The minute I suggested the name of this ongoing column, I regretted it. “Renaissance Dad.” It was merely a play on “Renaissance Man,” and nothing more. But it also sounds a little arrogant and implies that I parent in some advanced way with better outcomes. None of that is true. I’m just a regular dad who was dealt a circumstance that put me in a position to have the kind of time many mothers have to spend with their kids.
I’m reminded of an article that I read a while back that had a title that something along the lines of, “I decided to parent like a French dad and you’ll never believe what happened.” Click bait. Of course I clicked. The algorithm knows me.
I assumed that the French method involved giving your kids wine and cigarettes. In reality it had more to do with not making the children the center of attention and not talking to them like babies. Turns out, my wife and I were accidentally doing this (sans wine and cigs). And is just me, or doesn’t all French sound like baby talk?
About the same time our son started forming words (I believe he was three weeks old) the baby talk from us stopped. For me, it wasn’t out of some evolved notion that I should treat my kid like an intelligent being, as much as the difficulty I have mustering false enthusiasm. Yes, we goo-goo-gah-gah’ed at both of our kids, but when speaking to them, we didn’t sound like Betty Boop. Now that they’re older, approximately 50% of the things our kids say to us begin with, “Dad, Mom, watch this.” This is followed by a mundane action, which they are extremely proud of, or didn’t quite go as planned. As much as I’d love to encourage them, I can’t feign being impressed by the 100th way they attempted to blow a bubble with their gum. In response, we’ve typically responded to these feats with sarcastic approval: “Amaaaazing.”
Being exposed to sarcasm from the age of two, they learned to dish it back: “Look kids, horses!” “Amaaazing, Dad.” It’s always fun to hear my own voice coming out of a scale model of myself.
In terms of not making them the center of attention, this isn’t some sort of high-level twist on parenting. Who are we fooling? Kids are the center of attention, but I like to think we draw the line. We’ll sign them up for different activities and sports like you’re supposed to, but we’re not going to build our lifestyle around the possibility that they’ll win an Olympic medal in fencing. As much as we’d like to accommodate all possible interests, their activities have to be able to fit into the family dynamic. I think this attitude stems from when I was a kid and my dad, faced with driving me to daily baseball practices, dusted off a yellow 10-speed rusting in our garage. I rode what my teammates dubbed “The Brady Bunch Bike” through Southern California traffic and my baseball career peaked at age 13. Maybe my dad read a French parenting book.
I’m not criticizing parents who do invest heavily into helping their child excel at something – because I think many of them take great joy in doing that – but I took no joy sitting in a folding chair during karate class.
When the pandemic hit, parents were presented with a new set of challenges. Parents had to make sure their kids were continuing to learn while also keeping them entertained without places to go. For the first month, even the beaches were closed. It was at this time that we allowed our son to get Fortnite.
If you live under a rock, Fortnite is a video game that is often maligned as being addictive and turning kids violent. I’d heard stories about kids playing until 4 a.m. and then attacking their parents when the WiFi was cut off. Surely, Fortnite was destined to be the kid version of Pandemic Day Drinking.
Not the case in our house. I’ll be the first to admit that by most metrics, our kids spend too much time on their devices. I’m giving them a Pandemic Pass. Rather than set time limits on their electronics, we’ve focused on measuring their time off their screen. The benefit of this is that when they’re asked to put the iPad down, they do it, because they know they’ll have time on it later. After all, what is “time” in a pandemic?
Our son has actually made a good friend via Fortnite. He’s a kid named Aiden in New Jersey. (Or he could be Bruce in Mechanicsville, how would we know?) And after going bleary-eyed binge watching other kids and peppy moms make slime on YouTube, our daughter is inspired to start building things out of the contents of our recycling bin. By pure accident we’ve avoided building a life of conflict around criticizing how they choose to spend their free time.
All this is to say that I’m just a normal dad, most of the time. Once in a while, I actually am a genius – most recently when I picked up a classy $125 WalMart above-ground pool with filter just as the pandemic started. Soon there was a shortage and friends looking for the same pool found it selling on Ebay for $800. OK, I didn’t pick up Bitcoin on the ground floor, but our kids swim in it daily and my wife offers me frequent praise. Win-win.
What is a parent to take from all of this? Relax! The damage we do to our children happens slowly over time. When I was a kid I’d spend hours throwing a baseball, but when forced to practice piano everyday for 30 minutes, I never practiced for 31 minutes. Embrace the things they enjoy and help them develop healthy patterns. Give them some power to choose their pastimes.
The added benefit of this laissez faire approach is that when you let them be their own people, they’ll have less to blame you for later. It’s this je ne sais quoi that makes the difference. What’s so French about that?
Jon Kile is a stay-at-home dad, writer and amateur homeschool teacher in St. Petersburg. He and his wife Monica, a nonprofit consultant and marathoner, have a habit of loading their two kids into their RV and disappearing down the backroads of America. After a series of major medical emergencies in 2016, he was diagnosed with a rare condition called Vascular Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, in which his fragile arteries are prone to spontaneous rupture. Jon has adjusted his lifestyle while finding inner peace and humor against the backdrop of raising two feral children. Together, they’ve determined to “live in the moment.” Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit dontmakemeturnthisvanaround.com.