Editor’s Note: Go Ask Your Dad is parenting advice with a philosophical bent as one dad explores what we want out of life, for ourselves and our children, through useful paradigms and best practices.
This past weekend we reached the 100th day of my wife, two daughters and me living, working and schooling at home together. The next day was Father’s Day.
That combination found me reflecting on what children could use most from parents right now, during this unique and challenging summer. Not just my kids, but our kids, from all the parents.
As always, they need unconditionally loving, patient, accepting, joyful, mindful and nurturing gardeners. Or at least as patient, accepting, joyful and mindful as we can muster.
The term “gardeners” is Alison Gopnik’s shorthand for the kind of supportive but non-prescriptive parents we often strive be. Gopnik, a professor of psychology at University of California Berkeley, believes we need to give kids the equivalent of soil, water and sun to help them bloom, and then embrace whatever blossoms out of it.
The common alternative, Gopnik explained in her social science-laden book, “The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children,” are “carpenter” parents who try to construct children out of some DIY expectations-blueprint.
I like Gopnik’s metaphor. Our role — now more than ever — is to create the fertile ground in which kids can grow up healthy, wise, ethical and largely free to pursue their own version of happiness.
And to some degree, we’ve currently lost the direct influence of some of our support gardeners: extended family and teachers. The kid’s gardens (and literally “kindergartens”) have been our homes.
But to take Gopnik’s metaphor just a bit further than she does — we also know there are threats to a child’s ability to grow strong. Viruses affect plants, too. And our children’s roots are damaged when their schooling and socialization is restricted, by racial injustice, violence, poverty and hunger.
We have, collectively, an obligation to all our children to adjust the soil they are living in to one that is hospitable to, and supportive of, a healthy, strong life. Until everyone is sprouting in good, rich soil, we have an obligation to teach them how to thrive.
It’s in this historic moment that we are passing tools on to our children — the Earth’s next generation of gardeners — the kinds of tools needed to face extraordinary threats. We are modeling how to act and react, even if we are not fully conscious of our lessons.
I am striving to be more intentional in these life lessons. Below are some subjects to consider focusing on in the school of life we’re all teaching now. These are not in order of importance — different kids need different lessons at different times. Some are ambitious, some modest.
Just try to focus on being consistent, transparent, patient and mindful of how your children are experiencing this time, and structure lessons accordingly.
When we make room to cope ourselves, by taking care of our own mental and physical well-being, we model and give permission for our kids to do it, too. If that seems too selfish, remember that building up reserves is the only way to have to enough positive energy to effectively help anyone else.
Your kids also need opportunities and ideas for what will help them care for their emotions and bodies. Do they need creative projects, time in nature, connections to friends, a sense of order and accomplishment, or all of the above?
It’s healthy to mourn the loss of anything we can’t do, and anyone we love that we can’t be with right now. Loss and grief are parts of the human experience and we need healthy ways to cope with them.
We can empathize, discuss, honor and find ways to capture those feelings. Simply acknowledging it is the first big step in coping with loss. But be prepared to guide them through some of the stages of grief as well.
Even though what we miss — close time with friends and family, travel and extracurricular activities, for example — will return, it’s helpful to acknowledge and mourn them now.
By admitting hardships, loss and the difficulties of everything happening now, we are showing our children how to have a more positive relationship with change and even stress.
The pandemic in particular has introduced one problem after another to solve. And by bringing possible solutions to those problems, we teach problem solving.
Kids need us to model how to analyze an issue, brainstorm fixes and then how to experiment and learn from missteps until we get it right. That is the formula for most of the problems life throws at us.
“I’m booooored!” is one of the more dreaded phrases of parenthood (at least for me) so it’s good to remind yourself, and your kids, that boredom is not bad. In fact, it’s often a prerequisite of creativity and imagination.
If boredom is a chronic problem for your kids, try getting a list going of fun ideas to do with them and some they can do without you. And if you need ideas, CNN compiled 100 of them for this summer to get you started.
The antidote to chaos can often be order. Without being too rigid or ambitious, lead yourself and your kids through a process of creating a schedule — whether it’s a daily order of events or a weekly itinerary with one fun activity to look forward to every day.
In September 2019, just ahead of the Covid-19 pandemic – so roughly before-anyone-can-remember ago – Merriam-Webster added the term “dad joke” to the dictionary, to little fanfare.
What a masterclass in empathy we’re all auditing right now. We’ve had to increase it as loved ones struggle, and as we inconvenience ourselves for the greater good.
Despite the many examples of people flaunting safety guidelines, what the last three months have shown us is that the vast majority of people have put the collective good ahead of selfish desire. When called upon, we come to the help of neighbors, strangers and society at large.
Recent racial justice protests are evidence of a massive upswelling in support for basic equality, and a willingness to repair the torn fabric of our society. People are good, and we are the people.
The small things
There has been, whether we like it or not, a recent recalibration of priorities. From the loss of activities by the pandemic, first we settled with less than we wanted, then we began to appreciate many of those compromises.
My family is finding deeper pleasure in more basic experiences. Vacations were canceled, but family movie and game nights were not. Friends and family became more distanced but our appreciation, and in some ways connections to them, deepened. My kids are actually interacting more with their grandparents now through letters, video calls and interactive online games.
When people say things will never be the same again, I see the potential of much of that being positive. On the other side of this time, my kids may keep their weekly calls to grandparents. I think we won’t overextend afterschool extracurriculars once they become available again. I think on the other side of this period, we’ll be better problem solvers, more empathetic and more resilient.
Though it doesn’t always feel like this, it’s a gift how much extra time I’ve been able to have with my kids. We have lunch every day. I never miss a family dinner now. I get small interactions even during a busy work day, and I’m not losing any time with them on commutes and work travel. When offices and schools reopen, I’ll miss those things the most and be grateful for what we had while we had it.
I recently empathized with my 12-year-old daughter that it must be hard for her to be stuck with us all the time, for months now. And her reply was matter-of-fact. “There’s no one else I’d rather be stuck with,” she said with a smile.
That is my 100 days in lockdown/Father’s Day gift this year. And I am grateful for that lesson.