There’s a huge and well-deserved knock on politicians, and if a kid states that she someday wants to be a politician then the response of most would be to fault the parents. But there is one particular attribute of successful politicians that parents should remember: stay on message.
Staying on message means that you aren’t easily distracted from one or more salient points that you continually return to when you’re with the kids. There can be entire weeks that you don’t mention that message but if the opportunity arises, you return to it consistently, bringing the point home again, and again. The message is typically something that drives you and that you want the kids to take to heart, that they’ll carry with them moving forward. It’s a message that is short and succinct, a parental tagline that fits into the short attention span mindset and is especially crucial in a period in which the kids are getting more conversation from the entertainment/media complex than from their own parents.
In my particular childhood and youth, there were two salient messages that came through from both of my parents. My mother’s mantra – derived from a Great Depression childhood – was simply we’ve gotta pay the mortgage. In a society in which the consumerist mentality had begun to blossom, this simple message was the response to the purposefully created need versus want confusion. You can certainly ask for the latest and greatest toy or trip, but we’ve gotta pay the mortgage, so your wants be damned, the need of putting a roof over the head first must be met. When I got a little older, it became a running joke with the family and I’d sit at the dinner table, taking potshots like an absurdist ass: Mom, can I have a new pair of shoes? Nope, (answering myself) gotta pay the mortgage. Mom, can I please have a second helping of carrots? Nope, (answering myself) gotta pay the mortgage. My mother suffered the slings in good grace and it wasn’t until I was finally living in my own apartment with the full freedom and responsibility of adulthood that this message came back. I worked for a corporation with a load of other twenty-somethings and the conversation amongst multiple co-workers would turn to spending on this or that and presented with a particular decision on a major purchase decision, I found that phrase creep back repeatedly into my head: gotta pay the mortgage. I could certainly afford the particular item if I took a second job to cover the cost along with the other necessities, such as rent. But the stretch was such that if I lost my primary job, I’d be forced to return home. Gotta pay the mortgage.
The message from my father was blunter and broader: pull your head out of your ass and look around. It was a message that I received repeatedly from around fourth grade onwards, when the thought process starting going to hell. It was harsh and consistent, and would be trotted out when he’d encounter some ‘tween/teen stupidity that either I or my sister had said or done. It also became a weird form of bonding between the two of us and when I reached my later teens, we’d actually joke about it and he’d even note that he’d done something proving that he’d demonstrably had his head up his own ass. It was only in my adulthood when he began to open up to my wife and I about his Korean War experiences that the import behind this message came home. There was certainly an element of fate about whether or not a shrapnel fragment or bullet took you out, but there was also an element of carelessness and lack of thought that got you killed as well. As a company first sergeant, which he reached at the tender age of 20 via the demise of his predecessors, he routinely told new arrivals that if they wanted to survive, they’d better find one of the veterans and pay attention to what they did and then copy it. The verbal message to me was harsh but he never scared me with the stories of why he stressed attention, awareness and thought; that phrase is one that I swore that I’d never use with my own kids but there have been a very few instances when it’s been trotted out.
My own taglines are simple and one of them is a G-rated version of my father’s acidic remark: Think. Use your head for more than just a hatrack. The second pertains to the college experience and debt, we need to get you through with as little debt as possible and I talk consistently about the impact of debt on the ability to actually get out of the house and on with their own lives. There’s no guarantee of what job or career you’ll get, but there’s no sense making things worse by starting out with a small mortgage hung around your neck. The phrases aren’t embroidered and hung upon the wall nor are they used on a daily basis, but I try to use them consistently and in the same format every time so that it winds up as a rhetorical bumper sticker pasted to their thought process, one that they see every time that they decide to take it out for a ride.
Understand that when the kids get older and more into the world of school and peers, your time around them will lessen. Decide what you value and the lessons that you wish to impart and then find the tagline that best captures what you want to say. Then deliver it again and again and again. Expect that you might even be teased, but keep it up because it’s sinking in and it’s liable to be at a crucial moment in your child’s life when that tagline pops into his head and makes all the difference in a particular choice facing him.