Let Her Eat Dirt
A dad’s take on raising tough, adventurous girls
Let Her Eat Dirt
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Recalibrating the scales
Posted on January 5, 2014 by cma
Robin used to hate the cold; now she loves being outside in the snow.
Robin used to hate the cold; now she loves being outside in the snow.

I first started thinking about this post around Thanksgiving, after winter had unofficially settled in to our hamlet in central Maine. The temperature was in the teens, with lows hovering near 0. I’m from D.C. and have lived in Mississippi, North Carolina, and other warm places, so the consistently frigid temperatures are new to me and the kids. We’ve had to recalibrate our scales — “cold” doesn’t mean what it used to mean.

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But we adapted to our new environment. After weeks without seeing the freezing point, I remember thinking, ”Wow, it’s amazing how quickly you can adjust to low temperatures!” Then the real winter started, with a couple weeks of “arctic blasts” and “polar vortexes” that brought the mercury down to —14 the other day, with highs barely hitting the single digits. The scales have been re-calibrated again. As I write today, it’s warmed up to 24, and I promise, it feels positively balmy.

So what does this have to do with parenting? It just reminds me about how resilient and adaptable human beings are — kids in particular. We can adjust to all kinds of new circumstances and challenges, if we are willing. And kids can adjust too, if we encourage them to do so and if we act as if we expect them to do so. (Again, as with eating in the previous post, it doesn’t work so well if the parents aren’t genuinely game.) We often act as if kids are as fixed in their ways as we adults are — “Oh, she doesn’t like X or won’t do Y” — but they usually are much more open and willing to adapt than we give them credit for.

Enough writing. Time to get the girls outside for some sledding on this beautiful, warm day!

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Adventures in Eating
Posted on January 2, 2014 by cma
20140101_164432On our way back from visiting our cousins, we drove through Portland, Maine’s biggest and most diverse city. When you live in a small town, you have to jump at opportunities to visit the big city, so we detoured off the highway for a quick trip to Trader Joe’s and a bite to eat. We asked the girls what kind of food they wanted, and Miriam piped up, “Japanese!” She’s been taking Japanese at her school (thanks to parents and local taxpayers who fought to keep the program when the bean-counters and curmudgeons tried to gut it), and she’s been obsessed with the Land of the Rising Sun ever since. So Japanese it was, and what an adventure! Hibachi grill, clanging knives, big fire…the girls loved every minute and devoured the food. Even little Aaron enjoyed it!

Folks often assume that kids can or will only eat pasta and pizza. Go to a parent potluck or a birthday party, and that’s mostly what you’ll get for a main course. Many restaurants have a “kid’s menu” featuring mac & cheese, spaghetti, and PB & Js, as if kids are physically and/or psychologically incapable of consuming anything else. What a waste of an opportunity! Why would I pay $5+ for a lame bowl of mac or a limp sandwich when the kids could taste something new, something different, something fun?

We’re not food snobs — we love pasta and pizza, not to mention cereal and pancakes — but I want my kids to be adventurous eaters. At home they get all kinds of foods, from sweet potatoes to butternut squash to tofu, mixed into their soups or curries or quesadillas. If we go out, we’ll usually go to Thai, Indian, Vietnamese, and other ethnic restaurants to explore different cuisines and learn about different cultures. Japanese was a new one, and well worth the trip.

And guess what? If you consistently eat a variety of different foods, kids will learn to love them (though it doesn’t work so well if the adults in the house don’t play along). Being adventurous is about more than just exploring the woods or jumping off wicked high boulders; it’s an approach to living that extends into all different parts of your world. Food is just another great way to instill that sense of adventure.

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Posted in Adventures of Miri & Robin | 8 Replies
Have snowshoes, will travel
Posted on December 19, 2013 by cma

Special Agent: Miri
Age: 6
Occupation: Student
Mission: Walk to school through snow
Temperature at Departure: — 7 degrees Fahrenheit
Mode of transportation: Snowshoe
Duration of Mission: 27 minutes

Mission accomplished!

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Posted in Adventures of Miri & Robin | 2 Replies
In she goes…
Posted on December 17, 2013 by cma
In-she-goesA few minutes after I took this picture of Miriam playing on rocks in the Kennebec River last week (the waters have since frozen over), I heard a splash and a scream. Yup, she’d fallen into the icy waters. She wasn’t in any serious danger — she was near the bank and the water was only a foot or two deep — but it was 20 degrees and the water was frigid. She took it like a girl. She sloshed out of the goop, looked up at me, and deadpanned as the water pooled at her feet, “I think we should go home now.” No kidding.

So the question is, what do we learn from this little tumble? Some folks (including, perhaps, my wife) might wonder, “What kind of idiot lets his six-year-old play on slippery rocks near an icy river on a freezing day?” The moral of this story, they’d say (as their eyes roll), is to keep the kid away from danger — I should exercise proper parental judgment and prevent such incidents before they happen. That is the stunningly obvious lesson, isn’t it?

But I’m pretty blind to the obvious. For me, the lesson is that kids benefit when they can explore and experience the world on their own. Let them take calculated risks and face reasonable dangers. Let them endure the consequences of their actions so that they will learn how to make judgments for themselves. Let them build their endurance and toughness. Let them have fun!

Sure, if I had prevented Miriam from playing near the river, she would have arrived home dry and warm. But where’s the adventure in that? Where’s the fun in coming home clean? She would have missed out on the excitement of the fall, she would not have had the opportunity to test her toughness, and she would not have a funny story to tell Mom when she got home. Most importantly, she would not have learned anything useful about life’s risks. So, yes, we’ll probably be back on some river or pond this week testing to see just how thick that ice is…

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Posted in Adventures of Miri & Robin, Tough parenting | 7 Replies
13 degrees? 0 wind chill? Get the bike!
Posted on December 12, 2013 by cma
miri-bike13Maine is starting to act more and more like Maine these days. We woke up today to 13 degrees, with a wind chill around 0. That’s Fahrenheit, alas. But Miriam is grabbing Maine by the icicles. She came downstairs, looked at the thermometer, and then shouted, “Let’s bike to school today!” We usually walk through the woods, but once a week or so we’ll hop on the bikes. It was cold enough today to give ol’ Dad a second thought, but Miriam was having none of it. She bundled up and proved that, yes, you can bike in snow pants. I thought she might complain a bit, but nothing, even when we turned on the main road and into the teeth of an icy wind. She got to school, rosy cheeked and ready. Sigh. I love that kiddo.

We may be in Maine, but we still love our Washington Capitals!
We may be in Maine, but we still love our Washington Capitals!

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Posted in Rants | 3 Replies
Strong? Yes. Superior? No.
Posted on December 7, 2013 by cma

“Strong is the new skinny,” proclaims a new ad campaign for a fitness center. “Strength equals self-sufficiency,” insists a blogger whose post went viral this week (full disclosure: I tweeted it). We’re in the midst of a female fitness revolution that may be challenging the dominance of thin, delicate, and fragile as the ideals of feminine beauty.

I’m torn. On the one hand, being a strong woman is a great ideal, much better than the hollow-eyed, sickly, emaciated waifs that have been glorified as “models” in recent decades. I believe in health and fitness, and even though I’ve hit 40 I still will step into the ring or have a foot race or do a push-up contest with guys half my age. I want my girls to be strong, so we hike and have “tackle fights” and play sports and do all the things I’d do with a son. I want them to feel physically confident enough to take on whatever challenges life throws at them. I want them to revel at the power and potential of their own bodies.

But I don’t want them to think “strong is the new skinny.”

Being obsessed about being (or looking) strong can be just as unhealthy as being obsessed about being skinny because “skinny” is merely the symptom of the larger problem: the obsession with female appearance. I’ve written before about how people can’t seem to stop talking about my girls’ appearance, no matter how ragged they look on a given day. Replacing “skinny” with “strong” does nothing to solve that problem; in fact, it only magnifies the problem by highlighting yet another way that girls fall short of an impossible ideal. The buff, nearly-naked, often faceless bodies now being held up as the new ideal can trigger the same sense of shame, guilt, and self-loathing that the waifs did. My daughters don’t need that.

But perhaps more importantly, I don’t want my girls to equate fitness with morality. I don’t want them to feel superior to other people who may not be as strong or as agile or as quick. When “the bike is the new golf course” — meaning that important deals and networking are done while working out — then who is left out? If “working out signals hard-working” — meaning employers value marathon runners more than blanket knitters — then what should we think of pudgy people? Julius Caesar famously declared, “Let me have men about me that are fat” because he feared the ambition and zeal of the lean and hungry; are we now going to declare, “have people about us that are fit” because we fear the laziness and lassitude of the plump? Glorifying fit people can make it too easy and tempting to make moral judgments about people who are unfit. They must be lazy, undisciplined, weak — people with little character. Who would want to hire them or work with them or even be friends with them? Those are not the kind of judgments I hope my daughters will make.

Yes, it would be great for my girls to be strong and tough and confident — but not superior. Being humble and thoughtful and compassionate is more important.

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Posted in Rants | 8 Replies
No gifts, please
Posted on November 27, 2013 by cma
Miri walking home from school today, the first day of snow.
Miri walking home from school yesterday, the first day of snow.

It’s been a while. Sorry about that. Fall in Maine is pretty amazing with too much fun stuff to do outside, and I found it hard to find time to write. Now that the first snow has come (in November?!?), I’m back to the blog.

Miriam had her 6th birthday last week. She got five presents — one from us, one from each of her sets of grandparents, and one each from two sets of cousins. That was plenty! She has had time to enjoy and appreciate each one, and she knows exactly who gave her what. She doesn’t need any more, and we don’t want her to get any more because we want her to appreciate what she has.

Like many American kids, Miri seems to accumulate “stuff” even though we rarely buy her anything. Every school event, every birthday party, every activity brings with it associated crap — random trinkets and tchotchkes, worthless doodads and gizmos, misfitting shirts and hats. Our old house was pretty small, so we would have to do a “purge” every month or two just so we could have living space. Our new place is bigger, but we keep the same mentality: more stuff is not better.

We learned early on that birthday parties are a prime source of superfluous junk, so from the beginning we have put “No gifts, please” on invitations to our kids’ parties. Folks are never quite sure what to make of it. One mom called me before Miri’s party last week and asked, “The invitation says no gifts. Does that really mean no gifts?” Well-l-l-l, yes. What else would it mean? To her credit, the mom respected our wishes, and her daughter came and had a great time eating pumpkin pie and ice cream at our party (Miri prefers pie to cake…I love that kiddo!).

But we’ve run into folks who are horrified by our “no gifts” approach and have accused us of “depriving” our dear daughter. When Miriam turned four, we decided to invite some of her preschool friends over for a little party. Preschool birthday parties ain’t what they used to be. I remember being excited if we got both cake and ice cream; these days, parents sponsor whole-class outings to bounce houses, gymnastics schools, and pizza parlors. It’s mayhem – a couple dozen kids racing around with music blaring, lights flashing, and parents awkwardly trying to sustain a conversation. We opted for something more low-key involving three friends and some run-around time at the park. No presents necessary, we told the parents. Please. Bring your kids just for fun, no material items required. The day before the party, I got chewed out by one of the moms. “I don’t believe in not giving gifts for birthdays,” she told me. “It’s wrong to deprive her — she’s going to get a gift from us.” Yes, indeed. Miriam was going to get that present whether we wanted it or not, dammit! And what did she get? A princess doll dress-up kit, complete with a range of accessories. I kid you not. A million interesting gift possibilities – puzzles and books and electricity sets and doctor kits and board games — and our rough-and-tumble Miri gets a princess kit? Um, thanks. That’s just what she needed.

Deprivation, apparently, is such a horrible thing that parents should indulge their girls – and try to force you to indulge yours – in order to prevent it. But you don’t have to buy into the trap of overindulgence. Keeping things simple is easier (and more fun) than you think.

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Posted in Rants | 6 Replies
Getting dirty at Common Ground
Posted on September 22, 2013 by cma
Sliding down a hill on cardboard — good, old-fashioned fun.

The girls and I spent a beautiful almost-fall day at the Common Ground Fair in Unity, Maine, this weekend. Since we moved here a few months ago, folks have been telling us about Common Ground, and it didn’t disappoint. Sponsored by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, it attracts all kinds of back-to-nature folks, including one farmer who is “off the grid” and uses only horse-drawn plows. That’s old school for real! We enjoyed an amazing border collie demonstration, patted an enormous sheep, pounded nails, made sukkah decorations, ate too much, and soaked in the culture of the place. For once, no one seemed to care about my girls getting dirty or falling down or being silly. I didn’t see any Disney Princesses or tutus, and I didn’t get nasty looks when Robin practiced her cartwheels and handstands during the border collie show. Folks just let kids be kids. Nice.

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Posted in Adventures of Miri & Robin | Leave a reply
My daughters are not “Daddy’s little girls”
Posted on September 16, 2013 by cma
I spend a lot of time with my girls — around the house, at the playground, running errands, going to school. People (especially women of a certain age) sometimes see us together and smile, heads cocked just so. What a wonderful thing to see a dad with his daughters, the smile says. I appreciate it, even as I recognize the double standard — my wife gets no such heartwarming looks. But sometimes someone will say, “Oh, she’s daddy’s little girl, isn’t she?”

Um, no, she’s not. And God forbid that she ever becomes one. Just as I wouldn’t want to raise a sniveling, wimpy “Mama’s boy,” I have no intention of raising a spoiled, dependent “Daddy’s little girl.”

The “Daddy’s little girl” idea is a powerful one – it is embedded in our language, it is written into our stories and movies, it’s emblazoned on our t-shirts and tutus. As fathers, we see ourselves as the Protector, our girl’s shield from the big, bad world. We love being the hero, the one to save the day with a bottle of milk or a comforting word or a helping hand when she needs it. That desire comes from a deep and wonderful place, but we dads have to resist it whenever possible. Because when we step in to protect our daughters from danger, we are undermining their ability to build their own defenses. When we swoop in to solve the problem, we short-circuit their learning process. When I play the hero, she becomes the damsel in distress.

But don’t we dads have an “instinct” to protect our children, especially our daughters, from all harm? Maybe, but the emphasis on a dad’s “instinct” to “protect” his daughters is just too simple and convenient. Too often, “instinct” is just an excuse we use to justify all sorts of behavior that ultimately cripples our girls’ ability to develop into tough, resilient human beings. “Instinct” often really means “I love being the hero.”

There may have been a time in a previous century when the budding “damsel in distress” model of girlhood fit the reality of the lives that girls would grow up to lead. Before the long women’s rights movement in this country – I’m talking about going back to the 1830s, not the 1960s – girls and women really were dependent on the men in their lives. They often could not vote or own their own land or file for divorce or even get an education. They worked only menial or subservient jobs, and they needed (and often longed for) the protection of a good man. It was the fathers, and later the husbands, who were culturally and legally responsible for the women in their household, so it made sense, perhaps, for fathers to act as the “protectors” of their daughters.

Those days are long gone, thanks to a century and a half of persistent pushing by women’s rights advocates. Our daughters are not growing up in a world that expects them to be dependent. When they come of age, their opportunities are limitless – they can seek and explore and discover any number of different careers and destinies. In this world, a girl needs to be adventurous and tough. She needs to be able to stand up for herself and assert herself and rely on herself. It does her little good for her to be dependent on some benevolent male to help her out whenever she needs it. We need to consistently challenge our daughters in a variety of ways – physically, intellectually, emotionally – to prepare them for this wonderful kind of world. Twenty-first century America does not need damsels in distress or “daddy’s little girls”; we need courageous, thoughtful, bold, tough, adventurous women. It’s our job as fathers to raise those girls.

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Posted in Rants, Tough parenting | 5 Replies
Don’t run at the playground!
Posted on September 12, 2013 by cma
castle-townI took the kids to a nearby playground and encountered this sign. I realized right away that I was in trouble…

No running? At a playground? Where, pray tell, is a kid supposed to run?

No pushing? Uh-oh — I spend a good half hour pushing Aaron in the swings any time we go to the park.


“Do not use improperly”? Does that mean that the kids aren’t supposed to run up the slides, or does it mean I’m not supposed to use the wood chips for a bonfire?

No loitering? That’s all I do at a playground!

If we adults make up ridiculous, impossible-to-follow rules, we only teach our kids that rules are meaningless, silly things that are best ignored.