An Open Letter to Parents of Well Behaved Children

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Dear Parents of Well Behaved Children,

I just spent the summer traveling around the country with two spirited children and I have met lots of you. You usually like the idea of us. You start out eager to chat with me at the pool or the park. You ask if my boys are adopted. You tell me you’ve always thought of adopting… later. Someday. You tell me how beautiful they are. They are.

And then my little one gets frustrated with something and shouts, “SHUT UP, YOU FUCK!”

Then my big one does a wild dance that is funny for a minute but goes on a little too long. Then a lot too long. And it starts to seem weird.

Your smile grows forced, your body language uncomfortable. You drift away. You corral your kids in another part of the playground.

Don’t think they don’t notice. Don’t think it doesn’t hurt my kids’ feelings to be rejected and side-eyed. Don’t fool yourself into thinking they are doing anything but their absolute best. They want the exact same thing we all want- to be seen and loved and appreciated for who we are.

When your kids are munching the sushi from their bento boxes and politely building Neutra-inspired sand castles, it’s easy to think you got all this because you’re worthy of it. You manifested it from your vision boards. Your babies listened to so much Mozart in the womb they popped out whistling “A Little Night Music.” When they were six days old they asked you in sign language to please turn on NPR.

I’m sure they did. And I’m sure you’re terrific parents. But having well-behaved kids is also in part an accident of birth. A roll of the dice that landed just so in terms of privilege, personality, temperament, needs, and abilities.

By a different accident of birth, my kids were born into traumatic situations, and now fight mightily to function with neurological wiring that tells them every minute of every day that they are unsafe and everything they know and love could at any minute be taken away from them. So, yeah, my little one swears like a sailor and my big one will teach your kid to fart on cue. And they are doing AMAZING. This is what amazing looks like for us.

I had so many judgments about parenting… before I was a parent. More specifically, before I was a parent to two kids with special needs. I was sure I knew the magic formula to raising creative, inquisitive, polite, humble children- full of curiosity and bursting with energy for seasonal crafting projects. I was kind of an asshole. A well-intentioned asshole.

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As embarrassed as I remain, even to this day, by the very public antics of my incredible, hilarious, often suckily behaved children, I am so grateful they saved me from being that asshole. They could do the same for you if you’d open your hearts to them.

Now, I look at families who appear to be struggling and think- I have no idea what’s really going on there. I have no clue what that kid has been through, what this family’s story is, what the copy beneath the headline would tell me. I ask myself not how far I can get from this bad influence, but rather how I can throw my arms around this family and draw them closer.

Of course that takes extra work, and parenting is so much work already. It might just feel easier to shut out anything that seems unfamiliar or uncomfortable. But it’s not an act of charity! Here are five important benefits your angels could derive from spending time with my wild pirates.

  1. COMPASSION. Compassion is a hallmark of emotional intelligence, which may be far more important than academic performance in determining success and leadership abilities in life. It is also essential for leading a life of deep and meaningful connection with others. Compassion isn’t learned from a textbook. It’s learned by interacting with people from varying circumstances, with different advantages and disadvantages.
  2. CONFLICT RESOLUTION SKILLS. It’s tempting to want to shield our children from discomfort, conflict, and failure. If only we could enclose them in a utopian bubble of support and cooperation and safety. If only they never had to hear an unkind word, be the last one picked for a team, have their toys grabbed or their bubbles spilled. But how would that really prepare them for living in the world without us? Which is ultimately our goal, right? The world is rife with spilled bubbles. When are they supposed to learn effective conflict resolution strategies if we shield them from all potential sources of conflict?
  3. ACHIEVEMENT. Now I have your attention! Studies show that classrooms of diverse children perform better than more homogeneous groups. When children of different needs are represented in a classroom, the kids learn to support a classmate who may be struggling. Teachers are forced to teach out of the box and tailor their instruction more individually to each child.  I believe this applies not only to the classroom but also to the world around us. Everyone wins by diversifying our lives.
  4. RESILIENCE. My kids are amazing models of no retreat no surrender. Just try to stop them. I once watched Tariku, at 3 years old, take twenty minutes to figure out a climbing wall that was way too advanced for him. He whined; he cried; he got frustrated; he walked away; he came back. Still, he refused my help. Still, he would not go to another activity. Finally, finally, with one or two shoves of assistance, he made it up. This stubbornness can be a pain to deal with as a parent but it is exactly the kind of grit that we all need to face life’s climbing walls. I’m reminded of this as I watch the Olympic athletes fight and keep fighting and fight some more.
  5. JOY. My kids are not quiet. They sometimes have lousy table manners. They will splash you in the pool. They also love life with an infectious, boundless enthusiasm. They are full of celebration and wonder and affection. They will make the line outside the museum into a spontaneous party. They will get you laughing. They will sing everywhere and anywhere. They will free you from inhibitions. They will make you want to dance. And c’mon. You know you want to dance.

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Everything I Need To Know I Learned from Rock and Roll

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In some ways, tour is anarchy- the boys are up late dancing to crazy loud rock music, giving each other dinosaur tattoos with face paint, and smuggling forbidden Fruit Loops into their bunks. They spend their days scootering around parking lots, chatting up the other bands, riding questionable attractions in sketchy roadside amusement parks. It’s pretty much the exact opposite of their micro-managed urban lives at home. We’ve seen a lot of fascinating, educational stuff, like the Atlanta Aquarium and the Boston Tea Party ships, but the road is rife with wild cards. Already we’ve been on a New Orleans ghost tour that wound up stopping at a former brothel. “What’s a brothel?” Well, son…

But within the atmosphere of heightened chaos, I believe the kids are learning valuable life lessons in a unique and memorable way. Here are the top three:

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1.THE SHOW MUST GO ON.

There are no sick days in show business. The life of a performer may seem glamorous, but it takes a heck of a lot of grit to get up there night after night. Some nights it’s inexplicably off and disappointing. Some nights it’s so ecstatic and transformative you wish it would never end. Some nights you have the flu, or your girlfriend just broke up with you, or your dog just died. Whatever the case is, you still pin your shoulders back and go out there. And when the curtain opens, if you’re any good at all, you offer your whole heart.

It’s a terrific lesson to bring home and apply to school or music or sports or family chores. And later to everything else in life.

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2.YOU CAN’T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT

I like to think I make an effort not to spoil my children, and to instill in them both an awareness of their privilege and an appropriate sense of the value of things. In reality, we live in a world with a million choices and I say yes more than I should. I try not to capitulate to tantrums, but I do sometimes just give them a corn dog if they won’t eat dinner. Or get them those Pokemon cards for no good reason other than it makes them smile. Or give them an extra 15 minutes of screen time because I want to talk on the phone. I stock our house with all their favorite crackers and bath products and the right color play doh, and while they certainly don’t get everything they want they sure do get a lot.

Tour is not that kind of environment. They may not carry just exactly the right kind of animal cracker in Duluth. You may leave Tigey in a hotel room and never get him back. You may have to wait until the stop at Grandma’s house to get the paint refills for the spinart. Mommy may leave your favorite bedtime book on the bus by accident (totally hypothetically) and you may have to make do with Rolling Stone that night. Because tour is NOT ALL ABOUT YOU. It’s a machine with a thousand moving parts, and it’s a miracle it works at all. The reason it does is because everyone involved takes one for the team now and then. Which leads me to…

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3. IT TAKES A VILLAGE

There are about 90 people supporting this tour, and every one of them is working their ass off. We so often see the shiny outsides of the world, and don’t always stop to think about how much work goes in behind the scenes.

Tariku gets up early, puts on his own clothes, and goes alone to eat breakfast with the bus drivers still up from safely delivering us to our destination during the night. The drivers are on a mission to get him to try the biscuits and gravy, made by the outstanding caterers- I actually have no idea when they sleep. On his way back he says hello to the crew already setting up the stage.

I’m glad the kids get to see the enormous amount of effort that goes this flash of magic that’s over in a few hours, only to be torn down and put up again in the next city.

When you travel in close quarters with a large group of people, you see not just what’s behind the curtain on the stage, but also what’s behind the masks we present to the world. No one can be on their A game 24 hours a day, after 4 show days in a row. You see people putting on their makeup over the printer, losing their cool at the delivery guy, hanging their show clothes out to dry over the handles of a stroller. You catch the most dazzling performer slouching exhausted over a pizza, the cheeriest production assistant walking the hall with a secret grouchy face. There’s an intimacy and a realness to it I deeply appreciate.

And I hope they boys are experiencing and appreciating not just the larger organism of the tour “family” but also the solidity of our little unit within it. Learning that we can move and change and have this fluid kind of life and still be together and permanent and safe.

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