Kids, Guilt and Embarrassment

The past several decades have been a parental anomaly.  Parents have been concerned with their child’s self-esteem and image, and have often wished to be considered as much friend as parent.  That means that there’s generally less discipline and control and techniques that our grandparents used have gone by the wayside.  Two tools that have fallen out of use are embarrassment and old-fashioned guilt.  Is it ever appropriate to embarrass the child or make him feel guilty?

Actually, yes and I’ve used them both on occasion as they’re tools to be used to maintain discipline and teach, as much as groundings, time-outs, privilege-loss and old-fashioned jawboning.  This doesn’t mean that they’re used on every occasion – and they should actually be used sparingly – but neither are they to be avoided.

Embarrassment and guilt are powerfully negative feelings and kids are like everybody in that they’ll act to avoid the sense that these feelings bring.  But these are actually learned sensations and if a child doesn’t know to be embarrassed or feel guilty, then she simply won’t.  I think that there’s actually some value in these negatives; each reflects an awareness of other people and indicates that the child understands that there are other beings in the world apart from themselves. 

Embarrassment’s value is in helping the child to learn to control impulses and exercise some thought process instead of just doing something without any consideration as to the consequences.  When there’s an obvious and glaring outcome, there might even be no need on my part to embarrass the child since the action speaks solely for itself.  For example, if Junior is playing a sport and his goofing off on the field leads to a goal for the other team, there’s no need for me to highlight anything since his teammates will swiftly and certainly bring it to his attention.  In those instances in which Junior has been embarrassed by his actions, I’ve had to do nothing more than just acknowledge quietly that he had reason to be embarrassed.  Yeah, son.  You should have been embarrassed – so what do you take away from this?  A kid’s parents might not want to embarrass the child but his peers will certainly think nothing of it and a few will take to it like a pig to slop.  Where I’ve come to really utilize embarrassment is when my child is absolutely old enough to know better and the behavior is so glaringly stupid that it borders on or crosses into dangerous territory.  Teens are notorious for lacking the ability to assess risk, let along simply judgment in many cases and even when presented with the possible negative outcomes, will simply think that can’t happen to me.  This is especially the case when there are multiple kids together and absolutely none of them is thinking clearly, in which a cold dose of embarrassment will quickly bring things to a halt.  For example, finding three teenage boys playing tag in the rafter of a picnic pavilion more than ten feet above a concrete slab floor brought a vividly phrased condemnation to bring the point home.  Maybe you won’t fall, but you can be damned sure that you’ll get your self-esteem mangled if not your ribcage.  Likewise, misbehavior with a vehicle stands as ground for embarrassment and outright humiliation if the need arises.  Kids and teens might not remember reason, but they will acutely remember embarrassment before their peers.  Like many disciplinary situations however, there has to be a calmer follow-up conversation to bring the point home.  Pairing the immediate embarrassment with a later conversation can have a positive outcome.

Guilt differs from embarrassment in that the concern arises out of the consequences involving another instead of oneself.  It doesn’t have to have such a public cause and few, if any, need to be aware of the sense of guilt.  Most kids and teens with any conscience will experience the pangs of guilt and it usually isn’t necessary to inflict that sense on the child.  Where I have had to inflict a sense of guilt on one of my children has been when there’s been no realization that the behavior involves another person; the child will spin in his or her own little world unaware of how the behavior or attitude affects someone else.  In those rare instances, I’ve mentioned the concept of shame and the shock of the language and tone has usually been enough to bring the point home.  Again, it’s imperative that you talk with your child soon afterward so as to wade through the morass of upset and conflicting emotions until the other side has been reached.

Having to contend with a child who’s out of control requires some quick judgment on your part and it’s not my intent to provide wholesale endorsement of these two measures.  However, they do have their place and value and if you find yourself in the heat of the moment utilizing them, don’t necessarily condemn yourself as a poor parent or incompetent.  You’re actually doing the kid a favor.


What Exactly is Monetization?

One of the things that people might be hearing from the economics blogs is the question of whether – and to what extent – the Federal Reserve System is gaming the system.  What is meant by quantitative easing and what does it mean to say the Fed is Monetizing the Debt

The above link is to an article in a business/economics site entitled Zerohedge.  The site is like many other economics sites in which the writer (here the pseudonymous Tyler Durden) has a particular point of view as to how things will turn out in the world of money.  In this case, Durden espouses the case of monetary collapse and hyperinflation, which is a particularly scary outcome arising from our economic difficulties. 

The reality is that times are truly tough and no one knows what’s going to happen as a result of these policies and actions.  But the article does a decent job of explaining what it means when you hear talk of monetizing the debt and walking through the essential pathways of how it happens, so I thought it might be of some benefit to folks.  As an additional treat, follow the comments thread for an eye-opening look at what some others believe and the opinions and arguments that they make.  It makes for fascinating, eye-opening and occasionally hilarious reading.

I have no final idea of what’s going to result from the policies and actions of our leaders and central bankers.  But follow enough and you’ll learn that neither does anybody else, so we’re all even.

A Christine O’Donnell “Controversy”:  Fifteen Years for a College Degree

While reading a recent news article regarding the neophyte Republican Senate candidate from Delaware, Christine O’Donnell, I was struck by the comment from the writer (unfortunately, I can’t find the link).  Regardless, the writer commented on multiple questions and controversies, one of which was the fact that it took her about fifteen years to obtain her college degree from Fairleigh Dickinson.  The article also noted her comment that it took her about ten years to pay off her student loans.

Is this really a controversy as much as a commentary on the hurdles facing young people trying to obtain their degree?  Let’s parse the facts.  She obtained her college degree this year and is about 41 years of age.  If it took her fifteen years, that means that she would have started college while in her mid-twenties.  If it took her about ten years to pay off her loans, which implies that she’s now debt free of student loans, then she probably took on considerable debt but was then unable to complete college due, at least in part, to a lack of funding.  It took years to pay off the debt and bring some order to her finances before she could finally complete the degree.

What does this mean for an average person completing this degree at this stage in life?  While my father taught me not to make assumptions – it makes an ass out of you and me – there are moments when it’s instructive.  Assume that the data is correct and a person really does make significantly more – almost $1 million – over their life with a degree than without.  Assume that the average age of a woman giving birth for the first time is twenty-five, which according to the National Center on Health Statistics, it is.  A person who has to take additional time to complete their degree without ending up in debt afterwards will finally have the opportunity to make the higher salary only when they’re finally in their "green years" and if there’s a child, it’s a teen starting to look at college.  The income flows that are necessary to help them care for their families and prepare for their own retirements are postponed with the result that the person is facing a working retirement well past sixty-five years of age.  If the person held off on children during that period and still wants a family, then the family’s financial situation will be that the kid’s education will be kicking in when a worker would be actively considering retirement about two generations ago.

Whether you agree with the assumptions or not, the reality is that the cost of today’s higher education have a major impact on young people.  Some choose to postpone forming their own families until their debts are paid off or reduced and they can afford a house in which to raise the kids.  Some choose to purchase older cars with the resulting loss of car sales and employment at the dealer and on the line.  Some simply give up and default, accepting that they’ll be haunted forever by the debt around their neck.  These kinds of scenarios can only be avoided if:

  1. the youth has clear guidance and an understanding of the process in obtaining and financing a degree;
  2. the youth is willing to explore and accept alternatives to the model of goin’ off for four years;
  3. College costs are somehow brought under control so that it’s once again relatively affordable.

Since #3 won’t happen without significant public pressure, governmental intervention or a certifiable miracle, then it’s up to us to involve ourselves and keep talking to the kids.

I’m thoroughly unfamiliar with Christine O’Donnell and hadn’t heard of her until the Delaware republican primary.  But the willingness to stick to a plan for fifteen years and finish it without debt is actually something of which to be proud.  It’s the fact that some find this mindset controversial is what should really be controversial.


Getting On The Bus:  Did The Dad Go Too Far?

A recent Today Show Parenting article discussed the situation of an infuriated father who got onto a middle school bus to confront the bullies who were tormenting his daughter.  The question is whether he went too far and by the time I found the article, more than 2400 comments were in the thread.  I’ve been on the phone with my own child’s principal about bus bullying and can understand this father’s upset, but some comments and questions are in order.

  • First, let’s be frank and not confuse these youth as children.  The bullies – thugs, actually – were physically assaulting a young teen and humiliating her by placing condoms on her head.  At least some of the bullies were young teen males with access to prophylactics and there are frankly sexual overtones to this kind of activity.  I’d be furious, too.
  • Second, the article leaves silent the question of whether the school district and administrators were aware of this behavior.  Given the father knew enough to be out there, I can surmise that he’d heard of previous problems and that this was not the first incident.  But were the school authorities aware of the situation, either from the family or more especially, the bus driver?
  • Third, did the father enter the bus immediately after the incident or was his daughter out of immediate danger?   
  • What precisely was the driver doing about the behaviors?  The bus driver is an extension of the school and does have a responsibility to maintain order.  I understand that some children can be vicious little bastards and can literally make a busride an excursion into Lord Of The Flies, but that doesn’t absolve the driver of any responsibility.  In the past, I’ve known drivers to actually quit the route and immediately return the full load of children to the school for management by the principal; what was this driver doing?

Should he have climbed aboard the bus?  It depends upon the timing; if she was out of immediate danger, then he was – as much as I want to agree with him – wrong.  The immediate concern is the physical safety and the short term fixes are to simply remove her from the bus until the situation is resolved.  The later concern is the handling of the violence so that it’s stopped.  In this regard, the Sheriff’s office was correct in that they could also have been contacted since the nature of the harassment/bullying was so overtly sexual that it surpassed the school’s usual scope.

I suspect that the guy will be exonerated or given a very light sentence and given the fear of God.  I sympathize with him and in the heat of the moment might have even responded similarly were condoms involved.  And I hope that the actions move beyond just the father and extend to the thugs who would treat a teenage girl in such a way.

Keep Talking, They’re Listening

You repeat yourself so often that you’d like a recorder attached to the hip that would say the phrases so you can save your voice.  Hang up the towel.  Put your cleats and shinguards in the garage.  Put your dishes in the sink, I’m not the butler.  Are they even listening?  With three kids in three different levels of school and typically surrounded by constant media, I wonder whether they even listen to what I’m saying.  But there are occasional moments that reveal that they are indeed listening to you.

A case in point is the other evening’s interaction with Eldest.  Eldest is faced with the upcoming SAT and we were in the process of registering her online for the month-away exam.  Each registrant is allowed to have the results released – free of charge – to four colleges or universities for recruiting and information purposes and additional ones are for a fee.  This actually serves to focus the youngster’s mind on the prospect that college is no longer some far-off dream but something with real implications, and that the college literature that’s coming daily really has meaning.  And now Eldest actually had to sit and make some choices as to her preferences out of the dozens that have contacted her.

As we’ve talked over the past two years, my concern has been that an education is imperative to survive and prosper in the world.  My other concern however, is that the education must occur without the addition of such levels of student debt that her future after college is crippled with student loan payments.  There might have to be some debt, but it should be minimized as much as possible. 

Eldest is like most other kids and looks forward to leaving home for the experience.  The house rules are so restrictive for someone who’s obviously old enough to handle herself and there are so many friends with whom to spend time and activities to enjoy.  Let’s face it, we’re raising our children to make their way in the world and become productive adults; we won’t turn them away if they have to come home but it’s not what either parent or child necessarily wants. 

This is why I was truly surprised when Eldest added the name of the local state university that sits three blocks away from our home.  It’s a good school in it’s own right and has even received national kudos for some of the programs but it isn’t really what she wants.  At that moment, I became the child focused on dreams and she became the adult who looked at reality and I inquired why she was adding it to the list.  Because I want them to have my results in case I have to go there because of money.  That’s when I knew that she understood what I’ve been saying for the past several years; part of her experience will depend upon her ability to attract scholarship money and the competition is fierce enough that enough of that money won’t come to her.

We have two years left of high school and she has the intellectual firepower to pull it off – God knows she didn’t get the book smarts from me.  But she’s also demonstrating an ability to look beyond and understand that dreams have to be tempered by resources and choices. 

I had to remind her the other night to put her cleats and shinguards in the garage and the towel is still wadded up on the bed.  But it’s encouraging to know that she’s listening to what I’m saying and processing it, so I’ll just keep talking.


Rethinking the Family Meal

One of my great memories of growing up is the family meal and when I reached my teens, when all of us were gathered together again, a meal could last for hours as we told stories, discussed and debated.  I’m a major proponent of the need for the family to gather at the table several times each week.  If anything depresses me, it’s the loss of that shared experience.  But activities, sports and simple growing up are making me rethink some things.

The value of the family meal rests in the ability to keep tabs on what’s going on in one another’s lives.  As the kids move into the daily world with school, they need the opportunity to share and it’s sometimes through simple storytelling that other indicators and issues are revealed.  But I’ve had to realize that Eldest is growing up and spending more time at sport practices and activities and she needs to eat something before her mother is home from work; the meal then becomes something rushed and eaten standing up as Youngest plays outside with a friend or watches television.  After she leaves, the routine has fallen apart and we’ve all found ourselves eating away from the table.  I fear that the unspoken message being sent to the younger siblings is that the family traditions don’t carry over for them, that Eldest has more inherent value than them and that we aren’t a family unit without Eldest’s presence. 

As I’ve considered the situation, I recalled a comment that my father once made to my mother as my older sister prepared to leave for college.  Actually, it gives us the opportunity to spend more time concentrating on him.  Bearing that in mind, I think that several things will come into place.

  • Even in the rush of the moment, there will no longer be any meals eaten while standing up or in front of the television.
  • No child of any age will eat alone at a table but will be joined by either me or my wife.
  • The table will be cleared of the crap and set appropriately so that none of the kids might think that they are an afterthought.

We have had some memorable meals of our own and I think that we will again.  But the tradition has to hold as the kids come and go.

Discipline:  Reopening Closed Matters

Most kids are tangential storytellers and getting the full, coherent story is sometimes akin to trying to untangle the lines from three separate fishing rods.  When they’re younger, it’s a result of simple inability to keep their facts and timelines straight but when they’re a bit older, it’s more likely shading, omission or outright lying to avoid consequences.  My general practice is to find out everything that I can, make the decision and then move on.  But is anything truly closed?

The particulars are unimportant to this article, but it’s sufficient to know that I thought that the matter was closed.  But at a recent event, I came to learn additional facts that put the incident in another light; certain information was omitted by the child in the course of the interrogation.  I was going to say "investigation" but interrogation is really closer to the truth of the moment.  The new facts were unbidden and came pouring from another person’s mouth and they were honestly horrified that they’d spilled beans.  This person was correct in their realization that this was damning information.  So, do I reopen the matter and a probable can of worms?  Or do I let it go and remember to dig a bit deeper the next time?  Fortunately, the incident didn’t involve any illegal activity or injury and in the great scheme, isn’t actually that big of a deal. 

My expectation is that when this child returns from a trip with Mom, there’ll be further discussion.  If for no other reason, I want the child to realize that there is no such thing as complete silence and that in the end, the parents will generally find out if they pay attention and follow-up.  I also anticipate that there will actually be discipline involved – the previous response was a discussion based upon the premise of a new situation with no real consequences – just to reinforce that it’s better to get the truth out there instead of covering it up.  We’ll also have a discussion about omission being as damaging as commission.

Playing With The Kids:  How Badly Do I Want To Win?

In any family, playing with the kids is something that generally goes to the father.  But do I ever let them win and if not, how competitive should I be?

Playing games is actually important for kids’ growth and development.  What are the rules and how do you follow them?  What happens when you don’t follow the rules?  Can I really do this and win?  Hey, I really can do this!  Now what else can I do?  That is all part and parcel of exploration and maturing and it’s part of my job as a father.  That fact that it’s fun is simply icing on the cake.

I’ve had a few guidelines on what and how I play with the kids.  First, make sure that it’s an activity which provides them the opportunity to win if they play well.  For the smallest children, games of chance – Candyland was a favorite – gives the child an even chance to win even though he doesn’t understand that there’s no real game skill involved.  Second, if Junior wants to play something that requires skill – think basketball – then avoid actually playing for points and just work on the shooting and the other stuff.  Third, never throw a game so that Junior can actually feel some pride for having won on his own effort and talent.  While it sounds immensely old-fashioned, knowing both that you can lose and how to lose really is character-building.

But with the kids getting bigger and older, am I ever in a situation in which I purposefully turn up the heat to the point of embarrassing them?  That’s the question I have now, especially in regards to one of the kids who made it a point of trash-talking me while kicking the soccer ball around.  I’ve had a chronic leg problem for many years and it has affected my ability to physically play with the kids.  When I took Eldest to her soccer practice, Youngest came along and we kicked the ball since he’s back in soccer after a baseball hiatus.  Because Youngest wants – for some unfathomable reason – to play goalie and have the ball aimed straight for his head, he took up a position and I began to shoot on him.  He did a creditable job and I began to shift the shots to either side so that he’d have to dive.  If he bobbled the ball, I’d rush in to finish the goal and force him to scramble to cover.  As he did well however, he grew cocky and began to talk smack and it was then that he shot off his mouth about my age and inability to "run with the big dogs".   That was when I ignored his age and ratcheted up the power of the kicks, but to his credit he still did a decent job and stopped almost all of them.  As I reminded him when he shot off his mouth, he had better be able to "back the smack" that he was spewing on the field and in this case, he did.

What I’m questioning now is whether to take the boy onto the basketball court to teach him some manners.  He’s routinely beaten there in games like "Horse" and "Make it, Take it" by his elder siblings and I can outshoot the lad handily. 

But as I write this, I’m deciding not to do that.  This is a kid who’s found something that he can legitimately beat the old man at and if he shoots off his mouth, it’s because he’s starting to see himself in a position to compete more equally with elder siblings and a father who don’t just let him win because he’s the youngest.  Taking him onto the court to purposefully beat him would be simply wrong of me.  My initial response on the soccer field – if you’re gonna talk smack, you’d better be able to back it – was the best course and it’ll be incumbent upon me to simply remind him of this before other games and practices.  I’m the adult, even when my own buttons are pushed.

And yes, I really didn’t know what I’d do when I sat down to write this article.  Thanks for listening.


If You Give A Mouse A Cookie, v. 2

If you check on one of your kids before bed, you’re liable to be told that they don’t have any underwear for tomorrow.

If you ask whether they put it in the hamper, because you just did laundry and saw very little of it, you’re liable to be told that they threw it away.

If you ask why in the hell they threw away their underwear, they’re liable to say that it didn’t fit anymore.

If you ask why in the hell didn’t they tell you at a time when you could actually do something about it, they’re liable to say that they forgot.

If you ask them to wear something small for tomorrow until you get replacements, they’re liable to complain that it’ll be uncomfortable and whine about why can’t you go out to the 24 hour Walmart NOW to get it for them?

If you turn out the lights on them and proceed to say goodnight to another child, the other is liable to say that they overheard and by the way, his underwear is tight as well.

If you go the store the next day you realize that the two boys are similar enough in size that Medium is going to closely resemble Large and that if one of them gets the wrong size by mistake, he’s liable to refuse to wear it.

If you return the wrongly stored underwear to the original owner, he’s liable to complain that he won’t wear underwear touched by his brother and will pitch a minor fit.

If you tell him to suck it up since it wasn’t worn, he’s liable to complain and whine about why can’t you go to the 24 hour Walmart NOW to get a new pair?

If this continues, you decide to let them go to bed without any night-time goodnights and checks and they’re liable to complain about how uncaring you are.

If you then go back to checking on the kids before bedtime, you’re liable to be told that they don’t have any underwear for tomorrow.



Debt-Free U

I typically keep about four books going simultaneously and shift back and forth depending up my mood on any particular late night.  But I’ve put them aside as I work through Debt-Free U by Zac Bissonnette.  The author, who is actually only about 21 years of age and working his way through the University of Massachusetts, writes knowingly of what he’s learned about the college financing game and pushes the philosophy that what matters is the degree instead of the institution.

Bissonnette is a youth from a financially struggling family who decided to take his financial future into his own hands.  He’s had hard lessons that many young people haven’t encountered and has developed a hard-won ability to think critically, especially examining a higher education system that encourages debt assumption by youth and families who can’t absorb that debtload.  Early in the book, he discusses the frequent practice of including with the college’s financial aid package letter a suggestion that the student’s parents can easily cover the funding shortfall by taking on additional debt for that amount.  The problem is that the letter is to the youth and leaves the parent in the position of being the bad guy.  As Bissonnette writes:

Who wants to be that guy?  No one, and the financial aid office knows that.  So they send a letter to the student suggesting that his parents borrow $24,000 with no collateral.  In 2004, the parents of 15.3 percent of graduating college seniors took out federal PLUS loans, carrying an average debt load of $17,709.

Of all the dirty tricks that financial aid offices play, this one irks me more than just about any other.  If you are going to suggest that someone borrow $24,000 per year for four years, you should send a letter to that person.  It is sneaky and unethical to send someone a letter suggesting that she try to convince another person to borrow up to $24,000 per year for four years.

The author writes with an easy authority that belies his youth and a viewpoint that many of my middle-aged peers lack.  But instead of simply bemoaning how terrible things are, he lays out straightforward financial illustrations that bolster his contention that the key to a successful future isn’t an Ivy League degree but rather, a fresh start with a new degree and the freedom of no debt.  It challenges long-held assumptions about the value of public versus private institutions as well as the myths of community colleges – which will certainly be winners under the recently passed changes in the Federal Student Loan Program.  It also demonstrates a grasp of practical economic principles such as "opportunity costs", which consider how resources can alternatively be used; the accumulated debt after college could instead be used for travel, a new car, a more satisfactory albeit lower-paying job.  Above all, it demands that parents look honestly at the situation and share reality with their kids, for whom they desperately want to provide and still shelter from the realities of adulthood.

I’ve spoken at length with my oldest child about the need for higher education as well as the cost that it will bear.  As she’s looked at the amount in her 529 plan and compared that to the cost of the institutions already soliciting her attendance, the financial discrepancy has dawned and she’s become aware of the financing aspects.  She still has her dream school and truthfully, she’s enough of a rocket scientist – like her mother – to potentially pull one of the dozen full scholarships that that institution offers.  But while that might be the dream course, I’ve already told her that she’ll read Bissonnette’s book so that we can develop plans B, C and D.

Bissonnette’s book is truly worth the money spent and if you and your child make any changes in your plans, it will be a huge and lifetime return on the education investment.