Echoes of My Father

I hear it more often these days. Usually, in some mannerism, turn of phrase, or comment my father seems to be speaking or acting through me (such as when #2 and I shoveled the drive last winter). #1 and #2 hear it too and are quick to point it out. It’s not surprising, really, that I sometimes say and do things like my father. He was (and in so many ways remains) my role model. I learned from him. More surprising, to me, are the involuntary, physiological echoes of my father.

When I coughed the other morning, I thought: “Wow, I sound just like dad.” As if on cue, #1 called from the living room: “You sounded just like grandad when you coughed.” #1’s comment reminded me that my actions and behavior will recall for him my father. And one day his actions and behaviors will remind his children of me.[1] I am lucky: my dad is a good person—if I could be as good a person as he is, I would be a success.

We seem fated to become our parents, in ways we can and can’t control. And our children will hear the echoes of our parents even when we don’t. To the extent that we can, we have a responsibility to choose which aspects of our parents we want to preserve and pass on to our children. Because our children can’t help but become us.

Or, to put it another way: How do you want to be remembered?

  1. Clearly, the heteronormative assumptions in this last comment should be qualified in all sorts of ways, the most immediate of which is: If he chooses to have (through adoption or direct pro-creation) children in his life.  ↩


An Army of Peg Princesses and Superheroes

Peg Princesses and Superheroes.

Peg Princesses and Superheroes.

During our recent afternoon of making fairies #2 reminded me of the weekend we spent making peg princesses and superheroes. We were trying to come up with something small to give her classmates at the holiday. I recalled seeing wooden peg dolls at the local crafts store. So I did a quick search and found lots of moms (unsurprisingly, I found no dads) making peg dolls (this was our model; she modeled her dolls on this page; there are beautiful examples if overly ornate for our purposes; and of course you can buy them on Etsy). These are all very nice but didn’t seem quite what I wanted. My goal was something #2 could do so we could work together on them. I was less interested in distributing gifts to her classmates than I was in spending a couple days working on a project together. So our army of peg princesses and superheroes was born.

Setup and materials—

Assembling the materials.

Assembling the materials.

We bought a couple bags of wooden peg dolls from here. I drove finishing nails into a 2×4 and cut off the heads so that we could hold the dolls as we painted them.

A finishing nail works as a holder for the dolls.

A finishing nail works as a holder for the dolls.

I then drilled a little hole in the bottom of each doll.

The hole drilled in the bottom to hold the doll on the nail.

The hole drilled in the bottom to hold the doll on the nail.

Paints and brushes came from the local arts and crafts store.


Then we had to think about how best to paint them. With a little masking tape and some forethought, you don’t have to worry about so much about the fine details the 6-year-old fingers can’t quite master. We made the princesses and superheroes in batches, sort of a peg-doll production line. I did the finish detail—e.g., faces and superhero emblems—but #2 was able to do everything else.

The assembly line of princesses and superheroes.

The assembly line of princesses and superheroes.

By the end of the first day we were about half done.

We’re half done.

We’re half done.

We returned the next day and finished them off. When they were all painted, I sprayed them with a clear coat to give them a nice sheen and to protect them from chips, stains, and water.

Our little army of peg princesses and superheroes.

Our little army of peg princesses and superheroes.

The only drawback, if there was one: when #2 told her classmates that she had made the dolls—she was quite proud of her work—they believed her. Some of the parents, however, were convinced we had purchased them—I had to reassure those parents that #2 was not lying, we had really made them.

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?

Rules for Dating My …

There’s something troubling about the incessant “Rules for Dating My Daughter” memes. The fact that some of them are meant to be jokes doesn’t make them any more palatable to me—and even those intended to be jokes don’t strike me as funny.[1] Likewise, the closely related, earnest and well-intentioned posts, usually by fathers, fretting about when their infant daughters start to date seem problematic. Both cases seem grounded in fear and based on a fundamental double standard. And threats and coercion don’t seem, at least not to me, to be the most productive and mature ways to parent.

Let’s imagine for a moment a different set of rules, a set that a child gives to a father before introducing a Boy- or Girlfriend to him:

Rules a child could give to a parent

Rules a child could give to a parent

  1. I find it hard to see the references to shotguns and violence perpetrated on minors as funny. Just as I find it hard to see denying a daughter (or son) important, formative life experiences.  ↩

Watching #2 Bloom

The kids in #2’s class had been given a photocopy of a pot (flower pot) and asked to decorate it and then “plant” inside it something they hoped would grow and bloom. Candy plants were by far the most popular. There were a couple money plants and toy plants. There were a couple flower plants and a tree. When I found #2’s, this is what I saw:

#2 wants to bloom. I’m sure she will.

#2 wants to bloom. I’m sure she will.

There in the center of her pot was her name in big, bold letters. Underneath the pot, she completed the sentence “If I had the power to make anything bloom inside my pot, it would be …” with an exuberant “Me!!”

Everything about her drawing made me smile and my heart glad. How can I be anything but happy!

Childhood Innocence and Whimsy

The other morning #2 was trotting around asking us for a couple words. She would read the last word but otherwise didn’t explain what we were doing. After a couple rounds, she wandered off to her room for a few minutes. When she returned, she handed this to me:

#2 tries her hand at poetry.

#2 tries her hand at poetry.

Snuggl Pink Bear.
with marshmallow. Singing all night. Stars
twinkle in the sky, happy Animals
asleep in Barns. Little Piggies rolling in
mud Laughing.

I look at this and marvel at how wonderful childhood is with its unalloyed optimism and joy and whimsy. How do we preserve their innocence without impeding their maturation?

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.  ↩