Purposeful Parenting: Start at the Edges and Work Your Way In

Written by Jeremy Bangs

When I first read about parenting with purpose, I was at once intrigued and overwhelmed. It makes perfect sense that we go about tackling the awesome responsibility of raising our children with a sense of purpose. No one would dare argue that parenting is best done by wingin’ it.

Most days, the alarm clock hits me about 5:30 a.m. and that ridiculous noise activates the launch sequence for the day ahead. Parenting immediately devolves to the to-do list of getting my 9-year-old daughter, Livvy, off to school on time, in clean clothes, with my initials on her completed homework, and a lunch in her backpack. At the end of the day, we’re often on autopilot for dinner, homework, bath, and bedtime.

Purposeful? More like muscle memory.

Am I imparting any wisdom on this kid? Am I instilling in her the values, character, and sound judgement I want her to have as a teenager, young adult, or 30-something whose father finally allowed her to date boys? It’s clear I have a lot of work to do.

I stumbled upon a philosophy of change years ago watching Ken Burns’ documentary about Mark Twain. As author Russel Banks discussed the impact of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” on America’s changing attitude about race. He said, “Change begins at the edges and works its way in.” His point was we would never have arrived at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 “I have a Dream” speech and the Civil Rights Act that followed without first experiencing Mark Twain’s novel from 1885. We also needed to experience the Jazz Age of the 1920s and see Jackie Robinson starting at first base for the Dodgers in 1947. Our country had to change at its edges of art and sports before it could change at its political and legal core.

The idea that change begins at the edges is profound. In the decade or so since hearing it, I’ve grown to trust its logic as I’ve thought about the significant changes we’ve made societally and those I’ve made personally.

So, as I began grappling with the idea of parenting purposefully, I started looking at the edges of my life with Livvy hoping to find a starting point. Sure enough, among the pile of daily rituals, there are places I can begin to work my way in.

One of those is when we make a pepperoni pizza. Livvy has named it herself, and it forever shall be known as the Double-Decker.

We make it from scratch. Livvy grates a block of mozzarella on our cowbell-shaped cheese grater (using each of its four cutting surfaces, by the way). I make the dough. Together, with shape crust by draping the dough over our fists and gently stretching it into the shape of our pizza. Then we start layering the toppings–sauce, pepperoni, cheese, a second layer of pepperoni, and a second layer of cheese. After 6 minutes or so in a 550-degree oven, the Double-Decker is ready for the table.

It takes less than hour. On the surface, it doesn’t sound like much. But there is a lot more going on here. We’re not just making dinner. We’re executing a plan that began days earlier when, most likely in the car, one of us said, “Do you know what I’m in the mood for? A Double-Decker!”

We’ve been to the store together to make sure we have what we need. Like most kids, understand that Livvy considers trips to the grocery store to be absolute anguish, but she goes willingly for The Double-Decker to make sure I don’t skimp on the cheese or get the wrong kind of pepperoni.

In the kitchen, you won’t find screens vying for our attention. We’re talking. We’re laughing. We’re listening to what at least one of us insists is good music. We’re bonded by a shared experience and a common purpose. She’s not whining for my attention and I’m not demanding hers. We’re dialed in.

At the table, we always take our first bites simultaneously and look knowingly at each other. There is a lot of pride and accomplishment in that look. As we eat, we talk about how we can make it even better next time and how we’re never ordering delivery pizza again.

Everything about cooking this meal become purposeful. Why is the oven at 550 degrees? Because, together, we watched a foodie show about the best pizza in the world being cooked in a 750-degree oven (550 is the best we can do with our oven). Why do we shape the crust by draping it over our fists and stretching it? Because, together, we studied the old- school guys in the old-school pizza joint by our house and that’s how they do it. For Christmas this year, Livvy bought us a pizza peel. It’s a cheese board shaped like a 100-year-old tennis racket, but we make it work. The larger point is that even when all is said and done with the pizza for night, we’re bonded by having done it together.

Being Livvy’s father is not about a homemade pizza. Cooking that meal together, or any meal together, isn’t the lesson that will see her safely and successfully through adulthood. It doesn’t fulfill my responsibility as a father any more than Mark Twain’s novel surpasses the significance of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

But change begins at the edges, and The Double-Decker is an edge I can build on. I can replicate it in other areas of our life together. I can create new opportunities for that kind of connection between us. I can find other ways we can work hard on something together and enjoy the rewards of our efforts. I can assemble a collection of these experiences, big and small, to develop an overriding theme of character to our time together as father and daughter. If I can do that, I’m working my way to the center of change and becoming a purposeful dad.

As you explore purposefulness in your relationship with your children, look to the edges for successes and opportunities. Then work your way to the center.

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