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?

An Acquired Taste

Remember the first time you drank coffee?  I don’t — but I’m fairly confident that my reaction to its taste wasn’t much different from the reaction of these kids.  Of course, the fact that it was terrible vending machine coffee didn’t help.  I only drank coffee in college because it helped me stay awake.  Now I enjoy its taste, although I’m no coffee connoisseur.

I do remember the first time I tasted a beer.  My Dad let me drink a sip when I was about 10.  I thought it would be super cool to do it, but it was about the most awful stuff imaginable.

My taste buds have adjusted somewhat since then.

Marijuana, Kids, And Jobs

In a few weeks Ohioans will vote on Issue 3, a ballot initiative that would allow people 21 and over to use marijuana for recreational and medicinal purposes and permit marijuana to be grown in designated locations in the state.

When Kish and I were in a waiting area yesterday, we saw two of the commercials about Issue 3 — one pro, one con — back to back.  And the themes of the commercials were familiar to anyone who has ever voted on a ballot issue:  jobs and kids.  The pro-Issue 3 commercial emphasized that passing Issue 3 and allowing legalized marijuana sales would create jobs, and one of the bullet points for the anti-Issue 3 ad was that Issue 3 would allow the sale of marijuana-infused candy, which could end up in the hands of kids.

We’ve seen similar approaches in prior  campaigns.  The initiative to legalize casinos in Ohio, which passed, was all about jobs.  The Ohio Lottery initiative, which passed, was all about devoting a share of lottery proceeds to education . . . and kids.  It’s as if the campaign ad consultants sit around, thinking of every potential job-related or kid-related theme, no matter the issue being presented, because they just can’t resist sounding those tried and true messages.

Some complex issues are presented by the marijuana legalization initiative — issues like whether marijuana does have medical benefits under certain circumstances, whether legalization has caused an increase, or decrease, in crime or car accidents in states where marijuana has been legalized, and whether Issue 3 in fact creates a legalized monopoly, among others.  The issues presented by Issue 3 go a lot deeper than whether a few thousand jobs will be created in a state with millions of residents, or whether marijuana-laced lollipops will find their way into the stream of commerce.  But jobs and kids are what the TV commercials talk about.

Jobs on one side, kids on the other.  Maybe that’s why the most recent polls on Issue 3 show that Ohioans are evenly divided on the issue.

Free To Play

A New Zealand school has come up with a “novel” way to increase student focus, reduce bullying, and decrease vandalism: it has eliminated all of the silly rules and restrictions governing behavior during school recess. Because kids now get to do things like ride scooters and skateboards, they develop a better appreciation of risky behavior, too. And, the school has been able to reduce the number of teachers monitoring the playground and get rid of the dreaded “timeout” area.

This result shouldn’t be surprising — it’s just a return to the way things used to be in every American school. Kids are full of energy and need to burn it off. If they don’t get to do it during recess, they’ll find some other, probably less positive, outlet for release. I’m guessing that the New Zealand school will see other benefits that become apparent over time as well. Because kids can do what they want, they are more likely to be active and therefore less likely to join the ranks of the morbidly obese. Because kids won’t be constrained by adult notions of proper recess behavior, they’ll be more creative and more willing to work with their classmates in coming up with new games and contests to fill their recess time.

When I was young, recess was fun precisely because it was entirely unstructured: you got to do what you wanted, without having to follow dumb rules or sit quietly at a desk. We made up games, hung upside-down from monkey bars, swung on the swings as high as we could and jumped off, and ran around yelling for the sheer fun of it. We survived, and our playground chaos didn’t have any effect on our classroom performance. I wish more American schools would adopt the Kiwi’s “hands-off” approach to recess and let kids be kids.

Sidewalk Chalk

IMG_3134We’ve got little kids in our neighborhood, and every once in a while they do something that reminds me of how much fun it was to be a kid.  I came across this little bit of sidewalk graffiti that combines counting up to 100, using different colors, and the utter joy of using chalk on concrete, and it really brought back memories.  I liked the feel of the gritty chalk bumping along the coarse, uneven surface of the sidewalk as we made a drawing or left a message or created a hopscotch outline, and then clapping my hands and smearing my trousers in a futile attempt to get rid of the chalk dust.

About Those New Disney Bracelets . . . .

The Walt Disney Company is ready to roll out an interesting new initiative.  This spring, at Walt Disney World in Orlando, park visitors will have the option of using new “MagicBand” bracelets.

These aren’t your normal amusement park bracelets that show that you paid the entrance fee.  Instead, they will be embedded with radio frequency identification chips that will allow visitors to enter the park, enter hotels, and buy food and souvenirs.  The bracelets also would tell that approaching Disney character your child’s name before they are introduced and would allow a visitor’s path around the park to be tracked.  They are part of a broader Disney digital initiative to allow visitors to use the bracelets, their smartphones, and other devices to customize their trip to the Magic Kingdom and provide for a better park experience.

00019715Privacy advocates are concerned about the information that is collected as a result of use of the bracelets and whether it could be misused.  The privacy issues doesn’t worry me, however.  The bracelets are optional, and the reality of the modern world is that vast amounts of our personal information is already accessible to corporate America as a result of our smartphones, apps that push data to our locations, Facebook postings, and countless other newfangled devices and contraptions that know as much about us as our family members.  If people are leery about wearing a bracelet that adds to the data mix, they can just say “no.”

I think the bigger issue is that the bracelets allow Disney characters to know your toddler’s name and use it as they approach.  Isn’t that kind of . . . creepy?  How will little kids react if a large plastic-headed creature, much bigger than the delightful character they’ve seen on their TV screen, comes marching up saying their names?  Will they be terrified, or will it feed into the “I’m the center of the universe” mindset that makes some kids intolerable brats?  Or, will it give kids an overly trusting view of the world?  I’m not sure I’d want my kids to think it was normal that some stranger wearing a colorful costume knows their name.

On the flip side, this development has got to make the job of being a Disney character even more painful.  Now, you not only have to wear that stuffy Goofy head and hot, furry costume on those broiling Florida days, you also have to correctly call out the names of MagicBand-wearing tots — all the while keeping a watchful eye out for the brats who want to kick you in the knee or even more tender areas.  How do you think the doting, smartphone-obsessed parents who paid for that MagicBand bracelet to ensure their gifted child has the perfect Disney experience will react if you call their little Timmy little Tommy instead?

Cappy Dick And The Power Of Trying

You are a kid on a Sunday morning in the 1960s.  It is winter and brutally cold outside, and doing something inside seems like a good idea.  You flip through the brilliantly colored comics section of the Sunday paper, and there you find your perfect companion — Cappy Dick.  Cappy Dick, the chuckling, patient, pipe-smoking sea captain who every week urged kids to “try for these great prizes!” and proposed all manner of odd games and activities for bored rug rats.

Cappy Dick was all about the art of the apparently possible.  It suggested different things that you could try.  They looked like they could be done — hey, it wouldn’t be in the paper if it was fake, would it? — and in any case it looked like it would be fun to try.

Never were egg cartons put to so many different uses!  You could take the carton, paint each egg-holding indention a different color, and toss bottle caps or pennies into them, with each successful throw generating different points depending on color.  You could learn how to make a successful flip book, or convert a shoe box into a crude castle, or make puppets out of clothes pins.  When Cappy Dick spurred your imagination, the blunt-edged scissors, Crayola crayons, and construction paper got a serious workout, and the smell of Elmer’s glue was intoxicating.  And when you were done, your hands crusty with Elmer’s glue residue and the kitchen table littered with scraps of paper and other odds and ends, you realized that trying to make something had been fun, even if the results didn’t quite look like Cappy Dick showed.

I’m sure parents of that era rolled their eyes from time to time as an excited youngster charged up, babbling about needing an empty round Quaker’s Oats container to try to make a gaily colored Polynesian drum.  But surely Moms across the land appreciated anything that would keep the kids occupied in some kind of quiet creative exercise for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon, even if a bit of clean-up would eventually be required.

No doubt video games, elaborate plastic Barbie houses, and other ready-made modern toys spur some kind of creative impulse as kids play.  I wonder, however, whether the creative opportunities are not quite as rich as when kids gathered around the kitchen table and worked hard to make that Indian headdress or Pilgrim bonnet, laughing all the while.  Cappy Dick helped to fill many a dull afternoon, and it may have made kids of that generation just a bit more willing to at least try.  After all, you could win Great Prizes!