The other day I caught my youngest daughter reading in her loft bed at night in the dark at 11:00 p.m. I was more than a bit angry, as I saw her bloodshot eyes peering out at me from her bed; she would be comatose the next morning, short of sleep, I thought to myself. Getting her out of bed and to school on time on such mornings is difficult in the extreme.
In fact, she was using the dim light emanating from her Kindle (ie. electronic book reader) to read the third Percy Jackson book that evening in the dark. Her grandfather gave her the box set of the five Percy Jackson books by author Rick Riordan for her eighth birthday last month, and she is now on the fourth book (“The Battle of the Labyrinth”). She brings those books everywhere and reads them as much as possible. Her teacher asks her to stop reading under her desk in class when she is supposed to be doing other work.
Her older sister admitted to me that she also reads in the dark at night. She uses the flashlight app on her iPhone to read under the covers, she told me. And so that might be she also can be next to impossible to wake up on school day mornings. “JULIA! GET OUT OF BED! WE ARE GOING TO BE LATE TO SCHOOL!” It is like this every morning, more or less. Is she up late reading when she is supposed to be sleeping? I had no idea.
But I have to admit that I too used to do this. Back in 1974 when I was in second grade I read almost the entire Hardy Boy series of books by flashlight under the covers of my bed at night. My parents thought I was sleeping in the dark of my room, but I wasn’t. I think my wife used to do this, too.
So am I angry about my daughters doing it? Yes, I am. Well, more exasperated than angry. But I am also proud, although I will not say so to them. For our family books are foundational.
My youngest daughter is in second grade. I see the brief stories they assign her in school, and I can’t believe this is what passes for “literature” in her classroom. A “chapter book” that is some four paragraphs in length? What kind of story can you tell in four paragraphs? But my wife, an elementary school teacher herself, assures me there are plenty of second graders who cannot even read those briefest of short stories. She explains to me boys often learn to read later than girls. Those are the appropriate stories to use with second graders, she claims.
My daughter, then, is reading way above grade-level. And I have heard that reading levels at third grade directly predict school success later. This is good news.
I remember some 15 years ago this precocious high school student explained to me her academic success thusly: “My mom is a middle school English teacher, and I come from a family of bookworms — reading books is what we do.” I remember thinking way back then how cool it would be for a child of mine to say this about our family. I think that moment has almost arrived.
But I don’t want to talk right now about what is going “right” in my family. I don’t want to talk about what I might have done “right” as a parent in this essay. I want to talk about what I have done wrong – or maybe not done “right.”
First on the list is religion.
I was raised Catholic and went to church every Sunday until I turned eighteen. My father made it known clearly that while I was living under his roof as a minor I would go to mass with the family weekly. So I did that. I was bored out of my mind almost every Sunday and performed rituals in my mind to help make the time pass more quickly — “Great! The kiss of peace – communion is just around the corner, and then the end is almost here!” I went to church, first communion, first confession, confirmation, etc. I did it all. And then after I turned 18 and had a choice in the matter I almost never returned to church unless it was some larger family event.
I was married in the Catholic Church. I will also go to church with my father, if I am in town with him. But I was never much imbued with the gift of faith: I am a confirmed agnostic. Nevertheless, I was not going to rebel and say to my father I reject the faith of our family. (Many in my extended family did rebel and did say this.) I was culturally a Roman Catholic, if not much of a believer in God or the Catholic faith. Yet I am not an atheist. I do not reject the church as much as I (mostly) ignore it. The Catholic Church and I don’t often quarrel, but our paths don’t often cross.
I had my daughters baptized into the Catholic Church. My older daughter celebrated her first communion. I keep up appearances.
But I certainly will not be spending a precious sixty-five minutes of my Sunday morning going through the laborious rituals of the Catholic mass, as I did when I was growing up. I will not do it. Absolutely not. My happiest moment of going to church every Sunday as a kid was walking out at the end and getting in the car to go home. It is possible (likely?) this says more about me and my idiosyncratically independent ways than it does about the Catholic Church. But the situation is unlikely to change. I never was much of a joiner.
Now, I know many lukewarm believers suddenly get a second wind for religion when they have kids. They want their children to have the framework of religion as they grow up. They want their children to belong to a faith community. I get it. I have one buddy who had long since stopped going to mass, but after children arrived he put them in the local Catholic school and attended church with his family every Sunday. “I am doing it for the kids,” he explained to me. Several persons I respect have told me that instruction in Christianity will keep young people out of trouble as they grow up, and they said that is what happened with them.
But that isn’t what happened with me. And I am not going to bring my kids to church when I am not into it myself. This is part of my overarching parental policy of not lying to my children ever, if I can help it. I don’t bring them to church every Sunday because I am not going to go. Simple as that.
My wife, who grew up in an irreligious household and rarely attended church services growing up, feels strongly the opposite. She seems to want them to have organized religion in their lives growing up. Periodically, she makes loud and angry noises about this. She wants our daughters to know their Bible stories and be literate in Judeo-Christianity. But she and I never went to church before we had kids, and she seems not to have figured out a place to take them. So they have not gone, except on rare occasions (Easter, Christmas) with their grandfather and cousins.
That is fine by me.
But am I missing something? Am I making a huge mistake in neglecting to nurture their spiritual lives? Their relationship with the deity? I have not much needed organized Christianity in my life, but maybe my daughters are different. I have this nightmare that maybe they when they are older they will compensate too much in the opposite direction and convert to Mormonism or something. Or join a cult.
Maybe I should give them some mandatory Catholicism as an inoculation against this. Let them figure out how to deal with the boredom. Maybe they won’t be bored.
My final feelings on the matter are confusion and indecision. And so I take no action.
Or how about music. We could have had our daughters learn to play a musical instrument when they were in their younger years, and they could have made it an intimate part of their lives: the learning how to read music, and to gain fluency with the fingers as they played the cello or the flute. To not only listen to music but to make it. Now it is a little bit late.
Our family has nobody in it who can play a musical instrument well. I consider it almost a magical skill when a person can make beautiful music come out of a piano or guitar. My daughters will not excel in that, most likely. I think maybe that is a shame, because Julia in particular might be very talented in that. My wife and I thought about enrolling her in music lessons and even did some research locally, but in the end we did not do it.
My bad. We dropped the ball on that. We did not give our daughters the opportunity to try music. The exposure to it.
The same is true with foreign languages. We actually tried to get Julia accepted into a bilingual kindergarten where she would be immersed in Spanish all the school day long. But she was not accepted into the program through a lottery, and so that opportunity went away. Both my wife and I learned Spanish painfully and over many years at great personal expense of effort. Our daughters could have learned Spanish almost effortlessly as young children. But they didn’t. It would appear they will become mostly monolingual young adults, like most Americans. A few years of a foreign language in secondary school is much different than having learning it as a child.
I dropped the ball on this matter.
In the end it appears that my daughters will share the talents and shortcomings of their parents. We have done what we liked to do, and our daughters have come along with us. The parents have proscribed the natures of their activities, as well as their limits. I console myself with thinking that as long as the children are safe, fed, and loved then all will turn out well, more or less. I read an article last week that claimed, “Parenting Doesn’t Matter” (.pdf) and sighed a bit in relief. It would seem my generation of parents sets a very high bar for parenting when compared to past generations of parents.
And one last thing where I suspect I have a serious shortcoming: I cannot be so involved in the day to day affairs of my children that I neglect my own life.
Having kids was a serious (fatal?) blow to my professional aspirations. I have been too tired juggling family and work to focus much on growing my career. It that an excuse? I have more or less thought that if I could get my kids to and through college, helping them to be ready for and then to help pay for it, I would have little else left to do in life. I would be around 65 years of age and that time and retired. I have given little thought to my own life at that time. I was just treading water as a family man with a job, mortgage, wife, and children.
But is that a cop out?
You cannot let yourself go because you are so absorbed in the service of others that your own life falls by the wayside.
My students gasp in surprise when I tell them if I can get to 65 with my kids through good colleges without mountains of student loan debt… well, then I will be just about ready to call it a day. To hang up my hat and exit the stage. To die.
My daughters, in their mid-twenties by then, would probably call me on that. “Do not lose yourself in being a parent. It is your life. We will be out of the house and launched into our adult lives… and then what will you have? First things first, daddy.” They could very well say this to me.
So what is my answer?