Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Death of Naptime: Competing Models

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A month or so ago, Junior's naptime died.

It has been replaced by daddy's naptime. I don't call it "daddy's naptime," and it only lasts thirty minutes on the outside, but it is still a nap, it is me who is taking it, so this represents a sort of revolution. For Junior, the new regime is called "quiet time." It may one day provide Junior with his first retrospective inkling of his father's gradual descent into dotage. What quiet time means, from Junior's point of view, is that there is a temporal zone in the early afternoon when, for the sake of daddy's nap, or for the sake of daddy's sanity, life deliberately slows down, and pandemonium is prohibited. Things that make noise are discouraged, excessive motion is frowned upon, and an atmosphere of meditative silence, if not overall sleepiness, is cultivated.

There are days when Junior, perhaps nostalgic for the fading Golden Age of his toddler-dom, does indeed crash as he used to, which is to say with bravado and wherever he happens to find himself. But more often, he complies with the new regime and its exhortations to quietness rather than somnolence. He draws in his coloring books, erects fantastic structures with blocks and train tracks, or arranges all the objects of his life into mysterious Joseph Cornell-type compartments. It is during quiet time that Junior assembles his collection of tiny plastic beads, which no one remembers acquiring and which have since been eaten by the dog, into the shovel of his plastic bulldozer, or the tilting container of his toy boxcar.

I will find that our horde of buckeyes, harvested last September and stored in a dedicated bowl of natural curiosities, has now been dispersed among the bookshelves of our home, positioned to the left in each case, perhaps a marker indicating how one should scan the titles on each shelf from left to right, or perhaps placed there according to some inscrutable principle of feng shui. Coming upon Junior during his quiet time activity is like stumbling upon a lone prairie dog, a sentinel: he pops up as from out of a hole, his long torso still and fully extended, sniffing the air for my intentions and scanning my body for the slightest movement. Is quiet time over? What is the afternoon fate of our domestic ecosystem? If I continue on my way with wooden face and no eye contact, he drops back into his burrow and returns to his Joseph Cornell projects. If I show the slightest sign of empathy or affection, then the spell of quiet time is irremediably broken, and our noisy, kinetic life resumes.

Modeling the Nap Function
x = time, y = need for nap
A = Daddy, B= Junior
q area = daddy's productivity
r area = daddy's dotage
s = nap equilibrium

What I haven't yet explained is why the death of Junior's naptime coincided so neatly with the birth of my own. Neutral observers might reasonably infer the presence of some kind of causal relationship, and indeed, they would probably be right. But a causal relationship of what kind? There are two competing models used to explain the data plotted on the graph above. Fortunately, I am confident in dismissing the most obvious explanation, that of the Dotage Theory. The Dotage Theory posits an inverse relationship between Junior's mounting stamina and my own declining energy level. It is a conceptually simple, intuitively appealing, and straightforward explanation for daddy and junior's changing nap needs.

Plotted on Cartesian coordinates we see -- in greatly simplified outline, of course -- how daddy's need for a nap presents the concave up-sweeping parabola A. Over time, daddy's nap need is increasing, though it is not clear how this curve may taper off or plateau. Conversely, Junior's decreasing nap need plots the concave down-sweeping parabola B. At t = 0 (the year 2007) the point in time when these curves were farthest apart, the area q (or daddy's productivity) was at its greatest extent; it has steadily decreased since then, passing through a point of nap parity s, and has now entered a stage described by area r, which may be understood as an overall daddy productivity deficit.

I contend that the Dotage Theory, though perhaps valid when extended into the later decades of adult life, does not adequately capture the complexity of the system in which I find myself. My new naptime habit, I argue, is a result of the displacement of a portion of my daily sleep requirement from evening to afternoon. According to this more sophisticated Sleep Displacement Theory, my total sleep need has remained constant; what has changed is the scheduling of that portion of the day during which I harvest a certain portion of sleep, together with undisturbed Me Time.

In this view, the reason daddy now needs these afternoon naps is that he is staying up later. Now that Junior no longer naps as long as he once did -- for one, two, or even three hours in the afternoon -- late evenings are the only time daddy can carve out some solitude, find a little peace of mind, or a moment in which to read a book. Glorious, egotistical, voluptuous satisfaction of daddy's greatest middle-aged desire: not to have sex, but to read a book. And so it is: next morn, like an adolescent lover, I am groggy and grumpy, punching in at my job and giving it my caffeine-fueled best for the next 8 hours, until I can return to whatever it was I had been reading before I fell asleep the previous night.

But, long before a verdict is returned from the tribunes of science, and usually at around 2PM, despite all self-stimulating efforts to the contrary, I am hit by a collapsing wall of fatigue. I can see it coming from far off, an oncoming wave moving in from the horizon. It is usually clear that there is no escape, that there is no safe or higher ground. I simply have to ride it out, which I do. On the couch.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Preschool: A Second Look

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Back in September, I posted an entry wondering if the seeming ubiquity of preschool attendance for three-to-five year olds around our neighborhood made it an unavoidable necessity for my own children to go to preschool (The link is here). My biggest concern in that post was how my children would learn to interact socially with their peers if they were with me while everyone else was at preschool. In many respects I was not actually trying to answer this question in my post. My intent was more to highlight, and vent my frustration at, one of those moments in parenting when the choices others make significantly constrict or complicate my own range of options.

In the two months since publishing those thoughts, I have returned several times to the question of whether I will ultimately have to send Polly and Pip to preschool. In the process I realized that I wanted another crack at the topic. I wanted to write something that would clarify my thoughts from the first entry and bring them to a definite conclusion. I wanted to write something that would end with a period instead of a question mark. And so, here we go again:

There is something potent about the notion of going to ‘school’. I’ve never had anyone suggest that I should send Pip or Polly to daycare for a couple of mornings a week. In fact, it was not until Pip passed thirty months – the age at which many preschools start accepting children – that anyone brought up the idea of turning him over for a while to someone else, even under the logic of giving myself a break or creating some more one-on-one time with Polly. But once the idea was in the air, it was hard to get rid of. There was some kind of unarticulated power at work, a sense that having mastered walking, talking, and eating, Pip’s next natural milestone would be going to preschool. Being conscientious parents, Ava and I dutifully sought out and found a quality preschool that we could afford and enrolled Pip in the two-day program.

As I described in the first post, Pip’s year in preschool was okay but not great. It ultimately left us wondering what he really got out of it. Preschool was supposed to introduce Pip to a whole series of things that would over three years culminate in his being “ready for kindergarten.” But in looking at some of the kindergarten readiness check lists available on the web (like here and here), I found that Pip can already cross off just about every item listed. He recognizes almost all of the letters in the alphabet. He can count to twenty. He knows how to use scissors and glue safely. He can write his name with help. In the past two months he has also demonstrated a willingness and capacity to play with other kids. Two more years of preschool are not going to make him significantly more ready for kindergarten.

And Polly at eighteen months is not very far behind Pip. She follows him everywhere and mimics him relentlessly. In the process she has learned – and, I expect, will continue to learn - much of whatever he is into. For example, she is already grasping some of the things Pip and I are working on at home. She can count to four, recognize some letters, and identify a couple of shapes. She is also becoming more capable with writing instruments like crayons and markers. And she is quite skilled at managing interactions with people of all ages. Preschool can’t hold a candle to the education gained from having an older sibling.

The one item on the readiness lists that Polly and Pip will not be able to check off before they enter kindergarten is the possession of an intimate familiarity with the dynamics of a formal classroom setting. This is not a small thing. As a commentator on one of my later posts suggested (see here), ‘school’ is a completely different world from ‘home.’ The rules are different. The routines are different. The organization of space is different. The personal relationships are different. Managing this difference is not just a matter of learning how to deal with more people. It also means understanding how to function within an additional array of power and authority centered around the classroom teacher and, further along, the administration of the school writ large.

There is an intuitive logic to this question of familiarity which says the sooner a child gets familiar with this alien world and the sooner she can start functioning within it, the more opportunities she will have to gain whatever benefits are possible. The implication of this logic is that, on average, children who attend preschool should have some continuing developmental advances over those who do not. But does it really work this way? Are the cognitive and social development of children essentially a process of linear accumulation? Does it matter whether Pip and Polly get institutionalized as three-year-olds instead of five-year-olds?

I took a look at some of the scholarly research on preschool outcomes to see if I could find any solid answers to these questions. The results of this search were interesting though not particularly definitive.

First of all, most of the preschool research I found focuses on low income populations and whether preschool attendance by these populations can reduce a frequently observed “achievement gap” between children from lower and higher income families. While most find that preschool programs do create some positive impact in this regard, these findings are not that applicable to Polly or Pip as they are members of a hyper-educated, professional class family with an income that falls somewhere within the middle bracket.

Secondly, much of this research is conducted in the context of policy discussions regarding whether the public provision of preschool should be pursued through universal or targeted programs. For parents like Ava and I who are trying to determine how many thousands of dollars we should be willing to pay for our children to go to a good preschool, these discussions offer little guidance.

In the few papers I did find which held some relevance for our context, the results were circumspect about the overall value of preschool. On the positive side, there seems to be a consensus that middle class populations do derive some advances in cognitive development from preschool (see this report for more). However, these gains are small. One report estimated that the difference between children who attended preschool and those who did not amounted to the ability to answer one more question correctly on the test instrument. This same study also found that this effect fades over time. On the negative side, another paper concluded that any cognitive gains come paired with a negative trend in measures of social development, though exactly how social development was measured is not clear to me.

Given the ambivalence and the relative lack of evidence regarding what preschool does for kids like Pip and Polly, I feel justified in deciding that actually attending preschool is a largely neutral proposition. So, what benefits might be gained from keeping them at home with me? In my original post I tried to answer this question in a comparative way, claiming that my kids will do more and learn more with me than they would at preschool. While I still believe that to be true, it is a very subjective measure and one that obscures a simpler and more self-centered reason for my ambivalence about preschool: I don’t want to give up my kids yet.

Not only do I love Polly and Pip, but I really like them. They are smart, funny, and impossibly sweet. For example, Polly blows kisses to every animal she sees – in books, in stores, in people’s houses. She has also, in her imitations of Pip, taken to crawling around the house on all fours and pretending to be different animals, woofing when she is a dog and growling when she is a bear. For his part, Pip is currently in a stage where the sophistication of his thoughts and the language he uses to articulate them is rapidly increasing. Just yesterday he told me, while talking about our upcoming Thanksgiving trip to his grandparents, that “My heart hurts because we have to wait so long before going to Grandma and Grandpa’s house.”

As a full-time father, I have the rare opportunity to be immersed in all of this and to be on hand for almost everything that happens to them. While this positionality comes with its ups and downs, the cumulative effect of my experiences with them has been one of great joy. By sending Polly and Pip to preschool I would be giving up some of this, and that is not an idea I relish. More importantly, sending them to preschool effectively outsources all the fun stuff about being a parent while requiring me to spend much of my time playing the less enjoyable roles of nag and chaperone. If the roles were reversed and I got to play with my kids, read books to them, or do art projects with them while someone else cooked, cleaned, and made sure they got out of the door on time, then I would sign up for that immediately. But that’s not how preschool works and so for me, sending my kids to one doesn’t make sense.

I have five brief years to spend with Pip and Polly before I have to release them into the wilds of institutionalized education. That time is precious to me. I don’t want to waste it on preschool.

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Interested in stories about our family or just some thoughts about being a parent in this day and age? Take a look at my blog:

http://www.postindustrialparenthood.blogspot.com/

There's a new post every Thursday.

Monday, November 01, 2010

A PASSAGE ON EXIT GLACIER

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The following essay is excerpted from the book, Truckin' with Sam: A Father and Son, The Mick and The Dyl, Rocking and Rolling, On the Road (SUNY Press, May 2010), by Lee Gutkind With Sam Gutkind. Lee Gutkind is a Distinguished Writer in Residence at Arizona State University and founder and editor of Creative Nonfiction Magazine. Sam Gutkind is a student at Carnegie Mellon University.

The mosquitoes attacked the moment we started up the trail, an army lying in wait to ambush and destroy us. I was glad I had heeded Kathy’s warning to take plenty of bug dope, which I sprayed generously all over us. Sam, my 12-year-old son, made an “I’m being tortured, leave me alone face” and kept turning away as I sprayed his cheeks and forehead. “This smells terrible,” he complained.

“That’s what we hope the mosquitoes are saying to themselves,” Kathy said, punching the air like a shadow boxer. “‘I can’t stand the smell—I give up. I’ll leave these poor people alone and bother somebody else.’”

Of the three of us, the least prepared was Kathy, the Alaskan, who went on this hike with leaky boots. While Sam and I stomped through the snow in our waterproof, insulated Gore-Tex hikers, Kathy sloshed through puddles, swearing at her boots and vowing to destroy them the moment she returned home. Exit Glacier, in the Kenai Mountains, was named because it served as the “exit” for the first recorded crossing of the Harding Ice Fields, which was where we were headed, at the summit.

The terrain leveled off as we climbed, but the snow got deeper, burying our boots, At first, we were able to follow a trail of tiny orange flags marked by a Park Service ranger, but the flags soon disappeared, and we had to bushwhack our own way, our general direction guided by the far-off distant summit, a sparkling mass of glittering white, caked with ice blue. There were many trails—just lines of footprints, really—but none that seemed most suitable to follow. After slipping, sliding, and falling in and out of other hikers’ mistakes, we realized that braving our way through new snow would work best. But it was slow going. Three steps forward meant two steps sliding backward. The trick was to keep your legs moving, continue to scramble upward, often on all fours, in order to maintain a slow and steady forward progress.

Something happens to me when I get into situations like this, a combination of panic and sheer persistence, jelling, building, converging, and exploding. A time to be tested: against the elements, against other people, and against myself. My heart beats faster and I click into a special awareness and focus on the task ahead, an intense tunnel vision that allows me to block out any extraneous details and hone in on my overall objective, as in the case of the rising plain of snow confronting us.

“Fall down nine times and get up ten,” is the phrase I continue to press upon Sam.

“Never give up,” I say, pushing the concept further by paraphrasing Winston Churchill, “Never give in, never give up. Never. Never. Never. Ever.” This is something that I, an old-new dad, in my early sixties, read in elementary school and never forgot.

As I move forward in this manner, I become increasingly crazed. I am not self-destructive. I don’t jump out of airplanes or windsurf, but I hunger for situations offering an edge, and then I try to see what it takes—what inner resources I will have to muster forth—to meet the challenge and beat it. I knew that Kathy was minding Sam for the moment, so I could permit this explosion of expression.

Then I began running. In my hiking boots, my daypack bouncing on my back, it was like plunging through the obstacle course at U. S. Coast Guard boot camp all over again, forty years later.

Suddenly, I was young, strong, driven. The distance between Sam and Kathy and I began to lengthen. After a while, I lost sight of them. I knew that Kathy was slowing down and tiring and I realized that my responsibility, Sam, was behind me. But I couldn’t help myself. I felt jet-propelled.

Finally, I forced myself to slow down. I was feeling guilty for leaving behind my friend and host, not to mention my son, but I was also glowing inside with an aura of triumph. I could still beat most people, I thought. I could still marshal my amazing ability to concentrate with all of my physical resources and demonstrate my superiority and my grit over anybody, almost. But then came the sound and movement, which I first sensed and then heard: distinct footsteps behind me. I turned. Sam.

The realization that Sam had caught up with me—me at my strongest, my most powerful and supercharged best—was startling. For years I had been the person pushing Sam and setting the pace for him—but I could see now that he really didn’t need me as much anymore and would soon not need me at all. Like any son, he was catching up with his father. Bypassing me was inevitable.

This is what we work to achieve as fathers—and in certain ways dread, when we are so incredibly successful.