Damien Cave, PARENTING LIKE AN AUSTRALIAN: One Family's Quest to Fight Fear and Dive Into a Better, Braver Life

Damien Cave, PARENTING LIKE AN AUSTRALIAN: One Family's Quest to Fight Fear and Dive Into a Better, Braver Life

American journalist Damien Cave joins Zibby to discuss his impactful and gripping new parenting book, Parenting Like an Australian: One Family’s Quest to Fight Fear and Dive into a Better, Braver Life. Damien discusses the parts of Australian parenting he has adopted–from letting his kids take risks to trusting his community to help. He also describes his international career in journalism, his complicated relationship with his mom, and his best advice for aspiring writers.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Damien. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Parenting Like an Australian: One Family’s Quest to Fight Fear and Dive into a Better, Braver Life.

Damien Cave: Thank you. Happy to be here.

Zibby: Great. You start the book with an offer to go to Australia for The Times. Your wife and you are in New York. You’re not sure if she’s going to want to leave. You have this very lovely meditation on the pros and cons of New York City, which as a native New Yorker, I very much appreciated. Then of course, you go to Australia and learn so much, everything from how kids learn to swim to politics to everything else. How did you decide to turn this into a book? When did you do the book? Tell me anything else related to the book.

Damien: I’ve been thinking about risk for a while, and parenting. My wife Diana and I, after we moved from covering from the war in Iraq to Miami, to a place which has a very different set of risks — we had our kids there. I started noticing that maybe our thoughts about risk seemed to be slightly different from some of the other parents in our parenting groups. I started thinking about it then, but then I sort of forgot about it and got busy and did what every parent does, just try to survive those first few years. When I came to Australia, it just really was a different confrontation about parenting and risk and community and all these things that I hadn’t thought about in a while. The book kind of grew out of an experience where right after I threw my kids into Nippers, into this junior lifesaving program that apparently, every Australian does, or at least every Australian in my neighborhood — I wrote this small missive, this newsletter thing that we had for The Times at the time, a few hundred words dashed off quickly. The response was really overwhelming.

A lot of Australians and Americans got in touch with me and said, oh, wow, I hadn’t thought about it this much. This is just something we take for granted, the way that kids deal with risk collectively, the way that parents participate in this whole process in a way that they don’t if they’re just standing on the side of a soccer pitch. All of that got me thinking, hey, maybe there’s something here. Then that was sort of confirmed when my son challenged me to actually join this crazy culture of surf lifesaving, and I failed at the first . At that point, I was like, all right, maybe I should just start taking notes. Maybe there’s something here that other people can learn from, and not just my failures, but this experience of being — I describe it at some point, it’s not like a fish out of water, it’s like a buffalo trying to learn how to swim. That’s sort of what it felt like for us trying to embrace the culture of Australia both in the water and as parents and as citizens too. It was just really confronting in ways that I didn’t expect.

Zibby: Wow. Quick question. How do your wife and kids feel about you writing about them? Was that ever a question?

Damien: I had them read it. When it came up as a possibility, I had them read the relevant sections. My kids just thought it was kind of weird. Why are you doing this? This seems boring to me. My wife and I had intense conversations about it. In some ways, it helped put the whole process into perspective. She’s a filmmaker and a creative journalist and has done a lot of things. She works in the books industry now. She had a lot, a lot of input. Initially, back in the day when we thought about writing a book, we thought about trying to do it together. She was totally very, very involved. I think it clarified what the experience meant to both of us to have her so involved. It’s a funny thing. Now my kids are a little bit older. They’ve gone back to some of the sections. They were fighting the other day about who was the real star of the book. They don’t seem to mind.

Zibby: I love that. How did it feel going from journalistic tendencies and shorter pieces to long form like this and really delving in and going over different topics and tracking things over…?

Damien: Good question. Honestly, for me, it was really hard. One of the hardest parts of the book was learning how to let go of my third-person neutral observer role about observing the world and dive into what was going on in my own head. Just finding a voice for myself was a lot harder than I expected. I do think my wife was quite helpful in that. Keep going, and be more honest, is what she kept saying. I do think that was quite helpful. It is one of those things where you’re — this is what the book is about too. It’s about me letting go a little bit of that observer role. Australians demand that you participate. They throw their arm around you. They put you behind the grill. They tell you to cook sausages. They throw you in the water. They expect you to do a lot of things that Americans are hesitant to impose on you. Part of it was, both in writing and in my personal experience, I had to let go of that individualism. I had to let go of that American sense of, oh, don’t bother them. Don’t impose. Let them do their own thing. Australians just don’t think quite as much that way. There’s a real sense of, no, we’re in this together. Whether you know how to do it or not doesn’t matter. You’re going to learn, and you’re going to learn with me. In both writing and experience, I had to do that.

Zibby: Not just swimming related, where are the long-term effects of being exposed to a different type of parenting? What have you adopted for good in your own house?

Damien: Generally, trying to be a little less stressed and a little more willing to let my kids explore and to trust a bit more that somebody else might pick up the pieces if something goes wrong. I’ve seen that happen. This happened after I finished the book. My son was skateboarding in the middle of Sydney, taking public transportation. He’s eleven years old. He’s with his friends. He’s out for the day. He breaks his arm. We get this frantic call from one of his friends saying, “Oh, my god, Baz broke his arm.” I can’t figure out what they’re saying or where they are. Then suddenly, this other dad who I’ve never met gets on the phone and says, “Hey. Listen, he definitely broke his arm. I’m trained in first aid. You’re definitely going to need him taken to the hospital. I don’t think you need an ambulance. I’m going to sit here with him until you get here.” This dad, when I got there, he had two toddlers who were sitting there with him. He just stayed with my son for a half hour or longer until I got there. That’s the way the culture works. When people need help, you help them. One of the things I think I’ve adopted is just allowing that optimism in human nature to dominant how I parent and to allow my kids to really test themselves, make mistakes, and trust that there will be some other people around who will help them out. That’s one thing.

Another thing I think, too, is to just remember to keep pushing into places that are uncomfortable. For my son, it’s public speaking and debate. For my daughter, it’s team sports. Not being afraid to really push them. In the long run, knowing that that’s probably going to be okay, having come from being suddenly forced and pushed into things by Australians and realizing that even as an adult, that’s a good thing. The third thing related to that is that sometimes we talk about parenting as if it’s always our relationship to our children, how we talk to them, what we tell them to do, but I actually started to think after doing this book that a lot of what we need to do as parents is be better models for our kids about how to live a rich life. Sometimes throwing yourself into things that are risky, throwing yourself into things where you’re a beginner again, where you don’t know everything, your kids see your humility and your failure and your ability to overcome that. In a lot of ways, that does a lot more than saying, hey, have a growth mindset and be resilient, kid. Learning to live a better life as a parent, as an individual, and as a citizen I actually think is another thing that my wife and I have tried to adopt as much as we can.

Zibby: That’s a lesson I need as well.

Damien: Everybody does. It’s hard. You’re so busy in your lives.

Zibby: I know. I have four kids. I do try to share. I’m like, you guys, I tried this thing at work. What do you think? It might be a total failure. I don’t know. Should I try it? What do you think?

Damien: Exactly. I don’t know if this is the case for you, but I’ve found I learned a lot from the wisdom of my kids. There were various times along the way in this process where I didn’t think they were processing this. Then they would just come out with this bit of childhood wisdom that really resonated for me. Sometimes it’s worth giving them that opportunity.

Zibby: That’s true. Do your kids have any writing on their horizon? Have you raised writers?

Damien: It’s a good question. My daughter in particular, whenever she does her writing stuff for school, creative writing or English, she tends to write really long. She asks me to sort of edit it. She’s the one who, in her spare time, I’ll find these notes in her room of her processing out some narrative or some story or something like that. She’s got that brain. My son is much more fact based. He’s a really great writer about history. He’s totally into history. They’re both remarkably good at it, actually. I probably put pressure on them. I want to read everything they write. I imagine that that makes it harder for them sometimes. It’s great. Like I said, I learn so much from their writing. Seeing them improve is such a thrill. Trying to teach them that writing is something that we all can do in life, whether you become a writer or not, and that you’re going to need it no matter what. Despite the fact that no one is studying English anymore at universities, learning how to communicate and tell stories is important.

Zibby: True. When did you learn that? When did you get that bug?

Damien: For me, it started pretty early. My grandfather was this old World War II, Depression-era guy who used to just sit me in bed when I was a kid and tell me stories. Some of them were total kids’ fiction stories about Frank fox, the foxy fox. Some of them were about growing up in Brooklyn and learning how to be honest in difficult circumstances and a whole bunch of things. He couldn’t help himself. Whenever I was around him, he would tell stories. To some degree, I think that was the origin for me, but I didn’t really get into journalism and writing until pretty late. I was an English major. I thought I’d go to law school and fell into journalism. Loved the fact that it meant I could explore the world. Loved the fact that I didn’t have to sit behind a desk all my life. At various points, I’ve been an editor. I’ve done other things. The writing bug doesn’t seem to go away, so I’m stuck with it.

Zibby: Was writing for The Times your childhood dream type of thing?

Damien: No, strangely enough. I started my career at a small newspaper in New Hampshire and swore I’d never work for a newspaper again because they were rigid and too old-fashioned and not changing fast enough. I actually wrote for the web and magazines and was perfectly happy doing that until 9/11 and all of that happened. I started to feel like I needed to get out in the world. The big newspaper institutions were the ones more likely to send you around the world. Now for most of my career at The Times, I’ve spent outside the United States. It’s worked out, but it’s never the place I always expected to be. I do love it. It’s a family. As my editor, at some point, said to me, it can’t be your only family. It’s a good and wonderful and amazing place with lots of colleagues, but it’s not the only place to be in good journalism.

Zibby: Interesting. Now that you’ve done a book, are you thinking about more books? Are you thinking about more reported things? I know you have a whole chapter on your trip to New Zealand and what was that like and covering all of that. What are you thinking?

Damien: It’s a good question. I did this book in part to learn how to do a book. It’s something I’ve wanted to do. I ended up choosing a challenge that was more than I even expected, trying to blend memoir and social science and history. It was enormously challenging. The next book I’ve thought about, it would either be something that’s very straight journalism, very clear around — it could be anything from changing geopolitics to demographics, something that’s reportage but with a clear nonfiction “here are ten chapters and ten places” structure, or something that is more argumentative and that has a clear point of view and, again, is less about me, basically. I think I’m done for a bit writing as directly about me. I do think I learned a ton. Writing a book like this when you’re used to writing the kind of formal pieces that are required of The New York Times opens up your writerly-ness, I suppose, a bit. I feel like I’ve actually taken a lot of what I’ve learned from writing the book in terms of style, in terms of finding that balance between my own perspective and third-person perspective and actually put it into The Times. I have a big travel piece coming out that’s about our family road trip to Western Australia in a van. In many ways, it feels like an extension of the book. I’m finding ways to insert some of what I’ve learned in other writing too.

Zibby: If The Times needs an essay about traveling to Tokyo with kids, I just wrote one.

Damien: Oh, really? Tokyo’s great. Tokyo’s amazing. I was there in January with the family too. It was amazing. Great city.

Zibby: We survived. That’s amazing. In the beginning of the book, you very quickly skate past the loss of your mother, which I imagine brings up much more than you wrote about, perhaps on purpose. You wrote about how she had been hit by a car tragically trying to get back to a halfway house and her drug addiction and everything. I was wondering if you are willing to talk about that. You totally don’t have to.

Damien: I’m happy to. My mother was this figure who was in and out of my life. My father was much more present. Although, the way he describes it, the way he ended up with me was just that he was slightly less messed up than she was. They were hippies who met in Jamaica, married literally six weeks after they laid eyes on each other. I think the probability of the marriage working out was low from the start, but they ended up with me. My mother was always trying to figure out how to live this creative, wild life and yet also be a parent. At various points, she did it well. At various points, she did not. As she got older and I got older, my grandparents basically said, okay, now it’s up to you to help manage this situation. I learned a lot at that point about what it means to not just be a child, but also almost be a parent for a parent. She was evicted. Getting her into halfway houses and doing all of these things was really challenging for me. I do think when you go through these difficult circumstances — there’s a little hint of this in some of the research in the book. A little bit of adversity actually makes you a better person. In some ways, I think I learned how to deal with that.

As a journalist, it opens up a whole nother range of humanity who I can connect with and who I can talk to. Whether it’s in the streets of some poor town in New Jersey or Haiti after an earthquake or Iraq in the war, the heart that I think I have for journalism and telling stories, sometimes I feel like people can sense that there’s this sort of hairline fracture in my soul that comes from my mother and that they can connect with me. Despite that New York Times title, there’s something different about this person. To some degree, I think of that as a gift that my mother gave me without really intending to, but it took a while to get there. Having that sort of experience of it — it’s funny, just the other day, I was cleaning out some of my old files and found all these notes that I had taken when she was calling me and in the midst of difficult times. There’s almost a humor in it too. In some ways, I think I’ve gotten to a place where I’m able to appreciate just how much she tried to live her life. Her death was a surprise, but in some ways, it’s a miracle she got as far as she did. She had a toughness to her, too, that I always appreciate as well.

Zibby: That expression, a hairline fracture of my soul, that’s good. You should write that essay.

Damien: I haven’t used that before.

Zibby: Write it down. That was a good one.

Damien: I should.

Zibby: I joke, but I think it’s so relatable. Everybody who has experienced a profound loss, it’s something that is hard to see and yet felt all the time and sometimes hard to repair. No good treatment.

Damien: In some ways, what I was trying to do with my kids with risk is I want them to be strong enough to handle whatever life throws at them. One of the reasons why it’s not a good idea to keep your kids away from risk and hardship is because then when the real hardship comes, they’re not ready. They’re not able to deal with it. There’s tons and tons of research that basically shows that kids who are exposed to challenges early in life and exert some level of control over it and overcome those difficulties are stronger throughout the rest of their life. It doesn’t have to be directly related. If you get really good at dealing with the fears of sharks and waves, you’re also probably going to be good at dealing with seeing something tragic happen in your life. In some ways, there’s enormous hope in that. The human spirit is strong enough to overcome challenges in order to prepare for big challenges. It’s something that you forget as a parent and as a human, but it’s actually hardwired into us.

Zibby: It’s interesting, after you’ve had to parent your parents, to then go on and write a whole book about parenting. Do you know what I mean?

Damien: I know. Everybody’s had periods where I think they feel like they’re parenting their parents. It just comes at different times for all of us.

Zibby: I interviewed this morning, Andrew Ridker, who wrote a novel. This is completely different. His whole approach to parenting — not parenting, but his parents, and he put it in his novel, is about making these protective rooms where he would sort of go in when something in his family was — somebody was driving him crazy, essentially. Although, he said it nicely about his family. That was a trick that he used. Then of course, the character in the book uses it. We all are taking the devices that we use and the tricks and tools that we’ve had to develop to cope with whatever our families bring. Then somehow, we have to share them in books for the rest of the world.

Damien: Exactly. I had a professor once who said writers have a teacher/preacher complex. They’re constantly trying to help others even though they’re trying to help themselves at the same time.

Zibby: Yes, very interesting. Amazing. What’s your parting advice for aspiring authors?

Damien: Don’t give up. Keep mulling over the ideas. One of the things that took some getting used to for me as a daily newspaper journalist is the timeframe of a book is so much longer and slower. It gestates in a different way. Be okay with that. For me, it took a while. I started thinking about risk many, many years ago. The book took a couple of years. I still get emails from people who saw something about it in Australia when it published before it published in the US. Just being okay with the slow process and actually embracing that is one piece of advice I would give to people. A second thing I would say is trying to land on a structure as quickly as you can. The stress of both writing, research, and figuring out the structure is a lot. Sometimes a simple structure will go a long way. Once I figured out the structure of this book, it got a lot easier. Maybe that’s just me. Slow down. Allow for the time and try to figure out what the structure is as soon as possible are my two pieces of contradictory advice.

Zibby: Awesome. Thank you so much. I love it. Parenting Like an Australian. Hoping to extract some of the things I learned into my own overprotective parenting and get a little bit better at modeling some of the risk-taking myself. Thank you for that.

Damien: Thank you. Thanks for having me. It was a great chat.

Zibby: Take care.

Damien: Buh-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

PARENTING LIKE AN AUSTRALIAN: One Family’s Quest to Fight Fear and Dive Into a Better, Braver Life by Damien Cave

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