Sunday, April 4, 2010

Parental Myth #1

As the father of 2.5 children (which I suppose makes me perfectly average), I, like every parent known to man, sometimes compare notes with other parents. Inevitably these comparisons lead me to the conclusion that my take on parenting is somewhat weird, the usual tip-off being when people say “Man, your views on parenting are pretty weird!” But my kids have (so far) turned out okay, and their mother agrees with my weird views (well, most of them), so I’m very lucky in that regard.

My ideas about how to parent are not haphazard. They come from a lot of years of thinking about what would be the right way to be a father, considering what I liked and didn’t like about my own childhood, and careful consideration of the viewpoints of other parents I’ve known, both positive and negative. They’re based on a few fundamental concepts, some of which relate to my ideas on how to live a good life in general, and some of which are more specific to how to be a good mentor and example to children. They are basically the crystallization of how I think I’d like to grow up as as child. I’m certainly not saying I’m the perfect parent—far from it—but I think they are valuable concepts, and I think they’re worth sharing. Obviously they may not be for everyone. But being a parent, like any other job, should involve evaluating a lot of different ideas and choosing the best ones, so, the more ideas you learn about, the more likely you are to choose the best ones for you and your children.

Indulge me on a brief tangent. I believe that good art contains some grain of truth. That is, when you read a book, or watch a movie, or hear a song, or view a painting or sculpture, if you can see something in it that rings true for you, something that makes you stop and say “yeah, that’s so true!”, then that’s art. (If it contains Truth, then perhaps it is great art. But not all art needs to be great art. Sometimes little-T-truth is sufficient.)

Unfortunately, we can get lazy. We can get so used to art having something to say that portends a greater truth that we start to assume that all art—all movies, or books, or songs, or what have you—is in fact true. Which is a totally different thing, of course. Sometimes we need to be a bit skeptical about what our art is telling us.

Let’s take an example. How many times have you heard a line like this: “Joey doesn’t need you to be his friend; he needs you to be his parent.” Probably quite a few. Now, let me ask you to think very hard, and tell me how many times you’ve heard that outside a movie. (Or possibly a book, though it seems to be more popular in movies and television shows, particularly movie-of-the-week type fare.) Probably not many. And, if you have heard that phrase in real life, I’d say the chances are good that whoever said it to you heard it in a movie themselves and just thought it sounded cool. And perhaps it does sound right to you: perhaps you think it has the ring of truth to it.

But consider it more carefully. If you were to say such a thing in a formal debate, your opponent would quickly (and quite rightly) point out that you were committing the fallacy of false dilemma. The assertion contains a false assumption: namely, that the two options are mutually exclusive. Somehow the people who propose this argument seem to believe that in order to be a good parent, you cannot also be a friend.

But in reality, quite the opposite is true. You simply cannot be a good parent without also being a friend. Cast your mind back to your own childhood. If your parents were also your friends, were they therefore not good parents? Contrapositively, if they were there not your friends, did that automatically make them good parents? Or might they have been even better parents if they had also been your friends?

Fundamentally, this false dilemma is based on the idea that you let your friends do whatever they want, while letting your children do that would be disastrous. But is this really true? Let’s say that your friend wants to do something destructive. Perhaps they have an addiction issue, or perhaps they’re stuck in an unhealthy relationship. If you are a true friend, don’t you take a stand and say “you shouldn’t do this”? In an extreme case, mightn’t you even physically stop them from doing something? You might, for instance, relieve them of their keys if you know they’ve had too much to drink. And would that be so different from refusing to allow your child to gorge themselves on candy, or play with matches?

Now, granted, most of our choices in life don’t have the good grace to be so clear cut. For instance, we parents have a tendency to refuse to let our children be rude, even though doing so doesn’t threaten their physical safety. But you can still draw parallels to your friends. If a good friend of yours is rude, do you tell him or her? Do you advise them that they can get more flies with honey than with vinegar? Do you let them know, if it happens to be you they’re being rude to, that your feelings are hurt and you’d appreciate it if they could tone it down? Do you tell them that you don’t like to be associated with a person who’s always being rude to everyone? I believe that, if they’re a really good friend, you do. In fact, I would go so far as to say that, if you don’t, you’re not being a very good friend to them. Friends don’t let friends drive drunk, and friends don’t let friends be jerks. We all have to look out for each other in this life, and friends are rare enough that we have to look out for them even more.

When we tell our children not to be rude, we call it “disciplining” them. And we surely don’t “discipline” our friends. But we might tell them not to be rude, so is it really that different? In the end, the only real difference between your children and your friends is that you can always decide not to be friends any more, but parent is forever.

So I reject the concept that I must choose between being a parent to my children or being their friend. I can be both, and in fact I am both. I may do or say things that make me unpopular with my children from time to time, but then I do things that make me unpopular with my friends from time to time too. And such spats are generally fleeting, because, in the end, the friendship is stronger than the disagreements. I believe that my desire to be a friend to my children doesn’t make me weak when it comes to “discipline”; rather, it makes me remember that guiding my children and teaching them how to be good people is only part of the job. It makes me understand that it’s okay to apologize to my children for being harsh with them, that it’s okay to admit it when I’ve made a mistake or a poor decision, that explaining myself and why I think certain things are important for them to do is not some sign of weakness, but a sign of respect. My children are my friends, and I’m not just okay with that, I love it. I love hanging out with my children as much as I love hanging out with my friends, and I love hanging out with all of them together even more. Sure, my children embarrass me sometimes, but then so do my friends. Sure, some of my friends might think it’s weird that I’m friends with my kids, but then some of my friends think it’s weird that I’m friends with some of my other friends as well.

Like I said, being a parent is forever. And, as long as I’m stuck with these midgets for the next several decades, I might as well enjoy being with them, right? And they’re stuck with me, so I feel like I owe it to them to make that enjoyable as well. And it seems to be working. I’m only eleven and a half years in so far, but I think it’s sustainable.

Frank Zappa once said:

I happen to think I’m a great dad, and I think any of my kids would confirm that. Whether I’m a good man, I don’t know, that’s pretty subjective, but I think the empirical evidence is on my side that my kids turned out OK, and they like me and I like them. And we get along fine.

I really can’t aspire to more than that.

1 comment:

  1. You and our kids are some of the best friends that I have!