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Jere Hester Headshot

How the Beatles (and Yoko) Made Me a Better Dad

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2014-06-03-Raising_a_Beatle_Baby_cover_cropped.jpg (Illustration by Raffael Cavallaro)

I got an early Father's Day present in late May when Yoko Ono answered a question I posted on her Facebook page as part of her weekly Q&A for fans.

What, I asked, is the best way to introduce children to music?

Yoko's reply: "All children had music in their heart and soul before they were pushed out of their mothers' womb. The best thing you can do is not to discourage them."

So, in other words, let them be.

I've long fancied myself a Beatle Dad - my wife, Theresa Wozunk, and I bonded over the group and we've raised our daughter, Ella, as a Beatle Baby. We've immersed Ella in the band's music and life stories, following their footsteps on trips to Liverpool, London and Hamburg. We've drawn inspiration and lessons from John, Paul, George and Ringo - including the value of persistence, dreaming and being yourself.

But the recent answer to my question reminded me that I've also learned some of my most important parenting lessons from Yoko.

After seeing Yoko's response on her Imagine Peace page, I flashed back to a chilly fall day in 2005 when I walked Ella, then 8, to her Brooklyn school.

Short for her age, with glasses and chubby cheeks, shy Ella was just starting to express herself musically and otherwise. She had asked for bass lessons after unexpectedly meeting Paul McCartney and becoming a media star for a day. Ella even talked about joining a rock-and-roll summer camp.

But I nearly shattered her growing confidence with one-ill chosen word, when she asked that morning, "Daddy, why did the Beatles break up?"

I was exhausted after yet another late night at the New York Daily News, where I was city editor. Still, this question was beyond my capability to answer, even on a full night's sleep.

"Yoko," I barked with as much conversation-ending gruffness as I could muster.

"Oh," she said, and looked down at the sidewalk. "Okay."

After dropping her off, I realized I should have known better. I confessed to Theresa, who doesn't mince words.

"Are you an idiot?" she asked. "You have a daughter who's finally starting to come out of her shell, who wants to play rock and roll, and you tell her that a girl is responsible for breaking up her favorite group?"

"Well, Yoko's not exactly a girl..." I tried to interject.

"That's not the point, you idiot. You're telling her that girls don't belong in rock and roll, that they destroy music instead of making it. The biggest problem is that what you said isn't even true."

She was right. Many factors contributed to the split, which, like many Beatle fans, I had spent far too much time overanalyzing. But I revealed myself to my only child as a sexist troglodyte who used a convenient scapegoat to skirt a complicated, perhaps unanswerable question.

That was bad parenting - and bad journalism.

A few weeks later, I spotted a New York Times article by my pal Wendell Jamieson. Wendell's story, under the headline, "When Father Knows Less," detailed how he handled questions from his very curious then-6-year-old son, Dean.

When Wendell didn't know the answers to queries like "What would hurt more: getting run over by a car or getting stung by a jellyfish?" he reacted like a good dad - and a journalist. He contacted experts and got answers in easy-to-grasp terms. (The jellyfish sting might actually hurt more, at least on impact.)

Wendell quickly got a book deal. He fired off an email blast asking friends for tough questions asked by their children. I sent him Ella's breakup query, adding the story of my woefully inadequate answer. Not long after, the usually calm Wendell called, sounding quite excited.

"You're not going to believe this," he said. "I think we're going to get an answer to Ella's Beatles question."

"From who?" I asked.

"From Yoko!"

I filled with joy, pride - and dread. Now the world would know I was an idiot. But at least maybe we'd get closer to the truth.

Wendell's great book - Father Knows Less, or: 'Can I Cook My Sister?' One Dad's Quest to Answer His Son's Most Baffling Questions (Putnam) - came out that September and got a ton of well-deserved publicity. He invited Ella and me to participate in a reading at a local bookstore.

Ella asked her question: "Why did the Beatles break up?"

I gave my one-word answer, shrugging my shoulders and turning red amid peals of laughter from parents and kids alike.

Then Wendell, playing Yoko (sans high-pitched voice), read her answer, which might be as close to the truth as we'll ever get: "Because they all grew up, wanted to do things their own way, and they did."

Ella is now at a tough age - she just turned 17 (and you know what I mean, parents). She's growing up and trying to do things her own way as she plays in bands, looks at colleges and contemplates a future beyond our familial cocoon.

It's hard not to be a helicopter parent, but I try to listen to the Beatles - and Yoko - in figuring out when to just let her be.

Sometimes, dads need to grow up, too.

Adapted, in part, from "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family" by Jere Hester. Published by Books by Brooklyn.