Thrill of the wild

Last weekend Avery and I (and the brothers in their cart) walked to a beach not far from our house to look for animal tracks.

This beach is part of a wildlife corridor that connects disparate sections of Glacier Bay National Park. Animals use this land, and sometimes my driveway, as part of their route across the forelands.

It is a perfect environment for teaching natural history. We find coyote, wolf, brown bear, and moose prints. Once Avery can identify all of them I play a trick. I find the tire track from the chariot and I ask, “What kind of track is this?”

“Baby snake?” she asks.

Well, almost all of them.

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Alaska: The Last Frontier. The last place where a parent might worry more about their child’s exposure to brown bears than to creepers, gang violence, and guns. I’m proud, but petrified.

Avery walks next to the bear tracks and I calmly take pictures. The only time I’ve ever had trouble with a bear was while fishing. Still, I make sure these footprints lead away from where we are playing, and take the safety off of the can of bear spray in my pocket.

I don’t want fear to ruin our fun. More people in the United States are crushed by vending machines every year than are attacked by bears. There are, however, a lot more bears out here than vending machines.

Where we live it’s sort of uncool to be afraid of bears, but I am. I think back to time off I had in past summers when I canceled planned kayaking trips because I had no one to go with. It’s a shame. Every day that I am out feels precious now.

On the way back I start a game: “Hey Avery… How do we get back to our house? Can you find the way we came?”

My usually independent and brave little girl crumbles. “We are lost!” she cries. “We will never find our way home!”

I pull her close. “Aves,” I say. “Mama knows the way. Your mama is an excellent route finder, and we are not lost. I’m playing a game so that I can teach you to be safe out here. You’re just a little kid now, but you can learn. And when you are a big kid, you can come out here with your friends.”

I can hardly believe my own ears. She can? At what age? And with whom? Will I really let her do that?

Of course I will.

Fear can keep us safe but it can also prevent us from getting outside. If I know anything about my kid then she will grow into a teen who needs a little danger. There are only so many opportunities for adventure and I’d rather not instill too much fear of the wilds in her.

At the end of our driveway, you can turn right and head out to a wild and remote stretch of Alaska’s coast. A kid with a pair of boots can muck up and down a number of sloughs and across tidal flats. A few years later, that kid might get in a kayak and paddle a short distance to watch deer or wolves on an adjacent island. Maybe she hikes in a bit from there to discover a one-thousand-year-old Sitka Spruce; or paddles around to the back of that island to explore a reef covered in anemones and sea stars.

Avery will also have the choice, at the end of our driveway, to turn left. Around the same age, on foot or by bicycle, she will head into our small town. There she will find a school, post office, cafe, grocery store, gas station, and opportunities for a different sort of trouble and adventure. It could be a metaphor, but it’s not.

So I take her to the beach.

Today she discovers mildly-colored goose feathers (not poisonous, she tells me) and baby strawberry plants growing from burgeoning soil. She finds chunks of driftwood left from trees plowed down three-hundred years ago by the oncoming glaciers of the Little Ice Age and loads them into our cart. Without explanation, she intuits that they are special.

When the time comes for my girl to head out into the world on her own, she will go. I do not expect her to be one who waits. Already, she watches the big kids who arrive at school and walk up to the door on their own.

“Me go by myself?” she asks, eagerly unfastening her carseat buckles.

“No,” I say. “Mama’s not ready.”

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I was lucky enough as a teen to have friends who took me to the wild places. We could ran through passes and over peaks. We belly-slid on the mudflats and did a lot of high-risk sledding. We snuck out once and picked blueberries by headlamp.

Our mischief also took us into town: We found streets that reflected our names and stole the signs. We toilet papered a covered bridge that led into a new subdivision with cookie-cutter houses. We borrowed a paddle boat from a lake house and played on the water until 2 am. We used road construction equipment to rerout traffic past a friend’s house. Twice we were chased by cops but they didn’t catch us.

As Avery grows, I hope she knows the thrill of the wild. I hope she recognizes fear for what it is; learns when to trust it and when to ignore it. I want her comfortable and clear-headed so that she makes it home again. I hope she experiences everything.

Please let her turn right.

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Threenager

Happy Birthday A! We have successfully run the toddler gauntlet, from ages 12 to 36 months, where I had no idea what I was doing! Congratulations to us!

A and I have been back together for a few months now – time I wouldn’t have had but for Covid-19. I’m surprised at how much she has grown since last summer and how much learning slipped by without my noticing despite evenings and weekends together.

What kind of things? She has the sweetest new spray of freckles across her nose. Christopher Robin is her hero. She knows all the words to Old MacDonald and sings it while riding on the tractor. She loves to play baby animals; which translates into games of fetch in the back yard and her saying, “I love you, mama salmon,” whenever she’s in the kiddie pool. She invites us parents on trips “up north to see the polar bears” and made me a paper pilot’s license so I could fly us there.

Her language skills have blown up since March; though correct use of pronouns still eludes her. New vocabulary includes “moss”, “twig”, “chic-a-dee-dee-dee”, DVD-dee-dee”, “cool”, and “butt-crack.” I claim full responsibility for all of it. You win some; you lose some.

This little girl’s spatial-mechanical awareness puts me to shame. She knows where we are when we drive around the city as well as I do (Going to the airport, mama? To the library? The doctor?) She may already know how traffic patterns flow at intersections and how to differentiate right from left.

She has taken to calling me by my first name. “Heidi?” she asked on a recent romp around the yard. “How does water get into our house?” I take her over to the cistern and she begs me to check the level. When I tell her dad usually does that job she retrieves the dip stick from wherever it’s kept and shows me how. Then she moves on to questions about electricity and plumbing (“Where does my poop go?”). Finally, she asks me to explain the internet. Mama doesn’t know, child.

A is an excellent adventurer. There are no rules in our family about getting wet or muddy; only that your being cold cannot ruin the fun or cause us to turn around early (at least not very often).

I will forever remember this summer as the one where A wore a bike helmet and little else. Three weeks ago she tried a balance bike and declared it defective. “No pedals on this thing?” she asked. “Just use your feet?” Now she’s glued to it; seeking ramps and making hairpin turns. She drags it, barefoot, into the backyard where she can try downhills.

She is my treasure, and I tell her so on a daily basis. On a recent foray we wander down a “short” path I have not been on for quite some time. I brought no phone (no reception), water, or provisions save for a granola bar and a fruit leather tucked inside of my bra strap (reason #286 why stretchy pants need pockets!)

Low-slung alders criss-cross the path; bent by last winter’s heavy snowfall from left to right across the lines of straighter, darker trees. We duck under, climb over, and go around singing, “going on a bear hunt” all the while. A swings from their branches and rides them like horses; a satisfying reminder of my childhood.

At the end of the trail a kingfisher calls Kick-kick-a-kee! and dives into the river. We sit on a bench and eat our snack. My daughter discovers, and falls in love with, her first tire swing (Higher higher!). Finally, we turn and head for home.

Hours have passed. By time the truck comes into view, my child is buck naked, dehydrated, hungry, scratched and mosquito-bitten. She still doesn’t want to leave. “Thanks for the great adventure, A,” I say. “I had fun with you today.”

“Thanks, Heidi,” she says. “You’re my treasure too.”

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Ten helpful ideas for parenting strong-willed kids (part 2)

In part 1 of this story, I shared our family’s reconciliation between practical parenting needs with our daughter’s strong will. Here, I summarize some points for parents struggling with the same behaviors and provide references for further exploration. Enjoy!

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Strong-willed children cannot be made to do anything they don’t want to do, but they can be convinced. If the expectation is reasonable, and your child understands the reasons and loves you, then your kid will often be on your side. Here’s how:

1. Value your relationship above all else and give up control whenever possible. For example, my daughter gets full control over what clothes, hair-dos, and blankets she wears (life-threatening situations excepted). At age three, she is granted these rights and also the responsibility for her choices. For example, she has full permission to puddle stomp, but I don’t end adventures early because she’s wet.

2. Parent in the affirmative. Say yes whenever possible, as in: “Sure, you can have a treat. As soon as you pick up your toys, like we talked about.” Tell your child what to do instead of what not to do and go along with her antics, ideas, and fun-loving nature when you can. Delight in her.

3. Avoid power struggles and direct commands; e.g. whenever you don’t care enough to take it to the death. In moments of small infringement when I got nothing, I often say, “I don’t like it when you do that,” and go on as if nothing happened. Kids have nothing to lose, and their conviction is often stronger than ours. Instead of mandating what your child must do, explain what you will do, the behaviors you will tolerate, and what will happen if you don’t see some cooperation.

4. Save your breath. Adults who give constant feedback risk becoming innocuous background noise. Remember the teacher from Charlie Brown? Waa wah wah waa wah wah. Don’t belabor the point when behavior is marginal or danger is a mere possibility. Your words may then ring true in moments that count.

5. Allow natural consequences to teach your child. If there’s none then think up an appropriate one and offer it as an alternate choice to the behavior you want. Don’t offer choices you’re not 100% ok with and don’t invest in the outcome. Stay neutral. It’s up to your kid to cooperate or take the consequence.

6. Set a few rules, even for toddlers (age 1) that you know you can enforce. Articulate the reasons behind the rules, the music behind the madness. A strong-willed child needs to understand why rules are in place, and have permission to work the available loop holes. She will be looking for them. When your kid discovers situations where the reasons don’t apply, then bend and hope she’ll learn from your modeling. “I see your point,” I like to say. “I can be flexible about that.” Or “Sure you can; as long as it’s not a problem.”

7. If you want your kid to listen the first time then don’t ask more than once. Assume your kid remembers and understands what you said. Choose a consistent cue like “uh-oh” to let your child know that a choice or consequence is coming. You are not required by law to give a warning before a consequence.

8. Try non-verbal forms of communication. Refrain from verbal directives especially in moments when your child is “on the edge.” Open your arms for a hug. Hold up a single finger for “just a minute.” Learn the sign for “don’t touch.” Reach out your hand to hold when you want to leave. Go get him or move to where you want him and start eating, reading, etc. Give him a chance to follow of his own accord.

9. In emotionally charged, right-brained moments (i.e. tantrums), a. Use non-verbal signals to communicate comfort. b. Offer empathy to validate feelings and help your child get calm. c. Be a good listener or talk a non-verbal child through what happened. d. Wait to reflect and request different types of behavior until your child is back at stasis.

10. Decide what qualities you want to cultivate in yourself and don’t let your child push you to become angry, anxious, or mean. Keep your cool. Kindness can be the most effective way to change challenging behavior. Your kid is going to grow up to be awesome.

Suggested resources:

Circle of Security International www.circleofsecurityinternational.com/

Cline FW & J Fay (1990) Parenting with Love and Logic.

Forehand R & N Long (2002) Parenting the Strong-Willed Child.

Shanker S (2016) Self Reg.

Siegel DJ & T Payne Bryson (2014) No-Drama Discipline.

Tobias CU (2012) You Can’t Make Me (But I Can Be Persuaded).

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My strong-willed child (part 1)

Parenting fantasies start from the gold dust of dreams. They are shaped by personal values and rooted in experiences from our own childhoods. Before we become parents we imagine ourselves exuding the perfect ratio of love, creativity, and authority to yield a happy, healthy, and respectful child. Around the time our kids become independent mobile units though, these ideas start to leak like a sieve.

This post goes out to my friend E, who has witnessed my steep parenting learning curve, and recently sent this text about her one-year-old: “My son needs some sort of discipline,” she writes. “He knows the word no and he doesn’t give a f@%$. He really doesn’t. What do I do with that?”

Obedient children are lovely to be around. I’d like to have one, but you have to prioritize characteristics to cultivate in your kids according to what is available. There’s not infinite room in the garden; so you might not be able to grow petunias and begonias.

Lately I have become curious about why obedience became the value to cultivate in children above all other values. Obedience is desirable as a practical skill. It keeps kids safe, well-mannered, and cooperative. It is also boring and stifling.

I was raised to be obedient. “Be good,” my dad always said as we parted ways, and I knew what was meant. When I was a kid all it took was the threat of a spanking; the forward leaning, wide-eyed lear of a grandfather; the shrill or else of my mother to straighten me up. That was all I needed to act right. Threats were many; consequences were few.

Kids today don’t give a shit about empty threats. “Or else what, ma?” they want to know. I don’t know what has changed in the past 35 years, but parenting is different now. “Different pollens in the air,” says my friend M.

In his book Free to Learn, author Peter Gray summarizes this system as beginning with the agricultural age when hierarchies of dominance and submission became rules to live by. “Just as we train horses to do the tasks that we want them to do,” he writes, “we train children to do the tasks that we think will be necessary for their future success. We do that regardless of whether the horse or child wants such training, or benefits from it as an individual. Training requires suppression of the trainees will; it requires a concept of disciplining others that was foreign to hunter-gatherers.”

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I got the exact wild, brave, curious daughter I always wanted. The surprise is how little control I have over her. She is, what is called, a strong-willed child.

Strong-willed children require a complete rearrangement of how we thought parenting would go: Instead of being strict and consistent, I have needed to become flexible and empathetic. Overall, I have also become less angry, anxious, and close-minded. Parenting these kids can be a great thing if you let it be; or you can stick to your former notions of authority and die trying.

A’s lack of obedience is most difficult when safety is concerned. Rather than offering a constant “Be careful!” chorus as the soundtrack to her young life, I watch for moments when she becomes distracted. “Focus,” I say, or “Do you feel safe?” Yes, I have caught her in mid-air as she dropped off of the monkey bars. On another occasion she hit the ground but was totally fine. “We’re training for the Olympics,” I tell bystanders.

I have had to get very specific with myself about what I am protecting my daughter from. If the risk does not include loss of life or limb (or an emergency room bill), and if she will most likely keep her face, then I say nothing. Proceed, my child, and learn.

I refrain from bringing up her mortality because I don’t want her athleticism curbed by of adult fears. Nor do I want her looking to others to determine what level of risk is acceptable. She should learn to gauge safety and threat for herself.

My ideas, of course, don’t always work. Yesterday my mom, A, and I walked the boardwalk along a neighborhood duck pond. Everything is going swimmingly until A starts wondering about the snacks left locked inside the car, and she takes off for the parking lot at a full sprint.

“Stop!” I shout. “Mama says stop!” But she gives not a damn and is soon out of earshot. My mom looks at me, waddling through the last month of my twin pregnancy, then looks ahead to the blur of our charge racing away. “I can’t catch her,” I shrug. “She probably wont die.”

Good old grandma runs after her.

I know this makes me sound terribly passive. A has taught me to examine all situations through the lens of the serenity prayer and realize there many moments with her in which I have very little say. I have come to value keeping my cool over maintaining control because it’s something I can actually do.

When A returns, there is no reprimand, no consequence, no warning, or threat. There is an explanation. “When mama says stop, you stop,” I say. “When you run far away I worry that you’ll be hit by a car. And I worry you might meet a bear or a person feeling ‘no-no’ and mama won’t be there to take care of you.”

The word, “discipline,” means “to teach.” For the rest of this day and the next, we practice stop and go with a game like red-light, green-light. I use our secret call “Coo-eee!” to beckon her back to my side, and she comes running.

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Parenting a strong-willed child cannot be about obedience and control because you will lose too many battles. Your relationship must hinge upon something else or you will also lose the war. The last thing any of us wants is to suffer through these childhoods, only to be hated by our kids as adults.

I have yelled. I have spanked. None of it changed my daughter’s behavior one iota and I felt terrible afterwards. When I am angry she shuts down or ignores me. She does not do as I wish, and no ‘parenting’ is accomplished. In short, nothing that was supposed to work actually works. The only thing she responds to, is love.

The antithesis to parenting with an iron fist is to teach a child self regulation. If A doesn’t go to bed when I tell her to then she must learn to rest when she is tired. If she won’t wear the clothes I offer her then she must learn to dress appropriately for the weather and bring an extra layer: I will not procure a sweater from some bag when she gets cold.

In response to our difficulties, I have become more creative about how I talk to my daughter. Every time we open our mouth’s to speak we choose a vessel, a mood, and a posture to carry our words. Instead of demanding deference, I have learned to make a request, reference a rule, convey an observation, explain how I feel, or ask a question. I can issue a statement, give a directive, redirect, distract, or enforce a consequence. I can get physical and overpower my child or find words to guide her by. I can evoke equality, superiority, or submission. Words can bring good humor, sarcasm, anger, or careful intention. In almost any situation I can go silly, tender, or angry. I can bargain, be vague, or be indecisive. I can do nothing. I can encourage dependence and obedience to the status quo or free-thinking, independence, and perseverance.

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I have given up control for the sake of building a great relationship with my daughter. Yes, the hectocity level is high. I make myself feel better by worrying about what happens when obedient children grow up. Do they rebel hard-core as teens? Struggle to make even the smallest decisions? Spend their lives trying to please others? Lose sight of who they really are?

The teen years around our house will require some patience; but I’m not worried. Perhaps a curfew will hold no power over A. If that’s the case, I will have to get specific with my daughter around drunk driving, intimate relationships, and other taboos of being out after midnight. We will define our family boundaries together (see clause on parenting fantasies, above). With open conversation and understanding, I hope to know where my daughter is and what she is up to. With enough love and mutual trust, maybe she’ll call me first when she’s in a bind or needs a ride. A kid who spent her whole life falling off the straight and narrow and getting busted doesn’t do that.

Teaching self regulation takes a lot of patience and effort up front, but it seems so worth it. Also, I see no other option. This is working. What can I say? She is who she is. If there is anyway to change her, I haven’t found it. That’s probably a good thing.

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Part two of this post is a list of Ten helpful ideas for parenting strong-willed kids and references for further exploration.

Toddler Art

Lines and shadows

Lately I have enjoyed daily home art installations courtesy of my daughter A. She works mainly in sculpture since she doesn’t get crayons without supervision.

The shortest distance between two points

A’s work reflects an awareness of balance and a willingness to consider various uses of and meanings behind everyday objects. These sculptures are a physical study of the three repeated questions we cycle through every day: “What’s this?”, “What doos?”, and “Why?”

Dad doesn’t need to know

She is also working with origin stories, as in: “Where cheese come from?” Followed by, “Where cows come from?” and then, “Where mama cows come from?”

And: “What birds eat?” “What spiders eat?” “What bugs eat?” “What leaves eat?” “What water eats?”

Weird geometry

Lineage can be traced – must be traced – for just about anything. Once is not enough to satisfy. The same questions come around and around again like a carousel carrying a limited number of painted ponies.

Unicorn sleeping on a dish towel

I read something about it being a trust-building exercise. Maybe so; or maybe she asks again and again because she’s wondering, what else does it do? Maybe a lifetime of learning has set me up with limited perceptions. Maybe I should be more open minded; re-examine the world with new eyes. Certainly, I appreciate her perspective.

Can we find joy?

When you were a child, did you have some special place in nature? I was lucky enough to grow up at the edge of the big city, and my place in nature was a patch of woods in my backyard.

I built a fort there with my sister and our neighbors in the alders. The branches drooped from our climbing them to form a sort of roof. We tunneled under those long, scraggly limbs, swept out the leaves, put pine cones up in the larder, and built ourselves a happy home.

Being outside has always been when I feel the most free and most essentially myself. When I sink back into those first experiences of the natural world, the feeling I remember is of pure joy.

Lately climate change is threatening that joy. If we continue with business as usual the planet will be ice free by the year 2100. By that time, there may be 10 billion people on the planet. Florida will be underwater, and the largest animal on earth will be the cow.

In 2100, my daughter will turn 73. Anticipating this inevitable crowding, temperature rise, loss of biodiversity, and struggle for resources has me worried. How can we expect life to carry any quality under those conditions? This is not the world I would choose to leave for my child.

Changes are already happening. In Juneau, Alaska, where I live, the snow melted out of the mountains in May this year. There was no frost over Memorial Day weekend to take out the zucchini plants of over-zealous gardeners; meaning that our growing season is suddenly extended by almost a full month. Fields of wildflowers bloomed in the first week of June instead of over the Summer Solstice. Before the first of July we saw 85-degree temperatures, ripe salmonberries, and the tall, blooming fireweed that used to signify the end of summer rather than the beginning.

The ocean is warmer too, and the waters are less nutrient-rich, meaning there is less out there to eat. For five years the humpback whales in Glacier Bay National Park have been in a steep decline and last year they had a total reproductive failure. King salmon returns to Southeast Alaska in 2018 were the lowest we’ve seen in 50 years of record keeping.

I don’t think people are drawing enough meaning from these observations. They are not separate issues; they are distinct symptoms of the same illness. Even with so many warning signs, I’m afraid the end of life as we know it is going to catch us by surprise.

Again, I shake it off. Bad situations always get worse before they get better; the downward spiral is a kind of progress. Pain pushes until a system breaks, and then we find a new way forward.

Climate change is especially scary for parents; because our peace of mind depends on world that will maintain a friendly, habitable surface beyond our natural lifespans.

I hear some friends saying they don’t want to have kids because of climate change. I’m not sure exactly why; maybe these sensitive people intend to slow emissions by limiting population growth by one human at a time. Maybe the idea that children will inherit our ecological damage seems too unfair. Perhaps they know parenthood would increase their worry and suffering. Maybe it’s a combination of all of these reasons.

If you don’t want kids, then don’t have them. They disappear your free time, rub avocado on anything, and sixteen years later inevitably scream, “I hate you!” into your face. Bringing a new life into the world is a contract that should not be entered into lightly.

But don’t opt out of parenting for the sake of the planet. Only when we are whole, when we stay human, will we do our best work. Let kids inspire you to live with your eyes open, and find joy, no matter how small, in every day. Fear of the future isn’t reason enough to miss out on your life.

Five years ago I saw climate change ramping up, and my need for a baby only intensified. Kids drive my commitment to talk about this thing and prioritize solutions whatever the cost. Before I became a parent, I might have gotten tired and stuck my head in the sand. But now, I can’t. With my daughter as my muse the burden of this work feels more serious, but also somehow lighter.

In Parenting from the Inside Out, Dr. Daniel Siegel writes: “Enjoying your child and sharing in the awe of discovering what it means to be alive, to be a person in a wondrous world, is crucial for the development of your child’s positive sense of self.” I feel this intuitively: That the play and fun threatened by anxiety are the very resources we need to get all of us through the climate crisis.

I have an awesome memory of being nine, sitting on the tarmac in Anchorage waiting to fly to California with my mom and younger sister, and the three of us singing “I’m so excited! And I just can’t hide it! I’m about to lose control and I think I like it!”

Flying standby, all of us in dresses, and waiting for our red-eye to take off, we serenaded our airplane. Can you imagine this happening today? Of course not. But maybe that’s because you haven’t met my mom. My mom is a master of spontaneous fun, and she does not embarrass easily. A silly childhood is a gift my mom gave me.

Sometimes this kind of fun is an effort for me. But it’s getting easier. Because of my child, I have memorized lyrics from the Moana soundtrack. Because of her, my husband goes to the swimming pool and does handstands underwater with a goofy grin in his face. Because of her, Grandma goes down slides saying, “Wheeee!” and makes herself sick on meri-go-rounds.

I would like to say I am giving this gift to my daughter but actually the reverse is true. In wanting my daughter to be proactive and resilient, I too am becoming proactive and resilient. Thank you, A, for bringing silly back.

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I went to Anchorage this summer and got to take A and my nephew B back to that little patch of woods behind my parents’ house where I used to play.

The backyard is not the same. It is cleaner now; with more light and fewer mosquitoes. The alders fell down and my parents cleared the brush. It is better in many ways, but I can’t help feeling nostalgic.

How many of us have returned to our special childhood place and found it changed? Or maybe the land you love hasn’t suffered anything extreme, but it looks different when seen through an adult lens. Can adults return to changed natural places and also find joy? I don’t know how to, but we have to try. Otherwise, we will only hurt ourselves and our children.

There are days when I don’t know how I will cope; when a tightness grabs ahold of my throat, and I focus too hard on the constant flow of traffic. I miss the way things used to be; but playing with A helps me to accept changes in the natural world and feel grateful for what beauty remains.

I would have liked to see the American West when bison roamed the eastern slope of the Colorado Rockies. I wish I could have rode over the Sierra Nevada to find a raw California coast glittering in the sunlight. I would like to have seen an un-dammed Columbia River teaming with salmon spill over a wetland full of nesting birds.

But my life would not have been better for it. Every generation has feared for their childrens’ future. We stand at an extreme and important moment in Earth’s history, but the emotional stress we feel as parents at this time may be less unique than we think. It is hard to know what matters except in hindsight.

In sad moments I take a hard look around my city. I find beauty in the architecture; in the intentions of city planners and their vision for the future. I do my best to focus on the ways things are improving. Sometimes, all we can do is accept the times we live in.

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There is a lot of beauty still in the world, and it deserves to be celebrated: For our kids’ sake and for our own. Returning to my childhood backyard is difficult for me because I know how it used to be and I see the changes. But through my daughter’s eyes, nothing has been lost. Perhaps one day she too will rake the leaves, gather pine cones, and feel that same joy as I once found there.

As we bravely step forward and raise the climate change generation we will help our kids through uncharted environmental disasters and emotional challenges. Despite the uncertainties, it is we adults who will miss the most. This gives me some comfort. Shifting baselines are the blessing curse of passing generations.

I believe, whole-heartedly that my daughter will have a good life as long as I teach her to appreciate the world for what it is and not for what it used to be. I’m not saying it will be easy; I’m saying I have to try. I don’t know if we can find joy in this world, but I know kids help joy to find us.

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Thanks C & M for the good conversations that led to this post.

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Theoretical parenting

As my daughter A transitions from toddler to kid, I realize how many milestones we are careening towards that involve a lot of concerted effort (read: struggle) on my part.

I recently filled out a form that asked what goals I have for my two-year-old in the next year. My list included: weaning, potty training, eating regular meals, loosening our attachment anxiety, and better sleep (always better sleep).

Seems like a lot. All of these tasks fall into a dangerous realm I call “theoretical parenting”. Theoretical parenting, like the Artist formerly known as Prince, is a trademark with no name. It involves a lot of reading and is the purposeful way I know to solve problems. It is the opposite of the take-it-as-it-comes parenting I prefer.

Babies don’t progress in any linear way; so I guess that makes them just like anyone else. Right after I wrote a parent’s prayer, A indeed started sleeping through the night. After three nights of unadulterated sleep I started talking nonsense about a second baby. Good thing A’s second set of molars started to grow in and she got us back on the crazy train right away. I am safely back in square coo-coo; happy to report that once again I feel gripped and very satisfied with our single-child household during most minutes of most days.

Theoretical parenting is handled by the logical part of the brain that also does math and applies for bank loans. After two years of broken sleep and under-use, this part of my brain has withered and died. The take-it-as-it-comes part, however, is thriving; which is why I can justify eating ice cream at any time of day and can’t make plans more than twelve hours out.

Theoretical parents read the books and execute, struggling through the emotional stress of cry-it-out sleep training to announce that their baby sleeps through the night two weeks later. I applaud your determination and I am glad you are well rested. You deserve it. Thank you for not gloating while I am in earshot.

So far, three molars have erupted in A’s mouth; the crowns are still over-laced with gruesome gum webs. It’s actually the fourth tooth, which has yet to cut its way to the surface, that has her waking me up six times a night.

Take-it-as-it-comes parents go with whatever seems natural in the moment and pray this sequence of decisions leads somewhere the family wants to go. Maybe we live in the moment and lack an end game; or maybe we prioritize cultivating a well-rounded adult over characteristics of an obedient child. Either way, I feel it’s best to justify my situation by making myself really, really happy with my situation whatever it happens to be.

For example, I get less sleep with A in my bed right now, but I wouldn’t trade those snuggles for the world. Because this round of teething feels like the end of her babyhood. I feel a little tortured (my nipples hurt for the first time since A was a newborn), but it’s ok because it’s all almost over, etc…

A smart friend, one who does not have kids, asked me a laundry list of questions related to weaning, sleeping, and potty training the other day; as if maybe I hadn’t noticed these tasks coming up on my dance card. “What’s yer plan?” she asked. At the moment, I couldn’t remember everything from the outline I’d written up. I told her about the molars; how they feel like enough right now. She seemed unimpressed.

What makes a theoretical parent?Does your head generally guide your heart? Do circumstances, like your need to care for other kids or wake up at 6 for work, push you to prioritize practicality over idealism? Are you better at following directions than me or more willing to postpone rewards than my husband? Are you and your spouse philosophically better aligned than we are? Are there any downsides to your choices?

Why a person ends up as a theoretical parent, or why not, seems to me a chicken-or-egg situation in which I am left seated squarely upon the two concepts; flapping my arms and clucking.

In short, I thought I would be a theoretical parent, but instead I am an take-it-as-it-comes parent. Therein lies the source of all of my inner conflict.

Ignored parenting tasks do eventually go away. Either desperation drives me to decisive action or the issue fades and becomes irrelevant. This is my “plan.” You laugh, but acceptance is a totally viable solution to most problems.

My take-it-as-it-comes methodology is not out of apathy: I always read the books. They’re interesting. But, truth be told, I only allocate the 15 minutes A spends in her nightly bath to reading them. While she scrub-a-dubs, I comb pages, desperate to glean the one useful sentence hidden in the next 250-page tome. It feels much like searching for buried pirate treasure indicated by a very long and sanctimonious map. If I manage to wade through the muck and mire to find that one glittering sentence, it will help; or rather, the vague shadow of it that hangs around our house for more than 48-hours will help. A little.

My aversion to theoretical parenting comes from not wanting to turn my kid into a problem. I have enough problems without making my two-year-old into one. So I don’t try to solve her, and she’s not a problem. See how that works?

My parenting is guided by intentional philosophies, but I rarely try to achieve any specific outcome. No dolphins are learning to jump through hoops at my house, but send them over and they may very well become self-regulating, confident, and likable dolphins.

As soon as A sleeps again I’ll start on that list. Promise. I will get her to fall asleep in her own bed. She will poop on a potty chair. I will find a way to leave her at day care. I will eat lots of sage and dry up the ne-ne for good. Sorry in advance to my upstairs neighbors. Hopefully her screaming will only last a few days.

Milestones, and accompanying parenting challenges, are unavoidable. The saving grace is that things are always changing. This makes kids hard, but also interesting. There’s the rub.

Whether we try to fix our kids or not, they’re going to grow. Maybe, in some ways, I can shape my daughter into an adult I’ll be proud of. In other ways, she’s bound to become the person she is becoming no matter what I do. What a relief.

The only real say any of us has in the trenches is in how we feel. I think people become theoretical parents when having a plan helps them to feel better. If the plan doesn’t help how we feel, then we take it as it comes. Hopefully we also enjoy the ride.

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