In the course of a twenty-five year friendship that has deepened into profound love, I have had only one fight that I can recall with my father-in-law. It started over a dinner conversation. The question being discussed was why some children grow up to be ambitious and intellectually curious, while others seem to be less so. The people he was thinking about, who are not particularly professionally driven, had been raised in the suburbs, so my father-in-law theorized that it had to do with the place in which the children were raised. Children raised in the suburbs, he said, are not intellectually stimulated in the same way that children raised in the city are, so they grow up to be less driven and more frivolous than their city-raised counterparts.
Though he was not talking about me or anyone in my family, I took offense. I used the word "disingenuous" to describe his theory, and he replied, "You shouldn't use a word if you don't know its meaning. That just reinforces my point."
I know what "disingenuous" means, even though I was raised in the suburbs.
Now, my father-in-law is a very, very good man, and I love him dearly. He is definitely one of the top five people in my life of the male gender. (I knew you'd ask. My husband, my son, my brother, and my own father.) But on this particular point, he is extremely wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. Way, way wrong. The right answer, in my not-so-humble opinion, is that the number-one factor in determining a child's intellectual prowess and later drive to achieve (two qualities I am not convinced are that closely related - I know a lot of brilliant lazy people and a lot of stupid people who are very driven) is the child's innate ability. A close second is the parents' attitude toward learning and achieving, combined with the extent to which they pass that attitude on. Both my in-laws and my parents are extremely education-oriented people with strong personalities and drives to achieve, and they have passed both of those qualities down to us. That's why Sam and I are so brilliant and successful, and why we're raising such obviously perfect children.
That being said, there were some opportunities my husband had, growing up in the city, that I did not have in the far-off wilds of Bergen County, New Jersey. For example, he had almost unlimited opportunities to experiment with gravity.
My husband grew up in a tenth-floor apartment. His mother used to buy him those instruments of torture known as dress shoes, and Sam hated them with a passion. Little boys hate dress shoes. They want to be barefoot, or at least in ratty sneakers, as much as possible. One night, Sam's mother came home from work and asked why Sam was wearing only one shoe. What had happened to the other one?
"I threw it out the window," he said.
Sam also experimented a lot with paper airplanes. He was convinced that he could launch one from the kitchen window and have it land in the kitchen of another apartment across the alley. Paper airplanes are light, though, and though they are graceful in flight, they don't usually go far. In the alley behind the apartment building, paper airplanes soon joined the pile of cast-off dress shoes.
As he got older, Sam launched increasingly complex things out the window. These included fresh and rotted fruit, pumpkins, and, in a spectacular coup de grace, the contents of a 5-gallon fish aquarium. (As he retold this story to our children last night, he reassured them that no animals or pedestrians were permanently harmed in the course of these shenanigans. The man drenched by the aquarium water as he strolled down Broadway on a sunny day, however, did come up to the apartment, bang furiously on the door, and give young Sam a piece of his mind.)
As you can see, my father-in-law does have some support for his theory that Sam's vibrant and intellectually-stimulating childhood led to his successful career in criminal defense.
What did we do in the suburbs? We played a game called "Spud." On summer evenings after dinner, we gathered in the middle of the street with a plastic ball. Each child was assigned a number. Whoever was "it" threw the ball into the air and hollered a number. Everyone ran away, except for the child whose number had been called. It was that child's job to catch the ball. As soon as the ball was caught or retrieved, everyone had to stop moving, and the child with the ball was allowed to take four steps in any direction, and then to tag another player with the ball. If you got hit with the ball, you became the next "it."
The game was simple and not particularly challenging, but it was fun, and we bonded over it. It was inclusive - everyone was allowed to play, regardless of age or size. We let the little kids cheat, and the bigger kids tried not to throw the ball too hard. What we lacked in gravitas, we made up for in camaraderie. I am still in touch with many of my Spud-mates, and I assure you that despite the unfortunate circumstance of having been raised on a quiet street with few cars but millions of stars, we all turned out pretty much okay.
Have a good day, and teach your children well.