Bannon and the Alt-Right

I don’t often do political commentary online. I get a lot of anxiety about the idea of people being mad at me, moreso if I believe they are upset just due to a misunderstanding. So, engaging in what is likely to be a highly polarizing debate about politics is never high on my list of things to do.

I’m finding that discourse and disagreement and vocalizing concerns in the political spectrum are more and more important as everyone gets farther and farther apart in their political camps. So I’m going to suck it up and post something I’ve been thinking a lot about.

There are some liberal responses to Trump’s election that I think are pretty silly. The whole “Calexit” thing is dumb. Announcing you are moving to Canada, unless you really love Canada (and, really, why wouldn’t you?), is not helpful. Claiming the electoral college needs to be overturned feels reactionary — whether or not it should be done away with or overhauled, only bringing it up when your side loses is… obvious.

On the other side of the coin there are very legitimate things that everyone should be concerned about, regardless of their political leanings. The rise of Steve Bannon and the alt-right is something that should be a problem for everyone in America. It’s not a partisan concern. Bannon should not be part of a Trump administration that wants to hold any pretense of governing for the better good of all Americans. And this is why.

Bannon took over as head of Breitbart news after Andrew Breitbart died in 2012 and morphed that fringe conservative news outlet into the self-professed voice of the alt-right. The alt-right likes to brand itself as a new wave of conservatism, the logical extension of the tea party movement and the future of the right-wing. Do not be fooled by this rhetoric. The alt-right is a platform built on racism, homophobia, sexism and xenophobia. It may be easy to mistake it for something more benign if you are not getting all your news from it, but at its core it is a venomous creature.

Let’s look at this article from March of 2016. This is a piece by Breitbart about the alt-right. So, I am not pulling this information from some far-left liberal hit piece. This is straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were.

http://www.breitbart.com/tech/2016/03/29/an-establishment-conservatives-guide-to-the-alt-right/

It’s a long piece; I’ll try to break it down a bit for you. The authors break the alt-right into a series of groups, and there are massive problems with how they present all of them. I will be highlighting some of the low points in this write-up. Also, if you spend a few thousand words profiling your political group’s members and the thesis running through the entire thing is “see, we’re totally not racist” then you might want to consider that you doth protest too much.

First, there’s The Intellectuals. In this section, the bona fides of the alt-right are attempted to be established by listing its serious thinkers and talking about just generally how smart they all are, which is apparently what bothers everyone about them. “The alternative right are a much smarter group of people — which perhaps suggests why the Left hates them so much.” I’m going to leave alone the fact that they proudly count the internet “manosphere” among their members because that’s a whole article by itself. The thing I want to highlight here is this:

“Steve Sailer, meanwhile, helped spark the ‘human biodiversity’ movement, a group of bloggers and researchers who strode eagerly into the minefield of scientific race differences…”

Read that carefully. Unpack it. “Human biodiversity” sounds okay. Sounds scientific almost. Legitimate. And then the kicker—”scientific race differences”. Right there, first section of the article, the not-racist alt-right counts among its intellectual champions a movement of bloggers and researchers who are asserting that, yes, racial (not cultural, mind you) differences exist. And before you chime in and say “Well, but different racial groups are different” — yes, everyone knows this. White folks and black folks have different skin color, hair, features, etc. You don’t need a pseudo-scientific movement to suddenly wade into revelations like this online. They are talking about scientific justifications for racial superiority here.

I hope I’ve whet your appetite for some linguistic gymnastics, because this section is my favorite: Natural Conservatives. This is the core of the alt-right, the rank and file. Breitbart describes the group as “mostly white, mostly male middle-American radicals, who are unapologetically embracing a new identity politics that prioritises the interests of their own demographic.” 

Again, we can do some unpacking here. First off, it is rich that Breitbart can unironically champion a radicalized white populace while fear-mongering about Sharia Law out the other side of its face. But also “new identity politics that prioritises the interests of their own demographic” is not a new concept either. This is practically a textbook definition of racism. Again, it can be easy to defend this statement if you are choosing to give a generous reading. But the operative word here is demographic. We’re not talking about a group of people who are hoping to preserve their community or way or life, per se. They are specifically talking about their racial demographic.

“While eschewing bigotry on a personal level, the movement is frightened by the prospect of demographic displacement represented by immigration.” This might be my favorite sentence in the whole profile. Never have I seen a more slick redirection for charges of racism. No, no, see. They don’t fear brown person, they just fear brown people. Also worth noting, this concept does not cite illegal immigration, but rather all immigration. A major cause of the alt-right is the cessation of all immigration into the United States.

Now, before you try to defend them by saying that you’re sure the alt-right would have no problem with other races as long as they believe in the American dream and pay their taxes and etc. etc. etc. Nope. “[Alt-right intellectuals] say that when different groups are brought together, the common culture starts to appeal to the lowest common denominator.” Two races, two cultures existing side by side is something that the alt-right specifically refutes here. Instead of a strengthening bonds and increasing shared understanding between two groups, all that can result from the blending is the worst possible outcome for both. Oh, and then they claim that this idea is the same as the left’s opposition to cultural appropriation. So, having a problem with a runway model perhaps wearing sacred Native American headgear down the catwalk is pretty similar to believing that those of Muslim descent cannot live in American neighborhoods.

Here come the cringe. The Meme Team is a portion of the alt-right that Breitbart cannot ignore, because they are its mouthpiece on the web. The profile asserts that they are largely attracted to the alt-right due to a sort of punk-rock desire to mock the establishment. The article even goes so far as to make this astounding equivalency: “Just as the kids of the 60s shocked their parents with promiscuity, long hair and rock’n’roll, so too do the alt-right’s young meme brigades shock older generations with outrageous caricatures, from the Jewish ‘Shlomo Shekelburg’ to ‘Remove Kebab,’ an internet in-joke about the Bosnian genocide.” Wait wait wait. What? Growing your hair long to piss your parents off is the same as posting racist cartoons all over the internet? That’s… I mean… what? Like… what?

This is also where the profile tries to make the strongest push that the alt-right is born of the same fires as the progressive left was. They’re just out to shock their parents and grandparents and shake up the status quo. It’s all just hijinks. “Were this the 1960s, the meme team would probably be the most hellraising members of the New Left: swearing on TV, mocking Christianity, and preaching the virtues of drugs and free love.”

Now, strap in for this one. Time to talk about Millennials. (As a Millennial, I super hate reading things about Millennials.) “Millennials aren’t old enough to remember the Second World War or the horrors of the Holocaust. They are barely old enough to remember Rwanda or 9/11. Racism, for them, is a monster under the bed, a story told by their parents to frighten them into being good little children.As with Father Christmas, Millennials have trouble believing it’s actually real. They’ve never actually seen it for themselves…” I straight up cannot understand how this sentence is written and expected to be taken seriously. In the world of Black Lives Matter and post-9/11 fears about terrorism and Islam and, well, this entire election cycle with its talk of Mexicans as rapists and Muslim registries how can Breitbart be asserting that racism is a phantom that the Millennial generation has never been exposed to? This is a stance that they have to take, though. The actions of this meme brigade are so public and so blatantly racist, the only way to attempt to excuse their behavior is to make the tenuous claim that racism doesn’t mean anything to them because they do not understand it. Therefore, they cannot be culpable.

To help point out that there IS racism in the alt-right but it’s totally not THEIR racism they refer to the 1488rs. This name is explained like so: “a reference to two well-known Neo Nazi slogans, the first being the so-called 14 Words: ‘We Must Secure The Existence Of Our People And A Future For White Children.’ The second part of the number, 88, is a reference to the 8th letter of the alphabet – H. Thus, “88” becomes “HH” which becomes ‘Heil Hitler.'” This group is brought up to show that, look, there is a fringe element to the alt-right that is super racist, but we think they are assholes and they think we are assholes, so we can’t be racist because THESE guys are racist and they are not us. They are violent and want to take their political desires by force… but not us. We’re super civil. This admission gets real problematic as the article ends.

The conclusion of the entire piece seems like a call for compromise — a world where the liberal left acknowledges that the alt-right has just cause and must be allowed their safe spaces (which again, considering how much the alt-right loves to mock liberals for their trigger warnings and safe spaces, is pretty ironic) where they can maintain their racially pure demography.

But there’s a twist. What would happen if the left does not feel a need to compromise on the concept of white nationalism? “Well, the risk otherwise is that the 1488ers start persuading people that their solution to natural conservatives’ problems is the only viable one. The bulk of their demands, after all, are not so audacious: they want their own communities, populated by their own people, and governed by their own values.”

I sat with my mouth open for a minute after reading this. The crux of this entire profile that seeks to normalize the alt-right, to explain its motivations and origins, to make it seem less, well, super racist ends on a bald-faced threat. What will happen if you don’t agree with us? Well, if you don’t agree with us, we’ll start agreeing with the Neo-Nazis because, after all, they’re pretty reasonable guys with pretty reasonable desires.

This is why Steve Bannon is dangerous. This is why he has no business in the White House or anywhere near it. It does not matter if he himself has not said any of these things. He’s a smart man. He would have to be to get where he is today. You don’t have to say racist things to be a racist. And you cannot claim to not be a racist while sitting atop a media empire that defines itself by the tenets of racism. Bannon is a danger to America and Trump’s trust in him carries with it the same transitive property. Just as Bannon cannot hide from claims of racism while he allows Breitbart to operate as it does, Trump cannot claim he plans to be a President for every American while he allows Bannon to operate as he does.

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I Wrote a Thing

I wrote previously about just jumping into the writing process if you’re feeling stymied by much of the popular advice regarding screenwriting (namely: don’t even start writing unless you have a very detailed outline to work from).

Well, I managed to follow my own advice and very recently finished my own ~120-page feature script. Here’s what helped me get it done:

– I wrote it with the help of a couple friends who were there to keep me on task and provide guidance and feedback. I think this is pretty key. Writing is pretty lonely otherwise.

– Each week, I would write 5 pages, due by end of day Wednesday. We’d discuss the pages on Friday, and then the cycle would begin all over again. Having it be a regular schedule, but not a strenuous one, was useful. It ensured I never hit burnout and that regularly I would go into the next week eager to write down what was still kicking around from the week before.

– I specifically made it a point to never review prior sections. I did absolutely no editing as I wrote and this was a crucial part of the process. If I had stopped to correct errors, I never would have finished. Now, what is finished is a piece of garbage, but it is finished. And now I can get to work crafting a second draft.

That was basically it. Have support, write regularly and don’t look back until you are done. You’ve probably seen that advice all over. There is a reason why.

What now? Well, now I’ll be making an outline.

Now that I have finished writing a script, I can see why everyone says to write an outline first. I found myself lost in the weeds quite a bit while writing this script and an outline would have stopped that before it even started.

I set out to make a Hollywood script. Not that I necessarily intended to ever try and market this script (I mean, among many other reasons, it’s my first script, which means it was always destined for the file cabinet), but I didn’t intend to write anything but a by-the-numbers Hollywood script. And now I can’t watch a by-the-numbers Hollywood film (Bad Boys, The Rock, ummmm… really anything Michael Bay has touched is what is coming to mind [which is not a dig on Michael Bay, even if you want it to be]) without going “Dammit. I don’t have that part in there.”

I’m missing strong B-plots. I don’t get into the personal lives of the heroes. I have no “Save the Cat” moment. I don’t have call-backs. There’s no real thematic goal. I don’t think I’ve made enough room for large action set-pieces. I lack catchphrases! Oh, and the plot doesn’t really make, as they say in the biz, “any sense at all”.

Suffice it to say, I have a lot that needs to be done.

To help with my outline, I plan to look at my script and break each major scene or plot element into a notecard. Sort those notecards by act and then decide what needs to stay and what needs to go. I’m going to steal heavily from Blake Snyder, whose Save the Cat was just as gimmicky as I expected but also broke things down in a way that really gelled with me, and a bit from Edgar Wright. Specifically, this. (Yes, yes, I know this is just Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, but something about seeing how it actually gets applied made more sense to me than reading that entire damn book.)

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The Deep End

At this point, I’ve read kind of a lot of stuff about screenwriting. There’s Syd Field and Robert McKee and Blake Snyder and a few more talented guys you probably haven’t heard of. I’ve read a ton of actual scripts. I’ve studied my favorite films. I listen to John August’s podcast about screenwriting.

I have learned a great deal from these sources. Much of it has been helpful. However, I feel there is a consistent thing I hear across the board about screenwriting that I think is pretty deadly.

Almost every screenwriting guru, at the same time that they are telling writers that the way to succeed is just to write write write write write will tell you that you shouldn’t even start writing if you don’t know what the start of your story will be, what the climax of your story will be, how your character will arc through the story and typically what your inciting incident should be.

Despite all my desire to write and what I think is at least a perceptible level of talent with the written word, I would read or hear that over and over again and it stuck with me. So I would rattle my ideas around in my head and maybe for one story I would just have a beginning and maybe for another I just had a character concept and maybe for the next I would just know what a great ending would feel like, but I couldn’t just brainstorm out of thin air the rest of the frame for a screenplay outline and so I would just freeze up and I would do nothing.

The norm for teaching seems to be that screenwriting should only begin once the script has been meticulously plotted out and outlined beat for beat. This may be the only way to really be efficient once you’re in the big leagues (and, indeed, it’s where I’d like to be, skill-level-wise) but it seems awfully restrictive for a newbie.

Screenwriting is an odd beast. You must write to communicate a specifically visual medium. You must worry about fairly technical formatting concerns. You should even worry about how much white space is visible on your page (Seriously, John August and Craig Mazin both state that they can spot an amateur script just by looking at how much white they can see on a page). You want to have a pretty deliberate construction for your plot itself. Being able to visualize all this in a relative vacuum is a daunting task. For someone like me, who learns best by doing, actually sitting down to write a script is actually the most essential part of the process and it’s the part I was being told I wasn’t ready to do.

So, with the help of my friends, I recently started to ignore that rule. Each week, I produce 5 pages of script. I turn in pages on Wednesday and meet with a friend each Friday to discuss what works and what doesn’t and to plot the next 5 pages. If we want to switch something up, we just do it. I make a note at the start of the next set of 5 pages what the new assumptions are about the plot and I go from there. I’m not making revisions at all (that would be all I end up doing if I start), but I do make notes about needed revisions.

I’m 20 pages in and it’s magic. The script is a horrible mess, of course, but I can feel myself learning what needs to be done to make it better as I go. Once I started writing, the words just sort of figured out what should be going on in the script. My story idea was evolving as I wrote without my really thinking about it. Solutions to problems I had about what to do next were getting solved as I wrote. Is it a crushing problem that I’m writing a script without having it all plotted out? Is it a problem for George R.R. Martin to be writing a sprawling multi-thousand page fantasy epic that is considered a masterpiece of modern fiction where he doesn’t plot anything in advance? I’m not saying I’m George R.R. Martin, but I am saying that there is clearly more than one acceptable way to write, even for something as meticulous as a screenplay and especially for a newbie who is still trying to find his method.

As I go, I can feel myself getting a sense for how many pages (and therefore how much screen-time) certain set-pieces will take. I’m learning how much dialog looks like too much dialog for a character and how much scene description makes a page look like a bummer. I’m sliding in characters just because I think that they may make for great subplots later. I’m tweaking the overall plot so that it’ll be easier for me to have a second act with steadily increasing challenges. I can already tell how I’m going to revise my script to make it better.

This is what writing gurus should be saying. They teach that you need to write tons of scripts to succeed. But they never say to just jump right into the deep end and run with it. Probably because that’s not super marketable as a concept. Considering that a successful script will be born out of endless revision getting held up on the nitty-gritty for a first draft seems to be a poor plan.

So I’ll just go ahead and give that advice for them: Jump in. Start writing. It’ll be bad. It’ll get better. Don’t slow down. Don’t revise until you are done because then you’ll just be revising all the time. Just make a note of what you’ll need to go back and fix and forge on ahead. I don’t care if you started writing a romance and now you’re writing a kaiju movie. Don’t look back until you’re done. When you’ve finished that first draft, then you can obsess over the specific pacing and construction of your plots. Doing the work is the best education you can get.

 

EXTRA NOTE: Here’s another thing not to always listen to like “they” say. Your main character does not, necessarily, need to have an arc. Think about a couple action-movie classics: Speed and Die Hard. Do Jack and John change at ALL during the movies? Is there any emotional point to their characters? John McClane’s personal arc ends before Hans opens fire in the lobby at Nakitomi. Jack… well… he’s Jack the whole time. Of course if you CAN work something in, do so. Ellen Ripley is basically the perfect action hero in the perfect action movie and has just a beautiful personal arc. But that arc ties in very integrally to the plot of the film itself and indeed to the film that preceded it. It won’t work everywhere nor does it have to. Why shoehorn it in if it won’t fit and isn’t critical for the story? I’m sure some people will be aghast at this, but I’m just saying it’s not a hard rule.

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Tantrums Revisited

I’ve written a bit about tantrums before but I return to you now, if not a man rid of tantrums, a man more in control of them.

Let me asterisk this by telling you up front that I don’t think it’s too likely that you’ll be able to follow this advice right away. I think eventually you’ll find it’s true, but you will have arrived at this point more or less organically all on your own. I think fighting your way through tantrums is a bit of a rite of parenthood. Everything I’m going to say here are things that I understood academically long before Joshua was walking and talking and some before he was even born. Did me just about no good.

I’ve battled tantrums with yelling. With threats of taking away toys and fun activities. With actual taking away toys and fun activities. With threatening time-outs. With attempts to forcibly hold Joshua in a time-out spot he didn’t want to be in. With attempts to physically restrain him from flailing about. And all that got me was more crying. More flailing. Punches in the face. And a meltdown where I just sat on the floor and cried for a few minutes because I couldn’t figure out how I had managed to fail so thoroughly as a father.

Of course I have not failed as a father. By all accounts I’m doing pretty well and I have for you over here this whole bag of dicks if you happen to disagree. I have not failed, it was simply that I just didn’t know because I hadn’t experienced it yet.

This is why I am sure that you will read all this and may say “I already knew all that Mike” or “I’ll keep that in mind, Scarpelli” but that it won’t make any difference because you’ll be plugging along, happily doing your parenting thing and then WHAMMO your child pulls a Crazy Ivan and all of a sudden they’re coming right for you. You’ll be confused and probably a little shocked and your child will do things that I guarantee you will irritate the shit out of everyone but the most impressively patient. So you’ll go over the edge a bit, too.

The thing to try and remember about toddlers, though, is that they just completely do not understand emotions. And why should they? Emotions are weird as shit. You feel certain ways and you don’t know why. Your brain is pumping chemicals in weird places and the thing about developing minds is that it might not be doing it in the proper doses yet. Now, imagine that you don’t know what to call those ways you feel. Mommy and Daddy are holding your little brother all the time and you feel sad and angry and jealous and you don’t actually know what any of those things are or what comprises a proper level of response so, to steal a phrase from Hyperbole and a Half, your child ends up FEELING ALL OF THE FEELS. Which emotion should they use? Which one will allow them to tell us what they think? How can they tell us what they think if they don’t know what all of the feels are in the first place? How can they STOP FEELING ALL OF THE FEELS? And then they Hulk out.

They also don’t understand certain nuances. Let’s say your child wants to watch TV. You have decided they have watched enough TV for the day and offer instead that you can color or do puzzles togehter if they want, or maybe even have a snack. This, to you, seems a reasonable exchange and a productive one, as you have made a graceful refusal and coupled it with the offer to engage in other enjoyable activities. Your toddler, though? Well, their half of this “What Humans Say/What Animals Hear” Gary Larson comic reads like this:

Toddler – Can I watch TV?

Parent – No, because I don’t love you and nothing will ever be okay again.

Because for realsies, if you loved your toddler why would you NOT let them watch TV? You like them. They like you. They like TV. Ipso ergo de facto you should let them watch TV. And because you said no that means you don’t love them any more because they are a bad child and all the light will be sucked from this universe to fuel the dark forge of the cruel gods of the nameless deep. So, I mean, screaming and flailing seems like a pretty logical response now, right?

I’ve already covered what doesn’t work (or at least what didn’t work for us), but what DOES work (or at least works for us)?

Essentially, treat it like the tantrum is something that your child is doing that you are more or less unaware of. We don’t outright ignore Joshua, but experience has taught us to, in essence, go limp so the impact doesn’t shock our systems too much. When he cries and flails, I start out asking him if he wants to come sit with me and give me a hug. Inevitably, he will say no. Then I tell him that it’s okay to be sad or to be angry and that if he wants to talk about it, he can. He will say, 100% of the time, that he doesn’t want to tell me why he is sad. Then I’ll either offer the hug again or request that while it’s fine to be sad or be mad that it’s not okay to scream and yell so if he could please not do that, I would appreciate it. That’s when he will tell me, again this is every single time, that he doesn’t want me to talk to him. At this point, I inform him that this is not a nice thing to say, and that if he still doesn’t want to hug me, talk to me, or have me talk to him that I am going to go and do something else and he can let me know when he’s ready.

Most of this is said into a maelstrom, because he’s yelling and crying the whole time and is more saying what he feels is the routine than really listening to me at this point. But I say it just the same. After I get up to leave the room to do whatever—sometimes clean, sometimes read a book, sometimes just stand out of sight and wait—he tends to lose it even more because he doesn’t want Daddy to go. I actually wait until this rises to a certain crescendo. The reason being that I don’t want to just be giving in to his little terrorism demand right away. If I leave the room and come back the moment he asks for me, what’s the point of getting up in the first place? But, if I wait until he’s reaching some transition/boiling point, I may get lucky. At that point I come back in and will ask if he wants to give me a hug. Most of the time even though he’s just been pining away for me, as soon as I return to my previous spot he immediately begins all over by telling me he doesn’t want me to talk to him. So, I leave again. I rinse and repeat until he switches from anger to sadness and decides that what he really wants is to sit with Daddy and give him a hug. Then there are hugs and usually whispers that he should find Mommy and give her a kiss because he tends to be mean to Mommy like he is to Daddy and it affects Mommy a little more to see her eldest so miserable.

And then that’s that. Like nothing ever happened. It feels a little strange to effectively be wearing him down into sadness, but it’s important to remember that he was sad the whole time, but his sadness is bundled with a bunch of other emotions and freaking out is basically the manifestation of that. Eventually, he’ll learn to short circuit the freaking out and hone in on the sad and be a bit more manageable in these scenarios.

This arrangement works pretty well because I don’t feel guilty about it like I would in scenarios where I ended up having to try and restrain him and I don’t have to maintain prolonged threats and punishments which he will have totally forgotten the reason for in two hours anyway. He gets a calm response to his panic and has everything resolved by some hugs and cuddles and discussion about what might have been the problem.

It’s probably also an important caveat that if we were on the fence about whatever his tantrum was about—let’s say watching TV—then we are cemented in our stance that it will not happen as soon as the tantrum begins. That option is blasted right the hell out of the airlock and while I don’t like to speak in absolutes too much when it comes to advice about kids since they are so very variable I will say that if you cave about the subject of a tantrum you are probably going to create a bit of an asshole. Would you honor the requests of an adult who behaved like that? No? Your end game is to raise your kid to adulthood, right? And you’re teaching them tantrums are effective? Sooooooooooooooo…

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Imagination Games

Joshua has always been very big on imagination play. This may be pretty standard for little ones, but he’s always gotten pretty into it. This is likely a combination of several factors: we read to him a LOT, he only gets to see about 3-4 hours of TV a week total, we engage with his play sessions and, most importantly, he’s just that kind of kid.

Previously, I’m not sure I would have had much to say on the subject. It’s something I think is fun and should be encouraged, but it’s not really something you can force on a kid. If they want to pretend, they’ll pretend. If they don’t… well, maybe they just prefer to stack blocks or push trains around. I’m pretty sure I spent a lot of time making very boring, very tall Lego towers.

But lately Joshua has gotten way into pirates. His Aunt and Uncle got him a Captain Hook gear playset related to Disney JR’s Jake and the Neverland Pirates show (pirate sword, hook, spyglass, treasure map) and he went for it big-time. Now it’s non-stop Peter Pan and pirates around the house. We read the story at least once a day and almost all our playtime has to with Peter Pan and pirates.

What’s interesting to me is who and how Joshua chooses to play.

Previously, play-time scenarios were pretty basic and pretty binary. I was the sleigh, Joshua was Santa Claus. I was a doggy and Joshua was Joshua. We were both trains, and he was the one leading the way. He’s shifted things around a bit more with Peter Pan, though. Everyone’s in on the game now.

When we play, Janelle and I are interchangeably Peter Pan and Captain Hook. Matthew is Nana. Stuffed animals are his brother and sister (his floppy stuffed dog is John and his polar bear is Michael, who he thinks is a girl [presumably because of his pink pajamas] and is therefore his “sister”). Careful readers will notice that if John and Michael are the siblings that this means Joshua is Wendy.

He’s not Wendy some of the time. So far, he’s Wendy every time we play.

As I mentioned in my last post, this isn’t something I am going to call him on. I think many parents would, even without ulterior motives, but we went along with it. I thought about why he would always pick Wendy, because it’s not as if he was pretending to be Wendy as she is in the Disney version. Wendy doesn’t have a real active role in the story, but Joshua plays her as a swashbuckler. But Wendy is the character most like Joshua, as he interprets things.

Peter Pan and Captain Hook are the “adults” of the story. They drive all action and conflict. So, Mommy and Daddy are Pan and Hook. Doesn’t matter who is who, because adults are adults are adults. It mostly matters if Captain Hook is a bad guy or not. If he is, we are Pan. If he is not, we are Hook and we want to avoid the crocodile who lives in the water (the floor).

Matthew is Nana (the dog if you haven’t seen the movie in awhile). In the Disney story book version we have, Nana is only seen on a single page at the end and never named. And before he had seen the movie, he didn’t know she was even a character. Incidentally, before the movie, Matthew was never given a role. Now he’s seen the movie once and is aware of Nana, a character who cannot talk and doesn’t get to go along on adventures even if she wants to. Hence: baby brother.

Stuffed animals are Michael and John Darling. They actually do about as much as Wendy in the story, but are not framed with the same degree of importance. They’re not major enough characters and they are primarily shown as characters that get to come along because Wendy brings them along, just like Joshua’s stuffed animals. They come with because he brings them and they do whatever he wants them to.

Tinker Bell is a character he likes, but she is clearly a special case because she is so tiny and magic. It probably doesn’t help that she spends the story betraying everyone. [Joshua also says that Tinker Bell is his favorite character (in part because she turns bright red when she’s angry and uses scissors to escape being trapped in a drawer, which he just thinks is hilarious), and I find it interesting that in spite of this he never pretends to be Tinker Bell, either.]

Other than the pirates, who, excepting Smee, are a sort of massed entity and not really identifiable individually, Wendy is all that’s left. She fits pretty well, too. She’s along for whatever ride Hook and Pan subject her to, as Joshua is with Mommy and Daddy. She’s not the oldest or the youngest, but she does get to be in charge of a few people smaller than she is. She’s also treated with importance in the story. Her role isn’t so minor that she can be skipped over like with Michael and John. So that’s who Joshua picks to be. She’s the character closest to his situation. As I mentioned, though, he doesn’t play her as she is portrayed. He’s Wendy, but he’s not getting picked on by mermaids and fairies and singing songs about how he misses his mother. He’s sword fighting with Hook and leaping off the side of boats to rescue his brother and sister from the crocodile.

Now this is of course speculation from someone with no formal education in anything other than fiction, but Janelle and I are about as far inside Joshua’s head as it is possible to be right now and I think these are fair assumptions to be making.

If nothing else, it’s something to think about as I step off the couch and onto the pillow because I’ve been ordered to walk the plank for the twelfth time in a row.

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Boys and Toys

We let Joshua play with whatever he likes, by and large. I draw the line at things like fire and knives and electricity, pretty much. Beyond that, we’re not particular. When I am in Target with him, I don’t steer him away from the aisles clearly being marketed as containing “girl toys” over to the aisles clearly being marketed as “boy toys”. Joshua could give two shits about Transformers, but he likes horses and shopping carts and babies and he’s a fan of Cinderella because he went to a party once and she was painting faces and it’s clear he’s aware that someone he saw in person up close is totally on a lot of toys.

This is in no way a statement on the toys, or Joshua. It is a statement that he has no life experience with giant robots. He has, however, ridden a pony, enjoys pushing shopping carts, has a baby brother and, as I mentioned, knows Cinderella.

At home we have Joshua’s little Craftsman toy work bench shoulder-to-shoulder with his toy kitchen. He’s got the same pink baby stroller his friend has because he wanted a stroller to pretend like he was pushing a baby around and pink is the only color they make (I know I’m making it sound like I have something against pink — which I don’t because to paraphrase a tweet from Nathan Fillion “Would a real man be afraid of a color?” — but it’s more to illustrate the degree of pigeonholing in kid toys). He picked a Hello Kitty Happy Meal over a Transformers one because his cousins love Hello Kitty and he knows who she is and when I ordered it I stated very plainly that he wanted, as they phrase it, the girl Happy Meal.

I have no intention to steer Joshua towards typically male toys. In many cases I’d rather do the opposite. He has a Captain Hook pirate sword which is very cool, but that also means playing with it involves sword fighting which is dodgy even when you have great hand-eye coordination. He has an Iron Man glove that pews out little projectiles (also pretty cool), but we try hard not to have him thinking that shooting things is okay to do. But in general I would prefer he choose his favorite toys based on what engages him, not some notion I may have of how he should play.

We are already having to battle this notion, though. He’s not even three and is already coming home with ideas that certain things are for boys and certain things are for girls, which is not a lesson he’s picking up at home. It follows then that he’s learning this sort of gender breakdown from other children ages 5 and under. We try to point out that really the only things that are boys-only and girls-only are public bathrooms. I imagine we’ll lose ground fairly steadily on this issue, but we point out whenever it comes up that it’s not really the case that things need to be different for boys and girls when it comes to what they are interested in and how they play.

It’s clear that this is not a standard outlook. It’s very common that if I am out somewhere and a father sees his boy pick up a “girly” toy that he has to loudly announce “Oh, you gotta pick up the pink one, huh?” and then laugh so everyone around knows that he’s not TRYING to turn his kid into a little nancy but kids just do dumb shit sometimes.

When Joshua was walking around with a friend’s little baby carriage toy I had a Dad tease me that “Uh oh. He picked the baby carriage” like that’s some signal I need to look out for.

What signal would that be, exactly? That he has a baby brother? That he has friends with baby siblings? That he has a father actively involved in raising two children? That he enjoys trying to nurture and love something? Oh noes! But it’s not those things. It’s the signal that he’s doing something effeminate. That he’s doing something gay.

This irks me on all sorts of levels. For starters, the only reason this choice is seen as suspect is the notion that caring for a child is a woman’s work and that doing that same work is somehow capable of making a man less of a man – and if you’ve read this blog for any length of time you know my thoughts on that [Hint: angry thoughts]. And, doubling down, it implies that engaging in “feminine work” is somehow also a leading indicator of homosexuality because science. It also implies that something as basic as the particular toy that a child has chosen to play with one afternoon for 15 minutes is indicative of what their life will become forever after.

The pièce de résistance is that it implies that a gay son is something you don’t want to have.

I’m a firm believer that homosexuality is not, generally speaking, a choice. Sure there are those who may end up actively choosing one over the other, but I think the vast majority of gay men and women simply are gay men and women. (If you believe otherwise, ponder this: When did you first decide to be straight? or did that just kind of happen?) So that means that if Joshua is going to be gay—even if it will be ages before he knows it himself—that’s written into his little internal code right now.

I give approximately no shits about this.

I don’t worry that he may be gay, I worry that if he is maybe I’ll be less good at giving advice about boyfriends than girlfriends, never having had a boyfriend myself. That’s about the extent of it.

I don’t have two girls, so I can’t really speak to the experience on the other side of the table, but I get the impression it’s not the same (and some quick polling of friends with two girls supports this). Oh sure, you maybe have that crushing patriarchal construction that little girls should aspire to be mommies and caregivers and have toys that focus on being pretty and shopping, but I don’t think anyone is giving Mom and Dad a sideways glance if little Elizabeth is playing with a truck.

I find it more than a little depressing that it seems to me that boys especially seem to get pushed to play with certain toys and focus on certain interests simply because parents are worried about who their child may grow up one day to love. How many boys grow up thinking that wanting to hold a baby or bake something is somehow wrong for them to do? How many little doors get closed that way?

Joshua will almost certainly fall into the pattern that just about all boys do. He’ll like to wrestle. He’ll be into superheroes. He’ll love Star Wars and trucks and Legos and blowing things up. I’m not so intense about this issue that I feel the need to force the issue upon him to the extent that things would start getting pretty ironic (“Don’t play with what society tells you to, play with what I tell you to, dammit”). So, boys gonna boy. But what I am going to make damn sure he understands is that other choices are not wrong in any way so long as they don’t hurt others. Girls have access to all the same toys boys do and vice versa. Boys hold babies. Boys cook meals. Boys clean the house. Girls build towers. Girls sword fight. Girls like to blow shit up. He’ll know that these choices are available to everyone and that making those choices will never have to define him, or anyone around him.

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The Changes

Raising two children is tricky. It’s as if, instead of having just one child, you had two. I don’t know if you guys knew this.

Matthew is not more difficult than Joshua was (per the last post). He seems much easier to manage, except for all the spitting up. Joshua is more difficult than he once was, but is a known quantity and can do many things for himself. However, together… Wonder Twin Powers Activate! Form of… Hassle!

We are essentially on a 14 hour non-stop parenting cycle each day. I wake at just after 5am and shower and get ready for the day. This is basically my only personal time now. Joshua wakes up between 5:45 and 6:30 most days. Ideally, Joshua is at daycare just after 7 and then I am off to work. Janelle wakes basically when Matthew wakes, which tends to be closer to 6:30. When I’m home from work, I snag Joshua and play with him until dinner, or I tag-team on and off with Janelle for watching Matthew. Dinner is around 6. Bedtime for Joshua begins around 7 and completes around 8:30. Bedtime for Matthew is basically anywhere from 8-10:30pm. If he sleeps closer to the later end, Janelle and I just go to bed immediately. To the earlier end, maybe we take about 30 minutes to hang out before we sleep. That’s about it. There’s not a lot of room for much else, and you’ll note I didn’t mention any personal time for Janelle. That’s pretty variable. If Matthew is napping well she’ll get a few hours in the day. If he’s not she’s just on duty all the time.

I’ll take a brief pause here to salute single parents because it is basically inconceivable to me how they manage to keep it together with small children. I feel like if I met a single parent of two children under the age of 5 I’d probably offer to be their live-in manservant. [NB: Hyberbole]

With children at these ages, it is very difficult to be a parent to both children in equal measures. Of course I don’t mean this in the emotional sense, though even that is likely true at times. Matthew is tethered to Janelle as long as he is breastfeeding. Yes, soon she will begin to pump and there will be times when I can feed him, but remember that it’s not as if just because someone else is bottle-feeding the baby a breastfeeding Mom is free to roam about. She still needs to pump on the safe regular schedule the baby normally feeds so she can continue her milk production. So, sure, Janelle can head out shopping while I feed the baby, but she still needs to sequester somewhere to pump and that’s much trickier to do on the road than breastfeeding itself is. So, logistically it makes sense for Matthew to essentially be an accessory for Janelle. That means that I’m on Joshua duty. Weekends are now two 16-hour days where Janelle and I see each other if we’re lucky enough to get Joshua to nap in his bed in the house and after he goes to bed. Otherwise I’m at swim, the park, soccer, a friend’s house, the park, on a walk, at the store, getting lunch or doing whatever else needs to be done to fill time for Joshua. If the timing works out, Janelle joins us.

We each end up trying to steal little snippets of time to be with the other child but it’s tricky and often doesn’t go how we want. Janelle’s stint with Joshua at bedtime can very easily turn into tantrum time and my intended face-to-face playtime with Matthew could easily end up as needing to walk him around facing outwards so he won’t end up just crying constantly.

My hope is that as Matthew ages and becomes more capable and portable and interactive we’ll be able to increase the whole-family outings and interactions because at this point both Janelle and I are missing out in some way. Ultimately I think Janelle and I are going to have to learn to start compartmentalizing. We’ve gone essentially our entire relationship attached at the hip, which is how we both prefer to operate, but we’re going to need to adapt that because while as our two boys get older they’ll become more capable and easier to manage but they’ll also begin to pick up divergent friends and activities and hobbies and plenty of things that will necessitate us to plain old not do things together.

Another change is that a third kid is looking like a longshot now. I had been of the mind previously that a second son would mean I would be more likely to want a third child to see if we can roll the dice once more and get a girl. Three sons would of course be fine, but I’ve always liked the idea of having a daughter. But now we’re not so sure. As much fun and as cute as kids can be, another pregnancy and infancy means a lot of inconveniences. Janelle would almost certainly be on an extremely strict diet and likely on insulin to control her blood glucose since Matthew was pretty close to a size that may have mandated a C-section. It’s not likely that we can expect her to be any more comfortable for the length of the pregnancy than she was with Matthew. And, frankly, the entire process essentially downgrades Janelle and I to roommates for about 12-18 months.

All told though, as it was with Joshua, what seems like a lot of hassle on paper has very quickly become a routine. It helps that Matthew is already sleeping through the night, but adjusting for two kids instead of one is more a tweak to our routine than a brand new routine. It’s already hard to recall what life was like with just Joshua. Very quickly my brain is telling me Matthew has always been around and Joshua has always been a chatty toddler and in a couple years I’ll be at a computer looking at video of Matthew and thinking that it seems impossible there was a time he couldn’t talk. So it goes.

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The Difference

I’ll get to why this post is so very late in, well, the next post. I want to talk about the differences now, and later I will discuss the changes, if I can be allowed that semantic distinction.

Both Joshua and Matthew are human males and Joshua was also at one time an infant, but that may be where the similarities end. From the manner of their arrival on down, not much has been the same.

Janelle was pretty content with her pregnancy with Joshua, but was much more uncomfortable throughout with Matthew (so when someone tells you that a different feel for the pregnancy means a different gender feel free to ignore them).

Matthew’s delivery took something like 2% of the time Joshua’s did – but was a significantly more dramatic affair overall. We much preferred our stay at Pomerado Hospital, though. The feel at Zion was much more rigid and while we overall liked our nurses, they made Joshua’s early breast-feeding difficult (well intentioned as they may have been) and made what we have since learned was sort of a dicey call to put Joshua into a UV box to help with what was apparently a pretty mild case of jaundice. So, it was probably a mixed bag of circumstances and personalities, but we just preferred Pomerado. Only being there for less than two instead instead of almost five days probably helped too.

Joshua was much more of a cryer than Matthew is. In fact, this is still the case. We have far more tears from the toddler than from the one-month-old (FAR more). This is pretty awesome (also: not awesome). Matthew is also a good sleeper right away, much like his brother was, but requires much less work to get him to go to sleep in the first place. I remember a lot more late nights awake calling off grandparents who had awakened to help put the crying baby back down. This means Janelle can sleep more and sleep more easily, as I know she was worried with Joshua at how frustrated I would seem when he wouldn’t sleep (seriously, it’s so frustrating).

This relaxed attitude extends to Matthew in general and really shows what we learned with Joshua. By necessity, we cannot pay him the same level of attention that was paid Joshua, but even when Joshua is not around we are fussing over Matthew less than we would have with Joshua at that age.

I scoff at infant tears now. Baby cries are something I think I talked before about being specifically designed to trigger the parent to act. They get into your brain and scream at you to do something to help. Now, though? Do your worst baby. I am immune. I’ve heard toddler screams and they are so much worse. If I’m busy with something critical and Matthew is crying but is clearly not in mortal distress well — too bad Matthew. I don’t WANT to do it that way, but it is no longer is a problem if I have to.

Because of this Janelle and I are handling the whole process better. We can still focus on Joshua and are not sniping at one another as we did with Joshua when crying and stress made our tempers run hot. It’s good that we can maintain that focus because while Matthew is wholly dependent, he’s very simple. Joshua is the complicated one because of holy shit three year olds.

Overall, Matthew seems a bit easier than Joshua was at that age… but outside of a baby with colic or reflux or something else, how hard do they get, really? The largest difference is so far in Janelle and I. We are more relaxed and more prepared — but that doesn’t mean anything is easier… and I’ll get to that in the next post.

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The Unexpected

This is young Matthew Taylor Scarpelli’s birth story. It’s a pretty stark contrast to Joshua’s, mostly because for most of it, we weren’t aware it was going on.

Matthew was born at 1:26AM on February 28 — early, early Thursday morning. Here’s how we got to that point.

Tuesday, February 26, in the afternoon and evening Janelle thought that she felt she was in the super early prep stages of labor. There was a lot of movement and contraction action going on, but nothing serious and nothing anywhere close to the standards that would make someone think it’s time to start prepping for a baby. (Earlier that day we had an OBGYN appointment, but opted to forgo an internal check of Janelle’s cervical progress as we are pretty sure this led to Janelle’s water breaking before labor started with Joshua, which was primarily what made his birth tough.)

We went to bed as normal Tuesday night, and Janelle slept through the night and woke up feeling like maybe Tuesday was just a lot of preamble bluster, because nothing else was going on when she woke up. Wednesday proceeded as normal until late in the day, when Janelle began to feel a little nauseated. We chalked this up to any number of things. Typical end-of-day discomforts. Bad food. Hormones disagreeing with some regular food. Labor progressing. Baby pushing on her stomach/intestine area. But again, nothing really happened and nothing felt like labor as we knew it.

Wednesday night we went up to bed as normal and at 10:30pm, just as Janelle was about to climb into bed, she hustled to the toilet to vomit. A little concerned, we called our doula, Alicia Taylor (just a coincidence on the name thing), and asked her thoughts. She had a few theories, some of which lined up with our own, but added that it’s fairly common that when a mother is transitioning to end-stage labor, they will vomit. We passed that off as not super likely, since Janelle hadn’t really been experiencing any labor signs and because Janelle was feeling better, trundled off to bed.

If you’re paying close attention, you’ll note that the timeline is getting a little tight. And it turns out, Alicia was right.

At 11:35pm on Wednesday, 2/27, Janelle got out of bed and began to walk around bit, feeling some contractions. At just about 12:00am on 2/28, Janelle shook my foot and woke me up and told me she thought it was getting to be time and that I should get ready. So, I bolted out of bed, threw on jeans and socks, woke up Janelle’s Mom and let her know to be ready to watch Joshua because we were going to go, rushed downstairs and loaded our already prepped bags into the car. I reviewed our checklist of last-minute items posted by the door, grabbed a couple more things, threw them in Janelle’s purse, put on my shoes and hustled back upstairs.

Maybe 5 minutes had passed and by the time I got upstairs Janelle was feeling contractions so strong she didn’t think she could move. They were close enough together as to make it difficult to determine when they were stopping and starting, which means we were well past the point of the 511 rule (5 minutes apart, 1 minute long, for at least 1 hour) when you typically head to wherever it is you’re going to have your baby. I called Alicia and told her it was showtime and she coached us through some quick recommendations and hit the road.

The problem we had to contend with now all of a sudden was the stairs. Janelle wasn’t sure she could make it down. She got to her knees and tried to crawl, slowly, to the bedroom door. She made it about 6 feet this way and then stopped in the throes of a particularly hard contraction and it was at this point that her water burst fairly spectacularly. With this new wrinkle and Janelle’s inability to move, we had to switch gears.

Janelle’s mother phoned 911 to request an ambulance. We needed help getting Janelle down the stairs and once we did, it didn’t seem very likely at all that Janelle would be able to manage the ride all the way out to the San Diego Medical Center (commonly just called Zion, the street it is near) where we were all set to deliver.

Within 5 minutes (the fire station is maybe a mile from our house) we had 4 firefighter/EMTs upstairs in our room generally looking like this was the most boring part of their day. This was actually pretty reassuring. Following them maybe another 5 minutes later were two more EMTs with the ambulance.

They took stock of Janelle from a very cursory standpoint — basically just ensuring that the baby wasn’t crowning (they did no internal examination) and then hooking Janelle up to an IV. They pegged her contractions at 5 minutes apart (totally wrong) and continued to be totally unimpressed. This continued to be pretty helpful, as I was at this point pretty well in the midst of an adrenaline spike, instant cottonmouth and all.

When we informed them that Janelle could not take the stairs (keep in mind for the full flavor of this experience you need to insert the sound of Janelle more or less screaming about every 60-90 seconds) they brought up their fancy stair-chair creation. This is basically a big metal frame chair with staggered wheels on its four feet. We lifted Janelle on it and then they proceeded to carefully wheel her down our stairs. Once down, they lifted her onto a gurney and wheeled her out to the ambulance. Joshua slept through the whole thing.

I did a quick triage of supplies, consolidating things into two bags, tossed those in the storage compartment on the side of the ambulance and then hopped in the front, as they had no room in the back for me. The ride there was a pretty awkward experience. We took a maybe 10 minute drive over to Pomerado Hospital and while I had a window to talk to Janelle from the cab of the ambulance, it was strange to keep yelling encouragements and coaching tips back past 3 medical professionals in the midst of doing their jobs. Though, for this instance the job was mostly making sure a baby wasn’t going to fall out of my wife.

When we got to the hospital they began to wheel Janelle out and into the hospital and it was my job to run over to the front desk and get her checked in. While checking her in, I got word that our doula had actually managed to get to us in time to follow the ambulance to the hospital and when I ran over to check-in had picked right up where I left off and was accompanying her gurney through the hospital. If she had done no other service for us than this, it would have been worth the price to me.

I then ran to the elevators, got up to the fifth floor for the labor and delivery wing and hustled into Janelle’s room. She got shifted over to a hospital bed and the attending nurses started to do some of the internal checks that the EMTs had been holding off on, presumably because someone’s floor is not the most sterile place to do things like that. There wasn’t a lot of checking to do. The immediate word from the primary nurse was “This baby is already in the birth canal. We’ll get a doctor in here immediately.”

We checked in to Pomerado Hospital at 1:00AM on Thursday 2/28 and by 1:26AM that same morning, we had Matthew. All 9 pounds, 13 ounces of him.

Ayup. 26 minutes. The time differential between Pomerado Hospital and Zion? About 15-20 minutes. We wouldn’t have made it, or Matthew would have suffered for our making the attempt. The birth was both everything we had hoped it would be and also kind of a total mess, which is very likely how you could sum up every birth.

I’ll have more later on what our thoughts were on Pomerado as it compares to Zion, which is basically to say “how it compares to birthing at a Kaiser hospital”.

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The Transitive Property

I thought about titling this something like “Catching Toddlers with Honey”, but I thought better of it.

I’m calling this the Transitive Property because it deals with the notion that things that you treat as small your child will treat as small. Things you treat as large, your child will treat as large.

For a long time, Janelle and I were pretty good about keeping Joshua away from electronic media. It was more or less absent for him when he was very little and as he’s gotten older we’ve kept it set aside as a sort of special treat. He can watch things if he’s with friends and they are watching, he can watch with his grandparents and other relatives, and at home we would let him see or play something maybe once a week if he had been being good.

This was all towards the goal of trying to keep him from looking to the TV or computer or iPad as a primary entertainment source at home. We didn’t want daycare to be his place of outdoor play and enrichment and home to be the place where he gets to watch Disney movies. So, when he would ask to watch things, we would tell him no or try to distract him and steer him towards books or puzzles or coloring books or whatever.

Pretty quickly this became a problem. Joshua would ask to watch things, and we would say no and he would freak out and cry and jump around and just be generally disappointed toddler-style for a bit. Or, if he did get to watch something, when it came time to stop watching the same thing would happen. He would freak out for a bit and this then made us less likely to allow him to watch things and the cycle continued.

We treated TV like a very big thing, so Joshua treated it like a big thing. When it was granted it was a major reward and when it was taken away it was a crushing loss. And why shouldn’t it be? We had framed it that way for him.

Recently, though, Joshua began to learn the art of the deal. Every couple of days he would come in with a new negotiation for us.

“Daddy, the sun is up so that means we can watch something now.”

“Daddy, let’s sit on the couch and we will watch TV while Mommy is cooking.”

“Daddy, I listened to my teachers today, so I can watch something now.”

Lines like the first couple were cute, but not terribly effective. The last one, though, made things interesting. He was asking to be rewarded for behavior we have been working to instill in him and it put us in an interesting position. It would be easy to say no (at this age nothing sticks for TOO long with a kid), but I would be asking a toddler to realize that virtue is its own reward. Toddlers don’t speak platitude. But he wanted to make a deal, so we decided to deal.

We opted to try and catch our flies with honey and to lean more on positive reenforcement for Joshua’s behavior. The result was immediate.

Janelle and I still tend to not give in to Joshua when he asks to watch things. It may be a silly distinction, but we don’t want him to think it can be on-demand. Even if we just wait 15 minutes and then bring it up ourselves, we like the idea of it being something he is rewarded or surprised with instead of just a rote request. But last week we let him play with the iPad or watch YouTube videos on the computer or watch a bit of a TV show on a few days. Each day it was for no more than 15-20 minutes, but it was more regular. We had a drastic reduction in crying and non-compliance through the whole week.

We have begun to treat TV like it can be no big deal, and Joshua has responded to that. When his every request was not denied, he seems to have understood quickly that not getting to watch TV right away doesn’t mean that he won’t ever get to watch it again. He took it much more in stride. And now we Trojan Horse in the moral for him, too. Before we watch or play with anything electronic I get down on a knee and I ask Joshua to look at me and listen to me and then I tell him that he’s getting to watch or play because he was a good boy. He listened to us, or he shared his toys well, or he was nice to his friend or his teachers said he was a good helper.

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