Conditioning kids to push back

There is a 15-year gap between my youngest son, Jacob, age 8, and his nearest sibling, Thomas. That means that most things I go through with Jacob, I haven’t gone through as a parent in about 15 years. My attitudes toward life and parenting have changed a lot in that time.

I recently told some friends, jokingly, “There’s no discipline with this one” — and then clarified: I want him to learn to think critically, so I usually let him have what he’s asking for if he makes a good case for it. To my first two sons, I used to say “No arguing.” To this one, I say “Hey, that’s pretty good. OK!”

So why the change?

When Charlie and Thomas were kids, I was solidly in the Evangelical Christian camp. I felt that the most important thing for any child (or adult. for that matter) to learn was how to trust and obey God, and that my duty as a parent was to condition them to fully trust and obey their parents. To me, this meant squelching any hint of a challenge to my authority or their mom’s.

It was a very authoritarian household. Back-talk was punished immediately; I’m ashamed to say that the method was usually an impulsive, forceful swat on the rear end, which even at the time felt a lot more like revenge than ‘instruction.’ There was also a lot of scolding, which was way too emotional, too personal. I’m sure it tore away at their self-esteem.

But even if my methods had been less hostile, the objective of this ‘discipline’ would have been wrong. There is a point in a child’s development — pretty early on, in my opinion — where conditioning him or her to simply obey authority figures starts to do more harm than good.

I have to spend just one paragraph on the implications of ‘obedience to God.’ Though I am no longer a believer, I acknowledge the logical possibility that some kind of god might exist. However, the existence of a god is not enough. For a one-pronged strategy of ‘obedience to God’ to be effective, a person must be able to rely on a constant stream of communication from God that is concrete and impossible to misunderstand. That’s clearly not happening in the life of anyone I’ve ever known.

In any case, in this world there’s no source of guidance that is 100 percent reliable, and in my parenting I no longer pretend that there is.  Instead, I strive to teach independent critical thinking.

Sometimes I imagine Jacob as a teen or an adult, interacting with people in authority — professors, bosses, police — and I ponder how I can prepare him for those situations. I know he will need to be able to form independent judgments about what’s wise, and what’s right, so he will know when to push back and when to just salute and move out smartly.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not all democracy and negotiation in our house. There is plenty of “because I said so,” especially when we are in a hurry or I lack the patience to explain or teach. But I don’t punish Jacob for wanting to know the reasons for things or for calling me out on things that don’t seem to make sense. Often, he’s helping me be more rational, which I appreciate. And I think this approach is helping him gain autonomy, which is what it’s all about.



Who I was in high school

On Saturday, I’ll be at my 30-year high school reunion in San Diego.

Today, I found myself mentally rehearsing what I would say to people at the reunion if they had trouble recalling who I was or their connections to me. I decided to just blog it instead.

  • I was in band all four years; I played tuba.
  • I tried acting in my senior year and had a supporting role in “Li’l Abner.”
  • I probably served you a Titan Burger or “taco burrito” at least once.
  • If you were in a communication-related class with me (Spanish, humanities, literature, composition, speech, drama), you should remember me because I talked all the freaking time in those classes.
    • I injected religious themes into my creative assignments ad nauseam. Classmates had to read these assignments or (worse) hear me read them aloud.
    • In Mr. Barone’s humanities class (my sophomore year), where the first part of each period was dedicated to open discussion, I rambled a few times about my mother’s death, which had happened in the summer just before that class began.

If you were there for either of those uncomfortable experiences, sorry!

And if you were in any other kind of class with me, there’s a good chance you don’t remember me, which is  totally fine.


I’ve been trying to get my #3 son interested in riding his own bike. He’s fine pedaling behind me on his trail-a-bike, but so far he is pretty afraid to ride on his own, even with training wheels.

Part of me feels impatient. Riding a bike is something any 7-year-old should be able to do, right?

On the other hand, what’s the rush? Does it get harder to learn as you get older? Maybe a little, but I think he’ll be fine taking on this challenge later. 

So he’s advanced in some areas and behind in other areas. Aren’t we all?

A little cross-linking

A few parenting-related posts from my Skeptical Mystery Tour blog — the blog that’s been getting all my attention for the past several months:





Hey now! Tambor tops the index

Jeffrey TamborWith the addition of one of my favorite comic actors, Jeffrey Tambor, to the Recycled Dad Index, Van Morrison falls to second place for virility and Garrison Keillor falls to second place for recycledness. That’s right, George Sr. from “Arrested Development/Hank from “Larry Sanders”/Jinx from “Mr. Mom” is #1, no matter what the criterion is.

Tambor’s recycledness score (widest age gap between any two consecutive children) is an approximation; I could only find the year his first child, Molly, was born, not the day. But even if I’d worst-cased it (Dec. 31), Tambor would still beat Keillor by 0.36 years (more than 4 months) for recycledness.

For recycledness, we six tower over Trump

The newest addition to the Recycled Dad Index is The Donald. (I know he was ‘newsier’ when he was still allegedly heavily considering pondering announcing exploring running, but even on his worst day he has entertainment value.)

As you can see, his recycledness score is the lowest on the list so far, with a widest gap between two consecutive children of only 12.44 years. But his virility score is another story: He was 59.81 years old when his youngest child (so far) was born, so on this list, only Van Morrison trumps him.

Leave a comment or e-mail me if you’d like to nominate a celebrity or yourself to be added to the index.

Join the ranks of Keillor, Quaid, Jagger and — Janszen?

Image from the film "The Guardian"

This isn't Jeff, but he has actually done this job. Say "Thank you," America.

My co-worker Jeff Janszen is literally the only other recycled dad I know personally, so naturally I asked him for his family stats so I could add him to the Recycled Dad Index. He agreed because he is a cool guy and not afraid of anything (see photo caption above).

Now the index has four celebrities and two regular guys. I’ll be adding more famous people shortly. But you, too, ordinary dad, can get on the index. You just have to be a father of at least two children — although getting a high score is another matter.

Your recycledness score represents the biggest age gap (in years) between two consecutive children in your family. If you are a typical recycled dad, this is the gap between the youngest child of your first marriage and the first child of your second marriage. In theory, the wider that gap, the more opportunity there has been for you to get ‘rusty’ on how to raise a child from the beginning. (I admit that ‘recycledness’ is not really the best term for this attribute. ‘Rustiness’ is actually closer to the mark. Any other ideas?)

Your virility score is simply the age you were when your youngest child was born (you stud!).

Jeff is at the bottom of this short list in terms of recycledness, with a ‘generation gap’ between kids of 12.86 years. But at least he outranks me for virility: He was a respectable 44.87 years old when his twin son and daughter were born.

Let’s have some fun with this, dads! If you want to get on the index, just leave a comment or e-mail me.