Raising a Happy Failure

July 26, 2013  |  Current Events, Fatherhood  |  4 Comments

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.

Selling Magazines, Not Ideas

Nothing gets parental panties quite as wadded as having their idea of what makes a ‘good parent’ challenged in public.  For some folks, that’s exactly what the whole “attachment parenting” movement is doing and the latest edition of TIME magazine is trying its best to turn what could be an interesting, progressive parenting conversation into a heated and entirely unnecessary debate.

The cover of the magazine features mommy-blogger Jamie Lynne Grumet breast feeding her three and a half year old on a step-stool.  (I can only hope the step-stool is for dramatic effect and not some new thing expecting parents are going to have to register for at Babies R’ Us).  The caption, as you can see, reads “Are You Mom Enough?”   This is a great idea, if you’re trying to defibrillate a dying piece of print media since it plays on every mother’s fear that she is not, in fact, “mom enough” no matter what she does.

Yes, some people will be offended by the semi-bare breast on the cover but for the overwhelming majority of rational adults, it’s a nonissue. The whole breast feeding in public thing hardly qualifies as a debate and you can see a lot more skin on the average E! red carpet special.  The whole thing feels staged for the express purpose of riling people up. Putting your beliefs on the line is admirable (in this case, putting your money where your son’s mouth is) but using your child to provoke a public discussion of your personal agenda is another matter entirely.  It’s fine for me to have strong feelings about circumcision, but heading to a photo studio to pose with a scalpel and a handful of my son’s junk tends to say as much about me as my parenting beliefs.

Worst of all, all the showmanship surrounding the cover and article (and the inevitable push-back it will generate) make it harder to have a real conversation about the pros and cons of attachment parenting.

On my show, I had the opportunity to interview the actress Mayim Bialik (Blossom, Big Bang Theory) about her book Beyond the Sling.  Mayim and her husband have wholeheartedly embraced attachment parenting with their two sons – breastfeeding well into the toddler years, co-sleeping in a big family bed and ‘wearing’ their children throughout infancy.  Having read through her book twice, I led off the interview as honestly as possible, telling Mayim that I couldn’t decide if this was the most enlightened, progressive approach to parenting in a generation, or a big steaming pile of new age hooey.   She laughed (thankfully) and we had an interesting, intelligent discussion in which I was able to express my doubts and she was able to describe her experience and her reasoning.

[flv:http://www.thehandsondad.com/MayimBialik.flv 320 240]
She didn’t push her ideas as ‘right’ or ‘superior’ and I did my best not to dismiss or judge.  Nothing about our conversation made me want to run home and move my kids into my bedroom, but nothing about it made me think that people like Mayim belonged on meds or in a commune. She’s a smart, thoughtful woman making what she believes to be the best parenting choices for her children.  We should all hope to be described that way.

The fact is, there’s no such things as a ‘right way’ to raise kids – so all quiet, rational discussions have the potential to make us better at it (sometimes by reinforcing our own beliefs, sometimes by opening our eyes to new possibilities.)  There’s a lot to attachment parenting that doesn’t work for me and, I don’t think, would work for my kids.  But that’s not at all the point.  Surely none of us are so confident in our parenting skills that we can afford to close ourselves off to new ideas and tools.

When the feigned outrage about the TIME cover and the amused eye-rolling about raising a diaper-free child (invest in slip-covers) dies down, I hope there’s still room for a friendly, honest debate. Perhaps everyone can get down off their soap box (and Ms. Grumet can her son down off that chair) and do what many of us encourage our children to do.  Listen more than you talk and think before you speak.



Gender Bent

July 28, 2011  |  Current Events, Fatherhood  |  No Comments

A couple of months ago, a Canadian couple made headlines by refusing to reveal the gender of their newborn child. It was, they declared, their goal to raise a gender neutral baby. To do so, they decided to hide his/her/its gender from the world and only reveal the nondescript name: Storm. (This is preposterous since everyone that’s seen X-Men knows that Storm is none other than Halle Berry who is, most definitely, a chick.) At the time, I sort of laughed off this story, chalking it up to a couple of harmless idiots who deserved an eye-roll and a shake of the head and little more. But no sooner had I dismissed this out of hand than more and more gender denial stories began to crop up.

First it was the Egalia School in Stockholm and their decision to eliminate all gender specific language from the curriculum. No more him/her, he/she, his/hers – nothing. Instead, children will be “friends” and “they/thems” — all in an effort to stop the menace of gender stereotyping in its tracks (despite making Old MacDonald somewhat cumbersome to sing.)

Now, it seems, even the little baby Jesus wants to get in on the action. A coalition of biblical scholars and church leaders is publishing a new “Common Language Bible” that aims not only for accessible verbiage, but…you guessed it…gender neutrality. No longer will Jesus be the Son of Man, now He’ll be referred to as “the Human One.” I’m dying to read the gender neutral version of Genesis…”And on the sixth day, God created Friend.” Later, Friend’s Friend shows up and they share “quality friendship time.” Maybe, I’m speculating here.

There is, of course, a genuine problem with gender equality throughout the world and there’s no doubt that everything from advertising to peer pressure push men and women into stereotyped and sometimes unhealthy roles. I aspire to be open-minded and I am usually hesitant to squash well-meaning attempts at progressive thinking. Still, well-meaning and deeply misguided are not – in any way – mutually exclusive and this issue seems to have buckets of misguided to spare.
Brace yourself for some shocking news: boys and girls are different. This isn’t something we learn from television or movies and it’s not something that even the best effort at denial can hide from kids. Even my two-year-old little girl knows that what she’s got going on in her pull-up isn’t the same as what her brother’s packing in his Spiderman underwear. Still, my wife and I have made a concerted effort to avoid letting gender have an undue influence on how we raise our kids. I roughhouse with Pebbles like I do with her brother and we try to avoid the whole “princess” thing with her. Her first non-hand-me-down toy was a doctor playset. And yet, without any help from us, she genuinely prefers pink to blue and she’ll step past all of Z’s trains and trucks to get to her dolly. Not because she’s been brainwashed by TV and not because we even bought her a doll (it was actually Z’s at one time but he never took to it) but because she likes it. The kitchen set that we gave my son Z for his third birthday now lives in her room, not because we’re training her for the day she’ll be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen but because she thinks it’s the coolest toy in the whole world. She’s a girl and she does things traditionally associated with being “girlie.”

What Pebbles hasn’t yet been taught – and hopefully never will – is that there’s something inherently better or worse about one set of anatomical gear or the other. For me, the goal isn’t to keep her in the dark about her gender but to help her understand that her potential as a human being isn’t defined by her sex. She knows she’s a girl and, thus far, she doesn’t think of that as a limiting factor in her life. On that score, she seems better adjusted to gender at two years old than the geniuses pushing this ridiculous gender neutrality agenda forward.

The worst part of these efforts at gender neutralization is that they all make the same terrible assumption: that gender, itself, is the problem and if we remove it from the equation, everything will be better. It’s an approach defies all reason and logic. Saudi women aren’t forbidden from driving by their gender, they are forbidden from driving by a patriarchal society with dysfunctional cultural norms. Removing the word “he” and”she” from all language wouldn’t suddenly make it easier for a young man to tell his parents he’s gay anymore than it would make employers pay women the same wage they pay men. Does anyone imagine that Barrack Obama is President because no one ever told him he was black? Or is it more likely that he was raised in an environment that embraced all aspects of his person and that encouraged him to believe that he was capable of anything.

No, a perfectly level playing field and perfect equality don’t exist in our culture (or perhaps in any culture) but denying our differences only serves to perpetuate that problem by suggesting that we can only be equal if we’re all the exactly same . Creating a safe, accepting environment in which kids can explore all aspects of gender is a noble goal. But let’s remember that gender is a function of biology, not sociology. He, she, his, hers- it’s not pronouns and possessives that once prevented women from voting or that now try to prevent same-sex couples from marrying. The problem isn’t in our pants, it’s in our hearts and minds and that’s where any genuine change will have to begin.

The Short Life and Long Death of Christian Choate

July 16, 2011  |  Current Events, Fatherhood  |  6 Comments

Lost in the fanfare surrounding Casey Anthony’s trial and acquittal is another story of child murder that doesn’t seem to be generating the same headlines. That’s too bad because, for me, it’s a story not just of brutality and evil but of our communal failure to care for the people around us.

Christian Choate

Christian Choate was 13 years old when his father beat him to death. Being dead, by Christian’s own account, was a step up from living the dog cage where his father, Riley, and step-mother confined him for well over a year. He was regularly beaten, starved and forced to live in his own waste – taken out only on occasion to help with household chores. Sometimes he was given a pencil and paper so he could write down his thoughts on confinement and why he deserved to be treated as he was. On the good days, Christian wrote about how we wanted to go outside and play . On the bad days, he wrote about how he wanted to die rather than endure any more.

One evening, Riley – whose mugshot appears to show a slobbering fat prick of no less that 220 pounds — punched his frail, malnourished child in the head, full force about a half a dozen times then locked him back in the kennel. At some point in the night, Christian’s sister informed her father that Christian wasn’t breathing. Dad and step-mom wrapped his dead body in a garbage bag and buried him beneath a slab of concrete in the trailer park. It took two years for somebody to finally whisper in someone’s ear and get the police involved. Two full years.

There’s something exponentially worse about what happened to Christian than about the Casey Anthony docudrama or Susan Smith’s mental collapse, because this particular abomination happened in plain sight, in a trailer park over the course of more than a year. For a decade, Child Protective Services had an open file on the Choate family but – impossibly – could never come up with evidence of abuse. It’s a baffling collision of incompetence and bureaucracy and it cost a child his life.

Even if we can, somehow, accept that there’s nothing extraordinary about the way the system failed Christian (it happens all too regularly), we’re still left with a troubling question: Where were the rest of us? Where were the aunts and uncles, the cousins, the mother, the siblings, the passersby, the neighbors, the teachers? How did a year of torture and two years in a hole in the ground go unnoticed?

By the age of 12, I had first hand experience with sad fact that there’s nothing inherently special about being a parent — any idiot with the right anatomy can have a child. I got through this period of my life unscathed and unabused because people that didn’t have any stake in my well being, folks that had no obligation to me whatsoever, made the somewhat courageous decision to give me a home and role models and friends when I needed all of those things. People watched out for me.

Why did no one do the same for Christian?

Stories like this leave me feeling angry and helpless and – most of all – guilt stricken.

“Hey, has anyone seen that home schooled kid? I haven’t seen him in, like, a year”. Shrug. “Who knows, I can’t talk now, the new season of True Blood is on.”

I have day-dreams where I can turn the clock back 3 years and waltz into that trailer park with a machete and a tazer and do things that would land me a spot in criminal psychology books for generations to come. But I can do no such thing. And even if I could, it’s a self-serving fantasy that misses the point. Nothing so dramatic or heroic is required of any of us. Simply that we be present enough to know when we are needed and courageous enough to meet that need when we see it. It’s a crucial gap in our society that desperately needs filling.

Our indignation and thirst for postmortem retribution might make us feel vigilant and involved – but only after the fact. Christian is still dead. In some small way, I feel like we were all accomplices – not in his actual death but in allowing these monsters enough dark corners from which to spread their sickness. It’s not enough to count on an overwhelmed, under-qualified group of bureaucrats to defend the defenseless. We have to be willing to shine a light into every dark corner, to knock on doors, ask questions and make uncomfortable calls — even when we might be wrong.

The opposite of compassion isn’t malevolence, it’s indifference. All the Riley Choates of the world need is our indifference and they’re free to lock children in cages and bury them in shallow graves.