I’m raising my kids as activists because I’m petrified of raising children without gratitude…just…entitled little shits who expect gifts, holidays and rights without appreciation for the significance of, well…anything.
And I annoy myself when I feel my feet step onto my own insufferable
soap box to preach in response to my kids exhibiting selfishness:
“I don’t WANT to write thank you notes.”
“I don’t WANT to go see Papa walk in the Veteran’s Day
“I don’t WANT to do another march.”
“It’s gonna be boring.”
And you know what? I’d prefer binging Netflix and eating
Lucky Charms straight from the box instead of recognizing historic achievements
or trying to change the world, too.
So raising my kids as activists is integral to my parenting because it cultivates appreciation and gratitude.
If nothing more, it’ll help my kids be grateful for the days
I DON’T pull their lazy asses out of their routines and force them to stop and
think about the world beyond themselves.
In 2019 America, we live in a world of comfort and walk
paths of least resistance. Furthermore, my kids are white and middle class, giving
them all the more carefree existence.
We don’t come from a long line of money. Our ancestral tree includes two salesmen, three teachers, a labor attorney, three factory workers, a coal miner and several farmers.
Thanks to activism of the last hundred years leading to labor reform, a minimum wage, union protections and education (especially for women), my family is no longer one of subsistence farmers or coal miners. (With all due respect to this demographic, as well. Activism helps them, too!)
Not to mention the fact that I’m a gay father and decades of
activism made it possible for me to be a father.
“OMG, what friggin’ things to I need to pack in my bag to
keep them tolerable?”
“They’re going to complain the entire time.”
“My shoulders are going to be killing me with these extra
“How big a flask should I bring?”
“Is it wrong for me to make a march a drinking moment?”
“KIDS! YOU MUST POOP, NOW! THERE’LL BE NO PLACE TO POOP ON
(That’s a way to sell your kids on activism.)
I began raising my kids as activists by dragging them to the Women’s March in 2017. I knew they would NOT be thrilled. But I prepped their expectations, and went through a familiar refrain: “This is not going to be the most fun day. It might be a bit boring. But this is an important experience in which you’re going to learn. And it’s important you understand we are here because bad things are happening to other people. In this case: women.”
As for the march, most of the time I was the only one suffering.
Them: “Daddy? When will this be over?”
Me: “You think Gandhi whined about twenty four days it took to march to the sea?”
Them: “Daddy? I’m thirsty.”
Me: “Welp, lucky for you, I have an extra water bottle and tons of snacks. No, wait. Not that water bottle. That’s a flask. Gimme that.”
Them: “Daddy? My feet are tired.”
Me: “Isn’t that too bad? Kids marched on Selma without a stroller.”
My kids are so lucky – to have been born with money, light skin, to an educated family and in the United States. I will gather them to march for injustice and force-feed their gratitude for not having been born in 1910, or slums in developing nations, or with a skin color making them the target of deplorable, institutional, societal bigotry.
Without activism, powerful, rich white men get all the comforts of life and leave the rest of us to fend for ourselves because the man will always keep the people down; the needs of the rich will always come before the needs of the rest of us and this all needs to change.
So I will raise my kids as activists who understand gratitude – from sacrifices made by veterans giving us national holidays to birthday thank you notes.
I will raise children who maintain their sense of justice – because fairness is a concept children understand better than most adults…and mine will maintain that concept.
I will raise my kids as activists because this world needs more gratitude and the fight for justice goes on and on.
And their temporary discomfort just might help them appreciate those lazy mornings with Netflix and
Lucky Charms just a bit more.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, because I thought I loathed it as a kid, but…you know what? – I miss the Boy Scouts, because as an adult I realize that scouting made me better.
When I was in ninth grade, my
mom bribed me to achieve the highest rank in Boy Scouts: Eagle. It was
contingency-based bribery where I got a stereo at Christmas (one of those big
box ones that included CD player, dual tape deck, radio AND record player on
top) but said, “But I’ll take this back
if you don’t earn Eagle by the end of the year.”
But a far greater motivation was getting out of scouts to reclaim my cool, since at the time, it was not the case that scouting made me better; it tortured me.
I was far too obsessed with being cool in school, desperate to eschew any sense that I was “less than” – (which largely meant gay. Yeah – that was my fear – that I’d be called “fag” or “pansy” or whatever label that essentially meant “less than.”)
And being cool or at the top of the social food chain meant I wouldn’t be considered “less than”.
Being a Boy Scout was not cool – especially in junior high and ESPECIALLY in high school. And that was what I hated about being a Boy Scout. Sadly.
In my suburban Denver scout troop, we didn’t have some conservative religiously-veiled dogma. There was no cultural preaching. There was just an over-arching sense of Scouts doing “good” and the difference between right and wrong. And I found a niche within my troop that ultimately meant scouting made me better at being me.
It wasn’t a troop full of toxic masculinity in the slightest.
Tons of my favorite childhood memories were made through scouting: camp-outs (which I thought I hated, but in reality were really fun), camp (not over-flowing with with toxic masculinity and generally care-free), and a consistent community of quality guys that got together weekly to…I can’t even remember now…have meetings and…talk about stuff?
Put all these things together and I learned not to be afriad of nature, leadership, and random skills most of which I’ve forgotten but actually gave me tremendously broad experience. Further, scouting made me better at poker, shit-talking, late-night conversations and a certain amount of political arguing. Again: thanks to camping.
The Boy Scout values are, in my adult hindsight, invaluable. I paid little attention to the Scout law or the substance of the words that we recited at every turn:
A Scout is Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean and Reverent.
(I typed that without google help – it’s still ingrained in my muscle memory.)
And when I occasionally think on the significance of those words, what better brain-washing to give a kid, eh? Think about each one of those values.
What more could we ask for of ourselves, of society, and of our children?
But when I said “we will roast hot dogs over a fire”, they were IN.
We kayaked forty-five minutes on the Connecticut River to pitch a tent in a clearing on an uninhabited island.
Honestly, it wasn’t hard-core at all. We built a fire, roasted hot dogs and ate M&M’s, hiked for twenty minutes (all the while me thinking TICKS TICKS TICKS TICKS), while I sipped a thermos of Moscow Mules.
But I know this is unthinkable for most people. Scouting made me better at thinking “Come on! Let’s just do it! It’s not rocket science. Pack a bag of M&M’s and let’s camp!”
I bored my kids with my “when I was a kid this was SO much harder” routine as I reminisced about the shitty camping equipment I was forced to use. Trust: military quilted sleeping bags and tents from the 70’s were NOT user-friendly, durable, warm, compact or lightweight.
At the little campground with my kids, I was all about “yes” and not setting limits. They explored, they dug around, broke sticks, and poked around in the fire. I had no reason to say “no” (the Moscow Mule helped).
At one point, my younger kid looked guilty as he made the fire flare up after tossing a pile of dried leaves on top. But I said, “It’s OK, buddy. I want you to learn about fire’s behavior. Plus, I get it. It’s fun to poke around.”
Isn’t poking around in a fire the best part about camping? (Scouting made me better at s’mores, too. Obvi.)
I mean – no forest fire are
going to start in humid-ass Connecticut. And if our fire had sparked, I was
prepared to quickly stamp it out.
This is all part of it – experimenting, pushing limits and learning.
I didn’t bring Swiss army
knives or even an axe (the fallen wood for fire-building was plentiful…and we
will carve wood next summer.)
But I gave them the flavor of camping. And they liked it!
(My 40yo+ body was not a huge fan. My neck and back were seriously creaky, afterward. For summer 2020: get a blow-up pillow.)
But this has all made me think my kids are missing out on these experiences I took for granted (nay: supposedly loathed). My friends found it such a big deal that I was camping, and despite being a gay tap-dancer, I wasn’t remotely intimidated to strike out on this mini-adventure. It’s in my educational background to know camping ain’t that big a deal (particularly when the weather’s perfect and you’re only 30 minutes from home) and nature is meant to be experienced.
Of course I’m looking past the conservative religious hijacking of Boy Scout culture, their leadership largely being old, conservative men, and their tumultuous history with the queer community. Let’s face it – they’ve adapted pretty amazingly DESPITE their leadership and strong rooting in conservative communities. And they’re coming out on the right side of history by including girls in the ranks and embracing children through the the queer community .
So anyway, now that my kids are growing up in NYC, I feel like they’re at the ripe age for having SOME KIND of value-laden extracurricular education.
I wish there were someone else lecturing them on the difference between right and wrong (besides me) and giving them survival skills (besides me).
When that internet apocalypse comes, the Russians hack all our phones and Trump’s tariffs stop all imports from China, all hell will break loose. And suddenly tying knots might actually be super helpful – not to mention reading a map, using a compass, and not fearing nature.
There are several NYC-based
Scout troops (most of them affiliated with Catholic Churches), but none of them
are convenient for us. (And by “convenient”, of course I mean within a
ten-minute walk of our apartment.)
Wouldn’t it be awesome to
start an inclusive troop at the LGBTQ Center on 12th Street? – ground
zero for the gay rights movement?
I love the irony.
And hopefully so would the
But this is not a manifesto
for me starting my own Scout Troop. I’ve got bags to sell.
During a recent conversation with parents about potty training kids to poop healthily, a friend of mine stated unequivocally, “Pooping in the ocean is the best.”
Meaning: when they are at the beach, they have no problem
just letting a turd slide out and float away.
I thought, “Really? It’s that easy? And don’t you think
that, even in the ocean, that’s pretty disgusting and a turd could float next
to a child who’s playing in the surf and they could ingest that shit?”
Then again, I get the curiosity…. you’re on a hike on the
NaPali Coast of Kauai and there is literally not a soul around you and you’re
on a gorgeous beach all to yourself and you might or might not be clothed and
you’re like, “Hm. I wonder what it would be like if…”
Not that I would know.
This all makes me think that we, as a society, are far too preoccupied with our bathroom habits. I mean – don’t get me wrong, I don’t want someone else’s poop floating past me. Ever.
But as a parent, I’ve had a lot of poop on my hands; and I
A couple of years ago, I had my kids in France visiting
family. We were at a playground and I had with me my own two kids and my niece.
Seconds after our arrival (and certainly after I’d said “before we got to the playground, anyone need to poo?), my older kid approaches saying, “Daddy? I need to go.”
Me: well, go behind the bush.
Kid 1: No…I need to poo.
So I grabbed my kiddo’s hand and we jogged over to public toilets that strike fear into the hearts of Americans – just two foot prints in the middle of a porcelain square with a hole in the middle. The French call them “Turkish toilets”, which I’m pretty sure is tremendously derogatory and not one that immigrated with the “technology” of a squat-and-hole. Oh, well.)
Anyway, yeah: a squat-over-the-hole-and-go.
Luckily, my kid wasn’t remotely fazed. When you gotta go…
So I hiked up her dress and watched as she squatted all the way down (surprisingly easily), one hand holding the dress, one hand paranoiacally on a questionably-dirty porcelain wall. She relaxed and went.
Phew. Crisis averted.
Then I looked around for toilet paper.
None to be round. Zero. Nope. No toilet paper.
Only after this visit to the squat-over-a-hole-and-go did I learn these Turkish toilets are meant to be a clean drop. Even in diarrheal emergencies, it’s how our bodies were designed, you don’t really need to wipe, and it’s how we should be pooping all the time, anyway. The toilet (most likely an invention by European royalty to separate us from the “savages” have resulted in generations of IBS, colon cancer, and hemorrhoids. We really just need to squat in the woods and go, like our ancestors.)
No toilet paper necessary.
But I digress.
So I’m looking around for toilet paper and see nothing. In
desperation, I searched in a trash can to see if there’s something, ANYTHING I can use.
My kid’s yelling at me from the toilet, still hovering.
I’m in a flop sweat frantically searching for anything for
I walk into the toilet and reach over to wipe my kid’s bare
It was completely clean (see aforementioned discussion of
A second sweep for good measure (still nothing), at which
point slow-motion set in:
I felt a movement in the breast pocket of my button-down shirt
as I slowly felt my Ray-Bans fall…
…out of my shirt…
…and straight toward the 4-inch Turkish hole of French poop.
One hand was wiping, the, the other hand steadying myself
against the wall, and I’m literally bent over my child who’s squatting under
me. The probability of a disaster where I fall on top of her and we both end up
sitting in a (remarkably clean) 3’x3’ porcelain basin that catches poop AND
pee, was high.
I couldn’t catch my glasses.
They fell out, circled the hole like those
quarters–in-a-spiral-thingy at museums, and plopped.
Into my kid’s poop.
And you bet your sweet ass I got my kid safely out of the
way and re-robed, and then I figured, “I already have one hand dirty,” and
reached into the hold and got my glasses.
They were shitty, for sure, but just a little bit. I washed
them at the sink, nearby (that didn’t have paper towels. Because of course it
didn’t) and, well…put them back in my pocket.
Fear not – I wasn’t going to wear them, and the shirt needed
That was a lot.
I happened to be at the playground with a friend (a French dad) and I asked him about the toilet paper situation, and he said, “Well, Gavin, that’s why French parents carry this.”
He pulled out Kleenex from his denim jacket.
Mind you, it was summer, hot as balls, and this guy wore a jacket to the playground. Because that’s how you do it in France. Shorts aren’t fashionable – it’s just the Germans who would wear shorts in public (along with their Birkenstocks and socks.) And you bring a jacket. Just in case. Or at least a scarf.
(And mind you – I love French scarf culture. We need to
adopt that, America. Do you realize how effective it is just to wear a scarf in the fall and spring? No jacket necessary.)
Seconds later, my younger kid told me he needed to poop.
I exchange a look with French dad friend, he hands me his
Kleenex, and away we go.
Second kid also needs to poop badly. And he’s never done a Turkish toilet, either. We run up, he squats, balances, all’s fine, no biggie. Funny how, in the moment, apparently potty training kids to poop healthily won’t stop them from squatting, like this. When you gotta go…
And thank goodness I won’t have to sully my hands, again.
I follow 5 rules to raise good eaters…or at least pretty good eaters. Oh, we have plenty of negotiating at our dinner tables, don’t be misled. The frequent negotiations, occasional whining, rare tears. But still – it’s tolerable.
…and follow these 5 rules to raise a good eater (with hopefully little drama).
*Absolutely no guarantees, mind you!
1. This is dinner. Eat it or not.
Your call. But: no drama, li’l llama. If you don’t want it, you can leave the table. But you’re not sitting here and complaining and pushing food around and whining and negotiating how many more minuscule bites you have to eat. Either eat your dinner or not. (We don’t do clean plate, we require 80%, give or take.) But if you leave the table, no dessert.
2. At least 3 bites.
A new food that’s scary? You don’t have to eat it all. But if you want dessert, you must have three bites – one to feel, one to taste, one to decide. No negotiations.
3. No snacking after 4:30 pm.
If they’ve worn you down and you’re already sipping a cocktail and making dinner, and you KNOW they really are starving, then: fine – let them snack on broccoli or cucumbers or carrots. If they’re REALLY hungry (as opposed to bored) they’ll eat. And they may always gobble all the veggies they want. But no snacking after 4:30.
4. First the “anytime” foods, then “sometime” foods
Earn the good stuff. This is our parenting mantra. Like Michelle Obama said, “There are sometimes foods and there are anytime foods. But you gotta earn the sometimes foods by first eating the anytime foods.”
First apple, then more crackers; first dinner, then dessert; first twenty minutes of quiet time, then ten minutes of screen time; first daddy’s beer then I’ll chase you around the house.
But especially for food: anytime foods then sometimes foods.
5. Half the plate should be vegetables.
May the culinary gods bless my kids’ doctor for sharing this rule. I get to throw her under the bus as I shrug my shoulders and say to my kids, “Sorry. Not my rule. It was the doctor’s. Half the plate has to be vegetables.” Hell, we almost NEVER make that. But it’s a good thing to aim for. We all know we’d be better off gobbling half a plate of vegetables.
(Oh, here’s an extra tip…but I avoided having an even-numbered list…”5 rules to raise good eaters” sounds better than “6 rules…”, doesn’t it?
Have your kids help in the kitchen.
Ask them/cajole them/require them to give a hand in food prep. It’ll make them more invested in the experience of eating. Let them experiment with using knives. Heck, they gotta learn sometime. Order one of these for young kids, but even so, let them know/understand/respect sharp knives, too.
I’ve written a variation on this theme, before, but it’s the greatest hope I have for my kids.
“Daddy? You be ‘Anna’ and I’m going to run away from you with my cape and you say, ‘No, Elsa! Don’t go!’ Ok?”
Even Colton, who’s words are limited to “pee-pee” and “nana” gets into it. When he sees anything Frozen, he shouts “Anna!”
As already discussed, our household is ruled by Frozen. (Actually, Thomas the Train still rules, but there’s a lot of Disney princessifying going on.)
Frozen thrills Ellison. He plays all the rolls: Kristoff,
Sven and (especially) the sisters. I’ve gotten good at fashioning
dresses out of old swaddlers (blankets, not Pampers.)
The other day I figured, “Eh, he hasn’t watched it in two weeks. Why
not?” As we waited for the movie to load on my computer, Ellison jumped
on the bed shouting, “Hooray! Hooray! I’m so excited to watch Frozen!”
He shouts “hooray” sans irony. I mean, who talks like that? It’s so…earnest, so…“Barney” dialogue.
After a recent snowstorm, we built “Olafs” in our backyard with some play-date friends, a boy (age 5) and his sister (age 3).
When Ellison started singing, “Do you want to build a snowman?” the boy said, “I hate Frozen. It’s all about love. And I hate love.”
“Wow. That’s…specific,” I sputtered.
His little sister said, “Yeah. I don’t like it, either.”
“Oh,” Ellison said; then (matter-of-factly) added, “I like it!”
It was as if they’d said “my name begins with R” and he said “Oh. Well, my name begins with E.”
And in that moment, I felt a desperate need to stop time, grab Ellison, and say, “Buddy, you go ahead and LOVE Frozen with all your heart, just as you do, now. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.”
Their mother rolled their eyes saying, “Whatever. They were both dancing around in Frozen dresses, this morning. Peer pressure. It’s no longer cool for him to like the movie. And his sister’s just following.”
“Already?” I thought. “At five years old social acceptance looms?”
I hate that.
I’ve spouted lessons for my son in this blog. But above all, I wish
most for him to hold on forever to that innocence where he loves what he
loves. If he’s thrilled with Frozen or football or fungi, I’ll be elated to talk about it.
How I wish he could live divorced from anyone else’s opinion.
Watching his captivated face as he’s engrossed/scared/delighted watching
Frozen warms my heart.
Eventually, I know he’ll follow crowds.
I know he’ll say to me, “Daddy, don’t hug me so much,”
or “Daddy, it’s not cool to sing,”
or “Daddy? Can you drop me off at the corner? I can walk the rest of the way myself.”
But I wish it wouldn’t happen soon.
Son, just hold on to whatever makes you feel joy and free and light
and inspired. And if whatever inflames your passion is something that
isn’t cool for the outside world, I promise you: it’s safe in our house.
So act out Frozen or play football or become bizarrely obsessed with fungi.
Your passion and interests are always safe with me.
I know you’ll be influenced by others far too soon.
It was our “Day Out With Thomas”, when a rail-riding, full-size
“Thomas the Train” visits sleepy train stations with operable train
In our case, the Essex, CT, train station attaches some coaches to a
locomotive, followed by Thomas, and makes a 20-minute trip to the local
dump, and then back to the station.
Last year, our trip was idyllic. Ellison bounced along to the songs
during the ride, thrilled at hugging a dressed-up “Sir Topham Hat” and
riding a jankety fair rides dotting the parking lot.
This year’s day out started out euphorically. For the entirety of our
fifteen minute drive, Ellison chanted, “I want to ride Thomas!” The
cuteness drove me crazy.
At the station entrance, he skipped and chanted, “I’m so excited to see Thomas! Hooray!”
I love it when he talks like he’s reading a “Dick and Jane” book.
Colton was equal parts confused and excited.
We cheered Thomas’ arrival from the previous trip to the dump.
As we proceeded toward the boarding area, Ellison noticed a table
sponsored by PBS displaying swag and a gift basket of Thomas toys.
Ellison walked up and asked, “Can I have that?”
The PBS woman said, “It’s not for sale, sweetie, but your daddy can register to win it. Would you like a PBS pen, instead?”
“No, thank you,” he politely responded…sneeringly.
I gave my spam email and a fake address to the PBS rep woman.
As we turned to board Thomas, I saw tears streaming down Ellison’s face.
“What’s wrong, buddy?” I ask.
“I wanted the Thomas basket.”
You must be kidding. I didn’t expect to be one of those parents with one of those kids crying during this supposedly idyllic day.
Also, Ellison didn’t usually begin tantrum tears silently. Usually his hands go to his wide-open mouth and his cry is deafening.
I knelt down and said, “Buddy, that basket wasn’t for sale. I’m going
to try to win it for you. But now is the exciting part. We’re gonna
Ellison whimpered and walked with fogged glasses (which adorably happens every time he cries).
We rode on Thomas for the 20 minutes in each direction to and from
the dump. The first five minutes are deafening: kids screaming and
parents frantically shouting to smile for pictures. It’s mayhem.
And then the passengers just stare at swamps and the back of
dilapidated houses located near the railroad tracks. The return ride is
Ellison sulked the entire time.
After disembarking from the train, I suggested we visit Sir Topham
Hat (some poor sot forced to dress in a stifling plush costume.)
I forgot that meant walking through a massive Thomas pop-up toy store.
Ellison’s head almost exploded as we entered the store. He sprinted
frantically around the displays grabbing and pointing. None of this
happened last year when he had no concept of acquisition.
Apparently capitalism ruined my son over the last year.
I was suddenly re-living my childhood with my mom. During our summer
road trips, my number one destination was gift shops. I’d beg her to buy
absolutely anything: toys, books, doilies, figurines, ashtrays. Didn’t
matter what. Acquisition was the name of my game. I’d hurry us through
museums, memorials and monuments to GET TO THE GIFT STORE. I’d present
crap as “educational” to help my case. Usually I came up empty-handed.
Mom was no impulse buyer.
Eighty-seven years later, I’m watching my son act like the Tasmanian Devil and asking myself, “What would Mom do?”
During the next few hours of bartering with Ellison, I looked around:
were ANY of the other parents having fun? Was I the only adult
infuriated with Thomas? Why have I become so bitter?
And then Ellison peed his pants. Again.
More tears, more internal rage.
Gavin: he’s 3. Give him a break. You need to be better about stopping to make him pee every 30 minutes.
Thomas soured me on any fairs. They’re chock-full of ways to make kids cry.
I should have managed expectations better. Do I say, “You can buy one
treat?” I suppose so. But why must I feel obligated to buy something,
anyway? Must I check asceticism at the door?
My mom never bought me shit from things like Thomas or county fairs
or street fairs or Disneyland. Because of that, I loathed festivals like
“Taste of Colorado”
or “Lakewood on Parade”. I was a diabetic in a candy store. But I
didn’t throw tantrums, cuz I expected nothing. I just wondered why we
bothered attending. Mom liked the free concerts. But Julio Iglesias was
not interesting to me as a 9-year-old (nor is he now.)
Back to my kids: how on EARTH do you manage DisneyWorld/Land/Hell? Seriously…tell me your secrets.
The day would have been more fun if we’d just gone to a lake and thrown sticks in the water.
We did exactly that later in the afternoon. And it was bliss.
When we sat down for dinner, Ellison was starving and shoveled kale
salad and asparagus into his mouth. (I know. Roll your eyes, now.) I
asked, “Has it been a good day, Buddy?”