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Thoughtful Dad: On the perils of being ‘cool’…

Thoughtful Dad

On the perils of being ‘cool’…

A friend from childhood offered an observation a while back about the nature of being “cool.”  It went something like this.

“Growing up we all realize, at some point, that our parents can’t really make us do anything,” he asserted.

“True,” I said.

“But tell me if you’ve noticed this,” he asked, leadingly.  “Doesn’t it seem like the cool kids were always the ones who figured that out first?”

I hadn’t thought about it.  But he started naming names, and I had to admit his insight had merit.  Of the people we agreed were “cool” in high school, many seemed to realize their parents relative weakness early on.  Indeed, they seemed to have no fear of authority, and it also seemed that they rarely suffered consequences for their indifference.

My friend’s was not a casual observation.  He has a daughter on the cusp of becoming a teenager, and he found himself in a dilemma.  He deeply believed in his obligation to prepare her for life, and especially for high school.  To him, this included revealing the invaluable secret to being cool.  But his urge to ensure her success clearly conflicted with his equally strong instinct to keep the secret that her parents had limits to their authority.  It created for him an insoluble conundrum.  The more he elaborated his thoughts, the more I realized it made him depressed.

We talked for a while about his options and how he might best fulfill his fatherly responsibilities.   I didn’t do much to help him.  On the other hand, the whole conversation made me to think about what “cool” means and why it matters.  For a few months afterward I found myself pondering this central aspect to our national psyche.

As it turns out a number of people have written book-length works on the American obsession with “cool”—on its birth among early Jazz musicians to its utter dominance of today’s culture.  It turns out we were not always a cool nation.  We used to worry more about honor and prestige and the state of our soul.  But, of course, the term “soul” has also undergone a shift.  By the 1960s being cool was the only game in town.

I also found it interesting that the term encompasses the assertion of independence and the repression of emotion.  Cool people are impervious to outside authority and they never lose their “cool.”  They just do their thing.  At least that was how the cool kids seemed to me in high school.  They never seemed neurotic, anxious, insecure, influenced by the crowd or by their teachers.   Moreover, by being cool stuff just seemed to work out for them.  The world seemed to make way for the cool.

In retrospect, I can’t imagine that any of those kids had really obtained the kind of self-actualization necessary to genuinely be “cool.”  It wouldn’t surprise me to learn today that they actually obsessed about it.

But none of these ideas struck me at the time of my conversation with my friend.  After bumbling along for a bit, I finally said “Eventually she’s going to figure it out.”

“Yeah,” he said.

“But since you are her father,” I added, “you can always use massive amounts of guilt to get her to do things.”

He nodded.  It was a ploy we had both endured for much of our adolescence.  Frankly, we had learned “guilting” from masters.  So it would undoubtedly work for my friend more often than not.

“I guess I could do that,” he agreed.  “But that would be so uncool.”

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