In time for Father’s Day, I read this vignette by Indrani Sen, Culture Editor for The New York Times. A thirteen-year-old girl, Sasha, asked her parents for permission to skip school. Her father, Matt Gross replied, “Not allowed. Nope!” and then offered this unsolicited advice:
“Next time you want to skip school, don’t tell your parents. Just go. Browse vintage stores, eat your favorite snack, lie on your back in Prospect Park, and stare at the clouds. Isn’t that the point of skipping school, after all? To sneak around, to steal time and space back from the arbitrary system that enfolds you? To hell with permission! That’s being a teenager—carving out a private life for yourself under the noses of the authority figures who surround you.”
I like to think I don’t give unsolicited advice. But of course, I do. We all do. Because…well…our advice is invaluable—or so we think. Besides, giving it away is as satisfying as it is easy. I admire Matt’s unsolicited advice to his daughter because it resonates with my own spirit of parenting. It also triggered an internal analysis: what advice did I bestowed upon my own children; how did it lodge in their heads?
A father with an infant at the park, mid-day, mid-week, in 1989: it was a rare thing. Yet there I was, primary parent for our wee daughter, target of unending amounts of unsolicited advice. Every mother in the playground felt obligated (Compelled? Entitled?) to correct everything I did. “She’s too cold.” “She’s too hot.” “She’s hungry.” “She’s wet.” When my daughter was calm or cooing, the stream of unsolicited advice was steady. The moment she fussed, it became a torrent.
Over time, I grew accustomed to ignoring the advice (and the women who offered it). Though occasionally, I wound up and pitched back. Once, when my daughter was maybe two, shooting head first down the grand slide at Robbins Park in Arlington, an apoplectic mother ran up and shouted, “She’s going to get hurt!” Abby flew off the end of the slide, I scooped her into my arms, raised the exuberant critter to my face, and bussed her quivering cheek. Then I grinned at the meddler, and simply replied, “Not this time.”
My theory of parenting is simple. My job is to give my children enough rope to explore the world without hanging themselves. This attitude was considered too, too lax when they were infants and toddlers, yet far too restrictive for teenagers. By that time, I was chagrinned to learn that I had evolved from one of the loosest parents to one of the strictest. Even when they were in high school, I remained a stickler for sharing our days over nightly family dinners; for staying up until curfew to ensure they arrived home safe.
Parenting teenagers was my favorite phase of the job. I enjoyed the mental game of trying to figure out these emerging creatures much more than the physicality of raising toddlers or even the best-friendliness of their wonder years. As for infants, I’ve never met an honest woman who did not love that time best, nor an honest man who enjoyed that time at all.
I foisted two tidbits of conscious, unsolicited advice on my children. I’m quite certain that they remember one piece of dad wisdom to this day, and equally sure they’ve tried to forget the other.
At age twelve or so, I took aside my daughter; the following year my son. I asked them if they had any questions about babies, sex, that sort of thing. Short conversations, as each in turn, turned red and withdrew. Then I made my moral appeal. “I want you to do this one thing. Choose the first person you have sex with carefully. You are going to remember that person, and that experience for the rest of your life. Try to make it good.” The sum total of my unsolicited advice about sex.
The advice know they remember was this: “Break a law—every day.” I trusted my children to understand my intent. Not to become murderers or bank robbers, or consciously harm others. Rather, don’t be a cog in the system, obedient to the point of denying your individual spirit. Understand the rules of smooth society, but don’t be a slave to them.
My children are in the thirties now. Their contributions to our world are more impressive than their rap sheets. Impressive too, are their independent natures. They understood my cryptic advice and, just maybe for once, listened to their old man.
A short time after Matt Gross gave his daughter unsolicited advice on how to skip school; she did. Without prior approval. Way to go Sasha! Way to go Matt!