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kottke.org posts about parenting

“My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes”

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 09, 2019

Filmmaker Charlie Tyrell’s father passed away when Charlie was in film school. Feeling like he never really knew his father all that well, he went through his stuff after he died, looking for clues as to who he really was. His tools, his police uniform, his cancer diagnosis. Charlie made a short film about his dad: My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes.

We hold onto our loved ones when they pass. Objects can become talismans, and memories become mythic. Some objects become sacred for no reason and are just as impenetrable as the people who left them. I came to a conclusion during my process: You can’t take it with you, but you can pass it on.

The tapes mentioned in the title don’t feature all that much in the film; it’s actually about family secrets, breaking a generational cycle of abuse, and parenting. In talking about her husband’s difficulty connecting with his children, Charlie’s mom says: “you bring what you know to parenting”. As someone who often struggles as a parent, that line hit me hard. From a post I wrote a few years ago:

I worry about my children, about my relationships with them. I worry about being a good parent, about being a good parenting partner with their mom. How much of me do I really want to impart to them? I want them to be better than me, but I can’t tell them or show them how to do that because I’m me. I took my best shot at being better and me is all I came up with. What if I’m just giving them the bad parts, without even realizing it?

And from Madeline Miller’s Circe:

Two children he had had and he had not seen either clearly. But perhaps no parent can truly see their child. When we look we see only the mirror of our own faults.

Building Belonging at Summer Camp

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 02, 2019

Ollie Running

My kids are lucky enough to be at sleep-away summer camp this year. It’s their fourth year, and I was a little skeptical about this at first. Sleep-away camps weren’t really a thing in Wisconsin when I was a kid and schlepping out to the East Coast was not going to happen, financially speaking. But their mom went to camp and it had a big impact on her life and the kids wanted to go, so I went along.

I’m really glad I did. I miss them while they’re gone, but they have such an amazing time there, away from their parents, figuring out what kind of humans they are going to be. The staff at Ollie’s camp (an all-boys camp for grades 3-8 — Minna goes to an affiliated camp for girls) sent the parents a letter about some of the principles they use in supporting their campers by building “a feeling of profound belonging”. They are super thoughtful in their approach and none of it is mere lip-service. I thought a few of their principles were worth sharing with you. From a section that starts “We shape our program and culture to build belonging by…”:

…embodying our belief that there are many ways to be a man. We give boys a diverse array of role models — men and women in whom campers can see aspects of the selves they seek to develop. When the people around us model the same humility, humor, talent, and compassion that we seek to develop in ourselves, they help us to recognize the sturdy roots of those same virtues within us. In such moments, we know that we are in a place where we belong.

…focusing on what is personal, real, and lasting. Too often children learn to gauge belonging through external signals: the music they listen to, the brands they wear, the devices they own. The result can be toxic, especially for boys, who learn to measure themselves against dangerously narrow standards of masculinity. By embracing simplicity — in the uniforms we wear, the music we make, the technology we leave at home — we foster deeper connections with each other and even with ourselves.

…emphasizing honesty as the most direct path towards a life of substance and meaning. Ultimately, belonging is not an external validation, but an authentic way of being. Honesty — and its companion, vulnerability — are signs of strength and signals of openness. Honesty elevates relationships beyond the superficial, and invites us towards friendships in which we have the courage to be imperfect and the compassion to accept ourselves anyway. At camp, as in life, there is no more powerful belonging than to each other.

I don’t mind telling you that I teared up reading through these. That there are many ways to be a man, that masculinity can be toxic, that vulnerability is strength…hearing these ideas more often would have benefited an adolescent Jason, a shy and sometimes bullied small-town kid who didn’t feel like he belonged, truly belonged, anywhere until he went off to college and discovered that the world was full of weirdos just like, and also very unlike, himself. I still feel that little kid’s pain, and it makes me very happy that my kids are lucky enough to spend significant time in a place where those ideas take center stage.

Excerpts above are from Building Belonging from the staff at Camp Lanakila.

That’s My Jazz

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 17, 2019

That’s My Jazz is a short documentary by Ben Proudfoot about world class pastry chef Milton Abel II, who reminisces about his father, Milton Abel Sr., a world class Kansas City jazz musician. The film is a tender and moving rumination on their relationship and the balance between achieving greatness in the world and being present in the lives of your loved ones.

The Layers of Motherhood

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 22, 2019

In what she calls a “time-tunnel artwork”, photographer Annie Wang has been taking a periodic photo of herself and her son over the past 18 years, each time with the previous photo in the background.

Different layers of my son and I emerge on the same surface after a lengthy accumulation of detail and texture. Different stages of my son and I are overlaid; and from the different pictures we have created dialogue with each other in this dimension upon compressed dimension. From within these dimensions will emerge a new depiction/visualization of Motherhood.

Here are two consecutive photos in the series from when her son was young.

Annie Wang

Annie Wang

(via swissmiss)

How a Six-Year-Old Kid Saved Himself from Being Lost in the Woods

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 26, 2018

When he was six years old, Cody Sheehy got lost in the woods near his home in Oregon. Rather than panic or hunkering down to await rescue, Sheehy hiked more than 15 miles over 18 hours to a nearby town, finding himself in the process.

Cody believes that he was changed by getting lost. “Over the course of your life, you push through a lot of physical barriers,” he says. “As you grow older, your first coach helps you break through barriers, and maybe in the military you learn to push through barriers or maybe in your first hard job. As a little kid, I had this opportunity to be tested and learn that there really aren’t any barriers. I think a lot of people figure that out. They just might not figure it out at six.”

It’s a great story and a sharp rebuke of today’s helicopter parenting, not letting kids do their own thing, etc. I wonder about something though. We would think a lot differently about this tale if he hadn’t survived. If it had been a couple of degrees colder or if those coyotes had been a big hungrier or if he’d have turned a different way on that road, he might have died. Sheehy’s story is an example of survivorship bias. We hear of his adventure and how it transformed his life only because he survived, but it’s possible that nine out of ten kids in similar situations don’t survive…and we hear those tales only briefly and locally, not as features in national magazines.

Here comes the sunscreen

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 30, 2018

Apply Sunscreen

Apply Sunscreen

The three toughest things about being a parent are the sleep deprivation, knowing when to let kids push their boundaries vs keeping them safe, and applying sunscreen to a toddler. The NY Times has a slideshow of parents applying sunscreen to their kids and the struggle is real!

The good news for you parents of young children is that eventually they learn how to apply their own sunscreen. The bad news? They still would rather have a finger lopped off than to do it without complaining Every. Single. Freaking. Time.

The Design of Childhood

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 24, 2018

C&C Brooklyn Bridge

Design? Parenting? Playgrounds? iPads? Architecture? Toys? Probably Lego? Alexandra Lange’s upcoming book about “how children’s playthings and physical surroundings affect their development”, The Design of Childhood, is firmly in my wheelhouse.

Parents obsess over their children’s playdates, kindergarten curriculum, and every bump and bruise, but the toys, classrooms, playgrounds, and neighborhoods little ones engage with are just as important. These objects and spaces encode decades, even centuries of changing ideas about what makes for good child-rearing — and what does not. Do you choose wooden toys, or plastic, or, increasingly, digital? What do youngsters lose when seesaws are deemed too dangerous and slides are designed primarily for safety? How can the built environment help children cultivate self-reliance? In these debates, parents, educators, and kids themselves are often caught in the middle.

It’s out in early June, but you can preorder it on Amazon.

P.S. That photo is a model of the Brooklyn Bridge built by 7-year-olds at City & Country School in NYC made almost entirely out of unit blocks.

In the 7s, children engage in a formal study of the infrastructure and geography of New York City. Through extended block work, they explore the relationships among city systems of government, transportation, communications, commerce, and utilities. New issues continually arise: Who makes the laws, and how are they carried out? How does traffic flow? Where does water come from? The city study culminates with the building of a permanent city, complete with running water and electricity, and an historical study of the Brooklyn Bridge.

The blocks all have official names (like pillar, double unit, cylinder, etc.) but the kids have their own names for them based on the shapes: squarie, roundie, brickie, buttery (because it’s shaped like a stick of butter), half buttery, archie, rampie, cubie, longie, middlie, and so on. So for example, if you’re constructing a model of the Empire State Building, that might call for several longies, a few middlies & squaries as you get closer to the top, a buttery + half buttery for the spire, and then several strategically placed colorful cubies for the nighttime lights.

Fathers, sons, and the lamp in the Pixar logo

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 03, 2017

Luxo Jr Lamp

Spencer Porter’s father works for Pixar and because of an impromptu office game of catch, the pair of them became the models for John Lasseter’s short film, Luxo Jr.

“Luxo Jr.” is, to me, a home movie. It’s me and my dad. Encouraging, comforting, energetic and kind, that big lamp, Luxo Sr., is as much my father as I am Luxo Jr. Every time I see my little lamp logo hop out in front of a Pixar movie, it’s not me I think about — it’s my dad. How he spent an afternoon hitting ground balls to me the day before my first Little League practice, and how proud I was when the other coach on my team said, “Well, I think we found our shortstop.” I must have been 7 years old, and I still remember that moment with such clarity. I can still feel the hard fabric on the bag of baseballs, the position of the sun in the sky.

Fair warning: this story takes a hard right turn midway through and you might find yourself in tears near the end.

Young Explorers

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 21, 2017

Young Explorers is a wonderful series of short films by Jacob Krupnick that follow toddlers who have recently mastered walking as they explore the wide world on their own. Fair warning: as a parent, the solo NYC street crossing scene gave me a heart attack!

Kids do not want to be contained — they are built for adventure. As a culture, we are wildly protective of our little ones, often to the point of protecting them from happy accidents and mistakes they might learn from. “Young Explorers” is a series of short films about what happens when you allow kids who are very young — who have just learned to walk by themselves — to explore the world completely on their own.

There are ten films in all so far, two of which are available on Vimeo (embedded above). They are on display outside the ICP Museum in NYC until July 23.

Update: Krupnik just added a new video to Young Explorers of his own daughter, Ada.

It must have been difficult to film her picking up random drinking straws and cups from the street without intervening.

How to raise a feminist son

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 05, 2017

For the NY Times, Claire Cain Miller asked a panel of experts (including neuroscientists and psychologists) how to raise feminist sons. From the introduction:

We’re now more likely to tell our daughters they can be anything they want to be — an astronaut and a mother, a tomboy and a girlie girl. But we don’t do the same for our sons.

Even as we’ve given girls more choices for the roles they play, boys’ worlds are still confined, social scientists say. They’re discouraged from having interests that are considered feminine. They’re told to be tough at all costs, or else to tamp down their so-called boy energy.

If we want to create an equitable society, one in which everyone can thrive, we need to also give boys more choices. As Gloria Steinem says, “I’m glad we’ve begun to raise our daughters more like our sons, but it will never work until we raise our sons more like our daughters.”

One piece of advice is to encourage friendships with girls:

Research at Arizona State University found that by the end of preschool, children start segregating by sex, and this reinforces gender stereotypes. But children who are encouraged to play with friends of the opposite sex learn better problem-solving and communication.

“The more obvious it is that gender is being used to categorize groups or activities, the more likely it is that gender stereotypes and bias are reinforced,” said Richard Fabes, director of the university’s Sanford School, which studies gender and education.

Organize coed birthday parties and sports teams for young children, so children don’t come to believe it’s acceptable to exclude a group on the basis of sex, said Christia Brown, a developmental psychologist at the University of Kentucky. Try not to differentiate in language, either: One study found that when preschool teachers said “boys and girls” instead of “children,” the students held more stereotypical beliefs about men’s and women’s roles and spent less time playing with one another.

I’ve seen this segregation happen in school with both my kids and it drives me bananas.

Coming up short in pursuit of a SuperBaby

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 10, 2017

In SuperBabies Don’t Cry, Heather Kirn Lanier writes beautifully about the birth of her first daughter, disability, control, and acceptance.

By eight months Fiona developed a love for clapping. At nine months she had her first grand mal seizure. At eleven months she rolled from front to back. At one year old she weighed twelve pounds. During that first year, her syndrome revealed itself to be simultaneously life-altering and, in some strange way, just fine. A new normal. Her medical issues were manageable. The problem, it became clear, was mine: I wanted her different. The daily prayer inside me was an impossible wish to scrounge the earth and find that missing bit of her fourth chromosome. I imagined it was buried among fossils in an ancient, surreal sand dune.

Ten times this piece sent my thoughts spiraling out in all directions. I already know I’m gonna be thinking about this all week. (via @ftrain)

Black parents talk to their kids about the police

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 10, 2017

Not going to say much about this one. Just watch it…especially if somehow, as a curious, thoughtful person who reads this site regularly, you are unaware of how many in the black community feel about the police and that they have conversations like this with their children about those who are supposed to protect and serve people.

Finding yourself in fashion

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 29, 2016

Abe Chabon

Michael Chabon has written a great non-traditional boy-coming-of-age story about his son Abe, who, at 13, is obsessed with fashion.

It takes a profound love of clothes, and some fairly decent luck, to stumble on somebody who wants to converse about cutting-edge men’s fashion at a Rush concert, and yet a year before his trip to Paris, in the aftermath of the Canadian band’s last show at Madison Square Garden, Abe had managed to stumble on John Varvatos. Abe had spent that day leading his bemused minder on a pilgrimage through SoHo, from Supreme to Bape to Saint Laurent to Y-3, and now, ears still ringing from the final encore (“Working Man”), Abe reported in detail to Varvatos, with annotations and commentary, on all the looks he had seen downtown. When he was through, Varvatos had turned to Abe’s minder — a major Rush fan who was, of course, also Abe’s father — and said, “Where’d you get this kid?”

Read this all the way to the end…the perfect coda to the story.

Limits are fun? Limits are fun!

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 12, 2016

Play Anything

Play Anything is a forthcoming book by game designer and philosopher Ian Bogost. The subtitle — The Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games — provides a clue as to what it’s about. Here’s more from the book’s description:

Play is what happens when we accept these limitations, narrow our focus, and, consequently, have fun. Which is also how to live a good life. Manipulating a soccer ball into a goal is no different than treating ordinary circumstances — like grocery shopping, lawn mowing, and making PowerPoints — as sources for meaning and joy. We can “play anything” by filling our days with attention and discipline, devotion and love for the world as it really is, beyond our desires and fears.

Reading this little blurb, I immediately thought of two things:

1. One thing you hear from pediatricians and early childhood educators is: set limits. Children thrive on boundaries. There’s a certain sort of person for whom this appeals to their authoritarian nature, which is not the intended message. Then there are those who can’t abide by the thought of limiting their children in any way. But perhaps, per Bogost, the boundaries parents set for their children can be thought of as a series of games designed to keep their lives interesting and meaningful.1

2. This recent post about turning anxiety into excitement. Shifting from finding life’s limitations annoying to thinking of them as playable moments seems similar. Problems become opportunities, etc.

3. Ok, three things. I once wrote a post about bagging groceries and mowing the lawn as games.

Two chores I find extremely satisfying are bagging groceries and (especially) mowing the lawn. Getting all those different types of products — with their various shapes, sizes, weights, levels of fragility, temperatures — quickly into the least possible number of bags…quite pleasurable. Reminds me a little of Tetris. And mowing the lawn…making all the grass the same height, surrounding the remaining uncut lawn with concentric rectangles of freshly mowed grass.

What I’m saying is, I’m looking forward to reading this book. See also Steven Johnson’s forthcoming book, Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World.

  1. I don’t know about other parents, but 75% of my parental energy is taken up by thinking about what limits are appropriate for my kids. (The other 25% is meal-planning.) What do they need right now? What do they want? What can I give them? How do I balance all of those concerns? What makes it particularly difficult for me sometimes is that my instincts and my intellect are not always in agreement with what is appropriate. What is easiest for me is not always best for them. This shit keeps me up at night. :|

Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 03, 2016

Wonderland, Steven Johnson

Steven Johnson’s new book, Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, will be out in November. In it, he describes how novelties and games have been responsible for scientific innovation and technological change for hundreds of years.

This lushly illustrated history of popular entertainment takes a long-zoom approach, contending that the pursuit of novelty and wonder is a powerful driver of world-shaping technological change. Steven Johnson argues that, throughout history, the cutting edge of innovation lies wherever people are working the hardest to keep themselves and others amused.

Johnson’s storytelling is just as delightful as the inventions he describes, full of surprising stops along the journey from simple concepts to complex modern systems. He introduces us to the colorful innovators of leisure: the explorers, proprietors, showmen, and artists who changed the trajectory of history with their luxurious wares, exotic meals, taverns, gambling tables, and magic shows.

Here’s Johnson’s introduction on How We Get To Next.

They all revolve around the creative power of play: ideas and innovations that initially came into the world because people were trying to come up with fresh ways to trigger the feeling of delight or surprise, by making new sounds with a musical instrument, or devising clever games of chance, or projecting fanciful images on a screen. And here’s the fascinating bit: Those amusements, as trivial as they seemed at the time, ended up setting in motion momentous changes in science, technology, politics, and society.

[Ok, riff mode engaged…I have no idea if Johnson talks about learning while playing in his book, but I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot lately so…ready or not, here I come.] Being the parent of young children, you hear a lot about the power of play. I’ve never been a fan of a lot of screen time for kids, but lately I’ve been letting them play more apps on the iPad and also Mario Kart 8 on the Wii U. I’ve even come to think of their Kart playing as educational as well as entertaining. Watching them level up in the game has been fascinating to watch — Minna (my almost 7-year-old) has gone from not even being able to steer the kart to winning Grand Prix gold cups at 50cc (and she’s a better shot with a green shell than I am) and Ollie (my 9-year-old) is improving so rapidly that with his superior neuroplasticity and desire, he’ll be beating me in just a few months.1

Ok, but what is Mario Kart really teaching them? This isn’t about preparing them for their driver’s license exam. As dumb as it sounds,2 Mario Kart is a good vehicle (har!) for learning some of life’s most essential skills. They’re learning how persistant practice leads to steady improvement (something which isn’t always readily visible with schoolwork). They’re learning how to ignore what they can’t control and focus on what they can (Minna still watches green shells after shooting them but Ollie no longer does…helloooooo Stoicism). They’re learning how to lose gracefully and try again with determination. Most of all, they’re learning how to navigate an unfamiliar system. Teaching someone how to learn — knowing how to learn things is one of life’s greatest superpowers — is about exposing them to many different kinds of systems and helping them figure them out.

Update: Johnson is hosting a podcast based on the ideas in the book.

Update: Wonderland is now on sale. Johnson adapted an essay from the book on Medium called Small World After All:

The first group to build a single integrated system for global trade were the Muslim spice merchants who came to prominence in the seventh century CE. Muslim traders worked the entire length of a network that stretched from the Indonesian archipelago to Turkey and the Balkans all the way across sub-Saharan Africa. Alongside the cloves and cinnamon, they brought the Koran. In almost all the places where Muslims attempted to convert local communities through military force — Spain or India, for instance — the Islamic faith failed to take root. But the traders turned out to be much more effective emissaries for their religion. The modern world continues to be shaped by those conversions more than a millennium later. The map of the Muslim spice trade circa 900 CE corresponds almost exactly to the map of Islamic populations around the world today.

He also wrote a piece adapted from the book for the NY Times Magazine:

By the dawn of the 20th century, almost every species in the 19th-century genus of illusion was wiped off the map by a new form of “natural magic”: the cinema. The stereoscope, too, withered in the public imagination. (It lingered on as a child’s toy in the 20th century through the cheap plastic View-Master devices many of us enjoyed in grade school.) But then something strange happened: After a century of irrelevance, Brewster’s idea — putting stereoscopic goggles over your eyes to fool your mind into thinking you are gazing out on a three-dimensional world — turned out to have a second life.

  1. Ok, maybe in a year or two. Old Man Kottke is pretty good at Kart and has a few tricks left up his sleeve. Wisdom and experience can often be more than a match for youthful brilliance.

  2. It’s a bummer to have to caveat this. Even in the age of Minecraft, video games aren’t often thought of as learning opportunities. Very few in the US would bat an eyelash if I were talking about basketball or Little League.

“Frog and Toad and the Self”

posted by Jason Kottke   May 27, 2016

Frog And Toad

Bert Clere wrote a nice appreciation for the children’s books of Arnold Lobel, among them the Frog and Toad series and Owl at Home. Clere says Lobel’s stories offered insights for children about, yes, friendship but also about the importance of individuality.

Lobel’s Frog and Toad series, published in four volumes containing five stories each during the 1970s, remains his most popular and enduring work. Frog and Toad, two very different characters, make something of an odd couple. Their friendship demonstrates the many ups and downs of human attachment, touching on deep truths about life, philosophy, and human nature in the process. But it isn’t all about relationships with others: In the series, and in his lesser-known 1975 book Owl at Home, Lobel offers a conception of the self that still resonates decades later. Throughout his books, he reminds readers that they are individuals, and that they shouldn’t be afraid of being themselves.

Frog and Toad are favorites at our house. I’m going to read them to the kids this weekend with a new appreciation. Wanting to fit into the group is a powerful impulse for children, reinforced these days by the increased focus on group work in schools, so it’s nice to have a counterpoint to share with them.

Update: From the New Yorker’s Colin Stokes, another appreciation of Arnold Lobel. Lobel’s daughter Adrianne suspects the Frog & Toad books were “the beginning of him coming out” of the closet.

Adrianne suspects that there’s another dimension to the series’s sustained popularity. Frog and Toad are “of the same sex, and they love each other,” she told me. “It was quite ahead of its time in that respect.” In 1974, four years after the first book in the series was published, Lobel came out to his family as gay. “I think ‘Frog and Toad’ really was the beginning of him coming out,” Adrianne told me.

The article also sadly notes that Lobel died at age 54, “an early victim of the AIDS crisis”. (via @bdeskin)

Parent Hacks

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 08, 2016

Parent Hacks

Asha Dornfest runs the Parent Hacks blog and she’s collected some of her best tips into a new book, Parent Hacks: 134 Genius Shortcuts for Life with Kids.

A parent hack can be as simple as putting the ketchup under the hot dog, minimizing the mess. Or strapping baby into a forward-facing carrier when you need to trim his fingernails-it frees your hands while controlling the squirming. Or stashing a wallet in a disposable diaper at the beach-who would ever poke through what looks like a used Pamper?

Dave Pell from Nextdraft tipped me off to the book, writing:

My friend Asha Dornfest has turned her excellent parenting blog into an even more excellent parenting book with 134 ingenious ideas for simplifying life with kids. Parent Hacks is so good that I may even have a few more kids.

This Bridge Will Not Be Gray

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 30, 2015

This Bridge Will Not Be Gray

From Dave Eggers and Tucker Nichols comes This Bridge Will Not Be Gray (at Amazon), a children’s book about how the Golden Gate Bridge came to be painted orange.

In this book, fellow bridge-lovers Dave Eggers and Tucker Nichols tell the story of how it happened — how a bridge that some people wanted to be red and white, and some people wanted to be yellow and black, and most people wanted simply to be gray, instead became, thanks to the vision and stick-to-itiveness of a few peculiar architects, one of the most memorable man-made objects ever created.

The kids and I sat down with the book last week and they loved it. The pages on the design of the bridge prompted a discussion about Art Deco, with detours to Google Images to look at photos of the bridge,1 The Empire State Building, and the Chrysler Building. The next day, on the walk to school, we strolled past the Walker Tower, a 1929 building designed by Ralph Thomas Walker, one of the foremost architects of the 20th century. We were running a little early, so I stopped and asked the kids to take a look and think about what the building reminded them of. “Art Deco” came the reply almost immediately.

I’m really gonna miss reading to my kids — Ollie mostly reads by himself now and Minna is getting close — but I hope that we’re able to keep exploring the world through books together. NYC is a tough place to live sometimes, but being able to read about something in a book, even about a bridge in far-away San Francisco, and then go outside the next day to observe a prime example of what we were just reading is such a unique and wonderful experience.

  1. We also looked at several photos of the bridge under construction, including this one of a construction worker standing on some wires near one of the towers without much separating him and the water below. I’ve heard about this gentlemen from the kids several times since. Like, “remember that guy standing on the wires when the Golden Gate Bridge was being built? I bet he isn’t scared of spiders.”

The privilege of employer-sponsored parental leave

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 07, 2015

Netflix made big news by increasing its maternity and paternity leave to a year. But in a really interesting piece, The New Yorker’s Vauhini Vara provides some historical and economic background and makes the case why not all paid family leave regulations should be left up to private employers:

Among the earners of the highest wages, twenty-two per cent have access to paid family leave, while among the lowest earners, only four per cent do. It turns out that a disparity exists even within Netflix.

Parenthood is indescribable

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 08, 2015

Mario Koran writes about how tough it can be to be a parent (particularly a single parent) and the impossibility of describing parenthood to someone without kids. This all rings true to me, especially this bit:

I also learned that being a dad means living in constant fear. Due to dumb, random chance, or a second’s negligence, my entire world could implode at any moment. She could be electrocuted, shot, run-over, kidnapped or poisoned. She could get leukemia. It’s all there, just waiting to happen. Each week, the fear seems to grow.

During the day, I keep these emotions contained in wire mesh. I can see the feelings. I know they’re there, behind the wire. But I ignore them. I focus on work. At night, that wire mesh falls away. It’s just my wife and Lucia and me, singing Twinkle Twinkle or ABCs — or Twinkle Twinkle to the tune of ABCs. Some nights, after we tick off the lights and everything’s quiet, I feel so much I suddenly realize I’m crying.

Elsewhere, danah boyd on “the irrational cloud of fear”. Even Steve Jobs, not the best parent in the world, said that having kids is like having “your heart running around outside your body”. Not every parent feels this way, but if you are prone to anxiety, that pretty much covers it.

Screen addiction (or why Grandma’s sad)

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 07, 2015

Screen Addiction Is Taking a Toll on Children, from Jane Brody in the NY Times:

Parents, grateful for ways to calm disruptive children and keep them from interrupting their own screen activities, seem to be unaware of the potential harm from so much time spent in the virtual world.

In reply, John Hermann writing at The Awl:

The grandparent who is persuaded that screens are not destroying human interaction, but are instead new tools for enabling fresh and flawed and modes of human interaction, is left facing a grimmer reality. Your grandchildren don’t look up from their phones because the experiences and friendships they enjoy there seem more interesting than what’s in front of them (you). Those experiences, from the outside, seem insultingly lame: text notifications, Emoji, selfies of other bratty little kids you’ve never met. But they’re urgent and real. What’s different is that they’re also right here, always, even when you thought you had an attentional claim. The moments of social captivity that gave parents power, or that gave grandparents precious access, are now compromised. The TV doesn’t turn off. The friends never go home. The grandkids can do the things they really want to be doing whenever they want, even while they’re sitting five feet away from grandma, alone, in a moving soundproof pod.

As a writer for screens, someone who spends a tremendous amount of time each day staring at screens, and an involved parent of two grade-schoolers, this is precisely where my professional and personal lives meet, so I’ve done a bit of thinking about this recently. Here’s what I’ve come up with and am attempting to actually believe:

People on smartphones are not anti-social. They’re super-social. Phones allow people to be with the people they love the most all the time, which is the way humans probably used to be, until technology allowed for greater freedom of movement around the globe. People spending time on their phones in the presence of others aren’t necessarily rude because rudeness is a social contract about appropriate behavior and, as Hermann points out, social norms can vary widely between age groups. Playing Minecraft all day isn’t necessarily a waste of time. The real world and the virtual world each have their own strengths and weaknesses, so it’s wise to spend time in both.

How to get your kids to eat everything

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 05, 2015

This advice from Amanda Hesser on how to get young kids to eat everything is 1000% solid gold:

You may wonder how we get our kids to eat kale and clams, and here is the answer: we make them (we’re warm but firm), and we don’t offer choices. Psychologists will tell you that kids respond to consistency and confidence. While I can’t say I’m great at this when it comes to bedtime, I never waver at the table. People don’t want to hear this because we live in the Age of Coddling but I strongly believe that kids need and actually crave guidance and direction, especially when they’re young. And since I also believe that we should eat the same meals as our kids — showing unity and companionship — I don’t want to eat boring food, so they’re not getting boring food.

This is exactly what we did with our kids and while it’s super difficult to be consistent and firm, especially with a picky kid, I recommend this approach wholeheartedly. My kids definitely have their preferences and would eat pizza and burgers for every meal if given the chance, but they eat a wide variety of different foods — including a lot of stuff I personally don’t care for (oysters and mussels for starters) — and are always up for trying new things. How else are they supposed to discover that they really like Sri Lankan food? (Which they do.)

The kindergarten class in the forest

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 04, 2015

Eliza Minnucci teaches a kindergarten class in Quechee, Vermont and every Monday, her students spend the entire school day outside in the forest. The results have been more than encouraging. I love this anecdote about what the forest setting can provide for students of all temperaments and abilities.

When Minnucci started this forest school experiment two years ago, she knew it would be good for the rowdy boys who clearly need to run around more than the typical school day offers.

What she didn’t expect is how good it would be for the kids who can sit still and “do” school when they’re 5 years old. She gives the example of a boy last year.

Inside the classroom, he was one of her best students. But when he got outside and kids were climbing a tree, he couldn’t get very high. “I think he was a little surprised to not be meeting his peers’ ability,” says Minnucci.

Then, partway up the tree, he fell. And got a bit scraped up. “I felt terrible,” Minnucci says. “I thought, ‘Oh this poor guy. He failed.’”

But two weeks later, when the kids were climbing the tree again, he looked over at them. “I want to try the tree,” he said.

“And he went to the tree and he got higher than he’d been before and he was beaming,” says Minnucci. “And I thought, ‘Oh, this good, this is good!’ This is a kid who may have gone so far before he met challenge that he wouldn’t have known what to do when he got there.”

Kids who are good at school need to understand there’s more to life than acing academics, says Minnucci. And students who aren’t excelling at the academic stuff need to know there’s value in the things they are good at. Doing school in the forest offers “something really important” to everyone, she says.

(via @riondotnu)

The Centripetal Force of Life

posted by Jason Kottke   May 11, 2015

I don’t quite know what I’m doing to myself these days. Last night was an episode of The Americans in which a marriage was ending, another family was trying to keep itself intact, and a young boy struggles to move on after his entire family dies. This morning, I watched an episode of Mad Men in which a mother tries to reconcile her differences with her daughter in the face of impending separation. And then, the absolute cake topper, a story by Matthew Teague that absolutely wrecked me. It’s about his cancer-stricken wife and the friend who comes and rescues an entire family, which is perhaps the truest and most direct thing I’ve ever read about cancer and death and love and friendship.

Since we had met, when she was still a teenager, I had loved her with my whole self. Only now can I look back on the fullness of our affection; at the time I could see nothing but one wound at a time, a hole the size of a dime, into which I needed to pack a fistful of material. Love wasn’t something I felt anymore. It was just something I did. When I finished, I would lie next to her and use sterile cotton balls to soak up her tears. When she finally slept, I would slip out of bed and go into our closet, the most isolated room in the house. Inside, I would wrap a blanket around my head, stuff it into my mouth, lie down and bury my head in a pile of dirty clothes, and scream.

There are very specific parts of all those stories that I identify with. I struggle with friendship. And with family. I worry about my children, about my relationships with them. I worry about being a good parent, about being a good parenting partner with their mom. How much of me do I really want to impart to them? I want them to be better than me, but I can’t tell them or show them how to do that because I’m me. I took my best shot at being better and me is all I came up with. What if I’m just giving them the bad parts, without even realizing it? God, this is way too much for a Monday.

Kids, the Holocaust, and “inappropriate” play

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 08, 2015

On a strong recommendation from Meg, I have been reading Peter Gray’s Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. Gray is a developmental psychologist and in Free to Learn he argues that 1) children learn primarily through self-directed play (by themselves and with other children), and 2) our current teacher-driven educational system is stifling this instinct in our kids, big-time.

I have a lot to say about Free to Learn (it’s fascinating), but I wanted to share one of the most surprising and unsettling passages in the book. In a chapter on the role of play in social and emotional development, Gray discusses play that might be considered inappropriate, dangerous, or forbidden by adults: fighting, violent video games, climbing “too high”, etc. As part of the discussion, he shares some of what George Eisen uncovered while writing his book, Children and Play in the Holocaust.

In the ghettos, the first stage in concentration before prisoners were sent off to labor and extermination camps, parents tried desperately to divert their children’s attention from the horrors around them and to preserve some semblance of the innocent play the children had known before. They created makeshift playgrounds and tried to lead the children in traditional games. The adults themselves played in ways aimed at psychological escape from their grim situation, if they played at all. For example, one man traded a crust of bread for a chessboard, because by playing chess he could forget his hunger. But the children would have none of that. They played games designed to confront, not avoid, the horrors. They played games of war, of “blowing up bunkers,” of “slaughtering,” of “seizing the clothes of the dead,” and games of resistance. At Vilna, Jewish children played “Jews and Gestapomen,” in which the Jews would overpower their tormenters and beat them with their own rifles (sticks).

Even in the extermination camps, the children who were still healthy enough to move around played. In one camp they played a game called “tickling the corpse.” At Auschwitz-Birkenau they dared one another to touch the electric fence. They played “gas chamber,” a game in which they threw rocks into a pit and screamed the sounds of people dying. One game of their own devising was modeled after the camp’s daily roll call and was called klepsi-klepsi, a common term for stealing. One playmate was blindfolded; then one of the others would step forward and hit him hard on the face; and then, with blindfold removed, the one who had been hit had to guess, from facial expressions or other evidence, who had hit him. To survive at Auschwitz, one had to be an expert at bluffing — for example, about stealing bread or about knowing of someone’s escape or resistance plans. Klepsi-klepsi may have been practice for that skill.

Gray goes on to explain why this sort of play is so important:

In play, whether it is the idyllic play we most like to envision or the play described by Eisen, children bring the realities of their world into a fictional context, where it is safe to confront them, to experience them, and to practice ways of dealing with them. Some people fear that violent play creates violent adults, but in reality the opposite is true. Violence in the adult world leads children, quite properly, to play at violence. How else can they prepare themselves emotionally, intellectually, and physically for reality? It is wrong to think that somehow we can reform the world for the future by controlling children’s play and controlling what they learn. If we want to reform the world, we have to reform the world; children will follow suit. The children must, and will, prepare themselves for the real world to which they must adapt to survive.

Like I said, fascinating.

Old MacDonald Had An Apartment House

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 05, 2014

My favorite book when I was a kid was Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs by Judi and Ronald Barrett.1 So I was excited when the kids brought home a book from the library from the same authors that I hadn’t seen before: Old MacDonald Had An Apartment House. The story is about an apartment building super who starts growing food and raising livestock in vacant apartments as the increasingly alarmed tenants move out. Totally awesome 70s hippie energy crisis stuff. It didn’t click that I had actually read (and loved!) this book as a kid until we reached this page:

Old MacDonald Had An Apartment Building

Love that page. Hot and cold running sweet potato vines.

  1. I still have my 1970s-era copy that I read with my kids. It’s delicate though, so I bought them their own copy to read on their own too. The upsetting part is there are minor differences in the text (but not drawings) of the two books. And the new phrasing is worse…no idea why they’d change it.

Fantastic 1970s letter from Lego to parents

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 24, 2014

At some point in the 1970s, Lego included the following letter to parents in its sets:

Lego Letter

The text reads:

The urge to create is equally strong in all children. Boys and girls.

It’s imagination that counts. Not skill. You build whatever comes into your head, the way you want it. A bed or a truck. A dolls house or a spaceship.

A lot of boys like dolls houses. They’re more human than spaceships. A lot of girls prefer spaceships. They’re more exciting than dolls houses.

The most important thing is to the put the right material in the their hands and let them create whatever appeals to them.

The letter seems like the sort of thing that might be fake, but Robbie Gonzalez of io9 presents the case for its authenticity.

In our home, Lego currently rules the roost…the kids (a boy and a girl) spend more time building with Lego than doing anything else. This weekend, they worked together to build a beach scene, with a house, pool, lifeguard station, car, pond (for skimboarding), and surfers. Dollhouse stuff basically. Then they raced around the house with Lego spaceships and race cars. Nailed it, 1970s Lego.

Update: QZ confirms, the letter is genuine.

Parenting around the world

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 08, 2014

For the past year, Joanna Goddard has been running a series on her blog called Motherhood Around the World. The goal of the series was to tease out how parenting in other countries is different than parenting in the US. From the introduction to the series:

We spoke to American mothers abroad — versus mothers who were born and bred in those countries — because we wanted to hear how motherhood around the world compared and contrasted with motherhood in America. It can be surprisingly hard to realize what’s unique about your own country (“don’t all kids eat snails?”), and it’s much easier to identify differences as an outsider.

The results, as Goddard states upfront, are not broadly representative of parenting in the different countries but they are fascinating nonetheless. I’ve picked out a few representative bits below. On parenting in Norway:

Both my kids attended Barnehage (Norwegian for “children’s garden”), which is basically Norwegian pre-school and daycare. Most kids here start Barnehage when they’re one year old — it’s subsidized by the government to encourage people to go back to work. You pay $300 a month and your kids can stay from 8am to 5pm. They spend a ton of time outside, mostly playing and exploring nature. At some Barnehage, they only go inside if it’s colder than 14 degrees. They even eat outdoors-with their gloves on! When I was worried about my son being cold, my father-in-law said, “It’s good for him to freeze a little bit on his fingers.” That’s very Norwegian — hard things are good for you.

The Democratic Republic of Congo:

No one thinks twice here about sharing breastmilk. Why let something so valuable go to waste? Not long after my second daughter was born, I went on a work trip to Kenya. I pumped the whole time I was there and couldn’t bear to throw away my breast milk, nor imagine the nightmare scenario of leakage in my luggage. So I saved it all up in the hotel fridge in Ziploc bags. On the day I left, I took all the little bags to the local market and said, “All right, ladies. Who’s got babies and wants breast milk?!” Not a single Kenyan woman at the market thought twice about taking a random white woman’s breast milk. My driver even heard I was handing out milk and asked if I could pump some extra to take home to his new baby.

Abu Dhabi:

There are no car seat or seatbelt laws here. You will regularly see toddlers with their heads peeking out of sunroofs or moms holding their infants in the front seat. The government and the car companies are trying to educate people about the dangers, but the most locals (Emiratis as well as people from countries like India and Egypt) believe that a mother’s arms are the safest place for her child.

India:

In a country in which space comes at such a premium, few parents would dream of allocating a separate room for each child. Co-sleeping is the norm here, regardless of class. Children will usually sleep with their parents or their ayah until they are at least six or seven. An American friend of mine put her son in his own room, and her Indian babysitter was aghast. The young children from middle class Indian families I know also go to sleep whenever their parents do — often as late as 11pm. Our son sleeps in our bed, as well. He has a shoebox of a room in our house where we keep his clothes and crib, and he always starts the night in there, falling asleep around 8pm. That way Chris and I get a few hours to ourselves. Then, around 11pm, Will somehow senses that we are about to fall asleep and calls out to come to our bed. It’s like clockwork, and he falls right back into a deep sleep the second his head hits the pillow.

Australia:

On sleep camps: Government-subsidized programs help parents teach their babies to sleep. I haven’t been to one (though I did consider it when we were in the middle of sleep hell with our daughter) but many of my friends have. The sleep camps are centers, usually attached to a hospital, that are run by nurses. Most mums I know went when their babies were around six or seven months old. You go for five days and four nights, and they put you and your baby on a strict schedule of feeding, napping and sleeping. If you’re really desperate for sleep, you also have the option of having a nurse handle your baby for the whole first night so you can sleep, but after that you spend the next few nights with your baby overnight while the nurses show you what to do. They use controlled crying and other techniques. I have friends who say it saved their lives, friends who left feeling “meh” about the whole thing, and a friend who left after a day because, in her words, “they left my baby in a cupboard to cry.”

Chile:

Giving treats to children is seen as a sign of affection, so strangers will offer candy to kids on the street. I’ll sometimes turn around and a stranger will be handing my daughter a chocolate bar! Several months ago, we were on a bus, and a woman near us was eating cookies. She saw my daughter Mia and said “Oh, let me give you some cookies.” I said, “No, thank you.” But she kept on insisting. Then, a random stranger, who was not even connected to the first woman, chimed in, “You should give your daughter the cookies!” They were very serious about it! I was frustrated at the time, but after the fact I found it funny.

And then more recently, they talked to a group of foreign mothers about how parenting in the US differs from the rest of the world. For one thing, there’s the babyproofing:

Here in the U.S., there is a huge “baby industry,” which does not exist in Romania. There’s special baby food, special baby utensils, special baby safety precautions and special baby furniture. In Romania, children eat with a regular teaspoon and drink from a regular glass. They play with toys that are not specifically made for “brain development from months 3-6.” Also, before I came here, I had never heard of babyproofing! Now I’m constantly worried about my daughter hurting herself, but my mom and friends from home just laugh at me and my obsession that bookshelves might fall.

And the more permissive and involved parenting:

I was surprised that American children as young as one year old learn to say please, thank you, sorry and excuse me. Those things are not actively taught in India. Another difference is how parents here tend to stay away from “because I said so” and actually explain things to their children. It’s admirable the way parents will go into basic reasoning to let the child know why some things are the way they are. When I last visited Bombay, I explained to my then four-year-old about that we couldn’t buy too many things because of weight restrictions in the flight, etc. My relatives were genuinely wondering why I didn’t just stop at “no.”

Like I said, the whole series is fascinating…I could easily see this being a book or documentary (along the lines of Babies).

Update: This series is back after a brief pause with installments on Korea and the Netherlands.

Update: The installment on parenting in Cuba is a good one.

On improvising in the kitchen: We often have to be resourceful and adjust our cooking plans around what we can get. At the moment, it’s been a few months since I’ve seen chicken breasts available at the market, for example. Last year on Thanksgiving, my father-in-law and I spent hours driving around trying to find potatoes, which are a black market item. People will normally walk up to you at the vegetable market and whisper, “I have potatoes.” But, that day there were none. We were like potato junkies trying to get our fix of mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving!

You Have to Fucking Eat

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 25, 2014

You Have To Fucking Eat

From the author of the bestselling children’s book Go the Fuck to Sleep comes a sequel of sorts: You Have to Fucking Eat.

Why everyone should read Harry Potter

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 10, 2014

Some recent studies suggest that reading Harry Potter may make kids nicer people.

As the familiar story goes, not long ago there was an orphan who on his 11th birthday discovered he had a gift that set him apart from his preteen peers. Over the years he endured the usual adolescent challenges — maturation, relationships, social conflicts, general teenage neuroses. He also faced the less common challenge of battling a murderous, psychopathic wizard set on establishing a eugenic police state. I’m referring to the young wizard Harry Potter, the bespeckled, morally-upright protagonist in author JK Rowling’s wildly popular fantasy book series; his nemesis is Lord Voldemort, the story’s malevolent antagonist. And, while it might sound far-fetched, new research suggests that Rowling’s world of house-elves, half-giants and three-headed dogs has the potential to make us nicer people.

I’ve been reading Harry Potter with the kids for awhile now. We’re almost finished with The Prisoner of Azkaban. One of my favorite parts of reading it with them is when they’re confused about a situation or a particular word and we get to have a conversation. While reading Chamber of Secrets, we talked about mudbloods, prejudice, and fascism. We’ve talked about good and evil and how many of the books’ characters actually possess both good and not-so-good qualities. More recently, we talked about bravery and cowardice in the context of being a friend and how even Neville, who seems frightened of everything, is a brave and true friend for trying to stop Hermione, Ron, and Harry from leaving the Gryffindor common room in search of the Sorcerer’s Stone. I don’t know if they’re better people for it, but I value the chance to have those conversations with them about something they’re really into.