For the past 12 years, I’ve found it fascinating to be a father to daughters. My two girls have brought me on an eye-opening cultural journey that has covered Elmo and Dora, Disney princess dresses, American Girl dolls, pretend-school lessons, pet guinea pigs, and performances of Wicked both on Broadway and in our living room. Lately, their activity has focused on some songs from the soundtrack to Disney’s latest animated feature, Frozen – the album that stands behind only Bruce Springsteen’s new record among the best-selling LPs in the nation. The songs, which sound more Broadway-ready than the typical multiplex fare, are bolstered by the voice of Idina Menzel, the actress who originated the role of Elphaba in Wicked and Maureen in Rent.
In our home, the girls have been blasting the Frozen songs from our little Bose speakers and lip-synching their way through the whole show. In the car, even with no music on, they’ll practice certain lines together. They’ve seen the movie twice, and are clamoring for thirds. When our youngest turned nine three weeks ago, she asked for a cake in the shape of the film’s snowman character.
Now I’m no cheerleader of Disney’s traditional portrayal of young female characters. The funny thing about this movie, though, is that even though all of the typical princess set pieces are there – the castle, the gowns, the big eyelashes, the handsome love interest – this film is ultimately about none of those things. It’s about two sisters, and their overriding love for each other. It’s about how far you’ll go to protect and save the best friend you have in the world. In our house, that’s a story worth some attention.
As my girls sing along to the film’s song “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”we hear the story of a younger sister who is being pushed away by her older sister, and can’t understand the reason for it: “We used to be best buddies / And now we’re not / I wish you would tell me why.” The younger sister asks once more for some play time, but after being told to go away, she hangs her head and sings, “Okay, bye.” As I hear my girls singing this together, I recognize that we’re getting close to the time when this exact scenario will play out in our home. Katie is 12, and she’s spending more and more time in her room trying on makeup, watching YouTube videos and, yes, texting. At nine, Chelsea is more interested in playing with her older sister than in spending time alone in her room. More often than not, Katie still plays with Chelsea. But those moments of rejection are nearing, like the gathering of dusk before night falls.
When it comes to music, I find it incredibly annoying to hear the same song over and over. But as my girls sing the Frozen tunes together countless times – and, to be honest, they’ve got a third singer in their group in the form of my wife – I can’t help but feel some relief amid the repetition. Because it seems that Katie and Chelsea have found something that transcends age differences and hormonal swings. They share a love for music and performance, and that love may connect them when other things do not. My brother and I are three years apart, just like my girls are. As kids, we had our stretch of time when I needed my space from him. But we always had our sports, be it a Yankees game on the TV or a 1-on-1 basketball game in the backyard. Even when we shared few words, there was still plenty of communication in the form of a last-second jumper on the patio, or a Dave Winfield home run on the basement TV.
My brother turns 40 in two weeks; I just turned 43. We talk about a lot of things now, as adult siblings do. But we still have a soft spot for the sports stuff. Years from now, I can see Katie and Chelsea spending an afternoon together, perhaps at one of their apartments, or maybe out shopping. There comes a point when they turn on some music. For fun, they click on the Frozen album. They smile, and start singing. Together.
We only have each other / It’s just you and me / What are we gonna do? / Do you wanna build a snowman?
Eager to become a mother or father, but have no lover in sight? New, dating-like websites that connect singles looking to create a child—without the commitment of love or a relationship of any kind—are popping up everywhere. Momadily (a mash-up of modern and family) and Family By Design are some notable picks, with quite a few co-parent prospects already signed up. Do you think parenting partnerships are the way of the future?
There’s been a big brouhaha over a crying baby in Alinea, one of Chicago’s top restaurants. And that’s led to some people—including my friend, Melanie—calling for a ban on kids from five-star eateries and other adult fare. But that’s not really fair to families whose kids aren’t bawling their way through the amuse bouche or the latest ballet. There are plenty of parents out there (including me) who want to encourage their kids to expand their horizons, and not always live a chicken nugget and Chuck E. Cheese filled existence. And there are lots of kids (like mine) who are perfectly able to behave as well as—or even better than—adults in a sophisticated situation.
And how will our kids ever learn how to behave properly in different settings, if they’re never allowed to experience them?
My kids, now six and nine, have been going to swank eateries, Broadway shows, ballets and museums since before they were potty trained, and we haven’t always gotten a warm welcome when we arrive. We’re talking some serious cold stares from fellow patrons—the kind of ire usually reserved for a fussy baby on a transatlantic flight (and yes, we’ve been there, too).
But I think if we parents follow a few key rules, we can avoid being relegated to a McDonalds and Disney-on-Ice wasteland until our kids are teenagers—and help make kids more welcome in adult surroundings.
1. Be prepared to leave—STAT. This is perhaps the biggest issue I’ve seen. If your kid starts acting up and disturbing those around you, it’s time to head for the exits ASAP—at least until your kiddo gets back under control. (And in fact, if one of these parents had just stepped outside for a little while to try to calm their baby, we probably wouldn’t be hearing a thing about this.) When we first took our kids to shows, we opted for tickets on the aisle, close to the exits, so we could get out with a minimum of fuss if someone wasn’t behaving. Fortunately, it never came to that—though my girls themselves have grumbled about other kids whose parents let them kick seats and cry throughout the performance.
2. Lay the groundwork. If your kiddo’s older than two, you can spend some time leading up to the big day prepping them for the event. We give our kids a brief primer on the plot of a play or ballet we’re seeing, and talk about the expected behavior (no kicking seats, no talking until intermission). Before a dinner out, we check out the menu online, and decide what they (and we) are getting—it makes getting them fed a little bit faster, too. We’ve even done practice fancy dinners, with cloth napkins and wine glasses—the girls love playing restaurant.
3. Stash emergency supplies. We usually came prepared with small toys during the wait for the meal, and small snacks to eat before the show or during intermission to ensure that hunger didn’t lead to a meltdown. Now that my girls are older, though, we find that we need these less and less.
4. Don’t be afraid to challenge your kids’—and your—boundaries. Even if it’s a complete fail—like my daughters’ first taste of Ethiopian food—it makes for a great story down the road. But maybe you’ll find that your chicken-and-fries kiddo actually would like sushi. Life should be an adventure, and coming out of your comfort zone can help you find new passions and new things to love.
What do you think? Should five-star eateries be kid-free? Do you take your kids to “grown-up” places—and how do they do?
Being single and childless isn’t the hardest part of working at Parents. Rather, my most challenging obstacle is my unconventional upbringing. I was raised by a single mother. As a child, I didn’t notice being different from everyone else. My mom and I have always shared a unique, special relationship. Every Tuesday night we watched Gilmore Girls together,and to this day I can’t make a decision without calling my mom for approval at least twice. Doubt me? I once left Ikea empty-handed because I couldn’t get cell service in the comforter section. Despite my wonderful, if fatherless, childhood, I find it difficult to get into the mind of our readers, who I’ve always assumed have a bit more testosterone in their household to balance things out.
But perhaps I’ve been wrong about that. For as I recently recognized after reading this recent New York Times article, my nontraditional family dynamic turns out not to be all that unconventional after all.
I’m far from alone in being raised by a single mother. In 2011, 36 percent of mothers who gave birth were unmarried and 44 percent of single mothers had never been married at all. Mothers are increasingly becoming breadwinners. Forty percent of households with children under 18 include moms who are either the sole or primary source of income for the family, compared to just 11 percent of households in 1960. What about dads? A record 8 percent of households with children are headed by a single father today, a number that has increased ninefold since the 60s.
The current generation of young adults illustrates a vastly changing view in social norms. Seventy-two percent of adults 18 to 29 prefer a dual-income marriage, where the husband and wife both work and share household and childrearing responsibilities.
And the very definition of marriage has changed. Same-sex marriage is now legal in 16 states, and there are more than 100,000 same-sex couples raising children in this country. Their kids have proven to be academically and emotionally indistinguishable from those of heterosexual parents. As Natalie Angier put it, “In increasing numbers, blacks marry whites, atheists marry Baptists, men marry men and women women, Democrats marry Republicans and start talk shows.”
Pop culture is mirroring that shift. The sitcom TV series Modern Family includes two gay fathers raising their Vietnamese adopted daughter. The show has received four consecutive Emmy awards for “Outstanding Comedy Series.” Change the channel and you’ll find Mom, where Anna Faris plays a single mom in Napa Valley. And as pop culture is invariably a reflection of social change, there’s clearly more than entertaining television shows playing out before us.
So on New Years Day, as we clink, cheer, and kiss those nearest and dearest into 2014, let’s also embrace the new definition of family. No one household is, or needs to be, the same as the next. If I’ve learned anything from my days at Parents, it’s the importance of loving and valuing your family, whatever the makeup and however it’s defined. This year, my resolution is to do just that.
We’ve had helicopter moms. And tiger mothers. I’d like to propose a third parent type: the digital dragon. You know who you are. Your toddlers still color with crayons in restaurants. Your preschoolers have never logged $249 worth of accidental in-app purchases on your iPhone. Your bigger kids have signed a contract like this to ensure the responsible use of devices. And everyone in the house knows that what you’re screening on movie night needs to be cleared through the Common Sense Media site.
A couple hundred dragon types gathered into a packed room last week to hear Chelsea Clinton moderate a panel hosted by Common Sense Media about how to raise caring kids in a digital world. On the stage: Jim Steyer (founder/CEO of CSM), Dr. Howard Gardner (professor of education at Harvard and the author of the book The App Generation) and Slate senior editor Emily Bazelon, author of Sticks and Stones: Defending the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. There were many interesting nuggets, including the fact that a recent report by CSM on kids’ mobile use in America finds that the average amount of time they spend has tripled in the last two years. And that California has passed what’s called the “eraser button bill” which requires web sites to allow kids under age 18 to remove their posts if they want to do so.
But for this dragon lady, the joy of the event was being reminded that I am not alone. Because it can sometimes feel as if I am the only parent who is being called a “jerk” by my kid because I refuse to let him explore the digital universe untethered. I felt so much more comfortable with my own fire-breathing behavior as the mom of two boys, 9 and 12, when Bazelon, mom of two boys ages 10 and 13, explained her caution with the internet by saying, “I would not open my front door in the city where we live and send my children out and say, ‘good luck.’” Right! Or when Steyer, a father of four, said he is “referred to by my kids as the world’s most embarrassing dad.” Hey, I thought that was my husband!
Don’t get me wrong: I said dragon parent, not luddite parent. I am wholly in favor of kids having access to digital tools—with limits and supervision. And we moms and dads can’t delegate this to the school and expect them to deal with it. Just as it is your responsibility to have the sex talk, it’s also your job to have the digital-safety talk. And the appropriateness-of-sharing talk. And the no-posting-photos-from-parties-not-everyone-was-invited-to talk. And many others. Key is to have these chats in a way that encourages your child to put himself in another’s shoes. As the speakers pointed out, as less communication happens face to face, kids miss out on learning to read the facial expressions and vocal cues that can help them feel empathy. It may be harder, then, for them to know what is hurtful to another child. One of the hardest conversations I’ve had with my kids about the power of a text message started with the words “Imagine how you would feel if…”
One fine place to start the process is by taking this new quiz to assess how digitally healthy your family is right now. And then if you want to meet fellow dragons, consider lifting your eyes from your phone (yes, we dragons can be guilty of major “do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do” behavior) and talking to parents at your child’s playgroup or school to compare notes. If the mood in the room last week is any indication you will find that even in this age of sharing, many other dragons are struggling and feeling like they too are alone.
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Can’t find a movie you can all agree on? Try a board game!