Documenting The Journey Of A Man On A Quest For Mindfulness, Peace, and Joy

Tag: Parenting

On Sabbatical – Week 11: Parenting Wizardry At The Pediatric Dentist

MUTUAL ADMIRATION ON A MORNING RUN

I started out the week going for an early morning run with a friend. It was the first time we’d gone for a run together. When the pandemic first hit and I was getting into running as a new hobby, this friend was already a well-established runner with several marathons under his belt. From the comfort of my screen, I would observe his progress on social media and aspire to be able to run that far, that often. He was the source of my inspiration for creating a running mile-tracking spreadsheet. In the two years I was marathon training – 2020 and 2021 – I became obsessed with tracking my miles on this spreadsheet. The moment I would get back from a run, I’d look to see exactly how many miles I’d clocked using the Strava app and would immediately input that data into my spreadsheet, which tracks my miles by week, by month, and by year. What I loved about this process was the ability to track progress over time. One or two week’s worth of data was pretty meaningless, but by sticking to this process over the course of multiple years, I now have all kinds of fun ways to analyze how my spring months compare to summer months, or how my June 2021 compared to a June of a younger Kevin. They say “what gets measured gets done,” and thanks in part to the idea of this little tracking document from my friend, I was able to complete the Twin Cities Marathon in October 2021.

Running miles clocked in 2021

 

While I admire this friend for his running dedication and ability, on this morning run we went on, I felt his reciprocal admiration of me. He was genuinely interested, curious, and excited for me with the course of life that I’m on. He had specific questions about why and how we plan to move to Costa Rica. It feels very weird writing this, but it felt like in him I have a “fan.” Someone out there who is… not so much happy for me, or cheering me on, but… a fan of what I’m doing. It’s a good feeling, to feel like someone is into you, is picking up what you’re putting down. It gives me reassurance that I’m on the right track, that I’m making good choices, that going on sabbatical was the right move at the right time, and that I’m living out that sabbatical well. I’m not on sabbatical to seek any sort of external validation, but I can’t deny that it feels good to receive it. At one point he even drew a parallel from what my blog could become to the blog of Mr. Money Mustache, one of the most popular blogs on the internet about living with financial independence, retiring early, and customizing your lifestyle. This makes it the second time someone close to me has brought this up. How many people have to tell you something before it goes from trivial comment to substantial notion? 

IMPRESSING THE DENTIST

“We don’t see this. Ever.” That’s what I was told while taking my four year old to the dentist. “We don’t see this” is a phrase one typically does not want to hear while at the dentist, but in this case, it was a compliment.

As any parent knows, trips to the children’s dentist are usually lower on the list of ideal ways to spend time with a kid. Kids are scared of the dentist. And why wouldn’t they be? Ultra-bright lights, pokey instruments, masked-up strangers getting up in your grill – a child going to the dentist is basically the adult equivalent of entering a torture chamber. Because they are scared, they have a hard time following the instructions of the hygienist and the dentist. Even getting in a normal brush or floss, which is not a big problem at home, was proving difficult for the hygienist. She was asking my kid to open their mouth for a brushing, and my kid was saying “No, I don’t want to” and squirming the other way. This hygienist did what I’m sure she has done for twenty years in the profession, trying this and that tactic to get my kid on board: saying things like “it won’t hurt” or “it is just like brushing your teeth at home” and reminding her she’ll get to pick a prize when we’re all done. I was observing this from the bench 5 feet away and let it go for a few moments, but I felt like I knew what was needed and stepped in to intervene. 

Within ten seconds, my kid went from squirming refusal to calm, still, and mouth open. All I did was sit by their side, calmly held their hand, and said something to the effect of, “Kid, I know you are probably feeling a little nervous right now. That’s normal. All that’s going to happen is she is going to brush your teeth. This is a special toothbrush that makes a buzzing noise, but its gentle. It almost tickles on your teeth. Do you want to feel the tickle?” It was much less about my words, though, than it was about the presence I brought by shifting the energy in the space. The hygienist was able to proceed with the rest of her process, and I went back to sit on the bench. 

When she had a moment, the hygienist looked over at me and said, “This just doesn’t happen. How did you do that?” By which I thought she meant, “Most times when a kid this age is showing signs of fear and discomfort, there’s nothing we can do to get them calm enough to proceed. What type of wizardry have I just witnessed here, sir?”

The answer is practice. I practice controlling my own energy, my breath, my attitude, my nervous system. Sometimes I practice this when I am already in a state of relative calm, like when I wake up in the morning and meditate first thing. Other times I am practicing this control in the face of an external stimulus that is knocking me out of balance in some way. With practice, I am learning to tune in to my body’s signals, to recognize when my systems are getting out of whack, and to have the tools to realign and reset. In this instance at the pediatric dentist, as I watched this kind hygienist struggle with my defiant, scared child, I could feel my chest tighten and my body temperature rising (I usually feel the heat in my cheeks first). If I’m feeling that way just by watching, I could only imagine how my kid was feeling. So with one deep breath in through the nose and out through the mouth, I reset, moved slowly toward my kid, and made sure that my holding of her hand was as gentle and relaxed as possible. When I spoke, I spoke slowly. Warmly. It was the energy of this calm presence that I transferred to her. And it’s only through practice on myself that I can even begin to think about transferring positivity to others. 

It felt pretty darn good to receive that compliment from someone who’s spent their career working with kids! 

This type of somatic attunement I am learning from Kristyn With A Why who is in turn learning it from, among other sources, Carmen Spagnola. Gotta give credit where credit is due! 

KIDS SAY THE BEST THINGS

To cap off the week, one of my kids was, once again, asking questions. This particular time the line of questioning was about being famous. “Dad, what does it mean to be famous?” I did my best to explain that someone who is famous is someone that a lot of people know. It could be a singer, or an actor, or a writer, or someone in our government, but no matter what the person is really good at, they are famous because a lot of people know who they are. My kid listened, considered, and finally replied,

“I think you are the opposite of famous.”


Oh, and also I took my kids to nature camp this week, hence the featured image on this post. The rest of the week was filled up with prepping and planning for our longest, most epic trip as a family – a 16-day road trip to Canada – which is coming up next! 

On Sabbatical – Week 10: Into The Woods With A Child

In the wake of Bro Day, I have been feeling like I’m losing touch with the purpose-driven fervor with which I started this sabbatical. I had, and still have, many goals for this “mini-retirement,” and it feels like I’ve barely scratched the surface on a few, while others remain untouched. I think it may simply be the slower speed of summer settling in. I’m enjoying my life. I’m seeing friends. I’m being active. Yet there is still this nagging feeling like… I’m not doing it all. Like I’m “supposed” to be doing something different or better or more when I choose to simply relax, be in my body, breathe, and stare at the trees for twenty minutes, or when I choose to go be social with a friend. Letting go of the idea of how things are “supposed” to be is one of my sabbatical’s ongoing pursuits.

SUPER MUCH FUN HAS A PRICE, AND IT’S A PRICE I’M WILLING TO PAY

I’m learning to embrace the balance that having “super much” fun (as my four year old would say) requires. Not just ordinary, go-for-a-jog or play-a-game kind of fun, but coordinated events, travel to exciting destinations… super much fun. Namely, it requires planning. It usually also requires a period of cleanup and decompression afterward. When you are in planning or cleanup mode, it is harder to be present in the moment and enjoy the now. That’s the price of having an epic Bro Day or a first-time camping adventure with your kid. It’s a worthwhile price to pay – exchanging the time of planning and cleanup in order for next-level experiences to be had. I just have to remind myself that it’s OK to have humdrum days too, and there is peace and joy in them, if I’m willing to be mindful enough to see and feel it.

TENT CAMPING WITH A KID

For the first time ever, I took my oldest to a campground for the weekend. Just the two of us. This was on my “must-do list” at the very beginning of summer. Why? It’s one of those things I just had a gut feeling about. An intuition that this is the summer where the age is right and the time is now. I love the outdoors and getting by with fewer amenities than I have around me in everyday life, and I want to share in that love with my children. So my six year old child and I embarked on a two-night tenting adventure into Minnesota’s St. Croix State Park.

Here are my top takeaways from the experience:

  • There is a fine line in parenting between giving your kids agency over their own choices and giving them firm direction on how things must go. I believe in both approaches, depending on the situation. When it comes to camping and being outdoors, there are certain things one has to do. Make a shelter. Get water. Apply bug spray. I found that proposing how things will go was a useful frame for both of us. It set the kid’s expectations and put us on the same page for the next minutes of life. Comments such as, “We are going to do this, and then I’d like your help with…” or “Here’s the plan. I want to make sure this all sounds good to you. First we’re going to ___” were useful ways of me directing the flow of activity while keeping the kid engaged.
  • Kids love jobs. I couldn’t give them enough jobs. The key was really selling it that my situation was dire, that I desperately needed aid, and that I couldn’t figure out the exact solution on my own.
    • “I could really use your help with these dishes. I don’t have enough hands to use this drying towel to dry them after I’ve washed them. What can we do?”
    • “Can you do me a huge favor? This might be a really tricky job, but I need someone to go around and find little sticks for the fire. Do you know how to do that?”
  • If the situation was such that I did want to give the kid a chance to choose, I would propose a short list of equally acceptable choices, rather than an open-ended question which could have less than agreeable outcomes. So instead of, “What do you want to do next?” it was, “Up next we could go for a hike, go to the beach, or go on a scavenger hunt. What sounds good to you?” I was good with any of those options, so it was a guaranteed win-win.
  • Kids love cold and hate hot. I knew this before camping, but it was reinforced with their relentless, unending love for swimming in frigid lake water and with their sincere trepidation around a bright, hot campfire. It is quite clearly a survival instinct to fear being burned and to be completely at ease around cold (because water is naturally cold!), but it is odd how we grow into loving hot beverages and hot showers as we become adults. Kids have an instinct that these hot things aren’t as good for us as their colder counterparts, and they’re right. Hot beverages can burn your tongue. Hot showers do dry your skin. Part of my parenting journey is learning to be more like my kids, because they have innate wisdom I have somehow unlearned.
  • I was reminded that children of all ages are still developing verbal skills. They don’t have the communication acumen to actually say what they need or are thinking all the time. (Come to think of it, neither do I!) A disgruntled, “Ugghhhh, this is taking for-ev-er!!” while on a hike is really just their way of saying, “I don’t know where we’re headed and am afraid I’m going to get tired before we get there. I feel lost. And I’m bored with this. Can we make this fun somehow please Dad?” It’s easy to get triggered by kids’ complaints. I continue to ask myself, “What is my kid really saying here?” and it is an incredibly useful reframe that helps me co-regulate with them and move us both back into calm and joy more quickly.
  • Spontaneous hugs from your kid because they are just feeling pure happiness toward you might fill my heart up more than anything else in the world.
  • Queen-sized air mattresses. You’d think they’d offer plenty of space for one adult and one child. Heh. We would start the night with each of us on one half of the bed. As the sun comes up, I would wake to find the child’s half of the mattress completely empty and bare, the kid located in my spot, wrapped like a tight burrito in all of the blankets, and me balancing on the mostly-deflated mattress edge with the slightest scrap of sheet around my ankles. Next time, we’re getting cots.
  • Car camping with a six year old is almost all the same gear as camping solo. It really was not much more work at all. I packed one extra chair and pillow, a few extra clothes (which are small), and an extra box of spaghetti. And bubbles.
  • Kids don’t like “hikes,” but they do like “searching for raspberries.” They will hike 5x farther with a little rebranding.

The payoff of a keen eye on a morning hike

GOOD PROBLEM

On our final night in the woods, we made a campfire. Two weeks prior to this camping trip, we had our first encounter with sparkler sticks – the classic 4th of July variety. As sunset turned to dusk around our campfire, my kid got the idea that they wanted to create their own “sparkler” using a stick and igniting it in the fire. Up until this point, the responsibility of fire had been left solely to me, but this seemed like a golden opportunity to begin to have a deeper learning and experience with fire. They brought me a stick and asked if they could stick it in the fire, but I replied that this stick was too wet and wouldn’t burn properly. So they found another one and asked again, but I answered that this stick had green leaves on it, which meant it won’t burn properly because the wood is too new. Again, they searched the ground for the right “sparkler” stick, and this time, they were sure of the stick’s caliber. I could tell by the look on their face; this must be a good one. And while the stick was not wet, nor was it green, it was laughable in size – it was a piece of bark no longer than an adult thumb. I instructed, “This looks like a good type of wood, the only problem is, look how short it is. If you tried to hold it to the fire, in order to get close enough for it to light on fire, what would happen?” And they looked at the fire, and down at their thumb-sized piece of bark, and back at the fire, and finally gazed up at me and, with a nod of approval, replied, “Hm. Good problem.”

As they retreated to scour the campsite yet again in search of the perfect stick, I was struck with that phrase. Good problem. The kid meant it. They were happy to have been given a good problem. One worthy of their solving. One that presented a challenge yet was reasonably solvable. One that was not a “no,” but was an invitation to work toward a solution. With a child that is intrinsically motivated to find a solution, a reasonable problem is the ultimate brain food.

Ultimately, they did find the perfect stick, and we had ourselves a fire ritual. At the kid’s request, I lit the end of the stick in the fire and then handed the flaming stick to the kid. While it didn’t expel sparks, the flame died out and transformed into a glowing, smoldering ember, much like a stick of incense. Under a starlit sky, with the orange ember glowing, the thin stream of smoke drifting with the breeze, and the feeling of power that comes with wielding fire, 100% of the kid’s being was there, in that moment, completely absorbed by the now. So was mine. It was a special moment to share together. I cannot recall a time in my life where I’ve spent more minutes staring at a stick. Our first fireside ritual is a memory I will take with me always.

On Sabbatical – Weeks 6 and 7: Creating Space For Accidental Magic

At the time of this writing, I am currently a full month “behind schedule.” It is Week 11 of my sabbatical, and I’m finally publishing the takeaways from weeks 6 and 7. Of course, these deadlines are completely arbitrary and self-imposed; yet, the challenge of maintaining a steady rhythm of publishing is revealing. It reveals to me several things. First, I continue to grow a deeper appreciation for professional writers, for those who have made a career out of writing things for people to read. There are countless excuses one can make to avoid writing. I have been practicing many of them over the past month. Another thing this challenge is exposing is my perfectionism; this blog has no commercial purpose, no “master plan,” and despite that, I still hesitate to hit the little “Publish” button. Self-doubt and perfectionism creep in. Is this really the best I can do? Did I capture all that this week offered? Is this actually written in a way that anyone will be compelled to read past the first few sentences? I am reminded that part of the journey of writing this blog, perhaps the main part, is simply to work through the struggles of a writing regimen, to pave the way for my future self and whatever he might write about.

Onward to the happenings of Weeks 6 and 7!

SETTLING IN TO A SLOWER SPEED

In the wake of our trip to Costa Rica, I think I may be starting to arrive at the slowed down speed a sabbatical can provide. I’m realizing that I no longer get what I used to call the “Sunday Angst-ies.” You know, that feeling you get when it’s Sunday afternoon and you realize you still have umpteen things you were hoping to do before the weekend is over? That feeling of, “I know I need to get a good night’s sleep tonight, but I also didn’t have as much time as I wanted to read my book or watch my show or write in my journal or insert-hobby-here, so now I have to choose between sleep deprivation and my own little slice of me time.” The Sunday Angsties used to hit me hard, but not anymore. The weekends are now just another day that ends in “y,” and the great part about this is that I can equally enjoy every day of the week. There is no added pressure to do certain things on certain days. It’s liberating.

For example, it was 2pm on a weekday, 89 degrees outside, and I’m in the front yard sitting in a yard chair with my two naked kids in front of me. These two free birds are oscillating between gleeful sprinkler run-through’s and, once exhausted, hammock lounging. At one point, with the aid of Elton John’s “Your Song” crooning out of our portable speaker, the one kid was lulling the other into a lazy, gentle afternoon siesta by rocking the hammock straps ever so delicately. The kids weren’t just entertaining themselves, they were giving each other a nap! It’s moments like these that make me appreciate just how sweet it is to unplug from our capitalist system and simply live. Honestly, it can feel a bit like magic.

ACCIDENTAL MAGIC

It’s happening when we have no agenda, no set structure for the day – these magic moments when we let the children lead the way. Society should be learning more from children. They haven’t learned all of its harmful norms yet. They are free thinkers, free beings, unbound by the ways adults have learned they are “supposed” to live.

This week, my one kid said aloud, while we were playing outside, “This is the best day ever.” The next day, the other kid, while being pushed in a swing, listening to Katy Perry’s “Firework,” and nude as the day they were born, asked, “Daddy, can we do this every day?”

My kids are enjoying their days to the fullest, and the only thing I am doing is being with them. Sure, I set up the sprinkler, filled up the water table, and laid out a picnic blanket, but the rest was all them and nature. We didn’t go anywhere. We didn’t buy anything new. We’ve just been living. Together. With no time table. With an undistracted parent. And they are loving it.

This accidental magic is only happening because I am creating the physical, mental, and emotional space for it to occur. It is a worthwhile endeavor to practice the creation of openness and space. Free time, open space, lack of structure – this is where the magic happens.

LETTING KIDS CHOOSE THEIR OWN EDUCATIONAL ADVENTURE

People learn better when they are genuinely interested in something. I’ve been embracing the approach of waiting – waiting until one of my kids shows an interest in something and then diving in and following that interest as far as it will go.

For example, our local beach has a concession stand. We typically bring our own snacks to the beach, but let’s face it – it’s pretty tantalizing for a kid to see other kids devouring cold, creamy, icy treats on a hot summer day. Our kids have a little money in their piggy banks, but up until now, they’ve shown no interest in money. Fake money and real money have been the same to them – toys. In a world of online shopping and credit cards, no wonder it’s hard for kids to grasp the concept of money these days. But the concession stand is cash only, and all of a sudden – click! Now money is very interesting. This has then spurred numerous “lessons” where we sort and count coins, learn about the difference between cents and dollars, what money is used for, and so on. When we had counted up the one kid’s coins, it added up to two dollars. They considered the sum, frowned, and said, “Dad, I don’t think I have enough.” <PAUSE> Talk about a zinger! My entire journey leading me to sabbatical, trying to figure out when to quit my job, worrying about the uncertainty of what will come next… all of this has revolved around the question of “How much is enough?” After months of asking myself this question, let me tell you – this is not an easy question to answer! Somehow, I regained my composure and formulated a response. <RESUME> I replied, “How much do you think you would need to have to feel like you have enough?” After a beat, they commented, “I want to have enough so that I can buy ice cream at the beach.” Fair enough, kiddo. So I went to my jar of coins and doubled their “life savings” to four dollars. And yes, the next time we went to the beach, they blew about 3/4 of their life savings on ice cream. And it was the best money they’d ever spent.

On another occasion, I was out on our deck in the pre-breakfast morning with one of my kids, and they saw a tiny ant crawling on the bristles of one of our water toy paintbrushes. They were showing an interest, so I took an interest. We stared at and talked about this tiny ant for a good five or ten minutes. We talked about how it uses antennae to navigate its surroundings. We discussed that even though it’s small, its size doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a baby. Lessons that would have less likely sunk in had I been the one dictating when and what we’re going to learn about.

It’s also an all-around win to set up play “stations” and let the kids do as they please. Water is the absolute best toy on the planet. We paint with it. We dunk stuff in it. We funnel it. We watch water race down the slanted driveway. They wash my car for me. They wash their own bicycles and scooters. They learn what wet socks feel like. And with water, there’s no such thing as making a mess! We’re blessed to live in an area where water is abundant, and we do our best to limit our water waste (haven’t watered our grass in years) and teach the kids how water is a precious resource (e.g. once the buckets are empty, we’re not filling them back up). But if we are going to do some messy, unstructured, outdoor play, I’d much rather them spill a little water than be plowing through any other toy or material that needs to be made or purchased. Water for the win!

It was thoroughly fun to observe the urgency which with my kids made “Chocolate Stew” inside the water table. Yes, they’re choosing the less-than-ideal location of directly underneath the swings as their digging site for sourcing soil (one of Chocolate Stew’s two main ingredients). Sure, they’re wasting a bit of water that carelessly splashes over the side of the water table as they enthusiastically pour more solvent into their mixture. Yet, they are working together. They are creating and then solving many little problems in rapid succession. I am not involved in any way, and, for multiple consecutive minutes, I am able, within eyesight of them, to… wait for it… sit down. Miracle!

I am coming to realize that being a witness to and playmate of my kids is a big part of what the summer phase of this work hiatus is about.

CHOOSING NATURE OVER BREAKFAST SANDWICHES

One day this week I dropped off my kids for a three-hour gymnastics camp. What I chose to do with this time was to walk a total of five miles on the nearby trail system. I left the car in the parking lot of the gymnastics building (located in an industrial park) and walked until I was on the trail system, and I kept walking until I came upon the closest lake. Why? Why am I pulled in the direction of nature? Of movement? I love being with what I already have. Accepting that what I am and what I have is enough.

I know full well what Pre-Sabbatical Kevin would’ve done with this morning of freedom. He would have hopped in the car, driven to the nearest cafe, and dropped $20 on a breakfast sandwich and espresso that he didn’t need. He would’ve done so to “treat himself” for all of the “hard work” he was doing throughout the week, to “make the best of this precious ‘me time.’”

But instead, Sabbatical Kevin took in some fresh air, moved his body, worked up an actual appetite, and later enjoyed a healthy homemade lunch together with his kids.

While on the morning walk, I identified five plant and bird species using the Seek app. I continue to be mildly obsessed with this app that identifies any species you can take a picture of. Why am I so intrigued by this? For one, there is a lot to learn about the world around us, a lot that I don’t know! But I also sat with this question for a bit and came up with the following:

Things have names. Names have meaning. Meaning is information. Information is power. Power is control. Control is security. Security is comfort. Comfort is peace. So… By knowing something’s name, it brings me peace.

RECONNECTING AFTER ALMOST 20 YEARS

When I announced my sabbatical to my social media circle, I included a statement that spending more time with friends and family is at the top of my priority list, and that for whoever was reading this, it meant I wanted to be social with them. One person took me up on it. In this time of non-work, I was grateful to have a reason to set the alarm for 530am, feel the crisp morning air, and see the sunrise. We got a few miles of running in around the Mississippi River and got each other caught up on life after high school. Thanks for the quality time, Jenna Strain Lutz!

Man and woman athletes

KID QUOTES OF THE WEEK

  • “Can we have this day every day?”
  • “Can we do this tomorrow?”
  • (Six hours after gymnastics camp was over, out of nowhere) “My gymnastics was FUN.”
  • (Recanting a memory) “Yeah Dad, I heard you snoring last year. I heard it and I was like, ‘Excuse me, sir, what are you *doing* to that woman?’”
  • (Explaining to our family) “If you want someone to help, ask your superhero Dad to help!”

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