small human regrets

About four years into the business of managing new humans – i.e. raising kids – I’ve realized I have some regrets, unsurprisingly. You might not think four years with two kids (Little Buddy, almost 4, Pumpkin, almost 2) is long enough to develop a list of regrets, but it is. My feeling is that the time-frame for regret is compressed more and more as your children get older. The end result of teaching your children to eat right might not be apparent when you are forcing them to eat vegetables when they are two, compared to denying your 16-year old the right to drive by himself. The types of regret become more significant, as well: not teaching them to stay away from drugs is on a different level than not using cloth diapers, for example.

Focusing on the negative is never a good way to produce positive change, so before I catalog on the regrets I can toss out a few things that have made me proud of Bubelah and myself: our children have a fluent understanding of a second language, able to understand both English and Russian. We have instilled a love of reading in Little Buddy (uh oh, foreshadowing a regret here). They are healthy, verbal and happy, other than the usual little toddler outbursts. They are adorable kids (don’t worry, I’m being neutral, they are definitely the cutest, sweetest, smartest kids on the planet).

I won’t focus, either, on meta-regrets or things that are still in process. A good example? The kids have not yet been exposed to even 10 seconds of volunteerism or community work. That’s bad. On the other hand, I think there will be opportunities to do so. I also don’t focus on regrets that I call “meta-regrets” like circumcision – who knows whether I should regret that or not.

As a general bit of advice to new parents, in other words, here are a few fairly simple little regrets that I’ll just pass on, even though I know new parents – like we were – hear so much advice in the middle of sleep-deprived conversations that much of it becomes a big, fuzzy blur.

Toys with batteries

Since we send our son (and soon our daughter) to a Waldorf school, we’ve been exposed to the Waldorf philosophy regarding toys: all toys have to be natural materials and non-branded (i.e. no Dora or Batman). Battery-powered toys are forbidden (so no cute wooden trains), as are violent toys: no wooden guns. All of that is fine, but at home our kids have a vast area of beeping and booping Dora, Handy Manny, Sesame Street and LeapFrog devices. Cars honk. Alvin, Simon and Theodore chirp away. Dora blares out Spanglish. I don’t mind plastic toys so much; my brother and I spent countless hours playing with plastic cars and planes and bears and dinosaurs. I do, on the other hand, regret SOME of the branded toys and ALL of the battery powered toys.

Battery powered toys are horrible. I regret not placing a ban on them as gifts, buying them myself or allowing even “educational” ones like LeapFrog into the house. They have an unintended side effect: I have more than once snatched away a toy from my kids after one too many electronic shrieks of “GO! DIEGO! GO!” The noises make me grumpy. Plus, after a few years, the real problem is obvious: battery-powered toys crush imagination. My son or daughter can take a handful of toys like Smurfs, dinosaurs, even little action figures, a couple of little houses or castles and play fascinating, original little games. They can build cities, make up “families” from a bear, a duck and a smurf, and so on. But once a battery-powered toy is introduced, a bit of a rat-getting-cheese-by-pressing-a-lever takes over. Battery-powered toys are TV on a small scale.

Television

Now this one is funny. I hate children’s TV. It serves no purpose for children. I am as convinced today as I was four years ago that a child would be infinitely better off if he or she didn’t see a television program until their fifth birthday. All of the so-called “educational” programs are, largely, garbage intended primarily as branding tools for a line of merchandise. TV is garbage.

BUT – there’s a big but – TV serves a purpose that has nothing to do with the kids. It does serve as a babysitter. I am going to out myself as a bad parent, but you know what? When it’s 6:30 am on a Saturday, both kids are up and bouncing around ready to go, and Papa hasn’t had his coffee, Dora can turn them into the quiet little couch monkeys that give Papa 30 minutes to make breakfast and drink coffee. So it helps.

So the regret is not TV so much, but failure to take much more aggressive action to control the medium in this way: absolute avoidance of just turning the TV on at random. I wish I had recorded 100s of hours of Sesame Street videos. I wish I had recorded things like “Go Go Riki” – but edited out all of the commercials. And I wish we had purchased a Roku sooner, which has a nice little collection of things like Caillou. The TV experience then could have been limited to complete shows, commercial-free and consistent. Instead, far too often we’ve just flipped on the TV and said “hey kids, what do you want? Handy Manny or Curious George?” The kids then watch the last 10 minutes of a Curious George episode and 15 minutes of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, mixed in with commercials (and believe me, PBS and Disney Playhouse can blather on all they want to about being advertising-free, but I still see Chuck E. Cheese popping up a lot between shows).

Reading

As I mentioned above, this is one of my few “split” regrets. I read to Little Buddy in the womb. I propped his wobbly little noggin up and read “Oh, the Places You Will Go” and “Brown Bear, Brown Bear” to him endless times. We read Mercer Mayer books, Richard Scarry, Russian classics, English classics nonstop. And then we had a second child and reading to Little Buddy became much more infrequent. That was fine – he had already developed enough of a love of books to keep him going. A few books a day hold him, and he can pick up a book and leaf through it, identifying letters he knows and even reciting stories from memory. That’s fine.

Pumpkin’s another matter. In the chaos of dealing with two small kids, too often she was left to play and entertain herself while we chased Little Buddy around. Reading to her was the exception, rather than the rule. That sounds terrible, and it’s not as bad as that: Little Buddy was probably read to far more than was necessary, and Pumpkin’s still had her fair share of Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. But already the difference in the two of them is obvious; Pumpkin’s far more likely to squirm away from a book than Little Buddy was at her age. She enjoys a few favorite books but gets bored by new ones. I know we still have years to correct that, but I wish we had approached it differently.  I regret our approach more with one of our children than with the other.

Food

I am sure many parents could write “War and Peas” about their children’s eating habits. Again, I won’t go into meta-regrets about, say, vegetarianism or 100% avoidance of fast food or anything like that. I might wish that foods like chicken nuggets had never been introduced, but that genie is out of the bottle.

But what I do regret, and still hope to change, is the eating schedule and atmosphere. I insisted – and still do – that the TV be off while we eat. But what I should have paid more attention to is the idea that meals are meant to be shared. It’s very easy when you have four people in a family who are not only on different schedules but have different metabolisms to slip into an “eat-when-convenient” mindset. I rise earlier than everyone else. Little Buddy goes to school. I go to work. Pumpkin takes three hour naps covering lunchtime. I get home at 6 most days but the kids are hungry at 5. The result has been that we almost never eat together. We still have time to fix it, but it’s a regret because I wonder if the mental building blocks (“grab food and run”) have already been laid.

Regrets – I’ve had a few

That’s a long enough list of regrets for me to bear for today. The unifying factor of all of these regrets is that we worried about one thing but ended up regretting the unintended side effects, or something unanticipated For example, we worried about diet, but the problem hasn’t been diet (they eat fairly normal and non-junky diets) but the structure of mealtime. This is true of so many things in life; young people worry about where to go to college more than they do about what to study once they are there, even though that makes a far, far greater difference in the direction of one’s life.

Regrets are not productive. My dad sent me a birthday card years ago when I was in a bit of a down period that had a little guy standing at a fork in the road. In the forward direction a sign pointed with the inscription “the future.” The sign pointing in the direction headed back said “not an option.” The past is over and immutable. The future is the only thing that can be changed, and the only purpose of a regret is to help you improve in the future. Even if your regrets impact others, you can’t make the past any worse; you can only make the future better.

photo by broma