Archive for the 'Family' Category

Count Your Blessings on Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 25th, 2010

My CareOne column “Count Your Blessings” ran last week, but the sentiment is appropriate on this special day and every day.

Our own Thanksgiving plans got skewed this year: my Dad came down with the flu and wasn’t up to to receiving company. (As I say in the opening of the column, Thanksgiving is Dad’s favorite holiday, so you know he’s got to be really under the weather.) But we’ve regrouped, and our little family of four is enjoying a day camped out at home — and, earlier, at the 7th cinematic installment of Harry Potter. It’s not what we planned, and I know Mom and Dad are as disappointed as we are that we can’t all be together today . . . but it’s okay. We’re still blessed.

Be grateful. Appreciate what you have — even if it’s not everything you want. And tell the people you love that you’re grateful for them and all that they give to you.

Happy Thanksgiving.


(Image via Thomas Hawk.)

Advice to new parents.

Monday, April 12th, 2010

Because some of my friends are in this category — or are about to be — I offer three very basic pieces of advice. These are drawn from some things that I believe my wife and I have done best in our lives as parents.

1. Be aggressively solicitous of each other’s needs. I would hope that you would automatically cut each other a lot of slack when Baby comes along — and I’m especially looking at the dads here — but I’m telling you that you should cut each other even more slack than you think could possibly be reasonable.

Dads: Internalize the reality that you have no idea what Mom is going through — physically, mentally, emotionally, and every-which-way. Not really, you don’t.
So if Mom says something that sounds ridiculous, or gets short with you for reasons you can’t discern, or asks you to do something completely beyond the pale . . . just go ahead and assume that she has a very good reason for it. That reason might translate to “Our little bundle of needs joy is DRIVING ME CRAZY.” Or it might be, “You know that ‘last nerve’ that I’ve mentioned before? You’re treading on it, heavily, right now.”

Clue in, and remind yourself of all the wonderful reasons why you chose this woman to be the mother of your children.

Moms: Yes, you’re doing the lion’s share of the work — and we all admire the heck out of you for it. But remember that Dad didn’t stop loving you when you gave birth. Anything you can do to refresh your memory and his that you love each other, like each other, and enjoy each other’s company will be welcome.

Also, please do not assume that all the ramifications of new-mom-hood are obvious to Dad. He’ll probably need to have some things spelled out to him; please spell them out gently.

2. Set a reasonable bedtime for the kid and stick to it, come Hell or high water. Sure, you’ll need a little flexibility about this, especially with newborns. And as your kids get older and need slightly less sleep, you can be reasonable when you permanently reset bedtime for half an hour later. But in general, take it as a given that YOU will establish a certain bedtime to which the child WILL adhere — seven days a week, 52 weeks a year.

A couple of reasons for this:

  • Bad sleeping habits are bad for Baby. Kids need LOTS of sleep EVERY night so that their little brains can mature properly, and simply so that they can get through tomorrow on an even keel. Don’t short them — and especially don’t short them just because you’re too much of a wimp to enforce a given bedtime.
  • Bad sleeping habits for Baby can ruin things for everyone else. This applies to siblings, but it especially applies to Mom and Dad. While it’s a moot point for most couples during the first several weeks after Baby arrives, at some point Mom and Dad are going to remember that they once found each other physically attractive. Even before that point, it’s going to be a huge benefit if Mom and Dad can sit on the couch together to talk about the day and maybe share a glass of wine. This needs to happen without Baby around. Don’t let the child’s bad sleeping habits — which YOU control — drive a wedge between the grown-ups.
  • Kids need limits. I would hope this one doesn’t need a lot of explaining, though unfortunately I’ve seen plenty of parents who don’t seem to be familiar with this concept.

3. Don’t contradict each other openly if front of the children. Especially about decisions that affect the children. Your little angel might be the sweetest child in human history . . . but she’ll still leap into the breach and exploit any dissension between you the moment you openly undermine each other about what goes or doesn’t go.

If you tell your child “No sweets today” or “Yes, you can watch t.v. after dinner” or “Go to your room!” . . . that’s what’s happening, period. If your spouse doesn’t like it, the two of you should definitely take it up with each other — but away from the child. If I lay down the law on something like this and my wife takes it up with me later, it’s easy for me to come back to the child and say, e.g., “Mommy told me you haven’t had anything sweet for two whole days. I didn’t realize that. So we’ve decided it’s okay for you to have some ice cream today.” But spouses shouldn’t undermine each other.

I’m not saying that your daughter should never see the two of you have a difference of opinion, but that she should expect to meet a unified front when it comes to setting boundaries for her. Otherwise, it’s inevitable that a tug-of-war will unfold, with the child plus one parent pulling against the other parent. This is a terrible habit to form — terrible for all parties. Beyond that, it makes parenting, which is already hard enough, even more difficult.

Bonus tip for achieving #3: Repeat after me:

Did you ask your mother about that? . . . What did she say?

And then, when the child says, “She said No,” you say,

“Then why did you think I would say something different? Mommy already told you No — that’s the end of it.”

Believe it, live it, and practice it until these answers are automatic and authoritative.


I honestly think that these three points, rigorously applied, could save many new parents from untold hardships.

And now . . . audience involvement! Prospective parents, new parents, and veteran parents — what do you think of this advice? What would you add?


(Photo by Bridget Coila, used under a CC-Share Alike license.)

A little bit of relationship advice.

Sunday, January 17th, 2010

A propos of nothing in particular (no, seriously) — but coming from someone who’s been happily married for 15 years:

If you’re going to be demanding about the things that matter to YOU, you sure as hell better be generous about the things that matter to THEM.

This is another way of saying “Be a grownup,” and if you look at it in the right light, it’s basically another expression of the Golden Rule. Which is to say, it’s timeless and worth doing.

I bring this up because (a) my wife and I seem to do a good job of keeping this one ironed out, and (b) I can’t tell you how many unhappy couples I’ve seen for whom this concept is an alien one. Either they never think of it at all, or else, if it were ever brought to their attention, they’d reflexively say/think something along the lines of “MY demandingness isn’t really demanding because, after all, I’m only expecting what ought to be my due, but HER demands are asinine and childish because . . .”

Which is, when you think about it, a crappy way to live in a relationship that’s supposed to be about mutual trust and support.

Your thoughts, O happily-paired-up ones?


(Image by J Heffner.)

Count your blessings!

Sunday, January 6th, 2008

Sometimes it gets easy for me to discount the good things I have because I’m so focused on the goals or achievements I still don’t have. If you’ve read this blog for any time, you know there’s too much on my plate. In the context of that overwork, I do make time for my wife and kids; it’s pleasing when people tell me that it’s clear to them that my family is a top priority for me.

But top priority or no, making time for them or no, sometimes I still forget to be truly, deep-dish, no-qualifiers, no-distractions GRATEFUL for the life my family gives me. This morning my wife made sausage and waffles (yum!). As I was going back for more waffles, I stood in the kitchen for a minute and looked around. The totality of everything just sorta hit me:

  • A beautiful, smart, sassy wife who puts up with my foolishness and who is an amazing mother to our children.
  • Two great kids with good hearts who have happy lives. They both love to crack jokes, and they’re both enthusiastic bookaholics who always want to share an account of something they just read.
  • Fresh coffee and good food.
  • A mild day in Austin, the breeze streaming through the windows of our humble abode.
  • A gorgeous piece of Handel on the radio.
  • Rude good health, notwithstanding some creeping signs of age.

There’s a “button” inside me somewhere that gets pushed at times like this, and it feels as though endorphins are radiating from my heart outwards. When that feeling washes over me, it’s hard to worry much about being behind where I want to be in grad school, as a book writer, as a bread-winner, and so on.

I encourage you to find that button and push it hard today. Forget, for a minute, all the things you don’t have. Bask in the good things you do have. It’s vital encouragement for the hard battle that we all face from day to day.

Commonplace: Whittier. (With bonus vacation update!)

Sunday, December 30th, 2007

Shut in from all the world without,
We sat the clean-winged hearth about.

–John Greenleaf Whittier
“Snowbound,” 1866


So, okay, at no point were we snowbound during our week’s stay in Amarillo, but we did have cold weather and a good bit of snow, not to mention crackling fires in the fireplace.

For all the fun we had, though, it’s good to be back by our own hearth — even if Austin weather means we never use it. Now on to other projects . . .

Bad pants, good singing.

Thursday, August 9th, 2007

For several decades now, my uncle Ray has been the bass singer for the Jordanaires gospel quartet. They backed up Elvis on a zillion famous songs like “Teddy Bear” and “Jailhouse Rock”. They backed up Patsy Cline on “Walking after Midnight”. They backed up Ricky Nelson. They backed up Tennessee Ernie Ford.

A relative dug up this clip of the Jordanaires from the 1970s. Their choice in trousers seems regrettable today, but the singing is pretty sweet. Ray is the tall one with the big bass voice on the far right.

Addendum:  Here’s another clip, same loud pants, of the Jordanaires singing with Ernie Ford.  There’s some friendly jawing between Ford and my uncle.


(Note: If anybody with the technical savvy wants to talk me through embedding a YouTube video using WordPress, I’d appreciate it. I thought I followed the instructions, but . . .)

More on kids’ entitlement.

Friday, July 27th, 2007

Last week I took Wall Street Journal columnist Jeffrey Zaslow to task for blaming Mr. Rogers for the sense of unearned entitlement that infects too many younger Americans. Turns out I wasn’t alone:

The Entitlement Epidemic: Who’s Really to Blame?

. . . more than 1,000 psychologists, educators and observant readers contacted me in response to my recent column headlined “Blame It on Mr. Rogers.” That column included a premise some found too provocative*: Did TV icon Fred Rogers contribute to our entitlement epidemic by telling children they were “special”?

Many readers appreciated the arguments. But others felt the column was unfair to target Mr. Rogers, who was such a positive influence. I hadn’t expected that column to be taken so literally, and I should have articulated the fact that Mr. Rogers also encouraged hard work and mutual respect. It’s not his fault if others now misinterpret the “special” language he popularized.

So, kudos to Zaslow for clarifying what he means, and for putting a big chunk of the burden right where it belongs — with parents, consumer culture, and “the self-esteem movement”. Especially if you read the earlier column and my comments on it, you should certainly give this one a look. I particularly liked the homey quote that Zaslow uses to wrap up the piece, taken from Florida schoolteacher Syd Corbett: “Self-esteem comes from the self doing something worthy of esteem.” Just so.


* One little quibble here: Whether Zaslow meant it this way or not, “a premise some found too provocative” is weasel-ish. It can be read as putting the burden on readers for being too squeamish, as when you don’t-really-apologize for being unkind by saying “I’m sorry your feelings got hurt” rather than saying “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.” Speaking just of my own reaction, I didn’t find Zaslow’s original premise “too provocative” — I thought it was flatly incorrect. But anyway, good for him for following up and giving more nuance to this subject.

Harry Potter.

Monday, July 23rd, 2007

[Note: No spoilers here.]

Well, it’s done. After a slight delay arriving at our house, the seventh book is here, and all of my family’s literate members have read it. As I was coming to the end of the book, the last fifty pages or so, I found myself slowing down, in part because Rowling goes into a bit of metaphysical narrative, but more than that because I didn’t really want to leave the world she had created. It was something like the feeling I got way back in junior high, the first time I read Lord of the Rings: as I approached the end of The Return of the King, I felt that I did not want to leave Middle Earth behind. Like so many other readers of Tolkien, I too wanted to be a member of the Fellowship; although to a lesser degree, while reading the Harry Potter books I too wanted to be a member of Dumbledore’s Army or The Order of the Phoenix. That’s what good fantasy does for you — it whisks you away into a world that you wish could be your own.

The book wasn’t perfectly done — I thought that parts of it were paced too quickly or too slowly, and in a place or two lead characters did things I didn’t think they would do. Some important events that happened offstage might have either happened in plain view, or simply been explained better, and I would have liked it if more of the book had taken place at Hogwarts. Maybe later, after more of my friends have finished reading, I’ll offer a spoilerrific commentary with more details, but for now, I’ll say that despite this book’s shortcomings, it provides a worthy end to the massive story arc that Rowling has been creating for more than 15 years. Again like Lord of the Rings, this was more than a series: it was a single story that hung together through book after book, and Rowling’s achievement in managing that trick deserves to be celebrated.

Thoughts, anyone? Please give a “SPOILER” heading to any comments that discuss specific details.

Addendum, Tuesday morning:  Something I forgot to say when I first posted this: I think a key part of the appeal of the Harry Potter series is the boarding-school setting.  For kids reading the book, it helps them to put it in a social context they well understand — but with the utter frikkin’ coolness that they would be studying Charms, Transfiguration, and the rest instead of math and social studies.  The setting also allows grown-ups to cast their minds back to school (including college) to remember the friendships they made there.  Even if you had an awkward school life (or home life, for that matter), you can imagine what it would be like to live and study in a place where you would be accepted, or at least make a few friends and get to cast spells.  In other words, I think the series evokes more than a little school-days nostalgia for older readers.

Brief Harry Potter update for those obsessed with my life.

Saturday, July 21st, 2007

The girl finished Book 7 in record time — something under three hours. Yeah, I’m skeptical that she’d do very well on a detailed comprehension test on it, but I’m not worried because (1) she’ll re-read the thing 20 times anyway, (2) she’s happy as a lark, and (3) it frees up our lone copy of the book for the other readers in the house.

Speaking of which, my wife just happened to be out of the house when our daughter was done reading, so I was able to sneak in a quick read of the first five chapters. My wife read a couple of chapters when she got home, and then we all went out to dinner. After that, my wife settled in to read in earnest, and reports that as of now (12:17 a.m.) she’s on page 584, which puts her within 200 pages of finishing. I predict she’ll be up late finishing the thing, and that I’ll have it in my hot little hands tomorrow.

Oh, and I wrote 3,500 words today. Which is to say, yay team.

Good details, lousy hook.

Wednesday, July 18th, 2007

Jeffrey Zaslow writes good columns for the Wall Street Journal. This one — “Blame It on Mr. Rogers: Why Young Adults Feel So Entitled” — is interesting but essentially flawed. It draws on some of the same insights discussed by Po Bronson in this excellent (long!) article from New York magazine: “How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise.”

Don’t get me wrong: I have lots of face-to-face experience with the college kids Zaslow discusses, the ones who “feel” or “believe” that they tried hard and did well in a course, and therefore should receive an A (or a B et cetera). I have experience in disabusing them of these notions — gently when I can, brusquely when I must, firmly in all cases. But Fred Rogers is not the culprit, for at least a couple of reasons:

1. Any discussion like this must center on the role of parents, period. Zaslow knows this, because he spends much of the column talking about how parents do talk versus how they should talk. But the whole idea of laying this at the feet of Mr. Rogers is a red herring. Parents, parents, parents: if we’re looking for accountability in children, we must hold parents accountable for the way they raise their children — not a kindly television host who entered those children’s lives for half an hour per day (armed, I might add, with the best thinking in educational psychology available at the time).

2. As a point of fact, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood routinely featured segments in which Mr. Rogers would visit various workplaces, for example to show how coats are made, or how soup is canned. These segments always included conversations between Rogers and folks doing the type of work depicted, and off the top of my head I can recall plenty of comments from Rogers about how hard these people worked, how involved they were in what they were doing, and so on. So suggesting that Rogers somehow aided in depriving children from viewing the lives of adults — the problem is rightly diagnosed, but Rogers was hardly a culprit in abetting it.

Re-reading what I’ve written, I’m probably coming down on Zaslow too hard. His fundamental point — that children should be taught that “being special comes from working hard and having high expectations for yourself” — is absolutely correct, as Bronson’s article explains in considerable detail. And I’m conscious that a columnist like Zaslow needs a good hook upon which to hang his article. It’s just that, in this case, Mr. Rogers was the wrong hook to choose.