Ben Tanzer continues his explorations and ruminations on the subject of “failure.” In “The Pygmalion Effect,” Tanzer looks at feelings of failure as a parent.
My son Myles is 10 years old.
He’s mad about something. He might be correct in his madness, but that’s beside the point at this point. Something broke between us, something minor. It might have been about homework or chores or both, it escalated, and now it’s a showdown. It’s stupid and, at a minimum, being the adult, I need to back down, redirect him, me, the situation, something.
Nobody wins in bullshit arguments with their children.
I take a breath.
I once worked for a child abuse prevention organization and we knew that, in times of parental duress, you sometimes have to take a step back, catch your breath, and count to ten.
Sometimes, you even have to walk away.
It can be very hard to walk away.
I take a breath and, in this moment of seeking calm and clarity, I have a thought.
“You know,” I say, quietly, dad-like, “here’s the thing, you’re upset, I’m getting upset. Someone is going to yell, probably you, maybe me, but definitely me if you yell first or a lot. Then we’ll both get upset, tempers will flair. You will say things you regret, if not now, today, some day, and I will say things as well. I will hate myself, and you might hate yourself too. Mainly, I just wish you weren’t so mad at me. I don’t even remember how or why this started. Or who’s wrong or right. It doesn’t matter though. What matters is that shit’s going south, and someone will lose, and if we’re honest, it will probably be you. I’m the parent, you’re the kid, so yeah, you lose. Unless we try something different. Let’s say you sit on the couch and stare at the wall, and I’ll sit at the kitchen table and stare at the other wall, and we’ll just do that until this moment passes. Someone might even smile at some point, maybe laugh, and whatever was happening will seem ridiculous. What do you say to that?”
This all seems quite brilliant to me.
Myles predictably doesn’t respond.
But he walks to the couch, sits down, and stares at the wall. And I walk to the kitchen table, sit down, and stare at a wall too.
There is nothing particularly magical about such a choice, but, in making this choice, one can appreciate why others might choose to meditate.
It’s suddenly and truly silent, not just quiet, but still. No movement or sound, just a little vibration in the air, which I presume is raw energy, the earth’s rotation or brain cells dying during our unceasing march to obsolescence.
Whatever it is, and whatever else we are, we are also centered and present.
It is a transformative experience.
Then Myles speaks.
He doesn’t move his gaze away from the wall or raise his voice.
He just speaks, low, calm and focused.
“And you call yourself a fucking social worker.”
I did not laugh, nor avert my gaze, but it was genius, he had stripped away the magic transformation and parenting pretensions I projected onto this potentially glorious experiment. He had also identified it for what it was: a desperate attempt to find peace, if only temporary.
Am I a social worker?
I was once a caseworker and I worked with actual human beings. Then, I got a Master’s degree in the social work program at University of Chicago. But after that, I didn’t work with people anymore. I worked in a community trying to build programs that impacted people’s lives whom I never really met. For many years after that, I helped build nonprofits and engaged in program planning. Then, I started to work with words. I crafted blogs and Tweets, wrote press releases, spoke at conferences, led meetings, developed communications plans and marketing copy.
Can someone who does those things be a social worker?
Answering this question feels important to me because I care so much about work and how much work has helped me shape my identity and voice. But also because I worked in a child abuse prevention organization and I care so much about this issue too. One of the guidelines for writing about child abuse is to avoid framing parents as monsters or superheroes. Any time you do so, you risk losing the audience because the public will become disengaged in what you want them to think about—your programming and your hopes and beliefs about how to most effectively enhance the lives of children—and instead focus on their definitions of good and bad.
Fortunately, for our purposes today, I no longer have that job. They didn’t want me anymore and for a long time after that I failed to understand why, or even what I was good at.
Still, Myles’ comment was not really about whether I am a social worker anyway, but whether in that moment I was or ever have been a good parent.
Said differently, he was stating that I had failed as a parent.
That I wasn’t good or successful at the job.
Not in the moment certainly, but maybe ever, at all.
The thing is, in the same way I once tried to not write about parents as good or bad, I’ve also tried not to think about myself in those terms.
What is being a successful parent anyway?
That may be subjective, and I may know better than to ask, but we can look at facts. That was something we focused on at that job as well, facts and science. And if one were to look at the facts and science, have I, and by extension my wife Debbie and I, been successful in the role of parent? Or have we been failures? Further, do I even know enough about what I care about as a parent to answer that question?
For a while, I’ve felt that raising good men is enough. That doing so will be to Myles and younger brother Noah’s benefit, as well as the world they live in. I’ve also believed that in doing so I’d feel better about myself.
But do I actually believe this?
I hope so.
Again though, I really believe in science, and I’m quite open to people who know better, and have data, telling me whether Debbie and I are successes or failures.
What I need is some data-driven guidelines and according to an article from Business Insider (May 2016), “Science says parents of successful kids have … thirteen things in common.” Thirteen is a lot of metrics to explore and I will not ask you to go all the way down that rabbit hole with me. However, will I ask you to go partially down that rabbit hole? Yes, certainly.
“They make their kids do chores.”
Good, we do that.
My parents did not make me do chores, but they were hands-off enough that, if I didn’t do my own laundry, I might not have clean clothes; my father’s dishwashing skills were so suspect that I gladly did dishes; and if I didn’t make my own lunch for school (and go grocery shopping for food with my mother), I might not have a decent lunch. Hence, our kids have done their own laundry and made their own lunches since they were little. They’ve also done dishes and taken out the garbage. During the pandemic, this has all become heightened, every missed chore more fraught and stressful, but we insisted on these things all along, because science and growing up.
So, chores, yes, we assign them.
However, I believe that there’s a flaw in this argument. The author also references the work of Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of How to Raise an Adult. The author states, “kids raised on chores go on to become employees who collaborate well with their coworkers …”
Collaboration is a skill I value, but is it really valued in the workplace?
I once pursued a cool opportunity to open the Chicago office of a national nonprofit that focused on advocating for innovative approaches to education reform.
Prior to the first interview, I was asked to take a personality test, which was fine, except it wasn’t. The test focused on various situations, such as running a fundraiser, and the decision-making one would engage in to successfully navigate said situations. It seems easy to select what one needs to select to look impressive when seeking such a job. It seemed easy to me. For example, focus on working well with others and being a good team player. Things I excel at. I was wrong, though, it’s not easy, or it wasn’t for me, and I was not invited in for an interview.
When I asked why, they said, “You’re too collaborative.”
“That’s bad?” I replied having built much of my professional life around just that.
“For us it is,” they said, “the leaders who are successful at this organization don’t test well for collaboration.”
That could have been a fluke.
Except on the last full-time job I had after being bounced from my long-time job, I was brought in to lead a team, and one thing I consciously did was something I had always done effectively. Or so I thought. What was that? I spoke the language of the collaborator, choosing phrases such as “we did this,” or “we discussed that and decided …,” and the bosses said, “We don’t want to hear ‘we,’ we didn’t bring you in to collaborate, we brought you in to lead.” When I switched to using “I” phrases, they seemed happier, temporarily, but that job didn’t work out, and while there were other reasons for this as well, it appears that there is a kind of leader I am not. It’s also possible that I’m just not much of a leader at all and never was.
I don’t want to be a leader anymore regardless, but what do I want our children to be? Because if it’s being more collaborative, am I damning them to a kind of future employment failure? They may just need to be more strategic than I’ve been about when and where to be collaborative and, if that’s the case, I hope I can help them with that.
That said, I remain stuck on them doing chores regardless of the results and, some days, all I really want them to do is pick up their dirty clothes (an activity that is somehow not considered a chore) and stop screaming at me when I ask them to do so. I still want them to be good men as well, of course, totally, yet, the dirty clothes and screaming thing isn’t not important either, and, given that, they may need to pick up leadership skills elsewhere.
“They teach their kids social skills.”
Business Insider goes on to report that, “Researchers from Pennsylvania State University and Duke University tracked more than 700 children from across the US between kindergarten and age 25 and found a significant correlation between their social skills as kindergartners and their success as adults two decades later.”
Among other things, kids who could “resolve problems on their own … were far more likely to earn a college degree and have a full-time job by age 25 than those with limited social skills,” while those who did not, “had a higher chance of binge drinking,” among other things.
This is tough.
Did I have to resolve problems on my own as a child?
I did, though, in the beginning, I mostly did so with my fists.
I also have a college degree and I had multiple full-time jobs and in multiple cities (by choice) by 25. In fact, I’ve worked continually since the fall of 1990, with the only two years, when I wasn’t working full-time, the years I took off to attend graduate school.
For a long time, then, I was deemed a success by these standards.
Yet, I was, am, and may always have a propensity for binge drinking.
Do I drink less often and in less amounts than I did from the ages of 15 to 30? I do, but am I clear of the impulse and the occasional slip? Not really.
Has it ever interfered with school or work? Not on the face of it.
Can one be a binge drinker and still be a success? I hope so.
But that also continues to beg the question of how I define success.
If I’m only a remotely successful middle-aged adult when I’m mostly not binge drinking at all, though I was otherwise a success by the metrics provided here while I was a binge drinker, how do I square that with raising successful kids (and being a successful, not failure as a parent)?
One question might be whether I was as successful as I might have been, or whether I would have preferred to be successful at other things and in other ways?
Do I know what that means to me and whether binge drinking interfered with any of that?
I don’t know.
I’m not sure I do.
There’s a different question though that haunts me in a different way: have I been as effective at solving problems as I thought I was?
I always thought so.
But then I lost a job, other jobs didn’t work out, literary opportunities faltered, and I kept pushing anyway. I don’t know that I solved anything, though. Nor do I know if I made changes when change was required. What I have done, and what I’ve done a lot, is absorb disappointment and failure, and not resolved things as much as worked around or through them.
Which mostly worked, until work fell apart.
I’ve had to rethink all of that now.
I hope the boys can be smarter about this than I have been.
I also hope they will drink less than I did.
Because not being prone to binge drinking is some kind of success regardless, right?
“They’re less stressed.”
This piece also looks at research cited by Brigid Schulte at the Washington Post, which stresses that, “the number of hours that moms spent with their kids between ages 3 and 11 does little to predict the child’s behavior, well-being or achievement.” But mothers’ stress may affect “their kids poorly.” The article then references “emotions contagion,” which is the idea that “people ‘catch’ feelings from one another like a cold.”
I am reminded of something my mother once said to me, “people (“people” being all of society) always blame the mother,” for everything, and this applies to any and all societal problems, and so with the admonition in mind, I’ll swap the identifier “mothers” for “parents.”
I am also reminded that my son Myles had colic as a newborn (as did Noah after that), the cause and treatment of which seems to confound pediatricians.
According to the Mayo Clinic, colic involves “crying for three or more hours a day, three or more days a week, for three or more weeks.”
It sounds bad enough, but Myles interpretation of this condition was inexplicable.
In the beginning, Myles could cry for up to 15-20 hours a day, every day, no true naps, minimal sleep, and was at times so distraught he would lose his breath and pass out, which required us to splash water on his face to revive him.
I share this because my boss at the time said to me, “Crying babies wasn’t a problem for me, but I was calm.”
Implying, apparently, that Debbie and I were not calm.
We weren’t, but was the colic our fault?
Not according to the science, which, to be clear, is lacking.
Am I being defensive?
Fuck yes, I am.
The same boss suggested we try The Happiest Baby on the Block, a method of soothing otherwise unsoothable newborns championed by Dr. Harvey Karp. The belief there is that children are born several months too soon, the first several months of life are akin to a “fourth trimester,” and children remain undeveloped during those months, a possible explanation for colic. Thus, you want to simulate being in the womb by utilizing the 5 S’s – Swaddling, cool, we could do that; holding the baby on their Side or stomach, great, we could do that too; Shush them, they don’t need silence, their time in the womb is akin to a rave; also, Swing them, which is more like a jiggle, short, quick swings, not shaking, never shaking; and as needed, Suck, by means of thumb or pacifier.
We could not make it work, which is to say that, as long as we jiggled, we were mostly fine, but if we stopped swinging, for even a moment, the crying would start again.
It was maddening, and exhausting, and we were already exhausted, and maddened, questioning the whole decision to become parents as we asked if this is what we had signed up for in the first place.
The answer was no.
It all seemed so fucked and it became clear that none of it could possibly end well.
Except Myles stopped crying at nine weeks, just like that. Just like they say will happen with colic. That it stops just like that. One day he cried all day, the next he took a nap.
And that was that, except it wasn’t.
Later, I met Dr. Karp at a conference and that same boss introduced me to him as the guy his technique didn’t work for.
Dr. Karp could have said many things, in many ways, he could have been comforting, encouraging, humorous, and with his flowing locks, nice shirt, loose tie, glasses, Zen, and neat, little beard, I would have consumed all of it, and him, whole.
I still needed someone to tell me everything was alright, that we hadn’t failed, that colic is fucked, and so were we.
Instead, with a tight half-smile, half-grimace, he said, “You were probably doing it wrong.”
All of it.
But that’s the thing, I’ve been stunned how easy it is to do everything wrong when it comes to parenting and I’m amazed how stressed I can feel.
Before all of this, I thought of myself as calm, cool, laid back.
But I’m not.
I’m apparently not even capable of Karp-like Zen, and if that’s so, maybe that means that my children will not be capable of these things either.
It’s just that, if this is so, and if I’m not who I always thought I was, what am I?
I’ve recently been somewhat of a failure, but am I also a failure that can’t parent or even achieve any true sense of calm?
Is that a thing?
Also, would meditation help?
To be clear, there are many more things according to Business Insider that one can handily fail or not fail at when it comes to one’s children. For example, attaining higher education levels, which I’ve done. Parents of successful children also “have high expectations” though.
At the very start of this parenting thing, I was certain Myles was going to be President, or at least a Jewish Bill Bradley who also got his documentaries screened at Sundance, and that Noah had awesome RBG energy and would likely serve on the Supreme Court.
Business Insider also writes about the “Pygmalion Effect,” meaning “that what one person expects of another can come to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
And that “kids live up to their parents’ expectations.”
I honestly believe that we are raising empathic, loving human beings, who may indeed have a positive impact on the world, and this is something both Debbie and I expect of them.
Lately, I wonder though if these expectations are lofty enough, or even the proper ones?
I long felt for myself that things such as goodness, kindness, and, yes, collaboration, are as important as anything. Especially in the current climate.
In that regard, isn’t raising someone good, a pretty high expectation?
Now, am I thinking too much about parenting, not to mention success and failure, through the prism of work and having a successful career?
But work is important, and the work we do can be important, and it is wrapped up in our identity in endless ways, and so having failed so often in so many ways in recent years, and not just at work, though definitely at work, I have to wonder if we want the right things for Myles and Noah and in the right ways?
Being a failure myself, after a not-so-bad run, may be normal, par for the course, but do I want my children to fail or feel as bad as I have?
This is now something different, I suppose.
Our children failing and feeling bad is going to happen.
They just will, it can’t be avoided and I get that, truly.
Still, I wonder if they can develop better tools than I have for approaching work and life, success and, yes, failure.
My hope is that they’ll understand that being able to move upward and forward in all ways means learning how to confront one’s doubt and insecurity, not just plow through it, focused on being collaborative and good, at the expense of other skills and insights, such as how to change when needed. And given how I more or less have taken that approach until recently, I see more clearly now how I never quite understood all of that for myself.
I did a lot of things right, and did a lot of good work, but, along the way, I also went about things the wrong way and I didn’t know it. Or care to know it.
Ultimately, we can’t protect our children from disappointment, or failure, and doing so wouldn’t make Debbie or I successful parents either, though it might make us smothering, desperate, and scared, all of which we’re good at without focusing on those things.
So, am I a good parent or a bad one, or somewhere in between?
Again, it’s better not to label parenting in these ways to begin with, but it’s also clear to me that much of our thinking about success and failure is related to our expectations of ourselves and our ability to look at them head on.
There’s also context.
Right now, I’m a bit of a failure as a parent and as a human. This time next year, though? I might be a raging success.
Ben Tanzer is the author of several award-winning books, including the science fiction novel Orphans, the essay collection Lost in Space: A Father’s Journey There and Back Again, Be Cool—a memoir (sort of), and Upstate.