Tuesday, 27 November 2012


I am currently recovering from an unexplained sprain of my middle finger. I seriously do not know how I received this injury, though those that know me suggest it may come from over use. I personally suspect it may be a driving related injury - the drivers in Toronto, honestly.

However, as an involved modern dad I am certainly no stranger to illness, injury and near death experiences - it's all part of the job.

The year my oldest started day care was the sickest year of my life. He would come home with a runny nose and I would be in bed for a week. Now after three kids I have the constitution and immune system of a Bombay sewer rat - it takes a lot to take me down. But beyond illness there is injury.

There's the time I broke my finger tobogganing with my oldest when he was about 6. There's a ravine nearby with a number of great sledding hills. He pressured me to take him on the big hill that the older kids were on and, being a macho idiot, I agreed. We hiked to the top of the hill. The various preteens there were more interested in flirting with each other than sledding and they told us to go ahead - this was the beginning (literally) of my downfall.

We hurried into place and so I didn't take a close look at the route. It was only while racing down the hill that I realized that the enterprising youth had built a sizeable jump part way down. Squeezing my son between my knees and clasping the bottom of the sled so as not to be ejected, we took flight. Terror moved swiftly to exhilaration. We had serious air and I am pretty sure I completed a five count before we landed - on my fingers still beneath the sled.

This hill I should mention was bisected by a asphalt walking path which considerately had been cleared of all snow but not a thin sheeting of ice which barely covered the metal grating that met my fingers upon impact. %$^&!!

Of course we still had half a hill to go and we rocketed off that icy ledge down to the bottom. When we eventually slid to stop we were greeted by a small group of gape-mouthed preteens, who were thoroughly impressed by our aerial manoeuvres. Awesome! Wicked! Sick! etc. I waved them off, blase, and then hurried over to my wife and showed her my bloody hand and in a pained whisper indicated it was time to go. A day later at the doctor's office I confirmed it was a minor fracture.

I have been hit in the head, poked in the eye, scratched, bitten and had things dropped on my foot. I have stepped on sharp toys in bare feet in the dark, twisted my ankle and fallen down the stairs from items left out by my wonderful children and thrown out my back  trying to get kids in or out of car seats. There should be danger pay for being a parent.

Maybe this has something to do with having three boys and the kind of things they do versus girls (maybe not - you can get pretty serious burns from hot tea at those doll parties, I hear). We go to the hospital a lot - or rather we used to. By the time you get to your third boy you develop front line medic skills and sports coach attitudes. Things you would have taken your first kid to the doctor or hospital for you now shrug off. "OK, it's blood but is it arterial blood?" Usually, you just give them a patch up, ask them how many fingers you're holding up and then send them back into the fray. Tough it out, shake it off, suck it up - these phrases roll trippingly off the tongue. Thing is that you have to live by the same credo and as a creaking old dude you lack the same springy resilience of healthy growing boys.

This was brought home to me  a few months ago in a quite painful realization mid-wrestling match.

[Sidebar: You need to understand that wrestling is a key pillar in my fathering strategy. As a kid, one of my favourite things was, when my dad came home, we would wrestle until my mum would berate my dad for working us kids up before bed. Wrestling is great because many guys are not good at expressing physical affection and certainly not once their kids are no longer babies, particularly if they're boys. Wrestling gives the dads and their kids that crucial physical contact that fosters connection, love and trust - and allows both to channel and sublimate their anger, aggression and will to dominate.

Boys are aggressive, violent little cusses and they need to learn how to deal with that in socially acceptable ways like sports and games. Also, they are very status conscious and need to know where they fall in the hierarchy - and in my house that's below me. They get a thrill out of going at me full force and having me shut them down. The major thing you hear when we wrestle is shrieks of laughter. It's a nice break for them from being constantly told not to act on their aggressive tendencies and feelings. As an added bonus, they drive me nuts so I get satisfaction from it as well.

The key of course is the rules [nothing in the 'privates' (or 'nuts' as my 7 year old takes great relish in saying at any opportunity - hell, he makes his own opportunities to say it), nothing in the eyes or throat, and if someone says stop you stop right away]. Boys are sticklers for rules and nothing gets them angrier than a rule-breaker or "cheater" or someone who is "cheap". The rules are as important to them as the violence. The rules make them feel safe - not only that they won't get hurt but also it allows them to direct their feelings in a way they know will be acceptable and not get them in trouble.

I've occasionally had friends of my boys want to join in and you can tell the ones who have never wrestled before - they are crazy freaky violent and are dangerous in the extreme. They don't know the rules and things can quickly get out of control if they injure someone through their egregious behaviour. Secondly, they can't take it if they lose or get winded or a little hurt. They either get even more freakily aggressive or sulk off. This is another lesson boys (need to) get out of wrestling - initiating violence can lead to you getting your ass handed to you, sometimes painfully.

We live in a strange age when boys are under-exercised and get suspended for getting in a schoolyard scuffle, when they can't bring hockey sticks to school to play ball hockey or throw snowballs because of the "danger". However, they can sit in front of screens for hours at a time gorging on representations of socially acceptable violence in the form of cartoons, super hero fantasies and video games where the heroes suffer no consequences or they get a new life with a click of a button. I let my kids watch TV and play video games (I enjoy both myself) but I also insist on plenty of exercise and wrestling.

When a kid goes full force at you and gets picked up and dropped on his ass, it forces him to see that other people with opposing goals really exist and that you don't always win. Sports fulfil the same function - it is an important lesson to learn that you can work hard, do your best and be a good person and still lose at something you care about. Essentially they learn they must engage with the real world and work hard and keep trying if they want something where there exists a real world scarcity - jobs, trophies, money, quality romantic partners etc. End of Sidebar.]

Anyway, so I was wrestling with my two younger ones a few months ago. As I, prone on the ground, turned to give the middle one a zerbet, a whisker rub or a nougie, the younger one clambered onto a hassock and launched himself at me shouting, "Here I come to save the day!" (note: Mighty Mouse reference). He does this all the time and actually usually tucks up like he's doing a cannonball. Normally I am ready for him and catch him on my stomach and slow his impact with my arms. It is like working with a human medicine ball. This time, however, he chose to fly at me KNEE first and collided directly with my unprotected rib cage. BAM! Oof. "Are the stars out tonight, mother?" If he didn't crack any ribs he sure bruised them.

It hurt to breathe deeply for a couple of days and leaning over to shut off the alarm clock in the morning became a tutorial in pain. But hey, I had to suck it up, didn't I? That's what I always tell them. I didn't get any worker's comp or time off work, that's for sure. Although I didn't wrestle for a few weeks after - despite their constant requests to. Course when I did climb back in the ring, you can bet I brought it harder on that little rib-cracking so-and-so - hey, remember the hierarchy? In my house, they don't say "Uncle" they say "Daddy!".

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

School Projects

This year my oldest started at a new school where the focus is on a lot of independent discovery-based learning. What does that edu-babble mean? School Projects. Lots and lots of projects. Ugh.

Last year was the first year of projects for us and, while they almost broke us, my son did very well - or as I like to say my wife did very well indeed; she was up to all hours with him getting them done. I try not to get too into this gender role stuff - after all, as a Home-Based Dad I buck many of the  stereotypes myself. But, then again, if my musings on what it means to be a HBD have revealed anything it is that to be successful or happy with that "choice" you have to do it your way not try and be a failed Mum.

While you may have cast off the shackles of traditional male definitions of success and roles - you're still a guy and you still have certain attitudes, beliefs and approaches that are very different than a woman's and you often discover you have these attitudes while expressing them to your kid. You are who you are and, while you can always aim and try and work to be a better YOU, there's no point in trying to be someone else (especially if you lack the same basic plumbing). Maybe I shouldn't make grand pronouncements about gender so let's just say that just because I am the parent working from home it doesn't make me a nice guy.

So when my son brings home his project my wife and I have had different approaches to  how to deal with it. She spends A LOT of time with him discussing it, working on how to say something, what his approach will be whereas I mostly tell him to go to his room and DO IT. I constantly read in newspapers and magazines that your children should do their homework at the kitchen or dining room table so you can be there for them while they work through it. This doesn't work.

First of all, I have three kids and they run rampant through the house and make each other mad. How are you supposed to get any work done when you're busy trying to stab your brother with a pencil because he is under the table making weird alien robot sounds?

More importantly I send my son to his room to do his work because he drives me crazy. He is constantly sighing, groaning or freaking out about the work. Or he walks away from the table to look out the window, start playing with an action figure his brother left on the floor or chase his other brother around the house because that brother is touching his 'stuff'. But what really drives me nuts is how he is contstantly asking me to do his work for him - figure out the question, figure out the answer, figure out how to answer. He is a humanoid time-sucking device.

I send him to his room, tell him to close the door and not come out until the work is DONE. Even this is a difficult concept for him to grasp. He often will appear moments after I send him to his room claiming the work is finished. I ask him how he knows he is. This seemingly simple question stumps him. I suggest he go back and read the assignment and compare its expectations and instructions with what he has done. This often results in the realization he is not finished and tears begin to well.

This is when a good parent would comfort their child, and tell them it's OK and that they will help them. This is the moment when I will tell him to stop crying as that won't get the work done and go back to his room, put his butt in the chair and pencil on the paper and work it out. And don't forget to close the door because I don't want to hear all the drama. See? I told you I'm not nice.  Oh, often I'll tell him I already passed Grade Five and did pretty well too so I don't feel the need to do it again. Nice? No. Effective? Mostly.

Then when he's actually done the work I ask him the same question that I also ask all my kids when I tell them to clean their room and they say it's clean - Would I think it's done? They usually go back up and spend some more time cleaning it up. That requirement to do the work yourself without having someone else telling you exactly how to solve the problem and then think about whether it's going to meet an external standard before putting it to the test is a critical step that many people never seem to develop. The kids don't learn the real point of these tasks which is to figure out what they think the task is, do the best that they can to reach that requirement and then put it up for evaluation - with the real risk that it may fail, not be good enough etc.

I can't blame them - I see the same behaviours in the University classes I teach. Students constantly come up to me and ask me essentially to tell them what the questions are going to be on the exams and what particular parts of the course they should study. This makes me angry. I've already told them what parts of the course they should study - it's called the syllabus. I've also lectured for hours  on things I think they should know and tried (mostly in vain) to prompt discussions of these issues. Figure it out, already. But I don't say that - when they ask what to study and what they need to know I say, 'Everything'. When they ask what kind of answer I am looking for I say, "One that is accurate, complete and addresses the question." They think I'm a jerk. And maybe I am but similarly I have passed University and feel no need to do it again. These are the very skills that they are supposed to develop - me telling them the answer defeats the purpose.

My brother runs a startup and we were talking about this over the weekend. He regularly gets staff who come to office door and say they want to talk to him about an assignment - basically trying to find out what he wants them to say. He tells them he has no interest or time to do their job for them. They have the assignment - figure it out - it's not his job to tell them how to do it as well. They need to figure that out and if they can't then maybe they're not right for the job. Bring him the assignment when they think it's done. They stumble out confused and angry but now they know what's what. When they come back with it he asks them to rate the work before they give it to him. They hesitate and usually give it an 8 out of 10. He nods and hands it back to them. Bring it back when it's a 10, he'll say. Then and only then will he go over it with them to show them where he thinks it can be improved.

It's funny, that's the approach I take with my son. I insist he does the work to the best of his ability and then I go through it ruthlessly. I credit this with my own experience growing up. I would have to give every essay and assignment to my mother to review first. She would mark the crap out of it - red lines everwhere. I then had to take it back and fix it. Repeat as required. You learned pretty fast to take your best work down because it was less work in the long run. She was way harder than any teacher I had.

Another difference between me and my wife is that if my son chooses not to follow my advice and suggestions I ultimately am content he hand HIS project in and get his butt handed back to him if it's lousy. My only real problem is when teachers are not hard enough on the work so my kid gets used to being lazy and not doing his best work. That does him no favours. Also if he comes back with bad marks I will hold him accountable and point out that he could have done better and I expect he will learn from the experience.

After all, the real project I'm working on with them is my kids themselves. I can't say I have passed this test yet or done very well but I''m working hard on figuring it out on my own and if I occasionally (or often) fail, I'll try and do better next time.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Hallowe'en Hangover

As I stood in the rain this morning dropping my youngest off at school, I witnessed again the notorious Hallowe'en Hangover. Kids who normally walk into school without a backward look or thought for the parents cling to them with tears in their eyes, others slowly clomp into the playground late for school, bleary-eyed and glum and others throw full scale fits for one reason or another.One child this morning was pleading that her mum relent and let her bring some candy to school. It seems that privilege had been revoked after she was busted trying to sneak an extra piece into her lunch bag. I think the Mum was regretting that particular consequence as much as her daughter at that moment. But parents must be strong and follow through - we can't let them know how much it pains us. Truly it is a case of "this hurts me as much as you...". But it is only recently I realized (like right now) that parents say that not to comfort the child but to comfort themselves - I am surely not the only one to take solace from knowing my kid is as miserable as I am when I am forced to discipline them.

Anyway, as I walked away happily bidding them all au revoir, one Mum also turning to go said, "Now WE party." I laughed - partying to me these days often involves just lying down in a quiet dark place. It is the case for most parents that Hallowe'en is not just one late night, it is two. Last night was reasonably late and candy-fuelled but the night before was much more taxing and made Hallowe'en itself seem longer.

The last couple of years, my only Hallowe'en prep has been fine tuning the Hallowe'en play list for the iPod.

Some top choices are:

People Are Strange - The Doors
Monster Mash  - Bobby "Boris" Pickett
Ghost Riders In The Sky - Nancy Cassidy
Love Potion No. 9 - The Clovers
Thriller - Michael Jackson
I Put A Spell On You - Screamin' Jay Hawkins (or Creedence Clearwater Revival or Nina Simone)
The Boogie Monster - Gnarls Barkley
Werewolves of London - Loudon Wainwright III
Purple People Eater - Sheb Wooley
Spirits In The Material World - The Police
Little Ghost - The White Stripes
Highway To Hell - AC/DC
Way Down In The Hole - The Blind Boys Of Alabama (or Tom Waits)
Psycho Killer - Talking Heads
Superstition - Stevie Wonder
Freddie's Dead - Fishbone
Boris The Spider - The Who
Evil Gal Blues - Aretha Franklin
Evil Ways - Carlos Santana & Buddy Miles
Worms - The Pogues

But this year I upped my game. The night before Hallowe'en, after I had helped my wife make mountains of homemade caramel corn for three Hallowe'en class parties (BTW delicious), I stayed up to 1 a.m. helping her assemble our oldest's werewolf costume. My original commitment was to make the tail - a coat hanger, an old stocking and some torn up clothing (see previous post It All Comes Out In The Wash for the back story on this) made for a cool looking base. I then had to affix fake fur to it. By the end it looked pretty damn impressive. In the meantime my wife was busy sewing fur to a pair of torn up pants and a torn up shirt to mimic the look of a transformed werewolf bursting out of his clothes. It was nearing midnight by this time and she and my son had been far too liberal in tearing holes in the clothing so I shared that particular duty with her.

The main complaint I had partway through the process was having to watch W television (stands for Woman, I guess, though after I while I began to believe it stood for 'Why' as in 'Why is this crap on TV and Why am I watching it?'). Well, I didn't mind when the Victoria's Secret Angel Collection Push-Up bra ads were running. (Did you know that ALL angels dream of the perfect push-up bra? I had no idea, I thought they might have other things on their celestial minds. Very enlightening.) Once those ads finished running however I needed to change the channel to something more intellectually satisfying - like Friends reruns.

I had such a headache by the time we dragged ourselves to bed but, despite my initial reluctance, I found it was fun helping out with that Hallowe'en stuff. My wife asked if I ever thought I'd be up all night sewing a werewolf costume. I could honestly say No. I would never have done it for myself, that's for sure. Throughout, I kept seeing images of my Mum the week before Hallowe'en sewing three new costumes every year and snarling at us kids through a mouthful of pins if we weren't properly grateful. I thought she was crazy for doing it. And here was I doing the same. My Dad's job was to take us out trick or treating and remove us from my Mum's reach as she was properly sick of us by the time we went out the door. In turn, I also was happy to see my kids go out this year with my wife into the rain.

I enjoy handing out the candy and asking the little kids about their costumes and giving the older kids a hard time about their half-assed "hobo" or other non-costume choices. My rule - you could be 99 but if you have a costume you get candy. No costume? You have to perform a trick - a song, a riddle, a handstand, something or you get zip. Occasionally the house has been egged upon candy denial but that's the contract - you dress up to get candy or you get nothing. The trick is your other option. This year the rain kept the lame-o teens home so I could just enjoy seeing what the best costumes were this year.

Unfortunately I didn't see any angels in push-up bras - but there's always next year... after all it's every angel's dream... and now mine.