Respect My Authority

This week’s guest post is by featured contributor Esther Schiedel. We hope that you find it useful and look forward to future posts from Esther.

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A friend commented on my post about being friends with your children (“Why Can’t We Be Friends?”). She was concerned that friendship might undermine the “ability to be authoritative and a disciplinarian within the parent-child relationship.“

Her comment got me thinking about authority. Like most words, authority can mean several things: having power, being in charge, being an expert, and/or being a reliable source of information. Our own experiences with authority have a big effect on how we use–or don’t use–authority in parenting our children. We may have experienced authority that was used in an appropriate, fair, beneficial way. Or we may have experienced authority that was used in an unjust, arbitrary, or abusive way.

What does beneficial authority look like? Beneficial authority is reasonable, respectful, and responsible.

Reasonable: Reasonable authority is based on rules and there are clear reasons for the rules.

Most of us have an internal set of rules based on safety, social customs, and family values. Often we aren’t consciously aware of what those rules are or why they exist. So it’s useful to examine our internal rules and decide if we want to keep them, add new ones, or discard some. Examining the rules on a regular basis, with your partner, and as a family, will help to keep the rules reasonable and make them easier to enforce.

It’s easier to enforce rules when you yourself believe them to be important and fair. When children have agreed to and even helped come up with the rules, it is even easier. Easier—but still not easy. Remember that no matter how fair and reasonable rules are, sometimes it is extremely difficult to follow them.

Respectful: Respectful authority enforces the rules in a way that preserves the child’s dignity and physical and emotional safety. Parent educator Jody McVittie describes this as being kind and firm at the same time. Kind and firm means that parents can empathize with the child’s distress while still enforcing the rule: “It’s hard to stop playing when you are having so much fun. Now it’s time to say goodbye to the slide and go home for lunch.”

It’s upsetting when a child cries or says, “I hate you!” Like many parents, I often gave in, tried to placate, or got angry with my children. It was (and sometimes still is) difficult to accept their emotional reactions without trying to suppress or dismiss them. But acknowledging an emotion is actually more respectful, both to the child and to the adult, and often makes it easier to enforce the rule.

Being respectful to our children, even when we are angry or disappointed with them, also shows them how to be respectful to us and to others.

Responsible: Parental authority is valuable because it helps parents to protect and guide their children. Children need protection and guidance, and parents are responsible for providing it. But children also need opportunities to do things for themselves and to learn from the consequences of their actions—both positive and negative. Sometimes the responsible parent stands back.

Determining exactly how much protection and guidance is needed in a given situation can be tricky. Different cultures and families (and individuals within those families) have different standards. Children have unique temperaments requiring more or less use of authority. Responsible use of authority requires frequent assessments of a child’s needs and abilities and of the environment surrounding the child and the family.

Staying reasonable and respectful helps parents to determine whether standing back or stepping in is more responsible when challenges occur.

Authority that is reasonable, respectful, and responsible is effective. It helps children grow and parents stay sane. It’s authority we can both respect.

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A House Full of Music

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We listen to a lot of music in our family. Thanks to our Spotify playlists, we have suitable music for mealtime (The Meatball Monday mix, which is heavy on Sinatra; the Sushi Night collection with its Japanese flute), for chores (mostly folk songs about doing things), and for transitioning into rest time (various ambient and nature sounds). And they each have their favorites, from the eight year-old knowing the lyrics to Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” to the ten year-old’s devotion to Enya.

As much as I love a huge swath of genres, periods and styles, I try to be careful what I play around my small children. So as much as I would like them to appreciate Iron Maiden as much as I do—songs about history and literature!—I just don’t think they’re ready for it yet. I have many friends with a different approach: they are reassured, they tell me, by their kids finding the same things cool that they do. I disagree, preferring them to figure these things out for themselves (for the same reason, they have not yet seen a Star Wars film). As far as I remember, though, all four children were born to Kind of Blue by Miles Davis in the background. Mozart, Bach and Vivaldi visit just about every morning. And barely a week has gone by in our house without Bob Marley.

So as eager as I am for my kids to partake of the full breadth and depth of recorded music, and introduce them to free jazz, minimal techno and Viking war metal, I don’t think there’s any way to force it. Kids respond to what they will, and this is often based on age and development. At what age did you discover the Beatles and wonder where they’ve been all your life? And what seven year-old boy’s day would not be absolutely made by the one-two punch of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions?” We recently played Toto’s “Africa,” my favorite childhood song by a fair distance, and my ten year-old latched right onto it.

That’s not to say that current pop music does not infiltrate our fortress of parenting. I am an active champion of Taylor Swift, but for whatever reason she has not caught on with the children. They were baffled by Daft Punk: “Why would you stay up all night to get lucky? That doesn’t sound like fun.” But the recent heat wave has cemented “Uptown Funk” as a referent. Daughter: “I’m so hot!” Parent: “Make a dragon want to retire?”

Once we hit the teen years, music tends to hit us hard (and as Bob Marley sang, “when it hits you, you feel no pain”). At that time I intend to start the mixtapes flowing. And then the indoctrination will begin.

Why You Should Get Off My Lawn

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You know who needs boundaries? Kids. Of all ages. Don’t tell them I said this, but teenagers need boundaries too. They need them as much, at least, as they did when they were younger. In fact, they probably recognize this. They might even say so. Not to their parents, probably, but there you go. They’re too busy differentiating themselves from their families and exploring their identities and all those teenaged things that keep them up late at night.

What’s more, even parenting sites that some would consider to occupy opposite ends of the ideological spectrum come together on this point.

According to Planned Parenthood, “Knowing where our teens are, who they are with, and setting boundaries for their behavior are important parts of helping our teens stay healthy — especially when it comes to sex. Sometimes people refer to this part of parenting as monitoring and supervision. Monitoring means knowing where our children are, who they’re with, and whether or not there is an adult present. Supervision means setting clear boundaries and expectations and getting our teens to agree to them. It also means following through consistently with agreed upon and ‘fair’ consequences when rules and expectations are not met.”

Focus on the Family agrees: “Boundaries include saying yes and no, just as doors are made to be opened and closed. Teens need the life lessons of success and failure to mature. When we open the door to appropriate levels of freedom, we give our teens a chance to make their own decisions, and to learn from them. When your daughter messes up by getting a speeding ticket, support her. Why? Because you can comfort and guide her through her mistake. If you feel like trust was broken, a lock down may be necessary. If the door has been wide open, it’s okay to shut it, a little, a lot, or completely. You can reopen it later.”

There are a lot of sources out there, and I found that a few clear points are emphasized again and again.

  • Teenagers are pushing for independence. If they don’t know exactly what our expectations are, and where we draw the line for behavior, they will keep going until something happens; either provoking the parents to react (and often in panic, pulling back on a teen’s freedom in a way that may provoke or upset them) or falling into a consequence of their own behavior that could be unhealthy, dangerous, or include legal ramifications.
  • Teenagers are at a stage in their development in which they are driven to engage in risky behaviors. They might believe that they can’t be hurt, or that consequences will not be serious or permanent, or that their decisions do not affect other people.

The combination of these factors, as well as the simple fact that their brains are still developing—and will continue doing so for years to come—make clear expectations and boundaries more important than ever.

There are some differences in how parents can effectively present these boundaries with teenaged kids as opposed to younger ones. For one thing, there need to be reasons behind it. “Because I said so,” “Because we know what’s best for you” or even “Because we need to keep you safe” are no longer going to cut it.

Teens need to know the context behind the rules. This can be complicated, but on the other hand it can also be easier, because we can involve them in formulating the rules and the consequences that will arise from them. They are able to understand and to help make decisions around boundaries. Given the responsibility to do this, they will be much more likely to abide by them. They will also feel more respected, and will be more likely to communicate with adults about what is happening in their lives.

All this can be tricky for parents because it’s new territory. It requires us to delegate some of the responsibility and decision-making to our kids. That can be scary, and it can also be painful to our pesky adult egos.

It’s the same job, and it’s just as important as it ever was. They may not thank us for it, but then…who knows about kids these days?

Out of the Ordinary

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I’ve written a lot on this blog about the importance of routines. We try to make the events of the day—meals and snack times, transitions, chores, bedtimes—as regular and predictable as possible. The more things kids can rely on, the more secure they will feel when things happen that are out of the ordinary. After all, the best way to tell if routines are working is when something happens to disrupt them.

A lot of things are different this week. My wife is away at a weeklong homeschooling conference. The four girls are with my mother-in-law in Newport for a few days; I will be home with them for the rest of the week. This is kind of a big deal for all of us. I am especially a stickler about bedtimes, if only because it’s such a cornerstone of our home life and because we have put so much time and effort into finding a way to do it that works most of the time (though I’m sure there are some control issues at play in there as well).

We sent along a rough schedule of a typical day’s events and hoped that the spirit of it, if not the letter, would be followed. Here are some excerpts:

  • Morning activity: We usually stay close to home during this time, go for walks or do arts and crafts. They will need a morning snack.
  • Afternoon activity: This is usually our going out time. They will need a snack!

As you can see, there is emphasis on regular feeding. At home we have breakfast, then a morning “tea” (sometimes known, hobbit-style, as “second breakfast”), lunch, afternoon “tea” and dinner. That’s food being offered just about every 2-3 hours, with quick snacks in between if needed. I am pretty sure that if my mother-in-law varies the rhythm of the day—with periods of activity followed by periods of rest—then any other problems can be solved by throwing food at them.

They are going to have fun. They will take trips to the beach, the lighthouse and the aquarium. They will go to the park and the toy store (they enjoy hanging out in toy stores, and don’t expect to walk out with anything. If I knew how this was accomplished, believe me, I would tell you). They will sleep as well as they will sleep, and I understand that I have no control over this. I never do. Working on letting it go.

What I do know is that when I bring them back home, they will have had several days of new and unfamiliar rhythms, and they will be…off. And though there are some things we will need to get done, including swim lessons and grocery shopping, we will be spending the next few days just trying to get back into those familiar routines. I expect anything, up to and including tantrums, large-scale meltdowns, and general low-level crankiness. What they need is a slow and gentle shifting of gears. Luckily we will have some time to do that.

Also, snacks. Lots of snacks.

Whose Job is it Anyway?

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I sometimes find myself reminding my daughters—particularly the oldest, aged eight and 10—that it is not their job to parent their sisters. They will attempt to enforce family rules with their younger siblings, or repeat directions the parents have already given. Aside from the fact that the younger girls tend not to take this very well, it is clearly not their job to take on the responsibilities of parenting.

Granted, there are various reasons why the older sisters would want to step into the role of parenting lieutenant. For one thing, they’ve been around longer, and are familiar with the rules; they also have a better understanding of how these rules (assuming that they agree with them) help the household to run more smoothly. For another, as they get older they are taking on more responsibilities with chores, helping to prepare meals and set the table, getting ready to go out, etc. We will be comfortable with letting the eldest girl begin to babysit in earnest in only a couple of short years. And these are good things.

However, they occasionally need to be reminded that they are not parents (the four and six year-olds are happy to help, which brings about its own issues: “You’re not the parent!”). Nor should they be. Their job is to be kids, and this is a full time position. They should be playing, and reading, and making things, and when parents deem it appropriate they can take on specific duties for which power has been granted. But rules, directions and discipline should come from the adults in the household. As parents, it is our job to establish and maintain routines, to plan and execute meals and household projects, to supervise the children and ensure that they are doing what needs to be done (and not doing, you know, what doesn’t).

Why is this a big deal? In the case of my own family we are fortunate to be dealing with some pretty mild and superficial instances of children taking on more than is appropriate. In extreme cases, children are compelled not only to take on the duties and responsibilities of adult caretakers but to fulfill this role with the adults themselves. The term for this is parentification. Good ol’ Wikipedia defines it succinctly as “the process of role reversal whereby a child is obliged to act as parent to their own parent. In extreme cases, the child is used to fill the void of the alienating parent’s emotional life.”

This much more severe and complicated condition arises when parents are unable—due to issues with addiction, mental illness or trauma—to maintain adult functions in the family and lean on the kids to take up the slack. An example would be that a child is planning meals and cooking for the whole family, or dressing and preparing younger siblings for school. Another form this may take is known as “emotional parentification.” This is when parents share with children their very adult situations and emotions. The child becomes a confidant; in extreme cases, according to this website, the child takes on the role of “a surrogate spouse or therapist.” Even if a child is willing or even eager to take this on—who does not want to please their parents?—it can be very damaging because they do not have the emotional or intellectual development necessary to process adult problems.

It is important to keep in mind not only what the child’s job should be, but the parent’s as well. Adults should not expect to gain validation, entertainment, or emotional support from their kids. This is not to say that we cannot, or should not, enjoy and celebrate the things that kids can do, or that when they are being entertaining we should not laugh, out loud, and often. But as I remind them (and sometimes need to remind myself) taking care of them is my job, and that’s a one-way proposition.

Time Out: Alternative to What?

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I wrote a couple of weeks ago about time outs, and my observation that, not only do they often fail to achieve what we want for our kids, but there are several unintended side effects as well. I suggested that time outs were nevertheless ingrained in our culture and would continue to be a go-to form of discipline unless we had alternatives close to hand.

In this week’s post, I wanted to touch on some of those alternatives. First, let’s acknowledge some of the ways in which time outs do work. Then we can discuss a way to accomplish those things in a way that is both more nurturing and more effective (the two tend to go together).

  • Time outs can be effective because of fear.

By withholding our affection and attention, we are taking away what is most important to a child’s sense of safety, security and well-being. Our kids don’t want to experience that, so they will attempt to change their behavior, at least for the moment.

Why not flip the equation, and give a child our time and affection, rather than holding it at arm’s length? Parents are good and determining when a child is escalating, or heading to an out of control place. It is still possible to step in, not with a warning, but a hug, or a few minutes on the floor playing with toys or reading books. By fulfilling the child’s unspoken need before it becomes “behavior,” we could prevent the “behavior” from happening. Even better would be to recharge those love batteries in a calm, happy moment.

  • Time outs can be effective because of safety.

It is absolutely true that sometimes a child is being unsafe to themselves and to others and needs to be moved to a safe place. And that is exactly how it should be approached: “I see that you are having trouble controlling your body. I’m going to help you move away.” When a child is feeling out of control, this is exactly what they need, and want, but are singularly unable to express.

What if the child, having been moved to a safe place, continues to escalate? The short answer is, “so what.” Tantrums happen. But if they know that a caring adult is with them and available when they’re ready, the tantrum is likely to be far less severe. It probably won’t last long, either.

  • Finally, time outs can be effective because they provide a time out.

Sometimes a break, even for a couple of crucial minutes, is a necessity. The trick is, it’s for us, not for the child. If we as parents find that we are overwhelmed and unable to deal with the behavior in question, it could just be that we need a minute. Giving ourselves a time out, whether it means a moment on the porch or just that rare and precious chance to use the bathroom alone, can make all the difference.

My Best Friend

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This week’s guest post is by Cammie Freitag. We hope that you find it useful and look forward to future posts from Cammie.

Do you remember when you were younger? The feelings of love you had for your family and friends? Do you remember beaming with pride as you stated, “this is my best friend?” Now think: do you remember feeling that way about yourself? I had all I needed except for one crucial thing; love for myself.

My mom and dad tried the hardest they could to provide me with all that I needed. I always had food and clothing (even if they were hand-me-downs). So then, how did that critical piece of emotional health, self-love, ended up missing from my upbringing? I can’t say exactly. Sure, I could speculate all day but it wouldn’t make a smidge of a difference. What I had to learn—through excruciatingly poor choices, self-hate and hard life lessons—was how the heck to love myself and talk to myself like I would to my best friend. I’m not always as kind to myself as I should be, but I’m leaps and bounds ahead of the girl I used to be.

Once I had my own child, I made it my mission to teach him how to love himself. I thought that if I could teach him only that, he would have an incredible resource within himself to help him through any and all life struggles; especially mistakes! I once read somewhere that “the way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice”. If this is true, that puts a lot of pressure on parents! But it does make you think, doesn’t it? Hopefully most of us wouldn’t use cruel and hurtful language with our kids, such as, “you’re dumb” or, “you’re just a bad kid.” But even the more subtle messages can set a negative tone for our child’s developing inner voice. If you’re sending messages such as, “What’s the matter with you?” or “Why do you always…” what is that really saying to our children? I think it is telling them that they aren’t “okay” the way that they are. This damaging message can affect the way children view themselves. If a child starts to believe they aren’t “okay” the way they are, how can they possibly love themselves?

I’m not saying that we can’t address our child’s behaviors when they arise. But we can do so with a positive approach. Instead of using broad negative statements, let’s figure out what’s going on with them. Ask them how they are feeling. If your child is acting out in an “ugly” way, say something like, “I notice you’re not acting like yourself, can you tell me how you are feeling?” Letting our children know that these behaviors aren’t a part of who they are can show them that we all act in ways that are hurtful or “ugly” but that it is not who we are. That it’s normal and okay to have those feelings; it’s just what we do with those feelings that really matter. And if we do slip and act in a way that isn’t so nice, we can make sure to apologize! Apologizing to our kids teaches them that even big people make mistakes and that when we do, we can recognize it, say we’re sorry, and attempt to repair it. So let’s try to monitor the way we talk to our kids and always be sending the message, “You’re perfect just the way you are”.

Cammie Freitag is an In-home Safety & Reunification Services Advocate at Family Tree Relief Nursery.

Time Out on Time Outs

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Time outs have endured as a go-to method for parents who are faced with behavior issues in their kids. I have encountered many parents who have a plan for how to make time outs work, and though I’m not sure where the rules come from (magazine articles? TV nannies? Other parents? Those are my best guesses), they all seem to agree on the basics.

Here are “the rules” of the time out as I have seen them in action:

  • Remove the child from the situation and coax, compel or simply place the child in a particular spot.
  • Instruct the child to remain there for a fixed amount of time—generally one minute per year of age (again, not sure from where this formula comes, specific as it is).
  • Following the time out, usually immediately after it’s over, talk to the child about why it was they were placed in time out.

The goal here, presumably, is that the child will make a connection between the discipline and the behavior it prompted. Unfortunately, it often does not work out that way. Here are some things I have observed about time outs as performed in this manner:

  1. If there are other children present, they are not getting the supervision or attention they would otherwise be getting, and are recruited by circumstance as spectators to the behavior and the power struggle that ensues. The other children are thus more likely to emulate the targeted behavior, if only because they see that it’s an excellent way to gain attention from a parent and to “stop the show.”
  2. And it does become a power struggle, as inevitably the child in question does not wish to be placed in time out and will resist (screaming, becoming aggressive, dropping to the floor, or simply leaving the designated area). I once heard this advice directed at teachers, and I think it applies just as well to parents: “If you enter a power struggle with a child, regardless of the outcome, you have already lost.”
  3. With small children, there is a real disconnect between the behavior incident that prompted the time out and the intervention itself; especially if it becomes a prolonged affair that leads to more acting out and further reaction from the parent. The time out may serve the function of removing the child from the situation, but there is little chance that they will understand why one thing lead to another, and be able to correct the behavior.
  4. The reason for this is that a time out, as described above, is neither a natural consequence (if you go outside without your jacket, you will be cold) nor a logical one (if you hit your sister with that stick, it will be taken away). It’s just too abstract, and the child is no longer in the moment. They will likely not come away with the lesson you intended. This is played out in the simple fact that parents tend to give time outs repeatedly for the same behaviors, and often in the same situations (where a likely explanation for the behavior is that the child is hungry, or tired, or having difficulty with a particular activity or transition).
  5. One thing I frequently observe is that after a child has been given a time out they are given special time with the parent to reconnect and enjoy some positive attention. I think that this is probably the best possible outcome. It is also probably what the child needed in the first place. Since time outs require time and effort from the parent, why not be proactive and take time to allow that connection to happen beforehand? You may find that the behavior—which is nearly always an unmet need that the child can’t otherwise express—does not happen nearly as often.

The Mask

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Being a person is stressful. Being a parent multiplies that stress by quite a bit. Being a child, in a family full of people experiencing stress? Now that’s hard.

I work with families who are under stress from all sides. In addition to the stuff that’s native to being a parent—keeping the kids safe, putting them to bed, figuring out what to do when they pound each other with wooden blocks—there may be intergenerational poverty, even homelessness; addiction issues, mental health issues, lack of transportation, unemployment, chronic illness, food insecurity…the list really goes on. Each of these stressors compounds the other, and it’s all connected.

Stress management is understandably an important skill for parents to practice, and to pass on to children. How does this work? There’s the adage about how, when a plane is going down, we have to strap on our own mask before helping anyone else. Going further, we have to keep in mind that children pick up on all of our signals, especially the ones we don’t realize we’re giving out. So the best way to help kids deal with stress is to deal with our own. Once we’re able to do so, we can pass these skills along. All of these methods are surprisingly simple. And backed by science!

  • Breathing. It’s pretty important. Oxygen to the brain and all that. Three slow, deep breaths are usually enough to give us what we need to handle what’s happening in the moment. Why is it so hard, when we’re feeling overwhelmed, to take the time to do it? I can’t answer that. But it gets easier with practice. Have the kids do it with you.
  • The Counting Method. Counting slowly from one to ten can kick the left brain into gear.
  • Water. Literally taking a drink of water will help flush out the stress hormones.
  • You can always try going outside.
  • Anticipating Events. This is a hard one for me. Even though I know that thinking about the possible outcomes and planning for them is better in every way, I would rather not go there. Maybe if I ignore the problem it will stop existing. Strangely, it usually doesn’t work that way. And of all these methods, knowing what will happen next is probably most important for kids. Having consistent, predictable routines alleviates anxiety and, incidentally, eliminates unnecessary choices that make kids feel overwhelmed. Good for us, too.

On Pirates, and Learning (and Learning about Pirates)

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Homeschooling is a thing. Unschooling is a thing. The first term has a considerably easier time in Oregon than it does in certain other parts of the country (or the world). That second word, “unschooling,” is both less familiar and more troublesome. For one thing, my spell check keeps giving it a squiggly underline. For another, it seems to suggest an opposition to school, or even to learning; it “undoes” schooling, right? It’s against school?

That conclusion makes sense because it’s an arbitrary, and I think rather silly, word. What it means, though, is that children (people) tend to learn, always, all the time, naturally and without any external influence. In fact, we sort of have to work to put barriers in front of learning (I would argue that in many areas of our society we work very hard at this, but that’s a subject for a different post).

I can’t claim that what my wife does with her homeschooling is under this umbrella. She seems to spend much of her time putting chunks of theory and methods together to see what works. But the ideas behind “unschooling” come up a lot, and I think it describes what parents do when we let our children learn about what interests them.

John Holt, one of the principle thinkers in the movement, describes unschooling simply as the act of supporting a child’s tendency to learn. Author Pat Farenga expands on this view:

“When pressed, I define unschooling as allowing children as much freedom to learn in the world, as their parents can comfortably bear. The advantage of this method is that it doesn’t require you, the parent, to become someone else, i.e. a professional teacher pouring knowledge into child-vessels on a planned basis. Instead you live and learn together, pursuing questions and interests as they arise and using conventional schooling on an ‘on demand’ basis, if at all. This is the way we learn before going to school and the way we learn when we leave school and enter the world of work. So, for instance, a young child’s interest in hot rods can lead him to a study of how the engine works (science), how and when the car was built (history and business), who built and designed the car (biography), etc. Certainly these interests can lead to reading texts, taking courses, or doing projects, but the important difference is that these activities were chosen and engaged in freely by the learner.”

How do we support learning? By following the child’s lead and taking opportunities for them to turn their interests into skills and knowledge. Here’s an example:

My six year-old daughter is into pirates. Like, really into them. Her favorite book (via audio) is Treasure Island, and she prefers it to the Muppets’ version although the Muppets are pretty funny. We indulge this interest in the usual ways: her birthday was pirate-themed; she received a toy pirate ship and a piratical hat. Her birthday ice cream had tiny cutlasses sticking out of it.

But I enjoyed talking with her about pirates so much that I set out to learn more for myself. I read pirate histories (Colin Woodard’s excellent The Republic of Pirates) and quizzed myself on sails, masts and rigging with the help of Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander series. My daughter, on her end, brought home every book on pirates and sailing ships that the library offered. Sharing this interest with one another was edifying for us both. Soon she could tell her bow from her stern and her port from her starboard, and her dubloons from her pieces of eight. She can name all the known female pirates (Anne Bonnie is her favorite). And aside from her “actual” lessons, she has been learning denominations of coins (counting treasure) and asking questions like, “Are all the seas connected?” and “How do ships stay floating?” and “Where does gold come from?”

We spent Memorial Day weekend in Newport, and to our great pleasure were able to board and tour two authentic rigged sailing ships that were anchored in the bay. I can’t tell you which of us were more excited, but I was glad to be there with her.