Saturday, July 30, 2011

Leiby Kletzky vs. Free Range Kids

Earlier this month, Leiby Kletzky, a boy the same age as my oldest, was killed by a stranger on the first day his parents allowed him to walk the seven New York City blocks between day camp and home by himself. For several years, I've been aware of a New York mom and blogger who calls her parenting style "raising Free Range kids"; she famously let her 9-year-old ride the subway and bus by himself. She approaches parenting from the angle that our society has gotten so concerned with safety that we don't allow our kids to have valuable life experiences. Before Leiby Kletzky died, I definitely put myself more on the Free Range end of the spectrum. After all, one of the key tenets we really agree with from Parenting with Love & Logic is that your kids have to do things for themselves and learn some of the best lessons by failing.

On the one hand, I can maintain my rational and strategic approach to allowing my kids the freedom they need to grow up. On the other hand, I find it hard to ignore the gruesome murder of a kid my kid's age at the hands of a stranger. The fact that Levi Aron took and killed Leiby on the first day he'd convinced his parents to let him walk home by himself makes the event almost unfathomably scary. The ease with which stories like Leiby's get disseminated (along with a media culture that hangs on tenaciously to stories like this) make us fear for our children at this moment in time. In public policy school, I learned that risk = probability of the hazard x severity of the hazard. In rational terms, what happened to Leiby Kletzky is at once the worst thing that could happen and an extremely rare case.

Yesterday, when I needed to grab my wallet out of my car after we were already in a store, I let my kids wait outside in front of the store, while I ran across the wide street. Pre-Leiby, I would have done the same thing with little worry. Yesterday, I looked back across the street at them two or three times, just checking, just in case, in the time it took to fetch my wallet. The awful tape in my head was saying "I needed my wallet, and it seemed silly for all three of us to cross the street..."

Bad things happen. In that context, Paige and I try to lean on preparing our kids as well as possible to avoid the bad things. We set parameters around the freedoms we afford our children. Some of the analysis in the Kletzky case has focused on the impossibility of anticipating this attack. Levi Aron had no criminal record and nothing to suggest capability of grizzly murder. Mr. & Mrs. Kletzky had set parameters; Leiby was to walk straight home, and his mother was to meet him halfway. The unthinkable happened anyway.

If you read Competent Parent regularly, you'll know that I like to sew my posts up with a nice, clean conclusion. This topic keeps me from doing that. How do we raise our kids to embrace life experiences and grow without undue fear while at the same time doing our very best to protect them from forces in this world that can be so savage?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

In acceptance of micro-routines

When I first went part-time at work and took over primary domestic responsibilities, I was less than excited one aspect of the transition: losing my routine. I chalk my embrace of daily routines up to the fact that I moved around a lot as a kid. There's comfort in doing things the same way at the same time each day. When I worked full time, I commuted by bus most every day, and meeting that schedule meshed with a pretty consistent routine.

The part-time schedule has torpedoed routine to the extent I might have guessed. Having to get the kids to and from their various locations can shoot holes in a routine. Also, the schedule I've kept - working M, T and Th and being at home on W and F - builds disruption right into the week. Although I accurately predicted the disappearance of routine, I would not have guessed that I'd be able to roll with it as I have. Early on, I grieved the loss of predictability, but I moved through the initial stages and got to acceptance.

In place of the steady routine, life now consists of short periods of different formations of family life and time. School years and sports seasons help delineate these. As regular readers know, I don't always fare well with any given period. I have come, though, to accept that whatever the schedule and pattern is right now, it will change soon. That makes me appreciate each little segment as it comes and goes. When I was working out before 6:00 every morning, Teddy would get up and hang out nearby until I was done, never asking for his breakfast. Now, we're out of that pattern. When Charlie had trumpet lessons followed by dance class after school for a while, I found that Teddy and I could shop for groceries in the neighborhood while Charlie was occupied. As soon as I had that down, we were out of that pattern and returned to morning grocery shopping.

I'm probably most nostalgic about a micro-routine that preceded all of this part-time stuff. Paige had a Tuesday evening class in law school. Charlie was at the university's childcare center on Tuesdays. Paige would pick him up there and call in a pizza order at the O (a Pitt classic). She liked the pizza but didn't relish taking our toddler into the Dirty O (as the students call it) to pick it up or to eat there. Persistently and inexplicably slippery floors presented just one of the hazards there. So I'd bus up from downtown and pick up the pizza and then join P & C in the student lounge in the basement of the law school for family dinner. For a while there, O pizza was the only kind Charlie would eat. Then Paige would go to her class, and C and I would bus the rest of the way home. Now, that whole setup exists only in memory.

The fleeting nature of these micro-routines motivates me to appreciate what's good in each one. Rather than rail against losing the comfort of predictability, I try to focus on how quickly the boys outgrow the little phases they laser through one after the other. Better to soak up today for what it is than to wish it could be something else. Soon enough, I'll be wishing nostalgically for today.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Friday Night Lights: Rundown of Parental Characters

This post will appeal to more of a niche audience than most, I would guess. That niche is fans of the TV show Friday Night Lights. The show, of course, followed the movie, which followed the journalistic book. If you're going to get into this franchise, start with the book, which is the true source material. The show, though, may just be the best show anywhere but HBO right now. (Well, sort of right now; the last episode just aired on NBC. It's on Hulu and DVD, far superior ways to watch TV anyway.) It features the most realistic marriage I've ever seen on television between the football coach and his wife. Anyway, the idea for this post has been knocking around this ol' head of mine for a while, and I'm going to finally attempt this.

I have found myself watching the show as a parent and examining the catalog of parents in the show.Warnings: 1) there will be spoilers in this post, and 2) I am vulnerable to being spoiled. I am two episodes into the final season (five). Although I'll try to organize this in season order, let's face it: it's all swimming together by now, and I won't be able to discuss these parents without using what I know from all that I've watched up to now. I won't soon give you permission to leave my blog mid-post again, but read this post later if you don't want plot lines spoiled.



Okay, just long haul FNL fans now (and people who don't care about spoilers)? Good.

After all this buildup, you may say "duh" when you read my key analytical finding on FNL parents: except for Coach and Tammy and flashes here and there, these kids have uniformly terrible parents. Or more precisely, diversely terrible parents. They fall down on the job in a whole panoply of ways.

Shall I count the ways?

I'll do that in a second, but I'll tell you that I'm going to wrap this up with my own guess as to why we don't see good parenting in this show. Also, although these are characters, I'm just going to talk about them like they're real because, well, they're real to me when I'm watching.

Jason Street - May the good Lord prevent me from ever having to face what these parents go through when Jason gets hurt. Before he gets hurt, they're relatively non-existent. He does seem to be better-raised than some other characters, and they're both present in his life. But the accident just does them in. They can't really leave it behind them, and Jason ends up finding his own way in the world in a wheel chair. Jeez, mom and dad.

Lyla Garrity - Hoo boy. In that first season, especially the early episodes, Buddy Garrity is so odious in every way. Of course, he comes to be more sympathetic, and part of that is watching him lose what he's loved. The fact is, though, that he loses it because he's a philanderer and a lout. Once Pam decides she's not putting up with it anymore, there's no forgiveness, and there's no marriage. Lyla, caught in the middle for a while, eventually becomes Buddy's life support, while the younger kids go off in the step-family. When Lila goes deep into church, she goes alone. When she starts crashing at Tim's place, she, of course, does that alone, too.

Tim Riggins - Speaking of Tim, his mother never appears, and his father only wreaks havoc when he turns up briefly. Tim and his brother Billy have only had each other for a long time, and that theme appears over and over again. Dad's an alcoholic and a con man who can be neither depended upon nor trusted. Tim, being younger than Billy, knows this less when Dad shows up, and the drunk just gets to break his heart all over again. Despite my man-crush on Tim Riggins, I have no idea what happened to mama Riggins. That doesn't stop me from seeing the Oedipal themes of his relationship with the hot mom neighbor. Compensate much?

Matt Saracen - Becoming "the man" on the football team by stepping into the starting QB role just adds to the ways that thoughtful Matt has to be the man. His father nobly fights in Iraq, which leaves Matt taking care of his demented grandmother. She dotes like crazy and anchors Matt to the house even more. The only thing worse than Dad's absence in the war turns out to be his brief time at home. Although he makes a feint at taking the caregiver burden off his high school son's shoulders, he eventually flees back to the battlefield (!) rather than take responsibility. Who does help? Matt's mom, a hairdresser who left him lo those many years ago. Of course, once we learn what a hard-assed peach of a family deserter dear ol' Dad is, we figure out why mom left. She really gives it a good try, but having not been there to raise Matt for years, she really doesn't know what to do with him. He may be uber-responsible, but he's still a high school student spreading his wings, and she's not really made of the right stuff to parent him.

Landry Clarke - I couldn't pick Landry's mom out of a lineup. Landry's dad, on the other hand, is pretty present and interested. And if you're going to sort of kill a guy sort of defending your sort of girlfriend, it would definitely behoove you to have a sheriff dad who will burn the evidence with you. Yeah, um, dad, about you catching Tyra sneaking out of my window in the morning, remember what we did with the old car down at the quarry?

Tyra Collette
- We only know what we know about Tyra's dad as reflected through her mother's complaints about men. Angela's chief ambition for her daughters is that they marry well. Mindy, leaves her promising career as a stripper to marry the disappointing Billy Riggins. Tyra confounds her mother by sort of dating Landry and then wanting to go to (gasp!) college. The real tension arises for Tyra when Tammy Taylor (the only good mom around) gives her good personal advice and is there for her when she really needs her.

Brian "Smash" Williams - Dad? In the projects? No. Mom, though, does pretty well with limited resources. This relationship feels authentic to me. So many pro athletes who have come from difficult circumstances speak movingly about the sacrifices their mothers made to enable them to achieve what they have achieved, and Mama Williams humanizes that narrative. She's not perfect, but she loves her son in an appropriately fierce way that only becomes more important when his star status and clear route out gets threatened by injury.

JD McCoy - Holy Mother of Texas Football. Joe and Katie McCoy show up with an intact marriage and deep involvement in their kid's life and football career. How novel. Then, we see that that involvement is way too deep. Joe turns out to be the psycho sport parent we know about in every youth league but haven't so far seen on FNL. Katie provides another version of the strong Texas woman, albeit not as likeable a version as Tammy Taylor. In the end, Joe's too much of a bumhole for their marriage to survive (I think. I may be forgetting a quiet reunion after they split up). At any rate, JD is out of control, and it's all his parents' fault.

Vince Howard - Let's see. Saracen made it out, and we already saw Mama Williams do her thing with a star player, so let's combine grandma Saracen's incapacity with a poor, African-American star. Mom's a junky, and the lights keep getting turned off. When Vince does what a young man does to try to get some money, he's doing it to pay for Mom's rehab. The playbook is the least of this kid's worries.

Jess Merriwether - Mom is definitely absent, and Dad is so incredibly emotionally distant that he might as well be absent. The sage and stable Jess survives these two different parental removals by leaning on her aunt and being a wonderful mother figure to her little brothers. Football, of course, is the one thread that joins daughter to father. It's also the one and only thing that looks like it might melt ol' daddy's heart toward the world in general.

Luke Cafferty - This seems like a normal family on the surface. What we discover, though, is that the surface is the most important thing. Keep your problems to yourself in the Cafferty house until you can't anymore. Then your mom will go nuts and try to take away the only good thing going in any of these kids' lives: Tammy Taylor. She was only doing her job, Mrs. Cafferty. Come on. And look inside your own house for the cause of that whole issue. Right? He's a good kid, but he's far from perfect. If you look deep inside, you'll admit that none of us is perfect.

Becky Sproles - Ah yes. The other side of that little Cafferty problem. Poor Becky. You can tell that she'd make a really cool, Landry-like nerd if she could just have some support and stability at home. But no, her mom's falling for the same guys she is, and her dad's a deserting over-the-road trucker with a shrewish, addictive personality new wife. Becky ends up so incredibly needy that it's all the finally-noble Tim Riggins can do to fend her off.

Why would there be such bad parenting in this show? Why are so many of them absent from their kids' lives? Because if there were good parenting going on, the kids themselves couldn't drive the action of the show like they do. They're only in high school, but you've got to power the drama in them, and all of that hovering, talking, checking in that good parents do wouldn't leave them time to get into and out of trouble as often as they do. The ultimate extent of this that I've seen is the subtly-named Epic at East Dillon. This poor rebel can't get her foster parents to a meeting with the guidance counselor. Her feeling of being alone in this world explains all of that smoking and cutting class and hopeless mooning around.

The secondary benefit of so many parents being terrible is that we get to focus on that sturdy, capable marriage and parenting and general messianic leadership of Eric & Tammy Taylor. Their students, their schools and the whole darn town might fall apart without Eric's warm "Hey" and Tammy's cozy "babe".

You know what they say about Texas. Apparently, even the parenting mistakes are bigger there.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

HHHHHH: The Summer Box Top Jump

OK, so it's taken until our oldest school-age child is about to be in fourth grade, but we finally figured something out in the vital classroom race to collect the most Box Tops for Education. Ready? It's going to rock your world: Don't stop collecting just because it's summer.

Perhaps a little background would help. Box Tops for Education are those little squares on General Mills products in the grocery store. General Mills cereals lead the way. Each one is worth a tiny amount of money to your school, usually 10 cents. Schools collect them and turn them in and get cash. I try not to think about the capitalist manipulation involved here, especially when I see products with big banners luring shoppers with "2 Box Tops" on one package.The way our school (and I assume most schoo
ls) encourage families to collect the little things is by having a contest to see which classroom brings in the most.

We often don't collect box tops until that first announcement comes out late in the fall saying that some other classroom has an apparently prohibitive lead. But l
ast school year, we hung a ziploc baggy on the fridge, and it's been easy to collect them. When the school year ended, we left the bag up, and we're still going. In September, we'll be able to send our boys to school with lead-generating boxtops for their classrooms. Boom!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Competent Parent Gets in Shape

No, you are not mistaken. This blog remains just as toned and shapely as it ever was. The author, my friends, has taken on a personal fitness challenge. Warning for the squeamish, this post contains before and after pictures of the author sans chemise at the end. Back at the end of March, I started the P90X home workout program (the Lean version for those in the know). While I've always played sports, I've never worked out to work out. As such, I have never had one lick of muscle tone except maybe in my quads. Parenthood and emerging into my late 30s had conspired to pad me with a protective layer (apparently, my cells believe my stomach area faces grave dangers and needs the most protection).

P90X apparently markets the most through late night infomercials. I've never seen those, but I listen to a ton of sports radio, and their ads have joined the "divorce lawyers especially for men" ads on those airwaves. I'd been thinking about it for quite some time and had done some introductory research. Then my friend started P90X. One day, when I asked him if it had made a difference, he said he had triceps. When he flexed and invited me (doubting Thomas that I apparently seemed) to check for myself, I discovered that he had actual triceps. I said "I've got to get me some of those" and finally ordered the 12 DVD set.

This program is a grind. The 90 in the name is for 90 days. (The P is for Power and the X is for eXtreme. Oh yeah.) i proceeded to work out 60-90 minutes a day, six days a week for 90 days. People ask me if I lost weight, and I didn't lose that much. A classic workout fiend's mistake is eating too much because of all the calories you're burning. I probably did that, although over the course of P90X and the few weeks since I've finished, I've really paid a lot more attention to what I was eating because I didn't want to waste all of the early morning grunting and sweating I was doing. I did, however, lose inches in some places I wanted to and gained triceps and other actual muscles. My body didn't transform as miraculously as many of the before and after pictures I've seen, but I'm pleased with the progress.

It worked for me as a parent because as extreme as it was, I could actually fit it into my daily life. I bought dumbbells and resistance bands and a yoga mat, and I did it right in my basement. No traveling to and from the gym. After casting about for a rhythm, I settled on waking up at 5:30 am and knocking it out first thing. After a few weeks of adjustment, I experienced what other Xers talk about: a kind of P90X high, which is an energy boost that lasts throughout the day. Despite getting up so early, I napped far less than I usually do, even on weekends. Early on, I often fought sore muscles in places that had never been worked so hard before, but eventually that eased up

I would not have been able to do it without the experience of my friend who started a month ahead of me and a P90X coach who was a college friend of his. Tons of online resources and community (now all over facebook) help ensure against feeling like you're doing it alone. In addition to these supports, I had my boys for company, especially Teddy. He would get up early and come down and either watch or join in. It's pretty funny to see a four-year-old struggle with lame pushups (funnier than a 37-year-old doing the exact same thing, that is). One day, both boys did a shoulder/arm stretch (Karen pot stirrers, for those in the know) in the supermarket parking lot.

When my kids were smaller, I don't think I could have done this. A lot of parents seem to forgo exercise slowly or all at once. Then, a few years later, some emerge from their stage as parents of infants and toddlers to attempt to get back in shape. It felt good to take care of myself in this way, especially when I could figure out how to slot it into my life so as not to disrupt the already busy goings-on.

And now, for those threatened photos. Just before I started on the left and just after finishing on the right.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Query: How do you know when you're middle-aged?

At a recent dinner with friends in their late 30s & early 40s, I asked (in pretty serious fashion) if we are middle aged. The responses took two forms: a) not taking the question very seriously or b) working very hard to dispel the notion that we've achieved this dubious milestone. I've contemplated the question lately because - among other things - my youngest child is about to be a school-aged child and my parents are about to retire. I don't know how one knows that one is middle-aged. I haven't found (or, in truth, formally sought) a definition. There's strong evidence for the proposition, though:
  • If you doubled my current age, you'd get 75. A little young to shuffle off but not shocking.
  • I have age spots.
  • Music & apparel from my teen years is back in the popular culture.
  • Yes, I'm rather bald, but that process started when I was 23, so it's not a strong indicator one way or the other.
  • I've reached that age at which I don't undertake exercise without the proper apparel for the given activity.
I think I'm middle-aged, but contemplating the subject has made clear that the question of whether one has achieved this phase of life is difficult to answer definitively. It's easy to know when you're a teenager. Thanks to a 90s drama, we now know it's a thing to be a thirtysomething and by extension a twentysomething. Obviously, it's easy to know when you're in those brackets. Not so, middle-age. Are you middle-aged? How do you know?

Sunday, July 10, 2011