Dear Eleanor and Wesley,
I’m a professional teacher. I believe that, given a few parameters, I can teach just about anyone to do just about anything within my scope. I’ve believed that to be true for quite some time. I think it started around 7th grade when I decided to teach every kid who would listen how to juggle. For many of them, to everyone’s amazement including my own, it worked. Since then, I’ve stood in front of groups from kindergarteners, to high schoolers, to full grown adults in the context of schools, universities, professional trainings, church classes, camps, discussion groups, homeless shelters, and even detention centers. No matter the level of ability or disability, I have given it my best and more often than not I’ve seen learners do what they came to do: learn something. With all of this experience, there is one group that I desperately want to teach well, and always seems to elude me. It is my own children, you two.
Despite my best efforts, the recently celebrated one-year-old Wes has yet to produce any utterances that could be identified as a word. I have repeated the mantra to myself over and over again that “human development is not a competition” and that it will happen in its own time. You are off the hook for this one, for now. Ellie, on the other hand, is a physically and intellectually blossoming butterfly of a four-year-old. You are a veritable sponge of learning for your preschool teachers, Sunday school teachers, dance instructors, swimming instructors, grandparents, sportball coach (whatever that is), radio hosts and basically any other adult tasked with imparting knowledge to you. You simply refuse to learn anything from me. The second I move into overt teaching mode, you turn off with a resounding obstinance. There has to be some parental trigger going on with this. Upon reflection, here are the top three realizations I’ve had as a parent that I believe will get us through.
3. Inspiration beats expectation every time.
There is a part of me that eagerly wants to believe that you are a “fast track” kid and that with just the right environment you may reach super genius status. I am tempted to push you towards the next milestone years ahead of the norm. These expectations, or even their less embellished counterparts, would have me installing rigid agendas of militant practice in the name of success.
The reality is that a four-year-old does not need two hours of tutoring every night. Instead, you need the chance to open up your eyes to the world around you. Even more so, you need me to catch that moment when your eyes light up and dive right in alongside you. A dad is a guide to the miracle that is the world we inhabit. It is ok to let the teachers take care of the other stuff (with an unreasonably aggressive amount of parental input and involvement – sorry teachers). It is time to toss out the checklist and discover the opportunities that a child’s insatiable curiousity affords. If my experience holds, it will not be there forever.
2. Teaching is about developing towards a goal. Parenting is about the moment.
One of the frustrating things about learning, especially the way most of us parents were taught, is that it feels like preparation for an undefined task in an undetermined future. I am all for developing an appetite for delayed gratification, but AP Calculus is not a huge motivator for you to learn subtraction at the moment. You struggle to remember the difference between Tuesday and Saturday. A decade is the same as an eternity.
As a father, I can do 800 times more for your future if I would just pay attention in the moment. Do you know the part of playing soccer in the backyard that you love most? Yelling “goooooooooooooooool” at the top of our lungs everytime one of us kicks the ball anywhere near the back wall. The second I start trying to turn you into future you, even with my ground-breaking athletic training methods, my ceaselessly energetic daughter disappears and the magic is lost. I’m convinced that if I quit dragging you along, and instead meet you where you are, the memories will have far more impact than the lost training time.
1. You don’t care what I know. You want to know who I am.
We dads are a prideful breed, so this one hurts. Resumes have zero effect on four-year-olds. You are entirely unimpressed by my list of degrees, miles covered in travel, or rock and roll accomplishments. Each time I seek to pass on a specific facet of expertise, you look to take a pass. Even things that are right within your reach lose their luster when I go into expert mode. This is so disappointing, when I feel like I have so many things I want to pass onto you. But something happened the other day that made me think.
You know I love music, and one day when the Beatles came on I told you that this was the greatest band in rock history. They are not even my favorite band, but it was off hand comment that I’ll stand by. For the next week, you asked me constantly how much I loved the Beatles. Every song that came on had to be categorized as Beatles or not-Beatles. Eventually, I came home the other day and you were dancing with a 2×4 piece of wood that you proudly proclaimed was your husband, John Lennon. Yoko implications aside, I was floored.
You found a little piece of me, and treated it like a treasure. That is the moment I realized that I will likely teach you more than any other human on the planet, though, the lion’s share will happen with no instruction needed. You are not primarily interested in my skills or knowledge. You are after my heart. I will be your template for how to make your way through this world. What a terrifying thought. What a sobering responsibility. What a thrilling endeavor. For the record, you have it.