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.




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.

Recycled Dad Index (Prototype)

NOTE (6/8/2011): The embedded chart is continually being updated, so it no longer matches the information in this post.

UPDATE (5/20/2011): Still can’t put script in, but if you click here or click the chart, it will open the interactive version of the chart in Google Spreadsheets.

Still experimenting with different visualization tools, but here is a glimpse of what I’m trying to do:

Recycled Dad Index - bar chart

Click the image to go to the interactive version of this chart

For each celebrity dad on the list (and me), I’ve plugged in the dad’s date of birth and the date of birth of each of his children. I use the data to calculate and display each dad’s recycledness score (the widest gap, in years, between two of his children) and, just for fun, his virility score (the gap, in years, between his age and his youngest child’s age). The recycledness bar is green, of course; the virility bar is the color of a pharmaceutical that may have a connection to some of these statistics.

If I could use javascript here, you’d be able to fly over the bars to see the actual values. FYI, Keillor’s recycledness score is 28.60, and Morrison’s virility score is 64.37.

My vision is to enable regular guys to enter similar data on themselves into a calculator in order to  see how they would rank on this index. (For these two scores, most of us can do the math in our heads — and probably have — but eventually I’d like to introduce more data and other kinds of scores.)

This prototype is in Google Spreadsheets, but I’m also getting familiar with Zoho Creator. Somehow I need to enable new entries via a web form. Ideas welcome and appreciated.


I’m a lot less uptight about the words I use around Jacob than I was ‘a generation ago’ with Charlie and Thomas.

Today, as I was putting Jacob in his car seat:

Jacob: “Ow!”

Me: “I’m sorry. Did I crush your nuts?”

Jacob (laughing): “No, you didn’t crush my nuts! How did you know I had nuts?”

Angela and me (laughing): “…”

Jacob: “How did you know I had nuts in my belly?”

Angela and me (laughing uncontrollably): “…”

“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.