Messages to my son
by Jeff Jacoby
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My beloved Caleb,
You're 10! I can't believe a decade has elapsed since I wrote the first of these annual letters to you.
"You are only 16 days old," that first letter began, "and virtually everything about you is still a mystery." I marveled at the emotion I felt for an infant I barely knew, and prayed that life would bring you many blessings. But the real point of that letter was that I was already thinking about your character, and how much I wanted you to grow up to be decent, kind, and honest. "Like every parent, I want you to do well," I wrote. "But more than anything else, I want you to do good."
Ten years later, I know so much more about you than I did then. I know that you have a good mind and are an avid reader. I know that you love vanilla ice cream but recoil from grilled-cheese sandwiches. I know that you will try to brazen your way through even the most obvious lie. I know that you're an uncomplaining patient when you're sick and a champion sulker when you're angry. I know that you dote on your little brother.
I also know that your formative years are speeding by. For better or for worse, your upbringing is half over. But the message of that first letter -- character matters and I want yours to be good -- is one that I still try to communicate to you. You've certainly heard me say it often enough. When I asked you a few weeks ago to tell Micah what I want both of you to be when you grow up, you knew the answer: "A good person," you replied, with a here-we-go-again roll of your eyes.
About a year before you were born, I reviewed a book by Calvin Trillin called Messages from My Father. It was a heartwarming memoir of Trillin's immigrant father, Abe, and the assorted lessons -- some wise, some quite mad -- he had conveyed over the years to his son. When I read the book I wasn't yet a father, but as I think about it now, I can't help wondering which messages from your father will stay with you through the years.
Some messages I try to convey through behavior more than words.
I want you and Micah to become loving fathers and husbands, so I make sure that open affection is something you see and get a lot of. Some men are inhibited about kissing or hugging their wives, or addressing them with terms of endearment; you're growing up in an environment where your father makes no secret of his love for your mother.
I hope your children will grow up in a similar environment.
Speaking of your children, I have been shamelessly propagandizing you for years on the advantages of marrying early and having lots of kids -- two things I didn't do but wish I had. "When you're 22 years old and you get married and have five children," I remember asking you when you were about 4, "what will their names be?" (As I recall, you said they would all be named Caleb.)
Another message I hope is getting through via example is the importance of apologizing when you've wronged another person. When Mama or I think we've treated you unjustly -- perhaps by blaming you for something that wasn't your fault, or overreacting to something that was -- we make a point of sincerely saying, "I'm sorry." Some people would rather chew glass than say those two words -- but learning to do so is part of being a mature and decent person.
Of course I try to teach you to be nice to your family and friends, but I also want you to learn to empathize even with strangers. Some years ago I adopted a practice that I first encountered in an essay by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin : Whenever we are startled or inconvenienced by the siren of an ambulance or firetruck, I offer a prayer that the EMTs or firefighters arrive in time to help whoever is in danger. "By accustoming ourselves to uttering a prayer at the very moment we feel unjustly annoyed," Telushkin wrote, "we become better and more loving people."
In some ways you are well on your way to becoming a "better and more loving" person. In others, you -- like me -- still have some distance to go. But at the 10-year mark, Caleb, I've got to say: You're a pretty terrific kid.
All my love,