Learning On the Job

I always knew I wanted to have children.

Part of it is that, when I was younger, I just assumed that was the natural course of life. All of the adults I knew had children, largely because all of the adults I knew were either my friends’ parents or my cousins’ parents. Growing up, getting married and having children was just what people did, at least through my young child eyes.

Not much changed as I got older. I always seemed to
get along well with children, whether they were my
young cousins or my friends’ Yavelberg kidsyounger siblings and, aside from some occasional sibling mischief, I’ve always felt protective of my two younger brothers. For instance, one brother and I once got separated from our parents at a museum when we were very young (five and two, six and three, something like that) and I remember sitting and hugging him in the corner of a hallway and telling him everything was going to be fine. (Our parents found us very soon afterwards.) In retrospect, my parental impulses were already developing steadily.

I never really knew why I wanted to have children, though. I knew I liked kids; I knew that I enjoyed telling stories, making funny faces and playing games with them. I knew I liked teaching, which came in handy when I was a camp counselor during my college summers. And I knew I liked listening to children tell their own stories, which has been even more helpful as a social worker. But still, even though I liked being around and working with children, I never knew quite why I wanted to have children of my own.

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Then, five years ago, my son was born. I remember being so astounded that my wife and I had actually created this little pink mush of skin and hair. In the minutes after he was born, I found myself repeating, “Holy crap, it’s a baby!”1 Even though I knew, rationally, that a baby was coming at the end of the pregnancy, I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around the idea that “baby” and “this new helpless life form in my arms” were the same thing. One moment, I was Aaron; the next, I was Daddy. I had become a father.

And yet, not quite.

Sure, I had become a father in the biological sense. I had passed on my genetic code to my offspring, thus fulfilling nature’s directive that the existence of the species will continue in the form of another young child playing with his earlobes and making fart jokes.2 But, as far as becoming a dad was concerned, I had so much more to learn.

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I want to see the genetic code that led to this…

I did learn. I learned the straightforward things, like changing diapers, cutting nails (sort of) and packing bags for day trips. I learned how to install car seats, assemble strollers and how to make it through twenty-four hours of flying with a toddler. And I learned the more complicated things, like trying to rock my children back to sleep without waking their mother, watching my son use a nebulizer and having difficult conversations. I learned about the struggle between balancing time at work, time with my wife and time with my kids.

I learned that there is no stronger feeling of guilt than realizing you have put your child in a dangerous situation. And I learned that there is no better feeling than when your baby lays her head on your shoulder.

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I’m thankful that my children have taught me so much about being a better parent, a better husband and a better person, in general. Dads like the ones in the video below don’t always start out that way; it takes a lot of work to learn to be a good father. I’m thankful that I’ve had fantastic teachers who give me new opportunities to learn every day.

I have partnered with Life of Dad and Pampers for this promotion. Use the hashtag #ThanksBaby across all social media platforms to honor dads all over the world for Father’s Day. Also, check in on Twitter at 8 p.m. Saturday, June 17, for a one-hour #ThanksBaby chat with Pampers and Life of Dad, with a chance to win a $250 Visa gift card.


1. My wife, who was nearby getting cleaned up and starting her recovery from the birth, finally said to me, “Well, what did you think it was going to be?”

2. Mission accomplished. Just wait until Shayna starts doing it.

Awesome Clouds

My eyes scanned the ground as I walked, mapping out each step so that I could avoid the muddy patches near the walkway and the awkward separations between the sections of concrete. It was somewhat slow going; I kept having to pause so that I could pick the blanket up and re-wrap it around Shayna’s body that was huddled against me. I gave her a little smile but she didn’t respond. Her eyes held my gaze for a moment before turning back to the nearby trees swaying with the breeze.

“I know, Shin, I’m sorry,” I said quietly as I tugged the blanket up again and tucked in the corners.1 “I don’t really want to be here either.”

I stayed back behind the gathering, not wanting to disturb anyone if Shayna started to object to being out in the cold. The people kept shuffling in, squeezing together to make room for everyone. The cold began painting faint roses on their faces, some of which still showed the faint streaks of dried tears. I bounced Shayna slightly to keep her quiet and to keep my legs moving, trying to ignore the biting air and the reason we were all outside in the first place.

The rabbi began singing softly. Her voice was pleasant enough, though I found myself holding a grudge against her for making mistakes in her speech earlier in the day. She could have checked on the dates with any number of people, I thought. Of all days, she should have gotten it right today. The song ended and I let out a resigned sigh. The rabbi began speaking but I was too far away to make out the words.

My mind wandered as she spoke, desperate for distraction. The sky was a spectacular shade of blue, like a crayon that ends up getting blunted from overuse because of its appeal. A handful of white cotton candy clouds hung in the air, looking almost happy in contrast to the melancholy ritual taking place below. As I glanced at the names on the nearby headstones, I wondered who the people had been and why there were more small rocks piled on top of some of the graves as opposed to others.

A sudden gust of wind sent a chill through my legs. I turned to shield Shayna from the breeze and adjusted the blanket. Her head kept turning from side to side, as though there were too many things in the world to see and she couldn’t decide where to focus her attention.

“What are you looking at?” I asked quietly. “Is it the trees? The sky? The awesome clouds?”

Shayna turned her head once or twice more. When she finally settled on one direction, I looked up and saw what had finally caught her.

A large bird had taken flight in the distance. It glided back and forth, tracing circles and figure-eights through the air. “That looks like a hawk,” I whispered to Shayna. “He’s probably looking for–”

I stopped short, remembering where I was and for whom. I began to think of him and the moments we had shared together. I pictured us watching our sons play soccer in the courtyard of his apartment and tearing slices of pizza into little pieces for them at Nick’s. I thought of us drinking beer while we played arcade games at our friend’s birthday party and him making fun of me for leaving the party early. I thought of sitting with him at the bar as we watched the Philadelphia Eagles, his second love after his family. I remembered feeling simultaneously amused by his ongoing complaints about his team’s mistakes and embarrassed by his badgering of the waitress because the television showing the game kept cutting out. I thought of the love he felt for his team, which was why his disappointment in their performance was so intense.

Then I thought of his family again. I thought of his wife, who had been one of the first real mom-friends that Trudy had made after Eitan was born. I thought of his son, who is three weeks younger than Eitan, and his daughter, who is a month older than Shayna. I thought of how much being a husband and a father meant to him and how his children seemed to fill him with purpose. I thought of the connection he felt with his football team and how it paled in comparison with the passion he felt for his family.

I looked up again at the bird, still circling among the clouds.

“I changed my mind, Shin,” I whispered again. “That’s not a hawk; it’s an eagle.”

 


1. Shin is the first letter in Shayna’s Hebrew name.

The Force Will Be With You… When You’re Older

Eitan loves Star Wars.

He has masks of Darth Vader and Captain Phasma that he uses when playing dress-up. When Trudy bought him new pairs of pajamas to wear to school for pajama day he chose the Darth Vader set over the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles set.1 He has a pre-reader book of Star Wars stories and loves pointing out Chewbacca, Han “Sola” and the “Stormtrippers.” He starts laughing anytime he sees C-3PO and R2-D2 and, once in a while, I’ll catch him glancing at the Yoda toy sitting on his dresser that he got from my father. When he was a baby, I would throw him up in the air while singing the Star Wars theme song and I would take his echoing toy microphone and say in my deepest voice, “Eitan… I am your father.”2 We recently had to hide his “light-savers” so he wouldn’t use them in the house because things like this kept happening:

 

There’s one little problem with Eitan’s love of Star Wars, though:

He’s never actually seen it.

Eitan hasn’t watched any of the movies. He hasn’t seen any of the television shows. He knows most of the names and characters but I don’t think he would recognize Luke Skywalker if twenty-year-old Mark Hammill walked into the room. I’m actually not even sure he would recognize the name Luke Skywalker because characters like Darth Vader and Chewbacca are marketed so much more frequently.

In fact, now that I think about it, I don’t even think Eitan knows what the Force is.

Most of this is by design, of course. I could have put Star Wars on for Eitan so he could watch it during any number of rainy days. The biggest reason I haven’t done so yet is because I think it would scare him. Chewbacca is a giant teddy bear at heart, but there are a bunch of aliens in the cantina on Tatooine that are not nearly as cuddly. Emperor Palpatine’s eyes and voice are incredibly creepy and Darth Vader… well, Vader is just terrifying. He’s strong, he’s dressed in black, you never see the face behind his mask and he appears to be unstoppable.

Aside from the fear factor is my hesitation about pushing Eitan’s interests in the direction of conflicts that are sometimes quite violent. The light saber fights are exciting and the special effects of the various gun fights are incredible to watch, especially as a child seeing them for the first time. The problem is that weapons, in real life, are incredibly dangerous and are specifically designed to cause harm to others. Even though Eitan has (unfortunately) had some experience with death and is old enough to understand the concept, at least in a basic sense, I worry about the idea of encouraging his interest in a movie so replete with acts of violence.

I should add, for the record, that my unease isn’t limited to Star Wars. I have the same concerns about pushing Eitan to become more interested in super heroes for the same reason. Eitan “likes” Batman and Superman the same way he likes Star Wars; he has some toys, clothes and books, but he doesn’t know too much of the characters’ backgrounds. Even if Eitan is well acquainted with character deaths from Disney movies – Frozen, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, take your pick – the idea of him becoming desensitized to shootings and sword fights just doesn’t sit well with me.

I realize that the desensitization is probably inevitable. Kids act out what they see on television and in movies, whether it’s Daniel Tiger learning coping skills, Blaze the Monster Truck speeding past volcanoes to teach fair play or super heroes fighting off bad guys. I suppose my hope is primarily that I can delay Eitan’s interest in guns so that he stays more of an innocent young child in my mind for at least a little longer before the negative influences of the rest of the world really start to creep in.

Look, Eitan will see Star Wars. It’s one of my all time favorite movies and I can’t wait to introduce Eitan to the stories and characters that I’ve loved since I was a child. The movies teach about magic, teamwork and a sense of wonder that I believe are so much more important than any references to violence, which is exactly how I will present the movies to Eitan. He is also finally getting to the age where I can really start sharing my interests with him in ways he can understand. I can tell he is looking forward to it, if only based on his enthusiasm for a movie he’s never seen and doesn’t even really understand. But I would rather wait another year or so, partially so that I can be more confident that the movie won’t scare Eitan too much, but also so that he understands more about the consequences of physical violence and the differences between fact and fiction.

 


1. Eitan made his choice fairly easily, but five-year-old me would have really grappled with that decision. Seven-year-old me would have had an even harder time.

2. I don’t do this anymore now. I’m scared he’s going to have that plot point spoiled for him before I can show him the movie and there’s no way I’m going to be the one to do it.

Baby, It’s Christmas (With Consent)

I don’t like Christmas music.

(It’s okay, take a minute. I’ll wait for you to stop hyperventilating and/or to pick up your laptop from wherever it landed. I suppose I should have put a “trigger warning” first to prepare you. Sorry about that.)

I don’t like Christmas music because I’m Jewish and my family was observant when I was young, so I don’t have the same personal connection to Christmas that the overwhelming majority of the U.S. population seems to. We celebrated Hanukkah and it was always made very clear to me that trees and Santa and mangers and red and green M&Ms were for other people, not us. Even so, I don’t remember ever being bothered by the onslaught of Christmas when I was a child. I probably didn’t pay much attention to something that I knew didn’t apply to my family, but I also don’t remember Christmas being shoved down everyone’s throats the way it is now.

I don’t like Christmas music because I never had a reason to. When I was growing up, I didn’t know who the Little Drummer Boy was, I figured Rudolph had just used way too many tissues and I thought the Tannenbaums were a family from our synagogue. The only Jesus I knew about was Ivan DeJesus, the former Cubs shortstop who was traded for Ryne Sandberg.1 I had always been taught that the holy nights were Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and I thought that Silent Night was just the prayer that all parents made before they went to bed. The only song title that made any sense to me, as a child living in Chicago and then New York, was “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”

I used to get more upset with the constant associations with Christmas in commercials and practically every show on television when I was a teenager. I tend to believe that I’ve become more patient as I’ve grown towards adulthood. I don’t get as angry about being bombarded with all things Christmas once the clock hits midnight on the first of November (if not earlier). I certainly don’t hit the radio’s “off” switch with quite as much authority anymore. My family visited Disney World during the week before Thanksgiving and, even though it looked like Christmas had vomited all over the Magic Kingdom, I remained fairly relaxed.2 Christmas is the primary holiday for our country’s most prominent religion and, at its heart, Christmas brings joy to millions of people. I’d rather spend my energy creating joy for my family rather than changing my name to Ebenezer Scrooge.

All that being said, one of the songs I mentioned earlier has always struck me as… creepy.

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” describes two people who have just spent an evening together. The woman is leaving and the man wishes she wasn’t. The call-and-respond nature of the music would have you believe that the pair are having a conversation but the actual lyrics3 show that, while the man and woman are speaking to each other, the man is not doing much listening.

The first paragraph is fairly tame:

I really can’t stay (Baby, it’s cold outside)
I’ve got to go way (Baby, it’s cold outside)
The evening has been (I’ve been hopin’ that you’d drop in)
So very nice (I’ll hold your hand, they’re just like ice)

Translation:
Woman: We’ve had a nice time but it’s late and I have to get home.
Man: I had a nice time too.

We can see the faint signs of trouble in the man’s focus on the temperature outside, even if the he hasn’t said anything too obvious. By the second verse, though, the man is absolutely putting on the pressure.

My mother will start to worry (Hey beautiful, what’s your hurry)
And father will be pacing the floor (Listen to that fireplace roar)
So really, I’d better scurry (Beautiful, please don’t hurry)
Well, maybe just a half a drink more (Put some music on while I pour)

Translation:
Woman: I have people waiting for me and I’m ready to go.
Man: Let’s see what else I can do to keep you from leaving.

Verse three is more of the same, followed by this exchange in verse four:

I oughtta say no, no, no sir (You mind if I move in closer)
At least I’m gonna say that I tried (And what’s the sense in hurting my pride)
I really cant stay (Oh baby, don’t hold out)
Oh, but it’s cold outside.

Translation:
Woman: I’m very uncomfortable with this arrangement.
Man: Your discomfort is not as important as my desire to have sex.

I won’t go through the entire rest of the song because I’m sure you get the idea by now. Some highlights include the woman asking, “What’s in this drink?” and explicitly saying, “The answer is no” while the man continues to make comments about her looks and his lust. At the end, when she says again, “I really can’t stay,” his response is that she should “get over that old out,” once again invalidating her pleas to be released. Oh, and in case you were wondering, we never find out if she ends up leaving or not.

I’m not bringing this up as some sort of battle in the War on Christmas. As I said, I’m much more interested in just finding ways to enjoy a day off from work with my family than I am in trying to spoil other people’s holiday. But it seems that, too often, people take things as they seem without thinking about any possible deeper implications.4 We don’t consider the potential agendas that lead to the publication of certain articles or the effects that our “opinions” might have on others. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is a clear example of our culture’s ongoing dismissal of women’s rights to maintain control over their bodies. No means no, unless you can convince her to say yes (or put something in her drink so she stops answering altogether).

Fortunately, a couple from Minnesota felt similarly uneasy about “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and rewrote the song to demonstrate a more appropriate male response to the woman’s lines. The new lyrics emphasize consent as the man gives the woman every opportunity to make her own decisions about how the night should end, even answering her clearly about what is in her drink. From the very first line, when the woman says she can’t stay, his immediate answer is, “Baby, I’m fine with that.” The rest of the song continues in the same vein.

Again, I’m not interested in taking away from other people’s enjoyment of Christmas and the holiday season. Far be it from me to say that I should have any authority over another person’s belief system or the choices they make during this time of year. What I am saying, however, is that we need to be more careful about the messages we are sending our children about consent and their rights to be autonomous where their bodies are concerned. Our daughters need to know how to say no firmly and clearly and to feel comfortable asserting themselves. Our sons need to understand that “no” means “no,” full stop. Do not pass Go; do not collect $200. No means no and, for that matter, so does any other answer that isn’t specifically “yes.”

We’re moving in the right direction. Our most recent presidential election results notwithstanding, I’ve been hearing more and more frequently about women being encouraged to speak up for their rights and men who take advantage being held accountable. We’re hardly perfect, but the right steps are being taken. As long as we continue to analyze the messages our culture is sending and think critically about our roles in contributing to those messages, we’ll be able to help our children grow up in a safer world.

Happy holidays.


1. Sandberg became my favorite Cubs player after Andre Dawson left in free agency. The Phillies often get criticized for trading Sandberg, who went on to have a Hall of Fame career. But, as my father always points out, they wouldn’t have made it to the 1983 World Series without Ivan DeJesus.

2. I’ll admit, I had hoped that Trudy and I had a bit more time before having to explain to Eitan about Santa Claus but Disney forced our hands. Oh well.

3. Lyrics were borrowed from Metrolyrics.com.

4. See: our current political climate.

Cursing at Babies

We’re over a month into the new school year at this point. Eitan is in Pre-K now, which means he’s in school before 8:30 and gets out after 3:30. It’s a long day for him, especially since he was still napping on occasion over the summer, but he’s adjusted nicely. There are usually some tears at points during the couple of hours between getting dismissed from school and going to bed, largely because he’s exhausted and refuses to nap during rest time at school. All things considered, though, he’s getting used to his new schedule.

My routine has not been affected too severely. I’m still going to work every day and seeing private practice patients some evenings. The biggest difference for me is that now I’m teaching religious school again on Sunday mornings and Tuesday evenings, plus leading children’s services in synagogue a few Saturday mornings each month. It’s the same work as before, just more of it. Plus, since Eitan is usually wiped, he’s asleep by the time I get home some nights.

What this really means is that now Trudy has been thrust back into those early stages of stay-at-home mom status. She was able to spend most of her summer days at the beach with friends and relatives, plus both of our kids. Now that Eitan is in school and the summer is over, she’s spending most of each day just with Shayna. Shayna may be a great baby who doesn’t give us too much trouble (more about this in a minute), but she’s not the best conversationalist. Say what you will about the tantrums and defiance that come with having a four-year-old, but there is still something nice about having someone around who can actually talk to you, as opposed to just smiling, staring off into space or sleeping.

Of course, Trudy is handling everything like a pro. Our kids are clothed, fed and happy and, after a summer of taking care of a little boy and an infant girl, she’s certainly earned a little quieter time at home. She’s tired too at the end of the day, though, as one would expect her to be after spending the day nursing and playing with Shayna, running errands, cleaning the apartment, cooking dinner and then keeping Eitan awake and calm long enough after school to eat, bathe and get to bed.

It’s hard for me to picture that kind of a day. I spend the first hour and a half of my day with Eitan (and Shayna, depending on what time she wakes up) and then I don’t see them until much later. Even then, I sometimes don’t see Eitan until the next morning, depending on what time I get home at night. I have trouble imagining going through the entire day without much adult interaction or acknowledgment of my efforts. (Babies aren’t really good at saying thank you.)

One night, I was coming home late after a private practice session and, when I texted Trudy to say I was on my way, she responded that Shayna had been crying for fifteen minutes and that I should come home quickly. I got home about ten minutes later and I could hear Shayna still crying as I unlocked the door. She didn’t seem like she was in pain; it wasn’t that forceful adamant screaming cry. But she was definitely irritable or uncomfortable or something and she was making her displeasure known. I came inside, put my bag down and walked over to take Shayna from Trudy. I picked her up, patted her back, bounced her in my arms a little and walked around as I told her to calm down.

She stopped crying in less than a minute.

Trudy’s eyes got wide for a second and then very narrow as she glared at Shayna and started cursing.

I couldn’t blame Trudy. It’s a familiar refrain in parenting circles that the primary caregiver puts so much effort and energy into taking care of the kids during the day and then the kids seem to like the other parent better. An outsider might have laughed when Shayna stopped crying; I did not. I understood the humor of the situation to a point but my bigger concern was Trudy feeling like our infant daughter had just waved her tiny little middle finger in Trudy’s face.

My level of experience with feeling that type of rejection from an infant may be limited; after all, I’ve been working full time since before Eitan was born so the opportunities for me to be the sole at-home parent for an entire day for even one child have been few and far between. That being said, I can remember quite a few times, especially when Eitan was very young, when I felt completely useless as a parent because Eitan only wanted his mother. Eitan was – and still is – very attached to Trudy, so hearing him say he only wants Mommy to read to him, for instance, feels like a four-year-old hitting me in the stomach with a Heisman pose. Plus, as far as the cursing is concerned, I can remember a few distinct instances where I let a few of my own blue streaks fly at Eitan.1 Trust me when I say that sailors have nothing on exhausted parents in the foul language realm.

I don’t want to speak for Trudy, but she seemed to end up fine. She’d had an incredibly long day that was capped by a three month old2 essentially saying, “Okay, Mommy, I’ve had enough of you.” Honestly, Trudy had probably had enough of Shayna too at that point. The key, for both of us as new-ish parents, has been to remember that it’s natural for kids to prefer one parent over the other at certain times and to make sure we each have opportunities to keep bonding with both of our children. We keep talking with each other about our needs and our kids’ needs so that we stay on the same page. Keeping the lines of communication open is how we keep as much of our sanity as possible and how we keep our kids from tearing our emotions apart. If we end up using some R-rated language here and there, but we keep ourselves together as a result, so be it.


1. The triggers for my outbursts usually involved bodily fluids getting all over me or an Eitan who just wouldn’t stop crying but I was really just expressing my frustration about feeling like I was a completely inept parent. I felt that way a lot, especially early on.

2. Shayna was still three months old when this happened.

Boys Need Attention Too

Dear Eitan,

I feel like I owe you an apology. Or, maybe, at least an explanation.

Your mom and I have been working really hard to make sure you’ve gotten enough attention over the last few months since Shayna was born and, to be honest, I actually think we’ve done a pretty good job. We’ve each taken you bowling by ourselves a few times, you and I went out for ice cream, your mom has gone swimming with you… I can’t remember everything. My playing with you every morning before I leave for work is somewhere on that list too. There have been times when we’ve been more successful than others, obviously – it’s always hard with a newborn in the house – but I think we’ve been okay overall.

I’ve been thinking about the ways that women are treated in our society a lot lately, especially with regard to parenting. I’ve noticed that I’ve been reading and sharing a lot of articles that have to do with empowering women and girls (or, at least, I feel like I have been). I’m sure that I’ve been taking more notice of these articles because of Shayna. I’ve always taken notice of these kinds of pieces but, since Shayna was born, I’ve found myself even more drawn to material that promotes women’s rights and helps women break through the obstacles Western culture places on them. You’re largely unaware of my social media presence at this point, since you’re four years old and are only starting to learn how to read, but you’ll have to take my word for it.

It’s always been important to me that you grow up respecting women and being aware of the privileges that are available to you as a male. I’ve written about this a few times, usually in terms of situations that arise with professional athletes.1 There are, unfortunately, still so many people in the world who seem to think that women don’t deserve to be able to speak for themselves about their own jobs, their personal space or their bodies. We, as men, need to make sure that we’re being upstanders, rather than bystanders, when issues like this come up.2 That doesn’t necessarily mean fighting women’s battles for them, because that’s not exactly helpful either, but it does mean being available and talking about these issues so that people become more aware of how ingrained some of these views are in our culture.

The “apology” comes up because I feel like I’ve been thinking a lot more about the things that your sister will encounter as she works to find her place in the world than I have about what will come up for you. It’s not that I’m worried about Shayna; at least, I don’t think I’m any more worried about her than any parent would be about their daughter. I do think, however, that I get so wrapped up in thinking about what it’s like to grow up as a girl in our culture that I sometimes forget that you’re going to encounter your own set of challenges.

Boys struggle with body image issues, self-esteem and other social pressures just as girls do, but boys tend to not receive the same type of support in dealing with those issues. It’s not that the support isn’t available; I tend to believe that quality counseling services are considerably more prevalent in most communities than they were even five or ten years ago (there’s even an app for that). The problem is that boys are conditioned to keep their feelings quiet and figure things out on their own, rather than ask for help, so they don’t pursue the help to begin with.3 Even if we won’t know for a few years how most of these issues are affecting you, I should be keeping these things in mind for both you and Shayna. It’s not fair for me to tell myself that you don’t need as much attention because you’re a male; if anything, I should probably be putting even more effort into maintaining open communication with you because you’re going to be getting the message from society that you should be keeping your problems to yourself.

That’s really the reason I’m writing. I want you to remember, as you grow, that there are going to be times when Shayna is going to get more attention than you or it’s going to seem like more focus is being put on her life because she’s a girl. But, even if that’s the case, your mom and I are not forgetting about you. We’re both here for you and we want to help you as much as we can, no matter what challenges come your way. Please keep us in the loop as you get older; we’ll keep asking what’s going on anyway, but we’re going to need you to keep us informed so we can figure out how to help. We hope you’ll always feel like you can trust us to be supportive and honest, no matter what struggles you’re facing.

That’s what we’re here for.

Love,

Daddy


1. For instance, there was this post about Greg Hardy and this one about Ray Rice and this one about the Cubs trading for Aroldis Chapman.

2. This language comes from Facing History and Ourselves, a program and teaching curriculum devoted to examining people’s behavior during the Holocaust and the connections to today’s world.

3. This is one of the reasons why girls might be more likely than boys to attempt suicide, but boys are four times more likely to die from suicide. Girls attempt suicide and (hopefully) get the help and attention they need; boys complete the attempt because they don’t believe help is available for them in the first place.

Watching What We Teach

I was on the subway on my way to work last week when two men near me began arguing.

I didn’t see how it started. Like so many other commuters, my attention was buried in my phone, split between a podcast and Candy Crush. I looked up when I heard the men raise their voices at each other and took out one of my ear buds so I could hear what they were saying. I was interested in the argument, but I also wanted to see if they would need to be separated or if I would need to move to another car. Listening to the argument turned out to be little help, as the men were both speaking Spanish, but from what I could gather, they had both gone to sit in the same seat and one man took offense at being pushed aside.

Despite their shared language, the two men appeared to be from very different walks of life. The man who had taken the seat had tan, pockmarked, weather-beaten skin and was wearing dark grey shorts and a black v-neck t-shirt. His black hair looked damp and somewhat stringy, though I couldn’t tell if it was wet from water, gel or sweat. The other man was wearing dark slacks and a neatly pressed white polo shirt. His skin was smooth and his hair had been carefully sculpted into place. Polo looked ten to fifteen years younger than Shorts, but I suppose the actual margin could have been smaller.

They yelled at each other for a few minutes. Shorts appeared defensive, but certainly aggressive, as he continually pointed his finger at Polo’s chest and asked, “What’s your problem?” Polo, meanwhile, spoke sternly but simply stood straight, rather than leaning into Shorts’ space. He used phrases like, “You can’t just do whatever you want,” and “You’re not the only person in the world,” as though he were Shorts’ parent.

Which made sense, since Polo’s son was standing next to him, watching the whole thing.

Polo’s son looked to be around eight or nine years old and was the spitting image of his father. He was wearing athletic clothes but he had his father’s face and signature hair part. I decided that Polo was upset because he had been hoping that he and his son could sit next to each other but that Shorts had sat down before them, perhaps bumping into one of them in the process. In that light, Polo seemed more like a protective father, rather than simply a disgruntled man on his way to work. That image was reinforced for me once the argument subsided, as Polo and Shorts sat down next to each other and Polo held his son on his lap.

As I watched the men argue, I listened to their exchange but watched Polo’s son. His expression never changed; his face remained blank, though I thought I saw a hint of fear in his eyes. He seemed to be waiting, as I was, for Shorts to push his father or throw a punch. The boy didn’t say anything; he simply stood dutifully next to his father, watching the two men yell at each other and waiting to see if he would have to defend his father.

I found myself trying to put myself inside the boy’s head to see what he was learning from watching his father. “When someone does something you don’t like, yelling at them is the best way to solve the problem.” “Don’t back down from an argument, no matter how aggressive the other person seems.” “Keep on driving your point home until the other person is convinced you’re right, even if he doesn’t seem to be listening anymore.” “Defend yourself and your family against any and all threats, no matter how trivial the offense.”

There are some positive lessons in there, to be sure. Standing up for one’s beliefs and maintaining personal dignity are lessons I would think any parent would want to pass on to their children. As I thought more about how I would have acted if one of my children had been with me, though, I kept picturing myself making a comment to the other person and then leaving to find another seat. Even if the other person tried to continue the conversation, I believe that my leaving the space and keeping my temper in check would have brought the other person’s anger down, as well. Hopefully, the issue would have been settled quickly and more quietly, without one of my children ever having to fear that I was about to get into a physical altercation.

And then, suddenly, as I was processing what I had seen and telling myself that I would have handled the situation better, I realized that I was projecting my own ideals onto these two men without having all of the information. Maybe Shorts had shoved Polo and his son out of the way. Maybe he had stepped on Polo’s son’s foot. Maybe Polo was angry because he genuinely thought his son could have been hurt, which would have made his reaction more justifiable. Plus, even if I was right that they had simply bumped into each other while looking for the same seat, the men spoke to each other, expressed themselves and then the argument was finished. Neither man became violent and they spoke calmly throughout the rest of the ride.

I know that my first instinct is to act protectively toward a child I see in a situation like this. It’s why I work in the children’s mental health field and has a lot to do with my identity as a father, as well. Even so, I have been working to maintain an awareness of the influence my background and my work experience have on my perception of my surroundings. Part of that means remembering that if I might do things a different way, it does not necessarily mean that my way is the “right” way. I still think that Polo probably should have walked away from Shorts, rather than continuing to argue, but I appreciated the fact that he prevented the argument from becoming physical, especially because his son was there. I also realize that different people, especially people from different backgrounds, can have different definitions for “yelling.”1

The key for us, as parents, is to keep in mind that our children are always watching us. They see how we react to every situation, both positive and negative, and they take notes. If we show affection and smile often and treat people with respect, our children will internalize those behaviors. If we throw tantrums whenever things don’t go our way, we can rest assured that our children will throw tantrums when they don’t get their way as well. If we keep a calm, stoic demeanor all the time and only become really animated when we’re watching sports, our kids will follow those examples too.2

I may not know what triggered the disagreement between Polo and Shorts. I may not even know exactly what lessons Polo’s son learned from watching it, though I think I have an idea. But I do know that parents always have to be careful about the lessons we are teaching our children, especially when we don’t even realize we are doing so.


1. Jerry Maguire illustrated this point beautifully in this scene.

2. Sound familiar, Yavelberg family?