The Little Way of Ruthie Leming

Is a successful career or an especially close extended family more important? Why bother being introspective? Why are sibling relations often strained? Can family members reconcile given longstanding dysfunction?

These are some of the questions Rod Dreher takes up in his brilliant book about his sister’s life. Put down whatever you’re reading and travel to rural Louisiana with Dreher and Leming. The subtitle is “A Southern Girl, A Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life”. Dreher’s book is more novel (or Shakespearean play) than social science essay. He writes extremely well and tells a riveting story that was so sad in parts I didn’t even bother tilting my head back.

Dreher contrasts his sister’s life with his own and finds his wanting. He prioritized career, often moving to pursue better journalism jobs. In contrast, Ruthie married her high school sweetheart, went to college thirty minutes away, and then returned home to teach, live next to her parents, and raise her three daughters.

Dreher’s story made my head spin. He mostly idolizes his sister’s life choices, but clearly he wouldn’t have become as outstanding a writer if as a teen he hadn’t gone to a selective, public boarding school, or if he hadn’t taken successively more challenging journalism gigs. His ambition and career trajectory enabled him to tell his sister’s story so beautifully. And yet, he’s eloquent about the costs of his professional ambition to his relationship with his sister, his parents, his nieces, and his hometown.

As young adults, nearly everyone in my extended family moved far away from their parents. Now sprinkled all over the country, we’re held together by email, airplanes, and an aging matriarch. Except for the conservative politics, I am Rod Dreher, by which I mean I’m often too introspective for my own good. Then again, without introspection, Dreher never would have bothered with the story in the first place.

While reading “The Little Way” I thought about my dad who had unimaginable career success, my sister whose longstanding commitment to her small community and her family reminded me of Ruthie, and most of all, my daughters. What will be more important to them, ambition or relationships? Will they keep the “family moving away” streak alive? Previously, I’ve written about the key ingredient to tight-knit extended families—a vision for closeness coupled with an intentionality that fosters that. Dreher’s experience, especially his father’s regrets in life, makes me think inertia probably plays a part too.

In the end, Dreher zigs when you think he’s going to zag. He doesn’t offer his beloved sister’s life as a model, or his own, instead he thoughtfully recommends something in between.

One question Dreher inspired is what’s the best way for the GalPal and I to encourage my adult daughters to live within a half day’s drive? I know I probably shouldn’t do or say anything to compromise the freedom I enjoyed in my early twenties, but our laissez-faire approach to extended family has serious limits. Maybe it’s time for some sort of an audible. Reading and talking about “The Little Way” would be an excellent start. We have to do something because I can’t take much more air travel.

imagesNext in the queue—Nate in Venice by Richard Russo. Next next—The Unwinding by George Packer.  Next next next—College (Un)Bound by Jeffrey Selingo.

Embracing Children for Who They Are

When you buy a new car you’re provided with a detailed owner’s manual, but even though human beings are far more complex than cars, when new mothers and fathers leave the hospital with a new born, they’re completely on their own.

Jane Brody, in an insightful New York Times blog post of the same title, exhorts parents to appreciate and adapt to their childrens’ differences.

Consider that critical phrase a second time—appreciate and adapt. Easier said then done. Most parents start out parenting each successive child the same. More often than not, they’re too slow to appreciate and adapt to inevitable differences.

Despite the absence of any type of owner’s manual, there are wise parent authors, like Brody herself, and Andrew Solomon (appropriately named), offering excellent help.

Key excerpts from Brody’s post:

Contrary to what some parents might believe or hope for, children are not born a blank slate. Rather, they come into the world with predetermined abilities, proclivities and temperaments that nurturing parents may be able to foster or modify, but can rarely reverse.

The goal of parenting should be to raise children with a healthy self-image and self-esteem, ingredients vital to success in school and life. That means accepting children the way they are born — gay or straight, athletic or cerebral, gentle or tough, highly intelligent or less so, scrawny or chubby, shy or outgoing, good eaters or picky ones.

Of course, to the best of their ability, parents should give children opportunities to learn and enjoy activities that might be outside their natural bent. But, as attested to in many a memoir, forcing children to follow a prescribed formula almost always backfires.

For example, everyone in my family is a jock. . . except one of my four grandsons. Now 10, he is an intellectual, and has been since age 3, when he learned the entire world’s atlas of animals. He absorbs scientific information like a sponge and retains it. He can tell you about deep-sea creatures, planets and stars, chemical reactions, exotic caterpillars, geological formations — you name it — and he’s a whiz at the computer. But he has no athletic interest or apparent ability. His parents have introduced him to a variety of team and individual sports, but so far none has clicked.

Rather than try to remake him into someone he is not, the challenge for all of us is to appreciate and adapt to his differences, love him for who he is and not disparage him for what he is not. While the other three boys get basketballs, bicycles and tennis rackets as gifts, for his 10th birthday I gave him a huge book on the universe, which became his bedtime reading.

One persuasive voice for differences in children and how families must adapt better is Andrew Solomon, author of an ambitious new book, “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity,” published this month by Scribner.

He makes a strong case for accepting one’s children for who they are and, at the same time, helping them become the best they can be. Especially poignant is his account of a family with a high-functioning son with Down syndrome. For years, the boy progressed academically on pace with his peers and was a poster child for what a person with Down syndrome could do. But when the son could go no further, his mother recognized that he needed to be in a group home.

“We had worked so hard to make him the Down syndrome guy who didn’t need it,” the mother told Mr. Solomon. “But I had to look at what was best for him, and not some ideal we had built up for ourselves.”

Most of the parents interviewed found a lot of meaning and many rewards in dealing with a child who was different. “They told me it has given them a so much richer life that they wouldn’t have given it up for all the world,” Mr. Solomon said. “There are many ways to exist in this world and many different ways to be happy.”

He added: “You want your children to achieve and be comfortable with who they are. You should advocate for them and help them develop the skills to advocate for themselves. But parents shouldn’t try to mold their children. When you expect your kids to fit into a mold, especially a mold of your own making, you’ll be disappointed.”

Parents shouldn’t beat themselves up for not getting the appreciating and adapting just right. They should seek out and embrace positive examples of flexible, loving parenting all around them.