“Good God, the things you put us through. It's AP classes, it's SAT prep from day 1, it's punishment for less than a 4.0 GPA, and it fuels the tears that put us to sleep at night while you rest soundly.”
—A Palo Alto High student after the death of another yesterday by suicide.
“A wealthy hedge-fund chief was gunned down by his adult son after he threatened to cut his allowance by a $100 a week and stop paying his steep rent, cops said Monday.”
—Recent news item, dateline Manhattan.
As a father, I hardly know what to say about the two situations described above. The unspeakable tragedy of life wasted. Was it mental illness that led to suicide and murder? Was it drugs? Was it, in some tormented way, environment?
I can’t imagine how I would feel if one of my children killed himself or herself. Devastated, of course. And I’m sure I would think it was my fault. Or at least that there was something I could have done to have prevented it. Some sign I missed. Some harsh word spoken carelessly.
Nature versus nurture is a big debate. We don’t know the answer. But we do know one thing: after that moment of climax, when sperm meets egg, our part in the nature side is over. From then on, all we’ve got to work with is nurture.
There are a lot of parenting metaphors. Tiger mom. Helicopter parent. Trump Tower developer (my term for the parent who leaves most of the actual work to nannies and boarding schools). But the one that has always resonated with me is “coach.”
Maybe I like it because coaches can make a big difference in a young person’s life without taking full responsibility for the complete life. A parent’s job is much more hands-on, and much more time-intensive, but in terms of overall influence probably not that much more impactful than a great teacher or coach. Sometimes less so.
Bobby Knight, the mercurial Indiana basketball coach, famously threw chairs at referees and players. John Wooden, the greatest college basketball coach of all time, never raised his voice. Some of his players said he didn’t even talk about winning.
I never threw a chair at any of my children. (I was usually too poor to waste good furniture). I did spank them once in a while until my last child (too bad he wasn’t my first) shamed me out of it. I coddled them sometimes and ignored them others. I told them I wanted them to be the best they could be, but I rarely did more than wring my hands and deliver pithy aphorisms when I saw them slipping off course. I even signed a stack of blank permission slips to miss class for one son in high school. I said it was his choice not to go to class but I didn’t want him to lie about it. (He missed a few more classes that year, but he graduated summa cum laude from college.)
Honestly, to this day, I’m not sure what I did right and what I did wrong. Or at least what I could have done better. I have a mental notebook of well-honed rationalizations for all my parenting decisions. For the ones I can’t rationalize, I try not to think about them; and when I do I sometimes get a little weepy.
Mainly, I think kids need to know that we accept them for who they are: the messy package of conflicting dreams and moods and behaviors that makes them unique. Acceptance which they understand may not reach into every corner of what they are doing at a particular moment, but which they know without knowing is a warm cloak they may put on when they come home from the cold.
I told my oldest sons not to go to a party once when they were in high school. They went anyway. I slipped over there just in time to drive the getaway car as they came barreling down the street after making some mischief. We laughed. But they were caught. And they knew it. That’s another thing a parent has to do. Be like a motorcycle cop with a radar gun behind a billboard. They never know when you might catch them. It’s easier just not to go too fast.
The world as it opens up to children, especially teenagers, can be scary. And stressful. Home should be a sanctuary. Not another place where they are judged. Not another place filled with people about whom they feel, in the words of Bruce Springsteen, “For you my best was never good enough.”