Parenting

My son found a baby bird

This morning I stepped out of the front door and was immediately greeted by a tiny baby bird, standing in the middle of the concrete walkway that is the path to the front of our house. It just stood there, its head looking up at me, this towering human in front of it. The bird just shook a little but didn't move.

The first thing I noticed was that it seemed disoriented, wobbly even. It was standing on two feet but having a difficult time. And it didn't run - or fly - when it saw me.  It just sat there, moving his little wings a little and blinking its big eyes at me.

I called out loud to my wife for help - she used to work for a pet rescue center - and she suggested we call the Irvine Police Department to get ahold of animal control. At this point my two sons ran out to see what all the commotion was about, and my wife grabbed a soft, clean towel to scoop up the little guy so he wouldn't get trampled by a toddler. My older son asked if he could help by holding him, and my wife and I both thought it would be OK with some guidance. My son held him as gently, with a touch as soft as anyone could possibly hold a fragile little animal, while I made the call.

Within a matter of minutes the Irvine Police Animal Services officer arrived, a professional and an expert. And thank goodness. I was an emotional wreck over the little bird being stranded, and I was trying my best to pretend I was strong and that everything was going to be fine. The Irvine animal services officer was calm and collected, and we were basically a group of emotional humans that were worried about what to do for this little guy.  Was he sick?  Hurt? Did he fall out of a nest? What do we do? How do we help him? Can we help him?  Do you take him for rehabilitation? You're don't euthanize him, right?

We had a million questions. And she patiently, and thoughtfully, listened to us. She helped us to understand a few things:

First, the little bird wasn't hurt or sick. His feathers weren't all quite in yet. We're guessing gender right now, so I'll stick with a pronoun picked at random. She also pointed out that she can't take an uninjured bird or their nest; Both actions are illegal and a federal offense.

Also, he was either a pigeon or a dove, and most likely the latter.  At this size it's a little hard to tell, but we have five nests in the exposed outdoor rafters of the walkway to our front door, and I know that at least three of them are dove nests.  I've seen the mom or dad bird peeking over the edge of the nests down at me from time to time, and I've even seen them return when it's time to feed the little ones.

The animal services officer explained: "At the right age, when the baby birds are mature enough to set out on their own, the parent birds kick them out of the nest. If they don't, a single predator could get them all. Their chances of surviving go up if they're already out on their own."

Apparently the little ones still get fed by mama bird for a few days at least. The baby bird cries, the mama finds it and feeds it. She concluded by saying that the best thing to do was find a relatively safe spot close to where we found him.

After the animal services officer explained this, I checked with my son to make sure he heard and understood what she had shared, before releasing the little bird back into the "wild".  He nodded, and gently started handing the baby bird, still snuggled in the towel, to the officer.  She cupped him gently with both hands and found a nice little spot underneath a big bush, just off to the side of where we had found him. He just stood there a little, flexing his wings, and seemingly testing his balance, wobbling a bit on his feet.

As the officer walked back up to the driveway with us, my older son started asking a lot of questions. He was mesmerized by the entire event; Here was a police officer who spent her entire day with animal life? How is this possible? I'm sure up until that morning he though police officers simply waited for bank robberies, wreckless drivers and the like.  She grabbed some Irvine Junior Police stickers for the boys from her truck, posed with them for a photo, then bid us farewell.

As she drove away, my son told me, "Papa, when I grow up I want to be a police officer that helps protect animals. They need our help."

I couldn't agree with him more. And I was proud of him for a different reason. For the first time ever, he matched up a profession with a cause.

Semper Legarus: Why going slow is key to going fast

My wife and I just met with my son's teachers for his evaluation. There's a lot of positive energy right now, because he's made incredible progress in a lot of areas. This was the first evaluation that did a deep dive into his technical skills: How is he doing in English, math, and other more granular skill sets related to his cognitive function, not just his ability to play well and follow directions. Before I continue, I should note that the school he goes to is exceptional. They are the embodiment of Maria Montessori, and yet with a keen awareness of modern life academic baseline requirements in both the US and in Japan. I haven't found another school like it after two exhaustive years searching.

During the review session, my son's teacher dove deep into a list of developmental and cognitive functions at his approximate age, supported by what felt like countless tests and the results of administering those tests to my son in recent days.  For example, when presented with a stack of a dozen legos and asked to order them by size, did he order them by height or by depth or other?

Another test was counting from one to twenty in English, as well as in Japanese.  Curiously, in English he would skip seventeen and barrel on to concluding at twenty.  I was curious why, so I asked. The answer? Don't worry, it's not uncommon for children to do this at this age. We just need to keep practicing.

In general, we were really pleased with the outcome.  Our son shows signs of creativity in select areas where he does things differently than the rest of the student population (I think this is a good thing), and his general level of competency is up to par with the rest of the student population.  Nothing to worry about, and he's creative and interesting to boot.

But what about that counting issue? I thought about it for the rest of that day. After a few hours, it hit me: My father dealt with the same problem with his students, and he had the solution, if they wanted it.

You see, my father was a classical guitarist.  He played professionally - concerts, weddings, other gigs - for a living. And he taught classical guitar at a college as well. One time, back when I was in junior college, I decided to take his course. In hindsight, I should have known what I was in for, but I was still rather shocked by the attitudes of the student population.

My father didn't need to point out to me the few students in the classroom that had never picked up a guitar in their lives until now, and yet they arrived to class with the expectation of playing like Eddie Van Halen. And yet, all they are working on Malaguena. And they were screwing it up. They were trying so hard to shred, they were actually sucking at it.

That was my son that night, at the end of dinner, when I smoothly transitioned the discussion into him reciting one through twenty. He wanted to be done with dinner, so he rattled off one through twenty as fast as he possibly could, practically slurring the numbers together. Guess which number he skipped? When I asked him to start over, mentioning that he missed a number, he exploded, "I don't known why are you doing that. I want to be done!"  I just calmly asked him to start over again.

He grunted, then started rattling off one through twenty as if through a machine gun.  I could barely make out the words as they seemed to come out in a stream.... "onetwohreefouriveixheveneightinetenelen....." Guess which one he skipped?  Good old lucky number 17.

"Again," I said. He scowled. I didn't care. "Do it again. You're still skipping number 17." He scowled even harder. And did it again. Skipping number 17. At this point he wasn't in tears. He was now raging against the parent machine. He was so mad that I had to keep my composure because it was both interesting and his reaction was, while mad and emotional, actually a little funny.

It was at that point that I channeled a little big of my father, Gregory Coleman, The Classical Guitarist. "I want you to count slowly, together with me."  At first he protested.  Then he protested again, and made a big stink.  I was unphased. "We are not leaving the table until we get through this."

He was mad. But he complied, and in the most defiant manner possible started to count, on tempo, one number every two seconds:

"one......

two......

three.....

four....

five.....

six.....

seven.....

eight.....

nine.....

ten....

eleven.....

twelve....

thirteen.....

fourteen....

fifteen...

sixteen....

........

.......

..........

..........

...................

......seeeeventeen.....

eighteen....

nineteen....

twenty....." 

"I DID IT!!"

He did it. The number was there in his head all along. He was just going too fast.  

When I was a child my father taught me the Latin words "semper legarus", always slowly.  He pointed out that there was a connection between the brain and his fingers, and that it often took a lot of practice to get these two in sync. I must have been four or five or six at the time he demonstrated this to me by playing a scale on his Ramirez guitar. Playing it to a slow tempo gave him time to get the fingerings just right. Then he could turn up the speed little by little, until suddenly his playing the same scale looked like a magical dance of his fingers on the frets of the guitar.

About a week later, I talked with my son's teacher.  She told me how he had excitedly he had shared with her "going slowly", and showed her how he was able to count without error.  I'm pretty sure he doesn't yet realize it, that all he was doing was reducing a self-inflicted error rate, and feeling much more confident and better for it.

This is how parents should do it

My oldest son discovered his first loose tooth yesterday. He was ecstatic. It's another sign of another rite of passage. I hadn't seen him this excited since last year when we came back from three months in Japan and he flipped out because he could see the tops of the kitchen counters without a chair.

So my wife and I necessarily had to have the discussion re the tooth fairy. Like everything, this is a great opportunity for him to explore his world. I think Neil deGrasse Tyson nails it:

What to do when you're completely and totally wrong about your child

My son's kindergarten reading log.

I spent an entire day confused, emotional and frustrated about a single problem with something my son did that turned out to not even be a real issue. What came out of it however was a very valuable lesson I'll never forget, not only because the real issues are still ahead, but because I love my son and I deeply respect and value his teachers.

My older son, now six, brings home a weekly reading assignment from school. It's a basic reading exercise that takes him about 2-3 minutes to read through, each time pushing his reading skills just a little bit farther. We typically practice it 3-4 times, so that each time his enunciation and intonation gets just a little bit better and more natural.

This past Friday, we got up a little early and my son read to me right after breakfast. The day was going great, we were ahead of schedule, and he still had a half hour of "free time" ahead of him before we normally leave for school.  After he finished reading, he handed me his Reading Log, a half-sheet form provided by his teacher. On the form I fill out the date, the title of what he read, my initials and any comments for the teacher. I was about to complete a row for the day's reading when I noticed something funny (see the above picture - my initials and teachers' initials blurred for privacy):

  • The last row was dated February 43
  • The title and comments were completely random squiggles
  • And my initials were there.  And the teacher's.

???

My brain was semi-stuck in a loop trying to figure this all out. So I just asked my son in a regular voice, "Did you write this?" To which he replied, with just the slightest bit of hesitation as if he were wondering if he were somehow in trouble, "Yes, papa."

That's when memories came flooding back. Things I shouldn't have done, at places and times I shouldn't have done them. I remember how things felt. Frustrated, burned, whatever.  The point is, as a child I didn't have parents giving me the kind of careful attention I devote to my son daily. And I made decisions sometimes out of frustration because of that. So why would my son carefully forge my initials on a homework sign-off sheet?  I mean, seriously- the forgery of my initials was excellent.  I honestly wondered how I could have signed off on that.  But I didn't.  It wasn't me.

What did I do wrong that led him to this? I thought.

Then I made the first mistake: I got mad. I responded to my son's response and honesty with a mini lecture on dishonesty and forgery of someone's signature. I even mentioned people going to jail over fraud. He looked terrified. His eyes started to tear up. Maybe it was just proximity to me, but now mama was mad too, disappointed that he would do something like this. His good morning suddenly went completely sideways.

On the way to school he apologized to me no less than five times. He definitely knew that this was a bad thing.

At school his main teacher was not yet there, but in being consistent with the critical process of parent-teacher communication I swear by, I decided to approach his other teacher off, out of earshot by my son, to share what had happened that morning. This was when I received surprise #2. The teacher already knew about it.

Apparently, some of the other kids were doing the same thing. Now I was even more confused and frustrated. I tried my best to remain calm and objective, and explained to her what I had explained to my son: In our house, forgery is not okay, and I wanted to make sure we were on the same page about this.

My son at this point was already having fun with the other students and well into what was going to be a great day for him.  "Bye papa!" he shouted, smiling as if nothing had happened. I felt relieved in a way that his mood was good. His teacher acknowledged me and said she would talk with my son's main teacher that day as well.  

Earlier that morning, before we left for school, I sent a brief email to his teacher about the issue with the above picture. While he was still in school, she called me to talk about what had happened.  As usual, she listened patiently and carefully.  I explained everything, including how I felt right then: Confused, unsure, and heavy with guilt if I was in any way wrong in condemning my son's actions earlier in the day.

What she explained next stopped me in my tracks.  I forgot everything I had done all day, and just listened.  She shared with me that, at my son's age, there's a certain level of innocence associated with most behaviors.  Sure, there's always the possibility of something bad, she explained. For example, if he didn't do his reading, and faked the reading log, then it's clearly deception.

That evening, instead of heading straight home, we decided to go out together for a quick dinner at one of our favorite places.  While we were waiting for food, I told me son that he wasn't in trouble, and that I had a couple questions.  I brought out the picture above on my iPhone and asked him what each column was, starting with the date. Starting with the date, and for every column I pointed at, he said, "I don't know papa, I just know you have to do it."

He was trying to help me.  The teacher had pointed out how well he did his reading that day, with pride over his improvement. He had clearly practiced. And in the midst of busyness or whatever, I neglected to review his homework and complete the reading log. So he did what he thought he needed to do: He put the same illegible scribbles down on the reading log that I had done each time.

He just wanted to help me.

When I realized this, I apologized to him.  And I was clear to let him know that I was apologizing because I had jumped to a conclusion that morning about his reading log, assuming that he had done something wrong. I told him that I understood that he didn't, and why.

I also remembered what else the teacher had told me, earlier that day on our call: She pointed out that my reaction to him that morning wasn't bad, and it wasn't wrong. She pointed out that because of my reaction, which contrasted highly from my normal demeanor, he now knows how seriously I take something like forgery - or for that matter anything bad -  even if he doesn't yet understand the context yet. He knows how I feel.  She pointed out how that can never be a bad thing, as long as it's rooted in honesty. His moral compass is developing and anchoring on it's North point, and my behavior is the magnet he's tuning to.

Still, something about this really bugs me. I remember learning about a concept in social psychology called the Fundamental Attribution Error, which claims that people have a tendency to judge other peoples behaviors by placing undue emphasis on character or intention rather than examining all the external factors. Ignoring things like information, knowledge, and facts. Recently I thought, as I'm more than halfway through the average life expectancy, I'm beyond this.  I know better.  I'm better than that. I'm more mature.

And yet I did it, immediately jumping to conclusions about my son because of my experience (Things I shouldn't have done, at places and times I shouldn't have done them), my passion as a parent (I want him to grow up to be a good and honest person) and my limited knowledge (about the prevailing innocence of a six year old, and how to validate that).

In my continuing education as a dad, I learned a valuable lesson. No matter what, always listen. The teachers know more than you. It's their practice and profession. And above all else, it's always OK to make a mistake, but it's always better to make a mistake being kind. I think in the long run, that's what my son will remember and carry with him.

Turning a dentist visit into an educational experience for my son

My son wearing UV glasses watching papa getting two crowns removed, drilled and prepped at dentist.

My son wearing UV glasses watching papa getting two crowns removed, drilled and prepped at dentist.

I brought my six year old son to my dentist appointment today. Of course, he's had several dentist visits already; Basic exams, cleanings, etc. at his pediatric dentist.

Today's visit was different. Today I had two crown replacements scheduled. For those that don't know what that is: Some 20-25 years ago I had a couple pretty bad decay and cavities that were serious enough where they had to drill the entire top of the tooth off. I was actually pretty lucky back then.  There was enough healthy tooth left where they could "crown" it, basically gluing an artificial top to the tooth.

The problem is, over many years (I'm in my 40s now), a bunch of changes lead to a maintenance issue. First, the technology: The crowns can actually come loose over many years, and possibly 'leak'.  This didn't happen, thank goodness. But the bigger issue is that the older you get, the more your gums tend to recede (it's normal) and that means little gaps form, and brushing and flossing gets less effective, and decay can actually start up again on the edge of the healthy tooth still exposed.  And the decay can work it's way inside the tooth.  This is super bad if it's not caught.  It's like having an awesome solid roof on a building that's termite infested- and eventually the entire building can collapse.  I had this happen several years ago and had to get a titanium implant- that's another story.  Trust me, you don't want to go there.

So this year, together with my awesome dentist, we looked at my mouth and smile differently and decided we'll get the old crowns proactively replaced. Right?  I'm actually subjecting myself to it. Yeah! Bring it on. Drill me.

And that brings me to the opportunity I saw a few weeks ago. Why I decided to take my son to watch me get poked and drilled.

My oldest son, now six, has a killer smile.  I mean it- he's a looker (I'm a doting papa, 溺愛パパだね。。. And he's also lucky. Some little three year old girl pushed him off a jungle gym pretty violently when he was three (I was there) and he landed teeth first against some pole or whatnot. He was lucky because, over the next few months, the living root inside of his tooth died, and calcified turning into bone.  He still has all his baby teeth, and one of the front is just a tiny bit discolored. He's lucky because that little girl almost caused him to have a front tooth extracted forcibly.

We brush and floss him and his little brother ritually, morning and night, and often right after meals like lunchtime. It's a pretty serious, time-consuming endeavor. That, and his genetics (or luck) have paid off. No cavities. So a few weeks ago during the nightly brushing, he says "Papa, I don't get it, my teeth are good, why do I need to brush so much?"

I looked at him in horror.  My face was probably enough to answer the question.  It was like "serious face" times 1000 (真剣な顔).  So I decided, why not? I'll bring him to my appointment for the crown replacements.

I sent an email to his teacher this morning to make sure she knows what's going on:

From: James
Subject: My son - arriving late this morning (between 11-12)
To: Sensei
Dear Sensei,
Please accept my apologies I didn’t send this sooner- I am taking my son to my dentist appointment this morning for a good life lesson.  
He has never had cavities- he’s both lucky, and we are extremely attentive to his brushing habits, but recently he made a comment that meant that he doesn’t understand the real value of brushing and flossing, since he’s never had problems.  Sounds like very many adults who don’t value something until it’s too late.  So I thought, at age 6, I’ll take him to the dentist with me - I already prepared the dentist - so he can watch the entire process, needles, drilling and everything.  For an hour or however long it is (no books).   I have a couple crowns that are over 25 years old that I am proactively replacing, so this is perfect context for me to “teach” him about the value of preventive work.
I have a feeling he’ll think about it every time he brushes and flosses- or reminds himself why it’s a priority.
I’ll bring him into school straight from the dentist!  Thank you so much!
Kind regards,
James Coleman

This morning on our half-hour drive to the dentist, we talked about why I have crowns, the history of them, and why I have to deal with this now again.  Then, when we arrived, my dentist (who is incredible), welcomed him back in with me, and practically made him a part of the process.  He wore the cool UV glasses, and sat on my chest as they removed the old crowns and drilled away. I listened to a podcast in one ear while I could hear my son and the doctor talking for an hour about everything they were doing and why.

It turns out, she wanted to contribute to the educational experience. She pointed out to him (and to me) that there are certain important procedures to make the patient more comfortable, to get a better result, and why that's beneficial to his papa.  Basically, I think she did an incredibly effective job at communicating to my son why it's important to go to and rely on the dentist, and not be afraid.  It's a good thing.  Which is incredible, because I was inadvertently only focusing on the bad as it relates to incentivizing him to brush and floss.

On the way back to school today, he told me how much he learned.  Now he understands:

  1. The importance of brushing and flossing (why)
  2. What and how the dentist does besides cleaning
  3. and the importance of going to (a great) dentist proactively, without fear

All in all, I think today was a great life lesson for my son.  Last night, I asked his coach (the other teacher) if it was OK to take him out of school this morning for this, breaking his routine.  She told me, "Of course, this is another kind of education, and one that you need to capture."

When we got to school today the kids saw him, and asked where he was.  His response?

"My dad had a gold tooth!!!"

About a child's happiness, and realizing their full potential

I was recently invited to speak with a group of parents about dealing with undesirable behaviors that inevitably manifest in preschool and kindergarten age children.  I had just recently experienced what most people just assume is normal, something most people believe you just have to brace yourself for and contend with.

I discovered, partially by accident, partially through preparation, and most certainly through good luck, that one specific parenting change can increase a child's happiness and confidence, and significantly improve family life. To me, the results are unmistakeable.  It can give parents a new, profound calm and confidence. And I also believe it's a critical first component of preparing your child take on and accomplish anything in life.

My skill and career in tech has always been about reducing complex systems into approachable, useable tools that anyone can use to go from practical, to masterful, in anything. The presentation here is my attempt to simplify and share what I've learned over several months that, I believe, is critical for every parent to know as early as possible.  

If you know another parent, or anyone who you think this could benefit, please use the share buttons below. And please let me know what you think in the comments.