Demons and Ghosts

Nov 19 | Tony | No Comments |

For fathers who grew up in less than hospitable environments, it can be an enormous challenge to be the kind of parent we strive to be.

The giant hurdle (and the white elephant most often in the room) is that in trying to parent kids, a father is constantly re-parenting himself at each and every developmental stage. As long as your kids are growing and becoming, the work is never done. This father must manage information bubbling up from two parallel systems: (1) his child (or children), and  (2) his own past.

These two systems are always running in tandem. At any time, either or both can trigger strong emotions. Conflicting and confusing messages and intense feelings can arise, as well. These are often shrouded in the shadows of the past, or are muddled in fears about the future. For a father on the front lines who is trying to be an engaged dad, these internal stirrings are a lot to manage.

In effect, this father has to wrestle with his own demons, and he must make some peace with the ghosts that try to haunt him at each child’s new developmental stage.

For a father, this is not easy work. Exorcism and divination. Any father who is even half awake knows a little bit about his demons and ghosts. The Journey Toward Deep Fatherhood, which starts out being traveled in the now with a eye toward the future, most assuredly drags us into the past.

 

Bait Your Own Hook, You Big Sissy!

Nov 16 | Tony | No Comments |

I confess to having been scared of all things creepy-crawly as a boy – a trait I am sure I inherited from my mother. My stepfather took to me fishing once (and only once) as a young boy in an effort to bond. I was excited at the prospect of catching the big one but did not anticipate having to impale slimy worms on razor-sharp hooks in an effort to lure it in.

After baiting the first hook for me and wiping the excess worm guts and juice off on his pants, he expected me to bait the rest after that. There was no way I was going to fish around for a worm in the dark dirt in the bait container, let alone hold one in my hand and impale it on a hook so that I could actually fish around for fish! Needless to say, it was a long, uphill battle for the two of us from then on.

Fast forward three decades and I find myself in conversation with two other dads. One guy, a big, strong former football and baseball player born and raised in the Bronx, lets it be known how much he hates fishing for the same reason. The other dad, another tough-as nails guy who grew up in Canada playing hockey, had a similar experience trying to ice fish with his dad.

So there we are: Three big, burly guys carrying our little boy shame of not quite measuring up with our fathers or stepfathers, and now trying like hell to not make our children measure up for us. Trying not to repeat the past. Trying to say, “Hey, maybe there is a better way – a different way – through the dark forest of fatherhood.” Three dads today who are willing to say, “Hey, it’s perfectly OK. This is gross. I’ll bait your hook for you. No worries. I got your back. Let’s still see if we can have some fun together.” Three dads taking a step further and asking, “What is that you want to do?” And then having the courage to give it a try.

New dads for a new day. Lucky me for having bumped into these guys. It is nice to know that I am not alone in the world. Lucky kids for having such big tender-hearted dads!

Baa Baa Black Sheep

Nov 16 | Tony | No Comments |

Almost everyone who has siblings will say that someone in the family was a “golden child” and someone else was a “black sheep.” (“You were always dad’s favorite!” or “I stayed in trouble!”)

Who was (is) the golden child in your family? The black sheep? Have those dynamics changed over the years? Were you assigned the role, or did you seek it out? Do you know why?

Some black sheep say they felt unwelcome. (“It was like I was adopted and everybody knew it but me.”) Some golden children, as if by divine decree, are given the keys to the kingdom from the very beginning. But in most cases, the underlying dynamics are complex and operate on very subtle levels.

I wonder where black sheep come from in the first place? Most every family has one for at least some period of time. Do they only show up when the golden child starts to shine too brightly? Once a child has the high ground, does that sentence another to somehow feeling less than?

Realizing they can’t overthrow the golden child, does one of the children naturally just give up the fight and decide to look for new, unclaimed territory? A search for some psychological ground where there is no competition, or no place to measured and found lacking? Interestingly, black sheep territory is also a space where the light can shine just as brightly as it does on the golden child – albeit for all the wrong reasons.

Parents know that kids don’t care what kind of attention they get, just as long as they get some kind of attention. So, a golden child and a black sheep are really opposite sides of the same coin, and the currency of the realm is a parent’s attention. And kids will do anything to get it. A golden child constellates a black sheep, and a black sheep constellates a golden child. (The argument about the chicken or the egg will be left for another day!)

Is it possible to have a family where there are no black sheep? In order to eliminate the possibility of creating black sheep, do we have to do away with the notion of having a golden child? What might that look like?

The challenge is as old as parenting itself. Our mythologies, fairy tales, and sacred texts are littered with thousands of stories of sibling rivalry, princes and frogs, good witches and bad, and lost boys and prodigal sons.

Maybe the work of a parent is to create a flock of gray sheep. In truth, we are all a little bit of both, aren’t we? We have golden qualities that endear us to our loved ones, and we have darker sides that can make us quite prickly and harder to love.

So, as parents, maybe we need to make sure that a child marching toward gold status is held accountable for less than golden behavior, and a child wandering toward the darker side has a constant light shone on his or her golden qualities. Neither all good, nor all bad – just like the rest of us.

 

But I Just Want You To Be Happy

Mar 06 | Tony | No Comments |

As a parent, what is your primary goal in raising a child or children in today’s world? Some parents argue that making their children happy is a top priority. Parent’s lives are spent trying to smooth the way for a child. They labor over their child’s homework, do all the household chores, schedule a busy calendar of just-the-right activities and play dates with just-the-right playmates, and all the while providing for every need and almost every desire. (See iPhones, iPads, iTouches, i-anything and i-everything.)

I argue that the real goal of parenting kids in today’s world is not about happiness at all. Rather, it is about helping create resilience. Deep down, most of us know that happiness is fleeting anyway. Certainly working toward an overall sense of well-being is a worthwhile lifelong pursuit. But outright happiness? All the time? Not a chance. It is a passing emotion at best, along with joy, sadness, worry, anger, etc. Don’t get me wrong. I want as much happiness as I can get, but I know there has to be room on the shelf for all the other emotions and feelings that come with being alive and conscious.

So why the obsession with trying to make kids happy? Are we as parents trying to live out our version of the Family Fairy Tale? Is this the continuation of the Happily Ever After Fairy Tale where the prince and princess fall in love and live happily ever after? But that’s not how it ends, is it? The rest of the story is that they wind up having kids. Then they ALL have to live happily ever after. Right? So how do you do that as a parent? How do you create happily ever after childhoods for your children?  You spend your waking hours and hard-earned dollars in the relentless pursuit of their happiness.

In the actual fairy tales of old, life is hard, scary, and treacherous. It is not all roses and sunshine. Life intervenes. Bad things happen. Wolves eat grandmothers. Children are abducted and fattened up in cages. Witches cast spells. Beauties eat poison apples. Knights lose their way and wander aimlessly in dark forests for years. But isn’t real life just like this? Just read or listen to the news on any given day. Nothing there has anything to do with happiness.

So what is it that life demands of us each and every day? Above all, I argue that it demands resilience. And resilience is precisely the quality that is needed in order for children to grow up and make their way in the world. Resilience is needed more than ever in these rocking and reeling times. It is resilience that will carry our children forward in a world that demands so much of them in so many different ways and on so many different fronts.

The Oxford American Dictionary defines resilience as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties.” So, in order to cultivate resilience, one first has to actually encounter difficulties. And therein lies the rub, my friend. What parent has the stomach to stand by while their child struggles – and struggles mightily – with something? There are a million somethings – a million opportunities – for each child to build resilience: potty training, navigating social circles, doing the dishes, being dumped, failing math class, sitting the bench, etc.)

As a parent, how do you teach resilience to your child? Resilience can not be taught, it can only be cultivated. The art of authentically parenting a child involves providing ripe conditions and environments for resilience to be brought forth from within the child. That means allowing the child to fully face his or her own unique challenges, and to be beaten and battered by them. They need to fully feel the cut of life, the heat of the dragon’s fire, the bitter taste of the poison in the apple, and to get lost every now and then in the forest of life. Parents that cultivate resilience in their children make sure the wounds are not lethal, the fires do not consume, and that the child finds his or her way home.

Each child has to have authentic setbacks, disappointments, and failures early on in life in order to access inner resources, build resilience, and gain wisdom. A parent’s job is to watch closely and to cheer them as they fall nine times and get up ten. Parents that are cultivating resilience hope that a lot of the falling happens on their watch so they can help children notice what it feels like to tumble, have the wind taken out, and to muster the courage to rise again.

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iFamily 2.0

Mar 06 | Tony | No Comments |

iFamily 1.0: Al Gore discovers the internet and plugs everyone in. iFamily 2..0: Steve Jobs creates the iDevice and stuffs at least one of them into the hot little hands of every man, woman and child on the planet.

A recent National Geographic had a picture of Kyrgyz nomads in a remote part of the world playing with apps on an iGadget while tending a flock of sheep. The cost of a phone is one sheep.

Closer to home, my 11-year-old daughter has had her iGadget surgically attached to her palm since it arrived during the holidays. The other day, she proudly announced that she has 127 apps and is on her way to 200. I am still trying to figure out how to use just one: GoogleMaps. Somebody, please…

So what does all this iBusiness mean for children, parents, and families? As a parent, I am overwhelmed, outgunned, and virtually (no pun intended) helpless against the Invasion of the iStuff. Not only have we lost the control-over-technology battle with our children, I am not sure we ever really had a fighting chance. It is not just in the culture or in the family. It now feels like it is in the DNA. Just try leaving your own iThing at home for a day. It is a bit of a surreal feeling.

It is harder and harder to carve out ‘quality time’ with children and family. Even when I can convince them, always begrudgingly, to shut their devices off or even just to take out their ear buds so that we can try and make some space for the potential for a conversation to spontaneously occur, then my own device starts ringing or alerting me to an incoming text message. ¡iCaramba!

I now live with a constant background level of worry and concern about the devices that now command a large portion of our children’s attention. I am impotent against this iOnslaught that has oozed into every crack and crevice of family life.

There is the illusion that I have some control over what my kids are exposed to. I could have adopted the “Just Say No” approach to iJunk, but they would have gotten their fix through their friends anyway, and I would have caught pure hell along the way for it. (My 11-year-old was already a pro at her device before she even unpacked it.)

I accept iDefeat. As I take my last iGasp, I knew that the odds were overwhelmingly stacked against me, and that resistance was futile. We have all been iAssimilated.

It is unconscionable that the best and brightest minds developing these products and marketing them directly to children have turned a blind eye to the needs of parents and families for some way to REALLY regulate them. Without a simple way to control them, we are relegated to the role of iPolice doing shakedowns and confiscating devices on a daily basis – all in the name of just trying to spend some quality un-iTime with our kids.

¡Ay Yay Yay! iGiveUp!

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If I Had a Hammer

Mar 06 | Tony | No Comments |

If I had a hammer, I‘d hammer in the morning. I’d hammer in the evening… all over this land…

Or more accurately:

All I have is a hammer. I hammer in the morning. I hammer in the evening… over this land…

I have sneaking suspicions that there are a LOT of dads out there who have inherited hammers as their parenting tool of choice.  Every now and then, it feels like I am still swinging a 9-pound hammer around the room. And that is after a lifetime of introspection, hard work, and the melting down of all sorts of hammers, and the forging of new tools. (Funny how hammers still keep popping up just when I thought I had found them all!)

If you are one of the guys whose parenting tool shed consists of One Big Hammer, (and a wing and prayer) then you already have three very important pieces of information:  (1) That is how you were parented, (2) This is your inheritance, and (3) This is where the work begins if you want to do something different with your child(ren) and/or partner.

The convenient thing about a hammer is that it is pretty easy to use. Just grab and swing. It’s not rocket science. Hammers pass easily from generation to generation, and you can take them with you wherever you go. The good news is that you can use them on just about everything and everyone, and in most situations.

Even when you don’t know what to do, you can always just pull it out and start pounding. Many of us get so good at it that we don’t even have to think about it anymore. We live on autopilot just swinging away. But hey, at least it looks like you are doing something! It sure feels like you are doing something. And at the end of the day, you can always say, “It’s not my fault. I have been pounding on that thing (or that person) for years. I did the best I could. I did my job. That’s the way it was done when I was growing up.”

But what is a guy supposed to do with his hammer now that something totally different is being asked of him on all fronts? Dads are now being asked to play nicely in the sandbox: to be patient, loving, insightful, present, intuitive, gentle, supportive, attentive, sensitive, wise, communicative, non-defensive, soft, warm, kind, sharing, open, giving, etc.  I don’t know about you, but that looks like a mighty tall order, especially if all you got to do it with is a hammer. Bang, bang! Clang, clang! Wham, wham!

It feels like I can’t do any of that other stuff with just a hammer. Maybe it’s time for John Henry to put his hammer down, and quit driving spikes (into people’s heads). The work of everyman is to tend his own hot fire, to throw his hammer into it, and begin the melting and re-forging process. Over and over again, until he has created for himself a master craftsman’s set of tools for all sorts of situations and instances. And he must practice with his tools until they become as musical instruments in his hands, and he a virtuoso.

This is very hard work. Indeed, it is a lifetime’s worth of work. And that, my friend, is a mighty inheritance to pass down to one’s children. A shed full of parenting tools! It is not the gold of this world (which can bankrupt on the inside), but the alchemical gold (which forever enriches) that is passed down from generation to generation. Smelted anew each day in the fires of family life, while trying to raise your children with your eyes wide open.

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The Dad Life!

Nov 08 | Tony | No Comments |

I typically feel compelled to write about the hard stuff of fatherhood. (See deepfatherhood). Since I am living it, I am drawn to the shadowy places where many fathers, sooner or later, find themselves.

There is not much in the popular literature about just how hard it can be for a guy to actually become the kind of father that he dreams of being. Our culture tends to paint the darker side of dads into narrow emotional corners: Workaholic Absentee Dad, Angry Bitter Father, Distant Dad, Bumbling Out-of-Touch Man, The Drunk, etc. But as all moms and dads know, there is a whole other side of fatherhood.

Today, it is time to give a nod to that other side of the fatherhood coin: the light and sunny side. It’s that sweet spot men often find themselves in when they surrender into the day-to-day life of being an engaged dad in today’s society. They have survived the changes brought on by pregnancy and childbirth. For men, these changes very often include weight gain, nesting behavior, hormonal changes, relationship change and strain, and even depression. These guys are weathering the storm. They are making it through.

Men who find themselves in this sweet spot have stopped fighting the bit. We are learning that resistance is futile. We are becoming dad. And oh, what a sweet spot it is! All the cliches start to apply. We start living “The Dad Life.” Check out the depiction of The Dad Life in this short 3-minute video of the same name. This is guaranteed to make any dad (or mom) crack a smile at the very least! Watch and enjoy The Dad Life.

As a dad, think about all of the little ‘Dad Life’ moments that you experience day in and day out. Those little taken-for-granted moments, everyday routines (“took my daughty to the potty”), and honey-do’s provide a wealth of opportunities to sink into the good stuff of fatherhood. The guys in “The Dad Life” bring those moments front and center. They turn the drudgery of shuttling kids, mowing lawns, and sweating the small stuff into a celebration of all things suburban and fatherly. It’s the Dad Life!

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