Laura Tropp's blog

New Fatherhood for a New Year


Mark Zuckerberg’s introduction to fatherhood is being widely covered by the popular press, and throughout Facebook. Zuckerberg has been sending out photos of himself enjoying fatherhood, including pics of him changing a diaper and reading to his baby

Stories like these promote the notion of a newer, more involved father. Fathers certainly are being encouraged to become involved parents at earlier stages than ever before – even before birth. Last April, men were the recipients of their own fertility app, illustrating not just a desire of men to become more actively involved in understanding their fertility, but also a new potential market for companies to sell to.

From the time men are first aware that they are to become dads, they become part of a fatherhood-industrial complex. The last Superbowl included a series of ads that appealed to fathers, showing them caring for and nurturing children at different stages. Fathers now also can’t escape the fear mongering that had been reserved for moms in the past. A recent study warns men that fatherhood may make them fat: researchers offer that fathers may be devoting more time to their children at the expense of exercising and taking care of themselves. Welcome to the club, dads.

With that, here’s a shameless plug: I’m proud to announce Deconstructing Dads: Changing Images of Fathers in Popular Culture, a collection of essays that Dr. Janice Kelly and I have edited together. The authors in this collection argue that, despite the popular myth of a new age of fatherhood, much of society, and popular culture in particular, promotes the idea of fatherhood as an ambiguously defined role that continues to play second fiddle to mothers. Fathers have to push back against the expectation that they should primarily serve the provider role and be absent from the home in order to earn money for the family, rather than care for the children.

In the United States, some companies are beginning to encourage fathers to spend time with their newborns, but many fathers still feel the pressure to work at the expense of family time. Take, for example, the case of Daniel Murphy, the Mets baseball player who was publicly criticized for taking time off during the season to be with his wife during the birth of their child. Men are consistently subjected to reports about the unequal division of work at home. While this may be true, stories like these do little to help find the roots of the inequity.

Zuckerberg is changing diapers, which projects a positive cultural sign for fathers seeking a larger caretaking role, but most fathers (as well as mothers in the U.S.) do not have the resources that would allow them to have this kind of quality time with their newborns. Images of participatory fathers need to be matched with critical discussion about how we assign fatherly roles and what structures in society still make parental participation (both fathers and mothers) challenging

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Hanukkah, Menstruation, Facebook, and Commoditization


It’s not often that Hanukah and menstruation are able to share the title of a blog post, so I’m glad to add to the possible answers for those playing Google Feud.

I bought each of my daughters a Hanukkah shirt this week, but I was torn over the purchase. On the one hand, I thought they would be thrilled. They’ve been asking for Christmas items for the last month. Though they identify as Jewish, they have been seeing Christmas sales advertised for the past month and want to participate in the hubbub. Recently, they asked me for a Santa outfit for their dolls. When I reminded them that they are Jewish, they replied that they are, but their dolls are not. Touché.

They also have been bugging me for cute shirts with reindeer or Santa on them, chocolate-covered Santa candy, and all the other exciting holiday products that they see now on display. So, when I saw the Hanukkah shirt that was a little over-the-top but in the same style as the many Santa shirts, I thought: why not.

However, once again my scholarly voice competed with my mom voice about the purchase. This shirt is more than just a “shirt,” I thought. It’s a symbol. It’s a chance for them to fit in. They can wear it and proudly “own” their holiday. And, they get to do it as Jews, as opposed to them taking a picture on Santa’s lap at the school holiday fair (which they insisted on doing last year).

On the other hand, I recognized that their “fitting in” was now possible only because the store has now commercialized yet another holiday. Why do my children need to have a consumer experience to feel a part of their culture?

I observe similar dilemmas in other places. Just last week, commenters debated whether Mark Zuckerberg was really giving away his wealth because of the way he structured an LLC. Then, I argued that the end justified the means. Who cares how he does it, as long as needy causes end up being helped?

Is the same true here? Who cares how I share Hanukkah with my children, as long as the end result is my children experiencing their holiday in a happy, healthy way? 

Another example popped up in an unexpected place: an online ad for a menstrual gift box. Designed for girls who get their first periods, the box celebrates their experience with an assortment of products. While I like the idea of this stage in a girl’s life being moved from a private, secret, and sometimes almost shameful and embarrassing time to a celebratory experience, should this moment be commoditized and converted into a consumer experience?

These examples raise a chicken-and-egg question for me: how often do people motivate on their own true changes in their attitudes and behaviors, as opposed to companies leading that change for them? And, if it is the latter, is that problematic, or does it matter?

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Hanukkah, Menstruation, <br>Facebook and Commoditization

An Academic Thanksgiving


As a professor in the States focused on analyzing gender and family issues within a critical media studies framework, Thanksgiving poses some interesting challenges for me. On the one hand, I absolutely adore this holiday. I love the days off (my College even throws in Wednesday), being with family, and cooking a traditional meal while catching up with everyone.

At the same time, on a practical level, Thanksgiving is not the ideal time for an academic. It’s our crunch time. We are preparing to wrap up the semester and often are faced with an inevitable tough choice. Either we assign papers to be due right before Thanksgiving and have to spend the entire holiday grading (albeit with a few extra days for the task), or we make the papers due immediately after Thanksgiving break, forcing students to spend their entire holiday writing and leaving us only a short time to grade them after the break. Add to this the constant stream of emails from students working on these papers. Stealing away a few moments to catch up on grading and beginning the preparation of final exams, I often find myself hiding in another room while festivities play out elsewhere. Non- academics really don’t understand why you can’t really take a few extra days off from your job.

Another aspect of Thanksgiving that presents a challenge is watching my children absorb cultural myths while attempting so assess how much critical perspective a 7-year old should be offered. Where do I interfere with discussions on representation of Native Americans? How much should I reframe different schools’ narratives of the holiday? For example, Rethinking Schools has offered one way to explain the complicated nature of Thanksgiving to children, but where is the line between wanting to provide alternate interpretations of the holiday for my child without causing conflicts with her teachers?

Then, of course, the entire Black Friday spectacle follows. While most people debate the morality of stores opening on Thanksgiving Day, I’m forced to wrestle with the conflict of my personal desire to save money on a new washing machine with my professional and scholarly critique of rampant consumerism. I want to support Buy Nothing Day, but I can’t pretend I’m not tempted as much as anyone else by the excellent deals to be had.

Finally, I can’t ignore the gendered components of the holiday, in which too many families conform to a structure where women serve as the domestic laborers during the day, while men comprise the takers of the meal (although I must acknowledge that my husband and I do not follow this norm).  The Ohio University Women’s Center has organized tips to avoid the gendered cycle, but will relatives rooted in the dominant culture appreciate my using the holiday to attempt to break some cracks into our gendered society?

This struggle between asserting my scholarly critical self and allowing others to relax and enjoy the culturally normative experience of Thanksgiving in the U.S. is an experience that I’m sure is not limited to only myself. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone out there in similar (gravy) boats!

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Then What?


There are so many stories in the news about how helicopter parenting hurts kids. Comics make fun of it. Stories constantly warn about the dangers of it.  It may cause a “psychological blowback” in College. It may cause depression in kids

Here’s the thing: what about the helicopter parents themselves? All of these stories make it seem like these parents all could behave differently but instead have chosen to hover over their children and turn them into incapable adults. I think we are blaming the victim because as a mother who, despite trying not to, definitely hovers, it’s not good for me either and not entirely my fault.

The world of parenting and school is now set up for an expectation of some type of hovering. Blame, in part, technology. Now that new technology is available and widely marketed, it’s hard to avoid hovering. I have a friend who has been watching a video camera of her infant at day care from the time she began attending. Preschools provide daily reports and pictures via social media of what your child is doing all day long. Elementary schools require parents to sign homework daily to prove they have reviewed the work. Middle schools offer online computer accounts detailing your child’s progress so you can see that they didn’t do the last two homework assignments before the quarterly report card is posted. When I was a kid, the report card grade was generally a surprise for the parent (and oftentimes the child).

Many would say these are fine developments. Parents don’t have to be at work all day worrying about their baby; they conveniently can watch her.  Parents can follow the daily progress of their child. However, we as a society haven’t decided what to do about the “then what.” What happens when you are watching the daycare cam and you see another child steal away your child’s rice cake right from her hands, but no one else noticed. Then what?  Should you just ignore the crime, or should you sound like the “crazy parent” at pick-up? It’s one thing for daycares to have cameras; it’s entirely another to admit you watch them.

Regarding the parental portals that allow parents to watch a child’s progress online, it’s almost impossible not to log on to see how your kid did on a test before they get home from school. I’ve talked to many a mom or dad who has told me (s)he has to feign surprise at the child’s test score because it was posted hours earlier online. But what about when you discover your child is missing too many homework assignments? Then what? Do you allow your child to fail the class in a high-stakes environment, where one bad grade may determine your child’s future? Or do you hover and make sure your child gets their homework done?

These days, parents are encouraged to talk to their children more. When I was a kid, my mom never read an article advising how to get your child talking about what happened at school. Generally, unless there was a disaster, what happened at school stayed at school. But now that I’m talking to my kids, nobody tells you what to do once you’ve opened that Pandora’s Box of knowledge. I know a mother (and quite frankly, it is usually the mother and not the dad who is blamed as the hovering parent) who gets involved in her daughter’s social life and is seen as horrible overly invested and perhaps even psychologically dysfunctional. I’m telling you, though, there’s a slippery slope once you have opened the door of conversation. Once you know about the mean girl making your daughter feel left out, you can’t unknow this information. Then what?

Helicopter parenting is a result of many different cultural shifts happening at the same time. I don’t think it’s productive to blame the parent completely. Helicopter parents don’t need your anger; they need your pity. So, as a fellow reluctant helicopter parent, let me just say to all of you: I feel your pain (Really, I do: this last project of turning a pumpkin into a globe caused a cut on my finger). 

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Adult-Child’s Play


I was in a bookstore the other day and was surprised to see adult coloring books. Apparently, they are becoming more and more popular. I am told that coloring eases stress for adults. A bookstore in my area even sold out.

This reminds me of one of my favorite books, The Disappearance of Childhood by Neil Postman, who was a mentor to me. In this book, he argues that the electronic age, and television in particular, blurred lines between adulthood and childhood. He provided a great many examples in the book, and for the next few decades I was easily able to spot more.

I think we are moving into yet another phase now. Before, I focused more on how children were tackling adult issues earlier in their lives. Now, I see adults reverting to child’s play. In addition to the crayon example above, I’m thinking about the kickball and dodge ball teams adult friends of mine have joined. Games that were once the domain of playgrounds and neighborhood streets are now formal adult playtimes. In some workplaces, the décor and philosophy that rules is one that embraces play.

For Postman, the media age of television had ushered in the blurring of life stages, but I wonder if something new is accelerating this merging. Are the stages of childhood and adulthood becoming even harder to discern?

Perhaps the over-regimented childhood that some of these adults experienced as children has played a part. I’m thinking of the over-scheduled children who never had an opportunity to sit and color on their own, without it being part of an assignment (read: work). Maybe the shift to scheduled play dates has supplanted the possibility of a spontaneous kickball game. Are these adults craving the elements of play that they never had experienced?

Another explanation could be the change in our scientific notion of when adulthood emerges. New studies reinforce that the brain isn’t fully functioning until much later than previously assumed. Parents no longer sever ties at clear stages, such as the college drop-off. And, after college, it’s more common for kids to move back into their parents’ home.

At the same time that adults’ leisure time has begun to mimic child’s play, children’s leisure time is also starting to take on more adult features. In fact, one of the things I don’t like about all these organized sports and games that my children are encouraged to participate in is that it starts to feel too much like work. My children have to get up early to attend a scheduled activity, and sometimes practice in advance of the next scheduled one. I recently read a note about a volunteer activity we are a part of, and by the time my daughter and I were done reading, we both felt the stress that I usually associate with my own work. I began to question whether we are setting up children at a very young age to ignore spontaneous downtime and fun?

These new types of adult play may be a reminder that our sense of work-life balance is off, and we need to think of ways to restore that balance. Maybe coloring books are the short-term answer, but I think we need some longer-term solutions as well.

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Hiding from Kids and Colleagues


The other day I was hiding on the floor behind the night stand in my parent’s bedroom (I live intergenerationally). It brought back flashbacks to years-ago games of hide-and-seek. In this iteration, however, I was hoping that no one would seek me or, if they did, they wouldn’t find me. I was trying to work from home and had to abandon my home/office to find a hiding place to take a conference call with people on the line, all of whom would not want to hear a child in the background demanding juice or Doritos (two items they know they can get from me when I need to bribe them to be quiet). 

Later, my friend told me about her “hiding” experience. She had to take an important conference call with some business folk, so she left her kids inside with the babysitter and went to sit in her backyard to take the call in hope that her children would not interrupt her. Yet, in the middle of the call, she lost her wi-fi. She then had to keep inching herself and her laptop closer to the house but without the children seeing her because they would immediately insist on her attention. She ended up hiding in a bush outside the kitchen window to finish her call.

Is this the new face of work-life balance?

In an article preceding her new book, Anne Marie Slaughter talks about toxic work environments. She raises important questions about the flexibility of work schedules, advocating for more flexible schedules, changing family structural expectations, and having the ability to work at home. In my own experience, though, while working at home brings me great flexibility in some ways, in other ways, I think I just create a different type of “toxic” home-work environment. When I’m away at the office, I can simply imagine the wonderful experience my children are having at home, but when I’m home, I can hear every little detail (and sometimes it’s not pretty). When I’m away, my children miss me, but when I’m there but not accessible, I sometimes fear that I’m creating an even greater feeling of rejection for them. During the last winter weather season, I worked in my office during the snow days for several hours, telling the children that I couldn’t be interrupted during this time. My youngest began leaving me “mail” under the door. Letters of her love and her wish that I would write her a letter. Of course, I had to stop writing my report and begin writing that love letter to her.

On the other hand, when the children are at school, working from home is lovely. Last week, I had to work from home because of an unexpected medical crisis in our house. I honestly got more done from home than I ever would have in the office, where my work time is constantly interrupted. However, I couldn’t help but to feel concerned every time I received an email from someone saying they were going to stop by my office to see me. Of course, had I been there, all these visits would have prevented me from getting all the work done. In fact, on several occasions I have had to “hide” in the office. I’ve discovered other faculty doing the same thing.

How much of our lives are spent in hiding to finish what has been assigned to us or we have assigned to ourselves at work?  Do you hide from your family or your colleagues? I’m curious about how others experience and find success in the work-from-home life.

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Having Twins?


I’m still thinking about the announcement that Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, is expecting twins. Pregnancy is a subject of special interest to me as I have spent much time writing about it (and I’ve been pregnant three times as well). I’ve been fascinated by pregnancy’s move from a private experience to a more public one, from the posting of fetal ultrasound pictures to even pregnancy pee stick photos. At the same time, pregnancy now has more public stages, such as elaborate baby showers or gender reveal parties.

However, aspects of pregnancy remain secret, like how the adoration of the mother abruptly stops after she has had her baby. When compared with other countries, moms and dads do not have much support post-pregnancy in the United States. Post-partum depression often continues to be a hidden infliction. Those who do not instantly bond and enjoy parenting often hide their ambivalent experiences. And, this country ranks last among 38 countries when it comes to governmental support for working parents. I acknowledge that someone like Mayer or myself has some degree of choice over how much we choose to work after the births of our children; for many women, there is little or no choice. With no universal paid parental leave policy in place, new mothers living paycheck-to-paycheck cannot afford to stay home with their babies.

These past few months, however, I’ve been hearing announcements like Netflix’s increased support for parental leave, then I read articles like the one written by Clair Cain Miller and David Streitfeld in the New York Times, which discusses how difficult it may be to convince people to take that leave. Thus, Mayer’s announcement leaves me with ambivalent feelings. On the one hand, I’m excited that a woman is at the top of a major corporation and can acknowledge her child-bearing without being fired for it. Yet, at the same time, Mayer has made a big deal about how she’s going to work right up to the birth and go back to work immediately after.

I did that, too. I went back to work six weeks after my first child, was actually in labor with my second child while giving a final exam, and taught several online classes the day after having my third child. Should I have, though? I have to say, I’m not sure of the progress women are making in this area.

This tendency highlights an utter devotion to work that makes me question how we are managing work-life balance in the 21st century. Angela McRobbie has written an interesting article about women, men, and work in academia. In it, she describes how men may thrive more within the professional demands of academia because they often have a woman at home handling their domestic life.

She ultimately raises interesting questions for me about how we define success and work. Certainly, a priority should be establishing paid leave for everyone; low-income families need this benefit the most. However, we also need to begin a public conversation about the role of work in the lives of families. Perhaps the discussion should shift from the Mommy Track (women needing to pause or take time off from work for family obligations) to a more inclusive concept of a Slow Work Movement. This is particularly important as we adapt more and more technologies that chain us to our virtual desks. This conversation can begin with people like Marissa Mayer.

Of course, Mayer is free to make personal decisions that work for her, but if she’s representing the successful woman archetype, which I think she does anytime she agrees to an interview or story about her success and promotion within her company, then I think she does owe people her acknowledgement of work-life balance issues and say it would be okay if she took a break after she gives birth to her twins.

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Dressing for Success … or Not


This week both my children and I go back to school. I’ve always liked the Back-to-School transition. I may sometimes complain about losing my summer, but in truth, the hustle and transition to the first days of school have invigorated me. As a young child, I loved the newness of everything: new pencils, a new lunch box (Scooby Doo, the Jetsons, Josie and the Pussycats), and, of course, new clothes. I loved especially our ritual of selecting the perfect first-day-of-school outfits.

My parents had always taught me the importance of first impressions, and our first day outfits were meant to convey both the respect we children had in presenting ourselves to our teachers and that we had parents who cared about how we left for school. Taking first day of school pictures in front of our house was our last ritual before we headed off. I have kept similar rituals in place with my children for our first days of school.

It is with some surprise and disappointment, then, that I have been looking at first day of school photos from my friends on Facebook in the last week or so. I’m glad to see the picture ritual hasn’t disappeared, and the kids look like they have new lunchboxes, but the clothes seem all wrong to me. The children look as if they are dressed for just another day of summer. Many are wearing tank tops, shorts, and T-shirts. In other words, they look ordinary. Did I somehow miss the bulletin that we have forsaken the first-day-of-school outfit? 

I’ve noticed this with my college students as well. They don’t exactly seem “dressed for success” as my mother would have said. They show up to class wearing tank tops, shorts, T-shirts, and sweats.  Have the millennials given up on impression management?

I polled my friends and colleagues and found that I seem to be the outlier here. Casual attire is the new trend. In fact, a friend of mine said that she’s noticed this trend not just at schools, but also in the workforce. She interviewed applicants for a job who looked like they were headed to the beach after the interview, flip-flops and all. She hired one of these casual dressers anyway because, despite their inappropriate attire, the candidate seemed perfect for the job. This problem is so pervasive that a website offering advice to job-bound millennials cautions them not to dress too casually for interviews.

Others have observed the too-casual attire elsewhere. Many blogs feature people complaining about the lack of formal dress in churches and synagogues. Even in jury duty, courts are sending people home for too-casual attire. I suppose we should expect this now that the first-day-of-school outfit is disappearing. Why would it occur to 18-year olds to dress up for an interview if they have never been taught to dress up for key transition events?

I’ve been trying to assess the root of this change. As a media scholar, I’m trained to be sensitive to how cultural shifts may be connected to shifts in media environments. As we are immersed within more social media, websites, and peer-to-peer networks, we are losing the conditioning of hierarchical structures. Is this now extending to clothing, where we no longer see our dress as a sign of respect to a superior or for our social status?

I would like to think that this trend indicates a lack of interest in fashion and more acceptance about what people wear, but I see no evidence of this. In fact, some parents have told me that their teenagers still want to dress cool and in new clothes for the first day of school, but they want to look as if they are not.

Certainly, I’m not going to argue for more emphasis on clothing and fashion. Anyone who has spent more than a day with me would recognize how hypocritical that would be (let’s just say I am not known for my keen fashion sense), but I would like to advocate for the importance of acknowledging dress for key events. I still think the “first day of school” should be one of those moments.

Therefore, in defiance of the too-casual trend, I am going to wear my own first-day-of-school outfit when I teach this week. My children will go off to school knowing that dressing up for the first day sends a signal that they recognize this is an important event, and that feeling should be connected to the time when they meet their new teachers. What you wear is an indication of how you feel about an event and the respect you have attributed to it. What have you observed about casual attire in your own lives?

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Parenting and the Prime Directive


The teacher placements for my children come out this week, and each day I check the parent portal to find out who will be the new presence in our lives for the upcoming year. I’m surrounded by other mothers also waiting and concerned to find out about their children’s placement. Through Facebook, I see that people are doing this across the country.

This year was particularly exciting for me because of the greater perceived control I had in the process. In our previous school system, my child was assigned to a teacher with no input from me whatsoever. But in this new district, I get to fill out this fabulous little form that asks me all sorts of questions about what kind of environment my child might thrive in. I couldn’t recommend a teacher, exactly, but it seems like I might be able to influence the choice.

Of course, the form was not as easy to fill out as I had imagined. I had to balance my honest assessment of my child with who I want my child to be. In fact, a friend of mine in another state warned me that too many parents put down TMI in these forms. She also reminded me that schools see a different version of children than we do.

By the time I handed in the form, I started to worry: had I interfered too much in the life of my child? I had indicated that one of my children does not do well in a classroom with a teacher who yells. Had I now doomed her to never being able to work in an environment with a loud, angry boss? What if she could have invented a killer app for, but I had prevented her from learning the necessary survival skills to function in that environment? Had I messed with a decision that should have been determined by others, or be left to chance? Did I not give enough information, or did I give too much?

This made me think about how so much of parenting is wondering when you have crossed the line. Every day, I’m in my own Star Trek episode. It seems clear that I should force them to eat vegetables or, at the very least, only have one serving of dessert, but more complicated decisions constantly haunt me. Should I sign up my child for theatre lessons because she enjoys acting, or should I just let her have fun with sock puppets? Should I hire a tutor to push my child into an honors program, or maybe he’s not meant to be in one? When are we giving our children opportunities, and when are we propelling them towards who we want them to be?

I question whether this would even be of concern generations earlier, when children were expected to follow in the footsteps of their parents, taking over the family profession or caring for the farm or household. Is the prime directive of parenting a 21st century concern? Watching out for the best interests of one’s child, protecting them, and making sure they have every opportunity at their disposal may lead to helicopter parenting, but parents also want their children to grow to become their own person. I wonder whether these competing concerns are mutually exclusive.

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A World Without Time and Money


While I was on the subway, I wanted to find out what time it was. I long ago stopped wearing a watch, but I didn't feel like digging through my bag to find my phone. I saw that the teenager sitting next to me was wearing a watch, so I tried stealing a glance to see the time. Unfortunately, the watch was a little too far away and upside down for me to see. I turned to the stranger and asked him for the time. Once he finally took off his headphones and realized I had asked, he didn’t think to look at his watch but instead reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. He checked the time on it and told me, before putting his headphones back on and ending our transaction.

This made me think about how the wristwatch has become obsolete: even when you still wear one, you aren’t conditioned to look at it. In my family, the ability to read an analog clock has always been something we celebrated by presenting our child with their very own watch. I’m wondering if my third child will even be interested in having a watch at all.

I’ve found a similar transformation with money. When my oldest child was younger, I was still making purchases with cash. He would have natural lessons in how to make change by witnessing our daily transactions. Contrast that with my daughter, who yesterday engaged in a troubling mathematical exercise with the ice cream man. She let me know in no uncertain terms that she needs to work on her change-making skills.

I wonder where are we getting the chance to practice these skills. Moreover, are they really so necessary in a world where you can have an app calculate the tip or you can pay for most services with a credit card? With our increased reliance on credit and debit cards to pay for everyday purchases, I’m finding it more difficult to teach my children the basic concept of money and, more importantly, the possibility of running out of it. Without seeing the dollar bills disappear, it’s more challenging to see money as a finite thing.

Ron Lieber discusses in his book The Opposite of Spoiled the value of teaching children about money and cautions against a society where parents avoid broaching the subjects of finance and wealth with children. I suspect, however, that the role of new technologies is playing a part in preventing us from having to understand the mechanics of things like time and money. My son never learned script, and while he still can’t sign his name, he knows how to work an automatic thumbprint reader on my iPhone (thanks again for setting that up for me, son).

Maybe signatures will be obsolete in the future, saving my son the trouble of having to learn to sign his name, but the skills of being able to think about money and time from a very basic perspective are ones I don’t want him to miss. So, I think I’m scheduling some “wayback” days, when my kids and I will focus on skills that I think our digital world discourages but we absolutely need. What skills would you add to the wayback list?

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