This was previously published in Rebel Magazine.
In the early days of Occupy Wall Street, I went up to New York to meet some of the young protesters who were camping out in Zuccotti Park.
I met a young man who was part of the planning group that had been meeting since the summer. At most, they were hoping for a threeday protest, and had no idea a movement was about to be born that would stretch around the globe. They were as surprised as everyone else by the chord that was struck, and were in the midst of trying to figure it all out during those first weeks.
As we talked, people kept coming up to him to consult about one thing or another, and I sensed he was a very thoughtful guy beyond his years.
I decided this young leader would be a good person to ask the questions: “Why? What motivated you to do this, and what are you trying to accomplish?”
I expected to hear some political anger or alienation toward Wall Street and Washington; economic critiques of big banks; some alternative policy agendas; maybe some idealistic socialist or anarchist dreams; or just a more counter-cultural reaction to the ethos of the dominant society. But what I heard both surprised and encouraged me. The young man, who was in his early 20s, said,
“Well, I’ve been thinking about my life, and I’ve decided I want to have children, you know, to be a father, and I don’t want to bring my children into the world like it is right now. I wanted to help try and change some things for the children I’d like to have.”
He wants to be a dad. That’s what led him to become a leader of Occupy Wall Street.
There were many motivations in the park among the people I spoke with that first day, not all of them as profound.
The journey of being a good father doesn’t start the moment your child is born, but in the many years before in which you are building your own character and shaping the world your future children will be born into.
I became a dad later in life. It changed me and what I was already doing as an activist and author and gave me an even deeper reason for wanting to change the world.
Luke and Jack, my two boys, who are now 13 and 8, offer me a practical and personal view of the future I didn’t have before. And, as any parent will tell you, they give you a depth of feeling, of love, and of tenacity that you never had before, and still can’t quite explain to friends who don’t have kids.
You don’t need to have kids to want to make the world a better place, but it does help.
Until you have your own children or, as the young occupier has done, begun to imagine your own family, the future can seem more about your own life than somebody else’s.
My last book is called Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery, which asserted that the financial crisis was also a moral and even a spiritual one; that bad values and behaviors were at the core of the Great Recession that has caused so much pain and suffering.
We lost our balance in so many ways, the gaps between the top and the bottom became greater than any time since the Great Recession, and the risky and greedy behavior of Wall Street should have been embarrassing to even the most self-interested capitalists.
A collapse of values was at the center of it all, on both Wall Street and Main Street. I said it should be clear now that wealth doesn’t trickle down, but bad values do, and named the “new maxims” that have overtaken us: “Greed is Good,” “It’s All About Me,” and “I Want it Now.”
But all this now also hits me as a dad. Those poisonous values are assaulting our children daily, and it sometimes feels to me, as a parent, that they are aimed right at my two sons through a popular culture that enshrines their short-term, narrow, and deadly perspective.
Modern advertising directly encourages our anxiety, fear and selfishness, telling us that our very identity is dependent on what and how much we consume. Again, the target is our children, teaching them the very opposite of what we were taught; not to worry about material things, to love your neighbor; but advertising says worry all the time, trust nobody, and just look out for No. 1.
Contrary to the new maxims, I countered with some new/old virtues in my book Enough is Enough, We’re In This Together, and what I call the Seventh Generation Mindset, drawn from our Native American peoples, which says we should evaluate decisions today by their impact on the seventh generation out. Think how radically that would change our economic, environmental, and moral decision-making. It’s clearly consistent with the perspective of a dad thinking about his kids and theirs.
So the economic crisis also has to do with being a good dad, just as my young friend at Occupy Wall Street figured out. It’s about protecting your children from the onslaught of the consumer culture and, even more importantly, instilling a very different value system in their souls. (Do a fun little quiz during television advertisements with your kids by asking one another “What are they lying about?” or “What are they trying to sell us?” See who figures it out first!)
Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned about being a good dad to my boys.
Good dads teach their kids that too many people are left out and left behind, at home and around the world.
Every Christmas afternoon, our family goes to the World Vision website and each boy gets to choose a gift for a family in a developing country—a goat, sheep, cow, chickens, etc., after looking at what each could do for a poor family. Then we choose some others as a family to give. This year Jack decided to sponsor a little boy named Mufti from Ghana who has the same birthday as him and they have developed a long-distance relationship. The boys also get to decide how our family gives our money away and what causes and organizations we want to support. By the end of the day, our kids are just as interested, and sometimes more, in the gifts we gave than the ones they got.
Good dads help their kids to think critically about important issues in the world today.
My boys learn the difference between charity and justice—that giving is good, but rules, and policies, and laws also need to change. My son Luke’s debate team, where sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders argue questions like “Should we get out of Afghanistan?” and “Is torture ever justified?” and “What is the best way to create jobs?” While I was helping him prepare for his first debate, Luke said to me, “Dad, I know your position on all these issues, and of course I agree with you, but I have to learn both sides!”
Good dads teach their kids that the economy as it now works is not sustainable.
If everybody had a Ferrari, one of the hottest cars that boys love to look at and talk about, the planet couldn’t survive. I find that their generation has a much keener environmental sensitivity than mine does, and they are often pointing out how we as a family could live in a “greener” way. I was putting Jack in the shower one night when he forgot he had some other “business” he had to tend to first. But it took longer than expected, and the shower was still running.
“Dad, this is the day after the day after the day after Earth Day, and you are wasting water!” he scolded.
Good dads teach their boys that real men play on teams. One of the most dominant values of our culture is rugged individualism, and it’s especially present in boys who want to be “real men.” For our family, sports have been a primary teaching environment for learning that individual effort and discipline is fundamentally linked to your teammates and to your commitment to the team. That we are indeed in this together is a primary lesson of team sports.
Ours is a baseball household, and my wife, Joy, puts a sign outside our front door which says: “We interrupt this family for baseball season.” She—despite being from England, where they don’t play baseball—has become the AA Commissioner for Northwest Little League; and I have coached both Luke and Jack since they were 5 years old. I plan my travel speaking schedule around baseball practices and games, and on the baseball field that we live right next to and where we play most of our games, I am mostly called “Coach Jim.”
When Luke’s All Star Little League baseball team won the DC championship with an amazing, come-from-behind, last inning team effort and then went to the Regional Championships in Bristol, Conn., it was an experience of a lifetime for the kids and all their families. Life lessons.
Our home is the “clubhouse” for our sons’ various teams and for school and class activities, for kids and parents alike—a role for your own house that I recommend to other parents. Joy, who is also the PTA President, loves to throw parties for parents and kids!
One of the things I like most is to come home from work or a trip to find our family room full of boys. When I say, “Hi, guys,” the replies are both “Hi, Dad” and “Hi, Coach.” All the gatherings—the bedtime reading, discussions and prayers, the coaching, the play dates and sleepovers are all part of the social and spiritual formation we want our two boys to have.
What the consumer culture does, with its backwards values, is to assault them with what is indeed another kind of negative spiritual formation, and a parent’s job is to offer something deeper and stronger than what the materialistic and popular culture does.
Good dads are present as their kids work out what it means for them to be good neighbors in this globalized world. I used to have more than 200 speaking engagements a year that kept me on the road most of the time. When I became a father, I had to cut back. I came to realize that these two boys are my most important “audience,” and if I don’t reach them with the values I hold dear, I have missed something very important. One night, Jack gave me a new strategy. I was telling him before bed that I would be traveling the next day and wouldn’t be home the next night. “Why do you travel so much, Dad?” he asked.
“Well, part of my job is to talk to people about the things we talk about at home,” I answered. Jack said, “I know that, Dad, but why don’t you just go down to the end of the street (where there is an NBC studio) even more often, talk to lots more people on television, and still be home to put us to bed?” When thinking about my work and schedule, bedtime issues come first.
I know my boys are listening and learning. Even better, they are passing these lessons along.
When the sad news stories were breaking about the bullying of gay youth, causing some to commit suicide, I wanted my boys to know what happened and think about it. The value that “Might Makes Right” is also deeply embedded in our culture, as well as our foreign policy, and especially attractive to boys. Teaching the alternative to “might for right” is a very countercultural value that we work hard to uphold.
On the way to school one day, I asked if they had heard the news about all this. Jack hadn’t and Luke had, but Jack reported that a boy he knows at his school sometimes bullied other kids. Before I could say anything, Luke spoke up to give his little brother some advice.
“Jack, you are an athlete, a good student and popular. So you need to speak to him, because he will listen to you. Jack, the responsibility of the strong is to protect those who are weaker. Your job is to make sure nobody gets bullied at your school.” There was nothing more to say. And my sons’ understanding of that message is worth more than many of the other successes that I can imagine.
My sons have become one of the primary reasons for my social activism. They aren’t just passive receptors of their parent’s values, but now are working out those values for themselves in their own world, which will one day make them good dads for their own children.
The lesson from that young “occupier” rings true that whether you have children or not, you can start being a good dad today by working for a better world for everyone.