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.
To say things have been in flux, especially for the kids, would be an understatement – at one point Karen and I counted and found that they had slept in 9 different places in 5 weeks. People love to tell you how ‘resilient’ children are but everyone needs something that resembles normal every now and again.
Thankfully, we’re now settled in Brooklyn – school has started, ballet classes are in full jete and I’m back at the keyboard figuring that even if I don’t have the brain space to deliver profound and insightful, at least I can do informative.
Part of Z’s ‘Welcome to NY’ package included word from our new pediatrician that he needed to have surgery. The procedure was totally routine but it involved him being knocked out and stuck with IVs and all kinds of monitors and wires. It was significantly more difficult than I imagined to turn him over to a surgeon with a smile and a thank you. At some point, while I was sitting in the waiting room feeling slightly sorry for myself, I noticed that some of the parents there knew the nurses by name. They had children who were seriously ill and had spent countless days in post-op, waiting and hoping. The realization snapped me back to the obvious truth that any parent with healthy children has no right to complain about anything.
My decision to coach little league soccer hasn’t been a complete disaster (honestly, it’s more herding than coaching). I’m a lousy coach and know almost nothing about the game, but Z has made a friend on the team whose parents are not only nice, they’re normal (can’t overstate what a rare thing this is) and Karen and I really enjoy them.
We’ve begun watching the Star Wars movies together. Z, in true guy fashion, insists on learning the name of every character (starring, supporting and otherwise) and knowing whether they are a good guy or bad guy – then telling us all in detail about them later in the film:
Z: “That’s Bobafet, he’s a bounty hunter. Bad guy.”
Pebbles can sometimes be found walking around the apartment humming Darth Vader’s Imperial March, often adding lyrics about princesses or ponies.
This month the differences between Z and Pebbles are becoming increasingly evident. Z is a tireless negotiator who will repeatedly ask, nag or bargain for what he wants. He’ll really grind you down but, in the end, he’ll take your answer as law. Stand him next to a bowl of M&Ms and then tell him he can’t have any, he’ll stomp away in a red-faced huff muttering under his breath about your parental incompetence — but he’ll listen. Pebbles doesn’t believe in wasting time with negotiations. Tell her she can’t have an M&M and she’ll not only grab the bowl and pour the contents down her throat, she’ll smash the bowl on the ground and flip you the bird as she saunters away (maybe I’m embellishing here but you get the point). Worse yet, given her ability to self-entertain, timeouts end up being little more than a chance for her to sing to herself in a corner. Where I once thought his boundless energy would drive me nuts, it’s becoming clear that her utter indifference to my authority is going to be a much bigger challenge.
I’ve been spending a lot of time at parks and playgrounds in the area. My plan to meet local parents on these excursions hasn’t worked out all that well but I am on good terms with a number of wonderful Dominican nannies. I feel particularly bad for Pebbles who, without school to fall back on, wants to know when she can have a little girl friend to play dress up with. For now it’s Karen who gets to help her do her best Cher impersonation – going through 12 outfits a day and exploring all things girlie
Gender is looming large for our three and a half year old girl. Our downstairs neighbor had the misfortune of showing up on the stoop in a baggy t-shirt and no makeup, forcing Pebbles to ask in a loud voice, “Excuse me, are you a boy or a girl?”
“She asks everyone that…ha ha ha ha” I lied.
And then there was this disconcerting exchange not so long ago after she walked into the bathroom as I got out of the shower.
Pebbles: “Daddy…I like your penis.”
Me: “Uh. Thanks, honey. But that’s my private area, so that’s just for me, just like your private area is just for you.”
Pebbles: “So we don’t talk about it.”
Me: “Not too much, honey.”
I probably could have thought of something better but, in the moment, it sounded like a decent answer — until I imagined her recounting it to others like this:
Pebbles: “I like my Daddy’s penis but I’m not supposed to talk about it.”
Thus giving me a chance to explain what a hilarious misunderstanding it all was, while wearing shackles and an orange jumpsuit.
All in all, both kids have taken to their new lives seamlessly. I’ve become convinced that it’s not actually about ‘resilience’ but rather flexibility. I think that as we get older our ability to adapt to the new tends to atrophy. So the idea of moving or turning our daily routine upside-down becomes painful, like we’re stricken with adventure arthritis. Thick from lack of use, we chose to stay still rather than face the stiff discomfort of change.
This is another of those situations where our kids are helping us keep our priorities in order and, to some degree, are keeping us young. They display an unnerving level of trust in us, a willingness to take any leap we suggest. For some reason, they seem to think that Karen and I actually know what we’re doing.
Their constant faith that it’s all going to work for the best is almost enough to make me believe it myself.
In the backseat, Z and his best buddy Kirby (my godson) are comparing the nutritional information of their respective snacks. I’m guessing the school year finished out with some kind of healthy eating program because all I’ve heard since June is “Is there a lot of fat in that?” and “How much sugar does that have?” It’s a great that they’re learning about nutrition but it’s also weird to hear a couple of six year olds bemoan the lack of potassium in Pirate Booty. It’s on the verge of being a grownup conversation and I’d rather hear them talking about Ninjago and Super Mario Kart.
They are both bearing down on their seventh birthday and seven is starting to feel like an invisible dividing line between “little boy” and plain old “boy.”
As I consider this looming change in age bracket, I suddenly think about a guy that I went to high school named Micah. I haven’t thought about this guy in 20 years, Micah wasn’t someone I was very close to. We knew each other like everyone in a small high school does, and we hung out from time to time. As far as I know Micah was entirely uninterested in the sodium content of kid snacks, so why he comes to mind right now is a mystery. What I do remember about Micah is that, like the two little boys in the backseat, he was fun loving, mischievous and endlessly energetic. He had a ‘life of the party’ vibe about him – the kind of guy you liked to have around because you were never entirely sure what he might do next. One night, after a number of drinks, we convinced Micah that a parked car thought he was a sissy and he went after it with a baseball bat. I’m not proud of that kind of behavior but it was the stuff of legend back in the day.
I wouldn’t say I was a “bad kid” by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s plenty that I look back on with regret and a shake of the head. There were a couple of teen years where things could have easily gone either way; a run-in with the police, a willingness to do and try things just because I knew I shouldn’t. In that time, I said and did things that could have had profoundly negative consequences but, for some reason that still isn’t clear to me, didn’t. When I think back, it seems like the most absurd, undeserved, run of obscenely good luck one person can possibly have. I made a number of really bad bets and none of them ever cost me a dime.
Micah didn’t end up having my good fortune. A few years after graduation someone told me that, after a night of drinking, Micah’s jeep drifted over the center divider and slammed into another car. A woman died, Micah went to jail and more than a couple of lives went sideways over one incredibly bad choice. I never heard another word about the guy – I never even knew for sure if the story was true – but it wasn’t hard to imagine. In fact it’s hard to imagine that it didn’t happen exactly like that.
In my rearview mirror, the nutrition debate rages on with predictable little boy passion. When I look at them both, I really don’t worry that one day they’ll turn up at school with a gun, join a cult, or lose their sense of decency and compassion. I’m not concerned that neglect or abuse will drive them to act out. From home to church to school they are both surrounded by good, hard working role models and have a vast support system of adults who love them.
What keeps me awake at night these days isn’t that these two perfect little men will turn out to be “bad kids” but rather that they’ll be just like me — young and unbearably foolish – but not nearly as lucky; that the laws of probability will make them answer for their missteps in a way I never had to.
In the backseat, the boys have reached a consensus on the fact that fast food, while delicious, isn’t particularly good for you. They’ve moved on to whether or not gluten free pizza is as good as regular pizza – a conundrum for the ages. I’m thinking about Micah and I’m grateful that for the time being, this is the biggest problem the three of us have.
No sooner had I climbed in the car at LAX, than Z announced that I had missed his last day of kindergarten (why school ends on a Thursday is beyond me). It’s odd to think that life is now measured summer to summer rather than January 1st to January 1st. Having a 1st grader in the backseat is also a reminder that while filling up any given Saturday with a bored child can seem a Herculean task, filling up a year in his life is virtually effortless.
Kinder report cards around here embrace the very scientific academic E, S, N system (excellent, satisfactory, needs improvement) and by the end of the year Z was pulling lots of Es and a few Ss and nary an N in the mix. We put a preemptive call into Harvard to lineup a spot in the 2024 incoming class.
School was really good for Z but as much as he might have learned, it was really a year of Karen and I learning about him.
Being good at something is very important to my little guy. Z thrives in math and loves it. Sometimes, at the very end of the night, he’ll try to avoid bedtime by suggesting that we do math problems. He got his math skills from Karen and the fact that he feels good about himself when he does well in math makes him want to do it more – which, of course, makes him even better. Reading has been more of a challenge. He gets it and he reads a bit, but he knows his best friend, Kirby, is reading chapter books already (the kid is an amazing reader). It’s not a competition, of course, except that to six year old boys everything is a competition. This self-imposed pressure makes the learning to read process a minefield for Z. There’s no such thing as little mistakes, there are only frustrating failures. Catastrophes of epic proportion.
I find the Greek tragedy that unfolds every time Z can’t sound out a word to be entirely exasperating, Karen finds it a little heartbreaking because she sees so much of her own relationship to learning playing out in her son. Learning is filled with self-doubt and time spent being ‘not very good’ at something. Neither Z nor his mother enjoy this feeling at all. I try to remind her that every time he offers a hug to a sad friend or marches across the living room to deliver an unsolicited kiss and “I love you”, he’s showing the world something else that he got from his mother (just like every time he decides to talk nonstop for half an hour and laugh at his own jokes he’s channeling his father).
Of course, the real education at school is what your child learns from the other kids. Last week, out of the blue, Z informed me that, “When girls watch too much romance on TV, they get into boys business.“. This is not only an awesome piece of little boy wisdom (and, in my experience, totally accurate) it’s the kind of educational tidbit you can only pick up from a worldly mentor like Teddy the 4th Grader.
Z also learned that Google is smarter than his father. It’s not uncommon for him to ask me to ask the internet a question: “Dad, can you check on the computer about how far away the moon is?” or “Dad, can you check on the internet about what time the pool opens?”
And then there was this exchange:
Z: Mindy has two sisters and they cigarette.
Me: They what?
Z: They cigarette.
Me: You mean they smoke cigarettes?
Z: Yeah. They’re going to get cancer and die.
Me: (thoughtful pause). Yes. Yes they are.
Honestly, I’m grateful to the School of Other Kids for helping me round out Z’s education about the world. I like the idea that he’s gleaning all kinds of information from the kids he’s around and then coming home and fact checking with me. But I’m also terrified that I can’t control the pace and content of the curriculum. I know there’s nothing original about that worry, but it doesn’t stop me from wondering when he’s going to turn up with a hunk of raw truth that I don’t want him to have just yet and, when he does, what I’m going to say.
Unlike every other activity on the planet, which get invariably easier the longer you do them, this whole Dad thing is getting progressively more complicated. Teaching bike riding is a breeze when compared with the finesse required to explain the concepts of “romance” and “business” and neither even scratches the surface of what I can see coming right around the corner. Karen is fond of saying, “Little kids, little problems. Bigger kids. bigger problems.” I’m fond of ignoring that particular truth lest I dwell on it.
One day not too long ago, as Z trotted off through the gate and into school, Pebbles looked at me from her car seat and asked, “Daddy, when can I go to kindergarten?” I smiled and tickled her, my way of dodging a question I don’t feel like answering.
When can you go to kindergarten, my beautiful, little girl? How about never?
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.
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.
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.
At some point I know my kids are going to have to face the many ugly truths about life on this planet and, by and large, I think that’s a good thing. Part of molding a young child into a decent, responsible, adult is making sure they are aware of the suffering and injustice in the world so that they value what they have and strive to better the lives of the people around them. Knowing how good you have it builds gratitude and, in my experience, it’s unusual for a person that dwells in gratitude to dwell in unhappiness.
Still, I think it’s a good idea to reveal the negative side of life slowly. It’s kind of like when you’re dating. Sure there are plenty of odd, off-kilter and unattractive things about each of us, but we try not to lead with those facts. You don’t want to tell a new love interest that you’re lactose intolerant, wet the bed until age 9 and are predisposed to male pattern balding and early onset Alzheimer’s on the first date. It’s perfectly fine for this stuff to come out in good time, but all of it at once is going to make for very few second dates.
With our kids, we started this process in a low key way; a Wednesday night sandwich making project with our church and the LA Union Mission. The first year, Z didn’t really have a grasp on why we were making sandwiches but it was fun to slap bread, meat and condiments together once a week. When asked during our second year of sandwich making, Z proudly stated that we were making sandwiches for people who didn’t have refrigerators. It was a start.
As Z began to learn his alphabet, he took an interest in the people he saw panhandling at big intersections around town. “What does that sign say, Daddy?” became a common refrain. This led to conversations about why people needed food or work or a home. He was particularly perplexed the notion that not everyone had a place to live. On one occasion, Z suggested we put up tents in our backyard and buy a bunch of blankets, “So people would have some place to sleep. And besides, camping out is really fun.” It made perfect sense, of course, other than being entirely crazy.
One night, on the way out for a pizza, we saw a haggard looking guy holding a sign reading “Just Hungry.” Without hesitation, Z said, “We should take him to CPK with us, they have great pizza.” I instantly replied “We can’t…” and then, in a split second, considered how to finish this sentence.
He might just want money and not food.
He might do something dramatically inappropriate in front of my kids.
He might be high on meth.
He might smell really, really bad.
He might expect me to make conversation with him.
He might kill us all.
I was aware that these reasons ranged from highly implausible to profoundly degrading. Z would have sensed it too, had I actually finished the sentence—which I didn’t. I just left it out there as a fact “We can’t.” without giving him a ‘why’ and, thankfully, he let it go.
Lately, however, Z has crossed something of an intellectual threshold and has begun asking questions for which there is no complete answer or for which he’s simply not ready to digest unvarnished candor. Two nights ago, as I tucked him in for bedtime, he busted out with “Where do you go after you die?” This kind of question, without the courtesy of even a little existential foreplay, tends to give me a slight pit in the stomach. I’m sure I overdramatize the importance of my answers but I feel incredible pressure to deliver an honest reply that doesn’t also send him into a spiral of nihilistic depression while he’s still in kindergarten (after all, that’s what puberty’s for).
We hit the same kind of speed bump right before the holidays. Determined to dial-back the feeding frenzy that we knew would engulf our home as presents and boxes began to arrive from friends and relatives, Karen and I sat Z down and told him we wanted to go through everything he owned—top to bottom—and donate at least half of it to people who had less than he did. Z was surprisingly good at letting go of his belongings—he took real pride in being able to give great stuff to kids who didn’t have as much as he did. He would frequently say things like “Someone is going to love this, it’s so much fun.” while stacking a game or toy onto the donate pile.
The problem came when Karen suggested we find a local women’s shelter for some of the better clothing and newer toys. Z immediately asked “What’s a women’s shelter?” The answer hitched in my throat as I tried to sand off the sharp edges of reality and explain domestic violence in a feel good kind of way. “Well, buddy, it’s just a place for women and their kids who don’t have any other place where they can be safe.” It seemed like this partial answer was going to satisfy him and he sat quietly for a long moment. Then he followed up with what, in retrospect, is the obvious question “Are there men’s shelters too?”
Is this the moment I explain to my son that some men brutalize their wives and children? That without a safe place to go, some of these women will end up dead? Is this the moment I explain what a murder-suicide is, or an amber alert, or a restraining order? Sure, he’ll eventually know all of these things. But does it need to be today?
I’m not trying to shield my child from reality, but I want him to love the world he inhabits as much as I love it. His life will unfold and there will be unlimited opportunities for his view of humanity to crumble. Before that happens, I want time to ingrain in him the belief that—despite the inevitable heartbreak and disappointments—life is good. I want that truth indelibly etched on his soul. Z has already dealt with the death of both maternal grandparents and we’ve explained that the reason he can’t talk to adults that he doesn’t know is that there are some bad people out there who would harm him given the chance. This is a healthy dose of “the world is a cesspool of horror and injustice” and—like that first date—I’m interested in full disclosure only as a long term proposition. For now, I’ll settle for what I’ve got—partially aware and thoroughly happy.
And so—with all that sentimental melodrama churning in my head—I made the only logical reply: “You know, some little boy is going to love that Spiderman backpack.”
Z smiled and said “Yeah, it’s pretty cool.”
We give our kids a lot. Before they are even born they get our genetics – our eye and hair color, an approximation of our height and body type. They get our predispositions to everything from tooth decay to high blood pressure. Once they come into the world they immediately begin to pick up things like our eating habits and our speech patterns and accents. Eventually, we start trying to instill our values – we start with easy stuff like “please” and “thank you” and later with more nuanced concepts of fairness and justice.
Along the way – intentionally or not — we give them something of our style and cultural world view. I play guitar and piano but I don’t own a gun or a fishing pole. By virtue of this, Z knows nothing of hunting or fishing, but he knows what a capo is and wants me to teach him songs on the keyboard. That’s the way it works. At some point, however, each of us needs to realize that not everything we hold dear has inheritable value. Some of it, in fact, would be better left on the scrapheap of memory. With that in mind, I’ve put together a quick list for myself (and others from my generation) of pop culture tidbits that our kids would be better for without ever knowing.
Kid’s don’t need to know…
1. What a VCR is for. Also in this category, how inspiring you find historical changes in cellphone size, TV channel selection, the mystifying power of the internet (because it’s only a mystery to you, to your kid its normal). Did you ever consider how close the words “quaint” and “antiquated” are?
2. That argyle sweaters are meant to be worn around the neck but never covering the little guy playing polo on your shirt.
3. Who “The Beatles” were. I know, unspeakable heresy. I’m not saying they weren’t terrifically talented, I’m saying that your music is your music. Right or wrong, Lennon and McCartney’s “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” is a sad wallflower in the age of Plies and Akon’s “I Wanna F*ck U.” And before you convince yourself the Fab 4 were the most popular band of all time, here’s a dose of reality: Ke$ha’s “Tik-Tok” has sold more copies than any Beatles single…ever. If my kids, in a fit of nostalgia, one day force my grandkids to listen to Ke$ha, it will be a sign that I utterly failed as a father.
4. Whether or not those are Bugle Boy jeans you’re wearing nor exactly how far up you could get the sleeves on your Members Only jacket.
5. How your life was changed by Sixteen Candles, Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink (and for godsake, if you need to add St. Elmo’s Fire to this list, seek professional help now). If you must show them “classic movies” – consider ET and The Princess Bride. Anthony Michael Hall didn’t get watchable until The Dead Zone and Judd Nelson never did.
6. That Boy George and Curious George are not cousins.
7. That you were in a band in high school, because that wasn’t really a “band” in the proper sense of the word. You and some mildly talented friends rarely practiced and then publicly mangled everything from Rock the Kasbah to 99 Red Luft Balloons which you, mistakenly, thought were played with the same four chords when you performed them at that 10th grade pep rally.
8. Where you land on the James Tiberius Kirk v. Jean-Luc Picard continuum. This is the grownup equivalent of Jacob v. Edward which is the little girl (and middle-aged housewife) version of the adolescent male Ginger v. Maryanne conundrum. None of them are actual people, get over it.
9. About how you still, for no reason, wonder about the location of “the beef”, that sometimes when you see a passing aircraft you secretly think “da plane, da plane!” or that to pass time on the treadmill you try to see if you can go fast enough to generate 1.21 jigawatts.
10. The words to any Lionel Richie song. Yes, it’s insanely fun to belt out “is it me you’re looking for!!?” every time your five year old says “Hello” but the only person you’re amusing is you (this is a healthy dose of self-talk right here, part of my twelve step program to stop singing everything to Z). Every time you go all Dancin’ on the Ceiling or Say You, Say Me, you’re simply reminding your kids that you are desperately out of touch.
Never forget that the line between ‘old school’ and ‘old fool’ is perilously thin.