It wasn’t Santa at our door, but it might as well have been
January 17, 2021
A knock at the door sent our three elementary-age daughters into a giddy frenzy.
News of a visitor over Christmas break had reached our home. It wasn’t Santa Claus the girls were waiting for, though it might as well have been.
Our third-grader beamed as her beloved teacher stepped through the front door, presents in tow.
Ms. Folsom had announced her plan to visit the girls ahead of the holidays, and to see my wife, Nicki, who had had our fourth daughter days earlier.
The girls gushed at the teddy bears they each received. Nicki smiled at a gift of her own: a sweater with “Mama Bear” emblazoned across the front.
No sweater for Papa Bear? “You’ll live,” Nicki told me.
We discussed afterward how thoughtful the visit was. As a former teacher, visiting students at home during my precious Christmas break had never crossed my mind. Plus bringing them gifts?
But it wasn’t Ms. Folsom’s thoughtfulness that stuck out most. It was watching her and Parlie interact. I barely know her. But to Parlie, Ms. Folsom is the real deal. We hear it in the way she talks about her teacher. And in how much she talks about her teacher.
They’ve established a full-blown relationship.
Perhaps it makes sense. In her 9-year-old world, she’s with Ms. Folsom more than any other adult, aside from us. Even during a global pandemic.
We’ve told our daughters how lucky they are to be in school with their teachers and friends this school year. Aside from a couple weeks off, they’ve been in their classrooms full-time.
Millions of their peers have been forced to navigate a year fraught with school closures and remote learning.
Like so many other aspects of the pandemic, the long-range impact on student-teacher relationships will emerge with time. Still, many have questioned how the pandemic’s assault on in-person learning will shake out.
Hechinger report editor Liz Willen probed some of the fallout last spring. Even then, teachers expressed longing for their students and lined up in their cars to honk and wave at kids stuck at home.
Our third grader shivered as she climbed into the car.
Without telling her mother or me, Parlie and a cousin slipped away recently to visit some other cousins a mile away.
They didn’t plan for a snowstorm to hit mid-trip. In tennis shoes and jackets, the girls trudged through three fields and a momentary whiteout before reaching their destination.
Parlie’s pants were soaked when we picked her up. I chided her for taking off without letting us know, and for not dressing for the weather.
What if they’d lost their way? What if they got stuck in the storm?
Parlie flashed annoyed looks at me from the backseat as I rattled off worst-case scenarios.
Then my wife, Nicki, chimed in. “She’s fine. She’ll learn.”
Nicki, born and raised on a farm, is more prone than I am to letting our three elementary age daughters engage in unsupervised play and learn lessons on their own — sometimes, the hard way. Not that I didn’t do those things growing up. My brothers and I still wonder how we survived riding four-wheelers at light speed and helmet-less down country roads and through mountains surrounding our hometown.
Playing outside — often far from my parents’ sight — was a hallmark of my youth. Yet I struggle at times to let our girls have the same freedom.
So do many parents today, apparently.
“Children today have more restricted childhoods, on average, than those enjoyed by their parents, who grew up in far more dangerous times and yet had more opportunities to develop,” authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathon Haidt point out in their 2017 bestseller, The Coddling of the American Mind.
Cue every grandpa who ever walked to school uphill both ways in the snow.
A wave of “paranoid parenting” triggered partly by ubiquitous images of missing and exploited children on “grocery bags, billboards, pizza boxes, and even utility bills” in the 1990s increased parental fears and set the stage for a tsunami of helicopter moms and dads, the authors argue. Those with children born after 1995 are particularly prone to hovering over their kids.
Parenting styles have since cut deeply into unsupervised play — a crucial part of “wiring a mammal’s brain to create a functioning adult,” the authors point out.
While intentions may be good, over-parenting has taken a toll on today’s young adults. Lukianoff and Haidt link fewer “falls, scrapes, conflicts, insults, alliances, betrayals, status competitions, and acts of inclusion” inherent in unsupervised play to increased depression rates and other hypersensitive behaviors among current college students.
The book has me reflecting on my parenting game.
What’s the right balance between watching over them and leaving them alone? How much unsupervised play should kids have? These questions carry even more weight amid a global pandemic that has ravaged the social lives and unsupervised playtimes for kids everywhere, including ours.
Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that our 9-year-old would want to sneak out with a friend into the cold.
How do you strike a balance between play and supervision? Are Lukianoff and Haidt on to something? I’d love to hear from you at [email protected]
Santa Claus approached our vehicle, twinkle-eyed and rosy-cheeked.
If he wasn’t the real deal, he sure fooled our kindergartner, Nayvie, who gushed as she peered through the car window at the beard, jingle bells and white ball on his crimson-red hat.
Visiting Santa wouldn’t likely happen this year, we told Nayvie and her two older sisters weeks ago, compliments of COVID-19.
Then we learned that healthcare workers at our local hospital organized a drive-thru event for kids.
Never mind the car door separating them. Never mind it wasn’t at the mall. There he was, in all his splendor, an arm’s reach away. The Big Man. Father Christmas.
Nayvie lit up like a Christmas tree.
“Hi,” she said from behind her mask before I could roll her window down fully. My wife, Nicki, pulled the mask down so Nayvie could talk business: presents, a candy cane and a sugar cookie just for her.
Seeing Santa was an unexpected delight for our three elementary-aged daughters, who tell us Christmas feels a little different this year.
“Was COVID here last year?” Nayvie asked on the way to school last week.
They might not know it, but our girls have been relatively lucky this holiday season. Unlike thousands of kids across the Treasure Valley — and millions more across the country — our girls have been in school full-time this December.
Last week, they enjoyed four days of festivities, from crazy-hair day to wear-your-clothes-backward day. Their backpacks brimmed with treats, crafts and little gifts from their teachers and friends.
We’ve still felt the impacts of a lingering pandemic. Nicki and I recently watched the girls’ school Christmas program from cell phones in the kitchen.
A hundred kids belting “I’m Gettin’ Nuttin’ for Christmas” lacks its usual luster through tiny speakers. And it felt “weird” singing to an empty auditorium besides the “camera dude,” our third grader told us afterward.
Our crazy schedule has also diminished our usual emphasis on the holidays. We’re still in-between houses. And last week, we welcomed our fourth daughter into the world.
Baylie Anne and Mom are happy and healthy. But new baby means less time with Mom — and more time with Dad — for the three others.
“Really, Devin?” Nicki asked after learning I let our first-grader wash down her waffle with a soda Friday morning.
She wasn’t supposed to tell.
Presents remain unwrapped in the garage as I write this.
“Get some presents under that tree,” my dad kindly chided me during a recent visit.
At least they’re in school, we keep telling ourselves. Last week, we learned that our neighboring school district will move to fully remote learning this week amid a rise in confirmed cases of COVID-19 among staff.
“Normally, the 22nd would have been used for Christmas parties,” the superintendent said. “One full, face-to-face school day on Monday, with the risk of staff and students taking the virus home for holiday, just isn’t worth it.”
Who knows, maybe more days away from school, drive-thru Santas and empty auditoriums will make this holiday season more memorable.
Limited human interaction could be harming our kids
December 3, 2020
Our 6-year-old, Emerie, darted for the front door before my wife told her she could have a playdate with her cousin, Zelly.
BFFs born six days apart, the munchkins hadn’t seen each other since Zelly’s family entered a two-week quarantine for possible exposure to COVID-19.
That’s an eon to Emerie, who couldn’t contain herself at the thought of a reunion — or await approval from Mom before forgetting her coat and barreling into the frigid night air.
Seeing friends means more than it once did for our three elementary-age daughters as the pandemic lumbers on. Limited interactions with loved ones and friends, slashed events and disrupted school schedules have jarred their budding social lives.
And then there are all the face masks — which I’m pretty sure our kindergartener, Nayvie, thinks are a normal part of school.
Effects of the pandemic have underscored for my wife and me how much kids need friends, and how heightened levels of isolation and social disruption could be impacting them and others.
A newfound “best bud” at school has been a saving grace for Nayvie, who occasionally still fights getting up in the mornings. Less friend time has brought our third grader, Parlie, to more desperate measures. Last month, she asked yours truly to be her “pen pal.” I’ve learned how obsessed she is with cheetahs. And I’m “more interesting than people think,” she recently told me.
It’s hard to say how much COVID-19 is impacting the mental health of children. Hard data is still emerging, and good research takes time.
“They’re giving up hope,” Saun-Toy Trotter, a psychotherapist at University of California, recently told NPR regarding a record number of youth suicide attempts recorded at her school-based clinic. “There’s nowhere to go. There’s nothing to do. There’s nothing to connect with. There’s just deflatedness.”
Forced isolation during the pandemic exacerbates existing levels of depression and anxiety among youth, a new study from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry found.
And Idahoans — and our children — have a history of high levels of depression and suicide. The state consistently records some of the nation’s highest suicide rates. In 2016, it ranked eighth overall, at 20.8 suicides per 100,000 people — 50 percent higher than the national average, according to 2018 Idaho Health and Welfare numbers.
Suicide was the second-leading cause of death for Idahoans ages 15-34 and for males up to age 44 that same year, the numbers show. Between 2013-2017, 110 Idaho school children, ages 6-18, died by suicide. Twenty-five of those deaths were among kids age 14 or younger.
The grim numbers underscore the trepidation K-12 leaders have had in taking learning all online. Some educators say they can’t hold out any longer. The Boise, Nampa and Caldwell districts have all shifted to fully remote learning models through the end of the year to combat difficulties brought on by the pandemic. Others, including Idaho Falls and Pocatello-Chubbuck, are sticking with mostly in-person teaching and learning.
Surveys confirm the majority of Idaho parents prefer in-person learning. Parents have pointed to a continued need for teachers, activities … and friends.
Several Idaho teens met remotely with state education leaders in October and said isolation brought on by the pandemic mingled with depression and anxiety is a top concern for them. Their mental health is another.
“(R)ight now I don’t think the main focus is school, or even extracurriculars,” student Kenna O’Donnell told State Board President Debbie Critchfield and Executive Director Matt Freeman. “We really need to be focusing on the mental health of students because this has taken a big toll on a lot of the people that I know.”
Fortunately, our daughters’ situation has allowed them to interact daily with their peers and friends at school. After some short-lived stints with at-home and hybrid learning, they’ve attended their elementary school fully in-person for months.
But friend time and extracurricular activities have taken big hits.
Last week, we watched Parlie participate in a youth basketball game via Zoom because parents can not attend in person.
“Did you see my a basket?” she asked after we picked her up.
It was Tuesday morning when our weeks-long track record of getting our three daughters off to their elementary school on time came crashing down.
Our kindergartener, Nayvie, was mostly behind the meltdown.
“Can it just be Thanksgiving yet?” she asked through tears after throwing a fit over something I can’t even remember now.
It wasn’t all her fault. Our third grader’s 8 p.m. basketball practice the night before put the girls over an hour past their 7:30 p.m. bedtime. And we know better than to let them go past their bedtime on a school night.
Our first grader’s incessant dribbling of a basketball in the kitchen and our third grader’s inherent curiosity about everything didn’t help matters Tuesday.
“Is Thanksgiving even allowed this year?” asked Parlie, 9, referencing rumors she’s heard at school.
“They can’t cancel a holiday,” I told her.
Or can they?
My wife, Nicki, and I know it’s not so simple. As a potent second wave of the coronavirus washes over Idaho, the weeks leading up to the holidays have felt different.
And they will be different for families across the state. Last week, Gov. Brad Little signed a public health order moving Idaho back to a modified version of Stage 2 of the state’s four-stage reopening plan.
The order prohibits social gatherings of 10 people or more and comes at time when, like so many others, we may need a holiday with friends and family more than ever.
Aside from a lingering global pandemic, we’ve been scrambling to purchase a new home, move the kids for the second time in three months, prep for a newborn due in two weeks and ease our daughters’ minds about changing towns and schools.
Anticipation about the holidays has largely evaded us amid all the noise.
But it hasn’t evaded Nayvie, who went on Wednesday night about the prospect of a Thanksgiving “feast” at school.
“There will be turkey, watermelon and mashed potatoes,” she told me before bed.
The feast was great, Nayvie reported afterward. But even it was different. Last year, we got to join our then-kindergartener for her class feast.
We wanted to make Thursday night a little different for Nayvie. It was my night to plan dinner, which, Nicki says, is typically “different.”
I couldn’t cook a turkey, but I did score some fresh chicken tamales from a woman selling them for a buck apiece outside our local grocery store.
Some fresh salsa with chips and beans and rice from our favorite Mexican restaurant made it a hit, even for Dad.
Nayvie loved the tamales. I told her it was turkey inside.
Our third grader scanned the playground at the elementary school she’ll start attending after the holidays.
“Well, it doesn’t look like a prison,” she told me and my wife, Nicki, from the back seat before heading for monkey bars with her two younger sisters.
“I still like my school better,” she yelled over her shoulder to us on her way.
Yeah, we know.
The prospect of a new school has weighed heavily on Parlie, 9, since she learned we’d be moving to a new town by Christmas. New house, new school … new friends.
That last one is especially hard for her — she’s attended the same elementary school in our hometown since kindergarten.
Reality’s set in somewhat for our first grader, Emerie.
“Thanks for beeg my teachr!” she recently wrote in what appeared to be a farewell letter to her beloved Ms. Hunt. “It was super cool!”
Emerie might know more than we think, but our kindergartener is oblivious.
“Will Olivia (her ‘best bud’ from class) be at my new school?” Nayvie asked last weekend.
“I’ll let you tell her,” I told Nicki.
They’ve warmed slightly to the news in recent weeks. Last Saturday, we showed them the new place and tried to get them excited about their new bedrooms.
Emerie’s still convinced the master bedroom is hers.
“I absolutely love it,” she said.
“I’ll let you tell her,” Nicki told me.
Getting them into a routine has been a lot of work in recent months. But the effort — and much-needed consistency at school during COVID-19 — has paid dividends:
Parlie stayed up until 11 p.m. last Saturday, reading a novel she’s come to love. “I can’t wait to see how it ends,” she said after we finally made her turn out the light.
Emerie, our shyest, raved about the new friend she made at recess.
Nayvie was named “star student” of her class. (“It means I get to be in front of the line all the time this week, Dad.”) She brought home a booklet of nice things her peers had to say about her. “Nayvie likes girl toys,” wrote Rayce, signature replete with a backward “y”.
Our kids are finally loving school. We hope an abrupt move to a new city won’t wreck it all.
We decided on Saturday to let them see the new school and tear up the jungle gym.
We also did some research. The new school isn’t much bigger than the one they attend now, we assured them, there’s no hybrid learning requirement — currently, at least — and they still get to wear masks.
“Get to wear masks, Dad?” Parlie said.
We hope an afternoon on the monkey bars helped, but I won’t bet on it.
“Mom, will Olivia be at my new school?” Nayvie asked again on the car ride home.
I have a new pen pal, and she’s obsessed with cheetahs
November 8, 2020
The first letter showed up on my keyboard Wednesday.
“Do you want to be pen pals, Dad?” my third grader wrote in red ink. “That’s when I write a letter to you before school and you write one back.”
How could I say no? Parlie’s been talking about participating in a pen pal program at school. She’ll partner with a peer at another school and they’ll exchange letters regularly.
I was glad she wanted to test the water with me. Plus, it’s been a tough year for her and her two younger sisters — school disruptions during COVID-19, a baby’s on the way and we’re moving to a new town in December.
“Let’s do this,” I wrote back. “Question: Can it involve chocolate?”
A mini KitKat bar taped to an orange sticky note graced my keyboard the next morning.
“Yes Dad, we can do treats.”
Not having to sneak her Halloween candy this year has been nice. So has learning more about each other.
I have “fantastic cursive,” she writes, I should be nicer to our dog when she runs away and my hair totally looks better short.
Parlie’s hoping for a little brother we can name Cal, basketball — not volleyball — is her favorite sport and she earned lunch with her teacher for doing the right things in class last week.
She’s also obsessed with cheetahs. I can’t pin down when it happened, but it’s helping her learn.
“Do you want to see the cheetah slideshow I’m working on for class?” she wrote in a letter Friday.
How could I say no?
For 20 minutes, she scrolled through Google Slides she’s been creating in class.
“Did you know about this?” I asked my wife, who shook her head.
I didn’t even know she could create a Google Slide. And hers were jammed with information:
Cheetahs can accelerate from zero to 45 miles an hour in 2.5 seconds.
Top speed: 60-70 miles an hour.
Their bones are “very light” and they have special padding on their paws.
A single cheetah has 2,000 to 3,000 spots.
That last one didn’t seem right, so I fact checked her. It checked out.
“Any questions?” she asked after the presentation.
Tears filled her eyes as our third grader contemplated moving to a new town.
New school, new peers, new teacher. Another big changeup for Parlie during a pandemic.
My wife, Nicki, and I have only hinted at a possible move. We haven’t told Parlie or her two younger sisters that we’re purchasing a home in a nearby town. Estimated closing date: Dec. 14.
Parlie gave me the death glare when I first floated the prospect of a move months ago. It’s understandable. The school year has been hard enough for the girls, from “homeschooling” with Mom and Dad to back-and-forths between in-person, remote and hybrid learning … to less time with friends.
“It’s all your fault,” she told me through tears after a rough day.
As if things weren’t already complicated enough, we sold our house in August and moved into a temporary place across town to peruse a seller’s market. The girls miss the old neighborhood, but we’ve been driving them almost 10 miles everyday so they didn’t have to change schools. Nicki insisted on driving them when we sold the house. She knew we may find a permanent place out of town, and switching schools once in a school year would be hard enough.
Things have gotten better, but Parlie’s tears over adjusting to a new school during a pandemic struck me.
I wanted to know more about how she was holding up. We sat down together Friday and I learned a few things:
Her teacher’s been a big help.
She thrives on routine and needs her friends.
She’s still bent up about the prospect of moving.
What’s been different this school year?
They kept changing the schedule. It was hard knowing what day we were going. One day we’d get up early and the next sleep in. One week you’d have a five-day weekend, then a normal weekend.
Are you doing OK in class?
Things haven’t been that different in class. We only have to wear masks if we’re close together. Now that we’re on high risk, we wear them more, except for things like PE, music and keyboarding. Oh, and in the library.
I’m not that scared of getting corona(virus), Dad. It’s more adults and old people who get it. I think if I got it it would be more body aches and a cough. I think. Right?
What’s been the hardest part about the past few months?
Social distancing at PE, we have to separate. So nothing’s been that difficult.
We also have to get up way early because we live further away from the school now. When we lived at our old house, we could walk to school and sleep longer. Now, Nayvie (our kindergartner) goes too, so it’s more work for Mom to get everyone ready.
So probably moving was the hardest.
Dad, we aren’t moving again, are we?
How’s your schoolwork going?
It’s different because our teacher would work very fast getting four days of work into two days. It hasn’t been harder, just faster. Some kids would have to stay in for recess to do their work when we only had two days at school. Mom makes sure we do our homework, so I still got to play outside.
How are things with your friends?
Good. It hasn’t been too bad because most of my friends were in my group (when their class split).
What’s helped you the most?
My teacher, Ms. Folsom, because she’s patient and not one of those mean teachers. She’s funny and lets us have brain breaks when we have long math lessons.
Unexpectedly, I was invited to breakfast — at school
October 25, 2020
My wife and I can’t pin down exactly when it happened.
For her, it was when our 6-year-old stumbled out of her bedroom at 7 a.m. last Tuesday, rubbed the sleep from her eyes and told us she wanted to go to school.
For me, it was our sassy kindergartener’s unexpected invitation for me to join her and her sisters for breakfast at school.
More on the cuisine later.
Sometime over the last two weeks, our three elementary-aged daughters slipped into a routine for school.
It took months, but I don’t blame them. Since September, the girls have navigated the most uncertain school year of our lives: “homeschooling” with Mom and Dad; all-out mutinies; back-and-forths between in-person, remote and hybrid learning.
I’m pretty sure our kindergartener, Nayvie, thinks masks are a normal part of school.
“You don’t have to wear it in the car,” I told her on a morning drive last week.
“I like it, Dad.”
Consistency is crucial with the little ones, Nicki and I have learned. Or relearned. We’re coming off three straight weeks of fully in-person learning at their school.
They’re finally getting more out of it, including some of the weird stuff.
“Did you know wombat poop is square?” my third grader, Parlie, asked me randomly the other day.
She gathered the tidbit from National Geographic — something she enjoys reading at school.
“Stop right there — I hate math,” said Nayvie, who’s learning to add numbers for the first time.
School breakfast is apparently another hit. Last Monday’s 8 a.m. menu: fruit cocktail, apple sauce, breakfast pizza, milk.
White gravy in place of tomato sauce wasn’t half bad. Chocolate milk’s always a hit. I helped Emerie finish her applesauce, and I’m pretty sure no one touched their fruit.
Next time, it’s Nicki’s turn.
We’re grateful to have school these days. We watched last week as a teacher “sickout” kept thousands of West Ada students home for two days.
As a former teacher, I empathize with educators hesitant to get sick as cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in Idaho. As a parent, I feel for families who have to juggle jobs and kids who are stuck at home.
Saturday night lights, stadium half empty at kickoff
October 18, 2020
Football fans filed into the stadium at Shelley High School this week for some Friday night lights.
Except it was Saturday, and about half of the seats for the Shelley Russets varsity game against the visiting Blackfoot Broncos were still empty at kickoff.
The delayed game and spotty attendance were byproducts of high school football season fraught with limited crowds, travel and opponents.
Blackfoot missed its last game after a coach tested positive for COVID-19. As a result, seven of the team’s offensive linemen had to quarantine after possible exposure to the virus. No practices. No games.
Shelley’s coaches agreed to push the game to Saturday, so the players could meet their two-week quarantine requirement and suit up for the matchup.
Meanwhile, Saturday’s waning attendance was actually up from past games, Shelley Superintendent Chad Williams told me just before half time. “We’ve been at about 40 percent capacity.”
Both Blackfoot and Shelley have capped ticket sales for past games to keep crowd sizes down during the pandemic.
Blackfoot athletic director Cody Shelley estimated an attendance drop of some 700 people per game from last year’s Friday nights at his home field.
Lifting restrictions for Saturday’s game helped the crowds swell to well over half capacity on both sides of the field by the third quarter.
“The goal tonight is to keep attendance low enough that if everyone separated they’d have at least six feet between them,” said Williams.
The district missed that target, and some fans showed up with added precautions of their own. One couple cheered through face masks on lawn chairs on the track.
Shelley High School vice principal Courtney Markham acknowledged the hurt COVID-19 has put on fall sports, but she stressed that “kids are resilient.”
“They are still finding ways to have fun,” she said.
Moments earlier, Shelley’s cheerleaders finished a COVID-themed cheer: “Quarantine, q-q-q-quarantine, back up, back up.”
A banner below the student section ruffled in the wind: “We searched Google and still couldn’t find any competition.”
Shelley’s athletes and coaches have been fortunate to avoid a potential outbreak, Williams said. “We’ve dodged a bullet.”
He wondered what challenges indoor sports would bring in the coming months.