An open letter to our son…
Tomorrow, you start kindergarten.
The mornings of pure play have passed, and the lessons of preschool now behind us, you set forth on an amazing and new adventure.
I’ll never forget that time driving in the car, back from vacation, when mommy was pregnant with your sister, that you sang twinkle, twinkle little star in the backseat. It wasn’t surprising. We sang it a lot back then. But when we heard you say “how I wonder what you are” instead of the “how me wonder what you are” that we had heard those first two and a half years of your life, mommy and I looked at each other, realizing that change is inevitable. You were growing as you’re destined to do. At some point mama became mommy and dada became daddy. Letters became sounds and words.
You may not realize it as it happens, and there may be times when it feels as though you’re in school “forever,” but a day will come when you look back and smile at what are the most fun-filled, exploratory, and intriguing adventures of your life. Full days. Lunches in the cafeteria. Days on the playground. New friends, and new lessons to be had. It all awaits you as you step off the curb and into this brand new world tomorrow.
You know your ABCs. You can count past 100. You love to sing, to dance, to draw, to create, to fathom worlds of wonder that amaze me more each day, and teach me more about animals and space exploration than I ever learned back in school.
I hope you’ll always enjoy The Beatles and The Monkees as much as you do today, without fear of what’s not current, of what many around you may like or dislike – that the things you love, though they may change over time, are still rooted and attached to the giant heart that beats beneath your chest.
Please remember that not everyone has to like you, agree with you, and that’s okay. Don’t let optimism, the hope, and the bright light that pours out of you ever be dimmed by those who wish to tear others down. Fill the buckets of those around you, but never at the expense of someone else’s, or your own. Just be you. You’re great at it.
As I walk back to my car, I will smile, I will wave, but inside I’ll be juggling the anxiety of knowing we are “letting you go,” off to the next chapter of your life with the hope and confidence (and touch of anxiety, because it comes naturally) that we have given you what you need up to this point to stand tall, to stay strong, to never stop learning, to be kind, and to just be your unique self, no matter what or who you may encounter along the way.
Know that you are loved. That no matter where your path takes you, you will be loved, with all our hearts. Above all else, at this start of your journey and hereon in, please, if there’s one thing to remember, it’s to always be true to yourself. That is the greatest gift you can give to this world, and to yourself.
Just be you.
Daddy and Mommy
It’s no big secret that I’m a list maker.
Usually, prior to calling it a day and heading to bed, I pull out my planner and start jotting down what I would like to accomplish the following day. It ranges from work assignments that I need to wade through to personal projects or writings (“blog post” shows up rather often. Guess how many times it doesn’t get crossed off the list?) to house maintenance and errands (“pick up coat from tailor” or “buy gutter downspout” were just some this week).
Needless to say, it’s gotten harder to work my way through the daily lists as the years progress, especially when there’s the daily responsibilities of parenthood involved. I’m often told that I put too much on the list each day, and I agree that it’s probably accurate.
Unfortunately it doesn’t make me feel any better when I stare at an incomplete list that’s not completely crossed off at the end of the night.
But I’m trying to take on a new perspective. It’s not easy by any means, and my instincts immediately become reluctant to do so, feeling like I’m not being productive enough.
However, I’m doing my best to cut back and cut some slack.
There comes a point where we have to stop beating ourselves up over what doesn’t get done on a laundry list of daily to-dos and take a moment to accept and celebrate what we did manage to accomplish.
Amid work, transporting kids here, there and everywhere, meals, bathtimes, storytimes, bedtimes, and all the questions in between, the weight of these little people’s world rests upon our shoulders as parents. That in itself can become monumental tasks on anyone’s endurance and energy. So we can not realistically expect ourselves to be as productive now, shouldering all that has to get done in a day just to survive, as we did against our lives at 27, 24, or the years when it was just us, be it just us as couple or just as individuals.
If we as parents can accomplish even one additional thing on top of the requirements of each day, then I think we need to teach ourselves to accept that as a win. Some days there will be more, some days there will be less, but speaking from experience we have to stop beating ourselves up when there just sometimes isn’t enough time in the day. Allow yourself a chance to breathe, to say “I did something” even if it’s just one thing. You’ve earned the small victory. Don’t let stress take it away from you.We have to give ourselves the small victories.
Because that’s honestly what they are amid everything else – victories.
This 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).
But 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.
According 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.
Our family was recently driving back from a little weekend getaway. The kids were in the back seat, asleep at the same time for possibly the only portion of the multi-hour ride home, when Meg looked over from her magazine to the radio and read the song title currently playing on40s Junction, the 1940s Station – “In a Shanty in Old Shanty Town.”
She went back to reading her magazine when, a moment later the words that came out of my mouth were “I forgot Edward Hermann passed away.”
Accustomed to her husband being a weirdo, she took what seemed like a random response in stride, and even humored me when I explained the flow of logic that got me there in a split second that, in my mind, seemed like much longer.
“In a Shanty in old Shanty Town.”
She had read the word shanty town. Which made me think of Hoovervilles (the shanty towns built by homeless people) in the Great Depression, which made me think of Little Orphan Annie, which made me think of FDR. Who has played FDR more than anyone else, including in Little Orphan Annie – Edward Hermann. Edward Hermann was on Gilmore Girls. I liked him on Gilmore Girls. Netflix is making new Gilmore Girls movies. I wonder what they would’ve been like if Edward Hermann were still around. That’s right, Edward Hermann isn’t around anymore. I really liked his work. That makes me said.
“I forgot Edward Hermann passed away.”
Our brains can work in pretty weird ways, don’t they?
I was about 24 when I got my first cavities.
My son has his first four cavities 20 years younger, just shy of four years old.
Sitting there in a chair on wheels amid the jungle motif of the dentist’s office, I listened intently to the dentist’s words, a mixture of shock, guilt, and curiosity all blending together into a haze of mind that left me in a fog for hours to come.
This was his first visit to the dentist.
How could this happen, I thought. We’ve been brushing his teeth every morning and every night. We don’t drink soda. Candy is an incredible rarity. What happened?
According to the pediatric dentist, the (in my mind unassuming) culprits were milk and juice. Not in his having them, but in the way he drinks them – having a little, setting the cup down and going to play or do something else, then coming back to the drink some time later and drinking a bit more.
The dentist says that each time he begins drinking, be it milk or juice, the clock starts for roughly a half hour of erosion to the teeth. So, if he begins, sets it down and gets back to it later, the clock starts all over again, adding up to what could be hours of erosion.
And leaving us with four cavities that need to be dealt with very soon. Now, a common question I’ve gotten after the visit is well, it’s baby teeth, so do they really need to come out?
The dentist fielded this one in the office, explaining that he could have his baby teeth until he’s anywhere from 7-9 years old. Left untouched, these issues could only magnify and leave him with incredible pain and infection.
So, we do need to take action.
I can not express how guilty I felt sitting there, listening to how this happened. Something I let happen out of pure ignorance. How could I have ever guessed giving him milk or juice could have such effects? That brushing twice a day wasn’t enough?
I felt like the worst parent in the world.
When I filled my wife in, that became an instant feeling of shared-guilt.
I don’t even remember going to the dentist yet at his age, but from the more I read, including a May 2015 Washington Post article from parent Cara McDonough, it’s becoming increasingly common for the recommendation be a visit once children first get their teeth.
According to research McDonough conducted for her article:
“By age 5, about 60 percent of U.S. children will have experienced tooth decay, according to the “State of Little Teeth Report,” a 2014 American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry document based on a survey of 1,000 parents. The report found that the rate of cavities in children 2 to 5 years old increased almost 17 percent from 1988-1994 to 1999-2004.
The report goes on to explain that tooth decay, particularly if left untreated, can result in infection, chewing difficulty and even malnutrition. If the decay is bad enough, abscesses may develop, affecting the health of the child’s permanent teeth.”
It was also somewhat refreshing to find we weren’t the only one who felt like the worst parents ever, with McDonough expressing the same type of guilt upon getting similar news with her daughter, who, at age 6, did fine with the same treatment our guy will be having – in-office with nitrous oxide.
As for our son, well, he did great for his examination, which, going in, was my biggest concern. Never did the thought of cavities cross my mind. I was more worried he’d be bouncing off the walls. But no, there he was, sitting in the chair, listening to the dentist, and when the little camera they used to take pictures of his teeth had a malfunction and they needed to take pictures again, he happily sat and went through the whole process again. He admittedly got antsy after the exam, with nothing to do while the dentist talked to daddy, but it turned into a long discussion, so I can understand the difficulty for a 3 year old with nothing to do to sit still for that long.
So, with new time restrictions on drinks (and meals), as well as a push to switch over to fluoride toothpaste versus the non-fluoride, training toothpaste we had been using for so long, we made our appointment to have the cavities filled (one day before his fourth birthday, the poor kid).
From there, he and I went to Target where he picked out a new electric toothbrush (and with some extra heads we can all use it), and I let him pick out a toy from the toy department. His choice du jour was a two-pack of DC Super Friends figures – Plastic Man and Martian Manhunter, which he excitedly was making up stories and adventures for in the backseat the whole ride home.
So, we move forward, hopefully learning from this.
There’s a joke from our son’s Little Golden Book of Jokes and Riddles that he loves to tell relatives. It goes like this:
Q: What time is it when you have to go to the dentist?
Lets hope between the lessons learned, the procedure to come, and the steps we’re taking from here on in, that’s a time that will never come.
His tiny feet lifted up as a hand grabbed one of the metal bars alongside. He pulled himself up one, then another, then…froze.
Our little guy, all 40 pounds of him, a kid who has leapt before he looked more times than I’d truly like to count, suddenly froze. “I can’t do it. I’m scared,” he said.
At first, I thought he was playing a game, joking. A few moments later, I realized he was serious…and nervous.
He wasn’t far off the ground at all. Nothing more so than usual. In fact, we’d seen him tackle much taller heights, sometimes to our chagrin, without a single thought. But suddenly, three steps up to the next level of this playground while we visited friends out of town, was causing him to freeze with fear.
Was it because it was unfamiliar territory? How could this be? What was going on?
I was perplexed.
Then he suddenly started doing the same thing back at home, on the playground set at my parents’ house which he had used time and time again. Up the ladder, down the slide, up the ladder, down the slide. It was as routine to his day as eating breakfast, but suddenly there was the same frozen fear that left him clinging to the four or five foot ladder and asking for help going up or going down.
Where did this come from? Was it a learned fear? And if so, were we to blame?
I know I’m a worrier. I feel as though I’ve gotten better at it as he grows, but I admit, I’m usually the first to say “be careful!” or “I don’t want you getting hurt!” or something else equally concerned. Immediately, that worry then culminated in worry that I had somehow crippled our son from this activity he loves with a past barrage of warnings.
Even as I write that, I see my mind has made my blame more melodramatic than it is. It’s not entirely out of the question, though, as Psychology Today notes in this 2012 article:
“If a parent is obviously anxious, the child will become anxious. If a parent seems calm, this will help the child to calm down. One of the key ways that a parent can help a child to reduce their anxiety is by managing the parent’s own anxiety.”
Luckily, when these incidents happened, we did, what seems to be the right thing. While we at first mentioned that he’s never been scared before, we didn’t dismiss his response of “But I am now,” instead asking him why he’s scared.
That same article from Psychology Today: “Many times a parent will say “You’re not scared,” to their child. The goal is to reduce the child’s anxiety but often what it does is invalidate what the child is feeling. If you were about to do something anxiety-provoking and someone told you what you were feeling, it would not be helpful. In fact, it might be frustrating. For a child, it conveys to the child that the child does not know what they are feeling and can also make the child feel that the parent does not understand. Instead, validate the child’s experience but also encourage the child to remain in the situation. “Are you scared?”
For us, that validation came in telling him it’s all right, that no one will make him go up and down the ladder and slide, and if he’d like to not use the slide, he doesn’t have to. So this went on for about two weeks. Then, suddenly, it was as if nothing had happened. Suddenly, he was back up on the ladder, asking us to join him, and that was that.
What caused him to change back? I have no idea. And some internet sleuthing didn’t turn up much to explain the no fear-fear-no fear change at such a quick turn at this just-shy-of-four phase of life. A lot out there on the development of fear, but little I could find at this writing about the back and forth switch.
Regardless, it’s okay, and I’m glad we’re back to a point that embraces his love of adventure and “the new.” I’m okay that it didn’t turn out that I had scarred him for life through my own worries. In fact, if anything, this little dip in and out of the fear pool has been good, for me at least, to offer me this little step out of the moment and realize maybe there’s a balance between protection, cautiousness and insulation and fear. He won’t be running out into the street anytime soon (especially the way some people drive down our street), but maybe the backyard and the playground can be a little more exploratory than dad’s kept it from being.