Freaky Fortnight

What I Learned From This Experiment. Also, What I Learned From Balloon Boy.
Watch as a husband and wife switch places.
Oct. 16 2009 1:29 PM

Freaky Fortnight

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What I learned from this experiment. Also, what I learned from Balloon Boy.

I usually rely on Sweden for my at-least-I-don't-do-that parenting news: "Swedish Dad Attempts To Breastfeed." But yesterday the Heene family of Colorado gave moms and dads across America a reason to feel smug. Just as you envy that one family in the neighborhood that pulls off child-raising with more flair and authority than anyone else, there's typically a family that, in your less kind moments, you judge as batshit crazy. This week, the Heene family became that family for everyone.

The highlight for me was the manifesto that scrolls down the screen before a rap video starring the Heene boys that inveighs against "[t]he modern day teachings of human beings living in a superficial lifestyle of consumerism, obesity, and over protectiveness [sic] for themselves and their children." It then calls these overprotective mothers and fathers, respectively, "Soccer Moms" and "Pussies." Here is where so much extreme parenting goes wrong. A good idea—hey, maybe we should back off our kids a bit!—curdles into an attack on all the idiots who don't do it your way.

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The Heene manifesto is actually not unlike one of my favorite parenting manifestos. It was written by D.H. Lawrence in 1918 in an essay called "Education of the People," and I found it thanks to Tom Hodgkinson of Idle Parent fame:

How to begin to educate a child. First rule, leave him alone. Second rule, leave him alone. Third rule, leave him alone. That is the whole beginning.

A touch repetitive, you might say, but these past two weeks, I've found that if I help Nick build with blocks, it never turns out well. My neatnik obsession with symmetry takes over, and I start rearranging the tower to my liking. Nick has his own ideas, and the result is tears. But if I leave him alone and say I'm not going to help, he comes and finds me in 15 minutes and shows me the great airport he's built. Same deal with Nick and Will attempting to play with each other. When I leave them alone in their room, it works out for the best. Though there was that one time Nick led Will into the bathroom and caused just a minor flood.

Looking back over the fortnight, I worry I may have dwelled too much on the low moments and the insecurity of being a stay-at-home dad. Being with kids has a baseline joy. When they are not around, it's as if you are missing a limb. I'm always surprised at those happiness studies that say that parents are "happier grocery shopping and even sleeping than spending time with their kids." Really? You get to be a kid again with kids, and no one thinks you're odd. And when you need a break, you can turn on The Backyardigans and read a book on the couch.

A lot of you have asked whether I could see myself staying home full-time. The answer is yes, with one caveat: I would need some sort of writing project to sustain me. But otherwise, why not? Susan can be the icebreaker for a while.

The fortnight has shown that the boys are very adaptable and that I'm adaptable, too. We've settled into a pleasant rhythm with one another. I like catching them at their good times. I also enjoy the longer conversations with adults that I've had in the kid world, where we are all not glued to screens and deadlines and reputations. It's a very human, pungent lifestyle. (Sometimes too pungent.) You're out in the air, getting dirty, drinking coffee. Yet, as previously noted, we are lucky not to have an all-or-nothing choice. Staying at home isn't a huge opportunity cost for me. I suspect my answer would be different if I were a lawyer trying to make partner.

My other not-so-big revelation is that I should heed what all the old people around the neighborhood have told me over the fortnight: "Your kids grow up fast." Nick and Will need Susan and me right now, but I can already start to see how Nick is entering the world of friendship, where it will be more fun to play with his peers than with Dad. I believe Susan and I will look back at this time as the most intense in terms of parenting and realize that we could have gotten by with half the worrying.

So please excuse me while I step behind the curtain, and thanks for all the encouragement along the way. I made this video with Will yesterday. It appears that we are both ready to get out of the spotlight.

Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.

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