I am slowly making my way through Dale Carnegie’s ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’, which apparently everyone knew about before me. I might write a separate post about it when I’m done, but for now, I want to talk about a piece that particularly rubbed me the wrong way. It is a story originally written by W. Livingston Larned and reprinted in the book with his permission. Apparently, the story was a bit of a viral hit in its day and was reprinted in many publications and read at many gatherings. It’s called ‘Father Forgets’ (PDF). People online seem to be loving it to this day and I wonder if I am the only one who feels the story has an overlooked sadist element.
‘Father Forgets’ seems to refer to the fact that the father forgets that his son is just a little child so he sets expectations that are too high and is too brusque with the little one. One evening, something happens that prompts him to think about his behaviour: before bedtime, the son hugs him as hard as he can and gives him a kiss in spite of all the harsh words he’s had from the father. And the father has a change of heart, or so he would at least like us to believe. ‘Tomorrow I will be a real daddy!’, he says, and it’s as ambitious and dubious as ‘Tomorrow I will start exercising!’, ‘Tomorrow I will quit smoking!’, and all those other self-improvement lies we tell ourselves. Tomorrow is the cheapest word in the dictionary. If you want to make a change, what’s wrong with starting now?
People online call it a ‘heart-breaking poem’, and I hope at least some of the hearts are breaking for the son, not just for the father, because there is one very problematic line that made me balk: ‘(…) your small arms tightened with affection that God had set blooming in your heart, which even neglect could not wither.’
That sent chills down my spine. That is where I thought ‘sadist’. God has nothing to do with it; evolution has made the human young wholly dependent on their parents for years after birth, we need them for pure survival, and the only thing babies and toddlers have to barter with is cuteness and affection. That affection is not a virtue in the Christian sense, it’s there to ensure survival, and to think neglect can not wither it is in itself neglect - or worse. ‘You will still love me no matter what I do,’ seems to be the message. ‘This is the power I have over you.’ How can we then believe his, ‘Tomorrow I will be a real daddy!’?
Yes, I would like to think he magically, radically changed overnight. It wouldn’t just benefit the son, you see, but the father himself. Too often do parents forget that children grow up and learn and realise the flaws of their parents. It won’t be long before the father will need the son more than his son will need him. And if the neglect was too great, he can rest assured that the affection he took for granted as his God-given right will wither and die.