On The Hyped-Up Rugrat Express

Yesterday morning Kish and I took an early morning flight, heading south. Of course, it’s March — which means we’re in the midst of the spring break period for local schools. Not surprisingly, the boarding area was overrun with little kids. I’d estimate that a solid third of the passengers of the plane was children — and, because they were leaving early on spring vacation, let’s just say they were a bit . . . excited.

That’s right — we were on the Hyped-Up Rugrat Express.

When you’re not around little kids all the time, you forget what it’s like. Like, how some parents feel the need to talk through every part of the trip. (“Pay attention, Johnny! We’ll be taxiing our to the runway now.”). Or, how much little kids talk, and how loudly. Or, for that matter, how many times a kid can say “Mommy” on a two-hour flight. (The correct answer, based on the little boy sitting in front of us, is 2,435.)

One positive: no back of the seat kicking. As Hyped-Up Rugrat Expresses go, it therefore wasn’t that bad.

Legocide

Aboard the NASA probe Juno, currently speeding toward the planet Jupiter, are three special Lego figures.  Representing Juno, Jupiter, and Galileo Galilei, these Legos are made of aluminum, the same material as the spacecraft itself.  NASA came up with the idea of having the Lego figures ride along to get kids interested in the mission, and the folks at Lego, who are big on education, gladly went along with the idea.

But here’s the key thing:  when the Juno mission is over, the Juno will fly into Jupiter itself, where it and its Lego passengers will be consumed by fire.

lego_color_bricksHah!  Take that, you Lego bastards!  Burn, baby, burn!

Admittedly, these special aluminum Legos have done nothing to me to deserve being consigned to fiery death in the poisonous atmosphere of a faraway gas giant.  But I say that it is a fitting end nevertheless.

I well remember the days when gaily colored Legos coated the carpets of our homes, when you couldn’t walk a few barefoot steps in the darkened early morning hours without painfully encountering the sharp edges of a stray Lego block, and when elaborate Lego kingdoms and cities and spaceports dotted the environs as semi-permanent parts of the Webner family household.

I remember when trying to get the kids to pick up the legions of Legos was a fun daily parenting challenge.  I recall the back-breaking chore of picking up the tiny individual bricks and figures and special accessories, and the distinctive clunking, plastic-on-plastic sound that the Legos made as you tossed them, one by one, back into the plastic tubs that they called home.  At one point, there were likely thousands of Legos under our roof, lurking under our furniture and nestled in the cushions of our sofas and chairs, ready to be sat on by an unwary grandparents.

So yes, I remember the Lego days.  Burn them, I say.  Burn them all!

Why Don’t People Save More?

In America, the personal savings rate, by household, continues to decline from year to year.  Although the U.S. isn’t dead last in the world, American households lag well behind most developed countries when it comes to salting money away for the future.

monopoly-banker-with-empty-pockets-900x900Why?  Why aren’t adult Americans more focused on saving for a rainy day, or having a contingency fund, even a modest one, that they can fall back on if a personal emergency hits?  The savings deficiency is reflected both in the lack of money kept for use if the need arises in everyday life — like a special health care bill or car repair — and the shocking statistics that you read from time to time about how little the average household has saved for retirement.

An interesting Bloomberg article posits that the causes are a combination of keeping up with the Joneses and helicopter parenting.  The article’s headline aptly captures its gist:  “Parents Are Bankrupting Themselves to Look Adequate.”  The concept is that while there are a lot of causes for the non-savings phenomenon — easy credit and more credit, the development of previously unavailable goods and products, like miracle drugs, that cost a lot, and so on — a big one is that parents feel so competitive about things like schools,  activities like expensive camps, or clothes and cars for their kids that they are spending themselves to the brink of oblivion, to the point where even a modest reversal of fortune plunges them over the financial abyss.

Are parents now more focused on getting the best for their kids at all costs than, say, parents of the ’60s and ’70s?  Probably, and for some people it’s likely a combination of competitiveness and irrationality, where parents just aren’t willing to say no to, say, putting their kid on a sports travel team that requires the whole family to travel to some faraway spot virtually every weekend and stay in a hotel while the kid is involved in contests.   I could be wrong, but I can’t imagine my parents doing that.

In my view, though, the big underlying difference between this generation and those that have gone before is personal experience.  My parents lived through the Great Depression as children and saw what is was like.  They knew that disaster could strike and that the best way to prepare for that possibility was to save.  I got that understanding from my parents and grandparents, for whom the Depression was always a very real thing.  If you’ve never really experienced adversity, and aren’t thinking it’s really a plausible scenario, then you might well borrow to the hilt to buy fancy cars for your kids or to finance a high-end school, expecting that things will somehow work out.  And although the Great Recession had some impact on this seemingly pervasive sense that everything will be OK, and caused a little upward blip in savings, its impact has dissipated and the savings rate has dropped back to incredibly low levels.

Sometimes, bad things do happen.  If you don’t have some savings that you can fall back on, you’re stuck — and that useful life lesson just comes too late.

Good For The Dads!

I never thought I would write something complimentary about members of the Pittsburgh Steelers, but the day has come.  Of course, my kudos are for their parenting, not their exploits on the gridiron.

Two members of the Steelers, James Harrison and DeAngelo Williams, have taken a stand against the “participation” awards that are now given to kids for pretty much everything they do.  Last year, Harrison made his sons give back participation trophies and wrote:

trophy-300x271-300x271“EARN a real trophy. I’m sorry I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and I’m not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best…cause sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better…not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut u up and keep you happy.”

This year, Williams made his daughter return a participation ribbon she received at a school track event, and reported that she went out the next day and won first place.

I think the notion of “participation” awards are one of the worst brainstorms ever devised by the fevered imaginings of school counselors and helicopter parents — and I say this not just because the participation awards the boys received cluttered our basement for years.  Whether it’s sports, or chess, or science fairs, the ribbons and trophies should go to those who compete and win, not just those who show up.  Kids know the difference between phony trophies and recognitions for true achievement; they discount and quickly forget the former and actually value the latter.

I’m with the two Steelers on this one.  Forget the stupid participation trophies, and don’t try to make kids think that the world won’t draw distinctions between performance when adulthood arrives.  Participation trophies teach kids exactly the wrong life lesson.

College Visits

One of my friends from work is on the road, doing some college visits with his daughters.  They’re on the upper eastern swing, looking at schools in Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, and probably a few extra places added in.

I never did any college visits when I was a kid.  I knew that Ohio State had a good journalism program and I was interested in journalism, I knew it wasn’t expensive, I knew I could get in, and I was a fan of the football team.  It was an easy, if not particularly informed, decision.  And it worked out pretty well, because that’s where I met Kish and I got a pretty good, reasonably priced college education to boot.

vassar-libraryBut sometime between the early ’70s and, say, 2000, the world changed dramatically.  Perhaps because of the U.S. News and World Report rankings of the “best” colleges, or because there seems to be more information available now, or because high schools are far more focused on student placement — or because parents are much more competitive about their kids’ college destinations — the college decision has become a super big deal.  College visits are now an expected part of the selection ritual, and Kish and I accordingly went on our share of them with Richard and Russell.

My friend reports that he is enjoying his trip, and I enjoyed them, too.  I think parents inevitably do.  Why not?  You are visiting idyllic green quads filled with old trees and young students, touring beautiful old buildings and libraries, walking past pillars and under stone archways, and listening to student tour guides tell you about the campus traditions — all of which end up being pretty similar.  The visits fall into a kind of rhythm, with breakfast and a drive to campus in the morning, a guided tour followed by an information session, then lunch and a drive to the next nearby campus to do the whole thing again.  You get to spend lots of quality time with your kids, trying to talk about an important decision they will be making and sharing some funny incidents.  The student tour guide who had a clothing malfunction on Richard’s visit to Brown University, and the “Buddy incident” when Russell first visited Vassar, have become part of Webner family lore.

I don’t think it’s as much fun for most kids, though.  They’d probably rather be hanging out with their friends than their parents, and I’m sure the school choices seem overwhelming.  Kids fall back on first impressions and gut instinct — whether it’s sunny or raining, and whether students are friendly or distracted, seems to dictate a lot of the decision-making process — and often seem to just want to get the whole thing over with.

I think college visits are important, but I think parents have to guard against making them into high-pressure events.  It’s one area where the perfect definitely can be the enemy of the good.  The goal shouldn’t be to find the “perfect” school; instead, the visits are a good way to show that there are lots of good schools out there that offer the kinds of options that fit with the kid’s interests and that would be good places to spend four years.  I think that’s a healthier message than endlessly debating whether one school is marginally better than another in the quest for the transcendent college experience.

 

What Kids Want To Know

What do kids really want to know?  Sometimes parents wonder.

Fortunately, there’s the “What If” website and book to help answer that eternal question.  It promises to provide serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions.

backyard-designs-outdoor-swimming-pools-5And guess what?  It turns out that kids want to know answers to questions that I’d also like to have answered, like:  “How long would it take for a single person to fill up an entire swimming pool with their own saliva?”

This is a question that is of intense and particular interest to me, ever since a kind of disgusted dentist who was constantly having to use the spit-sucking device and multiple cotton swabs told me, when I was but a callow youth, that I had “exceptional saliva flow.”  Now I’m proud of my drool-producing capacity.

It turns out that it would take a normal person a very long time to fill that pool.  Humans produce an average of half a liter of saliva a day, which would mean it would take a year to fill a bathtub.  And, at that rate, it would take 8,345 years to fill an Olympic-sized pool to a depth of four feet.  Even at my alarming spit-producing rate — I’m guessing I’m at least double the average in the drool category — I wouldn’t be able to accomplish even a reasonably sized in-ground backyard pool in my lifetime.

Too bad!  It would be a laudable life goal.

The Kicker And The Kids

Minnesota Vikings kicker Blair Walsh missed a chip shot field goal in a playoff game last week, and the Vikings lost.  No doubt he heard about it, in excruciating and probably vulgar detail, from the fans, and no doubt he personally felt terrible about it.

But then a first grade class decided to give him a show of support.  The kids wrote letters and drew pictures to encourage him, and recently Walsh stopped by their class to thank them.  You could tell that this football player was genuinely touched by the gesture and the kids’ innocent, warm-hearted decency and kindness.  The video above reports on Walsh’s visit and shows some of the kids’ drawings.

It’s a wonderful story that reminds me of the book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.  These kids know that there’s more to Blair Walsh, the human being, than a missed field goal, and they want to support him.  Why can’t more adults be like that?