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AustinMama offers up some Daddy props.

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, conn a ship, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve an equation, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
- Robert A. Heinlein

It doesnít matter who comes to our house, some parts of the experience of visiting approach the universal. At some point during the stay, Hugh will animatedly show them a toy dinosaur, some chicken bones, a homemade baking soda and vinegar volcano, a front loader, the planet Mars in a book, or whatever else his interest of the day is, and lecture them on why he finds it interesting. Most of this is pretty cool stuff, and his Discovery Channel persona is a well-practiced one. Visitors unused to him can be astonished at his knowledge of the mechanics of Mount Saint Helens erupting, or where the olfactory lobes are located on his model of a T-Rexís brain, and I know he finds those moments very gratifying. When someone fails to understand him, heíll summon me to translate, and one of the reasons he is so articulate results from the careful attention he pays to sesquipedalian scientific dialogue. If our hapless visitor is dismissive of him, heíll put a hand on their jaw and turn their face physically to his to make eye contact. When heís gotten some sort of explanation in, conversation can return to whatever the adults were talking about, and heíll go back to what he was doing.  Eccentric, perhaps, but I smile indulgently because I think itís relatively harmless, and shows his intellect to its best advantage. 

Keefe has a similarly deep-seated need to feel he is being heard, but it manifests somewhat differently. Heís always been, and will likely forever be, the more socially driven of the boys, and his social calendar seems more complex at nine than mine has ever been. I marvel at his confidence in such things, which was never my strong suit as a boy. Other forms of Keefe's confidence are apparent in struggles he has with me. It feels, at times, that I can hardly ask him to put a few dishes on the table or help me tidy up a mess without a long argument from him about why he wants to do something else, or why canít he vacuum instead of sweep, or in some other way shift from "doing the thing dad asks" to "doing things his own way." I find this utterly infuriating, particularly when one of us is tired and cranky -- which is when we get into sniping matches with each other. In moments of clarity, however, as when heís returned exhausted from a sleep over at a friendís house and I've had a peaceful nightís sleep in his absence, I recognize that heís displaying precisely the same conflict management tools that have complicated my own life. 

In a reflective moment, I realized that this is what people mean when they talk about your children turning into you. Iíve never wanted the boys to be anyone but themselves, and Iím a little uncomfortable with parents who seem to want their children to walk the roads they themselves always wanted to tread, but didnít. I canít wrap my mind around people who name their sons Ďjuniorí, as if theyíre spiritual clones of dad. And while I see that my progeny live in the environment created by my interests and habits, I try to provide as much opportunity as possible for them to define themselves and their own interests.

Completely unconsciously, though, they seem to have inherited a variety of foibles, idiosyncrasies and traits that are embarrassingly like looking in the mirror. It brings me to wonder a lot. How has my habit of collecting obscure facts and sharing them with complete strangers served me? How, if Keefe gets just as dogmatically thick headed as I do, can I help him avoid bashing relationships with his head as catastrophically as I have sometimes done? In short, the last thing I wanted to bequeath to them was my faults. What guidance can I give them if my blind spots are the same as theirs?

Of course, I can just as easily argue that no one is more qualified to help them deal with handicaps such as mine than I am. Havenít I been negotiating with my strengths and weaknesses longer than anyone? Iíve gotten better at understanding when a stranger doesnít find the heterozygosity of the apple as fascinating as I do, and so will Hugh. And even if Keefe proves to be as stubbornly opinionated as I am, which is a lot, I know that my adventures eventually landed me in a spectacularly mutual and supportive marriage and surrounded me with a circle of fascinating and accommodating friends. More than that, I canít be objective about these elements of the boysí makeup at all. I kind of like them. Sure, it makes me nuts when Keefe locks horns with me, but Iím convinced he wonít be easily led by his peers either, so maybe itís a bonus. 

In order to illuminate the tripping hazards on this road for them, Iím discovering that I need to make more regular time to meditate and self reflect. If I can be more conscious that making my point is overriding the need to shut up and listen, Iíll fight with Keefe less, and heíll in turn begin picking up the same skill. Itís only when I stumble around on autopilot that my deplorable excess of character is a disadvantage. When Iím on the ball, I can be fascinating and eloquent. Who knew? Itís also vital to acknowledge and honor the tempering role my wife plays in this equation. In a lot of ways, she and I are great foils for each other, so she is as elegantly a foil for the boys when, like all primates, they show off what great mimics they are.

As much as I know the boys are learning from me, even things that I may not want to teach them, I also strive to keep learning from them. The future moves forwards through them, after all, so they must grow beyond me and the limitations of what I know. Children have an inherent wisdom of their own, and the glimpses that I manage into the long forgotten world they see around us are always instructive. The wonder of todayís science lesson through Hughís eyes is a bright flash of real discovery, of his world becoming wider, and it does more than reassure the part of my ego that loves his intelligence. It gives me hope. Both of my sons are growing in imagination and insight so quickly, as sponge-like young minds do, that I canít help but breathe a sigh of relief. Iíve become pretty set in a lot of my ways by now, but their tools are simply expanding, and theyíre getting better every day at all the things they do. Iím sure theyíre going to handle my baggage better than I. They will, as we all must, invent their own mistakes instead. Maybe Iíll be objective enough about those to have something useful to say.
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Michael Nabert is a Canadian writer who loves to talk and sing, and writes mainly about parenting, the art of wooing and paleontology. Widely traveled, with an opinion about everything, his friends often describe him as having "a deplorable excess of character." He is currently stay-at-home dad to Hugh (3) and Keefe (9).  Send feedback for Michael to: poprocks@austinmama.com

 

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