Just after I started reading Raising Raffi: The First Five Years, Keith Gessen’s captivating new book about the perplexities of parenting and fatherhood, I made a brief spectacle of myself at a swimming pool. I’d invented a game in which my kids took turns riding on my back as I swam underwater with my eyes closed, with each child leading me to a certain spot in the pool using a series of taps on my shoulder. They loved it. To the other swimmers at the rec center, I must have seemed like an excellent father at that moment: playful, fun-loving, inventive. Then my seven-year-old daughter led me face-first into the pool’s concrete edge.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” I yelled, opening my eyes and clutching my face, which felt broken. “You ran me into the wall!”
I got out of the pool to tend to my wounds, storming past my wife, who was having a conversation with another parent nearby. A lifeguard walked by and informed me that my nose was bleeding. My wife eventually came to check on me, the look on her face indicating that she was both amused and disturbed by my behavior. When my nose and forehead stopped hurting quite so much, I realized that I needed to apologize to my daughter and explain that it wasn’t her fault. I got back in the pool with her and kept swimming. We had a good time.
I offer this anecdote as a parable of fatherhood. To be a dad, and a parent in general, is to find yourself at the mercy of an emotional pendulum that swings more suddenly and more frequently than in your daily non-parenting life. You are forever reacting to the little person or people you love—and reacting to their reactions, and reacting to your own reactions—moving back and forth between joy and exasperation, between tenderness and impatience, between enthusiasm and exhaustion, between the cool water and the concrete wall.
Raising Raffi is the first book I’ve read that manages to articulate what it feels like to experience some of these baffling, amusing, disturbing extremes. Gessen’s book focuses on his son’s first five years of life, recounting the quirks and difficulties of each stage in Raffi’s development. Gessen and his wife, the novelist Emily Gould, face these difficulties together, and he acknowledges that she’s the more informed and effective parent. But the book focuses mostly on his own complex reactions to his son, examining the “contradictory mass of feelings” he experiences as a first-time parent, especially once Raffi transforms from a helpless, screaming newborn to a “cuddly one-year-old” and then into something more difficult: an unruly child.
Gessen wants to be a kind, compassionate father—more than once, Raffi tells him that he’s “not nice”—but he also wants Raffi to actually listen. He wants Raffi not to hit or scratch. He wants Raffi to eat his dinner. He wants Raffi not to yank on his infant brother’s head. He wants Raffi not to pick up a glass of water at dinner and douse his father with it. But Raffi, being a child, sometimes willfully refuses. Gessen doesn’t want to yell, doesn’t want to spank, doesn’t want to endlessly badger his child, but he also doesn’t want Raffi to continue to do these things. So what should a nice but extremely frustrated parent do in such moments?
One of the delights of this book, for me, was accompanying Gessen on his enthusiastic and largely unsuccessful mission to find a solution in various books on discipline and parenting philosophies. While reading The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child, a highly regarded book on child behavior, he has a revelation that made me laugh out loud:
Everything we’d been doing was wrong: the time-outs, the yelling, the belief that if we told Raffi to stop doing something enough times, he would actually, like a normal person, stop. And yet weirdly I was not discouraged to learn this. We’d been doing everything wrong but now we would do everything right: we just had to do the exact opposite of what we were doing.
During a particularly difficult time with my own kids, I was inspired by the same book, responding in an almost identical way. (Gessen tells us that his wife finds the book’s sticker-chart reward system “philosophically revolting,” likening it to giving their son “a quarterly performance review at the corporate job that was his childhood,” although she reluctantly agrees to try it. My spouse was equally skeptical.) Gessen finds, as I did, that while the book offers some genuine and lasting insights, its methods don’t quite fit his family’s reality. Subsequent books on discipline lead him to other revelations and little permanent change. No book offers a magic solution.