The key to remaining sane as a parent to a pre-teen/teenager

I’m beginning to think that the key to remaining sane while parenting a pre-teen/teenager is learning to be ok with being regarded as a failure and a disappointment by your child because of your frustrating inability to bend spacetime, lack of infinite cash (available on demand), and general failure be ready to serve at a moment’s notice.

When kids start treating the staff poorly

Reconcilable Differences #66, titled “Inherent Injustice”, is both hilarious and cringeworthy for parents. The hosts, Merlin Mann and John Siracusa, were talking about raising young kids, setting examples for them, and issuing parental edicts.

I started giggling at around 31 minutes when they were discussing how kids seem to struggle with this idea that their parents are not servants who exist to cater for their every whim. I had to share this:

I had another laugh at about 1:01:30 when Mann and Siracusa started talking about resolving inconsistencies in rules that parents make for kids. I definitely have a preference for Siracusa’s approach. As with terrorists, there are times when you just don’t negotiate with kids about rules.

This was probably one of the funniest discussions I’ve heard for a while on this show. Even if you don’t listen to the show (and it can be an acquired taste), definitely spend a few minutes listening to these discussions.

Being a parent gives you superpowers

Parents often tell their kids they have superpowers of some sort. My favourite myth (which may actually be true) is that mothers can see through walls and whatever our kids are doing on the other side of those walls.

Fortunately kids believe this long enough to give us time to come up with something more plausible (and similarly effective) as they grow older.

Leaving aside the myths, there are times I think we really do develop some kinds of superpowers as parents.

One of my superpowers is the ability to hear a crying child over some background noise (in my case a fan in our bedroom) in the middle of the night and be on my feet and in my child’s bedroom before my conscious mind has even realised that I’m awake.

That sort of thing still amazes me after more than 9 years.

Image credit: Chris Barbalis

I channelled Yoda with our kids without meaning to

You know how you seem to channel your parents when you become a parent? I managed to channel Yoda with our kids last night and I’m not sure what that says about me as a parent.

It was getting late, we were all tired from a busy weekend and it was time for the kids to brush their teeth and get ready for bed. As usual, they weren’t listening to me. They were playing on the couch instead so I reminded them to do as I asked (well, instructed) them to do.

Our daughter told me, rather indignantly, that she was “trying” to stop playing with her brother and go brush her teeth. Before I realised it, I found myself replying to her with something along these lines:

There is no trying. Do or do not. Go brush your teeth!

It didn’t help that my wife, who was in the room, immediately picked up on what I said and started laughing. Our poor daughter thought we were laughing at her. We were laughing so hard that we couldn’t explain the joke to her for a few minutes.

I guess channelling Yoda at a time like that merits a few Geek Parent points, even if I probably traumatised our daughter a little in the process.

Image credit: Travel Coffee Book

The VR headset made our kids disappear

Our son recently received a Gear VR headset as a birthday gift. He doesn’t have a phone to use with it so he borrowed his grandmother’s Samsung Galaxy S7 to try the headset out. Actually, we all tried it out and it is an amazing piece of technology.

Watching him use it bothered me, though. The technology has tremendous potential to introduce our kids to experiences of new things using portable VR technology. At the same time I think this we are going to have to moderate how often they use this technology pretty carefully. Bear with me, I’ll explain why I say that.

All that screen time already

At the moment our kids have old smartphones and an old iPad 1 they play with at home. They watch videos on YouTube (our daughter started using YouTube Kids after I “upgraded” her iPad 1 experience to an old iPhone 4s that supports it and she loves it – thankfully), play games like Clash Royale and build stuff in Minecraft.

They only use their devices on weekends and, usually, only after they have finished their homework. Even with that limitation, we have to come up with things to do with them to make sure they don’t spend their entire weekends staring at a screen. I came up with a couple rules to impose some sort of limitation on their device use that include both kids putting devices when the first device’s battery runs flat.

Still, our kids can disappear for a couple hours at a time and spend all that time staring at their devices. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing because some of what they do on their devices is somewhat educational.

I’ve noticed that devices tend to make them pretty anti-social and detached from the rest of the family. Heck, that happens to us parents too so I make a conscious effort to limit my screen time when I am around my kids (and generally).

The VR headset made our kids disappear

VR headsets are only going to aggravate that tendency to detach, I think. You physically can’t see the world around you. The virtual environment can be so consuming, you can easily become oblivious to the world around you. For kids who already have a propensity to be sucked in by screens, I can already see we will need to supervise how much our kids use VR headsets very closely.

Fortunately, they don’t have a device that is compatible with the headset so they simply can’t use it unless someone with a compatible headset is around. That helps!

I’ve been thinking about the phones our kids have (or will have in the case of our daughter). At the moment, our son’s “daily driver” is a very basic Nokia feature phone that can make calls and send SMS messages. Many of his friends have smartphones but I’ve already told him he won’t receive one for a while still. You just have to look at how kids are today with smartphones to guess why (or just watch this interview with Louis CK):

By contrast there is a real world to engage with

Another gift our son received was a dense chalk egg with a plastic crocodile (I think) embedded in it. It came with two plastic tools and the idea was for him to basically chip away at the egg until he uncovered the toy inside.

Desktop archaeology

He spent the better part of the day chipping away at the egg. It looked like a lot of fun and it was the sort of thing that involved everyone, either as spectators or by helping him along.

Desktop archaeology

By the time he finished it in the evening, he had a pile of dust and this little toy. He also really enjoyed doing it and was talking about getting another one. What struck me about this toy/project is that it is a stark contrast to a VR headset. Chipping away at that egg, he was firmly rooted in the moment in our physical space and interacted with whoever was there with him. With a VR headset, he is sequestered from his physical space and from everyone sharing that space with him.

I don’t think that he would be content only doing this sort of thing and I wouldn’t want to prevent him from using devices for play too. I just found the contrasts between the two activities to be pretty indicative of the challenges of VR headsets, especially when it comes to kids.

When it comes to new technologies, I much prefer augmented reality over virtual reality. At least AR takes its cues from the space we occupy and augments it with additional digital and information overlays. I think AR would probably be more beneficial for our kids than VR and I really like the possibilities presented by Corning’s “A Day Made of Glass 2: Same Day. Expanded Corning Vision”:

Just looking at how kids are with smartphones, I am more than a little worried about what we will see if/when there is a VR headset in every kid’s room. For one thing, our kids will stop interacting with each other (at least, relative to the varying degrees of interaction they manage today). They won’t learn to recognise those very human and physical cues we rely on for so much sub-vocal communication as a species.

Go outside and play (and channelling our parents)

Like any generation, I think this comes down to figuring out the balance of the potential of the technology with the harm it could do to our children socially. I am also acutely aware that I probably read like our parents did when we started using gaming consoles back in the day. I’m pretty sure they also lamented that we’d never go outside and play.

To a degree they may have overstated the harm of us playing video games and watching TV. I don’t think the answer is forcing our kids outside and forbidding them modern technology.

On the other hand, I think that the rapid change we witness from year to year makes our jobs as parents that much harder. We have to keep up with the changes, anticipate the risks and try and manage them as best we can.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I think the VR headset is terrific technology and it offers our kids opportunities they didn’t have before. It also has a troubling flip-side and that requires us to keep a foot in both worlds if we have any hope of raising the kinds of humans who won’t be among the first to go when some wild beast attacks because they never learned basic human survival and communication skills.

My letter to my Mom thanking her for what she did for me

When Michal contacted me a couple months ago about contributing a letter to my Mom to her post series titled “A Letter to My Mom”, I agreed almost right away. I thought it would be a great opportunity to finally put into words some of my thoughts about what my mother did for me from my perspective as a parent.

It is virtually impossible to appreciate what our parents do for us when we are children. We have no real frame of reference. It’s all really about us and we’re mostly oblivious to what our parents go through as they learn how to be parents themselves.

My mother became a Mom when she was 20. That may seem old in some cultures but I think the rest of us can agree that is pretty young. My Dad was only 25 when I arrived.

I don’t think I had the maturity or emotional capacity to become a parent at 25, let alone 20 (in fact, I’m certain I lacked any reasonable dose of either). My parents raised me, my sister and my brother as best they could and without that elusive Parenting Manual that never seems to arrive when our children do.

With my Mom in Jerusalem in early 2016
In Jerusalem with my Mom, early 2016

The three of us now have families of our own and it’s only really now that I have an inkling of how my parents must have felt as new parents.

I’m still pretty new at being a Dad (about 9 years in) and I’ve learned that being a parent is mostly about doing the best you can to keep your children alive, clothed, fed and happy.

I’ve made plenty of mistakes, some of which I have shared and some which you’ll never hear about. I think I’ve also done a few good things too. Mostly, being a parent is a learning experience. It happens moment by moment and there are days when it all seems to be so easy. There are other days when I can only barely keep the doubts and worry at tolerable levels.

When I look at other parents, I see other people also trying to figure this stuff out. Some are better at some aspects of parenting and not so great at others. There are, of course, the parents who really seem to have figured this stuff out and I’m constantly envious of them.

Mostly, though, none of us really have the “How to Be An Awesome Parent and Never Let Your Kids Down” manual. We just muddle along and aim to make fewer mistakes that can’t be resolved with years of therapy when our kids are older.

So, this was what was running through my mind when I sat down to write my letter to my Mom.

http://allthingsmomsydney.com/a-letter-to-my-mom-from-paul-jacobson/

I’m sure she feels guilty about mistakes she feels she made as a mother just as she is (justifiably) proud of the many great things she did. One of the things I wanted to communicate through my letter to my Mom is that whatever mistakes she may feel she made don’t matter anymore.

What I take from my experiences of being my mother’s child (at least in the first two decades or so of my life) have inspired me to be a better parent to our children.

When I think about how to deal with a difficult situation, I don’t think back to some dark, tragic moment in my childhood where my parents let me down (there really weren’t any). I think back to the happy moments, the positive lessons I learned and the times I felt loved. Those are the childhood experiences that shape me as a parent today and will in the years and decades to come.

So, after all of that I have two last things to say. First, go read my letter to my Mom. Second, thank you Mom. Love you lots!

Parent hack for kids with devices

Like many of you, we have kids with devices. Specifically, an iPad 1 (so VHS!) and an iPhone 4s. Our kids wake up pretty early on weekends used to immediately start playing while we sleep. That part was fine because they let us sleep a little longer.

The challenge was that they’d still be playing by late morning on the weekend without having eaten anything, changed out of their pyjamas or brushed their teeth. Sure there are times when a pyjama day is a perfect way to spend the weekend but we don’t want to raise Zombie Screen Kiddies.

We came up with a pretty effective little parent hack to get them to do all that admin without a weekly fight about it. We introduced a new rule: no devices on weekends before they –

  • eat breakfast
  • brush their teeth (properly)
  • change into day clothes.

The result has been impressive. Both kids are typically fed, teeth brushed and dressed by 7am.

The bonus benefit is that our son has been helping our daughter with her tasks. He gives her breakfast and a 1 minute timer so she brushes her teeth long enough. He even opens blinds in the apartment so they’re exposed to some of that natural light.

They didn’t even argue with us when we introduced the rule. They’re probably still too young to realise when they are being manipulated.

I am really proud of them for embracing this new rule. I’m also really impressed with our ingenuity.