A Son’s Dream, A Father’s Fear

IMG_4643The other day my son announced his intention to launch himself into space on a one-way journey to explore the galaxy. As his father, I should be used to him making grand, above-his-age statements (he’s only 6), but hearing my first grader calmly state his dream to die in space threw me off a bit.

He was so calm when he told me his idea.

“I want to build the ‘100th Horizon’ which would be a spaceship big enough to hold me and other people, and we would fly to the end of our galaxy learning about space. We would even fly past Pluto and other ice planets.”

“But it would take you years to get to the end of our galaxy,” I countered. “Mommy and I might be dead before you would come home.”

“I know that,” he said. “Me and my friends would all probably die in space, but that’s okay. It would just put me closer to heaven, so I could see you faster after I die.”

I’ll admit–that choked me up. But it was what he said next that floored me. I asked him why he would want to fly off on a one-way journey into space. This is what he said:

“Because I want to give my life to help people. We would have better knowledge if I flew into space.”

I wasn’t prepared for that answer. My wife and I have taken great pains to instill in our children a love and compassion for others, and we’ve always gone out of our way to encourage our children’s natural interests. My daughter, Ella, loves to dance and sing, so we’ve enrolled her in dance classes and helped her audition for school musicals. Jon loves science and playing drums, so we signed him up for drum lessons and try to fuel his thirst for knowledge.

Rachel and I both grew up in cultures that encouraged dreams, but weren’t so quick to encourage acting on them. We don’t want our kids to grow up like that; we want them to dream AND act, to be intentional with how they live their lives.

In short, we’ve never squashed their dreams. Despite what you might think, this is a challenging position to maintain.

As a parent, you want what’s best for your kid, but sometimes what’s best for them absolutely kills you on the inside. Hearing Jon so fearlessly announce that his dream was to launch himself on a suicide mission for the betterment of mankind made me want to throw up. In fact, on my insides, I could feel the fear rising up. My mental list-maker went into overdrive, concocting as many reasons why he SHOULDN’T go into space as I possibly could.

But I didn’t breathe a word of that to him. The only allowance I gave my fears was to mention to Jon that if he went to the end of the galaxy, it would make me sad because I would never see him again. Given how much my son loves me, even that was probably too much, an unfair emotional manipulation perpetrated on a child by an adult.

But Jon’s response was not only perfect, it was completely Jon: I’ll just be that much closer to heaven, so I’ll see you sooner.

Even now, I want to cry typing that out. It’s such a beautiful statement: I will live my dreams, but I will always love and think of you.

As a parent, could I ask for more?

Sometimes, I worry that I will transfer my fear issues on to my kids. I see Ella hesitate when walking into a room full of people she doesn’t know, and I wonder if I caused that. I see Jon have a meltdown because he hurts himself while playing, and I wonder if I’ve somehow bred weakness into him.

But then my children say and do things that amaze me, and remind me of what my actual end goal is as a parent.

My job as their dad is to raise them to be healthy, functional adults capable of living a life of meaning and joy. That means allowing them to experience and learn things as a child that cause me great fear.

I would rather be the one who feels the ugly, paralyzing fear. I would rather live through their childhood years worrying and fretting over things than pass that anxiety on to them. I want them to emerge from my home with a sense of wonder and courage, a belief in themselves and their talents that propels them to do things much greater than anyone could imagine.

My son wants to launch himself into the uncharted ends of space on a one-way trip to broaden humanity’s understanding of the universe we call home. As a dad, the idea makes me want to curl up into a ball and cry for a couple of days. But it also makes me proud of my son, proud of the man he will one day become, regardless of whether or not he actually makes it into space.

So, as his dad, I’m going to do the only thing I can: I’m going to bust my butt to introduce him to people who can expand his knowledge. I know some folks who know some folks, so I’m going to set up some lunches where Jon can interview an astronaut or astronomer. I’m going to take him back to the Space Center in Huntsville, AL, and maybe send him to Space Camp one summer.

I’m going to do everything I can to encourage my son to be all he can be, because that’s what is best for him as a person, and what’s best for me as a dad.

And if he actually achieves his dream, it might just be what’s best for mankind, too.

Moving Beyond “Standard” In Our Schools

The only thing standardized testing accomplishes is producing standard students. The world needs exceptional students, not standard.

This thought has been on my mind all day. It came to me while my wife and I were talking about our kids this morning, and getting them ready to go back to school.

See, we’ve been lazy. We’ve spent the summer focusing on things like fun, making memories, and just enjoying time with our children in general. Now that school is almost upon us, we’re trying to get the kids back into the academic swing of things because we don’t want them to be behind before school even gets started. In fact, NPR ran a story yesterday on closing the summer gap, and all of this has got me thinking:

It really sucks that kids have to be such slaves to the test.

Because that’s what this boils down to, really. Kids are being tested in the fall, the winter, and the spring, all because we’ve decided that measuring their retention levels is the most precise method of determining their learning capacities.

The truly crappy part is, it’s not working so well. According to a report from the BBC, the United States ranks 28th (tied with Italy) in world education rankings. That’s not as bad as two years ago, when the US ranked 36th in the world.

I feel strongly about this issue because, for two years, I taught an adjunct class for Grayson High School students. It was a social sciences class that focused on world religions and philosophy, and what I quickly discovered was how woefully unprepared my students were for a lifetime of critical thinking.

Of course, no one likes to be made to think. As George Bernard Shaw once said, “Few people think more than two or three times a year. I have made an international reputation for myself simply by thinking once or twice a week.”

But that wasn’t true of the kids I taught. I had some of the smartest, most capable kids the school could throw at me, and yet many of them weren’t skilled in thinking their own thoughts. They were exceptional a parroting back to me whatever I said, but when pressed for their own insights, most struggled to come up with anything to say.

Now, you might be saying, “Well, duh – they’re only teenagers.”

And to that I reply, “You must not have teens of your own or ever remember being a teenager.”

Because if there’s one thing that’s true about teenagers, it’s that they have opinions. On everything. Often very strong ones. But you most likely hear those opinions outside of the classroom, because individuality in thought isn’t often on the agenda in class. And why is that?

Because teachers have to teach to the test. They don’t have the time to teach kids to think, critically or otherwise, because we’ve tied their hands. Their job security, their salaries, even their professional reputations are directly connected to how well their students perform on a stupid test. I’m convinced most teachers would like to try and do things differently, but we’ve stacked the deck too much against them. Survival depends on getting kids ready for the test.

Now, about here is where I should go off the rails and call for all standardized testing to be banned. I should bang my angry fists on the table and decry the evil test-taking machine that has consumed public education, all while calling for a return to “the good old days”.

Except we need to test kids. Progress that can’t be measured isn’t progress.

So what do we need to do? For starters, I think we need fewer standardized tests. I can’t remember the entire alphabet soup that kids have to face–CRCT, ITBS, COGAT, CIA, OMG–but we’re cramming more tests in to the exclusion of other things.

If we could back off the number of tests, then there would be time and space in the day for teachers to inspire kids, identify their unique traits and encourage them to develop their gifts.

You know, the stuff teachers are gifted at doing.

And if teachers could do that, then we’d see a dramatic shift in the kids. More creativity. More individual growth. Connections would get made between disciplines, ideas would spark out of seemingly unrelated things; heck, we might even see an improvement in student behavior because the days wouldn’t seem quite so pointless.

But we have the system we have, right? I know that for the foreseeable future, my children will have to prepare themselves to take an endless battery of examinations that will determine their future while not necessarily preparing them for it. That’s why my wife and I work hard to supplement their school education with other types of education.

Like a summer spent on things like fun, making memories, and just enjoying time being children in general.

What do you think, parents? Where do you stand on the standardized test? What would you like to see change in the school system?

Sound off in the comments below, or on my Facebook page.


This week I’m participating in Seth Godin’s #YourTurnChallenge. My goal is to blog everyday this week (Mon-Sun) here on my site as well as on the challenge’s official Tumblr blog. Here’s my Day 6 submission.

There have been relatively few times when I’ve surprised myself. In fact, the only one that comes to mind is finding the strength to speak at my daughter’s funeral. She was stillborn 5 days after her due date. I was a wreck.

It wasn’t supposed to happen to me and my wife.

Yet there we were: a tiny pink coffin, a tiny baby girl, and hundreds of people gathered at the graveside.

I cleared my throat and spoke. I don’t remember any of it. All I remember were the hot, unstoppable tears that rolled down my face as I addressed my grieving wife; my stunned parents and in-laws; the pained faces of people from my church. I spoke from my heart, where raw pain collided with faith.

And in five minutes it was over. I watched as the men from the funeral home lowered my daughter into the ground. I watched as the dirt fell atop her casket. I watched until my daughter was nothing more than a memory.

The next day, I got up. And then I did the same thing the day after that. And the day after that.

I’ve repeated that process for almost 10 years now.

My wife and I have two children now. We take them to visit their sister’s grave every year on the anniversary of her birth/death. We sing happy birthday. We give her fresh flowers. And we walk away holding hands, knowing how precious life is.

Sometimes, the most surprising things are the simplest.

Help Me Find My Daughter a Comic Book to Love

This morning, Ella stood over my shoulder as I scrolled through a typical post I like to read: 10 Awkwardly Similar Marvel/DC Characters. As I scrolled through the slides, she kept asking me about various characters. A snippet of our conversation:

E: “Wait. Who’s the green guy with Hawkeye?”

Me: “That’s Green Arrow.”

E: “Who’s the red bendy man next to the blue bendy man?”

Me: “The red one is Elastic Man and the blue is Mr. Fantastic.”

E: “And they’re just stretchy?”

Me: “Among other things. But essentially, yes.”

E: “Why does Thanos have jewelry but the other two [Darkseid and Apocalypse] don’t?”

Me: “Because Thanos is the Mad Titan. He’s obsessed with jewelry that can kill.”

E: “Hold on–who are those two guys???”

Me: “Aquaman and Namor.”

E: “How are they different?”

Me: “They’re not.”

And on it went. When I reached the end of the slide show, Ella sighed and looked at me for a minute. She sat in my lap and put her arms around her neck, which is her sign that she wants to ask me about something she wants but she’s uncertain how I’ll answer.

“Daddy?” she asked.

“Yes, Ella?”

“If they ever make Guardians of the Galaxy into a comic, could I read it, or would it have bad words in it too?”

I explained that Guardians was already a comic, and that yes, the bad words were still in there too. She pouted for a moment, then looked at me.

“Can I read Batman comics?”

I explained that Batman was a bit too grown up for her, and when she pressed me as to how, I tried explaining that comics have come a long way. That they tell grown up and mature stories now, stories that often involve violence and crime and the ugly side of life, and she’s not quite ready to indulge in that type of material.

“Daddy,” she said, “I thought comics were for kids.”

I explained that, yes, once upon a time comics were for kids, and there are still outstanding titles for children her age to read. I mentioned Galaxy Man [written by my friend, Ashton Adams] and Hero Cats, both produced locally by Kyle Puttkammer.

She sighed. “But why aren’t the superheroes written for kids?”

I paused. She had me there. My daughter has grown up with me being excited over Batman, Spider-Man, Superman, and The Avengers. She was so excited when I announced that was working as an extra on Ant-Man. We’ve watched the kids shows based around all of those characters, and she loves getting lost in the stories, loves watching the characters interact and grow and learn. And whenever she asks how I know so much about all of them, I always tell her it’s because I read comics when I was a kid.

So now she wants to read comics as a kid.

And as her father, I’m struggling to say yes. Not because I don’t love comics, but because I simply don’t know if any of the titles I grew up loving as a kid would be kid-friendly in this day and age.

[And before you start, I’m well aware most of those titles weren’t “kid-friendly” when I was a kid. But you have to admit, we’ve made a BIG leap forward in themes and content since the 80s and 90s.]

It’s been a dog’s age since I was in a comic store. So, like all modern-day parents do, I’m turning to the Internet for help.

Are there any current titles featuring the mainstream superheroes that are safe for kids to read?

I want to hand my daughter–and my son–a comic book and introduce them to the joyous marriage that is word and panel combined. I want to see them get lost in the imaginative worlds that so shaped me. But I’m not ready for them to read about the Joker wearing his own severed face, or Tony Stark going back on the booze and becoming a mean S.O.B.

So help me out, Internet. Help me find a comic book for my daughter to love.

Monster Fighters

ImageSo I’m sitting here this morning, listening to Jon and Ella play. Over and over Ella keeps emphasizing to Jon that the figures they are playing with are “monster fighters – they fight monsters so normal people don’t have to.” Anytime that declaration is made, it is quickly followed by a series of “Hi-yah! Bam! Smack! P-sht! Wee-boom!” sounds that illustrate just how thoroughly the monster fighters are kicking monster butt.

And I’m thinking: “I wish I had a monster fighter.”

I mean seriously – who wouldn’t want to have their own private monster fighter. Especially for the monsters that most of us face: doubt, depression, fear, uncertainty, and other creatures from the adult nightmare lagoon. How many of us wouldn’t love to call on someone else to handle the finances when they get tight, or the office when it gets too stressful? Or someone who could appear and deal with the baggage of our past in fell swoop? That would be awesome.

And even as I write this, Jon calls his monster fighter “Daddy” and Ella calls hers “Mommy.” There’s another monster fighter named “David” too, but I’m kind of hung up on Mommy and Daddy being the leads.

Because there are days when I don’t feel like fighting anyone’s monsters. There are days when I wonder if I have requisite power to fight my own. And yet that’s part of how my children see me: as their protector. Now, they have no delusions that I’m some sort of super dad (Jon asked me the other day if I could lift a weight. A weight. Sad.), but they do know that daddy’s the one to run to when you don’t understand something.

Ella does this all the time; if she can’t wrap her mind around an injustice in the world, or a question about theology or God, she comes to me and we begin one of our hourly games of “The Third Degree” – where she mercilessly hammers away at me with questions until I either answer her to her satisfaction or I finally go insane and scream, “I don’t know! I just don’t know!” To me, it can seem like an annoyance (and really, timing is generally the issue), but for her it’s a form of monster fighting: the world seems big and mean and scary, and she wants to know that there is a way to make sense of it all, find peace in the midst of the scariness.

So I help her fight her monsters.

As a father, that’s a pretty cool thing to realize. I’m not big and brawny and “manly-man” so the notion that my daughter still finds value in me – in a big old nerdy nerd – is even better than a Father’s Day card. In fact, instead of cards yesterday, I got a day full of hugs, thank yous, and “You’re the best dad, ever!”s. I also got approximately 100,000,000 questions between Ella and Jon, but those just laid the groundwork for the hugs, thank yous, and best-dad-evers.

It was a glorious day.

Who are the monster fighters in your life? To whom do you turn when the situation gets scary and you need consolation? We may not have our own private Indiana Jones or Superman at the ready to battle the evil we encounter, but we probably have more resources than we know.

So who’s helping you fight today?