When my friend Asha Dornfest asked me if I'd like to review Minimalist Parenting, the new book that she co-authored with Christine Koh, I laughed in her face. "Review? No. I'm not gonna review your book. I will, however, endorse the shit out of it, because I'm sure it'll be awesome."
See, the word "review" implies that there's some professional objectivity on the part of the person writing the review. There's none here. I've been a big fan of Asha's for a while; her site Parent Hacks is one of the absolute best how-to sites for parents out there. She and I have been Internet pals for a few years, and when we finally met face-to-face at the Dad 2.0 Summit earlier this year, it was like bumping into a buddy who I hadn't seen in a couple of weeks. So, yeah, I was predisposed to be completely biased in regards to Minimalist Parenting. Fortunately, I don't really have to be. The book is full of extremely useful tips, strategies and advice that Henry David "Simplify! Simplify! Simplify!" Thoreau himself would've doled out (well, except for some stuff about social media, because Walden did not, as far as we know, have WiFi). Featuring contributions from parenting bloggers, Parent Hacks commenters, and real-world parenting experts, the book is a quick and easy read - and dads will appreciate the emphasis on gender/role neutral advice and the liberal use of the word "we" in reference to who exactly does the parenting work around the house.
So there's my "review". If you'd like a more polished, professional, and neutral take on Minimalist Parenting, may I suggest noted Atlantic writer Andrew Hinds' piece on the book, which recently appeared in the New York Times' Motherlode blog. You can trust him. He's a professional.
I took a deep breath and began. "Mom and I went to the Encinitas shelter - it was a Super Bowl Sunday, and we were having people over to watch the game, and we really weren't going to get a dog, we were just going to stop in for a look. We walked around for a bit, and one of them - he was Duke then - was standing at his cage door, looking at me and barking. Wagging his tail, too. He was trying to get my attention. So I got the volunteer girl to let me meet him. She warned me that he didn't really like his butt rubbed, so of course when I walked into his pen he turned right around and backed his furry butt right up to me, and gave me a look. I knew right then that he'd picked us. Not the other way around. He picked us."
I paused. Deep breath.
"The thing with good dogs is that...as much as they know how you're feeling and what you're thinking, you know what's going on in their heads. I can't explain it, there's no science behind it, it's nothing more than a feeling you get, but you just know. So last night...when we brought him to the vet, I knew. We had him for 13 years, and I knew that he was ready to go. He wasn't scared, he wasn't sad - he'd said goodbye to you and Zo' and I think...no, I know that he was ready. He loved us and he was ready."
I looked out the window, across the canyon.
"Dad? What are we going to do with his...ashes?"
"I was thinking we'd take him to the dog beach. He loved it there. Next to your room it was his favorite place. We can spread his ashes there and he'll always be a part of it, the sand and the ocean."
He thought about this. "That would be nice. And he'll still be in our hearts. Maybe we can find a nice rock and write his name on it and keep it in the yard?" Such a good boy.
"Sure. Sure we can."
Don't judge. Isn't child labor what cemented our country's superpower foundation during the Industrial Revolution?
And look at those Chinese, pulling ahead of us every day in every financial measure. It's because while we overschedule our kids' social lives (outside of the five hours a day we let them be mesmerized by the Disney Channel, natch), the Chinese have their tweens and teens sweatily soldering iPhone 5s for the liberal bleeding-heart arugula-eating elitists of the First World.
That rant is actually totally appropriate for this post, written my hardcore reader of a son, 10-year-old Excitable.
Read on as he reviews L.A. Messina's Henry and the Incredibly Incorrigible, Inconveniently Intelligent Smart Human, a novel for the fourth- to seventh-grade set about robots who use humans for their menial tasks.
Like writing blog posts.
'Henry' the Incredibly Interesting Read
A robot in his 13th upgrade named Henry Jacobson gets a human not like any other. Humans usually just do easy, simple tasks for their master robots. This ETC-420-GX-2 can read, make new words, and lots of other tasks that no other human could ever do.
Henry befriends this intelligent human boy called E. When a magazine writer says the human is a secret government weapon that could destroy all robots, the two friends run away from home to try to learn about E’s past. Then they run into their hero. Will he help them or turn them in?
I would recommend Henry and the Incredibly Incorrigible, Inconveniently Intelligent Smart Human (Tater Tot Books; 2012) to a 9-11 year old child to read because this book has a great plot and keeps a reader interested all the way through.
The rains were still hanging around, and it was a shame, because it would have been a good night to see the moon. "Watch out for puddles," I told her. That needle swings wide; usually, she either avoids them as if they were small pools of acid that would eat right through her precious Target ballet flats, or - if wearing her Hello Kitty rain boots - she'll jump into them as if her feet were aflame. (Yes, I know from ballet flats. I'm a father to a daughter.) There's a focus on the shoes either way. Tonight, though, was the Daddy - Daughter Dance. Everything else was a peripheral blur.
The school cafeteria was packed with dads and their daughters, which would have been a surprise if you hadn't been paying attention. Dressed for the occasion, sportcoats, suits - one guy had dyed his hair pink, and I told him that I wish I'd thought to do that. The daughters danced with the dads, and each other. There were plates full of cupcakes and cookies. A ten-gallon hot cocoa dispenser. Zoë was in awe. She moved close to me, clutching my hand. "Look at everyone, Daddy!" "Would you like to dance?" I asked. We were interrupted by squeals; a few of her classmates encircled us and began to chant. "Zo-EE! Zo-EE! Zo-EE!" Then they all took off, running into the shimmying mass of dancers. I took off after them, shouldering my way through dads, trying not to step on daughters. She'd made her way up to the stage, and was jumping up and down with her girlfriends to some Justin Bieber song. It begins, I thought. Welcome to the rest of her life.
The music slowed, segued into some country song about (you guessed it) a dad and his daughter. "Would you like to dance?" I asked again. "I don't know how to slow dance," she replied. "It's not hard. I can do it. I'll teach you." I picked her up. "Here. We'll just do this." I rocked back and forth. "Am too heavy, Daddy?" "Nope. Not at all." The song ended. "Now I have to curtsy," she said. "I read it in Fancy Nancy. Here is my best curtsy." It was flawless. "Now you have to bow, Daddy." I did. "That was a very nice bow, Daddy." "Why, thank you, Zo'." I pulled out my phone to snap a picture; I got a good one and began texting Beth. The music picked up. When I looked up from my phone Zoë had disappeared.
Disappeared. Odd choice of words, considering that she was in a gym full of dads, about as safe a place as one could be. And yet. I dove back into the crowd, looking for a flash of that familiar red hair, listening for that squealing laugh. I made my way to the stage. She wasn't there. I did another lap around the gym, the cupcakes, the hot cocoa, back to the stage, back around again. Disappeared. The doors to the playground were open; they'd set up more snack tables outside, under tarps to keep the cookies from getting soggy. I stepped outside.
The clouds had parted. Above were stars, shining as they do after the skies have rained out out all of the smog and there's nothing between them save that particular mix of nitrogen, oxygen, and inert gases. The other day I had been talking to the kids about the sun. "All of the planets spin around it, in orbit. There's reasons for that - gravity and what scientists call the law of attraction." "What's the Sun, Daddy?", she had asked, one of those questions that five-year-olds ask, simple and yet profound. "It's a star, just like all of those other stars. And there are planets around lots of those other stars, just like there are planets around the Sun. Those planets spin around their stars. And the stars? Space is so amazingly big, endless, and you would think that the stars would just drift off, this way and that. But that doesn't happen. They're drawn to each other in space, and form galaxies - huge groups of stars, millions of them - and they all spin around together."
"Daddy!" I snapped out of it. She ran up to me, cookie in hand. "Want one?" "Sure. Thanks!" We ate our cookies. Above us, the Universe wheeled on, as it should.
The topic of discipline and how parents choose to discipline came up over the holidays while visiting my parents. I'm not sure how the discussion started but I remember standing around in the kitchen with my brother, his son, my boys, my father and, most likely my mother, when he mentioned being "beat" as a kid.
"Beat". Now that's a harsh word, to be sure. And I don't recall my brother getting "beat." I do recall him maybe getting slapped by my mom or my dad taking a belt to his ass. But those are fleeting memories at best. Probably because I am the youngest of four and by the time I got to the age to get in trouble, I knew what not to do because of the shit my two older brothers did.
I roll over and look through the blurry haze of my half-open eyelids. My phone says it’s 7:27. I sigh in dread, not because I have to load up the family and drive the 1,300 plus miles from Texas to Indiana, but because I will be taking my stepdaughters away from their father.
Ten year-old Allie carefully opens the door and sticks her head in. “How long before we’re gonna leave?” she asks in a whisper.
“Probably in an hour. As soon as I get everything in the van,” I reply from under the covers.
She rolls her eyes in disgust.
It starts with Green Lantern. This past Sunday, as I sprawled out on the couch trying to recoop from a long work week spent away from home, I once again found myself playing the role of the moderator/referee for yet another round of What Are We Going To Watch On TV (Kids' Edition). Lucas had watched an episode of Young Justice, Zoe had watched an episode of My Little Pony, and I was attempting to stave off a shouting match by suggesting that we find a show that they both enjoy. (Solomon in sweatpants, I am.) I scanned the guide. "Not much on," I observed. "Green Lantern..." "GREEN LANTERN!" they both yelled. "Huh," I said aloud. To Zoe: "You like Green Lantern?" "Yes! I love Green Lantern!" "Huh," I said again. And so they watched Green Lantern. Together. Both enjoying it equally.
I had it in my head to write a post about Green Lantern, and how I was (but perhaps should not have been) surprised that my five-year-old daughter would dig a show about a superhero in space. A male superhero. In space. Before I jumped into writing that post, which would have been in part about the "traditional gender roles" that even the most forward-thinking of us still have a hard time shaking, I took a look at Facebook to see what was going on, as I do before I start writing, because hey, shiny objects! I saw that Andy Hinds had posted a link to a Jezebel article that was a rebuttal of sorts to a piece he'd written for The Atlantic.
Both articles were about The Princess Industrial Complex. I have a daughter, she loves her some Disney Princesses, and I didn't feel strongly about it one way or another. But reading the comments in the Jezebel post, and then in Andy's article, and finally on Andy's Facebook post got me to thinking that dammit, I need to have an opinion on Princesses. I write about being a parent. I have a daughter. I am obliged to say...something. Liz from Mom 101 has an opinion about Princesses! Jim Griffioen has an opinion about Princesses! I'm opinionated! By God, I need to chime in!
My thinking on the whole princess thing has evolved. In the last four years, it's gone from, "Hell no--keep that shit out of my house," to "Well...just a little princess-play can't hurt," to "Let me introduce you to my daughters, Cinderella and Rapunzel."
I remember, months before the twins were born, we had accrued a mountain of pink, frilly hand-me-downs from friends and family. As the due date got closer, my wife and I tried to organize the mound by separating it into bins based on size. In doing so, we had a chance to cull the worn out, shit-stained, or just butt ugly clothes.
Most of the clothes were in good shape, and cute enough, so we didn't have to consign much to the rag bag. But there was one rule I insisted on following: anything with the word "Princess" on it went to charity or to the "paint" section of the garage.
I know princess narratives have become more empowering to girls in the last few decades, but the message of the classic princess stories is "Be kind, graceful, selfless, patient, compliant, and--most importantly--beautiful, and all your dreams will come true." Of course, "all your dreams" equals "having a handsome rich guy sweep you off of your feet and take care of you for the rest of your life.
I want my girls to have bigger dreams than that. Furthermore, it seems like when parents call their girls "Princess," those parents aren't necessarily encouraging them to be selfless and kind, but rather teaching them that they're entitled to whatever they want because they're cute and special. And, although I believe that my own girls are cute and special and deserve everything, the last thing I want is to let them know it.
Yet somehow, despite my objections, the princess trope made its way into my kids' consciousness and into my house. It started with party favors and gifts from well-meaning friends who, in most cases, weren't trying to totally undermine my feminist buzzkill convictions.
LAST NIGHT AT DINNER:
“Dad, are people that don’t vote for Obama bad people?”
“Well, no. People believe that government should work in a different way; some believe that the Federal government should do less, and that states’ government should do more. Others think that the Federal government should have more responsibility. You can make a pretty good argument either way, and regardless what you believe, it’s important to not just be able to back up your arguments with logic and facts; you should also be open-minded enough to listen to a logical, fact-based argument. Our government works best when the people in charge understand this, and work together to make things happen, even if they don’t necessarily agree completely with the other person. Ultimately, what’s most important isn’t whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican; it’s whether you believe that everyone should be treated equally and fairly, with respect and dignity - regardless of their race or religion, who they love, or how much money they make.”
FIVE MINUTES LATER:
“Dad, is Honey Boo Boo Child’s mom a bad person?”
“Yes. She is a horrible awful garbage-person.”