Unintended Consequences... Positive Ones!

My dad read to me a lot growing up: as a child, an adolescent, and as an adult. It was something I’ve always loved and very much wanted to do with Wolf.

When I worked full time, I fit in our reading time at the beginning and end of the day – usually over breakfast and again right before bed. We typically read stories somewhere between half an hour and forty-five minutes a day – an hour on a good day.

As much as we’ve prioritized reading with Wolf, we’ve never been a strict no-screen family. Since we’ve always read to him a lot, it seemed okay to let Wolf watch some shows, too. These shows were mostly on YouTube or Netflix, and almost all had some sort of educational perspective – mostly about dinosaurs, nature, or adventure. We figured that this mix would continue during our trip, with the balance tipping even more toward books.

For our first few weeks on the road, we let him watch shows when he started getting antsy on long drives. It worked okay, except that he would get so absorbed in his tablet that he’d be oblivious to the scenery and wildlife we would pass. Besides this, we noticed that his behavior was at its worst when he was watching shows – or even when he just thought they were an option.

Then, a month or so ago, Wolf was watching a show and acting up in some way that I don’t really remember now. We told him that if he continued whatever he was doing, he would get a consequence. He continued, and it must have been egregious because his consequence was permanently losing his tablet.  

I thought this was a huge consequence. But even at the time he was surprisingly blasé about it. We took it away over a month ago, and he hasn’t missed a beat. I can’t even remember the last time he mentioned shows or asked for his tablet.

Removing shows has opened some other new creative doors for him. It hasn’t been a 1:1 exchange, either. The difference has been exponential, and somehow has unlocked a whole new side of an already creative little boy.

For one, he is doing a lot more imaginative play with his animal figurines. He can get so absorbed that an hour or more will pass before he really looks up. As I write, he is under the table engrossed in a battle between dinosaurs and LEGO ninjas. [Spoiler: Ninjas won].

He has also gotten very interested in drawing and writing. Almost every day, he takes out his pad of drawing paper, pulls out some blank pages, and staples them together to create a “book”. He then spends hours filling the books with pictures, letters, and words.

Sometimes he wants me to make a book with him. Then, we’ll come up with a fantastically silly storyline together. Like our last one, which featured lots of slime, a tragically imprisoned baby unicorn, and Wolf as the heroic rescuer. Fully illustrated, mind you.

These days, when we’re driving, we sometimes let him listen to podcasts for kids. They’re still shows, but they allow him to still experience the world around him. One of our favorite’s is NPR’s “But Why: A Podcast for Curious Kids”. We’ve also gotten into playing Audible books while driving, which we had never done before. We’ve started with “The Magic Treehouse”, which has been a big hit.

To any parents thinking of reducing or eliminating shows, I say go for it! It has been exciting and humbling to see something we imposed as a consequence turn into such a net positive for all of us.

Creativity, unleashed!

Does "Being Careful" Make Kids Safer?

Matt and I talk a lot about safety, especially in terms of Wolf. 

Besides loving him, our main job is to keep him safe as we nurture him into adulthood. But what does that really mean?

Sure, some of it is obvious. We provide secure shelter, car seats when we drive, and hold his hand across streets. 

But what about letting him climb around on rocks? Or run really fast on a hard surface…the kind that would skin up his knees and elbows if he fell? Or talk to strangers?

I think these decisions are grayer and worth thinking about.

Our approach has been to allow him to experience some risk. The kind we hope will develop his intuition, judgment, and situational awareness. 

To that end, we actively encourage him to explore the outdoors. 

While he does, we try to use 'Don't do that!' and ‘Be careful!' sparingly - only when he really needs to watch it. 

More often, we tell him the potential consequences and what he could do to be safer. Things like, 'You can slide down that gravelly hill if you want, but if you don't change into pants your legs may get cut up.'

At that point, we usually let him decide. If he wants to do it anyway, we advise him on how to do it more safely - like, "Stick to the side of the path so you can grab a root if you start going too fast."

There are several upsides we've seen from this approach. 

For one, he's become very agile for a four-year old. But beyond that, he's developing his own sense of risk and natural consequences. And probably just as important he gets to have a little agency over his life. Kids don't get much of that.

I can't speak for kids broadly, but Wolf is adventurous without being particularly kamikaze. Because of that, when we're playing outside most of our direction to him is along the lines of "Stay where we can see you" or "Now put the toad back where you found him."

Still, we've sometimes gotten side-eye from other parents.

Earlier this spring at the zoo, he climbed up a boulder embankment that was 8 or 9 feet high. He sat at the top, cheerfully shouting hello at everyone who passed. Almost every kid who came by - probably a dozen - asked their parents if they could climb up it, too. None were allowed.

I think a decision like that comes down to a risk/reward ratio that is different in every parent’s mind. Having seen Wolf climb up many rocks and boulders, the embankment at the zoo looked solidly within his ability. And it was.

But I’m not judging the parents who said no. You get good at climbing by climbing, and they may have accurately gauged the boulders as beyond what their kids could safely manage. Or maybe they just had animals they wanted to see without a big holdup for climbing rocks. 

I get a little saltier when people intervene directly with Wolf. 

This happened right before we left Kansas City. We went to a restaurant that hosts a weekly outdoor music and wine night. Its patio area has a shallow water feature surrounded by landscaping boulders. 

Appropriately, Wolf was more interested in exploring water and boulders than watching adults drink wine and listen to soft rock covers.

When he was up on the boulders - maybe eighteen inches off the ground - someone in our group repeatedly told him, “Get down!" and "You’ll crack your head open!” But when he dropped down to his belly to look more closely at the (very shallow) water feature, the waitress immediately shooed him away. It's hard to be a kid sometimes.

Besides protecting Wolf from himself, we also want to keep him safe from the bad apples of the world.

We get stopped with curious questions about our truck literally every day. Usually multiple times. So far, these have been 100% friendly conversations with people curious about our truck and what we’re doing. 

Wolf often steps in to answer their questions himself: 

“The truck is an LMTV” 

“Our dog is a Rhodesian Ridgeback. His name is Casey. I named him.” 

“You can follow us on our blog. It’s Kid Dog Travel.”

People usually look a little surprised when he pipes up. Then, most will respond and engage him in a little conversation.

What about "stranger danger", then?

I have several concerns about teaching kids “stranger danger”. First, most of us contradict it all the time by chit chatting with people we obviously don’t know. Second, how will kids ever develop good judgment if they're only supposed to interact with familiar people? Third, squelching kids' natural confidence with fear may actually make them more vulnerable to bad people. And lastly, most people are really pretty nice. It's kind of sad and limiting to imply otherwise to kids.

Rather than telling Wolf not to talk to strangers, we want him to learn to interact with them safely. For now, those interactions include our supervision. But our long-term goal is for him to develop his own radar so that he grows into an adolescent, teenager, and adult who makes good choices.

That process very much involves him interacting with unfamiliar people, including sometimes in ways that aren’t positive. This came up last week when Matt and Wolf took our puppy to a dog park in downtown Salt Lake City. 

It turned out to be a bleak, dog-less hangout for junkies and the homeless. People were openly dealing drugs. 

They quickly left, and Matt later asked Wolf what he had thought about the park. 

It was scary, Wolf said. 

That prompted a discussion about what made it feel scary, and why they had left so fast. 

Similarly, when we have good interactions with people we talk about those, too - and what we liked about them. 

If Wolf ever gets separated from us, I think he’s had enough positive encounters with strangers to do what we’ve taught him to do. He’s supposed to pick a grownup that looks like a mom or a grandma and ask them to call us (he knows our phone numbers). 

We intentionally did not tell him to look for a police officer. It probably depends on where you live, but most places we go don’t have uniformed police officers milling around where a kid could easily find them. 

And in trying to find a cop, he might inadvertently approach a security guard. While I'm sure most are fine individually, as a group they're minimally screened, barely trained, and mostly male - definitely not who we want Wolf seeking out for help.

Not only are women collectively far, far less violent than men, choosing who helps you  is almost always safer than waiting for someone to step in. {You can read much more on this subject in Gavin de Becker’s excellent book, Protecting the Gift.}

For me, the bottom line is that we do a lot of things that are supposed to keep kids safe. 

We tell them not to climb high, run fast, or talk to strangers - all while giving them well-intended but vague warnings to ‘Be careful!'. This sends the message that the world is scary without actually preparing kids to interact safely within it. 

Safety is never guaranteed to any of us, but we think Wolf's best chance of achieving it will come through an ongoing dialogue. One about which risks are worth taking, and which risks - and people - he should probably walk away from. 

Meanwhile, we will keep climbing, running, exploring, and yes - talking to strangers. 

J is for Journal: Wolf’s Trip Chronicle Begins

Wolf has been going to an amazing school for the past two years - Bambini Creativi. As part of his program, every day he has had dedicated time for journaling. There were so many things I liked about this activity. It gave him dedicated time to reflect and process whatever was happening in his day, along with a regular opportunity to practice his emerging drawing and writing skills.

As we thought about what we wanted his learning experience to be while we traveled, we knew we wanted to incorporate journaling. Today, a week into our trip, he made his first entry. Since we had never actually journaled with him at home, we weren’t sure what the process looked like. I handed him a brand new journal, crayons, colored pencils, and told him to journal about whatever he wanted.

He looked at me expectantly. Journal about what? He asked.

I told him that he should decide, and then rattled off a few things that we had done in the last couple of days - like visiting Dinosaur National Park, or today’s visit to what turned out to be a terrible mosquito infested beach (in Utah, of all places).

He liked the idea of journaling about the mosquitoes, but told me he didn’t have any idea how to draw a mosquito. That’s okay, I said (cooking dinner) - daddy will help you.

Matt did help him, and in a totally different way than I would have. It was a pretty wonderful difference to see.

I probably would have gotten the computer out, googled a picture of a mosquito, and then helped him draw it.

Instead of doing anything like that, Matt asked Wolf questions - like, what kind of insect is a mosquito? Does it fly? What does it need to fly? How does it sting? How many legs does it have? Wolf started drawing.

Then more questions: Where is the mosquito? Are you and mommy near it? What else is nearby?

Thinking through Matt’s questions, Wolf added a beach, and then him, and me - running away from the mosquitoes on a golden sandy beach. He drew the water behind us.

The last addition to the picture was the caption.

What do you want to say about the picture, Matt asked.

Wolf wasn’t sure, and so Matt suggested: “We camped by the beach and were attacked by mosquitoes.” Wolf liked this idea, and Matt dictated the letters for him to write - along with the two exclamation marks (because the mosquitoes were really, really, really bad).

It’s exciting to think that over the months to come, his journal will slowly fill with pictures and words directly capturing his experience with our trip.

I can’t wait to see how it progresses!

Starting a New Chapter with Wolf's Library

Matt and I love reading and as you might expect...we have a lot of books. Well, books take up space, which we do not have much of in the truck. And so, we're packing our books off to various places. We’ve been getting used to the idea of reading primarily on our Kindles which I feel a little meh about, but okay - I know we'll make it work. 

 Wolf's books were an entirely different matter. He has always loved story time and is just starting to learn how to read. My hope is that as he progresses, he doesn't just learn the mechanics of how to decode letters. I'd like him to see reading as his entry to all the ideas, stories, and questions he's curious about. Part of that will come from having easy access to lots of books. Real books. 

 Our challenge was to build him a library using whatever dead space in the truck we could find. There’s really not much. The only place that seemed at all viable was on the walls behind and alongside our recliners. I found a shop on Etsy that sells single wall shelves designed for displaying children's books. Perfect! I ordered four, and a week later Matt installed them. 

 My next task was to fill them with books. I get Wolf books all the time but wanted to start this big adventure with lots of new ones for him to be excited about.

 The approach I took was inspired by the wonderful school Wolf has been going to for the past few years, Bambini Creativi. Every morning his teachers place interesting stuff around the classroom for the kids to independently explore. The items are different every day and are called "provocations" because they are meant to provoke curiosity, interaction, and ultimately learning.

 I liked the idea of doing something along these lines and picked out books on a wide range of topics he likes. There is a roughly equal split between fiction and non-fiction, including some that aligned with our destinations - like the ones on Arctic wildlife. Amazingly, those four little shelves ended up fitting over a hundred kid books!

 In the spirit of "provocations", I'm going to lay a different selection of books out every morning with his breakfast. He can choose whichever ones most interest him. We'll read them and see where they take us...kitchen table provocations! 

Here's a peek at his truck library: 

·       Jolly Phonics stories to help him learn to read

·       Singapore Math workbooks 

·       Choose Your Own Adventure stories for young readers, like Ghost Island and Your Very Own Robot.

·       Stories on interesting people from history, like Now & Ben: The Modern Inventions of Benjamin Franklin and Nothing Stopped Sophie: The Improbable Story of Unshakable Mathematician Sophie Germain

·       Science books, like What Makes a Magnet? and Rocks and Minerals.

·       Math stories, like Equal Shmequal and Bedtime Math.

·       An Evolution coloring book.

·       Nature books, like The Arctic Habitat and Why Oh Why Are Deserts So Dry?

·       Outdoor activity books, like Forest School Adventure.

·       Graphic novels, like Hilda and the Troll and Giants Beware!

·       And of course, lots and lots of stories....like My Father's Dragon and The Great Kapok Tree: A Tale of the Amazon Rain Forest

I'm pretty excited about how his truck library turned out. He will have no shortage of books on all sorts of fun topics (Volcanoes! Dinosaurs! Worms! Explorers!).

 

How could this little boy not love reading?!

Mutant Rats are Apparently a Thing

Adventuring Inside the Mutant Rat - by Wolf Hermstedt

Once upon a time there was a little girl named Ava, a mutant rat, a dino squad hero named Buzz (he is the one that can turn into a pterodactyl) - and me, Wolf. We were  all in North America in Kansas City at my house. Buzz had to fight the mutant rat because he was in my house and because I don't like rats because they bite. Buzz and I had to fight the mutant rat, Ava watched us because she was too little to fight. Then, the mutant rat saw Ava! Ava stayed as still as a statue and the rat tried to punch Ava, but the rat couldn't see her. That's because Buzz turned into a dino and covered Ava with his wings. The rat couldn't see her, like she was invisible. And the rat did not know how to find Ava, but then he saw her feet, and he went behind Buzz. He saw Ava! He gobbled her up! I pulled on the rat's tail to break it while Buzz flew inside the rat to save Ava. He pulled her back out. Ava gave Buzz and I hugs. The End. 

Parental Note: I’m not sure where all the punching comes from in these imagination stories! We really don’t expose Wolf to violence - Honest! Buzz is a character from a Youtube show that Wolf watches called Dino Squad. Ava is one of his friends at school. It is no surprise that he crafted a story that results in getting hugs from Ava ;). For this Imagination Story, Jane kicked up the artistry to the next level by making it an illustrated book that Wolf gave to his Nana and Papa for Christmas.

Imagination Stories

Jane has taken to creating “Imagination Stories” with Wolf. It usually consists of a back and forth of short story passages that they each add as their imagination dictates. The result is creative silliness that leaves both of them laughing hysterically. Recently, Jane mixed it up a little and had Wolf tell his own story while she wrote it down. The result is…

 

“Adventuring in the Store", as Dictated by Wolf Hermstedt 

Once upon a time, there was a mommy penguin, a little penguin (who was sleeping), and a spider monkey. Mommy penguin went with the spider monkey to the store to buy milk. When they came back home, the little penguin was gone because HE had gone to the store to buy milk. He did not know that the mommy penguin and the spider monkey were back at the house drinking all the milk. And then, the craziest thing happened! The mommy penguin and the spider monkey disappeared to look for the little penguin. They found the little penguin at the store taking the milk, but it was the wrong one! They said, "Put that milk down! We already have milk!" But they tricked him, because they had already drunk it all up. When they came home, the little penguin knew they had tricked him. So the little penguin thought the spider was a bad guy for tricking him and he punched him. The spider monkey didn't punch him back. And that's how the little penguin knew the spider monkey was trying to keep him safe. So he said sorry. 

The End. 

Parental Note: It’s very interesting to discover from where he has pulled story elements. He and Jane just started reading “Unfortunately the Milk” which centers around a father’s adventure on his way to get milk. A day or two prior to the creation of this story. I had an incident in a store where Wolf ran away from me and hid. It was a little scary at one point. He received a consequence that did not include anything like the punching that happened in the story above. I threw away the birthday cake he made in school (the appropriateness of this consequence can be discussed in another post). So the story does seem to reflect that he was processing the need to be safe and not run away and also the effect of the consequence.