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!


  1. I loved this post! You do sound like a terrific dad!

  2. This is great. Every Sunday we have a family meeting (where we talk about the week to come and ideas for family fun activities for the coming weekend). After that we have Dance Party! in our living room. The boys usually raid their dress up bin and do some sort of combination pretend-play / magic show while Mike and I dance around, all with ABBA or Lady Gaga blasting in the background.