NYR 19-07: “Play More.” Part 2 – The Reset Button.

“Life doesn’t have a reset button.”

My dad used to say this whenever he caught me leaning in to press this:

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He’s right of course. In life, you can’t just start over from the beginning and erase the mistakes that you’ve made. The world doesn’t let you just “try again,” free of consequences.

But then again, neither does the reset button.

It isn’t a time machine. You, the player, still have to deal with some consequences. If nothing else, you lose the time you spent playing the game up to that point. And hopefully you come away from that experience having learned lessons that you can apply next time you play.

In that sense, life has plenty of reset buttons. Going to college? Reset button. Changing your workout plan? Reset button. New job? New town? New marriage? All reset buttons in their own way.

In gaming and in life, I’ve pressed the reset button more times than I care to admit.

Sometimes I press it because I’m trapped. I’ve reached an impasse, and to continue would be a waste of time. So I hit the reset button, telling myself that next time I’ll avoid the pitfall.

Other times I’m just frustrated. I hit the reset button as sort of a knee-jerk reaction. This usually happens when I feel like I’ve caught a bad break; the game was wrong, I was cheated. I didn’t touch that fire stick, that bad guy wasn’t supposed to be there, and I definitely shot that duck:

Sometimes I hit the reset button because I’m scared. Maybe I’ve screwed up and my confidence is shaken. I tell myself that I need more practice, that I’m not ready for the next level, and that after a few more hours of practicing the earlier levels I’ll be better prepared to take that next step.

These are all valid reasons, but I think we can agree that the reset button isn’t always the answer. So… when should you press it?

Having a mindful approach to the reset button can save you a lot of time and heartache in the long run. To do that, you need to keep three things in mind.

1. You Need To Have Clear Goals.

What do you actually want? A clear goal might be, “I want to beat this game tonight.” Let’s use Contra as an example:

If you get hit in Contra, the consequences are pretty serious. Not only do you lose a valuable life, but you lose your progress in the level and you lose whatever weapon upgrades you’ve acquired up to that point. So that Spread Gun you worked so hard to carry this far? Gone.

Say the game takes about an hour to beat, it’s 7:45 p.m. and you have a 9:00 bedtime. you’re moving along and you get hit in the first level – way earlier than you’re accustomed to. Well, you could make the case that hitting the reset button gives you a better shot at accomplishing your goal.

If, instead, you were halfway through the game and it was already 8:30, well then the reset button is off-limits. This is your last shot; hitting the reset button would literally make it impossible to accomplish your goal (unless you want to try to renegotiate bedtime, or leave the NES on for an entire day so you can pick it back up tomorrow evening. I’ve had limited success with these two strategies).

But what if you don’t have a goal? Or put differently, what if the “goal” is just to have fun? I mean, isn’t that what this series on Playing More is all about?

If you genuinely don’t care about beating the game and your goal is really just to “have fun,” great – press the reset button to your heart’s desire. But be careful with that goal – it can be tempting to say that you don’t care about something and use it as an excuse to get sloppy. It comes down to being honest with yourself, which brings me to point two.

2. Be Honest About Your Intention.

The reset button is easy to use, and this can lead to in an unfortunate phenomenon: tilting.

Tilting is when you’ve made a mistake, you’re frustrated, and you make more mistakes as a result of your negative mental state. I’ve been there – I’ve totally been the guy to run into a bad guy, mash the reset button, then immediately run into the same bad guy.

Try to detach. Ask yourself, “why am I pressing the reset button? Is it because I genuinely learned from my mistake, and it will save me time in the long-run if I go back and redo it? Or, am I just hitting it out of frustration and trying to erase the consequences of my mistakes?”

3. When In Doubt, Keep Going.

As I sat down to write this post, I wanted to present an even-handed view of the reset button. Because I do think that life presents plenty of situations where hitting the reset button is the right thing to do. However, when it comes to gaming, I’m honestly having trouble coming up with good reasons to do it. I dunno, maybe they’re not so different.

You can spend your whole life playing Level 1. You can tell yourself that it’s fun to swim in the shallows, and you can spend your days “preparing” for a battle that you’re never actually going to fight. Because if you spend all your time on Level 1, guess what? You’re never going to get to Level 2. And you can forget about Level 6, which is on so high a pedestal by now you can never hope to reach it.

When in doubt, keep going. It’s not always comfortable, but that’s how you get better (and have more fun, too).

NYR 19-07: “Play More.” Part 1 – Instruction Manual.

Sometimes when I’m writing these posts I feel like the dad in Calvin and Hobbes:

I think it’s healthy to play. It’s important take time for yourself every once in a while to do something, anything really, just for the pure joy of it and not as a means toward any sort of practical benefit. Great! Then let’s make a New Year’s Resolution to “Play More.”

…But there’s a problem. You bump up against a paradox pretty quick here – for example, just reread that first sentence:

“I think it’s healthy to play…”

That sounds like a practical benefit to me.

The fundamental problem with creating a goal around playing is that to play is to have no goal. When you’re playing you’re not trying to do anything, that’s the whole point. So what’s a spreadsheet-building, goal-tracking self-help guy like me supposed to do?

I decided to start by looking back on my own experiences, hoping to remember what exactly “playing” meant to me. After all, I’ve definitely played before as a kid. I’ve just forgotten how.

I didn’t play outside much, like Calvin in the comic. I played some sports, but even those ended up being pretty goal-oriented the more I progressed. What did I do?

I found the answer a few weeks ago as I was cleaning my condo:

Ah, now I remember – video games. This was my playground.

For example:

  • I learned how to read by studying the instruction manual for Super Mario Bros. 3.
  • In high school I attended, and hosted, LAN parties for everything from Command and Conquer to Halo (hyperlink included for those of you who were too popular in high school to know what a LAN party is)
  • I’ve played Mario Superstar Baseball every year, with the same guy, for the past 14 years.

I could go on, but my point is this: I know how to play. At least, I used to.

So how did I do it?

That’s what I’m hoping to articulate in this post. For those of you who’ve forgotten how to play, think of this as an Instruction Manual.

It’s simple really: trying to play is like trying to fall asleep.

If you try too hard to fall sleep, you’re never going to get anywhere. Sleep isn’t something you do, it’s something you let happen. It isn’t about grabbing hold of unconsciousness, it’s about letting go of consciousness. The only thing you can do is try to create an environment conducive to sleep, and hope for the best.

So take a look back, and try to remember what playing looked like for you as a kid. Then just do your best to create an environment where that can happen again.

My New Year’s Resolution is this:

In 2019, I’m going to play some video games.

And this month I’m going to write about them, too.

Ambitious? Perhaps not. But in this season of my life where I’m so focused on making the best use of my time, carving out a few hours to just play video games has actually been a challenge. But I’m trying. It took me several weeks to even pick up a video game once I came up with this idea, and even then things got off to a rocky start.

Power On

I was on a flight to Philadelphia for my buddy’s bachelor party. A few of my friends were on the same flight; we had burgers and beers before boarding, but we weren’t sitting together on the plane.

I wedged myself into the narrow seat between two strangers and looked out the window at the lazy, overcast sky and the empty runway. My eyes started to feel heavy. I didn’t want to fall asleep. I knew if I did I’d wake up cranky, a disservice to my comrades and to the bachelor. What was I to do? I’d just finished reading a book and didn’t feel like starting another one. I could write I guess, but I’ve never had great experiences with writing after drinking.

I took off my backpack and tried to shove it under the seat in front of me. It was bulkier than usual, and that’s when I remembered: I’d been carrying a handheld game console in my backpack ever since I thought of this New Year’s Resolution, waiting for the right time to play.

If not now, when? I fumbled around to find the power button. I pressed it, and sunk into my chair beneath the glow of the warm, familiar red light. Power On.

I started playing, but my mind was elsewhere. I was thinking about how stupid an idea it was to write about this, and how this wasn’t even technically playing if the underlying goal was to use it as content for a blog post. I felt like I was wasting my time.

It was an old game (Chrono Trigger, 1995). The graphics were showing their age, the dialogue seemed predictable. I didn’t view the game with the sense of wonder I might have had as a child, but as a man in is thirties who was caught up in nostalgia, grabbing at straws trying to relive the past. I began to feel disenchanted, a little depressed.

And then I felt… frustrated.

Because I’d reached a mini-game set in a fairground involving a “high striker” that wasn’t cooperating.

For those who don’t know what a high striker is (I had to Google the name myself), it’s the game where you hit a lever with a mallet as hard as you can, sending a puck up a tower to ring a bell at the top. Normally a test of strength, in the video game it was a test of timing. You had to tap “A” when the puck was at the very top, and I kept missing it.

And I was getting really frustrated. Now I was not only wasting time playing an outdated video game, I was wasting time within the game, unable to progress past this stupid mini-game. And then it happened.

Ding!

I got a “silver point” for my troubles. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but it felt nice. I explored more of the fairgrounds and came upon another game, one which actually cost 10 “silver points” to play. I rolled my eyes, and returned to the high striker, determined to win 9 more times for the entrance fee. It was easier the second time, then the third, then…

Ding! Ding! Ding!

I’d gotten in a rhythm, and thought to myself, “Why stop? There’s bound to be other things I can buy with these silver points, might as well keep playing this while I’ve got the timing down.”

I entered a flow state where nothing mattered in the world except hitting that bell. It was a dance, watching the bell on the screen approaching the top, my thumb naturally hitting the button just slightly before it got there to account for a delay I’d picked up on, the familiar Ding! of the bell…

A woman cleared her throat.

I turned; it was the lady next to me. She was standing up in her seat, scowling. I popped my headphones out and looked around. I saw the empty seats in front of me, the line of people in the aisle behind me.

The plane had landed. Half the passengers had already deboarded. I hadn’t even noticed.

I mumbled an apology, yanked my bag out from under the seat and rushed down the aisle to join my companions at the gate. I was smiling.

I was back on the playground.

“Summit Meeting.”

We’re halfway through the year.

26 posts and 25,000 words later, it’s time for a New Year’s Revolutionary Summit Meeting. Time to pause, take stock, and see how we’re doing on the NYR’s we’ve covered so far.

NYR 19-01: “Workout More.” Perform 154 “Brad Pitt Workouts” during the first six months of 2019. Click here for the spreadsheet.

If you’ll recall from my earlier post, the plan here was to do 154 workouts in six months based on the workout regimen that Brad Pitt (supposedly) did in preparation for his role in the movie Fight Club, and to come out on the other side looking like this:

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And I did it.

I’ve averaged six workouts per week since January. Guys, that’s insane considering just two years ago I was barely able to get the “50 workouts a year” needed for my firm-sponsored gym reimbursement.

And as for looking like Brad Pitt? Well, I thought about taking a shirtless selfie and putting it next to Brad for comparison. But I dunno, it felt kinda lowbrow… after all, this is supposed to be a blog about personal development, not a platform for me to stroke my own ego by posting a bunch of self-indulgent pictures of

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DAAAAYYYYUUUUUUMMMM.

Guys, I know you don’t always look at the spreadsheet. But come on… look at the spreadsheet! I added 60 pounds to my bench. I went from doing 7 pull-ups in a row to doing 20. I ran 8 miles last week. I started boxing. I lost 4 pounds which doesn’t even make any sense. What is happening???

All I know is I’m excited, and that’s my biggest takeaway: if you want to get in shape, pick whatever workout program you want, as long as it gets you excited. Then do it. Most of them work just fine if you stick with them.

Grade: A+

NYR 19-02: “Get Organized.” Tidy our condo using the KonMari Method by the end of March. Click here for the spreadsheet.

In the first three months of 2019 my wife and I got rid of grizzly bear’s worth of stuff in our condo. And the place looked great, but the question remained. How were things going to look months down the road? Well, here we are… so let’s have a look.

Kitchen cabinets?

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Squared away.

Closet?

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Not too bad!

Let’s walk down the hall to the living room. Things looking good… wait hold on, the stroller’s poking out of the closet. Let me fix that real quick.

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Wait a second… oh no.

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Oh no no no nononononono

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NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

Ok, let me explain.

When we started, this closet was mostly filled with seasonal stuff (Christmas, etc.), all of which had been previously vetted and organized. So we agreed to just leave the closet out of the whole Mari Kondo thing.

But over time… little things started to creep into the closet. Because suddenly we had an out–a 7×5-foot junk drawer–and I’m afraid we used it to avoid a lot of tough decision making.

That being said… I’m really proud of us. We got rid of a lot of stuff and developed some organizational habits that have definitely stuck. And honestly, I just don’t care as much as I thought I would. A little chaos isn’t the end of the world at this stage in our lives.

Grade: B

NYR 19-03: “Drink Less.” Have fewer than 500 drinks in 2019. Click here for the spreadsheet.

272 drinks halfway through the year, on pace for 550 drinks by the end of the year. Not bad, right?

Well… it depends. I did a side-by-side comparison to 2018, and actually I’m only around 14 drinks down from where I was this time last year. Not very promising considering I’m shooting for about a 28% decrease by the end of the year.

So what happened? I was genuinely surprised until I looked at the data month-by month, and saw that I actually drank more this May than last May. The explanation?

This May, I had a bachelor party in Philadelphia, followed by my wife’s birthday celebration in Charleston.

Last May, I had… a child.

Well, technically she was born in April, but as you can imagine we weren’t doing much partying in the first few months following.

So we’ll see how it goes, although 500 is feeling more like a stretch goal at this point.

Grade: C+

NYR 19-04: “Learn A New Language.” Complete the “Head First Guide to HTML/CSS” in 2019. Click here for the spreadsheet.

This one was a lot of fun at first, but lost steam considerably these past few weeks. I used to be clipping along at a solid chapter-a-week pace. Now I’m lucky to get a chapter a month. Part of it is the material is getting more challenging, but I’m worried that another part of it is I’m just not as excited as I was starting off. I’m pretty sure I can finish the book fairly easily by the end of the year, but I’m considering a few ideas to try and light that fire again and will let you know what I come up with.

Grade: B-

NYR 19-05: “Be More Creative.” Start a blog in 2019.

You’re looking at it. I’m happy with how the blog has been going so far. I am also starting to regret the idea of doing a NYR for every single month of the year, resulting in 12 NYR’s which is… a lot. I’m not treading water quite yet but can feel myself getting there. My plan is to do my best to finish strong, and plan to take some time later in the year to re-evaluate.

Grade: A

NYR 19-06: “Be A Better Parent.” Send 40 emails to my girls in 2019. Click here for the spreadsheet.

This one is going strong based on how it’s being measured (22 messages with almost seven hours of recordings… have fun listening to that, girls!) I do have concerns about how effective this exercise has been toward the greater aim of being a better parent. I do think it’s helped me connect to my girls in some ways, and it does make me think more about what they’re thinking when we’re together.

But there are other times when I feel like my messages are too… routine. I feel like I’m getting into a groove of just telling them what happened over the past week, which is fine but I also want this exercise to be deeper than that. This week specifically, I’ve to leave them a messages when I’m not feeling that great. I’m hoping to give them a full picture, not just of the good times but the bad, in hopes that they might better understand how I handle the bad days (which is not always well, by the way).

Grade: B

So that’s where we are. New series starts next week, which by the way is going to be the weirdest one yet. See you then!

NYR 19-06: “Be A Better Parent.” Part 4: Bedtime.

It’s a cliche, right? When your kid is born, there’s this pivotal moment when they first wrap their tiny hand around your finger. Your heart melts, and in an instant you feel an unbreakable bond with this baby that can barely open its eyes.

But come on, is that really how it goes down?

Yup.

Well for me, at least. I can remember this exact moment with both my girls. And I’m grateful for that – I know it’s not like that for everybody. But I will make one slight modification:

For me, the moment my daughters won me over wasn’t when they grabbed my hand. It was when I tried to take my hand away, and they tightened their grip.

And now this is what I’m dealing with:

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It’s crazy to think of the number of ways bedtime has changed over the past three years. I remember the first night when our family grew from two to three; I was lying on the couch in the hospital, staring at my daughter through the clear bassinet while she slept. It was dark; aside from the faint glow of the hospital equipment the only light I could see was a thin fluorescent line coming through under the door to our room from the hallway.

Still, I could make out the newest member of our family. Tightly swaddled (not by me, my swaddle game was pretty weak in the early days), I remember watching her lying on her back, motionless at first. Then she began gently raising her toes and her head, then relaxing flat again, starting her first day off right with a few baby-crunches. I was happy and relieved and wondering what I was supposed to do when she woke up.

Since then bedtime has changed more times than I can remember. I remember pacing the floors of our condo in the wee hours trying to do the “5 S’s”, taking her out on the balcony, putting her in the Baldwin Bassinet, then the mamaRoo, then the Rock n’ Play, then the Pack n’ Play… hell she even slept on the Lay n’ Play once.

And finally, the crib.

The crib is when I start to remember the details. That’s when she started to fumble around with the pages of Giraffes Can’t Dance. That’s when she grew hair, hair that smelled so good after a bath as I rocked her, singing to her until she buried her face in my shoulder. Then she’d start snoring, and I’d try to get up from the glider without her feeling anything, hoping she’d float in my arms like a cloud to the crib mattress below.

Then she got bigger. We had to lower the crib mattress, which made things way more difficult. I always felt like I had to make a choice to either 1) drop her a few inches above the mattress and hope the bouncy landing didn’t wake her up, or 2) risk ending up like this lady.

And the worst part? Every time I leaned over to put her in the crib, she would suddenly latch onto me like a koala bear.

Or maybe that was the best part.

I wish I saw it that way every time. I wish that, as I pried her tiny arms off my neck, I would remember the day I was prying her tiny fingers off my hand in the hospital, and be grateful.

But I don’t always feel that way. Especially these days, now that bedtime involves two girls who have both figured out how to stretch out every single step of the the process from bath time to brushing teeth to pajamas to reading to getting in the bed to actually going to bed. And it’s easy to become jaded when all you want is to just have an hour to yourself, maybe hang out with your wife before you crash and do it all over again the next day.

Well I have good news, I guess. That crib/koala problem? That’s over. Because my oldest is in a big girl bed now.

I’ll never put her in a crib again.

And that’s what I need to remember. With all the things I complain about, there are other things I’m going to miss. I need to be present and try to enjoy them.

Easy to write, hard to do.

But I have to try –  because she’s growing up so fast, and although I have an equally adorably one-year-old waiting in the wings who does plenty of her own cute stuff to keep me occupied, she’s growing up too (even faster, I think).

They all grow up. That’s the goal.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how I can “Be A Better Parent.” But now I’m thinking I should rephrase the goal. I don’t want to be a better parent; I want to enjoy parenting more.

So maybe the next time one of my girls tightens her grip, I’ll let her hold on a little longer. For both of us.

NYR 19-06: “Be A Better Parent.” Part 3 – Dad Guilt.

My wife gave me this a while back:

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And on some days, it’s my favorite coffee mug. I’ll even pull it out of a dirty dishwasher and hand wash it just so I can use it that morning.

If I feel like I did something awesome that morning or the day before, I gotta go with the “Best Dad Ever” mug. Maybe I was able to clean the girls room before they went to bed (because as we all know, once the girls are down their room becomes an impenetrable fortress, and going in there for any reason other than to get them back down is strictly forbidden). Or maybe they just slept through the night and I’m somehow taking credit for that. Maybe we went on a big outing that wasn’t a total disaster, or maybe we’re just making waffles.

On those days, I love this mug. But there are other days when I don’t like it at all.

Because some days I don’t feel like the best dad ever.

My wife was the one who suggested I write a post about “Dad Guilt.” “Mom Guilt” certainly gets more press (when I Googled “Mom Guilt” I got 567 thousand results, “Dad Guilt” got closer to 10 thousand). And to be fair, I think Mom Guilt can encompass a broader range of issues. After all, moms are the ones who actually have the baby and everything that goes along with that, and there are a host of other challenges that women face that can contribute to Mom Guilt (postpartum depression, traditional gender roles and income disparity, to name a few).

Respectfully, I’d like to side-step those issues for today’s post and stick to what I know, which is this: I’m a dad, and sometimes I feel guilty about falling short in that role.

Most of the things I feel guilty about fall into a few, broad categories:

Prioritizing convenience for me over experience for them.

I remember coming back to work shortly after my first daughter was born, and talking with a co-worker of mine about the challenges of having a newborn at home. An empty-nester herself, she gave me the following advice:

Keep them dry, keep them fed, and don’t worry about keeping the house clean. It’s been years since my kids left; my house is spotless now, but I’d give anything to have my babies here making a mess again.

And the thing is, I know she’s right. I know that kids are messy, that they’re supposed to be messy and that this is a relatively short window in my life and I should focus on embracing it and being present.

But I don’t always do that. Sometimes, a lot of times, I’m working or doing dishes or putting away laundry instead of playing with my kids. And worse, sometimes I choose activities for my kids based on how convenient they will be for me, as opposed to how stimulating it might be for them. My wife made a “sensory bin” for the girls which they love, but when they play with it they usually make a big mess. I almost never get the sensory bin out for that exact reason.

Also, we live in a condo. It’s a tight fit, and I know I should be trying to get my girls out of the house whenever I can. But sometimes I just don’t. Going outside is a whole thing, and parking them in front of the TV is easier and allows me to get some work done. It’s nice to have my to-do’s checked off at the end of the day, but when I think back to how I accomplished that it often feels like lazy parenting.

Working late

I usually take the bus home. Often I’ll be faced with a decision in the late afternoon to either shut down my computer and catch the bus, or keep working and catch the next one, with the understanding that if I wait for the next one I won’t see my kids until tomorrow morning.

The thing is, I don’t feel guilty about having to stay late to do work every once in a while. Things happen, and sometimes the work I do is time-sensitive and things just need to get done. Paying bills, after all, is a big part of being a parent.

But I really feel guilty on the days when I procrastinated at work, and now I’m faced with a task that needs to get done by the end of the day, a task that I could have started earlier. I’ve definitely missed a few bedtimes because I just didn’t prioritize correctly, and that’s a bummer.

Not wanting to be with them

This is probably the saddest one and also the most difficult to articulate. Sometimes, I just don’t feel like hanging out with my kids.

I can feel incredibly guilty about this. We’ll be doing something that, on the surface, should be a beautiful family moment and I’m just not there. Maybe I’m annoyed about something at work or at home or maybe I’m just really tired.

Or maybe I’m just really mad at my kids. Because that happens. And it sounds so silly getting mad at a two year old whose been arguing with you for fifteen minutes about how she wants her banana peeled but man, in the moment when they’re crying non-stop about absolutely nothing and you’ve tried everything and don’t know what to do you can get really, really mad!

I remember the first time I ever yelled at my daughter, just straight up yelled at her. And I remember she smiled at me at first, thinking it was just another one of our jokes. But I didn’t smile back; her smile faded and she started to cry, and it makes me feel terrible just thinking about it.

Solutions?

I dunno. I usually try to end these on a positive note but the reality is that Dad Guilt is a thing and it sucks.

And I don’t think that feeling bad about making mistakes is, in itself, a bad thing – especially if it motivates us to improve.

I guess the best “solution” I can think of is this: if you’ve identified an area where you want to improve, take a minute to pause and detach. Try to study it objectively (getting feedback from a spouse can help with this) and come up with a plan to do better. Then do it.

And then forgive yourself.

NYR 19-06: “Be A Better Parent.” Part 2: The Dichotomy of Parenting.

I recently read The Dichotomy of Leadership, written by retired navy SEALs Jocko Willink and Leif Babin.

Here’s the description from Amazon:

…the authors explain the power inherent in the recognition of the fine line that leaders must walk, balancing between two seemingly opposite inclinations. It is with the knowledge and understanding of this balance that a leader can most effectively lead, accomplish the mission, and achieve the goal of every leader and every team: victory. 

Simply put, in most situations your approach to leadership isn’t going to be clear-cut, which is why leadership is so challenging. There’s always going to be two sides to the story; for example, here’s an excerpt from the book in which Jocko describes “The Ultimate Dichotomy” he experienced while deployed overseas:

It was difficult to grasp, the hardest and most painful of all the dichotomies of leadership: to care about your men more than anything in the world–so much so that you’d even willingly trade your life for theirs–and yet, at the same time, to lead those men on missions that could result in their deaths.

Heavy stuff.

I actually found the idea of dichotomies to be disheartening, at first. If everything is a dichotomy, are there no right or wrong answers? If that’s the case, then what’s the value in even talking about it?

I encourage you to read the book. It does a great job of answering these questions and more, while also providing a healthy dose of perspective (no matter how bad things might seem at home or at the office, at least there aren’t bullets flying around).

I found that studying these dichotomies resulted in two immediate benefits for me:

  1. I began to see them everywhere, which has helped broaden my perspective on issues I used to consider to be black-and-white.
  2. Once I began to see dichotomies, I started to recognize my own inclinations, my “default approaches” to them, and this has allowed me to course-correct in a positive way.

What does this have to do with parenting?

There’s a playground for toddlers near our house that has sort of an “Under The Sea” theme. The last time I was there I saw two dads, each watching their kid play on the equipment.

“Dad A” was squatting down right next to his daughter, his hands hovering nervously under her arms as she stood on a seashell-shaped platform that couldn’t have been more than six inches off the ground.

“Dad B”, on the other hand, was watching his son scramble up a giant shark. Watching his son teetering at the top, Dad B had a big grin on his face, almost like he wanted his kid to fall just to see what would happen next.

So, which dad is “doing it right?”

Well for starters, I’m totally Dad A. I’m the dad who pretends to throw his kid up in the air but doesn’t actually let go at the top. I’m the dad who checks the slide with his hand to make sure it’s not too hot before his daughters go down, and is more than willing to hold their hands the entire way down.

And I’ve come to recognize this tendency. So once in a while, I try to course-correct and let go of the reigns a little, because I know my daughters need to experience (and hopefully overcome) challenges in order to grow.

As I thought about this, I came up with the following concept, which I call The Dichotomy of Parenting:

I want to protect my children from immediate harm, but not at the expense of their long-term development.

Once I recognized this dichotomy, I began to see it everywhere.

Take, for example, the use of antibiotics. They’re great for treating and preventing bacterial infections–and yet at the same time, the misuse or overuse of antibiotics can contribute to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. So, when should you use them?

The way my wife and I address this dichotomy is simple: we trust western medicine, and we usually punt to the doctors for decision-making. If they prescribe antibiotics, our daughters take them. We still do our homework, but following the doctor’s orders is our default setting. Simple enough, right?

But here’s where it gets frustrating. At this point, both of my girls have developed potentially life-threatening allergies. Allergies are becoming more common in the U.S., and while nobody really knows why they’re on the rise, there are a few emerging theories. One is called the “hygiene hypothesis.”

From the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology:

(The hygiene hypothesis) suggests that living conditions in much of the world might be too clean and that kids aren’t being exposed to germs that train their immune systems to tell the difference between harmless and harmful irritants.

And not only that…

Studies have shown that increased antibiotic use parallels the rise in allergy and asthma.

So wait, you’re telling me that the very efforts we’re making to keep our daughters safe, such as keeping things clean and giving them medicine, might actually be contributing to an incredibly dangerous long-term problem?

Wait seriously?

Well… that’s frustrating. It’s frustrating when your kids are sick and you feel powerless. It’s frustrating that my daughters may have to spend their whole lives asking about ingredients. It’s frustrating when I catch myself worrying about inconveniencing others when I ask them to please be careful with foods that could kill my child.

And it’s frustrating that, as I’m writing this, I’m feeling guilty complaining about these things when I hear stories about other parents and other children facing challenges that are much more difficult than mine. And I in turn roll my eyes when I hear parents complaining about challenges that I perceive to be less severe than what we’re going through.

It’s all frustrating. Parenting is frustrating sometimes.

So, what’s the answer?

Well, I think the problem with this dichotomy is that it’s grounded in the idea that the goal of being a parent is to protect your children from harm, both in the short term and the long term. And that’s just not realistic. I can’t make a New Year’s Resolution to “Protect My Kids More” – there are just too many factors outside of my control.

So if protecting my children isn’t the goal, then what is?

I’m not sure. But I think a good place to start is providing them with love and security as best I can, and perhaps more importantly making sure they know they are loved and secure through my words and actions. If I’m coming from a place of genuine love and protection, I’ll (hopefully) navigate the Dichotomy of Parenting just fine, course correcting where necessary based on my own inclinations and circumstances.

Because at the end of the day, whether you’re Dad A or Dad B, if you love your kids, and are making an effort to teach them and be present with them, then you’re doing the best you can. And to me, that’s “doing it right.”

NYR 19-06: “Be a Better Parent.” Part 1: Letters To My Girls.

“Be a better parent?” What kind or New Year’s Resolution is that?

At first glance, kind of a terrible one.

For starters, the subject is fraught with danger. People tend to get opinionated when it comes to raising their kids (I am no exception).

But also it’s nearly impossible to measure. I mean, when it comes to parenting how do I even know if I’m doing it right? Developmental milestones? Diapers changed? Hours of screen time?

What if, despite all of my efforts, my kids still grow up to be totally messed up? Is it my fault? My wife’s? Both? Neither? Does “nature vs. nurture” come into play here?

I don’t have the answers, but I think that the main issue is that these questions focus on raising good kids, as opposed to being a good parent.

And I think there’s a difference. The idea of raising “good kids” implies that there are expectations to adhere to concerning what “good kids” actually are. And I think creating a goal around that is setting yourself up for failure, simply because there are so many factors outside of your control.

But if you focus instead on being a better parent, the job becomes a lot simpler: be a better person, then parent naturally.

My strategy is to focus on challenging and improving myself in as many areas as I can think of, with the hope that these better qualities will eventually be reflected in my parenting.

Right now, I’m trying to better myself by writing this blog. I find that writing helps bring my thoughts and beliefs into focus. An idea can seem crystal clear in my mind, and at the same time it can feel impossible to write damn thing down. It’s a humbling process which forces me to think critically about the ideas that bounce around in my head throughout the day.

And it has crossed my mind that someday my girls might read this, and it’s a nice thought. I want them to know their dad, and I want them to know how much fun I’m having with them at this age and how much I love them.

And that’s how I came up with this idea for a New Year’s Resolution:

In 2019, I will send forty emails to my girls.

You can see my progress here. I’ve setup email addresses for both my girls, and have been emailing them about once a week for the past six months.

After a few weeks of sending emails, I decided one morning to try recording a voice memo instead. The voice memos were better; for whatever reason, I find that I’m more casual and more honest when I’m speaking to them as opposed to writing to them.

Just reading the subject lines in the spreadsheet makes me smile. We’ve covered a lot of ground these past six months, some good times (“The Big Snow”) some frustrating times (“The Broken Faucet”) and some sad and scary times (“The ER Visit”). So far, I’ve recorded over 4.5 hours of content.

As I look at that number and realize that it’s going to get much higher (probably three times that size by the end of the year), I have my doubts as to whether anyone is ever going to actually listen to these. I don’t see my daughters ever sitting down to listen to twelve straight hours of their dad going on about a blown pass-interference call that happened in a football game twenty years ago.

But who knows? They might be interested. I still have notes from my dad that he wrote me when I was a kid, and my mom kept a baby book documenting my first year in painstaking detail. It’s fun to read these things and compare them to my own parenting experience.

So am I really doing this for them, or am I doing it for me?

I think the same question can be asked about most “parenting”activities. For me, it’s a little bit of both but I think I’m mostly doing it for me, and that’s ok.

It’s not just because I want to document all this stuff, or impart what little “wisdom” I think I might have. The main reason I’m doing this is because there are moments in my day when I REALLY want to tell my girls how much they mean to me but it’s hard to do that when they are so tiny and their English isn’t great.

Moments like this one, when we were all at Disney World, just having a blast…

These moments come and go so quickly that I usually forget about them. Even if I take the time to pause, look my daughters in the eyes and tell them I love them so much I still feel like they don’t really get it. Perhaps they never will.

But with each new message I get another chance to try. A chance to tell them that, in this moment, they were loved and made me happier than I ever deserved to be.