Reassessment and regression


Four children, grown and out of the house. Three grandchildren warming up for life’s race. Reassessment may be in order, and maybe some reform. I’ve done some of the former in this space over the years, but the truth is, not so much of the latter. In 2003, when I was three decades into fatherhood, I discussed in this space parenting practices, as observed by me. Another decade has drifted by, and I’ve seen the error of some of my ways.

Reflecting on the joys and miseries of this most important of all human responsibilities, I find that the most striking thing about my performance is that I have been unvarying in my approach to the work. What I did 26 years ago, I do today, although there is a noteworthy absence of a congregation. What I said then, I say now. Fortunately — and this is why this late-stage review may be useful going forward — the children have fled the scene, but the Comment posters on appear to have taken their places. More about that later.

Years ago, I remember with a wince, my exasperated bride said to me, “You are the stubbornest man I’ve ever known.” I guess I thought then it was a compliment. I know better now.

I have begun to wonder whether what I generously describe as my parental consistency really amounted to evidence of superior accomplishment. I think now, maybe not.

Here are some statements that were 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. (Or anywhere, for that matter.) Your curfew is 11 pm, and I don’t care when the dance ends.

No evening activities on a school night. (I had remembered some of the thrilling school-night evening activities that thrilled me during high school.) 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.

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? — the oldest girl apparently loved the outdoors and camping. Who is hosting the party? Who are the adults who’ll be there? No adults, no party. By the way, what does in the woods even mean? Who has a party in the woods? What do you do at night in the woods? It’s not about toasting marshmallows, I know that.

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. But, was any of it 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 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?

When I got around to thinking about her question, I thought maybe I’ve missed something.

Or a son, seven years ago, dribbling, dribbling, dribbling beneath the basket. I ask, Did you do your English homework? I can’t stand the teacher, he replied.

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.

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 had 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. Didn’t President Clinton say he felt my pain? I need to feel the kids’ pain.

But, in my defense, I wasn’t alone. Someone at a party the other night, a 45th elementary school reunion party, said that the gym teacher during his time at the school swung at a misbehaving student, missed, and decked another, utterly innocent student, standing nearby. When the unconscious one regained his feet and walked home to tell his parents, they said, “You probably deserved it.” For something else, I suppose. Those were the days. The people who were supposed to be in charge were actually in charge. Yes, perhaps, but you have to question the coach’s listening skills — and his aim — and the parents’ horrifying docility.

Anyhow, I said to my complaining 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.

But, change of this magnitude comes hard, and although I think I’ve learned some valuable lessons, it’s tough to be consistent. Plus, for instance with the Comment posters, I don’t feel that same upwelling of compassion I did for the kids. I don’t have the doubts that nagged me so terribly and so repeatedly all through the children’s growing-up.

So, always on the lookout for new, gentler methodologies to employ with errant Comment posters, I’ve come upon the cut-off. When the Comment posters bring nothing new to the table, when they say about the Roundabout the same thing they said about it three years ago, and when they morph their repetitive inanities into a running argument with one or two other posters, I close the article to further comments. You might say it’s a trifle high-handed, but you can’t say I haven’t listened. I’ve listened until I can’t listen anymore. I’ve been compassionate and indulgent and sympathetic, just like a parent ought to be, at least some of the time. Still, and I know this is something of a regression, and I’m not proud of it, there have to be rules.