My youngest is going camping with his friends this weekend. We’ve amassed quite the collection of camping gear over the years, so of course, we spent Thursday evening setting up numerous tents in the living room to determine which one would be best suited for the adventure. Sounds of nylon against carbon fiber filled the room as tent poles slid through support loops and various forms of portable housing took shape.
Somehow Game of Thrones came up. Amidst the racket, I heard my eldest ask,
“Is Peter Dinklage an elf?”
“No,” I responded, “he’s a dwarf. There are no such things as elves.”
My son gave me that look; you know the one teenagers give you when they realize you’re going deaf, or crazy, or whatever.
“No Dad, was Peter Dinklage ‘in’ Elf ? You know, the movie?”
Laughter joined the sound of rustling nylon, filling the room.
A road map of departures. Stories of ‘leaving’ silently scrawled while the rest of the house slept. Notes left as insurance against consternation in case someone woke to wonder where I was. Last thoughts left behind in case, god forbid, some unforeseen circumstance extinguished the hope of a safe return.
The practice of scribbling these notes has spanned many years. Though this ritual began when the boys were young and more situationally fragile, it has become a tradition in our home. Its use is a conscious act to make clear that which would otherwise have to be left to imagination.
The composition book had been rescued from landfill retirement at the end of some forgotten school year and repurposed in the role of a portable bulletin board. At its most useful it lays on the battered hardwood floors of our partially updated 1950 cape cod, in the hallway between the two old wooden bedroom doors of my beloved sons leaving answers, just in case there are questions.
It all begins with raising a healthy child I suppose. A child with a well-balanced sense of right and wrong, the ability to care, commit, engage and admit when they are wrong, and an understanding of reasonable boundaries for starters. These seem fitting attributes for one charged with the making of a new world. Where will this metaphorical child look for cues?
Caregivers/parents set the tone for every coming act on the global stage. Every parental behavior, no matter how small creates a butterfly effect that sends ripples through yet unwritten history. Therefore our responsibility as adults is not merely to our children but to an entire generation and the generations which they, in turn, will bring to pass. Our responsibility that is, if we have a legitimate interest in our legacy; our gift, or blight on the years to come.
“Respect your elders.” The popular expression makes my stomach turn. While I do believe respect is an important lesson I do not believe it can be instilled in a ‘one-way street’ fashion. In my experience, children learn far more from our actions than our ‘teachings.’ If we treat a child with respect, they come to understand it’s true nature, and more importantly its value. Seeing is believing.
“Do as I say, not as I do,” another gem. While listeners are sometimes hard to come by, mimics abound in the realm of childhood. The essence of a healthy future is founded on the understanding that “do as I do” is the curriculum far more likely to take hold.
Leading by example then is the forge on which tomorrow is wrought. What imperative does that place on this generation of caregivers? Will we pass on that which we learned as children? Were those lessons ideal? Are they all we have, the best we can do? Will we even know we are repeating the sins of the father or mother upon the son or daughter? Handing the wheel to the platitude “When I was a kid…” isn’t necessarily good enough is it? If it were, the psychotherapeutic business would not be enjoying its meteoric and seemingly endless growth trajectory.
Self-respect starts at home, as does healthy self-appreciation. These positive self-image elements spread like ‘good weeds’ from those who possess them. If as a child you were deprived of the installation of these qualities the accession from childhood to the role of parenting provides an opportunity to break the cycle, glitch the matrix, to rewrite the future. It takes effort, focus and commitment to step outside the negative experiences that shaped our collective past, but on the wings of counting to ten and choosing to be active rather than reactive it is the path to a legacy we can be proud of.
Remembering what it was like to be a child, the newness of the world in the absence of experience and accumulated wisdom is the bridge that allows for patience and the acceptance of childish behavior. How the hell else are they supposed to act for god’s sake? I submit that the showing of respect, the looking for the positive and offering affirmation, setting clear, reasonable boundaries, the giving of hugs and speaking the words “I love you” as often as humanly possible are the keys to achieving the sacred mandate of raising of a healthy world.
I have nothing to say… Oh wait, that can’t be right.The voice in my head never stops yammering, so perhaps I should just share a bit of that monkey din.Let’s see, I was super uptight with my kids this morning in response to their less than “militarily precise” approach to preparing for the first day of school.My fluster-faced antics were unnecessary and as it turns out, super unproductive.They watched me rant with bemused looks of teenage indifference.Suddenly it dawned on me that I was “choosing” to be an ass. “Thank god,” I thought, and just like that, I chose to change my choice.I decided that I no longer wished to be a “that dad,” so I stopped my foolishness, and apologized to my sons.Breakfast and the ride to school were lighthearted and fun.So that’s all I have to say…
Wait, I do want to mention that while I was acting like a child, they were keeping their distance, staying emotionally clear of the bad mojo vortex.They had decided it seems, to give me the space to work through whatever ass clown hair shirt I was knitting without engaging.Well done boys.
I have nothing to say, that needs to be said, at the moment.That said or said thrice perhaps, I like saying stuff.When I was a young boy I had, as some parents might say “a lot of energy.”My father was a man of few words.Of those few words, the ones I often heard were “stop babbling.”What?Not enrich the world with my eight-year-old prattle?You can’t be serious? Poor guy’s ears must have been near bleeding!
I have a couple talkers in my house.The suspects are male, ages 13 and 16.While they both can go on serious verbal tears, the 13-year-old is exceptionally gifted.He can speak incessantly for such extended periods that we’ve actually coined terms to describe his gift.When he’s been thinking out loud at the speed of sound for some interminable period, we call it ‘streaming’…he calls it “broadcast mode.”I used to talk, or “babble” like that when I was a boy, ha!It doesn’t hurt anyone, so I just let him blow that horn.
Some folks don’t talk much. Some folks do.Some are great listeners while others don’t seem to have the ability to give two stray shits about what anyone says, even as they pretend to listen. What?Ha, just kidding.
So it seems I have nothing important to say, but I’m damn happy to be here, to have another day on this planet with opportunities in front of me and most of the “learning the hard way” behind me.Babblers, quite folk, grumpsters, and joy monkeys, may you find wildflowers and spring water along your path as you walk to the beat of your own personal expression drums.
Parents! If you’re lucky enough to still have them around, excellent! If they can on occasion be challenging, that’s not uncommon; look who’s talking. If you think they did a less than perfect job of playing god to you and your siblings if you have the pleasure of sisters or brothers, you’re possibly right…they’re only human for fuck’s sake.
For the longest time, I held my parents responsible for crimes against humanity.Humanity, consisting primarily of me.Not everyone is so fortunate to experience the “victim/narcissist” posture that I somehow adopted at an early age, but some of you may be able to identify what I’m talking about.Ugh, so embarrassing!Anyway, my folks were young when they got into the kid-having business, and they set out to do their best, whatever that means.
We all do our best right?No, we don’t all do our best, a topic for another time.However, if we do our best, well done us!That, in my opinion, is how we give ourselves the best odds at getting through this monkey parade in one piece.To my youthful affronted mind though “my parents best” was less than acceptable.Precious snowflake boy? Or perhaps, ungrateful asshole? You decide.
These days I am a parent.Actually, I’m on the downhill side of the child-rearing experience with two healthy, happy-ish teenage sons.I love my role and have learned a great deal about what my parents must have faced during their “adventure in child rearing.”Unfortunately, like my parents, I found that my wedding vows could not withstand the weight of the union itself.Thus, I’m deunionised, or as we say in the vernacular “divorced.”I’m a single parent 182.5 days a year; the best 182.5 days of any given year I might add.Raising kids is like most experiences I’ve encountered.Attitude is everything!
Being married is work, work that unfortunately does not always bring to bear the fruit of one’s labor.Circumstances as they turned out to be I’ve come to realize that I have not always been the best reader of the more subtle aspects of certain human personalities.I do believe that I hear and see people clearly when ‘they speak their truth’ and glean the essence of who they are, perhaps more so than they themselves at times.Ego talk? Probably. Though if my relationships with my sons, friends, colleagues, etc. are any indication, and if I’m not wholly deluding myself, it’s possibly true.Still, I have a lot to learn yet about how to be my best.As for my misread on the choice of life partners?Romance seems to be my kryptonite, also a topic for another post.
I bring up marriage only because the majority of parenting is done, or at least initially undertaken in that construct.All of the great, and not so great parts of a marriage inform the parenting of the children in a family.What relational skills do we unwittingly gift our progeny as they bear witness to our matrimonial dance?Could we have done better? Certainly.The adage about living in a glass house while hoisting stones comes to mind again and again.No blaming or finger pointing here.
Back to my parents. They worked hard, or at least my pops did. On top of that burden, they had to figure out how to raise kids; manual not included. Dad provided us (sisters not pictured above because they were still a twinkle in the old man’s eye when the shutter snapped) with way more than anyone had a right to expect. To put it mildly, we never wanted for the basics. Dad delivered grand family vacations, money for college, and bailed us out when our youthful dances included gross missteps. My father was extremely driven and excelled in a high-stress profession his entire life. The intensity must have been nearly unbearable. Reflecting on his situation as an adult, I can’t imagine how he handled the pressure. No wonder things weren’t always Lavender bouquets and yoga mats around the house.
My father and I are different people, to put it mildly, with decidedly different relational needs. We didn’t see eye to eye on much during my childhood. It’s no one’s fault, just how that particular cookie crumbled. In school, work or social life situations, one can choose to step away from relationships of that nature, but in the confines of the family structure, we just have to make the best of the hand as it is dealt. We didn’t get to choose each other or browse the “Family Relationship” version of Match.com before we committed to a life together. So it goes.
In my twenties, I moved away from my hometown. I left with the hope of escaping my stuckness, neighborhoods with six homes to an acre, traffic, and my roadblocked relationship with my family.With all my possessions in a subcompact car, I journeyed across the country in search of the life I’d always felt I was meant to live.“Wherever you go, there you are” notwithstanding it ultimately worked.My life and my sons’ lives are good, whole, full of love, mutual respect, and acceptance.Phew!
By moving away, and thereby breaking the cycle, I was able to discover that a new relationship with myself and my parents was attainable through the grace afforded by distance.Distance allows perspective.Perspective provides the chance for healing.Healing allows courage to blossom.Courage creates the possibility of change.Change creates the opportunity for forgiveness.Forgiveness is a universal gift.
Becoming a parent affords one an opportunity to experience the disruptive effect of ripples on the pond into which the Narcissus in all of us gaze.It offers a moment for those of us who have not yet discovered selflessness to awaken, and so be humbled.Parenthood provides the chance to accept, atone, forgive, and appreciate those whom we may formerly have held in some form of blame.
I love you, mom and dad!I now see clearly that you did the very best you could.Your hearts, not mine were in the right place, and for that, I am eternally grateful.
This random thought began as a journal note in 2014.
Table manners. Ah yes! A tiny window view into the vast array of merit badge earning opportunities awaiting on the shoulder-sash of parenthood.
My youngest son is hyperactive…seriously! I’ve been told that during his toddler years, when he was scheduled to attend mother’s day out the staff added an extra person just to handle him. Ha, that’s my boy. Nowadays he can often be seen orbiting the table while we enjoy family dinner, which at my choosing we share every night. It appears he came into this world with a wicked case of the “can’t-be-stills!” I could force him to sit…but why? Will he turn out to be a better citizen if I make him do so? Will he feel it’s okay to be him if I force him to “not be him?” Will any of us digest our meal more healthfully, or feel the world has been made a better place if I declare martial law at the dinner table? Probably not. However, at times, while chewing my food, seated within the gyroscopic whirl of his dining room orbit I do hear distant murmurs of a disapproving throng.
“Can’t you control that kid?”
“That walking about is not proper dinner time behavior!”
“Have the decency to teach the boy some manners!”
As though having trouble staying seated while masticating will lead directly to the unraveling of the social fabric of our entire culture.
As a nod to Emily Post and her followers, I have explained to my son that some people will expect the use of traditional, “proper” manners and that table-orbiting may not be considered acceptable in the homes of his friends. He gets it. He has managed to avoid becoming “that kid in the principal’s office” at school, etc. When required, he’s capable of masterful-ish self-control. Perhaps the best way to look at manners is in context. Are our opinions about the matter based on childhood experience? If so they are traditional, possibly passed down through multiple generations. Yes, these specific rules of behavior have been taught, but are they still supremely relevant? The doctrine of a flat Earth was too once widely taught. Do these lessons still hold their weight in the face of scientific, or in this case cultural evolution?
With that view in mind, one has to decide the goal, and more importantly the ultimate impact of one’s parental decisions. I find that after deconstructing most etiquette protocol and running it through the, “Does this rule truly make the world a better place” test, flexibility and acceptance usually win the day. Because really, are we here to “control” children, or help them flourish? I know which answer sits, or doesn’t sit (pardon the pun) best with me. I’m not advocating mannerlessness. I’ve taught my boys every social rule and regulation that I’ve ever learned. They are aware of and able to adhere to social decorum protocol at will. Afterall, knowing the rules is a perfect starting point on the road to doing the right thing, staying out of trouble, and for those of you who remember high school, avoiding embarrassment.
Long after we are gone, our children will unconsciously run their lives on the operating systems we’ve implanted in them. Our decisions about how to handle their youthful “behavior issues” will have shaped more than those teaching “moments.” That is why I let the kid orbit the table at dinner time. And no, I don’t let him do laps at Thanksgiving with the extended family. Even I have my limits. There are times and places for rules to be followed, and at least in my universe, times and places for their bending. Most adults unconsciously carry childhood memories of being brought to heel over issues of manners or rules. How the lessons were “taught” matters, even decades later. The cumulative effect of an upbringing may leave one with a deep-seated sense of self-acceptance, ambivalence or shame. I know which perspective I’d like to see shaping the future of this world. I bet you do too.
Do you have a similar experience to relate? Please comment. Life is bigger and better with shared experience!
The wooden window frame creaks gently at the caress of the breeze. Dew drops tremble on the laden blades of grass running from the mailbox to the front steps. Sunglow shines at the edge of the world, kissing the brickwork of the sleepy cottage, built long ago for someone’s profit, filled this day mostly with love. In the kitchen, the faintest click signals the release of water, soon to be steam, then to become the rich black elixir that she loves with just a dash of cream.
As always the alarm is set but unneeded. Her long lashes flutter open to the glow of this new day. Most mornings her first thoughts are steeped in gratitude…for all of it. For her life, her child, her present moment, and still with some difficulty she embraces and acknowledges her gratitude for the past. Every day has lead to this moment, the aroma of coffee, the faint light filling the skylights, the peace that once seemed a phantom now seems a life.
“Yes, my darling one.”
“Can I have some coffee?” Her son Jonah asks.
“Certainly, but no sugar please.”
“Joey, have you noticed what an amazing gift this morning is?”
“Yes mom, I said my gratitudes,” his words wander naturally down this well-worn path.
“Excellent! I love you!”
“Love you too.”
Three paintings hang on the wall, across the room from her king size bed. The painting on the left is of an intricately patterned caterpillar making its way across a birch branch in what looks to be late Summer. The next is of a delicate chrysalis suspended from a similar branch in the Fall. The painting on the right is of a magnificent butterfly taking wing in the Spring. So it goes that not every day has been this day, full of comfort, and love. But today, a few before, and many after will be very much like this one.
Discomfort, I’ve heard tell, is the price of admission to a meaningful life. Knowing the Butterfly Girl’s story, I believe that to be true.
Have thoughts on the subject? Please comment. Life is bigger and better with shared experience!
Morning coffee with my sons is one of my favorite things. Time to talk, and listen. Most days I take them to school, high school. I love being with them, and the trip allows for an extra bit of connection each day. This week due to unfortunate circumstances the boys will have to drive themselves. The parking lot is a good bit more than a stone’s hurl from the school entrance, a euphemistic ‘hike’ if you will.
“What does your week look like?” I asked, after a sip of very black coffee.
“A lot of walking,” said my youngest with a hint of “ugh!”
“Trade ya!” Said I, glancing at my bandaged foot, clutching my shiny new crutches. Ah, perspective.
Have thoughts on the subject? Please comment. Life is bigger and better with shared experience!