The Merits of Accidentally Indoctrinating Your Kids

For all their innate creativity and free-spiritedness, young children believe just about anything you tell them. They do this out of innocence. And they do it because they fully trust you.

This is why you rarely find a kindergartener who leans a different political (or religious) direction from his parents. Young children might openly reject vegetables or chores, but not the belief systems of their mom or dad. 5-year-olds can be disagreeable, but they’re not dissidents.

This is why I’m not a fan of indoctrinating them. Young kids are deeply malleable in their early developmental stages, and I feel it’s not advisable to try imprinting a dogma (even a good one) onto a child’s psyche before she’s old enough to evaluate its merits on her own. Healthy behaviors and attitudes? Yes, we should do our best. Ideologies? Not so much.

But what if it’s accidental? What if your children — let’s say a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old, to use a totally random example out of the clear blue sky — become unwaveringly devoted to something — let’s say a 5-piece rock band their parents love, to use another totally random example out of the same clear blue sky — simply by osmosis?

What if you indoctrinate them without trying to indoctrinate them?

Our Greyson (5) and our Violet (3) are currently in the throes of a truly single-minded obsession. Greyson has always been prone to varying forms of monomania. First it was cars and trucks; then it was animals of all kinds; then it was every bird imaginable; then it was big cats; then it was 4 consecutive, oddly impressive, increasingly demoralizing months of Christmas carols.

And now he has a new obsession, which he shares with his little sister. An interest that borders on compulsion (but, you know, in an adorable way).

That interest, that fixation, is Caspian. A deeply likable, deeply obsessable instrumental rock band from Beverly, Massachusetts that has released 6 studio albums in 19 years, and once had a song on a Ricky Gervais show for Netflix. A band which Greyson and Violet’s mom, and also their pops (that’s me), both admire with deep devotion.

I can’t imagine there are a plethora of married people who each, separately, are convinced that the same band is the best band on the planet. But here are Dani and me, an in-sync anomaly. (We don’t share this same adoration of ‘N Sync, to be clear.)

And here are Greyson and Violet, our similarly in-sync progeny, who have somehow — through some bizarre and entirely unexplainable phenomena! — come to the same conclusion about the music we just so happen to listen to all the time.

So what does our kids’ obsession look like?

For Greyson, it’s more of an encyclopedic thing. His deeply idiosyncratic mind is one that instinctively categorizes and indexes things. So what he loves doing is learning and repeating lists of Caspian songs. He knows the sequences of all 6 album tracklists by heart, which has been enjoyable conversational fodder for our road trips since he was 3.

(It’s also a fun party trick! “What’s the fourth track of On Circles, Greyson?” “Division Blues!”)

He has also started asking us questions like “What’s the longest song on Waking Season?” and “What’s the most common [i.e. well-known] song on Dust and Disquiet?” and “What’s your favorite song on Tertia?” We are generally very happy to dispense this information to him, although it does get slightly exhausting when he reaches 30 or 40 questions in the span of a day (or an hour).

Greyson also loves to write out lists of Caspian songs and albums, either on paper or on his MagnaDoodle. He even crafted a little song this week composed only of Caspian song titles from The Four Trees, their first full-length album: “Moksha, Moksha… Some Are White Light… Sea Lawn, Crawlspace… Book IX, Book IX…” Pretty catchy-sounding tune, eh? I just hope he doesn’t get in trouble for plagiarizing his lyrics.

As for our tiny Violet, she’s a little less cerebral and a lot more tactile in her love of the band. Her favorite Caspian song is the hard-rocking “Collapser,” and she has been known to close her eyes and headbang. (Don’t worry, we carefully monitor this activity for safety.) Vi also loves “Castles High, Marble Bright,” a gorgeous and soul-stirring anthem. So she appreciates the full breadth of sonic and emotional textures that Caspian creates, God bless her little music-loving soul.

Violet and Greyson both do this odd thing where they make Caspian songs into characters to inhabit their stories. Just like they’ve done in the past with letters and animals and Christmas carols, they now fill their free-wheeling stories with references to anthropomorphized beings named “Flowers of Light” and “The Raven” and “Ishmael.” And those song-characters interact with each other just like people would. Our kids’ world-building skills are considerable! Not to mention their ability to remember 6 albums’ worth of song titles.

Additionally, both kids love to dance to Caspian songs before we go upstairs for bed. This means that Dani and I hold each of them and sway around to the music while we watch YouTube videos of live shows or music videos. Or they improvise their own dance moves on the living room floor.

They also request that we listen to Caspian in the dark while we go to sleep, and we have carefully delineated which are the “bedtime songs” that have a mellow enough vibe that they won’t get the kids (or their parents, for that matter) too wound up while we try to fall asleep. Fortunately, in addition to being masters of rock wizardry, Caspian writes a darn good ballad. Which means we have plenty of options to choose from for dancing, headbanging, or peacefully drifting into the throes of sleep.

It’s pretty clear that we’ve indoctrinated Greyson and Violet into the cult of Caspian. But we weren’t intending to do it. The choice was all theirs! We simply listened to Caspian frequently, within earshot of them. Plus, we honestly answered all their questions about album titles, song titles, band personnel, and how we feel about each song. Plus, it’s possible that we may have mentioned once or twice in passing that each of us happens to think that Caspian is the best band on the planet (or any other planet or moon in this solar system).

But we didn’t twist their arm or anything. We didn’t vilify people who choose to love other bands. We didn’t tell them that God would be sad (or mad) if they didn’t love Caspian.

Thus, I’m pretty sure we’re not guilty of brainwashing our small children. Our kids’ free will is intact. My conscience is clear on this point.

But having said that, I’ll tell you something.

I sure am relieved they chose the correct band to align themselves with and devote themselves to.

Nailed it. (Phew.)

What Commencement Meant

We had no earthly idea when we convened for Widener Law Commonwealth’s 2019 commencement that what was commencing was the end of an era.

It was the last time our ceremony would be at The Forum.

It was the last time we would be innocent (of the existence of crippling pandemics).

It was the last time for 3 years that our students would be able to invite a full array of family members to a real, regular, in-person event.

And it was the last time we would take “normal” for granted.

If I had known in 2019 that the next 2 commencements would be strained and stretched by the dictates of a world turned upside down, I would have deeply savored each moment of normalcy. I would have given more handshakes and hugs. I would have soaked up the iconic brilliance of The Forum, with its constellation-laden ceiling and its rounded, history-etched walls. I may have even shed a tear, if I had somehow known the traumas and terrors that lay ahead.

But we are not prophets. We are not given glimpses into all the delightful and dystopian iterations of our future. Time only reveals itself to us in real time.

How little we know. And in 2019, even more so.

I have now proudly attended 9 commencements as a staff member at Widener Law Commonwealth, starting in May 2014. The first 6 of those, I now realize in hindsight, were the very definition of normal.

The next commencement, a fully virtual event in May 2020, felt deeply abnormal (despite the best efforts of many diligent, quarantined staff members). Being handed your diploma virtually is a sorry substitute for a handshake and the chance to stride proudly across a stage. Zoom is a sorry substitute for the Forum. And a canned recording of “Pomp and Circumstance” is a sorry substitute for hearing it regally played on a real organ as you walk up the aisle, flanked by your classmates and surrounded by the beaming smiles of your family.

The commencement after that one — an in-person, outdoor, mask-mandated event in May 2021 — tried its dead-level best to feign normalcy but fell a bit short (by sheer necessity and through absolutely no fault of its own). I can’t vouch for how it felt for the actual guests of honor. I sure hope they felt properly honored. But each student was only permitted to invite two guests, because we were in the midst of a viral surge, which greatly shortened the radius of each student’s joy. And the ceremony was held on Widener’s parking lot, without the benefit of a shade, on an unusually sun-baked May day. (Damn you, Covid.)

But the 9th commencement ceremony I attended, which was held last Sunday, managed to pull off something very closely resembling normalcy.

First, it was held in an actual venue for the first time since 2019. And while the Scottish Rite Cathedral isn’t quite as epic as The Forum, it’s very distinctive in its own way — and far more hospitable in its lobby and reception spaces. (Thank you, Freemasons!)

Second, our Widener students were permitted to invite a full slate of friends and family members for the first time since 2019. So the full-throated moral support that emanated from the crowd while each student strode across stage was deeply refreshing, with decibel levels reaching admirable heights.

Third, students with young kids were allowed to carry or handhold them across stage while they received their diplomas, adding a poignant family element to the proceedings. One student even carried his 2-month-old baby boy, who was as calm (and I assume proud) as can be. The adorableness factor was off the charts.

Finally, and on a personal note, this year I was both logistically and emotionally able to get 30-60 seconds of face time with almost every graduate when the ceremony was over.

My job, as it’s been every year that the ceremony was in person, was to collect the commencement gowns from each student and hand them a gift bag and a composite picture of their class. This gave me the primo opportunity to look each of them in the eyes, congratulate them enthusiastically by name (something I take great pride in knowing by heart), and offer some handshakes and even a few hugs depending on how well I knew them.

I was not emotionally able to do that with more than a handful of students at the outdoor ceremony in 2021, because I was deep in a depressive funk from which I wouldn’t find an escape hatch until 10 weeks later. And I was not logistically able to do that with anyone in 2020 since everything was virtual, and thus depersonalized and decontextualized.

I hope and fully assume that having this year’s commencement in person, in a welcoming indoor setting, meant a great deal to our beloved students. Everything about it felt more resonant and more ordinary (in the best possible sense of that word) than the last two ceremonies. For that reason, I’m so very happy for the class of ’22.

But I ache for the class of ’21 that they didn’t get to experience that ordinariness. And I ache even more for the class of ’20, who walked across the “stage” to get their diploma on a Zoom screen. The pandemic stole so much joy, and so many life-defining experiences, from all of us. Covid is a remorseless thief.

The only consolation I can offer all of you, all the way back to the class of ’14 when I started at Widener, is this:

I admire all of you so much. I admire you for triumphing over the daunting, destabilizing, defining gauntlet of law school. I admire you for being lawyers and judges and advocates, and soon-to-be lawyers and judges and advocates. I admire you for making Widener proud.

And I miss seeing you on campus. Achingly in some cases.

My only commencement advice to the class of ’22 is this:

Go out into the world and be great.

(But don’t ever forget that you already are.)

On Serendipity, Serotonin, and Circumnavigating the States

On a recent Sunday, I took a short hike and stumbled upon 2 people. And I felt elated and electrified by what passed between us. Heck, I might as well have been struck by a bolt of lightning in the middle of that forest.

Here’s a brief, spirited account of that brief, serendipitous mini-odyssey.

I only had 1 hour for my hike on that particular day. So I took a quick out-and-back on the Appalachian Trail near my house. I listened to music and let my thoughts and feelings jostle and float freely for 30 minutes as I ventured north (toward Maine). Then when I was almost ready to turn around, I saw 2 hikers approaching me in the distance. I decided to pivot back toward home a few minutes early so that I could stay in front of them as I hiked south again (toward Georgia). I waved to the 2 people, they waved back, and I turned around to head homeward.

But then my extra-extraverted self had the thought: “Wait a minute. That was antisocial. Don’t be in such a rush. Say hi.” So I stopped, waited 15 seconds for their approach, and greeted them warmly. The 3 of us exchanged pleasantries. We then proceeded to talk — in increasingly animated and exhilarated tones — for 40 minutes while we walked back toward our respective destinations. That pristine exchange refreshed and redefined my day. And it also blew my mind.

Because here’s what I learned in that exchange.

The man and woman’s names are Rue and Leilah. They are from Bend (in Oregon) and Philadelphia, respectively. They are business partners. Nonprofit small business partners, to be more precise. And the business they’re in is no ordinary one. They are deep in the process of…

…wait for it…

…mapping out a trail that roughly spans the entire perimeter of the continental United States. A trail that will pass through 25 states. And cover 14,000 miles. A trail that will be exponentially longer than every other North American trail that currently exists. Including the Appalachian Trail (2,200 miles), the Pacific Crest Trail (2,600 miles), and the Continental Divide Trail (3,000 miles).

Three trails which, incidentally, this fellow Rue himself has already comprehensively hiked. Making him a “Triple Crowner” (a term I had not previously been familiar with).

So apparently, I took an hour-long day hike and accidentally met a bona fide hiking legend. A guy whose face has graced the pages of Backpacker magazine. A guy with 10s of 1000s of miles under his belt, and under his boots.

I just… ran into him.

The serendipity of it all makes the mind reel.

Rue McKenrick is the legend in question. Leilah Grace is his fellow mastermind of the American Perimeter Trail, and thus also a legend. McKenrick is the face of the APT, while Grace is the sturdy backbone of the APT skeleton. Not to mention the 1-woman skeleton crew of the tiny nonprofit machine they run.

A machine that really feels like more of a movement. A conservation movement, since that is the passion for which McKenrick has dedicated his life and his career as a long-distance hiker.

I won’t attempt to tell the story of Rue McKenrick and the bright, blazing, burgeoning American Perimeter Trail. Both because I only know bits and pieces of that story firsthand, and because much of it has already been mapped out in an eloquent and expansive January 2021 feature in Backpacker magazine (see the link at the end of this piece).

But what I do know from my 40 minutes of talking to Rue, and to his business and hiking partner Leilah, is that they are the real deal. Just like Friday Night Lights, they have clear eyes and full hearts about their dream. Not to mention a can’t-lose (open-source, collectivist, nonprofit, fueled-only-by-the-power-of-the-human-spirit) business proposition.

A proposition that was hatched in late fall 2019, mere months before the world changed forever. At which point nearly every facet of making that idea a reality became exponentially more difficult.

But Rue McKenrick and Leilah Grace are a man and a woman not easily deterred.

I fully believe they will get this done. This certifiably crazy mission to carve out a 14,000-mile circumnavigational trail that utilizes a network of local trails. I’m confident they will ride this spectacular, noble, lumbering beast across the finish line — come hell or high water.

And in any small way I can, I want to ride that beast with them. Because I know one thing:

History will smile upon this endeavor.

But let’s go back to my Sunday day hike.

Here’s the thing about my serendipitous path-crossing with Rue and Leilah.

There’s only one reason I even got to enjoy the luxury of luxuriating in that conversation, along with many other convivial convergences I’ve savored recently. One simple word, denoting one not-so-simple chemical reality.


Last year at this time, I didn’t know it yet but I was deeply and dangerously lacking in a neurotransmitter called serotonin. As a result, I was overwhelmed with sleep-ravaging anxiety and world-flattening depression. I felt like I was falling helplessly into a black hole in slow motion. And it took nearly 2 excruciating months of trudging through that bleak hellscape before I procured the help (and the medication) I needed.

Once I got the serotonin I needed, from an SSRI called Lexapro that I started taking in July 2021, I was just 2 weeks away from clawing my way back to the surface of the ocean I was drowning in. At which point I finally breathed again for the first time in months. And at which point I rediscovered my true self, that most vital of all rediscoveries.

I’ve written about all of that extensively elsewhere. (Click here to read chapter 1 of that bruising mental health saga.) I bring it up here to illuminate how thrilling, and deeply gratifying, it is to now see the fruits of that serotonin infusion.

If I had taken the same 1-hour hike last May and had seen the same 2 people approaching in the distance, I have no doubt I would have turned around and avoided greeting them, much less engaging them in a 40-minute conversation about their grandiose, dizzying trail plans. At that time, I had no resonance with my own extroverted self or even just my basic warmth toward other human beings. I was lost in my head, disconnected from my feelings, and cut off from any desire to connect with other people.

Serotonin is what made this Sunday afternoon serendipity, and all my other grand and mundane recent serendipities, both physically and emotionally possible.

Serotonin, that most basic chemical building block of all happiness. A building block that most people’s bodies are able to create on their own. But I, increasingly for the last half decade, and a handful of people on my mom’s side of the family have found ourselves deficient in that chemical.

So we have sought help. And some of us have succeeded in finding that help.

Thus, we can live our lives.

Thus, we can forge connections.

Thus, we can learn about 14,000 mile trails.

And the bright, blazing souls that, with the help of their well-worn soles, blaze those trails.

Thank you for reading! I am grateful for your time and your interest. If you want to read the mesmerizing feature-length Rue McKenrick piece from Backpacker magazine, written by Bill Donahue, click here. If you live in central Pennsylvania (and read this in time), go listen to Rue speak about the American Perimeter Trail at the Appalachian Trail Museum in Pine Grove Furnace State Park at 2:00 on Sunday, May 15th! Rue is deeply engaging, and I personally guarantee you’ll be glad you made the trip.

Oh Boy Oh Girl

When I was a little boy, I had a doll named Freddy. My dear, sweet, ever-supportive mom bought it — sorry, him — for me from our local Toys ‘R Us, and he was sold under the brand name My Pal. This was either a cheap knockoff or a blond knockoff of the well-known brunette My Buddy doll that had a ubiquitous jingle in the ‘80s. (“My buddy… my buddy… wherever I go… he-e-e goes.”)

The freckle-faced, dimple-chinned, round-cheeked, button-nosed Freddy and I were inseparable. I loved that little guy for years, sitting him next to me while I played or read books. My mom even found me a kid-sized suitcase in which I kept an array of outfits for him. I had several close (human) friends as a boy, so I was very much not a lonely kid. But Freddy was my buddy at home, my pal who I could have a sleepover with every night.

I don’t know how many boys in the mid-to-late ‘80s had dolls. But I do know it must have at least been enough to prop up the seemingly profitable My Buddy empire (and the lesser My Pal sub-empire) while it competed with Cabbage Patch Kids and Pound Puppies for doll-manufacturing supremacy in the ‘80s.

I am convinced that having a little guy of my own to take care of was seminal for my early adolescent development. Being given a buddy (or pal) to dress, to hug, and to play with was formative. Therein lay the early seeds of my eventual commitment to and love of fatherhood.

35 years later, I have 2 young kids of my own. One boy and one girl. So far they have only sporadically shown interest in doll-having, although they’re each pretty enamored of their roughly 133 stuffed animals. I’ve warmly introduced them to my old pal Freddy, who is a little worse for wear (particularly his oddly receding hairline). But while the kids seem to like and respect him, they haven’t taken him under their wing just yet.

Freddy, to his credit, just keeps Mona-Lisa-smiling through it all. He doesn’t appear to be as insecure or eager for attention as Woody or the other members of the Toy Story crew. I think he’s just happy to still be in the game, even if he’s now riding the pine. (Which I suppose is appropriate since the boy who took care of him for roughly 7 years would do that very thing during the entirety of his 7-year bench-warming basketball career.)

Dolls, or whatever you want to call them if that word feels gendered or off-putting, are hugely beneficial for kids. They foster a love for babies and an empathy for others in general. They give a child a sense of responsibility. They provide a feeling of companionship when the outside world doesn’t consistently provide that.

And I wish this went without saying, but it doesn’t: All of those things are exactly as vital for little boys as they are for little girls.

It is my decided opinion that gender norms and gender roles were deeply regressive (and unimaginative) in my grandparents’ era. They were a bit less regressive (and very slightly more imaginative) in my parents’ era. And for a while, it seemed like they were being reformed and reframed in our own, more progressive generation. Like we were finally getting around to reimagining these ways of seeing our children, and ourselves.

But in the last half-decade or so, it seems to me that a not-insignificant portion of our population is trying to revert us backward once again. Back to a time when girls are expected to be feminine and passive and nurturing and boys are expected to be manly and aggressive and hard.

Leaving aside the former contention for now, which I could write a whole book about, I want to explain as a father and man (and former little boy) how I feel about the latter one. The idea that boys should be tough, hard, aggressive, and above all… masculine. That word which has been misunderstood in our society beyond almost all others.

I’ll distill my thesis here as concisely as I can: Boys should be allowed to be who they are. Whatever that is. And however much, or little, that resembles any traditional or modern conception of masculinity.

As a kid, I was not interested in most “boys will be boys” things. I wasn’t physically aggressive in the slightest, and my brothers weren’t either. I had minimal mechanical skills. At no point in my life have I cared about macho action movies. I was never interested in playing with toy guns (other than the occasional Supersoaker).

I did like playing basketball, and I became a pro sports fanatic at the age of 9 or 10, luring a few of my family members into that fun web. So that’s one thing on the so-called “boyish” side of my ledger. But my wife was even more into pro sports as a kid than I was, and remains deeply knowledgeable about it, including the badass sport of hockey. So the ledger itself would appear to be broken in the first place.

But back to me, I was just as in touch with my “feminine” side (whatever that even means) as my “masculine” side as a kid. Besides my pal Freddy, I also had a collection of teddy bears. And the fact that my conservative parents were fine with all of that is a testament to their deep parental love. In addition to my aforementioned deeply tender and empathetic mom, I also give huge credit to my sweet, supportive, warmly fatherly, decidedly un-macho dad. (Who happens to have much better mechanical skills than I do in terms of fixing things around the house.)

My 2 best friends in 4th and 5th grade, Farhad and Keith, both turned out to be gay. And I’m guessing the reason that the 3 of us were relative outcasts at Hampden Elementary, the public school I attended with them for 2 years, was because we weren’t boyish boys. They were gay (although they may or may not have known it back then), I was straight (I can still remember all of my crushes at that school), and all of us got along great because we didn’t judge each other for not liking Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Transformers or whatever metrics of masculinity boys judged each other by in 1990.

So I grew up feeling comfortable being myself in matters of gender and personality. Which is a bit of a miracle since plenty of pockets of evangelicalism (and society in general) during that period, and still to this day, would be ones where I would have been pressured to act more traditionally boyish. But my parents were sensitive souls raised in pacifist Brethren in Christ churches. So their 3 sons grew up to be similarly sensitive and peace-loving.

Fast forward to the present, when my wife and I are raising a 5-year-old boy and a delightful 3-year-old girl. Here’s how well our kids fit into the old-fashioned gender framework.

Our son rarely builds anything, while our daughter enjoys doing so. Our son does create elaborate flights of fancy, in the form of little free-wheeling stories and poems and songs. And our daughter does the same thing. Our daughter loves to throw, catch, and kick balls, while our son does not. Our son is a reflective person who likes to sometimes recharge by being alone in his thoughts. Meanwhile, our daughter is a dynamic person of action. She also has superb mechanical skills that dwarf our son’s.

Our son is single-minded and absent-minded and (in our opinion) brilliant. Our daughter is multi-focused and hyper-aware and (in our opinion) brilliant. Both are wondrous and maddening and funny and delightful in totally different ways.

Our son is a sensitive and easily bruised and sweet and wildly idiosyncratic soul, and our daughter is sweet but indomitable (and also wildly idiosyncratic, but in a totally different direction). Our son is like my 5-year-old self in some ways and like his mama’s 5-year-old self in other ways. Our daughter is strong and self-possessed like her mama and an affectionate, attention-seeking goofball like me. Each of them is also simply themselves and no one else on earth.

Our son is not a “boyish” boy in most ways. Our daughter is not a “girly” girl in most ways.

So you’ll forgive me if gender norms strike me as irrelevant and useless.

They didn’t do justice to my kid self.

They don’t do justice to my grown-up self.

They don’t do justice to my kids’ selves.

And they do an injustice to the very concept of self.

Because regardless of ledgers and templates, we are all simply…