The misadventures of a first time father

Altruism

children-learning-1359728_960_720This past Valentine’s Day, our son and daughter each got cards in the mail from their grandparents. Inside our son’s card was a ten dollar bill. He immediately became very excited, with a wide smile and look of excitement on his face. I imagined that images of a new action figure or some type of toy was dancing through his head.

He pulled the money from the card, his smile still ear to ear, looked at Meg and I and said “I know exactly what I want to do with it!”

Here it comes. We braced ourselves for whatever store he’s earmarked this for already.

“I want to donate it to someone who doesn’t have a lot of money so that they can use it.”

Flabbergasted. The only way to explain our reaction as we stood there taking in the response that we completely did not expect.

Don’t mistake my surprise for anything but, as despite my shock, Meg and I were so incredibly proud to realize this is where our little guy’s heart lies. Trips down the toy aisle, looking through store ads, or the ubiquitous little mini catalogs that seem to come with many of his Imaginext action figures could often make us think that’s all he thinks about, point to each one he wants (and it’s usually the equivalent of, oh, all of them).

ten dolalrsBut here, faced with the reality of cash in his hand, he wanted to give it away, to help someone less fortunate than he and it meant the absolute world to see.

Altruism is defined as the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.

During a 2008 talk at Stanford University, Michael Tomasello, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany discussed about his research on “processes of social cognition, social learning and communication, and language in human children and great apes” and very notably, the idea of altruism and its natural occurrence in children.

According to Tomasello, children have an almost instinctual desire to help, inform and share, doing so without expectation or the desire for a reward.

“There is very little evidence in any of these cases that children’s altruism is created by parents or any other form of socialization,” Tomasello said during the discussion as chronicled by the Stanford Report.

As the children grow older, though, their spirit of cooperation becomes shaped by how they judge their surroundings and perceive what others think of them. As they become more aware of what’s around them, Tomasello says they also become more worried about what it means to be a member of a group.

“They arrive at the process with a predisposition for helpfulness and cooperation,” he said. “But then they learn to be selective about whom to help, inform and share with, and they also learn to manage the impression they are making on others – their public reputation and self – as a way of influencing the actions of those others toward themselves.”

In contrast, Tomasello’s studies showed that apes were in it mostly for themselves. Undergoing similar experiments as the children were, the apes had the ability to work together and share but instead chose not to do so. He says that while a child’s sense of guilt or shame might guide a decision to share candy with another child who helped them get it, the apes had no qualms about working with another to get a piece of food and then keeping it to themselves.

donations-1041971_960_720According to Tomasello, human beings have a sense of “we,” a shared purpose, a bond that he says explains even simple social norms such as what makes it rude to walk away from an activity with another person without any type of advance warning.

“This sense that we are doing something together – which creates mutual expectations, and even rights and obligations – is arguably uniquely human even in this simple case,” Tomasello said.

Uniquely human. Yet it’s amazing how many of us, so uniquely human in our altruism at that early age, have it fade away as the years go on, focused more on how any given situation, person, or the world, can benefit us, rather than those around us. I think that we’re all guilty of it.

So what do we do? How do we help a child maintain that sense of heart and generosity? How do you foster it now so that they can keep it as they continue to age? And is there a way to turn back the dial on ourselves and shed the selfishness that for some come with age?

I have no idea. I wish I knew the answers.

What I do know, though, is how proud Meg and I are of the boy he is today and have no doubt he’ll continue making us proud for many years to come.

Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss

happy-birthday-dr-seuss“Today you are you. That is truer than true. There is no one alive more youer than you.”

That comes from Happy Birthday To You, one of the myriad of books in the catalog of Dr. Seuss masterpieces that decorate many a bookshelf and have influenced any number of childhood, and foster a creativity across all ages.

And today, March 2, 2017 marks the 113th birthday of Dr. Seuss, or Theodore Geisel, as he was born.

You look quite terrific for one hundred thirteen,
the lessons from you, we still every day glean.

These days, it’s hard to think of a time before Seussian rhyming and characters like the Grinch and the Cat in the Hat weren’t part of our everyday culture. Words like Nook, and Grinch have become a part of our lexicon.

There is so much that could be talked about personally about Geisel, who was born to German immigrants in Springfield, Massachusetts. He experienced quite the share of discrimination and hate as a child as Americans fought Germany in the era of The Great War, now known as World War I. He lived on Mulberry Street, and it’s been said that on walks with his older sister, other children would throw bricks at them, spout hateful threats and call them names due to their heritage. It’s said he was the final scout in line to receive a medal when Theodore Roosevelt came to town, but by the time it was his turn, he received no medal but a lecture from Roosevelt. Some historians theorize that anti-German people within the town tampered with the medal count that day and believe that incident teamed with the screaming lecture from TR may have led to the classic Horton Hears a Who Line “a person’s a person, no matter how small.”

Throughout many, if not all of his tales, Geisel seems to have a common theme that resonates no matter our age – fairness, justice for what’s right, doing the right thing, and celebrating the differences among all of us.

a-persons-a-person-no-matter-how-smallWhether it’s Horton in Horton Hears a Who, trying to save the Whos that are on the head of the flower despite the other creatures of the jungle making life downright miserable and tortuous for him, the Sneetches learning that just because some have stars on their bellies and some do not does not mean that they’re truly any different from each other and can get along, or the importance of opening our eyes to what is around us and seeking out knowledge to better understand people, places and our shared world in I Can Read with My Eyes Shut, it’s all about learning to better understand each other.

So many of these books that we read as children, we now read to our own kids. A well-preserved copy of One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish of mine now sits on my son’s bookshelf amid other classic Seuss outings as well as some newer editions by new authors influenced by his trademark style. Most notable of these newer entries is The Cat in the Hat Learning Library series, which our son adores, each book engaging young minds as the Cat and his rhymes teach about everything from bugs, to space, to money, or animals.

best-kind-of-sneetchesOne of the running gags between my son and I are to suddenly take our conversations into rhyming territory, going back and forth, sometimes to a point where he ends up making up his own Seussian type words just to keep the rhyme going.

And while it’s all in good fun, it’s even better to know that some researchers say there’s more than just the silliness behind Dr. Seuss’ rhymes.

“The words that he made up are fun for children — they see the cleverness behind the word construct and the meaning of the word,” said Ann Neely, a professor of children’s literature at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College in Nashville, Tennessee told Live Science in 2015.

It is true that some parents have concerns about the silly, made-up Seussian words, that it could lead to confusion in children, but Neely goes on to say that all that nonsensical jumble actually helps children on the path to reading, raising their awareness of the sounds that letters make.

the-more-things-you-read-the-more-you-will-know“The words that he made up were often funny, and it helps children with their literacy skills later on as they’re learning to read if they’ve heard how language can be played with,” Neely also told Live Science.

She added that the predictable rhythm of the sentences also could play a large  role in teaching children to read.

“That gave children confidence in their own reading ability,” Neely said. “In some ways, it’s like Mother Goose rhymes, in that when we say, ‘Oh, he’s like Humpty Dumpty,’ we know that it’s because ‘all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.'”

Theodore Geisel or Dr. Seuss leaves a legacy that still carries on generation after generation, and as I say, it’s hard to imagine a world without his imagination, his doodles, his rhyme, and his wonderful way to make us all think about the world we share.

“Shout loud, I am lucky to be what I am! Thank goodness I’m not just a clam or a ham! Or a dusty old jar of gooseberry ham!”

What’s your favorite Seussian tale?

 

Agents of Change

PBS-Kids-Show-Odd-SquadSome time back I publicly gushed about what I normally gush about to any parent who will listen – my love of the PBS Kids series Odd Squad.

For those uninitiated, Odd Squad is an organization run by kids that investigate anything odd. Be it people who drink lemonade that turns their head to lemons, being turned into puppets, or stopping blobs and flying books, the agents of Odd Squad are on the case. Using (and through the power of entertainment and television, teaching) math skills, they get the job done with a lot of fun along the way.

And come on. Their Rogues Gallery is made up of the likes of Odd Todd, Noisemaker, Fladam, Symettric Al, Shapeshifter and more, this is creative gimmick-villainy on par with baddies out of Gotham City or The Flash.

It’s the kind of show you love to watch with your kids because it’s just as entertaining for the adults as it is for the young ones. And I love it.

At the time I originally wrote, the show was setting up for a big transition trading in its two leading characters of 40 episodes for, at the time, new, unknown characters. And with so much love for (original agents) Olive and Otto’s adventures combating odd, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

But I had faith in the show’s creators to keep the laughs and lessons coming in the same way they had since the beginning, despite any new faces.

And new faces is what we got. Gone were straight-laced Olive (Delila Bela) and goofball Otto (Filip Geljo), off to be bosses of their own Odd Squad branch. I had hoped we would get to keep scientist Oscar (Sean Michael Kyer) around a bit longer, but while his exit seemed necessary following quite the growth spurt between seasons, he did stick around for a few extra episodes to train a protege and allow his change to create perhaps one of my favorite jokes of the show..

We even get some more Dr. O (Peyton Kennedy) for a few episodes, which is fine by me, as her constantly introducing herself as “a doctor” and reminding people how they know her “we work together” never stops being funny.

The biggest upside is that despite the exits of beloved regulars, we still get Millie Davis as Ms. O at the helm, sending agents on their missions, making them scatter with a yell, and best of all, getting to show some great new sides to her with an enlarged role out from behind the boss’ desk in many episodes. She not only helps create a common thread throughout the various cast changes, but is just an absolute delight to watch.

I’m still holding out hope for another 1980s-set episode with Ms. O…sorry…Oprah when she was an agent.

Even Odd Squad arch-nemesis Odd Todd pops by for an episode in this hilariously titled Mid Day in the Garden of Good and Odd where the now reformed-Todd-turned-gardener helps the new agents crack a case only a former villain’s POV could. And along the way, Joshua Kilimnik once again gets the chance to show off his acting abilities jumping between cackling-Todd, conflicted-Todd, and master gardener-Todd.

But wait. All I’ve done is talk about who stuck around, right? Did this show even have a cast change? What are you doing to us, man?!

Okay, okay. So I wanted to get the kudos to the returning champs up front. So what are the major changes we’ve seen. The biggest, of course is who would fill the shoes of Olive and Otto as the squad’s main agents. For that we get the overly-excitable Olympia (Anna Cathcart) and the straight-laced, no-nonsense Otis (Isaac Kragten) in a somewhat personality reversal to Olive and Otto.

I waited a few episodes before deciding what I thought of this new team and I have to say…I like them. I really, really do. I can’t use the term pleasantly surprised because I had faith in the show’s creators to keep delivering the same great casting choices, writing, humor, and production that has made the show so darn enjoyable already. And they didn’t let us down.

The thing is, change can be tough for television audiences, but with Odd Squad, the concept lends itself to periodic change. Grown-ups aren’t allowed to be agents (only bumbling, hapless victims in town and man do I want to play one some day. would several years experience on camera as a News Anchor and a few decades of theater get me a shot? Guys?! Hello? Is this thing on?) so with that in mind, as agents age, they move on and new ones come in.

tile_oddsquad_themovieIt’s built right into the concept and so far, the first round of transition has worked pretty well. Carrying over cast members where they can (Oscar for a few episodes, Ms. O and Dr. O more regularly into the new season) help create a level of comfort and familiarity for the audience as new faces emerge. Eventually, those new faces become the regulars as even newer faces could move in. It’s created to be self-sustaining, and the fresh faces means new characters, new situations, and keeps the writers, I would think, on their toes. Kid or adult, this show has never made a bad casting decision yet, providing some of the best acting and comedic timing I’ve ever seen in young actors. It’s hard to come by at any age and Odd Squad does it in spades every time.

The fact of the matter with any type of show that revolves around kids is that kids grow up. We all do. Fortunately with a show like Odd Squad, no matter our age, we can be a kid again.

I hope they’re solving missions for a long time.

Little boy blue and the man in the moon…

smart-phoneThe other night, I was standing in our dining room, leaning up against a piece of furniture, chiming into conversation but primarily scrolling through my phone, looking at the latest news going on in the outside world (no lack of those lately), what friends were up to, and checking in to see if any emails I had been waiting for popped up.

The family was going about various evening norms – unpacking the array of bags that seem like we’re boarding an airplane but really just make up our collective day, sorting through the mail, looking at what’s in the fridge and at recipes for dinner possibilities. A one year old little girl wandering about with that cute little waddle, babbling away with sounds that we think we understand but can never be sure, and a 4 year old little boy bouncing around the house with more energy than any of us could hope to muster at any given point of day, let alone the exhausting post work, kid-pick-up, drive home, kid unload, baggage unload, figure out dinner part of the day.

I was there, completely exhausted and mindlessly moving my hand across the screen, when that little voice chimed in “Wanna play with me daddy?”

And, tiredly, I looked at him, smiled…and gave him some reason of how I really wasn’t up for playing and was really very tired. He walked away, a little bummed, and sat down to see what was on PBS Kids as I continued moving my finger across the phone, taking in all of the outside world in its digitally relayed form, and completely ignoring the physical one right in front of me.

Meg leaned nearby, and quietly said “He’s not going to be asking for much longer.”

Wow.

I stopped for a moment, looking up from my phone and over at that little boy watching television. How big he’s gotten already. How fast he’s growing. How quickly he’s changing. From the little baby I held in my arms in the hospital to the little toddler who learned to walk to talk, to count, the alphabet, using the potty, spelling his name. It all happened in the span of four years now, but it seems like it went by in the blink of an eye. A cliche? Sure. But the reason they have cliches is because they’re true for so many.

In the blink of an eye all that time was gone. He’ll never be discovering those same things again. New things, sure. But never those firsts we’ve already crossed over. He’s already in Pre-k, making friends, telling us about his days in the car and over dinner. Heck, we have kindergarten registration next week. Before I know it, he’ll be there, every day, all day in school.

In that same blink of an eye, we’ll be through grade school, dealing with the junior high years, high school, whatever comes beyond. It will happen so quickly and I will wish, beg, pray for the chance to play with my little boy again. And I won’t have it. That time will have passed.

I couldn’t escape the sounds of Cat’s in the Cradle playing through my head as I looked at him in that moment.

All of this swirled through my mind in a matter of seconds after Meg spoke the words. How right she was.

I closed the phone, walked over to him and sat down next to him, asking about what he was watching, then asking if he still wanted to play. He wanted to play something different, but it was still something.

The Christmas Letdown

christmas-tree-1856343_960_720So here we are. Halfway through the winter season here in the northeast, the holidays over, the decorations all put away (minus the red and white lights out in front of our house that seem to nag at me whenever I see them yet never call to me with the urgency needed to get my butt outside and take them down), and a new year has begun.

I know I can’t be the only one who deals with feelings of a letdown post-holidays. In fairness, though, I fully admit I reach a point over the holidays when I’ve had my fill of everything – festivities, openings, family gatherings, the clutter, all of it, and want back to the normalcy and routine of the rest of the year. So let me make that part perfectly clear from the get-go.

I think you know what I mean, right? When it’s all over, you’re stuck cleaning up, putting everything away, in some cases finding room for additional things in the house (especially if you have kids).

I mean, sure, you might catch a great post-holiday sale (net lights for under 3 bucks?! Ornaments for under a buck? A nice wreath for under 4 bucks?!) and be ahead of the game for next year at a fraction of the cost.

snow-on-branchesBut taking out those things, there always seems to be something else…something intangible about the way the season changes once the holiday ends. Call it wishful thinking, call it hopelessly optimistic, but no matter the year, no matter what’s going on in the world, it always seems, when the days countdown to the holiday, all those elements of the season just somehow seem to come together and create that perfect stew known as the Christmas spirit.

It’s a feeling, seen in every smile, every snowflake, every Christmas light you pass on the street.

And then, in a flash, it’s all gone.

Then it’s back to the grind and with it, there’s something just a little…different about the attitudes in the air.

I certainly don’t want Christmas every day. For that, I refer you, as I do my son when he starts wishing it was every day, to the first tale in the Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas special. In it, Huey, Dewey and Louie’s wish for Christmas every day is granted and when they wake each day, it’s Christmas morning. And boy do they get sick of it really fast.

What makes it so special is gone.

But what about that invisible something? Is it only special as well because we don’t get the best of each other all the rest of the year, even if we want to?

Is it possible to bottle it for the rest of the year?

I dunno.

It makes me think of a song from 1978’s Christmas Eve on Sesame Street – a special we break out every year that still remains one of my favorites. It’s lyrics, perhaps, sum up the best way to to maintain the spirit the other 364 days. How to, Keep Christmas with You, so to speak.

 

When Christmas time is over and presents put away, don’t be sad
There’ll be so much to treasure about this Christmas day and the fun we’ve had
So may happy feelings to celebrate with you
And, oh, the good times hurry by so fast,
But even when it’s over there’s something you can do to make Christmas last

Keep Christmas with you
All through the year,
When Christmas is over,
You can keep it near.
Think of this Christmas day
When Christmas is far away.

Keep Christmas with you
All through the year,
When Christmas is over,
Save some Christmas cheer.
These precious moments,
Hold them very dear

And keep Christmas with you
All through the year.

Christmas means the spirit of giving
Peace and joy to you,
The goodness of loving,
The gladness of living;
These are Christmas too.

So, keep Christmas with you
All through the year,
When Christmas is over,
Save some Christmas cheer.
These precious moments,
Hold them very dear
And keep Christmas with you
All through the year.

Nightmare equals impromptu sleepover (and a stiff neck)

window-night-rainIt was around, probably 2 or 3 in the morning. The sound of rain was hitting the windows and streets outside, adding nature’s own little lullaby of sound to the night. I awoke to the sound of our son’s voice calling out from the other room, scared.

I went in and found him in bed, sitting up and talking about a bad dream he had about Willie the Giant from Mickey and the Beanstalk trying to eat him. I gave him a hug and a kiss, told him it was all right – that we were all here, all safe, would keep him safe, and started making my way back to the other room.

It was not to last.

mickey-beantsalk-willie-the-giant

Willie – the source of the evening’s troubles.

He was soon scared again and this time, the hug wasn’t going to cut it and allow me to cut out and back to bed myself. It wasn’t said, but I just had this feeling that I would be sleeping somewhere other than my bed tonight.

His room was freezing so those hardwood floors were not going to cut it. There’s a rug in front of the couch in the living room and although still atop hardwood floors, it seemed like it would be at least a little more comfortable. We found our candidate.

Grabbing his pillow, his teddy bear, and a pillow for myself, we made our way to the living room while mommy and sister slept. Him plopped on the couch with a nice cozy blanket over him, and I right below on the rug with a blanket normally draped over a nearby chair. The blanket didn’t quite reach from my toes to neck as would be ideal on a cold night, but beggars can’t be choosers and so you choose your priorities. In this case, covering up my feet took precedence over the habit of pulling the covers up tight around my face.

nightmare-sleepover-02The floor was cold, hard, and I still feel the stiffness in my neck halfway through the morning as I sip my coffee and write this. He talked, a bit too much at times for a groggy daddy who was trying ever so hard to fall back asleep before the 6 am alarm went off.

Eventually, though, it all fell into place and we both faded off into La La Land until my phone started going off with text alerts about local school delays and closings every other minute. Then the sounds of Simon & Garfunkel’s Only Living Boy in New York played from the other room as my clock-radio alarm went off per usual to alert me it was time to hop into the shower and begin the day.

Fortunately for me, he stayed asleep through all of my morning routine, only to wake refreshed some time later.

And though a bit worse for wear in the neck and mind on my part, we made it through, no giants (or humans) harmed in the making of this impromptu sleepover and I got a big hug in the morning that he didn’t want to let go from.

I’ll take it.

All I want for Christmas is a cliche

christmas-giftIt’s that time of year for many.

Decorations go up, lights strewn around the house, frantic attempts to finish shopping in time, and that age-old question “what do you want for Christmas?”

It’s an answer that in youth came with ease. I see it in our son with how easily he rattles off a few ideas whenever anyone asks him what’s on his Christmas list (and, we, the killjoy parents reminding him there’s such a thing as too much). But I get it. I was there once right where he is, where the possibilities were endless and exhilarating.

As time goes on though, I find myself puzzled when asked that question by a relative getting ready to do some holiday shopping. I rarely have an answer. Even as an adult, in the past, there’s been books, or a nice sweater or shirt. But, the more time that passes, the more I really and truly find myself wanting nothing.

Scratch that. Wanting nothing but the chance to just get together, have some good food, some good company, and spend time with people.

I know. It’s a cliche. A total Christmas commercial cliche.

Maybe it’s a sign of age. Or maybe it’s a sign that I’m becoming quite boring (if I was ever really interesting to begin with), but whatever it may be, it has become what I look forward to the most at the holidays.

It may sound naive, it may sound cliche, but I’ll gladly take it. No wrapping required.


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