One of the things I like the most about sports is how it so truly reflects our society. For all those people who think sports is a lowbrow, opiate of the masses, I say you’re missing out on a lot of depth.
Of course this connection between sports and society cuts both ways, as has been abundantly clear in the NFL lately. The Michael Sam story is an ongoing saga of how homosexuality is becoming accepted by society, a bellwether of a time when such questions will no longer even be questions. The flip side is seen in the recent domestic abuse controversies plaguing the league. If you’re not familiar with the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson situations the short version is that one savagely beat his wife, the other his child, but the worst part of the story is actually the way the situations have been handled by the NFL.
The NFL has a major image problem. In trying to appeal to its fans, who enjoy the smash-mouth nature of the sport and tend to fall on the conservative side of the spectrum, the NFL is missing a major societal shift in attitudes towards gender, sexuality, and violence. I often feel kinda sorry for those deeply entrenched in the sport because I understand how being so fully immersed in that culture since childhood must impact your world view. I’m not in any way defending anyone’s actions, but we all know that violence breeds violence, which is why the Rice and Peterson situations are appalling but not necessarily surprising. That's why I was so pleased to see this awesome clip of former NFL wide receiver Cris Carter so openly, and passionately, take a stand against family violence and the culture that breeds it.
That kind of stand takes guts, not just because he’s speaking to the macho culture of the NFL, but because he’s completely upending the entire “momma knows best” culture that is so engrained in many parts of our society. The idea that our mothers are these infallible creatures that can do no wrong has led many future parents astray. As parents, we naturally lean on what our parents did as a model of how we should raise our kids, but what if the world has changed? What if we know better now? The idea that we should learn from our past, and change our ways to suit the times often flies in the face of traditionalism which convinces us that the old ways were best. We don't cut switches to beat our kids with anymore. We don't use our belts for anything other than holding our pants up. Rulers are strictly for measuring things.
The thing is, the old days were not always better. In fact, in almost every measurable way today’s world is immensely better than it was when we were kids. Crime is at historic lows, life expectancy is at all-time highs, education levels are soaring, and global poverty is receding, yet despite all this we are constantly bombarded with the idea that the old ways were better.
Yes we may have gotten spanked, beaten with a stick or worse when we were kids, and yes, we (mostly) turned out OK, but does that mean we should repeat the cycle? Full disclosure, I don’t have any personal experience with beatings, but my mother did hang a wooden spoon on the wall in the kitchen and regularly made us aware of its presence. Though we knew she was bluffing, it was a reminder that the idea of physical punishment as a deterrent was something that she probably grew up with as well.
Just because your grandpa walked 20 miles to school uphill, both ways, with no boots, in the snow doesn’t mean we should shun proper winter footwear.
And that’s the problem with romanticizing the past, we don’t learn from it. We assume that just because we lived through it and survived, that our kids should be able to do the same. I vividly remember having a discussion with my wife before the birth of our first child about how we would handle discipline. I made it clear that I believed in physical discipline in extreme cases to correct behaviour. I was pro-spanking. Of course when the day came to actually enforce this belief, I found out quickly just how wrong I was. The first, and only, time I spanked by eldest daughter I felt horrible, like I had just betrayed a trust. I didn’t spank her hard, it was nothing that she would remember, but the look on her face afterwards was one of disbelief. It crushed me.
From that day forward, I learned that being a blind traditionalist doesn’t do anyone any favours. Some behaviours are better left in the past, even if our mothers, fathers and grandparents, with love and the best of intentions, practiced them with diligence. Our parents also smoked on airplanes, wore polyester and let us sit in the back of the station wagon, not exactly the kinds of things that would be associated with good judgment in 2014.
The point isn’t to criticize past generations, it to acknowledge that 30 years from now our kids will probably shake their heads at the shit we did to them, amazed that we were so blind as to not see the inherent dangers. That’s what progress is all about, learning from our mistakes. If we don’t then we might as well pack up shop as a species because we’re doomed.
As she walked towards the school bus, the look on my daughter’s face turned from pure excitement to a mix of apprehension and uncertainty. The thing she had been anticipating for weeks was finally real. It was right in front of her. Undaunted, she climbed the stairs and found a seat, her parents trailing awkwardly behind trying to take pictures. As the bus pulled away, a wave of sadness swept over me. It was done. The next chapter of her life had begun.
Why is the first day of school so bittersweet for parents? On the surface, it appears to be nothing but positives: new friends, new responsibility, opportunities to learn, and on top of all that–it’s free! For me it’s a little different, though perhaps similar to other’s experiences. Though all the normal fears and anxieties went through my head, I couldn’t help but think back to when I was in school. While I wouldn’t consider myself a victim of anything, I was bullied quite badly when I was in elementary school. Nerd, geek, fag, loser, teachers pet; I was teased and excluded, often by those I considered my friends. There were a few physical encounters, but they mostly took the shape of playground fights that, even at my diminished size, I actually held my own.
The teasing stemmed from the fact that I was a smart kid who always got 100% on the tests, always answered the teacher’s questions correctly, and who left school once a week for extra learning. I was a smaller kid and I have (and still have) an emotional streak that I seem to have passed down to my daughter. As a young boy, I would often think and reflect on subjects that adults would marvel at. I was an explorer. My daughter is amazing. Her imagination, curiosity and emotion lead her to explore her world in a way all her own. She is very tuned in to people’s emotions, often easily able to tell when my wife and I are feeling down even if it has nothing to do with her. “Are you happy Daddy?” She has the light and the fire of a little girl ready to bring her own unique perspective to the world and make it her own. I’m afraid she will lose it. I’m terrified not that the school system or her teachers will rob her of that fire–I’m worried her peers will. Let’s face it, kids can be cruel, some let it just roll off their backs, but some, like my daughter and I, take it to heart. While boys are generally pretty primitive in their taunts and techniques, a shudder to think about what knd of cruelty girls can dish out.
The good news is that by all accounts my daughter is a joyful, well liked, exuberant little girl and she should be fine. The sadness surrounding sending her to school for the first time has nothing to do with being apart from her, she has gone to daycare all day since 15 months old, it has more to do with school specifically. Daycare is a pretty safe place, the ratio of caregivers to kids is high and toddlers don’t really have the capacity to be mean and capricious yet. However, given my personal experience, I can’t help but fear for her boisterous spirit and hope that it survives intact. Up until we send them to school, our kids are relatively sheltered from emotional or physical harm. We obsess over their wellbeing, we stress about whether or not they are developing at the right pace, and we sweat every small detail to ensure their happiness. Once school begins, so much is beyond our control.
When I went to school, I would come home every year with A+ across the board, raves from teachers, and an active extracurricular life. But it never told the whole story. I felt alone and ostracized, and at a certain point I decided that the me who enjoyed going to the library, reading science books, and dreaming about colonizing Mars wasn’t good enough. I changed to try to make the bullying stop. Sadly, it actually kinda did, but that’s another story.
I don’t want that for my daughter. Who we are as young kids is the most natural, organic expression of our true being because it has yet to be tainted by the world. That’s what terrifies me. I don’t want her to lose her inner spark the way I did. The little girl that makes up her own songs, dances for no reason, and asks so many amazing questions is exactly the young woman I want her to become. Of course the process isn’t so linear, changes are inevitable, but that core, that radiant soul that makes smiles contagious around her, must endure. That’s the source of my fear and sadness, not that she is growing up, not that she is becoming independent, and certainly not that she will develop a support system beyond my wife and me.
Thankfully, I can rely on the fact that she has a good heart, a strong independent streak, and a precocious spirit to help guide her through life in a way I never could.
This week my eldest daughter, though she’s only three, starts school for the first time. Her birthday is in late October, so she will be one of the youngest in her junior kindergarten class. The idea of her going to school still boggles my mind a little. She’s so small. That said, she’s definitely ready, and super excited.
Dad, however, has a few questions. We have a meeting with her teacher later this week and I have some things I’d like to ask.
Seriously, it’s like preparing for a two-week trek across Nepal. Bags, bottles, boxes, containers, even smaller containers, yet smaller containers that fit within the containers. I don’t remember a ton from when I was in school, but I don’t recall lunch being such an ordeal. We were told what exact type of lunch bag to get, and when we got it home, it barely fit inside her backpack. It’s a good thing I don’t believe in homework, because there would be no room for her to fit anything else in her backpack.
It’s witchcraft, isn’t it? I’m cool with that, I don’t judge, I just need to know. I have two kids—two and three—and most of the time they are great; however, when they decide they both want the same toy, or one decides she wants to cast a magic spell on the other, the shrieking and flailing can get out of control. That’s with two. Teachers have like 20.
Oh, I’m totally kidding. I would never confront a four-year old—I would pay a five-year-old to do that for me. I don’t believe in violence, I encourage the use of non-violent protest and mediation to resolve differences. I choose Rocco, the 52-pound five-year-old, to help encourage healing dialogue.
Seriously, that shit was devastating.
They were like hotdogs, massive things. They still haunt my dreams a bit and my penmanship demonstrates why.
If you liked this, check out: "Let It Go: How To Help Your Kids By Not Helping" and "How To Stop Tech From Destroying Your Children."