What are Kids For

My son Daniel greeted me when I returned from Stanford where I participate in a continuing studies class on Thursday night:

–        How did it go?

–        I got in trouble with the teacher; she wants to see my parents before the next class.

–        It seems crazy to drag your parents over from Israel. You want me to talk to her? After all I’m the one who deals with teachers on a daily basis these days.

–        Makes sense. I’ll e-mail her and let him know that you’ll be coming instead of my parents.

–        I wouldn’t do that if I were you, she’ll probably reject it on the spot. It would be better that I just show up she will not throw me out.

–        How can you be so sure?

–        Come on Dad, leave it to me after all, what are kids for? I’ll go during her office hours, but you will have to drive me.

Obviously I would have to drive him being fourteen he had two years to go until he got his permit and this could not wait that long. As we drove to Stanford I couldn’t help but ask:

–        Don’t you want to know what happened?

–        Let me guess he said sounding amused. The teacher presented a well thought out topic which she expected the class to bless and internalize, and you found a fundamental logical flaw

–        I didn’t mean to undermine her I interrupted with the same eagerness that got me in trouble in the first place.

–        Which the teacher perceived as a threat. Daniel completed my words for me.

–        That’s it, that’s exactly it I yelped

–        and the teacher reverted to shooting the messenger, Daniel continued in a sarcastic monotonous tone, raising his eyes to sky and shaking his head from side to side.

–        I tried to make amends

But Daniel raised his left palm indicating that he didn’t want to hear it. He was silent for a moment, letting his seniority sinks in and then continued: How many times do I have to tell you that how you present yourself is more important than what you have to say, Dad? He sounded a bit irritated This is the age of scrupulous self promotion and playing along with people’s charades it’s not about fact, or logic or honesty it’s about saying what people want to hear. I tried to defend myself against the onslaught of practicalities coming from my yearling:

–        One would have expected a staff member in a place like Stanford to keep an open mind.

–        An open mind with a shut mouth he shot back: The teacher made herself look so good and you burst her bubble purely on the basis of academic truth? It’s about time you grew up, Dad.

We drove on in silence, as Daniel let me stew in my droppings.

We pulled up in front of the Oval. Before we left the car Daniel put his hand on my shoulder, and gave me a manly squeeze: Relax. Dad, I’m on your side, but you have to promise me one thing His green eyes stared into mine. Anything you say, I whispered, crushed. Let me do the talking, not one word out of you. This is a very delicate situation and you have to let me handle it. He let go of my shoulder, maintaining eye contact as we slid out of our seats and closed the car doors. I walked next to him, counting my toes over and over; humiliated by the thought that the only thing that worried him was how I would conduct myself.

He walked straight into the teacher’s office as if he had done it many times before. I followed like an obedient puppy. Good afternoon, I am Mr. Porat Jr., he said in a loud and confident voice, as he approached the teacher with his hand held out in front of him. The teacher rose to greet us. Daniel quickly motioned her not to bother: Please don’t get up, Yiftah just wanted to say hello before he left us alone so we could chat. Daniel half turned to me, ready to waive me out, but the coaching in the car worked; I raised my hand sheepishly, mustered a weak smile, turned and left the room leaving the door slightly open. I could hear Daniel pulling a chair closer to the teacher’s table.

–        Thank you for taking the time to discuss Yiftah with me I heard him say.

–        Yes, I, The teacher stammered.

–        Daniel continued: I have heard so many good things about you; it’s a pleasure to finally meet you in person.

–        You’re too kind.

–        Not at all, one should give credit where it’s due.

–        Well I’m glad to hear that.

–        Your program is so wonderful; it means so much to Yiftah. You should see the smile on his face when I wake him in the morning of a day when he has your class.

–        That’s good to know the teacher replied, her voice less tense.

–        Daniel continued: My Yiftah is a model student, did you know that throughout his twelve years in school from first grade to his senior year in high school he never cut class?

–        I find that hard to believe the teacher remarked.

–        Daniel sounded hurt: Have I any reason to mislead you? he asked?

–        The teacher rebounded: Of course not Mr

–        You can call me Daniel. So to what do I owe the honor of this meeting?

The teacher opened her mouth to speak, but Daniel was quicker.

–        Did you know that my Yiftah is a perfectionist?

–        No, not really, after all I’ve only known him for such a short time.

–        Well, let me tell you, that it is not easy to have a perfectionist in the house. You feel that nothing you do is good enough; we have our hands full trimming his expectations.

–        I’ll bet he is very strict with you? the teacher said trying to be emphatic.

–        Would we be sitting here talking like this had he been strict with me? Daniel answered, which confused the teacher.


Daniel lowered his voice and leaned forward:

–        Pardon my asking, but how old are you?

–        I’ll be thirty in November she answered in a loud whisper.

–        That’s what I thought Daniel responded, you’re a bit young to understand what it means to have a grownup Yiftah’s age in the house you have misconceptions and attempt to stereotype, which most likely reflects on your interpretation of his student behavior.

–        How so? the teacher asked in a tone that conveyed genuine curiosity.

–        You probably associate perfectionism with strictness

–        Aren’t they closely related? The teacher was really interested now.

–        Not really, in fact the only reason they go hand in hand is because ‘Pavlovian Conditioning’ yields expected behaviors which fools people into thinking that punishment is productive form of education. But enough of my talking, why did you want to see me?

–        For a minute I lost my train of thought the teacher apologized.

–        That’s Ok. It can happen when your deck is trashed, let me help you find it.


Without losing a breath he continued:

–        With the stereotype of Yiftah that you must have in your mind you most likely assume that I am the product of a strict upbringing, with routine punishments which include but are not limited to spanking, grounding, deprivation of candy, banning of TV, friend lockouts, broccoli and all the other weird things that people beyond forty do to people under fifteen based on the false pretence that it is the correct way to bring up one’s flock.

–        The idea has crossed my mind.

–        Daniel continued: And you, a person sworn to uphold the principles of free thinking and research, are out to get back at this demonized image of Yiftah, having amplified his perceived crime a hundred times over, based on a stereotype rather than the facts?

Daniel leaned back in his seat, his hands flat on his knees, his eyes staring straight at the teacher’s face, not moving a muscle. The teacher stirred uneasily in her seat then she started groping for supporting evidence:

–        Did Yiftah ever ground you?’

–        No.

–        No friends?

–        No.

–        Hit you?

–        Never.

–        What happens if you do not do your homework?

–        Nothing.

–        And when your marks slump?

–        It’s up to me to raise them.

–        Do you smoke?

–        No and neither does Yiftah.

–        Drugs?

–        No and neither does Yiftah.

–        Surely he drinks.

–        Milk.

–        Does he exercise?

–        Judiciously.

–        What about bed time?

–        I go to sleep when I am tired

–        He doesn’t peek through the lock when a girl comes over?

–        He’s not a pervert

–        Are there any rules in your house?

–        Only the bare essentials, you know, keeping an open mind, compassion, basic safety. Is this line of questioning going anywhere?

–        So what you are saying is that most of us tend to over regulate and play role games rather than think creatively and risk learning from consequences?

–        DUHH

–        I beg your pardon

–        I said ‘Dah’ that’s ‘yes’ in Russian, I tend to slip when I am tired.

Daniel rubbed his eyes, then he lowered his hands and continued patiently:

–        The biggest mistake parents can make is become a sheep dog to their offspring. As soon as mothers wean their children, they begin to put in rules in their place in the futile attempt to protect the child from himself.

–        How is that a problem?

–        It erases the child’s personality; it robs them of any sense of responsibility or need to decide things for themselves. They never learn to bear the consequences of their actions. They always expect their parents to be there at the other side of the door keeping tabs on them. If they fail it’s their parents fault because they were never taught differently. They drink because its not their decision to make, and they smoke for the same reasons.

The teacher was perplexed: You’re really putting me in a bind here she said thoughtfully, on one hand you’re telling me that Yiftah is so open minded, a man who corrects without punishment, has taught you to take charge of your life and achievements, and yet he demands perfection? It seems a little unfair isn’t it to ask so much of a person as young as you are not that you are not mature and capable, but still one would expect that you are entitled to make some mistakes.

–        You hit the nail on the head Daniel answered. If there is one thing that I would have him do differently it would be to lower his expectations when he is teaching me something new. All too often he loses his patience with me. I hate when that happens.

–        And what do you do when it happens?

–        Sometimes I have to walk away and come back another time it’s a lousy feeling.

–        And how does Yiftah feel about it?

–        He’s down right miserable but he knows he has to work on himself. It’s his responsibility. I think you experienced some of what I am talking about.

–        Yes, indeed I did.


There was a slight pause, this time Daniel waited for the teacher to continue. Well I am certainly glad we spoke about it, Daniel, the teacher said, I really appreciate your taking the time to swing by.

Daniel rose from his seat, shook the teacher’s hand and turned to leave. As he reached the door he turned and asked:

–        What did Yiftah do that got him into trouble?

–        He said I was not average.

–        Daniel did not lose a beat I’m sure it will not happen again.


He stepped into the hall and signaled me with his head to follow him. We walked in silence until we were well out of hearing range.

–        She said you said that she was not average!

–        I did but I meant

–        Dad, I know you mean well, but it came across as a very nasty thing to say. You know that there are only two types of teachers way above average and way beneath average there is no such thing as an actual average teacher.

He took a few more steps, stopped and turned to me:

–        When you tell a teacher that she is average you leave her dangling is she better than or beneath the average.

–        I think it is pretty obvious what I meant she’s a member of Stanford faculty for God’s sake.

–        In your logical world it makes perfect sense, but not in a teacher’s fragile ecosystem it doesn’t.

–        I only meant well I lamented.

–        You always do, but your standards and formal logic get the best of you. When you kiss up to a teacher you have to lay it on thick. You have to be very clear and very visual. I’m really surprised at you you could have at least thrown a few sweeteners at her

–        Such as?

–        ‘Cream of the crop’, ‘deep end of the gene pool’, ‘stands above the crowd’, ‘class of her own’, ‘an inspiration’, ‘someone to look up to’, just to name a few.

I had nothing to say. All I could do was wallow in my pool of guilt, hoping to do better next time. On the way home I mustered the courage to pick up the conversation again:

–        What else did she say?

–        Nothing really, she let me do most of the talking, as they always do. Don’t worry; I got you off the hook.

–        Thanks.

–        Don’t mention it; after all, what are kids for? Can you help me with math when we get home?