The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, March 07, 2005

Raising a daughter

I just got this note from a friend and student...
I'd like to ask you about how you raised your daughter. I've met her(I don't
know if I should refer to her as Lauren or Nikki - I think I remember you
calling her that. Or I'm just mis-remembering things) and, from what I've
seen, she is intelligent, concientious, simultaneously strong-willed and
respectful; and I attribute what I know of her to what I know of you, as a
man, as a human being, and as a father. And not to sound like I'm trying to
blow smoke up your ass, I try apply what I've learned (and continue to
learn) from you to my parenting of both of my girls. You are, in a great my
ways, my role-model, which is why I come to you now.

When she was 12, full of nearly-teen hormones and attitude and
manipulations, how did you relate to her? Was she ever disrespectful or
deceitful, and how did you handle it? I'm at a bit of a loss as to what to
say here, so I'll just end for now, but thank you Steve, for everything.
So I've decided to spend some time this week on the heart chakra.  The question of relationships, and family, especially since I take the position that we are responsible for them, and their health.
Anyone who knows me knows I adore my daughter Nicki (Lauren Nicole), and that she is the only child I had with my first wife, Toni.  I think she's turning out great, and in order to talk about what my attitudes were in raising her, I have  to get into her business a bit--which I have her permission to do.
First, you have to define exactly what you want for your children.  How else will you know if you're getting it or not?  How else can you adjust your actions and priorities?  How will  you know when things are going wrong?  So let me start with my basic position about parenthood:
It is my job to deliver my children safely to their future. 
Nicki does not belong to me.  She is not me, re-packaged in younger, prettier, feminine form.  She is her own creature.  As a child, she was already as smart as she was ever going to be--merely ignorant.  I had to help her learn how to learn.  To that end, there were three things that I wanted to give her, or to help her find within herself:
1) A love of learning and working.
2) Self-love, externalized to healthy relationships.  The ability to form teams of people to accomplish those things she cannot do for herself.
3) A love and appreciation of her body as a toy, a tool, and a pet.
I screwed up in my first marriage.  There are things I will talk about there, and for reasons of family privacy, others I will not.  Let's just say that some of my asininity contributed to the break-up, and that placed my daughter at risk.  Children need both parents, and I was absolutely commited to Nicki having the healthiest life possible.  When she found out her mother and I were getting a divorce, it shattered her.  Unfortunately, her best friend's parents had had a divorce. Within a year or so the father locked himself in a hotel room and LITERALLY drank himself to death. So, to Nicki, this is what happens when mommies and daddies divorce.  This moment, when she was about 11, was a critical one.  I looked at Nicki and said: "Nicki, have I ever lied to you?"  She shook her head no.  "Have I ever broken a promise to you?"  Her beautiful, tear-stained face showed strain as she thought.  Then she answered "no."
"All right, then," I said.  "Here it is.  I know that you need your daddy.  So, until you are 18 years old, I promise that I'll live close enough that you can see me every day."
Instantly, she brightened up, because she knew I was good for it.  I ended up living in Longview, Washington, a tiny town with not much to recommend it except excellent, excellent people.  for seven years I gave up my career in Hollywood, lived in a teeny logging town so small it didn't even have a 7-11.  A town so white I used to get stares when I walked down the street.  And my wife, Tananarive, a big-city girl from Miami, came there to be with me, and we created a home where T, Nicki, Toni and I all lived within ten minutes of each other, and could be together for Sunday dinner, see movies, collaborate on school projects, and whatever else was needed.  I will always love Toni with a full heart for making it possible for me to parent the daughter I love so dearly--there was no war zone.  We found our way to peace together, and my respect and affection for my ex is through the roof. 
There were things about Longview that were problematic for my daughter.  She was too exotic, a bit too dark.  She never had a single date, the whole time she was there, and she was the only one of her peer group for which this was true.  No boyfriends.  Nothing.  We'll discuss that later.  But one thing she knows about herself, and knows it absolutely, and will know for the rest of her life:  her daddy loves her.  Her daddy was willing to do whatever it took to be there for her.  And no one, ever, will be able to take that from her.
I made mistakes in my life, but was damned if Nicki would pay for them.  If she grows strong, it will be because she grows from a base of love, with parents she could trust.  When I am on my death bed, thinking back over my life, it is quite possible that the single thing I will be proudest of is:
1) I never lied to my daughter.
2) I never broke a promise to her.
3) And when she needed those things the most, I was able to honestly say them.


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