The Importance of Touch for Babies and Children

I recently read about a study at Sahlgrenska Academy where Emma Jonsson conducted a study on babies to determine whether or not they reacted to touch. The babies were held by their mothers and experienced brush strokes at two different speeds, one of them at the normal pace we typically use to caress our children and one at a faster pace. The babies also wore an elastic bandage on their heads, which helped to measure blood flow in their brain.

The study found that a slow caress, like we would normally give our children, stimulates more blood flow in our babies’ brains. Think about that for one second: these babies, with an average age of eight weeks, experienced a gentle caress-like touch and it triggered higher blood flow in their brains. Babies are ready to experience caressing, physical affection from almost birth and you can argue that they need it, too, because of how strongly their brains reacted to it.

It got me thinking about my kids (boy/girl twins) after they were born almost 10 weeks premature. They were 3 pounds each and had to spend four weeks in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). My wife and I would visit every day and give them kangaroo care.

If you’re not familiar, kangaroo care is when you take your baby and place her bare chest on your bare chest so that she could physically feel you and the warmth and closeness of you.

I remember doing that regularly, but not having any idea if it really helped. Our babies, obviously, didn’t speak and couldn’t communicate and I was so new to being Daddy that I didn’t know what I was doing. Was this making a difference? Did they even notice us being this close together?

But this research proves the value of us as parents being physically close with our babies and children. It shows our touch makes a difference. It shows our babies need our love and affection from the moment of their birth.

My kids, who were so tiny I could easily hold them both in my arms, are now both taller than I am. Is that because we did kangaroo care when they were babies? Is that because we showed them love and affection consistently?

I don’t know, but this study makes me think kangaroo care and our affection had more of an impact than I could’ve imagined.

The Trauma of Trump

One of things, I believe, that has made this year so difficult for many of us in terms of Donald Trump being elected President, is rooted in the fact that many of us have experienced some kind of trauma in our lives.

Maybe we’ve been on the receiving end of racism or discrimination or we’ve been bullied or sexually harassed or assaulted or even abused by those with power over us and there was nothing we could do about it.

Our current administration has been an almost constant trigger of our own traumas, no matter whether it is us or friends or family who feel a lack of safety with what our government is doing. Even worse, it has been a trauma in and of itself, seeing this man, a bully, a harasser, a discriminator and his followers proud of their racism, sexism, anti-semitism, bullying, abusive behavior, become president.

Now, not only did we have old traumas triggered, we feel scared for ourselves and our family. We feel powerless and helpless.

In essence, we feel traumatized once again–especially with his reaction regarding Charlottesville, his equating “many sides” and saying the Confederate flag and statues are a special part of our culture, that Nazis marching through a city is perfectly normal and acceptable and no reason for genuine condemnation.

But here’s the difference. Whether our traumas happened long ago or more recently, we are stronger than we were then and we are not alone now. We are not fighting this alone, defending our families and country all by ourselves.

  • We have each other to turn to for support when we don’t feel strong enough to go on.
  • We have each other to brainstorm ideas of how to fight back, how to make sure our elected leaders know how we feel and how strongly we feel it.
  • We have each other to think about what organizations we should be giving money to so they can help protect those that need protection.
  • We have each other to think about specific actions we can take to make our voices heard, to help those who need help.
  • We have each other and our combined strengths are pretty powerful.

This *has* been traumatic for so many of us and that is *why* we feel this way. We can’t underestimate how profoundly this period of our lives is being affected and how it is affecting us. Not because we are weak, but because we are connected. We feel. We care. We’re invested in ourselves, our families and our future. These are just a few of the things that makes us different and special.

Even though the wounds are still so fresh and continue to reopen, let’s remember we aren’t the little kids who got hurt long ago. We are strong adults able to stand up for what we believe in and to not only protect ourselves (maybe in ways we never could as kids), but also stand up and protect others, too.

Holding On Until She Lets Go

I gave myself a treat this week. The other night I drove up to Connecticut to watch my Sweetie Girl perform in a musical. But instead of going home afterwards, I stayed in a B&B and then spent a few hours with her.

Now I know some parents of 13 year olds complain how their kids don’t really talk or answer questions, but I barely got to say anything at all over the four hours we spent together. My lovely daughter told me every single detail about the musical and her friends and the scenery and audio and sound effects and each individual actor and their issues and concerns and strengths and weaknesses and which songs were her favorite and which performances were the best and all of the melodrama and so much more.

Periodically, I would marvel that this was her first time at sleep-away camp and while she genuinely claimed to miss us, you couldn’t tell. She made new friends and gave her entire being to this musical with rehearsals frequently taking up 5-6 hours of her day every day.

And not once did she complain. Not once did she say it wasn’t worth it. She LOVED it. I mean, this girl of mine L O V E D every moment. What was in the Spring an interest is now a burning passion; being on stage and performing. It is incredible how much she is like her daddy in that way.

But what was amazing to me is that when I showed up to get her, she ran to me to give me a hug. When we walked outside, she held my hand. She gave me a big hug and kiss when I left. She is 13 years old and not embarrassed by affection with her Daddy.

And every time it happens, I wonder if this could be the last time. Could this be the last time she holds my hand in public? Or the last time she runs up to me to give me a hug?

But considering my past and trauma, this surprisingly isn’t me being pessimistic or negative. No, this is me trying to savor every moment. My little girl is not so little anymore. She’s a full-fledged teenager. Of course she held my hand when she was 4 or 6 years old. The fact that she still holds my hand at 13 (and a half) years old could easily be construed as a miracle.

And it feels that way every time. I don’t (really) care that she is now taller than me, that she texts her friends and barely responds to mine. When my daughter wants to hold my hand when we’re walking together I thank my lucky stars and I hold on until she wants to let go. When she runs up to me, I brace myself to catch her the best I can and swing her around, not quite like I did when she was 5, but good enough for government work, and for her to know I love her.

And honestly, that is one of the best feelings in the world. It is a moment when I can feel her love, where I am 100% in the present, where my past is just a faraway spot in my rearview mirror. It is a moment where her love for me, her Daddy, and my love for my Sweetie Girl swirl together in powerful vortex where we both feel better, feel special.

It is amazing to watch our children grow up and see how independent they become and how they learn how to handle new situations. That’s what makes it even more important to celebrate, embrace and bask in those moments when they still show us affection and love just as freely as they did when they were younger.

As I was leaving, I thanked her for such a special day and she smiled at me, that beautiful smile that reminds me so much of her mother, and she thanked me for such a special day. A day of driving and eating and talking. And of hugs and holding hands and reminding each other we love each other. And of musicals, of course.

I’m going to hold on to this day as long as I can–especially the feeling we had together. Those are the days that make being parent the most amazing job in the world.

Life Can Be Both Hard AND Good!

We were sold a bill of goods when we were kids. Most of us grew up believing that being a child was so hard and that once we became an adult life would become much easier. I think many of us looked at our parents and didn’t see how hard work was, didn’t see how challenging relationships can be, didn’t know how stressful it can be to be an involved parent. As kids we didn’t understand how hard our parents worked to try and deal with all that life threw their way. To us, as children, it seemed pretty easy.

The problem with that is most of us grew up thinking life should be easier as an adult. But alas, life is not at all easy. What makes this all even worse, is many of us then judge ourselves on the fact that our life seems so challenging.

If my life is so hard, then I must be doing something wrong.

Therein lies the rub.

One of the most challenging things for me to remember (and I am still working on it), is that just because we experience the complexities of our adult lives as partners, parents, friends, individuals, employees, etc. doesn’t mean that it is bad.

There’s a great saying, “Happiness is not the absence of problems. It is the ability to deal with those problems.”

We need to try and move away from judging ourselves harshly that we have problems. Of course, we have problems. This life, especially when you are working to make it better, is hard! We’re trying to be better as people, better as partners, better as parents, caring intensely about what we do and who we are. Of course, that is going to be hard! Not to mention work challenges and financial issues, as well. Not to mention the running around we do and the limited time we have to take care of ourselves for whatever comes next.

The fact that we have problems isn’t a sign that something is wrong. The fact that we have problems means we are living this life the best we can.

But are you having any fun?

Do you feel the love of your family and friends?

To help make this transition from thinking “If this life is hard then something is wrong” to “Life can be both hard and still good” we need to make more of (or take better advantage of) the time we have to ourselves.

For instance, do you commute or run errands or take lunch alone? This could be an excellent time to focus on yourself, on the things you want and need, for seeing how you feel and are experiencing the world. Listening to music that makes you feel good. Reading a good book. Drawing or writing about your feelings, giving yourself time to process and express your feelings can do wonders for helping you to realize, yes, this is hard, but there is some good stuff here and I want to enjoy it.

What if we were happy, but didn’t realize it? What if we realized we were both overwhelmed and happy with our lives? I bet you could minimize a little of the sense of being overwhelmed, reduce the judging that life shouldn’t be so hard and increase the awareness of the happiness and love in your life.

It starts with taking a little more time for yourself to connect to the good you already have in your life.

The Opportunities of Dinner Together–Without Screens

While we were out to dinner recently, we saw a couple sit with their two kids, maybe 10 and 12 years old and each child pulled out a device and headphones and put them on. What kind of message does that send about family time and talking together?

I can talk a good game about how much screen time kids should have, but I know our kids play with iTouches, computers and watch TV–more than they should (whatever that means). Screens are a part of our lives and I’m not trying to rid our life of them. But it got me thinking about when they are appropriate.

While talking with Gem about it in the car, I realized what worries me. In the last week, Gem and the kids and I had some fascinating discussions at the breakfast/dinner table. We had a great talk about making sure they let us know about any pain they feel (our daughter had an appendectomy last month). We talked about what to do when someone is sitting Shiva (the wife of someone in my office recently died). In fact, late last Spring, we had a great discussion about school which led us to send them to a different school this year because they were so unhappy at the last one.

The way I think about it is that screens aren’t bad. But screens keep us from interacting with each other. Anytime we watch dinner in front of the TV, we lose the chance at a conversation. Anytime, someone uses their phone or device at the table, they aren’t present with the family. Certainly once in awhile, having dinner in front of a good movie, cuddled on the couch, is lovely.

But I think about what eating together means to our family and what it would mean if we didn’t share that time together. When we sit down at the table we don’t plan the discussion, but we know it is a chance for anyone in our family to share what has been going on with them–good or bad. I can talk about a big project at work. Gem can tell us about a workshop she did that day. The kids can tell us something that happened during their day. But the best part always is the reactions and the questions that come out up and seeing where the conversation goes. Some nights it is just an interesting conversation. And some nights, we find ourselves with the chance to remind our children of something very important based on the new direction of our conversation. Sometimes it is sex or drugs or drinking. Sometimes it is what is a good friend or how to deal with problems. Sometimes it is about my past and how different things are for me now. It is never what we expected, but always of value.

A screen prevents all of this from happening. I like to think that as our kids get older, things might happen to them during the day and they might think, Oh, I can talk about this at dinner. If it works out like that, both Gem and I would be tremendously excited.

But even right now, what happens at dinner is always better than what happens on any screen.

Guest Dad Post: Teaching While Learning At The Same Time

By Tom King

The beauty – and terror- of pre-school kids is they are still unpolluted by the larger world.  Whatever comes from them is almost 100% the direct result- forget byproduct – of what we as parents have put into them.

So recently when my son was angry I saw myself reflecting back and could tell he was struggling (like his Dad) to communicate and cope with the frustration.  I decided to try help him through it while also giving him a “tool” to use for the future.  I said, “It looks like you have Angry Ghosts in your eyebrows!  How can you get rid of them?”

This immediately both confused him and piqued his interest.  He started thinking through the options.  Here was his list:

– Grunt it out

– Fart it out (he’s 5)

– Jump it out

– Run it out

– Laugh it out

– Pull it out

In talking him through this exercise, we both connected in a way that was less threatening to him and less intimidating for me.  He’s learning coping mechanisms- but the truth is, so am I.  There really is power in teaching.

In my work, I’ve noticed the order in which I do things is often as important as the tasks themselves.  Many times, it is more important.  True success, however, doesn’t come until and unless I hit both.  So, here is the prioritized steps list my son and I agreed upon for getting rid of angry eyebrow ghosts:

1. Blow them out

2. Talk them out

3. Sing it out

He has an amazing imagination.  I can’t wait to hear about the songs he makes up along the way, but I’m hoping he learns something it has taken me a lifetime to sort through- creativity can be a curse as much as it can be a blessing.   Steps 1 & 2 are so important to finding real happiness within myself as well as  others.

Parenting is an amazing thing; we literally have to teach these little people everything and at times it is overwhelming.  It takes constant reminders to myself that if Step 1 doesn’t work, all that needs to be done is go to the next step and trust everything will be ok- or at least we’ve done the best we can.

The impact of this exercise paid immediate dividends for both of us.  By the end of our conversation he was laughing and I wasn’t riddled with anxiety over how to relieve him of his pain.  Truth is, that’s not my job, anyway.

Like all things with parenting, we will see if it sticks- but in the meantime, there is no question we’ve both learned something.

New School, New Schedule, New Feelings

The chaos of the first full week of school is behind us and the chaos of the second week has begun, though maybe slightly less chaotic. Our kids are in a new school, and for the first time in their lives, are taking a school bus. This, of course, also means that they are getting up much earlier in the morning and we are all adjusting to a new morning routine.

After a couple of days, Gem was driving me to the train station and was sad that it feels so anticlimactic to let the bus take them to school, after five years of taking them to school herself.

“There isn’t a sense of closure, of dropping them off at school and being sure they got there safely,” she explained.

I could understand that.

Sadly, in five years I probably took my kids to school at most ten times a year, because it usually meant getting to work about an hour late. My wife bore the weight of the responsibility of taking them, but also the privilege of seeing them off everyday, making sure they got to school safely and on time. She thoroughly enjoyed it.

She also gets to pick them up from school, which I’ve done even less than I’ve taken them to school. I’ve tried to work out schedules with my office to take them to school more regularly, but it never works out.

I know I’m a good father and I love my children and spend as much time with them as a I can, but there is something so fundamental about taking them to school and picking them up that I’ve missed out on for so many years and it is an ache in my heart that no amount Motrin can relieve.

For years I took them to bed every night, or most nights. For years I was the Night Watchman, looking over my children when they woke up in the middle of night needing Daddy. But they no longer need me like that anymore. Very rarely do we hear the pitter-patter of feet into our bedroom in the dark.

What my kids need from me now is very different. Their needs are more emotional and intellectual. Can I help them with homework? Can I help them ease their worries? They can meet most of their core needs, like eating and sleeping, on their own.

One of the few core physical things they still need from us parents is getting them to school, where they learn new things, make friends, and begin to deal with the world as their own people. Besides us, nothing impacts them more than what happens at school. Going to school is a big event and a very important and dramatic time in their life.

And for years I was missing out on taking them.

Now, even though my morning is all discombobulated, I get to help with lunch and make sure their waters are ready and that they have everything in their backpacks. The best part, however, is walking out with them, saying hello to Lisa, their bus driver, and giving them one more hug and kiss before they get on the bus to school. Instead of leaving for work feeling as if I’ve left one of my most important roles undone, I feel like I’ve completed my job as Daddy for the morning.

It’s a nice feeling.

The next day, when Gem took me to the train station, I tried to explain to her that even though it was sad for her, I loved being able to see them off to school since I’ve never been able to do that consistently before.

“I hadn’t thought of that. Somehow, that makes me feel better,” she replied sweetly.

After five years of missing out on this experience, helping my kids off get onto the school bus every day has eased the little ache in my heart.

Am I Still the Night Watchman?

I am the Night Watchman. I’ve been the Night Watchman since my kids were about 18 months old. Because I worked in the City all day, I didn’t have much time with them when they were awake and both Gem and I were concerned I wasn’t building as strong a connection to them as I wanted. Our solution was for me to become the Night Watchman.

Anything that happened after we put them to bed was my responsibility. If they had trouble falling asleep or if they woke up because they had a nightmare or didn’t feel well or whatever the reason, I was the one who went to them, helped them feel better and soothed them back to sleep.

It was a job I loved.

The chance to be there for my children, to show them I could also take care of them and meet their needs and make them feel safe changed my relationship with them. It also gave me confidence that I can help them when they need help. It gave me the sense that no matter what was bothering them, I could help them feel better.

But I just learned I can’t be the Night Watchman in another language.

Dorit, our daughter, recently had an emergency appendectomy in Quito, Ecuador. Thankfully, both Gem and I were there with her, but it was so hard and frustrating for me because my Spanish is okay enough to have a conversation; it is nowhere near good enough to deal with medical and administrative issues in that language.

Nurses and doctors would come in and ask her questions and I couldn’t help her answer them. I didn’t know what they were doing to her and I couldn’t let them know exactly what was bothering her. I could hold her hand while they inserted the needle for the IV and I bought her flowers and balloons to brighten up her room during her stay.

But it has been almost a decade since I felt so incompetent and useless as a dad. A feeling I didn’t enjoy the first time around and certainly didn’t enjoy now.

I know that Dorit doesn’t look at me with less respect or love because I don’t know Spanish well enough. She’s healing and getting better and you almost couldn’t tell she had surgery to remove one of her organs a few days ago. But I know, for the first time in a very long time, I didn’t meet the challenge of being her Daddy, and that insight will take me some time to recover from.

I suspect this is just the beginning of events in my children’s lives where I won’t be able to protect them the way I could (or at least felt I could) at night when they were young. They almost never wake up in the middle of the night anymore. But they do have to deal with bullies and mean teachers and things that feel too hard or too overwhelming. They will have their hearts broken.

I can’t protect them from the chaos of our world. But maybe loving them, reminding them of how wonderful I think they are, helping them think through their problems to figure out some possible solutions, maybe this is more of my role now.

Right now that doesn’t feel like enough, but maybe it actually is and is probably what they need me to be. I’m not giving up the role of Night Watchman, but it seems as if my responsibilities are changing.

How Can We Know What Is Great About Being A Parent Before We Have Kids?

There were so many things I didn’t know about being a Dad before my Okapis were born. The list of changes is enormous, the impact in my life extraordinary–and it keeps growing. My kids are now ten (and a half) years old and I recently learned a couple of new ones.

I’ve loved music for as long as I can remember. It’s not just love either. Music is part of my life, how I experience the world and myself, how I connect with my own feelings and thoughts, how I recover from the chaos of life and how I show love to my wife. It’s not surprising our kids love music as well.

What has been surprising is how it feels to help them connect to music. When we are in the car and we are listening and all singing along to a song I recently bought, it feels wonderful, like I am bringing joy to my family, sharing my love. Helping my children create their own playlists, helping them to find new music, seeing how they do it on their own feels so wonderful because I know they are incorporating a tool, a healthy resource for them to deal with the chaos life can throw us, the challenges they will face, the joy and love they will experience. Hopefully, they will never need music the way I so desperately did, but they have a connection to it and I feel a strange sense of accomplishment–even though I did not plan this.

As I write this my kids have been in Ecuador for two weeks. Gem and I have had a wonderful time, cooking together every night, making changes to the house, watching Netflix, and not having to worry about the time…the rush of homework, dinner, getting ready for bed, getting them up in the morning, etc. Quite relaxing.

But, of course, we miss them. We’re both ready for them to come home this week, but we won’t see them until we head down there next week. Feels too long, but we know they are having a great experience and we are too. We’ve been texting with them almost every day when they have Wi-Fi (that’s another thing I never imagined, texting with my kids!). Before they left we loaded up their Kindles with books from Amazon and the library, but they are already running out.

Yesterday, I sat down to find more books for them and realized something. Gem has talked about the joy she sometimes feels making dinner for us. Not because cooking is so much fun, but because it is a way of showing her love for us. I feel the same sometimes when I make breakfast on the weekends (which I’ve missed with them so far away).

Getting them books to read, giving them this other resource, helping them to experience the world in another way, to recuperate from the day, is the same thing for me. I like getting them books, because it is another way I can show I love them, how special they are to me. And even better, it is another way we can connect together. A couple of months ago I started reading a series of books (I Am Number Four) and when I finished I thought Lucas would really like it and I shared it with him. He loved it! How many enjoyable conversations did we have with him telling me what part he read, us reading the same books at the same time, talking about what happened.

If someone would’ve told me that I would love getting books for my kids and would thoroughly enjoy sharing the books I love with them, I couldn’t ever have pictured it, let alone believed it.

I think that’s the challenge of becoming a parent. How can you understand something you have never experienced? So much of what is special about it, isn’t humanly possible to comprehend when you don’t have a child you have already fallen in love with.

Ten (and a half) years into it now, and the good things keep on coming.

Is There Such A Thing As A Perfect Day?

I think in this crazy world we live in, it is hard enough to be able to truly enjoy the great experiences we have. It is even more rare to know, in that great experience, that we are experiencing something special. My family and I had one of those days over the weekend.

There were no cries of boredom. There were no outbursts. In addition we spent almost no money and watched no screens. But we spent most of the day together and it was lovely.

My wife had to work in the morning and Lucas had his NYSSMA evaluation (Dorit had her’s the night before). The both did great, thankfully, and with NYSSMA behind us and the horrible New York standardized tests, I think we all felt a sense of relief that was as palpable as the warm weather we had that day as well.

We played catch outside for a little, they skated on their ripstiks, and we played some more. Then they started drawing with chalk on the driveway (making a beautiful drawing of a woman with long flowing hair). I pulled up a chair and sat and talked with them while they drew and I knew already it was a special day.

“I’m having such a great day with you guys. I love you.” I’m mushy like that if you didn’t already know.

And the look they gave me is one of the greatest feelings I have as a dad. They looked at me like they felt the same way and it meant the world to them that I also felt this way, that being with them could make me feel good. That look is always a strong reminder of the power we have as parents; they don’t realize the impact and effect they have on us but when they do they feel better and empowered. I think it gives them a better sense of value, that they have an effect on us.

Shortly thereafter my wife came home and I handed her the baton so I could go for a bike ride. When I left they were hanging out in the front yard, basking in the day.

When I returned almost two hours later, it looked as if they hadn’t moved. They were playing Scrabble and had done some more drawing and had a little picnic of fruits and cheese under our cherry blossom trees.

The only negative thing about the day was Gem was not feeling well, so she handed the baton back to me and I took the kids to Rita’s for some delicious water ice and we sat and ate and talked, the three of us catching up together. In the car we were listening to Macklemore and Neon Cathedral came on and they wanted to know what the song meant. I tried to explain to them what would make a man want to drink, how life can sometimes be very hard and have a terrible effect on people.

“Do you understand how he feels, Daddy?” one of them asked me.

“I do and I hope you never truly understand this song. Because that would mean you grew up better than I did and that’s what I want for you.”

We continued talking about the song, them asking questions and me answering them the best I could. My kids and I really connect over music and the meaning of songs sometimes brings up great topics for us to discuss, things I might not have thought or would not know how to bring up without music as inspiration.

On the way back, we stopped off at the supermarket, because I had the idea we could make a fire in our fire pit and roast hot dogs and make s’mores. Normally, our kids are not happy or helpful at the supermarket, but that day they were awesome, each holding a basket, grabbing the stuff we needed and carrying them no matter how heavy they got (maybe we should always go to Rita’s before the supermarket?).

Back at home, Gem was feeling a bit better and she joined us at the fire and we had hot dogs and corn and s’mores and marshmallows and listened to more Macklemore and the warmth of the fire could not match the warmth of our love that night.

I love my family and my family loves me. But when we all feel that love for each other together, in everything we do, in everything we say, knowing this time together is the most special of all that we do, there is no better feeling on this planet.

There may not be such a thing as a perfect day, but to me, that was about as close to perfection as I could ever want in my life.