Doing my homework
My youngest daughter will graduate from high school next week. It's been a harrowing slog.
My oldest is now 30, my youngest 17. Another year to go. I am beginning my third decade of parenthood, an avocation whose towering joys and exquisite miseries are appropriate to what is the most important of all human responsibilities.
Reviewing my performance, the most striking thing is that I have been unvarying in my approach to the work. What I did 30 years ago, I do today. What I said then, I say now. For instance, and I'm embarrassed to recall it, there was the moment years ago, when my exasperated bride said to me, "You are the stubbornest man I've ever known."
I mistook it was a compliment and replied, "Maybe I am, but it's what makes me me." Oh, the shame.
I'm beginning to think that what I generously call my parental consistency may not be the superior accomplishment I thought it was.
Here are some statements that are among the tools of my trade:
Yes to this. No to that. I don't care what your friends do. You may not wear a hat at the dining table. You may not wear a wife-beater to school. Your curfew is 11 pm, and I don't care when the dance ends. I will not listen to that music in my house. No evening activities on a school night. No television either. Homework comes first. No chores, no dance. Don't wear your socks outside. Don't wear your shoes inside. Your room must be cleaned once a week, and you have to do it. Let me explain to you what your waist is, and where it is. That's wear your pants belong.
Call me anytime from anywhere if you need a ride home. Don't get into a car with someone who has been drinking. What do you mean, you're going to a party in the woods, on the beach, up-Island, in Edgartown, at the Cliffs? - I need specifics. Who is hosting the party? Who are the adults who'll be there? No adults, no party. And, anyway, what do you mean, in the woods? Who has a party in the woods? What do you do at night in the woods?
You're calling from where, the police station? Will I come down to talk to them? You bet I will. Yes, I know I said to call, but I didn't have the police station in mind.
And on, and on. The parental catechism, according to me. Consistency is admirable, but maybe none of it was right.
Recently, it has occurred to me that what I have thought was the wise path of fatherhood on my part may not have been a widely shared opinion. Times have changed. Comments that loved ones have made from time to time over the years haunt me and lead to self-doubt about the accuracy of my admiring parental self-portrait.
For instance, about 15 years ago a daughter said, Dad, why do you give me the same thing for lunch every day, when I've told you over and over again that I won't eat it?
Maybe I missed something.
Or a son, 12 years ago, dribbling, dribbling, dribbling beneath the basket. I ask, Did you do your English homework?
I can't stand the teacher, he replies.
So, you're not doing the homework because you don't like the teacher. Who is that going to hurt? You don't have to love her, but she's the one with the marking pencil.
Maybe I missed something in that exchange too.
Then last week, another son, this one with a troublesome coach and a difficult teacher, opened one of those I-can't-stand-so-and-so conversations. My reaction underwhelmed him.
He said, Dad, you're no fun to complain to. (I remember now that Moll has said the same thing.)
Dawn broke. I thought, maybe that's the problem. He's put his finger on it. It's a matter of listening differently. All these years I've taken satisfaction in what I was saying to them, when the key to - what's it called nowadays? - parenting is listening to them. The sympathetic ear. The understanding look. The comforting, I've-been-there touch. I need to feel the kids'pain.
I said to my son, You are having a tough time, aren't you? It's more than a young person should have to bear to have a volunteer coach who doesn't appreciate your skill and speed and a teacher who challenges every point you make. I don't know how you stagger through each demanding day. Perhaps a stop at Dairy Queen will help.
Now, I'm not saying it was easy or fun, but I got the words all out, and he seemed pleased.
Wow, dad, he said. You do seem to understand.
Yeah, I said, I'm trying to do better. By the way, done your homework? Homework comes first.