Bob Fulghum[i] once told this story about fathers:
“Soccer mania comes to our Seattle neighbourhood every September.
When children appear at our door selling chocolate bars to make money to buy their own uniforms, we know that soccer season is underway. These ill-at-ease visitors on the front door porch are rookies, both at the game of soccer and the game of door to door sales.
Here’s the tableau:
A timid knock at the door. A small child. Head down, muttering, hand holding out the bar of chocolate as if apologetically returning something stolen.
The child does not want to be there.
The parent, standing off in the bushes, does not want to be there.
And you do not need the chocolate.
But since you were once the child and several times the parent in this semi-scam, you are obliged to take your place in this initiation of the young into entrepreneurial capitalism, sports, and the American way.
(Besides, while it is true you don’t really need the chocolate, you want the chocolate, and it feels so right to simultaneously help the younger generation.)
A nine year old daughter of a friend recently went through this coming of age ritual in a way that was both disastrous and triumphant.
Since this was the first season for her team, each child was required to help raise money for uniforms by taking at least one case of chocolate bars to sell. A model of soccer-team spirit – everybody plays a part in achieving a goal.
With no enthusiasm whatever, the girl accepted her case of chocolate in the same spirit she would accept pimples in a few years – something to be avoided if possible, but endured if necessary. She wanted to play ball. She didn’t know retail sales was a prerequisite, but so be it.
Her mother and father did not buy the whole case outright from her as she had hoped. So much for Plan A.
Her brother and his friends were no help, though they tried to diminish her inventory by stealing a couple of bars. And every member of her youth group also had chocolate to sell.
She hid the chocolate under her bed for a week hoping a fairy would take it and leave the money. No luck.
When the soccer-league chocolate chair-mother called the father to find out what was going on and why the child had neither come to soccer practice nor produced the chocolate receipts, the father’s pride was hooked. He promised results.
He gave his daughter an emergency-level intensive course in sales-ship and personal responsibility. He and the daughter rehearsed. She came to the door and practiced knocking and he shouted, “KNOCK LOUDER, I CAN’T HEAR YOU!” until she could hit the door like the first wave of a police raid.
He made her look up, speak plainly, and offer a two-for-one deal if necessary. What he finally got her to shout, “BUY THIS CHOCOLATE OR I WILL SET YOUR HOUSE ON FIRE” he figured assertiveness training had gone far enough. He marched her off with fire in her belly. She was pumped!
At the first house her father gave her a go-get-‘em pat and then hid behind a tree. The kid stood at the door without moving for 5 agonizing minutes before the father realized that the fire in her belly had burned out. He rescued her, and they walked back home in silence.
The father gave her a new pep talk about doing hard things and having courage and how it was when he was a little boy. He appealed to her place in the future of feminism. Real women can do this, OK? OK. All right, let’s get ‘em!
This time she wanted to go alone – her father lurking around on the sidelines made her nervous.
At the first house, she did her door-pounding and then ran for it.
Several other neighbours wondered who pounded at their door and disappeared. Unable to go beating on the doors, the child spent the rest of the afternoon in the garage, hunkered down in the backseat of the family car. She reappeared at dinnertime, defeated.
The father couldn’t give up. Too much was on the line. Crucial time in the life of his child. He considered the power of advertising. Take advantage of location. The family lived in a university town, in a neighbourhood where football fans parked their cars on the way to the stadium for the Saturday afternoon games. Hundreds of people walked by. They would want and need chocolate!
The father explained the concept of advertising to his daughter and convinced her that all they had to do was make a sign, and she could stand down there on the street for an hour before the game and fans would buy all the chocolate she had.
They made a sign. HELP THE HILLSIDE SCHOOL SOCCER TEAM BUY UNIFORMS - $2 – GREAT CHOCOLATE!
The little girl was gone for an hour. Her father could see from the front porch and checked on her from time to time. She was selling chocolate hand over fist. Yes! YES!
She came home smiling. A triumphant smile. She had sold ALL the chocolate – the whole case. She was relieved. Her father was proud of her and pleased with himself. What a team they made! They celebrated with a banana split, with extra chocolate sauce.
A couple of days later, their next-door-neighbour, who had been a party to this adventure in retail sales, came over in the evening at that hour when children are already in bed. He and the father sat out on the front porch and had a coffee while they enjoyed the autumn sky. The neighbour said, “I have something to show you. It’s too good to keep, but you have to promise not to show it to your daughter.”
From out of a brown paper grocery bag, the neighbour took a folded piece of cardboard. “I found this in my garbage can.”
It was the sign the father had made for the daughter. It still said HELP THE HILLSIDE SCHOOL SOCCER TEAM BUY UNIFORMS - $2 – GREAT CHOCOLATE. But underneath those words, it his daughter’s crayoned printing, was this footnote: ‘MY FATHER MADE ME DO THIS.’”
I’ve re-told this story partly because it’s a fun story about fathering – albeit from a different cultural context – and has a happy ending. And I’ve re-told it to ponder the deeper question of our father’s influence on us, for good or ill. Fathers, like mothers, not only share their genes with us – affecting what we look like, sound like, and are susceptible to – but also shape things like our confidence (or lack of it), our approach to challenges, and our view of people foreign to us.
Confidence can be hard to measure. In this story the daughter was probably assessed by her father as lacking the confidence to sell her chocolate bars. Yet the ending (‘MY FATHER MADE ME DO THIS’ sign) suggests the daughter had the confidence and courage to differentiate from her father. Similarly some people present to the world a very confident demeanour which can be an outward disguise of significant hidden anxieties. We are complex people.
One thing we learn early is how to hide our fears. But like hide-and-seek the point of the game is actually to be found, not stay hidden forever. Some of us hide too well, and our hidden fears eat away at our bodies and minds. We need to learn to trust. And that can be hard if our early developed internal belief systems tell us trusting is not a good idea.
What a child needs is the security of at least one parent or caregiver who is always there for them, believes in them, and helps pick them up when they stumble. It’s about being wanted and loved by those who parent us. It is from security that confidence, and also generosity, can arise.
The theory underlying this is surprisingly theological. We do not exist and then belong; rather belonging is integral to existence. Our sense of self emerges in a context of belonging. John Zizioulas, a Greek Orthodox theologian, reflecting the tradition of Eastern Christianity, once wrote a book called Being As Communion which said a similar thing. Zizioulas though then extrapolates into god thoughts – the idea that the ‘being’ of God is ‘communion’ – or in other language: god is not an autonomous individualised being but being itself, like a connective integrating belonging energy pulsating through life.
The ethic arising from such theology, which is now part of many therapeutic and social work practices, is that individuals are part of systems like families, and to treat/help/relate to the individual it is best to work with the system in which they belong.
Confidence in belonging forms the basis of how we face challenges. Will fear be our primary response, or are we willing to try to put aside our fear?
The father in the Fulghum story tries multiple sales strategies in order to achieve his dual goals of selling the chocolate and inspiring his daughter in the ways of income generation. He doesn’t though realise that his daughter will develop her own strategy: namely by humour appeal to people’s own experience of being parented.
Confidence in belonging also helps us to be hospitable and generous, in both our thoughts and practice, to new people and new ideas. This too is often about managing our fears.
Just as showing and giving children the experience of love is vitally important, so is showing children and giving them the resources to manage their fears.
To conclude, I recall Leunig’s little prayer:
There are only two feelings.
Love and fear.
There are only two languages.
Love and fear.
There are only two activities.
Love and fear.
There are only two motives,
two procedures, two frameworks,
Love and fear.
Love and fear.
[i] Robert Fulghum Maybe (Maybe Not) New York : Ivy, 1993, p.115ff.