Being Ward Cleaver / A Letter to my Kids

Ever since I became a father I have really only had one ambition- to be Ward Cleaver. Ward was the complete package as fathers go. He was handsome, of course, and made a good living. His wife adored him and his business partners respected him. He raised his kids to be polite, competent, thoughtful, and intelligent members of society. He instilled wisdom in Beaver and Wally without screaming insanely or being reduced to tears of frustration himself. He was never sarcastic or cruel when the Beaver cheated on a test at school, suggesting that he would never amount to anything and should probably grab a broom handle and start practicing holding up a sign along the side of the road.… etc., etc., etc. If Wally backed the car into the garage door and then tried to hide the fact, Ward did not blow up like some kind of lunatic scarring Wally’s fragile ego for life, but steered him gently in the direction of honesty and responsibility. He never cussed in his kids’ presence or cheated on his golf score or flung his @#$%# backlashed fishing reel out into the middle of @#$%@ Lake George …… ah, forget that last example. There are a lot of reasons I want to be like Ward Cleaver. They are the same reasons I want to be like my dad and I want to be like my grandpa. All these guys were solid and steady and competent and smart. To distill it all down to a single phrase, these guys “Knew what to do, always.” There never seemed to be any moral flailing about with these guys. If the car broke down, they fixed it. If they had a new wife and child they went out and got a better job and earned more money. If their kids got into trouble at school they new what to say or do ….every time. The truth is that I don’t always know what to do, and you can ask my kids about this (or, rather don’t do that). I do a lot of moral flailing and philosophical questioning. I do give contradictory answers and uncertain instruction. I am sometimes sarcastic and unnecessarily cruel. I do sometimes shake my head and walk away in frustration and I have been known, on occasion, to throw a @#$#% fishing reel out into the middle of the lake. If I can’t be Ward Cleaver, at least I can say that I have studied on how to be Ward Cleaver. I do try to be calm in a crisis and thoughtful in assigning punishment and loving and supportive whenever I can. But it is hard. And it is trying. And I never seem to live up to my own expectations. So what is a guy who wants to be Ward Cleaver but knows he never will be, supposed to do? I decided to write about it. I decided to think about what has worked for me in life and what hasn’t and to try to write a “Leave it to Beaver script” that I can use as a cue card for my own role as a father. Here is what I have come up with so far. It is in the form of a letter to my kids.

A Letter to my Kids

Advice is almost always unwanted. The rules by which one person lives his life cannot and should not be a template for anyone else’s. Though I have endeavored to teach you all some knowledge and skills which will serve you in the pursuit of what ultimately makes you happy, I hope that you will, at length, find your own course. And while I hope that your course ultimately brings you joy, I hope that you make a wrong turn along the way, as well, for serendipity is not found on the straight and true path and serendipity is worth the occasional inconvenience.

Having said that, I do know that the advice of my elders, what little of it I took, was worth the trouble, too. And their advice which I did not take sometimes looks smarter in the rear view mirror. If I had known then what I know now, I might have done some things differently. I certainly would have saved myself some trouble. While I would not prescribe a direction for your life, I would offer some tips of the trade, if you will, that I have learned the hard way. While I do not expect you to heed them, perhaps you will look back at these words someday and say, gosh, I guess he wasn’t so dumb, after all. So, here goes nothing. My tips for a better life:

1. Cultivate an interest in other people – The world really is a marvelous place and nothing in the world is as interesting as people. I have been interested in people all of my life and I love to learn about them and about their lives. I often approach people in airports and ask them where they are going, where they live, what they do for a living. If they don’t call security (ha ha!) we sometimes have an interesting conversation. I am always amazed at the variety. You might even discover a new way of living from talking to people. This interest can pay off for you personally, also. No present you can bestow on a person is better or more treasured than a simple and sincere interest in them. If you show people that you are interested in them, they will think kindly of you. It is difficult for even the most curmudgeonly old fool to be cruel to someone who shows a genuine interest in him. It is a kindness to bestow this interest on others and it is indeed its own reward.

2. Let people help you – This is related to the advice above. People often think that giving a present will endear them to the recipient. Perversely, I have found that the opposite is actually true. When receiving a gift, many people sense an unwelcome obligation. I am sure you recognize the feeling of disappointment when a gift you have put much time and thought into elicits a guilty tepid response and a hasty, awkward attempt to reciprocate. Reciprocation was not your intention, but sadly, that is what your friend feels. Giving is a nice feeling and something that should be liberally indulged. But accepting gifts or help from others is what actually endears you to them. Bizarrely, it is not easy to learn to accept others charity with equanimity. You will do well to learn this skill, however.

3. Doing better is always a victory- The bad things that happen to us, the choices, and situations and company we find ourselves in usually don’t happen suddenly. They evolve over time and cannot be fixed or changed overnight. But, however far down the wrong road we are, stopping and turning around is a victory. Striving to improve is the victory. The results may not come immediately, but they will follow inevitably. Never despair. There is always something you can do to make things better. And often, that is enough.

4. Be kind – I am not enthusiastic about the teaching of moral obligation. But I have noted from long experience and observation, that certain ways of behaving seem to make life easier and, for lack of a better word, better. Some people call what I am talking about the “Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I have no problem with that. It seems to me that being kind, especially to those less fortunate than you, is the best and simplest way to make the world we live in a better place. That is good for the people around you and that is good for you. If there is anything I have observed about human nature that I believe to be true, it is that attitude is contagious. If you are kind, others will be kind to you. This is a corollary of my point above about cultivating an interest in other people. I would encourage you, also, to surround yourself with kind people and to avoid the company of cruel people whenever possible. While friendliness and kindness are contagious, you cannot convert everyone with your smile. Simply get away from these people and minimize your exposure to them, for surely cruelty, anger, and bitterness are contagious, too. When you encounter new people, make friends, or even, perish the thought, choose a mate, surround yourself with kind people. If you are dating a new guy or girl watch how he or she treats others, especially weaker people. Observe how he treats the waitress in the restaurant, the clerk at the store, your classmates who are not socially popular. If he is cruel in these situations, he will be cruel to you eventually. You do not need this in your life.

5. Surround yourself with intelligent, talented people- Their company will make you better. They will up your game. You cannot get intellectually lazy if the people around you call you out for such behavior. Don’t shy away from productive and challenging competition. It makes you strong. But avoid petty rivalries and pointless one-upmanship. Make talented friends but avoid the temptation to constantly compare yourself to them. Everyone has his own cross to bear.

That’s about all I have for you at this point. I will keep working on it. It is important to remember that with seven billion people on our planet, no one has figured out the meaning of life or how to live it. Your guess is as good as Einstein’s. What to do is make your own way and never give up. Emerson said  “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” Whether you are on someone else’s trail or are blazing your own, if you find yourself on the wrong path (for you) turn around and regret it not. It was a learning experience. And, finally, try to have some fun. I don’t know if this is the advice Ward Cleaver would have given Wally and the Beaver, but, you know what, to hell with him. He’s a fictional character.

Dustin Joy

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