I named this blog The Perpetual Shave based on a quote by some dude named Reed Markham, who said that “being a great father is like shaving. No matter how good you shaved today, you have to do it again tomorrow.” That’s a tall order. The order looks like this: every morning, get up at the crack of dawn, feed, nourish, advise, educate, inspire, guide, discipline, manage, comfort, entertain and occasionally wash a few fully functioning, complex little human beings who have boundless reserves of unimaginable energy, and at the end of the day, hope you have enough gas in your tank to manage a shower and a few quiet minutes with your partner before crashing unglamorously on the couch, only to wake up the very next morning and do it all over again for the next 18 or so years of your life, and at the end of this grueling 18 year cycle produce fully formed individuals and eventually release those individuals into the world where they must lead a life of meaning, integrity and good work. Piece of cake.
This routine, coupled with the expectations of what that routine will produce — a lifelong family, a legacy, world citizens — leads to parental habits and child rearing patterns of all kinds, both positive and negative. We choose the words and actions we use to interact with our children with intention and care. On good days. But eventually, the endless routine and the exhaustion compromise our best intentions, and we begin to rely on our very human quality of taking paths of least resistance. We begin to take shortcuts. And sometimes those shortcuts become habits, and in most cases, these kinds of habits end up making our jobs much harder in the long run, even as they provide us a shred of relief in the moment in which they occur.
I’d like to introduce to you the word that has become an untintentional shortcut in my parenting life, and one I have recently realized must be eradicated from my parental lexicon.
As a busy full-time parent of two, maybe has become a dangerous hole that I throw in the ground that I foolishly jump into and am almost never able to climb my way out of with any real consistency or integrity.
On any given day, a child will ask their parents permission to do something or go someplace about 525 million times. Sometimes, I feel as if my parenting life is made up of this question: “Dad, can I/we ___________?” And the proper response to that question should be either “Yes,” or “No.” But the trouble is, both yes and no are words with real consequences. They both require real commitment and real action. We all know how difficult it can be to say “no” to a child, even while we realize how absolutely essential it is that we do just that, and often. If we do not learn to say no to our kids and mean it, they will grow up thinking that they are entitled to everything they set their hearts or minds upon. We all know what kinds of adults this will inevitably produce, and none of us want any of that nonsense on our conscience. No is a strong word that often produces heartbreak and bouts of tears and self-pity that can often be hard to stomach as a parent. Sometimes, it is very difficult to remember that they will, actually, get over it. So we either don’t say no enough or, even worse, we say no and don’t hold our ground, and then we become complicit in our children’s inability to eventually lead well-adjusted adult lives. Ouch.
And yes is not much easier. Even though yes is a much more positive word, and tends to produce the smiles, love and elevated moods we love to see in our sweet children, it almost always means taking action and following through. Nothing is more profoundly disappointing to a child than waiting for a yes that never manifests. In moments like these, when we don’t follow through on our yeses, our children learn to believe that we cannot be counted on and our word as parents don’t mean much. Ouch again.
So, somewhere in between no and yes is the useless and utterly irresistible word “maybe.” Maybe is a greyish word that has no form, no color, no committment and no honor. And yet we use it… all the time. Maybe is a word we use with our children that really means “I am too fried to commit one way or another. I don’t want to break your heart with a no, and I don’t want to follow through on the yes.” The subtext of maybe is “I can’t deal with this right now.” It is a well-intentioned word that is simply a postponement of commitment.
Here is the thing: I am sure that most of us actually think we mean maybe when we say “maybe.” But the subconscious truth is that maybe is almost always a non-committal no. But that weird grey area is pretty meaningless to a child. To a child, “maybe” is simply not a “no,” therefore, anything that is not a no, must be a “yes.”
SON: “Dad, can we go to the baseball game tomorrow?”
DAD: (sighs audibly as he thinks of the million other things he has to do tomorrow) “I don’t know, kid. Maybe.”
SON: (pumps his fists): Yes! (he scampers off excitedly.)
Clearly, my son heard a “yes” in that “maybe.” All he knows is that he did not hear “No.” And when that maybe manifests itself (as it almost always does) as an actual no, the child experiences the dashed spirits of a broken promise. No fun for anyone.
Sometimes it is hard to remember that children don’t do nuance or grey areas very well. And adults are brilliant at it. And it is also hard to remember that children learn commitment (and lack thereof) from the actions of the adults who are raising them. No matter how exhausted we are from our work life, or (in my case) from the perpetual shave of full-time fatherhood, our words and our actions that stem from those words matter deeply to our children. We teach our children values; to say what they mean, to mean what they say, to honor promises and to follow through on commitments. Maybe is a word that allows us as adults to skirt those very same values.
So for me, it is time to let the word go.