Michael Chabon, the American writer who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, spends a lot of time thinking about fatherhood. He wants to be a good dad, and as someone who takes the job seriously, it’s not obvious how to be one. In his new book, Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces, the father of four explores how to encourage his children’s individuality, teaching his teenage son to treat women well and what it means to be a good dad, among other issues. The Globe and Mail’s Dave McGinn spoke to Chabon about the hardest parts of raising children today and how to handle them.
One thing that struck me from the book is that you seem to always be very encouraging of your kids without you having to understand them or make them explain themselves to you.
What I have an easy time encouraging are things like openness to new experiences, curiosity, a desire to expand one’s range, to test one’s abilities and capacities. When the things I see my kids doing come under one of those headings, that makes it easier to be encouraging, even if the sort of particular mode of those things being expressed is maybe one I don’t fully understand.
There is an essay in the book about teaching your son not to be a jerk to women because you find him ignoring a girl who likes him. There are other degrees of treating women poorly, obviously. Have you had to have those conversations, particularly in the #MeToo era?
Absolutely. I mean, you have to. If you don’t, then I think you’re doing something wrong. It doesn’t have to be a constant conversation. It is to a large degree about teaching by example by showing your sons how to behave toward women by your own behaviour toward women. But I don’t necessarily think that’s sufficient.
So how do you handle those conversations?
That’s not a hard one to me. There are much harder conversations to have with your kids. That one is not awkward or embarrassing the way other kinds of conversations can be, it’s just important.
What are some of the awkward or embarrassing conversations you’ve had with your kids?
The drugs conversation, for example. That’s a hard one. Drugs and kids is a subject that is just overwhelmingly likely to drive any parent far, far to the fear extreme of things. So trying to be guided by rational impulses as much as possible when it comes to that topic, to do research to get good information – it’s hard to do. But I think it’s incumbent on parents to do it, however.
Do you have a specific approach to that conversation, besides doing your best to be rational?
My wife and I adopted very early on an essentially harm-reduction approach, which basically boils down, when it comes to drugs, to teaching your children how not to die, but conceding the point that people have been using mind-altering substances of one kind or another throughout human history and will continue to do so, and some of those substances are vastly more dangerous than others. But prohibitions and bans and things like that are demonstrably useless. So trying to get the best information possible, set limits that feel reasonable, that are relatively easily maintained and policed, if you will, and then crossing your fingers and hoping for the best. But that’s a topic that, when you bring it up with your kids, they are going to ask you uncomfortable questions, especially if you’re trying to impose a total ban on drug use. You are going to get the inevitable questions like, “What about you? You have two glasses of wine every night. Or “Didn’t you get high? Do you still smoke pot?” Or whatever it might be.
What is the thing you’ve struggled most with as a father?
The most difficult thing to do as a parent, but in many ways the most necessary thing to do, is to acknowledge your own fallibility, to acknowledge your own shortcomings, to admit you don’t have all the answers. That’s a tough one for men in particular, I think. That you’ve made mistakes, that you will continue to make mistakes. That you have regrets. Those can be extremely uncomfortable and difficult, and yet I think that is the single most necessary dialogue you can have with your kids because kids spend so much of their time measuring themselves against the standards that you impose.