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

Photo Credit: Bigstock (noblige)

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

Photo Credit: smcgee via Compfight cc

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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A Little Inspiration for Parents, Dads, and Everyone Who Needs a Bit of Kindness

It’s just an ordinary Thursday afternoon.

But, somehow, the veil hanging over the face of the world gets ripped right off.

I’ve taken my kids to a secluded park along the edge of a languid river, because they love the single slide and the lone merry-go-round that reside there. Maybe the autumn light is slanting just right or maybe the painted leaves are just the right amount of incandescent. Whatever it is, as my kids run and laugh and climb and laugh and slide and laugh and spin themselves into an orbit of energy and joy and abandon, the edges of the world get sharper and the light gets brighter. In the still, crisp air, a single leaf float-rocks its way to the ground in front of me and everything snaps into focus:

We’re all leaves, on our way from budding to dying.

My kids are six, eight, and twelve and they are, each of them, like leaves in the springtime, erupting into life, caged energy unfurled, color exploding, anticipation bursting, and joy expanding. They have an entire cycle of life ahead of them. They are promise and possibility and every unlived moment just waiting to happen.

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These days, I feel a little more like a leaf at the end of a long summer.

The days are still long and there’s still plenty of sunlight, but the hot, dog days of the season have sapped some of my initial energy and strength. I’m a little more dry. A little more brittle. These are good days. My edges haven’t yet begun to shrivel and my colors have only just begun to change, but that changing season is not as far off as it used to be.

My wife’s grandparents visited recently. They are almost ninety, and they traveled halfway across the country to see us. They are raging against the dying of the light, like autumn leaves that refuse to give up their color, refuse to release their hold upon the branch which has born them, refuse to give in to the winter that’s coming.

Perhaps it’s because my children are frolicking on the same playground upon which I played as a kid. Perhaps it’s seeing the me-I-once-was in them and wondering if, someday, they might stand in this very spot while watching their own kids come to life. Whatever it is, time and space fold in upon themselves and every season of my life is present at once. All of it. From the budding to the dying. And I decide to enjoy the end of my summer by being a witness to their springtime. While I can.

In a quiet park in the middle of nowhere, a late-summer leaf watches three springtime buds.

And it is, for a moment, almost more peace than I can handle.

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The Lesson We Can Learn from Kids About How to Care for Our Souls

Sometimes we give the last bit of our time and energy to trying to change our minds, when what we need to do is simply rest our bodies…

mental health

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It’s the first heat wave in our new house.

And, for some reason, the air conditioner won’t turn on.

And I’m out of town, working long hours, getting my new therapy practice up and running. My family’s back home sweating, and I’m at the office putting all my blood, sweat, and tears into this new enterprise. Do I quit early and go home and try to fiddle with the faulty appliance? Or do I stick with my professional obligations and call in other professionals to fix the A/C?

Neither.

I work until 11pm, travel an hour home, hit Walmart at midnight, install a new thermostat (which still doesn’t fix the problem), and fall into bed for four hours of sweaty sleep before the kids wake up for school. Because my unspoken motto is:

If life throws you lemons, juggle them all day long and finally think about making lemonade when you’re too tired to drink it.

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Why I Want My Kids to Be in Pain

I used to think it was a parent’s job to protect their kids from pain. Now I know, it’s a parent’s job to point their kids in the direction of the pain…

parenting

I failed my daughter.

It’s the end of August, we’re in a new town with new schools, and we’re walking toward the building where she’ll begin kindergarten in three short days. It’s our first back-to-school orientation in this new place, so we’re figuring it out as we go. And, as I look around at the converging crowd, I see moms and dads and grandparents with little human beings in tow, and all the big people are carrying big bags full of bulk Kleenex, gallon-sized Ziploc bags, and vats of hand sanitizer.

I, in contrast, am empty-handed.

And my daughter is observant.

She looks up at me with concern in her eyes and asks, “Daddy, why are all the other kids bringing their stuff to school today?”

I’m tempted to respond, “Well, Sweetie, because those bags are bigger than you, and it will be impossible for you to carry it into your first day of school all by yourself along with your big backpack and the big lump in your throat, so every other parent is doing the completely obvious thing and getting the delivery out of the way ahead of time. You see, the other parents are smarter and probably just plain better than me. Also, though you will already feel lonely and alienated enough on your first day at a new school in a new town, I wanted to make sure you feel even more different than the other kids.”

Then, I imagine handing her a blank check for the years of therapy she’s going to need.

What I actually say is, “Sweetie, this is all new to us, so we’re making it up as we go. We’ll figure it out, though.” Meanwhile, the little kid inside of me who remembers what it was like to be on a first-day-of-school-in-a-new-town playground is off crying in some corner of my heart and quietly hating me for my incompetence.

After all, isn’t it a father’s job to protect his kids from all pain and suffering?

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