Tuesday, January 22, 2019

On Being Awesome Parents

Four years ago, we had the following exchange with our then 12-year-old daughter:

Sofie: Have I ever thanked you and Mama for being such amazing parents?

Me: No.

Sofie: Oh.

Ah…the classic “non-compliment” compliment.

A few years later, at 14, she was concerned about being as awesome parents for her kids as we’ve been for her. OK now…a straight out compliment. And again, this past weekend, the 16-year-old version expressed concern that we teach her how to be the kind of parent for her kids that we’ve been for her and her sister. So with that in mind, here are my instructions...for everyone.

Number one: You know that old line about how parents can’t be their kids’ best friends. That’s bullshit, and it depends entirely on your definition of “best friend.” In my world, your best friend is looking out for what’s best for you, and won’t let you do stupid or dangerous stuff. Your true best friend won’t cover for you when you’ve done something heinous, but will encourage you to own up to it. Your “buddies” might, but not your true friends. Your true best friends will not only have fun with you, but will encourage you to be your best self. And by that definition, parents can be their kids’ best friends.

Number two: It’s not about power, it’s about setting a good example. Don’t be the parent who’s always saying “Because I said so.” Instead, make sure there’s a good reason for your saying so, and if there’s not, then admit it. Back down when your kid is right, so that they know that the times when you do dig in your heels, it’s really important. Of course, there are some times when you can’t explain why, and it has to be “because I said so”, but those times should be few enough and far between enough that your kid is willing and able to trust your judgment.

Number three: Don’t try to be the perfect parent. The best book about parenting was one I never read; the title alone made its point. It’s called The Good-Enough Parent. Don’t fret about whether or not you’re doing this exactly right and by whose rules. Just be good enough. If you try to be perfect (whatever that is), you’ll only make everyone crazy.

Number four: Back them up when they challenge authority and that authority is wrong. But also teach them that sometimes they just have to suck it up…for the moment…as we all do.

Number five: Don’t come up with rules just for the sake of having rules; and ask yourself why the rules you have exist in the first place. Why can’t the kid have a whole bowl of Reddi Whip for breakfast? If that's the only way you can get a dairy product into them, then let them have it!

Number six: Let them make their own mistakes, and deal with them on their own, without rescuing them.

Number seven: Understand that the world is a random place, shit happens, and you can’t prevent it. You can’t protect your kid from everything; and if you’ve successfully protected them from X, they may well get struck down by Y. 

Number eight: Don’t be afraid of your kids hanging out with the “wrong” kids. Or rather, don’t be afraid of the “wrong” kids hanging out with yours. If they’re hanging out with yours, and hanging out at your house, maybe it’s because your family is an example of a stable one, and your kid is a good influence on them, rather than them being a bad influence on yours.

Number nine: Be goofy and don’t give a crap what other people think. Don’t get all freaked out when your kid and their friend wave and shout “Hi!” to people out the car window as you’re driving along through town. It could be worse.

There’s so much more, but if I were to try to put all this into three words they would be these: Lighten up already!

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Death Only Has to Win Once...But Usually it's Not Even Playing

Tonight my 16-year-old daughter is going with some friends to a concert. Somehow, in giving her both permission to go and the money for the ticket (in exchange for jobs around the house that she hasn’t quite completed yet), I neglected to ask exactly where the concert was, figuring that it was somewhere within 45 minutes of here. I just found out that it was in Albany…Albany…three days ago. Albany’s two and a half hours from here! Had I known that before…

But it was too late. I know, a lot of parents would disagree with me, saying that it’s never too late to change your mind on something like that, once you have more information; and that you’d have to be crazy to let your 16-year-old go to a concert with friends that was two and a half hours away. But you know something, she didn’t intentionally withhold the information from me, she says that she told me that the concert “wasn’t here.” And knowing the friend that she’s going with and how good she is with sharing information, she may not have known herself.

I thought about this carefully, and after ascertaining that they were being driven to and from Albany by a responsible adult, who is the 29-year-old sister of one of the friends, I relaxed, and told her to have fun. And then when I got a phone call from that 29-year-old sister, giving me her phone number and copious details about how she planned to deal with them, I relaxed even more.

But I know that many parents would be saying, “No bleeping way. Too many things could happen!”

I agree lots of things could happen. Lots of things could happen right here in town at a concert at the Dome up at SU, or even downtown at the Landmark Theater. Yes, they could get into a car accident on the way to or from Albany…just as they could get in an accident to or from a venue right here in Onondaga County. The likelihood of something happening doesn’t change with the distance it is from home.

But the people who worry about things like this are all dealing with the same unspoken mindset…“that death only has to win once” for all your worries to seem justified.

Yes…death only has to win once, but usually it doesn’t. Usually it doesn’t even get in the game. We can talk about “all” the horrible accidents we’ve heard of on the Thruway between Syracuse and Albany (and how many have there really been over the past 10 years?) while totally ignoring the many more people who safely make that trip every day.

But I’m not really here to talk about the concert. That’s just a lead-in to something else.

I’m no statistician, I don’t even play one on TV, but I do know a few; and they say that people in general are horrible at assessing risk…often basing it on their emotions and the skewed samples that they see. I knew an emergency room nurse who refused to let her teenaged kids ride their bikes in the street because bike riders came into her emergency room after having been hit by cars. I talked to a police officer many years ago who said that you should never let your kids on the internet because that’s where stalkers are. These people saw all the worst cases as part of their jobs, and extrapolated that out into everyone else’s experience.

And they were wrong.

They were saying that death…or severe injury…or an abduction…only has to win once in order to make the activity too dangerous for anyone to be involved in.

And this is the mindset that many people have about immigrants…both legal and illegal, and especially about refugees from “dangerous countries.” That “one Skittle in 10,000” might be poisonous, so we shouldn’t have any Skittles at all. That one immigrant in 10,000 could be a rapist, murderer or terrorist. To them, death only has to win once for all those people to be dangerous.

But in their fear of what they can’t control, they forget one very important thing: Yes, death only has to win once…but usually it doesn’t even play at all. And to live in the constant state of fear that they have isn’t living, as far as I’m concerned.

And so, now that I’ve said this, I hope my daughter has a good time at the concert, and she’s been instructed to text me when she gets there and when she leaves.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Crazy, Not Mentally Ill

I just finished listening to a great audiobook. It’s Words on the Move, by John McWhorter, a professor of Linguistics. Between that and Ann Curzan’s The Secret Life of Words from The Great Courses, I learned a lot about the English language over the past year.

And the important thing is that language changes. Words gain new meanings, shed old meanings, and gain additional meaning while retaining the old ones.

Which brings me to the word “crazy.”

Sometimes, when I use it on Facebook, someone will implore me to not throw that word around so casually, as it makes light of mental illness. Or perhaps after a suicide, someone will ask us to think about how we use the word “crazy” and what it says about the stigma we attach to mental illness. But I’m going to argue that “crazy” doesn’t always mean, and perhaps didn’t always mean mentally ill. In fact, I’m also going to argue that when most of us really want to talk about someone who’s mentally ill, we actually use the words “mentally ill.” Crazy is something else altogether.

So what is “crazy”? Let’s ask Patsy Cline.

In her song Crazy, she sings, “I’m crazy for crying, and crazy for trying, and crazy for loving you.” Does she really mean that she’s mentally ill? No…she was saying something more along the lines of being unrealistic, of having thoughts that were too far-fetched to be reasonable. Or working totally against logic.

So why not use those words instead? That’s what some people in the mental health community suggest. The answer is one that John McWhorter could easily tell you…because a word is more than the snapshot in time that its dictionary meaning gives you. Besides, many words have multiple dictionary definitions. A quick check of dictionary.com gives us:
  • mentally deranged, demented, insane
  • senseless, impractical, totally unsound
  • intensely enthusiastic, passionately excited
Only the first definition implies mental illness as we now understand it, and is probably not even the main way that most of us use it (more on that later). The second describes what Patsy Cline was singing about and talks about people with crazy ideas. And there are more that aren’t even covered there.

When I talk fondly about my crazy ex-roommate, I’m not saying that she’s mentally ill, and you know that. I’m also not saying that she was senseless or impractical…far from it. But she was bizarre and outrageous…in a fun way.

And what about the person who “drives you crazy”? Are we really saying that they cause you to be mentally ill? No…they’re affecting you to the point where you can’t think straight, another common definition of the word. I suppose you could say that mentally ill people can’t think straight, and yet, no one says that we should be careful about using that phrase because it stigmatizes and minimalizes mental illness.

But sometimes the person we describe as crazy really is mentally ill…and we didn’t know it. I have a friend who talks about her crazy ex-boyfriend (one of the reasons why he’s an ex-boyfriend), and later found out that he wasn’t just odd, annoying, unreasonable, and obsessive, but that he really did have some psychological problems worth noting and treating.

The simple fact of the matter is that not only is “crazy” so much more than a word that could mean mental illness, but it’s usually *not* used that way. In fact...and here's the kicker...we never politely use that word to describe a truly mentally ill person. Even my friend with the crazy ex-boyfriend uses that term to describe him as she knew him during the relationship, when he drove her crazy with his bizarre attitudes and behavior, and not his current diagnosis of psychological problems.

Which brings us to another issue: maybe sometimes a person acts "crazy" because they actually are mentally ill...sometimes. And sometimes they're odd, unusual, unorthodox, outrageous, senseless, obsessive, bizarre, and have very strange ideas well within the range of of what we consider sanity.

And, linguistically, to say that it always means and has to refer to mental illness is…well…crazy.