Tim Hartnett, Ph.D. is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Santa Cruz, CA. He specializes in Individual Counseling, Couples Therapy, and Divorce Mediation. E-Mail He can be reached at 831.464.2922 or through his website:

Almost Killed by a Fashion Doll
The American Question
Asleep in My Arms
Believing in Children's Goodness
Boys will be ....
The Best Father You Can Be
The Biggest Stress In Today's Families
Children's Friendships
A communal version of family
Controlling Bossiness
Crossing into and out of Dreamland
The Daddyman's Christmas list
The Daddyman's Dad
"Dad, I'm bored."
The Dad I want to Be
Emotional Abuse Defined
Exclusionary Play
Freedom's Birthday
The Fun Club
Getting Dragged Along
God bless you, Mary Poppins
Halfway Point
"Heads Will Roll"
Healing Our Way Through Divorce
Interpretting Jesus's teachings at Christmas
Is it a boy or a girl?
I Win!
Just Go to Sleep
Learning To Parent by Experience
"Little House on the Central Coast"
The Meaning of Parenting
Men and Suspicion of Child Abuse
The Morning Rush
My Dad’s Advice
My daughter, Sisyphus
My, She's Shy
My Vasectomy
The Naked Truth
On Dad's and Love
Our Beautiful Daughters
Our Family Beds
Our Family Talks About Sex
Parenting is challenging
Peanut is Gone!
Piano Practice
The Playground and the World
Punishment and Permissiveness
The Report Card
Reproductive Rights & Fatherhood
The Second Parent
Sibling Competition
Strengthening the Marriage
Talking to your kids about sex
Teenage Christmas
Teenagers and Sex: Are They Ready?
This Story Has An End
The Toll of the Breadwinner Role
Two Bedtime Scenarios
Until Mid-life Do We Reconsider
Valentine's Day - Acts of Love
Validating Feelings
Wake Up DaddyMan
What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Our Family Talks About Sex

Nan, a cousin of mine who works in human services, was visiting recently. As I cooked dinner she told me the results of a recent study on teenage contraceptive use. Apparently, since most high school sex education is now "abstinence based", it is difficult for sexually active teens to get good information on how to have sex safely. They are simply told not to have sex. So when they do have sex, they are often unprepared for the decisions and communication necessary to have sex responsibly. In the middle of our conversation, my eight year old daughter, Molly, came in looking for food. Nan stopped in mid-sentence. I asked her to continue.

She nodded uncomfortably in Molly's direction.

"What are you guys talking about?" Molly wanted to know.

"Sex," I said to Molly.

"Oh," she said, relieved that we weren't talking about her. "Are there any pretzels?"

I again urged Nan to continue, explaining that Molly often hears us talk about sex, and there is no reason to hide any information from her. It was a struggle for Nan to get past her reflexive fear of taking about sex with a child present. Only by asking direct questions could I convince her to continue.

Molly munched her pretzels while I asked Nan, "How feasible is it to think teenagers could talk honestly about their sexual history or HIV status?" and

"Are there many teenagers who are enjoying sex without actually having intercourse?" We talked about how the "heat of the moment" can impair the judgment of even well informed adults.

Afterwards Nan asked how Molly got to be so comfortable overhearing such a conversation. I explained that her mom, Sue, and I have talked openly since she was a baby. We wanted to avoid the classic American pattern that we both suffered from as children.

My parents never talked about sex. They completely avoided the subject, except for a lone "birds and bees" talk. This single moment of their availability failed miserably because I had no questions that I dared ask these people who were so obviously uncomfortable with the subject. Instead, I got my information from peers, most of whom were woefully lacking in maturity. My lack of education created numerous problems for me as a young man, but I will spare you the details.

So Sue and I started out early, reading to Molly from preschool books about where babies come from. Later we liked "A Kid's First Book About Sex" by Joani Blank and Marcia Quackenbush. Molly was usually only interested in a little information at a time. A lot of it sounds pretty abstract to a youngster. We were careful to notice when her attention for the subject drifted.

There are some subjects about which Sue and I feel too vulnerable to discuss with Molly present. When we talk generally about sex, however, we try to include her. Often, when we watch romatic comedies on video we use the pause button so we can explain any sexual innuendoes that may have been confusing to Molly. In addition, every year Sue takes Molly to the gay pride march. This provides Molly a good opportunity for learning about the many different ways people can have sex.

When Molly has her own friends over, however, we observe the normal cultural discretion. A sudden exposure to open talk about sex can be very confusing and embarrassing for a child. We also make sure Molly is aware of the cultural expectations she can expect outside of our home.

Our goal is to provide Molly with all the information she needs to make responsible choices and be able to communicate comfortably abut sex before she becomes sexually active. We consider this a safer and less frustrating route than the cultural norm of leaving teens fumbling in the dark.

We would never dream of letting our child grow up without learning how to read. Likewise, we would feel negligent as parents if our own embarrassment stopped us from preparing Molly for the pleasures and dangers of sex.

Teenagers and Sex: Are They Ready? by Tim Hartnett, PhD and Amy Cooper, DHS

“When should a person become sexually active?” a fellow counselor asked an audience of parents and middle school students. The question was meant to be rhetorical, a springboard from which to lecture on the subject, but a sixth grader spontaneously blurted out his answer. “Not until you are thirty.”

The young man was surprised when his comment received laughter and grateful applause from many of the parents in the room. Was he aware what a relief it would be for parents if all teenagers had this attitude? Does he know the agony parents suffer over teenage sexuality?

Many otherwise confident parents find themselves baffled about how to deal with teenage sex. Should we use a strong hand to protect our children from making serious mistakes? Or should we be non-judgmental, so that our kids will feel safe to talk to us about their sexual decisions? Maybe we should let sleeping dogs lie, and just hope that our kids won’t be sexual until they are ready.

What is the Law?

The question of when a person is ready to have sex is one American society has not yet figured out. Even the law is ambivalent. The “age of consent” (when a person can legally engage in sexual activity) ranges from 14 to 18 in the United States. In each state the specific legal age depends upon many factors including the type of sexual activity and the age of the teenager’s sexual partner.

What is Normal?

One might be tempted to ask what is the “normal” age for people to start being sexually active. The data on this, however, also fails to settle our cultural ambivalence. Recent findings from The National Survey of Family Growth report that 46 percent of males and 47 percent of females, age fifteen to nineteen, claim to have had sex. With this relatively even split, one might conclude that it is both normal for teenagers to have sex and normal for them not to have sex.

What is Right?

A family’s views on sex are likely to be derived not just from the law or norms of what other people do, but from their ethical or religious views. Values about sexuality vary considerably. Some hold the “sexually liberated” view that sex is a healthy human pleasure to be enjoyed whenever it is safe and consensual. Others believe that sex is morally appropriate only for procreation and should only occur within a marriage. Given the differences, it is not surprising that there is much controversy about whether and how to provide sex education to teenagers. Most people’s values, however, fall somewhere between these poles. They respect that sexual readiness is a personal decision which depends on many factors. And most parents would agree that teenagers should not be having sex before they are ready.

What Defines Sexual Readiness?

So how does one determine if and when a teenager is ready to be sexually active? We propose that the qualifications are not merely a matter of age. Having a certain number of birthdays does not prepare anyone for safe and successful sexual experiences. Rather, it is our preparation for the ethical, psychological, social, and physical aspects of sex that determines our readiness. Two teenagers of the same age may have very different degrees of psycho-social maturity. They may also have different access to sexual health information. These differences can determine whether their sexual activity is likely to be healthy or potentially disastrous.

A rational basis for determining sexual readiness must therefore take multiple considerations into account. We have outlined eight areas of concern below.

Consideration #1: Knowledge of Disease and Pregnancy Prevention

Responsible sex requires that participants know how to protect themselves from unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Some sexual activities do not pose a health or pregnancy risk. Others pose risks that can be mitigated. And some very common sexual activities court serious consequences. Being uninformed on these topics can result in crisis situations that may alter the trajectory of a young person’s life. Thus, having accurate and up-to-date information is an important prerequisite to becoming sexually active.

Consideration #2: Reflection on the Impact of Pregnancy or Disease

Knowing how to have sex safely does not insure that safe sex practices will be faithfully employed. Having sex responsibly requires that participants give serious thought to the possible consequences of sexual activity. “What if your method of birth control fails?” “What if you are deceived by the information you get from a sexual partner?” It is important to face the reality that sexual intercourse, for example, is never completely safe. One should consider, “Is any level of risk worth taking at this point in my life?”

Consideration #3: Addressing Moral and Ethical Issues

The decision to be sexual or not can have a profound affect on your sense of identity. It forces you to choose between competing sets of values. Your family, church, and peers may all try to influence you. They may claim that your honor, your goodness, your popularity, or your manhood or womanhood is at stake. Only if you are confident that your worth as a person is not based on whether you do or do not have sex are you free to make your own decisions. Still, it is important to realize that people may shame you or judge you, whatever you decide. How will you respond to such judgments?

Consideration #4: Self-Esteem and Decision Making

Sexual situations present very strong challenges to a person’s ability to make their own decisions and stay committed to those decisions. Peer pressure and biological drives can both exert a powerful influence. Responsible decisions about sex can only be consistently made if you have the personal maturity to follow your own best thinking in spite of what others may want you to do or what your body desires. What are your limits around being sexual? What pressures might affect your resolve to stick to your own decisions?

Consideration #5: Ability to Communicate Sexual Needs and Feelings

Creating positive sexual experiences for yourself requires that you be able to express your sexual preferences, needs, and feelings. If you are not yet comfortable talking about sex, then you are unlikely to be able to insure that your sexual experiences will be consensual and mutually satisfying. . Can you say the names of sexual body parts? Can you describe sexual activities that you consent to or do not consent to doing? Can you talk this way with the person you would consider having sex with? How specific can you be about your needs and your limits?

Consideration #6: Ability to Handle Relationship Dynamics

The dynamics of relationships are often very emotionally challenging. Strong feelings of rejection, jealousy, and guilt can all be part of any teenage dating landscape. The intensity of these feelings is often dramatically increased, however, when sex is involved. Have you thought about how you will feel if your relationship changes after having had sex?

Consideration #7: Knowledge of Sexual Anatomy and Functioning

Much of the traumas people report from their first sexual experiences are due to a lack of understanding about how to have sex in a mutually satisfying way. The many unrealistic myths about sex that are portrayed in the media often set young people up for disappointment and humiliation. Understanding how male and female bodies actually function is important background information for healthy sexual experiences. This includes both learning about your own body through masturbation, as well as learning about how the other gender experiences sexual pleasure. Do you know how male and female bodies contain or build sexual energy? Do you know how they reach orgasm? Do you understand that individuals differ in these regards?

Consideration #8: Making Sense of Childhood Sexual Experiences

Many teenagers have already had sexual experiences as children. Sometimes these experiences constituted abuse. Other situations may have been age-appropriate explorations (like playing “doctor”). They may have involved partners of either gender. Usually these sexual contacts occurred without thoughtful discussion. Thus, questions about the meaning of these experiences may linger. If so, these unresolved experiences might influence our readiness for new sexual encounters. What sexual experiences have you already had? How have they affected you, your feelings about sex, and your feelings about males and females? Would it be helpful to talk about this with a counselor to help you understand your prior experiences better?

These considerations offer the basis for a more thoughtful answer to the question of sexual readiness. Some parents may use this outline to articulate why they believe their teenager is not ready for sex. Others may decide that their teenager is sufficiently prepared to justify supporting them to begin sexual relationships. When rational considerations determine sexual readiness we can become less fixed on the idea that chronological age is the only pertinent factor.

This outline can also be used to discuss sexual readiness with a teenager. Talking with your teen about sex is a challenging task. Fortunately, there are many good books available on the subject. Parents who are not comfortable discussing the topic themselves, however, can still help their teens by finding an informed adult that can help. Much as we might like, not all teens are going to wait until they are thirty. They may need someone to talk to now.

Amy Cooper holds a Doctorate in Human Sexuality from the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality. She consults professionally with teens, adults, and couples on issues of sexuality, intimacy, and relationships. She can be reached at 831.476.9128 or on her website:

Talking to your kids about sex

I learned about sex when I was ten. An older boy, Mike, explained the "facts of life" to my friend Shep and I as we poured over a stash of Playboy magazines in our secret fort. Shep was sure Mike was lying. He told me not to believe any of it. I didn't know who to trust, so I asked my mom what sex was. She read a book with me about how the dad's sperm meets the mom's ovum and a baby starts to grow. That was all very nice, but the details of how that sperm gets in there were discreetly omitted. My curiosity was not at all satisfied.

Sex, according to my mom's book, was for reproduction. Even at ten years old I knew there was more to it than that. I'd venture to guess that less than .5% of all adult sex is for reproduction. The vast majority of sex is for intimacy, pleasure, or both. But no one I could trust was willing to talk to me about these things. I had to figure out what sex was about from adult magazines, movies, and the often very distorted information I could get from peers.

My experience was not unique. Most of us learn about sex in a shroud of shame and misinformation. Shame grows whenever it is not okay to talk about something. It's like anaerobic bacteria that festers in closed containers. Once exposed, it dies. Talking about sex heals shame (or prevents it from gaining a foothold in a young person's psyche). As a psychotherapist I am well acquainted with the effects of unaddressed sexual shame: men feeling inadequate due to unrealistic expectations of themselves, women unable to communicate their sexual needs, couples unable to find consensual love-making because one is desperate for sex and the other confused, and most everyone wondering at some level if their particular sexuality is really okay.

I think a lot of the trouble we adults have with sex is because our sexual education needs were neglected. In recent years we have been uncovering the tragedy of sexual abuse, both its shocking prevalence and its painful effects. But we have not yet acknowledged that the deliberate denial of information about sex is also hurtful to young people. If we did not teach our children to read, we would be considered neglectful. If we did not teach them manners, our parenting would be widely questioned. So I think it is time to consider sex education to be a vital developmental need that we cannot allow to be ignored.

How then, do we as parents talk about sex with our children? Most of us are too embarrassed to even bring the subject up. When we do, we often count on our kids to lead the discussion with their questions. If there are no questions we assume they know it all and we're off the hook. Try this instead. Go down to your favorite bookstore. Tell them how old your child is and ask for a good book on sex. Read it yourself and talk to your spouse or a friend about any parts that make you squirm. If you need more help, find someone who seems really comfortable talking about sex and ask them how they would explain sex to someone your child's age. Then sit down with your child and read the book together. Read it as many times as your child seems interested in it. Then pat yourself on the back. Well done.

Parenting is challenging

Parenting is challenging my concept of equality. I have long held as a core value that, as Lincoln articulated it, all men are created equal. That always seemed fair to me (once "men" was translated to mean "people"). Since I was a child I, perhaps naively, expected fairness from this world. It was a blow to realize how unequally people are treated after they are born. The unfairness of this has fueled the passion with which I pursue progressive politics.

But now even my assumption of equality upon creation is under question. Parents tell me all the time how different their children are. Sometimes it is just a matter of one being good at art and another good at music, without value judgments attached to the differences. Sometimes one child just seems to have a stronger sense of herself than her sibling. She is better at almost everything she tries, including getting along with others. It is hard to see the equality in that. And sometimes a disability saddles a child with difficulties that seem grossly unfair.  

As parents we are supposed to treat our children equally. I don't think we can ever do this perfectly. "Gifted" children tend to evoke more genuine pride from their parents, leaving the others feeling less than. "Special needs" children often evoke more special attention, leaving the others feeling neglected. No matter how hard parents try, they can't make it all equal for their kids. We do our best, but we are people too. We have our own feelings, values, and dreams. Many parents, if they were honest, would admit to loving one of their children above the rest. They don't choose it that way. That's just how they feel.

Like Tommy Smothers, many adults feel that they were the less loved of their mother or father. In my family, extroversion was highly prized. The quieter of us were a disappointment to my mother. She hid it well. But we knew.

In my practice and in my life I have come to know people whose gifts were never recognized in their families. The values of the parents were mismatched with what the child had to offer. The parents were looking for the spectacle of a mountain range, and the child held only the beauty of a flower. But which is more, really? 

The Little Prince said "That which is important is invisible to the eye". Perhaps to see the equality of our creation takes a questioning of our assumptions about what is of value and what is not. Or a questioning of our parents values. Perhaps what we achieve or how impressive we are is not the best gauge of our worth. 

I have only one child. So my loyalty to her is not challenged by the possibility of admiring her sibling more. I am grateful for that. But I still feel disappointment in her at times. The world offers so many dazzling comparisons. The boy who started playing soccer when he was three. The girl who can sing back a whole song in tune after hearing it once.  

So far, though, I haven't met any quite like my own.


"My own preference, if I had the good fortune to have another son would be to leave his little penis alone." -Dr. Benjamin Spock, 1989

Circumcision is a touchy issue for many families. There are often strong feeling both for and against it. I have been researching the subject on the internet the past few days to find out where I stand on the matter. Here is some of what I have found: Originally, circumcision of males was done to discourage masturbation. It is somewhat effective. Foreskin functions as a sheath that makes masturbation considerably more comfortable. Masturbation without foreskin generally requires applied lubrication. Since sex experts generally agree that masturbation is both healthy and normal, I wonder what value there is in making it more difficult. 

Foreskin also works as a kind of linear bearing in sexual intercourse. This contribution may be "sorely" missed when vaginal secretions decrease after menopause. Dr. Thomas Ritter states, "Circumcised males sometimes need an additional lubricant (e.g. KY jelly) for non-irritating intercourse. The sheath within a sheath of the normal penis obviates such a need." Usually problems of dry or painful intercourse are attributed to the female, rather than the doctor who circumcised the male. 

Intact foreskin represents about one third of the highly enervated penile skin. Circumcision removes this richly erogenous tissue. As a circumcised man, I can only wonder what it would be like to have one third more nerve endings on my penis. Foreskin also protects the head of the penis from abrasive contact with clothing. Over the years the skin on the head of a circumcised male thickens from lack of protection, reducing sensitivity. 

Current reasons given for circumcision include hygienic factors, social conformity, and religious tradition. Let's take a look at each. 

When routine circumcision began to be questioned, the doctors who performed it (at $135 to $300 per snip) needed to come up with a rationale. They found that uncircumcised boys have a higher rate of urinary tract infections, and are susceptible to cancer of the penis (a rare form of cancer striking one of every 1,333 men that usually begins in the foreskin). The reason foreskin presents a greater disease risk is that some uncircumcised males, particularly in developing countries with poorer hygienic standards, do not properly wash themselves. Bacteria can grow under the foreskin and infect the urinary tract, or human papillomavirus can fester and become carcinogenic. Properly washing the penis can obviate these hazards. The rate of penile cancer in Japan (with it's superior hygiene), for instance, is significantly lower than in the US., despite the fact that a large majority of Japanese men are uncircumcised. Does it make more sense to cut the foreskin off, or learn to keep it clean? 

Many parents give a nod to circumcision because they want their boy to look like other boys or to look like dad. Circumcision rates in the US., however, have dropped to 60%, and in California the rate has fallen below 50%. Uncircumcised boys no longer stand out. No family need feel ashamed that their son's penis looks the way penises naturally look. The most obvious difference between a father's and son's genitals is the presence of pubic hair. Would fathers who want their son's genitals to look like their own consider shaving their pubic hair? Besides, who is looking? 

Other families choose circumcision to follow religious tradition, such as Judaism. Traditions can be very important and meaningful ways for people to bond and share a common identity. Traditions can also carry with them the vestiges of past oppressions. Some Jewish families have begun replacing the brit millah ritual circumcision with "brit shalom", a bloodless baby naming ceremony. This attempt to preserve the spirit of a tradition while filtering out the actual cutting of flesh is still likely to be upsetting to those with strong feelings about their traditions. 

Let us consider, though, how upsetting circumcision must be to the newborn. Physiological studies confirm that babies feel intense pain during circumcision. Anesthesia is not recommended because it carries too great a risk in newborns. Doctors admit that Tylenol does not block the pain. No one knows what it is really like at that age, but some psychologists theorize that circumcision runs counter to a newborn's developmental need to trust in the safety of the world they have arrived in. Others argue that the choice of circumcision should wait until the child is old enough to choose for himself. Do we circumcise newborns because we know that if we waited few would choose it voluntarily? Newborns cannot organize as a group and demand an end to circumcision. But if they could speak, what do you think they would say? MORE

Controlling Bossiness

My partner, Sue, gave me some bad news last night. She said that our daughter, Molly, had been really bossy with Jane, her playmate, yesterday. The way Sue's eyes rolled when she described it told me that she didn't mean just a little bossy. She meant obnoxiously bossy, flagrantly bossy, even repulsively bossy.

I stood there stunned. This could only mean one thing. Despite my ardent convictions to the contrary, my beloved daughter is not perfect. What a blow.

"Was she hungry?" I asked hopefully. "Sometimes she gets grouchy when her blood sugar gets low." 

"No," said Sue. "She was bossy all day."

I was going to have to deal with this. All day Molly had been directing her poor friend in what games they would play and how. Molly insisted on choosing what imaginary characters had a right to exist and who could play them. Molly composed the whole script. When Jane protested Molly would just say, "Well you can go home then." 

I wondered where Molly could have picked up this "bossiness". Sue is sometimes bossy, but I don't think I tend to be bossy. Do I? ...hmmm. 'I should think about that sometime,' I told myself. 'Maybe when I retire and I have nothing else to do.' 

I offered Sue another explanation. "Maybe it is just a stage. Her skill in asserting herself is a little ahead of her ability to understand her effect on others."

"Maybe," said Sue, "but it concerns me."

Suddenly I felt the weight of paradox. How do we get Molly to stop being so bossy, without modeling bossiness in our attempt to control her behavior?

Suppose, for instance, I tell her that her friends won't want to play with her if she is too bossy. Will she do as I say, or do as I do? I can hear her now, telling Jane, "If you don't share things (like that candy bar I want half of), then me and other kids won't want to be your friend anymore."  

This paradox is nothing new. I was quite aware of it as a rebellious teenager. I used to point my stereo speakers toward the bathroom, turn up the volume, get in the shower, and sing along to Bob Dylan with great dramatic emphasis:

"In a soldier's stance, I aimed my hand At the mongrel dogs who teach Fearing not that I'd become my enemy In the instant that I preach..."

We face the same paradox in Yugoslavia. Just how many people do we kill to stop Milosevic from killing people? I really don't know.

But back to Molly. This evening dinner was late and bedtime came suddenly on it's heels. "It's bedtime Molly, go up and get on your PJs." Surprise, Shock, Horror. "NO WAY!" She throws down her napkin and runs off, refusing to answer my calls. I am mad. I want to chase her down and confront her on her disrespect. I know that will make things worse, but I want to do it anyway.

I guess I can't wait until retirement to look at my control issues. Molly responds to control so directly that I will never have a better mirror to see myself through. To confront her on her disrespect now would leave her feeling controlled about both her bedtime and her reaction to its sudden onset.

I breathe and take things one at a time. I ask myself what does Molly need? She needs advance notice, so that the call to end her day is something she can prepare herself for. She needs to have some choices, like "What would you like to do for the next ten minutes before bedtime?" She needs the freedom to object or feel bad about rules even if she has to follow them. And she needs closeness, more than anything, if I expect her to cooperate. "Let's go upstairs together, Molly. I want to see which PJs you pick, which book you want to read, and which side of the bed you want to snuggle with me on."

Later, when we were on the same team again, I wanted to address her tantrum. I asked her how she had felt when she shouted at me and ran out of the room. No longer in the middle of a power struggle, she had a few of her own ideas about what she could have done instead. I told her that I wished I had given her fair warning. 

It is such a balancing act, providing needed direction without over-controlling. I fall off center all the time. I guess Molly makes the same kinds of mistakes when she negotiates with her friends. We can talk with her about it, maybe ask her why it seems that she makes up most of the rules when she plays with Jane. But how we treat Molly ourselves will probably say more than any advice we could give.

Men and Suspicion of Child Abuse

I'm sitting in a child care center with my daughter, Molly, in my lap. We are reading a book before we go home. Another girl joins us by climbing into my lap. Halfway through the book Molly runs off to find her shoes. The other girl's mother, who I have not met, walks in to find her daughter alone on my lap.

I smile and make eye contact. I am interested in meeting this mother, but I am struck with another priority as well. I feel the need to indirectly reassure her that I am not a child molester. That even though I am a man, her daughter is safe with me. 

I have no idea if she is worried about me or not. My fear that she may hesitate to trust me is a projection. It is based not on my observation of her (she seems calm), but on my awareness of the fact that the fear of sexual abuse is in the back of a lot of people's minds. It's in my mind a lot because I have heard the stories of many sexual abuse survivors, both friends and clients. And I have also counseled people who have sexually abused children and wanted to stop.

The statistics on sexual abuse vary depending on how broadly sexual abuse is defined. By any definition, though, it happens too often. And men are the abusers in the majority, but certainly not all, of the cases. (This is probably a good place to dispel the prejudiced myth that homosexuals are more prone to be sexual abusers of children than heterosexuals. This is NOT true.)

So I understand why I, because I am a man, might not automatically be trusted. And I have met people I would not trust to have unsupervised contact with my daughter. So I consider it my responsibility to help other parents trust me. I try to project relaxed confidence that will say, "No shameful uncontrollable urges to hide here!" I can't work too hard to appear innocent, or my efforting might be cause for suspicion. And I don't think it would work to speak directly about the issue, "Say, by the way, in case you were wondering, I am not a child molester!"

So I just try to be nice. And let trust grow as people get to know me. But inside it hurts to not be trusted. It hurts to have to prove my innocence with each new person. And it hurts that my manhood is something that arouses suspicion.

Emotional Abuse Defined

Ever wonder just what emotional abuse is? Tune in to Dr. Laura's radio talk show. But please don't listen for more than a minute or two. Her completely wrong advise about how to treat your family members is surpassed only by her flagrant abuse of the callers themselves. She is a master of shame and humiliation masquerading as help. The antidote to her poison: respect. People thrive on it.

Dr. Spock goes to heaven

You may have missed it in the news, but a couple of years ago Dr. Spock died. He was the author of the hugely popular text on raising children in the fifties and sixties. Succeeding authors have made great improvements on his work, so I didn't think much about his passing, until an obituary I read in the editorial pages helped me put his message in proper context. Dr. Spock's views were a big leap from the "children are to be seen and not heard" pedagogy that came before him.

Corporeal punishment, isolation, and shame were tactics that had been widely touted prior to his book. Instead, he urged parents to trust their own instincts and not to treat their children in ways that don't feel right, even if advised to by "experts". In his trust of parents he modeled how parents might trust their children. And with his faith in human nature he won the trust of a whole generation. Spock took considerable heat for his views. He was blamed by some for the rebelliousness of the children raised under his standard of "permissiveness". But Spock stood along side the young adults whose values he was held responsible for. In 1968 Spock was arrested for protesting the Vietnam war. When questioned why a pediatrician would involve himself in such politics, Spock asked what the point of raising healthy children is, if we then ship them all off to be killed.

I know my parents read Dr. Spock, though they had been raised without his guidance. And I now feel grateful to the man. My father complained throughout my childhood about how good we kids had it compared to kids in his day. When he joked that children should be seen and not heard, he was telling us what it had been like for him. When his dad said it, it was real. My parents suffered in ways I did not have to. And there are scars on their characters that I have judged them for, without knowing that it was changes they made in their parenting that saved me from being hurt in the same way.

My freedom to think for myself and my ability to understand human nature are things I have been very proud of, as if they were all my doing. In fact, it was the work of Dr. Spock, other child advocates, my parents, and my teachers that brought me to where I am. With Spock's help under our belts I wonder, "Now how can we make it even better for our kids?"

A communal version of family

My daughter Molly and I drove to the airport to pick up her sister. The two had been apart all summer. We had been long counting the days leading up to this reunion. No amusement park, circus, or fireworks show was as exciting as the return of Zea. When the two four year olds met, they smiled as brightly as faces can glow. They hugged until they both nearly died of strangulation. They giggled ecstatically at each word the other said all the way home. It felt so good to me to see my child so happy. Something was right in this world that evening.

While Zea and Molly call each other sisters, they have completely different parents. They are sisters because they live together, half time anyway. We live communally on an old farm in the Soquel hills. All together we are six adults and two girls. Zea spends half her time at her father's house and half here with her mother and the rest of us. Molly's mother, Sue, and I took to heart the idea that it takes a village to raise a child, and we have made our home a little village. We buy all our food together and we each cook one night a week. When the parents are burned out there is often another adult who can step in for a little while. It's a different sort of family, but it's just the kind I've always wanted. 

Many people try communal living in their early twenties. Most move on from it and never look back. Without really good communication skills and the right match of people, cooperative living can be a disaster. But then many nuclear families end up disasters as well. Sue and I have both lived communally for twenty years. We choose it because the depth of friendship that living together fosters has always seemed a soothing tonic to the isolation of this modern world.

I describe the arrangements of our family life because it is one of a broad range of options people can create as a family. Mom, Dad and two kids works for some, but it doesn't have a corner on the market. It is important to value the diversity of ways that people come together, the many different constellations of friends and relations that make up different homes. Ours is one of many that differ from the norm. Zea's father, Mike, lives in another, the kid paradise of UCSC family student housing. 

What is beautiful about any family is the way family members unite to better meet each other's needs. Our non-parent house mates get more contact with kids than they ever would living with just adults, and their helping hand has saved us parents from going over the edge on many occasions. And Molly and Zea get each other. They share excitements that we adults can only half-heartedly reflect back to them: a whole sheet of pony stickers, another joke about poop, or a whole huge mess of roley poley bugs under a rock!

Kids count on us adults to help them create their community. Even if children have wonderfully close sibling relationships they may also need to connect with other children their own age. No one ever told me that parents can and should help their kids develop friendships. My parents expected me to do that on my own. Perhaps that's why I never got very good at it. No matter how your family is made up, here are some things parents can do to enhance the social world of their children: 

1) If your child does not have friends yet, go out and meet families with children your child's age. Start a play group with the families you get along with best. When you feel comfortable with other parents begin arranging child care trades. Your child will learn to be more autonomous while enjoying a friend and you get a break. 

2) Find out who your child is connecting with at school and help her/him invite friends to play outside of school (if your child wants to).

 3) Contact the parents of your child's friends and get together with the ones you think you would most enjoy being friends with. When both parents and kids are compatible you have a good basis for the repeated ongoing contact that helps everyone get closer.

4) Take time to really get to know your child's friends. Let them be part of your family.

5) Help your child make friendship cards to give to other children. 

6) Plan a vacation with another family. While you are away together swap child care so the adults can get some vacation time for themselves too. 

7) Convince yourself that your child's need for community is important enough for you to challenge your own shyness in reaching out to other families.

Believing in Children's Goodness

It had been a rough day of parenting, full of challenges to my authority. In the late afternoon my daughter and I were shopping for Halloween costumes. With great excitement she showed me her choice, a white satin robe with gold trim, wings, and a halo. I thought it was cute. But a loud thought in the back of my mind disturbed this lovely moment. I heard myself thinking, "No, honey, you are not an angel anymore."

When the innocence of early childhood begins to fade, it can be a challenge to continue to believe in the goodness of your child. Their growing repertoire of behavior is bound to include new possibilities for premeditated deviousness. Believing in a child's goodness does not mean you expect them never to do wrong. It means you assume that deep inside, they really want to do good. And you trust that they are always doing the best they can, given whatever challenges they may be dealing with. Believing this is a matter of faith. No one can prove that a person, or people in general, are innately good, innately evil, or some mixture of the two. It is up to each of us to decide what we believe. That choice is communicated daily to our children. It is in our tone of voice every time we speak to them.

There is a purely functional reason for believing in your child's goodness. It just so happens that when we treat children as if they were wanting to be good, they tend to strive for goodness much more than if we assume they are regularly plotting out selfish misbehaviors. Our expectations, good or bad, have an important effect on our kids.

I have never been able, however, to believe in something just because it may be expedient. If I am to believe that people are basically good, I need some way to explain the horrible things people often do.

I was challenged with this in my first job as a therapist at a counseling agency for violent men. In one intake interview I met a young man who had already spent six years in prison for beating another man to death with a 2 by 4. I tried to assure myself that he probably wouldn't do that to his counselor. I asked him if he had been abused as a child. He thought not. I asked how he used to get punished. He allowed as how his dad would beat him. "With a belt?" I asked, knowing that practice was common a generation ago. "No, with a 2 by 4," was his reply.

There is a reason for everything we do. And when people do bad things, the reason lies in how they themselves have been hurt. Virginia Satir, the grandmother of family therapy, said "No one who feels good about himself, has any reason to hurt another." She believed in the inherent goodness of human beings. She had confidence that if each person in a family could get what they needed, they would in turn, treat each other with caring and respect. But she also knew how much we have each been hurt

Children are particularly vulnerable to getting hurt or feeling scared. When they misbehave it probably is due to conditions they feel powerless to change in more acceptable ways. Oh how I wish my daughter could articulate the struggles she faces. If she could tell me what is hard for her, then perhaps I could better understand when she disappoints me. This evening she lied. It wasn't a white lie. It was a bald face lie. I wanted to make her see that she shouldn't lie. Instead, I think I made her scared to ever get caught lying. I feel bad about that.

I forgot that she already wants to be honest whenever she feels safe to. I don't have to teach her not to lie. Her inherent goodness already strives for honesty. Instead, when she lies, I can help her by trying to figure out what she is scared of. What is not going right for her? What makes her feel that dishonesty is her only viable option?

The limits to my compassion and my faith in her goodness point me to my feelings about myself. Do I really believe that she is doing the best she can? And do I give myself the same credit?

Valentine's Day - Acts of Love

It is an act of love, parenting. My daughter runs in and jumps on the bed at 7 am Saturday morning. I feel like saying, "Go away! Can't you see I'm sleeping?" But I say, "Good morning, Molly. Up early today aren't you?"

With sleep as precious as it is to me, this little bit of love can take tremendous effort. But it is just the beginning of the day. A day like every other, where tremendous effort is routine, where acts of love stack upon each other like a tower of blocks from the floor to the ceiling. 

I reflect upon my own parents, and I realize what effort went into raising me. Even if a parent makes great mistakes or is abusive or neglectful, they have still put in years of tremendous effort and countless acts of love by the time their child leaves home. Usually, the less skilled a parent is, the more effort they have to put in. Solving entrenched problems takes more time than successfully avoiding them.

So it amazes me that so many people have children. Don't they know how much work it is? Don't they know how many sacrifices parenting entails?

There must be a lot of love inside these people. I am struck by our collective generosity. Of course, wanting to give our love is not the only reason we raise children. Pride in my child's successes, enjoying the love I get back, and a vague sense of immortality all figure into why I muster up the effort day after day. But mostly, it's love. I want so much for my daughter to be happy.

And when I'm setting limits, it is also out of love. It would be much easier on me if I let Molly have dessert before she finishes her vegetables. But I hold the line. I care too much about her health to slack off. So we struggle. I disappoint her. She rejects me. And then the vegetables are eaten, dessert is had, and we are friends again. Weathering this scene is another act of love.

With the tremendous effort parenting entails, I find myself at times with precious little left over for my wife, Sue, and our friends. Sue feels the same way. I look at her at the end of the day. A connection could be made, but one of us would have to carry the ball. Some water passed under the bridge today, but we're both too tired to catch it. I am feeling unloved, unattended to.

Then Molly wakes up. She has peed in her bed. Sue comforts her, and changes the sheets. I can hear her singing a lullaby sweetly to my daughter in the next room. I know that Molly is feeling loved. I feel grateful to Sue for loving Molly so much. I feel supported in my most important endeavor, to help Molly grow up happy. I want to thank Sue for this act of love. I make a note in my journal, because I know that when she comes back to bed, despite my tremendous effort, I'll probably have fallen asleep.

Happy Valentines Day.

The Playground and the World

When I got punched, as a kid on the playground, I punched right back. I felt a right to defend myself, and I wanted to make it clear that nobody was going to be able to pick on me and get away with it. Nonetheless, two bullies, Tony and Mark, developed a grudge against me. After school one day we picked a meeting spot where no adults would get in our way. Jon, a fourth kid joined us to fight on my side.

First we called each other whimps and faggots. Then we pushed each other. Tony and I squared off, while Jon and Mark went at it. In the brawl that ensued I managed to throw Tony off of me. He tripped on the curb and fell out into the street. A passing car screeched to a halt as this fifth grade enemy of mine slammed against the side of the car's front fender. It scared me to death. Jon, Mark, and I stood frozen watching Tony slowly get up. He was dazed, and his shoulder hurt. But otherwise, he was okay. We all decided to go home. We did not fight again.

I couldn't articulate it then, but the experience had taught me something. Previously I had thought that winning a fight might really prove something. After endangering Tony's life, I realized that though I didn't want to lose a fight, I also didn't want to win one, not if someone's really going to get hurt.

Now I tell my daughter that if she gets punched at school, she should tell an adult. The adult, I am hoping, will talk to both parties, find out what caused the conflict, and help to resolve it. The lesson I hope she learns is that hitting others is never okay, and that there are better ways to settle conflicts.

The wisdom to use better ways requires patience and inspiration. Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jesus Christ and Mahatma Ghandi had this wisdom. They accepted that they would suffer costs in their struggle against oppressors, but they remained committed to not using violence in response to the violence used against them. Each of them prevailed in ways that have changed the world.

When I lose faith in "better ways" I want to use our military forces to crush all the terrorists and dictators throughout the world. Even before September 11, I was wishing the US could topple the Taliban and free the women of Afghanistan from their cruel oppression. Now it looks like our country is attempting to do just that.

Yet I am uneasy with the rhetoric and the pace of our "war" on terrorism. I am wary of action, especially violence, that comes without serious listening to others and subsequent self-reflection. I feel like I am in the back seat of a car that is careening through a wildly dangerous intersection. Our president, probably scared for his own life as well as for our nation, is driving as fast as he can. But will our actions end terrorism, or pour more gas on the fire?

We are all scared. Personally, I have been very uncomfortable with the background state of fear I have felt since 9/11. As a nation, we are not used to this feeling. Fear can have a strong psychological effect.

Psychologists call it "splitting". The tendency, when scared, is to begin dividing your world into two camps, good people and bad people. We fantasize that if only the good people can conquer the bad people, then we will be safe once more. Children love to play games like this. Adults ike to see movies where good and evil are neatly separated and the good guys win. It helps us feel less scared.

Whenever our president refers to our "evil enemy" he is splitting, just as Islamic fundamentalists are splitting when they call for a "holy war" against us. The reality is that we are not "all good". The terrorist acts committed against us were horrible. But it is also horrible that my great great grandfather owned slaves, that my father in law bombed Cambodia, or that a friend I play music with once trained the Contras in the use of torture and nerve gas. He worked for the CIA in the world's largest terrorist camp, the "School of the Americas" in Florida.

Likewise, Islamic extremists are not all bad. They do not "hate our freedoms" as our president has incorrectly accused them. Rather, they want the oppression of their people to stop. Perhaps we need to listen to why they are so scared and so desperate. The individuals responsible for terrorist acts must be brought to justice. But if we hope to truly end terrorism, and create a safe world for our children, then the whole world must be made more just.

To this end, the US must stop supporting oppressive dictatorships even if they are economically friendly to our corporations. Secondly, we must reverse global trade and world bank policies which bypass democratic review and increase the suffering of the world's poor. And thirdly, we must strengthen our support for the United Nations and global treaties that seek to solve the world's problems with unified and cooperative proposals. With this in mind, I think the president is right. The war on terrorism will be a long one.

Validating Feelings

The jammies are on. The teeth are brushed. A chapter in the book has been read. I turn out the light and ask my daughter our nightly question, "Is there anything about your day you want to tell me about?" If I ask my daughter, Molly, to tell me her feelings during the day, I get short answers. There's so many more interesting things to do than talk to dad about embarrassing stuff like feelings. But when the only alternative is falling asleep, I find Molly is more willing to open up. In fact, tonight she has a lot to say.

"Dad... Elaine and Beth aren't the same. They're just interested in boys and stuff. And they don't want to play with me anymore. So I have to play with Daisy and she is practically a toddler and it's no fun."

We are at a family gathering. At eight years old, Molly finds herself without a peer among her cousins. Elaine and Beth are teenagers. Molly had great fun with them last year and I had assumed everything was going fine this year too. But now Molly is starting to cry.

"They treat me like I'm a little kid. Like I can't do stuff, like swim with them, because I'm not responsible enough. They don't see that I am responsible! I don't need to stay with the parents all the time!"

I put my hand on Molly's back as she cries. It is such a blessing to have Molly open her feelings to me. I'm glad she feels safe enough to release her pain through her tears. I'm grateful for the chance to help her. But what do I say?

Is it a time for advice? Do I suggest, "Molly, why don't you tell Elaine and Beth that you feel old enough to play with them. And if they still don't want to play, maybe you and Daisy can find something to do that would really interest you."

Do I explain the situation as I see it? Do I say, "Molly, Elaine and Beth probably feel the same way about playing with you as you do about playing with Daisy. You can't expect them to want to include you all the time. You just have to make the best of a difficult situation."

I imagine both options would frustrate Molly further. She doesn't need advice, and she doesn't want me to empathize with Elaine and Beth's feelings. She needs help articulating her own feelings and she needs to know that I understand. If Molly has that support, she will be able to figure out what to do.

This type of response is called "validating feelings". It has two parts. First I reflect back the feelings Molly has described or implied. This lets her know I am listening and caring about how she feels.

I try it out with Molly by saying, "So you have been feeling left out by Elaine and Beth, and stuck playing with Daisy which isn't very fun for you. And you want more respect for how responsible you can be, rather than being seen as a 'little kid'. Is that right?"

Molly whimpers her assent.

The second part of validating feelings is less well understood. People need more than just to know that their feelings have been heard. If reflection is all we needed we could probably just talk to a tape recorder and then play it back. There is a deeper need that as a listener I am called to fill.

The deeper need is to get help understanding that our feeling make sense. To validate someone's feelings fully is to let them know that you can see why they feel the way they do. That is what helps someone really feel understood.

I tell Molly, "I can see how it would feel bad to get left out by Elaine and Beth, especially after you had so much fun with them last year. And it must be really frustrating to not get the respect you know you deserve. I can also see how playing with Daisy all day could get boring. All that can easily add up to feeling pretty crummy."

"Will you sing me a lullaby?" Molly asks. She seems ready to drift off to sleep. I didn't solve her problem for her. But perhaps she now feels content to simply have her feelings, and to let them pass.

The Morning Rush

"You've got to get outside. Now!"

"But my hair isn't even brushed!"

"I don't care. You're going to miss your ride. They have already honked


"I can't go to school like this!"

"You going to have to walk to school if you don't get out the door this minute!"


"Get out there, Molly. You're late!" 

Why does every morning go like this? I know when my daughter's carpool will arrive to pick her up each morning. It's not like friends have decided to surprise me by dropping by unexpectedly. Then I can say, "Sorry the house is such a mess" and I expect them to understand. But when the carpool arrives at the same time every week day nine months a year, I start to feel like maybe we should be able to be ready on time, without madly rushing around yelling at each other. It is not a pleasant way to start the day.

Think this through with me, will you? The carpool picks up my daughter up at 8:00. It usually takes forty-five minutes for us to get dressed, pack lunch, eat breakfast. "But I will be smart," I say to myself, "I'll give us an hour, by setting the alarm for 7:00." I am forgetting about the fact that it takes me about fifteen minutes after the alarm goes off to actually roll out of bed. So I am actually getting up at 7:15. Any type of delay will therefore put us behind schedule and set off a morning panic. 

"Well, I will just have to jump up as soon as the alarm rings," a voice inside my head explains. I know this guy. He's my inner drill sergeant. I make lots of promises to myself, counting on him to discipline me into keeping my resolve. When the time comes, though, I find I hate this guy. He can't get me up. Each morning he becomes a victim of "friendly fire". Fifteen minutes later, I get up. That means if I want to get up at 7:00, I have to set the alarm for 6:45.

"Noooooo!" screams another voice inside my head. It is my inner teenager. I know a lot of people get up much earlier than 6:45 to go to work every day. I have no right to complain. But long ago, when I first looked at becoming an adult, I promised never to be conscious during the "sixes". Not 6:30, not 6:45, not even 6:59. I have broken a lot of vows to myself: I pay taxes, I make my kid wear shoes, and I voted for the lesser of two evils. "But I can't," my inner teenager tells me, "get up before 7:00." It would be "selling out."

Then my inner parent educator starts chiding me. "Are you going to let a teenager run your life? Teenagers may not like limits, but they need

limits. Hold the line. But help your teenager be successful. Give him the help he needs to be able to keep the limits you set." That sounds right, though I wonder how much to charge myself for this advice. And will it work when the teenager is inside you?

To be successful waking up at 6:45 I am going to have to get to sleep eight hours before that. Otherwise, lack of enough sleep will team up with my inner teenager and present a formidable foe. That means I have to go to bed at 10:45. No, that means I have to go to sleep at 10:45. To do that, I have to start getting ready for bed at 10:15.

I like to have at least an hour of down-time after putting Molly to bed. It creates the illusion that I have a life beyond parenting. So if I need to be done putting Molly to bed at 9:15, then we need to start her bedtime at 8:30. There's the problem. Why do we never start her to bed until around 9:00. Her Mom and I have agreed that 8:30 should be her bedtime.

It begins to dawn on me that this all starts with dinner. If we eat at 7:30 then we are not done cleaning up until 8:30. Then there is no time to play before Molly's bedtime. She always protests this, and we always understand and oblige her a deferment on bedtime.

"But," I finally deduce, "if we start dinner at 6:30, then there will be playtime after dinner, and Molly will be ready for bedtime at 8:30. Then I can get to bed on time and be able to wake up at 6:45 and not have to rush in the morning."

I am delighted with myself for having solved the problem. "It all depends on getting dinner ready by 6:30," I remind myself, memorizing this important and hard earned insight.

Then I wonder, "How on earth am I going to get dinner ready by 6:30?"

The Fun Club

A few months ago I produced a series of benefit concerts. I didn't realize I was being so closely observed by my seven year old daughter, Molly, as I booked the performance hall, printed flyers from my computer, posted them around town, and called my friends to encourage them to attend. But Molly must have been taking mental notes. One day last month she announced to me that she was starting a club.

She asked me to help her make the flyer on the computer. She spoke and I typed: 

Hi, my name is Molly and I am starting a club called The Fun Club. We get to go to very fun places like the zoo and the boardwalk and the roller-rink and bowling and things like that, so join The Fun Club and tell your friends about The Fun Club.

Molly passed the flyers out to her class at school, deciding not to exclude any of her classmates. Then she made phone calls while her mom and I overheard. Her seven year old voice replayed the adult phrasings she had heard me using a few months before.

"Hello, Jason? Umm. Well, this is Molly. And I am calling about The Fun Club. And umm, are you wanting to join The Fun Club? Good! Cause, umm we would love to have you. And umm, the first one is this Friday, no, Thursday! Sorry. It's at 11:00. Okay? Oh, and I almost forgot: it's at the bowling alley. Okay? Bye."

Needless to say, The Fun Club was a great success, much more so than my benefit concert series turned out to be. Why not? What second grader would not want to join a fun club? I'd like to join one myself! But it probably wouldn't be half as fun as watching my daughter organize her own.

At the second meeting of The Fun Club my little organizer suffered a disappointment. The plan was for all the kids to start out with a game called "Hook Tag". In Hook Tag you are safe from getting tagged only if you hook elbows with another player. The rules the kids played by, however, were not the same as the ones Molly knew. She kept trying to stop the game and demand that her rules be followed. When her Mom and I intervened and supported following the rules that the rest of the kids knew, Molly dropped out and fell into a sulk. She sat down in the tall grass, elbows on her knees, cheeks buried in her fists.

As the game rolled on I considered what to do to help Molly feel better and rejoin the group. The options I came up with were:

A) Lecture: "Molly, just because you started The Fun Club doesn't mean you get to be the boss of everybody here!" While that might satisfy my need to express myself, I doubted it would help her. So I squelched it.

B) Distract: I could go over and give Molly some special attention to do something else so that she wouldn't feel bad any more. Distracting her, however, would interrupt her from moving through her feelings. After the distraction stopped captivating her interest, she would still have unresolved feelings toward the group. She might then be confused about why she still didn't feel "all the way better". Plus, to offer her something exciting enough to distract her from her disappointment would be to strongly reward her sulking, setting us up for repeat performances.

C) Ignore her. I didn't think this would particularly help Molly either, but it seemed like a good way to start. By waiting I could avoid rewarding her for sulking. And I could see how much she recovered on her own, before I assessed what help she might need from me.

D) Empathy: "I can imagine that must have felt pretty bad to have everyone start to play the game the wrong way. And then to have your mom and I not support you to change the rules back to the ones you know." After a little while I went over to Molly and tried the above statement. An attempt to empathize is usually helpful even if I miss the mark. Molly often won't answer if I just ask her how she feels, but she will be quick to correct me if I empathize inaccurately. As usual, my first attempt was wrong. What really bugged her was that the game was getting so chaotic with the rules they were using. Having apprised me of this, she found an opening and hopped back into the game, leaving me in the tall grass, my job done for the time being.

So if I ever do start my own Fun Club, I hope I remember to include empathy as part of what we do. A good dose of empathy gets us back in the mood for fun.

Exclusionary Play

"Abigail is such a pest!" exclaims my daughter, Molly, as she approaches me from behind and begins to rub her hands back and forth across the two day old stubble on my chin. We are on vacation at a family camp. I am in a lawn chair, enjoying a relaxed conversation with other parents while our children are off playing together, happily, I thought. Abigail is the younger sister of Shamus, the boy Molly has attached herself to since the day we got here. Apparently, while the adults have been kicking back, trouble has been brewing amongst the children. "She won't leave Shamus and I alone. We keep telling her to go away. And she keeps following us. And all she does is whine. And now she says Shamus and I can't ride bikes together 'cause she won't let Shamus use her bike and Shamus' bike has a flat."

"Why doesn't Abigail play with someone else?" I ask, hoping for an easy solution. "I told her to go play with Melissa, but she won't," Molly replies. Then her face takes on a mischievous grin. "So you know what we did?" she excitedly reports. "Shamus and I pretended that Abigail wasn't there. Like she was invisible. When she talked we just said, 'I don't hear anything, do you?' And when she touched us we said, 'Oh, what's that funny feeling on my skin!' Then she started throwing rocks at us. So we ditched her. Now she's crying, but she won't stop following us."

Nope, this was not an easy fix. With great reluctance I heaved myself up from that wonderful lawn chair and resigned myself to the call to parent. I felt bad for Abigail. I remember when two girls in my neighborhood would exclude me from their play. I used to look out my window at the house across the street and imagine all the fun they were having in there without me. But I also remember feeling disgusted at what a pest my little brother could be in front of my friends.

"Molly," I began as we walked slowly toward where the other kids were, "Did you know that you can actually drive someone crazy by pretending they don't exist? Not right away of course, but if everybody at this camp picked one person and we all completely ignored that person, it could happen. If no one talks to you or looks at you or hears you, then you start to do crazier and crazier things to try to get someone's attention. That's probably why Abigail started throwing rocks."

"But why can't Abigail get attention from somebody else" Molly protested.

"Well that's probably the best solution. But the funny thing is that when kids get rejected they often feel desperate to get attention from whoever rejected them. The more you and Shamus reject Abigail, the more desperate she probably feels about playing with you." Molly seemed to understand this, so I added for my own amusement, "Oddly enough, it tends to work that way among adults too."

"So what can we do to get her to leave us alone?" Molly implored, unsatisfied with my ruminations on human nature. This is a hard situation. I felt challenged to come up with a solution. I wondered how we adults could expect kids to be able to work something like this out. When I was a kid we were left on our own to deal with our peers. Cruelty was a common result. Molly needed answers. Abigail needed help.

"Let's see," I began, "you could tell Abigail some things you like about her so that she won't think your desire to play with Shamus alone means that she is not worth playing with. And, you could think of something you wouldn't mind playing with Abigail and promise to do that with her later. And, you could help her find someone else to play with."

"Will you play with her?" Molly asked. I felt like I did when I made lemonade one day for Molly's juice stand and then she charged me fifty cents to drink a dixie cup of my own lemonade.

"No," I explained, "that's not really my job. But let's go find Abigail's mom and let her know that Abigail needs some help making friends with some of the other kids

Wake Up DaddyMan

"Wake up, you're the DaddyMan now!" It was my wife's voice on the morning after our daughter's birth. And with these words began the first day of the rest of my life. I was very excited, and already completely exhausted.

Like many men in Santa Cruz I wanted to be a different kind of dad than the model of my father's generation. I didn't want to be just the breadwinner. I wanted to be a "hands on" dad, and be closer to my child than my dad knew how to be with me.

But how would I fare in this realm so long designated to women? Can dads bond with babies without the benefit of breasts? Would I try, but soon feeling woefully inadequate compared to mom, would I retreat to other things I knew I could do well? Like paid work. Would there be any support for me? Or would I be the only man at every play group?

And what of all the other things I'd spent my youth dreaming I might like to do with my life? As a boy I had been very encouraged to strive for ambitious career goals. No one ever said I would command great respect by just earning a passable income and spending a lot of time fathering. So my head was packed with a very full slate: getting a doctorate, creating a counseling practice full of workshops and topical support groups, building a house, writing a book, recording a album, etc. I always figured I'd slip having a child in there somewhere. But I never thought about exactly where.

Then suddenly, with my daughter Molly's birth, there was no time for anything but parenting. So the onset of fatherhood meant, for me, the need to grieve all the things I could no longer find time for. I had to unpack my head of dreams and goals that kept pulling me away from time on the floor, playing with Molly. Lying with her at nap time, impatiently waiting for sleep to take her, I would sigh, a tear rolling down into my ear. My break was almost here, but all I would really have time for is the dishes and the floor. Doing this grieving has been my biggest challenge as a father

And what is the payoff? Fatherhood has taught me many things. Some of them are answers to my early questions, such as: men are natural nurturers of children, the father-child relationship can be as rich and deep as any human pairing, no other work is more important than giving loving attention to a child. But the main thing fatherhood is teaching me is who my daughter is. "Who are you today, Molly?" There is no question that intrigues me more. In it lies all the complexity and nuance of human intelligence and personality. And Molly's unfolding is my unique privilege to witness. Her answer changes every day. And unless I'm there, I'll never know.

Boys will be ....

I learned a lesson about boys today. My daughter, Molly, usually only has girls over to play. But last night one of the parents of Sean, a boy in Molly's class, asked if I could watch Sean after school for a few hours. Molly had no objection, so I picked up both of them from school and brought them home. As soon as I parked the car they dashed off into the house. 

I was eager to help make sure they got off to a good start, so after I unloaded several bags of groceries I went to look for them. They were in Molly's room. Sean was sitting on the bed while Molly was getting out her new fashion doll. This is the doll Molly bought with her own money after saving her allowance for a month. On the way home from the store she had ripped open the cellophane box squealing, "I can't believe she's mine!" Then, stroking the doll's cheek she had said dreamily, "I touched her!" and "I touched her again!"

I doubted this was Sean's idea of exciting after school play. I know Sean is quite the little league star. To help him out I advised my daughter, "Molly, do you really think Sean wants to play with Barbies?" She looked at him. He looked at me. "Why don't you two go out and play in the fort?" I suggested. And off they went.

They had been playing together two hours when Jane, Sean's mother, arrived.

"How did they do?" she asked. Clearly she was as excited as me about our children playing with the opposite gender for a change.

"They've been doing great," I said proudly. "They're out in the yard."

"Did they play dolls?" she asked. I wondered why she asked that. Did she think all girls ever do is play dolls. It seemed a rather sexist assumption.

"No." I said. "I think they have been throwing walnuts up at the apple tree, trying to knock apples down." "They didn't play dolls?" she asked again, now seeming rather disappointed.

"Well Molly wanted to, but I got Sean out of it by diverting them outside," I said with a sort of wink in my voice. "But that's why Sean wanted to come over here." she explained. "At school Molly told him all about the new doll she got, and he's been wanting to see it. He never gets to play with dolls at his other friends' houses."

I winced with shame. I had thought she was the sexist one. But it was I who had automatically assumed that a boy of nine would have no interest in dolls. And with that assumption I had made it unsafe for him to explore the interest he did have. "I guess I blew it," I confessed. "They were about to play dolls, but I interrupted them. I didn't think Sean would want to."

Jane was upset. "There are so few places where Sean's softer, nurturing side is welcome." she implored. "He can play like that with me, but I never see him that way with anyone else. I thought maybe he could play like that with Molly."

I flashed on how Sean had looked up at me when I walked into Molly's room. I hadn't realized that the expression on his face was really a question. As boy to man, Sean had been asking, "Is it okay?"

I called the kids in, desperate to reverse my mistake. I suggested that we play dolls for about ten minutes before Sean and his Mom have to leave. That idea crashed on the runway before takeoff. Sean knew his mother and I had talked. He knew what I was trying to do. And he was not about to be toyed with. If he does try to play with dolls again, it will be far away from me.

But I pray that he will try.

Crossing into and out of Dreamland

"Daddy?" asks a small, sleepy voice at my bedroom door. "Yes, Molly?" I reply, not knowing that I was even awake. Someone used to have to shake me by the shoulders or pour water on my head to wake me up. Now that gentle wisp of a voice has me up on one elbow with just one word. "Can I sleep in your bed?" I melt at her innocence. Almost every night she wakes up at some point and comes to cuddle back to sleep with me. I always let her. But still she asks. Is it that she wants not only to cuddle, but to know that she is wanted?

"Did you pee?" I ask. This means both: "Did you wet your bed?" and/or "Did you go to the toilet before coming in here so I know you won't wet MY bed?"

"No," she says, honestly.

"Go to the toilet, and then come back and climb in with me."

She scampers away. I have a moment to adjust to the fact that my bed will soon be more crowded. (The problem is that sometimes Molly fidgets in her sleep. This I cannot bear. Usually, after about twenty minutes of me hoping she will settle down, I will pick her up in exasperation and carry her back to her bed. If she wakes up in the process I will lie down with her there until she falls asleep again. Then I will steal away, back to my bed.)

When Molly returns from the bathroom we have a moment of exquisite sweetness. This is what makes me willing to take the risk of being kept awake by her fidgeting. Her little body burrows into the warmth of my chest and belly. Her hand reaches up in the dark to find my face. Delicate fingers light on the stubble of my cheeks. My arm around her tiny frame must feel huge to her. She believes her daddy's strong arms will forever keep her safe from all the scary things in this world. Feeling her complete trust in me, I almost believe it myself.

"I love you, Molly" I whisper. In the daytime I will say this and she will sometimes mock me, annoyed by my redundancy. "I wuv you Mauwee, I wuv you Mauwee." she will sneer. "You are always saying that!" I flash on my own childhood and think, "Better always than never."

But just before she crosses into sleep she eagerly soaks in my affection. "I love you too, Daddy,...really, really love you." Then in a moment, she is gone, safely back in the land of dreams. 

It can be scary crossing the gap between waking and sleeping. You go from conscious awareness and control of your life to surrendering everything, including your own mind. It takes faith to believe that you can let it all go and still be safe. Maybe that's why we say our prayers at bedtime. Even if you are not afraid of robbers or ghosts, you never know what upsets your dreams may bring forth.

It can be scary coming back to waking too. Peaceful sleep must give way to endless demands: the rush of getting ready for school, the scary teachers waiting there, the older kids, the bullies, the shifting alliances of best friends, the ever-present danger of ridicule. 

When Molly wakes up in the morning she needs me to help her transition into the day, just as she needed me to help her get to sleep at night. Her body insists on being next to mine. She starts by sitting on me in bed and refusing to let me rise. We wrestle. She feels powerful against my waking body that doesn't really want to get up anyway. Walking downstairs by herself is intolerable agony. She believes that her place is on my back. To her I am a school bus that she hops like a freight train. When we get to the kitchen I set her on the counter so that I can make the oatmeal. She leans out toward me trying to hop on as I pass by to get some salt. When I need to fill her lunch box I have to steer clear of her like I would a pond full of leaches. Her seat at breakfast is always in my lap. In my pick up truck she sits right beside me, trying to get her fill of body contact before we arrive at school. When we arrive in the parking lot the agenda is obvious to us both, but she pauses and I always have to say, "Time to get out now. Don't forget your lunch."

When I pick her up in the afternoon. Everything has changed. There is not even a hello. It's just "Dad, please can I go to April's house? Please? Her mom says it's okay." I agree and drive back home alone. I'll pick her up at April's later, but even then she won't want to come with me. We will eat dinner with Mom, read stories with Mom and turn out the light. Molly will be faced with crossing that bridge into sleep once more. But with Dad on one side and Mom on the other she will release her day, like a sky diver stepping off a plane. Buoyed not by a parachute, but by the warmth of her parent's bodies and the soft sounds of her mother's lullaby.

The Daddyman's Dad

I wondered why he had never once been promoted.

I was eight years old, lying on a grassy hill half a block from my house. It was an unusually pensive moment for a young boy. My gaze was on the clouds, vivid white surrounded by a deep blue August sky. But my mind was on the future. Next month school would start, and these days of freedom would be over. Next year I would turn nine. The only kid in our neighborhood who was nine was fat. Would I get fat when I turned nine? Does everyone get fat when they are nine, and then most thin out again at ten? No, that couldn't be right.

Usually my Mom would call from our porch when it was time for me to come in. Maybe she did and I just didn't hear her, so intrigued I was with my own thoughts. When my Dad came to find me he sat beside me and asked me what I was thinking about. I said, "Dad, what should I do when I grow up?" He spoke in a tone that made me think that he had been wanting to talk to me about this for some time. What he said was more important to him than the rules of our household, or what I was learning in school, or even what the priests said at Mass. My dad did not think of himself as a fountain of wisdom, and he doubted whether kids ever did what their parents advised anyway. Still, he hoped maybe this would be an exception. If he could get this message across now, maybe it would guide me for the rest of my life. "Whatever you want, Tim," he answered.

"But really make sure that it is something you enjoy. You may be doing it for a long time." That was it, the whole lecture. His timing was perfect. At that moment, I was listening. I had thought I should grow up to be someone important, or famous. Now I could just pick something I liked. What a relief.

Its another August, nine years later, and I am about to start my senior year at a prep school I loathe, but my mother loves. I'm looking around for a sledge hammer big enough to knock down every pillar of this worthless, hypocritical society. My parents meet with the headmaster who plans to further mold my mind in preparation for success in the Ivy League. This school year is going to be a nine month disaster. My dad is the only one who sees the writing on the wall. He tells me in private, "You don't have to go. You can choose a different school."

I am stunned by his offer. Everyone else seemed convinced that graduating from this school is essential to becoming successful in life. Still, I can't turn my back on the impending fight. I've got a chip on my shoulder and I want the headmaster to try to knock it off. I go back. I have the worst year of my life. I almost get expelled. But through it all I keep inside me the knowledge that my dad gave me the choice. I have this feeling that he is on my side.

My dad's office was in our house in Minneapolis. For twenty five years he was a regional salesperson for Corning Glass Works. He won awards for his sales every year. I was proud of the many framed certificates he had mounted on the wall, one for each year, signed by the president of the company. It wasn't until recently that I wondered why he had never once been promoted. Were the awards all a sham?

I asked my mother. She said, "No, he was offered promotions may times, but he always turned them down. He didn't want to uproot us all and make us move to Chicago. And he didn't want the stress of more responsibility. He liked working from home. He liked being around you kids." Sometimes when you get a gift, you know the giver expects something in return. If I didn't send a Christmas present thank you card to my grandmother by mid January, I was in big trouble. But my dad based his whole career on the being able to be around his children, and I never knew. I guess he wasn't looking to be acknowledged by us. He was just doing what he enjoyed.

And now in my life I balance my career with the time I spend raising my daughter. I lecture about new possibilities for men in their role as father. Suddenly, after this talk with my mom, I realise that I am making the same kinds of choices my dad made years ago. I'm just talking about it more. And I thought I was so original.

The Dad I want to Be

"Wake up, you're the DaddyMan now!" It was my wife's voice on the morning after our daughter's birth. And with these words began the first day of the rest of my life. I was very excited, and already completely exhausted.

Like many men these days, I wanted to be a different kind of dad than the model of my father's generation. I didn't want to be just the breadwinner. I wanted to be a "hands on" dad, and be closer to my child than my dad knew how to be with me.

But how would I fare in this realm so long designated to women? Can dads bond with babies without the benefit of breasts? Would I try, but soon feel woefully inadequate compared to mom. Would I retreat to other things I knew I could do well, ike paid work? Would there be any support for me? Or would I be the only man at every play group?

And what of all the other things I'd spent my youth dreaming I might like to do with my life? As a boy I had been very encouraged to strive for ambitious career goals. No one ever said I would command great respect by just earning a passable income and spending a lot of time fathering. So my head was packed with a very full slate: getting a doctorate, creating a counseling practice full of workshops and topical support groups, building a house, writing a book, recording a album, etc. I always figured I'd slip having a child in there somewhere. But I never thought about exactly where.

Then suddenly, with my daughter Molly's birth, there was no time for anything but parenting. So the onset of fatherhood meant, for me, the need to grieve all the things I could no longer find time for. I had to unpack my head of dreams and goals that kept pulling me away from time on the floor, playing with Molly. Lying with her at nap time, impatiently waiting for sleep to take her, I would sigh, a tear rolling down into my ear. My break was almost here, but all I would really have time for is the dishes and the floor. Doing this grieving has been my biggest challenge as a father

And what is the payoff? Fatherhood has taught me many things. Some of them are answers to my early questions, such as: men are natural nurturers of children, the father-child relationship can be as rich and deep as any human pairing, no other work is more important than giving loving attention to a child. But the main thing fatherhood is teaching me is who my daughter is. "Who are you today, Molly?" There is no question that intrigues me more. In it lies all the complexity and nuance of human intelligence and personality. And Molly's unfolding is my unique privilege to witness. Her answer changes every day. And unless I'm there, I'll never know.

© 2008 Tim Hartnett 

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