In two posts, first here and then, in a follow-up, here, my friend and fellow Island resident Rob Paterson has asked some valid questions about what constitutes being a "good parent". The posts - and the articles quoted - focus on what today's parents do to keep kids safe - and how relentless efforts to protect children from danger actually end up "protecting" them from living a full and rich life.
As a corollary, there's the suggestion that adults who micromanage children's play time are doing more harm than good.
I couldn't agree more. I get as exasperated with over-parenting as I do with neglectful parents. I fear we're producing generation after generation of kids who won't have stories to tell about their childhood that don't start with "One day my Mom and I ...".
The world is filling up with kids who have been so protected from danger and failure that they cannot enjoy risk and success.
When Erin was about 9 or 10, she signed up for baseball. They needed coaches, so I agreed to help out and ended up with a clot of pre-teens eager to draw from my vast knowledge of the sport. Well, good luck with that. I've played softball and baseball, and know the basics - but that's about it. I figured at that age, the basics would be enough, and I was more right than I expected.
We got to the first game and learned the League Rules. In order to foster self-esteem among the players, the main rules were 1. Every Child Goes Up To Bat In Every Inning; and 2. Every Child Gets To Hit The Ball. There was no such thing as a "strike" or a "ball". The pitcher kept pitching to a kid until that child made contact and felt the joy of running to first base.
How long do you figure that first game lasted? It started at 6:30PM and went till 9:15 ... when it was called for bedtime. In the goddamn fourth inning.
I mean, how could it not go that long? Little Johnny or Janey would arrive at the plate, and anything that was thrown in his or her general direction was fair game. Ten feet over your head? Swing and a miss. Ball thrown behind you? Swing and a miss. Whiff. Whiff. Whiff.
Same kid at the plate for five minutes at a go, everybody - him, his teammates, the coaches, the spectators, everybody - praying that by some miraculous turn of events this child could accidentally make glancing contact with the ball so that it could dribble off the tip of his bat, squib to its resting place four feet in front of the plate, and dear Lord we could have another batter.
It was excruciating.
The next game, I called the kids over during warm-up. I said, "How many of you signed up to play baseball?" Every hand dutifully raised.
"Who can tell me what a strike is?" Everybody knew.
"Who thinks the game we played the other night was real baseball?" Not one.
"Who wants to play baseball, and not that game?" Every hand shot up without one second's hesitation.
"OK. Here's what we're going to try. You can have as many balls as you want - the pitchers aren't that good. But three strikes and ... what?"
A little red-headed kid ventured, "You're ... out?"
"That's right. Three strikes and you're out, just like real baseball. So if you swing at a bad pitch and miss it, that's one strike. Swing at one over your head, that's two. Swing at another and miss, you come back and sit down till your next at-bat. Is everybody cool with that?"
I explained what was happening to the opposing coach, who looked doubtful. "That's not how the league says we should do it," he pointed out. "It's not fair to your kids. I think we should play it the way we're supposed to."
"Oh, I'm good with whatever you want to do with your kids. They can have as many swings as you want. But my kids want to try this."
"Fine. But I feel bad for them."
The game started, and our first batter was Luke, a big, goofy kid with a perpetual smile. The first pitch was a mile high, and he almost fell over reaching for it.
"Strike One," I said. His smile faltered.
The next pitch hit the dirt about five feet in front of the plate. Luke swung and just missed tipping the ball on the second bounce.
"Strike Two," I said. Luke frowned.
The next pitch was way outside, and he swung again.
"Strike Three, Luke. Go sit down." He looked back at me, eyes wide. But the next batter was already prising the bat from his hand and Luke walked slowly back to the bench.
The next kid had seen what happened to Luke. When the first pitch came in high, he didn't move a muscle. Just like his heroes on TV. He looked back at me and grinned.
Three or four pitches later, he got a good one. He swung and made solid contact and I wish you could have seen his face when he arrived at second base ... the joy and excitement and sense of accomplishment just radiating from him. He hollered back at the bench: "It's easy, guys! Just wait for a good one!"
And they did. There were a few strikeouts after that, but they were honest cuts at good pitches, for the most part. But almost all the kids got hits, and not little doinky hits off the top of the bat from swinging at a pitch three feet overhead - good, solid hits that rocketed through the infield. Singles, doubles, even a couple of error-assisted home runs.
I felt sorry for the other team. By swinging at every ridiculous pitch (as their coach told them to), they were hardly able to propel the ball back to the pitcher. Those times they looked ready to wait for a good pitch, their coach harangued them to "SWING!"
The game was over in an hour and a half. We kicked their ass. They were playing by rules set up by adults to "help" them, and they just could not overcome that obstacle.
And when they did get a hit, there was no enjoyment in it. They saw what we all saw - that their hits were mere chance, the law of averages coming into play.
By protecting them from failure, the adults had managed to rob them of the opportunity to enjoy success.
When Erin was 13, she and her piano teacher Carrie-Ann decided she would do the Royal Conservatory of Music Practical Piano Exam. It meant learning and performing a collection of difficult scales and short compositions in front of a panel of judges. Scary stuff, when you're 13.
The exam was on a Saturday. On Thursday, Erin came home and said "I'm not ready. I haven't practiced enough. I don't want to do the exam this year. Carrie-Ann says it's okay if I wait for a year."
"But you've known about this exam for months," I said. "How can you not be ready?" Erin shrugged.
I knew what the problem was. She has always had my work ethic, poor dear. And what she also knew for months was that if she wasn't ready, she could back out. Escape hatch.
I thought for a bit and said, "No. You're taking the exam. We paid for it, you agreed to take it, and if I let you back out, what am I teaching you?"
She argued. She cried. She begged. She promised. She yelled, slammed doors, flopped on her bed, wouldn't eat supper, called me all sorts of names. But nothing she did would change my mind.
Later that night, I heard her practicing. She woke up in the morning and practiced, and when she got home from school on Friday she went right to the piano. The pleading didn't stop, but when she met the brick wall she resigned herself to doing as well as she could.
Saturday came, and I drove her to the exam venue. I waited while she went in - no spectators. I listened through the heavy doors as much as I could, and I heard some good things and heard some clunkers and it didn't much matter because I don't have anywhere near the musical knowledge to tell if she was doing well or sucking like a Hoover.
So I waited, wondering if I'd done the right thing. If she did this and failed, would her confidence be shattered? Would she give up piano? Was I being a good parent, or was I trying to expunge some sort of childhood guilt of my own here?
She came out, and when I asked her how she did, she said, "I don't know. Some things I did okay, and some things I screwed up. They'll mail us the results."
It took a month for the results to arrive. When I found them in the mailbox, I had to wait for Erin to get home. I wanted her to open the letter.
She got home, took the letter from me, and went down to her room to open it. I waited.
She came up, beaming. She had passed. Just barely. Not Honours. Not with Flying Colours. She had squeaked through, but it didn't matter. She had passed.
The thing is, she didn't need to take the exam that year. I could have protected her from the risk of failing it, of having to go back and practice all that same stuff all over again. I could have let her walk away from the fear. But then what?
She's an elementary and middle school music teacher now. She has a Black Belt in Karate and teaches that, too. She does some things knowing she might suck but not afraid of sucking.
And she keeps her word. When she says she's going to do something, she doesn't bail.
The point of all this is not "Oh, look how smart I was," or "Oh, I was the best parent ever!". I was like any other parent. I screwed up more than I'd like to admit and sometimes it feels like my kids survived and thrived in spite of me rather than - as we all would like to believe - because of me.
When people ask me if I'm proud of what my kids have done, I demure. Their accomplishments are not mine, and while I can admire what they've done, I won't appropriate their pride in it. The risk is theirs, and the pride is theirs.
But I am proud of them as people - as decent, kind, productive human beings - and proud of the job we did in staying out of their way so they could become everything they are.
And that's the key, and the point of all this. We stayed out of the way and demanded our kids take risks on their own, that they not play things safe, that they face the spectre of failure one on one and do their best to beat it back.
Being a good parent isn't about protecting your children from danger. When we create a society where children are kept captive by their parents' paranoia, shuttled from activity to activity, shielded from the bogeyman in the darkened bushes or the possibility of failure or disappointment or falling short, we cheat both our kids and ourselves.
Our kids, because they lose an essential element of childhood. And ourselves, because we foolishly squander the potential they once possessed.
As many of you noted, on viewing the picture of me and my grandson in the previous post, I am bald.
I have what is called male pattern baldness. (Note that I "have" it. I am not "afflicted" by it. I do not "suffer" from it. I am not "fighting a battle" against it. I am not applying for a handicapped parking tag for my rear-view mirror.) I started losing my hair in my late 20s or so and although I'm no longer keeping track, for all I know I am still losing it. If I left it alone, I would have a smattering of fine, sparse hair on the top of my head, but I use a razor to tidy that up.
Like any guy (and there are so many of us) who has grown up with this, I have heard every bald joke in creation. And really, there are only so many. They're not particularly fresh or clever. Men have been going bald since the dawn of time, and people have been trying to make them feel bad or inferior about it since the very first follicle hit the ground. When you make a bald joke, you are ploughing very tired soil.
What always interests me about bald jokes is the motive behind them. I mean, when someone who despises me makes a bald joke, I get that - they want to let me know that they feel superior to me because they were able to arrange their genetic structure in such a way that they won't experience male pattern baldness. As you might imagine, this doesn't work as well as they hope. Instead, I sort of feel smug about their inability to grasp simple scientific concepts.
But what bemuses me is bald jokes coming from my friends.
See, bald jokes aren't the kind of thing where you're "laughing with" someone. If you're making a bald joke, you're probably not bald. Because of the way society views baldness, you probably know that the person you are making the bald joke at has spent years being pitied, mocked, dismissed, overlooked, or teased for his "affliction". So, when it's your friend ... why would you do that?
The thing is, I don't think it's a mean-spirited effort to hurt. But there's a fascinating short circuit in our social wiring when it comes to baldness. It's as if my baldness - in and of itself - gives you permission to sneer about it.
Most of us would never dream of mocking friends about other notable genetic characteristics they have. "Hey, leave some air for the rest of us, Big Nose!" "Nice map of Albania on your forehead there, Gorbachev!" "Wow, is that your ass or are you shoplifting an ottoman under that dress?"
But baldness? The bar is, evidently, open. Curious, that.
Look, I know I'm bald. And I'm not defensive about it. I'm not defiant about it, I'm not embarrassed by it, I'm not proud of it. I'm not anything about it. I don't have hair in the same way that you do have hair. I don't notice it - or, I guess, I don't notice not having it - until people try to make a funny joke about it. And even then, it's not my baldness that's the issue to me - it's them.
I don't look into a mirror - or look at that picture of me and Owen - and cringe about my lack of hair. If I did, would I ever stand in front of a camera? Nope. I'd be one of those annoying people who makes a huge fuss and draws attention to him or herself whenever anybody gets a camera out, all "Oh, don't take my picture, I'm so ugly, I never take a good picture, but please feel free to compliment me and cajole me into having my picture taken by telling me I'm not as bad as I say I am."
(Why don't we just let them take the damn picture? It would shut them up and - given the type of passive-aggressive bullshit maneuver they always pull to make us compliment them - it's not like they add value to any memory the picture preserves.)
I don't wear a hat to hide my baldness. I wear a hat because I got nuttin' up there to protect the highest part of me from the sun, and if you've never had a sunburn on your head you can't appreciate how painful it is.
Other than that one practical consideration, I don't notice my baldness until you say something about it. And what you say doesn't make me feel bad about my baldness. It kinda makes me feel bad for you, though.
Because I'm not bald by choice. But you? You stopped to think, then you made that joke.
Some people noted that Owen and I had the same hairline. He may grow up to have male pattern baldness. Or he might have a full head of hair, like my brother did. His hair might be white blonde like mine was when I was young, or bright red like his Dad's or thick and curly and red like his other Grandpa, or ... well, lots of possibilities, I suppose.
I don't hope he has any particular colour of hair, nor do I much care whether he keeps it his whole life or loses it in his 20s.
I hope he'll be healthy. That he'll have lots of friends and will treat them well. That he'll grow up surrounded by love. That he'll make good decisions, find something he's passionate about and pursue it. That he'll never stop learning and loving and laughing about life.
But his hair? Sort of low on the list of things to care about.
Same as mine, ya know?
I don't want people to stop teasing me, or taking the piss out of me, or laughing at me. I dish it out, and I really do love taking it. But I tease you about what you do or say, how you act. Try that with me. No end of fertile ground, and if I can break you of the habit of making bald jokes, the world is a (slightly) better place.
And if you did make a bald joke, and are now feeling mortified and hurt that I didn't understand you meant it in gentle fun - stop. I do understand. You're a friend, and you really - really - didn't hurt me.
It's just not the best way to go. And now you know.
Finally, I'll leave you with words from Christine Lavin, one of my favourite singers:
Everybody know it's testosterone That turns a bushy-haired man into a chrome dome.
But testosterone's what makes a man a man; the more that he's got, the more he can
Do the things that make the women go "Oy!"
I'll take a bald-headed man over a big-haired boy.
Big-haired boys make very good friends, but they cannot compare to bald-headed men.