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Dr. Spock He’s Not, but He’s Willing to Listen

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By Michael Winerip

THIS will not be the kind of authoritative parenting column that we all need.

It will not be a parenting column like this:

Q. Tell me, Mr. Parenting Expert, how do you know when it’s time to put a baby in his own room?

Here’s how we knew with our twins: My wife and I were dying of exhaustion. We were both getting up and feeding them a mix of formula (me) and breast milk (her). Finally, at 6 months, we lost the ability to speak and control our fine motor skills. So we moved the boys to the room at the end of the hall, and, miraculously, they slept through the night for the first time. Or they woke up crying and we didn’t hear them because we slept through the night for the first time.

I’m not a parenting expert, have no formal parenting credentials, have never read a parenting book. (My wife has read me a few important paragraphs out loud, late at night.) I have taken no parenting courses and have made a ton of parenting mistakes but have tried to learn by doing, and there’s been lots of doing.

We have four children (though I believe in zero population growth): a son in his first year of college; twin boys in 11th grade (just now emerging from a monthlong grounding); and a seventh-grade girl.

While my wife, Sandy, was the primary caregiver through the early grades, she’s had a 24/7 job for years, and I — having worked at home for most of my 20-plus years with The Times — have been the go-to parent. I do this because I want to. I love kids, find them funnier than grown-ups and, in my experience, more truthful. To live this life, I’ve passed on many jobs, including foreign correspondent. I didn’t want to be away from the family too long. I think children need at least one parent around a lot; their growing brains are calibrated to do periodic stupid stuff.

I get them up for school and make the lunches. (On his bologna sandwich, Adam takes Grey Poupon Country Dijon mustard, not regular Grey Poupon Dijon mustard; Annie takes mayonnaise on both pieces of bread; Sam doesn’t eat mayonnaise or mustard or bologna.) I do the laundry. (The washing machine is 10 feet from my office.) I food shop, drive the kids to their activities, make the dinners, answer the homework questions, coach the sports teams and run the birthday parties.

I’ve found that surviving parenting requires that at times you will be a total hypocrite. I don’t believe in kids’ watching meaningless TV violence, but growing up, the three boys were huge fans of “Power Rangers,” a really stupid show where the heroes resolved every problem by fighting. (My son Sam loved Tommy the Green Ranger so much that my wife sewed him a Power Ranger outfit and for weeks we all had to call him Tommy.)

I believe American children are overprogrammed, and in the children’s novels I have written I make fun of this. But no one’s kids are more overprogrammed than mine, and I don’t have a clue how to stop it. Whose fault is this? I think it’s mine. I’m the one who fills out the three-foot-high calendar on the kitchen wall every month with each kid’s activities so we know where to be every minute of every day.

I believe in families sitting down together for dinner, but many nights we have a two-minute window of opportunity. Annie finishes her trumpet lesson in a town 15 minutes away at 7. Ben has volleyball practice from 6 to 7:30. Sam has jazz band at 7:45. Adam needs a ride to the pool, 20 minutes away, for diving at 8.

I have taken strong stands with my children on meaningless things. I insisted they take lunch boxes through middle school instead of lunch bags. Maybe I was trying to keep them younger. Maybe I was asserting arbitrary parental control. We used to argue about this. “Please, Dad, can I take my lunch in a bag? Everyone else does. I’m begging, Dad.” What was I thinking? Did I fear that if I gave in on lunch boxes, heroin would be next? I do not know.

My kids swear they are the only ones at school who don’t have cellphones, and harangue me for being some kind of cave man.

I am some kind of cave man and have behaved primitively in defense of my children. When my oldest, Ben, was 2, we were at a playground. I was standing 25 feet away, watching him climb a slide until a mother shouted, “Your son just bit my daughter.” Now, I’ve been a reporter all my adult life. From where I stood, there was no way I could see if Ben had bitten this girl. But what I blurted out was, “No, he didn’t!” Why did I do that? What primal Winerip 10,000 years ago had implanted this blurt reflex?

And it’s still there, even as Ben goes off to college. I try to respect my children’s privacy. I don’t open their mail (neither bulk mail nor SAT results) or monitor their Internet use (though we do keep the computers in the family room, instead of behind closed bedroom doors). But a few months ago, when a military recruiter made a cold call to the house and asked to speak to Ben — and I admire the military — I blurted, “No, you can’t,” and hung up. Why did I do that?

Some of the parenting wasn’t fun.

We lost a baby at full term, and Annie, our youngest, once spent a week in intensive care.

I’ve also become a parent to my 4-foot-9, 92-year-old mom, whom I recently moved from her home in Boston to assisted living near me on Long Island. Starting when she was in her mid-80’s, we’d make regular tours of these places. She’d smile at our guide, comment on the lovely dining room and then announce, “You know, I love my house, Michael.” Like many of my generation, I’m parenting up and parenting down.

While some of these columns will be my adventures, more will be your adventures. If I doled out our family secrets weekly, I’d soon be writing about living alone in suburbia. So I’d love to hear from you.

E-mail: parenting@nytimes.com

— Michael Winerip
New York Times
2006-10-01


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