Sunday, October 19, 2014

5 Signs Your Child Has Become a “Tweener”

From the moment our kids come into this world the more experienced parents out there warn us that it’s the teen years when the real challenge begins. It usually goes something like this:
New parent says, “I haven’t slept in a month, I’ve changed ten diapers since lunch, and they won’t stop crying long enough for me to drink a glass of water.”

Experienced parent dismissively responds, “Just wait until they're a teenager.”
Okay, okay. We get it. Being a parent of a teenager must really suck. Warning received. 

Rarely, however, do we hear similar warnings about the almost-as-challenging tween years. Yet, this is often when the trouble begins.
For those who don’t know, the tween years technically occur between the ages of 10 and 12. But observable tween traits don’t usually kick in right when a child turns double digits. It takes a bit of time. Then, before long, you’re in full-fledged tweendom. You quickly learn that the tweens aren’t as much about an age as an attitude -- often, a bad attitude.
Knowing your child has entered the tween stage of “development” can help with the adjustment. So, here are a few signs that your once loving, pleasant and occasionally-obedient child has become a tween:
1). They Choose Solitude Over Family Time: The first sign your child has become a tween present itself in the simplest way -- you don’t see them as much. You know they’re in the house somewhere. You saw them get off the bus, and their shoes and bag are strewn about the mudroom.

The tween's habitat of choice: their bedroom.
(Of course, I edited this in Instagram to give
it a more tween-friendly, yet foreboding, vibe.
A few months prior, they would have been sitting at the kitchen table gabbing about their day, or doing homework, or playing in the yard outside. But no more. Now their favorite thing to do is to sit alone in their room, maybe reading a book, listening to music, or – god forbid – playing on some sort of electronic device you broke down and bought them so they’d fit in with their tween peer group.
Apparently, tagging another tween’s family photos on Instagram holds more intrigue than actually hanging out with their own family.
2). They Suffer from Uncontrollable Eye Rolls: Not long ago, that goofy pun-filled joke dad always tells would have been greeted with a smile, and maybe a shake of the head. Now, your child rolls their eyes and then retreats to their room again.
The same thing happens when you suggest partaking in family tradition, like apple picking or playing a favorite board game. The constant eye rolling and accompanying “ugh” sounds come with such frequency they can appear involuntary. If anyone figures out how to control these, message me, or text me, or tag me in a post. Heck, you can even send smoke signals. (Eye roll)
3). They Begin Speaking Tween: There was a brief time between when they learned to talk and the tween years that you understood every beautiful word your child said – and even the not so beautiful ones.
Then, suddenly, you notice they start saying things like “totes magotes” instead of “totally,” or they replace the word “crazy” with “cray cray,” or they begin to verbalize any form of textese, like OMG. If any of these things happen, well then, IMHO, they may have already crossed into the abyss that is the tween years.
You may also notice that tween boys start talking about girls, and tween girls begin talking about boys. (Parental eye roll and guttural “ugh” sound).
4). They Become Remarkably Easy to Embarrass: Before entering the tween phase, most kids didn’t have a clue when to be embarrassed. Like the time they made toot noises with their mouth in a public place, just to make their siblings laugh. Or the time they had a screaming fit at the grocery store because you wouldn’t buy them the Beanie Boo the store cruelly put on the end cap of the cereal aisle. Not embarrassed by that at all.
Then, suddenly, your child develops an acute sense of embarrassment. And, as it turns out, the most embarrassing thing in the world is actually you. It’s true. Nothing embarrasses a tween more than being seen in public with their parents.

Consider drop-off and pick-up (to or from any kid event, really). They used to bounce over to your car, hop in, and then sing along as you played the radio leaving the parking lot.
Now, they slunk to your vehicle, addressing you with the warmth of a passenger getting on the city bus. And if you so much as roll a window down with the radio playing before you’re out of earshot of the other tweens,  they will hate you forever. That’s a quote.

Don't you miss the whacky, poorly-
planned, haphazard outfits of the
pre-tween, years with a mix of
patterns and colors? Oh, youth.  
5). They’re Newly Obsessed With their Looks: Just a few years ago, they were more likely to dress like Punky Brewster -- in  a colorful, mismatched outfit that inaccurately reflected your family’s general sense of fashion. Now, they wear only the carefully selected clothes that portray the exact image they hope to put out there, right down to socks. If you dare advise them what to wear, you get the eye roll.
And then there’s the hair. Remember the wild, unkempt pre-tween hair? If not for a parent routinely instructing the boys and girls to grab a comb or brush before leaving the house, they simply wouldn’t ever touch it. No more. Now, they can fuss with their hair for hours before getting it just right. And if they do get it right, they might just take a selfie and post it to Instagram.
So there you go.  If you notice your child exhibiting any or all of these characteristics, there’s a chance they’ve become a tweener right before your eyes – or more likely, while up in their bedroom.
Don’t fret though, because, as we’ve all been warned since they were born, this is a cakewalk compared to the actual teen years. So enjoy it. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

One Smiling Moment -- The Truth Behind an Okay Photo

We all know a picture is worth a thousand words. Yet, sometimes that’s not the whole story. Whenever I see a photo of a family our size (four kids) smiling back from a picturesque locale, I imagine the happy story it’s telling is more than likely a work of fiction. But that’s okay; I like fiction.
A picture I took of our four kids smiling from the shores of Green Lakes State Park recently is no exception.
You wouldn’t know from looking that it was our fourth attempt on this walk to get a group photo – the three before ending in tears, temper tantrums or fake toot noises. Truth be told, that single photo may have been the only moment during our entire visit that all four of the kids were smiling at the same time. And the real story behind it would likely take more than a 1000 words to tell. We'll soon see.
We went to Green Lakes State Park on a recent fall Saturday because I needed to get out of the frigging house, and not while going to work, the store, dance class, or another damn soccer game. I needed to go someplace just for the pure purpose of leisure – R&R as they call it in the Army (or so I’ve been told).
Those who know our family well know that the past few months have been tough, with my wife out of town often attending to family health matters. She’s spent many nights sleeping – and not sleeping – at hospitals with her family, and I’ve spent many days at home with our four lovely children. I have the far easier part of the equation, and I know it.
Still, when she’s out of town I often have to call in the cavalry just to get our kids to the various events and practices that dominate our lives, all while meeting my various work responsibilities. It can be draining.
Once in a while, we all need to take a break from the deadlines and duties of our children’s overscheduled lives, and just do something fun -- even when that means taking all four kids on an outing. Think of “fun” as a relative term here.
I’m an old pro now at taking all four kids places by myself, and even successfully took them all to the State Fair alone a few weeks ago. I haven’t written about that trip, though, because we pretty much spent the entire six hours going from one dirty bathroom to the next. Apparently, filling their bellies with chocolate milk 20 minutes after arriving wasn’t the smartest move. It did, however, give me an idea for a portable potty seat/stroller that I think would sell to parents of Kindergartners.
Anyway, as this more recent fall Saturday afternoon arrived, and soccer ended mercifully for another 24 hours, I decided we should go on an unstructured, impromptu trip to the local state park. Just me and the four kids. I figured we’d hang out together, play on the swings, and take a walk around the 1.8 mile lake loop trail. No real plan, no pressure.
When I say Green Lakes is close to our house, it may be understatement. The entrance lies literally less than a mile from our door, and the park border itself is even closer – it’s where the local deer population goes to rest in their recliners after eating my entire tomato crop.
As for our family, we often visit the park in the spring and fall, though rarely in the summer because they charge to get in between Memorial Day and Labor Day. We have four kids and no spare money, so we go when it’s free.
We arrived this unusually warm fall day to find the parking lot packed with cars that had delivered others families looking for similar free respite from their busy lives within the natural settings of the park.
With three of my four children under the age of ten, our first stop was the playground – a plastic and metal jungle that is likely the least natural thing around. I sat on a nearby picnic bench. The one child over ten proceeded to sit near my eardrum so she could nag me incessantly about how she only wanted to come here for the hiking part of the visit.
“How much longer are you going to let them play?” she asked somewhere around ten times in a span of three minutes.
After I ignored her nine of the times, she joined them on the fancy monkey bars, and they played even longer than I had told her the first time she asked.
Once they were good and exhausted, I pried them each off the playing equipment and prepared them for the nature walk portion of our visit – a preparation that included a bathroom break, of course.
Finally on our way, the walk took an early negative turn. This happened when the oldest child shared with her siblings exactly how deep the lakes are – created by glacial waterfall plunge pools – and how just a few feet into the water, the bottom falls away to over a hundred feet deep. My six-year-old, who is the resident phobia queen, proceeded to shriek and cry, refusing to walk on the side of the path closest to the water’s edge.
“It’s just an irrational fear,” the older daughter chided, as she tried unsuccessfully to firmly console her younger sister.
Actually it wasn’t. It kind of freaks me out when I think about it, too. It’s like we’re standing on a cliff, but it’s filled with water. I was going to reassure her by saying you can drown just as easily in a few feet of water, but thought better of it.
Our almost two-mile walk along the lake continued, with shrieks and screams to spare. Occasionally, the siting of a fish in the water or a bird in a tree became the focus. And that was good.
The rest of the time, the eldest was convincing her sister that there was nothing to fear by walking as close to the water’s edge as possible, each attempt only causing more trouble.  Finally, I had to stop her from trying to help the situation, because she was only making it worse.
Toot noises.
Even though tension was high, with one child practically in tears for fear of falling into the incomprehensibly deep lake and another not talking to us because I'd instructed her to “stop interacting” with her younger sister, I thought it might be nice to get a least one happy photo. Yep. Good luck.
Our first photo stop along the shore of the lake was at a nice, little spot where a shallow section made approaching the water possible for all the kids. I got a good shot of them all facing the other way, but the moment ended with the boy making fart noises and everyone alternatively laughing and screaming at him.
Broken fern, bad lighting.
The second attempt failed because the youngest daughter had found a fern branch she loved, and she wanted it to be in the picture with us. This ended when the older sister ripped the plant from her hands, breaking its stalk in half. Again, tears. 

The light wasn’t right either, so we moved on.
The third attempt also involved ferns, but new ones.

Too big for selfie,
or fern gully.
This time we stopped on a bridge, and I tried to take a selfie of us all. The phone/camera was too close to get everyone in the shot. Luckily, a nice older couple was passing by and offered to take the photo. After I handed the phone/camera over to them, my eldest noticed the new ferns in her sisters hands and grabbed them gently from her, and went to place them on the bridge railing. As the older couple watched us, a wind gust blew the ferns off the bridge and into the creek below. You guessed it: tears.
The fern-loving younger one then tried to climb down into the creek to retrieve her beloved plants. The older couple stood there looking at us with my phone/camera poised and ready.
“Sorry,” I said to them, and meant it. “You’re free to go.”
They smiled awkwardly, nodded knowingly, and then they left.
For the fourth attempt at a family photo a bit farther along the path I decided to just take a shot of the kids, like the first two attempts, and not subject any strangers to our drama. The lighting was okay, the backdrop awesome, and for one brief moment they all smiled.
Click. (Or whatever sound the phone/camera makes).

Well, almost.

I would have done another take, but the boy started shaking his butt, while yelling, “I’m shaking my butt!” for all the park inhabitants to hear.
So, that one photo would have to be good enough. And, I swear, it’s a true representation of our awesome trip to Green Lakes State Park.

There you have it. I guess this picture is worth closer to 1,550 words.
On a related note, there’s been a lot written elsewhere about this phenomena of happy photos that don’t tell the real story. Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with it. If you think about it, that’s kind of how the mind works, too.
The actual moments of our lives are often wrought with angst, frustration and tension, but the memories can become good ones with time.
Remember that challenging trip the family took to the amusement park, with the insufferable heat, the long lines and the expensive food. It can end up being the best time ever. 

That happy photo is just the first step in the cleansing process. 

So, now it’s up to you, my mind; cleanse away.

Harry and the Hendersons inspired this last one.

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Monday, September 8, 2014

6 Tips to Help Parents Enjoy Soccer Again

It's the time of year when parents spend many weekend mornings searching the house for that missing shin guard, scouring local sports stores for another pair of soccer socks and loading up lawn chairs for a season on the sidelines watching our young ones chase soccer balls around.

Let's admit it: Soccer can be time-consuming, anxiety-inducing and even costly -- for kids, parents and coaches alike. With the right attitude, it can also be lots of fun. As a father of four, a long-time soccer fan and a youth soccer coach, here are a few tips that can improve your enjoyment of the so-called beautiful game.

1. This Isn't the Soccer of Our Youth

When I played youth soccer decades ago, our practices went something like this: The coach would tell us how to kick the ball, then we'd line up and one by one, with all the other kids watching, run up to a stationary ball and try to kick it. No matter how we fared, we'd then go to the end of the line and anxiously await another chance at glory. We'd be lucky to touch the ball three times during one of those "skill drills."

For games, the coaches would put 11 of us on the field per side -- even in second grade -- and then holler from the sidelines as a 20-child mass of flailing legs would bunch around the ball, moving slowly across the field, occasionally crossing a goal line to "score." It looked more like a rugby scrum than soccer.

Nowadays, most youth coaches are encouraged to avoid the line-them-up-and-take-turns type of drills in favor of what's called small-sided games. They'll give each kid a ball and make them run around a square; or break the team up into smaller groups to focus on a given skill or two; or have them play three-on-three games. This allows each player to make more soccer moves and decisions during practice, giving them more "touches" and actually practicing the skills needed to improve.

For any bystander who remembers the orderly practices of their youth, it can look like a total mess. But it works.

When it comes to games, soccer leagues that follow the age-appropriate curriculum suggested by U.S. Youth Soccer will put smaller teams on the field, again to maximize touches and to keep the pile of kids around the ball at a manageable level. For instance, those aged 6 and under should only have three or four players per team on the field for games. Teams shouldn't get to 11 per side until age thirteen.

2. Recreational Soccer has Recreation in the Name for a Reason.

Up until about third grade, almost all kids play in recreational leagues, where teams are made up of members of the same community or youth soccer organization and play each other. After that age, most clubs are divided into recreational and so-called "travel" teams.

If you and your child like the competitive side of the sport and entertain visions of soccer stardom, travel may be for you. If they make the team and play, they'll get all the competition they need to improve their skills. And you'll get to spend lots of time and money traveling around to games.

But if what they really need is playing time, a recreational league may be a better choice.

Rec soccer leagues and intramural leagues focus on individual skill development, no matter the skill level of the player. Most of these leagues encourage coaches to give kids equal playing time and the opportunity to play different positions, which is critically important, because we don't know at that age who's going to blossom into the perfect striker.

If your kid plays recreational soccer, parents and coaches should treat it as such. Understand going in that your little superstars will be sitting the bench just as often as the kid who has never played the game before. In rec leagues, that's how it should be. Remember, it's supposed to be fun. Thus, the name.

3. Yelling is Futile and Even Embarrassing

I know how frustrating it can be to have some 16-year-old referee blow an offside call, costing your team the coveted victory. I've dealt with the crying kid who happened to be in goal when that fateful shot slipped into the net, in a clear violation of all soccer goodness. It should have been disallowed. But please remember that most referees, coaches and assistant coaches are just volunteers. And they are volunteering so that your kid can play this game.

It's rarely a good idea to yell at a referee. And, it's certainly never a good idea to yell at one of the kids on the other team -- even if they pushed down little Johnnie, without any regard for the rules. Let the coaches and refs handle it.

I remember one overzealous mom who thought it would be funny to yell the wrong instructions to a 9-year-old on the other team -- this, after the kid's coach had tried to give her the right instructions.

"Clear the ball, Suzie, like we practiced," the coach encouraged. The mom from the opposing team retorted, "Kick it toward the goal, Suzie." She thought it was a hoot. We were all embarrassed for her.

If parents must yell things, keep it positive and simple. "Go, INSERT NAME!" will cover most situations.

Coaches, too, should think about what they yell or even say really loudly, as we often must to be heard half-a-field away. Try following the simple rule of bookending. When you want to give an instructional critique that can't wait till halftime or the next practice, surround it with encouragement. "Good effort, Johnnie. Next time, try to get it closer to the sideline. But great hustle."

4. They'll Never Pass Like Barcelona

Nothing is better in soccer than watching a good pass -- that perfect ball from Xavi to Lionel Messi that lands on his foot and ends in a goal. I know we all want our kindergartener's team to spread out and pass the ball, like Barcelona does. Or, even like we did back in high school -- if memory serves us correctly.

The reality is that kindergarteners simply are not going to do that. There's a reason. Younger kids lack the developmental tools needed to "spread out" and see the field. Heck, some adults lack these skills. Kids this age are focused on their own feet -- or on the dandelions growing in the next field. They are playing to learn how to kick the ball, to follow rules and to have fun. Passing comes later.

I always cringe when some well-meaning grandparent yells at a 6-year-old who's streaking down the field with the ball for the first time in his life, "Pass It!"

Again, "Go" will likely suffice.

Think about it. If we all yell "Pass" every time the ball gets near any kid's foot, as many parents are apt to do, we create a bunch of soccer players who treat the soccer ball like a hot potato -- getting rid of it the second it comes their way. That won't serve them well if they decide to stick with the game.

5. Winning at this Level Shouldn't Matter, Because It Really Doesn't

When a team loses, the parents are often heartbroken. The kids? Not so much. Sure, they want to win. But most bounce back pretty quickly from even a lopsided loss.

I was an assistant coach with a team a few years back that went undefeated. It was a rec-level league for third grade girls -- U8, as U.S. Soccer calls it. Our wins were the result of luck of the draw as much as anything, though the head coach was a great teacher, too.

We knew the first day of practice our team was stacked with good players. Winning all those games, the coaches and parents loved it. The kids enjoyed it, too. But, how many of the kids truly improved their skills that year? Some did. But no more than on the team I coached the next year, when we lost most of our games. In fact, I saw more personal skill improvement on the losing team than on the winning team. Losing can do that to you.

And of all the victories over those two seasons, the most memorable win wasn't the final one clinching the undefeated season, but that first win in the losing season after we'd opened with an 0-4 record. It was special, not because we ended up with more goals than the other team (technically, this league didn't keep score), but because we overcame adversity, worked hard, pulled together and improved.

The focus of youth soccer should be on teaching them about fair play and sportsmanship; about hard work and teamwork; and about being healthy and active. Along the way, they may learn how to deal with adversity. If they lose, hopefully the learn how to lose with dignity; if they win, how to do so with humility.

With proper coaching and practice, they will each improve their own soccer skills, becoming better players and more confident kids. That can happen on a team that wins, as much as a team that loses -- as tough as it is for many parents to take.

6. Let Them Play

Finally, all of us involved in soccer -- as parents, grandparents and coaches -- should remember this simple youth soccer saying: "Let Them Play."

There will be time for instruction, for skill development and for learning the finer points of the game that all us adults can more clearly understand (from the sidelines). The best way for kids to learn is to play: to kick the ball, to trap it, to pass and to shoot, to score goals, to make mistakes, to win and to lose.

The reality is that most children who play youth soccer are never going to turn pro. I'm not trying to burst bubbles, but according to U.S. Youth Soccer, some three million children will register to play the sport this year. There are only 11 starting spots on each of the U.S. national teams.

Being great at soccer is a laudable goal, and we shouldn't take that dream away from any kid. But, there are many more lessons to be learned. As adults, we just have to get out of the way and let them play.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Please Don't Shank Your Sister

One of the best toys ever, say my kids.
(Ruddy Bits and its subsidiaries have not
been compensated for this opinion).
“It’s a jail!”

“No! It’s juvie!”

“No. It’s a jail!”

“It’s juvie!”

Of all the arguments I’ve witnessed as a parent, this had to be the strangest, most surreal one yet. Our 6-year-old daughter had just used Magna Tiles™ to build herself a little structure, and decided to put a few small dolls inside. She called it a jail.

Along came our 4-year-old son, who never lets anyone play with these magnetic building blocks alone. (For the record, this is not a sponsored post. But if the fine folks at Magna Tiles want to send over a few, we'll gladly accept them.) 

They all love these particular toys, and
have had years of building fun creations with them. Even more so than their Legos. As a parent, the worst part about the tiles is that the kids always have them out. They like the darned things that much.

Whenever anyone is building with the Magna Tiles, the boy always either joins in the creative fun, or pretends he’s Godzilla and promptly destroys the structure with wanton malice.  

On this occasion, he decided to join the fun. He too went and got a few of his action figures and dolls, and decided they also deserved time in the plastic prison. 

I tried not to worry much about why my kids were building prisons in their free time. It’s not like we focus on incarceration as a family. We don’t watch “Orange is the New Black,” and if we did, we certainly would not let our kids watch it. And we're not from Texas, where I hear prison building is an acceptable past-time -- that and obsessing over high school football.

On the contrary, I find our country's incarceration rates quite troubling, if not downright embarrassing. But that's another blog.

So, while I did find it a bit odd, I thought that if the kids want to hone their building skills by constructing high-security facilities to which they can sentence their naughtiest dolls – and the ones that just caught a bad break – so be it.

It didn’t really bother me that much.

Yet, when they started fighting over whether to call it “Jail” or “Juvie,” I got a bit concerned.

"Jail!" screamed the 6-year-old girl again.

"Juvie!" shouted the boy through increasingly clenched teeth.

My concern was this: How does a 4-year-old raised in my house know that juvenile detention centers are called “juvie” in the first place? Heck, how does he know about juvenile detention centers at all?

It’s not like the misses and I are always leveraging threats of “juvie” on them so they’ll obey our many, and often ignored, commands.

The words “Clean your room, or you’re going to juvie!” have not once been uttered in our house.

My kids have yet to discover the Simpsons.
So Bart isn't to blame for this one.  
Yet here was my 4-year-old son standing over a small box building, which was housing four small stuffed animals and two action figures (prison overcrowding apparently is an issue here), vehemently stating that it was “juvie!” and not just a jail.

This particular argument came to an abrupt end when the boy tried to shank his sister with a triangular Magna Tile.

At that point I figured my “parent of the year” qualifications were under threat, so I intervened. First I disarmed the boy without incident. Then I put him in solitary.

After the situation was under control, I thought it might be prudent to find out how these kids know about juvie in the first place. So I asked his 6-year-old sister what “juvie” means – for clarification, and to begin my Jedi-like parenting discussion.

“It’s kid jail, dad. Duh,” she replied.

“Oh. And who told you about it?”

I figured it must've been some Disney show that slipped passed the radar.  

She looked around, to make sure no one was about to hear her sing to the resident authorities. Then she whispered, “Chloe told us.” 

That’s their 8-year-old sister.

Of course. That makes sense. Because, by eight, all kids know about kid jail. … I think.

I wish there was some deep lesson or moral to this tale. But there isn’t. Other than that little kids with older siblings learn stuff a lot earlier than we want them to.

Oh, and that Magna Tiles can be used to make a fairly secure detention facility, for dolls and action figures of all ages.

Isn't learning fun?

Now clean up the Magna Tiles or you're all going to juvie.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Driftwood: The Lucky Ones

We wandered through the sand along the shore picking through and marveling at the pieces of sculpted wood, scattered and half-buried at the foot of the dunes like weary travelers that finally found their beach.  Some were whole trees, others just pieces, all brought there by waves, shaped by water and time, each representing an unknowable story. Someplace, at sometime before, these stood as living trees, or parts of one.

How far they’d come and how long it took, we’ll never know. Even what they were was often beyond our ability to know. An old oak, or a young maple? A root, or a limb? We marveled and imagined, nonetheless.

I’d never thought terribly much about driftwood before, until a recent trip to the white sand beach that marks the eastern edge of the Great Lakes and serves as a repository of journeys untold and final resting place for an entire watershed of wood. Our family has a camp not far from the beach, and we take walks up its shore a few times a summer.

Sure, I’ve picked up many interesting pieces to examine on past walks, or found nature’s attempt at a perfect walking and used it for the duration of one journey.  But I’d never thought about the story of each one before.
This time, I did. It may be because I empathize at times with the drifting part of the tale. But I took time with each piece of sculpted wood we held to consider its whole story.
It struck me that only a few of the many trees and branches are preserved and reborn as driftwood. Most simply go back to the earth, or become fuel for fire -- which these may yet be. But only the lucky ones get to become driftwood, if only for a spell.

Each tree could have just fallen on land and rotted and become the soil for the next generation. But something brought them to the water – either proximity, or a storm, or a flood, or a river.  There they floated and tumbled for an unknown duration, became hardened and smooth, and found their way to a deserted beach, preserved by happenstance to live beyond their life, to be reborn as nature's own version of artwork.
As we walked, we made a game of it, and looked for ones that could be transformed again, this time in our minds, to other living things, like birds and beasts and the fish they surely knew along their journey. 

Here’s what we found: 

Parasaurolophus. It's a dinosaur.

The Loon

Snapping Turtle/Snake/Basilisk

Snarling Bear
And here, to my mind, the luckiest of all:

One piece of wood that transforms as you turn it in your hand,
into a bear, a porpoise, an anteater, a wolf, and a cardinal.
This magical piece of driftwood also could be a
shark's tooth or a sailboat.
I kept this one.  

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Saturday, August 9, 2014

A Letter to The Parents of the Golf Cart Kids

It’s the time of year when families young and old try to get away together to that special summer place. It could be a collection of cottages around a reservoir in Alabama, a favorite R.V. park in the Midwest, or mountain campground in the Adirondacks. For my family, it was always a small community of camps (which is what we call cottages in Upstate New York) along the shores of Lake Ontario.

I spent every summer that mattered there growing up, and learned all I cared to know on those shores. Now, my wife and I take our young kids there.

But something has changed about our little community.

As a kid, my brothers and I made the best friends we ever had there: Kids from Florida, the Carolinas, New Jersey, and Central New York, all spread out among camps of the community. We swam, skipped rocks, made bonfires. Between all those activities, we walked. We walked to the beach. We walked to other friends' camps. We walked to the impromptu rec hall that was Mrs. Woesner’s, where we played cards, and croquet, and spent many rainy summer days.

When I go there now with my young kids, I see a new generation of adolescents, all about the same age we were when we had the best summers of our lives.

And here’s the difference. Rather than walking barefoot along the dirt roads to get from friend to friend, and then on to the beach, all these kids zoom around on golf carts. Most aren’t even old enough to drive, but that doesn’t stop their parents from giving them the keys to the E-Z-GO.

While I know there are many communities that have a tradition of golf carts as the main means of transportation, ours was never one of them. When I was their age (ah-hem) 25 years ago, only one family in the community owned a golf cart. That family had a disabled child, and that’s why they had a cart. Now, it seems all the camps with teenaged kids have carts. As do many others.

So, here it is: An open letter to the Parents of Golf Cart Kids. By the way, I’m fully aware that there are likely so few of these people, I could have just written a closed letter and handed it to all of them. But, “open letters” are as fashionable as golf carts these days. So, bear with me:

Dear Parents of the Golf Cart Kids,

I’ve seen your kids zooming around, going the places they think they need to get, as quickly and easily as stepping on that electric cart’s go peddle. I’m not writing to say they’re going too fast, which they probably are. Or that the incessant buzzing of carts is ruining our family’s quiet vacation, which it likely is. I’m writing on behalf of your kids.

You may think your helping these kids by giving them the keys to the golf cart, thus allowing them to zoom around the R.V. park, or the beach-front community, or the campground. But you’re not.

Some of the best times had at places like these are on those long walks between all the things we just need to do. Trust me, I walked those paths.

More importantly, there’s a lesson on those walks. It’s not only the one about slowing down, and taking it all in – your surroundings and life. It’s also about the value of earning something. When you walk to the beach, you appreciate it more. The sand is that much softer, and the water that much cooler.

When your kids just pile onto your new golf cart and speed off to their destination, they may get there a bit quicker. But they certainly miss the accomplishment, and may just miss why these summer places are so special.

So do your kids a favor; Make them walk.

Peace out.

There. Now I’m officially an old fart.

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Friday, July 18, 2014

Finally, A Ninja To Inspire My Little Girls

As a parent, there are millions of little joys in the everyday, as you watch your kids discover the world around with all its profound beauty and untold mysteries. But once in a while, you can get crushed by it too, when you see them realize a harsh reality of life and the world they’re inheriting from us.
One of those little parental-soul-sucking moments happened to me recently, and it started with a simple drawing.
Our six-year-old daughter loves to draw. She tells us she likes drawing more than going outside. She even knows what she wants to be when she grows up – an author illustrator. She’s the best natural drawer in the family. I remember a drawing of herself she drew at age three. It was the kind of thing a cartoonist would conjure up. Of course, I am a bit biased.
Our little artist's first self portrait, from
quite a few years ago. She was 3 then.
She also happens to love the Ninja Turtles. It’s a family affliction I’ve written about before. In recent months, our two older daughters have grown out of their TMNT obsession. But not our third. She still loves them, talks about them, plays with their dolls and asks to watch the show – which has been reincarnated on Nickelodeon, after a 20-year hiatus, for another generation of kids.

One night a few weeks ago, our little drawing fiend took her art kit to the kid table in the corner and began a new masterpiece. When she was done, she didn’t want to show me.

“It’s just pretend,” she said. “It will never happen,” she added.

“What is it?”

Reluctantly, she showed me.

“I drew a girl Ninja Turtle,” she said, with resignation in her voice. “But I know Ninja Turtles are all boys.”

I smiled at the drawing as my heart sank.

I’m no dummy. I know there are many ways this world is unfair and cruel, to little girls and to everybody else. But for some reason, her belief that all Ninja Turtles have to be boys hit me in the gut.

She’s my third daughter. I’ve watched her older sisters grow up, and I’ve worried before about what it’s like for a little kid to suddenly realize the world is not entirely theirs for the taking, despite us telling them that, if they work hard enough and dream big enough, it is.

It reminded me of a few years ago when I was watching the Tour de France with my eldest, and she asked a simple question. “Why can’t girls win this race?”

Something I never thought about growing up as a boy surrounded by brothers is something that’s now painfully clear as a dad of daughters: there are countless examples of things little girls simply aren't allowed to dream to do. It’s especially true in sports.

Throwing the winning touchdown at the Superbowl? Hitting the winning run in the World Series? Only little boys can have these dreams, even if it’s not terribly realistic for most of us. And it's a profound moment for a parent when you watch that unfair reality dawn on your daughter.

Sure, there’s a girls version of baseball, but it’s not the World Series. There’s a women’s NCAA tournament, though I’ve never watched it. Occasionally, there’s a female race car driver these days or a female jockey in the Kentucky Derby. And my daughters always root for them. But when I sit with my kids and watch sports, which I do a lot, with the exception of the women’s World Cup it’s almost always men playing other men. They see that.

And there are many examples outside of sports, too.

We’re catholic. Every Sunday (okay, most Sundays … how about some Sundays) we attend church and watch a man lead the mass and perform the rituals of our faith. The question has been asked, why can’t women be priests? I don’t have a good answer, other than they just can’t. One less calling for my girls to pursue, I guess.

Priests, pro football players, baseball stars, Tour de France winners, and now Ninja Turtles: The heroes my daughters cannot aspire to become add up quick if you look around.

As a parent, all we can do is be more cognizant of these messages, and teach them about the need for the serenity, the strength and the wisdom, as the saying goes. Lord knows, there's room -- and need -- for change, on these issues and others.

After the female Ninja Turtle drawing incident, I did a little research to see if the concept of a girl turtle had been broached. I discovered that in the long lifespan and many reinventions of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle franchise, there actually was a female turtle character introduced. Her name was Venus de Milo. Though Venus has yet to make an appearance in the latest Nickelodeon version of the series, which is all my daughter cares about. But there is hope.

And then, this week, another female ninja of sorts burst onto the scene. She’s not a cartoon, or a turtle. But, she’s certainly a ninja. Her name is Kacy Catanzaro. And you can be sure my daughters gathered around the computer to cheer her on.

The world has many flaws, even more than I realized before I became a dad of daughters. But there’s also a million things that are great, and awesome, and inspiring about it. This is one:

By the way, the inaugural women's Tour de France kicks off July 27th. It's called La Course, and you can be sure we will be watching. 
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