Getting Schooled by a 3rd Grader
Little did I know my nine-year-old son would become my greatest teacher
I can create, pitch and sell multi-million-dollar ad campaigns to a room full of intimidating suits. I can recite (and sing) the lyrics to every 90s pop song — AND know their peak Billboard chart position by date. I can turn someone's frown upside down with just a few carefully chosen words. But while I act like I know everything about everything… the truth is I don't know much. Never was this more apparent than the day my son Maxwell entered my life. It was then — the day I became a father — that I realized I have a whole lot to learn about life. Little did I know he'd become my greatest teacher.
My little guy has taught me lessons about life and love far beyond his years. Shoot, far beyond my years. So get ready to be schooled by a 3rd grader.
Life Lesson #1: Be Forgiving
When I was a kid, if you crossed me once you were dead to me. I held onto grudges the way Donald Trump holds onto Hillary's emails. From the high school bully poking fun of my penchant for color blocked silk button downs, to a client passing over my brilliant campaign concept, or someone foolishly claiming that Whitney's Herculean Super Bowl performance of the national anthem wasn't the gold standard (as if), by the time I was an adult, my arms were ripped from holding on to so much anger. And while it did wonders for my physique in fitted Tees, I suffered from chronic migraines. My doctors tasked me to learn to manage my stress. Then something changed. Something called fatherhood.
With a newborn in the house, I wanted to spend every minute I could with Max and be 100% present with him. If I was thinking or worried about something else, I would miss precious moments with him. So I learned to compartmentalize my grudges so as not to affect him. As he grew older I'd watch Max interact with friends during playdates and at school and it was fascinating to see how quickly children forgive each other after rude words are exchanged or toys aren't shared. They can go from crying hysterically to laughing uncontrollably in a matter of seconds. Once they do the parent-mandated "I'm sorry" thing, they continue playing as if nothing happened.
They don't let the small things get them down. They don't let a bad moment lead to a bad day, like I always had. I wondered what it would be like if I approached life this way. What if I stopped compartmentalizing, and started to forgive and forget? Well, I gave it a try. And soon it was easier for me to move on and get back to my happier less headachey self. The only downside — I've lost some of my upper arm strength.
Life Lesson #2: Be Yourself
I spent most of my life being the guy other people wanted me to be. Did what other people wanted me to do. Dressed how others wanted me to dress. Acted like… you get the point. Pretending to be somebody I wasn't was exhausting.
On the other hand, Max came out of the womb exuding confidence. A born leader. Nothing phases him. He'll proudly go to the supermarket donning mismatched pajamas and a fireman hat. He'll run around the park inside an imaginary military tank (the sound effects aren't so imaginary). He'll go into full flip-out tantrum mode on a flight to London, paying no mind to the angry passengers seated all around us. Simply put, the kid gives zero fucks. He's never been concerned about how others see him. If people look at him funny, he says "Hi, I'm Max." And so while introducing himself to others, he's introduced me to a world where you can be your own person.
His individualism is contagious and it took me a while, but I've finally caught on. Because of Max, I've learned to worry less about what other people think about me and to focus more on my own happiness. So don't be surprised if you see me doing some "lip-synching for my life" at the park or rocking my plaid PJs and a fedora at work.
Life Lesson #3: Be Funny
When I attempt to be funny I'm usually just trying to mask something that's stressing me out. Could be work. Could be family stuff. Could be the fact that no matter how hard I try, I just can't get my hair to look like Shawn Mendes'. Point is I'm stressed out a lot. And Max has helped me figure out a great way to deal with it: laughter. He's taught me that there are few problems a good laugh can't solve.
Max can be in the middle of a full-on breakdown after accidentally stepping on one of his Hot Wheels (far less painful than a Lego; trust me), and then, all of a sudden, he'll fart. He'll look around the room and just start cracking up. TMI? Please refer to life lesson #2. His laughter reminds me that as stressful as life can be sometimes, it's important to be silly, to be immature, to have the ability to laugh at ourselves. Max taught me how humor can soothe and distract, and that it is often the very best way to change the energy in a room.
In fact, all this laughing at home has translated to laughing at work. Usually it's just my boss laughing when I ask for a raise, but it feels good nonetheless.
Life Lesson #4: Be Honest
Like most people, I've been known to tell little white lies every now and then. You know, "Oh, picking you up at the airport in the middle of a work day is no trouble at all" or "No really, those skinny jeans look great on you." But in the past few years, I've gained a new respect for the art of brutal honesty. And I've got my little guy to thank.
See, Max has never been one to censor himself. Ever. He keeps it realer than Wendy Williams on hot topics.
This past Summer we were at a swimming playdate and Max turns to one of his friends and says: "My Daddy's tummy is softer than your Daddy's tummy." It may have been brutal but his cuteness made up for it. Children are critical because they haven't learned to lie. They haven't yet been affected by life and the influence of others. They haven't been corrupted by political correctness. And there's something about it that's so refreshing.
Sure, I've witnessed some hurt feelings due to his failure to filter. Once, during a playdate, he asked his friend's mom, "why does your house smell weird?" (He wasn't lying, by the way.) But for the most part, his honesty is quite refreshing. The best part of being honest is his ability to tell me exactly how he's feeling and why. It makes it much easier for me to soothe him and be the best father I can be.
Alas, I've become susceptible to the honesty bug. And by that I mean, "yes, helping you — a successful 37-year-old man — move into a new house was a lot of trouble, and kind of pathetic of you to ask" and "those skinny jeans don't make your ass look big; your fat ass makes your ass look big." Okay, maybe too honest.
Life Lesson #5: Be Amazing
Eight years ago Max couldn't walk. Seven years ago he couldn't talk. Four years ago he couldn't read. Now, at the age of nine, he walks, talks, eats, sleeps, reads, cleans and even drives himself to school. Okay, fine, he doesn't actually clean. He also tells jokes with impressive comedic timing, can rap Lil Nas X's Old Town Road in its entirety and is able to make his own breakfast (as in eat dry Fruit Loops out of the box). He can singlehandedly turn the most gruelling, difficult day into the best with a hug and an "I love you, Dada." All this got me thinking. We all have the potential to do amazing things. We just need to put in the work.
Being amazing doesn't happen over night. It's a gradual process. But if Max can do it at the ripe age of nine, what's stopping me from putting my best foot forward to become the most amazing version of myself at 36 (fine, 41). The answer is nothing.
Max has opened my eyes and my heart to so many things I didn't know. Because of him I see the world differently. I see people differently. I am smarter because of him. I am happier because of him. I love better because of him. He has taught me new levels of strength and perseverance: I've learned that you can keep going long after you think you can't, with far less sleep than you thought you needed.
And I've realized that being a father and a husband are two of the best decisions I have ever made. Not eating that third donut this morning was the 3rd best decision I ever made, for those keeping track.