Looking Forward: Young Parents and the Changes to Higher Ed

My wife and I sat together on a wet May Thursday morning, awaiting Middle’s University Commencement ceremony.  Attendance wasn’t mandatory for the graduates since they would be receiving their degrees separately at the ten individual college ceremonies but Middle decided to enjoy the moment and walk with willing others of his college.  It was a moment of celebration marred only by the absence of his siblings:  Eldest, who couldn’t leave work until later that morning and Youngest, who was obligated to take an AP exam that afternoon.  It was no different from the other notable events that provide the milestones for our lives and the recurrent question came back to me…when did he grow up?  Parenthood is a “forest for the trees” experience as you become so caught up in the multitude of activities, events, practices, concerts and games  that time slips by until one of these milestones allows you to stop and climb the ridge from which you can now see how far you’ve come and how far there is to go.  But instead of looking back as so many times before, I wondered about the set of ridges that mark the trail now traveled by Eldest with her own husband and small child.  She and Hub will have their own valleys, forests and ridges and far ahead, standing like the earliest glimpse of the Rockies from the eastern Colorado plains, will be their own child’s departure from high school.  I asked myself as we waited, what will that look like?

That question has since redefined itself into two questions:  the first is simply what might have changed by the time that they reach that departure point?  The second is what do they need to consider in the time that it takes to get there?

What will have changed?

The principal change – and it’s already begun – is that a college degree will no longer be the default for post-secondary education.  The cumulative levels of student debt and the decline of the middle-class family are already impacting attendance levels apart from the simple fact that the demographics for young adults are now almost a decade into decline.  The idea that a kid can go to college and then “figure it out” is no longer operative because the funds aren’t there to support that concept.

Second, expect a corollary increase in the demand for trade school education and a willingness by the educational system to promote it.  There is a new awareness that there are decent living-wage jobs available – even in manufacturing – but that the educational requirements are technical and often not requiring a four-year degree.  Several years ago, Mike Rowe noted in a Popular Mechanics article that his guidance counselor actively promoted college to the exclusion of vocational and trade school, even when he stated that he wasn’t certain that college was for him.  Since I am roughly the same age as Rowe, I can attest to the same scenario in that vocational and trade schools were the proverbial red-headed stepchild…there, but unloved and often denigrated.  It’s taken damned near four decades and a staggering non-dis-chargeable student debt load of $1.5 Trillion that actively hinders economic progress, but the word is now afoot to revive the skilled trades.

The economics are prompting a shift in attitudes.  The youngsters see what’s happening to their elder siblings and peers and are compensating to avoid it.  New and upgraded programs are becoming available as the trade schools are abetted by both businesses and unions to provide training for the jobs that are in greatest demand, locally and nationally.  Employers with aging workers are individually recruiting young adults to be trained for replacing the retiring workers.

Third, many smaller colleges will be forced to either close outright or at best, curtail their program offerings and work to establish a niche.  In some ways, a modern college is no different from any ill-fated big box store; each lures individuals with the promise that whatever they need can be fulfilled so going elsewhere won’t be required.  As Middle wryly noted several months ago, that’s so typical of a college…they hire a single professor and market it as a department.  The unfortunate reality is that the carrying cost of the product is no longer sustainable when the customers begin to shop online or simply diminish in number.

The same is now happening with Higher Ed as smaller institutions now realize that each major and program of study has a specific carrying cost and that some of these programs are financially unsupportable.  Sweetbriar College, a small all-women’s college in rural Virginia, was on the verge of closing in 2015 but was saved when outraged alumni raised almost $30 million.  It’s niche moving forward will be a greater affordable emphasis on STEM careers for women, which is attracting sufficient interest and attendance to support the costs of the programs.  So if Little One wants to to pursue a specific course of study, it’s very possible that she’ll have to travel beyond the local state institution.

Fourth, There is still going to be a price-tag for an education.  Ignore the Democratic campaign promises for free tuition and wide-spread student debt forgiveness  (although Sanders paying for such via implementation of a Tobin Tax variant is an elegant two-fer that aims to put a handle on the algorithm trading that has taken over the US financial markets).  This is not going to be free.

Any national election cycle is akin to the Wizard of Oz, in which we are asked to pay no attention to the man – or woman – behind the curtain.

The Great and Mighty Sanders/Warren can promise free tuition and debt cancellation to excite and motivate the base but the reality is simply that despite our national wealth, there is only a finite amount of resources and the issues confronting us are deep, structural and expensive.  If you think that I’m wrong, consider what is going on behind the Congressional curtain.  Members of the House and Senate have introduced bicameral legislation  that will once again permit the discharge of student debt via bankruptcy while other members are introducing legislation that eliminates administrative fees in federal student loan programs.  If the political class was even remotely convinced that there existed such a kill switch for student debt and out-of-whack tuition, then Senators and Representatives wouldn’t be tinkering behind the curtain.

Fifth, expect that there will be a much broader and expanded program of national service – not necessarily mandatory – for youngsters just out of high school with subsequent access to education benefits, akin to veterans.  It’s an old idea put forward again by Pete Buttigieg as part of his Democratic candidacy.  Why?  First, it gives an eighteen year old the opportunity to gain experience and real world exposure before actually expending the resources and energy to find a meaningful path in life.  Second, it provides society with a potent, vibrant and relatively inexpensive labor pool that can be utilized in needed areas across the country.  Third, it’s a response to the Balkanization that is occurring across America as youngsters could be sent into under-served areas to work with populations that are increasingly viewed as those people.  Such programs aren’t new to our history, it’s just that we have little recollection of that history.

If you don’t agree, answer this:  what was the Civilian Conservation Corps?

What Do You Need to Consider?

While I would love for there to be a simple checklist, there isn’t.  But there are some basic precepts to consider through the course of the next fifteen -or more – years.

First, expect to provide a greater attention and intentionality to parenthood than my generation.  Parenthood’s first rule is that your life is no longer your own and your foremost responsibility is raising that kid.  In the early years at least, minimize the screen time – eliminate it if you can – and force your child to go old-school.  Get them interacting with you and others, playing outside, becoming bored and exploring their external and internal surroundings.  Understand that from a communications perspective, you want the initial conversations about life to be with you and those that you trust.  This isn’t about being wildly conservative and cutting your child off from the outside world; it’s about understanding both how critical these early years are and that there are others who care more about seeing your child develop as a revenue stream than as a person.  They – the media and entertainment complexes – very much want to have a conversation with your child and from their perspective, the earlier the better.

Part and parcel of this as she ages is what I refer to as Parental Reconnaissance.  Use the available resources to help you understand the background and options of her expanding interests.  When Eldest slipped into a wider variety of music in later elementary school, I would flip to the playlist on her favored station’s website and see what was trending as popular; I then reviewed the lyrics on lyrics.com.  It was likewise with Middle and his expanded music interest.  Youngest has developed an avid interest in politics and policy and regularly follows certain Podcasts.  On a recent trip, my wife asked him to sync his phone to the car’s Bluetooth and we spent several hours listening to segments from his favorite political commentators.  Our agreement was irrelevant; the point was to understand what he hears and by subsequent conversation, what he believes.

This carries over into career interests and future livelihoods.  Most kids leave behind their childhood goal of becoming a race-car driving firefighter as they  mature and their horizons expand and there comes a point around the ‘tween years when they begin developing new interests.  Use your evenings online to seriously research what’s involved in pursuing them as a career.  If it’s marine biology, what’s involved in education and what are the job prospects?  What about becoming an actor?  Some foreknowledge – gained at the expense of late night free time and research – helps frame future conversations so that practicable decisions can be made.  This is especially the case for kids who decide that their career goals involve new and unknown-to-parent vocations such as social media influencer or video-gamer – yep, they are real things – so it’s worthwhile to at least become even slightly conversant with the business side of things.  Consider Lori Loughlin.  If she truly understood what her daughter, with a six figure contract, was doing, then she likely wouldn’t have gone over the edge on college.  Hell, if my kid had a six figure influencing contract by her senior year, the 529 plan would be riding a roller-coaster at EuroDisney.

Second, help your child determine his skill set.  Start with what you do yourself and take it from there.  If you swing a hammer, make sure that she sees you swing a hammer.  If you cook, make sure that he sees you cook.  On a trip to Louisiana, I met a bayou guide who discussed the locale and life in the bayou region and he was obviously proud that his children, no older than middle school age, could handle a firearm and actively contributed to his family’s annual food supply.  That morning, he commented, his daughter had bagged a large deer and his wife was already in the process of beginning to clean it for the rendering process.

Be careful, however.  The college-degree-over-all approach of the past four decades created a thundering lemming herd as everyone did it simply because that’s what was sold by the business and educational systems.  The reality is that it will take significant time and effort to help her determine that skill set and it’s possible that the skilled trades aren’t the best fit.  Don’t be a lemming in the other direction.

Third, you can disagree on whether the youngster makes that post-secondary decision alone.  But it is inarguable that the process on arriving at the decision is not an individual one; it is a family process.  Even if you cannot help fund it, what matters is your on-going and serious input in helping her reach the best decision.  The past two decades are littered with the wreckage of young adults who received little or no guidance on their path and honestly, I have never heard of a college telling a youngster, we’re too expensive so don’t come.

I recently encountered the mother of one of Middle’s childhood friends and we chatted about their individual whereabouts.  She commented in the conversation that she had sat down with her son and outlined loan repayment scenarios – she had only just finished repaying her own student debt – given the various athletic scholarships he was being offered.  The upshot was that he decided to live at home and attend the local state university.  My personal What the ****? moment from that chat was her statement that multiple parents had advised her to say little because it was her son’s decision to make.  Seriously?  They’re willing to let a teenager, a nascent adult-in-training, take on potentially tens of thousands in debt that will dictate job and life choices for the next two decades because it’s his decision?  You aren’t an 18th century father arranging a smithy apprenticeship for the youth.  You are however, helping culminate what should be an on-going conversation built upon years of talk, exploration and effort that helps set her upon a path leading to a self-sufficient adulthood.

Remember:  If you aren’t having the conversation, someone else will.

One other note about this process.  It’s been more than two decades since the typical American family was saddled with financial burdens not wholly borne by the grand and great-grandparents.  Retirement was largely shifted to the family as pensions disappeared; likewise with increasingly expensive health insurance and higher deductibles.  Sustainable wage jobs were shipped overseas wholesale.  Couple this with the stratospheric rise in the cost of education and the result has been that burden of funding that education has, in many cases, shifted from the family to the youngster herself.  It’s possible that you will be one of many young parents unable to pay for the entirety, or even part, of her education.  No matter what feelings that might stir, understand this:  as a generation, you are the first in our history to have to raise the children in the midst of a complete reversion to a lower standard of living most reminiscent of our great-grandparents.  Recognize it and make the changes necessary to assure that your own children have the upbringing and skill sets to allow for the adjustment to a new normal.

Finally, you are going to have to become more aware and engaged in the political realm than your parents and grandparents ever were.  Things didn’t just screw up this completely accidentally and overnight.  We – your preceding generations – became complacent and tuned out of the political process.  We literally adopted the 1960s hippie acid phrase – Turn On, Tune In, and Drop Out – and adapted it to our entertainment and electronic lives so that we didn’t pay attention while the economically and politically connected few rigged the political system to their benefit at the expense of the average American family.  Warren Buffett commented in 2006 that there had certainly been a class war and that his side was winning.  What has happened to the American Middle Class isn’t just the tide of history.  It has also been the victim of a decades-long mugging by a wealthy class that has usurped the political process via poorly controlled lobbying, uncontrolled political contributions, a lucrative revolving door between public and private sector, and a heavily dosed financing of talk radio sock puppetry inciting both conservative and liberal angst.  You are going to have to pay attention to the issues and proposed laws.  You are going to have to find that singular issue that incites you and follow it, spreading the word to peers via conversation and social media.  You are going to have to be willing to make life unpleasant and uncomfortable for politicians at all levels.

Frankly, since you are busy dealing with small children, it’s now incumbent upon my generation to take this task forward.  But you are still going to have to be better than we were.

There is no single right way to prepare your child for adulthood.  My wife and I have been through the process twice thus far and both times had significant differences.  It is likewise for the third child.  But what each has had in common is an early attention to coming adulthood and much conversation over a long period of time.

Oh, and one final remark before I shut up.  If you think that today’s politics are unpleasant, consider the royal Hell that your younger Gen Z siblings are going to unleash when they fully involve themselves in the political process.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

…here at the end of all things

I’m glad to be with you, Samwise Gamgee, here at the end of all things.

          Frodo Baggins

For the last time in more than 2300 mornings, Middle once again came down to breakfast for a quick bite to eat before departing for school.  I commented that this was effectively the last day of school for him as his classes ended and he only had an amusement park class trip and graduation practice before donning cap and gown.  He sipped at his drink and quoted a line from Peter Jackson’s Return of the King: I’m glad to be with you, Samwise Gamgee, here at the end of all things.  Standing and working at the kitchen sink, I nodded and responded, Except that this isn’t an end, son.  It’s a beginning.  He could only concur.

And for him, it is a beginning.  He’s still a teenager with that breed’s sensibilities – or occasional lack thereof – and sense of invincibility and confidence.  In less than three months, he will join his two best friends at an urban university to study and pursue his love, acting.  And then my wife and I will be left only with Youngest in the house, still in middle school but rapidly growing and maturing; I can now look into his eyes without having to lower my face and as my wife stated in a conversation to another he really is an old soul.

But while it’s a beginning for Middle, neither is it an end for my wife and I.  It is instead a transition for us as he takes first steps of independence and adulthood.  He bears some of the stamps of adulthood already, both being able to vote and serve in the military yet he’s only now an adult-in-training.  He will leave for college and I expect that there will be the periodic phone calls and questions about procedures, processes and situations as he continues the process of maturation.  God knows that my own father received more than his fair share as I witnessed and waded through episodes of what can charitably be described as debauchery during my freshman year of college – Dear God, Dad…how do I handle this kind of thing? – and even beyond.  It also leads to a more general question, and that is how I myself wish to see this relationship as we both age.  As he joins his elder sister in moving along and upwards on the Bell Curve of maturity and capability, it’s obviously apparent that my own position on the same curve is not on an upwards trajectory.  Middle-age is a time when a person is generally moving along a plateau of physical, emotional and intellectual capabilities before the gradual effects of age take their own toll, although at differing rates for each of capabilities.  50 is the new 35?  Yeah, but only with sufficient quantities of Ibuprofen and Scotch and occasionally in combination…  Sprinkle in an awareness of the effects of advanced old age from being sandwiched and it becomes a question with a bit more emotional immediacy even if it’s unlikely that I’ll find myself in a similar situation.  Don’t even be surprised if you and your mate each sees a different answer to the relationship question.  The point is that it’s something worth considering since it’s obvious that you won’t want it to end and yet, it cannot remain the same.

I’m fortunate in that this relationship change is already taking place with Eldest, even though I’m not certain quite how it would be described; I only know that it’s different and as long as we both are satisfied with it, that’s alright.

Perhaps Tolkien’s classic trilogy is a good analogy for what’s taking place.  In the end, Frodo and Sam survived with their relationship matured.  Each better understood the other and had a renewed respect for what each had accomplished on the journey.  Raising a child is a long, long journey but with every journey, there’s a beginning and an end.  What happens when that journey together ends isn’t written in stone at the beginning but it’s something that will be slowly carved when the next step of their journey begins.  By this time, your child is in some ways an adult and is capable of viewing life and relationships with a fairly astute eye; to think that their next steps will entail the exact same relationship with you as when they were children will only assure an ugly carving, if one is carved at all.

An Abiding State of PACE

 

Perhaps it should say long-leggedy teenagers, instead. 

Ask any middle-aged parent about teenagers and the response is liable to be an audible sigh accompanied by a visible shaking and dropping of the head.  They are capable of things that are utterly breathtaking to the parents – where in the hell did that come from? – to be immediately followed by an equally breathtaking lapse of the most basic common sense.  As I pause on the threshold of having three kids within the teen pipeline, Youngest on the verge of entering and Eldest on the verge of exiting with Middle in the…middle, it occurred that I exist in a perpetual and abiding state of PACE (Perpetual Annoyance and Chronic Exasperation), far different from what I recall during their early years when it was a given that the onus of most personal care and thinking fell upon me instead of them.  

It was easy to remember when they were tykes that the burden fell upon me for the majority of their care.  But the tykes grow into more adult-sized bodies, albeit often disproportionate with feet and/or hands placed upon the extended limbs that don’t quite mesh the rest of their forms.  The result is a sense, and I freely admit unfounded, that this life-size ersatz adult should be able to think with the structure of an adult mind.  This isn’t to say that I expect them to understand much about the adult American world since most adults don’t seemingly comprehend it either, with it’s opaque financial and cultural structures that defy understanding and increasing security structures that discourage even questioning.  It’s a common recurring misconception of mine, that believes that possessing size 12 feet also confers a degree of common sense when the reality is that the visible body’s size is wholly unrelated to their ability to think and use even a minimal degree of common sense.  Seriously, I’d expect that such a possibility would even remotely cross your mind…as my blood pressure increases over the short period of time.

But what happens to the teenage brain over the pubescent teen years is far different.  Feet grow and body hair develops, but the child’s brain is doing things that have taken the breath of neuroscientists away.  With the development of the MRI and CT-scan machines, someone had the bright idea of doing periodic brain scans for the same children – akin to snapshots – at regular intervals over the course of years.  The upshot of these scans was the realization that the brain of the typical kid was literally rewiring itself with new pathways being formed over the course of years.  When I first learned this, my response was so when I told her to take out the trash on three different instances, it didn’t happen because the requests were stuck in synaptic construction traffic.  This knowledge is a sop to the frustration when clothing is strewn about, milk left and requests/commands ignored; but the accumulation of stuff still drives my blood pressure upwards and leaves me wondering, what else to do?

But for all of the teeth-grinding frustration, there are moments when I realize that despite the haywire thinking processes, the kids are developing character and making choices that reflect a growing awareness of the world and their place within it.  This character, and the understanding of the difference between right and wrong, is something that I consider even more important than the developing ability to think.  This is the literal framework within which they will think as adults, the lens that focuses their decisions reached after thought, consideration or perhaps the occasional coin toss.  Until they’re on their own, all that I can do is try to bite my tongue – or not bite theirs – and hang onto the knowledge that this too shall pass when their brains catch up with the rest of their bodies.  The effort until then is to talk with them and try to help them develop the structure with which they can think their way through problems and questions.  It should also go without saying that the character work has to continue as well.

 

 

 

 

 

Selfies and the Kids

As the 2014 Academy Awards aired downstairs, I overheard the family’s commentary as host(-ess) Elaine DeGeneres – I don’t even know which title is considered correct anymore – gathered A-list celebrities for what was subsequently billed as the “Best Selfie Ever”.  It’s the latest and most fame-riddled in a long list of shots taken since the rise of the smartphone but the practice leads me to wonder about the effect of such activities on the kids who are now billed as the “smartphone generation”.  What should parents consider about letting their kids have access to take “selfies”?

The practice is here to stay as iPads and smartphones have become ubiquitous in today’s culture.  When I took Middle to the local Social Security Administration office to replace a lost card, he was taken aback by the presence of toddlers – no exaggeration here – who were waiting with their own iPhones; while mothers and fathers plunked away on their own, these kids were swiping away at apps and taking more than a few selfies.  The practice has gained increasing increasing public attention, especially as more parents are allowing the kids to play with the smartphones.  There’s already the question of how much access should a toddler or preschooler have to a smartphone or an iPad, but the ability to take an almost unlimited number of photos of themselves leads to legitimate questions about the impact upon child development.

The linked article, republished in various forums in the US, raises some of the issues but I believe misses the largest point.  It’s natural that the kids want to see pictures of themselves since children are, by nature, egocentric beings.  All that they know when they are very young is the small world of themselves and their family and because they are incapable of caring for themselves, all obviously revolves around them.  Yes, seeing photos of themselves can help develop a self-image but I honestly wonder whether seeing yet another photo of themselves leads to a healthy self-image.  Perhaps the major point made by critics of the unlimited access to selfies is that it feeds the problem of instant gratification since the kid can see the digital image immediately and then, with a swipe of a finger, make it disappear if it’s not to their liking.  There’s no having to wait for the results and no exercise of the valuable practice of patience.  But I believe that while the self-gratification point is valid, it’s just one more pebble on the already massive pile of society’s practices that already promote instant gratification.  The large issue is that it promotes and contributes to the narcissistic tendencies that already exist in today’s young generations.  Multiple studies support the thesis that today’s kids are far more self-absorbed than previous generations.  The rise in permissive and helicopter parenting, the excessive use of praise and the onset of online social media platforms – remember Xanga? – that allow peers to like their buds for absolutely nothing of value have all contributed to this narcissism.  But allowing the kids to have unfettered access from a very young age will only reinforce the narcissistic tendencies from an even younger age and make the personality trait even more set in concrete than before.

It’s natural to expect some narcissism from youngsters and I remember time spent in my ‘tween/teen bedroom examining my visage and profile, mugging at the mirror and trying on different hats and looks as I explored my self-image and personality.  It’s natural for kids to do that as they pass through various phases until they finally arrive at their adult personality and that’s frankly why I’ve never been terribly upset at the various looks, boyfriends/girlfriends and musical tastes that have come through the PracticalDad household…because what’s happening now with the kids isn’t necessarily permanent.  Wow, he’s been listening to Swedish Death Ska for three months…and now he’s listening to Mumford. But my job as a parent is to raise the kids to make their way in the world as productive and moral adults, able to survive on their own and even make the place a little better, and that requires a person who can look outwards and see what’s occurring around them; this is the antithesis of the narcissistic personality whose insularity keeps them looking inwards and hence unable to comprehend what might be hurtling in their direction let alone how their behaviors affect others.

So what to do?  First, give serious consideration to how much you let the kids handle the smartphone; it’s a convenient, pocket-sized babysitter that’s of value on occasion but the kid won’t learn patience if he’s plugged into the Matrix whenever nothing’s going on.  Second, if you let the kids take some selfies, go ahead and delete their selfies in their presence.  While I don’t have a smartphone, I’ve let the kids mess with my digital camera and take selfies; when I’ve gone back through the memory card and seen them, I’ve deleted the photos in their presence just to drive the point home that excessive use is simply a waste of a memory card that could be taken up with photos of real value and meaning.  Trust me, it’s certainly garnered looks of hurt but a little dose of humility isn’t going to hurt them. Third, make sure that you model appropriate behavior by not engaging in such behavior in their presence unless it’s of merit, such as an event or trip.

The Conversations:  Political

Despite all of the family activity over the past several months, there have been a number of significant conversations with the kids, singly or together.  There’s so much happening in our society – well, that’s nothing new but the nature of it is far more important than other issues – that these conversations have to happen.  There are moments when any of them will look at me with the cocked head pose of Laddie, the Wonder Spaniel – blah, blah, NSA, blah… – but there are also moments when the monologue shifts to a dialogue and it’s then that the real education can occur, that time when what is learned in school is fleshed out in the real world and the family values are further transmitted.

Decide what you believe is the most important for them to know and work from there.  For me, there are several large issues that come together into one overarching monstrosity of a theme.  Issues such as the legalization of marijuana, the ongoing failure to reform the financial system, the growth of the surveillance state and campaign finance reform are seemingly unrelated on one level but tightly intertwined on another level.  Each is part and parcel of the coalescence of a corporate and political structure – fascism in it’s simplest form – that seeks to maintain itself at the cost of the individual’s rights and liberties.  The legalization of marijuana is, on one level, a purported triumph for individual liberty but the system’s willingness to alter decades of law and policy in the interest of yet more tax revenue is the worst form of cynicism.  We’ve talked for years about an equal opportunity system that pays no credence to race, gender or creed and congratulations to us – we’re now well down the road to a system of governance that doesn’t give a good goddamn about the color of your skin, your gender or what you believe so long as you feed the system via votes, tax revenues or payments for stays in private correctional facilities.

Teaching The Ugly Realities:  9/11

Parents want to protect their kids, not only from harm, but also from the knowledge of some of the terrible things that occur in contemporary society.  We might discuss such things when they age, but a picture is worth a thousand words and no amount of classroom or dinner-table discussion can bring home the impact of what occurred and it’s unclear when the kids might be ready for a more visceral examination of an event.  Such was the question in this household as I pondered whether Youngest was now old enough to view a CBS news documentary – What We Saw – issued about a year after the attacks.

The documentary is a 2002 hardcover book with accompanying DVD that relates the events of 9/11, commencing with Bryant Gumbel’s morning interview with a witness to a purported plane collision with the first of the two towers.  It then moves through the rest of the day as New York and Washington, DC reel from the events, and further recounts the actions of the passengers on United’s Flight 93 as they willingly sacrificed themselves and took the plane into a remote Pennsylvania field.  The scenes of the devastation are still frightening and visceral to watch; in one news clip, a person opts to jump to his death instead of burning alive atop one of the towers and we can watch this poor soul plummet for hundreds of feet before a nearby building mercifully hides his final impact from our view.  Not everything is grisly and there are segments on the ensuing rescue efforts, patriotism and the resultant move into Afghanistan in search of the now dead Bin Laden.  It was a book that I purchased years ago precisely for the purpose of showing to the kids when they were old enough to more fully take in its meaning, and it was shown to each of the older two kids when I deemed them old enough.

But was Youngest now old enough?  At the time of the attacks, he was still in utero; he has spent his entire life in the shadow of those attacks and all that’s changed since then.  There is no understanding of life before the TSA, drones and a constant threat – real or imagined – of terrorism.  The seemingly ever-present surveillance camera was far less prevalent and we didn’t seem to be living with a sense of constantly impending menace.  Youngest has certainly known about the attacks from his mother and I, school and the media, but he’d never been exposed to the visual panoply of that time.  Making it an even harder question is that we’ve tried – and never fully succeeded – to keep him away from the graphic violence that permeates video games and the media.  He’s certainly seen violent movies, although rarely until this past year, but we’ve made efforts to keep the graphic combat games away and there is no – for now, but that will change – game system in the house.  The upshot is that he hasn’t become desensitized to the violence that permeates our environs.  This was brought home two years when I finally allowed him to watch the first part of Saving Private Ryan and he only lasted through the initial assault on Omaha Beach before having to stop watching.

The boy has an interest in history and the world around him, and preparing him and his siblings for the world is my principal role as a father.  It’s become an increasingly ugly world, one in which terrorists kill others for media coverage, the deranged arm themselves to hunt for our most vulnerable and schools now openly discuss what to do in the event that a gunman comes strolling down the main hallway.  Given his interest, his maturity and the nature of how we’ve had to adapt, I opted to share the DVD with him years before I did so with his older siblings.  We’d watch for a few minutes and then he’d pause the program to ask a question or listen to an explanation I’d offer for something that was on-screen.  It was a brutal experience and there were moments when I wept along with him as we viewed the CBS news reports until we could watch no further, ultimately turning it off midway through the program.

Our job as parents is to prepare our children to make their way in the world.  This means that we must pay attention to the world around us so that we can adjust plans and actions to fit the times, and what might have worked for an older child might have to be re-evaluated for the younger kids that follow.  It also means that we must be personally involved teaching these things, as uncomfortable as they might be.  We cannot leave the lessons for the schools alone, and we certainly shouldn’t leave them to the media culture; the children require a sense of context to help them make full sense of what they see and we parents are the ones who can best provide that background and context for them.  We know how they process information and whether or not they’re ready for the more unpleasant lessons of life around us.

Boys Stink

Literally.

I sat last week in a doctor’s office, someone with whom I’ve had enough experience to know that he also has three kids in the same age/gender mix – elder girl, two younger brothers – as my own.  It was one of those Spring days for which you desperately await, a time when you can enjoy the outside again.  He stated that he’d taken a very early morning walk and my response was that I’d actually thrown open the windows in the boys’ bedrooms before departing for the appointment; it was a day for which I’d waited, a chance to air out the stale odors that had taken residence over the enclosed winter months.  He nodded in agreement, commenting that the boys’ hangout in his basement smelled heavily of sweaty feet and stale sweat.  Geez, boys do stink, don’t they?  I remarked.  He responded Yeah, they really do.  Boys stink

The old axiom is that Spring is a time when a young man’s fancy turns to love.  When you have boys who are teens or tweens, the fancy turns instead to thoughts of opening the bedroom windows in order to blow out the accumulated stink of winter.  The pubescent years are difficult enough as the teens try on new attitudes, opinions and looks like a diva tries on shoes.  But boys provide a literal insult to injury with the accumulated odors that accrue in their rooms; they can bathe daily and use all manner of deodorant, but their personal den generally accrues enough poor hygiene habits that there is a perceptibly stale funk.  There are the standard components of dirty socks and underwear that somehow wind up behind furniture or buried within the closet and there’s a never-ending refrain of reminders to hang up the damp bath towels.  I once entered a child’s room and was immediately struck by the notion that there’s something wrong with this picture; after several minutes of searching around, I realized that a bedroom has three dimensions and looked up to find underwear dangling from the ceiling light.  Seriously, son?  The amazing part is that when I commented to him later, his account of how it got there jibed with what I’d expected when I first saw it. 

Boys are generally unaware of the details that surround them and the obliviousness reaches an absolute-zero boundary when they enter the teen years.  But even the oblivion can be pierced by environment and the results are, well…someday we’ll find them amusing.  In one instance, a boy decided to address the odors by spraying two drawers – full of clean clothing – with the larger part of a bottle of Axe deodorant while we were at the store; when we walked in the front door, the reek of Axe so permeated the house that we had to wheel about and exit the same door.  In another instance, a boy complained of a swarm of small flies in his room and when I investigated, I found an uneaten school lunch bag crammed into a clothing drawer, the flies drawn to the decaying fruit.  There are certainly other stories from this household which I won’t share and I know of many others from fellow parents who can only shake their heads in disbelief.  If you have boys who aren’t yet teens, you’ll certainly accumulate your own. 

The upshot is this. 

  • While we want our children to take responsibility for themselves and their personal environment, the path isn’t on an even grade and there are periods when they enter the teen years that you actually think that they’re regressing.  This is part and parcel of those years when the kids’ brains literally rewire themselves – thank you, MRI studies – and their thoughts apparently wind up lost for all of the dead-end synapses that no longer accommodate traffic.
  • There will likely be some conflict between the privacy-conscious teen and the parent who wants to come through and at least keep the room habitable, culling through debris, opening windows, clearing out drawers and changing sheets.  Decide what your limit is and stick to it. 
  • As they age, don’t assume that they automatically know what to do with antiperspirant, deodorant and body sprays – most especially in what amounts.  It’s self-evident to parents but conversations with boys can lead to expressions of enlightenment that rival their personal discovery of a fourth dimension or an answer as to why the Cubs just can’t seem to make it to the playoffs.   

The long and short is that we have to be prepared to continue to monitor and work with them, even when we wish that we didn’t have to.  We also have to make decisions as to what we’ll tolerate and what kind of conflict we’ll have to undergo as we help them grow through this period.  Our failure – and I know of parents who won’t stay on their boys to wash routinely and use appropriate personal care products – will lead to larger issues with the kids as they run into peers who aren’t shy about poking fun at their hygiene.  While the boys’ rooms can stink, it doesn’t mean that they have to as well. 

Memento

Most movie fans know Christopher Nolan as the renovator and director of the recent Batman movie trilogy.  But many may not be aware that one of his early films, Memento, is considered by some critics to be one of the best suspense films of the century’s first decade.  In the film, the protagonist is searching for the killer of his wife, yet suffers from a form of amnesia in which he’s incapable of maintaining short-term memories.  What’s notable about the film is that he works through the problem with the aid of polaroid photos, which he posts to a board and then strings together in an effort to create linkages that make sense to him, a sense of context.  This metaphor stays with me because as a parent – whose principal job is to raise the children to take their place in the great, wide world – I’m helping the kids string together their mass of experiences and memories into a recognizable form that gives rich context to the world in which they live.

Ask kids who are home from school what they did that day and you’re liable to get an i dunno or perhaps one or two snippets of something.  Many won’t take the time to process unless they’re prompted to do so and those experiences will most likely remain isolated photos on the memory board unless something happens – by chance or purpose – to pull them together.  This isn’t about speaking to them as soon as they walk in the door or you pick them up, but it’s about making the time and effort to talk with them, to draw them out and learn the experiences so that any conversation can lead to the possibility of making the connections.  The conversation can lead to any number of potential topics:  how do you complain to the bus driver – or any adult – if you feel you’re being unfairly singled out (without sounding like you’re whining?); what is the point of reading "The Great Gatsby", or any older novel?; why can’t you punch a girl back, and what does it mean if she’s smacking you in the arm?  

Conversation might not flow the way that you’d like, and it sometimes doesn’t even flow at all.  Well…how ’bout those Mets?  The unfortunate reality however, is that there is an ongoing conversation with your kids and it’s coming from the entertainment/media complex.  For decades now, the complex has offered up examples with lousy messages, going back to Fast Times at Ridgemont High’s Spiccoli, through Beavis and Butthead, South Park’s Cartman and all of the gangsta culture thrown about via multiple media.  Violence is endemic, women are demeaned – it might not matter now, but it will when you have a daughter – and poor behaviors such as drinking, drugs and gratuitous sex are celebrated.  I’m not Amish and our kids have access to the electronic media, but the point is that unless you’re willing to fully disconnect their media access, you have to be prepared to engage them whenever possible so that they begin to make the connections that you know truly need to be made.

Helping them make these connections, helping them build a coherent framework through which to interpret the world and interact with it, is not a one-off process.  This is a life-long endeavor and commences from the day of their birth; if we handle it properly, it will continue until the day of our death.  But the connections that are made will take these seemingly isolated instances and not only link them, but transform them from a two-dimensional board into a three-dimensional structure that helps them navigate their own lives and sustains them in those truly dark places that can exist in adulthood.  This is our purpose as parents, to raise them to make their way.  Leaving the conversations to the media complex is ultimately as harmful as starving them.  

They do want to eat.  And while they can’t or don’t always want to show it, they do want your attention and conversation.

 

Lincoln

Go see this movie. Take your children, even though they may occasionally be confused or fidgety. Boredom and confusion are also part of democracy, after all. “Lincoln” is a rough and noble democratic masterpiece — an omen, perhaps, that movies for the people shall not perish from the earth.

           – A.O. Scott, New York Times, November 9, 2012

That is precisely what I did as Middle and Youngest, and Middle’s girlfriend, came along this weekend to see Spielberg’s Lincoln.  While I don’t know the age of Mr. Scott’s own children, I do know that the material wasn’t beyond the grasp of an intelligent ten year-old so long as there was some pre- and post-movie background provided.  While this particular adventure pertained to a movie, it goes to the larger matter that as a father, my greatest job is to help prepare the children for living in the great wide world and the state of American politics and the questions of personal liberty, security and the Constitution certainly are addressed in this film.

The film itself was superb, everything that I’d expect from Kushner and Spielberg; it leaned heavily upon Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2006 book, Team of Rivals, a good history but definitely improved with the personal touch that comes from the visual work of Spielberg.  But to appreciate it in its entirety, it requires a basic level of knowledge that many of our kids lack today.  What was striking even before the movie trailers ran was that Middle leaned over and whispered Dad, you’re like the fourth youngest person here and when I glanced about at the several dozen viewers present, he was right.  Middle could appreciate it since he’s immersed in an Honors Civics course and it was his education that provided the impetus for the evening; Youngest however, could still appreciate it since we’d recently completed a ten mile hike at Gettysburg and is a budding history buff. 

Apart from simply seeing a Spielberg film and having the kids learn something (hopefully), I had certain goals for the three kids.  My first goal was to help them understand that history isn’t some dry subject but a living process, made by flesh and blood individuals who suffer, strive and often act only upon faith with no guarantee of ultimate success.  Lincoln – like all of our forebears – was flesh and blood and not a demi-god as we’ve made them all to be.  The second goal was to help them understand that the Constitution is largely a document of parameters and rules, not an explicit guide of regulations or an assembly book for government.  As during the Civil War, our society is beset by questions of the balance between personal liberties and national security.  Lincoln took great efforts to protect and defend the Constitution upon his inauguration and in doing so, he ran roughshod over basic precepts of free speech and habeas corpus; he admits as much to his cabinet during a scene in the film as they demand to understand why he believes it so important to enact the 13th amendment.  These larger questions aren’t new and will continue to haunt us.

The most interesting exchanges about the movie occurred during the next evening’s meal as the film was described to my wife, who was out of town the previous evening.  She glanced at Middle and inquired who’s the director? to which he replied Spielberg

Why was it released now? she asked.

I responded well, it didn’t occur before the election so it can’t be called a clear endorsement for an African-American president, sort of "look how far we’ve come since the 13th amendment".  The boys listened. 

No, she commented, but it’s certainly a good piece to have out in the aftermath of the Obamacare passage.  People want the big concepts like healthcare reform, but don’t want to see all of the little deals that go into the passage of such legislation.  As the conversation meandered, we questioned whether Obamacare is actually something good.  It’s 1400 pages that almost no one has actually read and many are opposed to it, sometimes viscerally.  Yet the 13th amendment’s passage was likewise opposed, sometimes viscerally and in the moment of it’s passage, it required the courage and great effort of a minority to enact it.  The point to the boys was this:  all that you can have at that moment are your convictions and it won’t necessarily be until sometime later that you learn whether the fruition of those convictions was truly successful. 

The upshot is this.  Don’t presume that the schools are going to teach your children everything that they need to learn to survive in the great wide world.  Look for your opportunities to expand their horizons and think about what you want them to take from those opportunities.  Make it a point to ask them what they noticed or thought and then just chat with them.  There are moments when they cock their heads and give you that Laddie, the Wonder Spaniel look but there will also be moments when you can watch the lights being turned on in the rooms inside their head and it’s those moments that provide profound satisfaction.  Don’t let them nag you out of it just because it might be out of their comfort zone; kids will bitch, whine and kvetch since that’s what they do.  Suffer it and push them so that they experience something that’s ultimately in their best interest and remember that since you’re the parent, you should know better than they do what’s in their best interest.  

Boyfriends (and Girlfriends)

You’re gonna wanna put a bullet in your head when she finally brings home a boyfriend.

                      –  Friend of PracticalDad, 1994

This friend commented the above to me over lunch prior to Eldest’s birth and it was funny in the moment, especially since his girl was 15 and my unborn was seeming light years away from that point.  But time passes quicker than you realize and suddenly, she’s talking about boys and soon there’s some acne-riddled, pubescent bucket of testosterone staring you in the face.  Dear God, he was right…shoot me now

Whether it’s a boyfriend or a son’s girlfriend, how do you even begin to handle it?  The teen years are a time of massive change and that’s the way that it should be, with the bodies growing and changing and the brains literally rewiring themselves during that period.  Part and parcel of that process is the development of sexuality, typically in the opposite gender but occasionally in the same.  Regardless of the orientation, there is so much for them to learn…most especially how to treat and interact with someone with whom they’re interested.  So understand that it’s coming and prepare yourself for the day, because it will arrive.

So what should you consider?  So much of how you respond will depend upon your own values; it’s fine if you disagree with what I write, but accept it simply as a point of departure for your own conversations and decisions.

First, understand that the kids are a blank slate in most areas and will learn from watching you, even when you’re unaware of it.  Think about how you interact with your "significant other" on a daily basis.  As much as I hate using that term, the reality is that there are now ex-wives and husbands, live-in/unmarrieds, girlfriends and even boyfriends; regardless of the status, how do you treat that person and how do you display affection?  It isn’t necessarily an overt decision and display, but understand that they will take their cues from you.  The flip side of this is that if they’re allowed to spend hours each day in front of unsupervised television and computer, what they’ll learn about sexuality and the treatment of others is going to vastly different from what you’ll think is appropriate or warranted.  This is one of the primary reasons that we enforced the rules on electronics usage from an early age.

Second, understand that your child’s definition of dating, boyfriend and girlfriend might be radically different from your own adult definition.  I was surprised one evening by Eldest, in her sixth grade year, when she asked at the dinner table if she could have a boyfriend.  It’s fortunate that my wife took the lead and in the ensuing conversation, found that her definition was far more simplistic than I envisioned and it was innocent enough that I didn’t have a stroke.  It also however, led to overt discussion about behaviors and further conversations about attitudes and morality. 

Third, is there a specific age at which you’ll actually permit the child to actually go out with someone?  Eldest and Middle both had dating relationships at the age of 15, albeit with ground rules, fixed transportation arrangements and curfews.  But I spoke with another parent the other evening and they were adamant in not permitting their child to date until 17, noting that their principal responsibility during the earlier years was the schoolwork.  While I can respect that, part and parcel of the teen years is learning how to manage relationships.

Fourth, what are your expectations and your ground rules?  Be sure to communicate these clearly and explicitly to the kids, including the repercussions if these are broken.  In the PracticalDad household, no boyfriend or girlfriend can visit unless one of the adults is present and all doors must remain open; there is a clear understanding that we also have access to all areas of the house so that we’re free to come down to the basement mechanical room – adjacent to the family room – at any time.  There have been instances when I’ve gone there simply to prove that I can.  What are the transportation arrangements?  Who has to be home and when, and how are they getting there?  There have been occasions when the teen relationships have taken a back seat to other business simply because plans weren’t checked out with me in advance.  What are the guidelines – if any – on public displays of affection?  It’s been a point here since we’ve actively opened the household to the significant others but there’s still a younger sibling in elementary school and he doesn’t need to be exposed to too much.  if we’re going to control it on the screen, then we’re going to control it here as well.

Fifth, how much do you want to include the significant others in family life?  Are there family events or evenings that are off-limits to outsiders or are you willing to open them up?  One of the things that you should consider is that there are more than a few teens with no significant adult supervision or involvement in their lives and being inclusive not only allows you to keep a better eye on what’s going on, it also allows them the opportunity to see the workings of an involved and active family.  It doesn’t mean that your family is perfect, but it’s a sad fact that at least you have an engaged family while these kids might not.  Accept it as a truism that kids coming from situations in which there isn’t an active and engaged family will want to spend time with your own family; and the other truism is that you will in turn begin to care for them regardless of their status with your kid.  I know of situations in which the ex-boyfriends and girlfriends continue to maintain contact even after their own relationship has ended. 

Many fathers aren’t aware of the power of their own example until the kids are old enough to begin their own tentative relationships.  Understand now that the sons will see how you treat your mate and model that accordingly and your daughters will learn how they in turn should be treated.  There will always be disagreements and fights, but it’s the manner in which they’re handled that makes the difference.