As a younger man, I didn’t really know the difference between being fearless and being reckless. Just about everything seemed like a good idea, provided you could muster up the guts to do it. In a way, that was a blessing – it provided a sort of ignorant freedom to do whatever struck me as interesting or fun. I think, as a general rule, that’s true of a lot of people. Youth and audacity seem to go hand in hand. And then, to varying degrees, we all grow up. Life takes on a more defined shape and gravity. We come to know that not only is the line between bold and foolish thin and poorly drawn, but that we’ve straddled it our entire young lives.
And because we’ve spent so much time building a certain kind of life, it starts to feel unwise to stand so near this line. We accumulate stuff and the stuff goes from feeling like a shiny extravagance to feeling like a life necessity. The more we think about what we have, the more we think about what we have to lose. It doesn’t happen all at once, of course. It’s a slow burn. Over time, we retreat. We over correct. We shake our heads at our incredible good fortune that we got away with all that tomfoolery for so long. Then day by day, year by year, we move a little further away from the murky border until bold and fearless are somewhere off in the far distance.
And – if you’re like me – maybe you wake up one day, half way through your life, and think, “Whoa, how the hell did I get all the way over here? ”
So, yeah, I’m having something of a midlife crisis. It starts with this thought: I’m going to die one day. (yes, it’s a pretty unoriginal thought) I don’t think about this fact a lot but I do think about it considerably more now than I did a decade ago. Best case scenario, the show is at least half over and there are more days behind than ahead. Worst case scenario, I throw a clot before I even finish this piece and leave you all wondering what final wisdom I was about to deliver. At this point, it’s a crap shoot (but keep your expectations low on the whole ‘final wisdom’ thing).
Reflection, of course, is a double edged sword. It’s enormously healthy (when you sit and consider your life path and goals) and incredibly self-indulgent (when you inflict these revelations on others). I’m about to inflict a few of mine on you so, seriously, no offense if you stop reading now.
On the upside, my midlife crisis hasn’t manifested as an obsession with fast cars and 20-something women (though both have their merits). Instead, it’s revealed itself as a slow, nagging case of doubt. Doubt about work, doubt about my world view, and especially doubt about whether I am living a life that – when considered one final time on my death bed — I will think, “Yeah, I did that shit right.”
By any measure, I’m insanely lucky. I’ve traveled and lived abroad. I enjoy my work, have good friends, and a wonderful wife with whom I am hard at work raising two great kids. If I look at it all just right, I’m pretty much able to convince myself that I am living outside the rat race or, at least, living on the fringe of the everyday grind. But then there are days that I catch a glimpse of the great-indifferent machine of daily life and I realize that I am really just a talkative, amiable, well-coifed part of it.
And it’s not really this light bulb moment that’s disconcerting. It’s the split second after that I find troubling. The moments when I know a thing to be true and I have to decide what that means for me and my life. Because there’s something about having a meaningful realization, and then ignoring it, that invariably leads to regret.
There is a scene in the final season of The Sopranos where Carmela goes to see a shrink. She’s thinking about leaving her mob boss husband, Tony, but is crushed into inaction by guilt and fear. Carmela dances around the realities of her life, talking about how to set limits and work on her marriage. Her shrink is having none of it. He looks her in the eye and tells her that her husband is a brutal killer and that her only legitimate option is to pack the kids into the car that very night and leave for good. As it becomes clear that this path is one Carmela will never take, the shrink tells her, “One thing you can never say, you haven’t been told.”
I remember that small, quiet scene really landing with me. Once you know something, acting or not acting on it defines you. Carmela can pack the kids up and run or she can go home and make dinner. Either way, she is responsible for who she becomes – single mom in hiding or silent accomplice.
Each little realization about how I live my life – about what I am willing and not willing to regret – calls this scene to mind. Because, if I’m honest with myself, having these little visions of my life is the same as ‘being told’. I know better than to go through the motions and punch the clock.. And I suspect that most of us have, at some point, had the feeling that we’ve bought into a system we don’t really believe in. We earn and spend, accumulate and purge. Wash, rinse, repeat. Maybe sometimes we realize that we’re drowning in the excess of our own lives, so we make a little effort – donating money we don’t really need or clothing we don’t want. And then dash back into the fray. Because the cable bill. Because more. Because there’s something comfortable and mesmerizing about the routine.
I’m as guilty as anyone. As I slop these overwrought epiphanies on the page, I am constantly glancing at my phone and tabbing over to Facebook. Because even when I’m trying to articulate something elusive and thoughtful, a substantial part of me remains addicted to the trivial. Part of me knows I’m on to something important, but most of me has no idea what to do with it – how to make it part of my life without unraveling and reimagining life completely.
So, instead of acting on it, I write about it. This whole monologue is a reminder that it’s far easier to wax philosophical about these ideas than it is to actually do something. I’m hoping that by writing this all down and putting it on public display, I will be able to hold myself at least slightly more accountable. Perhaps this diatribe can, in a small way, serve as a map that will help me find my way back toward fearlessness. And maybe inspire someone out there to do the same.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to post this on Facebook.
Taking a break from the parenting writing to post about a hobby I’ve taken up – making homemade Limoncello. I get asked a lot for the recipe and how it’s done so here goes.
What is limoncello?
Limoncello is an Italian lemon liquor, produced mainly in Southern Italy (but now made and consumed world wide).
How’s it made?
By soaking the zest (the fine outer skin) of lemons in rectified spirit (highly distilled, highly concentrated alcohol) until the oils and color of the zest have infused into the spirits. A sugar/water mix is then added to sweeten and dilute the mixture to the proper proof.
Why make it at home?
Because I suck at making wine and beer and stamp collecting gives me paper cuts on my tongue.
Okay, I’m sold, now what?
Making limoncello takes patience, there’s a lot of doing stuff and then forgetting about your batch of limoncello, then doing more stuff, and then forgetting again. But it’s worth the wait.
** EVERY STEP OF THIS RECIPE ASSUMES CLEAN HANDS AND SCRUBBED, CLEAN EQUIPMENT **
Step 1 – Gather your supplies.
(links to each item are just so you know what I’m talking about, not a recommendation per se)
1 750ml / 1 Liter bottle of distilled spirits. 190 proof Everclear is ideal, check your local liquor store to find out what is the highest alcohol level you can legally buy. Worst case scenario you can buy 100 proof vodka but this is NOT recommended.
10-16 organic lemons (or other citrus but we’ll discuss this later, organic isn’t mandatory but it makes later steps easier)
Step 2 – clean and zest your lemons
Scrub the outside of the lemons, make sure you get off any dirt, wax, pesticide, labels ,etc. Don’t be lazy about this part, really get them clean.
Using your microplane, remove the fine outer skin (aka ‘zest’) of the each lemon into a clean bowl. Get all the zest you can but do not microplane so deeply that you get the thick, white layer (aka ‘pith’) underneath the yellow outer layer. Pith makes for bitter limoncello.
As an alternative, you can use a traditional peeler to remove the zest. However, it’s significantly harder to avoid the pith when using a peeler.
Once you’ve zested (aka skinned aka microplaned) all your lemons, place the zest into one of your (cleaned) glass jars.
Step 3 – mix the zest and the grain alcohol
How much grain alcohol you add depends on what proof alcohol you purchased. This recipe is for a 1 liter batch, try the following:
360ml for 190 proof grain alcohol
440ml for 151 proof grain alcohol
660ml for 100 proof alcohol of any kind
Add the appropriate amount of grain alcohol to the jar containing the zest, seal it tightly, and give it a good shake. Store it in a cool, dry, dark place.
Step 4 – wait
This is the boring part. The longer you are willing to wait, the more flavorful your final product will be. While you’re waiting, the alcohol is pulling the oil, flavor, and color out of the lemon zest. You want to allow as much of this as you can. Purists recommend that you wait up to 60 days before you move to the next step. I use 190 proof grain alcohol and have had good results with 4 weeks (28 days). I know people who do less but I strongly encourage patience, it will be rewarded. When it comes to waiting, more is better.
Feel free to shake your mixture once a day or so. It may or may not help but it feels like you’re doing something.
Step 5 – filter your mixture
Amazing! You’ve managed to wait many weeks and now you’re ready to filter. This is the most ‘not sexy’ part of the recipe but it’s also the difference between a great final product and a mediocre glass of lemon flavored alcohol.
Place your gold coffee filter into the top of your second 1 liter glass jar (use in conjunction with a funnel if needed). Pour your mixture through the filter. This step will filter out all zest and any particulate that might be in the mixture. If your hands are clean, you can press the zest that catches in the filter to squeeze out that last little bit of liquid.
Remove the filter, throw the zest in the trash, clean the filter.
Thoroughly wash and dry glass jar #1. (the jar that originally had the zest/alcohol mixture in it)
Add a paper filter to the gold filter and place it on top of the newly cleaned jar #1. Pour your liquid from jar #2 back through the paper+gold filter into jar #1. This will take some time and patience. About halfway through, your paper filter will likely become so saturated that you’ll want to switch to a new one. Make sure you lose as little liquid as possible if/when you switch to a new paper filter.
Once the filtering is done, reseal your jar.
Step 6 – add your simple syrup
Now it’s time to add some sugar-water to your mixture. This not only sweetens it (yum), it dillutes the grain alcohol from 190 proof down to something a normal human being would enjoy drinking. There’s some small amount of debate about it, but I normally shoot for about 68 proof (34% alcohol by volume) which seems to be the traditional standard.
You can watch a video on how to make simple syrup here: How To Make Simple Syrup
How much water you use will depend on what strength of grain alcohol you used as a base. Remember that this recipe is specific to a 1 liter batch. If you started with:
360ml of 190 proof grain alcohol – add 650ml of simple syrup (about 2.75 cups)
440ml of 151 proof grain alcohol – add 567ml of simple syrup (about 2.4 cups)
660ml of 100 proof alcohol of any kind – add 340ml of simple syrup (about 1.4 cups)
Some thoughts on your simple sugar recipe:
- As the video tells you, stir constantly while making your simple sugar and don’t let the sugar burn.
- Let the simple sugar cool to room temperature before adding to your mixture. This might take a while but you need to wait it out. I often make a little spot in the refrigerator and let it cool in the fridge.
- Traditional simple sugar is 1 cup of water to 1 cup of white sugar. In my opinion, this makes for a limoncello that is way too sweet. I use significantly less sugar in my batches. For your first batch, I recommend making a simple syrup with HALF the sugar – so for every cup of water in your simple sugar recipe, use 1/2 cup of white, granulated sugar. You might find that you prefer a final product that is more or less sweet and next time around you can adjust accordingly, but this is a good starting place.
Once you’ve made and cooled your simple syrup, add it to your filtered grain alcohol mixture, reseal it, and give it a good shake.
Step 7 – wait some more
Again, it’s time for some patience. Put your 1 liter mixture in a cool, dark place. The longer you let the mixture sit, the more it will smooth and mellow out. If you HAVE to cut corners, this is the step where you do it – but try not to cheat. My rule is to let it mellow for the same number of days/weeks that I let the alcohol/zest mixture steep. Four to six weeks is ideal but in a pinch you could get away with three weeks. Again, when it comes to waiting, more is generally better.
Step 8 – bottle your final product
Congratulations! You’ve got yourself a finished. 1 liter batch of homemade limoncello. Transfer the final product into a serving bottle
(something like the 1 liter swingtop bottle that I linked up in Step 1). If you’re determined to be the most amazing limoncello maker ever, you can filter it once more during this transfer (through a paper filter placed inside the gold filter) and then let it rest for 7-14 days in the serving bottle. No matter what you decide to do, make sure to put your bottle in the freezer for a while before serving – limoncello should be icy cold when it’s served.
There are loads of great looking bottles out there. Swingtop are the easiest, but corked bottles also look great.
Step 9 – experiment
Once you’ve gotten a traditional batch under your belt, do some experimenting to find your signature style. Try making an orange-cello. Use only Myer lemons. Increase or decrease the sugar, the alcohol, the aging. There are no rules. If you come up with something brilliant, be sure to let me know.
When I write one of these parenting pieces, I usually take some topic or experience I feel strongly about, think it through until I know exactly how I want to present it and then try to craft a tight, convincing narrative. It’s sort of what’s expected when you’re writing for a magazine or established website. Pick a strong point of view, make a strong argument, pepper it with some humor, wrap it up with a pearl of wisdom – all in 800 clickable words or less.
The problem is that the moments in my life as a Dad where I have enough certainty/clarity to say something that is both convincing and worthwhile are further and further apart. So I write a new piece every few months (maybe) and I live most of the time in the land of unfinished thoughts and unpolished ideas.
Today, I’m giving myself permission to write without some snazzy epiphany to tag at the end. I’m putting down the raw feed of what’s going on in my head at this moment and that is all about…
Rough Housing with a Boy and a Girl
I’m a big fan of rough housing. My son and I throw down with everything from pillows to nerf guns to balled up, stinky socks. Chasing each other around the house or wrestling wildly on the bed is a big part of our father/son play ritual. As his little sister has gotten a bit older and sturdier, she’s begged to be included in the action and, of course, I’ve happily said yes. (even my son likes to have her involved for the ‘kids v dad’ vibe) It’s true that she gets thumped from time to time and there are occasional tears, but it’s never serious and it seems like a good opportunity to teach her that the little thumps and wallops of life are not worth a lot of energy or drama.
It can be a little tricky to navigate exactly how we play when she’s involved. I absolutely don’t want my son to get the sense that we do it differently because she’s a girl. But she is also younger and smaller and – as a personality – a little less interested in being roughed up. Still, keeping gender out of it matters to me, so I do my best to compensate for her age and size without making it a boy/girl thing. I whack them both with pillows, chase, tackle and tickle them as equals.
Sort of. But then there’s this moment.
The other night, Pebbles and I were having a one-on-one tickle, wrestle-fest and, at some point, I found myself on top of her, holding her arms down and zerberting her belly as she cackled with glee. In that moment, I had the fleeting, sickening thought that I was – somehow – setting up a dynamic in which a man overpowering her was an okay thing.
I know, I know – it’s tickle time, not a frat party. And she’s six and there was nothing but unbridled joy and play happening. I know all that is true. She was laughing and telling me how she was going to tickle my feet (my only known tickle time weakness). But I was – just for a split second – genuinely worried. Because here was my daughter, pinned down and helpless and I thought, “Is this how it starts? Is this creating some expectation of how she will interact with men in her life?” Karen and I have spent countless hours talking about the importance of building a strong, self-confident young woman. Am I undermining that? Or would I being undermining it to exclude her and/or treat her differently?
I’ve never had this thought with my son. If there are any overtones to our wrestling, it’s nothing more than the young lion learning to tussle from the old lion. I pin him down, he laughs and struggles (and eventually licks one of my hands, causing me to recoil in disgust and facilitating his escape). It never feels like a loaded situation.
I tell myself all the time that one of my roles in my son’s life is to show him what it means to be a man: a husband, a father, a friend. Knowing that guides an incredible amount of my behavior.
Likewise, one of my role’s in my daughter’s life is to model what she should expect from men. It’s important that she see me do the dishes and cook (well, sometimes) and hold the door open for a stranger.
So what does that mean for rough housing? Is it harmless fun or bad precedent? My sense is that I am totally over-thinking it and, at this point in her life, it’s not ‘a thing.’ But the fact that I noticed it, the fact that it crossed my mind at all, definitely gives me pause.
The Burbank Purple Tigers were doomed from the start. We were the leftovers of the Under-6 AYSO, known in the world of toddler athletics as the American Youth Soccer Organization and, more familiarly to parents, as All Your Saturdays Occupied. We were the crew that came late to the party to find that all team rosters were full and our only option was to start our own team which, against our better judgment, we did. Michael, Z’s godfather, volunteered to coach, uniforms were issued, shin guards were donned and our motley crew of misfits took the field. One look at this spasmodic gaggle of five year olds in purple jerseys, running the wrong way down the field while stealing the ball from one another and I knew it was going to be a very long season indeed.
Still, this was something that Z very much wanted to do and I truly believed that being part of a team sport would be a great exercise in cooperation and self-esteem building. Thanks to his mother and me, Z is too short for basketball and too smart for football. I hoped that in addition to a suave way with the ladies and a penchant for financial mismanagement, Z’s Italian heritage might just offer him mad soccer skillz.
The first challenge was getting the kids to actually participate in the game without their attention wandering. At any given time, one member of the team could usually be found leing down on the field making “grass angles” while another pulled his jersey over his face and played an impromptu game of “where’s my head!?” Z, though always fixated on the action of the game, had his own issue with contributing to the meager goal tally. He developed what I call a “tactical retreat”. After repeatedly watching opposing teams fire shots into the goal, Z adopted a kind of extreme preemptive defensive mind set. Any time a player from the other team touched the ball, Z would race to cover the goal and prevent disaster. This would sometimes involve needlessly sprinting the entire length of the field while play continued down near the opposite goal. My repeated yells of, “Buddy! Go after the ball!!” were met with a shake of the head and a disbelieving look that said “Haven’t you seen what happens when we leave this thing unattended?”
There was, in fact, a lot of yelling from the sidelines. Mostly, of course, it was positive reinforcement and encouragement, mixed with regular reminders of which direction the Purple Tigers were meant to be kicking the ball. As loss after loss piled up, my main mantra became, “it doesn’t matter if you win, the important thing is to have a good time.” I didn’t entirely buy this logic but I knew it to be the kind of thing an enlightened father should be heard saying so, flimsy as the idea was, I tried to embrace it.
Z took the losses personally. At some point, right about the time we had lost our sixth straight game, he came huffing off the field, red faced and angry at the world. He looked up at me and declared “We’re the worst team ever!” I knelt down next to him and tried to weave my progressive parenting magic, “Buddy, the important thing is to go out there and have fun.” His big eyes puffed with tears, “I’m trying! But losing isn’t fun!”
He was right and I knew it. Losing sucks.
And it’s not because either of us has an ego to fertilize or that we fail to appreciate the simple joy of kicking the ball with friends. It’s because we have 35,000 years of hardwiring that tells us that victory is vastly superior to defeat. Succeeding in competition – for everything from shelter to territory to food to the right to spread your DNA – has been a life or death matter since the species began. The fact that we exist at all tells us that our ancestors were at least slightly above average in the “winning” department.
And while winning is rarely life and death in modern society, telling Z that losing shouldn’t sting a little or diminishing his natural desire to succeed was dishonest and, in the long run, a disservice. The kid is going to spend much of his young life in win/lose situations; competing for everything from a role in the middle school play to girls to admission to college. His success in life will depend, to a large degree, on his ability to compete and a desire to excel.
So why am I communicating to him that his frustration with losing is inappropriate or that wanting to win is, somehow, taboo?
The mistake I was making –the one made so often in the age of solicitous, helicopter parenting –is that I was losing track of precisely what lesson I was trying to teach. Parents tend to be serial over-correctors. In an effort to insure that we don’t go all Bobby Knight on our kids, we try to sell them on the idea that losing is just as fun as winning when we know (most of us anyway) that it isn’t. The real lesson is more nuanced and elusive and, therefore, much harder to communicate. Instead of teaching kids that deriving happiness from success is bad, we should really be teaching them that empathy must never be casualty competitiveness and that victory in the absence of sportsmanship is, in fact, the worst kind of loss. This is, no doubt, a complex set of values that will take time to instill. But if our goal is decent, confident, ambitious, children then it’s worth taking the time to get it right.
Sadly, by the end of the season, I had mostly gotten it wrong. As we piled into the car after the last game, a thorough rout that brought our season record to a near perfect 0-9-2, I feared that my experiment in youth soccer might have soured Z on team sports all together. There’s something unfairly punishing for a five year old about spending eleven weeks on the field and not once walking away with a win. There’s no doubt that my little guy can be a sullen, melodramatic mess at times but, in this case, I let him rant and rail against the injustice of it all without trying to talk him down. Once he’d vented his indignation I tried to cheer him up and move us on to a new topic.
“Well, next week we have Saturday totally free so whatever you want to do for fun, we can go and do it.”
Z thought about this enticing, open ended offer for a long moment and then said,
“I want to spend next Saturday practicing soccer, so next year we can win.”
Parents tell your children the truth
that you love them, of course
and think they are beautiful, yes
and that they smell unique and delicious and entirely yours
but also that they just need to shut up for a minute
so you can get this email sent
this call made
this other critical, forgettable, urgency off your plate
tell them you just need them to stop talking to you for a moment
even though your greatest fear is that one day they’ll stop talking to you all together
tell them you think all the time about who they will be
tell them to be their own person
as long as it’s a better version of you
you without the fear and anxiety
without the doubt
without the dysfunctional relationship with imported cheese
tell them that they can be anything they want to be
while you prepare them to be a very happy, very important
cog in the machine
tell them that you’re making it up as you go
tell them the tables are turning
that you need them more every day
even as they need you less
tell them they are the best thing you’ve ever done
tell them that you will give them all you have
and you know this is true
because you’ve already given them all that you were or might be
that you might play violin, 2nd chair on opening night
that you might open that little camping gear shop in tierra del fuego
that tomorrow you might just sleep in late, you don’t need that job anyway
all of that a gift unwrapped the day they burst into the world
please and thank you
tell them that you’ll give them the keys to life long joy and contentment
as soon as you find them
they’ve got to be around here somewhere, right?
tell them the truth
it was a sacrifice, yes
but you would not give up any of it
not the thread-bear patience or the gray,
not the loss of your social graces or your unwanted knowledge of cartoon theme songs
that you’ve never regretted it for even a second
except for the times you have
when you’ve caught a glimpse in the mirror
and seen the other you, the before you
tell them how much you wanted to hug your own reflection
and see what had become of other you
how much you wanted to take the other you out for a glass of wine
and maybe some brie
to catch up
to know what the other might have been like
but you can’t because it’s a school night and the sitter isn’t available
tell them how your soul swells
when they are caught in the act of a small kindness
or lost in thought
or when they tell you, for no apparent reason, that they love you
tell them it’s beyond you to make them understand
but that they might, one day
when they hold their own small child for the first time
the sum of all their love, need, joy, and possibility
in a wet, crying, fragile ball
tell them that only then will they know
To be honest, we’re kind of in the kid zone right now. Z is eight, Pebbles is five and they are both fun loving, smart, and independent children. They can fend for themselves when it comes to the basics but, as parents, we’re still an indispensible source of comfort, knowledge and things on high shelves. Our kids have strong opinions but still more or less trust our judgment and wisdom as grown ups (because they don’t know better yet). They’re curious about the world and not yet disappointed in humanity. We are past diapers and howling tantrums (mostly) and we’re still a little way out from acne and broken hearts.
Karen and I are as young and spry as we’re ever going to be – keeping up with them isn’t yet a challenge – and we can sneak away for the occasional date night without feeling bad about it. We’re not rolling in dough but the bills are getting paid (an on again/off again terror in the lives of entertainers and…well…human beings). We’re healthy, we’re happy and we’re all madly in love with each other. We talk in terms of ‘family’ all the time and the kids glow and wrap themselves up in the fuzzy blanket of our little four person commune. If there’s a sweet spot in the life span of a parent, surely this is it. It can’t possibly last, I know that. Still, it’s here now and it’s really good.
But then comes relentless static of everyday life. Mundane annoyances from laundry to parent-teacher conferences, and trying to stay in shape, and the house in Los Angeles might need a new roof, and why aren’t I writing more often, and boy I’d like to take my wife away for the weekend, and “no, you can’t shoot your sister with that Nerf gun” and “no, Ana and Elsa cannot take a bath with you.” And of course there’s my profession, steeped in the fiction of self-importance and all the made-up busy work that goes along with that charade.
Sometimes it’s just damn hard to be quiet and patient and still.
What keeps me up at night isn’t anxiety about the future, I don’t fret about rent or the uncertainty of work, or the frequently disappointing state of the world. What sticks in my mind these days is one simple thought: It is entirely possible that this – the right here and now – is as good as life is ever going to get and I’m afraid that I’m going to miss it.
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.