When I was 13 years old and my afro was long enough for me to see my own hair I won a dance contest. I'm sure that there were some bellbottoms and pop locking involved. My prize? It was a 7Up electric popcorn popper, which was about as cool then as an iPod is now. You see in 1974, dance contests were socially important as was 7Up. It sounds funny, but I know it to be true and I am about as proud of that accomplishment now as I was then - it got me the girl.
I just finished reading the WSJ article by Amy Chua about the Tiger Mom. The story has been on the periphery of my mediasphere and intervened at a low level yesterday afternoon. As I was driving home from work I remembered that I am about as happy as I can be, basically except for the fact that I would horribly miss watching the rest of my family's life play out, I would die happy today. What's importantly implied in that fact is that I am confident that I have been a successful parent. The Spousal Unit and I are tremendously proud. So yesterday found me considering for the nth time, but for the first in the 'Tiger Mom' context, thinking about writing up book about 'parenting', a verb that didn't exist when I was a kid. I think that I would name the book, Daddy's House is Full of Love. So here's a brief sketch of the big themes I can pop off the top of my head.
Themes and frameworks is how I do things, and The Unit and I have collaborated in our own way just about every practical arrangement. So while you could say that we are nominally rule based, our rules come in terms of phrases that we can all recite, like the title. But the themes are how we work.
Royalty is a theme in our house and in our family. That means we parents are King and Queen. This is not a democracy in any stretch of the word. We are benevolent dictators with the right to be tyrannical. We have never had to be. But everybody knows that we can. 'Because I said so' never has to be said because the way we have run things, there has never been any example or assumption that there was another way out. You are loyal to the king and queen, period. 'Or else' doesn't even have to be said. We simply stare our kids down and state things matter of factly. Sometimes, the 'No' comes out before the question is stated, but we always listen. We always consider, and we let our logic in making decisions out in the open. The result is that we don't hear 'But what if I don't want to do it?' instead we hear an alternative. Not an extensive bartering negotiation that goes back and forth, but a concise promise. And so we run off a checklist to see if our requirements are met based on the following rule:
Do what you have to do, and then you can do what you want to do.
And then the right things happen. This also means that you can never play 'Uncle Bill'. Uncle Bill is my internal way of remembering a story told by Bill Cosby about a stingy relative who couldn't wait until his nieces and nephews screwed up so that he didn't have to deliver on the miraculous promises he made to them. We don't play carrot and stick. We play duties and liberties.
The other part of Royalty is extended family. When the Spousal Unit and I had access to luxurious living conditions in Georgia that put 3000 square feet of new construction for the price of about 9 months of our combined annual income, we were apart from family. So we decided that we would take the hike to California so that our kids could grow up with their cousins. Right decision. Our kids are close to their cousins and they know each other well. It is a different quality of play and looseness that they have with their kin that they don't have with other kids. It's respectful but ends up in horseplay. There always ends up being a knot of girls tickling each other on the floor.
Each of our three kids has a best friend. And these best friends have been so for quite some time. We have always played intelligence officer roles when it came to relations between our kids and others in the neighborhood. We asked our kids to know kids by first and last name, and who their parents are, where they live, and to give their relationships hierarchies. We literally had them draw up lists for concentric circles. C-Zero was family. C-One was the closest circle of friends. You know them, their personalities and you like them and they like you. You know where they live and their parents recognize you. For our kids they each had about 3 or 4 C-Ones. C-Twos were kids that you saw on a semi-regular basis. Maybe at Church, maybe in Scouts. If you didn't see them for a month, maybe you would wonder what happened to them. They are on your team, in your class. You speak. C-Threes are everybody else. C-Ones can come by our house on the regular. Your best friend is always welcome. C-Twos can come over with permission and they are greeted and introduced at the door. C-Threes, not so much.
Yes we do sleepovers. With the best friends, it's a regular thing. We are on a friendly basis with the parents of the best friends, even as they have changed. Our youngest has several C-Ones. Our oldest has one, but they are the closest and longest of best friends, as much as boys admit. But he has many more C-Twos, some older nerdy geeks that give my wife the creeps.
Grades In School
Every C is a problem. Every B is an opportunity. Every A is a celebration. A D stops the world. And we never see Fs. We require a 3.0, period. We mostly get Honor Roll. For that we celebrate. Your job, we told the kids early on, is to succeed in school. Outside of this house, that's basically all you have to worry about.
I don't know much about raising girls, but I've learned a lot. I do know about boys, being the oldest of four. I raised my son to be what I have striven to be, a scholar-athlete-geek. It worked but it turned out that he did so with a lot more mellow personality than I expected. I'm more hard-boiled than he is, but some of that is by design. Every day when I dropped my kids off to school, which was basically every day of their elementary years I gave them the following sendoff:
Be smart, be friendly, keep sharp, stay focused.
The verbs may have changed, but the four adjectives never did. I tell my children, because I absolutely know it to be true, they are some of the best people I know. And why wouldn't they be? They reflect what I find important and valuable in people, and the three of them express the complete spectrum each contributing a unique combination of strengths, virtues and values. I take them places and walk with pride amongst them. That is the vituous circle that has become easier as time goes by. Which gives me a moment to think about something else I recognized early on that changed my approach to being a father.
Babies are completely uncivilized. Part of my responsibility is to civilize my kids, which brings us to the transition. I'll soon be send my puppies into the world. Where I have to be tough is to let them fail and start regarding them with the cold disdain that the world does, and give them an inside track. That's all for now...