Thursday, June 28, 2012

Quiet (Or, Why My Life Wouldn't Be the Same Without Boys)

Things have been quiet around here this week. My boys are on vacation with their Dad, so it's just me and the dog and the cat. And while I have plenty to do around here -- and am, in fact, relishing the peace and quiet -- I'm beginning to realize just how boring life with be without my boys.

Right now, the evidence of my boys is everywhere.

In the kitchen

 In the dining room

On the front porch

And in the backyard

But you know what? All of the "mess" is evidence of the many ways my boys have enhanced my life. My boys inspired me to take a trip to 3 National Parks and a Titanic Museum -- and allowed me to opportunity to re-experience the mountains and the South through their eyes. My boys have brought Legos into my home, and amazed me with their ability to recombine those colorful little blocks into a multitude of shapes and projects. They've taught me that even flat balls can be fun, and demonstrated how a little ingenuity can turn leftover packing material into pontoon boats.

My boys keep my on my toes. But they also continually challenge and inspire me. Thanks, guys, for making my world a better place!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Work-Life Balance: Time for Solutions!

Work on one side, kids on the other?
Illustration by winnifred xoxo via Flickr
 The issue of balance is in the news again.

Anne-Marie Slaughter's Atlantic article, Why Women Still Can't Have It All, jump-started the conversation. Other moms, bloggers and commentators have been adding on since. (I particularly love Joanna Weiss's column, Work-Life Balance: Some Helpful Tips From the Elite. Because, you know, it never occurred to me that a fishmonger who delivers was the answer to all my problems.)

Like every other American mom, I have some thoughts on work-life balance. And my thoughts are this:

Time matters. A parent who spends 12 hours a day away from home, 5 or 6 days a week, will not have the same relationship with their child as a parent who is home with that child those same 12 hours a day. Relationships -- romantic, parental or otherwise -- are nurtured by spending time with each other.

The concept of quality vs. quantity time is a crock of coo-coo poo. Sure, it's important to spend time interacting with your kids, vs. simply existing with them. So if you only have an hour a day with them, it's probably better to spend that time playing a game together than scrubbing the dishes while they play X-box in the next room. But relationships truly grow when people spend unstructured time together. Want to get to know your kids? Spend a snow day with them. Take them on a cross-country camping trip. Spend a year homeschooling them. When you're with your kids, day in and day out, you develop an understanding of their thoughts, ideas and preferences that you simply can't get from weekend check-ins.

That's not to say that you have to be an unemployed, at-home parent to be a good parent. I know a ton of good parents, both employed and unemployed, at-home and at-work. But every single great parent I know spent a significant amount of time with their children at one point or another. Co-incidence? I think not.

Social support would help. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Our society talks a good deal about parenting as "the most important job in the world," but does little to support actual parents in the act of parenting.

In our society, the decision to work outside of the home or to stay home with children is viewed as a private decision, one that should be made and handled within the family unit. Unlike moms and dads in many other countries around the world, American parents can only take time off from work if they're economically able to do so. If they decide to stay home, they not only forgo income, but also potential retirement income.  (Wanna see a bunch of zeroes? Look at the Social Security statement of a woman who's spent some time at home raising kids.)

If one or both parents decides to work, whether for economic need or personal fulfillment, the family is expected to handle the messy issue of childcare all alone. To date, our society doesn't seem to believe that it has a vested interest in the care of these children and families.

Yet, when kids get out of hand (middle schoolers on the bus, I'm looking at you!), we automatically ask, "Where are the parents?"  We don't seem to recognize that we've created an impossible situation for all parents.

Other countries provide generous maternal and paternal leave. Financial stipends to parents who stay home to care for children. Universal access to high-quality childcare. Those kinds of things could make a difference -- for parents, for kids and for our country -- yet we're loathe to fund them. Too socialist-like, we're told. Too expensive. So we leave our families to fend for themselves. Instead of having serious discussions about the value of parenting, we let individuals figure out their own convoluted solutions to the problem of "having it all." We let our families figure out how to blend work and home, while placing value almost exclusively on adult achievement outside of the home. We warehouse our children in childcare centers and schools and camps, treat them as obstacles to achievement, and wonder why our children are doing so poorly in school and in life.

I think it's high-time for parents to stop debating work-life balance, and to start demanding some real solutions. Too many parents (moms, especially) are wasting time blaming themselves for their supposed inability to gracefully juggle work, home and family. They consider themselves flawed, weak human beings because they haven't figured "it" out yet. But guess what? The problem isn't that you're weak or unorganized or not sufficiently dedicated. The problem is that our society has placed you in an impossible position.

Let's stop heaping the blame on ourselves or others, and start looking for solutions instead.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Bullies & the Bus Monitor

Photo by bsabarnowl via Flickr
Have you seen the video of middle school kids tormenting their 60-some-year-old bus monitor?

The story of Karen, the bus monitor, and her 10-minute verbal assault has gone viral. Scores of sympathetic people have raised over $140,000 to send Karen on a vacation, and national news outlets are interviewing Karen today.

I couldn't watch the entire video; three minutes was about all I could stand. What struck me most about the video was that her bullies were CHILDREN -- middle school children, at that -- who were spewing such hateful, mean language.

The next thing that struck me was the contrast between this bus situation and my 2010 experience chaperoning a bus full of middle schools kids. My oldest son had asked me to chaperone the junior high show choir's bus trip to Six Flags, and I agreed. With trepidation. I said yes because he was my son, but inwardly, I was dreading the thought of chaperoning a bus full of middle school kids. I expected rowdiness and clique-y behavior, and kids who didn't want to listen to adults. I expected a struggle.

Instead, I witnessed some of the most respectful behavior I have ever seen out of a group of kids. The kids were polite. They were nice to each other, and to the adults. They even picked up all of their garbage!

A lot of the credit, I know, goes to their director, who insists on respectful behavior. He teaches the kids music and dance, but underneath it all is a strong current of character development. Kids in his program quickly learn that good behavior is not optional. As a parent, I appreciate the help. Anyone who insists upon -- and models -- respect, hard work and persistence is A-OK in my book.

But schools can't do it alone. I don't know the stories of the kids' on Karen's bus, but I'm willing to bet that many of them have heard similar disparaging and disrespectful words at home or in their communities. So please...
  • Continue to use nice words at home. Speak kindly to your children, and insist (to the best of your ability) that they do the same.  
  • Be nice to everyone in your community -- the checkers at the grocery store, the old lady walking her dog, even the guy who cuts you off in traffic. 
  • Assume the best about people, while maintaining a healthy sense of boundaries. 
  • Teach your children to see the humanity in others.
I can't stop a busload of kids in New York from bullying a senior citizen. But I can take steps, here in my home and my community, to ensure that my kids will never do the same.

How do you teach your kids respectful behavior?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A Titanic Experience

You know about our camping trip. But did you know that it all started with the Titanic?

My 6-year-old son is a Titanic fanatic. He first got interested in the Titanic about a year ago, after we picked up a book about the famous wreck at a local garage sale. He poured over that book, passionately, so we went to the library and checked out more books. And videos. Today, my son has darn close to 10 books on the Titanic, and he can tell you almost anything about the ship and its discovery.

But of course, my son has never been on the Titanic. He doesn't even remember the visit our family made to a traveling Titanic exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum a few years ago. This year, though, marks 100 years since the Titanic's sinking, so I jumped online, hoping to find a similar exhibit within easy driving distance.

What I found instead was the Titanic Museum Attraction, a special Titanic-only museum featuring a reproduction of the Grand Staircase! I was immediately intrigued. I knew my son would love it and I -- well, I wanted to see the Grand Staircase for myself.

The only problem was that the Titanic Museum wasn't anywhere near our house. The two locations -- Branson, Missouri and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee -- are both a good distance from our home in southeastern Wisconsin. But I really wanted to take my son. So I started calculating mileage and locating interesting stops along the way, and came up with our Titanic-by-way-of-the-Indiana-Dunes-and-Mammoth-Cave vacation.

We first glimpsed the Titanic Museum as we were passing through Pigeon Forge on the way to our campground in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. We'd been driving for hours and hours when suddenly we saw the great ship itself materialize along the right side of the road. That sight alone -- a real, full-size version of the Titanic (albeit, only her front half) -- was enough to thrill my son.

We returned the next day for our official tour. Each of us was given a boarding pass which included the name and background info of an actual passenger aboard the Titanic. My 6-yr-old recognized "his" name -- Dick Williams -- almost immediately. (A few months earlier, we'd read an article about Williams, a tennis star who survived the sinking.) The rest of us speculated about our fates, which would be revealed at the end of our tour. (Spoiler alert: Most of us survived.)

We wandered through the exhibits, which included diagrams and models of the Titanic, maps of her voyage and actual and recreated artifacts from the famous ship. We listened to a Captain Smith look-alike tell us about her voyage. And we loved the actual-size reproductions that made us feel as if we'd snuck onto the ship. We saw a full-size third-class stateroom, complete with two sets of bunk beds. We pressed a button and saw water flood a staircase; we were safely behind a pane of thick glass, but the experience nonetheless gave us an idea of how terrifying it must have felt to stand in the path of such water.

The boys enjoyed shoveling coal into the furnace. The pre-weighted shovel gave them some idea of the physicality of this task, and the signs nearby put the back-breaking labor into perspective: stokers shoveled coal in 10 hour shifts, around the clock, to keep the Titanic fueled.

The Grand Staircase was as beautiful as it looks in pictures -- but did you know that the surface of the stairs was not marble, but linoleum? (Back then, linoleum was the new, amazing thing.)

The best part, though, was the opportunity to experience 28 degree water firsthand. We knew, from our studies, that the water around the Titanic on the night of her sinking was just 28 degrees Farenheit, and that few people survived for more than a few minutes in such chilly water. But the Titanic Museum gave us the opportunity to dunk our hands into water chilled to 28 degrees. Until you've submerged your hand in 28 degree water, you can't really understand what the books say when they describe such cold as "like a thousand knives, stabbing you." I found it difficult to keep my hand in the water for even 15 seconds.

The kids (and I) also loved climbing on Titanic ship decks tilted to different angles to represent the angles of the decks at various points in her sinking. It's one thing to watch a movie of people sliding down the deck as the ship sank, and another to personally experience how hard it is to stand on ship that's going down.

The museum was a treasure trove of primary sources too, including photos and scrapbook pages taken by a priest onboard, postcards from passengers and authentic 1912 newspapers reporting the Titanic's demise. I was particularly moved by two telelgrams. One, sent from a boilerman (who was off-duty at the time of the sinking) to his family said simply, "Safe." (So much, in that one word!) Another, sent by the White Star Line to the wife of a passenger, said, "Regret your husband not saved." I'm willing to bet that tears were shed over that piece of paper.

My sons, of course, were not as enchanted with the primary documents as I was. I know they will never forget what 28 degree water feels like, though, and I know they now have a fuller understanding of the tragedy of the Titanic.

Disclosure: After seeing a previous blog post mentioning our planned trip to the Titanic Museum, museum personnel reached out and asked if I'd be interested in writing a blog post about our visit in exchange for free family admission. The boys and I received free admission and audio tours during our visit.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Guest Post: Male Strength

Today I'm honored to have Brian Plachta as my guest blogger. Brian is the author the recently released book:  Pillars of Steel---How Real Men Draw Strength from Each Other.  

My wife was fishing around recently asking me what I wanted for Father’s Day.  I pondered for a minute, ran through the typical list in my head---a necktie? No, too boring. New golf driver? No, got one last year.  Gas grill?  No, too expensive.  

But then out of nowhere in the middle of my wondering, the thought popped into my head like a kid waiting to be picked in a duck-duck-goose game, and I blurted out:  “Strength.  That’s what I want for father’s day this year.  Male strength.”

She looked at me with that puzzled look in her eyes wondering if my dementia was acting up again, but since we’ve been married almost twenty-nine years and she has a heart of compassion and wisdom, she simply asked, “What do you mean?”

“I want some good ol’ fashion strength.” I replied. “The kind like my father had, but different.  I want to feel like I am able to protect and provide for you and the kids.  I want to feel like I am capable of surviving anything that happens.  And part of that is feeling like I’m plugged into some inner compass that guides and directs me when I’m trying to make the tough decisions I have to make in life.  I want to feel like a strong man again with strength tempered by compassion for you and the kids, myself, and others.”

“Wow! That’s a tall order.”  My wife replied.  “I’m not sure Macy’s carries that.”

We chuckled out loud for a few minutes.  But then I shared with her what I’ve been learning as I dig deep into my own heart and into researching what some call the current “crisis of masculinity.”

Whether we realize it or not, men are currently in the middle of a paradigm shift.  Women have taken their proper role in society after the women’s movement dramatically changed the way society defines womanhood.  As a result, the pendulum of male-female relationships has swung significantly and men are left asking the question, “Where does that leave us?” Confused; surprised; the soft male; having to redefine what genuine masculinity is or else culture will define it for us, and is, as men get caricaturized on television comedy shows like Two and a Half Men as the buffoon, the idiot.

And perhaps because we abused our strength and power as men collectively over the years, men are often now laughed at when we do exercise our strength in a balanced way. And we’re left having to redefine what authentic male strength is. 

 Robert Bly in his epic book, Iron John, defines true male strength as the “deep male”---the man who is able to connect with his soul, who is able to wrestle out loud with his vulnerability and gain wisdom as a result of his having asked the important questions of life so he can live into the answers.  St. Paul calls the strong man, the “inner man”---the man who digs deep and understands who he is and who he is not.

I’m finding that’s what I am looking for these days along with a growing number of my buddies: male strength, the deep male, even if we can’t quite find the language yet to define it, much less talk about it.  And since male strength is something I have to find for myself---on the inside---my wife can’t give it to me wrapped up in a neat package like a typical father’s day gift, but she can help understand where men find themselves today and help point me toward that inner journey. 

 When my wife and I got married, during our wedding vows we promised to help each other become the best person we could become.  Part of that promise for her has been coming to a deeper understanding of how tough it is to be a man in today’s culture because of the pendulum shift.  Richard Rohr, a Roman Catholic priest and pioneer in the men’s movement, captures the current state of men’s dilemma:

Take a typical woman, educated or uneducated, of most any race or ethnicity, and give her this agenda: “You are not to have any close friends or confidants; you are to avoid any show of need, weakness or tender human intimacy; you may not touch other women without very good reason; you may not cry; you are not encouraged to trust your inner guidance but only outer authorities and ‘big’ people; and you are to judge yourself by your roles, titles, car, house, money and successes. People are either in your tribe, or they are a competitive threat—or of no interest.” Then tell her, “This is what it feels like to be a male, most of the time.”

“Maleness,” reports Rohr, “can be a very lonely and self-defeating world.”

I think the best thing my wife can do for me and for my three sons is to understand the cultural shift men are experiencing, to read about it, learn about it, and then use her gift of being a strong nurturer to point me and my sons in a new direction. 

This new direction will require women to:

·           Be open to unfolding.  There’s no defined path for the new genuine manhood that is evolving.  That means it might be messy at times and it has to unfold like walking a virgin hiking trail with only a compass in hand.  That means the journey can’t be controlled, it can only be trusted.

·               Understand.  We are only coming now to a deeper realization that men are changing drastically as a result of the pioneering women have done over the past forty years.  Therefore, just as men have had to learn about how women changed and evolved, women will need to learn about the crisis in masculinity and how it is inviting men to deeper transformation.

·            Nurture.  Like a deer coming out of the woods into an open valley, men are often unsure and skeptical of things they can’t understand or control.  Therefore, rather than pushing men into growth and transformation (which will only cause them to rush back into the woods) women will need to understand that these are tough times for men and support them as they take the leap of faith diving into this modern challenge of masculinity.

·          Encourage.    As women begin to understand the path men are on and what men need to do to grow and change just like women evolved over the last few decades, women can walk alongside men gently point them in a new direction---the direction of the deep male, the inner man.  This will require women to create the freedom and space for men to pursue new opportunities shoulder-to-shoulder with other men.

This new direction will require men to: 

Take life a little more seriously (although not too seriously or we’ll lose our sense of humor and become a bore) 

Take the risk of developing male friendships much deeper than the superficial ones limited by the man code (those unwritten rules left over from patriarchy that restrict men from talking about anything other than women, work and sports, lest we get thrown out of the man club); and

              Find a faith that is real and relevant for themselves and their sons.  

I realize this is a tall order.  But perhaps if women and men together can find the trail marker defining where men are at culturally as a result of the pendulum shift, we can blaze a new trail that will allow us to be better partners on the journey of becoming the best persons we can be. Who knows, this new trail of genuine masculinity, the deep male, might even change the course of history, just like the women’s movement. So, what do you think?  What did you get your loved one for Father’s Day this year?

Brian Plachta is an attorney, husband and father. He holds a Masters in Pastoral Counseling degree, and is a certified Spiritual Director. He is a frequent workshop speaker on men’s spirituality topics for churches, spiritual life centers and men’s conferences throughout the state of Michigan. He also serves as an adjunct faculty member at the Dominican Center at Marywood, an ecumenical spiritual life center in West Michigan.
His new book, Pillars of Steel---How Real Men Draw Strength from Each Other, is a field guide for men and women which provides a trail marker for  and history of  men’s masculinity.  Contact Brian directly at:

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Great Camping Road Trip

We are back!

Back from Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

Back from Mammoth Cave National Park.

Back from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

And back from a week-long, camping road trip that included one flat tire, a kind Kentucky state trooper, a cantankerous old lady, dozens of ticks and an abundance of family bonding.

Some people are surprised I even attempted the trip. A 1500+ mile road trip and a week of camping, alone with 4 boys?? But you know what? Life is simpler on the road.

On the road, we only had each other, and without our external obligations and distractions, we reconnected as a family. (Don't think we abandoned our electronics, though. I highly recommend iPad-, iPod and laptop-use during long road trips!) For one week, all we had to do was survive and experience the wonders of the world. 

Now that we're back home, I'm a bit overwhelmed by all the stuff that's a part of our normal lives. Here, I have an entire house -- 2 toilets, 2 staircases, multiple rooms and all kinds of furniture and accessories -- to care for. When we were camping, we had 5 folding chairs and a tent. (Well, two tents. Boy #1 preferred to sleep in his pup tent) Here, I have an entire kitchen, fridge, freezer and local grocery store. Camping, we dined on what we had in our cooler and carry-along tote. Here, we each have more clothes than we need, and sooner or later, it all ends up in the laundry. Camping, we wore clothes again and again, and no one minded.

Back home, I wonder about the ways we complicate our lives, adding in more stuff than we can ever need, even as I realize that I'll do little to change it. I may make attempts to whittle down clutter, but let's face it: I'm not going to give up my house or modern conveniences, and I'm certainly not going to ask the boys to give up their recreational activities, just so we can have some family down time. I may be tempted, but I know that we've carefully considered these decisions again and again. I know that our regular, modern lives include an awfully hectic schedule, lots of juggling and a ton of supportive friends and family members.

For one week, though, it sure was nice to get back to the basics.

What did you do while I was gone? Do you have any camping or road trips planned this summer?

Friday, June 8, 2012

Best of the Blogs

Photo by espensorvik via Flickr
Here it is! The Best of the Blogs for the week of June 4-8:

Why Society is Failing Young Boys. Boys/young men aren't doing so well in society. Girls are graduating college are far greater rates than boys are, and many young men continue to struggle well into adulthood. The image a loser-ish young man living in his parent's basement is, unfortunately, awfully close to reality for a lot of guys. What gives?

The authors of this post (the same people who wrote The Demise of Guys: Why Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It) write:

 We wanted to find out the factors contributing to motivational and social problems in today's young men. The most popular response we got across the broad spectrum of answers - nearly two-thirds of participants agreed - it was because of conflicting messages from media, institutions, parents, and peers about what is acceptable and desirable male behavior. This means guys aren't sure what it means to be a man.

20 Summer Snack Foods Your Kids Will Love. My grocery bill is about to go up. WAY up! My four boys will be home most of the summer, and with a teen and a tween in the house, we go through food fast. The boys and I are always in the market for some fast, fun, healthy snack ideas. Popcorn, yogurt and cheese and crackers gets boring after awhile, you know?

I love this list because it's made of of snacks that can be made with ingredients we already have in the house. Plus, I'm pretty sure that Bacon Popcorn will be a big hit at our house!

What Happens When We Don't Teach Our Boys About Sex. Our boys are surrounded by rampant hypersexualized images and ideas. Like many parents, I instinctively know that those messages are not helping my boys develop a healthy sexuality. But like many parents, I'm not exactly sure how to help my boys develop a more healthy outlook towards sex. (I know how to provide the facts, but I also know that healthy sexuality is lot more than biomechanics.) I still don't have all the answers, but this blog post emphasizes why it's important to try.

My favorite lines: "We adults have put boys in charge of teaching other boys about the most sacred parts of their bodies. Boys are teaching other boys about sexuality in this culture. And because adults are unable or unwilling to step up, this is the mess we are in."

Science Makes It Official: Boys Are Filthy, Covered With Cooties. Funny, isn't it? We've been talking about how the media perpetuates stereotypes about boys, and here's a headline that does exactly that.

The actual post is about a scientific study. The headline writing? Less than scientific.

Boys Will Be Boys, Eventually. A fascinating look at boys' fashions throughout history! And, when you think about it, a perfectly interesting example about how the definition of "manly" and "male" has changed through time.

Did you see any great boy-related blog posts this week? Share the link below!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Summer Vacation

Photo by ShedBOy^ via Flickr Creative Commons
It's the first day of summer vacation here. Boy #1-3, plus a friend, are currently picking stones for a local farmer. (Don't know what I mean by "picking stones?" Check out this 2009 blog post.)

Boy #4 is a busy as busy can be. So far this morning, he's helped organize his home-from-school supplies, listened to a story, watched and discussed a video of an iceberg flipping over (remember, this is my Titanic fantatic), tested his homemade boat and played the piano.

Me? I'm trying to keep it all together. My goals this summer include:
  • Taking some time to have fun with my boys everyday. The "fun" doesn't have to be anything ambitious. It can be as simple as reading a book to my 6-yr-old (check!) or playing a game of cards with my 11-yr-old. Trips to local forests and ice creams shops count too.
  • Taking care of business. I'm a self-employed freelance writer. The good thing about that is that I get to set my own schedule. I can work when, and as much, as I like. But that comes with a caveat, because, you know, I still have mortgage and food bills to pay. So at the moment, I'm working on my laptop in the kitchen while Boy #4 plays upstairs. Friday afternoon I'll take off early to watch Boy #3 play in a baseball tournament, but that means I'll probably be working both tonight and tomorrow. The goal: Keep the money coming in while being present for my boys.
  • Come up with a system to keep the house in relative order, and use it consistently. Given goals #1 and #2, there's simply no way that I can manage the house on my own. And I should haven't to. My boys are all old enough to contribute, and I believe they should. I haven't been great about household management and delegating chores in the past, though, because 1) I hate housework, 2) I'll always prioritize fun or learning over housework and 3) it takes time and energy simply to come up with a system! So this summer, on the advice of another blogger, I've downloaded the Motivated Moms app for my iPad, and started color-coding daily chores. I've told each boy that they will have assigned chores each day, and that they will be expected to complete them before they get to the fun of the day. Their response was about what I expected: whining. I vow to push ahead, though!
I've also scheduled some summer fun. About two years ago, I realized that summers tend to slip by in a haze of ballgames and commitments, unless I purposefully make it a point to include some of the things we want to do. So our summer calendar already includes a week-long camping roadtrip, a shorter weekend camping trip with friends and a boys-and-uncle Brewers game. I'm sure we'll take some time to visit the county fair as well.

What about you? What are you and your boys up to this summer? And how do you manage household chores at your house?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

How (Not) to Talk To Boys

Maybe I'm just hyper-sensitive to language right now. Or maybe I just strongly believe that little boys should have the freedom to be little boys, without hearing verbal messages that imply they're somehow not manly enough.

Last night, I attended my 6-yr-old son's first baseball game of the season. This is the first year he's in coach-pitch baseball; instead of hitting the ball off of a tee, the kids hit balls lobbed by a pitching machine. (Well, unless they miss it too many times. Then they get to whack it off the tee.) For the most part, it's an age-appropriate introduction to the sport, and the boys and girls on his team, who range from age 6 to age 8, seem to enjoy it.

But I heard one comment last night that made my cringe.

The young boy who was playing right field was, um, not exactly paying attention to the game anymore. It was late in the game, and his focus had wandered elsewhere. His body was turned toward the playground located just outside the ball field fence, and he was kicking at the dirt.

His coach, meanwhile, was touring the outfield, trying to get his players' heads in the game. "Ball player ready!" he'd call, and his players would hunch forward and bend their knees, with their gloves at the ready. Except the right fielder. So the coach wandered over.

"Timmy,' he said (except he didn't say Timmy, 'cause that's not the kid's real name), "are you one of those who loves to play with the sand?"

The kid didn't answer.

The coach wandered closer. "I think you are. I think you're one who likes to play in the sand. Are you one of those who loves to play in the sand, or are you a ballplayer?!"

Photo by Greg Westfall via Flickr

The kid didn't respond. He reluctantly turned from the playground and crouched over, but I couldn't help but wonder what message he took home from the coach's words.

Can't a kid -- a 6-year-old kid, no less! -- love to play in the sand AND be a ballplayer? Why do the two have to be exclusive? And in this case, it was very, very clear that the coach was communicating that "ballplayer" was preferable to "sand player."

I fear that the young boy in question will learn that playing in the sand is not OK. That it's better -- and manlier -- to play ball. But who says so? And why? That I think, is what troubles me the most about the coach's comment: the child has no way to critically analyze the messages that are sent his way. He (and virtually all children) hear the things said by the adults around them, and accept them as true. Without even realizing it, this kid will soon internalize the idea that playing the sand is bad.

I understand that the coach doesn't want his outfielders playing in the sand during a game. But isn't there a better way to communicate that message? How about, "Timmy, get ready! Hands on your knees!"?

What do you think?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

"That's So Gay" & Other Insults

Creative Commons photo by antisocialtory
Actor Jason Alexander, formerly of Seinfeld, recently called the sport of cricket  "a bit gay."

Hi comments ignited a controversy on Twitter, with some of his followers saying that they found his humor offensive. Alexander didn't get it. At first.

But neither did he mean to offend anyone, so with some friends, Alexander set out to determine why what he said was so offensive. This is what he found:

...we began to realize what was implied under the humor. I was basing my use of the word “gay” on the silly generalization that real men don’t do gentile, refined things and that my portrayal of the cricket pitch was pointedly effeminate , thereby suggesting that effeminate and gay were synonymous...

The problem is that today, as I write this, young men and women whose behaviors, choices or attitudes are not deemed “man enough” or “normal” are being subjected to all kinds of abuse from verbal to physical to societal. They are being demeaned and threatened because they don’t fit the group’s idea of what a “real man” or a “real woman” are supposed to look like, act like and feel like. 

That's where Alexander's world and mine crossed. We've both seen the incredibly small boxes our boys are expected to inhabit, boxes that accept football, for instance, but reject dance. (Unless, of course, you're Donald Driver.) We've both come to realize that language has power, and that it's important to consider the multi-layered meanings of our words, lest we broadcast messages we'd rather not send.

Throwing around the word gay, in any kind of derogatory manner, is not OK in my book. (Yet, it's the one of the most common and harmful insults that boys hurl at one another.) But for the purposes of this blog post, let's ignore the word gay, and get down to the implications underneath, the ones that have nothing whatsoever to do with sexual orientation.

Alexander realized that his joke was built on the assumption that real men don't do gentile, refined things. Think about that for a moment, because those are the unspoken assumptions that shape and limits our boys' worlds. Our boys learn that it's OK to rough house, tease and tackle, but that it's not OK to take tea. And they learn that failure to conform to those standards --failure to suppress any gentile or refined desires -- will result in social ostracization.

That's not OK. I want my boys (and yours) to know that's it's OK to be loud and active, and OK to get dirty. But I also want them to know that it's OK to pursue "gentile, refined things." I want to expand our definitions of "real man," so that none of our boys feel forced to act, speak or behave in certain ways to gain social acceptance.

So today, I'd like to say thank you to Jason Alexander. Thank you for taking the time to carefully consider your words, and thank you for issuing an apology that encourages each of us to confront the ugly implications in our words and deeds.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Real Life With Boys

This weekend, I was attempting to hurry my 6-yr-old through his bedtime routine when he started scrawling something on the steamy bathroom mirror.

"Stop th--," I said, my voice trailing off as I suddenly realized what he might be writing.

His finger continued through the condensation, then he pulled back and smiled at me.

"I LUV MOM," the mirror said. I gave a silent prayer of thanks that I managed to stop my tongue mid-hasty reproach, and hugged my son.

He pointed his finger again. Reached for the mirror. And wrote "SUMTIMES" just below "I LUV MOM."

Gotta love that boy's honesty!

Friday, June 1, 2012

31 Posts in 31 Days

Normally, Fridays are Best of the Blogs day around here. But today, please allow me a moment to interrupt our regularly scheduled programming...

Today is June 1, which means that the Blogathon -- the 31-day blogging challenging I undertook during the month of May -- is officially over.

It's not easy to keep your blogging mojo going for 31 days, but I learned this: It's a lot easier to keep your mojo up when you blog on a regular basis. Before, I struggled to post once a week. Now, putting a blog post up more days than not is almost second nature.

I also learned the value of putting yourself out there. Because of the Blogathon, I connected with other people who are concerned about the welfare of boys. I virtually met and interviewed Crystal Smith, author of The Achilles Effect. My blog has been featured in The Boys Initiative newsletter, and I've been invited to contribute a blog post to their brand-new blog, Attention Must Be Paid. (Head over and check out their stuff -- and don't worry, I'll post a link as soon as my Boys Initiative post goes live.)

All of that might sounds like a lot of self-promotion, but it's really not. As a mom of boys, I'm truly concerned about the well-being of boys everywhere, yet there is only so much I can do on my own. When I connect with others who share my concerns, we generate a power and synergy that has the potential to create changes.

My goal is to add an on-the-ground, in-the-trenches voice to the discussions and debates about boys. Academic and research-based perspectives certainly have value, but I think it's absolutely crucial to understand what's happening in boys' lives on a day-to-day basis. It's important, I think, to listen to the boys themselves, and to the parents who are working to support their sons as they navigate a world that is often less-than-friendly to boys' needs and instincts. It's important to share our challenges, as well as our success stories, and to encourage one another as we work to raise hardworking, respectful and emotionally intelligent men.

So thank you for joining me. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and opinions, and thanks for sharing my blog posts across the Internet. I look forward to continuing the conversation!