Thursday, December 17, 2009

Hate the Holidays? Try Something Different

I thought I'd share some holiday-related stuff from the site I edit,

"How to Teach Your Kids to Share": In which I yell with frustration and then ask myself, Why is sharing so hard?

"How I Rescued Myself from Holiday Shopping Through a Donation Exchange": In which my colleague Neal says, I hate the waste and materialism and frantic shopping of the season--how can I drop all that and still make the holiday meaningful?

"How to Make Your Holiday a Shared Affair": In which Danielle Davis asks how we can turn the focus of the holidays form me, me, me to we, we, we.

"How to Throw a Toy Exchange": In which Dawn Friedman discovers a solution to not having enough money for toys.

Also: The anthology I edited with Dacher Keltner and Jason Marsh, The Compassionate Instinct, is coming to a bookstore near you. I'll giving talking about it at 7:30 on January 25 at Booksmith on Haight in San Francisco. For more information, please do click here.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

In Search Of Atticus Finch

The first time your baby crawls is one of fatherhood’s most cinematic images. Movements recorded in the memory to be replayed years later in slow-mo reminiscence. For a few weeks now I’ve been waiting for my son Sam to crawl. At first, he looked like he’d cracked it and I wondered idly when he’d start running and when applications closed for the 2012 Olympic track team. But my excitement, initially feverish, has faded as he pauses before the summit. I feel like Sherpa Tenzing waiting for Edmund Hillary to notice the view instead of rooting in his backpack for lozenges.

Yesterday, while watching Sam’s latest attempt to upgrade snake-belly-scooching to four wheel drive across the colored alphabet tiles in our living room, I reflected on my own memories of his first seven months. If this really was a movie, I mused while mopping up Sam’s vomit off the letter D, which dad would I be?

Ideally, one would borrow from the best, stealing Spencer Tracy’s wisdom, Gary Cooper’s sense of duty, and Jimmy Stewart’s Wonderful Life family devotion. Imagine if this was possible, fatherhood would be an absolute cinch. I’d just download the requisite qualities, then be instantly able to diagnose my son’s teething, or translate his gurgles, or be kinder to my wife.

Sam burped and reached for the pack of wipes by the sofa, reminding me of Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona, the desperate dad grabbing diapers as he robs a convenience store. Who was I kidding? This was hopeless, fatherhood was never a pick’n’mix deal. Besides, knowing my unerring eye for idiocy, I’d probably download qualities from all the wrong dads: Nic Cage’s rap sheet, Eugene Levy’s American Pie-style tact, Darth Vader’s bedtime stories.

Actually, there’s no doubt about who’d play me in the ideal movie of Sam’s life. Every father wants to be Atticus Finch. With his quintessential calm, Gregory Peck sets the celluloid standard. He is also the furthest thing from my own performance as a dad. Self-control and understanding are not exactly my watchwords when Sam craps biblically, or pukes so voluminously that I need to change not only his outfit, but mine too. On those endless nights when I stalk up and down a shadowy hallway to get him back to sleep – thinking darkly that if this is how it ends up, there’s no way I’m ever having sex again – I’m probably closer to Boo Radley.

In front of me, Sam lurched heavily from letter H to P, then slumped sideways. Arranged across the carpet, the alphabet tiles seemed a brightly-coloured roadmap of progress. Just as his scooching would become crawling, walking, and running, each letter represented something bigger, the building block of a word, a sentence, or a screenplay (though given that I’d only laid out 20 letters, it might not be much of a screenplay). Whether it was cinema dads or step-development, Sam and I each knew where we wanted to go, just not how to get there. He’d probably be okay – I know very few adults who are still crawling – it was me I was worried about. In these times of fractured families (my own father is 5000 miles away), who do today’s dads learn from? No wonder I’m making up my own rules.

Undaunted by my failure to identify my own cinematic inspiration, Sam scooched to the edge of the four-by-five rectangle with the crocodile-slither he mastered last week. Every day, it’s amazing to watch him. Even if he doesn’t crawl, each morning there’s another blink of consciousness in his eyes. He doesn’t recognize the boundaries of his two-dimensional tiled world, but reaches beyond it like a tiny Christopher Columbus. If he doesn’t need a roadmap, why should I? As he inched forward, there was something soaring about his effort, and for a moment I believed that Atticus Finch was attainable for us all. Then my boy collapsed facedown on the letter K and began to cry.

Neither his plastic giraffe nor the stripey rattle staunched the tears, so I flipped him over turn-turtle to bite his belly and he shrieked with laughter. I love hearing him laugh. After his grey months of heartburn, it’s like sunshine. Recently, he’s been teething, so I’ve taken to pouncing on him at unpredictable moments to distract him from the pain. Frequent mauling might be closer to assault than affection, but it’s the only act guaranteed to divert him. Forget justice or respect for your neighbor, eternal vigilance is our watchword.

When I rubbed my nose on his tummy, he yelled happily, then grabbed two handfuls of my hair. In that stabbing instant of pain I realized. Here am I biting him while he’s yanking my hair. This wasn’t To Kill A Mockingbird civics class and we weren’t Atticus and Scout. I was Clouseau and he was Cato. Sure, Peter Sellers and Burt Kwouk duelling obsessively in a Parisian apartment won’t make Good Parenting’s top father-son relationships, but it works for us.

Wisdom, restraint, and manners was what I shot for as Sam’s father. What he got was premeditated attacks inspired by an accident-prone Gallic detective and repeated every morning with autistic reliability. Still, what do you expect when you aim too high? You hope for Atticus Finch and you end up with Aspergers French.

Simon Hodgson

Daddy Dialectic Blogger Interview at

About a month ago, Jeremy and chicago pop did a brief interview on stay-at-home fatherhood for the website A lot of what we said there we've already said here in a variety of ways, and so may be familiar to readers of Daddy Dialectic, but it's nice to see these issues taken up on a site designed primarily for mothers.

Here's an excerpt (FYI, David is the first name of Daddy Dialectic blogger "chicago pop"):

What is the best part of being at stay at home dad?

David: Being there to watch my child grow and experience life, and to have him teach me all the simple things that I had forgotten when I grew up.

It reminds me that life is not at all a straight line onward and upward, that there is a lot of circling back to elemental things. Spending time with children helps you circle back.

Jeremy: Gaining new skills, like patience and compassion, and gaining confidence in taking care of my own child.

"Daddy bloggers" are a rare breed in comparison to mommy bloggers. What do you feel dads offer that is different from a mom, blogging-wise?

David: I think there are a thousand different ways to be a daddy blogger, the way there are a thousand different types of dads with a thousand different styles of parenting, if not more. The importance of what daddy blogs offer is not so much in the their content, but in the collective testimony they give to the fact that men are entirely capable of doing these things.

Jeremy: Yeah, that's true. The most important thing for guys to do right now is to just tell and hear stories about taking care of kids. Every time they do that, they're helping create a culture of care among dads and a new image of the good father. For decades, dads have been told they're worthless or absent. Now guys are providing positive examples, to reflect what's best in fatherhood back to men and boys. Of course, they often joke about fatherhood much more, I'd argue, than moms do in their blogs.
Check out the rest here.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Why I Like Caillou -- Max and Ruby Not So Much

One thing I've learned about children's TV programming is that parents have widely varying opinions about what they like and don't like. Most of my friends like Yo Gabba Gabba because it's got good music and has artwork that reminds us of the video games we grew up on. But those are just my friends. There are some out there who find the Cyclopes-ish, phallic tube creatures that populate the show disturbing. I happen to really like Oswald the blue octopus, but have a friend who can't stand the Backyardigans. There's no accounting for taste.

I understand.

So I'm going to give you a few purely narcissistic reasons why I like Caillou, and one point of principle. Hopefully, you'll find the point of principle as persuasive, if not more so, than my own peculiar taste in kids' TV.

I like Caillou because it's Canadian, and I have a crypto-Canadian sensibility. It snows in Caillou-land, just like it did when I was a kid and where we live now. I go back and forth on whether Caillou's family lives in Montreal or Toronto, two of my favorite northern cities.

They live in a big old house like the one I grew up in, with a cat like I had, and Caillou is bald, or has a big round head, or maybe flesh-colored hair, sort of like my son for his first year. His grandparents are involved, the way mine are. They seem to be close to canoe country, and live in a city with good public transportation -- a subway, even -- two things that give me personal joy. I can relate.

Yet there are viewers out there who dislike the show. They think Caillou is whiny, and that if your kids watch the show they will become whiny, too. There are a number of comments to this effect on the show's website. Personally, I think this is nonsense: Caillou has a range of emotions, some of which include frustration, impatience, and anger, just the way one of the characters on each episode of Ni hao, Kai-Lan usually gets "mad" or "frustrated" in order to illustrate how people experience social situations.

But, as they say, whatever. The real reason Caillou is a cut above the rest is because -- and here's the point of principle -- he looks after a younger sister.

A younger sister? Big deal, you may say. In fact, however, it is a big deal. I admit here and now that I don't have an encyclopedic knowledge of children's television programming over the last 40 years, but my sense just from watching PBS and Nick Jr are that it's rare to see a show with an older brother nurturing a younger sister. Caillou doesn't always know what to do with little sister Rosie, but at least he gives it a shot.

He is older, he is the role model, he has the responsibility for watching after a younger sibling -- all things that are traditionally associated with female nurturing. Where else do you see this kind of male nurturing in kids' TV?

Let's go throw the Nick Jr lineup and find out.

Go, Diego
? He has an older sister, Alicia who occasionally saves the day. Little Bill? Youngest child with an older sister April and a nurturing Japanese-American female friend, Kiku. Pinky Dinky Doo? A seven year old girl with a little brother Tyler, who "ends up with a lot of problems--problems that can usually be solved with the help of a made-up story from his sister Pinky." Olivia? "She is a 6 and 3/4 year old dynamo who believes she can do anything," who has a four-year old brother who "can quickly turn into an annoying "little bother" and "is interested in space, dinosaurs, robots."

Nick Jr programming, therefore, is populated with lots of pain-in-the-ass little brothers who need to be set straight by older female figures. A real-enough situation, with plenty of strong, precocious little girls -- but it is really as progressive as it looks to let the older sisters do all the work of socializing their younger (male) siblings? How would each of these characters come to view their roles as parents if we allowed them to become animated adults?

In this respect, the most egregious of them all is Max and Ruby. There is one little boy bunny, Max, and three older female bunnies: Ruby, her friend, and her grandmother. Max likes things that are "slimy, mucky, or sticky," whereas Ruby "spends time with her friends Louise and Valerie playing with their dollies." The show is pleasant enough, and has its own aesthetic appeal, but after viewing several episodes the overall formula jumps out at you: Max likes to get into trouble, make lots of noise, and disobey the rules, while Ruby tries to keep everything together and show Max how you're supposed to do things.

It's not all black-and-white: Max very often sees through the pretense of what Ruby is doing, or comes up with his own worthwhile contribution, and Ruby does more than play with her dolls. But, on the whole, he's a classic little boy who needs an older sister to look after him because, as we all know, boys and the men they become just tend to make a mess if left to themselves.

So I say: Go Caillou! You do your fair share of whining, have a preternaturally large, round, hairless head, and have a name that means, not coincidentally, "little stone" in French. Show us how you can help Rosie learn to find her way in the world, and how a boy is fully capable of taking care of a younger person. Caillou can do it, which means that when he becomes a man and has a wife or partner and children, he'll be able to take care of them, too -- without the constant presence of a female tutor.