In 2017, I began wondering how the new political norms in Washington would filter down to a public high school election, say, in 2025. I made middle-of-the-night notes. Then I put those notes into pages. Then I made the pages into a novel. Then I rewrote the story a half dozen times… until I began to see how it could all come true.
Neither my wife nor I are psychologists, but on the subject of child and adolescent behavior, we have been middle-class parents for decades. We were determined, from our son’s and daughter’s first days of life, to be good and effective parents. Blogs and books told us to focus on love, perseverance, protection, discipline, communication, and lots more—so we did, year after year. Sometimes life went smoothly, other times were challenging. As a family, we always worked things out.
Yet, I think we all missed out on an obvious and early opportunity to build trust and solve problems more efficiently. It just wasn’t obvious at the time.
Children and teenagers are understandably self-absorbed, because each day there’s something new to question, learn, and process. We guide and discipline our kids as little or as much as we think necessary. We want them to be the best human beings they can be. What few of us do well, however, is explain to our children how theycan help us be better and happier parents.
Here are my five suggestions for amending the social contract of childrearing.
1. Parents shouldn’t hide that they’re fallible human beings, and kids should be encouraged to learn from a parent’s weaknesses and mistakes as well as their strengths. Everyone needs equal time to speak up, not just about their happiness and successes, but disappointments and problems. A five year old losing a pet hasemotionalequivalency to a parent losing a job. Learning to offer help, forgiveness and sympathy needs to be a two-way street.
2. Parents should let kids know early on that mom and dad have roles to play other than raising children. Holding a job, nurturing friendships, dealing with aging parents, taking care of their own health, handling a divorce…the list is long. The sooner kids accept that a parent may not always be around physically or emotionally, the more adept they become at solving their own problems. They also get a glimpse of what awaits them as adults, which can seem, and Is, daunting. if they go to a party school, or announce they want to live like a hedonist, remind them they still can’t escape responsibility.
3. A child giving mom or dad a hug, or even a sympathetic glance, at the end of a parent’s hard day has healing qualities It’s almost as important as mom and dad hugging their child. A lot of parents think they have to be self-sufficient authority figures, but really, they need love, too.
5. Many teens like to think that they’re two or three years older than their actual age, and in some ways they might be Don’t be reluctant to count on them if they have skills and insights that you don’t, whether they’re academic, socialization, or just common sense. Authority resides with a parent, but it doesn’t mean much to kids if you don’t have an open mind or encourage their talents. When they express gratitude to you for “being there for them,” that validation is priceless.
Forty years ago, my wife and I and our two young children embarked on a three week trip to New Zealand. We rented a small camper van and drove everywhere, amazed not just by the number of sheep, forests, rivers and snow-crowned mountains, but the steady temperament of the population. The vibe was 1950s America and everyone was middle-class. The locals never seemed in a rush. No one got upset or angry. Copacetic was the status quo. The only person I heard ever using his horn—I swear this to be true—was me.
I remember that moment well, making a right turn behind a car I judged to be too slow. I honked without thinking, from an impatience bred in urban America, I imagine. It was just a brief brassy stab, but it seemed to hang in the air for a while. Quizzical looks darted my way from nearby drivers, pedestrians, even shopkeepers, as if something was wrong. Had there been a collision, a heart attack in our family, or was my camper van in trouble? None of the above, or course. I felt like getting out of my vehicle and apologizing to everyone. Instead, embarrassed, I kept my eyes on the road and left that city, tail between my legs. I never honked for the rest of our trip.
The New Zealanders had it right. Gratuitous honking should be unacceptable. Absolutely, use your horn if an accident seems imminent, or maybe a warning to an erratic or possibly drunk driver. Otherwise, I don’t know anybody who doesn’t flinch when someone blares in his horn at them for no good reason. At the risk sounding like a driver’s ed teacher, one’s horn should not be a musical instrument, nor an emotional outlet, nor a signal that you’re late for something and you’re blaming others for slowing you down. Driving your car within ten feet of another’s bumper, blinking your lights madly until the driver change lanes, is telling the world that either you’re on drugs, have a very bad temper, or your stress level is heading to the moon. If you’re totally out of control (road rage, allegedly increasing at seven percent a year, obviously means putting more than your own life in danger), pull over for over coffee.
In a country of approximately 270 million registered vehicles (only China has more), self-control is not a luxury.
When the future eventually becomes the present, and we’re hunkered down in our self-driving vehicles, what happens then to the lowly car horn? Does the computer in my car decide when and where to use it, and how long the duration should be? If I’m in the backseat, can I override the computer if I think it’s way too horn happy? Can I finally be free to customize my horn sound, much like choosing the ring tone on my phone? Until the day comes when self-driving vehicles are truly immune to accidents, something soothing to the ear would be nice. I’m thinking Mozart.
One bad night filled with unimaginably wretched feelings may amount to nothing in the morning, but one time it just might be enough to want to close your eyes for good...
I’ve read several thoughtful pieces on the passing of Anthony Bourdain A sensitive, talented and self-doubting man complicated by addiction and depression, which he fought most of his life. As someone (and I don’t know how many other tens of millions) who deals with depression, I’d like to humbly add what life lessons Bourdain taught me.
On Parts Unknown, he sold his political views with sleight of hand. You thought you were watching an exotic food show, or a travelog filled with interesting people, but after being inundated with a season or two, you realized that Bourdain's view of food and cooking was more than about local color. His subtext was about what a culture can afford to eat, what it likes to eat, what it is conditioned to eat, and when, due to affluence, it craves something new and different. These are complex forms of self-expression and cultural identity, and defined mostly by economics or politics.
If Bourdain had trained his critical eye on our country, he’d be asking why so many of us are gluttons for fast food, and even the idea of four, always inexpensive, high calorie meals a day? Or why do we go to Whole Foods and spend $150 when $100 would have bought a comparable basket at a more modest supermarket? Why do we pay $100 for a Chard loved by Beyonce? Why do we go on diets? Why do we go to gyms or yoga hoping for obedience from our bodies? Food drives us crazy. Perhaps there’s a hidden, even unconscious agenda behind what we put ourselves through. The pyramid of survival and happiness starts with food, education, and shelter, but then the simple plan gets blown out by status seeking, greed, fear, ambition, novelty and the political views to justify what we’ve become.
Until his mid-forties, Bourdain knew from life as an addict, suffering from depression, that each day was as precious as it was precarious. Then, almost overnight, he caught a break by writing Kitchen Confidentialand going to culinary school. Ultimately, he became a star in the celebrity firmament. Terra Incognito for our hero. He happily forgot the lessons of being broke and on the street, I believe, because he thought he had escaped them. Instead of heroin, he became addicted to his success, and understandably so. Millions of us loved watching him and hearing what he had to say. I think he likely attributed his self doubt, which always returned unexpectedly, to a former life of steep vulnerability, thinking that it no longer mattered. Of course it mattered, and down deep he had to know that, but he couldn’t let go of a lifestyle that was the envy of so many people. He looked at low self-esteem as the enemy, instead of what it is—the canary in the coal-mine, warning of serious danger ahead.
One bad night filled with unimaginably wretched feelings may amount to nothing in the morning, but one time it just might be enough to want to close your eyes for good. That’s my real takeaway from an extraordinary, troubled American life. Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings, because few others will care as much as you should. Your worst moments should be your wake up call. That is not boastful piety. I think Bourdain, had he survived the hours before his death, might have had some moments of clarity where he got real with himself.
Michael R. French
Michael French is a graduate of Stanford University and Northwestern University. He is a businessman and author who divides his time between Santa Barbara, California, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.