A Portrait of the Artist As an Old(er) Man

I got checked out by a woman when I went out a couple weekends ago.

Hang on, it’s not what you think.

It was around 9:30 on Saturday evening. I wouldn’t say that the streets were packed, but it seemed like a busy evening. There were groups of people milling about outside the restaurants and more making their ways through the streets, plus a few who seemed to just be standing and listening to the music echoing from the concert at the stadium nearby. I had stopped at an intersection to wait for the light to change when she walked by.

She looked to be in her early 20s. She had done her hair and was wearing a dark jacket and jeans. I had been watching the oncoming traffic when I heard her heels clacking against the sidewalk. I looked up just in time to see her smile and quickly return her attention to watching herself in her phone as she ran her fingers through her hair.

Actually, it was really more of a smirk than a smile.

The differences between us couldn’t have been clearer. She was talking to someone on the phone as she walked; I was standing alone. She was going “out;” I was going to Target. She was young, I was old (…er). She had clearly put effort into her appearance; I was wearing this:

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I’m fairly certain I’ve had these exact clothes since I was in college.

She wasn’t checking me out because she thought I was attractive; she was laughing at me.

Before I go any further, let me be very clear: I was not insulted. I remember being 20-something and feeling like the world was at my fingertips. That’s how 20-somethings are supposed to feel. They are supposed to think that the world is full of possibilities and that they are at the center of it all. They are supposed to think, at least to a certain degree, that they know everything; at least, certainly more than anyone who is old (…er!) or who doesn’t fit into their social circle.

There I was, standing on a street corner, two days shy of my 34th birthday, with two finally sleeping children and an exhausted wife at home. I looked less like an gainfully employed adult supporting a family than I did like a college student taking out the garbage in the hallway of his dorm.

I found myself asking two questions. The first, obviously, had to do with what other people were thinking as I walked by. My feelings were clear: I was under-dressed to even be making a quick run to CVS, let alone moving among people who were out for a night on the town. I felt conspicuous, as though every person who saw me was immediately thinking of some sort of judgment about me. “Look at that guy,” I could practically hear them saying to their friends. “He’s got the drawstrings hanging out of the front of his shorts, he’s wearing flip-flops in 50-degree weather and he’s probably had that sweatshirt since he was actually in college. That must have been like twenty years ago.”1 My usual impulse to play the contrarian role seemed to have less will behind it on that particular evening.

The second was, “Why should I care what they’re thinking?” By most typical measures of success in life,2 I have it made. As I mentioned, I had two beautiful sleeping children and an unbelievable wife – who was not yet sleeping – at home. I have multiple jobs, including a private therapy practice, a post-graduate education and a savings account. What do I have to feel uncomfortable about? Am I really that insecure or was I just temporarily yearning for the times when I was young(…er)?

I decided that what I was feeling was normal. I imagine that, to a certain extent, everyone longs for a time when they had fewer responsibilities and had the luxury of putting their effort into spending time with their friends or going to parties instead of making late night runs to the drug store. On a more basic level, I imagine that many adults at least think about the difference between first going out at 9:30 at night and having been wearing one’s pajamas for twenty minutes by the time 9:30 comes. It wasn’t about the girl or my clothes or the fact that my glasses and the stubble on my face from not having shaved combined to spell “exhaustion” across my forehead. It was about being reminded of where I am in my life and being happy with what I have.

I’m thankful for the fact that I’m employed, even if it feels like the work never ends. I appreciate the fact that I’m able to support my family financially so that my wife can stay home with our children. I’m lucky to have access to resources and the awareness that I’m significantly privileged so that Trudy and I can impart the same awareness to our kids as they get older. There are some challenges in my life, to be sure, but they’re not nearly as severe as those than many other people face on a daily basis. I wouldn’t change a thing.


1. I finished my bachelor’s degree in 2005. It was twelve years ago.

2. Including The Game of Life, where the very object of the game is to get married, raise a family, make a whole bunch of money and retire. This game may end up being the subject of a future blog post.

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.

Dear Mr. President

Dear Mr. President,

I’m going to begin by offering you congratulations on your inauguration today. You may not have won my vote, or even the votes of the majority of U.S. citizens, but you did win the votes you needed to win the election, which is why you’re standing where you are today. As I told my students after the election was over, “Whether you were happy with the results of the election or not, the system worked the way it was supposed to.” And so, I will congratulate you.

I must tell you, though, Mr. President, I am nervous about your upcoming administration.

I am concerned about the people you have appointed to your cabinet posts. Senator Jeff Sessions, whom you have selected as your attorney general, has a political history replete with racist actions and statements; your Secretary of State appointment, Rex Tillerson, has close ties with Russian leader Vladimir Putin; and your nomination for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, not only has no formal experience working in schools, she struggles to understand the basic policies of our education system. I’m not saying that you have to be an expert in these areas or that you should be running these political and economic systems yourself, but your appointments of people to positions who are on record as being biased against the agencies they are about to oversee are, as I said, concerning.

I’m also concerned about the connections between your supporters and acts of violence, acts which seemed to happen fairly frequently during your campaign. I’m willing to acknowledge the possibility that these incidents may not have been quite as prevalent as they seemed because of the publicity they received in the media. That being said, however, I would argue that even one act of violence on your behalf should be deemed deplorable, rather than minimized. It would also be comforting to hear you condemn acts of violence against women, people of color or even just people who disagree with you, rather than simply distancing yourself from those attacks, if you address them at all.

The root of my unease, Mr. President, is that I have difficulty believing that you have the well-being of our nation as your top priority. If my concerns stemmed simply from an inherent difference of political opinion, I would not be happy about your actions and cabinet appointments, but I would accept them. The problem is that every action you have taken, both during your campaign and since the election, has appeared to be self-serving, from maintaining ties to your businesses after being elected to appointing Rick Perry to head the Department of Energy, a position neither of you understood. Even if it is not necessarily the case, it appears to me you are more focused on your own interests than on how you will achieve your goal of making America great again.

Mr. President, you have the most unique of opportunities before you. Today you are becoming our Commander-in-Chief and our representative to the rest of the world. It is a position of great power, to be sure; but, as we learned from Spider-Man, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

If I may be so bold, I would like to give you some advice as you begin your new position. You don’t have to listen to it but I sincerely hope that you will at least consider it. You seem to put so much stock in what other people think of you, taking to Twitter to post angry responses, whether you feel you’ve been slighted by CNN, Saturday Night Live or Meryl Streep. I believe that one of the reasons why many people – including me – have been so outwardly negative about your election victory is that we do not feel like you see yourself as our leader. As I said earlier, your actions seem to indicate you have only your own interests in mind. It appears as though you plan to lead the members of your own socioeconomic group and the rest of us will have to fend for ourselves.

My advice is this: lead all of us. Answer our questions, rather than suppressing the voices that imply that you might be wrong. Explain the rationales behind your actions and support your arguments with facts. Reassure us that you are thinking about the consequences of your comments and that you are listening to advisers who have some political experience as opposed to just your business buddies. Assuage our fears by demonstrating that you’re not just making decisions because “you feel like it.” Be more transparent about your thought process and engage in true political discourse, rather than simply insulting the people who contradict you.

We may not be happy with your policies or your political actions. You still may not get our agreement. But you may get our respect.

Congratulations again, Mr. President.

Sincerely,

Aaron

The Morning After

Dear Eitan and Shayna,

Yesterday was a tough day. It started quite promising, as we were all able to leave the apartment in the morning as a family so that you could watch your mom and me vote in one of the most important elections in our lifetime. We wanted you to see us exercise our rights to have our voices heard in choosing our representatives in government because we know that there are people all over the world who are not nearly as lucky. We also wanted you to get a sense of the gravity of the situation, since this election carried extra weight. The two main candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, were diametrically opposed in many of their views, particularly regarding equal rights for women, the LGBT community and people of color. Plus, there was also the very real possibility that we would be able to take part in electing the first female president of the United States.

Your mom and I were genuinely excited when we left the poll. We thought we were about to see Hillary elected, a move that would launch missiles at the glass ceiling that has trapped women in our country for decades. We thought that there was no way that Trump could be elected, not after the campaign he ran using bigotry, misogyny and flat-out lies. We thought that American citizens would respond positively to Trump’s anti-establishment rhetoric but that they would be so shocked by his blatant disrespect and disregard for those who disagreed with him – let alone, those who had the audacity to be born with a vagina – that they would send him back where he came from.

We were wrong.

The two of you are in a difficult position right now. You know that there was this thing called an election, that we spoke with you about hope for the future and about not voting for the “silly man.” You know that, the morning after, there were parents in your school hallway in tears as they hugged each other, trying to find comfort after such a confusing, depressing and, for many, infuriating night. You may hear grownups talk about walls or deportations or even about moving to Canada. The reason people are talking like this is because they are scared for the future and, if adults are scared, you might be too.

Don’t be.

I’ll admit, I’m as frustrated and disappointed as anyone. I think our country had a real opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to equality and social justice and we somehow decided to go the other way. But, despite yesterday’s election results, I don’t think we’ve necessarily lost that opportunity altogether. Eitan, I’ve written countless times about your caring, sensitive heart and how much I admire your intelligence and your desire to help others. Shayna, you may not even be six months old yet, but you’ve already shown that you’re one of the happiest babies I’ve ever met. Your smile lights up every room you enter and the twinkle in your eyes when you recognize your family is truly amazing. Our country may feel a bit dimmer this morning, but we’re all going to continue working together to ensure that our lights are able to shine even brighter through the darkness. The fight for justice lost a major battle last night, but we’ve hardly lost the war.

Yesterday didn’t go as we planned or hoped and the next four years are not going to be easy for anyone. We have each other, though, and there are a lot of people who are with us in this struggle. You may feel scared at times and that’s okay; we’re scared sometimes too. It’s natural to be afraid when the future is filled with so much uncertainty. If you have questions, we’ll do our best to answer them. And, if we don’t know the answers, we’ll just keep having the conversations that need to be had so that we can figure things out together.

Love,

Daddy

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?