We are in a taxi in Paris – the four of us. PB gets a call. She gives us the sorry look and looks at the phone. She smiles.
“It’s L,” she says.
L is her daughter, her bright, beautiful daughter. We’ve known L since she was born.
“What’s up?” PB says to L.
For a full minute, she listens intently, the smile gone from her face. We wait anxiously, wondering how bad the news is.
”Okay,” PB says. “Now calm down. Here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to go to the nearest Four Seasons. Speak to the concierge. He’ll be able to help you.”
“Love you too!”
PB and her daughter are very close. And that’s a wonderful thing. Here’s the problem. L is a full-grown woman – a married, professional woman.
What We (Should) Want for Our Children
“Of all nature’s gifts to the human race, what is sweeter to a man than his children?” – Marcus Tulius Cicero
When my children were infants, I wanted only one thing for them: good health.
I’m sure every parent feels this way. The wish for a child’s health is deep and strong. It’s as deep as DNA and as strong as the survival instinct. It is, in fact, a manifestation of the survival instinct. In wanting our infant children to be healthy, we are, at bottom, wanting the deepest part of our selves – our DNA – to survive.
When my children were young, I would have stepped in front of a train to save them. I still would.
I’ll bet you would, too.
Putting our children’s survival above our own is a good thing. But it’s not a virtuous thing. It’s an animal instinct motivated by biology. So there you go.
Actually, I lied. There was another thing I wanted for my children when they were infants. I wanted them to be good looking.
I know how that sounds. And I’m quite sure most parents would deny they wanted their kids to be good looking. But I did.
And why not?
If I had any other wishes for my infant children, I can’t remember them. So let’s move on.
When they were toddlers and continuing through their early childhoods, I wanted my kids to be good at just about everything they did.
I wanted them to be quick learners, agile athletes, and accomplished at any extracurricular activity they joined.
Wanting these things for them felt as natural to me as my earlier wishes for their health and good looks. But it wasn’t nearly as strong. I definitely wanted them to quickly learn and shine in all of their growing challenges, but I wouldn’t step in front of that train to satisfy that want.
I’ve noticed that some parents seem to spend most of their time ferrying their kids to activities, cheering them on, and hiring tutors and coaches to develop their skills. Other parents never show up. Some of them probably have no time. Some just don’t care that much. The intensity of my desire for my kids to be good at everything fell somewhere in the middle. I signed them up for activities and showed up now and then. But I never coached them. Or paid someone to do it.
I remember going to one of my eldest son’s soccer games when he was only four. At the time, he had only a passing interest in the sport. I mean that literally. He spent most of his time standing in the grass looking down at the flowers. Every once in a while, the ball would land in his vicinity, at which point he would casually kick it away, as often as not to a team mate. “Good pass!” someone would shout. It usually turned out to be the parent of the child to whom my son had unwittingly passed the ball.
I never considered myself a fanatical parent. (Although my kids tell me that when it came to writing, I was like “Bull” Meecham, the character in Pat Conroy’s book The Great Santini that bounced a basketball off his son’s head.) But I do believe that the desire to see one’s young child excel springs from the same DNA that makes us want them to be healthy and good looking. In other words, it is a desire that is natural and good, so long as it is reasonably restrained.
I also wanted my young children to be well mannered.
When they were very young, my kids’ bad behavior often amused me. Their temper tantrums seemed oddly cute. (I have never felt that way about other people’s children.) And truth be told, I feel the same way about my grandchildren’s bad behavior today.
But by the time my kids were four or five, I was rarely entertained by their bad behavior.
K felt the same way. She believed that one of our parental duties was to help our children function successfully and appropriately in the world they were born into, which was our world, the adult world. We wanted them to be happy, but not at the expense of making people around them – children or adults – miserable.
For many parents, disciplining toddlers and young children is a harrowing experience. It wasn’t that way for us. Teaching our kids good manners was relatively easy, thanks to K, who understood the importance of setting clear boundaries.
K was a genius at this partly because she believed in self-discipline and partly because she herself was self-disciplined. No excuse for breaking a rule, no matter how ingenious, was accepted. Penalties – mostly time-outs – were enforced with unwavering consistency. (I was virtually no help in this regard.) K ruled the roost, and our boys were generally obedient and cooperative without losing their boyishness and their native instincts to cause a fair degree of chaos wherever they went.
When the boys grew larger and realized their mother could not physically enforce the punishments she gave them, they became emboldened and would occasionally defy her. This is when I became useful and when they began hearing the universal maternal refrain: “Wait till your father gets home!”
K did not believe in spanking, so I didn’t spank them. But I did employ the power of my deeper and louder voice to get their attention. And if they refused to go to their bedrooms for a time-out, I would escort them there. That was largely successful.
As they moved into their mid-teens, I wanted my children to be emotionally resilient and mentally strong. That wasn’t a decision I made formally. It happened serendipitously.
Once, when my eldest son was about 15, we got into a play-wrestling match. It began as fun but quickly turned into the test that most fathers have with their teenage sons – the chance for the son to show his father that he is equal to him in strength and courage.
I felt my son’s strength the moment we began grappling. I didn’t initiate the higher level of play. He did. Had I not been wrestling competitively for years, he would have whooped me. But since I did have the skills, I “upped my game.” I was on the verge of winning the battle when I had a flash thought: “If you do this, you are sending him a bad signal.”
So I let him win – and it saved us both. I feel sure that by winning that match, I would have damaged his self-confidence deeply and permanently. And that would have damaged my sense of being a good father even more.
The experience, short as it was, helped me realize that what I wanted most of all for him at that point of his life was that he would mature into a person that was mentally and emotionally stronger than me.
That’s what every healthy minded parent wants. Don’t you agree?
When my kids were in their early 20s, I wanted them to become financially independent.
I’m not sure how I arrived at this one. It may have been in response to talking to the boys about college. It may have been because I realized that they would soon be living away from us and would have to fend for themselves.
By that time, our financial situation had moved well beyond the meager straits we were in when the kids were small. We had the resources to support them financially for the rest of their lives, but we knew that would be a terrible thing to do. They had become hardworking, responsible, and self-sufficient human beings. We didn’t want to ruin that by laying a path ahead of them paved with easy access to money.
So we didn’t. We told them repeatedly that they would inherit nothing from us – that if they wanted the luxuries that money can provide, they would have to earn it themselves. They wore clothes bought at discount clothing stores. They were not permitted to have their own TVs or cellphones. They did not get an allowance, but they could work for spending money. And when they were 16, we didn’t buy them a car, like some of their friends’ parents did.
We deprived them of all these things because we wanted them to learn how to earn on their own and, even more important, understand that they were not entitled to our or anyone else’s wealth.
And it worked. During their college years and in all the years since, none of them has ever asked us for a nickel. I am immensely proud of that.
Of course, when they became adults and had their own children, we wanted to help them out in every way we could. But they were adamant about wanting to be financially independent. And though we keep trying to help out with this and that, I’m secretly pleased that they don’t want – or need – our help.
Now that our children are in their 30s and even approaching their 40s, I have discovered yet another wish I have for them. I want them to be and remain independent thinkers.
There is so much groupthink in the world today. When my kids were in college, they were exposed to all the politically correct ideas and ideologies that are still popular among academics. Sometimes I worried that they would emerge with heads full of conventional thinking. What was the point of going to a university for that?
One of my sons, fresh out of college, told me that he thought the Antifas were correct in sucker-punching people whose opinions they disagreed with. This irked the hell out of me. We debated the issue. But I couldn’t convince him of the absurdity of his position. It wasn’t his position that bothered me. It was the fact that he was making an argument that he had been taught by some jackass professor.
These days, I no longer worry about that. None of my sons sees eye-to-eye with me on anything. They have their own views and, like their father, they like to argue about them.
But the thinking behind their arguments is braver and more nuanced than it was when they were younger. Each in his way is skeptical of trendy ideas and opinions, analytical, and willing to state his mind. That makes me feel like, “Yes, son. You are a man now. You can march forward into the miasma of bad thinking that awaits you and survive!”
And although they all express themselves differently in terms of style and temperament, they all make their arguments with less irritation and more kindness than I did at their age. That makes me proud.
This essay and others are available for syndication.
Contact Us [LINK] for more information.