Fatherhood and the American Idiot

Over the Christmas holiday, we took the kids to New York City for a Broadway weekend.  While my wife and Eldest took Youngest to see Lion King, I accompanied Middle to Green Day’s American Idiot to satisfy his growing taste in punk rock.  It was surprising to see more than a few families there but what truly took me back was that I actually enjoyed the show, so much so that I stood for the ovation before my son did.  The jury is now out on whether the boy will continue listening to punk, but that’s another article for another time.

What also took me aback was the implicit social commentary about the state of the times – and the family – for today’s young adults.  Each of us views events through a prism shaped and framed by our own set of values and mine is clearly shaped by my concerns about the electronic media and role as a father.

While trying to not give anything away, the show’s onset and continuing theme is framed by a constant barrage of electronic imagery with a grim message of crisis and war.  The young viewers watch it but you can’t tell with the lights dim whether they’re intent or simply slackjawed and it’s shortly afterwards that the show breaks open with the cover song, American Idiot.  Much of the imagery additionally is in stark design and contrast and beats a rapid tattoo of crisis and impending war engineered by then President Bush and Vice-President Cheney.  The older adolescents – remember that according to prevailing medical experts, adolescence gives way to adulthood much later than 21 – are functionally mesmerized by the swift panoply of imagery.  In real life, our teens and youngsters are watching more than 50 hours weekly on various screens and there is typically a constant shifting from one image to another so that there is far less linear thinking than there was when viewing was less.  Literally, before a person can even begin to critically examine something presented, they’re jerked onto something else and then onto something entirely different afterwards. 

When you talk to people, some have few memories of their childhood experiences and when you talk to others, their memories tend to be more scattered, like three dimensional photos that have been pinned to a board for the mind to see.  What pulls these memory photos into some coherency are the thread lines that are placed between them, making each relatable in some fashion to the others.  It’s these lines providing the context and coherency that help pull the masses of images and experiences into something that makes fuller sense to the person.  As children age however, it becomes apparent that few, if any, are capable of placing that thread in a manner that permits them to make sense of what’s happening around them.  So if there’s going to be some understanding, then it’s left to someone else to string the thread benefitting the youngster.  What struck me as I viewed the entire backdrop of the show was the sense that through all of the variety of images witnessed by these generations – far wider than I ever had as a youth – there’s no one really helping them string the threads that bring coherence, leaving them with a giant mess in terms of understanding.  It becomes the blind being led by the blind, or those with their own agenda.

At moments in the show, the main character writes home to his mother and derogatorily mentions his stepfather, who has belittled and derided him.  There is only a single mention of his father and that is in a phrase coupled with God; while I seriously doubt that he maintains his real father in a god-like position, the point is clear that in the moment that he views God with the same sense that he’d view his own father, as someone who was far away but with whom he’d want a relationship.  It’s a hope in moments of distress that he’s there and willing to listen to what you need to get off of your chest.

How do I pull of this together into a coherent whole?  It isn’t just a diatribe against an apathy that permits an entire generation to electronically anesthetize itself while its parents seek their own relief and release.  The kids can be off of the machinery but if someone doesn’t make a conscious and deliberate effort to take them in hand – literally or figuratively – then they’ll still be badly uninformed and ill-prepared for the world around them.  It will require an investment of time, but the good part is that it isn’t time spent within a classroom or structured environment; it can be within the car, below the basketball net or simply walking the dog.  The point is to avail yourself and simply start talking and in the course of conversations, they’ll begin to string the thread that helps connect and bring meaning to the mental pictures posted inside their heads.

Trust me, they’re listening.



What Do I Have To Teach Them?  (Part 4)

One of a father’s biggest jobs is to teach his kids.  Teaching situations are presented almost everywhere if you learn to look for them but some of the best teaching opportunities occur when you’re traveling with the family.  During a Christmas trip to New York City, the opportunities abounded.

  • Many restaurants post their menus outside for potential customers to review the meals and costs.
  • If you enter a restaurant and the staff presents a limited menu verbally without benefit of presenting a printed menu, prepare for an expensive meal.
  • If there’s even hint of snow, take snow or hiking boots as well as hat and gloves.
  • Who was Raoul Wallenberg and why is his name on a sign near the United Nations?
  • What are appropriate tips for wait staff, doormen and hotel maids? 
  • Is it ever appropriate to stiff the staff?
  • How can I tell which direction is south in the afternoon?
  • How are $1200 English handmade wingtips different from Payless wingtips?
  • How do you protect your wallet, whether it’s in your pants or in your purse.
  • How do you say no to someone hustling you on the street.
  • If you need to ask how much something costs, you probably shouldn’t  buy it.
  • Shoes by Prada are something you shouldn’t even ask about in terms of price.
  • If a store is having a 70% off sale, how much was the mark-up prior to the mark-down?
  • Which fork is used for an appetizer or salad and what’s the purpose of the spoon above my plate?
  • Placing the used utensils on the plate at the four o’clock position is a signal that you’re done with your plate.
  • The hotel and wait staff do remember customers based upon how they’re treated.
  • How to hail a cab.
  • How to handle the tickets and seating on the train.
  • Why trains really are superior to airplanes when the option is available.
  • Is there any real value in the number of security/surveillance cameras on street corners?
  • How to handle sore feet and muscles.
  • The use of pockets in carrying additional gloves and knit hats.

The education is both verbal and non-verbal and occurs even when you don’t realize it.  Whether you realize it or not, they’re watching and they’re learning from almost everything that you do.

Dealing With It – That’s What Dads Are For

There are definitive differences in how fathers and mothers relate to children’s moods and response to new situations.  Because they have no wealth of experience with which to compare how things are versus how they could be, children can be cranky and unpleasant when confronted with new situations, sensations or circumstances that they don’t like.  From my experiences watching mothers, many will attempt to reason with the child or explain things, or get the child to verbalize what it is that they’re feeling and that is, all in all, a worthwhile approach.

This isn’t usually the case with fathers since men are generally neither as verbal nor patient as women.  While some men can chat happily about a multitude of topics, get us onto issues of emotion and feelings and we’re about as communicative as a mute with a lisp.  Even if we can verbalize what’s on our minds, we’re too impatient with children who will meander through any number of issues before finally – maybe – stumbling onto the item that’s really bothering them.  Get to the point, get to the point, get to the point…

I admire mothers who are willing to expend the time necessary in these situations.  But there is also real value to the male approach of getting to the point and helping the child learn how to simply deal with it and move on. 

This Christmas holiday was a case in point.  We took the kids to New York City by train to sightsee, take in a Broadway show and experience firsthand a certifiable city-closing blizzard.  The practical upshot was that there was absolutely no opportunity for the kids to whine about taking a cab and we were able to happily walk all over Midtown Manhattan.  The amount of snow and slush was deep enough in spots to overflow the tops of the snow boots that the kids wore and feet and socks got wet as we trudged up West 49th.  Youngest did get wet feet and as he complained about his feet, we noted that Saks Fifth Avenue was nearby.  The thing about whining children is that they really are the gift that keeps on giving, continuing and cycling even when the original cause has been rectified.  Since it hadn’t occurred to me to actually put a spare pair of dry socks in my coat pocket, my wife and I agreed that getting a dry pair of socks was reasonable.  The fact that it was Saks Fifth Avenue made it – in the eyes of my wife and daughter – a certifiable slam dunk, can’t miss two-fer.  Unfortunately, this was meaningless to Youngest, who’s a male and looks at department store shopping with the same sense as awaiting a root canal.  Even when we explained why we were going in, his attitude darkened further and the whining ratcheted upwards.

We exited at the sixth floor – Youngest’s feet are big enough that he was in men’s shoes before he could spell men – and wandered back to the sock area.  We found a pair of cotton athletic socks and I took it to a cashier in a different department since our local salespeople were contending with millionaires pondering their AARP discounts.  Honestly, if you’re able to afford a handmade pair of English wingtips, you’re embarrassing yourself to wonder aloud whether you could get a discount on it.  The salesman was a dapper, distinguished looking African American gentleman who wore his gray hair far better than I wear mine.  His eyebrow cocked slightly at my single pair of socks and when I told him to forget the bag, I explained it’s immediate use for a little boy with wet feet.  We talked for a brief period and when I stated that Youngest would simply have to wear them and get on with it, he nodded and broke into a wide grin, exclaiming that’s what Dads are for.  

When I returned to our area, Youngest was still surly and my wife was still trying to get him to explain what it was that was bothering him.  The entire time that I was away, my wife had attempted to talk him through which was admirable but useless.  I knelt next to him and my thoroughly annoyed point to him was that he now had two options.  The first was to put the dry socks on his feet and we’d continue on to see our sights and have a wonderful afternoon.  The other option was to leave the wet socks on and continue on to see our sights since I refused to return eight blocks to the hotel for a dry pair of socks.  Since we were here purely to help him, he’d have to accept the help or have to deal with the discomfort and complete lack of sympathy from his father. 

What’s my other option?

There is no other option.  Take the dry socks or suck it up and deal with it – and I’ll have no sympathy.

Youngest accepted the first option and donned the dry socks as I deposited the wet ones in my coat pocket (he wore them the next day when his socks got wet again).  He wasn’t happy with the options but the stark presentation broke the cycle since he was now able to focus his anger on me instead of on the discomfort.  The attention turned from an internalized unhappiness to something that existed beyond himself and when he worked through it in several minutes, his original complaint was rectified and then forgotten. 

It’s easier to learn to deal with it – whatever it is – when you’re older because with age generally comes an awareness of others as well as a sense of proportion.  But it’s also better learned when you recognize that it’s not going to be neither tolerated nor encouraged.  So my wife and I will continue the ongoing balancing act as we attempt to help the kids learn to verbalize their thoughts and feelings while still learning how to deal with things so that they don’t take over completely.

And if you’re ever in the position of buying a pair of $1200 handmade English wingtips, just buy the damned things and stop kvetching.

Is Inflation Happening Now?  McDonalds Says…

…Yes, but they’re holding off on price increases until they see whether and how the economy’s improving.  This little tidbit, along with information gleaned from other restaurant executives, is presented in an article on Agweb, a commodities business site.

The question of whether the economy is suffering from inflation or deflation – or even what I refer to as hyperstagdisindeflation – has been the debate for months and it’s only now that further information is becoming available to clarify the picture.  The gist of the article is that restaurant chains have been seeing commodity price increases but have been successful thus far in mitigating the rises via contract lock-ins, addition of new producers and old-fashioned sucking up the prices and taking the bottom line hit.  However, they’re watching the economy’s general performance to ascertain when things are sufficiently recovered to pass along the prices to the consumer.  When the consensus is that recovery has taken hold, then expect to see price increases as the restauranteurs move to recapture some of the profit margin that they might have given up.  If the economy, which they’re measuring by the unemployment rate, doesn’t improve then they’ll have to hold off as long as possible before finally giving in to meal price increases.

As my wife asks, what does this mean for my family?

As I’ve occasionally told her, choose your poison.  Our stated unemployment rate (U-3) is now at 9.8% and the more realistic U-6 rate is above 17% and the average family income continues to decline so there’s no leeway in free disposable income.  People will continue to cut back on restaurants and there will come a time when the average restauranteur is faced with no choice but to raise prices or fold.  So we can keep bumping along with no real employment/wage improvement and keep the prices level or we can watch jobs grow and the prices rise at a rate likely higher than the wages. 

What this means for this particular family is that despite the chaotic schedules, my plan is to almost completely eliminate restaurant dining in 2011 in favor of fully home cooked food.  We reached the point at which it was easier to grab a quick restaurant meal for sake of the schedule but the drive to cutback spending will simply require that the family and I adapt our palates and expectations accordingly.  I’ll still see price rises in the grocery store but will still be able to manage it better than just throwing money down a restaurant’s hole.

While McDonald’s sounds respectable for keeping things under control, the time will come when they choose the profit margin over the typical American family.

PracticalDad’s First Rule of Fatherhood Revisited

Like Jethro Gibbs, I believe that there are certain rules that one needs to follow to make it through life and that includes fatherhood.  One of the first articles that I wrote pertained to PracticalDad’s First Rule of Fatherhood and given some situations I’ve encountered in the past several weeks, I’d like to revisit that rule again.  Until your child is grown, your life is no longer your own.  Now repeat that three times and please do so loud enough for everyone else to hear.

Women  really do civilize men and perhaps the final part of the civilizing process is getting men to stand and be responsible for their families.  This bundle presently sleeping/suckling/resting in your arms is now wholly and fully your responsibility and will be so until they are old enough to make their own way in the world.  That phrase – make their own way in the world – is incredibly vague and there really aren’t any hard and fast rules as circumstances and offspring abilities vary from one family to another.  But there are some things that don’t vary.  Your child needs and desperately wants your support as they grow – in school, in sports, in activities, in whatever is happening.  There are moments when you might not be able to make an event and kids are both smart and forgiving enough to deal with that.  But if your child is going to really thrive and prosper, then she needs to know that Dad is fully behind her in her efforts.  For the purposes of what I’ve been witnessing, it’s not just Dads but Moms who are also screwing the pooch on this rule.

What does that mean?  Do I have to become a soccer dad or someone who only finds fulfillment living vicariously through my child?  No, but it does mean that you have specific basic responsibilities such as providing food and shelter, and assuring that the child is educated.  Those are simply the bare-bones rudiments as kids, in order to really flourish and grow, require constant interaction. The more that they’re around you and really interacting with you, the more that they’ll start to blossom.  With work and any other responsibilities that you have, you will wonder when you get time to yourself and there’s nothing wrong with a little "you" time, but that time is – and has to be – drastically scaled back from when you were single or didn’t yet have children.

The reason for reviewing this first rule of fatherhood – even parenthood, actually – is because of multiple situations that I’ve seen in which the kids are being simply ignored.  Some parents are thinking that since the kids are now teens, they ought to be able to fend for themselves as the folks head out.  My wife recently forwarded me an email with a Facebook posting for a teen whose parents were taking a January cruise and had told the teen to find herself a place to live for the week that they’d be gone.  Staying at home was out of the question since the house was heated by woodstove and they didn’t trust her to not set an accidental fire, yet they were perfectly happy to let the kid find herself a place to stay. So let me get this straight:  you haven’t taught the teen the rudiments of how to keep the house warm with a wood stove and don’t trust her to not set the house ablaze but you’re alright with leaving for a week and telling the teen to find another place to live for that week.

Another teen has no parental support and attendance for something like National Honor Society Inductions and Regional Science Competitions.  There’s a recent razor commercial in which boys look into the stands and audiences full of people and the only person that they note is Dad; these kids want their fathers – and mothers – there and they want them there desperately.  If you’re going to have a kid, bloody well make sure that you understand that your evenings and weekends are going to be spent on the basics with the kids, even if there are no sports or activities. 

The responsibility continues even as they age.  Teens are not adults despite their quaint notion that they are and leaving them without any supervision is simply asking for a disaster.  It’s at this point that a father has to pick and choose the battles and stand the ground against the some of the utterly insane ideas that these cranially challenged teens have.  There are days that I live in a state of perpetual annoyance and there are moments when I’ll decide that the kid has to learn a lesson the hard way.  But there are also days that I have to bear down and stick to the rules despite the commentary, arguments and actions of the teens.  I don’t look forward to it but that’s simply part of my job and whether they’re too damned dumb to realize it or not, my contrariness really is about them and not my desire to force someone to stick to rules for the rules’ sake.

Fatherhood – parenthood – is the endurance race and to make it, you have to look to the goal ahead and ignore the various complaints that you have because it’s not about you.

What Do You Give A New Dad?

I was pleased to find out today that a young friend is now officially a father for the first time.  I’ve known that it was coming and had the mother’s present ready but didn’t really know what to give the new father.  What is a good gift for a new father?

Depending upon their circumstances, new parents can find themselves utterly awash in goods and items.  There will be showers and various other gifting opportunities and a young couple can really stock up, but these are generally items for the family situation – blankets, towels, devices, supplies.  Women will always be able to figure out something that’s for the new mother since many of them have either been through the pain of childbirth or have actually paid attention when their friends went through it.  But what do you get for a guy? 

Many products for guys are recreation oriented and while that’s nice, the reality is that such gifts help to draw the guy’s attention out of the household and away from the family.  Golf clubs?  They’re a great gift but that guarantees several hours at a time away from the home and family.  Tools?  Better, since they can serve a purpose that at least keeps the guy around the house.  But some men just aren’t all that handy or into tools for the sake of tools.  Except Bill, but he’s an exception.  Today’s reality is that women are stretched between work and home and the kids desperately need love and attention more than anything so gifts that pull a father’s focus from the household is actually counterproductive.  At the same time, men simply don’t have the same sensibilities as women and would look askance at the great majority of items that might please the mother.

So what to do? 

As I ran errands the other weekend, the choice occurred to me as I passed a Tobaccionist’s shop and I stopped and purchased both a Cohiba and an Arturo Fuente for the new father.  While I only occasionally smoke a cigar, it is true that a really good cigar is a different taste and experience; as the old saying goes a woman is a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke.  But I’ve had to wonder, what it is about cigars that has made them a time-tested fatherhood gift?  Some psychologist somewhere might make a comment about phalluses and fatherhood but I do think that it’s different than that.  Smoking a cigar is truly an aqcuired taste and one that requires a certain amount of practice and time to truly appreciate.  It’s a truism that in previous times, fathers who wanted to break their kids of smoking would start them on a cigar. Certainly there are women who appreciate a good cigar but I simply think that a cigar is best appreciated by men and giving such an item is a nod to a guy’s finally taking that final step to the fullest aspect of manhood, being a father.

Come to think of it, perhaps I’ll send the Fuente and smoke the Cohiba myself.


PracticalDad’s Wife:  So What Does It Mean For Us?

My wife considers me the family prairie dog, spending his time out of the hole and persistently sniffing the air and surveying the horizon.  I spend time surveying the on-going slo-mo changes in our economy and try to adjust accordingly depending on what I suspect might happen, and so far, I’ve been right more often than not.  That said, I took my drubbing on a Double-Short Treasury ETF (TBT) manfully and resolved to never again walk in that segment of town.  Otherwise, I keep my eye on what’s happening and despite that, there are still moments when I really don’t know what to answer when my wife looks at me and asks so what does all of this mean for our family?

That’s a damned fine question and I honestly wish that I had a clear answer.  But I will – finally – lay out when I anticipate might happen and what I’m doing otherwise but don’t worry, I’m not going to shill for weapons/ammo/clean water filters and GoldLine.  I work hard to not wear a tin-foil hat and refuse to put one on now.  Let me start by saying that I try to look at events beyond the 24 hour CNN newscycle and in the context of a longer timeframe.  Americans have notoriously short attention spans, made shorter by the CNN newscycle.  Unlike here, there are countries well versed in their past and so much so that they still hold grudges, such as the Serbians who took apart Sarajevo in the early 1990s.  If you have to remember who the Serbians are and what happened in Sarajevo during the early 1990s, then you need to start thinking beyond the newscycle span.  My second reference frame is the idea that life and systems are entropic.  My kids aren’t completely the same as they were six years ago nor am I completely the same man that I was 30 years ago.  This holds true as well for systems of governance and currency as new pressures and dynamics alter or overwhelm the existing structure. 

I couple these two points because there’s no reason in the world that we are so special as to not be alive during a time of major societal or economic change.  When the Soviet Union fell in 1990, some yahoo wrote a book entitled The End of History.  Even then, I found it offensive as it presupposed that now that capitalism had vanquished communism, there were no other conflicts in the offing and we could trot merrily on our way into an Ayn Rand Utopia.  So long as there are teenage boys and a video recorder, there is potential for something spectacular to occur.  If it involves a skateboard, a roof and a firepot, it could even be historic.

So what am I looking at?

1.  The end of the dollar as the reserve currency.  On the one hand, there are as many currencies out there as countries and none of them are the reserve currency, so how bad can that be, right?  Technically, that’s correct and there’s some long-term good that could come out of it but the problem will be the short and intermediate before the long-term.  Resets can be a bitch.

Listen to an auctioneer at the outset of the bidding for any piece just being offered and you’ll hear him asking to start the bidding at a specific point.  If there are no bids at that suggested price, then he’ll continually drop the opening bid to a point at which someone finally thinks there’s value.  Substitute the dollar for the item being auctioned and it’s the same. Our fiat currency is accepted primarily because the world believes that the full faith and credit of the US Government stands behind the buck.  But with our 2010 end of year debt at about $14 trillion, and more on the way, the world seriously doubts that the debts can be repaid.  Likewise, the Federal Reserve system is happy to trade cash for various forms of US treasury notes, effectively monetizing the debt – which is econobabble for printing money.

At some point in the future, the rest of the world will move from the dollar to something else and the rest of the world includes the oil producers who sell us more than half of our oil supply. The rest of the world will shift out of dollars into something else, so the dollar is less valuable and worth less, and they’ll want paid in something else besides dollars.  If the dollar is then worth less compared to everything else, then it will take more dollars to buy oil and that will ripple through the system creating inflation as it goes.

2.  A nation with both political and economic power concentrated amongst a small minority, aka an oligarchy. When even USA Today writes openly about the size of the income gap between poor and wealthy Americans, then it’s now both mainstream and noticeable.  There’s always been a gap in the US, but it’s reaching a point that’s honestly frightening as the nation sets records for food stamp participation – 43 million and rising.  Couple this with the frustrated efforts to control the money flowing into the coffers of our elected politicians and the cards are increasingly stacked against the growing majority of our children.

3.  A system of higher education that is increasingly affordable only if the student and family incur significant debt, some of which simply can’t be repaid in today’s economic environment.  When a young person comes out of college with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, that’s money that they can’t spend on setting up their own lives and families.  They defer decisions that are ultimately important to our greater society, such as becoming full-fledged adults capable of supporting themselves and starting their own families. Unless and until this country gets back to producing what the rest of the world wants and needs, then the employment will continue to be largely service/government oriented which is akin simply to rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

So what does that mean for me and my family?

  • We’ve planned and saved for a large trip in 2011 and we’ll continue to do so.  That said, the other spending will be ratcheted downwards and multiple requests for different things have been shot down peremptorily with the word Europe.
  • Starting on January 1, restaurant meals will be finished.
  • We’ll continue to speak purposefully about spending as well as the appropriate use of credit.
  • Grades will continue to be pushed and as the kids age, we’ll overtly talk about scholarships and other forms of low-cost higher ed alternatives.
  • As Eldest toys with a hard science versus a soft science college, we’ll make sure that she’s aware of the advantages of a hard science (think biology) over a soft science (think psychology) in the workplace.
  • Political conversations have already taken on a harder tone with a harder edge.  There is clearly a system in place that immediately places young people at a disadvantage at a time when they are financially disadvantaged enough already and to ignore it’s existence is simply foolish.  For example, when Senator Bernie Sanders (I – VT) gave his eight hour filibuster last week, I made certain that the two kids at home heard at least a few minutes of it and what it meant.  Simply put, we’re passing the point at which it’s best to appear balanced and are better suited now to clear political advocacy.
  • I’ll contine to spend time explaining the "real world" examples in finance and economics.  It’s been surprising to understand that despite the rolled eyes, they really are listening to what’s being said.

What’s happening and what’s coming are not single events but rather whole changes in the way that we handle our economic lives.  It’s necessary for me to set aside the desire to protect them and educate them instead.


Ignorance and Want

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.  –  A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

These are frightening economic times and the fact that it’s the Christmas season doesn’t make it any less so; in some ways, it makes it even worse.  This is the time when kids are supposed to get the gifts for which they ask and when they can tell that things aren’t good – and they aren’t stupid, they know – most parents feel even more pressure to keep Christmas alive for the kids.  It hasn’t helped that in the past fifty years, Madison Avenue has had a heyday blurring the lines between wants and needs.  Many parents will tilt further giving the kids what they want thinking that that’s what they need to allay the fear of things spiraling out of control.

But Dickens had it correct as the greatest concern is the ignorance of our children.  Many parents work to satisfy the wants of the child and some are recognizing the economic necessity and shifting to providing for the needs instead. Many families are caught in the economic bind however as some are un- or underemployed while others are working longer hours to just keep up the status quo.  Coming home to a brisk routine of homework/childcare, chores and bedtime leaves many parents perpetually harried and looking for ways to gain a little rest.  Understanding that children do create additional time demands and some mayhem, parents let the kids entertain themselves with all manner of electronic devices.  We permit them to anesthetize themselves so that we can in turn be anesthetized from the daily grind of life. 

So the kids get what they want, but the downside to the barrage of electronics is ignorance.  The kids can multitask, download and interact electronically in ways that even many young parents find unimaginable yet they are profoundly ignorant of the actual world around them.  They see YouTube videos of accidents that, while funny, inflict injury and aren’t touched or concerned when something happens in front of them.  They don’t learn the everyday mechanisms and procedures of how the world around them works and often with profound effects. While I don’t expect kids to understand the role of a notary public in land records, the ghastly lapses in the Florida and New York foreclosure cases are an adult version of what happens when techno-savants are permitted to monkey with centuries-old systems and policies.  Simply put, kids have no clue of how to function in the daily world because the adults aren’t teaching them.

This ignorance – how and why things are the way that they are, how they work and what things really mean – is a profound handicap for a child when he becomes an adult.  The reality is that it can only be remedied through intentional and significant time with the parents and away from a screen.  A videogame won’t explain why somebody acted in a certain way or why it’s important to know to follow rules or even to be able to lose gracefully.  It won’t explain the difference between a playmate and a friend, literally the difference between someone who’ll toss a ball with you and then stab you in the back before the teacher or spread gossip about you.   A computer screen won’t teach the physical skills of how to hold a knife or reinforce the need for consistently good manners at the table.  All of these things will only come from the parent who is willing to spend the time necessary to bring the child along in the world. 

One of a father’s greatest – and most important – jobs is to teach.  Yes, the dishes need to be washed and the yard needs to be mowed, but our children need our time and attention even more.  Our sons and daughters are our primary responsibility and our greatest gift to them is our time, a phenomenally priceless yet cheap commodity that satisfies both their needs and wants.  Take the time to read to them and play with them, incorporate their presence into your activities as much as possible and turn off your own devices when they come to you.  You may feel guilty for taking the time to "play" with them, but it’s really your job and an activity that can lead to wildly unimaginable opportunities to teach about any number of topics.  The dishes will always need to be washed and the grass will continue to grow, but we only have what is really a very brief time to combat the ignorance that might otherwise dog them later.  Likewise, they can’t learn when they spend their time ensconced in front of a screen so make them turn it off. 

They might not realize it yet, but it really is what they want.

Must I Really Answer This?  Explanations For The Kids

Why must I explain such a simple thing to a kid?  He – or she – is no longer a preschooler and some things are simply so self-evident that explanation beggars the imagination.  But thanks to the presence of the MRI, which demonstrates how the teen brain is literally rewiring itself during that decade of growth, I can at least convince myself that there’s a legitimate reason to have to explain what is abundantly clear to 98.9% of adults.  Our parents simply would shake their heads and weep for America.  I now have a greater appreciation for Red Forman of That ’70s Show.

What are some of the questions that make me want to honestly plant a foot in someone’s butt?

Question:  Why must I use a topsheet when I put clean sheets on my bed?  (I’m really okay without them).  So that we only have to wash thin sheets made dirty by your body oils and sweat instead of the comforter/quilt/bedspread that can only be done at the laundromat in the commercial washer.

Question:  Why can’t I learn to ride a unicycle while riding on a brick retaining wall?  So that you don’t really hurt yourself when you fall.  But Dad, I won’t fall/get hurt on this unicycle.  And that’s why it’s called an accident.  Now get off of the wall.

Question:  Why do you care if I go in my bedroom and draw my name on the hardwood floor with permanent marker/shoot Airsoft pellets at the wall/use the wall for knifethrowing target practice/repeatedly throw myself on my old bed when I’m having a tantrum?  A, because I said so.  B, because you’ll someday move on and I’ll have to fix/repair/paint/clean it to sell this place.  C, because I said so.  And if you aren’t certain, D, because I can remove everything to prove that it’s really mine.  And did I mention because I said so?

PracticalDad note:  It’s this preceding question that elicits a Red Formanesque mutterance.

Question:  Why can’t my buddy and I stand on opposite sides of the house and shoot arrows over the rooftop at each other?  (Silence)

Question:  Why can’t I ride the skateboard while hanging onto a moving car?  Michael J. Fox did it.  Yeah, and unfortunately, Michael J Fox now has Parkinson’s.

Question:  Why can’t I play two story bowling with the pins at the bottom of the steps?  Just because, son.  Just because.

If it appears that these are mostly male-oriented questions, you’re right.  Teenage boys are wildly poor at assessing risk but even the teenage girls are notable in their ability to skewer rationality and common sense.

Question:  Hey Dad, Junior managed to handcuff himself to the chair without checking to see if there were handcuff keys.  Why can’t we tie bows in his hair and put makeup on him?  He did it to himself.  (Silence)

Many have read the mass email talking about the destructive qualities of small boys and what they can accomplish.  It doesn’t go away as they age, but it does change considerably.  And for the record, each of these situations that I’ve referenced has really happened although not necessarily with my own kids.  But if the incidents aren’t firsthand, they are secondhand – none of them are thirdhand.




Fathers and Volunteering:  Just Do It

As busy as people get, we’ve gone a long way to subcontracting and outsourcing many family functions.  Cleaning house, yardwork, food preparation and even aspects of childrearing – apart from daycare, think Gymboree in lieu of the old-fashioned playgroup – have all been privatized as parents seek ways to keep the kids covered while they either work or, in extreme cases, just don’t bother.  But there activities that thrive only with the input of volunteers and it’s here that fathers can and must step up, especially scouting and sports.

Through our history, almost everything having to do with the children has been the purview of mothers.  But as they’re stretched further with work, other areas have to necessarily suffer and some of the obvious areas, like housework and childcare, have seen fathers step up accordingly.  But one of the areas that hasn’t seen as much is volunteering.  Men simply aren’t as gifted at multitasking as women, and there’s still considerable fear amongst many guys that they aren’t as good with the kids as women.  Men are obviously becoming more comfortable with their own children but that hasn’t always carried over to working with and managing OpiesOther People’s Kids.  But the reality is two-fold:

  1. Many worthwhile activities and organizations simply cannot survive without an active volunteer cadre to carry the load;
  2. With as many broken families and absentee fathers, there’s a true need for fathers to serve as role models for kids.

The obvious start is to stick with what you know.  What sports did you play when you were younger?  What were your activities apart from sports, such as scouting or hunting and camping?  These kinds of things in and of themselves give you a leg up as a volunteer with kids.  My youngest has taken to baseball and it’s fascinating to watch the fathers involved with the teams.  While the head coach of his most recent team never played as a kid, he’s  comfortable with kids and a number of other fathers – all of whom played – stepped in to assist with the position drills and practices.  This goes with whether the sports are for boys or girls as the key is to provide a steady, stable and authoritative presence for the kids.

If you don’t have any particular sporting experience, you can still step up.  As I mentioned, Youngest’s baseball coach had no experience as a kid but stepped in when his child was a beginner and learned over the years with his son.  It’s likewise been the case with my daughter’s soccer teams, many of whom were coached by adults with no real experience.  The case of soccer will probably change as time passes as the game becomes  more popular and played in this country.  Regardless, these are all individuals who started when the kids were little and learned along with them and as is often the case, if you don’t announce that you have no experience, the kids will never know the difference.  If the adults can tell the difference and complain, then screw ’em – they should be out there doing it instead of grousing about you.

There is one area which makes men uncomfortable – me included – and that pertains to girl scouting.  The only time that I’ve declined to become involved is when a desperate scout leader asked if I would be willling to lead a Brownie Troop, and my refusal was on grounds that many parents would be uncomfortable with a man working with little girls.  This was borne out by subsequent conversations with female friends whose comments confirmed my suspicions.  Both Girl Scouting and Boy Scouting are organizations that have taken the concern for predatory behavior to heart, but there’s still a cultural bias against men taking such an overt role with girls and the Girl Scouting organization itself has established guidelines that highly curtail the interaction of men and girls, such as on camping trips in which any fathers who might choose to come along have to remain a certain distance from the girls’ campsite.

This is another aspect that I believe concerns many men, and that’s the worry about whether they’ll be perceived as predators or face accusations of predatory behavior.  It’s a legitimate concern but one that’s easily handled if you exercise some common sense.  The Boy Scouts of America require that all leaders take training in their Child Safety Policy and the cornerstone – apart from a mandatory criminal background check – is the practice of the "two deep rule", where no adult leader can be alone with any youth apart from their child.  Any meetings or activities require the presence of at least one other adult at all times and that policy carries through to such simple tasks as picking up a child for a meeting or taking the kid home.  On multiple occasions, I’ve demurred from taking another kid to an event as it would violate the rule and the other parents have learned to work around that.

The point is this.  There’s a chronic need and it’s not just for volunteers, but fathers to step in and take a role.  Like I said, if you don’t tell the kids, they’ll never know.  They’ll just be glad that you’re there.