About a month ago I wrote a short post about reading through some of my old Calvin and Hobbes comics. By some miracle of the unintended combination of the right words and the information reliability score of this blog, that page suddenly started getting a lot of hits from various search engines. Lots…. as in it will very soon be the most “popular” post — if not the most visited post — on this blog.
If Calvin were anything like me he would understand that there is a lesson to be had in the so-called “trial by fire”…
Of course this got me thinking; the orginal blog post wrapped with a simple notion about my own personal parenting style being reflective (or at least aspiring) of some of the philosophies of the comic itself. In other words, I had tossed out a few scattered thoughts on how my own style of “free-range parenting” is often in parallel lockstep with some of the underlying philosophies implied in the Calvin and Hobbes comic strips. I noticed this because (a) I’m the type of guy who notices silly stuff like this and (b) I had done a lot of reading, thinking, talking and writing about parenting and whatever it is that we are calling the exact polar opposite of so-called “helicopter parenting.” This switch had occured between the two points in time — then and now — when I was reading a lot of Calvin and Hobbes, and when I switched from being just a guy into someone’s dad.In other words, I used to read Calvin and Hobbes when I was younger and aspire to the existential adventurism of Calvin and his stuffed tiger. Now, as a parent, I read the strips and I notice the parenting philosophies that allow Calvin to be the type of kid that explores the woods alone, invent his own games, routinely risk life and limb often shirking the consequences, and all-around let his imagination soar.
This philosophy is in stark contrast to the perpetual-play-date, suceed-at-all-cost, danger-lurking-at-every-turn, failure-is-not-an-option irrationality of the militant branch of the modern mommy movement, Facebooking every gurgle, burp, bruise, scrape and scrap for the world’s sympathy. So I thought I’d write some posts called “Parenting like Calvin” from the perspective of the free-ranging, skeptical-daddy, let-them-play approach… and just see what sticks. It will be something like a “What Would Calvin Do?” … assuming that, as a child of the eighties and nineties, Calvin (were he a real kid) would be about the right age now, in the early second decade of the twenty-first centruy, to have wandered off into the sunset, settled down a bit, and perhaps spawned a child or two.
And it should go without saying that all this is completely unofficial and has no connection to Mr. Wattersons epic and brilliant work — other than the greatest repect and spirit of homage.
So… (and maybe just one to start this new series off)… what would Calvin do?
Risk is part of education and managing that risk is my job as a dad.
1. Trial by Fire and Leveraging Risk
I seem to remember having an experience very similar to Calvin when I was a kid. It went something like this for Calvin: Calvin’s curiosity about smoking floats to the surface of his meandering life one sunny day and he (as he does so many things) nonchalantly asks his mom for a cigarette. Much to his surpise — and in surprise contrast to the running-gag-frequency of Calvin casually and often asking for extreme weapons, dangerous tools, or access to the family vehicle and then being routinely and dead-pan-denied — his mom (seemingly indifferent) agrees and provides him with some smokes from a side table drawer left laying around by a non-present grandfather. He goes outside, expounding on the coolness of his mom, lights up, and the rest of the strip is filled with gasping, wheezing, choughing, and a few sputtering words of “lessons learned.”If you fall into the “helicopter parenting” side of the debate, right about now you are gasping not with the lung-burning pain of burning tabacco, but rather in horror at the prospect of your own child with a cigarette so casually between their lips. Your precious little angel might be curious about cigarettes and — despite years of government sponsored aggressive anti-smoking campaigns and laws and increased demonization of the habit by Western society — the still-likely inclination for the average kid to show curiosity about this very probably raise your heckles and put you into protective parent mode: “Not on my watch!” you would proudly trumpet as you make a sudden and willful effort to purge a five kilometer radius of anything remotely encouraging of (or otherwise related to) cigarettes and start constructing a mental list and well-timed lecture of the dangers and pitfalls of smoking to health, happiness, and the preservation of modern society.
But then we all know this, right… maybe even feel this way a little bit, too. I mean, I don’t smoke. Maybe you do, but I don’t and I know a lot of people who do and try in an epic way to quit — and there are a lot of reasons for my own non-smoking, not the least of which is a Calvin and Hobbes-esque lesson…
Was that a lesson in the terrible, painful, cough-inducing horror of smoking?
I recall — and perhaps my own father who occasional reads this blog can fill in the gaps of the very likely reconstructed and possibly imagined details of my memory from his own — sitting in our dining room one single-digit-aged day of my early life, and pulling a puff — just one — from a cigarette that my non-smoking dad had brought home. Was that a lesson in the terrible, painful, cough-inducing horror of smoking? Maybe.
But here’s what we have: is the imaginary grown up Calvin of this thought experiment a smoker? Maybe. Not likely, but maybe. The immediate (and punch-line) lesson Calvin learned that idle summer day is to never trust his parents. But I expect if he ever chose to take up smoking as an adult, it would be in abject, willful, defiant contrast to the implied lesson learned in the ten panels of this particular Sunday colour comic strip. I — personally — think Calvin would have “got it” from this, and given his introspective and otherwise intelligent personality, would have actually learned to avoid smoking from here on in.
And what would Calvin (the parent) do now? If Calvin were anything like me he would understand that there is a lesson to be had in the so-called “trial by fire” — it is a kind of learning through doing, learning through experience and mild pain, learning by negative feedback and physically understanding the consequences of an action. And let me be perfectly clear here: not parentally-induced or action-unrelated pain, like spanking or consqeuential punishment, but rather the primary feedback of cause-and-effect. I suspect Calvin would do exactly as his mother did, perhaps needing to delay the lesson — perhaps prepare for it in advance — with a trip to the local convenience store for a pack of smokes and a book of matches. Sure, it is a little unkind. Some well-meaning folks might even accuse me some off-beat and overblown form of child abuse (or at the very least, endangerment) for even suggesting such a lesson: but is it really? What is more dangerous? Hiding the consequences of reality from a kid, or exposing it to them face on when they are at the right age to (literally) ask for that exposure?
Calvin’s mom didn’t force him to smoke, after all. She just let his curiosity provide him the answer he needed in that particular (teachable) moment.Or, perhaps the smoking model is too harsh? Perhaps you are formulating an argument against my assertions based on the threat or exposure to the immediate and proven dangers of cigarette smoke? Then how about this: What would you say if I told you that twice each week we expose our daughter to a very real potential for danger, sending her off through a room with water-slicked floors that are likely crawling with numerous varieties of bacteria and fungus, to a communal bathtub of water saturated with chemicals as deep as her neck. Supervised only by a teenager half my own age while we sit nearly-helpless on the sidelines, our daughter is encouraged to risk the real possibility of asphyxiation and drowning as she and her peers struggle through meaningless and pointless tasks such as repeatedly climbing out and jumping in, splashing copious amounts of water at each other, submerging their heads for no other purpose than getting them wet, and singing songs (thereby opening their mouths and encouraging that chemical-laden water to enter.) But then, of course, you will not object to swimming lessons because we’ve formalized this learning process, marginalized any real danger, and quantified the future pay-off of knowing how to swim in a world that is two-thirds covered in water, right?
The tough part about parenting is not simply keeping dangers out, but in figuring out what is actually dangerous right now…
See, as I figure it, it goes something like this: It’s my role as a parent to keep the real dangers at bay while teaching my daughter to survive in a world that (unfortunately, but in actual reality) will do everything it can to hurt her. The tough part about parenting is not simply keeping dangers out, but in figuring out what is actually dangerous in the immediate and right now — and what will be so much more dangerous later when I’m not there and she’ll need to have the skills and experience to keep those dangers out herself. It doesn’t matter if the lesson is chemical and substance abuse, learning to ride a bike (and risking countless scrapes and bruises) or sending them off to school on the (potential to crash!) school bus each morning. Risk is part of education and managing that risk is my job as a dad. I’m probably just more willing to leverage that risk than the average parent.
In other words, if my school-aged daughter ever asks me for a smoke, I might just have one ready to give her. Just one. “Have a light, honey.” Aaaaaand… lesson learned.
Calvin’s parents got it. And I think Calvin would get that, too.