The thing about being a father is that it is a tremendously humbling experience. You can expend every bit of energy trying to get your child to learn or do something and it feels like it completely falls on deaf ears. Don’t get me wrong–both Iris and Robyn are great kids and we’re really fortunate that they aren’t typically disrespectful, obnoxious, or uncontrollable. Still, there are some days where it just doesn’t go the way you scripted it. You convince yourself that you absolutely stink at parenting and that a chimp could probably do a better job as a paternal role model (not that any chimps were volunteering). But just when you’re at your lowest point, one of the kids does something that just kicks you in the butt and says “keep it up, you’re not so bad after all!” I had one of those moments Saturday.
The day started about as badly as they come, from a parental perspective. The previous night, Iris told a lie. It wasn’t an important thing she was lying about and she didn’t gain anything by the lie. She was simply testing boundaries and it REALLY bothered me. One of the things Iris has done well with over the years is stay honest and tell the truth in all occasions and I wasn’t ready to lose that. When Cherise told me about the lie after Iris was put down to bed, I marched upstairs and read her the riot act. No yelling. No screaming. Just a very controlled rage. And then I took away her stuffed animal pig (“Wilbur”) that she had with her in the bed and asked her to think about what she had done.
The next morning, she hadn’t done her thinking. Instead, all she wanted to know was where her pig was. I was beside myself. Is she not hearing me? Does she not get it? All our preaching about being honest and thinking of others is getting wasted. Why did we even bother?!? And to think we lost her at 4 years old! No way was she getting the pig back now. Man, if there is such things a paternal ego, mine was shot. The rest of that morning, I was practically sulking about my failure as a father. She promised she wouldn’t lie, but was she saying that just to placate me. Was she lying now?!? Ugh. The morning was just really frustrating and, after considering taking away her ice skating trip, we still let her go. When she came home, she was in a great mood, but I was still bummed. By the time she woke up from nap in the afternoon, I was content to just let the day run its course.
Then it happened. I was about to enjoy one of those moments that makes everything you give up on behalf of parenting worthwhile.
Cherise had to run some errands for her volunteer work with children’s literacy. When Iris asked where Mommy went, I started telling her about how her Mommy was helping kids learn how to read. I was ready to go into a huge lecture about Mommy’s selflessness and willingness to put others ahead of herself. All of a sudden, Iris suddenly burst out, “Daddy, I’ve been going through all my money and I have lots of money to give.
I want to give it to the people that got stuck in the earthquake. They need medicine and water and we can help them with money.
Here I was, trying to teach Iris about selfless behavior and, as has often happened during my 4+ years at this parenting thing, the teacher was about to become the student.
Wow. The day before, I was explaining the tragedy of the Haitian earthquake to Iris. I suggested how maybe we should donate money and I explained why they needed the money. She asked a lot of questions, but frankly, it was a long shot to think that any of it would stick. While we talked about it a little the day before, I didn’t know if she really grasped what I was trying to tell her. Heck, I couldn’t get her to tell the truth about whether she had taken a bath the night before–why would she care about these people she had never seen before and probably sounded imaginary?
Well, I was wrong. She got the message loud and clear. “I don’t need the money as much as they do. They are sick and all their buildings fell down. I’m really lucky. I have lots of food and water and medicine and I live in a house. They don’t.” She kept talking about the situation and was drawing conclusions from my story that were accurate and applicable. Frankly, this level of empathy would’ve been refreshing coming from an adult, but hearing her say it was surreal. It’s easy to say that I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, I planted the seeds, right? But as much as you try, kids can’t be programmed (contrary to Fox News conspiracy theories on Obama indoctrination in public schools). If they could be programmed, Iris would spend her time helping me dissect the intricacies of the Cover 2 defense in football and Robyn would demand that U2’s Joshua Tree be played at bedtime. You provide as many positive experiences as possible, and hope they are profoundly affected by the ones that can change them for the better.
The story didn’t end there. Later that day, Iris reminded me that she wanted to get her money ready to give away and dragged me upstairs to prepare her donation. For Christmas, Cherise’s grandmother had gotten Iris a special coin bank that has three sections: one marked “Spend”, one marked “Save”, and one marked “Give”. Iris had already put quite a bit of money in the “Give” section, but was adamant about her willingness to give more. Once we emptied the bank and counted $2.23, she asked “is that enough for them to be OK? Because I can take from my ‘spend’ bank too.” Unfortunately, as we all know, 2.23 MILLION dollars wouldn’t be enough, but I didn’t want her to feel the same helplessness I feel when I give. So I said, yes, that should be enough when you combine it with what Mommy and Daddy will give. Then Iris said “maybe we can ask more people to give?” Geez. My daughter has become the activist/philanthropist. Where did this come from? But talk is cheap, right? So I say “why don’t you convince your Tata (Cherise’s mom) to give?”, knowing she had already given. So, Iris starts bugging Cherise to call Tata and then leaves a message on her voice mail to give money (“Tata, you have to give money to the earthquake people for food and water and medicine! Bye.”). Later, she also started talking about how if she were a doctor, she could go and help the people herself. To this point, doctors were about giving shots and fixing runny noses. Something about elevating the medical profession to a humanitarian level made it an even more enticing prospect. I’m not ready to say a doctor is born, but she sure keeps showing the right motivations.
The next day, after I pretty much assumed the earthquake exercise was over, Iris asked to see pictures. She had seen the picture of a collapsed building on the cover of the newspaper when I first told her the story, but she was really curious to learn more. So I showed her a copy of Time magazine that showed pictures of the earthquake. At first, I was wondering whether it was the right thing to do–did a four-year old really need to see the destruction that took place in a land far far away? But I knew it would make a difference and the pictures wouldn’t overwhelm her. It made the situation more real and more understandable. I stressed that it was a unique situation, so she didn’t need to stress whether this was going to happen to us (she’s already experienced a mild earthquake when she was 2). When she saw the picture of the bodies under a sheet (the one picture I was trying to flip by quickly), she thought that they were sleeping because they were homeless. Even though I explained that people died in the earthquake, I didn’t have the heart to tell her that those bodies were dead (I did have limits on what I was ready to throw at a four-year old). The concept of homelessness was sufficiently tragic and clearly had an impact on her, probably as much as the death that was apparent to me when I saw the picture. More powerful was the picture of a child that was blinded in one eye from the destruction. Something about seeing a kid your age suffering can really help a child grasp the situation.
Cherise later told me that Iris had talked to her later about the Time pictures and originally wanted to get the Haitian on the cover of the magazine a new shirt because she noticed it was torn, but then saw the blinded child and decided that eyes were more important than a new shirt. Good to see her priorities are in order as well.
Like I said, you can’t guarantee which lessons stick and which don’t. That’s what makes the moment so much more gratifying. Philanthropy and empathy are tricky lessons at any age, but they are lifetime lessons, something clearly lost on many people in this country who not only disregard those less fortunate, but assail those whose political philosophies are committed to compassion. As for our family, we’ve sent our money to Partners In Health for $225.23 (Iris got a 100-to-1 match) and hope that the selflessness that was inspired by the Haitian earthquake is not forgotten any time soon. And Iris hasn’t lied since we had our talk. Maybe I’m not so bad at this parenting thing after all. The chimp will have to wait his turn.