December 5, 2007

Everything Is A Teachable Moment When You Are A Piece Of Garbage

I was about to pull the covers up, and she looks at me and says, "Daddy, are all doctors daddies and all nurses mommies?"

Here we go, I think.

Maybe you think this is a simple yes or no question, but it's not, everything becomes strategy. How I answer this will affect the rest of her life, how she'll answer her own questions and set goals and limits for herself. This is a scrimmage to teach her position. Am I smart enough as a parent? Am I ready?

I've mentally practiced this moment, and dozens others like it. For some I even have a script. I know how I want her to think, to make decisions for herself free of outside influences. The trick is how to teach her that, how to make it part of the way she thinks, reflexive.

"No, baby" I say, because it's a fact but facts aren't at issue, I'm the Father and I have a responsibility to help her develop. Ok, look, I don't want her to be a nurse but that's not the point here, the point here is to teach her about choosing your identity. "Some doctors are women, and some nurses are men. You can be either." 

Yes, if she was a boy I'd have a different answer. But she's not a boy, and the immediate issue today isn't for her to choose between being a doctor or a nurse, but to understand that she gets to choose.

"Is your doctor when you go to the doctor's office a man or a woman?"

"Sometimes it's a boy, and sometimes it's a girl."

"See?" I say. "It can be either one."

"Then how come you're a doctor? Is being a doctor harder or easier?"

"Harder." No sense in political correctness. "It's harder because you have to decide everything. You're in charge, you have to decide how to help people, what to do next." She needs to know that the difference isn't just amount of calories expended, but of responsibility. "And you make more money." I debate saying this, but I think it's important to introduce the real importance of money, and the relative value of things, and jobs. I'm not going to push it here, just introduce that it exists as a factor.

"How much money?"

"Like, a hundred." It doesn't have to mean anything, it just has to convey a feeling.

"Wow, that's a lot."

"It can be."

"And you put that money in your special place?"

Another opportunity. "Yes, you have to save your money, you have to save as much as you can. Sometimes, even if I want to buy something, I have to decide if I should spend the money or save it. So I save it."

"So we can save and go to Disney?"

"Yes, among other things."

"But nurses get less money?"

"Most of the time, yes."

"But if you're a nurse," she recalls, "you don't have to go to work. You can stay home with the kids and wear a bathrobe, right?"

I laugh. "No, no, if you're a nurse you have to go to work, too. Right now mommy is staying home to take care of you guys, she had to stop working for a while, and when you all get older maybe she'll go back to work."  And then I add, "it's up to her." Excellent.

"Oh, so nurses have to go to work, too."

"Yes, if they want."

There is a pause here. She's working through it all. I think I've succeeded; if nothing else, I've taught her that the decision is hers to make. Nothing defines her.

"So I could be a doctor."

"Of course, baby." I'm winning, I see that I'm destroying barriers. Finally. This is what it means, after all, to be a good parent; seeing through the words and striking at the core issues, teaching your children not facts and information but wisdom, power.

Until her eyes fill up with tears, and she says, "I want to be a doctor."

"You can do anything you want." Something's wrong.

She's motionless under the covers, she doesn't look at me. She looks like I've spit on her. "I've already decided," she says, as if to euthanasia, "I have to be a doctor."

"Okay, baby, but-- why are you crying?"

"Because if I'm a doctor I have to work every day, except for I have only one day off, and when I come home I have to work on the computer, and I won't get to see any of my children. Unless they get sick."

And there it is.  I've failed, again.

I'm teaching, teaching, but do I listen? Do I hear her, do I hear and see what's important to her, what questions she really has, what's really of value in her life? She just wants to play Lightning McQueen vs. Chick Hicks with me outside, meanwhile I'm trying to teach her that the way to truth is through the inside, or some other idiocy. I may as well leave my stupid aphorisms in a Moleskine for her and then go kill myself. What's she need me for?

Words are the enemy, they are always the enemy, they do nothing but mislead, deceive. If you have to say it, you never did it. What have my words done tonight, that my existence and behavior hasn't contradicted every single day? I'm a failed fraud who's beckoning others down the same path.

I wasted 15 minutes trying to con her that she can be anyone she wants to be, completely missing that she is already who she wants to be, the problem is I'm not who she needs me to be. Life, through its henchmen like me, only chip away at that original identity, making it harder to be satisfied and impossible to be happy. I've taught her that stereotypes are wrong, meanwhile she hasn't even learned the stereotypes yet; in fact, I just taught them to her by denying them. Maybe I should wake her in the middle of the night, grab the sides of her head and shriek, "there's no such thing as ghosts! There's no such thing as ghosts! There's no such thing as ghosts...!"

If I was so smart, if I had so much to teach, I wouldn't be so miserable. And this wouldn't have happened. 

Being a good parent often means: knowing your limitations, and getting the hell out of the way.


And before anyone emails... (Below threshold)

December 5, 2007 4:58 PM | Posted by Alone: | Reply

And before anyone emails me-- this is entirely a work of fiction, I'm trying to make a point that I didn't know how else to make except in a story format.

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I tell my kids that when I ... (Below threshold)

December 5, 2007 6:39 PM | Posted by Chui: | Reply

I tell my kids that when I can't look after them, they'll have to look after themselves. Hence, it's necessary to prepare themselves to be independent.

Life stinks. Prepare your kids for it.

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Whereas to me, being a good... (Below threshold)

December 5, 2007 7:16 PM | Posted by Lexi: | Reply

Whereas to me, being a good parent means, not raising a douchebag.

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That was fantastic.<p... (Below threshold)

December 5, 2007 7:50 PM | Posted by Common Reader: | Reply

That was fantastic.

Completely irrelevant: after 5 years home, I have finally succumbed to the bathrobe. I used to get dressed *every day.* Maybe I need some nice new clothes, except I'm pregnant so I'd only be able to wear them for a month.

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Loved it. Right down to the... (Below threshold)

December 5, 2007 9:05 PM | Posted by Demodenise: | Reply

Loved it. Right down to the not-so-subtle self hatred. Thought about writing any books?

A thought, that's kind of close to what you are saying or maybe right on the nose:

If kids learn more from what we model than what we say to them, do we have any chance of sparing them the same psychological malfunctions that we have?

Or should we just do the best we can, realize that we are going to do things wrong in the raising them, and save money for therapy later?

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Buddha twirled a flower sil... (Below threshold)

December 5, 2007 9:38 PM | Posted by rbh: | Reply

Buddha twirled a flower silently, and one disciple understood.

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My opinion is if my kids on... (Below threshold)

December 5, 2007 11:04 PM | Posted by sunnygirl: | Reply

My opinion is if my kids only need a couple of months of therapy when they turn eighteen I succeeded in raising them.

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Nicely done. Parents can ma... (Below threshold)

December 6, 2007 12:15 PM | Posted by DrSteve: | Reply

Nicely done. Parents can make the error of trying to politicise their kids when the kids are trying to do something different - in this case growing up as a woman.
Sometimes we're so in love with our 'values' and the kinds of people we want to see ourselves as being that we can't see people.

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Is it really fiction? ... (Below threshold)

December 7, 2007 12:52 AM | Posted by Phil McCubbin: | Reply

Is it really fiction?

I was thinking, if you are trying to stay anonymous, how many forensic psychiatrists with daughters and moms who are nurses acting as mothers could their possibly be?

I mostly thought, what a sad life, to only see your dad that infrequently...

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Demodenise asks: "If kids l... (Below threshold)

December 8, 2007 1:35 PM | Posted by DrSteve: | Reply

Demodenise asks: "If kids learn more from what we model than what we say to them, do we have any chance of sparing them the same psychological malfunctions that we have?"
The last part of this is too big for me to think about right now, but the first part did get me thinking about something which is relevant to this post on
bringing up children and poltical, etc.
In a paper on the superego Freud said that parents tend to teach ego to ego, i.e. explicitly, but a deeper teaching happens superego to superego. And that is why real change happens so slowly.
So, say I grow up conservative but then become radicalised at college. I then try to pass on my leftie views - say radical pacifism and feminism- to my children who may or parrot them. I am then horrified to see that the moment they get the opportunity (in a store, at a friend's house) my son goes straight for a gun and my daughter straight for Barbie.
According to Freud, blaming the a red herring. My childen learned their conventionality from me - it still resides there under a thin layer of 'views', 'stances', etc.

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Yes, it is interesting t... (Below threshold)

December 8, 2007 11:31 PM | Posted by Stephany: | Reply

Yes, it is interesting to note that parents can be absent for their children emotionally, whether at home all day or at work all day. That is the true model of a parent, that most adults never understand. Yet, if one were to remember yourself as a child, you might know how to be a parent.

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I haven't had a chance to r... (Below threshold)

December 9, 2007 9:43 PM | Posted by Wes: | Reply

I haven't had a chance to read all the comments, but I hope readers understand what an important post this is...

"I wasted 15 minutes trying to con her that she can be anyone she wants to be, completely missing that she is already who she wants to be, the problem is I'm not who she needs me to be."

Most of us figure these things out way too late...

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While I think I get the poi... (Below threshold)

December 10, 2007 7:56 AM | Posted by Jon S.: | Reply

While I think I get the point here (no kids of my own and no plans on having any), I'm having trouble imagining any kind of alternative outcome. While it seems mean to dismiss the daughter's question outright, I can picture any kind of response leading to similarly bad outcomes. Any thoughts?

And is the dad really a piece of garbage for trying?

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No, the dad's not a piece o... (Below threshold)

December 10, 2007 12:29 PM | Posted by Demodenise: | Reply

No, the dad's not a piece of garbage for trying.

The dad's a "piece of garbage" because he went into the discussion wanting to say the right thing so that he could feel good about saying the right thing--ie, "I am a good parent because I said all the right things to my daughter" and when it blows up in his face, he flips to devaluation, but the kicker is he's still only thinking about his daughter in relation to his parenting ability.

So did he really learn anything? Once again he's saying all the right words--or rather thinking them to himself--but does he actually *do* anything about it?

So, when do we get chapter two?

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American children are so sp... (Below threshold)

December 10, 2007 11:13 PM | Posted by xxxfrenchlickxxx: | Reply

American children are so spoiled. If you provide a clean home, daily food, fresh water, & occasional emotional support,you have done your job as a parent.

You do not need to be waiting to be called in to service 24/7 by your children to be a good parent. And you would be doing your children a great disservice if you were.

No one has the childhood they believe they should have. As individuals, let's let go of the parent guilt & accept the reality-- that nothing we do will ever be right. And I'm okay with that.

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It's not that much fun read... (Below threshold)

December 11, 2007 11:22 AM | Posted by anon: | Reply

It's not that much fun reading a narcissist whining about what a narcissist he is. Get back to the psychiatry bashing, or better yet, go be with your family. Douchebag.

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Being a parent also means n... (Below threshold)

December 11, 2007 11:48 PM | Posted by Rich Hudson: | Reply

Being a parent also means not stressing out over minor things like this. When you're a kid that age, disappointment abounds -- unless you're a kid who gets to stay home from school watching cartoons and eating junk food all day. Just like the death of a pet teaches kids about loss and how to deal with it, your daughter's "career" experience taught her that life is about tough choices. Kids need to be optimistic about their own future -- but not to the point of expecting nothing bad to ever happen to them. Bottom line: Your daughter's lucky she has two loving adults looking after her, so don't be so hard on yourself.

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True story:Anna, w... (Below threshold)

December 17, 2007 8:28 AM | Posted by juniper: | Reply

True story:

Anna, who's four years old, asks her mother on their way to the supermarket (Mom's driving) what it means to be dead. Her mother (a bit distracted by traffic) comes up with "it means your heart has stopped beating". Pause. Anna thinks it over and replies,
"I think I'm dead Mom, I can't hear my heart, I must have lost it when I went poo-poo this morning!"

Clearly linking cause to effect is part of human nature. We start looking for causes as soon as we realize one thing happens after another. But kids come up with causes for effects that can blow parents away - so unprepared, so imprisoned as they are in their adult perspective. A bit disconcerting at times, but being privy to these conversations is also part of the charm of being a parent.

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Maybe the point to be made ... (Below threshold)

December 19, 2007 11:59 AM | Posted by LB: | Reply

Maybe the point to be made in talking to our children is that we need to inquire why they are asking the questions they are before jumping into the explanation that makes us feel best.
For a few very interesting stories about children drawing logical but incorrect conclusions, check out the This American Life radio show episode #188 entitled Kid Logic. Truly insightful.

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A lot of kids also cry when... (Below threshold)

December 19, 2007 5:06 PM | Posted by Rich Hudson: | Reply

A lot of kids also cry when they realize mommie and daddie are going to die some day, or that they are going to die some day, and that way before that they'll end up moving away from mommie and daddie and probably living with someone else. "No! I'll never leave you, Mommie!" Get them on tape when they say that. You'll all have a laugh about it years later.

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Are you locked in a room al... (Below threshold)

January 4, 2008 12:11 AM | Posted by SAHM: | Reply

Are you locked in a room all day analyzing mental illnesses or what? SHEEEESH!!!!! Girls today are trying to figure out where they fit in between Hannah Montana and the girls at school who only where HSMS 2 clothes and how come their responsible parents don't buy them video games or every toy they want. Women already know we can BE ANYTHING. Tbe problem remains - guys like you, oops sorry, doctors like you can't ACCEPT us as ANYTHING. You are so adept at dissecting the human condition yet so completely BLIND to your preconceived notions. GET the bleep out of your office and commune with human kind.

Alone's respnse: I don't understand your comment-- what I mean is: do you think the dad misunderstood the daughter, etc.-- from this post, where did you get the conclusion that I/men don't accept women for who they are? I'm not being at all argumentative, I want to understand how you saw the story.

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Hmmm. Interesting. I have V... (Below threshold)

January 5, 2008 8:16 AM | Posted by Rachael: | Reply

Hmmm. Interesting. I have VERY different thoughts than either of my parents and since as long as I can remember I always have. I never thought I HAD to think the same way.Unlike my brother and sister who are riddled with silly notions and endless bouts of guilt or facial ticks!.My Father was a detective and I little (world according to me ish) and my mother well ... Here let me give you 2 prime examples of her thought process. My Father had to sneak me out on my ninth birthday to get my ears pierced because "only gypsy's do that" it is a sin against God to put holes in your body.I am yet to see a passing band of gypsy's in my neighborhood, and are gypsy's really such godless souls vandelizing their bodies only to be destined for eternal damnation over a pair of gold plated hoops? And also according to my mother all gay men are pedafiles.?!?!!?!? God help us all! LOL

I chalk it up to very random fortunate genetic natural lottery for certain children to be full of health, more intelligent, taller, better looking - perhaps even more ethical? - Or in my case reasonable!

I assure you it was in no part the deeply opinionated rantings of a cop soured from dealing with the underbelly of our society for too many years or the silly rationality my mother had for the (UNBELIEVABLE preconceived notions on right and wrong ..because I said so theory). So take from that what you will but in a nut shell sometimes it is not what you tell/teach a kid that becomes their moral fiber and belief system.

And for that I am grateful everyday!

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I can ignore the dig at nur... (Below threshold)

January 18, 2008 5:30 AM | Posted by nate: | Reply

I can ignore the dig at nurses. Unfortunately, it's fair.

I had a teacher in school with a pretty good joke. What's the difference between being a nurse and being co-dependent? You get paid to be a nurse.

It's a little bit of an anti-punchline. It's true of doctors too.

In all fields of medicine, we (decent folks, at least) recognize that every stranger is somebody's mother, somebody's daughter. We can't manage to put our own very far ahead of somebody else's. Your daughter's right-- if she's a doctor, that's what she gets to do.

It sucks. I'm sorry.

With medicine, I'm frequently reminded of a twilight zone episode I saw. There was a man placed erroneously in Hell who knew the way to Heaven while others were placed wrongly in Hell. Rather than escape, he helped others to Heaven.

I'm not a religious man, but I know Hell when I see it.

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These are all great ... (Below threshold)

July 1, 2011 4:44 AM | Posted by Gucci Outlet: | Reply

These are all great comments here. Very cool article.

Gucci Outlet

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I don't think the dad in th... (Below threshold)

January 24, 2012 3:44 AM | Posted by [email protected]: | Reply

I don't think the dad in the story sounds bad at all. (The points the story makes about parenting are insightful, though). I think I would have loved to have a dad like that. Because my parents NEVER ONCE told me I could be whatever I wanted, that I had any choices. And every single thing I came up with on my own (going to a good liberal arts school or to a great books/St John's NM program/psychology/Comparative Lit/medical school/teacher) were always wrong, unthinkable, 'oh, you'll never make a living doing THAT.' And no financial help for school either, although my dad could have paid for four years at a good school with what he made EACH AND EVERY YEAR. (No joke!) Why? Because 'I did it myself and you can do it yourself, too.' (Never paid child support either). And of course, physical and psychological abuse, blah blah. This is kind of funny, but all I ever heard was 'be a nurse, you'll never be out of work, it is only two years.' Then my mom became a nurse, late in life, and now what does she say?: 'God, don't EVER be a nurse!'...I'm obviously using this thread to hash my own shit out, but still. To me this invented dad sounds awesome; he tries. He's willing to be supportive. He sounds responsible. He learns from mistakes.

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Ginny, did you go to St Joh... (Below threshold)

January 31, 2012 4:49 PM | Posted, in reply to [email protected]'s comment, by Mucius Porsena: | Reply

Ginny, did you go to St John's NM?

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No, I did not go to St John... (Below threshold)