there are some days when our children sure think that's what we are doing. "How was school?" "What did you do today?" "Do you have any homework?" Honestly, it's just an attempt to know what is going on in our childrens' lives. Or is it?

I remember an episode recently when my own children were talking about the behavior management plan in their preschool classroom. They were not talking me to me, and I just happened to overhear what they were discussing. Alpha said something to Beta to this effect: "So-and-so had to sit at the table during group time because he got all of his circles moved." Circles moved? Sit at the table? How did I not know about this. I HAD to know about this! Let's be honest, every parent wants to know how their child stacks up with the rest of the class. I delved a bit further ...

"What does it mean to have your 'circle moved'?"

"What kinds of things does someone in your class -- not YOU of course, but those other wild children -- have to do to get his circle moved?"

"How many chances do you get before you have to go to the table?"

And of course, there was the real question I wanted to ask since the beginning of the interrogation ...

"Have YOU ever had your circle moved?"

This of course is when Alpha proceeded throw Beta under the bus. He described what he was doing during group time and that he had to move his circle, but not enough times to have to sit at the table. They also told me who HAD been moved to the table and why. After getting over my shock that I had not heard of this system before now (almost two months into the school year), I was instantly relieved to know my children were not total delinquents.

Parents do some of the strangest things. We spell things we don't want our children to understand. We use pig latin. We tell our children they have until the count of 5 to do something you've told them to do, as if those extra 4 seconds is enough to do some real soul searching. We say ridiculous things like, "Don't make me come over there!" as if their behavior is about to activate some sort of involuntary parenting muscle. And we ask silly questions. Questions with no answer, that could just as easily be framed as statements or imperatives. Despite all of our weirdness, our children turn out to be pretty normal, well-adjusted little humans. Only some of our weirdness seems to rub off on them. So, the next time your child asks you a silly question, just remember they probably learned it from you.

Sample Size

I never intended for this blog to become a tell-all virtual confessional, but I do have something on my mind. Yesterday I almost killed my child. It wasn't due to rage or neglect or bad driving. I had the best intentions in mind, but my actions almost led to homicide. Here's how the scene played out:

My children and I were enjoying a nice morning together. We had played, read books, practiced writing letters from the alphabet, watched a cartoon or two. You know, a typical summer morning. It wasn't long before I began to notice that it was getting close to lunchtime. The usual symptoms of low blood sugar were starting to appear: grumpy behavior, fighting over toys, crying over seemingly insignificant events. My children were starting to show signs of hunger, too. I eventually rallied myself and walked into the kitchen.

In a simpler day, i.e., college, I would have feasted on Oreos and cheese powder-infused corn chips to satiate my grumbling tummy, but I knew that if my wife walked in and saw anything less than a balanced diet on their plates, this meal would be my Last Supper. So, I did the responsible thing and prepared an actual meal for all of us. And this meal included a vegetable, specifically green beans. We have had sporadic success with green beans in the past, but I didn't have time to analyze my options in the throes of starvation. I also didn't want to open a new package of green peas, something I know both children will eat, when I could microwave leftover green beans in 30 seconds.

One of my children didn't flinch and his green beans disappeared before I even got a chance to use dessert-based threats. God bless that child. The other child, on the other hand, ate everything on his place except the green beans, as if I wouldn't notice. After some strategizing, I finally got him to eat a spoonful of the dreaded pods. The scene developed much like that science fiction movie where a small alien erupts from a guy's stomach, except instead of a baby alien it was masticated  green bean pulp and instead of a stomach it was my child's mouth. Fortunately, this is where the analogy ends, and I'm fairly certain there is not a glob of green cellulose hiding in my house waiting to kill me.

Anyway, back to lunch. Everything started off fine and I was spooning up the next portion of green beans. Perhaps, I thought, we have finally moved past the food-rejection phase with no effort on my part. My first clue that things were not going as well as I thought was when my child started doing that open-mouthed vowel-speak with his head thrown back so the contents of his mouth wouldn't spill out all over his shirt. I'm not entirely sure what he said, but it must have been something along the lines of "I'm about to spit this out into my hand." Because that's what he tried to do. I anticipated this by squirting ketchup directly into his mouth, but it wasn't enough to counter the effects of green beans on a 4-year old's palate. He started screaming and continued trying to create sentences with only vowels, and he soon progressed to convulsing. When his eyes rolled back into his head, I knew lunch was over. The green bean cud ended up on the plate, covering the uneaten green beans like a green, slimy gravy. Even our dog, who lives for the mere chance of food falling off the table, wouldn't go near it.

This scene may seem familiar to most of you with kids. Maybe it's not always green beans, but I am willing to bet there is some item in our food supply that causes your child to lose all signs of dignity and self-respect. Speaking of dignity, I can't say I'm much better when it comes to the tricks I use to get my kids to eat. When I was a "my unborn children will be perfect" parent, I swore I would never use any of these strategies to coax my children to eat. I seem to like most vegetables and will try anything at least once, so my child will too, right? Yeah, keep telling yourself that Mr. and Mrs. Pre-parent. Pride comes before a fall.

You may recognize some of these strategies, as either being the user or the recipient at one point in your life.

Ketchup

What is it about ketchup that can deceive a child into eating just about anything? Is it the sweetness? The salt? The tangy bite of vinegar? Maybe its the combination of all those qualities. Who knows. What I do know is if they sold it in gallon jugs, I would buy it ... in bulk.

 Cheese

Cheese also has beautiful qualities when it comes to masking the food we make our children eat. It has that tangy, creamy goodness we have learned to associate with pizza and nachos, and it completely hides whatever is underneath in a way that even the most gourmet ketchup could only dream of. Cauliflower, broccoli, tomatoes - you think you're serving healthy vegetables; your child thinks you're serving brains, weeds and guts. Now completely blanket them with a hearty layer of yellow-orange cheese, and your kids are none the wiser. Well, at least until they figure out what is underneath the cheese. Try it for awhile until they catch on, and you can thank me later.

Sugar

If you choose to go down this road, there will be consequences. Don't say I didn't warn you about this one. A surefire way to get your children to eat something is to coat it with sugar. You know, like putting brown sugar and marshmallows on sweet potatoes, or pulling out the Nesquick every time he or she wants a glass of milk. Cereal companies have made an entire industry out of this concept. Lucky Charms, Pop Tarts, Pillsbury orange rolls, and others like them have mastered the fine art of manufacturing dessert and tricking you into thinking it's breakfast all because they are fortified with vitamins and minerals. As if vitamins and minerals have some secret ability to prevent your teeth from rotting. It's OK, I crave carbs just as much as the next guy, but just know that every scoop of sugary goodness is probably feeding your child's sweet tooth more than anything else, no matter how fortified it is.

Stealth Tactics

Jerry Seinfeld made a career out of disguising everyday events as comedy, so it should come as no surprise his wife did the same with food children hate. Maybe you have tried some of these strategies, such as pureeing cauliflower and mixing it in with macaroni and cheese. Or maybe you used to mix meat and vegetables with applesauce when your children were still being spoon fed. It's not a bad idea, and come to think of it, the nachos and brownies my wife gave me last night did have a unique texture.

Bribery

Oh, this one will make some people squirm. If you feel guilty about promising your child candy, cookies or ice cream if she eats her vegetables, you can try a variation of this time-tested approach to meal completion. Tell your child you will give her an Easter egg if she finishes dinner, then proceed to fill it with something less horrible than candy. Your child is expecting candy, and you know it, but if the egg is filled with fruit snacks it's not the end of the world. You can also use money, toys, fun activities or whatever object will provide enough external motivation for the child to ascend that mountain of peas on his plate. Just beware you will undoubtedly reinforce your child's belief that he or she should be rewarded for doing things that are a blessing and privilege. Such as eating a balanced, healthy meal. You know, that thing approximately 70% of the children in the world never get? Am I bugging you? Don't mean to bug you. OK, Edge, play the blues ...

Threats

If all else fails, try some punishment. That's right, just go ahead and tell your child he or she will get punished for not eating whatever gross thing you slapped on his or her plate. Time out, grounding, spanking - you pick your poison. Just don't be too shocked when your child opts for the punishment. Nothing calls your bluff like having to follow through with a threat that probably should not have been made in the first place.

Mealtime has so much potential to bring a family together. You get to talk about your day and learn a lot about how your child is processing the world as he or she experiences some of its less pleasant realities. If I were to give any advice, it would be to try not to make mealtime one of those less pleasant realities. It really can be fun, but just like everything else in the world that adds value, you must work at it. TV, iPods, texting, sports leagues, and even church can threaten that most sacred time of the day. Sometimes you have to stand your ground, even if it threatens your popularity. If you don't have a set mealtime in your family, this might be a great time to start having one. And when your child starts writhing on the floor because she is "allergic" to onions, you will finally understand. Some things must be witnessed firsthand to be truly appreciated.

Framing the Question

I always knew that parents have to field an insane amount of questions in a given day. I knew this because I was a teacher for several years, and my students used to ask me questions all the time. I heard everything from, "Mr. Alexander, did you used to wear an earring?" to "Why do you have hair on your nose but not on your head?" This doesn't even count all the questions I got that actually pertained to the stuff we were studying. Then there are the college students I teach, whose inquiries can basically be refined to this one, overarching question: "If we do everything you tell us to do, will we make an A in your class?" What surprised me about the majority of questions I get from my own kids is not the volume, but how many of them I don't actually know how to answer. Things like, "Why is orange a fruit AND a color?" or "Why are circles round?" Where do you even start with those kinds of questions? I mean, do I really want to get into an etymological or ontological discussion with my 4-year old? Do I even know enough about the origins of language or the history of geometry to do these topics justice? It's bad enough that just about everyday my kids back me into a parenting corner that I never knew was there, and it only adds insult to injury that I'm so inadequate at answering even their most basic questions.

Thankfully, I have done some research on this and have come up with several alternatives for those questions to which I don't know the answer. I call it The Hat, as in, pulling my response out of my hat. Truthfully, I should call it My Butt, but that would just instigate a whole series of questions I'm nowhere near ready to tackle.

So, without further delay, here is The Hat.

The Straight Answer

Example

Daddy, what is that?

It's a rollie-pollie.

What's a rollie-pollie?

It's an insect.

Why do you call it a rollie-pollie?

Because it rolls up in a little ball.

Why does it roll up in a ball?

Because it's scared.

Why is it scared?

Pros

In the long term, you will be glad you chose this option, assuming you actually know the answer to the question. Eventually, your children are going to figure out you are bluffing as they learn more about the world and learn to decode your nonverbal cues. They may have thought that your lack of eye contact, fidgeting and profuse sweating were a normal response for adults answering a question, but they will figure it out eventually. Giving a straight answer is the best way to build long-term credibility and trust with your children, but it doesn't come without its costs.

Cons

For all of its long-term benefits, giving your child a straight answer has it's drawbacks. For one, your answer will probably lead to more questions, will lead to more answers, which will lead to more questions, and so on. This is called the Cycle of Futility, and chances are this is where you will spend the better part of an hour. Either your child will lose interest and forget what the original question was, or you will. Eventually, you are going to have to end this, and when that time comes you have some options.

The Sarcastic Answer

Example

Daddy, what would happen if we ate a dead animal off the road?

People might think we're from Arkansas.

What's an Arkansas?

Pros

Honestly, there really aren't any, besides momentarily entertaining yourself. This approach works great with close friends or like-minded co-workers. Children, not so much.

Cons

If you choose to answer one of your innocent child's questions with sarcasm, you will most likely be the only person in the room who thinks you are funny. Perhaps you are delusional and think you are secretly being filmed on Big Brother or The Truman Show, and millions of households are currently rolling on the floor laughing (or, is that ROFL?) at your razor-sharp wit. No, the only thing rolling are the eyes of any mature adult who happened to overhear your lame attempt at humor.

The Lie

Example

Daddy, why are trees green?

It's due to the unilateral presupposition of a polydohedric axiom that governs the ... the ... ask your mother.

Pros

Up to a certain age, your child thinks you know everything. I mean, think about it. Why are they asking you all of these questions? Your kid actually thinks you know the answer. You and I both know you barely remember your 2nd grade teacher's name, much less anything you learned in her class. But as long as you keep spewing answers to every question your child hurls at you, they still see you as the Nikola Tesla of your domain.

Cons

It's only a matter of time before your child learns that you don't know everything, and even worse, there is a chance that he or she will remember some bit of nonsense you tried to use to quell one of their inquiries. Your best chance to save face is that your child will know you are blowing smoke and think it's endearing or cute. The worst case scenario is that he or she turns around repeats what you said at school, exposing you in front of the immediate educated world as the idiot you truly are.

The Sunday School Answer

Example

Daddy, what is that?

It's a hexagon.

What is a hexagon?

It's a shape with 6 sides.

Why does it have 6 sides?

Well, God just made it that way?

Pros

If this actually aligns with your belief system, as it does mine, you are technically telling the truth if you explain everything in the world as something "God just made that way." He did, right? Why did people wear bell bottoms in the '70's? God just wanted it that way. Why did I think listening to Depeche Mode and The Cure in high school would actually help me get a girlfriend? God just made me that way. If you want to get ultra-spiritual with this, you can say things like, "Pray to God and ask him to tell you why hexagons have 6 sides."

Cons

Where to polygons fall in the Book of Genesis? Do we really expect our children to believe that when Adam was walking through the Garden of Eden naming the animals, he was also saddled with the task of naming geometric shapes? Do we want our children to believe this? This is exactly the kind of misinformation that comes back to haunt you on Parent Night at Vacation Bible School. Out of all the things God wants, I'm sure using the brain he put inside your head is pretty high on the list. Trust me, you will get plenty of spiritual questions from your kids. God can help with those. For everything else, use Wikipedia.

The Red Herring

Example

Daddy, why do people have to die?

Why do I have to pay a higher tax percentage than Mitt Romney?

Pros

If you are constantly tossing a red herring out to your child every time he or she asks a "difficult" question, you will experience temporary relief from those tough questions that have plagued philosophers, theologians, world leaders and gas station attendants for centuries. Until that day when your child's attention span has developed to the point that he or she knows you are dodging the question, this strategy will give you some space to come up with a better answer. You can then decide to lie, be sarcastic, over-spiritualize it, or just give it to them straight. Don't think of the red herring so much as a tactic as it is a tool to buy you some time.

Cons

Face it, this is pretty lame. Your kid is going to figure out pretty quickly that you are skirting the tough questions in life. Puberty, social justice, mortality, ethics ... each of these is a pretty heavy load and basically shapes how each of us looks at the world. OK, maybe not puberty. That's just makes your voice sound like a goose and your feet incapable of staying in sync with your legs. But it's worthy of a well thought-out, honest answer nonetheless.

In case I lost any of you at any point in this explanation, I have created a flow chart to help you visualize how this works. You can click the picture to see a larger version.

No one who has already walked the parenting road will deny that answering all of your child's questions is a full time job, not to mention a lot of fun. Many times their questions are cute and show you exactly what is going on in that little head of theirs. From what I can tell, this will never end. Your kids will have questions about making their way in the world, about college, about relationships, and perhaps even about parenting. They will grow up and get jobs, and they may even want to show you how much they appreciate all of time and energy you put into answering their endless questions by getting you nice presents for your birthday and Christmas. And chances are, those presents will be the newest, coolest thing that you don't know how to work. But don't worry, you have their phone number, and it's payback time.

Mixed Methods

One thing you learn pretty quickly as a parent is that if you want to survive in the wild (e.g., the grocery store, church, and yes, even the park), you must control your child. Sure, I get it that your child has a mind of his own and acts impulsively at times despite the endless hours you have poured into teaching him how to behave in front of other people. But as soon as your kid pulls the arm off a mannequin at J.C. Penney trying to shake hands, it's all on you, and there is nothing you can do but apologize all over yourself, make some lame attempt at a joke, or drop whatever you were going to buy and run from the store at a full sprint. You can also take the plastic arm and spank your child with it in front of the store manager just to prove who's boss, but this will likely end with a visit from CPS and thousands of dollars in counseling a few years later. In order to avoid embarrassment from our kids, we develop strategies for keeping them in line when nothing less than our identity as parents is at stake. These strategies can take on many different forms, and you will likely use more than one during any given event. If you are a parent whose child is between the ages of not-yet-conceived to almost-crawling, you may want to take notes. I know you look at parents like me and swear your children will never act like mine sometimes do, but trust me, they will. And when they do, you may not be able to find this blog. Here are some of the most popular defensive schemes used by parents today, and most of use a variety of these strategies at any given moment.

Double Team

This tactic is mainly used by parents who only have one child. Oh, you 2-on-1 parents, who think you have it all figured out. I can see your smug little smiles when you go to a restaurant. One parent eats dinner while the other one walks around with the toddler, listening to everyone tell you how adorable your child is. You think you were made for this thing called parenting. So you decide, since you are so awesome at redirecting one child, you might as well have another one. How hard can it be, right? Go ahead, try it. See what happens.

Man-on-Man

This is probably more like what most of you experience on a daily basis. Two kids, two parents. There are those times when one parent isn't there, but most of your big events involve the parents switching off between children, one holding the baby while the other chases the toddler. Then, in a coordinated motion that came straight from the synchronized swimming textbook, you make the switch so one parent can rest her arms while the other rests his legs. It's poetry in motion. By the way, you "it's not a leash, it's a backpack with a long handle" parents don't count. I don't even have a category for you. Cheaters.

Zone

Any time parents are outnumbered by the children, you must move into a Zone defense. This strategy requires, by far, the most skill. Don't you dare try this for the first time at the State Fair or atop the Empire State Building or along the railing at Niagara Falls. For this strategy, you must start small and work your way up to a larger venue. Try taking both kids to the mailbox, and if you make it back inside with both children within your line of vision, you pass. If not, you must practice at the mailbox for 7 days straight. Once you have had 4 successful trips the mailbox, you may move up to ... wait a minute ... I lost my kid.

Prevent

The proper pronunciation for this defensive scheme is PRE-vent. Don't ask me why, but it probably has something to do with the percentage of football players who were English majors. We have all tried this one, and don't try to convince me it worked. Anytime you bribe, promise, or strike any kind of deal with your child prior to entering any type of public setting, you are attempting the Prevent defense. Oh, it prevents alright. It prevents you from leaving that public place with any dignity whatsoever. No prize, or idle threat for that matter, can compete with the instant gratification that comes from covering 10,000 square feet in 7.2 seconds. Nothing. Save your stickers and candy for Halloween, and avoid this strategy at all costs.

Full Court Press

Got a stroller? Use it. Car seat? Strap 'em in. There are times when every parent, no matter how patient or skilled, needs to use the Shutdown defense. We all know the Meltdown all too well, and sometimes it's best for everyone that you take control of the situation. Just don't forget that your child is in the stroller or the car seat. This is a strategy, not a vacation. Remember, this same child who is screaming words you didn't think she heard you say will one day choose your nursing home.

The Duggar

This strategy is also known as Train-the-Trainer, or the Special Forces. If you survive every other stage of parenting, and if your children have listened to even 8% of what you have been telling them for years, you can begin to trust them with their younger siblings. You can pick these parents out from a mile off. No, it's not because they migrate in herds. Their smile is glowing like the International Space Station because they actually got to finish their meal. They can describe what coffee actually tastes like because they didn't guzzle it between making breakfast and packing lunches. They have 63 scrapbooks in their family room, and they just gave you a handmade quilt as gift, and it's not even a holiday. They actually read a book ... during the day. Yes, if you make it to the hallowed ground of Duggarville, you are no longer just a parent. You are a CEO, and your home is your Fortune 500. Ironically, that's about how many kids you need to have to pull this off. And what is your reward for this accomplishment? You get to buy a fleet of 15-passenger vans. Don't worry though, your older children will drive them as you sit back and update your Facebook status for the 14th time that hour. We'll all be reading, and we stand in awe.

The Meltdown

If you gathered every single parent on the planet and put them in a huge room, then you started telling a story about how your child, or children, just had a "meltdown," every single one of them would know what you were talking about. The second you used the word "meltdown," assuming you had enough translators that know that word in every single language in the world, each parent would have a mental image of what you were talking about. Just mentioning this phenomenon stirs memories and emotions that even parents with grown children have suppressed for years. In order to fully understand this phenomenon, you must look closely at the Anatomy of a Meltdown. It starts with the Set-Up. A missed nap. A late night. An early morning. No morning snack. A change in the routine. Overstimulation. There are hundreds of factors that could create the perfect condition for a meltdown. It's kind of like the difference between a Tornado Watch and a Tornado Warning. The Watch just means the conditions are such that a tornado could happen, whereas a Warning means a tornado has been spotted. Since there are so many factors that could contribute to a meltdown, it is almost impossible to prevent one at this level.

The next stage in this process is The Blender. This is when you mix one of the factors from the Set-Up with another seemingly innocuous event in your daily life. This might include seeing something at the store that your child desperately wants. ("But we don't have THAT Lightning McQueeen!") Or leaving the park, or a party, or the toy store, or a friend's house, or the TV section of Walmart before your child is ready. Or it could be asking your child do perform some completely unreasonable task, like putting on shoes, or picking up toys, or finishing peas, or writing his or her name on a birthday card, or making the bed. And you claim to love your child. Because you don't know what the Set-Up is, you are oblivious that you are throwing this common, everyday event into the Blender with liquid nitrogen. But you are, and that brings us to the actual event: The Meltdown.

It usually hits so fast you don't even know what's going on until you are in the throes of the battle. Your first response is to put your foot down, be the authority figure. But it only takes about 2 seconds for you to realize there ain't no stopping this avalanche. You realize a crowd is starting to gather. You begin to reason with the child, but nothing you say -- no bribe, promise, nugget of parental wisdom -- will work. It's not long until you completely ignore your child and begin addressing the crowd, kind of like a park ranger giving a talk on animal behavior.

"You see, she didn't get her full 2 and a half hour nap today."

"This is how he gets when doesn't get his 100% organic jujucicle by 10:00 a.m."

Or my favorite, "I read her a story at bedtime last night about the social implications of underserved minorities' lack of access to healthcare, and she just figured out what 'disparity' means."

This is what it looks like if you graph it.

And this is when you realize, you are being judged. Hard. If the parenting police were there at that moment, you would go straight to jail with no dinner. You decide not to curse at the on-lookers or your child and you are completely out of pride and energy, so you reach down and grab the nearest thing you can find, which happens to be your child, and you head home. As you reach the car, you replay this epoch in your mind, strategizing how you can avoid this disaster next time. Just as you begin to regain some sense of hope, your young Macbeth looks up at you from his car seat and delivers the closing lines of this epic drama:

"Do I still get my treat?"

CSI: Christmas Scene Investigation

The tree is trimmed. The stockings are hung. The fancy towels are in the guest bathroom. Yes, it's that magical time of year when parents climb into the attic and pull down box after box of cherished, breakable mementos and set them out for little fingers to cover in ketchup residue. I am referring to none other than Christmas. Or is it X-mas? Or Holiday? Who can keep up? Well, it's Christmas in our house. Anyway, it is that special time of year when homes all across every sub-division in America cover their house in lights, send Christmas cards to all of the people on their wedding invitation list and set out that most sacred of table decorations: The Nativity Set. Or as it's called in our house: Hebrew action figures. I know the infant Jesus has more than a few likable characteristics, but from the moment the Nativity set is removed from the box, he is all the boys want to play with. Joseph is always in the barn keeping his post, and Mary has never - not once - turned up missing. But there is something about that baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger that must scream, "Encase me in legos and throw me in the bottom of the toy box!" Like that one time, when ... Well, you know, some things are just easier to explain with pictures ...

From our house to yours, Merry Christmas, and may all of your adventures begin and end with Jesus as the hero.

You can see the pictures up closes here: http://prezi.com/epettptxdxkc/christmas-in-pictures/

The Bell Curve

The bell curve is everywhere. Intelligence, body mass index, income, age for getting married, my belly after the holidays. The general idea behind the bell curve is that with any given measure, the majority of the population will fall somewhere in the middle. People who fall either way below or way above the average on any measure are few and far between. Of course, don't tell this to parents with children in elementary school. They all seem to think that anything less than straight A's represents a complete failure of the American educational system. "I know my child can't read, but do you have any idea what a B is going to do to her self-esteem?" In this case, the bell curve looks more like a snow drift.

The idea behind the bell curve is fascinating to me. I mean, who came up with the idea of plotting tons of data on a graph and observing its shape? As if we all needed a visual representation of how average we all are. See, there you are, right there where the bell is about to crest. Yep, you're average. The bell curve takes phenomena from the human experience and makes it, well, predictable. It's hard to dream big when you have this big, bell-shaped graph reminding you that, despite your best efforts, you are still less than one standard deviation above the mean, and you might actually be below it.

This got me to thinking, what if I graphed typical events in my child's life? Would the results be as predictable? Will the trajectory end up the shape of a bell? As you have discovered by now, there is only one way to find out: rigorous research. The results of my research, as seen in the graphs below, are quite surprising.

So, maybe parenting isn't so predictable after all, and there are times when the bell curve looks more like a smile. And that is what you have to keep on doing if you are going to make it. Smiling is one thing you can do that makes you feel above average, at least in the 65th %tile, slightly more than 1 standard deviation above the mean.

Repeated Measures

Parents love routines. Don't believe me? Try this simple experiment: Identify a family in your neighborhood who has one or two children under the age of three. Get to know this family and stealthily find out when their children go down for a nap each day. Then go over to this family's house and try to ring the doorbell during naptime. Assuming you can even get past the protective layer of index cards taped over the doorbell and actually make contact with it, see what happens after you have rung the doorbell. Or, as I call it "Doorbell-zebub." You may have used a perfectly healthy, flexible finger to press that doorbell, but you will be taking a bloody nub home. Why is this? Because you took the one portion of that parent's day he or she thought was totally under control and turned it into a spiral of chaos. And this is why parents love routines, because they they hate spirals of chaos. Truth is, any given moment during the day can turn into a spiral of chaos. Playing with toys, meals, sitting for a family portrait, riding in the car, going to a movie. These all seem like perfectly normal daily activities until you hand the ingredients to your little alchemist. Toys become the Gaza Strip; meals become abstract art; family portraits become a Jim Carrey movie marathon; riding in the car makes the bladder shrink exponentially with every foot you drive; going to the movie becomes a game of cat and mouse through the rows of seats. Our reaction to this impending spiral of chaos is establishing the scientific intervention known as routines.

Parents believe that if they can be consistent and establish routines, then it will make certain times during the day more predictable. So we work to establish bedtime routines, mealtime routines, clean-up routines, car-riding routines and bath routines. The key is to stick with it long enough that eventually you won't have to think about it so much and certain activities will become automatic. You can just tell the child it's time for bed and he suddenly gets drowsy. Tell her it's time for a bath, and POOF, she's next to the tub waiting for you to show up. Parental effort directed at establishing routines will typically fall within one of three patterns:

  • Victory: the child learns the routine and cooperates with it
  • Regression: the child cooperates at first then loses interest over time
  • Anarchy: the child develops a routine that the parent neither established nor approves of

I have collected some data on different routines and graphed the following results:

There is so much about parenting that is bittersweet. The bitter side of it is that it goes so fast. Many of the cute things our children say and do seem to fade away without us even noticing. You just realize that one day they don't say or do that cute thing anymore. Out of nowhere, they begin to use forks and adverbs and board games correctly, and you realize they aren't babies anymore. Routines are great - necessary even - but they have a way of lulling us into thinking that a day is just a set of predetermined steps. It's easy to miss the small gifts along the way. But if we don't keep our sanity from day to day, we might miss even more. Routines are helpful to that end.

Of course, the sweet part of routines is that they help us mold our children into healthy, well-adjusted human beings that will one day step through the front door and into the world. It is at this moment that you will look back on your parenting and all of the routines you implemented so diligently, and you will know you did the right thing. Then you will go take a nap. At 1:00 sharp. No exceptions.

Cognitive Complexity

What is it about parents and their desire to save face in public? I'm talking about other parents, of course. Not me. I don't care what other people think about my parenting. But I'm talking about all those other parents out there. These parents want everyone to think they are in control, that their children have self-awareness, that they have been cultured in the finer ways of socially acceptable behavior. These parents never let their children play chase in and among the racks of clothes at Target. These parents strike deals with their children at the entrance of the grocery store to either stay in or out of the shopping cart, then actually use the words "breach of contract" when the children don't comply. These parents try to reason with their children, who lie prostrate on the floor of Walmart, that just because Lightning McQueen is on that can of tuna fish, it will still taste like tuna fish. Oh bless their hearts, these parents. What these parents need to understand is that this has nothing to do with their parenting. It doesn't. Conscious Discipline, Love and Logic, Dr. Spock? These are all great resources, but if you want to understand what makes children tick, you must understand how their brains are organized. You see every child has a complex database filled with every possible scenario you and your child might encounter together. Each scenario then has two possible responses: Pride and Mortification. For example, say you are eating in a restaurant and when the food is delivered to your table, it is discovered that there is something on your child's plate that he doesn't want to eat. Say, for instance, that item is green beans. Instantly, your child's brain recognizes this scenario and must choose which response to use in this instance. If the restaurant is relatively empty and no one is watching, your child's brain will send the message, "Eat some green beans and finish the food on your plate you do like." Pride. And somehow we as parents want to take credit for this. However, if the waitress happens to be at the table refilling everyone's water and a kind old lady has stopped by to tell you she has twin grandkids who are 6 and a man sees my hat and comes over to ask me how I think Virginia will do in basketball this year, the child's brain will key in on this context and send the message, "Scoop up green beans with your bare hand and throw them across the table while screaming, 'I don't like green beans!' then proceed to not eat any of your food and run around the restaurant." Mortification. And we guilt ourselves into thinking we have failed as parents, which isn't the case at all. Are you still skeptical? I promise, this is all true. I've tested it, and here is a graph of some preliminary results.

I hope this is helpful to those parents who feel the need to save face in public. Your children aren't purposely trying to act like Veruca Salt. They have just been blessed with incredibly complex cognitive abilities, and they are learning how to harness the power. I'm sure even Batman rolled over a few curbs before he perfected his Batmobile mojo; Superman probably hit a few trees in the beginning; Spiderman definitely got caught in his own web a few times. Children are constantly learning. This will continue until your children become teenagers, when the tables get suddenly turned. Until that glorious day, just roll with it.

Potty in the U.S.A.

Conflict in parenting is unavoidable. The truth is, if you care at all about your child's well being, there will be conflict. In essence, conflict is due to incompatible goals, scarce resources, or interference in achieving your objectives. For example, when you go to the store, you are there to buy whatever it is you went there to get. Your child, however, is on a vision quest find something he desperately needs for his survival. He doesn't know what that item is until he sees it on the shelf, and that item can change from aisle to aisle. But trust me, he will die without it. iPhones are another source of conflict. Your child wants to play Angry Birds, and this severely inhibits your ability to use your phone ... to play Angry Birds. Parent-child conflict is perhaps no more evident than with the issue of going potty. As adults, we approach going potty much like Forrest Gump: "When I had to go ... you know ... I went." We know from experience that some times and places are better than others for going potty, and our children just haven't figured this out yet. We have learned over time that there is a difference between a "desire" to go potty and a "need" to go potty. There are specific circumstances when we desire to go potty so that later on we will not need to go potty. At any given moment during the day you can actually measure this desire to go potty in any person. After about a year of rigorous research in this area, I have collected the following pilot data. The scale for this research is between 1 and 10. If the child is visibly resisting the act of going potty (e.g., performing "the grab," "the dance," or "the squeeze"), that child may be given a negative score. If the parent considers, even for a nano-second, letting the child have an accident in order to "know better next time," that parent receives a negative score.

As you can see, parents need not spend so much time convincing their children about the ideal time and place to go potty. They will figure that out eventually. What we need are more bridges.

Toy-Buying Matrix

It dawned on me this morning that I was remiss in leaving readers of my last post with some practical tools when it comes to buying toys for children. I believe the Scatter Plot is a useful framework for making these kinds of decisions, but toy-buying is much more complex than simply analyzing how far and wide the pieces will be spread throughout your home and yard (thanks Paula!). In order to help with this process, especially considering Christmas is right around the corner*, I have created the following toy-buying matrix. I will follow this up with recommendations for scoring and interpreting these data. I have purposely kept the size of this instrument small enough that you can fit it on a note card, the back of a business card, or simply have it indiscriminately tattooed on your wrist. When you, your child or anyone else in your toy-buying network encounters a potential acquisition, simply give them this matrix, score it quickly and give them a response.

The scoring for this matrix is simple:

SD = 1; D = 2; N = 3; A = 4; SA = 5

The items in the matrix should be weighted with the following values:

  • Item 1: x1
  • Item 2: x2
  • Item 3: x1
  • Item 4: x3
  • Item 5: x1
  • Item 6: x5

After you have scored the desired toy, deciding whether or not to buy it should be a no-brainer. I ran a pilot study using this matrix this morning as I stopped by Walmart for a some toothpaste. Here are the preliminary results:

  • Every ImagiNEXT toy: 47
  • Thomas the Train: 26
  • Any toy that actually flies or lands a jump: 49
  • The Smurfs: 12

Happy Shopping!

*Walmart recently decided to move Christmas approximately 2 weeks after Halloween. If fact, if you time it just right you can buy your child a Halloween costume for Christmas at a very low price.

Scatter Plot

It may come as no surprise to those who know me that I like to be organized *cough* OCD *cough*. I like to have a place for things, and I like things to be in their place. This has been how I like things since I can remember, and I am willing to take extreme measures to maintain order. The only problem is, for the past 2+ years* there has been a very powerful force challenging my organizational endeavors. Actually, there have been two forces, and they share a bunk bed in one of the bedrooms off the kitchen. Now, it is easy to assume that if I was able to help the boys become as organized as me, the problem would be solved. Right? Make a place for all of their things, and teach them to keep those things in the right place. The barrier to this theory is that as the boys get older, their toys become increasingly harder to organize. The numbers on the boxes of childrens' toys currently look like this: 2+, 3+, 4+, etc. This is fine if all you think about is the age of the child. What those numbers don't tell you is that as the values increase, the number of pieces for that toy exponentially increase as well. In order to illustrate this point, I have created a series of scatter plot graphs that may be helpful for parents wanting to buy new toys for their children. Let me help you interpret these graphs:

  • By "scatter" I mean how far and wide the pieces can be scattered throughout the house
  • The size of the plots is in proportion to the size of the pieces
  • The number of plots is in proportion to the number of pieces

These graphs increase in intensity (and potential parental frustration): Now, isn't this easier to understand? I suggest a graph like this be put on the packaging of childrens' toys rather than those arbitrary numbers. In fact, it wouldn't have to be a graph at all. They could just put the diagram with a warning that says, "This is what your floor will look like after your child is done playing with this toy." I have already crafted a cover letter to all of the toy companies for when I pitch this idea:

November 13, 2011

Dear <<toy company>>,

You're welcome.

Sincerely, Curby Alexander, PhD

* Sam and Nate did not pose a threat to my organization obsession for the first year or more of their lives. When they became mobile, things changed.