Tuesday, August 1, 2017

On being a father: early influences

I'm going to take a break from writing about cancer and death. I want to write down some memories---happy memories, with one exception you'll see below. The posts in the series won't be connected in any way; they will be on completely different topics. (I say ``series'', but this will depend on my ever-dwindling energy level.)



If I were to be asked ``what was your greatest accomplishment in life?'', I would answer without hestitation: Raising my two wonderful daughters, Jessica and Abigail. Needless to say, this was a joint project with my equally wonderful wife Wendy, who I think of as being as close to the perfect mother as a mother could be. Equally obvious is that Jessie and Abby themselves deserve the credit for being who they are today. I do take proud credit for my contribution, however. In this post I want to talk about three things, all dating back to teenage years, that influenced my fathering philosophy.

1. The biggest early influence on my parenting philosophy was my father, via the horrifically bad example that he set. When I was seventeen, I swore a solemn oath that I would never be like my father and that if I had children I would do exactly the opposite of what he did.

My siblings and I felt a combination of fear, loathing and outright hatred toward him. I can remember as far back as age 9 being overjoyed whenever I heard that Dad was going on a long business trip. Two weeks without Dad! It was like Christmas.
When were living in Brussels (I was 13), I founded the ``We hate Dad Club''. For a time we had a system of secret signals to alert the others that Dad was coming.

First of all, he was constantly critical of all of us. You weren't pulling the weeds up by the roots. You weren't sweeping the floor correctly. You missed a spot washing the car. You didn't speak up properly at the dinner table. When I first moved out and was living on my own, I remember a time when I was sweeping the floor and suddenly realized: Hey! I can sweep this floor any damn way I please! I even deliberately missed a spot in the corner just as a symbolic way (admittedly rather juvenile) of getting back at him. He had a way of making the simplest chores a form of torture. To this day I can't stand being criticized.

He was also prone to outbursts of irrational anger. Woe to the child who spilled a glass of milk or accidentally scratched the furniture. He might fly into a rage and berate you for you carelessness and incompetence, even if it was an accident that could just as well have happened to an adult. In a few extreme cases he could be unbelievably awful. Once he was upset with Jan's table manners, and made her eat the rest of her dinner on the floor, out of the dog's dish. Another time Ken was walking around barefoot in his bedroom despite the fact that a number of tacks had gotten scattered over the floor. Dad warned him (sensibly enough) to either pick up the tacks or put on some shoes. He didn't, and sure enough stepped on a tack with a bare foot, with painful results. Now any halfway normal parent would just comfort the child, as the lesson was now learned. Even a gentle form of ``I told you so'' would be appropriate. Dad's reaction was that Ken should have ``stupid'' written on his forehead.

Dad was a dyed-in-the-wool sexist of the old school. A woman's purpose was to get married, and if she worked in the meantime, there were only three suitable jobs: nurse, secretary, and teacher. When Jan was accepted into graduate school, she needed money and out of desperation asked Dad for a small loan. He refused, saying that she was just ``educating herself out of the marriage market''. Clearly no man would marry a woman with a Ph.D. Just as clearly, choosing not to get married at all was inconceivable.
I could continue with such examples indefinitely. I'll mention just two more, much milder in nature but still illustrative of Dad's totally misguided approach to life and to raising a child. On one of the rare occasions that I asked Dad for help with a math problem (I think this was around ninth grade), I was quite puzzled as to why my method hadn't worked, and wanted to find out where I'd gone wrong. Dad's dismissive response, in his characteristically authoritarian tone: ``Let's not look at the WRONG way to do it; let's look at the RIGHT way to do it.'' Utter cluelessness. In mathematics and probably many other fields, some of the most productive learning experiences and greatest moments of enlightenment come from understanding one's mistakes. This is as true for professional mathematicians as it is for ninth graders. Surely even a father who didn't understand this fact would still try to answer a direct question from his child. Not Dad.

The second incident was much later in life. By age 20 or so I had reconciled with Dad, and we were on friendly terms. He still regularly produced his usual Dad-isms, but I would just ignore them. Moving ahead a decade, we were having dinner at my sister's house in Boston, when Jessie was about two months old. Dad was there too. Jessie was asleep in a little basket upstairs, but close enough of course that Wendy and I would hear her if she started to cry. In the middle of dinner she did start crying, and Wendy and I immediately jumped up to go get her. ``Somebody's going to get spoiled,'' said Dad in his smug sarcastic way, drawing out that last word. As usual, I just rolled my eyes and ignored him, all the while thinking that this one of the most stunning displays of lack of self-awareness I'd ever witnessed. Did he not realize how ridiculous this made him look? Dad, what the hell do you know about raising an infant? Absolutely nothing. As I understand it, he never even held his own children when they were babies. Furthermore, it is not possible to ``spoil'' a two-month old baby. An infant has only one way to communicate, namely to cry. They can't tell you what they need. All they can do is cry, which I think of as the baby saying ``I'm very unhappy and I wish I could tell you why, but I can't.'' You don't know why the baby is crying, and you need to find out, a fact that apparently was lost on Dad. Once when Jessie was five months old or so, she was crying and crying and we could not figure out why. Well, she was wearing an old-fashioned cloth diaper held together with safety pins, and it turned out one of the pins had come undone and was sticking into her leg. We felt terrible. I still feel guilty about it, although Jessie appears to have fully recovered from the traumatic experience.

To sum up, my vow was to be the exact opposite of my own father. Give your children love, compassion and respect. Give them freedom to grow, to learn---including from their own mistakes---and to follow their own dreams. Encourage and support them. If they are girls, given them some extra support to help neutralize the insidious forces of sexism arrayed against them. Most of all, love them.

2. At 17 I read A.S. Neill's ``Summerhill'', which had a major influence on my life. I think I've mentioned Summerhill earlier in this blog, so I'll just give a minimal outline. Neill (1883-1973) was a Scottish educator who founded an unusual boarding school called Summerhill. For us today, the mere concept of sending a child to boarding school is unthinkable, but in Britain at the time it was very common and considered perfectly ``normal''. At Summerhill there was absolutely no requirement to attend class, do homework, or take exams. The school was governed collectively by all students and teachers. At school meetings the vote of a six-year old carried the same weight as the vote of the headmaster, Neill. When visitors expressed skepticism that this could really be true, Neill would invite them to a school meeting where they might see Neill's own proposals voted down by the students. Here at last was the philosophy of freedom to learn and freedom from authority that I'd been looking for.

Thinking about the application of this philosophy, it became clear to me right away that it would be impossible to duplicate the full Summerhill experience elsewhere. First of all, Summerhill was not just a teaching philosophy but a way of life, with the boarding school aspect as an integral part of it. Second, the entire enterprise was heavily dependent on the personality of one man. In later years, as a teacher and as a parent, I would never have said ``let's run all our schools like Summerhill''. It wouldn't work. In the home, raising children, one could use much more of the Summerhill method. In any case, the important thing to me was the spirit of Summerhill. The freedom to learn is just one part of it. Mutual respect is another. Yes, children should respect their parents. But it goes both ways; parent must respect their children. To this day I have kept the spirit of Summerhill within me.

3. In retrospect I consider myself very lucky to have had the experience of baby-sitting the four Hooker children: Cindi (9), Linda (7), Danny (5) and Kim (3). I was fifteen and had never thought of a career in baby-sitting, even at the attractive wage of fifty cents an hour. Jan had been doing it for a while, but at some point had a time conflict or just wanted to move on. So the Hookers (who lived just down the street; Cindi was a friend of Victoria's) asked me at the last minute. For at least a year I would babysit every Thursday evening while the parents went to choir practice, plus the occasional Saturday when they went out on a date. For whatever reason I was a big hit with the kids.

The first thing I learned is how fun and how gratifying it is to be greeted at the door by a little gang of jack-in-the-boxes, bouncing up and down with excitement yelling ``Steve's here! Steve's here!''. Other learning experiences were quite unexpected. On one of my first evenings little Kim went poop by herself on the toilet. But before she flushed it down, she insisted on dragging me into the bathroom to view her creation, as though it were a rare work of art. She was so proud and excited. Now, this kind of thing is not exactly on the radar of a teenage boy; I was quite surprised by it. Little things like this got me to thinking about early child development from a new perspective.
I also learned (this is well-known to all parents) that once you do some funny story or trick, they'll want you to do it every time.
I began an alternative to story-reading at bedtime that the kids dubbed a ``Funny Show''. This involved gathering some of their stuffed animals who then go off on various adventures and misadventures, acted out with the animals and various funny voices. For example, the good animals might defeat the nefarious Dr. Drooley-Trashit by splatting mud in his face, to the great and prolonged hilarity of all. From then on, there was a constant chorus ``Do a Funny Show, do a Funny Show!'' Before long I started running out of good material, but the great thing about little kids is that they're perfectly happy with re-runs, and even seem to prefer repetition.

Standing in Danny's doorway, about to turn out the light, I tried to settle him down a bit by singing some verses from the then-current ``Mr. Spaceman'' by the Byrds. (Those of a certain age might remember the chorus: ``Hey, Mr. Spaceman, won't you please take me along, I won't do anything wrong''. It's a catchy tune.) Naturally, from then on it became obligatory. ``Sing Mr. Spaceman!'' No doubt it was partly just a stalling tactic, but he did seem to really enjoy it. Finally the light would go out, I'd close the door and breathe a sigh of relief, only to hear a plaintive little voice from Linda's room: ``Ste-eve...I'm thirsty''.

I gained experience in dealing with the many trials and tribulations of the little ones. Danny was quite nearsighted, and needed glasses to be able to watch TV. One day his favorite program---a cartoon involving dinosaurs, as I recall---was about to come on and he couldn't find his glasses. The poor little guy was distraught, pleading with me in heart-rending tones ``Steve, find my glasses''. The key is to be sympathetic, but at the same time remain calm. Danny, I have no idea where your glasses are. Can you help me find them? Can you think of where you last saw them? We did find them, just in time, and a terrible tragedy was thus averted.

On another occasion we were all watching an enjoyable cartoon movie called ``Gay Purree''. It features various cats living in Paris, including a male and female kitty who are in love. They somehow become separated in the big city, and are unable to find each other. I was startled to find Linda crawling up onto my lap, sobbing inconsolably: ``Steve, will they ever see each other again?'' I held her in my arms and reassured her that yes, I was quite certain that they would. I remember this incident vividly, not just because it surprised me but because I discovered how rewarding it is to comfort a distressed child and transform tears into smiles.

Like just about all children, the Hooker kids did have their moments as exasperating, misbehaving little delinquents. Putting them to bed could be very difficult, and certainly tried my patience on a number of occasions. When I was desperate, I would resort to threatening to call their parents. If the behaviour persisted I would pick up the phone and start dialing random numbers, provoking a panicked chorus of ``Nooooo! Puhleeeez! Don't, we're getting in bed!'' It was pretty funny really.

Needless to say, baby-sitting once or twice a week is in no way comparable to actual parenting. But it did give me some practical experience. It had a big influence on me, partly in subliminal ways that only later came to the surface. I discovered that I really liked small children. It opened my eyes to the joys and complications of child-rearing. It gave me an up-close look at how those high-sounding principles of love, compassion and respect were going to be sorely tested at times. Still, in a small way, I did actually love the little guys.


All of these things had a major influence on my thinking about fatherhood. But when it came to the real thing, when our beautiful daughters were born in 1982 and 1984, there was a new factor that dwarfed all others: my wonderful wife Wendy. We worked extremely well as a parenting team. Just look at the results, and I rest my case. Even today we still sometimes look at Abigail and Jessica, pat each other on the back, do a couple of high-fives and say to each other: Didn't we do GREAT?


  1. That was a beautiful, honest post, Steve. I'm lucky to have heard many of these stories first-hand over the years. Your description of a baby's attempt to communicate using the only tool she has is an empathetic, compassionate, and spot-on account of what Emily and I have experienced with Elliott and Oliver.

    Your stories about babysitting reminded me of a favorite Dar Williams song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CJi0GlC6v3o

    And while I'm on subject of Dar Williams, your comments on supporting girls and fighting sexism remind me also of "When I Was a Boy": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IcOlkA3ghf4

    Oh, and in case it hasn't been obvious these many years, your influences have, in turn, influenced many other. I can hardly think of a friend whose views on life, teaching, parenting (and hiking!) have impacted me more than yours have.

    Love and immense fondness,

  2. Wonderful and so very enjoyable blog. Except for the baby sitting experience, the initial part describing the dad just runs a parallel in my case. Of course, dad's then and dad's now have to be different - a sign of changing times. I too have two lovely, now grown up daughters and it was great for us parents to bring them up.


  3. Wonderful and so very enjoyable blog. Except for the baby sitting experience, the initial part describing the dad just runs a parallel in my case. Of course, dad's then and dad's now have to be different - a sign of changing times. I too have two lovely, now grown up daughters and it was great for us parents to bring them up.


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