Things I Have Learned From My Children

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in skmurphy

“Logical consequences are the scarecrows of fools and the beacons of wise men.” Thomas Huxley

Things I have learned from my children

I hadn’t paid much attention to babies before my first son was born. I knew that they existed but I hadn’t really given a lot of thought to all of the problems that have to be solved for a 8.8 pound (3995 grams: I remember looking at that number on the basket scale when they weighed him right after he was born and being unable to process it; I thought it was some kind of price) infant to grow up into a 140 pound teenager. Each step in the growth process has to start and end with a living person. As the heart and lungs grow they have to continually function, the brain cannot be without oxygen for more than a few minutes without permanent harm or death. I have worked on very few hardware/software systems that operated continuously for more than a few months to a year and none that were substantially modified in that time while operating continuously.

In August of 1995 we took a vacation in Seattle (I remember because the Windows 1995 launch was in full swing). My older son was 13 months old and just starting to walk. He fell down a lot. There was a glass top coffee table with a metal frame. My son whacked his forehead so many times that he had a row of bruises from ear to ear. It made the Japanese aphorism, “Fall down seven times, stand up eight” very real to me.

I was never much of an athlete. I thought that people were born with athletic ability or they weren’t. When my son was about two and half a neighbor that was moving away gave us a Fisher Price basketball hoop that could adjust from three to six feet in height. We put it on our back patio and my son would go out and shoot baskets pretty much every day. He didn’t make very many at first but he was possessed of the desire to learn. And in a year he got much better even as we adjusted the basket higher. I never thought of athletic ability as the result of a willingness to practice.

My son played soccer on the weekends in different leagues. When he was eleven or twelve the games became more serious and the parents much more intense in their support. I had never thought of myself as “Little League Father” I had no athletic ambitions for my son, nor did I view soccer as a path to a college scholarship. But something about the games could engage a profoundly competitive streak in me. A referee blew a call–in my opinion–and I used some strong language. I was standing near the coach and the ref assumed that the coach had criticized the call and gave him a yellow card. I told the ref it had been me but it did not change his decision. My son was profoundly disappointed in me, as perhaps only a twelve year old can be (teenagers assume that you will be a continual cause for embarrassment and take great care to spend as little time with you as possible.) It’s a terrible thing to feel your son’s disappointment at your behavior.

I went back to work full time at Cisco in 1998 and was invited to lunch by two women whom I had worked with when I was Cisco employee 1990-94, before I knew much about infants. They both remarked how calm I was compared to what I had been like earlier. I thought back over the last four years of trying to quiet screaming babies by learning from subtle differences in their cries whether they were hungry, or needed changing, or bored, or sick. I clearly remember my younger son, when he was about 9 months old, giving me this very confused look as I was holding him. Then he threw up all over me. He had been trying to figure out what this new sensation meant. Now we both knew. I told them that the last four years had been an exercise in learning how little was actually under my control, or at least subject to verbal–much less written–persuasion. So yes, I had become more patient.

“In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments; there are consequences.” Robert Ingersoll

“Children are unpredictable. You never know what inconsistency they are going to catch you in next.”
Henry Ward Beecher

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