Here in the Queen City, the thirteenth largest city in America, traffic can sometimes be a problem. All it takes is for one car to stop working properly in a congested area, and it takes thirty minutes to drive to the end of the block. It comes with the territory of living here. Still, it sucks. It also sucks when you’re stuck with your kid in the back after a particularly terrible day at work while it is pouring down the rain. With people honking at you because you happen to be in front of them or beside them. Also, you’re only fifty yards from your home.
This happened a few nights ago. My child weathered it pretty well. She didn’t fuss or cry. She did repeat many, many times, “I want to be home.” But my frustration wasn’t due to her behavior. For once, a four-year-old behaved better than every adult surrounding her.
No one enjoys being stuck in rush hour traffic that is further convoluted due to a fender bender that shuts down two lanes. I get that it’s no fun for anyone. I don’t get taking it out on all the drivers who are not responsible. Why are you honking and yelling at me? Why don’t you pull up next to the drivers of the wrecked cars and the police officers who blocked the lane and yell at them? This ridiculous, terrible behavior does not, I hate to say, bring out the best in me. At one point I lost my temper such that I yelled back at a fellow motorist a terribly profane phrase. Nothing original, but pretty high up there on the obscenity scale.
As soon as the words left my mouth, I regretted it. Stupid, I thought. That motorist couldn’t hear me; I had my windows rolled up. But you know who could hear me? The four-year-old in the backseat. I immediately bit my lip and prayed in the pregnant paused that followed that she hadn’t heard it.
“Daddy?” she said after a moment. “Why did you say that?”
“Say what?” Adolescent denial.
Then she repeated it back to me. With impeccable enunciation.
“I didn’t say that,” I said.
“What did you say then?” she asked. A perfectly reasonable question.
My mind raced to try to come up with a sound-alike phrase that would fit the situation. Shucks, fool? Duck poo? Stuck, too? (Why didn’t I just say “Forget you”? Why can’t I hear Cee-Lo when it’s helpful?)
I couldn’t come with anything other than, “Something else.” Something else. Desperately grasping at any way to downplay the situation, suck it dry of any significance that would keep the phrase memorable in her impressionable young mind.
“Why did you say that?” she asked again.
“Daddy is really frustrated and is saying nonsense things,” I managed.
This seemed to satisfy her, and she went back to singing a song about wanting to be home.
Now, along with my fury at being stuck in traffic within eyesight of both other motorists with displaced rage and my own living room, self-loathing crept in. I am a terrible father. I have now taught my four-year-old daughter one of the few remaining phrases in vernacular English that can still elicit gasps of horror and shock. I flashed forward to the day that I would pick her up at daycare – daycare! – and her teacher would say to me softly, “We heard her say something troubling…” and I would have to admit it was all my fault, she learned it from me, because I am a terrible father and it’s only a matter of time before my daughter becomes a stripper in a biker gang.
After some minutes of us idling on the road, her singing a cheerful song about wanting to be home while I stewed in my shame and remorse, traffic began to move. Of course, I was in the lane that was blocked. I put on my signal and attempted to merge, but of course several cars ignored me and passed me. Infuriated again, I opened my mouth to curse. Thankfully, my sense of dishonorable parental failure was overwhelming, and so instead of profanity, I growled at these cars, “You are not kind!”
“Who’s not kind, Daddy?” she asked.
“These cars are not kind because they didn’t let me over,” I explained.
Then a car did let me over. I waved in relief.
“What about that car behind us?” she asked.
“Yes, that car was kind to me.”
Finally, we pulled inside our apartment complex. I stopped by the mailboxes to pick up our mail, rushing out into the rain while my daughter waited in the car. As I gathered up the mail and headed back to the car, several packages stuck under my arm, the rain still pouring down, some guy stopped me.
“Excuse me,” he said, “can you help me open my mailbox?”
I stopped, rain coming down, my annoyance barely contained. Seriously? All I wanted was to get home in out of the rain, get my child inside, and give her some coloring books and toys that would help cover over any imprint of my terrible parenting.
“I can’t get the door open,” the guy said again. It seemed like the quickest way to get him to leave me alone was to open his mailbox for him. He handed his key to me and showed me his mailbox. I put the key in and snapped it open. I had no idea what would be keeping him from doing this task for himself – if he’d been putting the key in the wrong way or turning it the wrong way or not holding his mouth right – but the ease in which it took to open his box just angered me more. You couldn’t figure this out on your own? I thought. You need help opening a damn mailbox? What are you gonna do when you get your mail tomorrow, come to my apartment and knock on the door and ask me to open it again?
“Thank you!” he said. “Have a good night!”
I mumbled a “you’re welcome” and ran back to the car, rain dripping down behind my ears. I jumped in and shut the door, started the car, trying hard to keep my frustration from bubbling over.
“Daddy,” my daughter said in the back, “you were kind to that man.”
My hands froze on the steering wheel. “Was I?”
“Yes. You helped him. That was kind of you.”
Tears of shame and disappointment filled my eyes. I hadn’t been feeling any kindness towards that poor man. I helped him, but I was as begrudging as I could be about it. I’ve no doubt that man felt my irritation, as if he were just one more inconvenience to me. I hadn’t been any more kind or compassionate than those cars honking and zipping past me.
I have a lot of shame about my failings as a father. I lose my temper far more than I want. I say things I shouldn’t ever say. Sometimes I’m inconsistent in how I affirm or discipline my child. I let my irritation get the better of me. None of this is helped when my child can ironically, if unintentionally, point out to me how much I’m failing to be the kind of person that I want to teach my child to become. It is a particularly painful humbling when children behave better than the adults around them.
When we finally got inside the apartment, Mommy was there to greet us. The first thing my child told her was that Daddy was kind. “Really?” Mommy said, smiling at me without any knowledge of the darkness that had been brewing in me for the past half hour. She recounted the story of how I had helped a man at the mailbox. She didn’t tell my spouse anything about how angry I was. She didn’t mention the strange word Daddy had used. She didn’t talk about the traffic or the rain or the unkind cars or the simmering rage in Daddy’s hunched shoulders and scowling eyes.
If you know me at all, then you know I’m not going to let myself off the hook for the ways I fall short as a parent. Thankfully, my child seems to be much more gracious than I am. Thirty minutes of watching her father at his worst, and what does she remember? The one nice thing I did for someone else. Perhaps I am too pessimistic about the world, jaded from the years of violent news headlines and fickle friends and the disappointments of an arbitrary universe. Perhaps I am too quick to assume that my child will only absorb the bad things because I have let myself become saturated with bad things. Perhaps I should stop underestimating the durability of kindness.
My child can be unkind. She gets mean sometimes. I still need to be vigilant in keeping her from picking up new ways of being cruel to others. But I should probably give her more credit for her graciousness, kindness, and optimism about other people. I should also probably give myself a little more credit for the small ways I uphold and encourage her to be the sort of person I value. And maybe along the way I will get imprinted to be more kind and gracious and forgiving.
I took my daughter to see her uncle’s grave. She is named after my brother, who died of cancer when he was fifteen. In the last week of his life, he made me promise that I would tell my children about him
. Of course I’ve told my daughter about her uncle, about how she is named after him, about how he died long before she was born. We were in my hometown for the holiday weekend and it just seemed like perhaps she might be old enough now to understand a little better what all of this meant.
I told her we were going to visit the uncle she’d heard about. We pulled into the cemetery, admiring the fountain and duck pond by the entrance. When we got out of the car and she looked around, she asked, “Where are we?” I suppose that being surrounded by gravestones on a hot July afternoon is a striking sight if you’ve never experienced it before.
“This is a graveyard,” I told her. “It’s where we bury people after they die. Their bodies come here and we put them in the ground.” She has asked about death. I think she vaguely understands that dying means you are gone and you don’t come back, but I don’t think she comprehends the concreteness of this. To her, death is what happens in a story when bad guys are removed from the narrative. She does not understand death to be the crushingly final nothingness of loss that all of us one day face.
We walked to my brother’s headstone, a modest flat slab in the ground. She was distracted by the hundreds of flowers all around, picking up a pink plastic petal that had blown off of a display. I pointed to the stone and said, “Your uncle is buried here.” We knelt down and I pointed to the letters of his first name, which nearly match the letters of hers. I started pulling grass back from around the edges of the stone, and she eagerly chipped in. My tears came easily, as they do when I visit his grave, but I had on sunglasses and my daughter didn’t notice. After a minute or two, she ran off to look at flowers. She picked some wild dandelions and brought them to me and her mother.
“Do you want to leave these for your uncle?” I said, laying my dandelion down on the headstone.
This made her upset. “I picked it for you,” she insisted.
“Well, can I leave it here?”
“But it’s yours!”
With some cajoling we convinced her to let us arrange the dandelions on her uncle’s grave, but she seemed hurt that we didn’t want to carry the flowers back to the car with us. She had a point.
I’ve always been really clear that the grave of my brother is not where my brother is. It marks the place where his bones are, but a padded box filled with the bones that once gave his body structure is not my brother. I go to his grave every year (or less) not to visit my brother, but rather to visit some geographical location that is symbolic of all the memories I carry of him. My brother isn’t his grave any more than Jesus is any particular crucifix.
Just driving to the grave evokes memories – “That’s where our friend Matt used to live; that’s where my high school girlfriend lived; there’s our old church; we used to eat at that restaurant all the time.” Before we went to the grave, we met two of my high school friends and their families for lunch at an old landmark deli. In a clever (or perhaps cruel) twist of fate, the deli had some 90’s pop hit station playing music: Counting Crows, 10,000 Maniacs, the Cranberries, Blind Melon. All the music my brother loved.
The recollections of him aren’t really him, either. Of course, what is really him is gone. That’s what death does to us, it erases the essence of who we are from this plane of existence. It removes us from our own narrative. From our loved ones’ narratives, too; but those narratives continue. The cruelest truth of death may be that the narrative doesn’t end with us. It keeps going and we are forced to revise a narrative without someone we love. That is where my brother is: in the ongoing narrative of my life, of the lives of others who loved him. My brother is in the work I do with others, in the ways I love my parents and my spouse, in the hopes I have for my daughter. Clearly, for she carries his name, even though I am under no illusion that she is anything other than her own unique person.
I was reminded of this in her insistence that we take the dandelions with us. Her uncle isn’t at the grave for her any more than he is for me. To her, my brother is with me. Particularly in the stories I tell of him. She knows that is where her name comes from, she knows that I once had a brother. It gives her a little practice at playing with the idea of emptiness and want. She knows what a brother is, but, like me, does not have one. Training wheels for grief: she can roll around the idea that there is something in the world she doesn’t have, watching me carry that burden with (hopefully) some grace and gratitude.
Maybe we shouldn’t have left the dandelions on the headstone. We could have honored my daughter’s gift to us as her parents, as the source of stories and growth and protection. Those of us who have suffered loss certainly want to honor our predecessors who taught us how to live. I want to pass these things down to my child, and to her children after her. But I don’t think those who went before us are the only ones who teach us to live. After all, the narrative doesn’t end with us.
Our daughter is spending all of this week with her Grammy and Pappy in Tennessee. Last night, while we Facetimed with her, she gave us this sweet little interaction:
(sad face) Mommy, Daddy, I miss you. Are you coming soon? I have to go play! Bye-bye! (runs off)
Typical crazy schizoid toddler reaction? Maybe. Or maybe it’s one of the most adult things she’s done. I contend that maturity means being able to hold two or more conflicting feelings, attitudes, or experiences without the need to resolve or explain them. Comfort and familiarity with ambiguity is a rather grown-up trait, being able to affirm “yes” and “no” at the same time. I appreciate that my child can, to some degree, hold the mixed feelings of both missing her parents and being delighted that she has so much time to play with her grandparents (and without us).
If parenthood has taught me anything, it’s how to similarly hold conflicting, contradictory attitudes at the same time. For instance, I have had basically the exact same reaction to her being in Tennessee: Wow, I really miss my daughter! Also, I am so thrilled that I have the entire night to myself! I wish that she were here with us and I am so glad she is not here with us. All adults find their way to embracing the various paradoxes of this life; you certainly don’t have to have children. But that sure has helped me develop this trait.
Other contradictions I have learned to embrace as a parent:
I wish my child had a sibling so she could experience those parts of life that only come with having another playmate/enemy living with you. And absolutely none percent of me wants there to be another baby in my home.
I really want her to learn to play by herself and not need my attention all the time. I also love it when she wants my attention.
I hate Curious George, but I love reading and/or watching Curious George with my daughter.
I can’t stand the thought of being one of those parents who is too invested in his child, but I kind of am that parent and am pretty much fine with it.
Other parents annoy the hell out of me when they talk on and on about their child, but I don’t want to hang out with them if they don’t.
I love every single thing about my child, except all those things that drive me nuts.
For instance, I’m thrilled that we are raising an independent, strong-willed girl. And also it is completely infuriating when she is independent and strong-willed.
Not a day goes by that I don’t want my old childless life back, but I would never in a million years want my life to be different than it is now.
Come to think of it, maybe living comfortably within contradictions isn’t something you have to grow into. Maybe we’re born with that; maybe my child’s simultaneous feelings of homesickness and joy at being away are the more natural state of being. Maybe we struggle to get rid of that as we age, desperately trying to land on a single thing and stick with it in the name of consistency, or safety, or clarity, or integration. Maybe maturity means reclaiming our comfort with paradox, of returning to a more innocent, fluid approach to the world. Maybe mental health is about saying yes and no at the same time. Maybe a strict adherence to singularity is what ultimately makes us crazy.
Or maybe it’s children that make us crazy. Whetevs. Sanity is great and I sure work for it, but I also love the craziness of having a four-year-old run roughshod over my life.
Last night, I witnessed a tragedy in our kitchen. Spoonman. May a flight of angels sing thee to thy rest.
For her birthday several weeks ago, she received a “Souper Action Figure Spoon” from one of my colleagues. She reported that her children loved to eat with it and, sure enough, so did my child. We affectionately named him Spoonman, partly in honor of the Soundgarden song, but also partly because he is a man with a spoon for a head. In the past few weeks, my child has usually asked at breakfast or dinner if Spoonman was clean so that she could use him to eat.
Yesterday, Spoonman went missing. He could not be found at breakfast, and there was no time to search for him. By dinner time, we had forgotten about him. (We had spaghetti, which is more of a fork meal, at least for a four-year-old.) Cleaning up and washing the dishes, I dumped uneaten noodles down the garbage disposal and flipped the switch. A terrible sound of grinding and cracking filled the room, and I quickly turned off the disposal and water to see what had gotten caught. I reached in and pulled out a single purple arm.
“Uh oh,” I said.
“What is it?” my spouse asked. She and my daughter were looking at me from the dinner table with concern.
Looking tenderly at Curly Fries, I said, “I’m so sorry.”
She hopped down from her chair, came rushing into the kitchen, and saw the single arm lying on the kitchen counter. For just a sliver of a second I saw a quiet look of recognition slip over her face. And then in an instant she exploded into weeping, her fingers flying up to her face, her body bent over with the force of her wails. “No no no!” she sobbed, tears pouring from her eyes, her face scrunched into a grimace. “He was brand new! He was just brand new!”
Her mother came over, knelt beside her, held her close. “I’m so sorry, honey.”
“Fix him, Daddy!” she beseeched me. “Please, just fix him! Put him back together!”
I dug another few pieces out of the disposal. A split torso, a severed black foot, the head of a spoon. “I can’t fix him,” I said softly.
At the gruesome sight of these pieces spread out on the counter, she fell to the floor. “Brand new!” she kept crying. “He was brand new!”
As a hospital chaplain, this was a familiar scene. I’ve seen many a family frantically rushing into the emergency department, following up a vague and ominous call from the hospital. Standing in the doorway, they see me, then look past me and catch just a single glimpse of the loved one’s lifeless form. They collapse into tears, wailing and pleading and weeping as I try to provide them support and care. Granted, the stakes in my kitchen last night were undeniably much lower than those hospital scenes of heartbreak and loss. But the reaction was identical.
It was such a familiar emotional display to me, in fact, that I started to cry, too. Of course, like all parents do when their child has a toy break, we began to promise that we’d get another one. But that statement was as efficacious to her as if I’d suggested to a shocked and grieving widow that she could find a new husband. She only cried harder.
I’ve seen my child cry about a lot of things. I’ve seen her cry over broken and lost toys before. But this scene was viscerally painful for me. I’ve walked with a lot of bereaved families in some of the most tragic circumstances that they had ever faced. I’ve seen a lot of people break down at the inexorably terrible news that their lives have been forever changed. I’ve heard the heartrending howls of lovers and children and parents suddenly pushed into the deep end of loss. Every one of those families’ losses has affected me. I carry their grief with tenderness and care and I count myself as blessed to help them hold the love and loss as the one who found himself in a position of showing them a small piece of love and care.
Last night I got just the tiniest glimpse of what it would look like if it were my own child. It was terrifying. I know it was just a spoon and it was just our kitchen, but for a moment it felt to me much bigger and scarier and awful. I don’t mean to suggest that my child experienced a similar loss as those families grieving loved ones. I do, however, mean to suggest that she had a similar emotional reaction. On a much smaller scale, my child experienced the sudden and unexpected loss of something she loved, and her emotional response mirrored the typical patterns of human loss that I’ve witnessed so many times. In that moment, I was telegraphed forward to some tragic possible future, when my own child might be one of those families in the hospital, responding to the loss of a friend, a lover, or perhaps even me.
I know, this is some heavy shit to get into over a spoon. But I do think this is the kind of heartbreak we open ourselves up to as parents. Or, for that matter, as people who love other people. We worry and we hurt and we fear for those we love. We get these flashes sometimes of how much we love someone through the flashing realization that if something happened to them it would devastate us. We feel the suffering of others as if it were our own, and the stronger our love, the more overwhelming the sharing of their suffering.
I believe, as a chaplain and a caregiver and person who wants to maximize the output of love in the universe, that this empathy to suffering makes us better at loving other people. As I stood over her, trying to reassure her to no avail that we could easily buy another Spoonman, I let the crazy association with a grieving family take over. Fighting back my own tears, I knelt down beside her, the crushed pieces of her beloved spoon action figure in my hand. “Do you want to say goodbye?” I said, my other arm around her, holding her tight.
“He was brand new,” she whimpered.
“I know,” I said. “I’m so sorry this happened. I wish I could fix him for you. I can see how sad you feel.”
I kissed her and let her cry until she said, “Goodbye, Spoonman.”
Of course, a replacement Spoonman is already on its way. (And thanks to Amazon Prime shipping, his miraculous resurrection will be faster than the three-day standard.) What loving parent wouldn’t instantly fix his child’s suffering? If the disposal hadn’t mangled and broken the plastic into pieces, I’d have glued him back together for an even quicker fix. I’m already looking forward to her reaction when she gets Spoonman 2 in the mail. One day, however, I know I won’t be able to fix it for her. My fierce love for her will fight that day tooth and nail. But when it comes, I want to be there for her to hold her suffering with her, to kiss her and wish with her that the world could be a little different. And when the day comes that I can’t be there for her, when she suffers losing me, then I want her to have learned that grief is the privilege that accompanies love. I’m so grateful that I am the person entrusted to love and care for her, no matter how much it may one day hurt.
Anytime someone on American Idol
or The Voice
or whatever current popular TV show featuring “regular” young people who are seeking to achieve their dream of being a pop artist for a few months tells the camera with complete sincerity that they have been singing ever since they were a little kid, I think: BFD, man. Everyone
has been singing since they were a little kid. Little kids love to sing. Singing as a little kid doesn’t make you a pop star phenomenon; it makes you a human being
. Perhaps pop stars are better at it than the rest of us, but they didn’t start any earlier. All kids love to sing. This is one of my favorite things that my child does: singing.
Pop star is not high up on the list of things she’s likely to become in her lifetime (although I’d put it higher on the list than, say, a Republican senator or New York Times
editor). This is why children singing is so adorable and awesome: my child is not concerned about how she sounds or whether anyone thinks she is any good. If she auditioned for Simon Cowell, she would laugh at his disdain and sing louder. Singing is fun, it’s loud, it’s expressive, and you can do it anywhere. It’s the perfect activity.
There are so many popular children’s songs for this very reason. My daughter has her favorites: “Wheels On the Bus” is still a favorite
of hers, as is “Baa Baa Black Sheep.” She has a few she’s learned from our favorite children’s music composer, Sandra Boynton
. She also loves “Rocky Top” and has nearly every verse memorized, which is, of course, the single greatest achievement any Tennessee parent could hope for their four-year-old. On top of all these songs, which my child will sing with abandon, enthusiasm, and a complete lack of accuracy, my child loves to sing original compositions.
Her most recent, an impromptu composition she sang for me at my request, went something like this: Jesus is working Jesus is working Working, working, working Jesus is working
Simple and direct, yet with many possible interpretations, it has deeply spiritual connotations as well as whiffs of earthly sweat and toil. (Call me for the rights, Jack White!) Other song topics have been butterflies, sunshine, knowledge, Daddy cleaning dishes after dinner, and a nonsense word called “Luhnyah.” These songs could comprise either the next Ke$ha record or the next Bjork record, just depends on the arrangements. Occasionally she will Glee
-fully mash her songs into a single medley, so that you get one whole song about Jesus and butterflies and sunshine and knowledge. (Now it’s an India.Arie record.) Singing is such a beautiful gift.
It’s amazing to watch your infant child begin to discover the use of her voice for the purpose of talking, but singing is an art. Singing is discovering not just that you can communicate, but that you have a musical instrument in your very body. It’s freeing and embodying and empowering.
It’s a completely unique experience, and yet doing it with others creates a powerful sense of community and belonging. The Psalmist wrote, “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise” (98:4). Children do this intuitively and guilelessly. It makes me happy and jealous at the same time.
When do we stop singing as we grow up? I know that many of us don’t; you don’t have to be a pop star to love to sing. We have church choirs and community choruses and family gatherings around a piano. I know plenty of adults who sing, some professionally and amazingly well. But I don’t know lots of adults who sing with the kind of reckless abandon as children. When do we get so concerned about how well we sing? About whether we sing the right songs, or sing the correct lyrics, or sing songs at all? When do we become self-conscious, saving our songs only for socially sanctioned settings? Why are we not singing literally all the time? My child is. Children understand the primal significance of singing. Sadness, joy, excitement, nonsense: nothing conveys these things as beautifully as singing a song. I hope I can take singing lessons from my child, learning to loosen all those inhibitions and judgments that keep me from breaking out into song at work or in the grocery aisle or in the shower. It’s not impressive to hear someone explain their love of music by saying they sang all the time as a little kid. What’s impressive is if you are still singing as a little kid once you’re grown.
Earlier this week, rocking my daughter before bed, she said, “Tell me a story.”
“The one about the dinosaur?”
“No, a different one.”
She shrugged. “Anything. You pick.”
I was not in my most creative frame of mind and was having trouble coming up with something. So I went with the story most familiar to my heart, the story that filled my childhood and helped to teach me the basic moral understandings of the universe.
“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”
I recounted for her how the gallant Princess Leia of Alderaan is captured by the nefarious Darth Vader, but is able to send a message with the plucky droids C-3PO and R2-D2 who escape and land on a desert planet called Tatooine. There they are captured by Jawas before being bought by an earnest farmboy named Luke Skywalker. R2-D2 sets off alone into the wilderness to fulfill his promise to Princess Leia to find Ob-Wan Kenobi, and Luke sets off in search of the little droid.
“We have to stop there,” I told her, noticing how late it was getting.
“No!” she insisted, her eyes wide. “What happens to Princess Leia?”
“I’ll tell you tomorrow.”
She reluctantly agreed to go to bed. As her mother tucked her in, I heard her recount the story: “Princess Leia was locked up by Darth Vader and couldn’t escape. And the one robot was knocked over by the little creatures who talked like this: ‘Yimee yimee!’ And then Luke drove the other robot into the desert in his car.”
My spouse came out of her room and asked me, “Did you tell her about Star Wars?”
The next morning, the very first out of my daughter’s mouth when she saw me: “Tell me the next part about Princess Leia.”
All week, in fact, she has been asking me for “the next part.” I have the movie memorized; I literally can recount it scene for scene and nearly line for line. I was born a year after the first Star Wars film was released and I cannot remember a time in my life that I didn’t know its story. I remember my parents taking me to see The Empire Strikes Back at a drive-in movie theater, although that memory seems suspect since I would have been only two years old when it was released. But the Star Wars characters have been a part of my life since I can remember. I had the action figures; I had the picture books accompanied by 45 records that required me to turn the page every time R2-D2 chirped; I even slept with a stuffed Ewok at night. There are plenty of other stories that have had profound impacts on my life – books like Where The Wild Things Are, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, To Kill a Mockingbird and A Prayer For Owen Meany; movies like The Godfather, Forrest Gump, any Pixar movie; TV shows like The X-Files and The Wire. But all of those held sway over particular periods of my life. But there are only two stories that have had a consistent lasting effect over every moment of my life, having existed in my consciousness since I was born and every moment since: Star Wars and the Bible.
We’ve now started to have the conversation about how old a child should be before letting them watch Star Wars for the first time. I know that I was well aware of the stories before I was her age, although the only time I distinctly remember watching any of the first movies and truly understanding the stories was when Return of the Jedi was released. I was five years old and my father took me to see it in the theater and I remember feeling as if I were coming in to the last chapter of a story I already subconsciously knew. I didn’t directly remember how Han Solo had gotten frozen in carbonite, but I understood he needed rescuing and had the faintest of mental images of him surrounded by orange and purple as Leia and Chewbacca looked on helplessly. Is my child any less ready to watch these films than I was at her age? It’s not any scarier than other movies she’s watched – Monsters Inc. has plenty of scary moments, and she loves that movie. It’s perhaps more violent than the movies she’s used to watching, but I’m of the opinion that children are far more aware of violence and death than we give them credit for. (See: Grimm’s fairy tales.)
I’ve decided, for now, not to show her the movies. Not because I think she’s not ready for them, but because I want to preserve the power of myth that resides in the oral tradition. Much has been made about the Joseph Campbell mythical hero quest arc that George Lucas so deftly utilized (or stole) to craft his epic space opera. The story of Star Wars has, in effect, been told for centuries in the epics of Gilgamesh, the Arabian Nights, Greek mythology, and the folklore of King Arthur. This powerful “monomyth” of the noble journey, or the struggle for what is right, of the transformative influence of fellow travelers and friends in a protagonist’s bildungsroman; this is, in effect, the story of humankind. These are archetypes that inform and order our experience of the universe. These stories are everywhere. In many ways, we cannot not tell this story to our children, from the stories of the Bible to The Cat In the Hat. Asking whether or not my child is ready for the story is ridiculously redundant. Not only does she already know the story, she’s already retelling it.
The reason that Generation Xers hated the Star Wars prequels isn’t just because they were bad movies. I believe they were inferior to the first three, but the first three aren’t exactly cinematic masterpieces. There’s plenty of awkward dialogue, wooden acting, and pandering optimism (I don’t care about Lucas’ revisionism: Han shot first!). The reason our hatred of the prequels was so visceral is that they exposed to us that movies are smaller than the myths. We didn’t see the first movies as critical adults in a theater; we saw them as children absorbing stories of life. We didn’t care that Mark Hamill is maybe not the best actor, or that Chewbacca has only one facial expression, or that it is a little too convenient that Luke just happens to crash within one mile of a Jedi master who has devoted his existence to not being found. And if you just responded to that last sentence by explaining away all three of those things in your head, then you are proving my point – they don’t matter when faced with the larger implications of the myth. The myth is deeper than the story.
This is true of all myths. It’s true of the Bible – who cares where Cain and Abel’s children came from? Who cares how Jonah could survive inside a whale’s belly? Who cares about the biological implications of virgin birth or bodily resurrection? If you’re hung up on those details, then that’s like dismissing all of Star Wars because the space battles depict the astrophysical impossibility of sound in a vacuum.
It’s just as true as the more localized, personal family stories we tell ourselves and our children. My daughter has heard stories of her namesake, her uncle. She’s heard these stories from her mother – who never met my brother. That’s a ridiculously small detail when compared to the larger mythical import of the story: that my child understand there are people in her family who came before her that left an impact on the people who love her and that, through her, will continue to impact the world.
A myth is always greater than the medium in which it is told. That’s why people of my generation sat through The Phantom Menace with an increasing sense of despair: we were grown and no longer able to separate ourselves from the critical examination of the conventions of cinema. My child does not have that problem yet, and I don’t want to rush it. I will continue to tell her the stories of Star Wars, just as we tell her the stories of the Bible and of our own family histories, so that she can absorb them without having images and meanings imposed and contrived. We will show them to her for sure; maybe in another year or two. In the meantime, I’m treasuring that Star Wars is an intimate experience between the two of us. When she does watch the films, she’ll watch them as stories that she heard from her father, which will infuse them with a deeper import. Just as the stories of the Bible are best told in the context of a community of faith, so do I want the stories we tell her to be connected intimately with the people that love her.
Stories outlive their tellers, and in doing so they take on a new life. They change as we change, often more. They convey our faith, our beliefs, our values, our very selves to those who come after us. They are our most treasured gifts to our children because they are pieces of ourselves that go with them. I believe there is something sacred at work when, in a few quiet moments between me and my child, she says, “What happens next?”
Editorial note: I am a Euro-American, upper-middle-class, cisgendered man. As such, I have blind spots when it comes to the experiences of others. Some of those blind spots may be on display in this post, but given both the nature of this blog and the commitment to critical self-reflection that I lay out below, it seemed that not addressing these issues would be a glaring omission. I would rather risk exposing my blind spots by joining the conversation than hide them by remaining silent.
The trending Twitter hashtag this week has been #YesAllWomen
, a thread response to #NotAllMen
, which is itself a response to reports this weekend of a mass shooting in California by a deranged young man who, in a YouTube testimonial, expressed rage at women for rejecting him. So just to recount that back-track of social media: A crazy misogynist man who feels angry at women for not having sex with him goes on a rampage and kills six people. Men start responding defensively on social media, saying that not all men are psychopathic monsters. Women respond by saying that such reactions are not helpful because misogyny and sexism are everywhere, following with example after example. Men then respond again either with horrified shock (“I had no idea!”) or further defensiveness (“This is reverse sexism!”). This is the crazy twisted world we live in.
I have a four-year-old daughter. In the midst of all this sudden attention to sexism and misogyny, I am given another opportunity to ask myself: Am I raising my daughter with any sexist assumptions, attitudes, or values? Is there anything I might be doing that would instill in her the belief that women are somehow less than men? The answer is easy: of course I am.
I don’t want to, Lord knows. I’m trying really hard not
to. But I can’t help it; it’s everywhere. There’s just no escaping it. I grew up with it. Not that my parents were shockingly sexist or anything; I actually think they were rather progressive. But they
grew up with it, and their parents grew up with it. And besides, unless your family comes from an isolated island completely disconnected from the rest of civilization (in which case you would not be reading blogs), then you have been raised in a larger cultural context. Which, by the way, is completely and totally sexism-ridden. (And racism, and classism, and heteronormativity…)
It feels terrible to notice all the ways I participate in the “isms” or our culture. But every single one of us does. You can’t avoid it; if you exist within our society, then you are participating in systems of oppression.
That’s just a cold hard fact. Have you watched an episode of The Bachelor
or Toddlers and Tiaras
? Then you’ve participated in sexism. Have you ever made a joke about women with PMS or men not asking for directions? You’ve participated in sexism. Have you ever critiqued the looks of Hillary Clinton or Condoleezza Rice? You’ve participated in sexism. Have you ever referred to something as a “boys’ toy” or a “girls’ toy”? You’ve participated in sexism. Have you ever remained silent
while other people did these things? Congratulations, you’ve participated in sexism.
There’s simply no escaping it, and anyone who says, “Hey, I’m not like that,” is renouncing their responsibility and tacitly participating in the perpetuation of systems of oppression. I know, it sucks. I assure you, I’m no less guilty than you or anyone else. And it’s often a guilt by forced association. I work for a corporation where women make up 80% of the workforce, but only 40% of executive leadership. What should I do, quit my job? Go work for a more progressive company? Because 40% female executive leadership is probably ahead of the curve. It sucks, I know. It’s painful to realize that you are participating in the problem, even if you don’t want to or are trying really hard not to.
Think of it in terms of the following illustration (apologies to the Apostle Paul).
You are a healthy stomach in the body of a person with lung cancer. Now, perhaps your functioning is unaffected by the cancer in the lungs. But you can’t exactly say to the lungs, “This is not my problem; I
don’t have cancer.” Cancer in the lungs will eventually affect the stomach, if only by eventually killing the whole body. Likewise, the stomach can’t say, “I’m not doing chemo; I
don’t have cancer.” Does it suck for the otherwise healthy stomach that it has to endure the ravages of chemo because of tumors in the lungs? Yes, it does. Is it fair? No, it isn’t. But if the whole body elects not to receive treatment because most of the cells are healthy, then the eventual outcome is going to be disastrous.
Misogyny – and racism, classism, heteronormativity, and every other metric of oppression – is a cancer in our society. It is a cancer that our society was born with. You may not be actively oppressing women; you may not have a deep-seated belief that women are inferior objects; you may not be a violent rapist. But misogyny is woven into the fabric of our culture just as surely as democracy. (And who were the first people in America to enjoy the democratic process? Hmm…) Every single one of us participates in sexism just as every part of a body participates in cancer. But in this case, those of us who have the luxury to ignore that there is sexism because we don’t directly suffer from it – or, as we are often called, “men” – participate more readily because it’s easy for us to remain blind and ignorant.
Women can be sexist, too; I remember the woman who told me when we were expecting our daughter that I should want a boy because boys were better children. It’s men, however, who participate more fully in the patterns of sexism, either by actively perpetuating their own privilege and dominance, or by choosing to remain clueless and uninvolved. It’s a luxury to be capable of detachment from the suffering of others; and even if done naively, detachment from suffering allows that suffering to continue.
So how on earth am I to be a father and raise a daughter? I’ve processed this before in other posts (like here
). As much as I want to raise a child immune to the ugly realities of sexism and misogyny, it is impossible. I mean, I can’t even buy her clothes
without perpetuating stereotypes. She’s only four, and she’s already gotten healthy doses of it. Just this week, she saw a line of children’s bicycles. I asked her if she wanted a bike and which ones she liked.
“I like all the girls’ bikes,” she answered.
My first thought was What the hell? Who taught her that?
My second thought was, That can’t be true – one of these bikes is a Spiderman bike, and she loves Spiderman.
So I said, “What about the Spiderman bike?”
Then I thought Wait – I just this second taught her that the Spiderman bike wasn’t a girls’ bike.
She glanced at the Spiderman bike and then, looking down at her feet, she said sheepishly, “I like them all.” As if she should be ashamed for liking boys’ bikes. And then I wanted to cry. (I didn’t, of course, because I learned how to be masculine.)
There it was, folks: sexism shining through the very fabric of our existence. Mostly a benign and harmless interaction, maybe. But those little moments add up. So what am I supposed to do? How do I raise a child in this mess?
My child, by nature of being something other than a heterosexual male, is not going to have the luxury to ignore this stuff the same way I have. My goal, however, is to continue to raise a child who pays attention with sensitivity and responsibility. What makes me – or anyone – culpable for participating in a system of oppression is the choice made in response to the recognition that such a system exists.
Men (or women) who respond to misogyny by saying, “I’m not like that,” are making a choice to disassociate themselves from the responsibility to act. I know it feels safe and comforting to make that choice, but it’s complicity. My child will have less privilege in ignoring these systems of oppression than I did simply because she was born with a vagina. But she’ll still be raised in a middle-class Euro-American family with tons of unquestioned privilege. I want her to learn to question them, to shoulder the personal responsibility to look for injustice and reflect critically on the ways that she participates in those systems. Even – God help me – to critically examine the ways that I have unwittingly perpetuated sexist attitudes and handed down oppressive beliefs. I want her to be better than this world. That starts by raising her to be better than me.
In the meantime, I want to raise the bar for what that looks like as much as I can. That means constantly examining the ways I am sexist, classist, racist, heteronormative, or otherwise blind to the privilege I wield without a second thought. Does it matter to me what all men are like? Not really. It matters what I am like, because it matters to me what kind of world my child will inherit.
I once had a supervisor who gave me some great leadership advice. I was struggling with how to discipline one of my direct reports who was failing to turn in assignments and show up for meetings. I was basically letting them get away with it, because I wasn’t saying anything to them about it. My supervisor wanted to know why I wasn’t calling them out, and I admitted that I didn’t want to come across as judgmental or morally superior. She said, “Be like Mother Nature. There’s no moral judgment in nature. If a squirrel doesn’t gather nuts for winter, no one judges the squirrel as morally inferior. The squirrel just starves. You can hold people accountable to the consequences of their actions without passing moral judgment.”
This blew my mind. To this day, it strikes me as a powerful insight into the nature of effective leadership and parenting.
It’s also really, really
hard to do.
I’m pretty good at setting out rules for my child. We are clear about our expectations, and we are clear about the consequences. We also hold her to the consequences (at least most of the time). It’s the not judging part that’s so hard. Because you know what? I am nearly always morally disappointed in my child for not making good decisions one-hundred percent of the time.
My child is not of an age where this attitude serves anyone well. She is developmentally incapable of making logically good choices on any kind of consistent basis. She’s a few weeks shy of four years old; her brain is literally lacking in the capacity to make logical choices. My brain, however, is lacking the capacity to comprehend a person not
making logical choices. It makes no sense to me that I would tell a person, “If you do a
, then b
will happen,” then watch that person do a
and protest with wailing accusations of meanness and hostility when b
follows. I told you five times in a row
that if a
, so why are you so upset that after you a
’d I b
’d? I predicted the future for you! How can you morally judge me
for my honesty, directness, and consistency?
Just as I can’t understand her inability to respect cause-and-effect, her brain is still in the fledgling stages of putting cause-and-effect together. If I say to her, if a
, then turn right back around and ask her what will happen if a
, she’s as likely to answer “potato.” It’s not her fault; her brain hasn’t grown up enough. In fact, the best way for her brain to learn it is to experience b
over and over again. So why can’t I manage to stop judging her for all this?
It’s easy to just say, Hey, our brains are just not a good match right now. But that’s not how it feels when she’s pitching a fit because she’s suffering the consequences I warned her would follow the action she just performed. Anyone else in my life might deserve the moral judgment that would follow such a situation. The temptation to say, “Weren’t you listening? Why can’t you follow directions? What’s wrong with you?” is really strong. But this isn’t really helpful with anyone
, much less a child who still hasn’t developed cause-and-effect reasoning yet.
What is the purpose in morally judging someone for making decisions with negative consequences? Aren’t the negative consequences enough? That seems to be how it works out there in nature; why must we attach moral judgment to things?
I’m trying to withhold my judgment. I know my child is still learning, and when I heap moral judgment on top of the consequences, I’m actually muddying the lesson. Because I’m actually teaching that in addition to b
also comes with something else: shame. Only I’m not saying that out loud, which just adds to the confusion: if a
, then b
(and this other unnamed thing that feels even worse and doesn’t seem to go away for a long time). Maybe I should just start saying this out loud: “If you hit me again, I will put you into time out and then stand over you with my arms crossed, shaking my head and quietly judging you.”
Or maybe I need to be kinder to both of us by cutting out the judgment. Our consequences really are enough. I don’t want her to go skating on the thin ice of modern life dragging behind her the reproach of a million tear-stained eyes. She’ll have enough walls to negotiate in the real world without me helping her build a new one (which apparently ends with being drugged and dragged onstage to what you think is a Neo-Nazi riot…
or something). It’s normal for parents to want their children to make good decisions on their own. But it takes time, patience, and consistency. My little squirrel hasn’t quite figured out how to gather nuts on her own just yet, but that’s why she still has me. I just have to trust that she isn’t going to starve and remember that she’s more than just a nut that I
have to gather. She’s her own person and she’s developing on her own.
It has been said that all modern philosophy works are just footnotes to the works of Plato. As a philosophy major, I can attest that this is an exaggeration, but maybe not as a large an exaggeration as one might think. Plato’s philosophical thought – told almost entirely through dramatic dialogues starring real people, most notably Socrates – set the foundations and ground rules for the very endeavors of philosophical explorations. It is difficult to overestimate how much basic knowledge comes from Plato. Things that the simplest of people take for granted – the belief in moral right and wrong, for example, or the reliability of mathematical equations – can be traced back to Plato.
For me, one of the most compelling concepts from Plato’s work is the notion, broadly referred to as “platonism,” that the material world we live in is but an imperfect copy of a divine ideal. Every chair you sit in, for instance, is but a flawed attempt to replicate the perfect form of the ideal chair. The perfect ideal chair does not exist in this world, but its ideal form exists in some metaphysical realm where the form and function are flawlessly and beautifully matched. This is true for all things; everything is pointing to the ultimate forms of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.
They are embodied, however imperfectly, in our endeavors to capture form and function in the world around us.
Likewise, artists who are seeking through their art to discover a more and closer connection with reality are bringing us closer to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Plato was an admirer of playwrights and poets in his day whose works attempted to bring viewers and readers to a better understanding of what might be called The Platonic Trinity. I’d like to imagine that today Plato would approve of the works of artists like Toni Morrison, Mary Oliver, Bruce Springsteen, Banksy, and even the comedy of Louis C.K. Any artist whose work seeks to enlighten, challenge, edify, or otherwise invite the participant into an exploration of the True, the Good, the Beautiful is worthy of our interest. Plato was less impressed with artists whose art seemed more interested in the expression of its own mastery. This was, in a sense, artistic sophistry: art simply for art’s sake. (We might include the films of David Lynch, the paintings of Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollack, or avant-garde jazz. I suppose we might also include – but distinguish in quality – Miley Cyrus, Michael Bay, or Thomas Kinkade. But I digress….) However, art is just as essential in the search for the True-Good-Beautiful as math, science, or philosophy.
I bring all of this up for this reason: It is my desire as a parent to raise my child as close as possible to the True-Good-Beautiful.
I don’t suppose I always know exactly what that is, but I was reminded of it as I pondered her trip to MerleFest a few weeks ago
. Would Plato have loved MerleFest? Perhaps, who knows. I know that we
love MerleFest. But what I loved most is that my child perhaps found some new ways to explore the world, with music and play and freedom, which would, I think, draw her a little closer to the flames of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.
When she was around eighteen months old, she brought home a painting she’d done at daycare. By itself, it’s just a messy finger-painting in greens and purples. But at the top, her teacher wrote “Today we listened to classical music. My fingers danced on my paper!” What a gift that, before my child had been alive two years, she was already listening to Beethoven and Bach, whose music displays the very beauty of mathematics that Plato so extolled, and was given the free space to play with color and paint and the ten beautiful paintbrushes on the ends of her hands.
My job as a parent is to keep her engaged in that same play. Play is, I believe, worth it just for the sake of the play in the same way that Rothko’s No. 61 (Rust and Blue) is beautiful just for the sake of color and shape, or that David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive is brilliant without any conventional story or plot development. If play is nothing but fun and diverting, then it’s still completely worth it. But what if it’s more? Isn’t it through play that children find their passions? Whether it’s Legos leading to a career in engineering, or sidewalk chalk leading to a career in graphic design, or books leading to a career in literature and education, play is essential to children discovering the True-Good-Beautiful, particularly what is true, good, and beautiful about themselves.
I want my child to learn the love of searching for these things. That is, after all, what is meant by the word “philosophy” – the love of wisdom. I want my daughter to get as close as she can to what is true about herself, what is good about herself, what is beautiful about herself. Music, art, play; MerleFest, swim lessons, stacks of books; a safe home environment where she is free to explore. These are the values I hold for her as a parent. Perhaps my home isn’t exactly Plato’s Academy; I’m certainly no philosopher-king. But when I see her lost in play, I see Truth and Goodness and Beauty. I’m a philosopher in that I love the wisdom waiting to be born in her.
Our daughter attended her first music festival last week. No one could accuse her of squandering it.
We worried a little about it. Are we doing this more for us? Will she be bored? Will she make it miserable for everyone? Is it safe? Will she use a Port-a-Potty?
We needn’t have worried about these things. The only problem she had was going home.
In fairness, the festival we attended – MerleFest
in Wilkesboro, NC – is unbelievably kid-friendly. Bouncy houses, face- and finger-painting, arts and crafts projects, a sandbox, and a music tent dedicated completely to children’s music, magicians, and a flea circus. We made a pallet in our car for naps, we carted her around in her Radio Flyer (with canopy), and we packed for meals. Her grandmother did the most in terms of sticking with her – the rest of us were busy seeing acts or, in my case, working backstage.
I’ve written before about my commitment to providing experiences for my child. MerleFest has been an annual experience my family has engaged in for a decade, particularly since I’ve been working backstage. (And if I miss a year, I lose that position.) We were skeptical about our daughter being there this year, and in general, we all were lacking in enthusiasm. Thankfully, our daughter’s enthusiasm for the fun of four days of music and play helped us rediscover our own sense of fun and wonder. She was more interested in playing than in listening to the music that we love. In some ways, we traveled in completely different levels of MerleFest than we have before simply because we had a child with us. We didn’t spend as much time at the main stage – or any of the stages, really – because we let her dictate a lot of the agenda. It was a more relaxed approach to a festival to be led by a child. It reduced the sizes of the crowds we negotiated and increased the amount of time we spent in the shade.
In some ways, we didn’t attend a music festival so much as we attended an unbelievably cool playground that catered to adults with incredible musicians playing nearby. I wonder how I might let her transform other areas of my life in a similar sense. Maybe I’m not merely dragging a child through an adult world that I try to make interesting to her now and then; maybe I need to be led more by my child so that my playgrounds and concerts and art opportunities appear more regularly in an otherwise drab mainstream adult life.
I have dreams that my child will discover a love for playing music and take up the mandolin or guitar. What seemed to pique her interest this past weekend wasn’t music, but clogging. Hey, I’m good with that too. Whatever grabs her and engages her in the discovery of fun, art, whatever. That’s my job as a parent. It’s really okay that she only lasted twenty minutes of the Kruger Brothers’ Creekside set. For four days she soaked up an environment of music and play and was completely at home with herself. What more could a parent wish for his child?