I spent a good hour and a half talking to my soon-to-be seven year old today. I’m not sure how to describe the conversations we have had more and more of late, except to say that they are more like grown up conversations every day, and that this both saddens and invigorates me. I’m sure any other dad in my spot would agree. These most recent conversations have an emerging common thread that is a bit weird to me, and I’m not sure if other dads go through the same thing or if, as in many other things, I’m the only freak that over-analyzes this stuff.
As a bit of background, what I notice as a common thread is similar to something that would happen in my early days of training for being a pastor. I don’t work as a pastor today, I work in social media, and I’m not overly-religious, I don’t think. In fact I have recently started another blog about walking away from “Church with a capital C” altogether, but there are moments from those early days of pre-seminary activities that will always stick with me and inform who I am. One type of moment that sticks with me is something that would happen as I was “peer facilitating” or counseling someone who had come to me for comfort, or prayer, or guidance.
I’d earnestly throw myself into empathy mode and try my best to acclimate myself to their condition and problems while simultaneously trying to see their world through a lens of religious solution. I’d then transmit that point of view back to them in an effort to give them a more positive outlook on their present situation and perhaps even a suggestion of pragmatic solution like “when this happens, try this.” I’d maybe quote some verse or saying or hymn. Without fail, what I noticed in that process is that there would always be some grain of truth in my message that was beneficial to my own walk. I see the very same thing happening as I walk with my son and do my best to be a good dad.
I sit with him as we talk about the note he got from his teacher at school explaining that she has tried 5 different ways to get him to pay attention to the directions of certain in-class assignments only to be frustrated by his lack of focus and apparent unwillingness to capitulate, despite her belief that he is a bright boy. My first order of business is to mask my own frustrations at the teacher’s apparent inability to instruct my son, understanding that though he works fine for me, there are not 24 other screaming first graders I’m in charge of teaching, just the one. My second order of business is to formulate a way to define the word “compliance” to a six year old. After putting that aside for a moment, however, my counseling habits kick in, and once again I find myself seeking to put myself in his shoes at school. “Tell me what happens in your mind when she’s talking,” I would say.
After some time sorting through the child’s instinct to change the subject and tolerating answers like “I just can’t help myself from daydreaming about AT-AT attack walkers and trying to bring them down with my snow speeder tow cables” (more a reference to the Lego Star Wars game on Wii we just played than a reference to what keeps him from completing assignments properly in class.) After some more discussion, however, I start to get some real answers and the empathy kicks in.
He’s afraid that the teacher will get her feelings hurt if he says he needs things repeated, of course. He notes the number of screaming first graders that serve amply to distract him. He points out that when he is at home and doing work there are fewer distractions and that his mother and I will always come around to remind him to stay on task. He also says he does not see the value of the work the teacher is making them do as often it is below his level of comprehension and (he says) he gets bored. But most of all he indicates that he simply loathes certain tasks and that the cost of capitulating has, up to now, been an acceptable price to pay (missing recess, verbal warnings, cues of disappointment from the teacher, etc…) Of course, he didn’t say it that way, but you get the idea.
But again, my empathy takes over. Here I am with a sudden need to explain to my son why it is important to follow the directions the teacher is giving him, to submit to her will and do the tasks she sets before him regardless of his perception of their greater value, to police his actions, choices, and task management himself in a way that is best acceptable to her will. I start to shine that same light on myself and ask what right I have to be preaching these precepts as though I had mastered them. I don’t think I’ve mastered them at all. In fact I don’t think I really observed their value as concepts until late in my twenties. In fact, I think there are things that are going on in my personal and professional life RIGHT NOW that are a direct result of my difficulties in simply being compliant and policing myself in a way that might run counter to my will, but that best suits the will of someone else.
I’ve never been one to be good with rules for the sake of rules, it should be no surprise to me that my offspring suffers from the same issues of an overly developed sense of independence. That his mother is the same way is like double whammy. In any case, one has to make a choice as a parent – reserve the false moral high ground and maintain a false perception of parental perfection (which is far easier when delivering mandates, mind you) or expose your humanity and risk undermining any effort the teacher is making at simply getting the kids to do what she says without question or hesitation (not the best teaching method IMHO, but still espoused by some out of convenience, obviously.) I don’t want to make life for my son harder at school than it already is, so I walk that line delicately.
And so our discussions take an even more adult turn as we talk about the problems of the will and “doing things you don’t want to do”; about regret and stepping up to be your own police of action and behavior since pretty soon nobody else will be there to do it (until things get really bad and the ACTUAL police step in.) He tells me he understands, but that it is so hard to remember when he is actually in class and I’m not there and there are kids screaming and goofing off around him and he really does not want to do the work at all. He wants to know how he will remember to do so. I wonder how I will remember to do what it is I’m saying he needs to do the next time I’m faced with an overwhelming work week, mounting bills, seemingly unending dreary weather, a growing waistline, a lack of motivation to do anything but sleep and the chance to blow it all off by choice.
I think we are often unfair to our children in that we expect that they behave like adults when we, as adults, often and openly behave like children simply because we have the prerogative to do so.
So I reach out to him with that in mind and I openly admit my humanity; that we all – even his teacher – fail from time to time at keeping up our good attitudes and at doing what we know is best but seems insurmountably hard; that soon the rewards of that effort are familiar as having been more sweetly attained; soon, “the better angels of our nature,” as Abe Lincoln once said, will touch our memories and inform our choices. Ok, well, that last part about Abe Lincoln I’m not sure he got, but perhaps that’s for another day – another conversation where we BOTH grow up a little more.
And RE: compliance? That bit I pulled from Abe Lincoln was from his first inaugural address and begins like this: “In compliance with a custom as old as the Government itself, I appear before you to address you briefly…” and ends with:
“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”