(Mookie Press, 2012. $10 paper; $2.99 Kindle)
Richard Melnick’s first book is really three: first, a guide for parents to help them empower children to make good choices and become independent, healthy, caring individuals; second, a forthright self-help volume for the emotional development of those parents on their own; and finally, a brief but excellent cookbook with more than a dozen recipes (after all, the book revolves around the kitchen).
In about 20 short chapters Melnick weaves these genres together to convey a compelling personal story and a coherent, loving vision of family life and personal values (along with some great ideas about how to prepare a meal).
When Melnick was in his mid-30s he was diagnosed with colon cancer and went through both surgery and chemotherapy. At the time, his two sons were quite young and he wondered if he’d ever see them graduate from high school. Now cancer-free for well over a dozen years, he has obviously learned quite a bit about himself. As he puts it, “Fears of an untimely death must have informed my parenting style as I felt a sense of urgency to pass along life lessons.”
At the core of the book is a vision of radical presence, agency and responsibility, fully extended to children. Again and again, through both concepts and stories, Melnick makes the case that we generally don’t give children as much authority over their lives as they deserve, and in fact need to develop as they can and should. This leads naturally into discussion of why we might not do that, covering everything from our own fears about losing control to our unexamined patterns of defensive behavior.
I don’t agree with all of Melnick’s views, e.g. “As opposed to thinking, feeling represents your deepest experience of being alive.” Thinking and feeling are not opposed in the first place; one is rarely, if ever, forced to make such an absolute choice. He also places a resolute emphasis on “authenticity,” which presents problems. After all, each of us plays many parts in the course of even a single day, and the authentic expression of our core feelings at all times and places—assuming also that our core feelings are never self-contradictory—would bring the business of daily life to a grinding halt pretty fast.
At the same time, when Melnick combines his ideas about authentic feeling and responsible boundaries with the practical situations and concerns of raising children, he makes convincing points again and again about how to give them tools to learn how to think, feel and act for themselves. For example, when discussing the problem of over-reacting to the challenges of raising kids, he points out: “If you’re feeling reactive, it’s always a sign that you’re not being kind enough to yourself.” This is insightful and wise, and in Melnick’s hands it leads back again to his central idea, which is that healthy children deserve and need far more sovereignty than we generally give them. Even encouraging children to do the dishes (along with other chores, including the cooking), sends them a message of mutual respect and shared responsibility rather than dependency.
The great virtue of Melnick’s book is that he has the ability to navigate and articulate the complicated ideas and feelings necessary to a mature sense of integrity and of emotional boundaries for both children and adults. “Take responsibility for your feelings.” It’s the wisdom of the ages, but hard to articulate, let alone to do. Yet as Melnick points out, that simple truth can help a family thrive. He is able to take these ideas right down into the grain of language, pointing out how damaging even little words—especially little words—such as “you should” and “but” can be, if used in an unconscious way. This is concise, precise and useful advice.
One of the pleasures of Melnick’s book is the many stories he tells, not only about his children, but also about friends and teachers he’s met along the way, from his days as a professional cook to ski bumming pals from his youth. He’s a natural storyteller, a good cook, and a thoughtful writer whose blunt take on kindness is frequently clear and accurate. For my part, I keep returning to passages like the one where he points out that when a family member is being difficult, one actually then has the choice to view that person as a “teacher in developing tolerance, patience and compassion.” It’s good counsel, the kind that takes years to learn how to give in such a clear way. In the end, passages like this suggest the book isn’t only for parents of young children, but for anyone who wants his or her family—and him or herself—to be as healthy and happy as possible.