Pebbles’s 5th birthday has just come and gone and I’m pretty sure we rocked it (if I do say so myself). Twirly party dresses were worn, vast quantities of refined sugars were ingested and gift bags stuffed with tissue paper and presents were torn asunder. By the time Pebbles stumbled into bed that night she was, without question, a happy little girl. This is easy, of course, because Pebbles defaults to happiness all the time (except when there’s something to get out of throwing a little drama — then she throws with the best of ‘em). Seeing your child in an ecstatic glow is as good as it gets for a parent. Neck deep in the relentless ordeal of child-rearing, it’s easy to assuage our personal insecurities by thinking, “Well, they’re happy; I can’t be doing it entirely wrong.”
Don’t get me wrong: Like everyone, I want my children to be positive souls who bound out of bed in the morning ready to carpe the diem. But positivity is a way of seeing the world, not a wave of feeling that can be generated by a My Little Pony marathon. Happiness is a different thing entirely and much trickier.
First, you’ve got to accept that there are two distinct kinds of happiness and they’re often incompatible. There’s “happiness now,” the kind you can buy with a bowl of ice cream or a new toy. And there’s happiness as a long-term proposition, the happiness that comes of self-discipline, accomplishment, self-confidence and a litany of other critical but boring life skills that are distinctly unsexy and frequently unpleasant to master right here and now.
In fact, long-term happiness isn’t really an emotion by itself. Lasting happiness is the product of another far more important feeling: gratitude. People who are grateful and are possessed of a true appreciation for the blessings in their lives are, almost without exception, fundamentally happy people. Think about it. You can’t count your blessings and whine at the same time.
But teaching gratitude is a complicated, slow and repetitive process that often involves not giving your kids what they want and sometimes involves allowing them to be unhappy (ironic, right?). My generation of parents isn’t known for tolerating anything slow, complicated and repetitive. We are people for whom a redesigned Facebook feed is fodder for days of aggrieved hand-wringing. Life happens on demand, everything streams, everyone texts back instantly. And so, as parents, we default to chasing that instant smile or laugh. We negotiate and compromise, all the while convincing ourselves that if our little ones are happy today, we must be on the right track.
This instant happiness, happiness in the absence of genuine gratitude, is a kind of emotional sugar rush — a quick, intensely fun hit followed by a letdown that can be tempered only by more instant gratification. Going for ice cream on Tuesday doesn’t mean your kid will bask in the glow of your generosity for the remainder of the week. More often, it means you’ll have to explain why you’re not going for ice cream again on Thursday. The truly frightening consequence of all the bribery and indulgence is that we’re teaching our kids that happiness is something external. The next toy, the next bounce house, the next computer game — that way lies bliss. We’ve all met the adult version of this child, the person for whom contentment is always just around the corner with that new job, nicer home, slimmer pair of jeans or extra money.
By showering our kids with lavish birthday parties and Christmas mornings, we are teaching them that the joyful occasions in one’s life are intimately tied to getting more stuff. We don’t need the stuff. We don’t even want the stuff (let’s be honest: we all love a parent who includes a gift receipt). But we’re so desperate to make our kids happy and so unsure of how to do it that we bury them in the kind of excess that extinguishes gratitude before it can even take root.
Which brings me back to my own 5-year-old’s birthday bash. The best part of the party wasn’t the gifts or her party dress or even the awesome rainbow M&M cake that my wife, Karen, painstakingly created from scratch. The highlight was an impromptu conga line that left Pebbles and her girlfriends in a heap on the floor hysterically laughing. A year from now, the gifts she received — all thoughtful and appreciated — will be forgotten or outgrown. But that memory, that unplanned moment of pure joy, will be with her forever. In that moment she was truly happy — the right kind of happy for the right reasons. And it was absolutely free.
Daddy, do you like my picture I made for you?”
“Oh yes, Pebbles, I do. It’s beautiful”
If you’re a parent, you know this exchange by heart. And, assuming you’re not raising the next Renoir, you also know that you’re stretching the truth mightily when it comes to the role of art critic. Sure, the sentiment is beautiful. The idea that your child wanted to draw something for you is certainly heart-warming. But, be honest, the picture in question isn’t beautiful. At least not at my house:
Now, I’m not saying this isn’t a perfectly acceptable level of artistic skill for a 4-year-old (though, my head is slightly smaller than that and my arms a little better developed). Charming? Sure. Beautiful? Not really. Still, fawning over toddler artwork is a rite of passage for parents and we do it for good reason. We believe that positive reinforcement will encourage our child to be more creative, to try new things and use their imagination.
These are all admirable goals and I’m not suggesting that anyone should stop lavishing their little one with praise for attempts at art. But it’s also important to recognize that in those moments we’re, essentially, lying to our kids and declaring that something completely average is absolutely sublime. Like I said, that’s a fine idea when it comes to a toddlers’ art work. But, more and more, the lying becomes the defacto way of judging everything our kids do. In fact, we’ve reached a cultural tipping point at which this kind of automatic praise is institutional policy well into the teen years and beyond.
These days, the sign up fees for youth soccer include the cost of an end of season trophy — a trophy the kids can count on receiving whether they win, lose or never even show up for a game. On my son’s bookshelf are side-by-side trophies for a 0-11 season and an 11-0 season that are virtually identical. Any indication that one of those seasons was miserable and the other was glorious has been scrubbed away.
By the time our kids go to school the dynamic is set. From elementary school to undergrad, the idea that someone might fail a class is virtually unheard of. “Social promotion” — the concept of promoting a student to keep them with their social peer group regardless of their academic ability — is policy in a vast number of schools throughout the country. Everybody moves on to the next grade because everybody is a star pupil. Poor grades are blamed on teachers, not students because, after all, parents have spent a young lifetime telling their kids how fantastic they are. The truth, however, is something else entirely. Like it or not, the odds are that your child is utterly and completely average. That’s not my opinion, that’s math. And the same is true of my kids. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with “average.” But if average wants a shot at exceptional, he/she will have to put in an exceptional amount of effort. How can any child be expected to do that when they already believe they’re great at everything they do?
The result of this “happy failure” school of parenting is not only entitlement (since I’m an unqualified success, why shouldn’t I be celebrated by the world at large?) but also a generation of staggeringly average kids who, when they have to enter the real world, are stunned to find that they’re just not as amazing as they’ve been led to believe.
The mistake is not that we support our kids and try to build their self-esteem. It’s that we offer unconditional approval and mistake it for unconditional love. They are not at all the same thing. Yes, positivity and support can help a child achieve. But we can’t praise and reward our kids into being athletes, scholars or beauty queens no matter how many times we mindlessly tell them how wonderful they are. In fact, exactly the opposite is true.
It’s precisely the possibility of abject failure and the sting of emotions that comes with it that makes success worth striving for and attaining. Failure can hurt, but it can also motivate and inspire. How can we hope for inspiration in a parenting culture where everybody gets a trophy just for getting out of bed?
It hurts me to tell my son “I think you can do better” when I really want to just say “You did great!” But if I truly believe he’s capable of great things, I have to be honest with him. Ideally, my children will find confidence not because I stopped them from falling down, but because I taught them how get up and to summon the courage to try again — even if they know they might fail.
My parents didn’t do too much in the way of bribery with us as kids. It was ‘eat your broccoli or you’re going to sit at that table until you fall asleep in your food’ (which I did once or twice). A good, sharp spanking was far more than an idle threat and there was the oft-used though rarely understood “Because I Said So” conversation ender. This is how things got done back in the day. Even at eight years old I sensed that “because I said so” was an impotent answer, dredged from the recesses of pure exhaustion. But it was also a line in the sand that I didn’t cross because, well, a good, sharp spanking was more than an idle threat.
When I first became a father I was still carrying my eight year old impression of ‘because I said so’ around with me. It’s the un-answer – the one you give when you don’t have a good reason or the patience to explain yourself.
After all, how much can any of us trust the judgment of people who smoked in the house, put glass bottles in the trash, fed us Spaghetti-os, let us walk – unaccompanied- to the mall, never checked us for peanut or gluten intolerance, loved Neil Sedaka and wore the occasional leisure suit.
Now I’m beginning to think their judgment was a good deal better than I gave them credit for — at least when it comes to getting your kids to obey.
I’ve spent my entire life as a parent seeing the other side of the spectrum. There’s not much as sad as a harried mom trying to have an honest-to-God rational debate with a four year old about whether or not it’s time to leave the park. Parenting, for a lot of the adults I’ve seen, is a constant stream of negotiations and appeasements.
And why do we all do this? Simple, bribery works. Every parent knows this to be true. In fact most parents needs it to be true just to get through a day. We don’t always call it bribery, of course, we dress it up in words like negotiation, reward, treat, compromise, special-something. But it all boils down to the same basic kind of coercion. Do what I’m asking you to do and I’ll make it worth your while.
It’s such an accepted part of influencing behaviour that it crops up in ever more disconcerting places in our culture. In some schools, students who improve their state standardized test scores can make $110 – in other schools the financial payoff for good grades start as early as fourth grade. Last summer, Washington DC actually paid kids to show up to summer school. This isn’t some far-flung test program, its institutional in places like Baltimore and New York. We’ve somehow become a society in which we believe our children need to be bribed into doing the basics.
I’m as guilty as anyone on this front. My wife and I have spent a lot of our kids young lives bribing them to do what we wanted. Eat this, crap here, nap now, and we’ll give you something nice. There reached a point with our kids where it was no longer a tool for guiding behaviour, it was the tool. That realization has brought me full circle on the whole “because I said so” thing.
Bribery works. But the lesson it teaches is exactly the opposite of what I need my kids to understand about occupying space on this planet. What I really need them to embrace is that you do the things you’re supposed to because they need to be done. Nothing more, nothing less. As an adult, of course, its about a hell of a lot more than just showing up or paying your bills – it’s about who you are in the world.
Now is when my kids need to start learning that acts of decency and kindness are their own reward. Self-sacrifice and altruism do not exist to get you a pat on the back or the admiration of strangers. Like it or not, every one of us makes a daily choice about which side of the ledger we are going live on. Not choosing – because you’re not being properly motivated to do so – means you’re contributing to the mountain of shit and indifference the rest of the world has to slog through every day. You have to choose to do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing. You have to believe that a better world starts with a better you, every day. That has to be enough or no reward ever will be.
When it’s all said and done, if my kids need praise, reward, the promise for heaven or fear of hell to be good people, I’ve failed them.
In the mean time, finish your broccoli and pick up your room. Because I said so.
The bullets have stopped flying, the bombs are defused and one epic manhunt is over in Watertown. And as satisfying as it is to have some small amount of closure on the horrors of the last week, a chasm remains between the end of the police work and the beginning of understanding how something like this could happen. Sitting in front of the spectacle of TV news infotainment and melodrama, my brain traverses the geopolitical – I try to puzzle out the agendas and grievances that led two young men to cram nails and ball bearings into a pair of pressure cookers and then kill and maim families on a crisp Monday morning. I think in terms of indoctrination and world-view.
But when I lay in bed at night, I think like a father – I think about the more treacherous questions of how, why, and what could have been done differently for the children that eventually became these men. How much, if at all, can we lay some portion of the blame at the feet of the people brought these two murderers into the world?
I know very well that my own kids were born with distinct personalities that have nothing to do with how they’re being raised. My son, Z, is a rule follower, a negotiator, and deeply concerned about winning the approval of the authority figures in his life. Pebbles, my four year old girl, spends most of life laughing and dancing, but try to make her follow the rules and you’ll have a wailing ball of drama on your hands. This is who they are. My wife and I have tried to sand down the sharper edges of their personalities with love, reason, and patience. But – and I think every parent gets this – they are who they are and all you can really do is try to add a solid moral structure and healthy dose of responsibility to what the cosmic personality generator has handed you.
I remember having something of a small panic attack when Z came home from school with a little blood on his sleeve from a bumped lip at recess. A game of ‘Harry Potter’ had gotten a little out of hand and Z, who had insisted on being the bad guy, had gotten tackled on the pavement. But it wasn’t the blood that bothered me, it was the idea that Z wanted to be the bad guy. Was this a sign of something sinister brewing in my 6 year old? Did I need to worry that, despite all my admonitions about kindness and love, Z was attracted to the dark side? When I asked him, Z told me that the bad guy is the one that gets chase and, after all, he really loves to run. Crisis averted, for now anyway.
But surely Susan and Tom Klebold loved their son as fiercely as I love mine. Susan was, by most accounts, an engaged and involved mother. By nine years old, her son Dylan was in the gifted program at school and a regular chess partner for his father. By seventeen, Dylan was dead in the Columbine library after participating in the worst school massacre in American history.
Do his parents own part of that tragedy or are they victims of it?
Bud Welch lost his daughter when Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols blew up the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City. One night not long after, Bud saw McVeigh’s father, Bill, on TV and told a friend, “Timothy’s father’s pain has to be incredible. As best I can tell, he did everything right.” Three years after the bombing Bud sat down with Bill McVeigh and Tim’s sister Jennifer. After two hours of talking, Bud Welch went to leave. Jennifer McVeigh wrapped her arms around Bud and began to sob. Bud, thinking of his own daughter, held her and said, “Honey, the three of us are in this together for the rest of our lives.” They had all lost someone they loved and none of them could tell you precisely why it had happened.
Maybe some human beings are fundamentally broken at birth. If so, can they be course corrected by family? Straightened out by discipline? Overwhelmed by love? Can we, as parents, see this kind of thing coming, can we know the difference between a kid who’s different and a kid who’s dangerous? Do we have any chance of seeing the line between solitary and sociopathic before it’s too late? It’s hard to believe we’re helpless but it’s equally hard to pinpoint what the Klebolds or Dahmers or McVeighs might have done differently.
I suppose it’s possible that taking Dzhokhar Tsarnaev alive provides a chance of inching closer to some kind of epiphany – but I doubt it. It’s far more likely that he’ll simply be added to a long list of disaffected and destructive young men.
Like everyone that loves Boston and has agonized over this attack, I want justice. And it looks like we will get some measure of that. But what I truly want is to understand. And that, I fear, is never going to happen.
I’m guessing you’ve seen those commercials where some chatty eleven month old appears to be sight reading simple words at a mile a minute — ball, dog, car, chair — all thanks to a miraculous breakthrough in baby reading that can be yours for three easy payments of $19.99. It’s impressive to watch. It’s also unsettling to see an infant tearing through flashcards like Paula Dean through a chicken fried steak while your own offspring dribbles Lucky Charms down her bib in an Umizumi induced stupor.
This is the sort of thing that can make a parent feel inadequate. Surely if you love your child and want her to succeed, you’ll reach for the phone and order this DVD set right now (operators are standing by). But it turns out that, at best, these miracle reading claims were wildly overblown and now the company that promised your baby could learn to read is going out of business rather than fight in court (read about the Federal Trade Commission complaint here).
We should have seen this coming, some of you probably did, but thousands of people decided to drop a wad of cash in hopes that doing so would make their little one some kind of superstar (and, by association, make them great parents). Purveyors of all things baby/child know two crucial things about us breeders: 1) we all want to give our children the very best and 2) we have no idea what, exactly, that means. We’re easy targets. I’ve been as guilty as anyone and probably will be again – even though I know that the only result our time spent watching baby Baby Einstein is that I can no longer hear Eine Kleine Nachtmusik without singing “I love balloons, I love, I love balloons!” (and a totally unsurprising study from the University of Washington agrees.)
Maybe the problem is that we are used to having all the answers at our disposal. When the entire collected knowledge of humanity can be accessed on your phone while sitting in traffic, it’s reasonable to imagine that there’s a quick fix to the relentless and confounding issues we face as parents.
On the one hand, of course, this is a sign that we really want to do right by our children. On a less flattering note, it’s also a sign that we’re lazy – and not just when it comes to parenting. Year after year, sketchy entrepreneurs get rich selling us ridiculous pills and plans to make us thin, systems and seminars that promise to make us rich, ancient herbal remedies for everything that ails us and – in this case – DVDs and books that promise a better, brighter child. We race to embrace these thing because we’re desperate to avoid the monotonous, soul-numbing work that each of these goals otherwise demands.
We should know better. There’s no gimmick or trick because parenting, like most things in our lives, is about paying attention on a daily basis, listening and responding to needs, adapting and evolving, relentless self-evaluation, diligence, patience and unconditional love. It’s an obvious list but, when we’re mired in the day to day grind of raising children, who can blame someone for wanting a shortcut?
I hope that the next time some splashy ad makes unbelievable promises, I’ll all remember the lesson of the quick-fix reading-baby-sham. But bet I’ll forget and fall for the same thing again. If only I’d taken a little more ginko biloba….
Tonight was the winter concert for Z’s elementary school here in Brooklyn. It was more or less exactly what I expected; an unwieldy gaggle of bad sweaters and funny wool caps up on stage, mangling a catalog of inclusive-non-denominational-all-possible-holidays-represented melodies. A very Park Slopey recital and very nice.
As soon as the family walked in the door, I made a beeline for the parent coordinator and volunteered to help wrangle the first graders. I could tell that they didn’t really need me (the PTA at Z’s school is a very ‘shit together’ group of people) but, for some reason, I needed to volunteer. I was delegated the all important task of lining them up by size (this put Z at the end with the girls, part of being the son of a 5′ 10″ dad and a 5′ 5″ mom). Once everyone was in order, we marched in and sat at the foot of the stage to watch the older kids do their thing (a thing that included bongos, and dare I say, enough cowbell to get me through all of 2013).
I have always been a problem solver, someone that makes very quick mental pro/con lists, weighs options and considers possible outcomes. This doesn’t mean I’m some great puzzle solving intellect – you may or may not agree with a single solution I come up with. But I think about possible problems and possible solutions all the time. I’m a visualizer, a planner.
For example, I know that at our home in California the ceiling in Pebble’s room was redone after some water damage back in 2004, but the ceiling in Z’s room is still the original 1929 construction. So, in the event of an earthquake, I need to go to his room first, lest 200 pounds of lathe and plaster come crashing down on his bed. It’s not something I think about often, but I’ve done the math and that’s the best option. (well, the BEST option is to redo his ceiling but I never got around to it). For better and worse, this is how my mind works.
Back in the auditorium, somewhere in the middle of the second number (a heart warming Kwanza song) I realized that my heart was pounding and I was in full problem-solver mode. Without realizing I was even doing it, here’s what I had figured out:
The stage left door is the most likely point of entry. A fifteen foot hallway, up three stairs, and out a set of double doors and you’re standing on 5th avenue. If there is going to be a problem, that’s where it is going to come from.
I have two options. I can go for the back of the theatre, but with a seated audience (or an audience throwing themselves to the floor in panic) the slow incline from the stage to the rear of the theatre would make us an obvious target. The stage right door, however, is way better. It’s about ten feet away with a steel plate across the bottom. It gives me not only distance but a more complicated line of sight to the far stage left door. As an added bonus, a dilapidated grand piano provides some measure of cover. Even someone experienced with an M4 would have a hard time making that shot on a moving target. Statistically, it’s a good bet.
Z is five feet away, I can reach out and snatch him by his little red Christmas sweater, if need be.
What the fuck is wrong with me? How could I possibly be running scenarios like this in my head when I’m supposed to be enjoying a holiday concert with my family?
Wait, I’ve got a better question. What’s the average 911 response time in this part of Brooklyn? It’s gotta be, like, 7-8 minutes, right? The ER entrance to NY Methodist is on 7th street just east of 7th Ave. At a dead run, carrying 43 pounds, I could do that in about four and a half minutes.
Seriously, just shut up and enjoy the concert.
I wonder if I should have worn better shoes…something I can run better in. Four and a half minutes would be okay, though. The human brain can go five to six minutes without oxygen so if you run hard, it’ll be okay.
When it’s the first grades turn to take the stage I follow them up and stand in the wings. It’s at that moment that I realized I volunteered tonight because I need to be close. I’m not processing any of what’s happening in the world very well and the problem solver in me needs to know that if someone is going to get to my boy, it’s going to be me. But it’s all good. I’m going to get my mind right and enjoy the ‘hip-hop-holiday’ number. Z is not a natural when it comes to bustin’ a move and it’s insanely cute.
And, anyway, I can cover the ten feet between us in 2-3 seconds. I can do it. Everything is going to be fine.
To say things have been in flux, especially for the kids, would be an understatement – at one point Karen and I counted and found that they had slept in 9 different places in 5 weeks. People love to tell you how ‘resilient’ children are but everyone needs something that resembles normal every now and again.
Thankfully, we’re now settled in Brooklyn – school has started, ballet classes are in full jete and I’m back at the keyboard figuring that even if I don’t have the brain space to deliver profound and insightful, at least I can do informative.
Part of Z’s ‘Welcome to NY’ package included word from our new pediatrician that he needed to have surgery. The procedure was totally routine but it involved him being knocked out and stuck with IVs and all kinds of monitors and wires. It was significantly more difficult than I imagined to turn him over to a surgeon with a smile and a thank you. At some point, while I was sitting in the waiting room feeling slightly sorry for myself, I noticed that some of the parents there knew the nurses by name. They had children who were seriously ill and had spent countless days in post-op, waiting and hoping. The realization snapped me back to the obvious truth that any parent with healthy children has no right to complain about anything.
My decision to coach little league soccer hasn’t been a complete disaster (honestly, it’s more herding than coaching). I’m a lousy coach and know almost nothing about the game, but Z has made a friend on the team whose parents are not only nice, they’re normal (can’t overstate what a rare thing this is) and Karen and I really enjoy them.
We’ve begun watching the Star Wars movies together. Z, in true guy fashion, insists on learning the name of every character (starring, supporting and otherwise) and knowing whether they are a good guy or bad guy – then telling us all in detail about them later in the film:
Z: “That’s Bobafet, he’s a bounty hunter. Bad guy.”
Pebbles can sometimes be found walking around the apartment humming Darth Vader’s Imperial March, often adding lyrics about princesses or ponies.
This month the differences between Z and Pebbles are becoming increasingly evident. Z is a tireless negotiator who will repeatedly ask, nag or bargain for what he wants. He’ll really grind you down but, in the end, he’ll take your answer as law. Stand him next to a bowl of M&Ms and then tell him he can’t have any, he’ll stomp away in a red-faced huff muttering under his breath about your parental incompetence — but he’ll listen. Pebbles doesn’t believe in wasting time with negotiations. Tell her she can’t have an M&M and she’ll not only grab the bowl and pour the contents down her throat, she’ll smash the bowl on the ground and flip you the bird as she saunters away (maybe I’m embellishing here but you get the point). Worse yet, given her ability to self-entertain, timeouts end up being little more than a chance for her to sing to herself in a corner. Where I once thought his boundless energy would drive me nuts, it’s becoming clear that her utter indifference to my authority is going to be a much bigger challenge.
I’ve been spending a lot of time at parks and playgrounds in the area. My plan to meet local parents on these excursions hasn’t worked out all that well but I am on good terms with a number of wonderful Dominican nannies. I feel particularly bad for Pebbles who, without school to fall back on, wants to know when she can have a little girl friend to play dress up with. For now it’s Karen who gets to help her do her best Cher impersonation – going through 12 outfits a day and exploring all things girlie
Gender is looming large for our three and a half year old girl. Our downstairs neighbor had the misfortune of showing up on the stoop in a baggy t-shirt and no makeup, forcing Pebbles to ask in a loud voice, “Excuse me, are you a boy or a girl?”
“She asks everyone that…ha ha ha ha” I lied.
And then there was this disconcerting exchange not so long ago after she walked into the bathroom as I got out of the shower.
Pebbles: “Daddy…I like your penis.”
Me: “Uh. Thanks, honey. But that’s my private area, so that’s just for me, just like your private area is just for you.”
Pebbles: “So we don’t talk about it.”
Me: “Not too much, honey.”
I probably could have thought of something better but, in the moment, it sounded like a decent answer — until I imagined her recounting it to others like this:
Pebbles: “I like my Daddy’s penis but I’m not supposed to talk about it.”
Thus giving me a chance to explain what a hilarious misunderstanding it all was, while wearing shackles and an orange jumpsuit.
All in all, both kids have taken to their new lives seamlessly. I’ve become convinced that it’s not actually about ‘resilience’ but rather flexibility. I think that as we get older our ability to adapt to the new tends to atrophy. So the idea of moving or turning our daily routine upside-down becomes painful, like we’re stricken with adventure arthritis. Thick from lack of use, we chose to stay still rather than face the stiff discomfort of change.
This is another of those situations where our kids are helping us keep our priorities in order and, to some degree, are keeping us young. They display an unnerving level of trust in us, a willingness to take any leap we suggest. For some reason, they seem to think that Karen and I actually know what we’re doing.
Their constant faith that it’s all going to work for the best is almost enough to make me believe it myself.
In the backseat, Z and his best buddy Kirby (my godson) are comparing the nutritional information of their respective snacks. I’m guessing the school year finished out with some kind of healthy eating program because all I’ve heard since June is “Is there a lot of fat in that?” and “How much sugar does that have?” It’s a great that they’re learning about nutrition but it’s also weird to hear a couple of six year olds bemoan the lack of potassium in Pirate Booty. It’s on the verge of being a grownup conversation and I’d rather hear them talking about Ninjago and Super Mario Kart.
They are both bearing down on their seventh birthday and seven is starting to feel like an invisible dividing line between “little boy” and plain old “boy.”
As I consider this looming change in age bracket, I suddenly think about a guy that I went to high school named Micah. I haven’t thought about this guy in 20 years, Micah wasn’t someone I was very close to. We knew each other like everyone in a small high school does, and we hung out from time to time. As far as I know Micah was entirely uninterested in the sodium content of kid snacks, so why he comes to mind right now is a mystery. What I do remember about Micah is that, like the two little boys in the backseat, he was fun loving, mischievous and endlessly energetic. He had a ‘life of the party’ vibe about him – the kind of guy you liked to have around because you were never entirely sure what he might do next. One night, after a number of drinks, we convinced Micah that a parked car thought he was a sissy and he went after it with a baseball bat. I’m not proud of that kind of behavior but it was the stuff of legend back in the day.
I wouldn’t say I was a “bad kid” by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s plenty that I look back on with regret and a shake of the head. There were a couple of teen years where things could have easily gone either way; a run-in with the police, a willingness to do and try things just because I knew I shouldn’t. In that time, I said and did things that could have had profoundly negative consequences but, for some reason that still isn’t clear to me, didn’t. When I think back, it seems like the most absurd, undeserved, run of obscenely good luck one person can possibly have. I made a number of really bad bets and none of them ever cost me a dime.
Micah didn’t end up having my good fortune. A few years after graduation someone told me that, after a night of drinking, Micah’s jeep drifted over the center divider and slammed into another car. A woman died, Micah went to jail and more than a couple of lives went sideways over one incredibly bad choice. I never heard another word about the guy – I never even knew for sure if the story was true – but it wasn’t hard to imagine. In fact it’s hard to imagine that it didn’t happen exactly like that.
In my rearview mirror, the nutrition debate rages on with predictable little boy passion. When I look at them both, I really don’t worry that one day they’ll turn up at school with a gun, join a cult, or lose their sense of decency and compassion. I’m not concerned that neglect or abuse will drive them to act out. From home to church to school they are both surrounded by good, hard working role models and have a vast support system of adults who love them.
What keeps me awake at night these days isn’t that these two perfect little men will turn out to be “bad kids” but rather that they’ll be just like me — young and unbearably foolish – but not nearly as lucky; that the laws of probability will make them answer for their missteps in a way I never had to.
In the backseat, the boys have reached a consensus on the fact that fast food, while delicious, isn’t particularly good for you. They’ve moved on to whether or not gluten free pizza is as good as regular pizza – a conundrum for the ages. I’m thinking about Micah and I’m grateful that for the time being, this is the biggest problem the three of us have.
No sooner had I climbed in the car at LAX, than Z announced that I had missed his last day of kindergarten (why school ends on a Thursday is beyond me). It’s odd to think that life is now measured summer to summer rather than January 1st to January 1st. Having a 1st grader in the backseat is also a reminder that while filling up any given Saturday with a bored child can seem a Herculean task, filling up a year in his life is virtually effortless.
Kinder report cards around here embrace the very scientific academic E, S, N system (excellent, satisfactory, needs improvement) and by the end of the year Z was pulling lots of Es and a few Ss and nary an N in the mix. We put a preemptive call into Harvard to lineup a spot in the 2024 incoming class.
School was really good for Z but as much as he might have learned, it was really a year of Karen and I learning about him.
Being good at something is very important to my little guy. Z thrives in math and loves it. Sometimes, at the very end of the night, he’ll try to avoid bedtime by suggesting that we do math problems. He got his math skills from Karen and the fact that he feels good about himself when he does well in math makes him want to do it more – which, of course, makes him even better. Reading has been more of a challenge. He gets it and he reads a bit, but he knows his best friend, Kirby, is reading chapter books already (the kid is an amazing reader). It’s not a competition, of course, except that to six year old boys everything is a competition. This self-imposed pressure makes the learning to read process a minefield for Z. There’s no such thing as little mistakes, there are only frustrating failures. Catastrophes of epic proportion.
I find the Greek tragedy that unfolds every time Z can’t sound out a word to be entirely exasperating, Karen finds it a little heartbreaking because she sees so much of her own relationship to learning playing out in her son. Learning is filled with self-doubt and time spent being ‘not very good’ at something. Neither Z nor his mother enjoy this feeling at all. I try to remind her that every time he offers a hug to a sad friend or marches across the living room to deliver an unsolicited kiss and “I love you”, he’s showing the world something else that he got from his mother (just like every time he decides to talk nonstop for half an hour and laugh at his own jokes he’s channeling his father).
Of course, the real education at school is what your child learns from the other kids. Last week, out of the blue, Z informed me that, “When girls watch too much romance on TV, they get into boys business.“. This is not only an awesome piece of little boy wisdom (and, in my experience, totally accurate) it’s the kind of educational tidbit you can only pick up from a worldly mentor like Teddy the 4th Grader.
Z also learned that Google is smarter than his father. It’s not uncommon for him to ask me to ask the internet a question: “Dad, can you check on the computer about how far away the moon is?” or “Dad, can you check on the internet about what time the pool opens?”
And then there was this exchange:
Z: Mindy has two sisters and they cigarette.
Me: They what?
Z: They cigarette.
Me: You mean they smoke cigarettes?
Z: Yeah. They’re going to get cancer and die.
Me: (thoughtful pause). Yes. Yes they are.
Honestly, I’m grateful to the School of Other Kids for helping me round out Z’s education about the world. I like the idea that he’s gleaning all kinds of information from the kids he’s around and then coming home and fact checking with me. But I’m also terrified that I can’t control the pace and content of the curriculum. I know there’s nothing original about that worry, but it doesn’t stop me from wondering when he’s going to turn up with a hunk of raw truth that I don’t want him to have just yet and, when he does, what I’m going to say.
Unlike every other activity on the planet, which get invariably easier the longer you do them, this whole Dad thing is getting progressively more complicated. Teaching bike riding is a breeze when compared with the finesse required to explain the concepts of “romance” and “business” and neither even scratches the surface of what I can see coming right around the corner. Karen is fond of saying, “Little kids, little problems. Bigger kids. bigger problems.” I’m fond of ignoring that particular truth lest I dwell on it.
One day not too long ago, as Z trotted off through the gate and into school, Pebbles looked at me from her car seat and asked, “Daddy, when can I go to kindergarten?” I smiled and tickled her, my way of dodging a question I don’t feel like answering.
When can you go to kindergarten, my beautiful, little girl? How about never?
I got a lot of parenting advice before my first child came into the world. I think people feel obligated to bestow their wisdom on expecting parents and, overall, I guess that’s a good thing. Still, the advice I got – though well meaning and thoughtful – was almost entirely useless once the actual odyssey of being a dad began. Phrases like “life changing” and “wonderful adventure” came up repeatedly, but no one bothered to tell me I should go see a movie. These days, going to a movie involves two weeks of planning and forty bucks worth of babysitter — and that’s before you pay fourteen bucks for a ticket and six bucks for some Twizzlers.
Sleep was high on the recommendation list. “Get as much sleep as you can!” is what they tell you, but that particular pearl of wisdom seems entirely backward to me. What you should really be doing is training yourself to function on less sleep or sleep that is frequently interrupted. I guess you could try to stockpile sleep but, trust me, when you’re up all night with a sick four month old, knowing you got a solid nine hours back in June doesn’t help.
A few times, kindly grandparents summed up their parenting philosophy with something along the lines of, “Just shower ‘em with love!” It’s a heartwarming sentiment but I have yet to figure out how an exhausted parent is supposed to apply such sage counsel when his two-year-old is howling, spread eagle in the grocery store because he won’t buy a pair of Elmo shaped oven mitts.
The most common phrase I heard in the run up to parenthood was the seemingly benign, “It’s a tough job but it’s all worth it.” This is both true and diabolically misleading at the same time. Something about “it’s all worth it” suggests a proposition where some small majority of the time things will be blissful. “Yes,” you’re led to believe, “it’s going to be tough forty-nine percent of the time, but don’t worry because the other fifty-one percent it is great.” Guess what, it’s not. The ratio is frequently twenty percent enjoyable to eighty percent aggravating. Some days clock in at fifty-four percent bearable with thirty-five percent maddening rounded out by a dash of bewildering. I’ve been through entire weeks of eighty-seven percent exasperating, and experienced good-night cuddles that are one hundred percent ecstasy. It’s not balanced, it’s bipolar. It’s worth it not because it’s easy as often as it’s difficult, but because the perfect moments are so overwhelmingly sublime, you somehow forget the maniacal pajama tantrum you endured the night before.
If I could go back and give myself some more practical advice it would look something like this:
1. When they nap, you nap. Don’t send emails, don’t catch up on work. Nap.
2. Travel with your children when they are very young. At six months old it’s just as easy to keep them entertained in Cozumel as it is in Cleveland. You might as well get a tan out of the deal.
3. Buy a rechargeable, cordless hand vacuum. Your floors and cars will thank you.
4. It’s perfectly acceptable to make an entire dinner in the microwave.
5. In every parent-child relationship someone has to be the grown up. Try to make sure that someone is you. A two-year-old has the right to act like a child, you do not.
6. Take everyone who volunteers to babysit up on the offer. Repeatedly.
7. Buy everything you can second-hand.
8. Make time for the other relationships in your life — seeing you in the role of good friend or devoted spouse teaches your kids way more than a Baby Einstein marathon.
9. There’s no such thing as using too many wipes.
10. There will be times when you’re sure you are a terrible parent and, secretly, wonder why you ever had kids in the first place. This is normal. Forgive yourself these occasional moments of self-doubt and, from time to time, let yourself mourn your life pre-parenthood. Then have a healthy glass of wine, get some sleep and get back to work. After all, as you’ve no doubt heard, it’s a tough job, but it’s all worth it.
Oh, and go see a movie while you still can.