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?
I got a lot of parenting advice before my first child came into the world. I think people feel obligated to bestow their wisdom on expecting parents and, overall, I guess that’s a good thing. Still, the advice I got – though well meaning and thoughtful – was almost entirely useless once the actual odyssey of being a dad began. Phrases like “life changing” and “wonderful adventure” came up repeatedly, but no one bothered to tell me I should go see a movie. These days, going to a movie involves two weeks of planning and forty bucks worth of babysitter — and that’s before you pay fourteen bucks for a ticket and six bucks for some Twizzlers.
Sleep was high on the recommendation list. “Get as much sleep as you can!” is what they tell you, but that particular pearl of wisdom seems entirely backward to me. What you should really be doing is training yourself to function on less sleep or sleep that is frequently interrupted. I guess you could try to stockpile sleep but, trust me, when you’re up all night with a sick four month old, knowing you got a solid nine hours back in June doesn’t help.
A few times, kindly grandparents summed up their parenting philosophy with something along the lines of, “Just shower ‘em with love!” It’s a heartwarming sentiment but I have yet to figure out how an exhausted parent is supposed to apply such sage counsel when his two-year-old is howling, spread eagle in the grocery store because he won’t buy a pair of Elmo shaped oven mitts.
The most common phrase I heard in the run up to parenthood was the seemingly benign, “It’s a tough job but it’s all worth it.” This is both true and diabolically misleading at the same time. Something about “it’s all worth it” suggests a proposition where some small majority of the time things will be blissful. “Yes,” you’re led to believe, “it’s going to be tough forty-nine percent of the time, but don’t worry because the other fifty-one percent it is great.” Guess what, it’s not. The ratio is frequently twenty percent enjoyable to eighty percent aggravating. Some days clock in at fifty-four percent bearable with thirty-five percent maddening rounded out by a dash of bewildering. I’ve been through entire weeks of eighty-seven percent exasperating, and experienced good-night cuddles that are one hundred percent ecstasy. It’s not balanced, it’s bipolar. It’s worth it not because it’s easy as often as it’s difficult, but because the perfect moments are so overwhelmingly sublime, you somehow forget the maniacal pajama tantrum you endured the night before.
If I could go back and give myself some more practical advice it would look something like this:
1. When they nap, you nap. Don’t send emails, don’t catch up on work. Nap.
2. Travel with your children when they are very young. At six months old it’s just as easy to keep them entertained in Cozumel as it is in Cleveland. You might as well get a tan out of the deal.
3. Buy a rechargeable, cordless hand vacuum. Your floors and cars will thank you.
4. It’s perfectly acceptable to make an entire dinner in the microwave.
5. In every parent-child relationship someone has to be the grown up. Try to make sure that someone is you. A two-year-old has the right to act like a child, you do not.
6. Take everyone who volunteers to babysit up on the offer. Repeatedly.
7. Buy everything you can second-hand.
8. Make time for the other relationships in your life — seeing you in the role of good friend or devoted spouse teaches your kids way more than a Baby Einstein marathon.
9. There’s no such thing as using too many wipes.
10. There will be times when you’re sure you are a terrible parent and, secretly, wonder why you ever had kids in the first place. This is normal. Forgive yourself these occasional moments of self-doubt and, from time to time, let yourself mourn your life pre-parenthood. Then have a healthy glass of wine, get some sleep and get back to work. After all, as you’ve no doubt heard, it’s a tough job, but it’s all worth it.
Oh, and go see a movie while you still can.
About a month ago I started a series of blog pieces entitled “A Few Things My Dad Got Right.” Shortly after the third and final installment went up, I got a long letter from my father that made it clear he felt blind-sided and hurt by the content of the posts. I immediately took the posts down so he and I could discuss them and figure out why something I had intended as a positive homage to the lessons he had imparted had struck him as an unfair, public and one-sided upbraiding of him as a human being.
Judging by our back and forth, it seems to me that my Dad felt like the pieces I wrote
were infused with resentment and more than a little selective memory. This couldn’t be more contrary to what I had intended but it’s very much a reminder for me that writing autobiographical material (especially material that endeavors to be very honest) means writing about other, real, people who may not like their personal, private lives dissected for mass consumption (or, at least, would like some say over how said dissection is done). This feeling is, no doubt, magnified by the fact that I am the lone voice in this particular pulpit and so it is my recollections (subjective and flawed as they no doubt are) that stand, unchallenged, as historical fact. That fact alone is probably unfair to anyone whose name appears on this blog (my wife most of all).
After a good deal of back and forth with my father, I’ve reposted the pieces in question (he was actually hoping I would do so, not because he’d suddenly agreed with their content but because he didn’t want to be seen as a censor). With all this as preamble, I’ll be interested to see how they read to people who don’t know either of us very well (or know both of us, who knows).
I’ve read over the pieces half-a-dozen times since receiving my Dad’s original note. I’ve tried to be as objective as possible and, at this point, I’m satisfied I gave all of you an accurate portrayal of my father as he was back in the day. I very much hope that the message people took away in regard to his legacy as a father was, on balance, a positive one. It’s a mixed review, no doubt, but the point of the pieces remains the same: only as a father myself am I able to see the important lessons I learned, even though I didn’t know I was learning them at the time.
That’s not how my Dad has seen it and the conflict we’ve had poses something of an
ethical dilemma for me. On the one hand, I can’t apologize for writing what I think is an honest and fair assessment of who he was when I was little. I tried to paint a somewhat complex picture of a guy with his share of failings and his share of successes – whose parenting choices I both reject and replicate on a regular basis. On the other hand, I want him to understand that I value the relationship we’ve developed in my adult years and that these days I think of him as a loving, warm and generous friend and grandfather. (indeed, if my kids could read the pieces I wrote, they would have a very hard time believing I was describing their Popop).
Striking the balance of those two ideas has been harder than I would have imagined. It remains, like most father/son relationships, a work in progress.
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.
Here we go with the final installment of lessons learned from my father.
Lesson #3 – A Kind Heart and A Sharp Right Hook
In our big house on Ripple Road, in Oshkosh we had a sprawling upstairs where my two older brothers and I slept in bunkbeds. It served as a playroom, a dormitory and
– on many occasions – the family boxing ring. My Dad liked to have us put the gloves on and flail around at each other from time to time. I was the youngest and I’m sure my brothers will tell you that I got it the easiest – but I got it, square in the nose, more than once.
My brothers and I knew that when we went out into the world, we were expected to know how to handle ourselves and part of that was knowing how to fight. Starting a fight was absolutely forbidden. Finishing a fight that someone else started with you was strongly encouraged. Of course, I rarely ever had to fight. By the time I was in elementary school, my older brothers had been through and made it clear that what the Roberto boys lacked in size, they made up for in willingness to get punched in the head and punch back. That was enough to send would-be bullies looking for an easier target.
All of this is horrifying by today’s standards. Much of it is a sad vestige of 1950s working class, immigrant life, where fathers teach sons to fight because fighting is a fact of daily life.
My life, my family and the parents I’ve met from my generation are entirely different. We don’t do violence. Period. That’s a good thing and I’m totally on board with it. Sort of. My overarching goal as a father is to raise a loving, kind and empathetic young man – the kind of child who would never resort to violence to settle any dispute and has the good judgment to avoid any conflict before it ever began. Then again, in an age of overwhelmed teachers and ballooning class sizes, where children impose themselves physically on each other, you know who never gets bullied? The kid with a solid right hook. Parents get obsessed with making sure little Timmy is a gentle soul and terrified of raising a little aggressor. We act like children live in a Tibetan monastery when the truth is very much the opposite. Like it or not, boys are physical and – at some point – most young men will find themselves in a situation with the potential for violence. (yes, I know, girls fight too – please, God, don’t beat me with your P.C. stick, just roll with it). Barbaric as it may sound, it is entirely possible to teach a child to eschew and avoid violence and also teach him (or her) to effectively, potently defend themself.
Put it up there with designated drivers, condoms and vaccines – it’s fine to hope everything will turn out all rainbows and unicorns, but it’s foolish not to prepare for the alternative.
Lesson #4 – Get Up
I learned by age six that there was a difference between being hurt and being injured. Being injured required medical attention, being hurt required sucking it up and walking it off. I was something of a wimp as a kid, but I knew how to take a hard fall and recover without calling FEMA for help deciding between Mickey Mouse and Scooby-Doo band aides.
These days that feels like a lost art.
Like any six year old, my son can sometimes be a wild man. Every wall has to be scaled, every puddle has to be jumped, every person of similar size has to be challenged to a footrace. This makes for a lot of fun and more than a couple of crash landings per month. Each time that I see my precious little man hit the pavement, the same thought runs through my mind, “Oh my God, my child is hurt!” This usually goes hand in hand with an overwhelming desire to run over, scoop him up and make everything okay. Sometimes I do exactly that, but most of the time I channel my father and say, “You’re okay, buddy, get up.” I can tell he doesn’t like it when I say that. He has no idea that I don’t like it either. It hurts my soul a little to deny him that immediate hug and comfort, but it’s the right thing to do. The truth that I can’t explain to him, the one he’ll only learn through long experience on this planet, is simple: the whole ‘hitting the pavement’ thing never ends. We get knocked down all our lives; spiritually, emotionally, financially, you name it. Life can be a contact sport. Like most things in life, you can’t control that – but you can control how you react to it. Helping a child develop the impulse to instantly pick themself up off the ground is a life-long gift, even when it robs us of the unparalleled joy of being the one that makes it all better.
In the end, that’s what all of these throwback parenting perspectives have in common; a willingness to allow our children to be unhappy or uncomfortable when it’s in their best interest. More often than not, that means suffering our own minor trauma – the knowing that we can make things easier on our child, but that doing so is doing them a disservice. I certainly don’t pine for the days of disconnected, workaholic Dads and Betty Crocker Moms, but I’ve come to understand that each generation has something valuable to teach the next about how to turn children into responsible adults. It may be easy to write off our fathers as unenlightened products of their time, but most of them did the best they could with the knowledge they had. After that, the best that we can hope for is that, one day, our kids will say the same about us.
Last week I started jotting down a short list of things my Dad – much maligned in the parenting arena – got right when it came to fatherhood. Dad was old school (I say “was” because he’s mellowed in his AARP days and is in a fair bit of denial about exactly how hardcore he used to be). Much of my perspective on parenting is defined by my desire (need?) to be a different kind of Dad than I had. And yet, sometimes in the touchy-feely age of helicopter parenting, I can see that the way my own father approached raising children still has some value.
Lesson #2: Manners Aren’t Optional
Manners were a high priority for my father. I distinctly remember visiting him in the hospital when I was about eight years old. Dad was recovering from back surgery and the nurse came in to deliver his meds. As soon as she left, Dad lumbered out of bed, hobbled across the semi-private room to his three sons and gave each of us a sharp whack on the back of the head (Dad would deny this, he has a kind of selective-dementia that seems to only crop up when I remind him that he was a hard-ass back in the day). Anyway, this is how we all learned that the rule about young men standing when a lady comes into the room applied to nurses as well. For the Roberto boys, the bar was set a good bit higher than ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. To this day I can tell you that a large dinner napkin should be placed in your lap still half-folded and only after the host has done the same , the salt and pepper should always be passed together, and that, in a formal place setting, the cutting edge of a knife always faces in, toward the plate. The list goes on. I’m not saying I actually make use of these rules on a regular basis, but manners are as much a formative part of my upbringing as Bugs Bunny, messy divorces and Spaghetti-O’s straight out of the can.
I can’t quite embrace this level of intensity on the whole manners issue but I’ve definitely come to understand that politeness is about a lot more than knowing which fork to use on a salad (the outer most fork is for salad, in case you’re wondering). We’re relentless at our house with manners, even when it seems like no progress is being made whatsoever. Nothing is given without a please or received without a thank you. Z and Pebbles both know that the phrase “try again” means that whatever has just come out of their mouth needs a “nice word” attached to it. It’s exhausting and repetitive but crucial. There’s something about saying “please” when you want something that reminds the asker that a favor is being done for them. “Pass the salt” is a command. “Please pass the salt.” involves the speaker acknowledging that there’s another person in the equation that is doing them a kindness, however small.
We do all this not because we have an Emily Post fetish but because we’re intent on teaching our children gratitude and decency. As small as these words may seem, their absence speaks of entitlement and expectation in a world that has too much of both. I’ve said this before: people who dwell in gratitude rarely dwell in misery while the entitled tend to live with perpetual disappointment.
Manners are a gift, not just to the old lady who gets a door held open for her or the Grandpa who gets a hand written thank you card, but for the child who learns to appreciate how much is done for them day in and day out.
(in the interest of full disclosure, we’re pretty bad about thank you cards but we’re trying to get better!)
The parenting strategy of most guys (if there is one at all) is driven by one of two experiences. Either we’re trying desperately to replicate the thoughtful, patient and supportive home-life we had as children or we’re stumbling blindly into fatherhood vowing to do a damn sight better than our own Dads did. Like most men, I fall squarely into the latter category. I am the product of a well-meaning but affectionately stingy father from the generation of men who considered their critical family roles to be bread winner and prison warden with not a lot of room in between. It’s not that my Dad didn’t care about being a good parent – he cared very much. It’s that his idea of what that meant was very different than what many of us imagine it to be today.
In the five years since my own son has come into the world, I have been determined to be an entirely different kind of father. For the most part, I’ve succeeded in that quest. I’m hands-on with my boy, I’m liberal with kisses and hugs and the word “love” crosses my lips a half-a-dozen times a day. We have family dance parties in the living room, puppet shows behind the couch and I even let him choose the music in the car. We’re goofballs together. We’re best buddies.
Still, there are times when I find the modern approach to parenting, with it’s insistence on treating toddlers like little, rational adults, comes up decidedly short. It’s at those moments that I find myself reaching into my bag of Daddy lessons and stumbling across some of my father’s old-school tools. And as much as I’d like to reject his ideas as archaic and unenlightened, it turns out that my Dad actually got it right from time to time. Under-appreciated and politically incorrect as they may be, here are a few oldies but goodies that I find myself, sometimes against my better judgment, putting to use in the new millennium.
Lesson #1: You Don’t Have to Like It, You Just Have to Do It
I’m not particularly good on the piano but I can hammer out Christmas carols and usually figure out the new Adele song if I have enough time. If you know nothing about music you’ll be suitably impressed by what I can do with eighty-eight keys but if you actually play an instrument, you’ll know right away that I am a hack. It doesn’t matter to me that I’m not good because it brings me enormous joy to sit with my son and plunk at the keys or play my guitar during bath time (I take requests, usually to make up a song about something like bathtub farts). None of this would be possible had I been allowed to quit piano lessons when I was seven (which I tearfully begged to do on a regular basis). My dad forced me to stick with it for a full year. He became fond of saying that I would thank him later (he seemed to think that I would thank him later for a lot of things — most of which I still do not thank him for). After twelve months of whining, my mother reached her limit and prevailed on him. He gave in, I quit, and I’ve regretted it my entire adult life. Sometimes when my father comes to visit, he sits down at the piano and knocks out a little Beethoven from memory. I suspect it’s his way of dressing an “I told you so” in the guise of family entertainment.
The problem, of course, is that learning is rarely the fun we like to think it is because learning tends to lack immediate gratification. Learning means spending a good deal of time not knowing, feeling frustrated, dumb, uncoordinated and generally in the dark. It’s the rare (and possibly troubled) individual who enjoys this set of feelings. As adults we can tell ourselves that the reward – the knowing how to do a thing that interests us – is worth the drudgery of feeling ignorant in the short term. For kids, the short term is the only term. There’s now and there’s “Am I still going to be doing this five minutes from now?” and that’s about it. They get frustrated and bored and generally aren’t shy about letting you know.
Many parents today, who somehow equate their child’s immediate happiness with their success as a guardian, flail around from activity to activity waiting to find that one special thing that little Joshua really, really wants to do. The only thing Joshua becomes good at, however, is quitting. It’s frighteningly common to hear parents say something along the lines of “There’s no point in forcing him to do it if he doesn’t like it.” This could not be more wrong. There’s a gigantic, throbbing, massively important point to it. Your child is going to take some lesson away from these experiences, it’s up to you to decide if that lesson should be that quitting what you don’t like is a valid option or that on the far side of initial frustration and the tedium of regular practice is the exquisite joy of being good at something.
Sadly, it’s exceedingly difficult to make a toddler understand the long term benefits perseverance. You can’t explain to a six year old the concept of being a well rounded human being anymore than you can explain to a thirteen year old that it’s not, exactly, about reading Heart of Darkness, it’s about being a literate adult. Somewhere between our fathers generation and this one, we forgot that the gulf between what we want and what’s good for us is often wide and deep. We have to remember that tenacity is a learned behavior and it’s up to us, the parents, to be possessed of the fortitude and commitment that our children have yet to develop.
This will probably sound really strange to many people but when Z, at four years old, came home from preschool asking about Martin Luther King, it was very important to me to explain Dr. King’s accomplishments outside the context of race. Z’s favorite preschool teacher, Ms. Karen, is a wonderful, loving, black woman – at times another Momma for Z – and he had (and has) no sense that there’s anything about her that’s the slightest bit different than him. To me that’s an innocence worth preserving for as long as possible. The only time he ever asked about skin color I held my (olive skinned) arm out and said “Hey, look, I’m a little darker than you.” and he said “Yeah, and Momma’s lighter than me.” and that was that. People come in all shades, ’nuff said.
So I explained to him that MLK was a great, brave man who had been a champion of equality. He had stood up and said that no matter who someone was, no matter what they looked like or how much money they had or where they came from, they deserved the same rights and respect as everyone else. Z, who already has an acute sense of fairness, latched on to this and has been an MLK fan ever since. A month or so later, after a crushing loss in little-kid soccer, Z came stomping off the field angry and red faced. The other team had more players, he insisted, “And Martin Luther King said it has to be fair!” He was ready to march on from Selma to Montgomery because this was bullshit! In a rare moment of fatherly excellence, I comforted him without laughing.
For better or worse, at this point in his life Z has little or no concept of black and white – there’s no such thing as a ‘minority’ to him just as there’s no such thing as an ‘alternative lifestyle’. There are nice people, there are loving couples, that’s it. Obviously, he’s going to know about all of things at some point, but the longer he goes in life without thinking twice about Sophie having two Mommies, the more repulsed he’ll be by people who try to tell him there’s something wrong with it. And that’s exactly what I want.
Dr. King’s name came up again just this week. Z checks a book out from school each day, brings it home and we all read it together at bed time. It’s a great system that encourages reading and parental involvement and Z really enjoys it.
I got home late Thursday night from a week of shooting in NYC and when I got Z out of bed Friday morning he told me how excited he was to read his new New York City book together. Z loves New York – not only is it the place Daddy flies off to for work, he’s visited a few times and always gets to stay up too late, eat too much pizza and do cool stuff.
ME: A New York book? Sounds great.
Z: Yeah, it’s all about the buildings that burned and fell down.
Me: Uh…can I see your New York book for a second?
Turns out, Z had come home with a War of Terror / September 11 photographic retrospective. Now, I don’t think of myself as a prude or prone to overreacting but this seemed incredibly inappropriate for a kindergartener. Flipping through the book I found photos of everything from the WTC on fire to AK-47 wielding Taliban to a guy, in a pool of blood, shot dead in an airport. Checking it out to a six year old was an accident , it was a book that looked harmless enough on the cover that the librarian let out because she (I assume) had no idea what was inside.
He was disappointed that I wouldn’t read him the book or let him page through it but we decided to go to the Burbank library together and there we got a proper New York in photographs book – one of those Life Magazine coffee table books that is so fun to go through. When we came across a shot of lower Manhattan from the mid-1990s, I explained that those two big buildings were the ones that got knocked down. The brief conversation that ensued will stay with me as long as I live.
Z: Who knocked those buildings down?
Me: Someone who was mad, who didn’t like America very much and did a bad thing.
After a moments thought, a little light bulb went off for Z, as if he’d just made a meaningful connection between facts..
Z: Was it the same person who shot Martin Luther King?
Me: No, buddy, it wasn’t the same person.
Z: But they’re on the same team, right?
The thought was so simple and perfect that I just stared at him for a long moment. In lieu of the kind of wordy explanation I am prone to giving, I followed Z’s lead and went with the simplest and most immediate answer that came to mind.
Me: Yeah, they pretty much are.
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.”