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The Strategic Air Command Parent
Then And Now
I'm not a helicopter parent, I'm a Strategic Air Command Parent. I basically have five levels of engagement which are roughly equivalent to DEFCON. I have never had to go to DEFCON 1, and have only been once to DEFCON 2.
As a reminder, DEFCON stands for defense condition, and I think it is appropriate to consider parenting to be an exercise in defense readiness. We understand that as parents we are firstly successful and civilized adults. Our children are not. We defend our sanity in the same way we defend our civilization, by removing from our society those who defy it. In the case of our children this means restraining their free rein in our home and their free will in our lives. But it also implies that at some point they would need to be kicked out of the house in those situations in which their activity brings unpardonable shame or legal action upon it. That would represent a state of war between parents and children, in which the children must lose that thing they've only earned through love and trust, which is the dedicated protection of their parents. I will not protect a criminal or psychopath in my home.
My kids are not the coolest people I know, but they are some of the best people I know. I tell them this on the occasions that it becomes obvious. They each have done rather well and have given me a great deal of pride, but my starting and basic underlying principle remains. You are uncivilized and you need to grow up. My job is to provide the right environment, to make myself available and to be the man that I am while giving them a special window into my opinions, thoughts and feelings. I do not run a democracy, I run a workshop. This is how we are civilized. These are our values, our ideas, our morality. This is what inspires us, this is what is fun, this is what we find offensive. Clean your room. Do your chores. Finish your homework. Do I have to tell you everything? The usual.
The Spousal Unit and I generally run on two different levels. This has evolved from our temperament and our schedule. I enjoy my solitude and in my career I have often been on the road. So I am rarely at Defcon 3. I stay at 5 and regularly weigh in at Defcon 4. When I go to Defcon 3, everybody notices. It is the kind of attention that makes them uncomfortable. I may have some outsized notions, but my scrutiny can be of the exasperatingly withering sort. Don't disappoint Dad. My wife, on the other hand, starts and remains on 3, pretty much all of the time, or perhaps it seems that way to me. I am the one who looks at them in the eye and calls them a slob. My wife provides the verbose hectoring: “Clean your room. Clean your room. Clean your room. Clean your room. Clean your room. I'm not going to tell you again. Did you clean it? OK you're grounded.”
Everybody asks Mom if it's OK to go to place X or Y. She handles all of the logistics, details and trivia that I cannot be bothered with - like the names of the parents, the friends. I am the one who whispers in the ear of my daughter on the way to the prom. "Make memories you will always fondly remember, and none you will regret". In short, I am strategic and the wife is tactical.
For about 80% of the things involving money, and all of the things in which several factors must be considered, the Spousal Unit comes up to the room, sits on the bed and waits for me to clear my head and swivel around in my desk chair. She gives me her look of exasperation or weariness and explains the situation. I am the calmly rational who considers, weighs and voices all of the implications. Occasionally we need a spreadsheet and a calendar, sometimes a letter needs to be written. These are my strengths. They don't cheer her up, but she can move again. My wife is a shark of home economics. She is relentless and constantly moving. I am the great and powerful Oz.
There is something about being SAC parents that we notice, which is that we don't have hostility. My daughter recently went with her scout troop to Orlando and did talk to us once that week. But she was the one who mentioned to us how odd it was that some other girls wanted to do anything but talk to their parents. They do actually like and admire us as we do them. We do provide strategic airlift, and our kids know that if they sound the alarm, we are going on full alert to get them whatever it is they need. And there are times when they will tell us that we spoil them. We are comfortable enough so that their contribution to the running of the house is only chores - they don't have to pitch in. The money they earn on odd jobs or from saving their allowance lets them buy those special shoes. What we've been trying to get them to do is exercise judgment. That said, some are better than others. But the point is that our aim is to establish the family relationship in such a way that they will realize how outside in life, nobody has necessarily got your back, or is necessarily interested that you are civilized.
Of all the things we stress, these are the most important things, and we're confident that they know that they have souls and are working to protect them from the skullduggery and vulgarity of our society. We do not shelter them so much as express our revulsion at that which is revolting. We have enough evidence to suggest that their tastes are not naive nor pornographic. And so Netflix and Spotify are open without monitoring as is Facebook and everything else. I'm not sure we could have done that on an entirely secular basis. So we've insisted that they get their Christian education although without any restraints on picking a denomination. I think that choice was lucky although in retrospect it is precisely the course that I took in my youth - though a series of different Christian churches only one of which I found adequate. They've always had VBS and youth group friends.
Now that Christopher is off at college, but just a long commute away, I've promised to have a monthly lunch with him. It has only been a week and the balance of things has already dramatically changed. I am spending more time with my daughters already, and nobody has vacuumed. We'll see how else my role will change. Three years from now, I'll have three kids in college. That's going to be.... wow. But even now, transitioning from being a parent to being an investor is how I'm looking at it. They're already promising to put me in a good home when the time comes. Hoo boy.
I have had enough opportunities since I wrote this nearly a decade ago to have looked out of the airplane window and asked myself if I have done enough as a father if the plane goes down. Even having entered DEFCON 1 with my son, I feel confident and loved in a way that I suppose every happy parent knows, through all of the hardships. I’ve done my part well. I was listening to a Zoom colleague during some pair coding this afternoon that I heard the international sounds of toddler mischief in the background. This particular episode involved a balcony, water and cat litter. It immediately brought cheerful memories about learning how absolutely nasty, brutish and short toddlers are. But they are not solitary or poor and laughing parents make for the best leviathans.
I have heard tales of Crooklyn, of the legend of parents who made sure their children were hardened in such a way that the betrayals and arbitrary cruelties the parents suffered would bounce off the calloused souls of the next generation. I had none of that as a child myself and gave none of that as a parent. My emphasis was on them maintaining their inner peace. That they have done.
What no parent often wants to consider is what my own have experienced, outliving a child. It’s the most horrific prospect of all and something worth meditating on. There is something about being a parent that feels directly responsible, but that responsibility should become a depreciating commitment over time. As I consider these dark ages and their requirements for improvisational creativity, it’s clear to me that one has to develop the sort of confidence necessary for success in an environment of constant change. There are limits, however, and this is something parents understand. We must accept that we are accomplishing something very significant in raising children and we take credit and pride appropriate to that. At the same time we face the possibility that it may be our greatest moral accomplishment, yet to preserve the liberty of those children, we must step away. As we face change, so must they face change even if change kills us, or change kills them. Scary, right?
Ultimately, I think our greatest failings as humans can be thought of in these terms - of what we do in fear of the anticipation of seeing evil done or tragedy befall our children. Haunted by the idea of staring into the the grave of a dead child we are faced with perhaps the greatest dilemma of liberty. How certain can we be that our best knowledge is sufficient? There is no use for the strategic airlift at that point; beyond the River Styx, no care packages can ever sustain. We thus can only give our best and say farewell in any exchange with anyone, including those we call our own. We must trust in reason itself. We must trust that we communicate it well and that we can be trusted and heeded. If we do not, then we are stuck with taboo.
Taboo is the difference between the open society and the closed society. Taboo is what makes a parent a tyrant. Taboo is what drives us to repeat with unending ferocity those few things we know and fear must never change. Fearful and shouting parents make the worst leviathans and doom us to solitude and poverty.
Today I invite you to contemplate the taboos of your upbringing and what the consequences were of your parents’ fears. Extend that to the cultural world of your family life. How solid were those boundaries? Did you eventually challenge them? How did that recognition change the way you ran your own house?
The human animal is the most adaptable creature. It is a great strength and a great weakness. We can live within very small boundaries. We can also live free range, absent restraint. We tend to lasso these boundaries in when we perceive threats in change. This is how I am thinking about liberty.