Discussion: Progress and Coddling

I was listening to a podcast this morning where Jonathan Haidt was interviewed.  He’s a very interesting guy and I recommend checking out some of his work, but he was there to talk about his new book that he co-authored called The Coddling of America.  It is something that is commonly talking about as a university professor, and of course it is a pretty mainstream discussion as well.  Helicopter parenting and the hand-holding that still takes place even as they enter college is somewhat alarming.  He argues that the changes in attitudes of university students on campus started around 2013 and so his discussion isn’t about millennials but rather about iGen or GenZ.  He talks about the fact that we have this generation that is raised where an adult is constantly around.  Also the constant testing and homework means kids don’t play enough and when they do play it is always under adult supervision.  Kids don’t learn conflict resolution strategies when an adult is always a mediator.  There was far more detail that he gave but what primarily caught my attention is his explanation of why this is.  I mean if these young people are actually having moral panics and creating obstacles in their life that don’t actually exist, it is the fault of the parents and how they are raised.  So he asks the question, why are we pre-disposed as parents to coddling?

He talks about the progress paradox.  The basic idea is that what progress has done is made us all a lot safer, and thus we begin to worry about low probability risks.  Things we wouldn’t have paid much attention to before but now do simply because we don’t have to worry about kids dying from small pox.  Progress means we also aren’t having as many kids, as education and access to birth control has increased for all people.  This progress means we are more worried about the few kids we do have.  Progress has also led to increased leisure time which gives us more time to spend with our kids and watch over them.  We also are more aware of child development issues and are more apt to get them involved in structured activities over free play.  All of this, Haidt claims, explains why we have increased levels of moral panics on university campuses, why there safe spaces, trigger warnings, and microaggressions.  (Interestingly Haidt says that removing yourself from triggers if you’ve experienced trauma is the exact opposite of what you should do if you want to heal from trauma.  In cognitive based therapy which has been shown to be the most effective in helping people recover from traumatic events, it is recommended that one have graduated exposure to triggers rather than removing yourself from them.)

It seems a weird byproduct of a safer world, but from the discussion it seems that what we are doing is inventing or exaggerating fears because we don’t have as many as we used to.  So I thought I would ask some questions for purposes of discussion. Does this hypothesis seem reasonable and fit what you’ve observed in society?  What sort of shift would you like to see happen, and how do we go about making that change?  Are we all just old fuddy duddys who don’t get the younger generation?

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To My Son: Year 4

Dear Son,

Since I decided to start doing the letter to you, it’s funny how I start thinking about all year as I note things I want to say.  But you go through so many changes that some new always inspires me to say more about it, that by the time I get to writing, I find it hard to focus on any one thing.   Ultimately this year’s letter is getting a partial eclipse from a new brother on the way.  But don’t get upset that your brother is already sharing the spotlight before even arriving, I’ll discuss more about this later.

There is no question that as each year passes I simply love you more.  As your personality evolves, as you start to develop your own identity, you simply are no longer someone I just love because you are my son, but because of the qualities you possess as an individual.  Love is a beautiful duality now.  My love for you both defies reason and is because of reasons.  It’s a wonderful place to be.  You continue to be sweet, silly, kind, and inquisitive.  I love the questions you ask now.  You often use the phrase “in this world”.  I am not sure you really understand how big it is, but I like the fact that you have started to think about that bigger picture.  It is also amazing how happy it makes me to see you be able to do things yourself.  A month ago, you went into a public restroom all by yourself and didn’t want me in there.  The other day you warmed up a waffle in the microwave all by yourself.  Your firsts have always made me happy, but as you grow and these things become more complex it brings not only joy, but even a sense of peace that you are a little closer to surviving on your own.  I suppose there will come a day that I will miss you being more dependent on us, but in the end parenting is to teach you to become more and more self-sufficient. I guess it just makes me feel satisfied as a parent to see these accomplishments even if they are trivial in the big picture.  It’s honestly why I am loving fatherhood so much, because of how much joy you bring to things that I previously thought of as trivial, if I thought of them at all!

You are also developing a strong will.  These last couple of months you’ve been getting a bit more angry when you don’t get your way and being more defiant.  Given how wonderful your disposition is in general, this is sometimes hard to take, but I sense this is just the beginning of a battle of wills.  But I just want you to know that we think, all the time, about the why you need to listen to us, not just that you listen to us, and so even though it breaks our hearts to make you upset at us, we know we are doing the right thing.  I know you have to test your boundaries, and I hope you keep doing that in life, because to go anywhere in life, you need to cross a few boundaries, if not many.

Your love of dinosaurs continues, and you don’t just love dinosaurs but know their names and things about them.  You’ve also show an interest in crystals, and plants.  You seem to have a very steady hand for using scissors and decorating cookies.  I don’t know what it all adds to but you have officially said you want to be a geologist because you want to dig up dinosaur bones and learn more about crystals.  As I look back on this year, all I can say is that I am excited to see you grow more as a person.  I don’t know how much you can project forward from the person somebody is when they are 3 or 4 into adulthood, but I feel like you are always somebody who is going to make me proud.

You’ve also become more fearful to the latter end of this year.  You say, “I’m not scared of anything, I’m just scared”.  You want us to go with you upstairs at night, stand guard of the bathroom door, hold your hand.  It’s natural I suppose.  It’s healthy to have a bit of fear, but it sometimes feels hard to know that you’ve become worried about harm coming to you, even though you’ve not experienced any real harm.    I guess it’s just part of your developing emotions, and also because the love you feel is stronger and deeper than before, loss must weigh on you greater than before.  I wish I could explain to you that fear is healthy, and that conquering your fears is a great feeling, but ultimately something nobody else can do for you.  In time you will sort out which things are worth fearing, but for now, I am happy to hold your hand.

There is an asymmetry of course to our relationship right now, in that I have the advantage of knowing almost everything about you, and having a decent chance of remembering much of it, but you do not.  Of course, I can tell that in this last year you are understanding more about what kind of person I am as well, the fact remains is that there is so much about my life that you do not yet know.  There is much about the world that you are not aware.  This year has been a tough year.  We live in one of the most powerful countries on the planet, and right now it is being run by a terrible human being.  The government at large is generally void of compassion, and everything I and your mother stand for. Times feel quite uncertain, and I’ve been more worried and down about the world than I’ve been in awhile.  I hope that things are much better by the time you are old enough to read this letter, but life may have bigger changes than I or your mother can imagine right now.   You will notice that as you get older and more aware of the world, that there are simply more bad things to know about.  You try to balance this out with the good, but it can be a struggle.  I know intellectually that all the goodness that humans have isn’t being talked about, and you just mostly are going to hear bad news, but sometimes knowledge can’t override your emotions.  Coupled with the fact that history teaches us countries do fall, and life gets significantly worse, there is a shadow on the future that I find hard to shake.  Suffice to say there have been times when I’ve let you watch a bit too much TV just so that I could sit next to you or cuddle with you on the sofa.  If a daddy’s arms make you feel safe, your touch makes me feel peaceful and lets me forget about the world for a while.

And so, in this next year, life is going to become very different for you as your brother comes into being.  Once again, the difference between what I know and what I feel clashes.  When we first thought about having another kid, it was our joy of being a parent to you that wanted us to multiply that joy by having another.  And yet as your mother’s due date approaches I find myself feeling a little sad in a way.  You have been my world for 4 years and now there will be another child to pay attention to as well, and I will no longer be able to give you completely undivided attention.  I don’t know how much other parents experience this, but all I can think about right now is what I’ll be losing, and not what will be gained.  It’s hard for me to imagine that there will be more than one child to love.  And while I know my love for you won’t diminish, the fact remains that there will just be less of me available to you.  At the same time, I know that your mom will have less time for you too with a new baby, and that we might possibly grow even closer now because you will not be able to rely on your mom quite as much, especially while your brother is very small.  And then part of me also feels bad that I don’t feel the same excitement for your brother as I felt for you, and that every first your brother does, will be something you’ve already done and wonder if it could feel as special as it is with you.  I’m probably overthinking it all.  There will be lots of love in this house and if my joy is doubled come April, I will truly be a fortunate man.  I also know for certain you will be a wonderful brother even if at times it will be frustrating to have to share attention.  I know your brother will come into the world a luckier baby than you, simply because he will have 3 people to love and care for him as he grows instead of just two.

Thank you for another wonderful year son.  You bring me more laughter and joy than I can describe. Happy Birthday!  I love you so much!

Mango

IMG_20160401_191926 (1)I’ve loved mangoes ever since I can remember.  For me they are by far the tastiest fruit out there.  Love probably isn’t the right word, but it’s the best I can do.  I remember when I was young boy, my dad would cut up fruit for us to eat on Sunday mornings, and it was a real treat when mangoes would be in season.  He would spend a lot of time cutting, and end up eating little.  Very often I would eat an entire big mango in a sitting, and as the last piece was given to me I would express some faux-guilt about eating it all and my dad would look at me and say “don’t worry son, I’ve eaten so many mangoes in my life that you could never catch up to me anyway” and happily give me the last piece.  He did grow up in India and I am sure he did have a lot of mangoes.  Maybe to him it was like an apple.  But I don’t know, if I had mangoes as readily available as apples I don’t think I would crave them any less.  As I got into my teens, still every bit a mango fiend, and thought about someday sharing mangoes with my child I questioned my ability to be so generous.  I mean sure I’d share, but give all of it to him?  That’s not possible.

So here I am a parent and mangoes are in season and my son just loves them.  And I am happy to say I know exactly how my dad must have felt.  It makes me so happy to see that joy of being able to taste sweet, juicy, and wonderful fruit.  I cut away, and feed him as many slices as he wants.  I feel grateful that I am able to give him his heart’s desire in the form of fruit (knowing that such fruit would be a luxury for many families) and I even think to myself how many mangoes I’ve had in my life, and maybe it’s not as many as my dad, but I’m happy to let my son try and catch up.  His joy is so much better than a mango.

IMG_20160513_093359It’s easy to get caught up in giving our kid the things we didn’t have when we were children, but thus far it seems a far more spiritually fulfilling experience to share with my son the things I did have that brought me joy, because I know what it feels like, and I can connect with him in a way that I couldn’t by simply giving him something I didn’t have.  And if we feel positive about the people we are now, maybe those things you missed out on aren’t quite as important in the end.

Parental Ramblings

Dedicated to my toddler who I am watching for the 3rd day in a row on my own.  For the first time.  Mothers are awesome, but being a dad should be talked about a lot more.

“Get out of the bath!”  Child is speaking gibberish.  “Do you want to get out of the bath?” Gibberish continues.  I guess he doesn’t want to get out of the bath.

I’ve reverted to an early civilization barter and trade system.  “If you eat two more pieces of cucumber you will get ice cream.  Two, just these two.  Look they aren’t even that big”.

“If you don’t brush your teeth, your teeth will hurt and fall out.  Do you want that?”  Child responds “Yeah”.

“Yes, you can press the button!”  I say it excitedly, he gets excited.  It’s a great moment.  But then daddy forgets and presses the button instinctively. Child goes “Waaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhh! Me! Me! Me!”.  “OMG I’m sorry daddy forgot. No I am not bringing the elevator down again so you can press the button. “Waaaaaahhhhh”.

“You just spilled chocolate milk everywhere…lets get out of those clothes.”  Spill cleaned up.  New clothes are put on…first sip…more chocolate milk on the clothes.  Seriously?

I was thinking we always love how we sound when we sing in the shower.  His voice just babbling words as he plays with his bath toys is so meditative.  These little sounds reverberate and are so peaceful.

“It’s been a good 6 weeks since he peed his pants, that’s really good for his age, so it was bound to happen on my watch.

I just spent 15 minutes doing some pretty sweet Charlie Chaplin moves to much delight and applause.  Charlie Chaplin was in pretty good shape I have to say.  It is at this moment I also realize that I will most definitely tire of doing it before he is tired of seeing it.  Laughter will become tears.  But even so, the laughter is worth it.

I look in awe as he just eats 3 whole oranges one after another.  He definitely won’t get scurvy on my watch.

IMG_20160510_134800So you’re just going to eat the rice and the noodles and nothing else?  Glad I spent 20 bucks on Chinese food.

The most important thing to tell everyone about his trip with daddy to the zoo was that there were no giraffes.  Admittedly it was also the thing he was most excited to be seeing after it was announced he’d be going to the zoo.  Still it was an hour there and an hour back, we could start a little more positively.

He’s having a sort of drunken low fade into sleep tonight.  Like he did when he was about a year old.  He’s be sweet and affection and babbling to himself in fits of drunken light-heartedness.

I say “I love you” and he says “I do too”.  That’s the first time he’s said that to me.

To My Son: Year 2

Dear Dhyan,

As I sat down to write this letter I’ll admit it was harder to really think about where last year left off and a new one began. From the day you were born to your first birthday was literally a lifetime ago, and yet this second year feels more like a lifetime ago.  You are no longer a baby, you are little boy.  In my letter to you last year much of what I was feeling was based on a profound change of you not even existing to a sudden filling of my heart and my life.  As I look back on this past year the changes in what you mean to me seem equally profound, and it surprises me that love can grow so much.

Dhyan_cuteIf your first year was the story of achievements in basic motor skills, your second year of life is about achievements in social skills and the development of more complex thought patterns. Not to say that your physical achievements still aren’t plentiful.  I have especially loved the development of facial expressions and hand gestures.  Our favorite by far is when you developed the hand gesture for “I don’t know” by throwing your hands up above your shoulders and saying “uhh?”  In this year you have also mastered stairs, started running, climbed a little plastic rock wall at the playground, and danced like a maniac.

Your mother is documenting many of your achievements, but I thought I would reiterate to you for future shame, that your first word was not mommy or daddy, but kitty. A word you said often for about a month and then almost never uttered again as you began referring to all animals by the sound that they make.  I would also like to throw in there for purposes of future praise and absolute pride that you started saying “daddy” several months before you started saying “mama”.  As this year ends you aren’t speaking as much as I expected but your comprehension in two languages is amazing, and you are picking up words almost daily.   I expect that for my next letter I will be recounting many conversations.  I am not disappointed that you aren’t saying more already, but rather just anxious to talk with you, and hear what you have to say.  It’s going to be an exciting coming year.

Dhyan_doughAnother thing I love about this year is the growth of your imagination. You have started interacting with your stuffed animals and feeding them or having your Duplo animals kiss.  You clearly have started creating scenarios for their actions, and while I don’t understand these scenarios in the slightest, clearly you do and that’s all that matters.

It excites and worries me how much more clever you are becoming. It’s something I am sure every child starts to do, when they try to deceive their parents.  Recently you tried to fake sleep thinking I would walk away so you could leave your room.  Of course I was waiting right outside your door and as you peaked out you saw me standing there and gave a little devious smile and went back to bed.  I’m here to tell you that your fake sleeping is absolutely adorable, and also completely obvious.  The fact that you don’t get how obvious it is, makes it even more adorable.  I am sure we will be pitting wits against each other for a good portion of your life under our roof, and I just want you to know, challenge accepted. And truthfully, I’m actually really proud of you for beginning the game already.  It shows you have courage, and I know you will only get cleverer for making the effort.

There are a number of things that really stick out for me this year. One is your enjoyment in music, and especially percussion.  I don’t know if that will last a life time, but I have been impressed how you have liked to experience different sounds using chopsticks as drumsticks and beating different size drums, different sized bowls and pots, and just other objects that provide a unique sound when struck.  The musical moment that I will never forget though happened in Poland.  Out on the street there were two girls playing a flute and violin and you were enthralled.  You danced while they played, and you clapped when they finished.  I think being lost in music is one of the more beautiful sights in this world and it gave me so much joy to see music touch you in that way.  It is those kinds of gifts that I hope to be able to provide you with more than anything.  Whether you ever play an instrument or not is not as important to me as music being an important part of your life as it is mine.  Through music there are stories, images, emotions, depth of thought, and fun to be had.

There are so many things that I love about you this year that I am just going to list some of my favorites:

  • I love the fact that you want your “owies” kissed by one of us, or if needed by yourself.  I’ve never seen a kid kiss themselves better. I also love that you want to kiss our “owies” better too.
  • I love how silly you are.  When you do something that entertains us, you really ham it up.
  • I love that you don’t just walk, you walk a little more silly. Not that you can’t walk normally, you just like to bop around and walk.
  • I love that you try to clean up your messes (even if I don’t like you making misses) and that you throw things in the trash.
  • I love that you try so hard to be grown up already which just seems extra adorable since you are so young, and often even though it often ends in disaster I think it’s awesome that you try.
  • I love all your quirks, like there is a specific spot in the house where we can only peel oranges, or specific ways we have to use or play things, like when I’m not holding the drumstick to play the drums properly, or not sitting in the right spot while you play.
  • I love hearing you say daddy.

The thing that I love most, is how you understand love in a much more tangible way, which is to say you are starting to understand love as much as any of us do.  I was struck once again with that unique feeling of happiness and sorrow this year when we were leaving Poland.  Your family was waving goodbye to you in the balcony above the waiting area and you were smiling.  It was clear you bonded with your family during our stay in Poland and as I watched you smile it struck me that you were at the beginning of understanding this powerful feeling called love, and then I started to cry, because I knew you were also saying goodbye, and so you would also begin to understand missing, longing, and loss. Such emotions will be very painful to you at times, but I just want you know that these emotions are just a reaction, and the harder the hit you, the more love you had, and  that is always something to be grateful for.

As far as who I am now because of you, I would have to say it’s hard to tell how I’ve changed. I certainly worry more.  I’ve been feeling the weight of the world more this year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of that increased weight is because I want you to have as many opportunities as I had, and I worry sometimes that won’t be the case.  I know though, that to give you the best possible chance at a good life is to make you strong, and that means conquering my own fears and worries.  Because you are watching, and if I can’t do it, how will you learn?  Just like missing, longing, and loss, will always find you, so will worries and fears, but they too are a reaction when you feel you have something very beautiful in your life to lose.  I promise you to always explore the positive with you first, and when pain finds you as it does us all, then we will explore that too.  As I wrote last year, that is hard to not let fear overtake you some times, when you love somebody so much, but the one thing I do know is that when you let fear win, you never truly get to enjoy love. And it is central to my philosophy that love is always to be enjoyed.

People say that the time goes by so quickly with your children, and there is truth to that. But there are also ways to slow it down. Writing this letter has helped me reflect and get lost in this past year with you.  You haven’t become who you are in an instant, but through many small incremental changes, and it has just been a pleasure to be at your side through it all.  It is your birthday tomorrow, and while there is a part of me that would love for you to stay this age longer, I know that’s not possible and I’m just going to do my best to enjoy each day and each new change it brings.

Love,

Your Father

Who’s Better, Who’s Best

And so it begins. The dark side of parenting comes out and I was taken aback at my reaction.  A friend of mine shared with me a beautiful audio recording of her daughter reciting the alphabet.  It was the cutest thing ever and I enjoyed.  Her daughter is 3 months older and then I started to think to myself, my son is hardly saying any words.  I mean kids change fast, but he only has 3 months before he should be saying his ABC’s as well.  What if he doesn’t?  Am I bad parent? Is my kid not going to be very smart?

And it’s happened other times as well. When he shows interest in a particular thing, my mind starts to race.  He likes playing drums, he’s not even 2, what if he’s going to be this amazing drummer?  How awesome would that be?  Hey there is this kid on YouTube the same age as my son playing the drums and he is much better than my son.  Crap my son isn’t special!

Dhyan_hatSo I confess my mind has gone to such places, but before you start to lecture me I just want you to know that my anxiety passed as quickly as it came, but it makes you think why one would have such a reaction? Of course it’s a common stereotype, that parent living out their dreams through their child.  Or perhaps just as common, are the parents using their kid as a pawn to compete with other parents to show each other up to determine who is the better parent, because they have the better kid?  So I had to seriously contemplate whether I was this type of parent.  Where were these feelings of anxiety and competitiveness coming from?  Why is it important to me that my son be extraordinary in some way?

So dismissing the idea that I might be a crazy person I thought about this sort of biological reaction I had when my son was born,  for him to grow and get stronger. While it is important to enjoy the moment, I think it’s natural for a parent to want to see this growth in their child.  Self-reliance is ultimately our goal, even if at the same time it sucks so bad when they don’t need us anymore.  There are a lot of people in this world and so it seems also reasonable that we would have this drive for our children to be extraordinary at some particular thing or to have a natural talent that drives them in a particular direction.   It can be the easy ticket to self-reliance.  Rich or poor when they have some inherent gift to fall back on, it’s a feeling of security as a parent.  You may have heard the stereotype before that all Indian parents want their kids to become doctors.  A well deserved stereotype actually.  My uncle was one of those parents who wanted their children to become doctors.  The reason he gave for this was that doctors are never unemployed, they are always needed and thus his children are always assured in an income.  Being originally from India where there was no social safety net, where poverty was and still is fairly high, I can understand such a philosophy.  They were however well off and my cousins very well educated, they would be successful in anything they chose.  But as I see the places my own mind goes I understand the obsessive Indian parent constantly pushing their children towards medical school.  I of course never would force my own child into anything in particular, because in the end I can’t ignore the fact that my child is an autonomous being who needs to be free to make decisions for his self.

In the end, the right answer just seems to be to just remember to love, to encourage, and to teach them to learn well, wherever their interests lie. Teach them the value of determination, teach them the value of caring about what you are doing and taking pride in your own work.  Whether my son is extraordinary or not, he will always be extraordinary to me and that’s a gift in of itself.  I think it’s the hardest thing to know as a parent.  How do you make your child self-reliant?  There are so many avenues to that destination it’s easy to get lost.  Perhaps the best I can do is to trust in myself and my own self-reliance to do well in the moment and stop trying to worry and predict the future.

Let’s Pause Here

Dhyan_pandaI would describe myself as someone who embraces change, even when it sometimes isn’t easy. To me, change is the one true constant in the universe. My son is 20 months old and there are times, where I would swear that I could live at this time forever, because he is so sweet, and so pure. I think in an instant it makes us remember a time when things were simple, and completely joyful in their simplicity. So when I look at my son, I know that is what he is thinking and feeling right now.  Sticking a straw out of my mouth is amazing, that picture of an elephant is amazing, this rice is amazing.  Life is amazing. They don’t even know enough to appreciate it and the best part is that you get to appreciate it for them. And that is a beautiful feeling. The idea that such innocence and purity could last forever is a fantasy, but an extremely good one to hold on to. Because if you can just add just a little bit of that into the world, happiness can only grow.