Menstuff® has compiled information and books
on the issue of Fathering. This section is an
archive Tim Hartnett 's weekly column featured
daily on our homepage. Tim Hartnett, MFT is father
to Molly at their home in Santa Cruz, CA. Tim also
works part time as a writer, psychotherapist and
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Almost Killed by a
Asleep in My
The Best Father You Can
The Biggest Stress
In Today's Families
A communal version of
"Dad, I'm bored."
teachings at Christmas
Is it a boy or a
Learning To Parent
"Little House on the
On Dad's and
Our Family Beds
Peanut is Gone!
This Story Has An
The Toll of the
I dont visit my parents for Christmas
anymore. They live in northern Wisconsin, and
its just too cold there this time of year.
But I think of them every Christmas. And I remember
all the Christmas Days I spent with my family as a
In my early years Christmas was full of fun and
magic. My parents could WOW me every year with a
battery-powered car, a three speed bike, a pair of
skis or such. As I grew older I still cherished the
excitement of Christmas, even though my expanding
appetite for expensive gifts grew too large to be
satisfied on my fathers salary. When there
was nothing left under the tree but a white sheet
sprinkled with pine needles I remember secretly
thinking, Is that all?
But in the last few years that I lived at home I
struggled even more with the Christmas spirit. I
wanted to believe in the joy of giving, but the
rampant greed and hypocrisy of the adult world I
was entering was hard to reconcile. I had learned
too much to believe in magic. I was bitter,
disillusioned and only seventeen years old.
Nothing my parents could buy for me could even
touch my pain. I wanted a world where war was not
an option, where the earth was not being raped, and
where purported Christians did not hoard great
wealth five blocks away from neighbors who lived in
poverty. How could we all celebrate Jesus
birth so religiously when no one seemed to actually
believe in his teachings any more than they
believed in Santa Claus.
I felt betrayed. I had been taught that I could
help make the world a better place. The American
values of liberty, justice and equality would
supposedly support me. Instead, I was being handed
a world that seemed hopelessly screwed up. Further,
my parents and teachers did not appreciate my
criticism. It was my negative attitude, they said,
that was the problem.
Underneath it all, I was terribly lonely. I
didnt know it at the time. And no one else
Then one Christmas my Uncle Henry came to visit.
Uncle Henry is my mothers brother. He taught
history at a college in New York. He had a
reputation as kind of an absent-minded
professor. I had heard many jokes about his
numerous embarrassing social faux pas. But it
had been about six years since I had actually seen
On Christmas Eve he followed me when I left the
dinner table after scarfing down my food. The rest
of the adults were drinking wine and happily
discussing matters that seemed to be important to
them. I plopped down on the couch in the TV room
and Uncle Henry sat down beside me. It was kind of
strange having an adult follow me. I hesitated to
turn on the TV, so I could figure out what he
He began to ask me questions. Big questions.
What I thought about the world, my future, my
friends, the meaning of life. He seemed excited by
every answer I gave, no matter how inarticulate. I
was anticipating a lecture from him in response to
some of the more controversial points I made, but
none came. My plans to become a hippy on Vancouver
Island sounded intriguing to him. I told him my
view that no one should have more than ten times
the wealth of the poorest person on earth. He
thought the idea was worth seriously considering.
As the conversation progressed I began to trust
that his agenda was just to get to know his nephew,
nothing more. We talked all evening. The attention
he gave me was intoxicating. I felt important. My
ideas were legitimate. My feelings made sense.
The next day was Christmas. Uncle Henry suffered
the embarrassment of receiving a present from each
of us when he had not been able to do any shopping
himself. He was grading papers, he feebly
explained, right up to the time his plane left New
York. In his defense, I announced that he had given
me his present last night. All eyes turned to me,
expecting me to describe the alleged gift, if in
fact it did exist. I just winked at Uncle Henry. He
smiled back at me. No one knew what to say. So
finally someone grabbed another gift from under the
tree. And Christmas continued.
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
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
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
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
teachings at Christmas
Why Christmas? To explain why the birth of a baby
2000 years ago could generate all this hullabaloo,
I have had to begin teaching my daughter some
religion. I've never had the chance to teach
spirituality as I see it to someone. Its been hard
enough getting anyone to listen to my personal
views on the subject, let alone have my listener
believe everything I say as the truth of the
universe. The power to shape someone's budding
belief system so directly both excites and scares
me. Who am I to tell another person what the nature
of God is? On the other hand aren't my beliefs
about life's unanswered questions as good a place
for my daughter to start as any one else's
In researching how to talk about Jesus to a
child I found that even among my close friends
there is much dissension about what the man stood
for. Some believe in him as God incarnate. Some
think he was manic depressive and possibly
schizophrenic, suffering from poor reality testing
and major delusions of grandeur. Some view him as a
champion of integrity who exposed the violence of
the state. Some say he is a symbol of Love. Some
say he died to save our souls. Each has their own
twist on what Jesus was really all about.
I decided to tell my daughter what I believe,
and let her know that others might disagree. I
decided not to turn this task over to a church, as
my parents had done. In Saturday catechism class
strange nuns taught me things I later found out not
even my parents, who sent me there, believed. If
faith of any kind is to stick, I now think, it must
be taught by someone close to you. It should not be
farmed out to "experts". I think some parents hold
back teaching children about spirituality because
they do not feel confident in their own beliefs
enough to teach them. Many religions hold that a
particular theology is the ultimate truth. And
those influenced by such religions may feel that
until their faith is in line with church doctrine
they are in no position to be teaching others.
On the contrary, I believe that doubts about
religion are themselves important spiritual
beliefs. When we honor ourselves enough to admit to
what we truly believe (and don't believe) we can
begin to articulate our own particular brand of
faith to our children. It doesn't matter if there
is a church out there that agrees with us enough to
sanction our personal spirituality as a bonafide
And if our children are to survive in this
multicultural world, the faith we teach them must
be humble enough to recognize that there are
manylegitimate realities separate from our own. My
own brand of spirituality may sound to some so
political that it hardly smacks of spirituality at
all.Still, it is what moves my heart and soul.
"Jesus," I told Molly, "was a teacher. We
celebrate his birth because he taught things that
were so very important. He taught things we still
are trying to learn. He taught that we are all
lovable, that no one deserves to be harshly judged
or mistreated. He taught that we must all strive to
love our neighbors, all of our neighbors. He taught
us to give, and trust thatthe goodwill and
community we create by giving will give us more in
return than hoarding wealth." She asked if she
could play with her rat now. I was going way over
her head. I tried again.
"Did you know, Molly, that there are some people
who are very very rich and many people who are very
very poor?" She nodded yes. "Jesus, taught that
this is not okay. He said that people should not
keep trying to get more and more money and just let
other people go homeless and hungry. Do you agree?"
"Yes" she dutifully, but earnestly replied. "Well a
lot of people still don't understand that yet. But
every Christmas I pray that more people will learn,
and one day no one will be rich and no one will be
poor, and we will all share the world the way you
and your friends sometimes share your toys with
each other." "That's how it should be," she said,
proud of the fact that she already knew that
sharing is a good thing. I sat back and wondered
how the seed I had just planted might grow. In a
world that so often seems blind to the most basic
principles of justice and cooperation, I was
grateful that someone heard me, and seemed to
Even if she is just four years old.
The Biggest Stress
In Today's Families
As a parent I try to advocate for the well being of
my fellow parents and our children. This newspaper
is dedicated to that mission as well. Articles
appear that help us to cope with the stresses in
our lives. We get tips on being better parents, and
we are able to connect to various community
resources which can enrich our lives.
My personal mission in this column has been to
model fathering as a priority in men's lives. I
have attempted to address cultural issues men and
women face in relation to parenting. And I have
tried to help both mothers and fathers reflect upon
the poignancy of their role, to strengthen the
sense of meaning we derive from our daily
care-giving. Many times, however, the problems
parents experience are much greater than can be
truly addressed by any advice even the best parent
educator can offer. How do you give battling
siblings the individual attention they each need
when you come home from work exhausted and have
only enough time to make dinner, clean up, and get
them to bed? On the weekends, how do you take care
of everything you need to do AND give the kids
quality time AND have some time to yourself AND get
some intimate time together with your partner? How
do you buy a house with enough space AND save for
your retirement AND save for college tuitions AND
not stay up late worrying about money?
Our economic system is hugely unjust, and it is
time to recognize that 80% of our families, not
just the poor, are suffering. Consider the
following statistics. The top one percent of our
population owns 40% of the nation's wealth. That's
up from 20% twenty years ago. The top ten percent
own 70% of the wealth. That leaves 30 % for the
other 90% of us. 45% of US households have less
than three months of financial reserves. 50% of US
households have seen their real income (adjusted
for inflation) stagnate or decline since 1980.
Meanwhile, the incomes of the top one percent (over
330 K/year) have doubled. In the papers we read of
economic boom times, but this boom is almost all
going to the wealthy.
The consequences of these gross inequities are
far reaching. They extend into our family life on a
daily basis. In many families parents who would
love to spend more time at home both have to work
full time. When only one parent has a job, it often
demands such long hours that the working parent
barely sees the kids, and the care-giving parent
never gets a break. Families who need help caring
for their children can't afford to pay child care
workers decent wages. Many good child care workers,
consequently, can't afford to stay in the
At the same time that we try to provide for a
family we must also be saving for retirement. Few
trust that as elderly people we will not live in
poverty if we haven't saved a large sum of money.
Thus we must make choices daily to invest in our
own future security instead of provide for our
children the way we would like to.
When my daughter wants to be a teacher, or an
artist, or gardener, do I tell her to follow her
bliss? Or do I say, "Well you know, if you ever
want to own your own house you had better pick your
career on the basis of how much money you can make,
not what you like to do, or who you would like to
People often experience these economic stresses
their personal failure. They think there is
something wrong with them for not having anything
to invest in this really cool stock market. Or they
feel like a loser because they still rent, or
because their house payment takes half their
paycheck. The reality is that hard work at a
worthwhile task that benefits the community no
longer guarantees anyone a decent living for their
family. The only ways to really make money are to
have a lot of it to begin with or to pursue wealth
for it's own sake, without being hindered by other
values. Something is very wrong with this
What can we do to make it better? We can stop
blaming ourselves and start changing the injustices
of our system. Campaign finance reform is a good
start. For five dollars a person we could publicly
finance all campaigns and end our current system of
legal bribery. Then we could return to having the
wealthy pay their share of our taxes. Instead of a
flat tax or a national sales tax (proposals which
shift the tax burden even further onto the
shoulders of working families), we could ask those
with incomes over 200 thousand to use their profits
to strengthen the social security system (without
How would it affect your family if you could
focus more on raising your children and less on
wondering if you will ever be able to retire? That
would be a good start.
When my daughter, Molly, began her first in a
series of letters to Santa, I thought of a few
things I could use as well. I wrote: "Dear Santa, I
know I am a parent, not a kid, but I have been
good, and since you are coming to our house for
Molly anyway, perhaps you could drop off the
following for me:
- a house cleaner (Right away please. I don't
think we can make it until Christmas).
- a new family car that can never get in an
accident (Yippee! No more seat belts!).
- a refinanced mortgage at a super, super,
super low rate.
- enough money for college tuition and my
retirement (just stuff it under my
Remember Santa, I'm counting on you. And thanks.
Love, the Daddyman."
I felt a little bad, asking for such blatantly
materialistic things, but I figured that's Santa's
bag. He gives stuff you can buy at a toy store. Why
not ask him to stop at the bank as well?
Then I remembered what my mom used to tell me,
"Its not what you own, it's who you are." That
would have been comforting advice if I had known
that who I was would be considered good enough.
Unfortunately, my mother was very ambitious for me.
There was always a lot of work to do before who I
was would be good enough. This ambitiousness has
been a monkey on my back throughout my years as a
parent. I haven't had much luck pursuing my various
and lofty goals while Molly insists on constantly
playing Guess Who or Freeze Tag with me.
In my second letter to Santa I sought relief
from the pressures of my unrequited ambitions.
"Dear Santa, If my first letter appeared too
greedy, please work from this list instead. I
realize that none of this can come wrapped in a
box, but if you can get down our wood stove's
smokestack, then you can do some pretty amazing
- I want to be a famous musician.
- I want everyone to like me (a lot!).
- I want to end all human suffering and bring
peace and justice to the world.
- I want to get the credit for having done so
(before I die).
I know it is a tall order. But I have faith in
you Santa. Love, the Daddyman."
If the truth were told, I have very little faith
in Santa. Even as I wrote this letter I knew he
would disappoint me. I had the feeling I often got
as a child around mid-afternoon on Christmas day. I
would keep wandering back to look under the tree,
amidst all the torn wrapping paper, to see if maybe
I had missed a package with my name on it. The joy
of getting was all over.
I would gather all my new toys in one pile and
try to enjoy how much I had, and try to stave off
the disappointment that there would be no more.
Counting my blessings is still the antidote to my
endless desire for more. If Santa does bring me
fame or fortune, I know already that he will not
bring enough. What could really make me happy is
not on either of my lists.
What really makes me happy is now done with her
list, and she wants to play Freeze Tag.
So this Christmas I won't be counting on Santa
after all. Instead, on Christmas night, the
would-be famous musician will sing Molly her
favorite lullabies. And when her breathing changes,
and I know she is asleep, the would-be world savior
will tell her that I love her one more time,
knowing only her spirit can hear me. What a
pleasure for this long-way-from-financially-secure
father. To be able to say "I love you", and mean it
all through me. To say it not to convince, or
reassure, but just because it feels so good to love
someone so much. More than I ever thought I
Asleep in My Arms
Its 11 PM and I am driving home from a party. My
daughter, Molly, is beside me, blissfully singing
along to the car stereo. I have kept her up late
because I didn't want to leave the party. Now I am
really tired and hoping she will fall asleep before
we get home. I just want to crawl into bed. I don't
want to shepherd her through brushing her teeth,
getting on her jammies, and reading her a story. I
love our usual bedtime routine, but tonight I am
just too bushed.
My chances of her falling unconscious while she
is singing look pretty slim. So when the current
song is over I advance the CD a few tracks to what
I know will be a slow song. Luckily, Molly doesn't
seem to care. I fish out a pillow from the back
seat and suggest to her that she rest her head. She
lays the pillow down against my thigh and slides
herself down horizontally, her hips twisted by the
seat belt. My right hand lights softly on her
shoulder. She sighs, and in a few more blocks she
I become aware of her in a different way now
that she is asleep. Her arm is so small. Her head
is so heavy. I can feel the weight of it through
the pillow on my thigh. I massage her neck with my
thumb. I wonder at how relaxed she is. It's been
thirty years since my neck and shoulders were that
Here is this person next to me. Eight years ago
she didn't exist. Her body is small, but amazingly
healthy. If I twist my back, I'm down for two
weeks. If she sprains her ankle, she can play
soccer again the next day. What a vibrant package
of life! Her mother and I have fed and clothed her,
but it is some life force within her that propels
her body to grow. It is a mystery beyond me. Yet,
as her father, I have the honor of watching this
I park. I lift her out of the car, carefully
navigating past the steering wheel and the car door
that won't stay open like it should. She is much
heavier than she used to be. Her body spreads out
too far for two arms to easily support. Still
asleep, she senses this and wraps an arm around my
neck as I climb the stairs to the house. "I love
you, Daddy," she whispers dreamily. "I love you
too," I whisper back.
Inside the house, I lay her down in her bed. I
pull up the covers and kiss her on the forehead.
Now I am done. Now I can go to sleep. So why do I
pause before I close her bedroom door. And wish she
was awake, so we could read a story together.
My dad turned seventy a few years back. The
planning of his party brought up all the old
resentments of we, his five children, competing for
his favor. It was like opening the door to our
attic storage closet. Old tennis racquets, down
coats, boogie boards, and boxes of photos all spill
out onto the floor.
My oldest, and most important sister, Christy,
took charge and planned the event. The next
youngest and oft forgotten sister, Sarah, was
furious about not being included. My third sister,
Elaine, fought back, slyly convincing my mother to
change Christy's plans. Christy screamed of
betrayal, stabbed in the back once more by her
younger siblings. Sarah and Elaine complained
bitterly of Christy's arrogance. My brother and I
only found out about the party a week before, too
late to make plans to attend.
When the dust had settled my Mother made one
request. "The only thing I want for my seventieth
birthday," she said, "is for my children to be able
to get along." I wondered what it takes to raise a
such a family. Was there something missing in our
upbringing that accounts for why we still bicker
with each other in our forties?
The whole brouhaha came back to me when I got an
email from Sarah addressed to each member of the
family, asking everyone to respond to a number of
questions about how we might together plan my
parents 50th wedding anniversary. Each was to have
an equal say before any decisions were made. It
seemed like such a rational way to gather
information and include everyone in the decision
making process. I've been organizing groups of
people in both my personal and professional life
with this type of democratic-cooperative style for
many years. Still, I had never considered using
such a process in my family. I don't know why.
Perhaps I gave up long ago. Christy was eight
years older than me. Her myriad concerns about her
boyfriends and her dawning political awareness
would almost always dominate the dinner
conversation. "Joe Fuller's Dad wants Joe to get
drafted. Can you believe that?!" I had no hope of
debating a topic with her. She courted my parent's
approval, but had only a passing interest in the
rest of us. We were too easy a match. I learned not
to try to compete. Sometimes I thought of something
funny I could say if I could find a pause to say it
in. Mostly, I just listened. No one listened to me
until bedtime, when I had a few moments alone with
Without conscious structure, our family had a
distinctly Darwinian feel. The loudest and pushiest
got all the attention. In this setting Christy
never learned that the rest of us had ideas just as
interesting as hers. She wondered why we didn't
just speak up if we had something to say. She never
intended to prevent any of us from getting our
chance to shine. So she never understood why we
My parents didn't seem to know that they could
have structured things differently. There is a
simple rule that would have changed everything. If
there are seven people at dinner, then each of us
should take only one seventh of the group's
attention. If my parents had structured the way we
shared attention, then the quieter among us would
not have to compete with the loudest. We might have
found out that Sarah had been using drugs most of
high school. We might have found out that my
brother needed help with his homework before he
almost flunked sixth grade.
Christy garnered much more of my parents'
attention than the rest of us. But it didn't made
her any happier. The resentment she felt from her
brothers and sisters only made her more desperate
for parental approval. The more she struggled to
get it, the more resentful the rest of us got. No
one wins when children are having to compete for
It doesn't matter whether each child has the
charisma to capture the family spotlight. We each
have an equal need to be heard and seen. One child
might be choosing what college to attend. Another
may be waiting to hear if she got a part in the
class play. The youngest may be just figuring out
how to make a three word sentence. A good look
around the dinner table reveals that each have a
genius with which they make their way through
Is it a boy or a
When my child was born the midwife and I caught the
baby and wrapped it up in a blanket. I held the
bundle to it's mother's breast. None of us had
noticed if it was a boy or a girl. We wanted to
look, but we decided to give this child a few hours
of life without any gender conditioning. And give
ourselves time to fall in love with this person
before we knew how to picture it's future. My
wife's sister was outraged when we told her over
the phone that the baby was born but that we
couldn't answer her question, "Well... what is
it?!" Most people will not directly interact with a
child until they know it's gender. If not
identified with the telltale pink or blue, an
admirer will ask an infant's parents if it is a boy
or a girl.
The answer to this one question allows them to
begin speaking to the child. Now they know what
tone of voice to use and what compliments would be
appropriate. Gender conditioning begins at birth.
It is important for all of us to try to counter
this conditioning. It is hurtful to both girls and
boys to be boxed into roles that limit the full
expression of their humanity. Sexism is not just
men telling women to stay in their role. It is all
of us telling each other how we are allowed to feel
and behave, based on our gender. Children base
their identity on what we tell them we observe in
them. Consciously or unconsciously we all
predominantly reflect boy-like qualities to boys
and girl-like qualities to girls. We generally
ignore behaviors that do not match the child's
gender. Then we wonder why our children are already
firmly identified with their gender role by age
Many parents try to avoid gender steriotyping
their children. They let the children pick their
own clothes and toys. Then, when their three year
old throws his body at full speed into the back of
my knees, they explain within earshot of the child,
"He's such a boy!" Parents unable to explain why
their own efforts have not blocked the tide of
sexism from washing over their child give up the
fight and stand back in awe of the power of
biology. As they watch their kids line up more and
more with our society's gender roles they usually
feel pretty powerless to do anything about it. Its
not that biology doesn't play it's part. I'm sure
our children's hormones have their effect. We have
no way of determining, however, how much of the
gender differences we notice in children are due to
Nature and how much to nurture. So let us just
agree that both forces are important. If we seek to
protect our children from being gender steriotyped,
it is the cultural forces we must continually try
to counter, even when it seems hopeless.
My daughter (it was a girl) wears only pink
tights and lacy dresses. She could care less about
a bat and a ball. What she has learned from her
culture and peers, despite her parent's best
intentions, makes me cringe in embarrasment over my
inability to influence her. On the other hand, she
also throws herself into my knees at full speed.
(Is that because she's a girl? Maybe its something
about my knees.) And the most rambunctious child at
her school is a girl, not a boy.
Instead of making comments that reinforce
steriotypes whenever you see children comply with
them, try looking for the exceptions and commenting
on them. Notice when boys are focused,
compassionate or communicative. Notice when girls
are physical, strong, or outspoken. Let your
children know that these qualities come at no
surprise to you, in either gender. Several hundred
people have told Molly that she is pretty. No
wonder she only wears dresses. I can't change that.
But I can make sure when we wrestle everyday that
someone is also feeling her biceps and exclaiming
how strong she is, and how powerfully she holds
Almost Killed by a
It started at one of Molly's friend's birthday
party. Lying wrapped up in the stack of presents
was a secret gift from the grandmother. Before the
parents could do anything about it BARBIE had
emerged. Molly's eyes were wide as she struggled to
get a turn holding this new doll and changing her
clothes. I felt a sense of impending
On the ride home from the party Molly popped the
question. "Can I get a BARBIE for my birthday?" I
tried to explain: "Well you see Molly, BARBIE's
body is not shaped like regular people's bodies.
It's shaped like how some people think women are
supposed to look. And if people grow up thinking
they are supposed to look like BARBIE they won't
feel proud of the way they do look." Molly didn't
nod. I could tell she didn't have the slightest
idea what I was talking about.
As her birthday approached she repeated her
question with increasing frequency. None of my
responses had any effect. Finally, my wife Sue and
I decided that we can't protect her from
everything, and off we went in search of BARBIE. As
we entered Toys R Us I was immediately overwhelmed
at the size. Sue began studying the store
directory. My brain sort of fogged over. There was
a swing set display in front of me. Was I supposed
to buy the $199 one with the five foot slide or the
really spiffy one with the 7.5 foot slide for $499.
"How good a dad am I?" I started to
Sue tugged on my arm, which felt limp. BARBIE
was not hard to find. More than half the doll
section at Toys R Us is her exclusive showcase. I
walked down several aisles of BARBIE wearing this
and BARBIE wearing that. I thought of how much
Molly might spend on clothes as a teenager. My ears
started to buzz and I felt a little dizzy. "Sue," I
said, "maybe there is a dress up doll that is not
BARBIE." We looked at the alternatives. There was
one row of dolls that all looked like prostitutes.
Little girls were supposed to dress these dolls up.
Why was I fantasizing about undressing them? Then
there were the Disney dolls. A chance to be the
pawn of both the movie and retail industries at the
I staggered back to BARBIE, a headache building
rapidly. "It's not just her body and her clothes,"
I said to Sue, "It's her whole lifestyle. BARBIE's
favorite pastime is shopping. And flirting with
ultraviolet overexposed bodybuilders who must work
double shifts to afford their sports cars. Does
BARBIE ever question authority? Does BARBIE think
for herself? Will BARBIE help Molly think for
I could feel my pulse pounding in my head and my
stomach ache was so tight I was leaning forward.
Sue said I looked very pale. She brought me
SKIPPER. SKIPPER is better than BARBIE she said
because SKIPPER has flat feet and won't develop low
back pain from always wearing high heels. Also,
SKIPPER is more politically correct because she is
black. "Great," I thought, "Soon every girl in the
world will be playing with the same set of dolls
and learning the same set of values, defined by our
captains of industry."
That's all I remember. Sue said my eyes rolled
back and my legs just gave out. Luckily she was
standing right there and caught me. She carried me
out to the car. When I came to I was lying in the
grass at a nearby park. At first I just heard the
wind in the trees above me. Then I felt Sue holding
my hand and placing a wet cloth on my forehead.
"It's okay," she was saying, "we don't have to buy
a BARBIE." I repeated her words slowly to myself,
"We don't have to buy a BARBIE." Sue said she had
bought some clay and we could make our own dolls.
"But I don't know how to make a doll, I whined.
"We'll learn," she said. "We'll all learn
I took my annual pilgrimage to visit my folks in
Minnesota this summer. My father is eighty,
and we are not sure how long he has to live.
To the collective horror of his wife and children
he repeatedly expresses his hope that his next
stroke will be the big one. He would much
rather get life over with than become an
invalid. The rest of us prefer not to face
such options for the time being. To be
supportive, though, we listen to him for as long as
One afternoon I took a break from cleaning up
his garage with him and walked around the old
neighborhood. Memories of my childhood lay in
the rolling contours of the grassy lawns, the
familiar rustling of elm leaves in the wind, and
the old houses full now of new families.
Years ago, I would run inside these homes without
knocking and ask if Tomy, or Jeff, or Char, or
could come out and play. Now I keep to the
sidewalk so as not to arouse suspicion or appear to
A sunny hillside, though, recognised me from
thirty years ago. It invited me to sit for a
while and I was happy to oblige. I leaned
back on the grass, my hands cradling the back of my
head, my elbows spreading out. The same
clouds I used to watch floated across the sky once
more, making the blue of the sky beyond them look
so deep in contrast.
It was on this same spot that I had once sat
thinking about my life, with just thirteen years
under my belt. I remember having heard my dad
call me in for dinner, and I fully intended to go,
but I wanted to figure something out first.
One thought had then led to another without any
resolution. Suddenly I was surprised to find that
my father was sitting beside me. He had found
me lost in thought and suspected that something
might be more important than dinner right then.
I remember taking my eyes off the clouds and
looking up at him.
Dad, what should I be when I grow
I think we were both surprised by the
question. Even at thirteen I had already made
it clear that my parents were not the authority on
my life. I was my own man. So why was I
suddenly so vulnerably seeking advice? I must
have felt very confused.
But what a golden opportunity for my dad!
It is rare that teenagers will even listen to their
fathers advice, let alone ask for it.
All the wisdom of his years in the workforce could
now be applied to help his son not repeat his
mistakes. Any unfulfilled dreams of his could
now find a channel into this extension of his
self. Law school or Medical
school, for example, might have been choicely
placed words that could have guided me into a
He paused to gather himself and execute this
moment to the greatest advantage. Then
finally he said, I dont know,
Tim. And then after some thought he
added, But whatever you do, let it be
something you really enjoy.
We stood up and walked back home. I still
had no idea what career to plan for, but somehow
that didnt matter so much any more. I
was free of whatever invisible weight had been
pressing on me. Life was going to be
Thirty years later I was now sitting on the site
of this profound advice. Grateful to the man who
gave it, for all the joy it has brought me, and for
sparing me all the pain that some other answer
might have inflicted. Thanks dad.
Learning To Parent
Before I became a parent, I did not know how to
parent. I had the modeling of my own parents. A
mixed blessing. I also had many theories from my
training as a psychotherapist. Some have held
water. Others leaked badly. I read books about
parenting. But the books did not agree with each
Luckily, just as I became a father, an expert on
raising children moved into our house. She calls me
Daddy. Everything I thought might be true about
parenting has since had to be tested by this little
child development specialist. Only direct
experience with her has converted theory into
The accumulation of experience, however, has an
essential component: mistakes. I have made many of
them. Countless times I have watched my daughter
respond the "wrong" way to what I considered to be
the "right" parenting technique. Eventually my
experience and my mistakes teach me something new.
Then I confidently apply my new expertise to other
children, and what happens? More mistakes. It seems
I really have only learned to parent my own child.
And she keeps changing!
Knowing the importance of experience and
mistakes, let us consider the predicament of most
fathers, whose work takes them away from their
Mom or another caregiver has been with the kids
all day, making mistakes and learning from them.
Dad takes over in the evening and promptly
begins... making mistakes. Mom is watching,
listening, perhaps correcting him. Its embarrassing
as all hell!
Dads often don't get to see the experience and
mistakes that taught Mom what she knows. Many
mistakenly come to think that women are innately
more skilled at this stuff than men. In comparison
to those with more experience, fathers often feel
inadequate and vulnerable to criticism. They see
themselves bumble and they begin to relinquish care
giving to those who have developed more skills. In
so doing they forgo the direct experience with
their children that is necessary to develop their
own parenting skills.
The tragic irony is that a father's lack of
experience parenting may lead him to avoid spending
time with his children, the only cure for his lack
For fathers to stay active and involved with
their kids we have to be able to feel successful in
this role. First we must claim our inherent
potential to be excellent caregivers. We are not
doomed to failure because of our gender. Secondly,
we must value our unique connection to our
children. No matter what our foibles, there is
something about who we are that is important for
our children to know. We enrich their lives by
relating our unique perspectives. We offer an
important alternative to our children's other
caregivers, each of whom, no mater how skilled,
have their blind spots. And thirdly, we must give
ourselves permission to make mistakes, look
awkward, and thereby gather the experience that
will make us excellent parents. We do not need to
know everything from the start. Experience is there
to teach us if we are patient enough to gather it
before we judge ourselves compared to those with
more of it. When we give ourselves the space to
make mistakes with our children, we can feel the
personal victories of figuring out creative
solutions by ourselves.
Some folks say that there are a bunch of souls
hanging out somewhere in the great void getting
ready to choose their next set of parents and get
themselves born. I don't know what to think about
that. But I am struck by the leap of faith babies
are taking when they enter this world. As our
daughter looked up at her mother and me on that
very first day, she was the picture of peacefulness
and serenity. She had only just learned how to
breathe. The rest of her repertoire included only
crying and sucking. She was completely dependent
upon us. And she trusted us implicitly. She didn't
know what she would need, but she seemed sure that
we would take care of it, whatever it was.
At times I wondered about the wisdom of her
blind faith. How was she so sure I would be a good
parent? I was far from convinced of that myself.
Didn't she know how easily I would get distracted
from parenting by my various other pursuits? Didn't
she know I had my weak points? Didn't she know that
I had never done this before?
Still she trusted me with all her might. She
trusted that I would keep her warm and dry and fed.
She trusted that I would keep her safe from all the
harms of the world. Did she know that this world is
full of harms from which I myself do not always
Now that she is four, she trusts me to think
well of her. When she wakes me up by knee-dropping
onto my mid-back she trusts that I will not shame
her as if she meant to do me harm. She hopes
instead that I will patiently teach her about my
body's vulnerabilities and show her safe ways to
use her power.
And when she is older and she comes home from
school and sits around and whines, "I'm bored!" she
trusts that I will hear that she needs some help
initiating some activity interesting to her. She
has faith that I will not blame her for her
troubles in order to avoid feeling guilty about not
being available enough to her.
And as a young teenager, when she gets all
excited about something I think is completely
ridiculous, she trusts that I will not ridicule her
interests. She wants me to see that what is
important to her friends is important to her. She
expects me to challenge my aging neural pathways
and to open my mind, with her as my teacher, on a
subject I was sure I already knew everything worth
And when as a full-fledged teenager she says to
me, "Screw you and everything you stand for!" she
trusts that I will translate her words inside my
head. She is relying on me to hear, "I need some
space now to figure out who I am without you
around. I'll be back in a little while."
As I said, I wonder why she thinks I can be
trusted with all these things. I've already messed
up many times. But in the end she will be asking me
to trust her. She will want me to trust that she
can live her own life and make her own decisions. I
imagine she'll be asking for that before I'm sure
she is ready to do it. How will I be able to let
her walk away when I know how much there is that
she will not yet be prepared for?
But then all along the way didn't she trust me
before I was ready? Didn't she have faith that I
would rise to the occasion in ways I had never done
before? And didn't I do the best I could?
Rights & Fatherhood
I plan a lot of things. And I had planned to be a
father... someday. That's not what I was planning,
however, when my wife and I conceived our daughter.
Our only plans that evening were to enjoy ourselves
as much as we liked. Later we found that Sue was
pregnant as a result of our revelry. Fortunately,
we both agreed that while the timing was not the
greatest, we were ready enough to welcome a child
into our lives.
Unfortunately, not all fathers get to choose
whether or not they are ready for parenthood. Birth
control does not always work. In cases where lovers
rule out abortion as an option, parenthood may come
unbidden and then proceed under very stressful
circumstances. Among couples who might abort, our
culture grants that it is the woman's right to
choose. I have long supported the idea that no one
should be able to tell a woman what she has to do
with her own body. But I have also wondered, do
pregnant fathers have any rights to choose?
Throughout my dating years I was terrified of
being confronted with a father's lack of choice .
What if a girlfriend of mine became pregnant and
wouldn't agree to an abortion? A friend once said I
could probably just walk away. "Just get her to
agree not to put you down as the father on the
birth certificate." While that might protect me
from the legal responsibility of eighteen years of
child support payments, it did not calm me. I did
not want to abandon a child. I could give it up to
adoption, but I could not just walk away. If I saw
it on the street it would tear out my heart to know
that it was growing up without a father, without
I feel sad to realize that our culture does not
expect an unwavering commitment to fatherhood. We
train boys to be breadwinners, but not to be
fathers. We do not teach them how to care for
children. We do not impress upon them that if they
become a father, their care giving will be their
most important life's work, and their most
enjoyable pastime. And then we expect that if they
aren't ready to parent, it's no skin off their back
to opt out.
On the contrary, I believe that it is terribly
painful to men to have their importance in the
lives of their children so undervalued. It is a
pain most men have become numb to, never knowing
what it would be like to have their love as a
father honored as something essential to children,
the way we recognize a mother's love to be.
Not having a role in decisions about pregnancy
is one of the ways that fathers are marginalized.
When fathers are not included in such a key
decision they feel unimportant. It doesn't matter
what they think. And if they do not feel important,
they are less motivated to take up all the
sacrifices that parenting demands.
On the other hand, the fact that many men have
not consistantly taken responsibility for their
parenthood is a big reason why some women feel
reticent to offer potential fathers a role in the
decision. The right to be involved in the choice
must be earned by men through their demonstration
of a stronger commitment to parenting. It's a two
Changing our culture's view of fatherhood will
take some time, as will changing the degree of
responsibility for care giving that fathers
generally assume. In the meantime, what scared me
most as single man was that I might be denied a
role in the choice of when I am to become a dad;
denied because of assumptions that I would be a
less uninvolved parent. And I feared that if I had
to father before I was ready, I might not be able
to be the kind of father my heart has always wanted
to be. I wondered if anyone knew how important that
was to me.
A communal version of
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
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
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
Talking to your kids
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
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.
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
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
I recently had this great idea about changing where
my daughter, Molly, goes to preschool. Studies have
shown that children raised in stimulating
environments score higher on IQ tests. I realize
that the age of recognizing multiple intelligences
has dawned, and that IQ tests will soon be
considered a very crude and limited measurement of
a child's gifts... but still. What harm could a few
extra points do? The emphasis at Molly's current
preschool is on facilitating free play and social
development. She has been there two years, so I
figured that a new preschool might present more
stimulation than the same old stuff at her present
school. I looked around and found a preschool that
has lots of great learning materials in it. The
kids were all very focused on their activities and
the stimulating curriculum. "Yes!" I thought, "This
will help Molly grow into a good student". I made a
plan to switch Molly to the new school for the
summer, before she starts kindergarten in the fall.
"NOOOOO WAY!" was her spirited response. Though
taken aback, I reassured myself that it was her
parent's decision, not hers, because we know a lot
more about schools and education than she does.
Still, I asked her what her objections were. The
crux of the matter lay in her friendships at her
present school. She did not want to leave her
buddies and have to meet all new kids, no matter
how stimulating I thought that might be. Then it
dawned on me that I could be replaying my past. My
mother had switched me into a "better" college
preparatory school in seventh grade. It WAS better
academically, but it was a nightmare for me
socially. The social costs were not something she
calculated. She was thinking about college.
To her delight, I excelled academically, but the
success in life she wanted for me was delayed by
the poor social skills I developed. My new school
had sadly ignored my social needs. Knowing how
painful this had been to me I was surprised to see
how close I had been to quickly subjecting my
daughter to the same unbalanced priorities. I had
not considered her social concerns in my quest for
facilitating her cognitive development. I thanked
Molly for her input, and let her know she could
stay with her friends until everyone goes to
The urge to accelerate my child's academic
development is something I see not just in myself,
but all around me. It is not that stimulating a
child's intellect is wrong. Children need close
attention to their cognitive development, or they
become bored and behavior problems can result. But
our society's headlong quest to accelerate academic
progress often comes at the neglect of other
French child psychologist Jean Piaget referred
to this phenomenon as "the American question".
Piaget's research identified the stages of normal
cognitive development in children. When he lectured
on the subject in the states, however, he was
always asked the same question. It annoyed him to
no end. The "American question" was something like
this, "Yes, yes, I understand these stages, but is
there anything we can do to help children get
through them more quickly?" Piaget was appalled at
the thought. Why would anyone want to speed
My mother wanted to speed me up so I could
succeed in the world. I studied by myself,
memorizing Latin vocabulary because it helps raise
your SAT scores. I think what I really needed was
help playing with my friends, and help learning how
to date girls. This was not part of the curriculum.
To my mother's dismay, when I graduated high
school, I refused to go to college. Instead, I
hitchhiked off to the East coast to live on a
commune and try to learn about people. So much for
succeeding in the world!
"Little House on the
"What did you do in school today?' I ask my
"Nothin'," she replies.
"Well, what did you do over at your friend's
house after school?" I ask, thinking she might be
able to remember that, since she just got home five
"Nothin'," she replies.
I am trying to connect with my daughter, but she
has no interest in talking about herself. My
attempts to converse being dead in the water I try
"Wanna go read about Laura?'
This always gets an enthusiastic response. Molly
is six. She loves hearing me read her the stories
about Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the "Little
House on the Prairie" books. I sit down and open
the book. Molly sits in my lap, her head directly
between me and the page I am supposed to read. I
lean to the side and begin.
Today Laura has been naughty. She did what she
knew she must not do. She went alone to the shore
of the dangerously deep water. Now Pa must decide
how to punish her. Should he whip her with a
I stop reading and ask Molly what she thinks.
She tells me that she thinks Pa should just tell
Laura never to do that again. I ask Molly why she
thinks Laura went to the deep water even though she
knows her Pa told her not to. Molly says Laura was
probably hot and wanted to swim and that Laura
probably thought that if she only goes in a little
bit then it won't be dangerous.
"So Laura felt like she could trust herself to
be safe, even though her parents didn't think she
was old enough for that yet?" I ask, aware that now
we are having a very meaningful conversation. And
we are talking about Molly and me as much as we are
talking about Laura and her Pa.
Is it a surprise that Molly clams up when I ask
her about herself but talks freely about Laura? I
think I do that too. Ask me how I am, I might say,
"Fine, thank you. How are you? Ask me about a movie
I saw recently and I'll tell you all about how I
loved or hated it. Talking about someone else's
story lets me talk about myself without the
stifling effect of self-consciousness.
Later that night I lay in bed wondering what
Molly might write in her memoirs of her childhood.
Her version of "Little House on the Prairie" might
be titled, "Medium sized House on the Central
Coast". The vast wilderness surrounding Laura
Ingalls is now the incessant onslaught of suburban
development. The dangers of wolves, panthers and
bears are replaced now by the fears of drug abuse,
human violence, and automobile collisions. The
pressures of securing a warm cabin and food for the
winter are now lived as stress over the checkbook
and how to find a way to pay off the credit
On Christmas morning Laura Ingalls found great
joy in Santa's gifts of a doll, a comb, and a candy
cane. In the "Medium-sized House on the Central
Coast" Molly will be expecting considerably more in
Xmas bounty. But though times have changed, some
things remain the same: The thrill of leaving
cookies for Santa. The soft purring of your cat in
your lap. The adventure of walking alone in the
woods as if you were an Indian. The love of friends
you wish could spend the night with you. The joy of
someone opening your present to them. Molly knows
these innocent pleasures in life, just as Laura
Ingalls knew them, just as I know them.
Yes, I know a lot more about the world now than
just it's innocent pleasures. But nothing that
really pleases me is anything more than innocent. I
need to be loved. I need to be free to find my own
way in life. And I need to see the shining in my
daughter's eyes that tells me I have done something
today that has helped her to be happy.
The Toll of the
Some fathers are easy to love. They spend a lot of
time with their children, nurturing and guiding
them. They know how to accept their children's
emotions. They can trust that given the support
needed, their children will grow into healthy,
responsible adults. They seize the years their
children are small, knowing that the psychological
foundation laid in these early years will carry
their children through life. And they play with
their kids, while their kids still want to play
But sometimes fathers aren't easy to love. They
may spend long hours at work to the neglect of
their children and/or their marriage. When they
return home they may be exhausted or grumpy. They
may stifle their children's expressions and be
harsh in their discipline. They may never have
learned how to foster trust and safety in their
relationships with anyone. They can be stressed and
lonely and burdened, feeling like they are the "bad
guy" within their own home.
With Father's Day coming this month, one of the
best gifts we can offer is understanding. How is it
that men can be, at times, so out of touch with the
loving, nurturing parts of themselves?
Perhaps it has to do with the facts that for
endless generations men have been raised to fill
the role of the breadwinner. We train boys to
compete fiercely with one another. We shame them
into completely stifling their feelings. Their
resulting ability to compete aggressively without
worrying about how you or anyone else feels can be
valuable skills for climbing the ladder of success
in our economy. But such training leaves men's
A man who competes successfully in the world can
look like a good catch to a woman hoping for
financial security. (To some, men are "success
objects" in the same way women are sometimes viewed
as "sex objects".) But when a woman finds out the
cost, that her man's armoring off his own feelings
has blocked his ability to empathize with others,
she may blame him for his ineptitude in
relationships. He ends up in double jeopardy.
Having had his feelings shamed out of his awareness
in order to become a man, he is now shamed by his
wife for being emotionally retarded, or for
absenting himself from the emotional life of his
Feeling unskilled and unsuccessful in family
relationships, it is easy to see why many men would
gravitate toward work and away from their
For working class men the draw to work is fueled
by the need to earn enough to survive. Career is
not something you do for fulfillment, it is
something you do for the money you need to live on.
Hopefully you can earn enough that someday you can
retire and not have to work any more. Many working
class men would love to take time off with their
families, but simply can't afford to. Working class
women are in the same boat. Thus the best way to
strengthen working class families would be to
change the hugely inequitable distribution of
wealth in our society, so that both men and women
could work part-time.
For middle class men, work is a place where you
can succeed in something you have been trained to
do. Home is where you flounder at parenting,
something you have no training in, save the often
flawed modeling of your own parents. Home is where
Mom is the more experienced parent. Home is where
you feel second best in a field of two. That's last
place to anyone whose looking.
The women's movement has shown us that women are
fully capable of the intellectual and leadership
challenges once allowed only to men. If a woman
does not seem up to par we explain that sexist
attitudes have hampered women's self-esteem and the
development of their potential. In a similar way we
need to raise our consciousness that men have a
huge capacity for heartfelt compassion and
excellence in relationships. If that is not what we
see, it is not the men at fault, but the way that
we have raised them.
So what can you do for Father's Day? You can see
through the layers of armor the men you know have
had to develop to compete in this world. Let them
know you see the heart inside. Do not blame them
for not letting it show more. But see the ways in
which everything they do is in fact their attempt
to show their love and find love in return.
On Dad's and Love
I remember consoling a woman friend of mine many
years ago. She was crying about her difficulty in
establishing a career. Between her tears she said,
"My dad kept telling me that all I needed to do was
love someone really well, and I would be taken care
of." The message she got was that her job as a
woman was to focus on relationships, and that the
man she finds will do everything else (presumably
better than she could have). This kind of sexism
had left her with great doubts about her ability to
be successful on her own.
I, on the other hand, found this message very
intriguing. No one had ever suggested to me that
the most important thing I had to offer the world
was my love. I was taught that fathers are
important because they earn money, provide
discipline, teach right from wrong, protect their
families, and model manhood. Love wasn't even on
the list. It was mothers who were the experts on
In truth, a father's love is his greatest gift.
But our culture has not reflected back to us the
importance of our love. The loving part of our
natures is largely unattended to in our upbringing.
Consequently most men feel insecure about their
love. We wonder if we love enough or love well
enough. One dad I know spent most of his first
pregnancy worrying how he could possibly bond with
his baby on anywhere near the level he expected his
No one would claim that men are universally
skilled in showing their love. Rather, we have had
extensive training in how not to show our feelings.
Hence, many fathers struggle with expressing their
affection. Sometimes they lose this struggle, they
never take down their walls, and they die with
words unsaid. I often hear adults say that they
never knew if their father loved them. I can feel
both the pain of these grown-up children and the
pain of their fathers who never knew how important
their love was.
In the face of our culture's gender steriotypes
it is helpful to keep affirming what we know to be
true. I know my father loved me, though I don't
remember him ever saying it. I know my woman friend
was very competant in her field, though she
struggled to feel confident. As a parent I know
that what I reflect back to my child (about what I
see in her) becomes built into her developing image
of herself. And now I find that I have not outgrown
the need to have the undervalued aspects of my
humanity reflected back to me.
So let us honor the great love within the hearts
of fathers. And let us never mistake a man's
conditioning to avoid his feelings as an actual
lack of love. All men love deeply. How nice it
would be to wake up one morning and hear our loved
ones say, "All you have to do this morning is feel
how much you love us. And thank you so much for
loving us so well."
I am reading a youth novel with my ten year old
daughter, Molly. Alice, the teenager in the book,
gets pressured into hiding her friend, Pamela, in
her bedroom, so that Pamela's parents will think
their child has run away. Big mistake. The plot is
discovered. Alice is remorseful. Alice¹s
father is furious. He grounds her for a week. She
cannot have any friends visit and she cannot leave
"Wow," I spontaneously comment, "a week without
social contact would be really hard on a
"Yeah," Molly agrees.
"She's probably going to be really frustrated
with her dad by the end of it," I speculate. "I'd
feel miserable if I had to enforce a punishment
"Do you think you will ever punish me like
that?" Molly asks.
I reflect on her question. The answer depends on
what one means by "punishment". If punishment means
imposing harsh, extended, irremediable consequences
with the intent of making a child suffer in order
to teach them a lesson, then I can honestly say
that I have never punished Molly and I never intend
This is not to say that I have never gotten mad,
acted impulsively and scared the daylights out of
her. I have. But I have never believed, once I had
time to think about it, that the fear of punishment
is the tool I want to use to ensure my daughter's
cooperation. Psychological researchers have
concluded that fear of punishment is effective in
controlling behavior only when children believe
that they might get caught. I do not want my
daughter to fear me when I am around, and disobey
me when I am not.
A parent can err in the other direction as well.
I have often seen the unfortunate results of overly
permissive parenting. Children who are not taught
proper behavior through clear and consistent
limit-setting suffer as much as those who are
parented too strictly. A permissive parent may
intend to offer her child the freedom to express
himself. The resulting misbehavior, however, sets
the child up for conflict, disapproval, and
punishment outside the home, where cooperation,
sensitivity to others, and self-control are
necessary for social success.
How can a parent find a healthy balance between
permissiveness and strictness? As I planned this
article I tried to think of specific examples of
good parenting solutions to common behavior
problems. The uniqueness of each real life
situation, however, defies any pat solutions.
Instead, I offer the following principles. The art
of applying these principles, I leave up to
- When children are helped to understand and
agree to the principle behind a given rule, they
own the rule and follow it because it makes
sense to them.
- Children have a drive for mastery. This
includes mastering the demands of good behavior.
Believe in your children¹s potential for
success in this quest. Notice and comment on
their victories. Make sure they identify
themselves as people who can behave well.
- Provide whatever support and supervision a
child needs to successfully keep the limits you
set. Do not abandon them to fail in situations
where they have limited self-control. Rather,
watch closely, provide just enough help to
ensure that they succeed. Then let their success
experience build their confidence in themselves
as competent rule followers.
- Never try to prove to children that they
can¹t be trusted. If they sense your lack
of faith, they may give up trying to prove you
wrong. They may settle, instead, for the rewards
- Never change a limit in response to a
child's misbehavior. Rules and limits can be
changed through respectful dialogue, but never
in a way that rewards whining, sulking, or
- Do not overly protect children from the
natural consequences of their decisions. Unless
their safety is at risk, allow them to
experiment sometimes with choices you would not
advise. If it is always a struggle to get them
to take a coat with them, consider letting them
experience being cold.
- Be honest and consistent in your words and
actions. If you tell your child, "We have to go
now, don't stand and talk to another parent for
fifteen more minutes. Or if you do, recognize
that it is you who are teaching the child your
definition of "now".
- Children have a drive to please you. When
you appear to them to be a beacon of fairness,
honesty, and responsibility they will respect
your opinion of them even more. When you are a
vital source of empathy, understanding, and
compassion for them, they will crave your
So my answer for Molly is:
"No, I don¹t intend to ever turn our home
into a jail and hold you prisoner. I trust that you
will be able to understand whatever it is I need
from you in one heartfelt conversation. And I hope
to be able to do the same for you."
"Yeah," she said. "Me too."
The Report Card
The report card came in the mail today. I haven't
opened it. I haven't even told my daughter, Molly
it is here yet. I'm just taking some time to think
about this whole report card business.
Molly is thinking about it too. She is talking
with her classmates over the phone. Some are
curious. Some are upset. Some are proud, but don't
want to come right out and say so. Molly wonders
how she will feel when she sees her grades. So do
We just finished watching the Women's Olympic
Figure Skating. Skater after skater dazzled our
family with their skill and grace. All have
dedicated their lives to this pursuit. All, in my
mind, are worthy of the acknowledgment a gold medal
provides. But only one got it. The judges decided
who. And based on a single performance, and whether
or not any slight mistakes were made, careers paths
were paved or dreams were broken.
It was very fun to watch. But I knew I would not
enjoy placing my fate in the hands of a panel of
judges. They might miss the genius of my creative
choreography because of a mere difference in taste.
And I would certainly not enjoy the torture of
seeing disappointing marks flash on the scoreboard
while the world watched, voyeurs to my shame.
It reminds me of when my high school would post
the "honor role". We students would crowd around
the bulletin board to read the list of names of
honored students. Once, to my delight, I was
mentioned. It was just my name in 12 point electric
typewriter font, but it felt light blinking neon
lights on the movie house marquee. I was so proud.
We returned to this bulletin board the next time
grades were released. I had worked just as hard and
surely I was still as smart as I had been a few
months earlier, but for some strange reason they
left my name off the list this time. As good as I
once felt, I now felt bad.
When Molly told me that her report card was
coming soon, I could tell she felt a little
nervous. I wanted to protect her from the roller
coaster of emotion that comes from reducing months
of honest work into a single letter grade. So I
talked to her about the inherent flaws in this
almost universal practice.
Too often report cards are treated like the
authoritative word on whether a child is a success
or not. I told Molly that grades are one person's
view of how well you are doing in the things that
he or she thinks are important.
Often they aren't even a good measure of how
well you are doing, because some teachers grade you
not based on your achievements, but by whether you
are doing better than your classmates or not. We
agreed that this is silly, because who really cares
whether other kids are doing well or not? Their
performance doesn't change whether or not you have
worked hard and learned a lot.
"No one knows you as well as you know yourself,"
I told Molly. "Teachers don't know all the things
you are good at, because they only test you on the
things they teach. So you are the best person to
write your own report card. How about if you think
up all the subjects you have been learning about
and give yourself grades? You can include things
like horseback riding, playing soccer, and thinking
up good card game strategies."
Molly thought this was a good idea, and it
seemed to relieve some of the pressure she was
feeling in anticipation of seeing her grades. She
has not actually constructed this self-made report
card, however, and now the school's report card is
here, waiting. It could be a source of much
celebration. Or it could be a real let down.
Should we open it?
We are all dressed up for the Renaissance Fair: my
daughter Molly, her step-mother Amy, and I. It is a
day dedicated to fun and togetherness, and we are
all filled with expectation. But lo, before we are
even under way, a scuffle breaks out. Molly has
made an impassioned bid for the front passenger
seat. Amy, not sure whether this is her call, has
held her tongue and looks at me with anguished
I sigh. Whatever I say will disappoint one of my
Amy is "the second parent" in our threesome. She
gives a lot of love and care to Molly, but their
bond is not as strong as the one between Molly and
her daddy. Step-parents often feel this secondary
status. Fathers also, often feel like the second
parent compared to mothers. In families where dad
is the primary care parent, it is the mother who
may feel secondary. In lesbian couples, the
non-birth mom may feel like parent number two.
It is a hard role. Second parents often have to
parent in situations they didn't design. By the
time Dad gets home from work Mom may have already
negotiated a plan for the whole evening with the
kids. A step-mom may end up driving her step-son to
and from a school she doesn't even think is right
for the boy. A mother may long for peaceful family
dinner conversations that never happen because the
kids love to clown around with Dad. When they are
all wrestling in the living room, Mom gives up and
clears their half finished plates.
It can be tiresome to parent according to
someone else's plan. Parents are much more
motivated to give their time and energy when they
feel like their personal vision of "family" is
possible to create. Without the authority to
implement their own vision, second parents may lose
interest in parenting. They may feel like they have
a boss at work and a boss (the primary parent) at
In addition to not setting up the context in
which they parent, second parents often suffer from
a lack of appreciation for what they do provide. A
father may rush over to comfort a son who has just
skinned his knee, only to have the boy run into the
house crying for his mom. A step-mother may offer
to read her step-daughter a book she really loved
as a child, but the girl opts for re-reading old
comic books with dad. Such rejections can be
painful. And second parents usually find themselves
alone with this pain while the primary parent is
snuggling with the children.
The choice second parents often face is whether
to assert themselves as parents more strongly or
withdraw. Asserting oneself runs the risk of
creating conflict with the primary parent. Is it
possible to negotiate a mutual vision for the
family? Can the couple find enough time away from
their children to talk this through? Does the
primary parent have enough energy consider the
needs of the second parent as well as the kids?
Withdrawing from parenting avoids these
difficult questions. My own father watched TV every
evening, rather than address these issues with my
mom. But withdrawing only entrenched his status as
the second parent. It passed the time without
solving the problem. As a boy, it was when I
watched my dad, watching TV, that I vowed not to
let that happen to me.
So now I am the primary parent. And my daughter
is pleading for the chance to sit up front with me.
Amy is quiet, but I know how she feels. I imagine
her sitting in the back seat, staring out the
"I'm sorry Molly, but you have to ride in the
back seat." "Why," she whines. "Because when Amy
and I support each other we are both happier. And
when we are happier we have more energy to give to
This apparently made sense even to a nine year
old. Molly got in back. Amy sent me a smile over
the roof before she got in. We drove off. And had a
It is a far too common sight in my therapy office,
couples with thriving young children and struggling
marriages. The transition from married couple to
married couple with kids can be a real challenge.
Whereas once you had plenty of time to attend to
the relationship, now the children's needs leave
you drained and exhausted at the end of each day.
Many boats capsize while navigating these
Divorces happen for many different reasons. But
sometimes a contributing factor is that parents go
overboard attending to their children to the
neglect of each other. It is easy to do. Children
can soak up as much as we can give them. I have
never heard my daughter say, "No need for a lullaby
tonight Dad, go spend some time with Mom. You guys
need to reconnect."
For many parents, the only time they have alone
with each other is after the kids are in bed. It is
hard to come up with thoughtful appreciations or
intimate overtures when you barely have enough
energy to stagger into bed and pull up the covers.
If this is the only time partners make for each
other, their ship may be slowly sinking.
It can make a big difference if couples set
aside time for themselves when they are fresh and
have some energy to offer each other. Weekend
mornings are often the best time. As the stress of
the work week recedes and before the daily demands
of the children start stacking up, couples
sometimes find their best opportunity to shift into
a mode where they can focus on each other.
I know what you're thinking. The kids will be
pounding down the door. That's why this time
together needs to be planned in advance. Though my
daughter would prefer that I play with her, she
does understand that couples need time alone. She
is willing to cooperate if we work with her. Some
couples rent videos specifically to occupy the kids
each Sunday morning. Some work out child care
trades with neighbors where one family takes all
the kids Saturday morning and the other family
takes them on Sunday.
One family I know has dubbed Saturday morning
"Independence Morning". The kids were coached on
how to make breakfast and occupy their time by
themselves. If a sibling conflict breaks out, they
have to solve it on their own. The parents report
that once the kids found out that Mom and Dad
really would not help until Independence Morning
was over, the kids stopped having conflicts. It
made the parents wonder how many times their
children fight as a way to draw adult
Once a couple gets some uninterrupted time
together, they face the challenge of how to use
this time well. Some bad ideas are: Compare whose
life is harder; Complain that your partner doesn't
give you what you need; Expect your partner to
instantly feel like being sexual; Give up on
intimacy and plan the children's week together.
Some good ideas include: Take turns listening to
each other. The listener tries to empathize and
understand without trying to solve the problem;
Massage each other while listening to nice music;
Take turns appreciating yourself while your partner
listens and smiles; Take a walk together in a
beautiful place; Take a bath or hot tub
Whatever you do, focus on being together. Pay
attention to each other. And consciously try to say
things that build a sense of connection. Tending to
your relationship in this way is one of the best
things you can do for your children. You might even
enjoy it yourself!
My daughter, Molly, turned nine recently. "You are
halfway to being an adult!" I announced to her on
her birthday, thinking she might be proud of such a
milestone, and that it might inspire some awe in
her regarding the passing of her childhood.
She gave it some thought, for about two seconds,
then filed it under "whatever". Becoming a teenager
holds mystique for her, but adulthood is still too
far away to even capture the imagination. Becoming
an adult is not consciously one of her goals. Like
Peter Pan, she likes being a kid. Still, her
genetic destiny propels her in that direction the
same way each haircut I receive turns my head
slightly more gray. We are not consulted on life's
forward march. We are just swept along. So after
the birthday party is over and Molly is fast
asleep, I take some time by myself to bathe in this
awe. I realize that the second nine years will be
very different from the first. Never again will I
snap up her onesie, stop her from crawling too
close to the stairs, or push her around town in her
Those experiences are over. Their passing is
often marked by a odd mixture of relief and
pre-mature nostalgia. I remember dropping the last
diaper in the diaper pail with great satisfaction,
then wondering if someday I'll miss that smell.
"How absurd!" I told myself, and still I was
compelled to lift the lid and take one last
In the first nine years Molly thought I was
omnipotent. Whatever problem she had, her Daddy
could solve it. If she needed food, I fed her. If
she needed attention, I played with her. When I was
not available, I found someone who was. And if she
got hurt, I held her until it was "all better".
But now Molly's friends are playing a bigger
part in her life, and the role for Daddy is
shrinking. Her problems are about the dynamics of
cliques, being included or excluded. I can counsel
her, but I can't fix everything. And in the future
there will be problems she may not even talk to me
about. In my second nine years of parenting, I
imagine that my services as a parent will become
less all-consuming. I will still need to be
available, however, whenever needed, for problems I
will not be able to solve. I welcome the return of
the concept of "spare time". But I know I will miss
the pedestal on which I once stood, and the power I
once had to make everything right.
As I reflect upon this moment in our lives, I
realize how much I love this age. I want to stay
here, and have Molly do fourth grade over and over
again. She will obediently do her homework when I
ask, without me having to spell every word for her.
But we can still cuddle as I tell her that she's
the most wonderful daughter I could ever imagine,
and she tells me that I'm the bestest dad on
Alas, the odds that time's rolling stone can be
slowed are even less than the chance that my recent
letter to President Bush will convince him that
unbridled corporate greed is undermining democracy
at home and abroad. Or as Wayne and Garth might
say, "Yeah, and monkeys will fly out of my
The Naked Truth
In our backyard sits a hot tub. My partner Amy and
I like to soak in it. And we like it best when we
are naked. My daughter Molly often joins us. When
we are alone, she likes to be naked too. But when
her friends are visiting, we all wear bathing
suits. You can never be sure what people will think
about a family that sits around naked together.
I've never seen my parents naked. We didn't do
that in Minnesota in the 1960's. Being naked was
something people did only when bathing by
themselves or while having sex. This has had two
negative effects on me.
Firstly, I never learned what real people look
like when they are naked. The only naked people I
saw were the female models in the Playboy
magazines my friend Mike dug out of his father's
wastebasket. We would secretly huddle together in
the garage studying the subject no adult dared
teach us, "sex". These magazines were our only
Mike and I drew some very wrong conclusions from
our research. We thought women had to look a
certain way to be considered beautiful. And we were
unprepared for the bodies of lovers we would
eventually be exposed to. We learned nothing about
the beauty of a round belly or the beauty of the
wrinkles that highlight a woman's features only as
And we learned nothing of men. They were absent
from those magazines. We assumed that men were
simply to ugly to warrant photographing. If we were
to experience beauty, it seemingly had to be
through admiring a woman. Our own bodies were an
embarrassment, void of any attractiveness.
Secondly, my lack of opportunity to see naked
bodies in any other context left me equating nudity
with sex. This strong association has taken me some
time to break. I used to think about sex most of
the time that a naked body was in my presence. But
over the years of being around friends who are
comfortable being naked, I gradually formed a clear
distinction. Nudity is about our bodies without
clothes on. Sex is about touching genitals.
While the difference is clear in my own mind, I
am aware that many people in our society still have
nudity and sex tightly associated. Europeans, in
general, seem more comfortable with nudity. In
America, however, writing about nudity in a
parenting magazine is likely to draw some
impassioned letters to the editor. We feel the need
to protect children from exposure to anything
sexual, and that means nudity is definitely
The danger of hurting children through sexual
abuse is important to acknowledge. Far too many
children have been traumatized by adults
(especially men) using them for sexual
gratification. The experience can be so confusing,
shaming, and painful that it's effects can cripple
the sex lives of it's survivors. Adults who
experience sexual attraction to children,
therefore, must be very careful to avoid situations
that might generate urges that are difficult to
control. This is a good reason to avoid nude
contact with children.
It should also be acknowledged, however, that
all over town mothers and fathers are taking
showers and baths with their sons and daughters.
They laugh and splash and play. Meanwhile, the
children are also learning that their bodies are
nothing to be embarrassed about. They are learning
to be comfortable with themselves. And their
comfort with nudity will likely help them be more
comfortable with sex when they become adults.
I fear that others will misinterpret our
family's practice of being naked together. I
imagine other parents may feel the same fear. The
hammer of sexual shame can pound heavily. But when
we model pride in our bodies, confidence in our
boundaries, and open communication, we protect our
children better than we do with silence and secrecy
about perfectly normal and natural family
The Best Father You Can Be
Being a father is the most important thing in my
life. It's the biggest commitment I've ever made.
And it has presented me with both the hardest
challenges and the greatest satisfaction I
One of my passions in writing this column is to
support dads who are also trying to be the best
fathers they can be. There are some real obstacles
to men on this path. But meeting these challenges
can make fatherhood all the more rewarding.
Competing Life Goals
I always knew I wanted to be a father. I also
knew I wanted to be a musician, an author, a
carpenter, a psychotherapist, an athlete, a farmer,
a teacher, etc. etc. etc. My head has been full of
career dreams ever since I was first asked what I
wanted to be when I grew up. As I envisioned my
life I figured I would do "the father part" along
side all the other dreams. Little did I know that
being a father would put almost everything else on
the back burner.
I remember my daughter, Molly, as a toddler
calling to me from the climbing structure at the
park. It was hard for her to get my attention away
from the list of things to do I held in my hand. I
wanted so badly to be able to cross something off
that list. Once again, however, I had to fold the
paper up and stick it back in my pocket. The kids
on the hanging bridge needed a big scary troll
under them, and that was more important in the
Earning an income for the family is a crucial
goal that often competes with having time for
direct care giving. Fathers sometimes find their
income producing services are so necessary that
they get very little daily contact with their
children. This is unfortunate, since children also
need as much time with their fathers as they can
What is a greater tragedy, however, is when
fathers unnecessarily devote inordinate amounts of
time to their career, and miss their chance to be a
loving presence to their children.
A Woman's Domain
In most families mothers spend considerably more
time taking care of the children than fathers do.
The mothers set up the routines, determine limits
to behavior, and notice the children's ever
changing developmental progressions. All the while,
the mothers are trying different approaches, making
mistakes, making corrections, and developing their
own parenting style. Often they connect with other
moms and learn from each other.
When fathers get home from work they usually
feel tired and disoriented. To begin parenting they
must drop into the middle of a work in progress.
They are not aware of how the child's day has gone
so far. And their parenting skills are not
sharpened with experience.
So fathers will sometimes make mistakes. Often
their mistakes are observed and corrected by the
mothers, whose patience may be wearing thin at this
point in the day. Because of this, dads may not get
the chance to correct their own mistakes, develop
their own style, and gain pride and confidence in
themselves as a parent through this process.
Instead, they feel humiliated at their comparative
incompetence, and they back away from direct care
To correct this problem most fathers must simply
devote more time to parenting. Experience giving
direct care to your children is essential in
developing skill as a parent. The more you parent,
the better you get, and the more proud you can be
of your successes.
One of the most important parenting skills is
the ability to respond to a child's feelings. Men
are often not trained well for this. Male
socialization tends to strip men from awareness of
their emotions and thus handicap them in being able
to respond empathetically to their children's
Many of the fathers I know, however, have chosen
to counter this trend.
They have worked diligently on reclaiming their
awareness of their own feelings and their ability
to communicate well in the emotional realm.
Their pay off is not only in their increased
parenting skill, but also in better relationships
with their partners and themselves.
Committing to Fatherhood
Becoming the best father you can be is a real
challenge. You may have to rearrange your
priorities to account for the amount of time
parenting well actually takes. You may have to
balance financial goals with the goal of personally
attending to your children, especially during their
important early years.
You may also have to open yourself to parenting
classes and personal growth experiences that can
teach you the interpersonal skills your children
will need you to have. Fatherhood is a privilege we
must earn by taking our role seriously enough to
train well for it. Only those who make the
investment discover the pride of being the best
father they can be.
Two Bedtime Scenarios
Personally, I almost never want to go to bed. I'll
make some tea, check my email, read a magazine, or
do almost anything to prolong the day. My daughter,
Molly, doesn't like to go to bed either. But it is
my duty each night to bring her the bad news that
bedtime has come. She must then cease life as she
knows it, discarding all her plans and projects.
Satisfied or not with the attention, excitement,
and recognition she has already received, she must
formally give up on getting anything more out of
the day. Yes tomorrow will come, but tomorrow is a
long time from now when you are six years old.
I want Molly in bed early enough for me to hop
in the hot tub for a peaceful half hour with my
partner. Molly clearly does not want bedtime at
all. To avoid a power struggle I desperately need
her cooperation. I have gone about trying to get it
in many different ways. I will describe the two
extreme scenarios, successful and unsuccessful, as
a way to articulate the dynamics involved.
I tell Molly it is bedtime. She shouts, "No!"
The phone rings. It is my Mom, who needs to talk
about dates for her trip here before she can book
her airplane ticket. Dad wants to check in with me
too. Twenty minutes later I hang up and look at the
clock. I walk quickly into the living room where
Molly is halfway through setting up a fort with
blankets draped between the couch and two
"We really have to go to bed now," I say,
patting her on the butt in the direction of the
bathroom. "What!" she whines. "I am right in the
middle of a game!"
"Sorry." I say. "It is already past your
bedtime. I told you it was bedtime twenty minutes
ago. So you have to go now." "Why?" she protests,
figuring that if I can extend bedtime twenty
minutes with a phone call, she should be able to
extend it too. She feels she has a great reason.
Her fort is not even done, let alone stocked with
provisions (the glass jars of beans, nuts, and
raisins she was planning to bring in from the
kitchen). "Because I said so," I say, passing on my
father's parental philosophy, despite the fact that
it never worked with me. "Now go brush your teeth."
"No!" demands Molly, crossing her arms and
defiantly dropping her bottom down onto the couch.
I stand with my arm stiffly pointing to the
bathroom. My voice, stern and sharp, insisting,
"Now!" Molly trudges into the bathroom, sneering at
me as she passes. I remember I had only gotten
halfway through doing the dishes. I figure I can
wash a few more while Molly brushes her teeth. Ten
minutes later I notice Molly has not emerged from
the bathroom. I stomp in to find her making faces
in the mirror. Her toothbrush is dry. Now I am
really mad. "That's it!" I tell her. "No books
tonight. You just used up your reading time."
Molly begins crying. She is too upset to talk.
She won't let me touch her. She insists on having
Mama putting her to bed. Given that I am at the end
of my rope, I decide that is a good idea.
I ask Molly to look at the clock. She reads the
time as 8:00. "That's right," I say, "and bedtime
is when?" "8:30," she says. "Can I stay up later
"Well," I answer. "Is it a weeknight or a
weekend night?" She remembers it to be Monday and
she whines in great disappointment, "a weeknight."
"Then we have to stick to 8:30 as bedtime.
Otherwise we would both be breaking the rule," I
remind her. "But we could decide to change the
rule," she offers hopefully. "Well, you are right,
we could change the rule if we both agreed and we
talked with Mama and she agreed, but there is a
principle behind the rule that hasn't changed. Do
you remember what that is?" "No."
"Bedtime is at 8:30 so that you get enough sleep
to be fresh for school tomorrow."
"Well the good thing is you have half a hour yet
to play. Do you want to wrestle?"
We wrestle. I let Molly win after putting up a
good struggle. Then we play a guessing game where
she knows all the answers. Then I pretend to bonk
my head and get amnesia. Molly has to remind me who
I am and what I am supposed to do. At 8:30 I point
to the clock, rest my hand on her shoulder and
follow her into the bathroom. She starts to play in
front of the mirror. I suggest that she brush her
teeth and make faces at the same time. She begins
to brush, but is clearly dawdling. I remind her
that the longer we spend in the bathroom the less
time we will have to read together before the
lights go out. I remind her which American Girl
book we are in the middle of. She rinses her mouth
and races into the bedroom to get on her pajamas so
the reading can begin. After two chapters the
lights go out and Molly's day is done. I creep out
of the room and slip into the hot tub.
Several key elements of the successful scenario
worked toward gaining Molly's cooperation:
Warnings: Telling a child that bedtime is
approaching allows them to begin planning for it
internally. They can prioritize their remaining
time and feel successful about using it well. Prior
warning also spares children the indignity of
having to suddenly do as they are told, in spite of
their own plans.
Principles: Kids are more cooperative with rules
if they understand the principle behind the rule.
Children can actually come up with good rules for
themselves when you discuss the principle needing
to be addressed. We all feel better following rules
that have reasons, rather than obeying orders
because we have to.
Consistency: Once you begin making exceptions to
a rule you open the door for negotiations every
time you try to implement the rule. If the bedtime
rule is important, you had better follow it
yourself. Your children are watching you with a
keen eye to fairness and consistency.
Empowering Games: When you play with your
children, offer them the chance to feel powerful.
Kids need some balance to the powerlessness they
feel in relation to adults. They can get it through
playing games that make them look smart or strong
or in charge. Playing games that give them this
experience will help prevent them from needing to
take a stand against you on the things that really
matter to you. It is so sad to see parents trying
to outwit their children in playful banter all
evening. The children feel progressively more
powerless in competition with adult minds. Then
when bedtime comes there is only one way for the
kids to show the parents that they can be powerful
Matching Motivations: Though I want Molly to go
to bed, I can't expect her to be strongly motivated
by that alone. So to help motivate her to cooperate
with bedtime I make sure that reading, which she
loves, is the last thing we do before the lights go
out. This is not bribery. Bribery would entail
offering something she shouldn't really have (like
candy before bed), or something I would not want to
consistently give her for a task I consistently
expect her to do.
Ensure Children's Success: I follow Molly into
the bathroom because I know she is likely to need
my help to stay focused on preparing for bed. By
guiding her through the steps I make sure she is
successful. She goes to bed feeling confident that
she is able to do what is expected of her. If I get
distracted myself and then punish her for having
failed to stay focused without me, she begins to
feel that either Dad is mean or she has been bad.
If the punishment is to take away the only
motivation she has left for cooperating, I have
really shot myself in the foot. Whenever I find
myself feeling the need to punish a child I try to
reflect on what help she might need to be
successful next time.
Having said all this, I notice it is now 9 pm.
Molly is playing in the other room, unaware that
her bedtime has past. If only I could follow my own
My niece Sofie calls me up from Wisconsin when she
needs to talk. We follow a tradition known in
Holland as "the Dutch uncle". A Dutch uncle is
someone a child can talk to confidentially, without
the child's parents finding out what they talked
about. This tradition acknowledges that parents can
sometimes be a little too invested in their
children's world to be the best listeners. A Dutch
uncle offers kids an alternative person with whom
to try to sort out their troubles. I'm always
flattered when she calls, and glad to be of service
to a ten year old in need. The problem this time is
with friends. It seems that Sofie has hit the age
where politics begin to play heavily in friendship.
No longer are friends just the people she likes to
play with. Such innocence has passed. Now friends
define her status, what clique she belongs to, and
whether anyone will sit with her at lunch time.
This week, her best friend, Carla, dumped her. "I
never was your friend!" were Carla's cruel parting
words. It wasn't hard to empathize. We've all been
there at least once, haven't we? Sofie and I talked
about how the rejection probably said more about
what Carla is struggling with than it says about
Sofie's worth as a friend. That helped, but it
couldn't remove all the hurt.
When I finished talking to Sofie I started to
sort the mail. I found a letter there from Zeke, an
old high school friend who was organizing our
twenty-fifth class reunion. I cringed at the sight
of his name, for Zeke had been my best friend,
until I dumped him. We were in tenth grade. Zeke
and I had hung out all year. Neither of us had fit
into any cliques, but at least we had each other.
That spring, however, the guys on the soccer team
started deciding that maybe I was cool enough to
join them. Their group went to the donut store
every day after school. Zeke and I had watched many
times as they all laughed and piled into some
senior's car, then sped out of the parking lot. I
imagined that if I could be part of that group I
would finally be considered "cool". Who knows,
maybe then I could even get a girlfriend!
One magic day they invited me along. I called to
Zeke to join us, but he knew he wasn't wanted by
the others. And when they didn't like someone, they
always let you know. I stood on the curb waiting to
get in the car. Zeke stood at the school's front
door. His eyes reached out to me, pleading"I
thought you were my friend."
I looked back, trying to convey my feeling that
this was all happening too fast. But all I could
get my eyes to say was, "I'm sorry."
Then Zeke's expression hardened and he turned
his head as if to say, "Screw you".
I got in the car. I never talked to Zeke or
anyone else about it.
Now, twenty-seven years later, I still feel like
If I had a chance to do it over, I now know what
I would say to Zeke, and what I would say to my new
friends. I would be able to describe how hard it
was for me to be standing in the middle, having to
decide. But at the time I had no words for these
So I love getting the chance to help kids think
about their friendships. They need adults to help
them articulate their feelings about the
interpersonal dynamics they encounter. We may help
them every evening with their homework, but too
often we leave them to manage their friendships
Sometimes it helps to watch your child as they
play with their friends. That way you can notice
teach child's different personality. Later, you can
ask your child to talk about what she likes and
doesn't like about the important peers in her life.
This type of conversation can help a child
articulate their needs and feelings. Then they can
communicate better with their friends.
Without such help they may do things they will
still regret twenty-seven years later.
"Dad, I'm bored."
I've heard all the arguments against TV. It exposes
kids to too much violence. It manipulates them into
becoming demanding little consumers. It deadens a
child's creativity. The American Pediatrics
Association recently recommended that children
spend no more than ten hours per week watching TV.
Why didn't they tell my Mom that thirty years
As a child I spent over twenty hours per week in
front of the boob tube. Every afternoon included
shows like Gilligan's Island, Hogan's Heroes,
Mission Impossible and Star Trek. The evenings were
full of detective shows like Colombo and Charlie's
Angels or sit-coms like Maude or The Jeffersons.
Sometimes I wonder at how I somehow managed to come
out okay even with all that TV. Other times I
remember how incredibly boring it all was. I wish I
had been learning to play a musical instrument
during all that time. Or just playing with
My parents didn't seem to feel any
responsibility to structure my time away from
school, other than reminding me about my homework.
My recreation was up to me. I guess I wasn't very
resourceful, because all I ever did was watch TV.
As I have limited the time I allow my daughter,
Molly, to watch TV, I have had to deal with her
difficulty coming up with activities to keep her
boredom at bay.
Isn't that why God invented computer games? They
are educational (some anyway) and they keep a child
occupied for hours, almost as effectively as TV.
But the critics claim that computer games also
deaden a child's creativity. I wondered if this is
true. I suspected this might just be some
This morning I got my proof. It was a glorious
Saturday morning and the garden was calling me like
a good ocean swell beacons to the local surfers. I
set young Molly up with a new computer game so I
could work outside. With each time my foot sunk the
shovel into the soil I felt my soul dropping deeper
roots into the earth. The sun and sweat were soon
melting away the tension I'd been storing in my
shoulders all week.
After about an hour in heaven, I heard a
"Dad, I'm bored. There's nothing to do."
"I thought you were playing a computer game," I
"I'm done with that. And now I'm so bored. Can't
I watch a movie?" Molly whined.
At this moment I would have loved to say yes to
the movie, but I really couldn't reward the whining
or break the rule we have about TV. I went inside
with her to try to help her find something
interesting to do. None of my suggestions sounded
the least bit interesting to me, so I was not
surprised they were unimpressive to her as well.
Finally we settled on me reading her a chapter from
the last book of the "Little House on the Prairie"
series. It is about Laura Ingalls Wilder getting
her own pony and riding all over the place with the
wind in her hair.
When we were done I headed out to the garden
again. I expected Molly to come pester me again any
minute. Soon, however, the garden filled my mind
and body and I forgot all about Molly. After an
hour I decided to go check on her to see what she
was up to. She was in the yard playing on a rocking
horse that she hasn't ridden in a couple of years.
She was talking to herself using different voices,
clearly involved in some elaborate fantasy
I no longer have to wonder about child
development theories. This morning's evidence is
clear. After the computer game I got a cranky,
bored child who didn't know what to do with
herself. After reading together I got a child
engaged in vivid imaginative play. Case closed.
Peanut is Gone!
There's a huge pile of stuffed animals beside my
daughter, Molly's bed. Bears, tigers, puppies, an
alligator, a moose, and even a few human infants.
They all lay ignored by their now eight year old
owner. Moving them all once again to vacuum, I even
found an expensive designer doll that Molly begged
me to buy her for Christmas one year. I feel
vaguely sorry for these abandoned beings, like the
castaways Rudolf the Reindeer met in the land of
Each of these animals and dolls had their day.
Some lasted as a favorite for over a month. Others
were a just flash in the pan at a birthday party,
cuddled for two minutes, then tossed in the pile
with the rest of the has-beens. Despite their
neglected state, I would be roundly chastised
should I ever suggest that perhaps they are now
merely clutter, which we could clear to improve the
bedroom's feng shui. "Dad is such a boar!" is the
unspoken opinion toward the family member whose
sense of practicality scores much higher than his
sense of sentimentality. "He doesn't understand
But there is one animal who does not sit in this
pile. Peanut is a little baby stuffed monkey.
Peanut has enjoyed the royal honor of being Molly's
favorite for over a year now. Peanut's reign has
lasted longer than any before, and possibly longer
than any to come. Peanut sleeps in Molly's arms.
Peanut speaks in a special baby voice that Molly
has given him. It is a voice sweet enough to bring
out the maternal instinct in an All-star
Molly is peanut's adopted mother. She insists
that I watch Peanut carefully for her while she is
at school. When she spends the night at a friend's
house, she will call home to make sure Peanut
doesn't miss her too much. She becomes panicked
when she thinks Peanut may be feeling
Her ability to take care of Peanut seems to be a
kind of test to see if she will be a good mother
when she grows up. Peanut came with us on a
vacation in southern California. I knew it was a
bad idea to take Peanut into the convenience store
beside the freeway near San Luis Obispo. But Molly
was excited to let Peanut pick out her treat for
her. We returned to the car with ice cream in hand.
It wasn't until we home and unpacking that we
realized we were missing something.
I watched all the joy that had accumulated over
the vacation vanish from the face of my child the
instant she identified when she had last seen
Peanut. Her body slumped into my arms as she
whimpered, "Peanut's still sitting on the ice cream
cooler. I forgot him!"
Molly was racked with grief. She felt like she
had failed him. First, she wanted to drive back and
get him. Then she wanted to know what would happen
to him if someone found him. Would he be given to
another kid? Would he be thrown in the trash? After
an hour of calls to San Luis Obispo we tracked down
the store, but no one there could find a stuffed
monkey. Peanut was gone.
Unlike other losses, Molly did not recover after
a good cry and a little time. Every night for the
past week she is reminded of Peanut at bedtime, and
she becomes sad. She reminds me of when I got
dumped by my girlfriend in high school. I walked
around in a daze. I couldn't study. I sold all my
records, because they all extolled the virtues of
romantic love. Life sucked.
Is it a good thing to be so attached to
something? The Buddhist's might say no. These
attachments are the source of our suffering. But
Molly didn't decide to become attached to Peanut.
She didn't weigh the pros and cons. Peanut and she
just bonded. Will she guard her heart more
carefully after this? When she losses her first
love, will some of her tears be also for
If you find a stuffed animal somewhere, like in
a store, or a waiting room. And if it looks like
maybe a child has mistakenly left him or her
there... could you turn it in to the lost and
found? And if no one claims it, could you give it
to a kid that will take care of it? I know that
there are more practical things to worry about. But
at our house, right now, this is really
This Story Has An End
I had not quite woken up this morning. I was soft
and sleepy, not yet armored for the day. My
daughter, Molly, lay sleeping beside me. She had
run into my room an hour ago. We had joyfully
cuddled together, then thankfully, she fell back
asleep. I rolled over and did the same.
Now I was waking again, with her breathing
noisily beside me. I took a moment to just watch
her. Her skin looked so fresh, her closed eyelids
so beautiful, the spirit within her so light. She
would wake soon to her dad's smile, and she would
ask to sit on his lap to eat breakfast. Then her
day of play would begin. And if she needed any
help, a caring teacher, her mother, or I would be
there. Though small and relatively helpless at five
years old, she feels safe in this world.
Then before I had the sense to censor it, a
thought floated in from the ether, "This story has
an end." My heart clutched with fear at the
prospect of pursuing what this thought meant. If I
had had more of my wits gathered I would have found
a way to close the door just opened. But moments
later it was too late. Heat was rising in my belly.
Sadness had already streamed into my chest.
It was not Molly's eventual coming of age I
feared. Not this time. I have dreaded the day she
will leave my daily life (though I also have great
plans for free time I hope to have then). But this
fear that arose in me unbidden was not of Molly
leaving me, but of my someday leaving her.
The image of "this story has an end" then began
to coalesce. I am lying on my deathbed. I have
outlived Molly's mother, Sue, and I am ready to
die. I am too old to be strongly attached to
anything in this world. Anything except being
Molly's dad. She is weeping at my bedside and I
cannot find the peace to leave, to die. I don't
want her to ever have to face life without her
father. I can't imagine that anyone who has not
watched her grow from that tiny baby could love her
like I do. And though I am too old to care about my
own life, I cannot bear to die because of the pain
I fear it will leave her with. And I won't be there
to comfort her.
My tears are flowing now. And on their tail come
thoughts from a more awake place. "She will have
internalized the love you have given her. And by
the time you die she will have a partner, many
friends, and perhaps children of her own who will
all love her tremendously. She will grieve, yes,
but then she will be fine". I even get down on
myself, "That's awfully arrogant of you to think
that your being her father is so important that you
can't even die when it's your time".
I don't really know what it will be like to die
and stop being her father. And I hope I have
another 50 nor 60 years before I find out. I also
know that in about two hours I will be trying to
get some work done and she will be pestering me to
play with her. I will dole out my time to her with
firm limits on my availability.
But right now, watching her sleep, knowing that
at any moment her eyes could open and that her
first impulse will be to reach for me, I can't
imagine anything more important than being her dad.
We are both too young to ever want this story to
Spring is here and the Daddyman straps on his
soccer shoes. This year little Molly is old enough
to play too, so off we go to the store for size one
cleats and shin pads. She likes going on an errand
with Dad, and she has never turned down a new pair
of shoes, but she wonders who she will be playing
with. I explain that some other kids her age will
be on her team and more other kids will be on other
teams. She checks to make sure that they will
"really-truely" be her age and not the fifth and
sixth graders who dominate the field at her school.
As we leave the store, all signed up and fully
equipped, I proudly announce that she is all set to
"Why?' she asks.
"Why? Well, because we got the stuff you need
and you're all signed up, so that's all we need to
do for you to be able to play."
"No," she clarifies. "Why play soccer?"
"Why play soccer?!" I reply, shocked. Did I
forget to ask her if she wanted to?
"Well, it teaches you team work," I answer
automatically. But this is not my voice. This is
what I have heard coaches say all my life. Soccer,
however, has never taught me teamwork, as my
teamates will sadly attest. I have been playing
thirty years and I still run headlong toward the
goal whenever I get the ball.
I should have an answer of my own by now. I have
asked myself this question a lot lately. Two years
ago I tore up my knee playing soccer, and I thought
I might never play again. I had surgery to the tune
of four thousand out-of-pocket dollars. It was over
a year before I could run again. Not until now was
I attempting to return to the field. I have
wondered why I am so driven to play.
There are plenty of reasons not to play.
Injuries and losing, for instance. Two groups of
people get together and try to beat each other. One
walks away happy, the other sad. Aren't there
things we could do together that would make the
odds of being succesful a little higher than fifty
percent? Why must one team lose for another to win?
And how does it help my life to have mastered
control of a ball with my foot. If I had spent the
endless hours of my youth playing music instead of
soccer, I would be able to entertain myself and
others long into my old age. I've only got about
ten more years on the soccer field (knock on wood).
Each one a little slower than the last.
Still, I can't imagine not teaching Molly to
play. I remember when we first discovered that she
was a girl. I had not expected to be attached to
her gender, but upon finding out that she was not a
boy I looked up in my head and saw this beautiful
stained glass picture of me playing soccer with my
son shatter and fall to the ground. I panicked for
a moment. I did not want to be disapppointed by the
loss of that vision. Then I realised that while
girls didn't play soccer when I was young, they
sure as hell do now!
I quickly picked up all the pieces and rebuilt
that window on the spot, a stunning portrait of me
playing soccer with my daughter!
Now she is asking me, "Why?"
"Let's give it a try, and see how you like it."
I finally suggest.
At practice, things are tense at first. She
doesn't want to do any drills. What is the point
exactly? Then we scrimmage, and it is the kids
against their doting parents. I am playing goalie.
I decide to let a few goals in "accidentally on
purpose". Just before the end of the game Molly
works her way to the head of the pack charging
toward me just behind the ball. It is her foot that
kicks it. I lunge for the ball, but oh my gosh, I
lunged too far! The ball rolls into the net. Molly
comes crashing into my arms as the other kids
stampede on by.
"THIS IS FUN!" she shouts to me, and then runs
back out for more. For better or worse, the
seduction is complete.
My daughter, Sisyphus
After spending two weekends in a row working hard
on getting our property ready for the winter rains,
I decided to take a break and do something special
with my daughter Molly. She'd been wanting to go on
a bike ride at a nearby state park. So off we went
for some Sunday afternoon father-daughter time.
After riding down a level fire road for quite
some time, Molly itched for something a little more
challenging. A trail appeared, we took it, and
suddenly we were "off road" on a break-neck path
along a very steep slope that dropped off to a
creek below. We quickly surmized that this route
was way beyond our biking skills. We stopped,
laughed at our predicament, and then began to drag
our bikes back up the hill to the fire road. I got
half way up and looked down to see how Molly was
doing. She had only climbed about ten feet. I
leaned my bike against a redwood and started down
to help her.
"No!" she cried, "Stay there." Apparently, she
wanted to do this herself. It reminded me of how as
a preschooler she would insist on tying her shoes
herself, no matter how long it took.
I watched as she pushed her bike from below. The
left handle bar dug into the ground. It anchored
the bike solidly and Molly's feet could not get
enough traction on the redwood duff for her to push
it free. I explained to her that if I just came
down and held the handle bar up, she would be able
to push more easily.
"No!" she repeated, sounding exasperated. Then
she lunged all her weight into the struggle. Her
feet slipped out from under her and she slid all
the way down to the path we had started our climb
from. Her knees were scraped, and she was fighting
back tears. I thought perhaps now she would be
ready for help. I began to climb down toward her
"No!" she shouted up at me.
She ran up the hill to the front of the bike and
tried pulling it uphill by the handle bars. Every
bone in my body ached to help her. "Why," I
wondered, "did I feel like I needed to help?"
Unlike countless other times, we were not in a
hurry to get anywhere. We literally "had all day".
"Maybe I like being the big strong daddy who can
rescue her," I reflected. "Maybe it's hard for me
to see her suffer. Maybe I just want to get on with
our ride." All these answers rang true.
Since I wasn't allowed to help, I decided to
enjoy myself. I leaned against the tree beside my
bike and took in the forest scene: majestic
redwoods, steep hill, sunshine filtering down
through the branches, beautiful little girl,
patient (if not helpful) father standing by.
Pulling the handle bars didn't work. The pedal was
caught on a root. When Molly lifted the pedal, the
handle bars dug in again. Back and forth she went,
pushing and pulling on every part of the bike she
could get a hold of. I breathed the forest air in
deeply, again and again.
Ten minutes later, an exhausted girl finally
yanked that goll-darned bike up to the foot of the
tree where I stood. She was panting as she flopped
onto the ground, spread eagled, looking like she
was going to make a snow angel.
It turned out that getting up to me was her
goal, and it was okay for me to help her the rest
of the way up to the road. After she got a breather
we continued on.
If you were walking down that fire road that day
you might have seen a dad and his daughter riding
by. They were the ones talking about the words
"determination" and "persistence". You probably
would have heard the dad saying how proud he was
that the little girl had them both. You would have
known that the girl was proud too, because there
was a big smile on her face.
Valentine's Day - Acts
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
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
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
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.
Our Beautiful Daughters
For a long time many of us have been stymied about
how we can protect our daughters from being
assaulted by the images of popular culture... Well,
we don't have to take it any more. We can teach our
daughters how to view their bodies lovingly in the
face of enormous pressure." -Brenda Richardson and
Elane Rehr in 101 Ways to Help Your Daughter Love
My daughter, Molly sweeps into the room in a
brand new jeans and a shirt that has "Cutie"
sprayed in glitter across the front. Her arms are
spread to show off the shirt. Her hip juts to the
side in a pose like a fashion model. "What do you
think?" she asks.
"You are very beautiful," I say. "But of course,
you always are."
"You always say that," she complains.
"Well, it's always true."
Molly is not completely satisfied by this
response. She likes that I think she is beautiful,
but she wants more specific information. She
wonders, "how beautiful am I really" and "what
would make me more beautiful?"
I remember a time before I knew what our culture
designated as "beautiful".
As a young child, the people I saw, in real life
or in movies and magazines, were all just people.
They did not have a rank order based on
attractiveness. I heard comments about "so and so"
being beautiful, but I had no idea what made people
say that about one person and not another.
One evening my parents and I sat down to watch
the Miss America pageant. I was very excited that I
might learn from this program the secret of what
makes someone beautiful. My dad seemed to like the
contestants with the largest breasts. My mom said
the one that was most "mature" should win. None of
us agreed with the judges, or each other.
Over time, however, I began to figure out what
our culture regards as beautiful in a woman. Then I
started pouring through magazines to figure out
what "handsome" meant. To my dismay, I discovered
that "handsome" means having a chin very much
unlike the one I possess. There was not much I
could do about that, so I tried not to think about
it. I was lucky, being a male, that being handsome
didn't seem as all-important as being beautiful was
In high school and college I looked exclusively
for "beautiful" women to date. Most of the time I
was very lonely. My best friend during sophomore
year was a fat girl named Janis, who
compassionately listened to my woes about not
having a lover. Only in retrospect did I figure out
that she loved me more than any of the girls I had
dated that year. The culture's obsession with
beauty and the narrow definition of it that I had
learned deprived both Janis and me of the love we
could have shared. When I hearken back to the time
before I learned what the media defines as beauty I
understand that there is no objective basis for
withholding a verdict of "beautiful" to any
particular woman. All women are beautiful.
And all deserve to have their unique beauty
acknowledged. To say someone is beautiful is simply
to say, "I see you." The question is not whether or
not you are beautiful, but whether or not I am
awake enough to notice it. When our culture says a
woman is beautiful, however, it can have some very
crass connotations. It can mean, "You look more
like a fashion model than about 90% of your peers."
Or it can mean, "You look so good that nothing else
about you really matters much." These are not
messages we as parents want to reinforce. So when
we tell our children they are beautiful, it is
important to let them know what we really mean.
I stood up and walked over to the full length
mirror where Molly now stood.
We looked into the mirror together.
"The jeans are a perfect fit," I said. "And the
shirt is a nice bright orange. The way you are
standing is a good imitation of that picture of
Christina Aguilera on her CD."
"You think so?" she asks.
"Yep. But you know, I have seen a lot of tight
jeans and new shirts and I've even met lot of women
who look like Christina Aguilera. And none of them
give me near the pleasure I get from looking at
you, seeing your happy cheeks and your beautiful
eyes." I reached down and wrapped my hands around
her biceps. "And feeling these muscles growing.
That's a real treat. And hearing the smart and
funny things you say. That's why I say you are
always beautiful. Because I always like what I see
when I look at you."
I am stooping down behind Molly now with my arms
wrapped around her and my chin resting on her
shoulder as we look into the mirror. She is
smiling, and goodness she looks beautiful! I am
smiling too. And actually, I don't look half
The Playground and the
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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.
Our Family Beds
What's the appropriate place for children to sleep?
Should they be in their own beds, in their own
rooms, or should they be allowed into that sweet
spot right between mom and dad in the parents' bed?
Different parenting experts offer contradictory
advice. Some say that a firm discipline of
requiring children to sleep alone works best.
Others believe this practice is terribly out of
sync with a child's need for the closeness and
security of their parents' warm bodies. Most
experts agree, however, that parents who flip-flop
on the issue can find themselves in an agonizing
mess, caught between their child's nightly temper
tantrums and their own guilty conscience.
I can't say what you should do. Every family has
to work this out for themselves. But I'll tell you
how my daughter Molly, her mother, Sue and I
navigated this issue.
The two main principles we sought to balance
were: 1) Children who feel safe, secure, and well
cared for grow up with a strong sense of themselves
and good self esteem; and 2) Parents who get enough
sleep tonight are better at parenting tomorrow.
There was another principle that we considered,
but decided to reject. It goes something like this:
"You can't give children what they need or they
will grow up needy and dependent." We decided to
believe instead that when children get their
emotional needs skillfully met, they develop
normally into confident individuals.
When Molly was an infant we especially wanted to
provide her a consistant sense of security. Most
psychologists believe that the first six months of
a child's experience sets the template for her
emotional life thereafter.
If an infant spends a lot of this time feeling
scared or stressed, then these emotions form a
baseline feeling state and orientation to the
The resulting personality assumes "The world is
not safe, I can't get what I need, and no one will
Picturing my baby lying in a crib forming this
basic experience was too much for me. So as an
infant Molly slept with Sue and I. During this time
Sue also breastfed Molly on demand.
The only problem was that Sue is a very sound
sleeper, and I am not. When Molly began whimpering
in the middle of the night, she woke me up. I would
then wake Sue up. They nursed and fell back to
sleep while I lay awake in the dark until Molly
began to whimper again.
Molly unfortunately inherited my light sleeping
habits. As she grew, she also began to squirm
around the bed a lot. I found I could not sleep
under these conditions, so we tried putting Molly
in a crib at the side of our bed. We hoped to be
able to respond to Molly quickly, but have our bed
The arrangement failed miserably. Sue still
slept through Molly's whimpers, so instead of just
waking Sue up I had to get up, cart Molly to the
bed for nursing, and return her to her crib after
she fell back asleep.
I finally started to get some sleep when we
replaced the crib with a second bed. The three of
us would start the night together in the big bed.
The first time Molly woke I would nudge Sue and
then hightail it into the second bed. From across
the room the squirming, whimpering baby didn't
bother me as much.
When Molly was about four months old Sue went
back to work three nightshifts a week as a
registered nurse. I slept those nights with alone
with Molly, with a bottle of pumped breast milk or
goat milk ready for when she would wake. I didn't
sleep much , but I loved being able to feed Molly
myself as I held her on my chest. In the morning
Sue and I would hand Molly to a paid caregiver so
we could both get some sleep. Then I went to work
in the afternoon.
When Molly began to wake less often we built a
little bed for her right beside ours. Finally I was
able to get a full night's sleep without switching
beds. At about two years old Sue weaned Molly of
night-time feedings entirely. We would put Molly to
sleep in our bed and then carry her over to the
second bed once she was sleeping soundly.
When Molly was three we introduced her to a bed
in her own room. Sue or I would read Molly to sleep
in her own bed. If Molly woke up she would come
into our room and wake me up. I would then take her
back into her room and stay with her in bed until
she fell back asleep.
Sometimes I would get very impatient,
desperately wanting to get back to my own bed. I
threatened her, "Molly, if you don't fall asleep in
five more minutes, I am leaving you here
"Okay. Okay," she would quickly agree, but it
didn't help. Rather, I found that the more I
assured Molly that I would stay with her until she
fell back asleep, the sooner I would hear her
breathing change and know that I could slip
I also found that Molly went to sleep faster
without a night light. With a parent at her side,
she didn't need the security of a light. And having
light on kept her eyes able to focus on things in
When Molly was five we were still lying with her
every night until she fell asleep. It was such a
sweet time with her that we didn't want to miss
We found that a very clear bedtime routine was
essential to warding off Molly's night owl
tendencies. First came brushing teeth, then reading
a story, then lights out and a lullaby. The pattern
never varied, so Molly never questioned it.
Also at age five Molly began spending the night
at friends' houses. She found that not all parents
stay with their children until the kids are asleep.
This left Molly in a pickle. When she told us about
it we decided to help her practice going to sleep
by herself. She was ready. Teaching her to fall
asleep by herself took one night, and no tears.
Now Molly is nine. She can go to sleep by
herself easily. But, like most people (including
adults), she still prefers sleeping with someone.
Sue and I don't get as much sweet time with her as
we used to, so most nights one of us stays with her
until we hear her softly snore.
Believing that the care I gave her in her early
years has helped her become a strong, confident,
emotionally secure preteen gives me a lot of
satisfaction. I lost some sleep in the process, but
I am sleeping more soundly now.
© 2004 Tim Hartnett
Other Father Issues,
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