Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Fairy Papa

(In response to the enormous wave of discussion that accompanied Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua's exaggeratedly stereotypical explanation of why Chinese mothers believe that you can raise the best concert pianists by being cruel to them for years, I offer this humble reply.)

A lot of people wonder how Fairy Papas raise such stereotypically fabulous kids. They wonder what these gay parents do to produce so many dance show winners and Broadway legends, what it's like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I'm doing it. Here are some things my daughter Diva is always allowed to do:
• host playdates with playmates of her choice
• maintain a costume bucket the size of a Hummer
• perform self-choreographed dance shows in the living room
• make her playmates participate in dance shows in the living room
• dress her playmates up in costumes for dance shows in the living room
• complain about their deviations from her choreography
• refuse extracurricular activities so that she may stay home dressing up and dancing
I'm using the term "Fairy Papa" loosely. I know some straight, bisexual, and transgender parents of both genders who qualify too. Conversely, I know some dads who are gay in orientation who are not Fairy Papas at all. I will also use the term "Manly Dads," and I will use that loosely, too, as they come in all varieties.
All the same, even when Manly Dads think they're being playful and inventive, they usually don't come close to being Fairy Papas. For example, my Manly Dad friends who consider themselves good at pretend play can keep up with their children perhaps 30 minutes at a stretch. An hour at most. For a Fairy papa, the first hour is the easy part. It's hours two and three—when you’ve exhausted Barbie AND Polly Pocket—that get tough.
Despite our squeamishness about cultural stereotypes, there are tons of studies out there showing marked and quantifiable differences between Fairies and Manlies when it comes to parenting. The vast majority of the Fairy Papas believe their children can be "the best" actor-singer-dancer triple threats, that creative thinking reflects successful parenting, and that if children don’t know any of the lyrics to Annie, then there is a problem and parents are not doing their job. Compared to Manly Dads, Fairy Papas spend approximately 10 times as long every day doing gorgeous paint jobs on their children’s nails. By contrast, Manly kids are more likely to participate in sports teams.
Fairy Papas and Manly Dads just don't speak the same language. Once when I was young—maybe more than once—when I was flouncing around in one of my mother’s outfits, my father called me "trash" in his somewhat slurred drinking voice. It worked really well. I felt deeply ashamed of him. But it didn't damage my self-esteem or anything like that. I knew exactly how big a jerk he was. I didn't actually think I was a piece of trash, not with that fabulous red silk blouse on.
As an adult, I once used similar language with my daughter, whom I’ll call Diva, saying her outfit—not she herself, mind you—looked a little trashy when she paired a mini-skirt with a mesh top fashioned from a bag that fruit had come in, an outfit inspired by my husband’s Madonna collection. My choice of language wasn’t the issue, but when I mentioned at a dinner party that I had done this, we were immediately ostracized for having exposed a 5 year-old to Madonna in the first place. One guest named Amy got so upset at my parenting that she left early to make her children learn a complicated etude even if they had to stay at the piano all night. It was up to the host to rehabilitate me with the remaining guests.
I wasn’t bothered. Fairy Papas can care less about all sort of things, such which gender their kids grow up to love (or even be). Manly Dads can only ask their kids to remember slogans like “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” Fairy parents can say, "You're five--you don’t have to know if you like boys or girls yet!" By contrast, Manly Dads have to struggle with their own conflicted feelings about gender and orientation, and try to persuade themselves that they will not be disappointed about how their kids turn out.
I've thought long and hard about how Fairy Papas can get away with what they do. I think there are three big differences between the Fairy and Manly parental mind-sets.
First, I've noticed that Manly Dads are extremely anxious about their family reputation. They worry about how they will feel if their kids fail at conforming, and they constantly try to reassure themselves about what good dads they are, notwithstanding a child’s mediocre performance in a ball game or while pledging a fraternity. In other words, Manly parents are concerned about how their kids make them look. Fairy parents aren't. They assume their own fabulousness is unquestionable and, as a result, they behave very differently.
For example, if a child comes home with a grade less than was expected, a Manly parent might sit his child down and express mild disapproval, but then hire the best Kaplan instructor that money can buy. In contrast, no matter what grade a Fairy child gets on a test, a Fairy Papa will ask the child how the grade feels and then (regardless of the child’s gender) chirp “Lets’ play Barbies!” Perhaps the Fairy Papa would even be tempted to get dozens, maybe hundreds of Barbie outfits for his child as reward or consolation depending on the grade.
A Fairy Papa responds to all homework with more play time because he believes that his child is a child. If his child doesn't get play time at school, the Fairy Papa assumes the school’s value system is warped. The solution to a substandard school day is always to play dolls, do dress-up, or have a dance party. The Fairy Papa believes that his child will be creative enough to take the playtime and learn a valuable lesson from it.
Second, unlike me, Manly Dads believe that their kids owe them everything. The reason for this belief is a little unclear, but it's probably a combination of watching too many TV sitcoms and the fact that these Dads work soul-sucking jobs with terrible hours to provide for their children. The understanding is that Manly children must spend their lives repaying their parents by obeying them and making them proud.
By contrast, I don't think most Fairies have the same view of children being permanently indebted to their parents. My husband actually has the opposite view. Once, he said, "Parents who make everything about themselves really crush a child.” And I said, “Don’t I know it!” And then we both laughed and snapped our fingers the way we Fairies do.
Third, Fairy Papas believe that self-discovery is best for their children and therefore capitalize on their children's desires and preferences. That's why Fairy daughters can get tattoos and facial piercings in high school and why Fairy kids know the lyrics to Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” But it's also why no Fairy son would ever dare say to his Papa, "I have to join the college Chastity Club because sex is dirty and immoral and I cannot experience it outside the sanctimony of marriage.” God help any Fairy kid who tried that one.
Don't get me wrong: It's not that Fairy parents don't care about their children. Just the opposite. They just have an entirely different parenting model. Manly Dads worry a lot about their children's success. But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child is to define success by the miserably ceaseless pursuit of finite goals you set for them. On the flip side, there's nothing better for building confidence than a child learning she can make life joyful and still succeed at something her parents never even imagined.
All decent parents want to do what's best for their children. We Fairies just do it better. Snap!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Don't "quote" me on that.

“Because he’s the ‘Daddy,’” said Diva, as she held up her tiny fingers to make air quotes. The Hubby and I were thunderstruck, not by whatever point she was trying to make, but by the fact that our 5 year-old was using air quotes. We burst out laughing, partly from shock, partly from nervousness as we both wondered: What have we created?
Ask any parent and they’ll tell you: kids come out of the womb with personality. You can try to channel their innate gifts and work with their temperaments, but you cannot actually change who they are for love nor money. Parents who try to make a child in their own image are doomed to disappointment and chagrin. (Just ask my mother.) The single bit of child-rearing advice that I’ve most repeated to new parents is this: Love the one you’re with.
Diva has been a Diva since she was born. She spent the first six months of her life wearing one of only two expressions: her brow furrowed as she eyed each new thing like someone sizing up an opponent; or her eyes sparkling, as she beamed a double-dimple smile that attracted the praise of complete strangers and seemed to net her endless freebies (in restaurants, in stores, even on airplanes). There wasn’t much middle ground in her personality, which was offered a hint about who she’d become once she skipped by crawling and started walking at 10 months. Since then, she’s always either been fully on or fully off. “On” means ceaseless running, climbing, dancing, singing, bouncing, or—in the quieter moments—directing whoever is nearest in elaborate pretend play scenarios. “Off” means sleeping so deeply that we can pick up her slumbering body (which may well have made a loop around her bed) and move it into safer position without her even noticing. Even asleep, she’s in motion.
That is all nature, not nurture. I’m not athletic in any fashion, despite my brief career in Little League as a player so bad the town let my coach assign me a fake position (deep right field). And my summers as the world’s most overweight lifeguard are now two decades behind me. The Hubby is a cyclist, which even he admits is the way nerdy guys make themselves feel butch and cool, but he not only plays no sports, he cannot follow the rules of any. But Diva could hit a baseball and kick a soccer ball by age three, and now claims to like basketball best, which is grand since she’s a beanpole. (Clearly, she got none of my DNA.) I still remember the moment The Hubby realized how sporty she was and turned to me, horrified, moaning, “Oh my god—are we going to have to go games?” (Yes, dear. Bring a book.)
Accepting her as she is and embracing that does not mean we have no influence on our own child. Nurture does actually rear its head from time to time, as in the case of her musicality. I started singing in public at age 5—my grandmother being the church choir director—and was a self-styled singer-songwriter all through high school, a budding balladeer who sang mostly about love or the coming apocalypse. I even went to college on music scholarship—a deal which lasted three semesters until the department finally noticed I wasn’t actually a music major. The Hubby is also musical: he plays piano and sings (in lusty, key-defying fashion) all the time: in the car or while cooking or doing laundry or at the beach or [fill in the blank]. Between us, we are perpetually making up lyrics to songs about the minutiae of our lives.
I am doubtful that there is a strand of DNA with a Sondheim marker, but this is where nurture kicks in: Diva has lived all five years of her life hearing improvised songs about the mail, her meals, the weather, the poodle’s behavior, and even her dad’s gassiness. The girl grew up in rhyme and you can tell: she’ll sing us her opinions and complaints, make up elaborate songs with hooks and refrains and bridges. If Daddy starts a song about kibble in the kitchen, Diva is likely to usurp my old role, throwing in her own verses from the dining room, and woe be to the dad who does not make the next line rhyme. This, I love.
But I am less crazy to discover how well we have modeled another behavior pattern: sarcasm. A five year-old does not learn air quotes from PBS—she learns them from listening to her dads as they mock politicians or fake people we’ve encountered (and who knows what else). And sarcasm comes with more than just hand motions. This girl can already say, “Fine”—air quotes implied—with such irritated fatigue that she sounds like a true pro. Until Diva began saying the word this way, The Hubby hadn’t realized how often he uses “fine” to mean “it’s not fine but I’m sick of discussing this so I’ll just give in if it means you’ll shut up.”
What can I say? We’re not cruel people and our hearts are not at all shriveled, but, really, sarcasm is pretty much like breathing for liberal northerners with advanced degrees earned in the irony-soaked 1990s, which may well have been the Golden Age of Air Quotes. That was the time period in which you could practically major in eye-rolling, with a specialty in double entendre, and graduate summa cum snarky. Parenting (not to mention turning 40) has helped dull the cutting edge we Gen X’ers once honed so carefully, but sarcasm is still built into the way The Hubby and I tease each other or wage arguments. And now it’s part of daughter’s vocabulary.
We had to hold a family talk about this around the dinner table (where most capital-T Talks take place). In so doing, we admitted that sarcasm isn’t the nicest way to express an opinion and that sometimes it’s downright hurtful. Diva, of course, leapt on this: it’s very exciting when one’s dads acknowledge that they’ve been misbehaving. Now that we have shared language with her to describe when she is being too mocking or rude, she can do the very same thing to us when we are. I guess this is progress: we’re all going to have to watch our mouths. We’ll see who learns fastest.
Hopefully, as nature and nurture battle to shape the girl who will someday be a fully-grown Diva, the things we do right will outweigh the things we do wrong. And when she looks back on her childhood, I hope she thinks it really was fine (air quotes not included).

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Why Diva Can't Read

Diva stood in a line of classmates, looking at the “Word Wall” board, knowing that she was supposed to be able to decipher the assembled letters in front of her—and she panicked. There was a “t” but no “h” so she knew it wasn’t “the,” but feeling the pressure of eyes upon her, she couldn’t solve the problem any further. The word might have been “went” or “to”—she couldn’t remember which it was when she told me the story at bedtime. “I got so scared,” she said, her face hidden by a pillow. “I almost cried.”

She’s 5.

That a girl so young feels embarrassed that she can’t read well enough is a reflection both of our time and of our location. We live in one of those towns people move to for the “good schools.” By “good,” many people mean that students test well. In fact, just a few years ago, the elementary school Diva attends had the highest average standardized test scores in Massachusetts. For some parents, those results are reason enough to desire this particular district in our town above all the others (and it’s not like the other schools are chopped liver).  But we didn’t buy in our neighborhood with an eye toward testing; we snapped up our condo mostly because it was the first place we could afford. Only after we moved in did we learn how “good” our school district is.

Our school earns its high marks by being fairly rigorous from the word go. Just four months in, Kindergartners are expected to be able to read and write an array of words, and by the end of the year they will be writing narratives. They’ve had written homework since week one, a practice meant to establish a pattern that will ready them for first grade, which will involve daily homework, a much faster pace of new language acquisition, and nightly reading. In theory, standards like these will help keep the children of our town statistically on par with, say, the children of Shanghai, while yielding a smarter, stronger workforce for our nation’s future. But in practice, it means that a single kind of learning—outcome-based academics— determines all things, while other modes (social development, citizenship, creativity) can be valued only insomuch as they do not impede progress in more numerically-measurable areas.

This emphasis is a problem if you are a five year-old with terrible memory. For several years, Diva grouped all her friends in categories named for the first member of each whose name she learned: all blonde white girls were Tess, all Asian girls were Emmeline,  and both her young cousins were Alice. She routinely refers to her favorite toy as “My American Girl Doll,” a moniker which is three words longer than its actual name, which she can’t remember no matter how much we use it. Her own birth date escapes her most of the time and she cannot tell a story about something that happened yesterday without first being reminded of the context. Not surprisingly, we were nervous in advance of this school year about how it would go.

Don’t get me wrong—we weren’t nervous because we think that she can’t learn or won’t read. She’s a smart, creative kid, and she’ll get there when she gets there, even if not on the school’s timeline. We were nervous only because we didn’t want her to feel badly about learning at her own pace and thus end up associating school with failure—yet there are hints that this is already happening.  In the first week of school, her class was told that none of them could ask parents for help with spelling words and that the teacher would know if they did. The idea behind this approach is that it should force the students to be more independent and to do their own problem-solving. Yet when Diva couldn’t sound out a word she needed for her initial homework assignment, she burst into tears and hid under the table.  From the beginning, then, the very theory meant to empower her to “do it for herself” instead taught her what she can’t do.

Her teachers, I must be clear, are not villains. They are neither whip-cracking fiends nor developmental alarmists.  They simply know what waits for Diva in first grade (and second and third…) in our school system, and, beyond that, the greater expectations of the age we live in. In this particular cultural moment, many teachers like hers no longer have the old-school luxury of  adapting instruction to allow for the needs of different learning styles; they must ever teach with an eye toward the quite-inflexible tests which will eventually come.  With so much federal money dependent on those tests, high scores drive the engine of public education, no matter how teachers or families may feel about it.

As Diva’s dads, we’re doing our part at home to soften the fear created by the pace of learning our daughter faces. We’ve made a memory game out of the “World Wall” words, and we let her figure out the words her own way when we play. But, even more, we’re trying to remind her that every child is different, that reading doesn’t have to be her thing right now. Sure, some of her classmates are good sight readers and some are great at math, while others are better at drawing pictures or scoring goals in P.E. We love her for who she is and want her to feel good about her own skills and talents.

But she’s no dummy: she already understands that no one but us values her song-writing ability, or the speed with which she is mastering skiing, or her fabulous pretend play scenarios.  No one will ask her to stand in front of her peers and answer a question about doll-houses or fuse beads. In her five year-old way, she’s already learning a tough lesson: her school wants one thing from her, and it’s something she doesn’t yet have to give.