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.




“Trophy wife” intro aside, Globe article is a good read

Add this to the Recycled Dad canon: a 2005 Boston Globe article that doesn’t just state the obvious about older guys who have kids with their second wives.

(Boston Globe Photo / Lisa Poole)

For starters, this piece has a pretty thorough setup that observes the following:

  • The number of “do-over dads” seems to be increasing, though concrete statistics are hard to capture.
  • Men remarry sooner after divorce than women do; for this and other reasons, more divorced men than divorced women are in a position to have children.
  • Recycled dads tend to be more confident and enjoy the parenting experience more.

I enjoyed this passage that quotes Marilyn Yalom, an author and Stanford University researcher:

This second chance at fatherhood, says Yalom, is changing these men. “It gives them the idea that they will do a better job the second time around,” she says. This is because, for the most part, just like his mid-section, the second-timer’s temper has softened as he’s gotten older. His drive to build a successful career is no longer obsessively frantic; he may even be contemplating retirement. This dad is everything that kids love – devoted, patient, giving – and he isn’t as focused on the issues that many younger parents face, such as the balancing act between career and family. He’s not only old enough to be his kids’ grandfather, he practically acts like one.

Some of us might chuckle at the grandfather thing. Others of us might not.

The rest of the story:

  • One profile of a recycled dad to illustrate the above points, plus some of the downsides of this situation, with quotes from his adult kids (one of whom criticizes Dad for shortchanging the new generation).
  • The new wife’s perspective.
  • Vasectomy reversals. (I could — and probably will — do a post dedicated to that topic.)
  • A profile of another recycled dad, which mainly illustrates the physical limitations that some older dads have to deal with.

Check it out and feel free to comment on anything that stands out — good or bad.

(Statistically) Generation 1 resents us?

The best thing I read all day (Monday) was this think piece about recycled dads that first ran in American Demographics magazine way back in 1999. The article is long by Web standards, but it’s a surprisingly good read, with mini profiles and quotes that showcase a variety of recycled dad experiences and issues.

Authors and scholars are quoted and some of their findings cited and summarized. One book that is mentioned, Fathers of a Certain Age: The Joys and Problems of Middle-Aged Fatherhood (Fairview Press, 1997) seemed promising, so I ordered it.

Fathers of a Certain Age book cover

I’ll post a review of this book soon, but if you’re impatient, you can get a copy through Amazon, new for about $10 or used for about $2.

Generation 1 kids are also quoted in the article — which makes sense because the main thrust of it is that our relationships with our original kids tend to be strained because our attention and wealth have to be split more ways than in a traditional family or even a simple stepfamily.

In other words, our Generation 1 kids have a reason to resent us, and in many cases they do.

Has this been your experience?