Private Li(v)es

Do some of these Tuesday columns impress you as pretentious moralizing? You can tell me. Don't be shy. Do you, gentle readers, feel judged or--even worse--talked down to? Does this author present as if he has all the answers, like his kids pee perfume, like he did everything right? Does he imply that nobody else knows how to raise kids? Does he suggest that if you don't follow his advice, your kids are doomed? Does he pontificate that Parcheesi and camping are the simplistic answers to all complex parenting questions? Worst of all, does he come off as one of those unbearable "Christmas Card" parents? "My older daughter pitched the seventh game of the World Series the same day she was elected to the United States Senate. My son cured world hunger, was graduated top of his class, and adopted four babies from Romania."
I hope I have not given the impression that I am living a life anything like a 50s sitcom. Father may have known best whereas I, most certainly, do not. Sometimes I feel like I don't even know second best. Is my advice worthwhile?
If your heart can only be broken by someone who lives therein, then Lance Armstrong broke my heart. It would have been hard to exaggerate my respect for the man and his accomplishments. He ran a marathon; I've run a marathon. He won the Tour de France seven times; me, not so much. So let's get back to the marathon: As Juliet Macur wrote about Armstrong in an exquisite piece of sports journalism in the New York Times in 2006: "At the finish, he doubled over. After his news conference ... he limped out of the room. 'I'm a cripple,' he said, needing a boost into a waiting van."
"Me too!" I thought. I finished a marathon recently and ended up in the medical tent. Six bags of ice, one physical therapist on each leg, and an IV bag of glucose later, I limped home. "Me and Lance," I thought. "We're both limping."
My other favorite Lance Armstrong marathon quotes: 1) "Nothing in cycling ever came close to three hours of punishment at this level." 2) "That was without a doubt the hardest physical thing I have ever done." To read about the guy was to admire him. He overcame cancer. Testicular cancer. For a middle-of-the pack ultra-athlete like me, he was the epitome of heroic. He didn't just beat cancer; he crushed cancer. He didn't just finish the Tour de France; he won the 23-day bike race seven times!
Of course, it turns out that he lied about every aspect of his success. He professed to believe in hard work and sportsmanship. In reality, he was a bully and a hypocrite. He took performance-enhancing drugs and denied it. When he was caught, he doubled down and threatened the good people who told the truth and exposed him. Can we take away worthwhile life lessons about overcoming adversity and working hard from an aggressive charlatan? Does what he stood for mean more than who he really was?
There is a distinction to be made between what we profess publicly and how we behave in private. There is also a distinction to be made between professional and private lives. Wagner was a vile anti-Semite. But that doesn't take anything away from the brilliance of "Kill the Wabbit." Einstein was said to be unexceptional as a parent. Wagner is remembered for creating operas not for contributing to civil rights. Einstein is remembered for pushing back our conceptualization of the fundamental forces of nature not for his insights into parenting.
Do I have the standing to give advice about how to bring up children? My own past as a father is imperfect. As I have written about  here and here, I have lost my temper with my kids. I have been on occasion unfaithful to my most sacred trust. I have picked up greasy, unhealthy fast food when I should have taken the time to make veggie burgers. I have let my kids watch lousy movies when I should have been telling them stories. I have gone out with friends when I should have been home playing Parcheesi and making brownies. In short, I too have professed one thing in public and done another in private.
I make no excuse. My children seem to have overlooked my failings and I hope my readers will as well. I would ask each of us to think critically about what we are doing with our kids and why. To whom do we turn for advice? Are we doing the best we can five or six days out of the week? Are we, at the very least, not pretending to be that which we are not? Are we living private lives or private lies?

8 thoughts on “Private Li(v)es

  1. German Morales

    Dr. Altshuler:

    I think your writings are great and have been very encouraging. He who does not value your advice and calls you on your private life is himself the biggest fool. Your articles are insightful and well written. With a taste of reality that is delightful and refreshing. I would like to thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge on a weekly basis. Not only have I used your advise with my son, but I have also been able to extrapolate to other areas of my life and relationships. Your craft-fully apologetic discourse is well taken although not needed. Thank you for your weekly words of encouragement.

  2. Jonathan Mitchell

    Hey David, I must say, I truly enjoy your writing ability, style, and overall transparency. In the face of so many emails entering the inbox every day from spam, listserv’s, and genuine work-related matters, I find reading your posts refreshing, reflective, and surprisingly inspiring compared to the daily mundanity that filters in from the ethers of the digital universe. Thanks for your dedication to the families you serve, and clearly, the way you must serve them – with an open, sincere, and informed heart.

  3. N Charles Henss Jr

    Dear Dr. Altschuler:

    I am Matthew Perry’s husband, and, since he is legally blind, the reader of all his e-mail. While I’m sure that Matthew would like to hear from you personally, your newsletter, while well-written, is irrelevant to our childless lives.

    Very truly yours,
    N. Charles Henss, Jr.

  4. Shari Witkoff

    I do hope that your questioning the value of your blogs does not come from something someone said/wrote to make you doubt yourself. From someone who doesn’t have kids, I still find value in what you discuss. I share your suggestions and wisdom with my friends and family. I even find that as I read your writings, that my heart rate falls, my shoulders lower a little and I feel more at peace. I receive a sense of calm and an absolute sense that a) you are not perfect and make sure you don’t want the reader to feel you condescend to us, b) encouraging us to be better the better “me” I can be and c) to not beat ourselves up for our failures or coming up short. I commend you for your humility as a leader/guide/guru(?)! 😉

  5. Linda Osberg

    I always read your email column. I don’t know how I got on your list but glad I did. I send your messages to my friends who are going through child raising problems. South Florida has such strange way about it — nannies, maids, money, etc. — that your article has helped me stay centered. My daughter and son are doing well although my job of worrying will never end. Thank you and keep writing. (You don’t write in a pompous or arrogant way so don’t worry about it and keep writing.) Linda

  6. Ricardo Cevallos

    I really loved this one! We should all take some time every day or at least every week to check and see how we are doing!

  7. Dr. Daniel Bird

    Behavior speaks louder than words. Kids are smart and can recognize on many levels what is occurring, even young one’s with yet to be developed cognitive skills are aware of how we behave. Our behavior is what they learn to trust and believe, very quickly they learn the difference between what we do and what we say! Just think of the parent use of “NO” and how many meanings per situation that “NO” can have for how our child responds!

  8. Linda

    I look forward to your pieces. With all the junk that comes every day to me electronically, your thoughts always stand out as a worthwhile thing to read. I find them humble and inspiring, and they almost always make me smile; not necessarily a laughing smile, but the smile that comes from knowing that somebody understands life’s challenges as a parent and a professional, and can liberate those feelings into a language that can be shared. Keep up the great work!

    -Linda H.


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