Tim Hartnett, MFT is father to Molly at their home in Santa Cruz, CA. Tim also works part time as a writer, psychotherapist and men's group leader. If you have any feedback, or would like to receive the monthly column, "Daddyman Speaks" by Tim Hartnett regularly via email, (free and confidential) send your name and email address to E-Mail Tim Hartnett, 911 Center St. Suite "C", Santa Cruz, CA 95060, 831.464.2922 voice & fax..

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

Teenage Christmas

I don’t visit my parents for Christmas anymore. They live in northern Wisconsin, and it’s 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 child.

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 father’s 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 didn’t know it at the time. And no one else guessed either.

Then one Christmas my Uncle Henry came to visit. Uncle Henry is my mother’s 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 him.

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 wanted.

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 with me.

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

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

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

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

Interpretting Jesus's 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 theories.

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 religion.

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 agree.

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 field.

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 help".

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 picture.

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 privatizing it).

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.

The Daddyman's Christmas list

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 mattress).

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 things: 

  • 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 could.

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 is gone.

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 loose.

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 mystery unfold.

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.

Sibling Competition

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 Mom.

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 resented her.

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 attention.

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 life.

Is it a boy or a girl?

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 two.

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 herself.

Almost Killed by a Fashion Doll

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 doom. 

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 wonder. 

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 same time. 

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 herself?" 

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 together."

My Dad’s Advice

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 we can.

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 be snooping.

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 up?”

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 prosperous future.

He paused to gather himself and execute this moment to the greatest advantage.  Then finally he said, “I don’t 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 didn’t matter so much any more.  I was free of whatever invisible weight had been pressing on me.  Life was going to be okay.

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 by Experience

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 other.

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 skill.

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 children.

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 of experience!

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 feel safe? 

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 knowing about. 

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?

Reproductive 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 me. 

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 way street. 

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.

Talking to your kids about sex

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

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

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

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

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

Emotional Abuse Defined

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

Dr. Spock goes to heaven

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

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

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

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

The American Question

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 kindergarten.

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 needs.

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 childhood up?

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 Central Coast"

"What did you do in school today?' I ask my daughter, Molly.

"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 minutes ago.

"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 another tact.

"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 switch?

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 cards.

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 Breadwinner Role

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 with them. 

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 hearts neglected.

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 family. 

Feeling unskilled and unsuccessful in family relationships, it is easy to see why many men would gravitate toward work and away from their families

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 love. 

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 wife to.

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."

Punishment and Permissiveness

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 the house.

"Wow," I spontaneously comment, "a week without social contact would be really hard on a teenager."

"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 like that."

"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 to.

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 you:

  • 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 of misbehavior.
  • 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 tantrums.
  • 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 approval.

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 I.

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?

The Second Parent

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 brow.

I sigh. Whatever I say will disappoint one of my loved ones.

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 home.

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 window, withdrawing.

"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 you."

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 great day.

Strengthening the Marriage

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 rapids.

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 attention.

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 together.

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!

Halfway Point

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 stroller.

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 whiff.

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 earth.

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 [bellybutton]".

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 guide.

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 she ages.

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 taboo.

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 nudity.

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 know.

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 moment.

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 get.

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 giving.

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.

Emotional Literacy

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 feelings.

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.

Scenario #1

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 chairs.

"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.

Scenario #2

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 tonight?"

"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."

"Darn it!"

"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 too.

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 advice!

Children's Friendships

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 a schmuck.

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 feelings.

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 alone.

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 ago? 

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 friends.

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 anti-technological rhetoric.

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 familiar cry.  

"Dad, I'm bored. There's nothing to do."

"I thought you were playing a computer game," I answer.

"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 play.

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 misfit toys.

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 anything."

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 Wrestler.

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 neglected.

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 Peanut?

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 important.

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 end.


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 play soccer!

"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 bike.

"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 of Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Valentines Day.

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 Her Body

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 for women.

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 bad.

The Playground and the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Validating Feelings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Molly whimpers her assent.

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

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

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

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

The Morning Rush

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

"But my hair isn't even brushed!"

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


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

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


"Get out there, Molly. You're late!" 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fun Club

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exclusionary Play

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 world.

The resulting personality assumes "The world is not safe, I can't get what I need, and no one will help me."

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 to ourselves.

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 alone."

"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 away.

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 the room.

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 it.

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.

© 2008 Tim Hartnett 

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