Twice a month, a panel of dads discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, they discuss Frank Bruni's recent New York Times column about parenting. Part one of the discussion is below; part two is here.
As someone who writes frequently about parenting, I'm accustomed to saying stupid things all the time. There's just something about being a parent that shifts you into that territory of thinking you know best when, really, you don't know anything at all. Maybe it's because, from the moment we become parents, we must attempt to speak with authority—arbitrary, undeserved authority—to the frail, gullible, resentful creatures who have the misfortune to be our children, and this causes us to believe we can pull the same trick on our slightly more grown-up peers. You know what? I might be saying something stupid right now (or maybe I'm just about to).
Recently, however, I learned that saying stupid things about parenting is not the sole province of those of us who are actual parents. Frank Bruni—whose food writing I still absolutely love and respect—wrotea memorably stupid opinion piece in the New York Times the other day, premised on the idea that, although he himself does not have children, his status as uncle to many nieces and nephews gives him special insight into the ways of modern child-rearing—"a valuable distance and objectivity."
This I actually have no quibble with. Having a child does not make you an expert on parenting. Raising a child for years—decades, even!—does not make you an expert on parenting. It is entirely possible that a non-parent could have sharp observations about child-rearing that many parents could truly learn from.
Alas, that is not the column Bruni wrote. Instead, over the course of 1,285 words, he rails at straw dads and straw moms, describing clichéd scenarios—a parent threatening "seven or eight" last chances, a discussion of child eating habits "within earshot of little Edwin or Edwina"—that, while certainly plausible, don't quite have the ring of truth. Not once does Bruni relate an actual scene he witnessed, with named (or even pseudonymic) participants. Perhaps he didn't want to offend the parents of his "11 actual nieces and nephews" by directly criticizing their behavior. If so, totally understandable! But then, why write the column at all? It's the equivalent of putting together a feature news story based entirely on anonymous sources interviewed solely by phone—surely something the newsman Bruni would never do.
Bruni's point, however, is that he's "confounded by the boundless fretting, as if ushering kids into adulthood were some newfangled sorcery dependent on a slew of child-rearing books and a bevy of child-rearing blogs." Why, he asks, do parents run themselves ragged trying to find and follow new philosophies when, in the end, nature will take its course and the kids will turn out as they will?
To answer that question, let me give you (and him, if he ever reads this) an actual story from my not-so-distant past. My daughter Sasha, now 4, was then 2, and one evening it came time to brush her teeth. Sasha, however, did not want her teeth brushed, and refused to open her mouth. The more I insisted, the more she refused, until at last I was yelling, and she was crying—with her mouth wide open. As the tears poured forth, I brushed her goddamn little teeth, and as I brushed I realized I had a solution: All I had to do, tomorrow night and the next night and every night after that, was make Sasha cry, and then I could brush her teeth unhindered.
This is the point at which I, like many parents, asked myself: Surely there's a better way? For the next 16-plus years, I'm going to be responsible for this fucking kid—in a way no aunt or uncle, actual or unofficial, ever will—and I'm going to have to make her cry so that her teeth won't fall out. What am I doing wrong? Who, if anyone, can help?
To Bruni, however, something else (and more clichéd) is at work here: "As the Me Generation spawned generations of mini-me's, our rigorous self-fascination expanded to include the whole brood and philosophies about its proper care and feeding."
This sounds nice (Me Generation + mini-mes = OMG!), and it hits all our contemporary cultural buttons, but it's also dead wrong, as Bruni would have known had he done, say, any research at all. In fact (okay, "as I understand it"), the American mode of parental fretting goes back not a generation but at least a century, to times when industrialization, the shift from rural life to urban life, and new waves of migration and immigration were upending traditional approaches to child-rearing. And into that void stepped doctors, psychologists, scientists, politicians, quacks, and writers, who offered advice of every stripe to worried moms and dads. Books such as Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children and Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing in America go into this in depth.
Or at least I think they do. I haven't read either one, although I vaguely remember reading a long essay (maybe in The New Yorker?) that discussed them some years back. Like Bruni here, I'm being lazy, willing to stay superficial because, well, that way I can make the point I feel like making, rather than trying to address reality in all its long and confounding complexity.
Perhaps the most confounding thing about Bruni's article is that, in the end, he makes an absolutely valid point (and by "valid," I mean "a point I agree with"). Which is: You can't really do that much about how your kids will turn out, so "cut yourself some slack." Don't worry too much. Embrace your powerlessness. Skip the tooth-brushing for a night or two—those baby teeth are going to fall out anyway, right?
Or, in the words of a sage who makes both Bruni and myself look like the idiots we are: "It just doesn't matter." Now there's a parenting philosophy I can really get behind.
I had my first child when I was 33 years old. For reasons that merit socioeconomic scrutiny beyond my meager abilities, this put me several years ahead of my peers. Logically, when my friends and colleagues finally accepted their responsibility and commenced to repopulate the globe, they had questions. Parenting is tough stuff—it's only logical to inquire of other parents: How must we reckon with the financial deprivation and somnological complexities? The aural and olfactory assaults? The uncertainties and errors? The ruthless challenge of loving without condition and beyond ourselves? Parents know these things. We are large, to batter and bruise Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself," we contain multitudes. Or if not quite that, we surely can be relied on for a soothing bromide or two, direction in purchasing bargain-price diapers, the best vodou incantation to lull a child to bed.
Less logically, they asked me. What did I know? Nothing. What did anyone know? About the same. Yet they asked, and asked, usually at work, and some even seemed to want an answer, and none cared at all that they were intruding on my opportunities to catnap at my desk over a copy of the Wall Street Journal, or to sink blissfully into the tedium of my work. So I'd answer. Gave my best and only advice, or at least the one that always came to mind.
"Your kid wakes up crying at night or from a nap? Good thing. Means they're breathing." I'd pause, for effect, and to let the plumbless genius of such counsel be absorbed. "See, thing is, you know what you're gonna want to do when that happens? Kid's screaming five flavors of bloody murder, and you're so stupid from lack of sleep that you couldn't organize zipping your fly?"
Imagine, at this stage, a reflexive crotch check from my would-be procreative protégé.
"Gonna wanna run like hell and pick the thing up. The little person. The child. Your child. Natural urge. Alert claxons going off like crazy. Paternal instinct at play. Maybe you're a quiet freak. Totally normal. Don't do that."
I'd stop then and return to work, which really meant planning lunch. I was so brain dead in those years that the difference between the two was largely ceremonial. Most of my soon-to-be parents would retreat in befuddlement. Was I joking? Could I possibly, after all these years working together, truly be as dumb as I looked? Was it some hidden insult, some stab of condescension that they would only comprehend after the birth?
The heartier ones (or those with less to do) would stand their ground. Don't do that? Don't do that? What kinda advice is that? What should I do, then?
For them, I'd proffer this choice morsel of fatherly knowledge:
"Walk," I'd say. "Just walk."
If—when—they seemed skeptical, I'd reassure them.
"Best thing. Gold-plated. Guaranteed. Take it to the bank."
Funny thing is that I wish someone had given me this advice before the birth of my son. His mother and I ran like starved maniacs who've burgled a cask of beer and a large pepperoni pizza. We ran, we reacted, we jerked and sprinted and worried and trembled with anxiety and nameless fears and burdened chagrin. Far less so with my subsequent charges, as is only natural, and thankfully, my son has turned out fine, in my estimation. But I'd have been happier if I'd have thought of it before he came. Would have been good advice.
I say this despite its towering obviousness and thudding stupidity. Yet I stand by it, stupid and true, and like most advice, useful in its small way and easily ignored. Much like the wisdom offered by Frank Bruni.
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