Friday, November 22, 2013

9.5 Things to do to be a More 'Green' Parent

Being a parent is tough. Being environmentally conscious is tough too. Being an environmentally conscious parent... well, that's just 'tough squared'. 

The modern, First World child is awash in opportunities that most of the kids on this planet just don't have: opportunities to travel, get a college education, engage in a huge variety of extracurricular sports and activities, a lifetime of internet access (and all the benefits and challenges therein), and so much more. 

They also are awash in massive amounts of STUFF. It's too easy to want to give these kids everything and then suddenly your kid is six and has already accumulated six years of STUFF in their rooms and you, as a parent, are suddenly spending far too much time in what I call 'stuff management', which is, in itself, purely a 'first world problems' type of issue. 

Lillian asks for more CRAP at King's Island.
Just say 'no' to more STUFF!
Stuff Management is just that: constantly getting tied up, over and over again, just managing STUFF. It's repetitively picking up, fixing, and putting away all the Barbies and/or GI Joes' accessories, the endless explosion of tiny Legos, all their past artwork masterpieces (works that have to be snuck out of the house to be thrown away), stacking back up all their stuffed animals 'won' at so many fairs (and note that they really aren't 'won', as the fairs just order prizes whose unit price is so low that even the act of paying to play a game means that they've already taken in some profit), and just generally dealing with the massive crapload of STUFF that the modern, First World child accumulates. 

Kids love stickers, and markers, and rubber band bracelets, and tiny, tiny little toys called Squinkies, and Iwanko erasers, and barrettes, and plastic coins, and cheap rings from vending machines, and old birthday cards, and broken crayons, and they certainly love to 'collect 'em all!' They just adore every single little tiny bit of crap that our American society can get them (and I suspect that all this consumption could truly be addictive as their little brains search for the next 'high' of consuming the next new thing). 

And a mea culpa here; I readily admit that I love to buy them stuff. It's a quick fix, a cheap and readily accessible opportunity to turn around a kid's bad day, further endear them to you (or at least feel that way), or just generally make a day extra special. Just imagine your child bursting through the front door with you, as s/he screams "Mommy, mommy, look what dad bought me!" and you'll get the picture.

But, as an environmentally-conscious dude, all this STUFF drives me nuts. Hell, my own amount of personal STUFF drives me nuts, and the girls have six times as much of it as I do (at least when considered in amount of stuff per pound of person...). 

So, I offer up here a few suggestions on how parents can be a little more green:

1. Choose experiential gifts over more plastic crap. This year our girls' gift list (mind you the one written by us and not the one written by them) includes a night at Great Wolf Lodge, renewing annual passes to places like an indoor water park or the zoo, special day trips like ice-skating and hot chocolate downtown, a trip to the rock climbing gym, tickets to a ballet or kid's play - complete with fancy dresses and dinner at their favorite restaurant. And don't forget to get the grandparents and aunts/uncles on board with experiential gifts too. 

A special birthday party sleep over
- with chocolate chip pancakes the next day. 

1.5 And don't forget to GIVE experiential gifts too at your kids' friends birthday parties. Providing a special day for your child and his/her BFF doubles the joy, since they get excited when they first get the gift and again when you actually do it. Ideas here include a 'high tea' with fancy dresses, go-karts, a picnic with special food at a park near their favorite playground, a day together at a children's museum with a trip to the ice cream shop afterwards, tubing or sledding with hot chocolate, etc. 

2. Buy permanent straws. These things are absolutely genius and you can order them online, either as tough plastic, glass, or stainless steel. It will save innumerable cheap, disposable straws from ending up in landfills (and don't forget to also buy the straw cleaning brush). 

3. Travel with water bottles for the kids - and I don't just mean on long trips, but have them in the car with you all the time. You can always fill them up as you go about doing errands, so they will save you from buying any more plastic disposable bottles. Further, when you go into a restaurant, it might (hopefully) allow the restaurant to NOT have to serve your kids their drinks in yet another disposable, single-use plastic or styrofoam cup, as you just ask them to fill the bottles instead.

4. Travel with crayons too. While many restaurants now are so nice as to offer up kids a brand new little box of crayons (which is very thoughtful), we have accumulated and/or thrown out maybe a hundred of these things. They're a little thing, but they sure do add up. So, carry your own little pencil box full of colored pencils or crayons with you. (Further, why not have a little kit that also includes some travel games or other non-electronic diversions?) 

5. And don't buy markers. Kids LOVE the vibrant colors that markers produce, not to mention the smooth flow of them over paper - and sometimes the smell of them. But they're a huge waste. Often kids don't even use them up, but just forget to put the caps back on and they dry out (which makes me wonder... what exactly is outgassing out of these things to dry them out and where is that going within the air in our house?). Stick with crayons and colored pencils. (And when you do end up with a pile of old markers, sometimes local waste disposal agencies will take them on the same days they accept old electronics, batteries, etc.)

6. Buy secondhand kids' clothes. Kids, especially tiny ones, don't care of their onesie or their Spiderman t-shirt came from a second hand store and, luckily, there has been a boom in such stores, especially for babies and toddlers. They are fantastic, often filled with brand new items (we'd seen things like a brand new coat, with a tag still on it, from places like Baby Gap) at ridiculous prices. After all, why buy all sorts of new clothes for a kid that's only going to wear it for a few times during the six-month period while it actually fits them?

Sylvia, reusing a box, egg cartons, and shipping tubes
to make a castle.

7. Reuse one-sided office paper, toilet paper/paper towel rolls, large containers, empty boxes and other recyclables for art projects. We've built boats out of old take-out salad containers, a castle and a space ship out of old boxes, caterpillars out of egg cartons (a classic), and more. I will even break down old crafts and reuse things like beads and pipe cleaners to give them additional life.  

8. And when you are buying toys, consider the content of the toys (I LOVE the cool, durable, well-designed toys made from milk jugs at Green Toys) and the longevity of them. 

9. Get rechargeable batteries! This is huge. This will save landfills from acquiring more of these toxic little buggers, and also hopefully save you some cash as well. And make sure to buy toys that actually use these sizes of batteries. There are so many little toys out there that take annoying, hard-to-find, hard-to-install little bastard batteries with names like 'CR2406-7'. Stick with toys that take batteries that are sizes AAA-D and get a recharge station that will recharge all of them. 

So, these are my thoughts on how parents might take another step toward hopefully being a little more environmentally conscious - and maybe saving yourself some time and money in the process. After all, wouldn't you rather be taking your kid out to race go-karts or ice skate than put away, rebuild, pick up, fix, install more batteries in, or step on yet another plastic, probably made in (and shipped from) China Super Squinkie Princess/Pirate Octo-Launcher Bubble Beads Playset? I know I would. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013


There are times when your kids do something, maybe even something that seems rather inconsequential, that it just makes your heart melt. 

There they are, just doing their thing, when suddenly they do something, say something, or just achieve something, and you feel your heart liquify, and run out the bottom of your shoes while you fight back a couple of tears of pure, proud joy.

Young Sylvia busts a rhyme. 
It's easy for me to remember the first time this happened. Thanks to a deployment to Iraq with my Army National Guard unit, one that coincided 'perfectly' with our first child's birth (Lillian was born the very same night as when I flew from Kuwait into Iraq to start my yearlong deployment there). Because I was half a planet away in a war zone, I missed all the first moments most parents get to have with their child; her first coo's, first roll over, sitting up, all that stuff. Devoid of all this, I came home for 15-days of leave when Lillian was then five months old.

Now, I wasn't a baby person and I had no experience with little ones, at all. And my first day back home, still wearing my 'Desert Combat Uniform', I didn't even want to hold Lillian, I was so afraid of her. I left the parenting to my wife Sally. But very early the next morning, my body clock severely out of whack due to the flights back to the US, I was up and about, right around 2AM. I just walked around the house, both amazed to actually be home, and afraid to do anything like turn on the tv, in case it might wake Lillian. But soon after, I heard her stir in her crib. 

I froze. 'Oh crap,' I thought, 'I'm going to have to take care of her. What do I do?!?!?'
Lillian asleep, during my 15-day leave from Iraq in 2005.
I waited for the tears and crying that would force me to go into her room and actually deal with her. But I heard only a rustling sort of sound. Finally, perhaps more scared than I had even been patrolling the streets of Iraq, I went into her room. She must have been dreaming. She fidgeted, her arms and legs shooting out randomly, and I just stared at her for a while. Then she suddenly settled down, and let out a tiny little yawn, her legs and arms stretching out, little fists clenching up. And then she settled back into a deep, angelic sleep.

Right at that moment, that yawn; my first heartmelt. Put a fork in me, I was DONE.
After that, I was absolutely crazy about her and quickly picked up from Sally all that I could to learn how to care for her, play with her, and just help her grow and learn and help her start to figure out this world of ours out a bit.
Other heartmelt moments:
  • My deployment finally over, Sally handed Lillian to me on the Air National Guard's runway and she gave me 'The Heisman', pushing me away because she didn't know who I was. Three days later, I walked into the house, said hi to Sally as she did the dishes, and Lillian came running up to wrap herself around my thigh - and wouldn't let go. My first hug from her, at age 11 months. Heartmelt.
  • Lying down on the floor to watch football game, 18-month old Lillian sidled up to me and just lay her head in the nook of my arm and watched football with me. Heartmelt.
  • Dropping her off at daycare one day, Sally and I were informed that she was now advanced enough to move over to the other side of the facility, the 'big kid' room of 3-4 year olds. We gathered up her stuff, and started to walk her over to the other room. I, as a joke, started to hum the graduation processional song, when I was suddenly overcome by just how big this achievement was (something that before kids I would have thought nothing of if I'd been told by a parent friend about it). I thought of all her graduations to come and frankly I almost lost it.
None of this leaves out baby #2 of course, quite the contrary. When Sylvia came along, it was my opportunity to finally experience all those baby firsts I'd missed with Lillian. Sylvia's own, abbreviated, list of hearmelts:
Jubilant Lillian after roller girl camp.
  • Sylvia was a momma's girl, to start. She wanted Sally and only Sally and would have nothing to do with me. Fed up with constantly, incessantly having to carry her around one night, Sally forced her into my arms, saying something like, "That's it! You take her!!!" I was, again, terrified of a baby. I looked her in the eye and started to bounce her on my knee. She started to make a sound, something guttural  I thought for a moment she was choking. But she kept doing it, getting louder the faster as I went. It was, I realized, her first laugh. Heartmelt. (Meanwhile, a very grumpy, tired, stressed out Sally had some choice words that I'd been able to have this positive moment with her, when Sally had to always do all the hard work of taking care of Sylvia... not so 'heartmelt' for Sally then...)
  • Sylvia walked into our sunroom, while we were having friends over for drinks, and told her first joke; "Where my Dora [figure]? Where my Dora? You seen my Dora? Is it... in my butt!?!?!" The room of adults cracked up, Sylvia's big eyes bouncing around the room at each person's laughter, and she laughing loudest of them all. Heartmelt (a qualification here - this is probably a 'Daddy Heartmelt' as I don't think Sally was as impressed as I was...)
Sylvia's first drum lesson.
The heartmelts still come now, but they're for bigger, more complex achievements  Lillian, now eight, has gotten into roller derby (yes, they have a junior team here that starts at age eight). She's not a strong skater yet, and I was trying to tell her how to do crossovers as she went into the corners. She ignored me, in her eight-going-on-fifteen way, or so I thought. But she actually listed, and started watching the other, big, girls, and suddenly, one day, she just started doing crossovers. Double heartmelt for that one, because: she was a formerly all 'girlie' girl that took up roller derby in the first place, and then started to take a step toward trying to master the sport.

Sylvia started taking drum lessons recently. She sat down behind the practice drum kit with her little pink sticks and that was heartmelt #1, just seeing her sit down behind the kit, ready to drum. Her teacher asked her why she wanted to take drum lessons and she shyly whispered, "Because it's my dweam." Two heartmelts in, like, four minutes.

There are of course, many more heartmelts to come. And they're only going to get bigger: graduations, first apartments, first jobs, probably marriages, hopefully births, and who knows how many more. And of course, if I'm so lucky, with the births of any grandkids, the heartmelts will start all over again...

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Kids and Crises

“Daddy, what’s a gas chamber?”

My eight-year-old asked me this question last week. My immediate hope was that she heard this phrase in science class or in a science book. So I replied, “Well, it’s a chamber that’s filled with gas, thus ‘gas chamber’. Why?”

“Well, I was reading The Diary of Anne Frank, and…”

Lillian then began to explain that she really already knew, roughly at least, what these gas chambers where, that people had been tricked into undressing for them, thinking they were showers, and that they didn’t come out alive. And I then proceeded to have a conversation, an introductory, top-line conversation, with my eight-year-old about the Holocaust, Hitler, Nazi’s, and World War II.

And the world being what it is today, our conversations with Lillian about such heavy topics are not uncommon. She’s got a keen little mind that loves to absorb new information and ideas – sometimes absorbing them a little too quickly for her immature little heart. And so, we’ve learned (the hard way of course, by making many mistakes over some years now) how Lillian responds to such news: she becomes rather manic.

Lillian has what we call a ‘worry doctor’ and she sees this counselor on occasion. This wonderful woman has told us that Lillian has a rather advanced empathetic ability and, when tragedy strikes, it both allows her to become passionately engaged about that issue, while also making her, understandably, a bit of an emotional dervish.

It started when she was about three. She heard from her preschool teacher that some people ‘trash’ the environment and that we should protect ‘Mother Earth’. Lillian then proceeded to pick up trash, even cigarette butts, on all our subsequent walks and scream, “Look at this! Look at what someone did! They hurt Mother Earth!” She continued to call the planet ‘our mother’ for the next few years.
Lillian, NOT reading People magazine
(but apparently ready to catch up
 on some Great Patios & Decks).
When the earthquake in Haiti struck, Lillian found out from People magazine (like with Anne Frankwe were  undone by Lillian’s voracious and insatiable reading habits). She just picked up a copy that she found in our living room, sat on the couch with her legs crossed as if she was 40+ years old, and read much of the magazine while we were outside doing yard work. She then insisted that we take all of her money out of her piggybank (maybe about $14) and send it to help the kids in Haiti, which we did (and apparently now will never be released from UNICEF’s mailing list). She didn’t stop talking about the kids in Haiti for probably about a year, which was far longer than most people did.

The downside of this empathy is that she cannot emotionally process it, and it then exhibits itself in various negative ways. For one, her grades will drop, sometimes precipitously. While Sally and I were preparing to tell her about the Sandy Hook school shootings, plotting the best possible tactics and approach, she (unbeknownst to us) heard about it from an older boy when we were visiting friends at his house. She went from almost straight A’s, to B’s, C’s and even two D’s.

Another response is that she will also stop respecting her systems and institutions. Perhaps so internally distraught by the latest tragedy, Lillian will just decide that the rules no longer apply to her. After all, if our systems of armies, and cops, and fire fighters, and aid programs can’t save kids from gunmen, bombers, or famine, why should she worry about the rules in her classroom anymore? This has exhibited itself in Lillian throwing stuff (papers, books, her shoes, etc.) at her teachers, deciding that she no longer has to do her actual work but can now just read all day in school (thus the D’s), and once, after a tiff with a teacher’s aide during recess, making up her mind that she was done with school for the day and was going to walk home. Mind you this walk is probably three miles, includes crossing two four-lane roads, and is through what some might not consider our city’s best neighborhood. (And, if the teacher’s aide hadn’t caught up to her at the front of the school, I’m very sure Lillian would have made it all the way home, eventually.)

Lillian, during a good day at school.
With the most recent events in Boston, Lillian again started to have immediate, reciprocating issues. She accosted some of her classmates for ‘not speaking English correctly’ (meaning, in her bossy little brain, that they weren’t doing it as well as she could). The kids got mad, and ganged up on her, calling her names and insulting her. She came home bawling, talking about how mean these kids had been – but neglecting to tell us that she had first insulted them (a few texts to her teacher brought that out). At least, last night, I could tell her that the last ‘bad guy’ in Boston had been caught and remind her just how safe she (and each of our friends and family in the Boston area) actually is.

But the truth of the matter is that there will, of course, be other tragedies to come and parents will have to talk to their kids about them. I have friends that live in Harlem and it took them years to tell their girls about 9/11 (understandably, since they had themselves lived through that and were still dealing with it themselves as well). A college friend who lives in the Boston area posted on Facebook the other day that she had told her kids they couldn’t leave the house that day because it was a ‘snow day without snow’, a post that crushed me as I imagined her internal struggle over what to actually tell her kids when the ‘bad guy’ could have been lurking almost literally outside their window.

Looking back at all these tragedies, with the power of both hindsight and also years of experience (aka making various mistakes) in dealing with Lillian, I’d suggest these steps toward speaking with kids about disasters:
  1. Talk to them soon. While it’s far easier to wait and talk with your partner about how to tell your kids, and then wait some more and talk with your partner some more, you’re not only delaying the inevitable, you’re also increasing the chance that they’ll find out from People magazine, or your friend’s 12-year-old, or the iPad left on the kitchen counter open to the New York Times photo-spread. Delaying your talk with them only increases the chance that they’ll get the wrong ideas, or hear them in the wrong way, or possibly see images of the tragedy and then, perhaps worst of all, just hold it all inside, internalizing it all, without your assistance in putting it in context. So, talk to them soon.
  2. Be (lightly) honest. You’re not talking about Santa or the Easter Bunny here folks, so it’s tempting to steer away from the truth or glaze over the heart of the issue. But to try to protect them now is only going to set them up for failure, I think, down the road. Bad things happen in the world: it sucks, but it’s certainly true. And our kids have to start building their own emotional and psychological responses to terrible things so that they will be prepared to somehow deal with them on their own someday. This also starts to prepare them more to not be victims themselves. If your kids realize that there are bad people in the world, for example, it can start to help make them more vigilant toward those people. As my wife and I like to say, ‘A little paranoia goes a long way.’
  3. Go lightly. I used the word ‘lightly’ above and what I mean here is obvious to virtually any parent. Still, I’ll repeat it here in order to round out this list. As you talk to your child, you should speak to them enough to create the concept in their minds that something bad happened, but only touch upon the details. You certainly won’t want to go too deep. Numbers of kids dead in a Connecticut classroom, photos of marathon spectators covered in blood and missing limbs, video of people of jumping off the towers on 9/11 can wait for junior high school (if then...). Again, this is obvious to virtually any parent I’m sure, but I think it bares repeating here for clarity’s sake.
  4. Trust them. This is, like so much of parenting, the hard part: you have got to let go of some control. Giving them this information is giving them this concept of tragedy for them to start deal with, however they may, in their own amazing little minds. Thus, by doing so, you have to put your trust in them to then start to deal with it as they will – and no longer as you might want them to. Trust them to take it, mull over it, stew on it, come back to you (hopefully) with many more questions, talk it out as much as you can, and allow them to continuously process it. (Lillian’s questions to me last night were, “Were these people [the bombers in Boston] insane?” “If they were insane, how could two people go crazy like this at the same time? Isn’t that impossible?” “Were they mad about something? Did someone do something terrible to them?”)
  5. It’s okay to not know the answers. I know I love helping my girls figure things out and give them new information, especially answers to their many wonder-filled questions. But none of us have very many good answers as to why people go into a movie theater and start shooting people, and that feeling of exasperation at not knowing is multiplied many more times when your little son or daughter starts to ask you very basic, very good questions as to why things like this happen in the world. Why couldn’t everyone in the world give some of their food and their money to the kids in Haiti? Well, I don’t know… Why do people hate our country and fly planes into buildings? Well, that’s really complicated… Why would two brothers blow up innocent people who were just watching a race? Well honey, I think that… well actually, I really don’t know at all...
  6. Point out the good. Perhaps another ‘no brainer’ to any parent, but also worth repeating regardless: always finish on the positive. Point out all the EMT’s rushing to help people while all the cops look for the bad guys. Show the aid workers and NGO’s in the country who set up hospitals and distribute clean water. Remind them how incredibly safe they are in your house and how far away (hopefully) they are from these events. 

So, that’s all I’ve got. I’m quite sure that none of these suggested points are news to any engaged parent, but, somewhat overwhelmed now by how many times I’ve had to talk to Lillian about various tragedies now, I just felt an urge to write down what ever thoughts or ideas that I had in regard to this issue. Hopefully a parent or two out there might actually read this and get a glimmer or a new idea on how to approach their child, or maybe (more likely) just get a bit of an affirmation that other parents are out here too, dealing with the same difficult issues that they are.

Oh, one last suggestion, call it #7: Friggin’ cancel People magazine. It used to be a fun, ‘guilty pleasure’ for Sally to read, but a weekly, home-delivered magazine like that lying around the house, often with a beautiful photo of Taylor Swift on the cover but photos of mangled bodies lurking inside, is just too much a temptation if you have a little Lillian in your house too. So, cancel that thing, and those like it. We certainly did. 

Emilie Parker, 6, Sandy Hook victim.
Martin Richard, 8, Boston bombing victim.