A Father’s Advice
It seemed the only opportunity. It seemed that career progression planned to take my son & his wife to England, not the sort of place one commutes to or that such plebes as myself visit for the weekend. It seemed the only opportunity to see them before they left. The birth of their son is immanent. So we bailed in the car Thursday at 9 PM and drove all night for a long weekend in Wisconsin. We arrived at 6 in the morning feeling sort of spent, like the fuzzy edges of a spent thundercloud.
After lunch on Friday, Christopher & I went for a hike in the greenspace near the apartment where he lives. We talked of a broad range of subjects from box elders and mulberries and milkweeds to engineering. Then he asked “Do you have any advice for a new father?” It’s something I’ve thought about a lot. Here’s some of what I said.
Mom & I agreed early on that we would present a united front when we you kids asked us something. Whichever one of us was asked first, the other one would agree. In the event of a disagreement, the policy stood and the matter could be discussed privately by us at a time when a decision wasn’t riding on it.
Grandma did a number of things I think were good parenting. Say we were making cookies. She would show us how to measure, then let us measure (for real, not pro forma), but say “can I check that?” The wisdom was in affirming what we did with the opportunity to suggest better ways or corrections.
The actual goal of parenting is to raise children who are capable of making unsupervised decisions that are ethically and morally acceptable. In the same vein as making cookies, allow kids to take risks and succeed while supervised, like spotting them the first few times they cross the monkeybars. Risk allows kids (and adults, too) to find boundaries, which are often well outside expectations. It allows them to learn to evaluate, to fail, to succeed.
My Quaker scoutmaster encouraged me to practice running rapids backwards when the choice was mine so that when the time came that the choice wasn’t mine, I could do it. One day I wound up running a rapid called Coliseum backwards in my C-1 (a decked canoe that looks like a kayak). Coliseum is a class 5 rapid on the Cheat river in West Virginia.
As parents, we always put the truth of the matter (whatever had happened) at the top. It wasn’t to say that there wouldn’t be consequences, but that they would be less if you told us than if we learned of them otherwise. Punishing kids for truth-telling trains them to evade responsibility. Another advantage of the approach was that it was forward-looking. There may have been an element of blame, but the focus was on what was wrong and how it could (or needed to) be changed. As they grew,the kids knew they could tell us what was going on in their lives. It kept communication open, even when they were teenagers. They later admitted that they (more or less) gave up pushing our buttons because they knew they weren’t going to get our goat.