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The Family

Of Acorns and Oak Trees

George Will is on a roll this week:  this time with an op-ed in the Washington Post.  Today his theme is one close to my heart:  obsessive, hovering parents terrified that some freakish accident or stray step away from their carefully cultivated plans (a.k.a., "life") will torment little Johnny just enough to make him (gasp!) doubt himself.  And we all know that no one--I repeat, NO ONE--should ever dare to doubt himself in this modern world where "self-esteem" is the key to what we foolishly call "happiness."  Moreover, we've given self-esteem an almost mystical power over our lives.  Why, if one doubts himself he might . . . no, I don't dare even to speak the words . . . well, dash it!   I must speak them:  he might . . . he might fail.  And then, by God, the earth really will shift off its axis--even without the assistance of an earthquake in the southern hemisphere! 

Will, never to be duped by the alleged good motives of unbalanced and unhinged human beings now bathed in self-righteous and sticky-sweet-earnest "sincerity," quite rightly offers this gem as a rebuttal:  "Children incessantly praised for their intelligence (often by parents who are really praising themselves) often underrate the importance of effort." [Emphasis mine.]

What these kids really need to help them achieve, Will insists (this time via yet another book to be added to my Amazon wish list) is actually pretty simple:  bed-time and discipline.  They need bed-time and discipline for real--and not like they need that proverbial hole in their heads--because, in fact, they've already got that hole in their heads.  (You've always suspected it . . . now here's the scientific proof!)  The neurons and circuitry of the human brain are not completely "wired" until a person reaches something like the age of 21. (Are you listening to that, young Ashbrooks?)   And so , the more you learn in a day, the more you need sleep to help it "sink in," so to speak.  Your grandmother, it turns out, was absolutely correct when she counseled you to, "Get a good night's sleep."  This is why cramming (though sometimes, no doubt, absolutely necessary) is much less effective than the slower route to knowledge.  We have to marinate in things in order, really, to make them a part of ourselves.  All acquisition of anything really worth having requires a sustained and steady effort.

Recently, we watched the movie Rudy with our kids.  I absolutely loved that movie (based on a true story) because it is about a very average kid (in size, in athletic ability, and in academics) who sets for himself the seeming impossible goal of attending Notre Dame and of playing on the varsity football team.  It's not some Cinderella story about his self-esteem or some sappy, gauzy "belief in himself" magically propelling him into an honor student and sports legend.  Rudy never becomes the star of Notre Dame's offense, neither does he become the darling of its defense.  He does manage, finally, to get the grades required for admission to Notre Dame . . . but barely.  But more important than any of that, is that in the process, Rudy becomes one helluva man.  He becomes a better man than best player on Notre Dame's team--and everyone, even that best player, can see it and must honor it.  The whole thing is less a modern fairy tale about "self-esteem" and getting what you really want than it is an old-fashion story of American grit and determination to draw out what is best in your nature.  It's about taking ownership of your successes and your failures and making the most of both in order to grow into a fine human being. 

Will ends his column today with this admonition:
"People have been raising children for approximately as long as there have been people. Only recently -- about five minutes ago, relative to the long-running human comedy -- have parents been driving themselves to distraction by taking too seriously the idea that "as the twig is bent the tree's inclined." Twigs are not limitlessly bendable; trees will be what they will be. "

Well, "bravo" to that.  For surely, you can't grow a fig tree from an acorn.  So much of our modern angst and general unhappiness, it seems to me, is centered around the notion that happiness is to be found in some kind of will to power:  I'm born an acorn who can, if properly nurtured, grow into a strong and mighty oak tree . . . but, gee . . . I prefer to be a fig.  If only I believe it, then I can achieve it.  I'm not going to discover the nature and the limits of my purposes.  Instead, I will combat them, overcome them, transcend them, defy them.  We'd all do well to remember how closely the modern parenting tripe about "self-esteem" can come to resemble something dangerously close to a bitch-slap in Mother Nature's face.  Of course, confidence and nurturing are required even for an acorn to become a strong oak tree.  But the first has to be earned through effort and the second should come first from love--but perhaps, more important, from understanding.  How far do you bend a twig before you break it?
Categories > The Family

Discussions - 4 Comments

Oh, based on your blog-post's title, I thought you were going to give us a much-needed update on the ACORN "scandal" - no such luck, just another installment from the George Will Appreciation Society!

This has been a hot topic of mine for some time now. I’ve read Nurtureshock (worth reading) and a number of parenting books. Why? I didn’t envision mentoring my two sons (9 and 7 now) into uber-men as much as I was worried I was screwing them up.

I found the parenting books lacking. So, I read the Bible from cover to cover. It set my path straighter. Then, I read a book called “Sacred Marriage.” It’s a wonderful relationship book that is useful for married and unmarried alike. One point struck me. Does your spouse believe she is married to Christ? If I accept the label “Christian” (Christ-like), then she better feel that she is or I’m not hitting the mark. I took that a step further. Do my children feel as if their father is Christ? No honest reconciliation of my efforts would bring a satisfactory answer to that question.

Now, I’m not suggesting that I could ever achieve such a level of love, patience and wisdom. I am saying that I realized that I fundamentally misunderstood my role as a father and a husband. Something in the back of my mind was itching, but I couldn’t scratch it. I knew I was missing more to this puzzle. Excuse the mixed metaphors.

So, what’s a fella like me to do? Well, I read more books. I finally came upon a book, Raising a Modern Day Knight. I realized that I have been raising my boys to be adults, but not preparing them to fill their roles as father and husband. Reflecting on the parenting books, it looks like that was the focus of the books, as well.

When I shifted focus, I found the job simpler and more daunting. Give them the tools to be a good father and a good husband and they will be a good adult.

Raising a Modern Day Knight had a wonderful anecdote. Robert E. Lee was walking in a snowy area with his son. After some time, he looked back and saw his son struggled to put his feet in the spots where his father’s feet were moments prior. Lee reflected and said, “If my son is going to follow my footsteps, then I must walk as straight a path as possible.”

Tying this back to Nurtureshock, it’s apparent a father needs the fortitude to give effort moreso than to have a high self-esteem. I’ve committed to raising my sons as future husbands and fathers and will try to develop the skills they will need to be successful in those roles. The rest should fall into place.

While Aristotle famously says that the nature of an accorn is to become an oak tree, the fig has to be a tree with greater history. The fig was certainly prized higher by the athenians, who according to Plutarch banned the trade in figs and demanded that all figs produced be sold to the state, so that the massive profits from its trade would fall to the state. The fig was probably also the first crop cultivated. Thus agriculture or the first bitch slap at mother nature was delivered by those who discovered that a patch of land could grow more figs by diligence than by nature.

Aristotle not being aware of neuroscience or the brainwiredness of 21 year olds nevertheless has a similar warning regarding maturity in the nichomachean ethics.

Rudy is an excellent movie, but strictly speaking a football player who can play at Notre Dame (and perhaps a student with brains enough to attend) must in part depend upon genetic gifts i.e. nature.

Division I atheletes are genetically gifted and hard working. Perhaps at least some of the self-confidence that is popular comes from parents who don't want kids to collapse at the prospect of realizing that they aren't outstanding or phenoms by nature,

Will to power or will to excellence ultimately this boils down to simply putting forth effort, its a question of getting back up again, so certainly getting knocked down isn't the end of things. Boilerplate Nietzsche says: that which does not kill you only makes your stronger. An attitude that Rudy shared, in his quests to conquer his own nature(genetic limitations).

In fact the other players at Notre Dame recognize Rudy in part because he isn't by nature one of them. The other players are by nature built solid like Oak trees, while Rudy is more or less a fig.

I have no doubt that genetically Arnold Schwazenegger the Austrian Oak was above average, still Schwazenegger more than most figures represents the Will to Power and had he been a fig he would have still made himself into an oak, and as an oak could have played a fig. From the despised lesser second son of a low ranking SA Nazi, the youngest to win Mr. Olympia, his time as an illegal immigrant in America, his rise in Hollywood, his transition into politics.

"My hair was pulled. I was hit with belts. So was the kid next door. It was just the way it was. Many of the children I've seen were broken by their parents, which was the German-Austrian mentality. They didn't want to create an individual. It was all about conforming. I was one who did not conform, and whose will could not be broken. Therefore, I became a rebel. Every time I got hit, and every time someone said, 'you can't do this,' I said, 'this is not going to be for much longer, because I'm going to move out of here. I want to be rich. I want to be somebody.'

This is the best thing I've ever read about George Will:

"When George Will’s first wife threw his belongings out the window of their Georgetown home, was it cheating for him to have gone to Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations in order to express his feelings?"

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