Sunday, August 30, 2015

Like Everyone

Buddy playing catch with a member of the opposing team after a match. Sometimes you feel like you're doing it right.

Sometimes I have those moments when I feel like a "good parent;" those moments when I feel like a modern day Ward Cleaver. Before my kids were born I had no idea what I would teach them in terms of being people in the world. I didn't have a "parenting philosophy." Sometimes people would actually ask me what my parenting approach was going to be. I think it's because of the popularity of self help books and parenting guides. I had no idea, and really I had no interest. My mom didn't have a parenting philosophy, she did fine. Now that I'm six years and three kids into this adventure I am finding that I do have certain points I try to emphasize with them.

As I've aged I have found that my disposition towards people has changed. I used to hate everyone unless they gave me a reason not to. Through my 20s and 30s I've done almost a complete 180. Now I generally like everyone unless they give me a reason not to. This became important as I navigated corporate and academic politics. It's been a key to whatever success I've had, but until yesterday I had never made it an explicit part of my parenting philosophy. Sure, I had told the kids to "be nice." Last week, when Lou started pre-k there was a girl who was having a very hard time separating from her parents.  I encouraged Lou to sit with this girl and to be extra friendly towards her for the day. My worry was that Lou and other kids would shun this girl because she was melting down in a way that was kind of off putting, especially for a room of four-year-old strangers who were already nervous and in a new place. I was hoping this girl would see that there's at least one friendly face, and that Lou would learn about "loving everyone."

I grew up in Berkeley, California. I am also a member of a church. In both places I have often heard that you should love everyone. I have always felt that this is a tall order. How can I love everyone? Some people are terrible. As I've gotten older I've come to understand this idea more for what it's supposed to mean in terms of finding a way to reserve judgment of people until you know more about them. It's supposed to get you to empathize with strangers as you would with the people you really do love based on knowing them. But it's a hard concept to impart to a child. Especially when my daughter is so friendly she'll happily wander off the porch and down the block with anyone who stops to say hi. It's hard to say "Love everyone, but don't trust people you don't know." Learning to love new people is often bound up in trusting them. Love feels like too tall an order.

This weekend we took a family trip to the beach. We parked at a park and ride where you could get a shuttle to the shore. There was a typically diverse crowd waiting for the shuttle, people of all races, ages, and sizes. While we were waiting Buddy asked each of us about one thing we needed, and one thing we wanted but didn't need. I assume they're teaching this in school, and I'm very happy about that. Then somehow it got changed to naming one thing we loved, and one thing we liked but didn't love. Buddy said he loved everyone in his family, and liked his friends but didn't love all of them. I said I loved my family and that I liked everyone at the shuttle stop.

Buddy was shocked. "Wait, dad, you like everyone at this shuttle stop? How can you do that?" And that's where I felt like I was having one of those important parenting moments, the ones where you hope you're saying something that's going to stick with them and help shape the core of their being. I explained that I like everyone until they give me a specific reason not to. I told him that unless someone does something that hurts me or others I just assume that I like that person. I imparted that if you go into every new interaction assuming that you like the person in front of you and they like you the world opens up to you. As I said it I prayed that the kids were really listening, the way they do when you slip up and yell at a bone headed customer service rep on the phone. They always remember that.

It works (liking people, not yelling a customer service reps). I'd seen it long before I experienced it. I never realized it until recently, but my dad was really good at treating everyone as if he already liked them. I remember being out with him as a kid and he would talk to people many parents would tell their kids to avoid. He never had any problems with it. If he needed a light, or directions, he'd just ask whoever was at hand, and we used to inhabit some pretty rough areas of SF and the Bronx.

I've also seen it in a friend who did more to meet my neighbors in one walk to the store than I had in two years. I had assumed that my neighbors wouldn't like me. I was the male figure in what looks like a white family in a gentrifying area. I worried that my neighbors saw us as the tip of a young hipster professional spear that was going to take over their town and push them out. So I kept to myself, and so did they. Then my friend came to visit. We went for a walk and he said hello to every person who was sitting out on their porch, and they said hello back in a way that was warm and welcoming. I realized that I'd been missing out. I saw that he assumed that he liked them, and that they liked him, and it was true. After that I followed his example and I got to know my neighbors better and it was great.

I don't know what happened with that little girl in Lou's classroom. I know that as of Thursday she was still melting down at drop off. I hope Lou has continued to be kind and welcoming towards this girl. I don't love everyone, and I don't expect my kids to either. (In fact, I sometimes wish they'd love people a little less. They are very quick to show physical affection towards new people.) I do try to go through my days liking everyone though. It's been a positive force in my life and it's one of the few things I'd put into the box labeled "parenting philosophy." I hope my kids can learn to approach everyone with the assumption that they already like each other, then I'll feel like a "good parent."

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