Dear Little One, Release Your Shame (A Letter from a Father to a Child)

shame

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Dear Little One,

You have not been perfect. Far from it.

Do you remember the time you crept downstairs while everyone was sleeping and snuck the Kool-Aid from the refrigerator? Do you remember how, when you got caught, you lied and said you didn’t do it? You’ve punished yourself for that transgression for long enough. You are forgiven. Release your shame.

You are not the poor decisions you sometimes make.

Do you remember the time you accidentally brought home someone else’s homework, feared getting into trouble for making a mistake, and stuffed the homework beneath our house, where you thought no one would find it? You’ve lived in fear long enough. Release your shame.

You are not the things you do when you are most afraid.

Do you remember the bullies on the playground? You were trying to figure out how to become a man, and with every bruise, you doubted more and more if you could become one. The bruises on your skin became bruises on your heart. Your skin has healed—it is time now for your heart to heal, too. Release your shame.

You are not defined by the bruises you’ve picked up along the way.

Do you remember when you became the bully? Do you remember how you teased that poor, sad, lonely kid on the playground? You’ve wounded people. This is true. But the shame you’ve felt about it is a wound that festers, infecting you and everyone around you. Release your shame.

You are not the desperate things you’ve done in order to belong.

Do you remember all the subtle ways you’ve arrogantly looked down upon your peers? I get it. You think you’re fighting for a spot in a very tiny winner’s circle. You’ve fallen into the same trap as the rest of us. You are forgiven. Release your arrogance, which is really just another guise for your shame.

You are not the games you’ve played and won, or lost.  

Little One, I pray you will release your shame, because the truth is, you are me. Though I’ve written many letters to my own children, this is a letter to you, the child I once was, the little one who still exists somewhere within me. In fact, I think all those letters to my kids have also been a letter to you—the scared, ashamed, confused, and desperate little kid I was and, in some ways, still am.

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A Guide to Getting the Love You Never Knew You Wanted

We all want to be loved unconditionally, yet most of the love we give is conditional. Which means we’re all trying to get the love we think we want by giving the kind of love nobody really wants. But what if there is a third kind of love—one we deeply desire but don’t even know we want?

love

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It’s a Sunday night at the end of a busy weekend and shoehorning the kids back into a school week has been even more cumbersome than usual. We’re finally moving toward bedtime books, when I walk into the basement and see kid-sized, mud-colored footprints all over the carpet.

So, I decide to love my kids conditionally.

While pretending to love them unconditionally.

Without a raised voice or a complaint, I get down on my knees to clean the carpet—the selfless servant loving his family. Except with every spray of the stain remover, I heave a big-heavy sigh. Big enough and loud enough to be heard from my boys’ bedroom. Then, while the spray soaks in, I continue tucking them into bed. But I make sure my shoulders are slumped. I groan with fatigue. I sprinkle in a lot more sighing.

This is my favorite form of unconditional love:

While loving someone, let them know in subtle—and mostly deniable—ways how much that love is costing you. Indirectly communicate that they are a burden to you. Show them how hard they make your life. Of course, you aren’t actually expecting anything in return—you simply want them to feel as distraught as you do about the hard work of caring for them. If they don’t appear to be getting it, you might be disguising it too well. Sigh harder.

If sighing harder still doesn’t work, you might want to experiment with several other thinly-disguised forms of conditional love:

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How to Talk with Family About Politics This Holiday Season

What do you get when you mix family, the holidays, and politics? Gratitude and goodwill toward all, right? Well, actually…

election

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A number of years ago—when marijuana was still illegal everywhere—I stumbled into a particularly heated marijuana debate between two acquaintances. They weren’t a couple of half-baked high school kids raging against The Man; they were two highly educated professionals. One man was aggressively in favor of legalizing marijuana, the other man violently opposed to it.

They asked for my opinion.

I remember feeling a sense of dread, like I was wading into dangerous waters, with hungry things swimming beneath the murky surface. The debate did not go well.

They rarely do, do they?

Today, we find ourselves at the end of a season of unproductive debates, and at the beginning of a new season. We have important problems to solve and differing opinions about how to do so. Differences between people create tension, tension leads to conflict, and conflict usually results in gridlock at best and violence at worst. But it doesn’t have to.

In fact, sometimes, conflict can be the beginning of authentic community…

The marijuana debate had ended and I was in the car on the way home with my wife when I finally got a glimpse beneath the surface of the ideological waters I’d been swimming in. She explained that the legalization advocate had recently watched his father die a slow and painful death from cancer, while marijuana was the only thing that relieved his father’s suffering.

The man’s grief had given rise to his opinions.

In contrast, the marijuana opponent had been raised in a family torn apart by drug addiction. His brother had gone through repeated treatments and relapses and it had devastated the entire family. His pain, too, had given rise to his opinions. There was something floating beneath the surface of that contentious debate:

Stories.

The stories of two hurting people. Stories of fear and pain and anguish and loss. Stories that formed their ideas and opinions and beliefs. Stories that gave birth to natural conclusions about the way the world works best. It turns out, a person’s ideas are never simply their ideas. Opinions and beliefs are never born in a vacuum; they are always the logical result of our experiences.

Every opinion is a story in disguise.

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A Father’s Letter to His Little Ones (In the Wee Hours of the Election)

Dear Little Ones,

You are already asleep in your beds. It’s late, and I’m going to bed. It’s been a long election day.

election results

When this day began, I woke up, and I walked to the corner coffee shop in the dim, predawn light, down streets already aglow with Christmas lights. Ordinarily, I would have been cynical about the early start to the holiday season. This morning, I was grateful for the reminder that there is light in the world and, soon, we will be celebrating it. I arrived at the coffee shop. It was more crowded than normal. Almost certainly, these were voters who had awoken earlier than usual. But for a moment, just one blessed moment, I didn’t see voters. I didn’t see politics; I saw people. Just human beings, trying to wake up to yet another day, trying in some more profound way to wake up to this one life. They weren’t, at that moment, casting votes; they were just breathing. Eating. Drinking.

Little Ones, we have far more in common than in conflict, and we would know this if, instead of seeing fear and anger and ideology, we could see beneath the surface: our beating hearts, the blood pulsing through our veins, lungs filling and emptying, joints aging and aching. This morning, for one peaceful moment, I saw all these people this way, and in that moment, the lights on the trees outside weren’t the only lights I could see in the world.

It is late, and I’m going to bed, and it’s not clear how this whole disgraceful American season is going to end. I don’t know who will be the leader of our land. I don’t know how that leader will influence the laws of our land. These are things we cannot control. But as I turn in, I can tell you what we can control: the law of our family’s land—the law of this land inside our four walls.

We will love everyone who crosses our path.

Those who are most in need, are those who are most in need of us.

Fear is fired. It doesn’t get to call the shots for us.

Anger is okay. But not when it harms, only when it redeems.

Arrogance is natural, but we will call upon something supernatural within us to put it down.

Grace is a way of seeing. It is Love seeing the beauty at the center of everything. We will see to the center.

All those things your kindergarten teacher told you to do? Be kind. Share. Include. Create……Do them. Be laughed at for doing them all the way into adulthood. Keep doing them.

Remember, each of you play an indispensable role in this family of ours. Remember, everyone plays an indispensable role in this great big family of ours called humanity.

Little Ones, like those lights on the trees of the street, and like those lights in the people in the coffee shop, there is a light inside each of you. Here is the most important law of our little land:

Let it shine.

Yours,

Daddy

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Why I’m Glad It’s Back-to-School Time (and Not Ashamed to Admit It)

It is time for the kids to go back to school.

For the last three years, in late August, I’ve written with nostalgia and grief about the passing of their youth, with trepidation about what they will learn on the playground, with empathy about the fear of a new school and new teachers and new friends, and with heartbreak about the inevitability of it all.

This is not that kind of post.

back-to-school

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This year, when I say it is time for the kids to go back to school, I mean it is time for the kids to go back to school, as in, the joy of summer is all used up. As in, either they leave for school, or my sanity is going to leave me. I’m not sure which will happen first. It could be a photo finish.

What is the difference between this year and the last three years?

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A Dad’s Letter to His Kids (About the Perfect Father’s Day Gift)

Dear Little Ones,

The Kohl’s catalogue arrived in the mail again.

Another Father’s Day, another 20% off coupon, and another volume of masculine-looking gifts: lots of sports stuff, grilling stuff, and gadgety stuff. But I’m not writing to tell you about the gift I want you to give me.

I’m writing to tell you about the gifts you’ve already given me.

Father's Day gift

Photo Credit: Bigstock (altanaka)

You’ve helped me give up control.

From the moment I found out you were in your momma’s belly, the most important thing in my life was also the thing over which I had the least control. For thirteen years now—through birth and growth and temper tantrums and increasing independence—I’ve had to learn how to be caring without being controlling. As you know, I’m still learning, but the lesson is one of the most valuable gifts a man can receive.

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The 7 Most Cleverly Disguised Pitfalls of Parenting

When our first child was born, I was terrified, because I thought I had no idea how to be a parent. I’m no longer as scared as I used to be, but I think that’s just because I’ve gotten used to being wrong. Turns out, you don’t really learn how to parent; you gradually learn, one day and mistake at a time, how not to parent. Now, twelve years later—almost a whole teenager later—I know I’ve fallen into some pretty common parenting traps. At least seven of them:

parenting

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A Daddy’s Letter to His Little Girl (About How Fast She’s Walking Away)

Dear Little One,

We have this unspoken ritual, you and I.

When we pull up to the curb at school, and you disembark for another day in kindergarten, we both know I’m going to idle there and keep an eye on you, until you disappear around the corner of the building. Some days, you walk briskly, never looking back.

Other days, you meander, turning and waving goodbye repeatedly.

Then, when we pulled up to the curb one morning last week, I said, “Sweetie, we’re here really early today; you’ll have plenty of time to play,” and you said something that squeezed my heart a little too hard:

“We have plenty of time for you to watch me walk away, Daddy.”

parenting

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Oh, Sweetie, if you only knew: that’s what I have done, am doing, and will be doing for your entire life…watching you walk away…

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This Is How Kids Will React to Taking Away Their Electronics (In Sequence)

video games

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Every once in a while, every family needs to detox.

Collect all the electronics—the Kindles and iPads and iPods and Nintendo DSs and smart phones—and lock them away. Pull the plug on the television and the PlayStation and the Xbox, too. Don’t do it secretively. Announce it. Tell the young ones you’re going a week or a month or whatever without Minecraft and Netflix and Halo.

Beware, though. Because when you do, something will happen….

  1. First, they’ll begin to spasm and screech, as if possessed by a demon. What do I mean by that? Well, picture a demon possession. Got it? That’s what it will look like. There will be a significant amount of overlap with how an addict responds when you take away their crack. That’s not coincidence. They’re addicted and you’re taking away their crack.
  2. They will hate you.
  3. You’ll tell them they’re kids and that’s how they’re supposed to react. It’s your job to do what is healthy for them, and it’s their job to hate you for it. For about thirty years. Or until they have kids of their own. Whichever comes first.
  4. That will make them angrier.
  5. They’ll negotiate. And they’ll be cunning. You’ll discover they understand more about how you and the family work than you ever fathomed. They’ll probe at every crack and fault line. They’ll turn passive-aggression into an art form.
  6. When you fail to cave in, they’ll up the ante. They’ll get angrier. Make threats. Scream louder. Doors will slam. Demon possession may or may not reoccur.
  7. They’ll try to guess the passcode on your mobile phone. It may not have games on it, but at this point, they’ll settle for anything that can bathe their little faces in the the cold blue wash of LED light. They’ll try and fail until it locks you out for an hour. Maybe even forever. You’ll have to restore it to factory settings. And if you still don’t cave…
  8. They will still hate you.
  9. Their social life will suffer. They will not be able to communicate with friends via iMessage, text message, SnapChat, or Xbox One. They will plead with you, telling you they are becoming social pariahs. They probably are. They’ll tell you their friends think your evil. They probably do. And when you still don’t cave, they will suddenly resort to the antiquated ritual of sitting at the family computer. At a desk. And Facebooking. You will limit that to thirty minutes a day, too.
  10. So they will hate you even more.
  11. Then, some time later—the exact timing will vary depending upon the extent of their addiction, the stubbornness of their personality, and the amount of hormones coursing through their blood—you will start to notice a subtle shift in energy. They will still hate you—at least a little—but they will be somehow more present. And they will also begin doing other things. They’ll find two old Matchbox cars in a drawer and they’ll start a chase scene in the kitchen, complete with little-kid-explosion-noises. They’ll pull an old dollhouse out of the closet and you’ll hear imaginary banter coming from their bedroom. Imaginations will reawaken. Creativity will be resurrected. Someone might even go outside. Touch a basketball. Climb onto a bike. Caution: unused muscles may get unusually sore. Thumb muscles will begin to shrink back to normal size.
  12. They’ll slowly stop hating you. They won’t like you. But they will stop fantasizing about your sudden disappearance.
  13. Whereas before, these young minds were being filled up from the outside and absorbing all sorts of electronic stimulation, they will now fill up from the inside and begin overflowing with the natural stimulation of their own interior world. They may start to talk. A lot. You’ll begin to see parts of them you haven’t seen in a long while. Maybe ever. They will be brilliant. Like the face of a diamond.
  14. You will have to put down your phone to listen. (Be careful what you ask for.)
  15. Over time, their brains will begin to settle down, into their natural rhythm. They will no longer slip into a stupor when faced with anything that doesn’t light up, flash, or explode. They will begin to find homework less excruciating, boredom less torturous, and silence and solitude less terrifying.
  16. They’ll finally give in and start communicating with their friends face-to-face again. They’ll play board games. Go out to McDonald’s and look at each other instead of their phones. They’ll lay out under the stars together and wonder. They’ll discover, when you use more than 140 characters, you see depths in another you never knew existed.
  17. They may hug you. Because tangible human contact is beginning to feel meaningful again.
  18. Eventually, you may want to put down your phone more often, as well, because as you see the spark being fanned to life in them, you will wonder if, maybe, just maybe, you have a spark like that still alight somewhere in you, too.
  19. They’ll graduate high school, go off to college, and actually not flunk out. They’ll look their professors in the eye. They’ll understand the importance of etiquette and actually use it. They’ll discover a passion inside of them that does not begin with “videogame” and end with “designer.” They’ll give their passion to the world.
  20. And then, one day, many years from now, they’ll come home and it’ll be the day you told them about so long ago. The day they’re finally grateful you took all the mind-numbing devices away. Or maybe they won’t be grateful. But either way, you’ll be grateful you did it. Because you’ll know, regardless of how it turned out, you did the hard thing so they could have the best shot at the best of things: the opportunity to be fully human and to launch themselves headlong into this thing we call being alive.

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Next Post: It’s All the Rage: How Outrage Has Become a Virtue

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Is Parenting Beautiful or Brutal? Or Both?

Parents tend to fall into one of two camps: those who believe there is nothing that needs to be redeemed about parenting, and those who believe there is nothing that can be redeemed about parenting. We need a third camp…

parenting

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Last night, my kids tortured me.

Oldest Son had had a particularly intriguing day in Social Studies, where they’d debated the genetic engineering of fetuses. He didn’t care if it could result in increasingly flawless human beings—he’d rather be himself than be perfect. I agreed with him, and some part of me—a very tiny part, the part of me with energy, the part that’s been gradually shrinking during a decade of parenting—loved the discussion.

But mostly, after a long day, it was like fingernails on the chalkboard.

And Youngest Son, knowing pumpkin soup was awaiting him at the dinner table, buried his head so deeply in a book he could pretend his ears were blocked when called to eat. The truth is, I didn’t care if he ate or not. But dinner was the first domino in a long line of them: packing lunches, doing dishes, taking out the garbage, baths, pajamas, bedtime books, and at least a handful of commands to get back into bed.

When he finally came, he took one look at the soup and said he felt dizzy.

I was too angry to empathize.

Youngest Daughter, on the other hand, came right to the table. And promptly knocked over an entire glass of water. I didn’t yell. I was too tired for that, too. And getting up for a towel seemed to require a monumental effort. So, for a moment, I just stared at the expanding puddle, running toward the edges of the table. She decided to help by blowing against it.

Towels work better.

As I soaked up water, I decided they were conspiring to ruin me. I imagined them commiserating on the bus on the way home: “Okay, I’ll overwhelm him with extraversion, you infuriate him with lack of respect, and you demoralize him with mess.”

I felt like I had switched camps in an ongoing battle in the parenting blogosphere:

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