Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Pizza off the Men's Room Floor

On a cold January day in 2015, I faced the most dire challenge of my parenting life.

I was flying solo with our two girls, at the time aged 2 and 4.  We had just attended a birthday party for my four year old's best friend at the indoor bouncy house emporium known as Pump It Up.  It was our first time there, and both the girls went absolutely bugnuts jumping up and down and laughing hysterically. I eagerly kicked off my shoes and climbed in after them.  "The little one needs me in here so that the big kids don't crash into her," I lied. 

After three consecutive rooms of moon bounces and ball pits, the kids settled into an orgy of pizza and cake.  The kids tore into room temperature Papa John's pepperoni pizza with the gusto normally only shown by people who have been marooned on desert islands for extended periods of time. They were in heaven.

As everyone with small children know, however, their schedules are a series of inexorable and relentless wheels and pulleys.  If you miss nap time, your children will be horrors.  To avoid missing nap time, you have to be home by X o'clock.  Which means you have to leave by X minus 30. Which means that you have to start extracting yourself from the fun situation at about X minus 40, and leave yourself some air in the schedule if your kids are having a super good time.  

Side note: The institution of the "goody bag" at parties is not, in fact, just an elaborate and nefarious conspiracy by Jack Maa and Alibaba to fill your house with cheap plastic crap.  Goody Bags exist so parents can bribe their kids into leaving, pure and simple. We call the process of untangling ourselves from a fun and exciting situation  "Exfiltration," a term that commandos and special forces types use for 'leaving a place or situation that is about become very uncomfortable, sometimes while being shot at with rocket propelled grenades."

The 4 year old was having too much fun to leave easily.  She was used up and didn't know it.  She had been bouncing for hours, and was now dealing with a sugar crash on top of it.  She resisted all my blandishments, and even the goody bag wasn't enough to entice her into a clean get away.  She wanted to eat more pizza.  

"How about if you bring a piece to eat on the way home?" I suggested, beginning to grow desperate.  This offer meant breaking a long standing precedent against messy food in the car, but the 2 year old's nap window was closing rapidly.  At this point my hopes were shifting to a car nap on the ride home.

"OK, Daddy," the 4 year old agreed. PHEW.

But now the 2 year old needed a change. Burdened by winter coats, goody bags, and a diaper bag crammed with enough equipment for an ascent of the Lhotse Face, I staggered into the men's room, firmly commanding my 4 year old not to touch anything.  Thank god there was a changing table. It was creaky and tippy, but it was there.  As I plopped my 2 year old down, it groaned and sagged precipitously, but held. 

As I started changing the diaper on my squirmy, cake and ice cream filled toddler, the table gradually  inclined about 15 degrees towards me, which meant that my daughter threatened to roll off onto the floor with every kick and thrash, of which their were plenty. 


There's a certain unmistakable character to the sound of pizza hitting tile floor, toppings down.  It's both wet and percussive. 

I whirled around to look at the 4 year old, keeping one hand on the toddler and another on the poopy diaper.  Sure enough, she had picked up the piece of pizza and was lifting it towards her mouth.

"NO!" I instructed firmly.  "Do not eat that!"
HOWLS of protest.  She WANTED that pizza.  She wanted it NOW!

"I'm sorry, honey, you have to throw it away.  You HAVE to.  I'm so very sorry" I would have promised her a replacement piece, but I'd already seen the staff cleaning up and heading to the dumpster with all the extra pizza boxes.

The 4 year old screamed with fury, working into a full DEFCON 1 meltdown.  Tears streamed down her face in rivulets, cutting paths through the dried ice cream and frosting on her cheeks.  Her howls threatened to peel the faded paint off the walls of the rest room. 

Now the 2 year old was crying and complaining from the changing table.  I tried to keep one hand on her to keep her from sliding off the increasingly precarious changing table while performing the necessary ablutions, all while the 4 year old shrieked like a miniature Lear cursing the storm. 

I became increasingly worried that the sounds coming from the men's room were going to cause the staff to come charging in, possibly with police accompaniment, to interrupt the triple homicide that was obviously taking place.

The 4 year old clung to the befouled piece of pizza as if it were the last life vest on the Titanic.  Her chest heaved as she hate-sobbed.

I had to dispose of the loaded diaper.  Holding my tantruming younger daughter in place with one hand, with the other hand  I wadded all the used wipes into the diaper and used the tabs to secure it into a small yet stinky self-contained crap grenade.  I hurled it in the general direction of the trash can, all as the 4 year old's screams built towards a crescendo.

"All this could be averted," I thought.  "I could make it all better if I just tell her she can eat the pizza off the men's room floor."  Thoughts of the hygiene theory and the five second rule beckoned seductively in my head.  In my extremis, I was tempted.  I was very sorely tempted.

I stayed strong.  With one child now freshly diapered and wearing pants, I snatched the tainted piece of pepperoni pizza from the four year old.  Before my resolve could weaken, I hurled it into the trash.  

The screams of outrage intensified, which I would not have thought possible just a moment before.  It was time to flee, quickly and cowardly.  I shoved the goodie bags and coats into my armpits, slung the diaper bag with its 40 pounds of equipment over my shoulder, grabbed one child in each arm, and mandhandled them bodily out the door.  Though it was about 25 degrees out, I didn't even bother trying to get the girls into their winter gear.  The rage-heat generated by their twin tantrums was coming off them in palpable waves. 

I may have never been so thankful for the remote door opening feature on our minivan.  I crammed each child into a car seat, hurled the mass of coats, goody bag, and diaper bag into the back, and sank into the driver's seat, shaking.

Later I Facebooked about this, describing the dilemma I'd been in.  The comments bifurcated neatly.

"OMG," said some.  "You weren't SERIOUSLY considering letting her eat it, were you? In fact, why did you even let her bring food into the men's room?"  That came from non-parents.

All the parents in my thread just said, "Been there."

So, every parent out there, at some point you're going to be VERY tempted to let your kid break the most obvious and fundamental rules.  At some point, when you're pushed to the wall by the inevitable circumstances of parenting, you're going to want to let your kid eat pizza off the men's room floor.  Don't worry, we're not going to judge you for it.  We've all been there. 

Epilogue: The four year old calmed town relatively quickly on the ride home.  The two year old conked out instantly for a 45 minute car nap. This left her at a Nap Deficit for the day, but fortunately no one was worse the wear for it.  Today, my children don't even remember this incident, but I will carry the psychic scars for a lifetime. 

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Seven Day Screen Free Challenge

"Daddy, may I please have something to do?  Like the Disney Coloring Game?

Our five year old had very politely asked to borrow my iPhone.  While we were riding an elevator.  Riding it one floor.  From the ground floor to the second floor of our newly renovated neighborhood library, which was exciting and fun and full of books and new things to see and explore.  And yet she expected to be entertained by a glowing screen for the 40 seconds it took to ride between floors.

Clearly, we had a problem.

Like most parents, we’d succumbed to the lure of plugging our kids into screens.  Not only is it seductively easy to put on PBS Kids or Frozen for the ten thousandth viewing, it often feels like it’s straight up necessary to tranquilize them with screens if you’re ever going to cook dinner or fold the clothes.  And the shows go out of their way to make you feel GOOD about it.

“Look how educational Wild Kratts is!” we told ourselves.  “Our girls are learning about marsupials!”  But really, we’re just fooling ourselves.  Those shows could be straight up lying and making animals up, and we wouldn’t notice or care.  (Frankly, I’m still not convinced that there’s any such animal as a “foosa,” and we’ve actually seen one in the Naples Zoo.)

As comedian Patton Oswalt says, a show could start with “Yo Gabba Gabba teaches you how to make pipe bombs, and the dangers of race mixing,” and we’d just “Sweetie, don’t make pipe bombs, race mixing is fine, daddy has to cook dinner.”

We NEED those shows so we can get stuff done!  Sometimes it’s not so much “put the laundry in the drier” as it is “Sit down and look at Facebook for a couple seconds to preserve my sanity.”

“We watched plenty of TV as kids, and we turned out fine!”  Another lie we tell ourselves.  First of all, DID we actually turn out fine?  HMMMMMM!!???  And second, the electronic babysitter that our tired parents turned to in desperation was a 70 lb box in the living room. Now it’s on a flat slab of plastic and metal that fits in a pocket. Once you had to go to the screen.  Now it’s ubiquitous.

“Well, they’re not watching videos, they’re doing interactive games!  It’s even a reading game!  She’s learning phonics!”  It’s hard to take comfort in that thought when you’ve seen a kid refuse to get out of a car or try to walk up stairs while still manipulating their drawing game or Endless Reader app.  Or dealt with the howls of protest when you try to take it away from them.

They were addicted to screen based entertainment as surely as we were addicted to the easy solution of plugging them in.

One Saturday, the girls spent the whole day on school ski trip, came home exhausted and fell right asleep.  The next day we road tripped to Baltimore to do the Aquarium and the incomparably awesome Port Discovery.

When they were in bed, we realized we’d gone a whole weekend without any screen based entertainment.  Naturally we credited our superior parenting, rather than serendipity.  After putting icy hot on the shoulder muscles we’d strained patting ourselves on the back, we decided to see how long we could keep the streak going.

Cardboard Box.  Still the champ.
“Oh GIIIIRRRLLLLS, guess what I’ve got for you!?”
“What is it, daddy?  What is it whatisitwhatisit?”
“A cardboard box?”
“Nope!  It looks like a cardboard box, but it’s actually a school for your dolls!  Look, here are scissors and markers and tape.  You draw what’s on the walls, and I’ll help you cut desks out of these LaCroix boxes.”

After millennia of human existence, the cardboard box is still the champion toy of all time.

Obviously if we don’t want the girls to have screen entertainment, we can’t whip out our phones and noodle away on Facebook or Twitter in front of them.  It’s HARD suppressing that twitchy impulse to reach into your pocket and check Facebook and Twitter for an instant hit of validation and low grade amusement. We resolved to use our smart phones only for task specific stuff such as navigation, checking museum opening times, or taking pictures..

We took the girls grocery shopping.  A quick run to the store for milk turned into a Herculean effort and we ended up buying enough supplies to outfit a polar expedition.  But the girls found a bin of bargain books at the front of the store, seized on a book of princess faces and stickers to decorate them, and spent hours placing eyes, mouths, and tiaras.

My default relaxation state is not watching TV, but surfing social media and the web in a big comfy armchair next to the fireplace.

“Daddy, you said you’re limiting our screen time, but you’re not limiting your OWN screen time.”

Busted.  I immediately close my laptop and say, “You’re right, what game would you like to go play?”

It’s devilishly hard to rewire a habit, especially one as insidious as screens. But already the girls are changing.  Now they come home from school and run to a stack of Barbies, and soon Wonder Woman is having a very fraught discussion with Merida from Brave and Elsa from Frozen about the best way to save the world from the Evil Trolls from the city Sparkle of Worms.

It’s not like the girls are neglected or lack toys.  Their room looks like a truck bombing in a Toys ‘R Us.

I tell a friend that we’re no longer handing our kids a phone to pacify them when we’re out at a restaurant.

“Dude,” he says, “That’s my MOVE!”

Later: “Daddy, can’t we PLEASSSE have some videos?”

“No, play with your toys or we can play a game called “Let’s Tidy Up The Nursery.”
The girls vanish from sight, and two hours later, they've created a club, drawn up membership lists and bylaws, and are working on the agenda for the first meeting.

I’m beginning to feel like that scene in the Simpsons when Itchy and Scratchy goes off the air, and all the kids walk outside, rub their eyes, and begin playing outdoors while Beethoven’s pastoral symphony plays.

On road trips, we used to give the girls an ipad and a pair of headphones, then revel in the sybaritic joy of adult conversation.  Today I’ve substituted kids podcasts. The girls are enthralled by WOW in the World, with Guy Roz and Mindy.

At home, my computer is still on the. table beside my armchair next to the fireplace, but it’s buried under a stack of books.  I’m rewiring my habits to reach for a book instead of a screen as my default relaxation activity.  In his book “The Power of Habit,”  Charlie Duhigg talks about how the critical step to forming habits (and thus breaking previous habits) is a reward in the activity cycle.  I give myself the reward of an small but intense burst of smug superiority whenever I pick up a dead tree resource instead of a silicon one.

On a rainy Sunday between play dates, we went to see Coco at a movie theater where they serve food.  Perhaps it’s cheating to discount this from the No Screens Challenge, but seeing a movie in the company of friends and grandparents, chowing down on pizza, crawling into our laps for the sad parts feels social and interactive.

Restaurants are one of the places we’ve most relied on phones to pacify the girls.  I’m I’m flying solo with the girls and take them to a ramen shop for dinner before a Girl Scouts meeting.  I bring along two notebooks of paper and a huge box of crayons.  Before they even ask for phones, I shove the crayons and notebooks at them, and they begin scribbling away furiously.

Here’s the Secret:  Kids are SO much better at entertaining themselves than we think. NUDGE THEM.  The just need a small push in the right direction to create their own activities instead of waiting for stimulation to be painted onto their eyeballs for them.  Sometimes The Nudge is a suggestion, such as “What kind of tower would your My Little Ponies like to live in?”  Or give them The Nudge by putting the raw materials, such as crayons and paper, directly in front of them.  Other times you have to get down on the floor and start playing with them.  Grab a toy and use it as a prop to start telling them a story.  Yes, this is more work than hitting PLAY on an iPad, but it’s so much more rewarding.  And it will help break your own cycle of screen dependence.

The Take Away: We are on Day 12 of the Seven Day Screen Challenge. Several times the girls have said, “Do you mean we can’t EVER watch videos again for the REST of our LIVES!!?”  No.  We don’t have it in us to become a screen free family, but the Seven Day Screen Free Challenge has been revelatory.  Their habits have changed so quickly from demanding screens and whining when they don’t get them to reaching for other entertainment.

My wife and I are changing, also.  We’re reading books in the living room after the kids go to sleep, instead of drinking from the firehose of internet outrage.  It’s increased our well being and state of mind.  And we’re working on curbing the worst impulses of Smart Phone Addiction.  Even with the kids are around, we’re more aware of the impulse to check our phones, not because we need information, but because we’re bored.

Try the Seven Day Screen Free Challenge.  I hope you'll be as pleasantly surprised as we have been.