Saturday, February 5, 2011

THE GINGER ALE RULES: One man's approach to parenting

Ginger ale is pretty sensational stuff.
I was asked to write this essay by Healthy Kids magazine, which published it in their August/September 2000 issue. They were looking for an essay by a father who had helped raised a son. I dedicate it to all parents who manage to turn off the parent tape when raising their kids—sons or daughters.

     It was on a warm summer evening in 1978 that my son taught me how to be a parent. Alex was four years old at the time, and he was sitting on my living room sofa with a glass of ginger ale. His legs stuck straight out, and the glass, which was about two-thirds full, rested on his lap. It had a straw in it. Straws are a kind of magic for children: you do something at this end, and something else happens at that end. In this case, Alex was blowing at his end, and the ginger ale was bubbling and gurgling at the other.
     It was at that moment that I discovered what kind of parent I wanted to be. My first impulse was to replay the parent tape that most of us grew up listening to: "Drink your ginger ale," I almost said. "Don't play with it." But I didn't say that. I didn't say anything. I just watched my son blow into his ginger ale through a straw. And it was quite beautiful—my perfectly sun-brown son, the straw, the glass, and the bubbles in the pale-gold liquid.
     I realized then that there are many ways to enjoy ginger ale and that as a parent it was my job not to deprive my son of any of them. Sure, you could simply drink ginger ale to quench your thirst. But you could also stick your finger in it to see how sticky it is, or suck it up and down in a straw. You could look at it in front of a light (it's really pretty sensational stuff), or listen to it fizz. Or you could just hold the cold glass against your face on a hot night. There must be at least 200 ways to enjoy ginger ale, I thought. Drinking it may be the least of them.

Straws are a kind of magic for children

     So that's the kind of parent I decided to be—the kind who let his son play with his ginger ale. As a divorced single father, I found this decision easy. First, there was no other grown-up around to second-guess me. And second, my sofa was well into stained middle age, so the risks were minimal.
     But of course there were risks to this approach. For example, what if, blowing into his ginger ale, Alex had begun spilling it all over himself and the floor? I wouldn't have allowed that. So I came to formulate "The Ginger Ale Rules of Parenting":
     1) Don't let your child hurt himself. ("Alex, don't pour the ginger ale in your ear.")
     2) Don't let your child hurt anybody else. ("Don't throw that can of ginger ale at the neighbor's kid.")
     3) Don't let your child make life harder for other people. ("Don't force Dad to mop up your spilled ginger ale.")
     4) Encourage your child to try absolutely everything else—and to fully embrace life. ("Go ahead, Alex. Play with your ginger ale.")
     Fortunately, my ex-wife had a similar philosophy, but she did hold the reins on my son a bit tighter than I did. (For one thing, her sofa was nicer.) I took care of Alex on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays from the time he was an infant, so he grew up adjusting almost daily to our slightly different levels of control.
     At first this worried my ex and me, but it never seemed to bother Alex. He chafed some under his mother's tighter hand, but he never rebelled to the point of defiance. And on bigger-than-ginger-ale issues (should he be allowed to give up his guitar lessons? should he have his own car?), his mother and I consulted and presented a unified front.
     Sometimes I wonder whether a different kind of kid—a docile daughter, for example, instead of a super-charged son—would have led me to this same philosophy. But speculation aside, I pretty much stuck to "The Ginger Ale Rules"—especially the fourth rule—from the time Alex was little. I held fast to them even when:
  • at age five, Alex dug a hole in the yard, filled it with water, took off his clothes, and took a mud bath in front of the neighbors
  • at age 16, he took off with his renegade uncle and sailed from New Guinea to Australia in a boat with no navigation
  • at age 24, he quit his job to pursue an MBA and a law degree simultaneously, while possessed of no personal income
     And even last year, when, now a grown man, he bought a mastiff puppy, who today weighs 180 pounds. He's huge, the puppy, and Alex hugs him the way he hugged me when he was little. Alex named the dog Gatsby, after the larger-than-life character who gave fabulous parties and tried until he died to grasp everything life offered. Gatsby sits on the sofa like a person and adores Alex. Gatsby is clumsy, slobbery, and utterly impractical. He makes me think I've been a good parent. He's the color of ginger ale.

My son Alex at about age four.


  1. Lovely -- We wait a long time to learn whether our parental instincts were sound, don't we? And yet, if there's anything in the world that could satisfy the soul more thoroughly, I can't think what it would be . . . sex, maybe???

  2. Thanks, Less. I'm not sure we can ever be certain our parental instincts are "sound," no? I think every kid deserves parenting tailored specifically to his or her personality, and every parent has to be a parent according to his own character. It's a fascinating dance we do with our children. It certainly is satisfying if it seems to have worked out, isn't it?

  3. Ed,

    I googled "The Ginger Ale Rules" to post in response to something on Twitter -- can't believe I found you!

    I read this article in a magazine (I guess Healthy Kids) when my boys were little. I was a single mom and it helped me put in perspective how to raise two strong, rambunctious, endlessly curious, loving boys. Sometimes I was overwhelmed and MANY times I was not patient enough to apply these rules, especially during the teenage years. But the oldest is a junior in college and planning on law school and the youngest is a junior in high school and still blowing on the straw -- but he's coming along. They are amazing young men, and I believe I owe part of that to keeping these rules in the back of my mind.

    The boys would probably not agree -- they would say, "Oh you never let us do so and so" or "You worried too much," but they don't realize all the times that I did let them do something just because I knew they needed to explore life -- building a zip line across the creek in my back yard for example.

    Anyway, I am delighted to have the opportunity to thank you. Your words influenced my parenting at a time when I needed it.


  4. Lucy, you've made my day. Sounds as if you've done a great job raising your boys. Sounds as if you need to write your own "Zip Line Rules."

    --Ed W.