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.”
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.
Please welcome Guest Blogger PATRICK CANEDAY who authored this installment of the Hands on Dad.
You know that ogre-parent on your block that all the kids fear? The father at the supermarket who barks at his kids when they ask for candy at the checkout line? That dad at the mall who doesn’t care whether his crying daughter’s fourth grade friends get to wear booty shorts and midriff tank tops?
That’s me. The father that makes the rest of you feel pretty good about your suspect parenting skills. And you’re welcome.
I don’t read books on childrearing, don’t take classes, subscribe to the latest “method” or belong to any parenting support groups (unless drinking cheap cabernet on the front lawn with other parents while ignoring our kids counts). No, my parenting lessons are of the unscripted and inadvertent kind; the ones that happen when good intentions land you at the bottom of a very deep rabbit hole.
I have two daughters, ages ten and eight. I call them Thing 1 and Thing 2, just not when they’re within earshot. They are 49% infuriating and 51% magically life-affirming, so I think I’ll keep them. They are both girly and emotional, brazen and wise. Thing 1 hates physical exertion, remembers everything anyone has ever said to her and will read the entire Wimpy Kid series in a weekend. Thing 2 has a future in track and field, wants to be a “famous lifeguard” someday and is already asking for the Cliff Notes to third grade.
Like most girls, they are Sensitive (yes, capital “S”). Thing 2 has a deep empathy for any suffering creature – man, worm or beast – and feels tremendous, physical guilt when she’s done something wrong. Thing 1 has a hard time handling changes in routine, crowded places and environments of overwhelming light and sound. Traits, for better or worse, I see in myself. Thanks, genetics!
Though they share DNA, they are spitefully different and demand different things from me as a so-called father. Nowhere is this better captured than on a sanity-testing trip to Disneyland, where the happiest place on Earth can turn into Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride quicker than you can say “Pirates of the Crying Children.”
Picture us – Bad Dad, Things 1 and 2, and the Foolish Woman Who Married Me – at the Magic Kingdom over the Labor Day weekend; it’s 95 degrees, late in the day, we’re sticky from one form of sugar product or another and I have a pocketful of Fastpasses. Splash Mountain was a natural choice. There’s a good chance of getting refreshingly wet and always an hour long line. But, the only part of the ride you see from the line is the final, 50-foot plunge with a log-full of riders screaming in fear for their lives. Seeing that, Thing 1 shut down, refusing to go on this joyride to certain death.
If you’ve ever been on Splash Mountain, you know it’s actually pretty tame. Except for that last drop, of course. We’d spent the day splitting into twosomes – one going on Star Tours and the other Small World – because of her resistance to coaster-like rides. So here’s the dilemma: How far should a parent push their sensitive, scared child to do something the child fears but the parent knows is perfectly safe and fun? Since I’m the guy in our house who always, and I mean always, takes a good joke or teaching moment too far, my choice was clear.
“You are going on this ride,” I commanded her. I was Darth Vader using the Force to extract information from a rebel spy.
“But I don’t want to,” she replied with tears welling in her fearful, beautiful cobalt eyes.
“It’s just a log ride. Most of it is a calm trip down a lazy river with singing, dancing animatronic critters.”
“I don’t care,” she spat. “I don’t want to go on it.” She was clinging to a railing to prevent me from dragging her through the line. Her cheeks now streaked with tears, it was time for me to bust out the truly questionable parenting tactics.
“Do you see that boy?” I said, pointing to a lad two feet shorter than her.
“He’s half your age, and he is going on this ride!”
“So, what are your friends at school going to think when they know you won’t even go on a log ride?”
I know, I know. Dr. Spock probably didn’t write a chapter on shaming your children into obedience. But, like I said, I do all I can to make other parents look really, really good.
But it worked.
Though angry, she begrudgingly agreed to go on the ride. I was thrilled with my decisive victory – and the opportunity for all four of us to go on something together other than the Dumbo ride ¬– but part of me was racked with guilt. Would this be the moment her future caseworkers isolated as the trigger for her crack addiction and porn career? The one that sent her on the path towards being “that cat lady” or a contestant on “Big Brother?” Or worse yet, the one that caused a sweet, loving, sensitive girl to resent her over-demanding father for the rest of her life?
But there was no time to worry about that. Fastpasses redeemed, we were in our log and on our way; Thing 1 burying her face in her mother’s shoulder for most of the ride. I wondered, as we clanked our way up to the precipice of the 50-foot final plunge, whether I’d gone too far this time.
At the top of the hill I looked back to see her face. And for a split-second she peered out, ashen-faced, to see what was coming our way. Then I looked forward, down five stories into the mist.
And we dropped.
After the wave crested our log and the laughter stopped, I turned back to see how she did. Her smile said it all.
She was giggling uncontrollably, and her face was alight with newfound joy. When we got off the ride, she was ecstatic. She seemed empowered and confident at having overcome her fears; proud of herself in a way I’d never seen before.
“Can we do that again!?” she asked.
Ever since I became a parent, I feel like I make a hundred of these decisions each day; whether it’s about letting them have a treat, forcing them to do their homework before they can go out to play or not letting them stay up late even though their friends do. And I never know which mundane verdicts I hand down might be life-altering to a child with budding experience in the world.
Though my gamble paid off on Splash Mountain, I fear how many decisions I’ve already made for my children that won’t. That, for me, is the scary five-story plunge. And for this ride, there are no Fastpasses.
PATRICK CANEDAY is an essayist, author, sad excuse for a husband and so-called father to two amazing daughters. His weekly newspaper column, SMALL WONDERS, appears in several Los Angeles area newspapers. CROOKED LITTLE BIRDHOUSE, his new book, is available on Amazon. Friend him on Facebook, contact him at email@example.com and read more at www.patrickcaneday.com.
The kindly lady at the register called me a “hands-on Dad.” I was waiting to check-out with a box of diapers and a chattering eighteen month old when she smiled and said, “It’s good to see such a hands-on Dad.” It was a compliment and I liked…a lot. I was already swimming in a sea of smiles, nods and “ohhhhhs” from just about every woman I passed. Not much will make a guy feel like Superman more than a slow stroll around Target with his baby daughter in his arms. Honestly, right after she was born, I volunteered to take Pebbles everywhere I went. On a regular day at the grocery store I’m just some idiot who ran out of milk. But strap an infant to my chest and I’m that sweet, young Dad with his precious little daughter. The unshaven, ball cap, sweatshirt look suddenly tells the story of a loving father who has put parenthood before personal grooming, rather than the story of a slacker who really needs to hit the gym. I’m a “hands-on Dad,” I get a free pass.
I’d already had a taste of this with my son who’s a couple of years older. We’d be in the middle of a ferocious round of “chase Daddy, catch Daddy, knock Daddy over” at the library park when I would start sensing the approving eyes of Moms and Nannies lighting on us as we tumbled across the grass. The truth is, given my insecurities, I reveled in all the unsolicited attention and the feeling that people thought I was a good Dad. There’s nothing quite as intoxicating as the approval of strangers.
I’m not entirely sure when I first noticed that my wife wasn’t on the receiving end of the same admiration that I was getting, but it was pretty clear that a trip to Target didn’t include people telling her how great it was to see a mother spending time with her child. Likewise the grocery store, where cruising the aisles with two young children has never involved deferential smiles and I have certainly never in my life heard the phrase “hands-on Mom.”
It occurred to me that the reason behind the disparity is both obvious and disappointing. As much as we’d like to believe that we’ve evolved past gender stereotypes, when it comes to parenting, most people still fall back on millennia old ideas of what Mommies and Daddies are expected to do. Sure, we all understand the concept of stay-at-home Dads and these days the word “Mannie” refers to more than a diminutive Latino cartoon character. But for most folks, these are novel concepts that barely rise about the level of quaint anecdote. “Oh, look at Tim! He quit his job to raise his kids, how progressive!”
That these trends are noteworthy at all tells us that there still needs to be a genuine shift in mindset; a reimaging of parenting as a true, equal partnership. The fact is, we shouldn’t see anything unique or charming about a capable, dedicated, involved father. Men are not genetically predisposed indifference or absence and we’re certainly not interested in being cast as “well meaning helper.” The concept of the nine-to-five Provider/Father, absorbed in his work while the wife labors with raising his children, is equal parts obsolete and insulting. And though we pay lip service to being well past this mid-twentieth century vision of the nuclear family, every special pat on the back I get for simply showing up and being a parent tells us otherwise.
I aspire to be a great father, but I’m not interested in being graded on a sliding scale or getting credit for mundane parenting tasks simply because I’m a guy. I don’t need a parade every time I execute a flawless, one-handed diaper change (which I do regularly) and I don’t need to hear about how great it is that I can do pigtails for my little girl (my piggies rock, by the way). I know these accolades are meant in the best possible way but when you compliment a father for doing something a mother does without notice or praise, you diminish both of us.
Little Isabella doesn’t want to leave the park. Best I can tell, her Mom has reached the fourth two-minute warning for departure and every time The Little Princess hears the phrase “Come on honey, time to put on your shoes.” she goes apoplectic and runs the other direction. Mom has yet to get off the park bench; I guess she’s counting on parental telepathy at this point. After a brief interval, she tries a half-hearted “Honey…” from a safe distance, only to be met with more howls of protest. As if to explain the unfolding spectacle, the Mom looks at me and says, “She just loves the park.”
But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself here…let’s go back to where it all begins.
No parent likes to hear their child cry. It’s far more than annoying, it’s emotionally unsettling. Child Development studies have shown that parents have an involuntary physiological response to the sound of a crying child. Agitation, increased heart rate – hearing a little one cry elicits a physical and emotional reaction not entirely unlike a panic attack. And, not surprisingly, when a parent hears one of their kids crying, their first instinct is to figure out the quickest way to make it stop. On more than one occasion, I’ve stumbled half-asleep into Pebble’s room and scooped her out of her crib with a whispered “Daddy’s here, you’re okay.” without ever knowing why she was crying in the first place. Sometimes she’s had a bad dream and sometimes she’s just bored and wants company.
Of course, very young children, who have not yet learned anything that resembles emotional nuance, have pretty much only one level of discontent – utter and complete anguish. At a certain age, there’s no distinction between the agony of falling and cutting open your head and the agony of discovering that an episode of Yo Gabba Gabaa is over. And because the volume and passion of the protests that accompany each of these crises is equal, it’s not uncommon to see parents swoop in with equal concern and try to fix the situation with soothing, kind words and the inevitable bribes and negotiations that follow.
This is how we get trained, from the time our kids are born, to do whatever it takes to keep them happy. What begins as an instinctual urge to meet the needs of an infant slowly morphs into an exhausted capitulation to the demands of a toddler. We get tired of fighting, tired of the theatrics, tired of hearing the word “No” come out of our mouths. Add to this fatigue the shame that comes with hauling a screaming four-year-old off the swing-set in front of the entire world and keeping oneself planted firmly on that bench seems like a valid, even sensible, option.
While this might be the perfect way to stop the waterworks or avoid a confrontation, it’s also the perfect way to raise an entitled toddler who believes that all things are possible through tears. Our desire to avoid confrontation and make everything okay is, in fact, making our kids into tantrum terrorists, ready to hold the peace and quiet of our lives hostage to their every whim.
Sure, there are times when comfort and accommodation from Mommy or Daddy is the perfect remedy: a skinned knee, a bad dream, the death of Marley. Your child’s fit about not wanting to eat her broccoli, however, is not one of those times. It’s in precisely these moments that a parent has the opportunity to draw a clear and important line between what is and is not an appropriate reaction to life’s little disappointments. It’s also the perfect moment to show a child that there’s a difference between genuine distress – which will always be met with love and care – and unnecessary drama.
All of this gets back to an important rule about being a parent in the first place. After the basics of feeding, clothing and protecting your child from peril, your primary role is not Comforter-In-Chief, it’s teacher. Everything we do (and fail to do) is a lesson to our kids about how the world works and what is expected of them in that world. To be sure, there are times when the appropriate lesson is “Don’t worry, I’m here for you, everything is going to be okay.” but somewhat more often the lesson needs to be “Hysteria is not an acceptable method of expressing your desires and will never get you what you want.”
In our hearts, we already know that these lessons are not interchangeable. Think about how horrified any of us would be to hear a parent tell a bleeding three-year-old to “suck it up and walk it off.” We should be equally horrified when a meltdown over nap-time or the equal distribution of popcorn is met with cooing whispers along the lines of “Mommy loves you, if you stop crying we’ll make cookies after your nap!” The only possible lesson a child can learn from such an encounter is that a tantrum is, indeed, an appropriate reaction to napping, eating veggies, sharing toys and anything else he’s not thrilled about doing. Even better (from the kid’s perspective), they’ve learned that if they bring enough fit and fury to bear on such outrages, their efforts will be rewarded with an afternoon of homemade baked goods.
I recognize that, sometimes, a worn out parent simply wants to bargain their way to a little serenity. As strongly as I feel about this subject, I sometimes find myself backtracking on hard and fast rules, in an effort to buy ten minutes of quiet to send an email or return a phone call. At the end of a long day, with dishes in the sink and laundry to fold, the path of least resistance can be very attractive. But in my heart I know that every time I bend the rules for a moments peace, I am actually undermining my ability to enforce the rules in the future. Every time we catch ourselves thinking “I just don’t want to fight about everything.” we’re guaranteeing that there will, in fact, be another fight.
Rather than trying to avoid every meltdown, we can end this behavior all together by teaching our kids that wild outrage is not an equally appropriate response to physical injury and a lack of lemonade juice boxes. Doing so requires that we get past our desire to fix everything and, more importantly, summon the energy and resolve to let our kids be miserable when they so choose. A child left alone to perform her displeasure in an empty living room or whose theatrics are, invariably, a one way ticket to time-out, will learn soon enough that such behavior is ineffective and unacceptable.
Kids can be relentless; I am raising a five year old who could out negotiate Congressional Republicans. But each time I buy his compliance rather than demand it, I am trading a split second of “easy” for a lifetime of defiance and debates. When quiet reason fails, it’s time get our collective butts off the park bench and drag little Isabella kicking and screaming to the car. Yes, we’ll wilt a little under the disapproving stares of the parents around us. Yes, we’ll have to deal with a raving lunatic of a toddler who is trying to convince everyone in ear shot that she is being water-boarded. No, these things are not fun. This is the hard work of being a good parent and, like most hard work, it simply must get done.
I probably should have googled ‘how to teach a child to ride a bike’ but, in fairness to me, I had no idea I’d be teaching a child to ride a bike any time in the near future. Z’s Thomas the Tank Engine bike had training wheels since he first got it (a hand me down) and for the past few weeks it had sat idle in the garage with a flat tire. I promised to get it fixed but that particular task just kept getting pushed down on the to-do list. Among other things, I’ve been getting ready to take a job that involves a great deal of travel and a lot of nights away from home and I’ve been buried in buying plane tickets, packing bags, sorting out child care at home and a million other little arrangements.
When we finally got around to repairing the flat, Z and Pebbles and I wound up in one of those fancy, high-end bicycle shops; the kind of place where serious cyclists wear skin tight shorts, Live Strong bracelets and a look that says “my bike is made of a high density polymer and weighs 28 ounces.” It’s hard not to feel out of place dragging two spirited (read spazzy) toddlers and a dirt covered bike from Target up the to repair counter. But I promised to get the thing working again and the shop (I think it’s actually a “shoppe”) was open and close-by.
Turns out Don, the cycle tech, was incredibly friendly and didn’t bat an eye at our low tech suburban ride. When Z, enamored of all the shiny, spoked adult bikes hanging from the walls, asked for the training wheels to come off, Don looked to me for approval and then cranked them right off and handed us back a fully functional big boy bike.
On the one hand, I thought the two-wheel bike experiment might be a recipe for disaster, a case of Z’s desire to be independent out-pacing both his physical prowess and his tolerance for crashing repeatedly. Then again, if we were able to pull it off, this was the perfect chance to cram in one more moment before I hit the road for a while. Kindergarten was well underway, why not get ‘teach your son to ride a bike’ checked off the list while you still can? This is the knot in my stomach, the ball of anxiety — the feeling that working in and out of town will mean missing these milestones.
Z, it turns out, is a natural on the bike and requires only a modest amount of hand-holding. “Find your balance,” I tell him, and sure enough he does. For the first half an hour or so I hold the back of his seat and then later just the back of his shirt – ready to yank him off the bike should he careen into the street. Every now and again he gets too close to a tree or a curb and he freaks out a little bit and, by doing so, drives straight into the thing that frightened him in the first place. “Sometimes it’s going to be a little scary,” I tell him, “the important thing is to not panic.”
Every trip down the sidewalk, he’s getting better until, eventually, he asks if we can get the video camera out and make a movie showing just how awesome he is on the bike. With the camera set up, he asks for me to let him do it by himself, close enough to intervene but hands off. I give him one last piece of advice “Whatever else you do, just keep peddling.” and with that, we roll the video.
Another milestone in the books…
There’s no question that I am genuinely excited about my new gig, it’s exactly the kind of work I want to be doing and it comes at just the right time in my career. But I’m also deeply conflicted. I never wanted to be an absent father, the guy that missed the little, mundane, details of his childrens lives. Now I am worried that I have signed up for exactly that. It’s a rather unoriginal complaint, I know, wanting to fulfill my duties as provider and caregiver and having those two roles strain against each other in opposite directions. I certainly didn’t invent the weird combination of guilt, loneliness and anticipation that goes with these choices, but I have also never felt it so acutely as I do here on the 20th floor of the midtown Marriott.
Watching the world zip by, I can still see my boy, racing down our sidewalk away from me, relishing his freedom, shouting “speed is nice!” at the top of his lungs as I sprint after him, shouting encouragement the whole way so he knows I’m there with him.
I want to get on a plane right now and be home in time to read him books and kiss Pebbles in her crib. But I know I can’t. Instead, I’ll order room service, pour a glass of wine and try to remember that the advice best heeded by new two-wheel bike riders isn’t all that different than that of weary fathers on the road.
Find your balance.
Sometimes it’s going to be a little scary, the important thing is to not panic.
Whatever else you do, just keep peddling.
I have spent much of my adult life traveling — not rum runners on the beach travel but backpack, third world, swamp-ass, don’t ask what kind of meat is in the goulash, travel. Travel is something Karen and I bonded over on our first date and we vowed that as long as our money and knees held out, we’d see as much of the world as possible. Before the kids came along we managed to pack our way through about 65 countries.
After Z joined the family, we decided drag him to El Salvador and Nicaragua for 3 weeks of family travel time. We learned two important things on that trip: 1) our days as carefree nomads were, for the foreseeable future, over and b) it is, in fact, possible to conceive your 2nd child with your 1st child napping in the same room.
What follows is part of an email I sent home from our trip after Z made friends with some of the local street urchins.
It’s with no small amount of guilt that I shoo away a kid of about 8 who approaches me with a “hello, amigo.” Z doesn’t notice. We’re sitting on the front steps of our hotel, me poring over the map of Granada and him captivated by the horse-drawn carriages that line the central square of this well-preserved Spanish colonial town.
Street kids—whether the pint-sized kitsch hawkers at Angkor Wat, the frequently belligerent Gypsy girls outside the Louvre, or the pack of 9-year-old boys who follow you Pied Piper-style to the bakery in Hue (where you inevitably buy them a loaf of bread)—are a fixture in the life of a traveler. Almost anywhere you go, there’s a predictable culture of children working tourists on the streets.
Emotionally, it’s complicated. Sometimes you want to give them all your money. Sometimes you want to yell at them to leave. Sometimes you want to jump in the middle of them and sing “It’s the Hard Knock Life.” An appropriate response seems impossible.
Even more so once you’re traveling with your own child.
Before I can shoo him away again, the Granadan street kid is playing hide-and-seek with Z, who’s howling with delight at having found someone closer to his size to play with. Every now and again, this grubby 8-year-old pops up from behind a planter and yells, “Estoy aqui!” which sends my 2-year-old screaming and scampering in that direction.
The next morning, as we head for breakfast, Z calls out “Estoy Aqui!” at random intervals—his first words in a foreign language.
At the local waffle house, we’re tearing through the staggering platefuls of food when the first of the street kids appears, throwing us a forlorn “You gonna eat that toast?” look. In fact, we’re not going to eat the toast, so I reach down to the street and hand it off to him. At which point the manager shouts and chases the kid away. It’s a game of cat and mouse that will play out again and again while we sit here, the manager now paying particular attention to my side of the cafe since I’ve proven myself to be an easy mark. Of course, the manager won’t correct or scold me. I’m a paying customer, after all. But he’ll throw me a disapproving look and keep a better eye on my side of the patio. The last thing he needs is for packs of kids to run off his clientele.
And you can’t really blame the guy. The family from Richmond sitting behind us definitely doesn’t want some skinny, unwashed child asking them for a strip of bacon. That isn’t the holiday they signed up for. People get mad when poverty is waved in their face; it’s full of messy feelings of guilt, helplessness, self-doubt and the knowledge that there but for the randomness of the birth lottery go you. And—honestly—who wants to deal with any of that over waffles and coffee?
Z, of course, is dealing with nothing but the conundrum of how to get the chocolate chips out of his pancakes without having to actually eat the pancake.
He isn’t old enough to ask why he has piles of food—most of which he won’t eat—and that little boy gets yelled at for having my toast. He isn’t old enough to wonder aloud why this potential hide-and-seek partner can’t come have breakfast with us. He isn’t aware enough yet to ask all the obvious questions we’ll spend the rest of the meal ignoring. And I’m relieved. Because when he does, I have no idea what I’ll say.