From Father To Son
It will likely be years yet before you consider becoming a father, but you’re already a man. The last twenty-five years have been the most wondrous of my life, and I write these words in the hope that if one day you also become a father you will likewise embrace the change and discover the astonishing journey for yourself.
For embracing parenthood is the prerequisite. I’ve seen too many people who look to maintain their pre-parenting existence, as if children could be relegated into the same sort of category as hobbies and household chores. I’ve heard too many people complaining about the inconveniences children inevitably create: the noise, the mess, the chaos. As a result, these parents struggle against the reality of having children in their lives and neither achieve their goal of living as much of a pre-parenthood existence as possible nor do they truly discover the joys that children can deliver, sometimes at the most unexpected moments.
Parenthood is for each of us an undiscovered country until we embark on the exploration for ourselves. Each child is born with its own personality, which means that it’s easy for the child’s personality and the parents’ personalities to clash. But no one gets a choice. The child, helpless and fragile, has been born and there’s no return policy that either child or parents can invoke. It’s up to the parents, therefore, to accommodate themselves as best as they can to the reality of their child and not blame it for failing to correspond to whatever fantasies they may separately and collectively have entertained right up to the moment of its birth.
Parents aren’t the only ones involved. Friends and grandparents will all have their expectations, both conscious and unconscious. They will blithely toss these expectations around with the same abandon that they offer unsolicited advice. The best thing to do is ignore everyone, including supposed “experts.” Spend time with your child, let its scent and sounds and textures permeate you and rewire your brain so that you can recognize the difference between a tired cry and a cry of hunger, for example. Learn its ways, so you can tell when it needs to be soothed and when it needs to be left alone for a while. Immerse yourself in the reality of this tiny creature. Attend as best as you can to its needs. I found that teaching you the rudiments of sign language greatly reduced your frustration resulting from not being able to speak for the first twelve months of your life.
There have been entire libraries written by well-intentioned individuals purporting to offer solid advice on the business of parenting. At least 99% of it is trash, at best misguided and at worst pernicious. About 1% is useful, and I’ll come to that later. As my own parents were not exemplars of adequate parenting, I began from first principles. Given that for 96% of our evolutionary history we lived in small hunter-gatherer groups and our technologies were limited to fire and pointed sticks, I was skeptical about advice that says children must be left alone in the dark in a separate room and allowed to cry themselves out when they wake, hungry and afraid, in the middle of the night. I was skeptical about the advice that says it’s essential to establish a feeding routine that must not be broken, in order that the child adjusts itself to the needs of its parents and does not come to expect to be fed merely because it is hungry or because it needs reassurance.
Thanks to the Dunning-Kruger effect, the less people know about something the more certain they are that they magically happen to be experts on the topic. Hence the most strident advice you’ll receive on the way you parent will be from people who don’t have any children of their own. They will however have imbibed countless TV shows and movies, all of which feature kids straight from Central Casting, cute in the generic Approved US Style, and all reading the predictably cliched lines provided by a team of hack scriptwriters. In consequence, these childless experts will be well equipped to criticize everything you are doing. After some exposure to this phenomenon I took to smiling earnestly and saying, “What a delightfully amusing perspective you have! Utterly charming!” and then walking away, leaving the person trying to determine the real meaning of what I’d just told them.
It worked quite well in the USA as I could deploy my full Oxford English accent; should you wish to employ a similar technique you’ll need to adapt it to your local circumstances. If all else fails, have a Taser handy.
There were two useful books I read. The first gave advice on how to avoid the endless bickering that always arises between two children. “You gave him more cake than me!” “Why does she always get more milk?” The solution? One child cuts, the other chooses. One child pours, the other chooses. It’s amazing how extensible this concept is.
The second useful tip was: when one child misbehaves, give all your attention to the other child. This way, the misbehaving child won’t have its misbehavior reinforced by all the lovely attention it’s getting — because even being reprimanded is attention and most children want to monopolize their parents’ attention. Eventually, children learn that good behavior yields attention while bad behavior yields an undesired outcome. It’s astonishing how nearly every parent does things in precisely the wrong way and thus encourages low-quality behavior in their children.
For me the most important attribute a parent can have is empathy. Understanding what your child needs, and how to provide it in the most suitable way, seems to me to be the key. As every child is different, it follows that there’s no one-size-fits-all prescription for parenting. The worst thing one can do, in my opinion, is to attempt to force-fit a child to conform to the mistaken notions of some “expert” or, even worse, the “wise experience” of some relative, neighbor, or friend. Remember: not so long ago, experts were encouraging parents to be violent to their children under the rubric of “spare the rod and spoil the child.” Experts, especially in the realm of the so-called “social sciences,” are rarely to be trusted because they exist within cargo-cults and their perspective is thus hopelessly confused.
You’re intelligent and sensitive, and these are the two essential attributes that make it possible to be a good parent. You’ll be able to work things out for yourself, and hopefully engage fully with your children. This is the core of good parenting. Everything else is peripheral.
Lots of parents seem to fall into the trap of imagining they are in an unspoken competition with other parents. “My little Mary could read when she was still in the womb!” “Johnny has been given a sports scholarship to Harvard and he’s only three!” Many parents, presumably suffering from deep personal insecurities, use their children as proxies in a never-ending battle of point-scoring. Not only is this risible, but it’s incredibly destructive. Fortunately I know you’re unlikely to feel any need to play this game; you’ll know that the achievement of little Tricia next door doesn’t undercut your children in any way at all.
Worse yet are parents who attempt to fulfil their dreams through their offspring. The world seems full of wanted-to-have-been quarterbacks, golfers, ice-skaters, skiers, chess-players, musicians, actors, writers, and all the rest who push their children to achieve the goals they themselves failed to accomplish. That’s why I never pushed you to do martial arts, or come to the gym with me, or learn to play a musical instrument, or anything else. When you expressed an interest in something, I did my best to facilitate it. But I tried very hard never to let you get the impression that I expected you to be “just like your father.” I was genuinely surprised when you elected to begin karate and I wasn’t disappointed when you abandoned it after gaining your yellow belt. Likewise I was surprised when you wanted to start coming with me to the gym at age 14, and wasn’t disappointed when you stopped a few weeks later. I wasn’t surprised, however, when you resumed gym-going at age sixteen, nor that you’ve kept it up ever since. You’ve a keen sense of what is required to live a healthy life.
I always felt that my job as a father was to help you become the best version of yourself possible. To that end, I always saw my role as a facilitator. Many parents seem to default to the “because I say so!” model, which to me has always seemed woefully inadequate. In response to your youthful questions I always endeavored to give you the fullest possible explanation in a manner suitable for your age at the time.
Which brings me to my central tenet of parenting: focus on the meta-task, not on the apparent task.
What do I mean by this?
Imagine your child asks you a question. You may not know the entire answer. You could choose to say, “I’ll tell you later” or some similar evasion. You could choose to present yourself as a font of infallible knowledge by papering over the details you don’t understand yourself. Or, if you do know the answer, you could choose to dumb it down. Or you could humiliate your child by acting as if the child should somehow already know the answer. Obviously all these approaches are sub-optimal.
My approach was always to try to think about the meta-task, which is modeling functional behaviors. I’d endeavor to explain in age-appropriate terms, never being embarrassed by any topic or subject-matter. And if I didn’t know something I’d say, “Well, I don’t know the answer to this! Let’s go look it up!” So you could see that (a) adults don’t know everything, and (b) when you don’t know something, the solution is to consult reliable sources of information. And I always tried to show how exciting it is to learn something new, so that you’d intuit learning can be a pleasure.
Perhaps partially because of this, but mostly because of your inherent personality, you’ve always been an inquisitive person and that’s led you to study a subject that is not only eminently practical for earning a living but also exposes you to a lot of fascinating concepts and techniques.
My focus on the meta-task is also why I did everything possible to ensure I didn’t model low-quality behaviors. As my father was an alcoholic, I spent much of my childhood feeling ashamed of him. I couldn’t trust him, and he was occasionally a source of violence. My hope was that you would neither feel such emotions with regard to me, nor ever imagine that I would be a threat to you. Indeed, I tried always to show how much I was devoted to protecting you. Hopefully some of that made a positive difference.
None of this is to imply that everything works all the time. Nor can we pretend that individual quirks, moments of extreme fatigue, and other real-world factors don’t come into play. The trick is not to aspire to being a perfect parent but to being a good-enough parent. Even that is hard enough, and I certainly fell short on plenty of occasions. I did try, however, to be flexible where possible. You helped me with this, as I learned my way forward between the two extremes of rigid inflexibility versus lack of boundaries & predictability.
Most of all, I tried to show love. When you wanted to get your fingernails painted gold, because you were enchanted by the sparkly nature of the color, I went with you and we both got our nails painted. That way, you knew it didn’t matter what other people thought about the matter. When you were much older and about to be on your own far from home for the first time, you laid your head against my chest and had me put my arm around you just as I used to do when you were small. Because that was what you needed at that moment. It didn’t mean you were weak, or that you couldn’t cope. You just needed a little “refueling” in order to be ready to face the next stage of your life.
Throughout your childhood I was always being told that I was “spoiling” you and making you too soft. But today you’re an accomplished ultra-runner, you practice Krav Maga, and you’re doing very well in your studies. You are an outgoing, confident, funny, and compassionate young man and I am immensely proud of you. I like to think that a small part of who you are is the result of my parenting style, being there for you always but never trying to force you into an artificial mold due to my own insecurities, fears, or ambitions. I always said, “don’t try to be like me!” and it seems you’ve found your own path: absorbing from me those things you deem useful and going your own way when that makes the most sense. Which is an ideal approach, I’d say.
Until you were in your late teens, I’d lie awake each night reviewing the day’s events and thinking about how I could have done things differently. I was always looking for the meta-tasks, trying to look for ways to be a more adequate parent. While this may seem a little obsessive it was actually a pleasant activity because it enabled me to relive our time together. Astonishingly, even at the time, I loved every moment — even the fussing, the tantrums, and the the diaper-changing. I loved going shopping with you, cooking our meals, eating together around the dining-table, and best of all our end-of-day ritual when, after you’d had your bath, we’d sit on the sofa together for “candle time.” I’d light some beeswax candles and we’d listen to soothing music, perhaps the largo from the Bach Kavierconcerto #5 in Fmol, an Albinoni oboe concerto, or a nocturn by Chopin. You and your sister would sit drinking your warm milk and I’d sit between you enjoying a few minutes of perfect happiness before we bustle off to have teeth brushing and then a bedtime story.
I still think back across the years and remember so many times we had together. Walking along the path between Monterey and Pacific Grove above the rocks and looking down at the seals basking on the sand or searching the waves for the sight of an otter. I remember the first time I took you up to Tahoe so you could experience snow. I remember our hikes in Yellowstone and the day we ran nine miles together in the hills of Marin; I remember how last year we hiked the Swiss Alps. And I remember you yesterday evening, sitting across the table from me as we ate dinner together and chatted about your hopes for the future.
When the time comes, I think you have the potential to be a great father. And I hope it brings you the same immense joy and satisfaction it has brought to me. Embrace it. Live it. Life is so short, and the years of childhood race by so quickly. They will be the most rich and important years of your life.