Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A Parental Temptation: Forcing Joy

"No man really knows about other human beings. The best he can do is suppose that they are like himself." -- Steinbeck, from The Winter of our Discontent. 

A parental mistake?

When I was in fifth grade, I read Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea for the first (of many) times. I loved every word of it; hung on each of the old man's thoughts. Something in me immediately attached itself to the beauty of the work and to the quest of the old man to simply keep being who he was, despite his age; to his wise and humble inner pride; a pride that required (and would get) no external validation. I wouldn't have put it quite that way as a boy, but I understood on an instinctual level.

My sons have to read a book per month in school and do a quiz and a few projects on each book. I recommended it to my seventh-grader, who is both a reader and a thinker. I thought it would be right up his alley.

He didn't really like it. In fact, over the course of a month, he didn't manage to finish the ninety pages.

Part of my reasoning in recommending the book was that, even if he didn't like it as much as I had, he could easily polish off ninety pages. He has read 300 page books in that time allotment.

Apparently, he disliked it so much that he couldn't keep reading. He made an attempt to finish it the night before it was due, but, alas, fell short.

Am I disappointed? Yes. Not "in him" so much, but that a book that meant so much to me simply didn't mean much to my son. Which is okay. He's allowed not to like what I liked. And here is the parental crossroads between wanting my son to be happy and wanting him to be what I want him to be.

We've seen it: kids pressured to run the family business; kids who are harshly encouraged to follow in military or medical footsteps... I don't expect my son to be an English major or a drummer. It looks like, from all evidence, he is fascinated by languages and history. He could wind up a philologist. Who knows? I've never been one to try to pick a career for my children. All I really really want is for them to find happiness, whatever path they choose. (I also think it is a big mistake to place too much emphasis on jobs as sources of happiness.)

But what we dads (and moms) have to do, I think, once we have decided not to try to blueprint our kids' futures, is to separate ourselves from attempts to force or to guilt our children into enjoying the same joys we once had. It's right to want joy for our kids, but we need to realize they are different people from us. It cracks my heart, a little, that I gambled and lost, here -- that he didn't love the book the way I thought he would. But, he might some day find himself sad because his son wasn't moved by, I dunno...the film The Patriot, which he loves.

I know there is a lot at work here. Kids of this generation have had their attention spans ripped away by movies with camera shots that switch every .75 seconds and video games full of explosions and hyper speed action. We can't complain; we did it to them. I'm proud that he does read (and write, too!). Both my boys hang in just fine with the old movies with the more leisurely plots. so I really can't complain and I shouldn't be too worried by the damage done to the modern mind by the modern machines.

And I do hope he will be able to go back to Hemingway's book some day and say, "Oh, that's what my dad was talking about. I get it now..." But it may never happen and that would be okay; it's okay because he is a boy with intense interests in ideas and in things in general. Apathy is not in his future and apathy is the fastest way to sadness, if you ask me. He sees the world with the wonder of the never-bored.

Alas, Santiago will, for the time being, remain out at sea in the mind of a boy who just didn't climb on board with him.

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