Thursday, January 15, 2009

Parenting Takes Balls

Oh, the places you'll go! There is fun to be done!
There are points to be scored. there are games to be won.
And the magical things you can do with that ball
will make you the winning-est winner of all.
--Dr. Suess

As parents, we do a lot for our children. Obviously. I know that by about my third day as a new father, I had realized practically everything I would be doing from then on, forever, would be done, in one context or another, for my children.

Lots of things are done deliberately: bathing, feeding, changing diapers, soothing boo-boos, administering discipline, helping with homework, begrudgingly handing over the credit card for that Homecoming dress she has to have--you get the idea. But it takes some deep thought to realize just how much of parenting is done behind the scenes. You need only watch your five year old repeat your exact words and reaction to spilling dinner on the kitchen floor ONCE to realize this is true. If you haven't been through this, trust me when I say this is not a pleasant realization.

Once it hits, though, you get to the bread and butter of being a parent: your job, ultimately, is to raise this tiny human into an adult, a productive, responsible, successful, (wealthy?) adult. (If our own adult lives are any clue, we are also raising our children to move out and never call us except when they need something or every 3rd Sunday when they remember to invite us over for dinner. Which, by the way, starts in twenty minutes.) And if our own childhoods are any clue, the majority of the tools used to form these ideal future versions of our kids are not the obvious ones, like making sure they brush their teeth before bed, or finish their homework before playing World of Warcraft. In fact, the most enduring actions parents take occur between those deliberate, business-of-family-and-parenting moments.

We miss most of these moments, and if we catch them at all, usually we only realize it after they've passed. I stopped trying to keep track of most of them long ago. Instead (unless I want to make myself crazy), I try to focus on what we at work call key performance indicators, or KPI's. I watch the kids' reactions to too much homework, or punishment, or being told no. I listen to them in their room when they're supposed to be in bed, at the games they play or how they treat each other when they think no one's paying attention. I know most of what they're learning from me comes from the example I set in my own reactions, how I treat their mother, how I speak to people on the phone or strangers in public. I know much of how they learn to live their lives will come from how they see me living mine. Which is kind of scary to me.

My wife and I do try, as every parent does, to steer this colossal effort toward what we think might result in success. There are certain experiences we each think are important to provide to our kids with something we consider valuable. Even though, say, starting the kids on an allowance to teach them financial responsibility qualifies as one such effort, the others, and possibly the most valuable, come in another form: a family tradition of one sort or another.

One of these traditions comes up regularly Christmas time: the tree. It is our tradition, or has been most of these last ten years, to lug the biggest box in the house up the basement stairs sometime after Thanksgiving and assemble a 6' tall construct of green ribbon and twisted metal
that kind of resembles a pine tree when it's all done. Each year we do this, and each year we invariably mumble about how next year we'll get a real tree, even though we know full well this requires a family trip out in the cold to the impromptu tree farm beside Kmart, competing child's favorites (and the inevitable complement: the appearance of favoritism), haggling with a guy who has not shaven for days only to pay God knows how many score of dollars for something that will only end up on the curb in four weeks or less, all the while hoping you weren't taken advantage of. Not to mention all the damn needles on the carpet in January. Yes, we decide to do this each year because we want to provide our kids with fond memories of a special time. How this passes as meaningful I can't say, but both The Wife and I do hold it close to our hearts. Maybe we think having a "fake" Christmas tree means we're somehow "faking" Christmas. Who's to say our kids don't consider the sight of the giant box on my shoulders just as joyful as seeing a real tree get tied to the top of the car for the trip home used to for me?

Every person has these meaningful events: KPI's that mean we've reached some kind of milestone of happiness or success. We learned them as children from the people who shaped our lives, and we try our hardest to pass them on to those whose lives we hope to shape. In a way, these events are like baseballs thrown forward in time by people who hope we'll be able to pick them up and throw them forward for our own kids. Like when Dad lets you cut the last half inch of the chosen tree at the tree farm, even though the saw is as long as your entire arm, and kneeling down puts you chin-deep in dirty, stepped-in snow; or when Mom lets you help make the apple pie everyone can't wait for, even though you already broke one dish and get flour all over the floor in the process; or when Grampa lets you sit in his lap and read his paper to him, despite the fact that he can do it himself in a fraction of the time, and there are only fifteen minutes until dinner.

Some of these baseballs are real; others are imagined, learned from TV or watching how an envied friend's family interacts with each other. But real or otherwise, these baseballs are of immense perceived importance to us as parents, and regardless of their source, we treat them as timeless and hope our kids will believe things have always been done this way. We do this because we want them to do the same things with their kids later on, and that will somehow validate our success as parents.

After losing my dad, I looked around and saw more baseballs laying around than I ever realized were there, and most were already in my hands ready for launch. Some, like the Christmas tree thing, have always been kept close at hand, but never thrown, or not thrown often, for one reason or another. I know that my kids probably won't ever consider a real Christmas tree an essential part of a "real" Christmas, whether that's okay with me or not. But I can only hope that thus far, I've made good choices, deliberate and otherwise, on which balls I have been able to throw, and that I've thrown them often enough to land one in a place each of my kids will be able to find it when they need to, and that it will give them some kind of happiness when they do.

Because as a parent, no matter what their age, your children's happiness is KPI Number One.