Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Tag: parenting

The greatest sins we commit on our children.

We destroy our children almost as soon as they are able to speak.

The children who use persistence to achieve their goals are called stubborn and strong-willed.  We beat it out of them.  We threaten them.  “I said no!  If you ask me one more time…”  We are determined to break the strong will.  To win against the child.

Never mind that the world needs more good people who are stubborn and strong-willed.

The children who question are called rebellious and irreverent.  We frown when they ask the most sacred questions (“why?  why not?”) and give them the most pathetic answer (“Because I said so.”)  We teach them to obey.  To submit.

Never mind that the world needs more good people who are rebellious and irreverent.

 

And then we tell them to work hard, just not against anything we have done.  We tell them to be themselves, unless the themselves are too different from what we’d like them to be.  We tell them to fight evil and worldliness, as we define them.  We make them into ourselves, only younger and better-looking.

 

I cannot think of a greater joy than this:

My children stand at the Edge and look over all the things that were made before they were born.  At the philosophies, the causes, the works and religions and arts.  And they judge them.  Some are better than others.  Some are worse.  They can tell because they were taught to ask and to be satisfied only with reasonable answers.  They can tell because they do not love a thing for being old or hate a thing for being new.  They can tell because they were taught to chose a path, not follow a well-worn one.  They can tell because they were trusted to think, not carried.

And as they look, they pick up the things that speak to their souls.  And after collecting as much or as little as they want, they look at it all, they look at the world, and they say to each other:

“We can do better than this lot.”

They leave me and my naive little world

And create a better one.

Refusing the Chicken

     I was tired. That’s the first problem. Tired and so very hungry. We were eating at a neat hole-in-the-wall west indian place. The food was great, for meat eaters. For vegetarians, there wasn’t much more than a veggie chow mein. An insipid, cold chow mein. Yums.

     I couldn’t stop looking over at the chicken leg my son was not eating. It was fried and tender and perfect-smelling. It wanted me to eat it. I swear, it did. I picked it up and looked at it. It looked back at me. Remember the scene in Hichhiker’s Guide where the mutant livestock was excited for Dent to eat him? That drumstick seemed to be doing the same thing to me. I was on the edge. I opened my mouth to take a bite.

     “Papa, are you eating meat?”

     My son’s voice was not accusatory. He wasn’t judging me. He was just curious. I could have eaten and he would not have thought any less of me.

     He asked me, so long ago, why I didn’t eat meat. I gave him the simplest answer I could: I refuse to partake in any violence. Any. No violence in defense of myself or my country. No violence in instruction or teaching. No violence to satisfy my taste buds. He understood it. He sympathized with it. Sometimes he flirts with vegetarianism because of it.

     But now his dad is holding the leg of a dead chicken, ready to consume it. He doesn’t even realize the real questions he’s asking: “So you’re not as big on the whole non-violence thing as you said, eh? You like non-violence until you’re hungry or tired, eh? You walk the path of peace so long as you feel like it, eh? Good to know. I’ll remember that.”

     I put the chicken down. “Naw, man,” I said. “I don’t eat meat.”

Kids and the Raising Thereof

     I’m no expert. But that’s okay, because neither are you.
     You might disagree. You might think you’re an expert. Maybe because you’ve read all the guidebooks that other ‘experts’ have written. Maybe because of your devotion to your religion. Maybe because your kids do whatever you say or get great marks or have good careers. But you’re no expert. And those folks who wrote all those books? They’re no experts, either. No one is. In the end, parenting is a grand and glorious experiment.
     But I’ve learned stuff along the way. Some of it is obvious. But a lot of it is so counter-intuitive that it blows my mind.

  • Breaking your child’s will dangerous and stupid. I was always told that strong-willed kids need to be broken. But that’s about as dumb as saying a clever kid needs to be turned stupid because she is a smart-ass. My son is just about the strongest-willed child I know. And I love it. I want his will to be stronger, in fact. A strong-willed child grows up into a strong-willed adult. And strong-willed adults change the world. A broken child doesn’t. A broken child can only follow.
  • Defiance and rebellion is sometimes a good thing to nurture. Because authorities are often wrong. Kids need to know that and they need to learn how to spot it. I often tell my son that if I ever tell him to do something unkind, he ought to disobey. He’s seven and he’s clever enough to know the difference between what is kind and what is unkind. He has permission to disobey me when his conscience demands it. People often tell me that they are worried my son might abuse that idea, but he never has. Ever.
  • Punishment is easy. Nurturing is hard. And since punishment is easy, its benefits are severely limited. All parents have that primal urge to lash out at a child who lashes out. We yearn to throw a tantrum at the child who throws a tantrum. But it’s so much more effective and life-building to stop, breathe and talk. Children are not stupid. Anyone who says that has never really sat down to talk with their child. I haven’t ‘punished’ my children in ages. There’s no need. I cannot remember the last time I had a conflict with my children that could not be solved by a good, mindful conversation.
  • Internal motivation trumps external threats. I have no desire whatsoever to have a child who obeys me because he fears what I may do to him if he doesn’t. Frankly, I’d rather him disobey. If I want my children to act in a certain way, I convince them of its benefit. I trust that they both have the mental and moral capacity to see the attractiveness of a love-filled life. And it works. Every single time.
  • Physical coercion breaks things. I know, I know, we’ve all been hit by our parents and we’ve all turned out fine. That’s what we all say. And we’ve got our Bible verses to back it up. But my road has shown me that demanding obedience by threat of physical pain causes anger and confusion. There is no violence in my house. Not even the socially acceptable violence of corporal punishment.

     But I’m no expert. I don’t think you’re a bad parent if your experiments have led you to different conclusions. And I’d never try to tell you how you ought to raise your children. I’m just sharing what I’ve seen. What have you seen?

Thoughts on Being a Goofy Dad

     I spent an hour jumping on my bed yesterday.

     I could pretend that I was doing it just so my daughter would feel love and attention. I could pretend that I didn’t enjoy it and I was just putting in my ‘daddy time’ until I could go and read something mature and venerable. But that would be a lie. I freaking love jumping on beds.

     When we were done, I played video games with my son. That was a bit of a serious thing. We’re about 70% through Lego Star Wars and we’re eager to get the 10x Power Brick. I couldn’t pretend to just be going through the motions on that one. It was clear on my face.

     I’m a goofy dad. Almost every day I put on ridiculous music and dance like a ten-year-old with my kids. They seem to enjoy it. I sure do.

     There is something very freeing about being goofy. It allows me to do things that most people would feel self-conscious about. Like dancing in public, wearing silly clothing and chasing my kids around the playground with wild abandon.

     It also helps me connect with my kids. All kids are goofy, and that goofiness tends to fade as they grow up. It just never really went away with me. I don’t know why, but I’m glad it didn’t. Because I know exactly why my daughter loves jumping on the bed and making fart jokes. Because I also love jumping on the bed and making fart jokes. And I also know exactly why my son loves getting every achievement in video games and making fart jokes. Because I also love those achievements and I still love fart jokes.

     “Act your age.”

     Screw that. I’m going to act fun. Three, thirteen or thirty, I’m going to act fun. Because I think that when I stop having fun, I’ll die. And I don’t want to die.

     So I’ll jump on the bed and make my fart jokes. I’ll run and scream in the playground. The kids will laugh and smile with me while a few oh-so-serious parents look on with frowns. I don’t care. I love life. And jumping on beds is a part of life.

Writing with Mom

     I’m going to a writer’s conference in May. I went last year. It was a blast. You should come.

     I went alone last year. It was fun, but I wanted company this time. So I called my mom. That’s right, my mom. I can hear the snickers from all those cool guys who never brought their loci of identity inside.

     I feel bad for those cool guys. Because it’s never very fun to be cool. When you’re cool you can’t be yourself. When you’re cool, you can’t hang out with your mom. Because hanging out with your mom is decidedly uncool.

     I’ve wondered why. Why don’t people hang out with their parents? I mean, sure everyone gets together around holidays and stuff. But I go to coffee shops and conferences with my mom and I go camping and hiking with my dad. We hang out. We do stuff. Like buddies. I get the impression that other people don’t do those things with their parents.

     I can’t say for sure, because I’ve only had one set of parents, but I think mine are just generally more fun than most. My mom is into literature and geocaching and fiction. My dad is into computers and film and outdoorsy stuff. It’s just fun to be with them. And I think that all us siblings feel the same way.

     Remember that time when all the kids were trying to get to Jesus and the oh-so-serious bystanders were trying to stop them? Ever wonder why the kids were trying to get to Jesus? Do you suppose they were thinking, ‘Hey! This is a great teacher who comes bearing the message of light and love.’? Naw. There’s only two ways to get a kid to come to you. One is candy, and I doubt Jesus had much. The other is fun. Jesus must have been fun.

     So after looking at Jesus and my parents, I realize that it’s wildly important that my kids think I’m fun. So I’ll play DDR 2 with my son (though I guess I’d play that even if I didn’t have kids). I’ll colour pictures with my daughter. I’ll build a snow fort. I’ll wrestle on the ground. I’ll stand in the frozen park across the road watching my kids play on the monkey bars. Whatever it takes to make it so that when my kids are 29 and they want to go to a writer’s conference or a weekend trip, they invite me. Whatever it takes.

Unapologetic

Have you ever been here before? Your kid is on the playground, having a blast with the other urchins (not sea urchins, mind you – they are not for children). Something happens. Someone gets hurt. Someone’s in trouble. A child goes to complain to his mother and, the next thing you know, you are in an awkward situation where a parent is telling you that your child has done wrong and something needs to be done about it.

And what is expected of a parent at this point? A stern look married with stern words. Perhaps some sort of disciplinary measure. And, the most important thing of all, an apology from the offending child to the crybaby offended child.

And that is where everything, for me, falls apart. Because I am a rogue parent. I commit a great sin whenever my child does something he oughtn’t. I never, ever force him to claim he is sorry for something he has done.

Do you think that’s dumb of me? Hear me out first.

  • When I force my child to ‘say sorry’, 95% of the time I’m telling him to lie. He’s not really sorry. In the heat of the situation he doesn’t care much about the offended sensibilities of the other kid or the angry mother.
  • When I force my child to ‘say sorry’, I devalue the entire idea of regret and remorse. It means nothing if it can be forced out of you.
  • When I force my child to ‘say sorry’, I am teaching him that saying certain words will get him out of a bad situation.
  • When I force my child to ‘say sorry’, I am robbing him of the inhibitions that we all have to keep us from doing things artificial.
  • When I force my child to ‘say sorry’, I am dancing to the beat of another parent’s drum. I care more about getting our of an awkward situation than about my own child’s development.
  • My kids don’t say sorry nearly as often as others, it’s true. But that doesn’t bother me in the slightest. Because when Joe, having done something wrong, comes up to me and says “Papa, please forgive me” (and, yes, he actually uses those words!) I can see in his eyes and tone that he is serious. When my son says that he feels remorse and that he is sorry for something, he actually means it. That’s worth a handful of awkward playground experiences, yes?