Parenting by Numbers

WILL has a list in his hand. He is packing for college, stuffing a duffel bag with everything they told him he'd need: socks, towels, school supplies. Soon he'll pull out of the driveway in his 1966 Mustang, a car that breaks down a lot but is as heavy as a tank and therefore solid protection. So it's not his body I'm worried about.

But what do I say when he rolls down that window for a last goodbye? I'm the one who needs to be told what to do here. I'm the one who needs the list.

I remember looking down at Will just after he had been born. From the very beginning, I was trying to figure out what my part was in making sure he grew up right. The food, clothing, shelter requirements seemed obvious. It was the details that were on my mind in those days.

Fortunately, I had a year or so to think about it. Like most other babies, Will spent his first months largely sleeping, eating, and eliminating, with just enough crying to indicate he was abandoning one activity for another.

I think that the move to solid food signals the birth of philosophy. No more sleepy nursing; suddenly we are sitting up, trying and rejecting new things, expressing our opinions.

After a while, it was time for Will to eat strained peas and mashed bananas and time for me to determine a strategy for child rearing. That's when I realized that I needed a list.

Before I could come up with one, though, I had to come up with characteristics I wanted the list to have. I knew that 1) each item had to be simple, and that 2) the whole list had to be short enough for me to remember without writing it down. I wanted to begin modestly, even though I knew that things would get complicated as Will got older. Since the big issue was mealtime, I figured, why not start with that?

Thus evolved the First Principles of Successful Child Rearing, which cover ages 1 through 6: 1) You may not say ``yuck!'' in response to anything on your plate, and 2) You must try at least one bite of everything served.

Granted, these precepts don't rank up there with the ideas of Piaget and Spock. And they only really apply to the activity of eating. But ask anyone who has a family what enterprise is most heavily mined with the potential for mishap, misunderstanding, and mayhem; invariably, the answer will come back: lunch. And these two simple rules did get a harried family through several thousand meals with a minimum of stress.

There's more to life than lunch, however. And there's nothing like a growing kid in the house to remind one that people change. Soon that kid is going to school. For our little household, that meant another major advance in Western philosophy.

Now the first priority for the fledgling scholar is to do as well as possible at his studies. And then there's still mealtime. The child may be getting his ``beanie-weenies'' in the school cafeteria, but he's also eating two meals a day at home; the prospect of beginning and ending the day looking at someone with ketchup in his hair was just as gruesome as ever.

Hence the Second Principles, otherwise known as Axioms and Postulates for School-Age Children: 1) Make the best grades you are capable of, and 2) Practice good table manners.

As Will turned 7 and then 8, we seemed to glide fairly smoothly into a period of solid report cards and above-average mealtime etiquette. Having gotten that far, I figured I could coast for a couple of years before developing the Third Principles, the ones that would cover the onset of puberty.

But something happened. Or, actually, nothing happened. In his pre- and early-teen years, Will continued to be a happy, outgoing fellow popular with friends and grownups alike, one who brought home A's and B's and folded his napkin after dinner and took out the trash. I didn't see any evidence suggesting he was holding up convenience stores on the way home from school, so I figured what he did on his own time was his business.

And the Third Principles have yet to be articulated.

I did make up one more list during Will's boyhood, although this one was for me. Since he was doing his part, it occurred to me that it was time to do mine.

I knew immediately that books would be a big part of my plan. And also the kind of activity that frees the body after mental labor and refreshes it for more.

Finally, I didn't want to spoil Will the way some of my ex-1960s contemporaries seemed to be doing with their kids, so I figured that altruism should be part of the plan as well. From these deliberations came the only other list that I ever expect to make as a parent: 1) I will read to my son every day, 2) I will play a game with him every day, preferably outside, and 3) Every day I will ask him to do something for me.

And this is the list that got us to where we are now.

I did my very best to implement it. But while I'd like to say that we read ``The Hobbitt'' every day and tossed a football and did yardwork together, we didn't. Worse, Will's mother and I got divorced when he was 8 and his younger brother 2. At that time, whatever I thought about being a good father to my sons, whatever I did or tried to do seemed to be undone by the fact that their mother and I couldn't live together anymore.

But she stayed in town and so did I, and we divided the child rearing between us. Now more than ever it seemed vital for Will and me to read, play, and work together whenever we could. And so we did. Ten years passed, and now he's shoving his shirts into a duffel bag.

A lifestyle change has always generated a new list in my house, but this time it didn't. Either I've done my job up to this point or not. Either he'll be a literate, outgoing, public-spirited adult or a witless, lazy, couch potato.

So, Will, as you leave, the only list you'll take with you is the one the college sent. And when you back down the driveway, I'll just say I love you.

Other than that, you'll be surprised and probably pleased to hear that, after countless evenings of asking you to take your elbows off the table, this time your dad has nothing to say to you, nothing at all.

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