I remember, then, reading a short story that profoundly affected me; its lesson has since so deeply colored my parenting that it has since become second nature.
A proud father is playing in the surf with his children, a young daughter and her brother. They are of similar age, perhaps only a year or so apart. All of them are facing the open ocean, and each child is gripping one of Daddy's hands as they kick and giggle at the swirling green water.What has Dad unconsciously taught his children?
Suddenly, a wave somewhat larger than the others approaches, and without thinking, the father raises his daughter up and out of the water, clutching her to his hip. Meanwhile, he strengthens his grip on her brother so that he might not be swept away.
- Girls are not strong enough to face the same adversity as boys.
- Girls should expect, as a matter of nature, that boys will rescue them in the face of challenge.
- Boys must be strong and must depend on themselves.
It is for this reason that I may --to the casual observer -- seem the dispassionate and unconcerned Dad. At the park, she is encouraged to climb the same rock wall as her boy counterparts. Conversely, I routinely witness other parents rushing over to their daughters and propping and pushing them up by their little butts, whereas with their sons they expect them to get up to the top all by themselves.
Mind you, Madison knows I'll be there, and that I'll stand at the bottom to catch her if she falls, but the assistance she'll get from Daddy is going to be in the form of encouragement: Come on, sweetheart, you can do it.
These days, that little monkey routinely beats me to the top.
I remember a lovely summer evening in Georgia. All the parents were gathered on the porch and front lawn of Danny's house, talking as parents and neighbors do, enjoying sweet tea and idle banter. All of the neighborhood kids were playing together; Madison and her best friend were madly racing those God-forsaken motorized Hot Wheels cars.
My neighbor, with whom over the years I had developed a close kinship, asked me in a moment of reflection: "Justin, do you ever sit and watch Maddie and wonder what she'll be when she grows up? What do you want her to be?"
To which, completely without thinking, I replied, "Honestly, I don't care what she becomes. It sounds cliche, but all I want is her happiness. Whatever she wants. If I had to guess, though... let's see... she is very strong, very independent. She is unbelievably smart. She routinely kicks your son's lily-white ass. For all I know, she'll grow up to be the first lesbian President of the United States."
My neighbor recoiled in horror: he had once been a Baptist seminary student, and he was died-in-the-wool conservative Georgian besides... I had predicted that she'd be gay?
Shortly before leaving the States for the deployment I'm currently on, I took Madison to a local park in Gaithersburg. She was spinning around and around and around on one of those climbing poles. A stranger to my right on the bench turned to me and said, "She's pretty good at that!" To which I said, "She's learning how to pay for college."
In summary, I may be constantly thinking about the lessons I'm teaching my daughter -- consciously and subconsciously -- but I still have a sense of humor about it. And if she grows up to be the first former-stripper, lesbian candidate for President... well, at least I won't have had to answer the door with a shotgun in the teen years. Plus, she'd likely have hot friends.