About four years ago, Motherlode ran my essay “In Defense of the Doormat Dad,” in which I championed my permissive free-range parenting style. I allowed my then-2-year-old son, Benjamin, to set his own bedtime, take hour-long baths, and basically rule the roost. He was an amazing kid and I was content to step back and let him find his way without too much fatherly interference. I knew my essay was provocative, but still bristled at the comments section predicting Benjamin would end up a brat, or worse, incarcerated.
Benjamin is now 6, finishing up kindergarten, and I’m here to report back.
Our refrigerator is covered with good behavior awards. When his teacher gives the class a collective timeout, Benjamin receives the special honor of getting to go up to her desk to play on her iPad. He recently confided to me that he refrains from trying to be funny at school, lest it bother his teacher.
“Daddy,” he said, “I want to be really good.”
I was not really good at school, perhaps because I associated the rules with my own controlling father who could become violent when I didn’t listen to him. I was disruptive in grade school, got suspended in junior high for shoving a teacher (after he had shoved me), had detention virtually every morning in high school, and barely graduated, finishing third from last in my class. I then quickly righted myself, transferring to Northwestern, graduating in the top of my law school class, clerking for a federal judge. But it still bothers me how poorly I did in school and how stupid and masochistic I was.
Benjamin, though, is not burdened by a bullying father at home, so when his kindergarten teacher tells him to raise his hand before speaking or to use his inside voice, those rules don’t invoke familial power struggles and he can rationally obey and glide through the system. Plus, humans naturally crave rules and order to feel safe, so maybe my starving Benjamin of rules at home makes the rules at school seductive.
Obviously Benjamin is young and the jury is still out, but so far it seems my lax parenting has contributed to his superlative behavior. The only problem is lately I’ve been feeling a lack of attachment between us. We as parents want our kids to be better than us, but not be so different that we can’t recognize them. Benjamin is so good that it’s like he’s not my kid.
We live in the same New Jersey town where I grew up, and Benjamin is attending my old grade school. For his parent-teacher conference this past March, which I attended solo, I stepped into what might have been my former classroom and squeezed into a tiny chair across a low slung table from Benjamin’s teacher. When I’m outside the school, dropping Benjamin off or picking him up, it generally doesn’t register that I had once been a student there, but being inside the building, in a stuffy classroom, brought on a flood of uncomfortable memories.
“I just have to say,” the teacher said, “what a pleasure it is to see Benjamin’s smiling face every day in class.”
My son loves school so much he literally skips into the building in the morning.
“He listens,” she said. “He does his work. He’s respectful of the other kids.”
He has to be my biological son, I told myself, because we have the same eye color and the large feet that run in my father’s family.
After listening to 20 minutes of such nice statements about my son that it qualified as parent porn, I asked her if he had done anything wrong in the seven months she had him. “There’s got to be one thing,” I said.
“One thing,” I begged.
“Well,” she said.
“No,” she said, “there’s nothing.”
I thanked her for being a great teacher, unscrewed myself from the chair, and walked quickly out of my old school. I then went home and let my son do whatever he wanted.