If you are a parent, please—let’s talk about you.
By Shannon McGill
If you are about my age or older, you may remember that old-style parenting.
Remember when your parents used to get together with their friends to drink adult beverages and talk about adult subjects? Somebody would pat your head and tell you to go outside or upstairs.
Maybe every now and then, when somebody would run out of cigarettes, you’d hear them calling you, “Bring me my purse!” Otherwise, you were on your own.
Remember that? Remember the veil that used to hang between gatherings of children and adults? The you’ll-understand-when-you’re-older’s and the run-along-and-go-play’s?
If you bring up this subject to an old person—age 80 and beyond—get comfortable, Jack. They are going to relish the opportunity to tell you how upside-down we’ve become regarding adults and children.
They will tell you about how they used to earn money for their families, take care of their siblings, chop wood, scrub floors, take public transportation.
They will react with horror when you tell them about the dad you know who makes three or four separate dinners to satisfy the differing palates of his various offspring. Or about the mom you know who works a full week and spends her days off as chauffeur, from pool to ballet to softball to mall.
It used to be that parents had a sense of being primary in their own lives. Daily operations revolved around the grown-ups in the household. Now a lot of times, when I go over people’s houses, we all sit around and look at their kids. They always seem to fall over themselves telling me in terrifying detail about the many sports, lessons, tribulations, and talents of their children.
It’s fine; I like it, I’m okay with it, but please—if you are a parent, please—let’s talk about you. Like, maybe 85 percent you/15 percent your kid is a good ratio. Eight-year-olds are okay and everything, but there’s a reason I don’t hang out with them anymore.
You and your kids will be better off if you continue to identify as the person you were before you became Mom or Dad.
Being a parent changes a person’s identity; that is very clear. But being a parent should not define who you are. You will be better off and your kids will be better off if you continue to identify as the person you were before you became Mom or Dad.
Were you a chef? An artist? An athlete? A scholar? Listen, buddy: YOU MUST STILL BE THAT NOW. You have to keep on developing your own thing instead of getting completely sucked into the voracious maw of parenting. It will swallow you whole, okay? Resist.
Think for a minute about your parents now. Think about how their talents and passions shaped your own. Think about what their ambitions and successes taught you.
Nothing sends a more powerful message to a child than seeing what her parents truly value. Giving your son or daughter attention for the things they do well is only half the equation. Showing them what you do well and being a real-life model for self-actualization is important, too.
I am not a parent, and of course that will cancel out my credibility with most of you. But look, I am a daughter, and that’s the perspective from which I am saying all this. All the lessons money could buy and twice the coercion would never have made me love music as much as seeing the way it delighted and fulfilled my parents.
Giving your son or daughter attention for the things they do well is half the equation. Showing them what you do well is important, too.
But now I’ve gone on a tangent, and what I really wanted to tell you about was something I saw over the weekend that made me fear for the future of the human race.
So I was singing for money out in the street on Sunday afternoon and there were some chairs set up in front of where we were playing; maybe four or five chairs. A mother and a father came by with their kids (the kids were in the 6-8-year-old range). The parents noticed the empty chairs, looked at their children, and gestured toward them to sit in the chairs.
Well, you’ll never guess what happened next.
THE KIDS SAT IN THE EMPTY CHAIRS WHILE THE PARENTS STOOD BEHIND THEM HOLDING ALL THEIR STUFF.
Yes. Those kids sat in those chairs and the parents just stood there with a bunch of bags and purses and food and toys hanging off of them. They stood there like that, a grown man and woman, while the children got to rest in the chairs.
So look, all you parents, please sit down and relax—in both the literal and figurative sense. Tell your kids to go play, or make them sit on the ground!
I understand it’s often necessary to sacrifice your own needs and desires for the comfort of your children, but you don’t have to do it 100% of the time. In fact, if every little decision you make is in favor of your kids’ comfort and well-being, your kids are going to grow up to be, like, THE BIGGEST JERKS IN THE WORLD.
If you’re a mom or a dad, keep yourself happy and do your thing. Have faith in the natural intelligence and resiliency of your children. They’re going to be fine even if they don’t always get their own freaking chairs.
Wrong to be Right?
Some people seem to resent that I’m right all the time. I don’t try to convince people that I’m right, or that they’re wrong. In fact, I have no desire to be right and no interest in convincing anyone that I am. But I can sense them seething with frustration at my infallibility.
Should I make a point of going out of my way to seem wrong so people will find me more likable, or will they just treat me derisively for being stupid?
Obviously, I already know the right answer, but I’m curious to hear from somebody with a mistake-riddled past.
–Mr. Smartypants in Collingswood
Dear Mr. Smartypants,
I used to have a friend whose mother would often exclaim, “I’d rather be Right than President!” Being right is the most intoxicating feeling in the world, and though you attest to “have no desire” for “infallibility,” I tend to doubt the veracity of that claim.
The “desire” to be Right is, in fact, an insidious addiction, one akin to dependence on heroin, crystal meth, or beauty pageants. Once you experience the heady pleasures of Rightness, you will forsake all your family, friends, and fortunes just to keep chasing that dragon.
Who among us has not seen the raging Right-addict driving her spouse into the arms of another man? The employee, high on Right, sabotaging his own career, becoming a pariah in his workplace? The many religious leaders and politicians alienating their supporters and humiliating themselves all in pursuit of the ecstatic, but fleeting, feeling of Right?
I am like you too, Mr. Smartypants, I have sacrificed some perfectly good relationships on the altar of Right. I have seen many an eye glaze over as I, once again, spoke at length about how I knew what was Right.
What I have learned is that people will always forgive you for occasionally being wrong, but they will never forgive you for always being Right.
I would advise you, Mr. Smartypants, not so much to pretend to be stupid, but perhaps to withhold your (however infallible) judgments in favor of more graciously leading people toward their own conclusions.
Instead of marking a conversation with the big red stamp of Right, allow yourself and the person with whom you are speaking to simply exchange ideas and engage in predictions—without either of you shouldering the burdens of Right and Wrong.
Can you a picture a world like that, Mr. Smartypants? One where people would feel comfortable expressing themselves honestly without the tyranny of Right or the shame and embarrassment of Wrong?
Hold the vision of that Utopia in your mind as you go about your daily interactions. I guarantee you’ll not just improve your own relationships, you’ll change the world at large.
Got an imponderable quandary that only McGill-a-grams can solve? Send your cries for help to email@example.com.