What’s Wrong with Winning?

February 3, 2015  |  Fatherhood, Sports  |  1 Comment

** THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE
OCTOBER 2014 ISSUE OF PARENTS MAGAZINE **

 

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.”

the Truth

September 25, 2014  |  Fatherhood  |  No Comments

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
seriously
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
the truth

These Are The Good Old Days

August 17, 2014  |  Fatherhood  |  2 Comments
hats

nothing says togetherness like family hat day

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.

Happy Kids Are Overrated

May 4, 2014  |  Fatherhood  |  1 Comment

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.”

2014-04-16-jdroberto.jpg
I’ve told myself for years that happy kids should be a priority, but these days I am seriously starting to doubt that I’m pursuing the right kind of happiness for my kids. I’m beginning to think that happy kids are, in general, entirely overrated.

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.

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:

2013-05-29-finn_pic.jpg

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.

Because I Said So

April 26, 2013  |  Fatherhood  |  2 Comments

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.

 

Surgery, Soccer and Sass – A Month in the Life

September 18, 2012  |  Fatherhood  |  1 Comment

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.

pre-op wii smackdown

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.

a stroller grows in brooklyn

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.

I Hope My Son Inherits My Luck

August 6, 2012  |  Fatherhood  |  3 Comments

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.

Kindergarten Report Card

June 4, 2012  |  Fatherhood  |  4 Comments

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
.

Lesson learned.

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?

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.

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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.