Ask Steve – Parenting

This is a specific example of a particular area of my life that I’m currently struggling with, as a continuation of this post from the “Ask Steve” series.

Another area of my life that’s challenging me is parenting. Again, I see this as a question of coming up with the right paradigm that fits the realities of my situation as well as my personal values.

Erin and I have two kids, a 6-year old daughter, Emily, and a son who will turn 3 next month, Kyle. Our family situation is relatively uncomplicated, since Erin and I have only been married to each other, and both kids are our own biological offspring… no exes or stepchildren in the picture.

Erin and I work from home, managing several businesses between us. We would seem to have many advantages as parents, since we enjoy abundant income and set our own hours. However, our work isn’t just a job to us. It’s a mission, and as such it’s not the kind of work we can easily disengage from at the end of the day. Consequently, we’re challenged with figuring out how to integrate the kids into our lives and define our role as parents. Much of the time our family seems to operate as 2+2 instead of 4.

While she was in kindergarten, Emily made it clear to her teachers that she intends to go her own way in life. She’s very headstrong and refuses to do assignments she thinks are pointless or boring. She doesn’t accept blind authority unless the “reasons why” she should go along are explained to her in detail and she agrees with them. If she agrees she’ll cooperate. If not, she’ll ignore you and do her own thing. She’s virtually immune to discipline, regardless of who and how it’s administered. She’ll accept her punishment and then go right on doing what got her in trouble the first place, as if to say, “Go ahead and punish me if you must, but I know I’m right, and I’m going to listen to my inner voice no matter what.” The most common note we’d get from her teacher would be “Not following directions.” One time the principal of the school admitted to us that they didn’t know how to handle Emily because Emily kept outsmarting them. She didn’t react the way other kids did because the offer of mundane activities was no reward, and the threat of punishment was no deterrent for her.

I can’t hold anything against Emily for being this way though. My life could easily earn a “not following directions” note too. Actually, when I see Emily breaking systems by doing her own thing, my true reaction is, “That’s my girl!” She’s a systems buster just like her dad, an endless source of frustration to the status quo.

Our son Kyle isn’t far behind. While his personality is different than Emily’s, he’s very intelligent for his age. We had him professionally evaluated, and he’s about a year ahead cognitively. He’s still in that “terrible twos” phase, so I’m curious to see what he’s like when he’s older.

I think both of our kids have tremendous potential, and I don’t want to squash these qualities by subjecting them to a standard American education. My wife went to public school, and I went to religious private school, but neither of those options appeals to me, especially since the Las Vegas educational system is short on qualified teachers. Home schooling wouldn’t be a viable option either, since neither Erin nor I are willing to sacrifice enough of our work time to manage it.

The best option might be some kind of private tutoring, similar to home schooling except that Erin and I wouldn’t be doing it ourselves. We can certainly afford that. But what would be the curriculum? Do we give the kids a standard education, filling their heads with useless trivia? No, that’s out. Or do we give them a practical education, like showing them how to set up their own Internet businesses and generate income from them, so they’ll never need to get a regular job to support themselves? There are lots of possibilities for where we could take this.

I don’t want to push my own values on my kids either. My parents did that to me with Catholicism, and of course it didn’t work. By age 17 I’d had enough brainwashing and opted to find my own way, immune to the backlash of counter-pressure. I want to expose my kids to the larger spectrum of options and let them find their own path, even if it’s vastly different than mine. For example, we explained to Emily why we’re vegan, and it seemed to resonate with her even more than I expected. If she sees her grandparents eating meat, she’ll sometimes yell at them, “Don’t eat animals because it makes the animals say, ‘Ow!'” But if Emily someday changed her mind and wanted to try eating animals, I’m fine with that (although I know many vegans wouldn’t be). I want her to learn to make her own conscious choices, just as I encourage everyone else to do.

I always thought of parenting as the act of raising children, but sometimes I wonder who’s raising whom. I often think my kids are teaching me patience and forgiveness. A couple days ago, I asked Emily, “What are you here to teach me, Muffin?” (Muffin is my pet name for her.) She looked up, smiled at me, and said, “Playing!”

My challenge is to define my role as a father. On the one hand, I have this larger mission. And on the other hand, I have two children to raise (and to be raised by them). I often feel like I’m sacrificing one for the other, falling into win-lose or lose-win. When I’m writing I’m neglecting my role as a father. And when I’m playing with the kids, I’m neglecting my mission. Is there a third alternative?

I think the ideal solution would involve finding a way to integrate my role as a father with my mission. But I don’t yet see how that would work. Is there an AND solution instead of just an EITHER-OR?

This entry is part of the “Ask Steve” series. See the original Ask Steve post for details, or view the Archives (July 2006) to peruse the entire series.