Investing in Family

In a much earlier post, my first, on whether or not parenting is worth it, I described a simple cost/benefit analysis of parenting: the benefits, though often brief and intangible, far outweigh the costs, which include all our time, money, energy, and sanity.

Physically, emotionally, and economically, parenting doesn’t make dollars or sense. The list of personal returns for parents is short. But the list is long and substantial if we take a different perspective than our own, to consider returns that don’t come directly to us, ones that come to our kids and our family.

Before taking out student loans in college we had to sit through a little seminar on financial management. The instructor skimmed over the basics and then spent most of the time on what was clearly her favorite part, the secret to success and fortune: compounding. If we invest early on and take advantage of compounding interest we can be millionaires by sixty.

I’m not sixty or a millionaire, but I believe that family is an investment too. We invest in our children’s health and future, and in the future of our relationship with them. We invest in our marriage. I mentioned here that the same forces at work with financial investments apply to investments in family as well; as with money, compounding interest is the secret to creating rich relationships with loved ones, to finding family success and fortune.

The problem is, it’s often one or the other, family versus career, and we have to find balance. Finding balance was a main theme of my twenties, and it continues to be a challenge. Keep in mind that my kids are seven and under, so I’m not an expert. I’m just trying to plan ahead. Here are a few thoughts that are helping me along the way.

First, now is the time to invest. Young kids seem pretty resilient and it’s tempting to write them off, to give them an IOU or a rain check for our time and attention, to address concerns as they come up. The problem is, we need to prepare for the storms, save now for a rainy day. As we teach them, play with them, and hang out with them while they’re young, we build a foundation of support that they will later rely on, or so I hope. When they’re older, and the going really gets tough, and they may not want to have anything to do with us, they’ll have the resiliency and character to get them through.

Second, investing in family can be simple. Puzzles, books, board games, and walks all count. Doing chores together counts too. We need to spend regular, everyday time with our kids.

I think one of the drawbacks to the industrial revolution was a separation between work and home. Back when everyone was a farmer, work time and family time were inseparable. I can imagine mammy, pappy, and the kids all felling a tree together one day, and the next day raising the barn together. Back before cities and careers, mam and pap spent exorbitant amounts of time doing basic chores with the lads and lasses.

Don’t get me wrong. Hospitals and manufacturing and education are great. But our kids lose out when they never see us work, or when they don’t work with us to achieve a goal and high-five afterwards, or when our time with them has to be structured around an activity or special event. We need to do boring things together too, if only to teach them how to whistle while they work, and how to keep working through setbacks.

Third, once in a while, we need to do something epic. Day to day, I learned a lot from my parents about the importance of work ethic, faith, and a positive attitude, but on our road trips and campouts we got to experience awesome things together.

The Grand Canyon is epic. After driving for hours through desolate, flat desert, you arrive abruptly at the edge of the world. Standing on the rim, you’re a mile high, with a hundred miles of chasm in either direction. Your view is overwhelmed by millions of years of geological history. In an instant you see how great and ancient the earth is, and how infantile you are in comparison. The word infinity gains new meaning.

Trips to the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Big Sur, Yellowstone, Glacier, and Banff are burned in my memory. And I shared them all with my fam. In addition to the simple, regular experiences, we need powerful, memorable ones with our loved ones too, if only to connect with them on another level.

Our kids are like startups, and we have to invest much, early, to ensure their success.

Thinking While Parenting

Since I officially became an adult, I’m trying to spend more time thinking and less time not thinking (see here). It sounds simple enough, but thinking is nearly impossible in a house that’s being ambushed and taken over by kids.

If ideas are light, parenting is a merciless black hole, the antithesis of thought. There’s always a distraction, a child in distress, an offensive noise or sound, to counteract an idea just as it forms in our mind. Because of its mass and gravitational pull, parenting consumes but doesn’t reflect light.

Living on the event horizon of a black hole is problematic for two reasons. First, life disappears with little to show for it; fewer thoughts produce fewer memories (again, see here). Second, the result of not thinking, day after day, is learned thoughtlessness, a habitual state of unconscious reaction. Unconscious habit is the path of least resistance, one with a deep rut down the center, and we go where it takes us.

The path of default reactions takes us to the Doldrums, a parenting Slump, where the days are dreary and mundane, our kids are noisy and pesky, and the future is bleak. Unconsciously, we end up interpreting our experiences through the lens of self, in terms of our own wants and needs (see This Is Water, by David Foster Wallace). Parenting becomes a drag, a responsibility that we willingly accept, but one that gets in the way.

To break free, we have to realize that we created the black hole. We are the masters of our family universe, at least until our kids turn into teenagers, i.e., klingons. We have to get our acts together and take control of our mind and our inter-stellar situation.

Taking control requires creativity. For example, when the kids plug the sink and flood the bathroom, we can react in one of two ways. The first comes easily and without thought. It is driven by our exasperation at having to clean up another mess. It involves stern looks, harsh tones, and some form of punishment. The second comes with some difficulty and mental effort. It is driven by our desire to make the best of things, and to teach our kids to do the same. It involves instruction on the main functions and capacities of a toilet, and a demonstration of how cleaning up can be fun.

To think while parenting, we have to parent outside the box. When your kids give you a flooded bathroom, make an indoor slip-and-slide.

Recently, my wife went out of town and I had our third-dozen kids to myself for the weekend. One day, our girls tried to make pixie dust, spilling flour, sugar, and food coloring on the kitchen floor and then dancing through it and across the house. The house didn’t float away to never-never land. And I was not Peter Pan. I was Captain Hook.

Next time, I want to be Pan the Man. I want to be positive and make the best of the situation.

Thoughtful parenting leads to a conscious decision to be better, to change, to eliminate the negative and accentuate the positive, to remember how fortunate we are just to be alive, to have these brief moments with the people we love most. It leads to a change in perspective, where instead of focusing on the darkness we focus on our family, brilliant stars, radiating light.