How do you want to be remembered?

The other day #1 asked me to tell the story about when Uncle H. ran across the pool without sinking. The core of the story is

Uncle H. was standing near a pool when he lost his balance (why is unclear) and teetered and lurched toward the pool. As he reached the edge of the pool, rather than simply fall in, Uncle H. ran across the pool to the other side. His legs were moving so fast, so the story goes, that he didn’t sink. When he got to the far side of the pool and stepped out, only his feet and ankles were wet.

Uncle H.’s preternatural run happened sometime in the nebulous past but lived on in each retelling at family gatherings throughout my childhood. Whenever it came up, he would chuckle in his chair while we kids would look with renewed admiration at Uncle H.

At first awed by his powers, over time I grew skeptical of the story, a skepticism aided by a couple earnest but wholly unsuccessful attempts to recreate the feat in my neighbor’s pool. My skepticism demanded an explanation, wanted the real story. What really happened that made people say Uncle H. had run across a pool? I have given up trying to imagine the actual scene that metamorphosed into Uncle H. quasi-miraculous dash across the pool. It no longer matters. Uncle H. has become inextricable from that run across the pool all those years ago, and a hundred other stories that defy verification.

So, when #1 asked, I retold the story the best I could. I tried not to embellish—does a story about thwarting basic physical laws need embellishment?—and added the caveat: “I didn’t see it happen but that’s how the story goes.” #1 never knew Uncle H. He has seen only a couple faded pictures—one with a very young me standing next to Uncle H. He has only stories of a kind person. Some of those stories are more amazing than others. For #1, Uncle H. will only ever be the composite of these stories. And so I tell each of them with the same enthusiasm.

The other day I overheard #1 telling one of his friends about something I had done when I was young—a silly, youthful exploit that included gravity, a roof, and a misplaced high jump pit. Although he took some liberties with the story, he got the basic details right. I didn’t bother reining in those liberties. His friend said: “That totally sounds like your dad.” #1 and his friend had and have no interest in verifying the story. For them, the story is real because it “sounds like” me. As I sat there listening to them, I thought: “Is this how Uncle H.’s story began?” I am becoming an alloy of stories and person; one day before long I will be just stories.

As the paragon of story telling Edward Bloom says to Josephine, bad stories get “All the facts and none of the flavor.” We are all fated to become stories. What stories will you become?


Parent-Teacher Conferences

Today was parent-teacher conference day with #1’s homeroom teacher. I’ve been to 15 of these now for #1 (and another 9 for #2). And although I have tried always to be involved in his school—I frequently help out or have chaperoned field trips or talked to the class about what I do—I still make a point of of attending parent-teacher conferences. On the one hand, parent-teacher conferences help me understand the school’s broader curricular goals and how he is progressing toward those goals: what he is learning; how he is learning; what challenges he might be confronting. On the other hand, parent-teacher conferences give me a glimpse of a #1 that I don’t see: what he’s like around his peers and in other social settings; how he behaves in public. There’s another reason I attend parent-teacher conferences, a reason that seems to get lost in the shuffle (or, for so many parents and teachers trying to carve out a few minutes from an otherwise frenetic dash through the day): I go to parent-teacher conferences because it means a lot #1.

Yesterday I mentioned to #1 that I was looking forward the parent-teacher conference. My comment was a sort of warning—our conference was before school, so we would have to be efficient in the morning and leave earlier than normal. He looked up and asked hopefully: “Is mom going?” He seemed to deflate when I said, “No. She has to go to work.”

—“Why doesn’t she go to my teacher conferences?”
—“She trusts you and me. You’re a good kid and good student. I don’t think she feels a need to check in on you.”
—“But she never goes to mine. I wish she would.”[1]

His lament reminded me how important it is to kids that parents show a real interest in their education, in what they do every day, i.e., in what we make them do every day. Parent-teacher conferences are about more than just establishing lines of communication or building working relationships between parents and teachers. Parent-teacher conferences also bolster relationships between parents and children.

Parent-teacher conferences are stressful a lot of work for everybody. Parents have to adjust schedules, often have to find childcare for a younger sibling, and have to make special trips to school, where they hope won’t be kept waiting while other conferences run long. And then there’s the worry that they’ll find out darling Tobias or little Beatrix is a terror or failing or …. Teachers have to prepare for conferences, adding to their otherwise already full day’s work, and then have to take time that they could be prepping for class, helping students who need a little extra, or grading. And then there’s the concern that some parent is going to erupt because their perfect child couldn’t possibly be failing, or be disruptive, or be an unrepentant pain in the ass. For different reasons, parents and teachers can be anxious about these conferences.

Parents who want to improve the experience can find useful advice. Grete DeAngelo offers some nice tips for parents (reposted at Huff Post (because isn’t everything these days reposted at Huff Post?) and Topical Teaching). Lisa Heffernan at the WaPo compiled her own list for parents: Learn from my mistakes. Beth Van Amburgh offers some general tips that are handy for both teachers and parents.

With all this focus on parents and teachers, on classroom performance and behavior, it is easy to lose sight of the people standing at the center of this educational, social, and by middle school hormonal maelstrom. It is easy to forget that for kids, school is incredibly important and daunting and at times disorienting. They are not experts at negotiating the dynamic and shifting relationships. Nor are they as jaded as we often think. They are kids who still look to their parents for guidance, affirmation, and approval. They want to see that we care.

This morning #1 and I walked into school. As he led me to his class, he pointed out various things hanging in the halls—art work, projects, assignments—and shared comments about some of the other classrooms and teacher. Then he returned to the cafeteria while we met with his teacher.[2] When I left, #1 walked me to my car and peppered me with questions: How did it go? Did I like his teacher? Did I see the class turtle? Did I see the fish? Did we talk about their science project? Did the teacher show me the poster they made? Did …? Did …? Did …?

The next chance you (especially you dads, since mothers typically bear the burden of school-related events) get, go to a parent-teacher conference. It‘s an easy way to show your child that you care.

  1. Two points here. First, The Mother has attended #1’s parent-teacher conferences, though not as frequently as I have. Second, part of the issue is the fact that The Mother more frequently attends #2’s parent-teacher conferences.  ↩

  2. Yes, we. I encouraged The Mother to attend the conference because it would mean a lot to #1. She met me there so she could go directly to work afterward.  ↩

We Could All Use a Compliment

Yesterday’s post was about compliments. I suggested that we parents should be more generous in giving compliments and that, pace the fathers-offended-by-compliments movement, we fathers should be more gracious in accepting them. Today, I want to reinforce that suggestion, drawing on a couple Pew Research reports, “Modern Parenthood” and “After Decades of Decline, A Rise in Stay-at-Home Mothers.”

Despite recent increases in stay-at-home dads, moms still make up the majority of stay-at-home parents: 6% of fathers stay-at-home compared to 29% of mothers. And since 1999, the share of stay-at-home moms has been increasing. Mothers still vastly outnumber the fathers as stay-at-home parents.

Percentage of stay-at-home mothers, from Pew report on Modern Parenthood

Percentage of stay-at-home mothers, from Pew report on Modern Parenthood

Fathers have begun taking on more housework[1] and childcare tasks.[2] Nonetheless, mothers still shoulder the bulk of childcare and housework. And despite the increases in the amount of time fathers spend on childcare, mothers spend more now than they did 50 years ago. Today, mothers still spend nearly twice as much time as fathers do on housework and childcare.

Time use for mothers and fathers, from Pew report on parental labor.

Time use for mothers and fathers, from Pew report on parental labor.

Let’s recognize and praise all the work mothers do. Too much of their labor remains invisible to our society, not because we can’t see it but because we have chosen to dismiss it as unimportant because a woman does it. An honest compliment now and then—and by “now and then” I mean regularly—is the least we can do. Let’s also continue to recognize the efforts today’s fathers are making to be more involved parents.[3] Not because their labor is more important or any more praiseworthy, it isn’t, but because an honest compliment now and then—and by “now and then” I mean now and then, let’s not get carried away—is the least we can do.

Next time you see a parent being a good parent, smile and say something nice. And the next time somebody compliments your efforts, smile and say thank you.

  1. We might worry about the category “housework.” Pew seems to adopt the categories used by the American Time Use Survey, which seems to exclude certain exterior activities from “housework.” Is mowing the lawn “housework?” Is raking leaves? I’ve wondered about this in my Pew Study on Parental Labor  ↩

  2. The numbers don’t actually show that fathers are taking on more housework and childcare tasks. They simply indicate that fathers are spending more time at these two activities. Perhaps fathers are really slow at cleaning and cooking and bathing the progeny and so are not doing any more, just taking longer to do the same set of tasks.  ↩

  3. We fathers need to be careful here lest we sound like the 1980s’ dad who wanted praise for taking out the garbage or replacing the empty toilet paper roll. We risk sound like little kids jumping up and down wanting praise and affirmation for the least little thing. Oh, look at me, I take care of my kid. Aren’t I special? No, I mean, I am special.  ↩

How To Earn “Major Dad Points”

On the way to school this morning, #2 and I stopped to pick up breakfast. We parked, tumbled out of the car, locked hands, and skipped into the shop, hoping to chase down a couple bagels. We held the door for a young woman who, leaving, smiled at me, and said:

That was great. You get major dad points for that.

Thank you. I appreciate the compliment and the endorsement of my skipping despite, no doubt, the fact that I must have looked like a lanky, spasmodic gorilla.[1] Her compliment underscores how easy it is for dads to get compliments. Organize the class party, receive praise. Skip into the bagel shop, get points. Fathers can get credit simply by not injuring their progeny.

These compliments irk a number of fathers because they presume some Y-chromosome-linked deficiency or some cultural vestige from our neanderthal past both of which prevent men from being competent dads.[2] Fathers who are upset by such compliments urge people to stop making them. The act of complimenting a father for relatively insignificant or quotidian parenting reinforces the cultural stereotype of the failing father. Previously I seemed to come to a similar conclusion.

My real point in that previous post was ambiguous. I want to clarify my thoughts here. Rather than ask people to stop complimenting fathers when they are engaged, caring parents, let’s recognize and compliment mothers for being engaged, caring parents.

Being a parent is tough. None of us are parents because we want compliments. Still, we all could use a little recognition and a kind word now and then (or daily, for that matter). Let’s be generous with our praise and in our acceptance of others’. Let‘s strive to repay the compliments we receive by passing them on to other parents who, like each of us, is struggling to do right by our children.

So, to the young woman who was kind and generous to me: Thank you for noticing. Thank you for saying something. I, in turn, will compliment a parent I see tomorrow. Hell, I’ll live on the edge and compliment two parents.

  1. Let me clear, I am not graceful. And at well north of 6 feet, I am hard to miss, arms and legs akimbo. The shocked looks of the people sitting just inside the shop were totally justified.  ↩

  2. I wonder if fathers are equally upset when such compliments come from women or from men, from mothers or from fathers. What is the source of this unease?  ↩

Inspire Their Minds

Verizon has a great new commercial, “Inspire Her Mind,” that reminds parents to consider how their commonplaces discourage girls from studying the science.

Verizon commercial warns parents about the impact of their words.

Verizon commercial warns parents about the impact of their words.

We see a girl at various moments exploring the natural world and hear parental voices stifling that exploration. The commercial concludes with Sam looking at a science fair poster, putting on lipgloss, and turning away with her two friends.[1] A voiceover reminds us:

Our words can have a huge impact. Isn’t it time we told her she’s pretty brilliant too? Encourage her love of science and technology, and inspire her to change the world.

Constant diligence is required to root out the many ways we discourage women from pursuing sciences.

But why do we only worry about inspiring girls (and children more broadly) to study science? Why don’t we also try to inspire them to study literature or philosophy or history? There is nothing special about “science” or the “huge impact” our words have in steering girls away from or toward certain subjects. We should expend equal effort to guard against the ways we track girls into or out of all pursuits.

Let’s stop trying to inspire girls to study science and try, instead, to encourage and embolden girls to study anything and everything that inspires them.

  1. A quick nitpick: Why does the commercial end by contrasting lipgloss with science? Is there something that prevents women from applying lipgloss and studying science? What stereotype of science and scientist is reinforced here? Why should people who care about their appearance not also care about science? And, as My Brighter Career points out, there’s lots of science in lipgloss.  ↩

Hyper-Parenting and Warring Anecdotes

Parenting, whether hyper-, helicopter-, or absentee-, is something about which every parent, whether first-time, experienced, grand-, or vicarious, will offer advice, usually unsolicited, trenchant, and censorious. Each parent adopts the authoritative mantel of experience, or expertise, or science, or hard-won wisdom. Motivated by the desire to help other parents improve their parenting, their advice promises a “cure” for some problem. Nothing ensures an argument more than unsolicited, critical guidance about deeply personal issues.

Such advice is often trite, little more than veiled rules of thumb. Yet, in the competitive realm of parenting, even those rules of thumb are ignored.[1] For example, see Pamela Druckerman’s “A Cure for Hyper-Parenting” and the comments on her piece. Druckerman promises a cure for some parenting disease, “hyper-parenting.” She grounds her cure in “research” and “science.” As with any cure, she presents hers as normative, healthful, and good. In the end, her advice distills down to:

  • Respect your children.
  • Don’t sacrifice yourself on the altar of parenting.
  • Plan for an ideal future, but don’t fall apart when those plans do.
  • Get plenty of sleep.
  • Nobody’s perfect; nor is your parenting.
  • Teach you children (especially your daughters) to respect and like themselves.
  • Show your children how to treat others with respect.

Nothing terribly new or controversial there, despite its disguise. The more than 300 comments, however, attack Druckerman, her advice, her praise of French parenting. They defend their own particular parenting styles. They diagnose the problem for which Druckerman was offering a cure, and then offer their own cure (or resign themselves to the martyrdom of parenting). They celebrate their own successful parenting techniques, implicitly holding themselves up as models. They condemn the practices of other parents. Like Druckerman’s advice, theirs is little more than commonsense informed by anecdotes.

Despite our best efforts and vehement rhetoric, that’s all parenting is: a series of one-off experiences, i.e., anecdotes, that rarely apply unproblematically to another experience, since no two are all that similar. Anecdotes are not a good foundation for advice. So let’s stop berating each other for parenting and recognize that we can’t help but scar our children in ways we can’t even imagine. To paraphrase Druckerman’s closing thought:

Don’t bother obsessing about what you think you’re doing wrong or celebrating what you think you are doing right. You won’t screw up your kids in the ways you expect; you’ll do it in ways you hadn’t even considered. No amount of parenting can change that.

  1. Or so disguised as to be unrecognizable. But in most cases, any discussion between such parents rarely seeks to find areas of parenting consonance. Instead, as the comments on Pamela Druckerman’s recent op-ed indicate, parenting experts (because they are all self-styled experts) speak past each other from their own little soapboxes of righteousness.  ↩

Parenting Block

On one of Reader’s windowsills: framed photographs of his son and daughter, a hand-painted pot, a sun-bleached note.

I am growing older, I have been in hospitals. Do I wish to write certain things down?

“Eppur si muove.” How many children will learn these words, though there’s no evidence Galileo muttered them.

252,000 stadia, as Eratosthenes knew, was the circumference of the earth. Columbus did not prove the earth was round, despite what kids learn.

Nonlinear? Discontinuous? Collage-like?

Ingenious nonsense, Isaac Newton dismissed poetry as; he spent countless nights pursuing alchemical transmutations.

An assemblage?

Emperor Maximilian I sought advice from his daughter Margaret, in letters written in French, German, and secret code.

Reader and his mind full of clutter?

What you get married for if you don’t want children?

Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger. Misogynists. Matthew Hopkins too.

Reader notes the similarity between discussions about parenting and commonplace books.

All life is sorrowful.

Tycho Brahe wore a silver alloy nose, having lost his in a duel.

Reader’s son or daughter may one day want his books.

Galileo had three illegitimate children.

Cosmas indicopleustes seems to have thought the earth was shaped like the tabernacle.

Reader has read to a child every night for the last twelve years, to two children every night for the last seven. Tonight, Magic Treehouse and Treasure Island.

Parent to child: “Eram quod es, eris quod sum.”

Washington Irving made up the story about Columbus proving the earth was round, for his fictionalized biography, A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828).

Two of Thomas Mann’s sons committed suicide. As did two of Marx’s daughters.

Reader can’t imagine the pain.

Der Vater ohne Eigenschaften, surely a work waiting to be written.

Parenting books distend rules of thumb and commonsense. A case can be made for burning them.

In the end, one reads only for one’s self.

Nonlinear. Discontinuos. Collage-like. An assemblage.[1]

  1. Prompted by WP Daily Prompt: Reader’s Block and modeled on David Markson’s Reader’s Block.  ↩