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posted: 4/7/2013 6:00 AM

Parents learn from their parents' mistakes, successes

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I loved Fluffy. He was an improbably salmon-colored, floppy-eared, stuffed dog, but he was my most constant and loyal friend.

By the time I'd reached the age of 9 we had moved four times, chasing my father's dream of a better place to raise the five of us. We would move only once more, but for me, the damage had been done. A quiet, shy child to begin with, the constant upheavals I'd so early experienced left me preferring my own company to the daunting task of making new friends -- again, and again, and again.

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I preferred my own company, and by extension, Fluffy's. I talked Fluffy's ears off -- literally; my mother had to sew them both back on at least twice. Fluffy heard all the secret fears and yearnings of a young boy trying to figure out his place in the world.

Now, I don't know what the developmental psychologists of the late 1950s would have said about a 9-year-old boy going to sleep each night with a now worn, salmon-colored, floppy-eared stuffed dog, but my father found it more than a bit disconcerting. And he determined to do something about it.

Fluffy, it seemed, was to be replaced by 6-foot, 270-pound, hygienically challenged Cousin Ronnie. My father, trying to be of assistance to an older sister struggling to launch her somewhat lost young adult son, had offered to take his nephew under his wing and invited him to live with our family while he attended barber college. And since we were seven people crammed into a three-bedroom apartment, Cousin Ronnie would need to share my room and my bed. Thus the excuse for banishing Fluffy to whatever exile discarded stuffed animals endure.

Cousin Ronnie found himself; I lost Fluffy. And though I came to appreciate -- even like -- my cousin as I grew older, I never really got over my anger at my father, or my aversion to sharing my bed with people with smelly feet.

At 36, I was determined I would be a father who perfectly empathized with my own son's emotional needs. And, in my humble opinion, I was doing an excellent job until he decided, at age 6, to sleep with vegetables.

While visiting an aunt, Alex had become fascinated by her extensive and beautiful garden. As a parting gift she had given him an assortment of squash to take home.

Alex studied his vegetable menagerie the entire 14 hours back to Chicago, which certainly made the drive back more bearable. Our first night home, however, challenged my fatherly empathy. Alex decided that he needed to sleep with his newfound friends.

Finally, a chance to right my father's wrong for all times! Of course he could sleep with his vegetables!

By the fourth week, the error in my unconditional empathy became apparent. Vegetables are not Fluffy.

Mustering my adult courage, I prepared to explain to my soon-to-be-devastated son the necessity of parting with his bedtime companions. Walking into his bedroom, I found him sitting on his bed, looking morosely at his clearly spoiling squash.

"Dad," he announced, "these things are rotten! Let's throw them out." So much for my parental anxiety.

The moral of these stories? Maybe it's just that if we're patient, more often than not our children grow up just fine. They may do it in their own way and at their own pace, but they'll get there.

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