Tonight was the winter concert for Z’s elementary school here in Brooklyn. It was more or less exactly what I expected; an unwieldy gaggle of bad sweaters and funny wool caps up on stage, mangling a catalog of inclusive-non-denominational-all-possible-holidays-represented melodies. A very Park Slopey recital and very nice.
As soon as the family walked in the door, I made a beeline for the parent coordinator and volunteered to help wrangle the first graders. I could tell that they didn’t really need me (the PTA at Z’s school is a very ‘shit together’ group of people) but, for some reason, I needed to volunteer. I was delegated the all important task of lining them up by size (this put Z at the end with the girls, part of being the son of a 5′ 10″ dad and a 5′ 5″ mom). Once everyone was in order, we marched in and sat at the foot of the stage to watch the older kids do their thing (a thing that included bongos, and dare I say, enough cowbell to get me through all of 2013).
I have always been a problem solver, someone that makes very quick mental pro/con lists, weighs options and considers possible outcomes. This doesn’t mean I’m some great puzzle solving intellect – you may or may not agree with a single solution I come up with. But I think about possible problems and possible solutions all the time. I’m a visualizer, a planner.
For example, I know that at our home in California the ceiling in Pebble’s room was redone after some water damage back in 2004, but the ceiling in Z’s room is still the original 1929 construction. So, in the event of an earthquake, I need to go to his room first, lest 200 pounds of lathe and plaster come crashing down on his bed. It’s not something I think about often, but I’ve done the math and that’s the best option. (well, the BEST option is to redo his ceiling but I never got around to it). For better and worse, this is how my mind works.
Back in the auditorium, somewhere in the middle of the second number (a heart warming Kwanza song) I realized that my heart was pounding and I was in full problem-solver mode. Without realizing I was even doing it, here’s what I had figured out:
The stage left door is the most likely point of entry. A fifteen foot hallway, up three stairs, and out a set of double doors and you’re standing on 5th avenue. If there is going to be a problem, that’s where it is going to come from.
I have two options. I can go for the back of the theatre, but with a seated audience (or an audience throwing themselves to the floor in panic) the slow incline from the stage to the rear of the theatre would make us an obvious target. The stage right door, however, is way better. It’s about ten feet away with a steel plate across the bottom. It gives me not only distance but a more complicated line of sight to the far stage left door. As an added bonus, a dilapidated grand piano provides some measure of cover. Even someone experienced with an M4 would have a hard time making that shot on a moving target. Statistically, it’s a good bet.
Z is five feet away, I can reach out and snatch him by his little red Christmas sweater, if need be.
What the fuck is wrong with me? How could I possibly be running scenarios like this in my head when I’m supposed to be enjoying a holiday concert with my family?
Wait, I’ve got a better question. What’s the average 911 response time in this part of Brooklyn? It’s gotta be, like, 7-8 minutes, right? The ER entrance to NY Methodist is on 7th street just east of 7th Ave. At a dead run, carrying 43 pounds, I could do that in about four and a half minutes.
Seriously, just shut up and enjoy the concert.
I wonder if I should have worn better shoes…something I can run better in. Four and a half minutes would be okay, though. The human brain can go five to six minutes without oxygen so if you run hard, it’ll be okay.
When it’s the first grades turn to take the stage I follow them up and stand in the wings. It’s at that moment that I realized I volunteered tonight because I need to be close. I’m not processing any of what’s happening in the world very well and the problem solver in me needs to know that if someone is going to get to my boy, it’s going to be me. But it’s all good. I’m going to get my mind right and enjoy the ‘hip-hop-holiday’ number. Z is not a natural when it comes to bustin’ a move and it’s insanely cute.
And, anyway, I can cover the ten feet between us in 2-3 seconds. I can do it. Everything is going to be fine.
To say things have been in flux, especially for the kids, would be an understatement – at one point Karen and I counted and found that they had slept in 9 different places in 5 weeks. People love to tell you how ‘resilient’ children are but everyone needs something that resembles normal every now and again.
Thankfully, we’re now settled in Brooklyn – school has started, ballet classes are in full jete and I’m back at the keyboard figuring that even if I don’t have the brain space to deliver profound and insightful, at least I can do informative.
Part of Z’s ‘Welcome to NY’ package included word from our new pediatrician that he needed to have surgery. The procedure was totally routine but it involved him being knocked out and stuck with IVs and all kinds of monitors and wires. It was significantly more difficult than I imagined to turn him over to a surgeon with a smile and a thank you. At some point, while I was sitting in the waiting room feeling slightly sorry for myself, I noticed that some of the parents there knew the nurses by name. They had children who were seriously ill and had spent countless days in post-op, waiting and hoping. The realization snapped me back to the obvious truth that any parent with healthy children has no right to complain about anything.
My decision to coach little league soccer hasn’t been a complete disaster (honestly, it’s more herding than coaching). I’m a lousy coach and know almost nothing about the game, but Z has made a friend on the team whose parents are not only nice, they’re normal (can’t overstate what a rare thing this is) and Karen and I really enjoy them.
We’ve begun watching the Star Wars movies together. Z, in true guy fashion, insists on learning the name of every character (starring, supporting and otherwise) and knowing whether they are a good guy or bad guy – then telling us all in detail about them later in the film:
Z: “That’s Bobafet, he’s a bounty hunter. Bad guy.”
Pebbles can sometimes be found walking around the apartment humming Darth Vader’s Imperial March, often adding lyrics about princesses or ponies.
This month the differences between Z and Pebbles are becoming increasingly evident. Z is a tireless negotiator who will repeatedly ask, nag or bargain for what he wants. He’ll really grind you down but, in the end, he’ll take your answer as law. Stand him next to a bowl of M&Ms and then tell him he can’t have any, he’ll stomp away in a red-faced huff muttering under his breath about your parental incompetence — but he’ll listen. Pebbles doesn’t believe in wasting time with negotiations. Tell her she can’t have an M&M and she’ll not only grab the bowl and pour the contents down her throat, she’ll smash the bowl on the ground and flip you the bird as she saunters away (maybe I’m embellishing here but you get the point). Worse yet, given her ability to self-entertain, timeouts end up being little more than a chance for her to sing to herself in a corner. Where I once thought his boundless energy would drive me nuts, it’s becoming clear that her utter indifference to my authority is going to be a much bigger challenge.
I’ve been spending a lot of time at parks and playgrounds in the area. My plan to meet local parents on these excursions hasn’t worked out all that well but I am on good terms with a number of wonderful Dominican nannies. I feel particularly bad for Pebbles who, without school to fall back on, wants to know when she can have a little girl friend to play dress up with. For now it’s Karen who gets to help her do her best Cher impersonation – going through 12 outfits a day and exploring all things girlie
Gender is looming large for our three and a half year old girl. Our downstairs neighbor had the misfortune of showing up on the stoop in a baggy t-shirt and no makeup, forcing Pebbles to ask in a loud voice, “Excuse me, are you a boy or a girl?”
“She asks everyone that…ha ha ha ha” I lied.
And then there was this disconcerting exchange not so long ago after she walked into the bathroom as I got out of the shower.
Pebbles: “Daddy…I like your penis.”
Me: “Uh. Thanks, honey. But that’s my private area, so that’s just for me, just like your private area is just for you.”
Pebbles: “So we don’t talk about it.”
Me: “Not too much, honey.”
I probably could have thought of something better but, in the moment, it sounded like a decent answer — until I imagined her recounting it to others like this:
Pebbles: “I like my Daddy’s penis but I’m not supposed to talk about it.”
Thus giving me a chance to explain what a hilarious misunderstanding it all was, while wearing shackles and an orange jumpsuit.
All in all, both kids have taken to their new lives seamlessly. I’ve become convinced that it’s not actually about ‘resilience’ but rather flexibility. I think that as we get older our ability to adapt to the new tends to atrophy. So the idea of moving or turning our daily routine upside-down becomes painful, like we’re stricken with adventure arthritis. Thick from lack of use, we chose to stay still rather than face the stiff discomfort of change.
This is another of those situations where our kids are helping us keep our priorities in order and, to some degree, are keeping us young. They display an unnerving level of trust in us, a willingness to take any leap we suggest. For some reason, they seem to think that Karen and I actually know what we’re doing.
Their constant faith that it’s all going to work for the best is almost enough to make me believe it myself.
In the backseat, Z and his best buddy Kirby (my godson) are comparing the nutritional information of their respective snacks. I’m guessing the school year finished out with some kind of healthy eating program because all I’ve heard since June is “Is there a lot of fat in that?” and “How much sugar does that have?” It’s a great that they’re learning about nutrition but it’s also weird to hear a couple of six year olds bemoan the lack of potassium in Pirate Booty. It’s on the verge of being a grownup conversation and I’d rather hear them talking about Ninjago and Super Mario Kart.
They are both bearing down on their seventh birthday and seven is starting to feel like an invisible dividing line between “little boy” and plain old “boy.”
As I consider this looming change in age bracket, I suddenly think about a guy that I went to high school named Micah. I haven’t thought about this guy in 20 years, Micah wasn’t someone I was very close to. We knew each other like everyone in a small high school does, and we hung out from time to time. As far as I know Micah was entirely uninterested in the sodium content of kid snacks, so why he comes to mind right now is a mystery. What I do remember about Micah is that, like the two little boys in the backseat, he was fun loving, mischievous and endlessly energetic. He had a ‘life of the party’ vibe about him – the kind of guy you liked to have around because you were never entirely sure what he might do next. One night, after a number of drinks, we convinced Micah that a parked car thought he was a sissy and he went after it with a baseball bat. I’m not proud of that kind of behavior but it was the stuff of legend back in the day.
I wouldn’t say I was a “bad kid” by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s plenty that I look back on with regret and a shake of the head. There were a couple of teen years where things could have easily gone either way; a run-in with the police, a willingness to do and try things just because I knew I shouldn’t. In that time, I said and did things that could have had profoundly negative consequences but, for some reason that still isn’t clear to me, didn’t. When I think back, it seems like the most absurd, undeserved, run of obscenely good luck one person can possibly have. I made a number of really bad bets and none of them ever cost me a dime.
Micah didn’t end up having my good fortune. A few years after graduation someone told me that, after a night of drinking, Micah’s jeep drifted over the center divider and slammed into another car. A woman died, Micah went to jail and more than a couple of lives went sideways over one incredibly bad choice. I never heard another word about the guy – I never even knew for sure if the story was true – but it wasn’t hard to imagine. In fact it’s hard to imagine that it didn’t happen exactly like that.
In my rearview mirror, the nutrition debate rages on with predictable little boy passion. When I look at them both, I really don’t worry that one day they’ll turn up at school with a gun, join a cult, or lose their sense of decency and compassion. I’m not concerned that neglect or abuse will drive them to act out. From home to church to school they are both surrounded by good, hard working role models and have a vast support system of adults who love them.
What keeps me awake at night these days isn’t that these two perfect little men will turn out to be “bad kids” but rather that they’ll be just like me — young and unbearably foolish – but not nearly as lucky; that the laws of probability will make them answer for their missteps in a way I never had to.
In the backseat, the boys have reached a consensus on the fact that fast food, while delicious, isn’t particularly good for you. They’ve moved on to whether or not gluten free pizza is as good as regular pizza – a conundrum for the ages. I’m thinking about Micah and I’m grateful that for the time being, this is the biggest problem the three of us have.
No sooner had I climbed in the car at LAX, than Z announced that I had missed his last day of kindergarten (why school ends on a Thursday is beyond me). It’s odd to think that life is now measured summer to summer rather than January 1st to January 1st. Having a 1st grader in the backseat is also a reminder that while filling up any given Saturday with a bored child can seem a Herculean task, filling up a year in his life is virtually effortless.
Kinder report cards around here embrace the very scientific academic E, S, N system (excellent, satisfactory, needs improvement) and by the end of the year Z was pulling lots of Es and a few Ss and nary an N in the mix. We put a preemptive call into Harvard to lineup a spot in the 2024 incoming class.
School was really good for Z but as much as he might have learned, it was really a year of Karen and I learning about him.
Being good at something is very important to my little guy. Z thrives in math and loves it. Sometimes, at the very end of the night, he’ll try to avoid bedtime by suggesting that we do math problems. He got his math skills from Karen and the fact that he feels good about himself when he does well in math makes him want to do it more – which, of course, makes him even better. Reading has been more of a challenge. He gets it and he reads a bit, but he knows his best friend, Kirby, is reading chapter books already (the kid is an amazing reader). It’s not a competition, of course, except that to six year old boys everything is a competition. This self-imposed pressure makes the learning to read process a minefield for Z. There’s no such thing as little mistakes, there are only frustrating failures. Catastrophes of epic proportion.
I find the Greek tragedy that unfolds every time Z can’t sound out a word to be entirely exasperating, Karen finds it a little heartbreaking because she sees so much of her own relationship to learning playing out in her son. Learning is filled with self-doubt and time spent being ‘not very good’ at something. Neither Z nor his mother enjoy this feeling at all. I try to remind her that every time he offers a hug to a sad friend or marches across the living room to deliver an unsolicited kiss and “I love you”, he’s showing the world something else that he got from his mother (just like every time he decides to talk nonstop for half an hour and laugh at his own jokes he’s channeling his father).
Of course, the real education at school is what your child learns from the other kids. Last week, out of the blue, Z informed me that, “When girls watch too much romance on TV, they get into boys business.“. This is not only an awesome piece of little boy wisdom (and, in my experience, totally accurate) it’s the kind of educational tidbit you can only pick up from a worldly mentor like Teddy the 4th Grader.
Z also learned that Google is smarter than his father. It’s not uncommon for him to ask me to ask the internet a question: “Dad, can you check on the computer about how far away the moon is?” or “Dad, can you check on the internet about what time the pool opens?”
And then there was this exchange:
Z: Mindy has two sisters and they cigarette.
Me: They what?
Z: They cigarette.
Me: You mean they smoke cigarettes?
Z: Yeah. They’re going to get cancer and die.
Me: (thoughtful pause). Yes. Yes they are.
Honestly, I’m grateful to the School of Other Kids for helping me round out Z’s education about the world. I like the idea that he’s gleaning all kinds of information from the kids he’s around and then coming home and fact checking with me. But I’m also terrified that I can’t control the pace and content of the curriculum. I know there’s nothing original about that worry, but it doesn’t stop me from wondering when he’s going to turn up with a hunk of raw truth that I don’t want him to have just yet and, when he does, what I’m going to say.
Unlike every other activity on the planet, which get invariably easier the longer you do them, this whole Dad thing is getting progressively more complicated. Teaching bike riding is a breeze when compared with the finesse required to explain the concepts of “romance” and “business” and neither even scratches the surface of what I can see coming right around the corner. Karen is fond of saying, “Little kids, little problems. Bigger kids. bigger problems.” I’m fond of ignoring that particular truth lest I dwell on it.
One day not too long ago, as Z trotted off through the gate and into school, Pebbles looked at me from her car seat and asked, “Daddy, when can I go to kindergarten?” I smiled and tickled her, my way of dodging a question I don’t feel like answering.
When can you go to kindergarten, my beautiful, little girl? How about never?
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.