Saturday, May 14, 2016

Non-sentimental Thoughts About Sending My Toadling To Kindergarten

It’s hard to believe that the frog is starting kindergarten in the fall.  As we get closer to the start of her formal education, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I feel about both education for her and the educational system as a whole.  Another thing that’s been thrown into the mix is the fact that we moved from a neighborhood where she wasn’t guaranteed to attend a good, or even safe school to one where she is sure to go to the excellent school within walking distance of the house.  Living in our old neighborhood caused me to really think about my criteria for a good school.  The biggest thing in my mind isn’t the teachers, special programs, or even the test scores, but where the kids are coming from.  A good school for me is a school where most of the kids come from a stable situation.  I think this is really important because a class full of (mostly) happy and well-adjusted kids is a class where the teacher can focus on helping them learn rather than on addressing disruptive behavior or helping them feel safe in school.

I’ve come to realize that my definition of a stable home is very different from lots of other parents like me.  Stability, for me, is  a kid sleeping in the same place each night and taking things like food, cleanliness, heat, and light for granted.  They have seasonally appropriate, clean clothes and access to health care.  Having these basic needs met implies a caregiver with a baseline level of sanity, but this is sadly not always the case.  Consequently, my definition of stability also includes the kid living in a home without violence, untreated mental illness, or addiction.  It’s also important that they have least one individual who has provided consistent love and guidance throughout the child’s life. I’ve noticed that most parents like me who have advanced degrees and/or professional jobs tend to judge a home as unstable if it’s a single parent and/or low income home.  What I think many of them forget is that the incidence of mental illness and addiction are the same across ethnic and socioeconomic groups.  These problems are compounded by a lack of resources to address them, which is why I think they tend to manifest themselves more strongly in individuals in more vulnerable situations.  It bothers me that there are people out there who honestly believe that someone who might not have a lot of money is incapable of providing the stability a kid needs to thrive.  Sanity, pride, and strong values don’t have a price tag and it’s ridiculous to think that they do.  Ironically, the parents that most strongly voice these classist judgments or speak ill of others that adopt a more hands-off approach to parenting have the kind of unruly, poorly behaved kids I wouldn’t want in my daughter’s class.  This behavior, in my mind, indicates home that is unstable in its lack of structure and discipline, but that’s a subject for another time. 

Assuming most kids come from reasonably stable homes, what else is required to make a good educational environment? I’ve met lots of parents who have thoughtfully made different choices for their kids’s education than sending them to public school.  There are people that send their kids to private school or opt out of the educational system all together and do homeschool.  There is a whole movement on child-lead or “unschooling”-type education in response to the high-stakes testing that’s become part of the public school system. I agree with the proponents of these educational models that kids learn in different ways and that a heavy dose of direct instruction is harmful to young children.  I also agree that visual art, music, sports, and dance are a vital component of education that have virtually disappeared from public schools. Research seems to indicate that a kid’s level of academic readiness is highly individual as is the way in which they develop and master these skills. I think most competent public school teachers are aware of this, but are restricted in how they address these differences by testing requirements and, in some districts, by class sizes.  

My kid is starting to read, write, and do simple math so I think she’s ready to be in a more academic environment, but some of her equally intelligent classmates in preschool aren’t. Other pals are in the same place academically, but aren’t able to sit still for long periods of time.  Ms Frog is a more sedentary kid who has to forced to move around.  She is able to be still and focus on something for a long stretch of time if she’s interested. These qualities, and the fact that there’s quite a bit of structure and discipline in our house will probably help her succeed in the direct instruction-heavy environment that the early grades have become.  Other qualities might harm her, though.  She tends to be a perfectionist and doesn’t shy away from questioning authority.  We’re trying to help her accept failure, but neither one of us wants to raise a robot.  Politeness is important, but it’s different from meekness; the former is having the self-respect to treat others kindly while the latter is fear of speaking up.  I consider blind acceptance of authority to be a dangerous thing and am consciously trying to raise an outspoken kid.  I worry whether this will brand her as disruptive or disrespectful at school, but I’m willing to make that gamble.  I think she’s smart enough to learn the difference between disagreement and rudeness, but I’m not sure whether this will play well in a school environment.  


Some would argue that this is the case for putting our child into an alternative educational environment.  That she’ll be bored in school and her outspoken nature will get her in trouble.  This isn't an option both for practical and philosophical purposes.  Practically speaking, we live in a rural community where there aren’t too many choices.  We can send her to public school or we lose my income so I can homeschool her. I think having me as her primary teacher would ruin our relationship and ultimately result in a poorer educational outcome for her.  It works for some types of parent-child relationships, but not ours.  Although I have my problems with the educational system, I think it’s a very important element of my child’s socialization.  As an adult member of this society, I’m agreeing to abide by certain rules and conventions of behavior to participate.  I’m also making choices about how to exercise my autonomy and live in a way that’s consistent with my values in a world with its share of pointless rules, annoying people, and authority figures I don’t always agree with and/or respect.  The same is true in a school setting.  There will be teachers my child doesn’t like, lessons that don’t interest her, and rules that seem illogical.  She will have kids in her class who come from a variety of backgrounds and have different levels of ability.  There will also be kids who she dislikes and those who dislike her.  Some kids will also come from households with a very different set of values than the ones we have.  I see these all as positives.  She will have to figure out how to follow the rules and find enough common ground with each kid in her class for them to form a cohesive enough group to learn together.  The ability to do this is good preparation for the kind of adult I want her to be; someone who can navigate most of the situations and get along with most of the people she encounters.  I see going to public school as the easiest way for my child to learn these important life lessons and it will be interesting to watch how she does this in the years to come.  

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A case of mistaken identity

"Is that your child?"  " Are you the nanny?" My favorite has to be "where did you adopt her from?" I've been asked these questions more frequently than I'd like to admit when I'm out with the frog. I used to have snappy come-backs like "I got her from Costco but she ate all the other babies."  Or I'd go creepy and say "I gave birth to her, wanna see my C-section scar?" Occasionally I'd even try to be nice and say "her daddy is Korean and I'm Jewish."  I quickly got tired of the game and stopped responding. My strategy is now to affirm Ms Frog is my daughter before beating a hasty retreat. The mistaken identity thing happened again recently. We went to go check out the renovated kids' section at the central library. The place is awesome with tons of comfy seats to curl up in and a play area with giant model row houses. We were knocking on the doors of two of the houses to deliver pizza to the zombies and their neighbor the bad princess when a well-dressed woman asked me the dreaded question. "Are you the nanny", she asked. I gave her the death stare. She looked taken aback and continued "because if you were, I'd ask you to come work for us." I looked at her again. She didn't  seem to want to leave it alone and asked me "is that your daughter?" I honestly wanted to ask her whether it was my race, the lack of make-up or expensive jewelry, or both that prompted the question. I didn't because as I've mentioned, the game has gotten old. I said "yes" and was really proud of myself for not adding "bitch." She looked apologetic and responded "she's beautiful" but the clear subtext was "I wonder where her daddy is from." 

We went to bang on some doors at the other side of the play area, but the trip was spoiled for me. I told my husband about the whole thing later that evening and he laughed. I didn't think it was funny and told him as much. He looked at me quizzically and told me that it wasn't a big deal and to not let it get to me. This last comment brought home to me that he's been dealing with this sort of low-grade nastiness his entire life. His first experiences with microaggressions were kids in his school challenging him to use his kung fu or making fun of his eyes. He grew up learning these things were a fact of his life and has evolved layers of strategies to make them funny as opposed to hurtful. My realization that they are a fact of my life has come as an adult with an adult's ability to understand that a childhood free from small, irrational hurts is one of the most insidious forms of white privilege. Through the frog, I've gotten a window into the C.H.U.D.-like behavior of many white people that I'm both glad and sorry to have. I realize intellectually that most of strangers' questions about my relationship to the frog are motivated by curiosity and/or ignorance and are not meant to cause harm. Still, it is not my job to correct someone's ignorance or to teach someone about interracial families. The desire for an explanation or to be "educated" that is implicit in some of the questions about how my daughter and I are related is sometimes as hurtful as the actual question.

 I understand that it's easy to make assumptions and categorize people out of ignorance, especially when someone hasn't been hurt by others' assumptions. However, I fail to understand how it's ok to ask a stranger who is different from you to explain the nature of their difference to you. It's mind-boggling that there are people who actually believe it's something I should be doing. I think that people learn about difference through relationships, whether they are causal interactions between neighbors or bonds with close friends. I find myself wondering if I've been guilty of some of the unintentionally racist behavior that I'm writing about despite having many different kinds of people in my circle of family and friends. I've heard friends talk about their experiences with racism my entire adult life, but didn't have any direct, personal experience with it until my child was born. Now I do and it's an uneasy knowledge. Uneasy because I am always checking myself in an attempt not to be guilty of this. I also realize that my daughter is going to have to deal with these things and I'm not sure how can help her with this. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Feminism isn't the Toy in the Happy Meal

I find myself having frequent conversations with other moms of girls about the media and the effect it has on our kids. I'm not a fan of the many inappropriate images aimed at girls in media or pop culture, but at best I consider these things to be a nest of red ants rather than a many-headed hydra the size of a city bus. This opinion seems to be a minority one and I oftentimes find myself mentioning that we're both feminists even if we disagree on this particular point. I'm a feminist because I believe that men and women are largely capable of the same things and deserve equal access to the same opportunities. Sadly, the label "feminist" is often assumed to fit into a set of ideas that I don't agree with wholeheartedly. I resisted calling myself a feminist for many years out of a grade-school-like fear of cooties. I didn't want to call myself a feminist because I didn't want to even appear to buy into many of the assumptions that go along with this label. 

It's assumed that a feminist is both a political and social liberal.  I'm both occasionally but am neither equally often. Some fervid progressives that I've met here in Boston show the same rigidity of thought as fundamentalist Christians I met in Houston. Both groups have the same "us vs them" mentality that requires an unwavering acceptance of the party line. Both groups don't seem to be able to understand that it's possible for someone to selectively agree with them and still be a good person. I thought that calling myself a feminist would be swearing allegiance in some way to this rigid sort of thinking. Similarly, it's hard to call myself a feminist when the word has been hijacked by the younger women who are proud to call themselves sluts. I believe, as I imagine they do, that women should embrace their sexuality without guilt or shame. People should be free to love whomever they choose however they choose to do it provided it's between consenting adults. Being promiscuous, or a "slut" strikes me as more pitiful than empowering. Carrying on with multiple casual partners is unsafe since it increases the likelihood of STDs or unwanted pregnancies. I also see this as a sign of low self-esteem manifested as disrespect for one's body. It's not ok to bully someone who engages in this sort of behavior, but they need therapy or a new hobby, not a fist bump. 

Ironically, the existence of geek feminists almost convinced me never to label myself as a feminist of any kind. These ladies should be my people. They're largely well-educated lot who write code for a living and have an appreciation for zombies, nerdcore, and other geeky stuff. Again, I agree with geek feminists on a lot of issues. I think the trolling and mysogyny on the internet is disgusting and can cross the line into criminal behavior. I also think male geeks need more self awareness about when their behavior is creepy or awkward instead of funny. However, they remind me of the class tattletale in grade school. If people are being jerks, tell them to stop. If they won't, fight back, but do so in a manner that's effective and appropriate. Male geeks say disgusting and offensive stuff. It's an important and often harmless part of geek culture. Letting the majority of these comments slide means that silencing the blatantly unacceptable ones is more effective. One's voice is louder and stronger when it isn't raised often. This is equally true for geeks as for three year olds; the more often you yell, the louder you have to yell. I was proud of other female geeks when they helped shut down that board on Reddit which had pictures of violence and underage girls. It's always inspiring to hear about ladies that have used the law to go after men who make rape and death threats online. I lose my enthusiasm when I hear the same women decrying female objectification in video games or whining about the lack of political correctness in geek culture. It's gone entirely for every mention of how women in tech fields are marginalized and poorly treated. 

So why even bother calling myself a feminist? The simple answer is that I want the frog to grow up in a world where her gender doesn't define her choices and opportunities.  These choices are sadly starting now for her because mainstream kid culture comes in strict boy and girl catgories. I might disagree with the many-headed hydra notion of media, but I don't think the intensely gendered nature of kids' toys and movies is healthy. believed (and even wrote a post about) that there should be some rigidity to how kids explore gender. Hearing "boys don't wear dresses" or "girls can't play trucks" come out of Ms Frog's mouth a few times was enough to make me reverse my stance on that issue. I believe that my daughter should be free to explore what being a girl means to her whether it's sparkly princess clothes, superheroes, or some mash-up of the two. Likewise, her friends who are boys should be allowed the freedom to figure out whether playing football, dolls, or both is what boys like them do. The implications of her choices will eventually broaden from what being a girl means to whom to love, what career to pursue, and whether to have children. These things are also influenced by gender in both a positive and negative way. Supporting the choices she will make as she grows and helping her navigate obstacles requires that I call myself a feminist. I'm not embracing ideas I disagree with in doing so, but am saying that I believe that women deserve a fair shake in this world. I think this is something any woman, and hopefully any mother of a daughter can get behind. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Sometimes the apple falls far from the tree

The frog recently turned three and it's amazing how she gradually turned into a fully sentient being in the last year. As she learned to speak in sentences and then in paragraphs, her thought processes became recognizably coherent and we were able to get a window into her wacky little head. Somehow, two introverted and mildly misanthropic nerds have produced an extroverted artist. She's an extremely sensitive soul who gets upset when other kids are being mean to each other and seems to have an intuitive understanding of other people's feelings. This is very different from both of us who struggle with knowing (dad) or caring (mom) too much about what the people around us are feeling. I have learned how to play tolerably well with others as an adult in part because I've come to understand myself better. I tend to prefer solitude and have few close friends, despite being encouraged otherwise as a child. I don't want my daughter to think that the way she's designed to relate to the world is odd or discourage it even though we're very different and it's been a bit of a challenge to understand.

Strangely, it wasn't the frog's conversations with total strangers or her rarely needing reminding to share that made me realize how different we are. Something really minor happened one night a few months ago while I was cooking dinner that made her cry. I want her to learn to calm herself down and mistakenly assumed that she needed the similar tools that I do in this situation. I gave her a hug and told her to find a cozy, quiet place to calm down. She hadn't hit the "I refuse to listen to you because I'm three" stage she's currently in at this point and went to her room. She climbed into bed and proceeded to sob bitterly. A casual observer would have probably thought someone had told her that she wasn't a fairy or that Hello Kitty wasn't her friend. I went in and hugged her until she stopped crying and we finished making dinner. I realized on my way to work the next morning that I had made her feel worse instead of giving her the tools she needed to calm down. I mulled this over and tried to remember what made me feel better as a small child. Turns out, I sought quiet places away from people when I was upset. I remember turning my closet into a secret hide-out and pretending that various creatures lived there. These creatures weren't really buddies; they were mostly sentries that kept other people out so I could mope. Hiding in closets has its shelf life and metaphorical hiding (mostly) replaced the literal kind, but I remain someone who prefers to work things out on my own. 

realized the toad is built differently and that I needed to ask someone more like her about this. I have a very dear friend who is the definition of an extrovert so I asked her whether she would feel punished if someone told her to sort out her own emotions when she's upset. She replied that she would and I felt one of those "aha" moments. My daughter thought I was punishing her instead of giving her what I thought was the space she needed. She started crying hysterically because she thought I was mad at her for being upset and she was confused that a person she relies on for comfort was seeming to do the opposite.  I may have learned the hard way, but I now ask her if she wants to talk about it when she's upset or if not, whether she wants me to sit with her. I'm also learning that she's never going to volunteer to be alone or even see this as desirable. Her third birthday party brought this one home. We had at least thirty kids and grown-ups running around blowing giant bubbles, painting faces, and being wild on a large lawn next to her favorite playground. When it was over, the rest of the family hid in dark corners to read or otherwise be alone while she went looking for someone to play with. We let her watch Charlotte's Web that afternoon... I'm hoping she maybe learns to be more content with solitude as a result of having us for parents and maybe we'll learn to be less misanthropic. Regardless, I hope she grows up knowing that I'm not going to try to force her to be something she isn't and that it's ok for the apple to fall far from the tree. 

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Kid Food

I'm going to take a break from gender/class issues and write about food instead. Unfortunately I'm a picky eater especially when it comes to meat because my mom did most of the cooking growing up and she wasn't that good at it. I've tried to broaden my horizons as an adult and have succeeded to some degree. I now eat and enjoy Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, beef, and all sorts of stinkily delicious Korean food. I still won't eat lots of things unless forced to in the name of good manners and believe my eating habits have a lot to do with how I ate as a child. We sat down to a home-coked meal most night and ate very little processed food. I also grew up in NYC and was taken to all sorts of restaurants so I liked spicy and/or somewhat odd food before joining a Korean family. Still, I can't eat chicken without cringing thanks to years of simultaneously burnt and raw drumsticks (yes, it's possible). All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I think a person's attitudes about food and their food preferences are shaped by their families. 

This is why the idea of "kid food"; bland and/or processed things of questionable nutritional value that are marketed towards children annoys me. I love Reese's peanut butter cups, Oreos, DD breakfast sandwiches, and other junk food. I imagine Ms Frog may come to love similar tasty abominations and that doesn't bother me. I'm not one of those parents that is the junk food police as long as these things are a treat and not a major component of her diet. Plain buttered noodles, hot dogs, and the ubiquitous chicken nugget are not things I think a child should be eating at every meal. There are exceptions and I understand that parents of children who have fallen off the growth curve or have sensory issues just want their kids to eat something. 

However, the growth curve is a normal distribution so most children will fall within one standard deviation of the mean height and weight for their age and gender. Neurotypical children who are growing normally ought to be eating what their parents eat in my opinion. Here's where it does come back to class. It's hard to know what to feed a growing body if you don't know what to feed yourself, can't get to a grocery store, or don't have time to cook because you're working multiple jobs to survive. The lack of access to good food, information about what to do with it, and an economy that allows hard-working people to live in poverty is a crime. That is a subject for another time, but my judgement on the issue of kid food is tempered by the knowledge that the above is the reality for lots of families. Consequently, my frustration is directed at people who have the means and the knowledge to make what I consider to be the right choices. Food is an easy way to experience new things and connect to people from different cultures. Someone raised on a diet of kid food makes it really hard for them to be adventurous later on in life and might cut them off from these experiences. Then there's the whole childhood obesity thing. Habituation to highly processed food makes eating healthy harder later in life and contributes to the epidemic of children with type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and other highly destructive and costly diseases. 

I guess I question why someone would put up barriers to healthy eating and enjoyment of food when they don't have to. I'd like to hear the other side of the story because maybe I'm not understanding something. Do your kids eat a different meal from you? If so, why? 

Monday, December 9, 2013

Women, STEM careers, and the outrage of the month

Seems like every week there's an new story in the news, viral video, blog post, etc about sexism in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields and how that's a barrier for girls and young women in entering these fields.  Over the summer it was a poorly timed prank at a tech conference and more recently it was internet buzz over a really cool building toy aimed at girls. Regardless of content, it seems like there's always predictable outrage from some quarters about how the over-arching culture in tech fields is a misogynous one and how this, rather than more logical reasons make many tech fields a boys' club.  With apologies to my more liberal and/or feminist friends, this is a load of hogwash.  I agree that male geeks can be quite sexist and nasty about women, both intentionally and unintentionally.  I've experienced this kind of hate and imagine that all my geek sisters have had similar awkward experiences.  However, this is where I diverge from lockstep feminist/liberal thinking in that I refuse to feel victimized by stupid, rude, and/or unprofessional behavior. In encouraging me to feel threatened, I believe this line of thinking gives this behavior more bandwidth than it deserves.

Let me clarify.  Let's say a group of dudes with more brains than common sense says or does something unprofessional.  This unprofessional behavior somehow gets documented and goes viral. Instead of mocking it and moving on, there is likely to be some chatter about how women in tech fields must feel so marginalized. That and the idea that tech workplaces are hotbeds of misogyny seem to crop up at the slightest provocation like a bedbug infestation in a New York hotel. This makes me mad both because it's wrong and insulting. Most male nerds or geeks I've gotten to know through work are among the least racist/sexist/homophobic/classist people I've met either because they simply don't care or because they know what it's like to be hated for irrational reasons. Also, I resent the implication that I should feel marginalized or oppressed when I don't. The barrier to entry for any hardcore tech field is education and most white middle class women like me have had access to the same educational opportunities as their male peers. I don't think I need to be crying oppressed when there are tons of people who ARE denied access to these opportunities because of how they look or the circumstances in which they are born. I suppose I see the "sexism in tech fields" media chatter as manufactured outrage when there are real issues to be angry about. 

Also, I don't like the implication that I'm so fragile emotionally to allow someone acting like an idiot stand between me and my goals. Women, especially female geeks and nerds are a tough breed.  As a nerdy kid I definitely felt marginalized because my interests (anthropology, medicinal plants, sci-fi, and the Black Death) were way outside mainstream "girl" interests of the late 80s/early 90s.  As a young woman, I experienced a bit of sexism here and there, but having an awesome female mentor during grad school kept that to a minimum.  I began to experience more of this as my work veered into programming.  Nothing too horrid, but a general feeling that I wasn't considered smart or good at what I do as a default, but that I had to prove myself.  I know that I started dressing more girly at work as a subtle way of thumbing my nose at this.  It stings a little when I meet someone new in a professional setting and have to prove that yes, the lady in a skirt and pearls knows her stuff.  If I were playing into the victim narrative that I feel the left so dearly wants me to adopt, I'd say that I feel marginalized or demeaned.  Thankfully, I have a thicker skin than that.  Anyone who has been called a nerd or a freak as a kid knows how to ignore the silliness and find ways to not let it bother you.

So what do I think is the real culprit here? Why are some tech fields like physics, engineering, or computers/software development, still populated by mostly dudes?  I believe things that cause lots of kids to be turned off of STEM fields tend to affect girls more strongly.  Recent PISA test scores confirm that science education in K-12 is substandard relative to other industrialized countries. There also aren't very many opportunities for kids to explore STEM fields in a fun way and those opportunities tend to be more focused on boys.  Finally, mainstream culture is anti-intellectual in a lot of ways and I think girls feel more pressure to conform in this respect.  Most importantly, I think that race and/or class issues tend to confound gender bias with the net result of fewer girls in tech fields.  That, however, is the subject of a whole other post. 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Best at Exercising?

Ms Frog can play real sports if she wants to; she doesn't have to try to be the best at exercising like her parents (sorry, Kenny Powers).  She's nowhere near old enough to participate in sports, but she will be one day.  Both of us did sports as kids and while I can't speak for my husband, I know I'm better for it.  I swam pretty seriously in high school and I enjoyed it even though I wasn't a super-star by any stretch of the imagination. Swimming taught me to set goals and achieve them through hard work.  I think it also helped me tune out the messages I was receiving from my immediate surroundings about the importance of being pretty above all else.  I wasn't a pretty girl, but being a strong girl went a long way in helping me develop some much-needed self confidence.  Ms Frog is a very pretty girl, but regardless, I see confidence in one's strength as the root to a positive self-image.  It's a short leap from "I can climb that tree" or "I can run fast" to "I'm smart enough to do X" or "I'm good enough to deserve Y".  This doesn't have an age limit and is equally applicable to a small child, teen, or adult woman.  Being fit and training for my increasingly crazy races gives me confidence in both personal and professional situations.  Likewise, Ms Frog stood up taller the day she kicked a ball or did a somersault for the first time. 

The other really important thing I learned from sports is that sometimes your best simply isn't good enough.  I remember how rotten it was to get a bad time or have my school team lose a meet.  Since I was a teenager, I'd go home thinking it was the end of the world.  The next morning, I would (usually) wake up and vow to work harder in practice or take more time to help a team-mate so this wouldn't happen next time.  I've experienced some bumps in the road during my adult life and I know there were points I would have given up on various things if I hadn't learned from sports to keep trying even if it's tough.  We tell Ms Frog to shake it off or that she's tough when she gets hurt.  When she's bigger, I imagine we'll tell her to keep at it if a game, meet, or other sports event doesn't go her way.