Condensing the Answer for the Kids

The shirt somehow came into the house, probably on the back or in the gym bag of one of the plethora of kids that visit or spend the night and typically, wound up in the hamper.  It was a grey t-shirt with large orange block letters exclaiming Just Do It and after washing, went into Youngest’s dresser drawer; it was his size and while I didn’t recognize it, I put it there just so that it had a place and wouldn’t wind up in yet another of the piles of stuff that litters the household.  My thought was that I’d figure out the owner later when some of the guys wound up here.  But when Youngest came down for breakfast before school the other morning, he was wearing the shirt.  I looked at it and then the clock as he’d pushed the time to the limit before having to scoot for the bus.  It wasn’t one that we considered school appropriate but it was an instance that I decided to let slide with a warning, just so you know, that shirt isn’t returning to school after today.  He glanced at me and asked why he couldn’t wear it and in that moment, I had to stop and think carefully before responding, mindful of the time and yet still wanting to give him a coherent answer.

Bill Cosby has mined a huge amount of material from his kids and the brief comment that stays with me about children is the question and response, Why is there air?  To blow up basketballs.  The core of the response is that kids are curious and want an answer, but they don’t have the attention span and will tune out the response until they get a bit older, so you’d better keep it short.  When to start going into greater depth is dependent upon your sense of the kid and the circumstances.  He was curious, without attitude and there was enough to get a decent response without a curt because I said so.  I asked him to wait a moment while thinking about a decent answer; you know how much money corporations make, and that you’ve heard me say that they have too much power, right?  It bothers me that we pay money for the shirts with these taglines that give them free advertising on top of the money that we’ve already spent.  It winds up giving them even more money and makes us nothing more than another tool

He cocked his head in that way of his and then asked, well what about Under Armour?  They have their logo on their shirts and even on my cleats.  Do I have to give up the cleats?

I shook my head.  I don’t have a problem with a logo by itself…almost everything has a logo and that’s all part of advertising.  But when it’s so huge and obviously just an ad for their tag line, then I think that we can do without it.  At some point you say enough and that shirt is past that point.  I considered having him go upstairs to change it after the comment, but the exchange was so measured and without angst that I figured that one day would be fine; the shirt would simply never make it back from the next load of wash.  Youngest nodded and went back to finishing off breakfast and afterwards, the shirt went on its sole trip to school.

There have been plenty of times when the situation hasn’t worked, either because the kids resisted the request which made for a problematic civil conversation or because I couldn’t find the right words to get the point across.  But when it works, it can be a beautiful thing for the brevity and effect and with younger kids, brevity is better.  When it came time that evening for baseball practice, I glanced at Youngest’s cleats.  Under Armour makes cleats?


Dumbing Down Parenthood:  Kudos for Attending Meet the Teacher Night

Almost all school districts host a "Meet the Teacher" night at the beginning of the school year and ours occurred two weeks ago.  The purpose of these events is an opportunity for parents to meet the teachers and put a face to a name on the schedule.  It’s also there for teachers to provide parents and guardians with a background on some of what’s upcoming during the year; the curriculum that’s being used and what their expectations are for the students.  This in and of itself is refreshing since there’s typically a gaping disconnect between what the kids report and the reality of things.  At our district, the elementary events are scheduled in the late afternoon through early evening with a short interval until the beginning of the high school event, a courtesy extended to parents with kids at both levels.

I raced from Youngest’s event at one school to Middle’s event at the other and while missing the Principal’s opening remarks at the latter, I made it to Middle’s First Block class in time to get the appropriate paperwork and hear the teacher.  What struck me at this session – and through later sessions with other teachers – was the verbal kudos given by the teachers for taking the time from our busy schedules to attend.  While not every teacher mentioned it, I heard it more than once that evening and I’d lay odds that the Principal said something similar in his remarks.  You’re giving me kudos for attending Meet the Teacher night?  Seriously?  While there are some who deserve such because they’ve had to miss second shift work, they’re in the minority.  The rest of us are there because it’s in our best interests as parents and taxpayers to get a gander at what’s in store for the year with our kids; indeed, it’s my expectation to attend unless death or distance keeps me otherwise occupied. 

We live in a district where the parents apparently do give a damn since the parking lot at both schools was full and parents and grandparents flooded the hallways between sessions.  But even then, it was jarring to think that the educators felt it important to recognize us for something that’s as necessary and part of our parental responsibilities as coming to meet the teachers.  Parents have basic elemental responsibilities for the kids – food, shelter, clothing and assuring an education.  While we don’t homeschool the kids, we still have to assure that things are proceeding apace and these sessions are part and parcel of providing that responsibility.  Parents shouldn’t be so dumbed down and out of touch that we have to receive strokes for something as simple as attending a Meet the Teacher event and I can only wonder, what’s being said amongst the educational community that educators need to praise us for something so simple.

Is an 18 Year old an Adult?

If anything has caught my attention through the myriad articles about student debt, especially those with first-person stories, it’s been the recurrent comment, I wish someone had told me…

  • how much that I’d be paying each month…
  • that I couldn’t get a job with this degree…
  • that I didn’t need to attend a private college instead of a public university… 

As I read the articles, my persistent thought was to wonder where in the hell the parent was.  These major financial and career decisions – with repercussions lasting for decades – are being made by teens with no actual life experience.  The deeper questions beyond these however, are whether 18 and 19 year-olds are adults and when we should expect that our offspring have reached adulthood.

It’s not an academic question.  More parents are finding that their kids are retreating back to the nests, or seem to be only treading water instead of swimming for the bright, distant horizon as they remember that they themselves did.  Our history is seemingly filled with examples of young people – adults – taking on the mantle of responsibility in any number of ways, whether in terms of career, marriage and family, or simply extraordinary acts of adventure and exploration.  Of course, our history is also littered with far more bodies than we seem to have today, as more died much earlier in life of accident or previously incurable disease.  Cholera, it’s what’s for supper…  As much as we love our kids, after years of caring for and raising them, there’s an expectation that life after a certain point will be more relaxed with less of the stress that comes with children and teenagers and there seems to be a degree of regret when they do return, both that they’re unable to move outwards into a new life for themselves and that we have to return to our previous role.  No offense to anyone reading this in their twenties, but just wait until you have teenagers.

To say that it was an academic question would imply that it was already settled and it now appears that it isn’t by any stretch of the imagination.  Through the mid 1990s, the credo was that adulthood was defined by certain specific life actions – marriage, setting up a household, leaving home for a new job, having a child.  But a psychologist named Jeffrey Arnett did the unthinkable and actually interviewed approximately 300 young adults, all in their twenties.  The upshot of his findings from these interviews was that adulthood wasn’t a discrete location reached after passing identifiable waypoints, but that it was a process, fluid and imprecise with the interviewees responding that they often felt “in-between” adulthood and adolescence when presented with specific questions.  This new view has become known as emerging adulthood.  The defenders of the other side – that adulthood was reached by the assumption of specific roles at completing certain life actions – maintain their stance and that there’s no such thing as emerging adulthood; instead, it continues to be the purpose of the adolescent/teen years to prepare the way to adulthood.

The literal question is whether there really is such a thing as emerging adulthood or are young people simply “stalled” and somehow unable to reach adulthood?  While I’m uncertain as to the answer myself, my own question is different:  if they are indeed “stalled”, what’s happening during the adolescent years that’s no longer preparing them for adulthood as with previous generations?  What has happened?

Certainly one of the biggest differences is that so many more of our children are living in single-parent families.  We’ve gone through about two generations since the divorce rate exploded in the 1970s and there’s certainly an impact that arises from growing up as a child of a split family,  most especially when the father figure is absent.  The obvious difficulty for the children is that the mother, who routinely got custody, was stretched like taffy as she had to both provide a roof over the head as well as parent and keep the house in a semblance of running order.  I don’t believe that it’s a generalization to state that by nature, the mother has historically been oriented inwards to the family with an attention to detail and sensitivity that keeps the household and family in order.  Conversely, the father was the parent who directed his attention outwards in order to help provide food, shelter and protection for the family.  It was by watching the father that children learned best how to respond to the challenges provided by the outside world, and who made them feel most secure from its real and perceived dangers.  When the father was removed – and the mother had to stretch to cover the difference – a significant minority of children suffered a loss and were consequently hampered in learning what a father could teach.  Their collective ability was eroded and coupled with the continuing numbers of children affected by divorce, the cumulative erosion to what children could learn from a good father was deep and significant.  This isn’t to say that all fathers are great models of how to respond to and interact with the outside world, but there’s been a significant cumulative erosion through two generations.

Even with this erosion across more than one generation, today’s generation is one which we’ve permitted them to insulate themselves from the outside world by cocooning within electronics.  With kids today now spending more than six hours daily in front of some form of electonic screen – not counting the time tethered to an mp3 or iPod – they’re spending time alone and physically disconnected from the human interaction that they need for learning to live in the real world.  They readily inhabit a virtual reality in which they’re connecting with all manner of people who create an online avatar that’s often nothing like their physical reality.  Even for someone who’s worked through the  years to keep the electronics under control, the pull is insidious.  The result is that we have individuals who thrive in a virtual reality but are wholly unprepared for the harsher physical reality; this is especially the case for young people who are now having to work for older people who have far more and greater experience in this world.

This leads to the fact that our society is a far more complex place with greater demands than in previous decades and generations.  While younger people are more comfortable with the personal technology than older people, the country runs on more complex structures than in the past.  There’s a greater interconnectedness amongst the questions and issues facing us that requires attention, effort and critical thinking to understand.  When you’re spending your time paying greater attention to the screens than the world around you, you’re at a huge disadvantage to someone who has paid attention.  With the Occupy movement seemingly comatose after only a year of existence, its detractors dissect it and criticize the apparent naivete and hamhandedness with which it functioned.  My thought throughout its existence was that it was akin to the political baby steps of a new generation having to learn to walk and function all the while being pushed about in the midst of a riot.  No shit they’re disjointed and a bit goofy, they’ve finally unplugged and awakened to the political and social reality and are thrashing about.  It’s like watching Neo being unplugged and flushed from the Matrix cocoon. 

We’ve created an economic system predicated upon consumption, much of it increasingly mindless.  Research has been done in improving advertising and driving the typical consumer into a decision that’s collectively good for the system, but bad for the individual.  More is better, so supersize it…housing values only go up…go ahead and take on the college debt, it’s a good debt and an investment in yourself…If you’re a young person who’s been heavily tied into the electronic world, not paying attention to what’s occurring around you and there’s no one trying to take the time to explain this to you, then you’re fodder for the system until you suffer enough damage that you’re forced to critically re-examine and figure it out for yourself.  The flip side to this is that our consumption shortsightedness has sent a large chunk of our livable wage jobs overseas; there aren’t the requisite jobs around anymore that will support the debt that’s incurred on behalf of the system.

Let’s face it, it’s hard to feel like an adult when the economic circumstances of debt and livelihood prevent or slow those steps that mark the supposed way-points into traditional adulthood.  Likewise, it’s hard to feel like an adult when there’s no one older to tell you that  uncertainty and fear don’t go away just because you’re an adult.  That continues and you simply learn to harness it.

I do understand how you can feel “in-between” adulthood and adolescence.  My college graduation occurred in the midst of a severe recession and my job-search efforts only resulted in a huge stack of rejection letters that festered in a desk drawer; when a friend came by one day to grouse that his B in Accounting was screwing up the GPA, I simply pulled the stack out and tossed it in front of him, telling him to shut up and get the hell out of here.  My first year or more out of college was spent back living in my old bedroom, working at a job that barely paid enough to allow me to live at home on the highly reduced rent that my parents charged me, what my father jokingly referred to as Section Dad Housing.  I now had the responsibilities that came with a job but wasn’t able to take on the other aspects of adulthood, living on my own and setting my own rules and boundaries, exploring the freedom that ostensibly came with true adulthood.  But those were feelings and that didn’t mean that I didn’t continue the adult route of working at the job and continuing to search for a job and career that would permit me to be fully responsible for myself, my actions and decisions.  Conversations with both of my parents taught me that uncertainty, nervousness and fear don’t just go away because you’re the adult; what changes is how you have to respond to them and handle them.  To hear your 60 year old father admit uncertainty in the face of job and career change is highly instructive.

The upshot from my vantagepoint is that today’s typical 18 year old isn’t an adult, but is as Eldest’s college dean described, an adult-in-training.  It will be our job to engage in the delicate, mistake-prone shift from guardians to – hopefully – good friends as she takes on her own decisions and grows in her own ability to handle her responsibilities.



Guys With Kids

Jimmy Fallon understands that kids are funny and many of his commercials demonstrate this as he plays foil to toddlers and infants.  But while his new show, Guys With Kids, ostensibly pertains to kids, the humor comes from exploring the changing and new frontiers of fatherhood.  Some reviewers find nothing funny about the show but as a guy who’s spent years on the cutting edge of bending gender roles, it’s also spot on in touching upon some of the issues facing men who now take an active father role.

Each of the three main characters, all close friends, is representative of a different fatherhood model – the traditional working father (Zach Creggar as Nick), divorced with joint custody (Jesse Bradford as Chris) and homemaker father (Anthony Anderson as Gary).  This trio is part of a new generation of television fathers, akin to NBC’s Parenthood, who take an active, involved and hands-on role in the care and raising of their children.  Humor aside, how does this particular program do a decent job of examining what men face and how things are changing?

They actively incorporate the kids into their daily lives.  It’s jarring to see dads take their babies into a sports bar, but they want to maintain their friendship and instead of having to find sitters so that they can gather separately, they take the kids along with them.  There’s an acknowledgement that fatherhood isn’t compartmentalized into one facet of a man’s life, but instead permeates it so that if the other guys have kids, they just bring them along as well.  In previous eras, the kids would be at home with the mother or the babysitter while the guys gather but with men taking a larger role, they adapt accordingly to make it work.

Does Mother automatically know best by dint of childbirth?  The divorced dad contends with a sense of parental inferiority when his concerns and opinions are undercut by his ex-wife’s rote response of grew inside me to any disagreement that they might have about the baby.  The explosion in the divorce rate in the 1970s left many fathers out in the proverbial cold as the legal system simply adopted the credo that mother knows best in terms of the well-being and care of the child and realistically, the typical father back then wasn’t clued into the daily issues of childcare and raising kids.  But two generations of fatherhood advocates have argued that men are capable of effectively and lovingly raising children and the actions of a new generation of fathers – many of whom have the insight of having been a child of divorce – have taken the opportunity to heart and the court system has begun reassessing whether custody questions should be determined solely by gender.

While I do believe that there’s such a thing as maternal intuition, I think that it’s partially a function of having spent so much time around the children that a feel is developed for what’s occurring.  Years ago, I spoke with a new mother who admitted that when her husband asked her a question about the baby, she responded that she was also new to the baby experience; that fact that she had given birth to a baby didn’t necessarily make her an immediate expert on what was best in the moment.  The key difference is that there’s a broad and deep support network for new mothers, a huge sisterhood of maternal mentors that really doesn’t exist for new fathers.  Likewise, the media is constantly churning out a supply of new and/or reissued materials for the mother.  But even this network breaks down, as evidenced by the existence of lactation consultants; this subspecialty would never have come into existence had two generations of mothers not bought into the Madison Avenue schtick that mother’s milk wasn’t as good as manufactured formula.  When the medical evidence conclusively showed that nursing benefits outweighed that of formula, literally an entire generation of mothers had no clue how to nurse and even their mothers couldn’t help them because they themselves didn’t know how to nurse.

It’s not the gender, it’s the role.  There’s a common image of a frazzled housewife with small children, chronically ill-tempered and a wee bit squirrelly with the kids all around them.  Bill Cosby did a terrific routine on the changes in his beloved wife when she encountered doofus husband feeding the kids cake for breakfast and her response to this ridiculous situation.  The upshot through the years is the perception that these changes and images are largely common to women by dint of being…women.  But the reality is that spending all of your time in the homemaker role is what makes the person change, regardless of the gender.  I speak from experience and truly laughed aloud when Gary, the stay-at-home dad, commiserated with Nick’s wife – also a stay-at-home mom – about what the working mates don’t realize.  Yes, they dished and I’ve been in the same situation where a group of us sit and share war stories.  The effect upon a father, tasked with cleaning up after and raising multiple children, will likewise make him cranky and a bit forgetful.

Children take over your life.  Both married fathers joke about enjoying "playing with" the divorced father’s life, helping him meet new women; they live vicariously through him.  It doesn’t mean that they don’t love their mates, but they recognize that the full-time responsibility of child-rearing and providing a roof means that the freedom that being single allowed is a thing of the past.  When you’re responsible for the care and raising of children, even teens, you don’t have the latitude that existed before their arrival.

What has truly taken me aback however, has nothing to do with the show itself.  As I took notes prior to beginning this article, I came across a television critic’s review in which the reviewer described the three men as emasculated.  I actually watched the show again and nowhere in it do I find anything that would denote the three characters as being anything less than men.  Goofy, sometimes uncomfortable with their responsibilities?  Absolutely, since that’s the nature of television and the situation in which many new fathers find themselves.  But as the show revolves around men being responsible and taking care of children, the nagging sense is that there’s a belief that caring for the kids is emasculating and that men who step up to that role are less than real men.  I believe that there’s nothing emasculating about the role but if the reviewer would like to see us return to the traditional masculine role, then we’ll just go back to leaving the kids unsupervised while the mothers are out working, and we’ll see how that works out in another decade.

Knock yourself out, Sport.  I’d rather be a guy with kids.


Is College Necessary?  Vocation and Avocation

One of the questions with which I wrestle is about when and how to introduce the kids into the real world, the world in which we have to make choices and our dreams don’t always come true.  This is especially relevant in light of the ongoing conversation about whether a college degree is worth the money that’s going to be spent obtaining it.   

We’d been talking about Eldest’s experiences thus far in college, including playing soccer.  Youngest looked at me and asked Dad, can I major in baseball? since he loves the sport and has aspirations of a pro career.  It was during the following conversation that he now understood that while she played for love of the game, her college studies didn’t involve soccer but were geared towards something else entirely.  He also learned the words vocation and avocation; the former pertaining to what one does for a living and the other to what one does for enjoyment and love. As he learned, they can sometimes be one and the same but more often than not, they’re different.  Youngest cocked his head and nodded, silent for a moment.  In that interval, I told him that he could certainly play baseball in college if he wanted – and was good enough – but that the course of study would most likely be different.  He leaned back against the kitchen counter and then inquired whether he could study to be a history teacher instead. 

Damn, I thought, another career with lousy job prospects.  My response was a – hopefully – encouraging sure, if that’s what you really want and are good at it.  I don’t see why you couldn’t take that route, but I wouldn’t worry about it now since there’s still plenty of time before college. 

When to begin these conversations is a matter of personal choice, although we’ve held off on the conversations until middle school; this is the point at which our local school system begins to have kids look towards the future by engaging in career shadowing.  If the kids have to start looking at potential careers, then it’s a logical starting point for household conversations.  When Eldest talked about becoming a marine biologist, our family conversations veered towards what courses might be involved and what schools offered the degree.  Where were they located and did they mesh with the type of college environment that she’d thought would be a good fit for her personality?  Did the career require solely a bachelor’s degree or was she looking at further graduate work to become a viably employable biologist?  Was this a career that would permit her to move or would she be restricted to certain geographic areas?  Could we get her through with minimal or no debt?  I offered my own trenchant question:  If you’re asking me to remove your dead pet hermit crab because it’s gross, is this the career for you?  The point is to probe and engage, discuss and explore options and questions with them until they’re more clear on what’s involved.

While I’d thought that the school system was an ally in educating your child – and in most ways it is – I’ve come to learn that there are instances when the system automatically slots kids into prearranged tracks that really aren’t appropriate for them.  Don’t just assume that the system is the expert in your child’s best interest and don’t be afraid to buck it if necessary.  The great majority of secondary schools have tracks for students broken into three segments:  Career Prep (for those not deemed ready or able to attend college); College Prep; Honors (for more advanced study).  Based upon grades and teacher/counselor assessments, your kid will be matched to a level that ultimately leads to a certain conclusion.  During a baseball practice several weeks ago, I chatted with a mother whose older son was presently in the local high school.  This student, a Junior, was intellectually advanced and the school counselor was strongly that he take both Advanced Placement Physics and Advanced Placement Calculus, courses that would prepare him for a career in science and engineering after attaining a college degree.  But they were balking at the placement as the boy’s interest was in becoming a heavy engine diesel mechanic and he was gifted with an ability to understand the practical workings.  As she said, Why should we prepare him for college when his skills are outside of that?  Why take on all of that debt when the degree will have no bearing on his employment?  The final remark saddened me as much as I’m sure it did her:  We’re making it paycheck to paycheck and he’s probably going to have to work the same way that we do.  The student debt will just make it worse. 

That comment is a microcosm of what all of us fear as parents.

In the summer of 2011, we took a family vacation to Europe – a trip for which we saved for several years.  On our first day in Rome, we took a guided tour of the catacombs and surprisingly, our guide was a young American expatriate who’d come to Rome in search of work.  His degree was in Western Civilization and saddled with student debt and unable to get a job here, he’d taken what amounted to a desperate, courageous gamble by putting that education to use as a guide in the cradle of Renaissance civilization, Italy.  One of his comments in our conversations actually haunts me:  I wish that someone had told me that I couldn’t get a job with a degree in Western Civ.  No parent wants to potentially shatter a child’s dream by pointing out the pitfalls and practicability of a career option.  But keeping silent or leaving the route to someone else can shatter the dream with a burdensome debt that can take decades to satisfy. 




How Do You Create Resilient Kids?

We’ve now had about a generation’s worth of helicopter parents, hovering over their children from the toddler years and in some cases, even into the workforce.  A local hospital, at which a close friend works, even had a seminar for managers about how to relate to the new generation of employees; her response was less than lukewarm.  But the meme is changing and more adults are questioning how helpful this approach has been, especially in light of the changes rippling through the national economy.  Paul Tough recently published How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, which probes whether high grades are sufficient in and of themselves for success or whether a child’s grit and character are more important.  The key term in his title is grit, which we can define as the ability to persist through a difficult situation or circumstance.  In a future in which livelihoods are likely to be more hardscrabble and financial freedom more difficult to attain than before, grit is indeed likely to be key.  But how do we help our children develop this particular character trait?

Our society is full of examples of people who’ve overcome to achieve success.  In a recent interview with Time magazine, Dwayne Wade was asked whether his upbringing in a challenging environment contributed to his resilience; he responded that I give a lot of credit to my upbringing in Chicago.  It taught me to be tough, to want more, to want to be better.  It made me appreciate things.  But does that mean that our kids have to go through difficult childhoods in order to develop resilience?  What does that mean for parents who work assiduously to assure that their kids don’t encounter the inner-city life that claims far more youth than produces successful survivors like Wade?

Grit and resilience are – at a basic level – simply components of a person’s natural character; there are some who have the ability to persist in spades while there are a few who are simply so fragile that it doesn’t exist.  My own sense is that it’s akin to a bell curve with the majority possessing it in some degree, waiting to be brought out and developed by upbringing and life.  Unless our children encounter truly difficult circumstances in their youth, we can never know exactly how they respond when life forces them to that truly dark place that almost all of us will encounter in our lifetime.  Until then, all that we can do is assess what we do see every day and try to instill and teach that which does reinforce grit and resilience.  But what are some of those things that we can do?

First, understand that our kids are watching us and learning from us in everything that we do.  Our attitudes and behaviors, our responses and opinions all are being sopped up even though we aren’t aware of it in the moment.  How am I acting when things don’t go my way and what do I say?  In my childhood, the response to most difficulties was a shrug and the phrase you’ll have this; when I once asked my father – a Korean War veteran – how he could be so calm, his response was since there aren’t half a million Chinese shooting at me, it’s really not that bad.  This isn’t to say that there weren’t and aren’t going to be profanities when things screw up, but things go on. 

Second, don’t be afraid to tell your children no.  The earlier that they learn that things aren’t always to go their way, even little things, the more resilient they’re likely to be when a big thing doesn’t go their way. 

Third, don’t be afraid to let the kids struggle.  If she brings you homework for assistance, work hard – and it can be work – to assure that you’re only assisting and not actually doing the work for her.  In moments when sloughing off occurs, send her away despite her protests.  If she returns with a different attitude, then work with her and if not, let her suffer consequences.  This even goes beyond schoolwork.  When Youngest was three years old, I took him to a playarea and he was pushed down by an older child, who was being watched by his own mother.  Youngest got up and continued playing and was then pushed down again by the same child.  He looked at me and noted that while watching, I wasn’t moving; I was honestly curious as to what would happen and had decided that if occurred a third time, I would intercede.  The third time happened and just as I got up to go over to speak to the bully’s mother, Youngest arose, walked over and punched him in the face.  The bully returned to his mother, I returned to my seat and Youngest returned to play. 

Fourth, understand that whining and kvetching by children isn’t a sign that they won’t be resilient during tough times.  Almost all children whine to one degree or another and this is a function of inexperience.  They don’t yet understand how to process frustration, so it comes out verbally.  They don’t yet understand that their parents can’t or won’t always intercede on their behalf so that their complaints are useless.  They don’t have the experience of other difficulties against to which they can compare their present issue.  A splinter is painful, but they’ve not yet encountered the longer term pain of broken bones, muscle pulls and other ailments.  Whining, while mind-numbingly irritating in the moment, generally resolves with time and isn’t necessarily an indication that the child will fold.

Finally, let the children suffer consequences.  If school work isn’t turned in, let the grades suffer and if necessary, even impose consequences of your own.  If the child makes a poor choice with their spending money, don’t intercede to pay for what they really want when they’ve blown the money on something else.  Watching him suffer consequences can be a painful experience for a parent but it serves as an object lesson that Dad isn’t going to always shield him from the repercussions of his (in)actions.

Developing character isn’t a one-off event, but instead a lengthy process.  It can be fraught with frustration and angst along with quiet conversation and praise.  Surprisingly, I’m also learning that even with Eldest now in college, that character development is still occurring so my wife and I aren’t off of the hook.  There are certainly other things that might occur to you to foster resilience in your children, especially since they’re often so different in personality and circumstance; just stay the course and continue to work at it and hopefully, their dark place won’t swallow them when they meet it.

PracticalDad Price Index:  Food Prices Up, Sugar Completes the Stealth Rise

The data is in and compiled for the September reading of the PracticalDad Price Index and as of the most recent sampling, the cost of the 47 item grocery market basket rose to 107.5 (November 2010 = 100); strip out the ten non-food items in the marketbasket and the index for the 37 food items alone rose to 111.67 (November 2010 = 100).  The change from August is:

Month/Year            Total Index            Food-only Index

11/10                      100                       100

8/12                        106.68                  110.88

9/12                        107.50                  111.67         

Sugar completed its course of stealth inflation through the three sampled grocery stores (all unrelated to one another with their own generic brands) as the third generic brand of sugar was also downsized from the standard five pound bag to a four pound bag.  As always, I’ve adjusted the price per four pound bag to reflect what it would cost comparatively at five pounds to account for the package size decrease.

Approximately a month ago, the New York Times ran an article forecasting food price rises due to the effects of the 2012 drought and much of it pertained to the drought’s effect upon the corn crop.  But corn isn’t only used for animal feed, but also cooking oil and biofuel and the drought will also affect other crops, particularly soy and wheat and these will rattle through the economy as we move forward.  Given the level of oil prices, there will probably be a double whammy on cooking oil as these variants are also used in biofuels which are already affected by oil and gas prices.  As sugar prices rise, despite the nominal decrease because of package downsizing, expect to see further increases in all foods which contain some degree of sugar, such as breakfast cereals, pastries and baked goods, and other dessert foods.

If there’s any question about the ongoing conditions, I’m writing this with a standard size (12 ounce) can of Spam next to my laptop.  The product, produced by Hormel Foods, is now celebrating its 75th anniversary and is one of the principal reasons that Hormel Foods Corporation saw strong sales growth in the last quarter.  The expiration date on the bottom of the can says Best By April 2015 and I can only presume that sales are being driven both by those who are stocking up as well as the increasing number of families on Food Stamp benefits who are seeing their protein sources slowly priced out of their range. 

What is the purpose of higher education and does it still make sense?

What is the purpose of a higher education?  More importantly, does it still make sense in today’s world?

Cumulative student loans are now, at more than $1 Trillion, larger than either credit card debt or automobile loans.  Students taking on such debt are responsible for it – period – as are all those who cosign for them, even retirees on fixed incomesIf you owe it, they will come.  Yet despite this, higher education is still billed as the key necessity for entry to that promised land, the American Middle Class; the statistics are that those with the degree typically outearn those without it.   But as the youngsters continue to take on debt and find themselves with minimal employment prospects to support the debtload, it’s helpful for the parents – who sure as hell should be having input into the decision – to be clear as to why this happening.  What is the purpose of a higher education and does it make sense for my child? 

Our nation has had a love affair with higher education, even if most of its earlier citizens could never afford to attend.  The great Land Grant universities of the latter 19th century – Auburn, UCal/Berkeley, Rutgers, and more than 140 other well-known universities – were established under the auspices of congressional action to provide research and education in improved agricultural techniques and ensure that decent education was available to the general public; it was believed that any person would be able to better him or herself accordingly, and also become better citizens in the process.  While the majority of the populace didn’t attend these institutions, their existence did increase the availability of education to the masses and sent an important message about our national values throughout the rest of the world.  Just as the establishment of the land grant universities opened the educational gates, the passage of the GI Bill in the late 1940s opened them further with the message that higher education was of value; we’d reward our veterans for their service with education to help them move on with their lives and care for their families.  Education matters because an educated citizen is engaged, productive and less likely to be dependent upon the state in the long-term.

Has that changed for any reason in the past twenty five years?

No.  It’s especially even more important today as more Americans are dependent upon the Federal government for Food Stamps and Disability Income, both of which are at all time high levels.  But these programs are fiscal outlays and their existence means that not only is there an outlay, but there’s damned little chance that the user is going to be paying taxes back to the government. 

The big difference now is that there’s a chasm between our words and sensibilities, and the reality of our policy actions.  As costs have risen far above even medical care costs, Catherine Rampell of the NY Times is correct that a significant portion of the cost has been shifted from the public to the individual family and student by dint of state budget cutbacks through the past twenty years.  According to the national group, the State Higher Education Executive Officers, the average state budget’s contribution per Full Time Enrollment dropped in 2010 to a level last seen in 1980, adjusted to constant dollars for inflation.  The Reagan Revolution coincided with the move to the "knowledge based economy" so that when there was an increased need for higher education, we began to push the full financial demands onto the family and the youth; we forgot that government does exist to help provide certain functions for society and the nation.

It still makes sense to pursue higher education, but not in the manner that of the Boomer generation.  The presence of a sheepskin isn’t an automatic guarantee of success but the educational bar has been permanently raised so that it’s more necessary than ever so greater care must be taken to craft a plan that meets the need at the minimum cost and with the minimum debt.  Parents have to truly begin paying attention to the issue and take a greater role in helping their kids determine their best route; it’s irritating to read about college graduates who complain that they’ve come out with a degree in Art History and $100,000 in debt.  Either they simply chose to ignore what was said or the parents had simply checked out, thinking that after high school, they were officially adults and now officially left to their own devices.

The phrase making sense is now qualified and no longer a blanket phrase.  We have to once again focus our attention on the kids as we did when they were much younger and required greater effort.  What are their interests and skill sets?  What is their maturity level and should they spend a few more years at home now in order to avoid having to boomerang later?  What plan works best for them?  They should answer these questions, but it’s up to us to ask the questions in the first place.  Only when we’ve gone to the effort and through the process will we know if a higher education makes sense.