Fangs For The Memories

As I’ve already commented on, I was a pretty hard core tabletop role-player when I hit high school. I’d played a multitude of systems and genres with my friends, and had even run games at local conventions. I was a gaming butterfly, fluttering from story to story without ever really getting invested in anything, and I suspect my closest gaming friends were the same way. There hadn’t really been a successful regularly recurring game since we were kids, because we wanted to sample everything.

One day, my friend Ben (now a Classics Professor) handed me a game book that didn’t look anything like what had come before. Instead of a lurid action illustration on the cover, the whole thing was patterned with green marble, broken up only by a photograph of a single red rose.

That Book Changed My Life

From the photo-realistic Timothy Bradstreet illustrations through to the (at the time) extremely loose rules system, everything in the first edition of Vampire: The Masquerade was eye-opening to me. The rules were similar to Shadowrun, which had been my go-to game for several years (since my younger brother bought the first edition for me as a birthday present), but where that game offered a very granular breakdown of different types of equipment, Vampire said essentially, “a gun is a gun when it comes to this story.” Having stuff that other games had focused on be so abstract was refreshing, but it was the subject matter that really got me: you ARE a vampire, and it kinda sucks.

As presented in the game, vampirism is a curse. Vampires are guilt-wracked shells of people who are engaged in a constant struggle to maintain what was left of their humanity. There was a secret society of vampires, dedicated -it seemed- only to screwing each other over (and keeping their existence secret). Only by forming a bond of friendship with a “coterie” of like-minded individuals could you hope to navigate the Machiavellian landscape of vampire society. Man, when I was a teenager, I dug every single thing about that paragraph.

My friends and I began playing the game regularly, and gradually our interest in other games waned. Soon, we were playing every Friday night, first in my parents’ ramshackle garage and later in dingy old basement of their house. The demographics of the group changed, too: girls wanted to play this game, which helped the more socially awkward of us forge our first platonic friendships across gender lines.

We played through high school, building massive story arcs and creating a canon that is somehow still more vivid than a lot of the long-lasting role-playing campaigns I’ve engaged in since then. When the first generation of players graduated high school and left for college, those of us remaining recruited younger siblings and younger friends to continue the shared universe. We didn’t want it to end.

If the above passages seem deeply steeped in nostalgia, it’s because they are. These were the halcyon days of gaming for me and they informed not just how I played games, but who I played games with. My interest in history largely stems from the backstories written in the books published for these lines, and I eventually became high school history teacher. That’s maybe not as strange as our one player who became an academic researcher of Coptic death rites.

The Other Shoe Drops

It’s been 26 years since Ben handed me that book, and more than 20 years since our long-running Vampire game drew to a close as I myself left for college. Since that time, fortunes were fickle for the game publisher, with the company being sold to the company that made EVE online who did very little with the intellectual property they acquired in that deal. Relatively recently, the company (in name alone, since none of the principle writers or game designers remain) was sold again to computer game developer Paradox Interactive (who incidentally, made a game that I was more than a little addicted to).

This time, the new owners plan on launching a new version of Vampire and let’s just say that I found their pre-release document a little “rapey.”

You Can Never Go Home, Can You?

I hate to see something that I love -something that held such an important place in my teen years- turned into some sort of “edgy” alt-right monster. But I took solace in the fact that I had all the old books and the Swedes who own the IP currently are unlikely to break into my house to take a pen to those older editions. At least if my kids ever showed interest in the confluence of 1980s goth aesthetics and role-playing games (highly unlikely), I could share those with them. But the existence of a 5th edition that seems to have been created to shit on everything I liked about the earlier editions, and includes things like mechanics that require player characters in certain circumstances to force themselves on unwilling partners means that I will never take that step. The risk is too high that a teenager interested in the old material will find the new stuff and I don’t ever want them to see it.

In fact, its very existence makes me concerned about my daughter’s place in the gaming hobby at all. This is not a self-published independent game, this is a big budget (well, for a niche hobby) game published by a large game studio. What does that say about the gaming community?

We just got back from Gen Con, and my daughter felt perfectly at home among the massive throng of geeks. I want her to continue to feel that sense of belonging, but games that try for shock value at the expense of women are one step back from the progress I felt for sure was happening. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe that move towards empathy and acceptance was illusionary, but regardless it pains me to find this kind of icky stuff in the hobby I love, and even more of a knife twist because it was an intellectual property that I had, at one time, been so heavily invested in.

 

On “Screen Time”

I’m sure I’m not the only parent of a kid who craves “screen time” like an addict looking for a fix. It’s not a particularly nuanced desire; almost anything will do and she’ll watch the same stuff over and over as well. I’m not proud of the fact that sometimes putting my kid in front of a screen is a useful tool for getting other things done around the house. That said, if my kid is going to be interacting with the tablet we bought to entertain her on an international plane flight, I’d rather it was educational and interactive.

We first realized that the Pooka could navigate a touch screen with a simple app that I believe came pre-installed on her Kindle Fire. It played Twinkle Twinkle while little stars gently floated across the screen and could be “grabbed” and placed into star-shaped slots. Doing this enough allowed the kid to put a “sticker” on the screen, which actually just cluttered up the whole thing and made it harder. It was a good introduction to moving things around a screen, but the kid quickly mastered and grew bored with it.

These days, the kid’s interactive apps are limited to Toddler Animals, My Very Hungry Caterpillar, and Endless Reader (which is a our favorite by a substantial degree). Of these, only Endless Reader has my 100% seal of approval. Toddler Animals has some user interface problems unique to toddlers, and My Very Hungry Caterpillar seems extremely limited, and neither of them have academic objectives; not that just problem-solving, experimentation, and physical manipulation aren’t valid things for a toddler to get from an app.

Toddler Animals

I admit that I cringe a little bit when the Pooka wants to play Toddler Animals, because I know she’ll be asking for my help at some point. The premise is pretty straightforward; there’s a farm that looks like it’s made of felt and populated by felt animals. There are a bunch of animals down the right side of the screen that take the player to a series of tasks, after which they are rewarded with a virtual “sticker” that they can drop onto their own farm backdrop.

The problem is that not all the tasks are geared toward the same ability levels. So, for instance, my daughter may be able to “pick up all the chicken’s eggs and put them in the basket” but will get frustrated when tasked with tracing a line along a swirling path to “guide the chickens home.” There’s no way to bypass tasks, so the kid inevitably brings her “little screen” over to me to help her complete a series. I will just say that having “guided the chickens home” many many times, it requires a degree of fine motor skills that I myself barely possess, so it may be unreasonable for a game aimed at toddlers. I’m not complaining that the tasks are too hard, I’m complaining that the difficulty levels are all mixed together in a single module and need to be scaled better.

My biggest hang-up with the game is the UI, however. There are a couple of spots where I feel that the designers may not have been fully aware of how toddlers interact with touch-screens. For instance, my daughter will press something and keep her finger there. If it’s a button that is activated upon release, she’ll get frustrated that it isn’t doing what its supposed to because her finger is still on it. She’ll press harder and when that ultimately doesn’t work, she’ll hammer the button repeatedly. That will activate the button, but also means that she’ll activate any button in the same place on the next screen.

In the case of this particular app, she liked a number of the animal buttons, but for some reason HATED the one with the dog. She didn’t get it, it was a little too advanced for her, and it involved another one of those “trace your finger along a path” things that she needed help with. The problem was that the “home” button on all animal modules was placed exactly where the “dog” button was on the main screen. So she’d decide she didn’t want to go ask dad to help her “guide the chickens home” yet another time and would press the home button. Nothing would happen (because her finger was still on the button), so she’d hammer repeatedly, which would load the home screen and then immediately launch the dog module. She’d yell, and repeat the same thing with the home button, creating an endless loop of pressing a module she didn’t want, going home, and doing it again.

This caused her so much consternation (and involved parental intervention so many times) that I considered uninstalling the app entirely, because she hated that dog and the game was seemingly built so that she’d inevitably get stuck with the dog.

That wasn’t the only UI weirdness. There’s a task with a turkey that has had all its color washed off in the rain and the player has to apply paint colors to restore it to it’s former glory. There are a series of “paint colors” down the side of the screen and you select one and then press the area of the turkey you want to color in. The problem is that it isn’t intuitive for a kid to select a color and then select an area: the instinctive thing is to drag the color across the screen to the area. Doing so does nothing, because if it’s a single press of the screen it doesn’t even select the color, much less transfer it to the feathers of this stupid flightless bird. I wonder if there was any testing done on this app at all, and moreover if they had a child development specialist on-hand to explain to the UI designers why this is totally weird for toddlers.

My Very Hungry Caterpillar

I loved the book this game was based on when I was a kid. If you are unfamiliar, Eric Carle bucked the children’s book publishing trends back in 1969 when he used a collage visual technique to create his images. Given how “arty” it looked, it was a bit of an uphill battle for him to get it made, but it’s been astonishingly popular ever since, and is almost ubiquitous at this point.

The game allows you to move the little caterpillar around a largely empty space looking for food and things to play with. You click where you want the caterpillar to go and he/she inches across the screen to that spot. If you click on a fruit, the caterpillar will crawl over to the fruit and consume it. You can also pick up the caterpillar and move it around with a “press and drag” interface.

It’s very zen-like. There’s no obvious tasks to complete, except for experimenting with the caterpillar and its setting. That’s actually part of the problem, as well: after my daughter is done experimenting with having the caterpillar track paint across a canvas, or eat all the apples, or play with a balloon, there doesn’t seem to be anywhere else to go or anything else to do.

I may be wrong; there may be a whole other “level” full of new things to interact with. My daughter has never gotten there, however, and I haven’t either. There’s no directions and between the two of us we’ve exhausted all the obvious options. The kid still likes to go back and play with it from time to time, but it doesn’t hold her interest for long because it’s very familiar. While I get that kids like familiar stuff, they don’t like it that much.

Endless Reader

So this is the app that I’d like to gush about. It uses illustrated monsters and a “click and drag” interface to help kids discover phonemes. The kid first picks a word from a “book” of ones available (which can conveniently be expanded with additional downloadable content). The word is shown and a voice pronounces it, and then a herd of monsters stampedes across the screen and all the letters fall off their original positions to random points on the screen, leaving only a “ghost” image of the word. When a kid presses on one of the letters scattered around, it makes animates in a silly way and makes the phoneme sound as long as the finger remains on the screen.

The kid drags the wiggling letter (with its silly phoneme repeatedly sounding) across the screen to the “ghost” shape of the word and places it there, after which the letter is identified by the voice. When all the letters have been put back, the voice reads the word. The next screen is a sample sentence using that word, with three of the sight words in the sentence removed. The player moves the stray words back into place, while they also wiggle and repeat the sound of the word. After the words are all in pace, the voice reads the sentence and the illustrated monsters act it out.

I’m not going to say that my daughter has learned to read through this app or anything like that, but she has gotten much better about recognizing the letters of the alphabet and the sounds they make.

This game achieves the gold standard of educational software by being a lot of fun independently of the learning objectives. A lot of educational games come out like “chocolate-covered broccoli” because of the way they crudely graft educational content onto a substandard interface. If the game isn’t fun, the learning isn’t going to happen (if for no other reason than the kid will quickly stop playing). Endless Reader, even though the puzzle interface is repetitive, is fun for a toddler (it’s silly, it’s interactive, it’s easy to understand). The fact that each word has a different sentence and animated skit for that sentence means that there is a much higher threshold for repeat play.

The best part for me is that this game actually lends itself well to playing with my daughter. The word will come up and I’ll ask, “This word starts with the letter ‘S.’ Which one of those letters is ‘S?'” She’ll make a guess and there will be immediate feedback about whether her guess is correct. Sometimes, we’ll take turns moving the letters, or she’ll point to a letter and have me sound out the phoneme and “double check” my work by dragging the wriggling letter across the screen.

I don’t imagine that this app is ideal for every kid, but it has a nice combination of spacial learning, eye-hand coordination, and language. For my daughter, who is so verbal, it’s also a great way for her to expand her vocabulary (some of the expanded/related products by Originator move past “sight words” to more unusual words like “contraption”). She also likes the monsters, and has even asked me to tell her stories about the characters. Originator, if you are reading this, bios for each of the monsters would be helpful for parents to know who their kids are talking about.

In Conclusion

Like many parents, I’m really conflicted about my daughter using her Kindle Fire as a miniature TV. I feel a little better about her playing interactive games, but not all the apps we’ve purchased have been equally engaging or well-designed. While I would much rather my daughter learn through hands-on play with other kids and with real world manipulable objects, the “little screen” does the trick when I just need her off my back for a little while. What apps, if any, have you found to be good for kids?  

 

 

 

Of Apples And Trees

This is my daughter. She loves Halloween and being scared in small doses. Her favorite song (since she was barely able to talk) is by Siouxsie and the Banshees. Recently, when given a choice about what to listen to in the car, she’s specifically asked for “sad music.” Her favorite superhero is Batman.

In Short, I Think My Daughter May Be A Goth

Don’t get me wrong, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a goth. That’s not what I’m saying at all. The concern is more about how much of a role I may have had in this development.

Let me first state that I was never a facepaint and black lipstick sort of person. I wore a lot of black t-shirts (because that’s the default color of shirts advertising a band), but never went in for the whole gothic uniform. However, I will admit that I’ve loved traditionally “gothic” music since the early 1990s.

I was an ethnomusicology major in college, which I’ve taken to  describing as a sociology and music double-major at job interviews. My senior project was a research paper about genre formation in post-punk music; essentially asking “where did this ‘goth’ thing come from, anyway?” While doing that research, I became good friends with a number of people in the local goth community. Eventually, I ended up in a band with some of those people, and did some remixes that were played at the weekly “goth night” at one of the local clubs.

I should probably also disclose that my former prog rock band in Denver won a Westword Music Showcase Award 6 years back in the Best Goth Band category, which was a bit of a surprise for everyone in the band and even prompted us to have to explain what “goth” was to more than one member.

My point is that while I never dressed like a goth, I’ve definitely been in goth circles for a large portion of my life.

It’s Not Just Goth Genetics

But here’s the thing: I have legitimate goth friends with non-goth kids. I imagine that for some of them, the black clothing and spooky aesthetic is an embarrassing thing that uncool parents do. There’s absolutely no reason my daughter should have latched onto this particular thing.

My wife is definitively not a goth. She may like The Cure, but that’s about where the commonalities end. She listened to ska and pop-punk and musicals when she was a teenager, and never went down the gloomy rabbit hole of playing RPGs where she pretended to be undead. She’s a cheerful, chipper person who wears bright colors and proudly proclaims her allegiance to the Hufflepuff house from Hogwarts.

And my daughter has plenty of those traits too. She’s a generally happy kid, who likes snuggling and telling people she loves them (and misses them when she’s at preschool). She likes Moana and Daniel Tiger and will definitely tell you her favorite color is pink. But she also has this kind of playful dark side. She drew me a cave the other day, and then there was a discussion about whether there was a bear in the cave and whether that bear ate babies (the response from me, in case you were concerned, was “no, that’s a vegetarian bear: he likes mushrooms).

I Know This Is My Fault Somehow

While it’s cute as hell to watch my daughter dress up like a bat and zoom around the house while listening to dark music from the 1980s, I can’t help but feel a little guilty. I want my kids to find their own style. Figuring out what you like and don’t like is a major step towards discovering who you are as a person, and my little scallywag is in the midst of that journey. I’d hate to think that I was unduly influencing her.

When she was a baby, I used to get up early in the morning with her and do some writing while she sat nearby and listened to whatever music I played. I viewed this as the beginning of her musical education. One day it was Zeppelin, the next was The Beatles. She got everything from Bach to Beastie Boys from me. Somewhere along the line, she discovered bebop jazz, and that became her preferred music. For a good 8 months, that was the only thing she wanted to hear (with the exception of her favorite Siouxsie song).

And that was great, because I like bebop, but I don’t LOVE it. It felt like she’d discovered it on her own. It felt like she claimed a niche that wasn’t mine. Even though she had chosen that music from the choices I had presented, it felt more like she had developed a preference at least semi-independently from me. This spooky fixation, on the other hand, feels at least partially like emulation; she sees what I like and likes it too.

It makes sense for young children to like the same things that their parents do. That’s how cultural identity is established, after all. Child Psychology research is pretty clear that it’s later in development (adolescence in particular) when children begin “splitting off” and rejecting the values of their parents in order to establish independence.

With that in mind, there’s a good chance that my little baby bat will eventually think that Halloween is lame, that goth music is boring, and that not every cave has a baby-eating bear or a vampire in it. While I’m sure that I will feel glad that my daughter is establishing her own identity with the rejection of all things goth, part of me will also miss it, I’m sure. I mean, not-quite-two year old girl running around a Michael’s in October yelling “Haalllloowweeeeeeen!” while picking up every product with a skull, bat and gravestone on it is adorable.

But that’s one of the fundamental paradoxes of parenting, isn’t it? We are proud when our kids are like us, and proud when they are not like us. We can’t wait for them to grow up, but feel nostalgic for when they were younger. We want them to be independent, but feel bad when they don’t need us anymore. We rejoice when they flutter around the house like a bat, but also fret when they sleep hanging upside down from a cave.

 

GO TO SLEEP

As I write this, I am standing watch outside my toddler’s bedroom door. It is after 10pm and it is only a matter of time before a mostly-naked child wearing only a nighttime pull-up will come storming past me, giggling maniacally.

I hate this game.

How Did It Come To This?

There are three factors at play in this scenario (and a fourth secret one), and I am going over each one with a fine toothed comb. While I’m sure our situation is in no way unique to our family, it still feels like we’ve brought something horrible on ourselves. At the same time, I feel like my wife and I have made all our big parenting decisions through at least some degree of reasoned, research-based methodology (though there really is no “best practices” when it comes to raising children). We never made unilateral decisions, we always considered long-term outcomes, and we always consulted peer-reviewed research.

So why am I now a bouncer outside my daughter’s room?

Reason One: Co-sleeping Instead of Sleep-training

When we brought our little bundle of joy (blissfully unaware of her future career as a sleep terrorist) we decided that rather than try to force our child to sleep by herself, we’d let the baby sleep in the same bed with us. For the record, I don’t regret this decision, although I understand that no everyone agrees with this position.

At the time, the advantages were that both my wife and I had very minimal disruptions to our sleep schedules. The baby very rapidly adapted to the nighttime routine that we followed ourselves, and when she needed food in the middle of the night, it was so easy to provide it that it barely involved waking up.

I understand the concerns about this practice: there is a fear that one or more adult humans might accidentally roll over and crush a newborn. This, for one, is an unfounded fear: parents are instinctually coded not to do that, unless that instinct is clouded by other factors (such as alcohol). Another major concern is that a child won’t learn to self sooth or become independent if they co-sleep with parents. Again, I can point to my own daughter as an example of a child who is about as independent as they come and figured out how to calm herself down with two fingers in her mouth on the early side of the wide developmental range that this behavior is supposed to manifest.

What it did do, and what is vexing me right now, is that she never learned to put herself to sleep without a parent handy. We moved her as an infant from co-sleeping briefly to a crib near her parents, and then to her own bed. While she loves her bed, and having her own room, and sleeping on her own, she still hasn’t quite gotten used to the idea that she can put herself to sleep. This was a tradeoff that we accepted at the time, and I still feel that it was worth the tradeoff of not dealing with a crying baby in the middle of the night.

She’s a cuddler, and wants the adult who reads her books and tells her stories to remain with her until she falls asleep (at which point, they are free to go). This isn’t an unreasonable position, honestly; I’m sure many people fall asleep faster when they have someone to snuggle with as well. The problem was that my evenings were shot: I’d read a few books, retell one of her favorite “mouth stories” (usually Star Wars, but sometimes “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” for some reason), and then I’d be woken by my wife a few hours later having drifted off in a toddler-sized bed. There were even times -dark times- when I couldn’t be roused at all and spent the night sleeping in a kid’s room, my neck uncomfortably crooked to accommodate the plethora of stuffed animals, my legs cramped from curling to accommodate the fact that I was a grown man sleeping in a bed meant for a child.

Reason Two: Playing Games

Mom and Dad play games; games are a big part of our household culture. The daughter has been to Gen Con twice as a human and once as a fetus. She has her own board games which are age appropriate and teach various things. We’ve played games as a family: one of my fondest memories is the “Word Game”  when she was just beginning to talk and we’d ask her to try to pronounce various words that we liked.

Not surprisingly, she has taken to playing games herself. Her favorite games at school are imagination games (the one I witnessed recently was where she was pretending to be an animal in a zoo, waiting for the zoo keeper to fall asleep so she could escape. I could tell she was my kid because the animal she chose to be was a dragon). She likes to pretend to be all sorts of things (including farm equipment), and play-acts with her toys. She even plays at being scared.

My point here is that she was raised in a culture of games, so maybe she can be cut some slack that she thinks some things are games that are really not. When she bolts from her bedroom and runs past me, she thinks we’re playing. But we’re not playing: I’m getting increasingly agitated and frustrated that this kid won’t go to sleep at 10pm. She’s so involved in her game that she can’t see that no one else is having fun with it. Or, y’know, basic child psychology that ascribes a distinct lack of empathy to children around her age (I choose not to buy into this paradigm too much, because I see examples of empathy all the time).

The Third Reason

Our child is a gremlin with boundless inappropriate energy (like many children, I suspect). Why else would I be forced to write this hours after her bedtime and frankly long after I’d rather be asleep myself? It doesn’t help that she’s used this week to master door knobs. Like many kids, she gets “punchy” when she’s tired, which any parent will agree is pretty much the worst reaction to being tired ever.

There’s no carefully-weighted parenting decision here: some/most kids are just energetic at all the wrong times. Ours is no exception

The Fourth Secret Reason

Our child is not just energetic, but devious. She learned pretty early on how to manipulate adults with cute ploys (which, I want to make it clear, do not work on parents). She’s also figured out the “rules” and won’t hesitate to adhere to them just to get what she wants. By way of example: about 20 minutes ago, while I was blocking the door to her room so she couldn’t get out, she informed me that she needed to go potty. Knowing full well that the rule is that, thanks to Daniel Tiger, “when you have to go potty, stop and go right away.” She didn’t really need to use the bathroom, but it bought her precious time not doing the thing that I told her to do (GO TO SLEEP!)

This was followed up by a plaintive plea only 10 minutes later for a hug, which she also knows I can’t walk away from. She’s tried negotiating (“What about desert instead?”) and has even made bold assertions (“It’s WAKE UP TIME!”); really anything to get us to change the terms of the order (which, again, she thinks of as a rule in a game).

Conclusion

I don’t actually regret either of the two actual parenting choices that I included as reasons why my daughter hasn’t quite mastered putting herself to sleep yet. They were weighed carefully, and I still believe the decisions were right for our kid and our family (your family may be different). The inappropriate energy is not my fault, nor are her attempts to “lawyer” us. That’s just who she is.

Nope. My only regret is that when my daughter wants to fall asleep snuggling with me, I can’t do it. Not if I want to teach her how to fall asleep on her own. Which she just now did. On her own. By herself. Without me.

 

On Early Childhood Education

As a society, we undervalue early childhood education in favor of secondary and high education.

That’s my assertion, and it is definitely an opinion (although one supported by a lot of research in the education field). I’ve held this position for longer than I’ve had children, and I never thought I’d need to be called on the carpet about my commitment to it. But now I have children and it’s time for me to put my money where my mouth is, which is proving to be more challenging than I’d anticipated.

A Little Context

I’ve written before about how toxic and narcissistic parenting communities can be, so I’ll try to spell this out without making it seem like a humble-brag: my child has some different learning needs. Her spoken language is about a year advanced from her age-peers and her interests are more in line with significantly older kids as well. Whether this gap widens or narrows is really a moot point, because right now she needs to have intellectual challenges that aren’t in line with her age.

This isn’t simply because we want her to excel intellectually, it’s more to do with happiness. When my child isn’t intellectually stimulated, she stagnates developmentally and becomes aggressive and hard to handle at home. She throws things, she intentionally pushes the buttons of grownups, she does things she knows she isn’t allowed to do (and then plays ignorant about them), she pretends she can’t hear adults, she can sometimes be violent, and in several instances she’s actively chosen to pee on our stuff. Looking back over that last sentence, it sounds like I’m describing a misbehaving cat.

We went through all of this when she was one of the oldest kids in the “wobbler” room before moving up to the “toddler” one at the wonderful school she’d been attending since she was 9 months old. The last month or so before moving up were painful for us as a family, and we were so gratified when she suddenly had older kids to play with in her new room that it was like our household breathed a collective sigh of relief.

When her older peers gradually all moved on into preschool, including her boon companion (the first best friend that she has ever had) we began to see more and more behavioral problems at home. “I don’t WANT to go to school” became a pretty common refrain in the morning, which is notable for two reasons. First is that except when she was the oldest kid in the wobbler room, she had always enjoyed school. The other is that my barely 2 year old daughter was using contractions and complete sentences while the other kids in her class were still communicating like normal kids are supposed to.

A Brief Disclaimer

The school our daughter attended was great. They have a diversity mission which made sure that our kid had differently-abled peers, as well as kids of many ethnic, racial, cultural, and socio-economic backgrounds. This school remains such a cool place that while the following transpired, we didn’t even think about sending her younger brother anywhere else. So while what follows will sound like a lot of complaining, the school really did what it could to accommodate our kid.

Moving Up

We were told that in order to be eligible to move up to preschool early, kids needed to be potty trained. So at 2 years and 2 months, we potty-trained her. Then we were told that potty-training wasn’t actually a criteria for moving up to preschool early and that, in fact, there was a state regulation that said that only 2 and a half year old kids can begin preschool. While we were disappointed, you can’t very well argue with state regulations, so we just began counting down the days until her 6 month “unbirthday” when she could legally go and join her older friends in a new room full of new, intellectually appropriate activities.

But, Alas

It was not to be, unfortunately. Three months out from the end of daily crying sessions about not going to school, we were informed that there just wasn’t enough room for her to move up, and that she’d have to wait another 3 months beyond the time she could legally begin. We thought about the behavioral issues we were already dealing with, imagined how bad they would be in 6 months, and grudgingly began looking at other options.

We just couldn’t, in good conscience, keep her in a room that was causing her to be miserable. For one thing, it made us miserable too. For another, it was torturous to watch her try to talk about dinosaurs with kids who were still on single syllable words. The whole thing was creating something very akin to toddler depression. There was just this lingering malaise that she was constantly under.

Easier Said Than Done

It’s not as easy as just transferring a kid to a new school, however. One thing you have to understand about early childhood education is that good nurseries, daycares and preschools commonly have waitlists because they are packed to the gills with kids who are always in transition from one developmental area to another. Our options were limited.

We found a preschool where the kids ranged from 2.5 all the way up to kindergarten (which, in turn, was based on developmental appropriateness rather than an arbitrary age cut-off). We took the Pooka to see it and she fell in love with it. She played with the older kids and grinned like a fool. She did somersaults with the older kids and smiled larger than we’d seen in months. She participated in the music class with MUCH older kids, looking over her shoulder and beaming at us. Since that visit she asked to go back with startling regularity, singling it out by name or calling it “The Adventure School.”

Clearly we’d found the perfect school for our daughter, with one major conceit: there was no way we could afford it.

My wife and I are firmly middle class, and despite carrying around a large amount of student debt from my PhD program, we were fairly comfortable in our budget. But even with that relative comfort,  changing preschool was going to financially devastate us. When we crunched the numbers, we realized that even if we cut every luxury out of our lives, we were still going to barely be able to afford both preschool and rent. I mean deep sacrifices. I mean “giving up alcohol completely” sacrifices. And making some money on “side-hustles” as well.

Can I Compromise On This?

Suddenly, my conviction about the importance of early childhood education was shaken. It’s preschool, not a graduate program, surely “good enough” is, well, good enough. This got me thinking about my own preschool experience and I came to realize that it was my first foray into scientific experimentation and imaginative play. A long-haired hippie introduced me to The Hobbit when I was 4 and it clearly changed my life: preschool is included in some of my happiest and most vivid memories of my childhood in general and education in particular.

I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t settle when it came to early childhood education. I wish I hadn’t seen that school or taken my daughter to visit, because now both of us will be holding every other school up against it. I must send my daughter there, even if it means making huge slashes to my lifestyle. Even if it means working a side job. Even if it means giving up alcohol (I really like wine).

Part of me wishes I hadn’t studied education. Then it might not have made as much difference to me that the new school’s model was based on sound pedagogical practices, resembled the vaunted preschools of Northern Europe, or featured more than the government-required amount of “outdoor time.” Every parent wants the best for their kid, and if I hadn’t spent years reading about curriculum design and best practices in education, than I might’ve been able to go with a different school.

Or maybe I wouldn’t. Really, the look of bliss on my daughter’s face when we first took her there was heart-wrenching. She knew that it was a good place for her, with lots of room to run around, older kids to interact with, communal meals, super-qualified professional teachers, and enrichment classes in music, movement and language. She knew, and I knew… and now neither of us can unknow.

In Conclusion

So here I am, thinking about how I can possibly make this work, but knowing without a doubt that I WILL make it work. Because I have to. Because it’s that important. Education arguably becomes less important as you advance through its levels and I know that because the research all points that way. I knew this, but somehow I didn’t think it would apply to my own family.

But if it’s this hard for a middle class family of moderate income, it is straight-up impossible for any family making less. If I were living in poverty, this would be an un-achievable dream regardless of my child’s needs. Having early childhood education function in this way hurts vast swathes of American kids, simply because the foundation on which all education is built is not provided by our government but rather left in the hands of private industry.

When I made sweeping statements about the importance of early childhood education before I had kids, I had no conception of the complexity, or the difficulty, or the sacrifice. Now I have to walk the walk. Now I have to put my money where my mouth is, in a way that is still figurative but really does border on the literal. But I’m privileged to make those tough calls, because most Americans don’t have that luxury.

Any candidate who doesn’t have “improve access to early childhood education” in their education policy is not someone who really understands how our system is designed to keep kids in poverty, maintain the “achievement gap” and perpetuate social inequity.

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Scary-Not-Too-Scary

What is it about humans that we actively seek out “negative” emotional states for pleasure? We sometimes want to be angry (or we wouldn’t seek out partisan political opinions), we sometimes want to be sad (entire genres of music are dedicated to this) and most pertinent to what I want to talk about, we sometimes want to be scared.

Horror Movies

I’ll admit, I love a good horror movie. Actually, I love the bad ones too, but for different reasons. I’m a fan of atmospheric horror and lingering dread more than a startling “jump scare,” and I will watch anything that has a consistently creepy vibe Image result for the changelingrather than going for gross-out stuff (not that there isn’t a place for body horror or violent “slasher” stuff, just that it’s not my favorite flavor of horror). In particular, I love a good ghost story and have for as long as I remember getting a bit of joy from being frightened.

More Than Just A Movie

Horror films have an added resonance for me. When I was a teenager learning to cope with a mood disorder, I self-medicated with horror movies. I’ve given a lot of thought about why I found horror as a genre comforting when I was depressed, and the best I’ve come up with was two-fold.

Although you are meant to identify with a protagonist in a horror movie, character depth is usually pretty shallow. You don’t care TOO much about a character in a horror movie because they rarely give you a reason to, but also because you know not to get too attached to anyone in that sort of film. That means that these sorts of films can be passively observed; sometimes it is refreshing to be a neutral observer when it is hard to feel much of anything emotionally. The superficiality of a bad horror movie can actually be an asset because the bad stuff is happening to someone else that you are completely disconnected from. On the flip side, when a horror movie is really effective and building tension and a good scary vibe… well, hey, at least you are feeling SOMETHING. When depressed, getting a good adrenal kick due to quality filmmaking is a reminder that you are alive.

Not Everyone Shares My Interests

My wife has no interest in horror as a genre, and that has never been an issue in our relationship. There are exceptions (we both really like a grandiose gothic tale either in literature or in movies like Crimson Peak and The Woman In Black, Image result for crimson peakwhich also hit my sweet spot by being haunted house movies), but by and large I’m on my own when it comes to scary movies. She knows that I like to watch horror movies when it begins to feel like autumn and when I am feeling under the weather (either physically or emotionally) and leaves me to it. However, I have a not-so-secret hope that at least one of my kids will eventually become a horror movie fan, just so I can have someone to watch these movies with.

My daughter, age 2.5 at the moment, is experimenting with being scared. She’s been doing this for a while, and it is fascinating. She’s testing her tolerance and pushing the boundary a little at a time. By far the most-watched episode of her favorite show, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, is the one where Daniel sleeps over at his friend Prince Wednesday’s house and is spooked by a weird shape on the wall which turns out to just be a shadow of a friendly stuffed animal. Image result for daniel tiger sleepover]The song that goes along with the episode is called “See What It Is, You Might Feel Better,” which is great advice for a toddler who is feeling apprehensive, but terrible advice for any protagonist in a horror film.

My daughter asks for this episode specifically (“I want to see Daniel Tiger get scared!”) because she relates to the feeling of unease and the reassurance when it turns out to be okay. Being scared a little bit while at the same time knowing you are safe is essential for kids to overcome anxiety. Building up a tolerance for scary things makes the world a little less scary overall.

Helping Kids Be Scared

I want to make it clear that I’m not advocating for showing horror movies to children. Kids have plenty of things that make them scared already, from a darkened room to imaginary monsters. And remember that some things that kids find scary are totally innocuous to adults. My daughter recently revealed that she was a little freaked out by a broad desert in a movie we were watching. Why were the sand dunes scary? Who knows?

We’ve given her opportunities to set her own comfort level with fear, Image result for the lion king hyenasgradually easing her into things. For a while, The Lion King was her favorite film, and we dutifully fast forwarded past the stampede scene and accompanying death of Mufasa. Sometimes (but not always) she wanted to see the scene where the hyaenas chase Nala and Simba, so we had our finger on the remote for that one too. It was up to her to gauge how brave she was feeling and how scared she wanted to be.

Image result for te fiti fireI’m not great with repetitive viewing (unlike my daughter), so I was relieved when Moana replaced The Lion King as the movie of her heart. By the time that had happened, she’d built up enough fear tolerance that she wanted to watch all the scenes with the lava monster, and didn’t even bat an eye at the giant crab or the coconut-monster pirates. We knew there was a risk that she would react poorly to any one of those scenes, and we’d find out the hard way with nightmares, but we lucked out that time. When asked, she will sometimes say that the scary part is her favorite, but in fairness, she’s been known to say that about any part of Moana she is currently watching or has just seen.

Mistakes Were Made

We’ve made a few missteps, but I think that an element of trial and error is ultimately necessary to finding the things that are in that perfect zone of scary-not-too-scary. Image result for paranormanMy wife showed her ParaNorman once, which is a great film and has a great lesson about celebrating being different and weird. It also has a lot of zombies, ghosts and a witch.

Before you judge us too harshly, I should state in my defense that this kid loves the aesthetics of Halloween. Last October, she was seen running around a Michael’s craft store picking up miniature gravestones, skulls, bats and assorted ominous objects and screaming “Halloweeeeeeeeen” in a jubilant voice. It was on par with Christmas in terms of holiday excitement, so I think the thought was that a movie that just, sort of, extended those themes would be okay.

While the kid didn’t freak out, we got the feeling that we’d pushed her too far. She spent most of the movie asking, “what’s going to happen?” which we interpreted as a request for the thrills to be mitigated just a little bit by predictability. Also, ghosts and zombies are hard to explain to a kid with no conception of death. We haven’t revisited this movie, and consider it a close call that we narrowly avoided.

I almost made the same mistake with Kubo and the Image result for kubo and the two strings sistersTwo Strings. Luckily, I recognized my horrible error pretty much right away. Nope. Sorry. If there’s a scene that I find unsettling, there’s no way I’m letting my toddler see it. Great movie, but not anywhere close to “scary-not-too-scary.”

On Monsters

My daughter talks about monsters a lot.

She will tell me about a monster in an empty room, and sometimes actually have authentic trepidation about going into a room she thinks has one. I, of course, have seen enough monster movies to know that if I assure her that there are no such things as monsters, I have doomed myself to be killed by one. Image result for groverRather than try to fight against her (extremely active) imagination, we shift the conversation by telling her that any monsters she encounters in our house are definitely friendly. This ties in nicely with Sesame Street, where the monsters are all cute and fuzzy and extremely friendly.

On the spectrum of scary-not-too-scary, she’s setting up a scenario for herself where there is something concrete that is scary (a monster in mommy and daddy’s room) and then asking us to help provide supports for coping with it. Those supports include us reminding her that any monsters in our house are friendly, that there are parents who will keep her safe, and that monsters are only temporary.

We’ve had some pretty good success with this policy, which has led to her branching out and extrapolating a bit. Yesterday, she told me that she wished there was a “little monster in my room that would play with me.” We call that a younger sibling, honey, and you’re in luck.

Dragons

Dragons hold a similar place in her personal mythology. She’s fascinated by them, but a little afraid of them at the same time. When she was younger, she’d tell us she was concerned about dragons on the ceiling, and we were confused by this oddly specific fear (accompanied by her adamant belief that a robot lived on our roof). One day, we were at the puppet theater where her grandfather likes to take her and noticed a large Chinese dragon puppet high up on the wall near the ceiling: mystery solved.

Image result for dragons love tacosMy daughter’s concerns about dragons have shifted over time. Initially, she was worried that a dragon would come and eat all of her books. More recently, she’s been anxious about dragons nibbling on her toes. And in the past few weeks she’s been using her dragon toy to playfully work through her concerns about the consumption of her parents and little brother at the hands of flying reptiles.

Playing With Fear

This may seem complicated, but her love/fear relationship with dragons and monsters is pretty emblematic of the tumultuous emotional work she’s putting into recognizing where she is safe, where she is not, and when it is okay (or even fun) to be afraid. We’ve had to make sure that the adults in her life know that sometimes she will say that she is scared when she is, in fact, playing at being scared to see what it feels like.

And by and large, our little girl is pretty confident. She may be a little shy with strangers and new situations, but she has no problem being left in the care of trusted adults. I suspect that working through her fear is a part of establishing this confidence. So we push on with baby steps, letting her experiment with what makes her scared and what feels safe, knowing that there will inevitably be missteps where she goes a little too far and freaks out, hoping that the trauma won’t be lasting.

In The Meantime

My daughter may be comfortable playing with fear, with playing with toys to work through her fear of monsters or dragons, with hearing stories of Star Wars droids so that robots aren’t mysterious and creepy anymore, with enjoying media that is probably a little too exciting for her, and going down slides on the playground that make her parents nervous. On the other hand, I’m terrified. I’m terrified that I’m not a good parent. I’m scared that she’s going to get hurt, that she’s going to have nightmares, and that she’ll stumble onto something that she’s not ready for. And this is not an unreasonable fear: recently, at a science museum, she played with a simulation of the life cycle of a star and then was genuinely upset when the star died. I certainly didn’t expect to have to explain life and death to a 2 year old in the context of a giant ball of gas, but I also didn’t expect her to be afraid of the desert.

I mean, the desert… what’s that about?

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Geek Nostalgia In 3 Easy Steps

I can pinpoint the exact moment in my life where I irrevocably became a geek. Or rather, I can identify the three specific points that cemented geekdom forever into my soul.

They occurred when I was 4, when I was 7, and when I was 10.

First Contact

My first exposure was in preschool. I attended the local university’s childcare facility for kids of students and faculty and I was lucky enough to do so when Star Wars hysteria was still going strong. Not only did I have the opportunity to pretend to be Luke Skywalker on the playground every single day, but the teachers were young, idealistic and constantly trying out new things with us.

One teacher, in particular, sticks in my mind. I will forever visualize Bruce Atkinson as an impossibly tall viking with long red hair, but when I met him again as an adult in a graduate child development class, his hair was conservative and white and he was shorter than me. In addition to activities like making pinhole cameras, Bruce’s great influence on me was to introduce me to Tolkien.

The Hobbit is the most accessible of Tolkien’s books, but it is still not something appropriate to read to a preschooler. Instead, Bruce retold the story as if it were a fairy tale, utilizing pictures from the Rankin-Bass animated movie as illustrations. Back in the day, vinyl records were still the preferred method of playing music, and children’s movies often released an abridged version of the audio on LP, with a dustjacket that sort of doubled as a storybook with images from the movie. Equipped with nothing more than his storytelling ability, rapport with children, and an LP dustjacket, Bruce completely immersed me in the world of hobbits, elves, dwarves and dragons.

I was completely enraptured. My parents, being prolific readers themselves, acquiesced to my demand that they read me the actual novel. I remember distinctly accompanying my parents on one of their many trips to the bookstore and browsing the fantasy and science fiction book covers, finding an edition of The Hobbit that featured Bilbo and his companions in the nest of a giant golden eagle

At some point, I owned a copy of the movie tie-in record as well. Strangely, I have much less memory of the movie itself. I know I saw it at some point when I was a kid, but the story was already so indelibly imprinted on me that it didn’t seem that essential. The version of the dwarves’ Misty Mountains song from the film sticks with me, but the animation not so much.

Upon finishing The Hobbit, which was absolutely the first chapter book I remember reading, I immediately demanded the Lord of the Rings, a great story ruined by too many adverbs. By that point, I was out of preschool and in Kindergarten (and beyond) and I was starting to be able to read them myself midway through the series. They were dense and hard to parse and way beyond my reading level. The time it took to read those books also probably contributes to why the narrative is not nearly as vivid for me: I wasn’t that into those books because the story hadn’t been instilled in me like a fairy tale, and if I hadn’t had further geek touchstones I might have drifted off and lost interest in science-fiction/fantasy fandom.

The Contagion Spreads

The second pivotal event was playing D&D for the first time. I had a neighbor who was my age, and his older brother announced one day that we were going to play Dungeons & Dragons. I was the cleric. I remember being confused at first that there wasn’t a board, but I went with it and had a blast exploring a series of trapped caves with my friend, and fighting a monster of some sort.

A number of things sort of fell into place for me shortly thereafter. I acquired a copy of the Dungeon! board game, which scratched the itch for dungeon crawling a little bit, and I ended up with a copy of the AD&D Monster Manual from a box of donated books from my other neighbor. I had no idea what any of the numbers meant, but I loved reading about the various creatures and making up stories in my head about how one might encounter each sort of creature. I began to sketch out maps of endless dungeons (more like obstacle courses in their linear nature) and draw lots of pictures of warriors and dragons. So many dragons; my elementary school teacher must have been so bored with all the dragon pictures she got from me.

The funny thing in retrospect was that I was so invested in dungeon-crawling fantasy, but I had only played one session of Dungeons & Dragons. I had no conception of the rules, or really how roleplaying games were supposed to run, or anything beyond one single experience of pretending to be a cleric (whatever that was). I just sort of made it up, based on what I was interested in.

Somewhere in this time, my friends and I read Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s excellent young adult Green Sky series (starting with the gripping “Below The Root,” which I think every young nerd should read); we reconstructed the Ewok-esque tree-dwellings from the book with cardboard and duct-tape in actual trees, and made little people out of clothespins and pipecleaners to inhabit them. Actually, I remember on many occasions constructing tiny kingdoms and communities with my friends, using legos, metal figures, or clay.

The Geekdom Becomes Terminal

A few years later, I was in an extracurricular science fiction class. Ostensibly, it was supposed to be a book club of sorts, with an instructor who guided us through age-appropriate literature. Some of the kids, slightly older than me, were D&D players, and talked the instructor in the class into playing a short scenario. This was the final touchstone of geekness; my tangential interest in fantasy, in cartography, in storytelling, in fiction, and in the creative construction of imaginary communities all came together in one glorious epiphany. I wanted to play this game. I wanted to play it a lot. And I wanted to be the one creating the stories and worlds that the players explored.

I immediately bought a copy of the “Red Box” basic D&D and ran the game for whatever captive audience I could rope into it (I remember my grandmother and my dad being patient-if-confused participants to my early attempts). The pathological mapping and fictional-kingdom creation were reinvigorated, even if I didn’t have a group to play with and had only the barest concept of the rules.

The Basic Set didn’t hold my interest for long: it felt limiting somehow, and I was bothered by the fact that “elf,” “dwarf” and “halfling” were character classes rather than racial options. Coincidentally, an older friend of one of my friends had a collection of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons books they had no further interest in, so I inherited a small gaming library in one swoop. Even though the AD&D Players Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide weren’t nearly as well-organized and user-friendly, I knew I wanted to play that instead. After all, it was ADVANCED.

My best friend’s older brother (a different friend and a different older brother than the one who initially introduced me to D&D) had a sizeable collection of back issues of Dragon magazine, and I began to read them voraciously. They were only a couple of years old, at that time, but it felt like archaeology, digging up the glorious early days of gaming. I quickly got a contemporary subscription to Dragon myself, and began recruiting my closest friends into my first regular roleplaying group. I was still in elementary school.

Dragon magazine, which was essentially a “house organ” for TSR and D&D at the time, was ironically responsible for me branching out into other games. Once that Pandora’s Box was opened, there was no going back. D&D became less and less interesting as other options presented themselves, and I admit that I became a bit of a gaming snob, preferring newer games to ones that were beginning to show their age like AD&D. By the time 2nd edition came out, I had already moved on to games by Palladium Books and FASA, and even further afield.

I entered Jr. High (they switched to a Middle School model the year I began High School) a full-fledged gaming nerd. It wasn’t hard for me to find the other gaming geeks, or to recruit fantasy/sci-fi fans into playing. 7th through 9th grade was a golden age of gaming for me, with plenty of players (all male, incidentally) from two different schools, and new games being published all the time for me to read and play. A friend and I even started a gaming ‘zine (which we charged a dollar for).

Epilogue

It was much later, in High School, that my friends and I played on a regular basis, or that our gaming group expanded to include girls (that was due, in a large part, to the broad appeal of Vampire: The Masquerade, by the way). But the point was, I was completely hooked by the time I enrolled in Jr. High.

The three pivotal moments in my geek life have made “genre” and roleplaying games so deeply ingrained in who I am that while most of my friends from adolescence have drifted off and found other interests to one degree or another, I honestly can’t imagine my life without them.

The Next Generation

I married another gamer, and we have played many board games, video games, and yes, roleplaying games together. “Geek culture” is our mutual background, and is part of our shared language as a couple. We are worried that our kids will be disinterested or, at worst, actively embarrassed by our geeky passions. It’s not that we don’t want them to have interests of their own, it’s that “geek stuff” has brought us so much collective joy in our lives that we want to share it with our offspring, especially because it will give us a “common tongue” with which to communicate with them.

All this deep reflection on the events that shaped my nerdiness aren’t part of a scheme to replicate my childhood to create a reflection of myself in my kids, but they are events that stuck with me as some of the most cherished memories I have. I want to provide my children with opportunities to form their own life-changing events separate from me (as, I assure you, my geeky interests are distant from my own parents), but at the same time, I feel it can’t hurt to offer up my interests in a child-friendly way to my kids.

So how am I to accomplish that? It starts with storytelling. My wife and I read to our daughter regularly, to the point that “book” was her first word. After the lights are off, my daughter has taken to asking me to tell her stories not from a book (she calls it “reading a book with your mouth”), and she has her favorites: my abbreviated retelling of the original Star Wars trilogy has gone over quite well despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that she has never seen the movies. Someday, I hope to tell her the story of the Hobbit, perhaps with pictures to accompany it, but she hasn’t  shown any interest for it, even though I tell her it has a dragon in it (her favorite thing at the moment).

For me, anyway, that’s how it started. So maybe it will be the beginning of another life-long love affair with science fiction and fantasy for her as well. Or maybe not. But either way, it never hurts to make it available. Kids love stories, after all.

Asynchronous Development Is Not A Gift And Competitive Parenting Sucks

I avoid reading parenting blogs, and I avoid talking to parents on the internet about my child. This isn’t because I don’t have questions about my kid that other, more experienced, parents might be able to answer; even after having taught child development at the high school and college level, I still feel like I’m flying blind when it comes to parenting. The reason I keep my child development questions to myself is the risk of running afoul of toxic parenting communities.

I don’t know if it’s this way all over the world, but parenting seems to go hand in hand with a bizarre form of narcissism, where the achievements of an infant are somehow supposed to reflect on the parent. For a matter of perspective, we are still talking about “achievements” like not pooping in your pants, because children are born pretty useless so the bar is set very low. But somehow, despite everyone knowing on some level how fundamentally fucked up it is, parents brag to each other when their child does something earlier than other children. Beating the statistical mean is somehow a great accomplishment, not for the child (who actually did the thing), but for the parent.

What The Hell Did I Just Stumble Into?

My first encounter with this achievement-by-proxy came when my daughter was only a few months old. She had unusually well-developed neck strength almost from birth, perhaps due to being a week late and having a giant head, and at some point I realized I could stand her up against a low obstacle (like the arm of a couch or the sides of a crib) and she would remain upright without help. This isn’t “standing unassisted,” and it’s not a matter of coordination: she wasn’t shifting her weight back and forth between her legs, she was just rigidly propped up against something.

I’d never heard of this in my studies of child development, so I naively asked a parent group if they had encountered it themselves. Among the comments I received were demands for photographic and video evidence and not-so-thinly veiled accusations that I was lying about the whole thing. Sure, there were some parents who helpfully pointed out reflexes and child development milestones I was familiar with, but it was the knee-jerk competitive comments that stuck with me.

I mean, why on earth would I lie about my baby being able to do something? What could I possibly have to gain from this? How incredibly fragile would my construction of my role as parent or as genetic antecedent need to be for this to be something I would be concerned with. Child development for almost every milestone is a WIDE span, sometimes up to a year; as long as my child is within that healthy range, does it matter that she did something a few weeks earlier or later than another kid? Is it a damn race?

What is Asynchronous Development?

Child development is also, by its nature, asynchronous, meaning that certain areas may be more advanced or lag behind. Despite my child’s early ability to lean on things (and again, I’m reminded of how low the bar is that “leaning on things” is an achievement at all), she wasn’t the first in her daycare class to crawl or walk. That’s how asynchronous development works: different skills develop at different speeds.

Which brings me to my actual point. I study older kids with advanced asynchronous development. They learn in certain academic (and non-academic) disciplines at a faster speed than their age-peers. Statistically, they are usually more than one standard deviation above the mean in one or more areas. This poses special educational needs for them, in the same way that you’d want to have academic support for a child who was performing a standard deviation below his or her age-peers in a subject at school. What frustrates me more than anything else is that this asynchronous development, which poses an actual problem to be solved, is treated as a feather in the cap for narcissistic parents.

If a child is advanced in reading, that doesn’t mean they are better than other kids (and, by extension, that you are a better parent or have better genetics). It’s not something to brag about. It’s a genuine concern that requires academic interventions by a trained educator or else it has lasting repercussions on their future academic success. Asking questions about how to best solve this problem is not “humble-bragging” and should not be treated as such.

Why Am I Afraid To Ask Questions About My Kid?

So a year after my first encounter with competitive parenting, I once again have a question about my child’s development, and more specifically how best to support my child’s unique needs. I don’t want to measure my kid’s verbal, intellectual or physical development against another kid, I just want to know how to help her.

My child wants to play collaboratively with other kids. Unfortunately, other kids her age haven’t reached that stage yet and older kids don’t want to play with a “baby.” Every child development book I’ve read says kids my daughter’s age should be egotistical and self-absorbed, capable of only solo and limited parallel play, but my daughter gets her kicks by sharing toys and trading things. She gets her feelings hurt when other kids shun or ignore her, which, according to most research, they are supposed to do at that age. How do I help?

And see, thanks to the pervasive attitude of competitive parenting, there’s someone reading this right now thinking that I am bragging about how much more emotionally mature my child is for wanting to do advanced social activities.

The Insidious Implications

If I’m hesitant to talk about areas that my child is advanced in for fear of running afoul of the competitive parenting community, could it also be that parents who have genuine questions about areas where their child is behind the curve or struggling will potentially be too embarrassed to bring them up? Have we so firmly connected childhood achievement with parental status that there are questions going unanswered about learning disabilities, developmental delays, mental illness, or any number of other relatively common things found in children, simply because a parent is worried that having a “flawed” child will reflect poorly on them?

Keeping My Questions (And Expertise) To Myself

That’s why I don’t talk about my child as part of my research in asynchronous development (despite the precedent for experimenting on your own kids established by child psychologists like Jean Piaget). It’s why I don’t want to talk to other parents about my kid or theirs. It’s why I’m really hesitant to use real-world examples at all when presenting anything about child development in a class. It’s why I don’t blog about scaffolding for developmentally advanced behaviors in young children.

And really, isn’t that a shame? Isn’t it fundamentally messed up that I can’t solicit advice from other parents without it seeming like I’m comparing my kid to theirs like race horses? I wish parent communities could take a page from my daughter’s book and share and collaborate without judgment.

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Babies At Work

I bring my infant son with me to work. Just like I brought my (now 2 year old) daughter to work when she was an baby. It’s the single best parenting decision I ever made, and it makes me realize how the modern world has driven a wedge between parents and their children.

When my daughter was born, we were wholly unprepared for her arrival. I mean, to some extent all first time parents are unprepared, but we hadn’t really sorted out really basic things like where she was going to school. We assumed, naively, that you pick the daycare or preschool that best suits your child, as opposed to the reality that you choose your daycare or preschool before your child is even conceived.

This isn’t hyperbole. My brother and sister-in-law just had their first kid too, and at our advice they started their child care search really early: there were waitlists that were longer than 12 months. Given that human gestation is only 9 months, that means there were parents putting strictly hypothetical babies on a waiting list to get into school. When my nephew was born, there was still no room for him in any of the places they’d looked, so even with much more foresight than us, they are still in a similar boat.

Oh, Sweet Naiveté

My wife and I innocently thought that we’d handle all of this when the kid was a few months old. Because we were idiots. Sure enough, there wasn’t room for our daughter, and even with a little insider pull/nepotism due to my mother having been on the board of one of the schools, they were only able to put my daughter on a waitlist with a rough estimate of when a spot would open up for her to drop into.

We scrambled to figure out a short-term solution to our child-care problem. We looked at nanny situations, we toured less-reputable daycare facilities (by our standards, anything that was “for profit” and in a strip mall was less reputable), we relied on family to fill in for us and ultimately my wife worked from home for some of it so she could look after the kid at the same time. My mother took the baby for one day a week… and I took my infant daughter with me to teach high school twice a week.

I worked at a small independent school at the time. It’s the kind of place that used to get the label as an “alternative school,” with all the baggage that implies. I taught a wide array of fascinating kids between the 9th and post-12th grade. Some of them had mental health issues, some had unaddressed learning disorders, others had substance abuse problems, and a lot of them were just too joyously, wonderfully, gleefully weird to succeed in a big high school. The school was, and is, a truly wonderful place to rediscover a real love of learning and figure out who you really are. Into this celebration of teenage individuality, I introduced a 2 month old…

…and it was AWESOME!

How It Worked

My classes were small: under 10 students in a small room that might’ve at one point been a bedroom or a Victorian-style parlor. To my daughter, who was just getting into the developmental stage of recognizing and locking on to faces, it was heaven. As I lectured about the fall of the Roman Empire, she looked out at all the attentive teenage faces and studied each one intently until the vibration of my torso against her back slowly lulled her into sleep.

                   

But the benefits weren’t limited to my daughter. During the “Community” period between my first and second classes, I’d change her diaper and feed her a bottle, and gradually students began to ask if they could help. Community class became the time when my high school students could interact with her, and although my daughter was always sociable with most people, she did develop favorites. Even better, I was heartened to see that a number of teenage boys wanted to participate as well. I strongly feel that as a society, we encourage “maternal” behaviors in young women without asking our young males to explore the same.

The students referred to my daughter as “Professor Baby,” and I credit her current ease in social situations with her early indoctrination to the “village” or “tribe.” She came to trust a number of young adults and they in turn learned about how to care for a baby. When those young adults grow up and have children of their own (some of them sooner than I’m comfortable with), they will have a better understanding of parenting. It was a win-win situation.

Moving On And Growing Up

Eventually, of course, we found a daycare situation that we loved for the kid. There was a bit of sadness about her leaving the high school, and some jokes about her “graduating” to daycare. She got her own page (alongside my own) in the school yearbook and she slowly phased out of being attached to me for 4 hours of the day.

She’s been back to the high school a few times. She clearly doesn’t remember the individual students who used to hold her or feed her a bottle, but she does warm up to them quickly and smile at them. She also looks around the school itself like it’s familiar but she can’t figure out why. It’s deep into her core programming: she knows that people besides her parents care for her and look out for her, and also probably that daddy talks a lot.

Second Verse, Same As The First

Fast forward two years. I’m not working at the cool funky high school anymore. I work in a brand new government building alongside the local department of Housing and Human Services, Child Protection Services, and various social services that help with employment. I help people who have fallen through the cracks get a second chance at either a better job or a shot at college by getting their high school equivalency. While my wife was pregnant, the county announced that they were implementing a program where new parents could bring their children to work on a limited basis.

 

It’s a completely different environment, and I don’t know how much my clients get out of me bringing my kid with me to work (seeing how most of them have kids of their own… incidentally, the largest demographic I work with is “women who dropped out of high school to have a baby”), but I get to spend time with my seven month old who is in the “smile at anything” phase. As a father, I’ve had a lot less time to be the sole parent who my baby relies on, so spending all day with my little guy twice a week is great for making me feel like I’m providing for him. It’s bonding that, honestly, I hadn’t really had previous to this program. Maybe I’m projecting, but I get the feeling like my son knows me and trusts me more. I’m probably projecting.

One thing I know for sure I’m not fabricating is that my co-workers talk to me more when I have a kid. Yeah, I know it’s an excuse to interact with the baby strapped to me, but there has been a marked upturn in work interactions since I started bringing the kid with me to work. My learning lab is off the beaten track, and so it’s easy for me to be antisocial and only interact with my clients (I’m known as “that quiet guy” at work, which would surprise my friends, as well as former students and colleagues, I’m sure). There’s a degree of, “my eyes are up here, Ladies” when I’m wearing a baby on my chest, but there have been more genuine conversations prompted by my baby in the last few months than in the previous year combined.

              

Getting To The Point

The reason I chose to write about my two experiences bringing my babies to work isn’t just so I can set up jokes about the time that a female co-worker said, “hey, who’s that handsome man” and I thought they were talking about me rather than the baby I was wearing. It’s that I think there is something fundamentally wrong with a father NOT having this kind of bonding with their children.

One of my coworkers on the first day I brought my son to work was an asylum-seeker from South Sudan, a single mother who was forced to leave two children behind at a refugee camp, and also a former client of mine who finished her high school equivalency and started attending community college in a language she doesn’t have full fluency in (I’m impressed with her and you should be too). One of my other colleagues conveyed a conversation they had with her while she stood transfixed while watching me play with my child. Apparently, it was unheard of for men to take any sort of interest in the care of very young children in her home country at all. She was amazed and fascinated by the demonstration of paternal infant care, and I can’t imagine her culture is alone in dissuading men from taking an active hand in the rearing of their young kids.

In fact, I’d be willing to speculate, based on nothing more than some general undergraduate history, sociology and anthropology courses, that infant care is socially and historically almost always a woman’s domain. It makes sense: babies rely on their mothers for sustenance which creates a bond unique among humans. Psychologists have stated that the connection between mother and newborn is akin to being one entity. So where does a father factor in?

I don’t have an answer. All I know is that when I was able to take my infant children and care for them on my own for a stretch of time through bottle-feeding, I cemented a bond with them that maybe other dads are missing. By being the “lone parent” for just a little while, I felt a tighter bond with my kids than I had before. It was a potent enough feeling that until I replicated the experience with my younger one, I was worried that I didn’t feel appropriately strong feelings for him. I had felt this connection with my eldest kid, and it wasn’t immediately present in my younger one when he was born; it took becoming the primary parent (even just for a little while) for me to feel like I was an important part of his infant life.

If I’m right, and human history has deprived men of the chance to bond with their infant children, then it is a grievous evolutionary misstep. I may not be totally comfortable with my role in my job, or in my academic career, or even in my adult social circles, but I have a firm grounding of where I stand with my kids, and I attribute it largely to having been able to spend a great deal of time as the primary caregiver for them as infants.

Conclusion

Fathers, if you can take your kids to work, I encourage it. If you can’t, I implore you to take your kids on your own for father-child adventures; to the park, to the store, to hangout with your friends, wherever and whenever. Early childhood development is essential and far more influential than you may know. So the earlier you can establish yourself in your child’s life, the better. You can break a socio-historical pattern that has excluded you from your kids’ lives, so do it.

 

By Way Of Introduction: I’m A Geek

My name is Cameron Hays, and I’m a geek parent.

Just to be clear, I was a geek before I was a parent, so it’s not as if becoming a parent suddenly made me be interested in science fiction, fantasy, horror, video games, tabletop roleplaying games, or comics. It’s just that now that I’m a geek who is also a parent, I’ve found that my wife (who is also a geek) and I are having a slightly different child-rearing experience than others we know.

We seem to have given birth to a geek kid. Which is great, because now we’re a geek family, but also really interesting from a parenting perspective. After all, there isn’t a geek gene, which means that stuff we did as parents rubbed off on our little one and made her interested in Star Wars (despite never having seen it), super heroes (despite not knowing exactly what they do), castles (despite never having been to one), robots (despite never having seen one) and dragons (despite being kind of afraid of them).

So this blog is, among other things, a record of how we navigated (and continue to navigate) the disparate worlds of being a geek and being a parent, which sometimes overlap.

Education Geek

To give a little background, I spent a decade as a teacher in middle school and high schools. My first endorsement was in social studies for secondary education, although I’ve since gotten a second endorsement in K-12 gifted education. I did some work as a substitute teacher at the beginning of my career, mostly art, music, social studies and English, before falling into a job at one of the schools I had attended myself as a teenager.

While at this weird little alternative school in an antique building, I was given almost total freedom to design my own curriculum for social studies (world history, American history, and geography), and had many chances to branch out into other subjects like music journalism, rock and roll history, mythology, abnormal psychology, learning theory, research techniques, and victorian gothic literature. I even spent a few years doing double duty as the school’s music teacher.

Somewhere along the way, I picked up a masters degree in educational psychology (with an emphasis on human learning), and a few years ago I started on a PhD in curriculum & instruction. My research focus is “curiosity” and gifted education in particular. My dissertation is trying to establish if gifted students actually express higher levels of curiosity, and if so, if it could be used to find gifted students in previously underrepresented and under-served populations.

In the fall, I’ll begin work on an ED.S (Educational Specialist graduate degree) and accompanying Principal’s License. Because when you owe this much in student loans, you might as well see how far you can push it.

Music Geek

I played my first 21+ gig as a rock musician when I was 15. At that time I aspired to be the next electronic crossover artist, wedged somewhere between Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails. I kept that up through college, eventually getting some club play for remixes I’d done for other artists; nothing really amazing, but something I could be proud of.

I’d played bass in my high school jazz band, but it wasn’t until college in Portland that I started playing bass with a band that collaboratively wrote their own material. We got one song on a compilation CD before breaking up (although I’m still friends with them) and I moved to Seattle. I was angry and despondent, so I joined a math metal band and rocked out with them for a while. When that collapsed, I played here and there in a variety of projects, including one with a number of guys that had made it big during the “grunge boom” and were still living on residuals.

When the dot.com bubble burst, I moved back to my home state of Colorado and fell in with a band that played what could most charitably described as art rock, but what in retrospect sounds like my songwriting style butting up against the lead singer’s songwriting style. We put out an album. The band I followed that up with was sort of a prog rock goth thing, with crunchy guitars, violin and cello. We won a Westword Music Showcase Award and put out an album that I’m still pretty fond of.

Shortly after the band went our separate ways, I found out that I have an extremely rare medical condition called Pressure Urticaria. My body responds to any extended pressure on my skin by breaking out in hives. Essentially, I’m allergic to the physical world, and playing bass (or any other instrument) became problematic since it turned my hands into mittens filled with angry bees.

There is no cure for this frankly weird medical condition, although in most cases it goes away on its own after 5-10 years. I’m on year 4 and keep hoping that I can play music again regularly. In the meantime, I’ve kept up with songwriting and composing, since those don’t require extended pressure on my hands. I’ve done some neat instrumental electronica pieces with my good friend Brad Smalling, and I’ve written a number of children’s songs for geek parents. Although my first attempt to crowdfund an album of these songs wasn’t successful, I still hope to release an album of them at some point.

Genre Geek

I love science fiction and fantasy movies, even when they are stupid. I love horror movies, ESPECIALLY when they are stupid. I try to keep up-to-date on geeky tv shows and movies, ever since missing the initial run of Firefly completely and having to watch it after it was canceled.

I’m not as much of a voracious reader as I used to be, largely because of the sheer amount of research papers and academic journals I’ve gone through in the last few years in graduate school. That said, I try to at least be well-versed in the classics: Jules Verne, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Heinlein, Herbert, Bradbury, Dick. Recently, I’ve been really enjoying the work of John Scalzi, Greg Stolze, and Scott Lynch.

I’m not really a comic book guy, but I have good friends who are. They act as a sort of “comic book concierge” and provide me with stuff they know I’ll like. Therefore, despite my previous statement that I’m not really a comic book guy, I have a pretty large collection of graphic novels. My taste runs towards non-superhero stuff (crime, horror, fantasy, sci fi), but I have a definite fondness for the mythology surrounding Batman and Gotham City.

Gaming Geek

I’ve been hooked on tabletop roleplaying games since being introduced to the concept in 1st grade. I spent my childhood drawing pictures of dragons and dudes with swords, and I’m pleased to say that I never outgrew it.

I ran my first convention game right about the same time I was beginning to play music at bars (although I probably sucked at both, in retrospect), and played Vampire: The Masquerade every friday night while other high school students were out getting into trouble. When I didn’t click with the gamers I met in college, I drafted my non-gaming friends, and when I came home for the summer, I started a summer camp for kids that featured foam swords, silly voices, and what basically amounts to Live Action Role-Playing. The rules for that were collected in a book, which remains my only game-related publication.

I played roleplaying games fairly regularly throughout my 20s and 30s, and was lucky enough to meet a woman who was also a gamer and marry her. Not that I married her because she was a gamer, just that it was a nice perk that we had that in common.

Parenting Geek

There is nothing I love more than being a dad. My first job was working in an infant nursery, and I was a preschool art and music teacher for a while after college. Coupled with my graduate education in child development, and it should have been clear to anyone paying attention that I was really looking forward to having kids of my own. My two little munchkins haven’t disappointed.

Right now, my daughter is just over 2.5 years old and my son is just over 7 months old. In both cases, I’ve been lucky enough to be able to bring them with me to work a few times a week. With my daughter, I taught three classes a day with her strapped to my chest; with my son he spends once or twice a week being held or sleeping nearby as I fulfill my weird educator/social worker role.

My kids are a delight, and I am so very pleased that at least one of them is expressing interest in a lot of the same geeky things I enjoy. Which brings us full circle: this blog is about me, my wife, my kids, education, social justice, all things geek, and how they all fit together for us. We hope you’ll join us as we write about all of it.