Here we go with the final installment of lessons learned from my father.
Lesson #3 – A Kind Heart and A Sharp Right Hook
In our big house on Ripple Road, in Oshkosh we had a sprawling upstairs where my two older brothers and I slept in bunkbeds. It served as a playroom, a dormitory and
– on many occasions – the family boxing ring. My Dad liked to have us put the gloves on and flail around at each other from time to time. I was the youngest and I’m sure my brothers will tell you that I got it the easiest – but I got it, square in the nose, more than once.
My brothers and I knew that when we went out into the world, we were expected to know how to handle ourselves and part of that was knowing how to fight. Starting a fight was absolutely forbidden. Finishing a fight that someone else started with you was strongly encouraged. Of course, I rarely ever had to fight. By the time I was in elementary school, my older brothers had been through and made it clear that what the Roberto boys lacked in size, they made up for in willingness to get punched in the head and punch back. That was enough to send would-be bullies looking for an easier target.
All of this is horrifying by today’s standards. Much of it is a sad vestige of 1950s working class, immigrant life, where fathers teach sons to fight because fighting is a fact of daily life.
My life, my family and the parents I’ve met from my generation are entirely different. We don’t do violence. Period. That’s a good thing and I’m totally on board with it. Sort of. My overarching goal as a father is to raise a loving, kind and empathetic young man – the kind of child who would never resort to violence to settle any dispute and has the good judgment to avoid any conflict before it ever began. Then again, in an age of overwhelmed teachers and ballooning class sizes, where children impose themselves physically on each other, you know who never gets bullied? The kid with a solid right hook. Parents get obsessed with making sure little Timmy is a gentle soul and terrified of raising a little aggressor. We act like children live in a Tibetan monastery when the truth is very much the opposite. Like it or not, boys are physical and – at some point – most young men will find themselves in a situation with the potential for violence. (yes, I know, girls fight too – please, God, don’t beat me with your P.C. stick, just roll with it). Barbaric as it may sound, it is entirely possible to teach a child to eschew and avoid violence and also teach him (or her) to effectively, potently defend themself.
Put it up there with designated drivers, condoms and vaccines – it’s fine to hope everything will turn out all rainbows and unicorns, but it’s foolish not to prepare for the alternative.
Lesson #4 – Get Up
I learned by age six that there was a difference between being hurt and being injured. Being injured required medical attention, being hurt required sucking it up and walking it off. I was something of a wimp as a kid, but I knew how to take a hard fall and recover without calling FEMA for help deciding between Mickey Mouse and Scooby-Doo band aides.
These days that feels like a lost art.
Like any six year old, my son can sometimes be a wild man. Every wall has to be scaled, every puddle has to be jumped, every person of similar size has to be challenged to a footrace. This makes for a lot of fun and more than a couple of crash landings per month. Each time that I see my precious little man hit the pavement, the same thought runs through my mind, “Oh my God, my child is hurt!” This usually goes hand in hand with an overwhelming desire to run over, scoop him up and make everything okay. Sometimes I do exactly that, but most of the time I channel my father and say, “You’re okay, buddy, get up.” I can tell he doesn’t like it when I say that. He has no idea that I don’t like it either. It hurts my soul a little to deny him that immediate hug and comfort, but it’s the right thing to do. The truth that I can’t explain to him, the one he’ll only learn through long experience on this planet, is simple: the whole ‘hitting the pavement’ thing never ends. We get knocked down all our lives; spiritually, emotionally, financially, you name it. Life can be a contact sport. Like most things in life, you can’t control that – but you can control how you react to it. Helping a child develop the impulse to instantly pick themself up off the ground is a life-long gift, even when it robs us of the unparalleled joy of being the one that makes it all better.
In the end, that’s what all of these throwback parenting perspectives have in common; a willingness to allow our children to be unhappy or uncomfortable when it’s in their best interest. More often than not, that means suffering our own minor trauma – the knowing that we can make things easier on our child, but that doing so is doing them a disservice. I certainly don’t pine for the days of disconnected, workaholic Dads and Betty Crocker Moms, but I’ve come to understand that each generation has something valuable to teach the next about how to turn children into responsible adults. It may be easy to write off our fathers as unenlightened products of their time, but most of them did the best they could with the knowledge they had. After that, the best that we can hope for is that, one day, our kids will say the same about us.
Last week I started jotting down a short list of things my Dad – much maligned in the parenting arena – got right when it came to fatherhood. Dad was old school (I say “was” because he’s mellowed in his AARP days and is in a fair bit of denial about exactly how hardcore he used to be). Much of my perspective on parenting is defined by my desire (need?) to be a different kind of Dad than I had. And yet, sometimes in the touchy-feely age of helicopter parenting, I can see that the way my own father approached raising children still has some value.
Lesson #2: Manners Aren’t Optional
Manners were a high priority for my father. I distinctly remember visiting him in the hospital when I was about eight years old. Dad was recovering from back surgery and the nurse came in to deliver his meds. As soon as she left, Dad lumbered out of bed, hobbled across the semi-private room to his three sons and gave each of us a sharp whack on the back of the head (Dad would deny this, he has a kind of selective-dementia that seems to only crop up when I remind him that he was a hard-ass back in the day). Anyway, this is how we all learned that the rule about young men standing when a lady comes into the room applied to nurses as well. For the Roberto boys, the bar was set a good bit higher than ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. To this day I can tell you that a large dinner napkin should be placed in your lap still half-folded and only after the host has done the same , the salt and pepper should always be passed together, and that, in a formal place setting, the cutting edge of a knife always faces in, toward the plate. The list goes on. I’m not saying I actually make use of these rules on a regular basis, but manners are as much a formative part of my upbringing as Bugs Bunny, messy divorces and Spaghetti-O’s straight out of the can.
I can’t quite embrace this level of intensity on the whole manners issue but I’ve definitely come to understand that politeness is about a lot more than knowing which fork to use on a salad (the outer most fork is for salad, in case you’re wondering). We’re relentless at our house with manners, even when it seems like no progress is being made whatsoever. Nothing is given without a please or received without a thank you. Z and Pebbles both know that the phrase “try again” means that whatever has just come out of their mouth needs a “nice word” attached to it. It’s exhausting and repetitive but crucial. There’s something about saying “please” when you want something that reminds the asker that a favor is being done for them. “Pass the salt” is a command. “Please pass the salt.” involves the speaker acknowledging that there’s another person in the equation that is doing them a kindness, however small.
We do all this not because we have an Emily Post fetish but because we’re intent on teaching our children gratitude and decency. As small as these words may seem, their absence speaks of entitlement and expectation in a world that has too much of both. I’ve said this before: people who dwell in gratitude rarely dwell in misery while the entitled tend to live with perpetual disappointment.
Manners are a gift, not just to the old lady who gets a door held open for her or the Grandpa who gets a hand written thank you card, but for the child who learns to appreciate how much is done for them day in and day out.
(in the interest of full disclosure, we’re pretty bad about thank you cards but we’re trying to get better!)
The parenting strategy of most guys (if there is one at all) is driven by one of two experiences. Either we’re trying desperately to replicate the thoughtful, patient and supportive home-life we had as children or we’re stumbling blindly into fatherhood vowing to do a damn sight better than our own Dads did. Like most men, I fall squarely into the latter category. I am the product of a well-meaning but affectionately stingy father from the generation of men who considered their critical family roles to be bread winner and prison warden with not a lot of room in between. It’s not that my Dad didn’t care about being a good parent – he cared very much. It’s that his idea of what that meant was very different than what many of us imagine it to be today.
In the five years since my own son has come into the world, I have been determined to be an entirely different kind of father. For the most part, I’ve succeeded in that quest. I’m hands-on with my boy, I’m liberal with kisses and hugs and the word “love” crosses my lips a half-a-dozen times a day. We have family dance parties in the living room, puppet shows behind the couch and I even let him choose the music in the car. We’re goofballs together. We’re best buddies.
Still, there are times when I find the modern approach to parenting, with it’s insistence on treating toddlers like little, rational adults, comes up decidedly short. It’s at those moments that I find myself reaching into my bag of Daddy lessons and stumbling across some of my father’s old-school tools. And as much as I’d like to reject his ideas as archaic and unenlightened, it turns out that my Dad actually got it right from time to time. Under-appreciated and politically incorrect as they may be, here are a few oldies but goodies that I find myself, sometimes against my better judgment, putting to use in the new millennium.
Lesson #1: You Don’t Have to Like It, You Just Have to Do It
I’m not particularly good on the piano but I can hammer out Christmas carols and usually figure out the new Adele song if I have enough time. If you know nothing about music you’ll be suitably impressed by what I can do with eighty-eight keys but if you actually play an instrument, you’ll know right away that I am a hack. It doesn’t matter to me that I’m not good because it brings me enormous joy to sit with my son and plunk at the keys or play my guitar during bath time (I take requests, usually to make up a song about something like bathtub farts). None of this would be possible had I been allowed to quit piano lessons when I was seven (which I tearfully begged to do on a regular basis). My dad forced me to stick with it for a full year. He became fond of saying that I would thank him later (he seemed to think that I would thank him later for a lot of things — most of which I still do not thank him for). After twelve months of whining, my mother reached her limit and prevailed on him. He gave in, I quit, and I’ve regretted it my entire adult life. Sometimes when my father comes to visit, he sits down at the piano and knocks out a little Beethoven from memory. I suspect it’s his way of dressing an “I told you so” in the guise of family entertainment.
The problem, of course, is that learning is rarely the fun we like to think it is because learning tends to lack immediate gratification. Learning means spending a good deal of time not knowing, feeling frustrated, dumb, uncoordinated and generally in the dark. It’s the rare (and possibly troubled) individual who enjoys this set of feelings. As adults we can tell ourselves that the reward – the knowing how to do a thing that interests us – is worth the drudgery of feeling ignorant in the short term. For kids, the short term is the only term. There’s now and there’s “Am I still going to be doing this five minutes from now?” and that’s about it. They get frustrated and bored and generally aren’t shy about letting you know.
Many parents today, who somehow equate their child’s immediate happiness with their success as a guardian, flail around from activity to activity waiting to find that one special thing that little Joshua really, really wants to do. The only thing Joshua becomes good at, however, is quitting. It’s frighteningly common to hear parents say something along the lines of “There’s no point in forcing him to do it if he doesn’t like it.” This could not be more wrong. There’s a gigantic, throbbing, massively important point to it. Your child is going to take some lesson away from these experiences, it’s up to you to decide if that lesson should be that quitting what you don’t like is a valid option or that on the far side of initial frustration and the tedium of regular practice is the exquisite joy of being good at something.
Sadly, it’s exceedingly difficult to make a toddler understand the long term benefits perseverance. You can’t explain to a six year old the concept of being a well rounded human being anymore than you can explain to a thirteen year old that it’s not, exactly, about reading Heart of Darkness, it’s about being a literate adult. Somewhere between our fathers generation and this one, we forgot that the gulf between what we want and what’s good for us is often wide and deep. We have to remember that tenacity is a learned behavior and it’s up to us, the parents, to be possessed of the fortitude and commitment that our children have yet to develop.