Parenting with a Story

Real-Life Lessons in Character for Parents and Children to Share

 Parenting with a Story

Author: Paul Smith
Pub Date: November 2014
Print Edition: $16.00
Print ISBN: 9780814433577
Page Count: 272
Format: Paper or Softback
e-Book ISBN: 9780814433584

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Excerpt

INTRODUCTION

The destiny of the world is determined less by the battles that are lost and won than by the stories it loves and believes in. —Howard Goddard

Perhaps the most memorable lesson I ever learned about becoming an

adult occurred at the most unexpected place and time: in a crowded

restaurant on Secretary’s Day, April 1986. Still a teenager and a freshman

in college, I had a part-time job at a local furniture manufacturing company.

My father was an executive there, and he helped me get a job as a

file clerk in the personnel office. I discovered that each year on that day,

all the bosses took their administrators and clerical staff out to lunch.

That meant a free lunch for me.

To make it easy, the company reserved every seat in a local restaurant.

About fifty managers and more than a hundred “secretaries” showed up

that day. In preparation for so many guests, the restaurant prepared only

two meal options: a club sandwich and quiche lorraine. It’s important to

recognize that this event happened shortly after the publication of the

bestselling book Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche by Bruce Feirstein, a tongue-

in-cheek look at the feminization of the American male.

So as the waitress was making her rounds taking orders, it was no

surprise that all the men ordered the club sandwich and most of the

women ordered the quiche. Until they got to my dad, that is, who was

sitting within earshot of me. He looked up from the menu and said,

“Hmm . . . I’ve never had quiche before. I tell you what, why don’t you

bring me half a quiche and half a club sandwich. That way, if I don’t like

the quiche, I’ll still have the sandwich.”

Within seconds, the abuse began. The men at the table called my father’s

masculinity into question in more creative ways than I had imagined

possible at that point in my life. Awkward and embarrassing don’t

begin to describe how it feels for a boy still in his teenage years to watch

his father be ridiculed in such a manner. Needless to say, when it was my

turn to order, I quickly picked the club sandwich.

After ten or fifteen minutes of ribbing, my father seemed to have had

enough and called the waitress back over. “Thank God!” I thought. “Just

pacify these jerks and let’s get on with lunch.” The waitress arrived and

Dad said, as expected, “I’m sorry. I need to change my order. I ordered

half a quiche and half a club sandwich.” Howls of success and a round of

high fives erupted at the table as the other men celebrated their victory.

Their aim had been to break my father’s will with their ridicule, and appar-

ently they had just done it.

What came next, however, shocked me and everyone else. He continued,

“Take back the half a club sandwich and bring me the whole

damn quiche!” A stunned silence fell over the table of now slack-jawed

men.

To this day, I still don’t know if my father likes quiche. But on that

particular day he ate every bite with a smile on his face.

My respect and admiration for my father rose to a whole new level

that day. He showed everyone at that table that he was man enough to eat

anything he liked and didn’t care what they thought about it. He showed

them that he refused to be defined by social norms. And he showed me,

his son, something of what it means to be a real man.

Twenty-eight years later, I have two sons of my own. I’ve shared this story

with both of them on several occasions when I saw them confronting peer

pressure. My goal, of course, is to give them the courage to stand up to

that pressure, but also to give them a successful way to respond.

If a classmate teases my son Matthew that his pants aren’t sagging off

his waist enough, as is unfortunately fashionable these days, now I simply

prompt him, “Eat the quiche, son.” Recalling the story, he’d then follow

the example set by my father. Instead of doing less of what he’s being

teased for, he’d do it more! He’d pull his pants up even higher and say,

“There, is that better?”

You can imagine the confused look on his tormentor’s face and the

retort, “No, you dummy, I said they’re too high!” Another tug and his

pants are now up to mid-torso, followed quickly by “How about now?”

You can see how his adversary would rapidly become exasperated and

give up.

But notice three other things about this story. First, I hope you can see

how simply advising children to “stand up to peer pressure” or to “be

yourself” is less likely to help them navigate this situation. Platitudes that

seem profound in a pithy piece of prose are surprisingly unhelpful to child-

ren in a real-life situation. They’re too vague and abstract. “What exactly

does it mean to ‘be myself’ or to ‘stand up to peer pressure’? Should I walk

away, start a fight, or just ignore them?” At the other end of the spectrum,

telling children exactly what to do in every situation is overly prescriptive

and doesn’t leave them room to think for themselves. But a story like the

one above gives them a concrete idea for how to respond without just

telling them what to do. As keenly observed by Hannah Arendt, “Storytelling

reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.”

Second, the story does something else platitudes and advice won’t do.

It shows the hero in the story succeeding, a success that could be theirs if

they follow the hero’s lead. My experience with children (and especially

teenagers) is that they have a natural distrust of advice doled out by old

people (i.e., you!). So why should they believe that “standing up to peer

pressure” would have an outcome they’ll be happy with? But after hearing

that story, they can judge for themselves and won’t have to take your

word for it.

Last, notice that the story represents an unexpected moment of clarity

in someone’s life, in this case, mine. I was just having lunch. I wasn’t

expecting to learn anything, much less anything important in my journey

to manhood. Almost thirty years later, after spending most of my career

as a consumer researcher and the last five years as an author, conducting

hundreds of interviews and documenting more than 1,500 personal stories,

I’ve concluded this: To most people, these unexpected moments of

clarity represent their most meaningful, insightful, and memorable experien-

ces that have the longest-term impact on their lives. When such a

moment is shared with a loved one, it can become one of that person’s

most impactful moments as well.

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