Sunday: I was taking a quick break in the bedroom after work and talking with K-. The boys were downstairs in the playroom yelling for us to get them water or something. I rolled my eyes and said under my breath/to K-, “Jesus, why don’t you get it yourself, ya dildos.” I’ve never called the boys dildos before. I’m not sure why I did it. It’s a really mean thing to say.
That was the first entry into my parenting diary. It wasn’t the start I was hoping for, but it was the start I was willing to accept. After all, getting insight into mean things I might say about my two boys was really part of the whole reason I’d started a diary in the first place. The idea had been inspired by the positive parenting movement which is big on communication and patience, and completely against discipline and punishment. Proponents suggest that with care and attentiveness kids won’t need discipline (which is less insane than it might sound). They’ll be well-adjusted, feel secure in life, and act accordingly.
But in order to offer that care and attentiveness, a parent has to understand how they interact with their kids. How else can a dad like myself make positive changes in his parenting style, if he doesn’t know what that style looks like in the first place? If Socrates were into positive parenting (and image-based social sharing platforms) he’d have been famous for Pinterest-worthy quotes like “The unexamined parenting life is not worth the cookies!” or whatever.
So, I was determined to examine my parenting life. I was going to write it down and figure it out.
Tuesday: I played with boys after work. Well, I played Fortnite while they watched. S kept lunging at me and laughing. He was being really tough. Not pulling his punches. I was rough back. It seems like the rougher I am with him the more he likes it. I pushed him backward on the couch a dozen times and he thought it was hilarious. I’m not sure this is healthy. A- loves to watch me play Fortnite. He’s great at making gun and explosion noises. S- sat on my lap and said: “I don’t like killing in real life.”
On that page, I had my first breakthrough, an insight born of observation. My boys and my physical aggressiveness is more pronounced than I had previously considered — and might even be cause for mild concern. After all, I don’t want to raise hitters or even, for that matter, grapplers. Specifically, looking back on this diary, it struck me that my 5-year-old was being rough while watching me play a violent video game. Was it the violence on screen or did he just want my attention? Hard to say. Censorious types always claim that video games trigger violent behavior, but the line isn’t entirely direct. Still, I may have been inadvertently teaching him some less than savory macho coping mechanisms.
In the context of that, his admission that he “didn’t like killing in real life” made me super sad. I mean, I don’t either, but I don’t want my kid to have to think about that.
Wednesday: I dropped the boys off with a friend’s wife so I could go golfing this evening. I had to hustle them out the door. They wanted to know why and I didn’t have time to get into where they were going or why. They had a million questions I didn’t answer while I was barking at them to get out the door. I didn’t talk about them at all, for 9 holes of golf, with 5 other dads. I came home and they were already asleep. So was K-. I feel guilty about this.
Halfway through the week, I was starting to think that maybe I wasn’t the stellar communicator I’d always imagined myself to be. What would it have taken, really to just take a beat and tell the boys about my plans? Would it really have slowed anything down? I left the house stressed out and then promptly forgot about my family on the links.
It’s not that I have to be “on” all the time. But I could have spared them a thought or two. I mean, what kind of dad am I? Frankly, I thought I was better than other dads. I was (and am) knowledgeable — it helps that I’m paid to be — and I’m a warm and communicative guy. I don’t check out on my family to play golf or get overly bent out of shape about minor infractions. But I also maybe communicate with my boys entirely through roughhousing? Writing stuff down makes you question assumptions, specifically about your own virtue. Why? Because it’s not about motivation, which can be so keenly felt, but about action.
Suffice it to say, I was not liking this diary.
Thursday: Awesome night! We reached a turning point in bedtime. The deal is now that we start out with the lights on and let the boys read for 15 minutes. After that, we turned off the lights and close the door. I let them negotiate me up from 5 minutes because I wanted them to feel like they got one over on me. When we turned out the lights they were asleep in a matter of minutes. That never happens. They always scream when the light goes off. Not this time. Breakthrough?
Near the end of the week, there was finally something positive to report. It was a glimmer of hope that maybe I wasn’t an awful dad after all. This actually sounded like good parenting. I’d talked with the boys, explained the new rules, negotiated, and followed through. The response was better than I could have ever hoped. So why did it work?
I thought about this a lot. It occurred to me that this discussion happened at the dinner table. The whole family had been there. We’d been face to face and focused. My wife was there to back me up and the boys felt they had agency in an important part of their life: bedtime. This makes complete sense now. But I don’t think I would have understood why if I hadn’t written it down.
Friday: Picked my mom up from the airport. She hasn’t seen the boys since last Christmas. It was weird because as they talked to her I could hear them from her perspective. I was hyper-focused on them as little people. Both of them were so polite and articulate. I don’t recognize this every day.
As the week wound down and I looked at my entries, the profundity of the exercise really started to sink in. I was really beginning to recognize my parenting style. I’d begun to sense patterns and deficiencies. And, sure, even some strengths. It was clear to me that there were some serious areas I needed to work on. Unexpectedly, one of those areas was communication. I realized my boys needed more verbal communication and less physical communication. I also realized that things work better when I’m present, not invested in a dumb video game or thinking ahead to my first tee shot.
This was totally new for me. Moreso, these were insights I would have never reached had I relied on trying to remember my week. You’re right, the unexamined parenting life turns out, in fact, not to be worth the cookies, Pinterest-Socrates.
I’d originally only expected to keep my diary for a week. But I’m going to keep the notebook and pen on my nightstand for a little longer. I don’t always dig what I find in the notebook come morning, but keeping nightly notes is, I think, helping. Though I’m concerned about becoming even more self-conscious than I already am, I think the risk is worth it. I need to keep an eye on both my boys and myself.