A mindful take on (non)tradition

Two years ago I blogged about why I don’t do Santa with my kids, and what I wrote still stands. So far there have been no issues; we simply don’t make Santa a part of our Christmas traditions, and AJ hasn’t noticed anything lacking. AJ is in preschool now so she hears a lot about Santa, and she talks about him sometimes. Sometimes I’m not sure whether she really knows that Santa is make-believe or whether she thinks he’s real, but the same could be said about her relationship to many other fictional characters.

Most parents who do Santa with their kids try to reverse-engineer the myth to teach good values and give greater meaning to holiday traditions. They reframe Santa as being symbolic of the spirit of giving, an example of generosity, a lesson on how to have childlike wonder and imagination, etc. Obviously I don’t think any of these explanations really work as a justification. I think they are all afterthoughts to a longstanding tradition that most people follow simply because it is a longstanding tradition.

I read this article, The holiday lies we tell our children, encouraging mindfulness in parents who do Santa. The article encourages parents to keep up the Santa lie for as long as possible in order to keep these reverse-engineered values alive and to test their kids’ ability to figure it out for themselves. For me it further shed light on how ridiculous today’s iteration of the Santa tradition is, and it saddens me to see the level at which some parents undermine their children’s intellect by telling lie after lie to keep the charade going. However, the end of the article has a series of tips for parents on how to be mindful about holiday traditions, and I found them thought-provoking. Below are excerpts from the four tips in the article and my thoughts on how they apply to my family:

  1. Acknowledge your child’s inner experience

What does Santa mean to your child?  You can ask, “When you imagine Santa, what do you feel/think/experience?”  A child needs a sense of mystery, of wonder (actually, we all do).  Learn to sense the world though your child’s imagination.

  1. Be aware of your own inner experience

To me, a mindful parent is one who is aware of what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how they are doing what they are doing.  A mindful parent is also tracking the impact what they do has on their child.  So in regard to our cultural myths, why are you retelling the myth?  What does Santa, or whatever myths you tell, mean to you?

The two points above made me realize that I have my own reasons for being anti-Santa, and my reasons may not resonate with my children. They have their own inner experience of the way we celebrate holidays that’s different from mine. So it’s important that I not only be mindful of my own reasons for not doing Santa, but also consider it from my children’s perspectives and try to reframe our Santa-free Christmas in ways that are meaningful for them.

Granted, my kids are only 1 and 4, so they have no way of really understanding what holiday traditions mean yet. But I already know a lot about their personalities, and one thing I know is that they are both Feelers. I am a Thinker, and most of my reasons for not doing Santa are Thinking-based. Objective truth is more important to me than personal feelings. Not lying to my kids or undermining their rationality is more important to me than giving them a feely, magical, mysterious experience. But as Feelers, they would probably value the magic, mystery, and camaraderie of being Santa-believers more than the rationality. So I need to give them other holiday traditions that emphasize a feeling of wonder, mystery, and being a part of something bigger than ourselves. And when they’re old enough for me to explain why I didn’t do the Santa rigamarole with them, I will emphasize those reasons that tap into their sense of empathy and justice rather than the reasons having to do with objective truth and skepticism.

  1. Convey your family and community history

What are the traditions and rites that your family or community celebrate?  If they come from some established tradition, then many of the values and norms you pass along are long-standing and steeped in history.

My husband and I don’t really follow any long-standing traditions and norms, and that’s one of the things I love about our family. As skeptics, we carefully consider each value, belief, tradition, and ritual that we adopt and pass on to our children, so there are no family or religious traditions that are not of our own making. However, our values have their own bases, and one of them is that my husband and I are both Rationals (intuitive thinkers, or NTs). We need to be mindful of that because as our children are Feelers, we will need to explain our values to them in ways that they can connect with and find personal meaning in, as well as help them understand who we are.

  1. Define your rites of passage

What are our rites, our transitions?  How do we move from one stage to the next?  A mindful parent is having two conversations at once with a child.  The one related to the thing we’re talking about, and the one related to what that thing actually is spokesperson for.  Our culture is losing many rites of passage, of passage from one stage to the next.  As we are a symbolic species, we relate to allegory, myth, story, narrative, archetypes, character and so on.  Symbolism allows us to relate a learning from one circumstance to another.  It’s how we generalize our learning, and one of the ways we pass down information from one generation to the next.

I don’t think of my children’s growth as being in discrete stages with thresholds through which they pass from one to the next, and I don’t view any aspect of our holiday traditions as being “only for kids” or “only for adults”. In my own experience, rites of passage have never been defined by traditions or ritual but have always been organic, derived from lived experiences as I make my own meaning continuously through life. That said, I understand that many people do derive meaning from traditions and rituals as rites of passage, especially children. That is a topic for another discussion, and something I will have to think a lot more about. Symbolism, narrative, and myth can be helpful ways to define and interpret life experiences, and I want to honor that for my kids in ways that also honor reason.

STEM books for toddlers and preschoolers

stembooks

It’s never too early to start teaching children about science, technology, engineering, and math. These are some of my favorite STEM books for kids ages 2 to 4. I’m sure they would be enjoyed by older kids as well, and in many cases their recommended age range is much older than 4, but AJ is almost four and these are all books she has enjoyed over the past two years. They would all make great holiday gifts for any toddler or preschooler.

Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos. A biography of Carl Sagan, focusing on his curiosity as a young boy, and ending with the Voyager missions. AJ got this book for her 3rd birthday and would beg every night, “Can we read Carl?” She really identified with the young Carl. This is just a great children’s book: informative, lyrical, wonderful illustrations, and great at inspiring curiosity and imagination. As I do with all books that I read to AJ, I change the wording at times to make it easier for her to understand, and I elaborate in some places to offer further explanations. This book makes it really easy to do that.

Making a Friend. This book contains very few words, yet it can teach so much. At first glance, it does not appear to be a science book at all. It’s about seasons, a child who builds a snowman that becomes his friend, and what happens when the snowman melts. The theme of the story is “What you love will always be with you.” But! I found this book to be an excellent way to introduce the water cycle, as well as phases of matter and conservation of mass.

Amazing Machines series. Includes five books: “Amazing Airplanes,” “Roaring Rockets,” “Terrific Trains,” “Flashing Fire Engines,” and “Tremendous Tractors.” These books offer a very educational and factual take on popular children’s subjects. They really explain in detail how each machine works, and in rhyming verse that’s fun to read and listen to. I actually learned some things from these books.

Introductory Calculus for Infants. AJ loves this book right now, and I love hearing her say “Mommy, can you read Introductory Calculus?” To her, it’s an alphabet book– it goes through the letters of the alphabet with a math concept for each letter. The overarching story features a character named ‘x’ who is an outcast among the other letters until ‘f’ shows him that together as f(x), they can do anything. I try to explain the math concepts to AJ, and of course it’s not like she is really learning anything about calculus here. But the story does teach a lesson about friendship as well as reinforcing the alphabet, and she is still getting something out of it. At the very least, when she takes a calculus course in about 13 years, it won’t seem so scary because she’ll have fond memories of reading about calculus with her family as a little girl.

Good Night, Galaxy. This is basically a vocabulary book of astronomy terms with very simple explanations thrown in. It uses no more than a sentence to explain each concept, but it does introduce some good terms like pulsars and black holes, which you could then explain further. I like it because it’s short and easy to read when we don’t have time to read a longer book, so it’s great for bedtime. And it’s a board book, so you can leave it in the hands of a baby or toddler without it getting destroyed.

My Body series. This is a set of four books: “My Brain,” “My Bones,” “My Digestive System,” and “My Heart and Lungs.” These are the best books that I could find about the human body that the youngest children could understand. I still had to do a lot of verbal text editing while reading it to AJ when she was 2, but the text is simple and provides examples that were easy for her to grasp. They include activities you can do with your child to teach them more about each body system. Two-year-old AJ used to love saying at mealtimes, “The food goes doooown the esophagus to the stomach, then the small intestine and large intestine!”

Over and Under the Snow. In this book, a girl goes cross-country skiing with her father and learns about the animals that live in the subnivean zone, the “secret kingdom under the snow.” The illustrations show what’s happening both over and under the snow, and make this such a cozy book to read in winter. AJ requests this one a lot. I think it really encourages children to think about the unseen and unknown in nature, and in general to look beyond the surface of things.

My Very First Space Book. This book is freaking adorable. The illustrations are detailed and factual (and include a cameo of Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson), the language is easy for children to understand, and it’s at just the right level to introduce children to astronomy and space exploration. It should definitely be every child’s first space book.

Parenting is an extroverted activity

Before I had kids, I never really knew that parenting is an extroverted activity. I was woefully misinformed in general about what parenting is really like and how much my parenting experience would be affected by my personality. But INTPs have a limited amount of talking and listening we can do every day before getting cranky, and I get pushed past that limit every day. I use up at least 50% of my daily word allotment just repeating the phrases “wash your hands,” “you’re being too loud,” “brush your teeth,” “stop that,” and “do you want to go to time out?” I use up 50% of my daily listening allotment just listening to screaming. 

Even when everything is going well, having kids requires a lot of talking and listening. Young kids need a lot of things explained to them, they need you to repeat everything five times before they will acknowledge it, they need to be read to, they want you to sing songs with them. Even babies need a ton of talking from their parents because that’s how they learn. (You’re supposed to say 2100 words per hour to your baby for maximum IQ benefits, according to Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina. I did so with my first child, but she used up all of my words so my second child thinks I’m mute.) And that’s just at home. When you take your kids to the pediatrician, school, daycare, extracurricular activities, and birthday parties, there’s a plethora of other people who you need to make small talk with, discuss your child’s progress with, and listen to politely while they spew meaningless words into your ears. Meanwhile, when you are at any of these places, your kids will be trying to have a conversation with you, because they don’t understand that you can’t have two different conversations with two different people at the same time.

The extroverted demands of parenting have many far-reaching effects. For one thing, the amount of talking and listening I have to do with my kids takes away from my capacity to talk to and listen to anyone else, like my husband. I usually use up my entire talking and listening quota before he gets home from work, and when he walks in the door I often greet him with, “Don’t talk to me about anything. I’m at my word limit.” When he says “I love you,” I grunt and grudgingly think, “I love you too, but please shut up and don’t make me say it right now.” Fortunately he is understanding, because he reaches his word limit daily, too. Every evening after our hours-long marathon of wrangling the children through dinner and bedtime, we collapse on the couch in mutual silence for an hour or so before we can have an actual conversation with each other.

A lot of important conversations get put off because I just don’t have the energy to push any more words out of my mouth or process any more words coming in my ears. If my husband tries to talk to me about something important, my frustration at reaching my word limit often manifests as impatience and anger towards him. And I have to use more words to explain that I’m not actually mad at him, I just need silence. We never have enough energy to talk about everything that we need to talk about as well as things we want to talk about. We have to pick and choose. I have a mental list of four different things I need to discuss with my husband right now, and we probably won’t get to all of them in the next 24 hours. 

One unforeseen consequence of my limited capacity for listening is that I can no longer listen to anything with words for recreation. Ever since becoming a family of four greatly increased the noise in my life, I can’t listen to the radio, podcasts, audiobooks or even music with words. Whenever I am within earshot of any of these things, my brain feels torn in two and I become mentally fatigued. It makes me very overwhelmed and flustered. Which is really a shame, because listening to podcasts and audiobooks is a stay-at-home parent’s last opportunity for hands-free intellectual stimulation.

Since listening is already difficult, I have no patience at all for strained listening. I can’t stand it when my daughter talks to me in mumbles, nonsense words, or whispers. Or when my husband shouts something from the other side of the house. I refuse to listen to anyone unless they are standing in front of me and speaking clearly. It even stresses me out when the volume on the radio is just a little bit too quiet, and my ears must impart an extra half-second lag before it reaches my brain. God forbid if anyone should try to talk to me while there’s music playing.

My daily word requirement is actually not as bad as it could be, given that I spend most of the day with only 10-month-old Buddy, who is an introvert. AJ, my extreme extrovert, is in preschool most of the time; staying home with only me to talk to all day is as much torture for her as it is for me.

I had always planned on going back to work as a teacher when my children are older. I’ve always enjoyed teaching, and it’s one of the few professions compatible with the geographic limits of my husband’s career. That is, I used to enjoy teaching other people’s children, before I had my own– when I could go home to a silent apartment at the end of the day and not have to talk or listen to anyone else for twelve hours. Now that I have kids, there’s no way in hell I will be able to spend all day talking and listening to other people for a living, and then go home for several more hours of talking and listening to my family. And the weekends. Oh, how I hate weekends now, those long days of endless family togetherness and noise.

You know you’re an INTP mom when…

  1. You don’t tell your kids to clean their room because then you would have to clean yours.
  2. You hate baby talk, and prefer to talk to your baby the same way you talk to any other human. You’re constantly asking people to please use real words and complete sentences when they speak to him.
  3. You’ve made Punnett Squares for your family for every observable trait. You know the probability of all of your kids being left-handed.
  4. You don’t like talking to other parents because they always want to talk about kids.
  5. Your kids are always running late for school, and it’s usually your fault.
  6. When your child is upset or fussy, you almost immediately know what he needs because of your extraordinary intuition, perception, and analysis.
  7. You’ve read twenty times more academic articles about child development and pediatric medicine than parenting books or blogs.
  8. You censor your children’s books for factual inaccuracies, grammatical errors, and educational value.
  9. Your children have more books than toys. You collect books for them that they won’t be able to understand for years.
  10. Your child frequently goes to preschool with peanut butter on her face from the day before. You can’t remember the last time you gave her a bath.
  11. While other moms talk about not having enough time for their beauty routine after having a baby, you never had a beauty routine to begin with and have always spent as little time on your appearance as you do now.
  12. You can always understand what your one-year-old is trying to say, even when no one else does. You’re so good at deciphering toddler speech that you often know what other toddlers are trying to say before their parents do.
  13. Every few months you decide you’re going to be totally organized and keep your diaper bag stocked with everything you could possibly need for outings with your baby. After a few days, you decide it’s a waste of time and a symptom of hyper-consumerist over-parenting to carry a diaper bag at all. Also, you forgot to buy diapers again.
  14. You choose baby clothes based on how easy they are to put on. All of your baby’s outfits consist of one article of clothing with no more than one zipper or three snaps.
  15. You are constantly analyzing your children to figure out their Myers-Briggs types.
  16. You started decorating your baby’s nursery while you were pregnant, but then you lost interest and now she’s three years old and still has bare walls and only two pieces of furniture in her room.
  17. Your 2-year-old can correctly identify photos of a nebula and supernova; knows the difference between a rocket, satellite, and space probe; and can name seven different species of whales.
  18. You hope your kid won’t be invited to any birthday parties, because then she’ll want you to throw one for her.
  19. You dread long holiday weekends because you can’t stand the noise and commotion of spending so many days in a row with your spouse and kids.

I hate cooking

I mean, I really hate cooking. I hate everything involved with cooking, including thinking about what to make, grocery shopping, food prep, and the actual cooking itself. There’s a long list of things I would rather do than cook or prepare food, and it includes doing laundry, changing diapers, and getting a rabies vaccine.

What I hate most is the fact that the entire process of getting food ready to eat takes so much longer than it takes to eat it. And then you have to do it all again a few hours later. As an INTP I really don’t care about sensory things like how food tastes or how it looks, so I get no enjoyment out of this Sisyphean cycle. I try to do as little as possible, and let my husband or the slow cooker do as much as they are able. Even so, eating happens so often in our family of four that I pretty much have to constantly think about or work on getting food ready to eat.

These days, people are always trying to talk to me about cooking. “Do you like to cook?” is to moms and married women what “What kind of music do you listen to?” is to the high school and college set. And when I answer “no,” they look at me and laugh uncomfortably as if I’ve just said something shocking.

I used to enjoy cooking. When I was single, childless, and had tons of time to pursue all of my interests and then some, cooking was one of my hobbies. I made all of my meals from scratch using produce from a CSA, baked bread and made granola every week, experimented with recipes, and baked cakes to give away just for fun. With an enormous amount of free time and energy, I can enjoy just about anything.

Becoming a parent is a great magnifying glass to identify the things that actually are important to you and the things that aren’t. Now that my free time and energy levels are always in deficit, very few things make my priority list. In fact, I now actively hate a lot of things that I used to enjoy or care about. In addition to cooking, they also include shopping, making things by hand, occasionally going to parties, keeping up with politics, and recycling. (Okay, I don’t hate recycling, but I don’t have the energy to care about it anymore.) Taking care of young children is too exhausting and all-consuming to spend an extra minute doing anything that either doesn’t have to be done or doesn’t fill my tank. Or to spend an extra minute being apologetic about it.

When does the STEM gender gap really begin?

I recently read about a study showing that the STEM gender gap is perpetuated by teacher bias. Sixth graders were given a math test, which was scored by a group of teachers who didn’t know them. When the tests were anonymous, the girls performed better than the boys. But when the teachers knew the names of the students whose tests they scored, they scored the boys higher than the girls, suggesting that the teachers had subconscious prejudices that underestimated girls’ math abilities and overestimated boys’. When the same students reached middle and high school, the girls who had received lower scores from their teachers in sixth grade (but had actually outperformed the boys, objectively) had lower math performance than their male classmates, and were less likely to choose to take advanced science and math courses.

I happened to be at a playdate with my daughter when I read that article. (On the rare occasions that I go to neighborhood playdates with other stay-at-home moms anymore, I usually read science articles on my phone instead of trying to talk to them. It makes the time pass more tolerably.) Several moms in the playgroup are pregnant with their second or third child, so this time there was a lot of talk about baby names and the sexes of the babies. In the midst of this, I could not believe all the gender stereotypes I was hearing.

(AJ loves trains and has never even heard the word ‘princess’. Once at a playdate she found her friend’s toy trains and the boy’s mom said to me, “I didn’t put out the train set because I knew there weren’t going to be any boys here.”)

“It’s going to be so crazy having another boy. The two of them will be so active and boisterous all the time, I don’t know how I’m going to handle it. You’re so lucky that you’re having a girl so she’ll be calmer and quieter.”

“He’s always running around and banging his toy cars together. He’s such a boy.”

“I’m glad we’re having a boy this time, so my husband will have a little fishing buddy.”

“I’m so excited to have a little girl to shop for. I already started pinning hairbows for her.”

This blows my mind, but the sad fact is that almost every single conversation I hear among stay-at-home moms is full of similar stereotypes.

With as much talk about how different aspects of the school environment create a gender gap in STEM fields, I have to believe that the gender gap begins with parents. After all, we have much more influence over our kids than teachers do, and parental influence begins from birth. If a teacher’s subconscious gender bias can affect the academic performance and interests of students over the course of an academic year, parents who stereotype their kids from toddlerhood, infancy, and even before birth surely have a huge impact on what subjects their children will prefer in school, their academic performance, and their career choices later on.

If little girls aren’t encouraged to play with toy helicopters and robots and toolkits, how will they develop the desire to become pilots or engineers and the desire to learn about STEM? If parents dress their daughters in clothes that are meant to be pretty rather than functional, how will they be able to climb, dig, act like dinosaurs, or practice blasting off into outer space? (I cringe every time I see a toddler girl wearing shoes that don’t allow her to run safely; little boys are never physically restricted by their clothing.) And if the above are labeled as “boy” behaviors and interests from before age 2, is it any wonder that by the time they reach high school, girls have little interest and declining ability in math and science?

The thing is, I know most of these moms would call themselves feminists and say that they want their daughters to have all the same opportunities as their sons, and some may even wish for their daughters to go into STEM fields. But a few words of encouragement when a girl is already in school are not going to be enough to counteract years of subconscious messages from funneling her towards certain toys, books, and hobbies and away from others.

Of course, staying away from gender stereotypes has many other benefits for kids that have nothing to do with their interest in STEM. But I think it’s obvious that if you want boys and girls to have the same opportunities in STEM fields later in life, you have to give them the same opportunities from the very beginning of life.

The Sound Limit (or why I don’t like talking about my kid)

As an extremely introverted INTP, I feel like there are a limited number of words that can come out of my mouth each day, and a limited amount of sound that my ears can take in each day. After I reach those limits, I shut down. I don’t think those limits were ever really tested until I became the parent of a toddler. Boy, does she test them.

Not only does my daughter enjoy screaming at the top of her lungs for sport, she also narrates everything that she sees at all times and will repeat, “Mommy, that’s a yellow car! That’s a yellow car! Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, that’s a yellow car!” until I acknowledge the yellow car and begin an in-depth conversation about it. The amount of talking I have to do per day is mind-blowing, because I have to repeat everything at least five times before my daughter will acknowledge it. I also spend a lot of words talking about her and discussing parenting issues with my husband, which decreases the reservoir of words that I have left for discussing things that actually engage my mind.

When I take my daughter to playgroups with other kids, I can’t bear the conversations that go on between the other moms. They center around all of my least favorite topics: baby sleep, toddler feeding, kids clothes, cute things kids do, cooking, crafting, home renovations, etc. I don’t feel the need to talk about my daughter’s cute antics with anyone but my husband, and I don’t like to talk about her sleep and feeding issues even with him because I think they’re boring. Unfortunately we have to do a lot of troubleshooting in those areas, so we talk about them out of necessity.

If I don’t even like spending my limited number of words per day talking about my own kid, you can bet I don’t want to spend my limited sound intake listening to someone else talk about their kids. And I like my house a lot less than I like my daughter, so why would I ever talk about it, much less want to hear about someone else’s house? There are times when I can tolerate small talk and even times when I can be reasonably engaged in it, but being a parent of a toddler is not one of those times. Obviously I don’t have much success making friends these days.

I recently started my own playgroup for parents who don’t talk about their kids. We get together for playdates and while our kids play, we talk about science, books, art, philosophy, anything that doesn’t involve parenting or “homemaking”. It’s a pretty small group, as you can imagine that the number of stay-at-home parents who prefer talking about intellectual topics to talking about their kids is rather small, but it has made a huge difference in my mood.

Other parents often give me weird looks when I show no interest in talking about kids, like I must not like my kid because I don’t want to talk about her. But it just seems redundant to talk about kids and parenting when I already spend every day living it. My daughter is awesome and the proof is right in front of me, so I’m not going to state the obvious. I love spending time with my family, and there’s nothing better than getting a hug from my daughter. I would just rather be talking about science while it happens. I have a finite number of words and an infinite number of things I want to talk about.