Teaching Jay to throw a Frisbee

Ever since the weather turned Jay and I have been spending time outside each morning before the day gets going. Yesterday we went outside and found a Frisbee lying in our driveway—almost certainly left behind by the 8- and 12-year-old boys who live next door.

Jay picked up the Frisbee and wanted to throw it. I told him I preferred we kick the soccer ball back and forth, which is actually fun as long as I position Jay uphill from me. But Jay was stuck on the Frisbee.

He’s encountered Frisbees a few times before. He doesn’t take naturally to them. Yesterday morning he tried a few times to throw it like it was a baseball, and once to push it through the air like a shot-put. A badly thrown Frisbee is just an ugly sight to behold and no fun to be on the receiving end of. After a few more minutes of his dead-duck throws I gently raised the issue of the soccer ball again. He still wasn’t interested.

The obvious question at this point is: Why don’t you just teach him how to throw a Frisbee? And I thought about that as we stood in the driveway. When it comes to teaching the boys small skills like throwing a Frisbee my default response tends to fall into one of two categories: “They’re too young to be able to do that” or “They’ll figure it out on their own.”

Now, I don’t think these are necessarily good attitudes to take. In one niggling corner of my brain I’m aware that often they’re just a cover for laziness. After all, it takes more effort to teach a kid something than to sit back, watch them fail, and trust fate and time to set things right.

So I decided yesterday morning to try and teach Jay to throw a Frisbee. I wasn’t confident it would work but I had also begun to feel too guilty not to try.

First I worked on his grip. He’d been holding the Frisbee with four fingers on top. I showed him how to turn his hand over so that he had four fingers on the bottom of the Frisbee. Then I guided his wrist into the backhand position. I turned his shoulders so they pointed in the direction he wanted to throw in. And then, standing over him I guided his arm through the throwing motion: Bring it back, sweep it forward, let go right HERE!

Jay’s first throw was better than I’d expected. But after the short-term muscle memory of doing it with me wore off he went back to doing it the wrong way. So I guided him through the motions again. Then again. And again.

By the end of 20 minutes he’d gotten pretty good at getting his body into the right position. His throws were erratic (one almost decapitated Wally, who was actually sitting a couple feet to the side of and behind Jay) but every now and again he’d throw it straight with enough spin to sustain flight for as far as ten feet.

Jay hadn’t turned into an Ultimate Frisbee pro in a morning (and believe it or not there is now such a thing as a professional Ultimate player) but he’d made a believer out of me: As we walked inside, I knew that if we practiced everyday it wouldn’t be long before he had it down.

Kids grow up so gradually and how they turn out depends on so many variables that are beyond a parent’s control. It’s hard, on a day-to-day basis, to make out specific ways in which I influence Jay. He’s so uniquely his own person that it’s easy to think he’s going to be who he’s going to be regardless of what I do.

But then there are other times, like yesterday morning, when the forks in the road are clearer. Yesterday Jay could have learned to throw a Frisbee or he could have not, and which path he took was entirely up to me. It’s a good reminder, I think, that what’s true about teaching Jay to throw a Frisbee is probably true about many of the more consequential things I might teach him as his dad.

Related posts from Growing Sideways

A glimpse into the methods behind Jay’s madness

The Parent Interview #6: Raising kids, baking bread, seeking peace

On her blog Pan and Ink Lis Fogt shares stories about raising her two boys- Gabe, age 3, and Owen, age 2- and recipes, usually for something delicious enough to make you want to run from your computer straight into the kitchen.  In the last couple months these have included instructions for Sweet Potato and Kale Quesadilla, Apple Cupcakes with Lemon-Cream Cheese Frosting, and Cherry Cornmeal Upside-Down Cake.

In the following interview Lis explains that she sees the orderliness and precision of baking as a counterpoint to the helter-skelter rhythm of taking care of two young boys.  She also talks about the hardest four months of her life as a parent when her husband was on assignment in Afghanistan, about how spending her days with Gabe and Owen is a little like having “clanging symbols” going off in her head every 20 seconds, and about the unimaginable abruptness and unexpected rewards of the transition from childlessness to motherhood.

So, thank you Lis, for taking the time to share your thoughts on life, parenting, and baking with the Growing Sideways community.

Can you tell me where you were in life when you and Steve had kids?

Steve and I had been married for six years (and together for fourteen!) when Gabe was born. I had been an English teacher for eleven years and had recently earned my master’s degree. Steve had been a journalist for the same length of time and was just embarking on a part-time master’s program for working professionals. We owned a home and felt we had enjoyed our time being together, just the two of us, as a couple. We were fortunate to have a lot of it before the kids came along.

You stopped teaching when Gabe was born.  How did you decide to leave your career to raise your kids?

When I was pregnant with Gabe, I had no idea what parenting would be like. I knew that teaching was very demanding, involving hours of work at home on weeknights and weekends. I wasn’t sure that I could be a good teacher and a good parent at the same time, so I decided to take a year “off.”

The decision was made easier by the large cut childcare would take out of my salary, and I think my own mother’s choice to stay home to raise my siblings and me must have made leaving work a more natural choice for me as well. When Owen came along (and he turned up quite a bit sooner than we had planned), the financial benefit of my returning to work was diminished, and the reality of parenting made me even more anxious about how my returning to work would impact our family, so here we are.

Very much like teaching, I find that the more years I put into parenting, the more I enjoy it. This is, of course, because my confidence level is much higher now than it was those first couple years. I expect that I will return to teaching some day, though I am enjoying working part-time as a tutor right now, and I love having time (albeit not a lot) to write.

The stories you tell on your delightful blog Pan and Ink almost always combine parenting and baking.  Do you see similarities between the two?

I have not thought about the similarities between the two, but I have often reflected on the differences. I think I became drawn to baking after making the decision to stay home with the boys because it offers a level of concentration, control, order, and predictability that is completely lacking in my life as a parent. I love to be in the kitchen when it’s quiet in the afternoons, while the boys are napping; to wipe clean the countertop and set out my ingredients; to follow a simple recipe; to lay out cookies in orderly rows or to smooth the batter of a cake or quick bread. When I have more time, I love to make a dough, roll it out, and enclose something in it. Not only do these sessions restore me mentally, but they also produce a little treat for the boys and me to enjoy in the late afternoon.

If I were to choose a culinary analogy for parenting, I think I would tap cooking rather than baking. Whereas baking requires exactitude in its amounts and processes, cooking lends itself to improvisation, to a bit more looseness and responsiveness. To me, this is much like parenting, the way in which I’m constantly observing, making adjustments, and shifting course as I make my way towards various ends. With baking, once you combine ingredients and pop your mixture into the oven, you have to just wait and hope things turn out well. I’d hate to think parenting is that formulaic.

Last year your husband Steve spent four months in Afghanistan on assignment from the State Department.  What was it like being home alone with the boys for such a long time?

Last summer was one of the hardest times of my life. I am still processing it, but I see it as both a time of great stress and despair and an opportunity for personal growth. Being the sole parent to the kids for all those days and nights helped me to tap into reserves of strength and resourcefulness I didn’t know I had. And it reinforced one of the most important lessons I have learned as a parent: This too shall pass. I knew that somehow I’d get out on the other side if we just kept plugging along, and I/we did. The experience gave me a tremendous appreciation of what military spouses and single parents go through. And it presented an opportunity to connect with neighbors, friends, and family in a way that would never have happened had Steve not been absent. I will never forget the kindness that so many people bestowed upon me in the form of childcare, meals, the lifting of heavy stuff, and, most importantly, companionship. I plan to pay it forward.

In your post “Rescue” (which included a recipe for a Fig and Frangipane Tart) you write that after a day with the boys you often have “no mental energy available for savoring.”  That got me thinking about this question: While raising kids, there are lots of moments to savor yet a lot of the work lies in the long-term project of helping them grow up.  So how do you think about the balance between savoring and making progress towards long-term goals?

It has taken a long time, but I think I am finally learning to savor the moments I have with the kids. I attribute this to a few things: Gabe starting school and the accompanying realization that he will soon be off all day doing his own thing without me; Owen entering his two’s and a new appreciation for how much Gabe has learned and matured since he was a two year-old; and a frustratingly gradual learning curve when it comes to parenting. For me, it took a long time to come to terms with the ways in which motherhood requires you to set aside your own cares and truly put others first.

I wouldn’t say that enjoying the present and pursuing long-term goals are mutually exclusive. In fact, for me it is helpful to remember that the more I can be present and positive with my children now (rather than checking Facebook constantly or fretting about a dirty apartment, both of which I do often), the better off they will be in the long term.

You often bring up Buddhism and your search for equanimity.  In a post called “The Treat Cure” you write that before you had kids you were someone who would “dependably face challenges with composure and optimism.” If you could snap your fingers and be calm and content all the time, would you do it?

This question echoes your post about friction! And of course I agree with you that life would not be life without the friction of challenging relationships and responsibilities. I have learned a lot through the trials of parenting.

I keep hoping, however (probably in vain), that someday I will feel more in control of my life. I often feel anxious about forgetting something important or not being able to get somewhere on time. I’m sure that some parents are better at staying organized and keeping their heads on straight. If I could do this all the time, yes, I think I would.

My life right now reminds me a little bit of “Harrison Bergeron,” Kurt Vonnegut’s story in which citizens judged overly-smart by the government have a buzzer implanted in their brains. Every twenty seconds or so, they receive a jolt of loud noise (crashing cymbals, ten-gun salutes) in their heads that makes it impossible for them to sustain a thought. The one thing I would miss if I could return to the days before I had the equivalent of periodic cannon fire in my head would be the delightful ways in which the children combine and pronounce words, and the opportunities for fascinating, intimate conversation that their many interruptions present.

In your post “Life is Just a Bowl of…” (that featured a recipe for a Cherry-Almond Tart) you write that despite a day of tantrums, “At evening’s final reckoning the accumulated joy far outweighs the moments of despair.”  I liked that a lot and it made me want to ask: Has being a parent been the way you’d imagined it? 

I had very little understanding of what parenting would be like, and for this reason, I did not spend much of time imagining myself as a mother. When I was pregnant, I read a lot about pregnancy and labor and delivery. I was so focused on the seemingly impossible task of getting the baby outside of my body that I barely investigated what life would be like once I was Gabe’s parent rather than his incubator.

I have read about the research showing that parents are on the whole less content moment-to-moment than non-parents, instead experiencing higher highs and lower lows. The intensity of the highs and lows of motherhood is something I could never have imagined before I had children. Had I been able to time travel forward and see myself struggling through some of our hardest days, I think I may have balked at the prospect.

I recall that in Rachel Cusk’s novel Arlington Park, a character’s transition from childlessness to motherhood is likened to falling off a cliff. The person she was before she became a mother stopped existing and a new person now walks around in her body (which, of course, is irrevocably altered as well). Cusk’s portrait of motherhood is a bit dark, but I generally appreciate her honesty, which is not to be found everywhere, and I think she’s onto something with this analogy. All that is to say that, no, parenting is not at all what I imagined!

Additional posts from the “Parent Interview” series:

The Parent Interview #1: A dad looks back

The Parent Interview #2: Where Wall Street meets motherhood

The Parent Interview #3:  Wanting to be a mom and a woman, too

The Parent Interview #4: The nest is empty

The Parent Interview #5: Irrational love

Six ways to tame a toddler

Yesterday afternoon a little after 3pm, Wally was asleep upstairs and I was lying on the guestroom bed working on my computer.  Jay had been playing quietly in the family room but then I heard him begin to walk in my direction.  I snapped my laptop shut, dove beneath the covers, and pretended to be asleep.  Jay paused in the doorway for a few seconds, assessed the scene, and went back to whatever he’d been doing.  When I was convinced that Jay had gone, I sat back up and recommenced to write.

I knew that if Jay saw me awake, there was no chance he’d leave me alone.  We’ve established a naptime routine where I lie in the bed and Jay has the option either to join me or to play by himself.  He knows, though, that whatever he chooses to do, he has to leave me alone so I can sleep. If he’d seen me awake and working, he would have concluded that naptime was over, and that he had a legitimate claim on my time again.

This situation points, I think, to the power of routine to shape how kids behave.  Most of the time when I tell Jay to go play by himself, he only tries harder to get my attention.  But there are a couple times in our daily routine where he’s expected to be on his own.  One is naptime.  The other is first thing in the morning.  When Jay wakes up we take him out of his crib, hand him an alarm clock (set for 8:05am on weekdays, 8:30pm on weekends), and remind him of the deal: He has to play quietly by himself in his room until the alarm sounds, or else he has to go back into his crib.  Stunningly, improbably, against all odds, it works.

There are other ways to get kids to do what you want them to.  The other afternoon Caroline and I were at the playground, pushing the boys on the swings, and we came up with six ways to coerce Jay and Wally:

  • Routine. “You need to go upstairs and get your pajamas on because we always go upstairs and get our pajamas on after dinner.”
  • Bribes.  Yesterday I really needed ten more minutes to finish writing an article.  I told Jay that if he left me alone he could have a Girl Scout cookie.  For the price of a box of Thin Mints it seems possible we could do away altogether with hired childcare.
  • Threats. “If you don’t go upstairs and get your pajamas on right now we’re not going to read books tonight.” We use threats more than we’d like to, and though Jay almost always relents in the face them, the victories feel hollow and unsustainable.  I’m just waiting for the day Jay replies, “Oh yeah?  Well I don’t give a #$&@ about reading time anyway.”
  • Moral Suasion.  “Be nice to your brother because it’s the right thing to do”—that kind of thing.  We try this sometimes with Jay but invocations of right and wrong seem to bounce off him.  I’m hoping he develops the capacity for guilt sometime soon so that we can replace some of our coercion-through-threats with coercion-through-moral-principles.
  • Parental Authority. This is related to Moral Suasion—“You need to wash your hands because I told you to”—and like Moral Suasion, it hasn’t really worked for us with Jay so far.  I can’t tell if that’s because Caroline and I are feckless, because we’re raising a spoiled middle class American child, because Jay’s a sociopath, or because he’s just not old enough yet for this kind of coercion to work.  I’m hoping it’s the latter.
  • Anger.  I’ve written before about the downsides of anger as a coercive tool: It’s often uncontrolled, it scares Jay more than it teaches him, and it has diminishing returns: I have to yell louder each time to have the same effect.  That said, I think there is a place for anger in the parental repertoire. When Jay throws his food on the floor and I yell at him, he’ll often just snap back at me.  But when he runs into the street, I think my angry reaction helps to reinforce just how important it is that he not do that again.

My favorite of these is definitely Routine.  Routines are so neat and clean and easy to manage once you invest the time to get them up and running.  And when our routines really start clicking, it’s like family life runs on autopilot.  This doesn’t happen often, but when it does, Caroline and I look at each other and think: Why not have four more?

Balancing conviction and open-mindedness

For as long as I’ve taken ideas seriously I’ve been preoccupied with this question: Is it possible to believe in something with complete conviction while also remaining open to the possibility that you might be wrong about it?

This is an intellectual riddle, but also a practical one. It’s hard to get anywhere in life if you don’t commit completely to a course of action; but at the same time, when you really put your head down and go for something, it becomes harder to tell if or when you’ve lost your way.  This line of thinking is one reason why I tried out so many different careers in my 20s: I was always afraid of committing to the wrong path so I didn’t commit to any path at all (and consequently, didn’t get very far).

One of the things I love most about being a parent is that the responsibility of taking care of Jay and Wally compels me to act.  Those boys run fast, and if I waffle or take too long to deliberate about a choice, they’ll pass me by.  As a result, I make a lot of mistakes with Jay and Wally- I’m lenient when I should be stern, or I lose my temper when even a moment’s reflection would have made it clear that yelling at Jay was only going to make the situation worse.  But another thing I love most about parenting is that there’s always tomorrow- the chance to get up and do it better than I did the day before.

I’ve got an essay up on The Millions today called “The Moral Value of Surprise: Lessons from Literature for a Fracturing Country” that talks about these themes (though not in the context of parenting).  The essay is based on an article by the philosopher Martha Nussbaum which describes a process for reaching the truth that is neither dogmatic nor endlessly deliberative.  I consider Sussbaum’s argument in light of the recent contraception debate and the more general trend among Americans to cluster into communities of like-minded people:

The contraception debate — and relative détente — reflects contributions from both Mrs. Newsome’s perspective and Strether’s perspective. Consider just one piece of that debate, the issue of teenagers having sex. On the one hand most parents are against teenagers having sex, because they think it’s wrong or risky. On the other hand, most parents also take a pragmatic Stretherian perspective developed from their own experiences: Given that kids are going to have sex, let’s help them do it as safely as possible.

The fusing of these views — the moral and the practical — is possible because parents and teenagers know and (for the most part) understand each other: They live in the same homes and all parents were once teenagers themselves. But now imagine how the contraception conversation would be different if all parents lived on the West Coast and all teenagers lived on the East Coast, or if no parents had ever been teenagers themselves.  Mutual misunderstanding and stridency would abound…[continue reading]

Comparing pictures of the boys from last fall and the start of spring

On Saturday we spent a long afternoon picnicking at County Farm Park.  Jay raced from the sandbox to the slide and Wally crawled around on the soft rubber surface beneath the jungle gym.  For me and Caroline, the sun-drenched languor recalled what it had felt like, once upon a time, to pass a day lying on the college quad, fingering the pages of a textbook one had no intention of actually reading.

We’ve spent most of this weekend outside and I’ve taken a lot of photographs of Jay and Wally as they’ve played.  On Friday afternoon I lined up a shot of Jay in the sandbox at Burns Park and remembered, suddenly, looking through my lens at him from the same angle back in October on one of the first crisp days of the season.  Both pictures are below (the one from the fall is first):

The moment in the sandbox on Friday made me curious to compare pictures of the boys from this past weekend with pictures of them from the fall.  I had a suspicion they’d changed, but of course those changes are hard to account for on a day-in-day-out basis.

To me, Wally’s most noticeable changes have been in his face and head. His infant fuzz has given way to some wild curls that call out for a pair of scissors.  His generically round baby face has become more angular and uniquely his own.  He’s just as smiley now as he was back in the fall (though you don’t see it in the tight-lipped profile picture below).  I was also little sad to realize that the blue sweatshirt he’s wearing in the fall picture fits him almost as well today.  Last week, at his nine-month well-visit, Wally measured in the 5th percentile for weight and we left the doctor’s office with instructions to fatten him up.

With Jay, I find the changes more subtle but also more arresting.  As I wrote last month, his crewcut has been replaced with a proper barbershop haircut.  His face is a little more slender and his neck seems longer today than it did in the fall.  But when I compare the two pictures below, the thing that really takes my breath away are Jay’s arms and legs, and the angle of his body as he runs: He’s getting long and skinny like a young boy.

Related posts from Growing Sideways

Jay’s first good haircut