When, at the age of 30, I became a parent, I felt prepared. It wasn’t so much that I knew what to do, but what NOT to do. I had a role model in that regard – a female friend I hung out with in my early 20s. I had always enjoyed her company ... and then she became a parent. Immediately, her entire perspective on life changed. Everything in her universe revolved around her child. That kid became her alpha and omega. Cute. Adorable. Scintillating. Not since “God” has someone been treated as so omni-excellent.
Candidly, my friend bored me to death. I couldn’t have cared less about her baby, but that baby was the only thing she wanted to talk about. From then on, I determined that if I were ever fortunate enough to have children, I would live my life and they would live theirs.
Once parenthood happened, I realized that my resolution was a bit extreme. Who doesn’t want to leave their mark on their own children? And who doesn’t feel wiser than a four-year-old or for that matter a 14-year-old when it comes to making responsible choices? So yes, I tried to exercise some control over the lives of my kids. But I remained determined not to let them control mine. Most specifically, I didn’t want them to monopolize my interests. I still wanted to live my life as an independent adult who realized that there are few topics more boring than somebody else’s kids, so I tried not to talk about my daughters too much to other people. And frankly, I realized that the best way to raise interesting children is to model what it means to be an interesting adult, rather than simply parent your children 24 hours a day.
That realization hit me even harder as my children grew up. We raised them, you see, in the affluent, status-conscious Petri Dish known as Bethesda, Maryland. Now I noticed a new set of child-obsessed adults. This time they weren’t talking about how adorable little Johnny was in the way he drooled down his face. They were fixated instead on little William’s excellent grades, or his exploits on the soccer pitch, or on whatever other ways he could become the Bethesda equivalent of a “Made Man.” (I’m talking about getting into an elite college, what else?) The piece de resistance was when my kids enrolled in the County’s Magnet International Baccalaureate program. It sounded to me like some of these mothers would sit next to their kids, year after year, and check their homework on a daily basis – from arithmetic, to algebra, to geometry, to trigonometry, to calculus, to ordinary differential equations.... I say this because I’d have to watch the crème de la crème of these parents launch Jeremiads at the heads of the IB program complaining that the school didn’t offer math classes advanced enough for the kids’ capacious minds. This was a public school, and yet some of these parents were still outraged. How is your kid supposed to get the jump on his classmates at MIT if he isn’t being challenged in high school?
Thanks to these role models on how not to parent, I got through that stage of life well enough. My kids grew up, warts and all, and I entered middle age without developing a child-centric view of the universe. Then, a few months ago, something happened for which I was ill-prepared: I became a grandparent. The problem, obviously, was that I lacked negative role models. I didn’t recall any grandparents who had driven me crazy in that role. In fact, every time I had noticed grandparents in the past, they were either ignoring their grandkids (their loss) or were loving them in a healthy way. I never saw the kind of obsessive, obnoxious behavior that has so often come to characterize what happens to perfectly pleasant adults when they become parents.
Lacking the proper role models, I just winged it. And the first thing I noticed was that I was starting to take on some of those same “Isn’t my baby’s drool cute?” behaviors that turned me off back in the early ‘80s. You can’t possibly convince me that there is a baby alive who is one-hundredth as cute, adorable or scintillating as my grandson. And yes, I know that I’m being an idiot for thinking that way, but it’s not my fault. Grandparenthood snuck up on me.
The thing is, though, feeling that way about your grandkids is harmless because you don’t see them enough to obsess over them. You dote over them, they make you smile, you make them smile, and then you go to your home and they go to theirs -- for days, or weeks, or (in the case of some families) months at a time. This relationship is truly blessed because it always leaves everyone wanting more. And there is enough distance and freedom baked into the cake that neither side is overwhelmed with too much guilt, dread, sense of responsibility, or any of those other feelings that prevent parenthood from being pure joy.
Grandparenthood, from what I can tell, is pure joy. And it is one of the very few things in life that can meet that standard. Another candidate that comes close is dog ownership. And let me tell you, if you really want to have a good time, get your baby grandson together with your dog and watch them interact. Now THAT is truly cute, adorable and scintillating. But it does come to an end soon enough. Either the baby or the dog gets bored. And when that happens, an independent-minded grandfather like me can stop focusing on those beautiful little creatures and think instead about other topics. Like the fact that the former wife of uber-progressive California politician Gavin Newsom is now dating Donald Trump, Jr. (that’s just weird). Or the fact that at the same time Jr’s father is obsessing about “rats” who are six-feet tall, the President’s city is literally being overrun by rats that are eating our garbage and carrying disease (DC is now the second most rat-infested city in America, with over 700 complaints for every 100,000 residents). Or the fact that our nation is now considering relaxing restrictions on dirty coal plants (because, after all, the one thing that has held America back from being great again is the lack of toxins in the air).
Yes, my friends, there are too many interesting things going on in the world to justify obsessing about any one topic. And there really is no topic less interesting than someone else’s kids.
But don’t tell me that your grandkid is half as adorable as my baby Julius. I simply can’t believe that. My rationalism doesn’t extend that far.