The Kids Are Paying Attention

You’re wrong if you think that the kids aren’t paying attention, because they are.  It’s something I’ve realized for a long time and last week was another example as Youngest related what he’d heard standing in line at a used gaming store.  His older siblings have periodically surprised me with what they’ve heard and realized through the years and yesterday was Youngest’s turn.  He was standing in line to purchase a game while I browsed some feet away, and there was a young father and mother with a toddler in a stroller ahead of him.  The parents were purchasing a Destiny PS4 system expansion pack and immediately after he turned from the counter with his box in a bag, the father immediately returned to the cashier and asked if he could get a second bag – preferably gray or dark colored – into which he could put the bagged expansion pack.  The father commented that they were returning home downtown – approximately five miles away – and didn’t want to run the risk of being mugged in their neighborhood.  Youngest watched as the clerk obliged and double-bagged the purchase, then watched further as the young family exited out the door and through the parking lot to the highway, upon which he then moved up for his own purchase.

It was as we were walking to our own vehicle that Youngest mentioned the overheard conversation with the opening statement man, I feel terrible… followed by his description of what he’d witnessed.  From that point onwards for the next ten minutes or so, the conversation ranged over a variety of topics that emanated from his observations.  First, the notion that the family might have actually walked about five miles, carrying a bag and pushing a toddler in a stroller and that if you didn’t have some form of reliable transportation in American society, your options were limited at best.  He’s already witnessed friends of his elder siblings who were occasionally jammed because of this vehicle situation and this instance just served to reinforce that it not only affected individuals but could also affect families with children as well.  Second was the comment about spending priorities; if you couldn’t afford a reliable vehicle, should you really be spending what little disposable income you have on a game expansion pack and especially if it’s obviously for yourself instead of for your toddler?  The third was the simple comment I’d hate to find myself in that situation with my agreement that both Mom and I were working hard to assure both that he wasn’t in that predicament at present and that he had the skills and judgment to assure that he wouldn’t find himself there in the future.

This morning’s conversation in the car to school was another situation that he witnessed and after offering my input, I noted to him that part and parcel of my job as a father was to help him take all of these experiences and knit them together into a recognizable form that provided context for his life.  It is our job as parents to do precisely that and especially if we’re making a purposeful effort to not shield them from the world as some parents do; we must listen to what they say and use that as a departure point for as many permutations as time and attention will allow.  It is this constant effort at conversation and context that will help them establish a sense of not just right and wrong, but also a context of what is appropriate versus simply acceptable versus the worst case, aberrant.  This is not a one-off event but instead a constant, persistent process that will take years and if we handle it properly, will come back to us as we ourselves age and the adult children can help provide context for us in a changing society.

If it’s not about me, then who is it about?

My principal goal as a parent and father is to raise children to become moral and productive adults, capable of taking care of themselves in the great wide world.  This seems to have once been a simpler task given that more and more young adults are coming out of college saddled with debt and either returning home or at best, treading water while they look for the opportunity that permits them to flourish as full-fledged adults.  But that goes to the productive side of the equation; where my wife and I have worked assiduously is to help develop their moral side.  Apart from the usual perceived affliction of church attendance and religious education, we’ve pushed service, requiring volunteer service even before it rears its head in middle and high school.  When each of the kids has reached 13 years of age, we’ve required that they find an outlet for volunteer service and each has responded in kind and now Youngest has his own gig, thoroughly different from his older siblings and very much in keeping with his developing Linus-like sensibility: I love mankind, it’s people that I can’t stand.  As we’ve talked through the years, I’ve gone back to one of the multiple communication taglines that reiterates the point – it’s not about you, kid – and each has heard it repeatedly.  Youngest has probably heard it more than either of the other two because he’s sometimes been present when said to his siblings but hasn’t had the experience and maturity to comprehend the full meaning.

But even when the younger kids aren’t saying anything, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t thinking about it.  If it’s not about me, then who is it about? was the question that came off of Youngest’s lips as we sat in the car several weeks ago.  There was nothing sarcastic about the question, asked as we drove to get yet another pair of shoes for a growing young teen.  He’d been puzzling over it because he’s heard me say it so often through the years.  Children are by nature ego-centric and it’s only as they grow and their perspective widens that not only the awareness of existence, but also the welfare of the others, begins to develop.  Self moves first to immediate and then extended family, then outwards to friends and hopefully beyond that to others who aren’t necessarily even acquaintances.  But being a moral person means not only an awareness of others but also a willingness to work in ways that benefits others, even if they aren’t friends and family, and that is a perspective that frequently has to be taught both by conversation and example.  But the effort to raise a moral person is frequently opposed by the tone and tenor of modern American culture.

That we live in a narcissistic society is a well-documented given.  For the record, narcissism is defined as inordinate fascination with oneself; self-love; vanity and highly covered and somewhat controversial books have documented that psychological test scores measuring narcissistic tendencies have increased over the past three decades.  A deliberate societal push for self-esteem – sometimes without the backing of any actual accomplishment – joins with a stunning array of personal electronic devices that permit the user to record their image and voice again and again and again in the search for perceived cool perfection; with an ability to immediately delete what’s not wanted and an immense memory storage and the focus inward is hard to resist.  This rise in narcissism is an inherent threat to morality since it’s predicated upon self while morality is predicated – at least partially – upon caring for the welfare of others.  The narcissist’s view is inwards and superficial while that of the moral person is outwards and – hopefully – deeper. 

So the effort as the kids age is to get them to shift that perspective outwards and away from themselves.  It means considerable conversation – occasionally a monologue when they’re sullen – and a deliberate effort to engage them in the outside world, helping them find a meaningful way to work on the behalf of others.  It means a willingness to establish limits on the electronics, whether refusing to allow certain devices or setting limits on usage time and media content.  It means a willingness on your own part to model the kind of behavior that you wish them to exhibit.  It isn’t a one-off instance but instead a lengthy and constant process that can be both rewarding as well as tiring, sometimes throwing another iron into the fire of a family schedule.  It is about teaching them that there is more beyond simply themselves and their own needs and wants and that real progress can come when a few are willing to step up and lead; when others see the effort, they will often in turn be drawn out from within and join the effort on behalf of others.  There are all manner of student organizations, student honor societies and school districts that promote voluntary service hours amongst youth, but the primary focus has to be from within the family itself because that’s where the child is going to get the greatest example and emphasis.

Keeping in Touch as Kids Age

One of the questions that I’ve asked myself as the kids age and begin to move out into the world – whether camping trips or high school trips – is how much I should try to keep in contact with them.  It was one thing when they were younger and going away and either my wife or I could expect the typical homesickness/touch-base call.  But it came into focus when Eldest went off to college three years ago and it’s one that I’m asking again as Middle now prepares for college departure.

One of the knocks on my generation’s parenting is that we’re helicopter parents, constantly there to protect and smother the kids in our effort to make their lives safer and better.  Yet that term can itself be confusing as Eldest’s college dean implied to parents at freshman orientation that parents who went to all of the kids’ events and games were such; after all, his parents – in the 1960s – only made one of his own high school games and my personal opinion is that he’s suffering a case of sour grapes.  In a conversation two years ago, Youngest – then still in elementary school – commented that he viewed hovering parents as shelter parents who attempted to shelter their children from all possible mishaps.  Youngest’s case-in-point then pertained to a baseball parent who yelled at a coach during a game; it’s an event that has happened since that time almost three years ago.  To his credit, Youngest has made it clear that if he gets yelled at by a coach in my presence, it’s my job to shut up.

But the question remains: how should communication occur after they depart?  My own experience in going to college was that, barring unexpected questions or situations, I should call my parents collect once a week on a predetermined night.  As it was, there were plenty of unexpected situations my freshman year and the phone calls were a bit more frequent for the first semester at least.  But the newer technology base makes communication easier and more ubiquitous.  Many parents require that kids with a Facebook account “friend” them, at least for the account that the folks know about.  Parents can thus see the latest photos of Junior dressed up with his date before the big party on the public account while Junior’s peers get to see the grisly after-party photos on Junior’s private account site.  No, kids, we’re not stupid.  The almost-universal presence of cellphones – or as I refer to them around the kids, texty-thingies – means that we parents have the capability to step in to help the kid with a problem on a moment’s notice.  That presumes that (a) the kid wants our help and asks for it, and (b) that we have the willingness to help them should they ask.  If I want my kids to be productive and moral adults, capable of standing on their own two feet, then I have to accept that both (a) and (b) have corollaries.  The corollary to (a) would be that things might not turn out optimally because the kid chose to attempt management on her own without my input and if that’s the case, then my job is to monitor my own mouth and perhaps offer a quiet post-mortem at a later time.  The corollary to (b) would be that there might come a time when I opt not to assist but instead stand back and let them deal with the issue themselves with whatever subsequent consequences might arise.  It could be a highly valuable object lesson but one that’s painful for the immediate relationship and something that I’d have to decide was worth the pain. 

Understand that the question will come at one point or another.  Being a parent means that we have to gradually cede ground on autonomy and independence as the kids age and the true gift is to ascertain when and how much to cede; to say that it’s an imprecise process is an understatement.  Take the time now to consider what your guidelines with the kids might be and understand that you and your mate might very well have different expectations on what those might be; my wife is in closer contact to the kids via text than I am while I might go for weeks between texts or phone calls.  My own comments have been that I’ll be happy to speak with you whenever you so choose and will answer any questions that you might have…but don’t blindside me with bad news unless it’s truly unexpected.  There will be miscommunications and there will be the occasional hard feelings but if you take some time to think about your expectations and go over them in advance, the potential damage can be minimized and you can move on to a newer, more well-defined adult relationship.

Civics versus Reality:  Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Kids

Part of my job as a father – a parent – is to raise the kids to take their place in the world as moral and productive adults.  The conversations continue beyond the birds and the bees, which is good since they’re all old enough that if I were now discussing birds and bees with them, I’d probably have multiple grandchildren.  But a significant part of those conversations go to what’s occurring in the world around them and how reality frequently conflicts with what they’ve learned in school.  Such is the case with a conversation about the June 12 vote on HR 1314, in which the House of Representatives denied the President the right to “fast-track” approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade treaty.

The conversation happened twice, the first with Middle and again later that evening with Eldest, Youngest and my wife.  In each case, it was generally composed of three segments.  The first was a general description of what little was known the TPP treaty and that led to the other two segments.  Why was so little known about it and how in the hell could the President get away with making open disclosure of such contents prosecutable.  In the case of the former, little is known about it and purposefully so.  Perhaps the most glaring is that supranational rights would be given to corporations, i.e. that if a foreign corporation objected to a local law, be it state or federal, it could appeal that law to an international court and if upheld, could have said law overturned.  The example that I used with each was if a Chinese corporation wanted to build a plant in a neighboring township and didn’t like the environmental regulations, they could take their case to an international court and have those regulations overturned so that they could proceed with their plant.  Incendiary perhaps, but still a legitimate example and one that’s pertinent since there’s been an ongoing local controversy about an American firm running a gas pipeline through the area despite significant public opposition.  It’s bad enough that we’re becoming part of a domestic corporate fascism with those organizations gaining increasing power over the individual; to be additionally at the mercy of the wishes of a foreign corporation – be it Chinese, German or English – is intolerable.

The next part of the conversation went to the fact that the document itself is heavily guarded and protected as to contents.  It can only be read by members of Congress in a particular basement, guarded, and any notes must be destroyed.  If anyone is caught publicizing details of the proposed treaty, they can be criminally prosecuted.  Still, aspects of the treaty have made it to light and that includes the supranational status given to corporations.  Another aspect that’s come out via leaks and analysis by the New York Times is that the pharmaceutical industry has lobbied heavily on its behalf, most notably for increased intellectual property protection.  While that’s certainly a legitimate concern that goes to pharmaceuticals as well as any other number of industries and products, there is also a push for increased control of patents so that generic drugs would take longer to come to market and keep the cost of medications higher for longer than it is now.  In a society that’s seeing more medical costs being borne by the consumer as deductibles move higher, this is an additional burden on stretched family budgets in the event of medical difficulty.

The vote itself, which was defeated by a large Democratic House contingent joining with some Republicans, was to approve a “fast track” vote on the bill, whose Senate corollary had already been approved.  This fast tracking would’ve forced a straight yes or no vote on the treaty with no debate and with no allowance for any changes whatsoever.  Indeed, Representative Paul Ryan (R) echoed Nancy Pelosi (D) when she spoke the Obamacare vote: you’ll find out what’s in it after you vote for it.  This simple comment was as astounding coming around the second time as it was coming around the first and equally appalling.

The response from all of the kids – Youngest is quite capable of playing up to his elder siblings – was simple disbelief.  None of this was what they’d learned about in their Civics classes – or in Youngest’s case, from talking with me – and it was difficult to reconcile with the theory that they’d learned about the fabled American democracy with it’s freedom of speech and constitutional system of checks and balances.  And honestly, apart from multiple comments as to unconstitutional, the one word that caught my attention was tyranny. 

Tyranny, indeed.  And this came from the mouth of a teenager.

So what’s the upshot of all of this?  There are several…the first is that the kids are absolutely capable in their teen years of learning and understanding what’s going on in their nation and the world, provided that you’re willing to take the time to talk with them.  It’s fine if you tell them to turn off their electronics for a few minutes of discussion, although the first time or two that you do it will seem more like a monologue than a dialogue.  It’s important that you get your salient facts straight and present them with as little rancor as possible, even if you should be wrapping your head with duct tape to keep it from exploding, so that you don’t come off as the foaming-at-the-mouth old man.  And the last is that you have an obligation as a parent, like it or not, to stay apprised of what’s going on in the world around you.  It isn’t enough anymore to feed and clothe them anymore.  There are events and movements within this country that will require our greater attention and activism – yes, I said it – if we’re going to give them a nation worthy of them.

Discussing Surveillance with the Kids:  What If It’s Not McGee?

My biggest job as a father is to help raise the kids to take their place as moral and productive adults in society, not necessarily a simple job in today’s America.  Doing that requires, amongst many other things, an awareness of the issues that face Americans with an emphasis on those that will particularly affect them as they proceed along in life.  One of the issues that most concerns me for the kids is that of the presence of government surveillance, particularly the pervasive electronic programs fostered by the NSA. 

The issue is troubling for many reasons but there are two points that particularly bother me in regards to the kids.  The first is that they are so massively tied in to the ether via the internet and increasingly through the newly termed “Sensornet”, the increasing number of interconnected devices.  An entity with the resources – and boy howdy, the NSA has those in terabytes – can carefully craft together an accurate picture of an individual’s beliefs, likes, dislikes and opinions for the highest bidder; in the aspect of a free society, it can also be used to apply pressure to silence an uncomfortable opinion.  The second point is that the news-media is largely now controlled by no more than a half-dozen corporate entities and with the rise of corporate fascism within the past two decades or so, there are fewer and fewer places for these youngsters to go for truly independent news.  While it’s impossible to eliminate full bias from any news source, there are now far greater and lucrative reasons to assert control over the news flow and corporations are generally not run by people who are willing to place their companies and paychecks at risk.  The rise of the terrorist threat – whether it’s that everpresent or just another straw bogeyman to be conveniently exploited – means that there’s a plethora of opportunities for the media to push a specific message, which is about the need for security and increasing vigilance that begins to conflict with our most core freedoms.

So if it’s my job to prepare the kids and make them aware, I have to look for any opportunity to create a teachable moment.  Such was the moment some months ago after we spent a Tuesday evening watching NCIS.  It was another of those episodes in which Gibbs’ team is against the wall trying to defuse a potential terrorist plot and McGee realizes that he can surreptiously crack some firewalls and obtain crucial data that makes the plot stoppable.  There’s the nod to legal process with the warning that this could be a problem without warrant, but Gibbs and/or Vance will quietly nod and then make a cryptic remark that is in itself an approval of the measure.  My full disclosure is that I like NCIS and have watched it for years, developing an affection for the characters, most particularly the wiseass DiNozzo.  But after that episode, I engaged Youngest in a conversation after he’d gone online at the family computer. 

The brief talk – and it can’t take huge amounts of time – centered on what the team did to crack the case.  Here’s my problem with it, I said.  Did they crack the case?  Youngest responded that they had, to which I asked what if that wasn’t McGee at the terminal?  What if that was someone else, someone that you didn’t necessarily know and trust?  Would that make what they did the right thing to do? Youngest – now in seventh grade – has had enough conversations to understand the notion of legal process and could see that the process had been upended in the interest of public safety.  But my subsequent conversation with him went to the need for the process in the first place.  I pointed out the recent issues with the IRS, specifically in regards to using it as a political tool against libertarians and conservatives, as well as the Obama Administration’s vicious war against whistleblowers, who often were moral people who were trying to shed light on abuses within the system and not incompetents or malcontents.  It might seem heady stuff for a middle-schooler, but the reality is that the kids are generally capable of understanding topics if you’ve raised them to “play up” in conversations and have tried to make them as understandable and matter-of-fact as possible.  There have been times with my own kids when they’ve asked questions on the spur and I’ve told them that I’ll come back to them after having a chance to think about it.  It isn’t that I don’t know the facts or have an opinion on it, but that I need a little time to think through how to present an answer that’s understandable for the age level; that said, there have been a few instances where I’ve gone back to fact-check myself so I don’t come off sounding like a moron (not a hard thing to do sometimes).  One or two days later, I’ve come back with Remember that question you had about…?

The point to the conversation was to at least give Youngest a glimpse into the issue of government surveillance, that there was more there than just a friendly fictional scout-leading character on a popular television show who could be upending the process.  It was also to give him a sense that the legal processes are there for solid reasons and that the technology can be a double-edged sword, to protect the common person from the vagaries and senses of the poltical operatives and hacks that populate the upper levels of the various bureaucracies, willing and able to abuse the system for the ends of themselves or the hands that feed them. 

There have been other situations that have arisen since then that have led to further conversations on the question of privacy and surveillance and both my wife and I have pointed them out to one or more of the kids as they’ve been around.  The point is to make yourself aware of the issues in our society and whenever possible, find a way to present them to the kids so that they have a grounding as they grow.  These are the years that will allow them to begin developing the habits that protect them when they’re finally adults and my expectation is that America is going to have a moment of truth about how far the security apparatus should go in the pursuit of security.

The House That Barney Built

If you’re a father, pay attention (obviously) to what you hear and find a meaningful tagline that you can come back to again and again with the kids in order to make a point.  It’s a recurrent phrase or short sentence that makes a point, a rhetorical bumper sticker that you can – with sufficient repetition – hopefully tack onto the kid’s mental bumper for further use as he or she goes through life.  Such a phrase that I’ve adopted for the past eight years is The house that Barney built.

The phrase is meaningless for anybody else out there and even for two of my own kids, but it’s a phrase that has significant meaning for Middle, who first heard it while in fourth grade and then shared it with me one evening after he heard it.  Middle is an arts person, an individual who finds greater meaning in e.e. cummings than in how to perform algebra.  He’s now en route to his freshman year in college to pursue a degree in the performing arts and our response, after a deep breath, is to encourage him and support him in this pursuit.  That said, it was clear years ago that he’d follow this kind of path and I subsequently made it a point to discuss the practical and monetary side of that kind of life to help clarify what issues and life he might encounter. 

The phrase The house that Barney built was something said to him in his first stage production.  After years of requests, we acquiesced in his fourth grade year to let him audition for a professional stage production of Oliver! and to our pleasure, he made the cast.  The role of Fagin was played by a professional actor named Barry Pearl, and he was – from everything we heard from Middle and others – a wonderful person with whom to work; he also portrayed a great Fagin.  But through the various evening practices, he’d find time to chat with the other cast members and impart some professional knowledge to the youngsters, many of whom were enthralled with the notion of performing on stage.  As Middle related to me later that evening on the way home from rehearsal, Pearl had engaged in a conversation on the practical aspects of acting, most especially the handling of money.  Earlier in his career, he’d been cast as a regular on Barney as Professor Tinkerputt and it gave him a steady income for a period of years.  It was during this stint that he took the money that he’d made and put it to paying for a house, a place that he’d be able to reside without having to worry about constantly having to handle a mortgage with what can be a problematic cashflow between acting gigs.  He described it to the group as the house that Barney built and it was a phrase that struck Middle enough that he related it to me verbatim that evening.  Since I’m always on the lookout for taglines that support the lessons that I’m trying to teach – and there are certain taglines for each – this was a wonderful turn of phrase that I immediately put away for future reference.

The phrase is a wonderfully curt response to the want/need confusion that’s been perfected through the past four or so decades by the Madison Avenue apostles.  Our children – hell, sometimes even us – have fallen to the notion that you can indeed have it all and that the want is sometimes as important as the need.  If you don’t necessarily have the assets available to get what you want, you can always borrow a bit more to get it and that way lies the path to debt servitude.  After all, the financial press noted some years ago in a moment of drink-the-kool-aid idiocy that credit is the new liquidity.  The reality is that’s akin to ignoring your own tap when you want a drink of water and instead spending your own money to purchase that water.  No, wait…never mind.  That’s how far along on the crazy train we’ve now come, something unrecognizable to our great-grandparents’ generation.

It’s a phrase that isn’t used often, but has been trotted out through the ensuing years as we’ve talked.  It was the other Saturday morning that it finally made it’s way out again as he and I sat in the living room with cups of coffee and talked money.  Recently, it seems as if that’s sometimes all I discuss and it’s unfortunate that it appears that way.  But my point in the discussion was that he was entering a profession that while it could be immensely fulfilling, it could also be financially insecure.  I believe that the present system – monetary and political – is insupportable and that the change will certainly occur in the next number of years.  I also believe that while the word change comes across on a page as a sterile, unexciting event, the reality will be far more fearful and problematic and that belief colors what I want the kids to learn; after all, my job is ultimately to prepare them to make their way in the world as productive and moral adults and that’s not necessarily what the general system seems to want to teach the kids.

Decide what the most important lessons that you want your children to learn.  Spend time in conversation with them as much as possible when they’re younger because once they begin to plug into the matrix, your window for discussion with them will narrow considerably.  Decide on your tagline, that rhetorical bumper-sticker that you return to again and again and if it’s from somebody or somewhere else that has an impact on them, then don’t worry about ownership but grab it and stuff in your bag-of-tricks for reference.  Because someday, that might be all that you need to say in a pinch to get a point across.

The Saint Paddy’s Pub Crawl (How Much Should a Father Reveal?)

There are opportunities for conversation and discussion at all corners, and the other morning was a prime example of such.  Middle had to attend a theatre audition at an urban university and we took the opportunity to take the train since, if he does attend there, it will be the standard mode of travel.  It was during the 70 minute trip that we encountered college students en route to Philadelphia for an early start to their long-awaited Saint Patrick’s Day Pub Crawl and their entry raised the parental question, how much do I reveal about my own youth?

The first indication of the Crawl was the entry of a half dozen people, a mixture of college and post-college adults.  One of them carried a bag and they sat quietly and in a moment, a young man picked up his backpack and entered the vacant restroom.  A moment later, the Kelly Green Power Ranger, replete with helmet, exited and returned to his seat amidst laughter from both his friends and other passengers.  We noted that there then appeared green cans of beer to be quietly passed around amongst the crew.  These were followed at the next station by another group of young adults, obviously in college.  The students, primarily young women, were carrying convenience store coffee cups but it was the *clink* of a canvas bag carried by one of them that clued us to the fact that the cups had long since been emptied of coffee, if they’d ever carried coffee in the first place.  The girls/women weren’t unduly loud but the next indication of the general condition came when the conductor stopped at the seats just ahead of us and asked the occupants for their tickets.  One of the two seated ahead asked, giggling, Is this the Polar Express?   The middle-aged conductor’s deadpan response was Would you like me to punch “believe” in your ticket? as he punched away.  A moment later, I glanced over at Middle as we chatted and elbowed him, nodding for him to also glance over to see the two women across the aisle refilling their cups with Miller and Landshark respectively.  At least one of them had a discriminating taste, although it wasn’t likely to mean squat in another six hours.  Welcome to college was my sotto voce remark in Middle’s ear.

The two of us chuckled and quietly chatted as the topic turned to drinking.  There’s no doubt that there’s going to be a serious amount of alcohol available, even more than is already available to high school students today, and all that I can do as a father is to find a consistent message and stay on it.  My message has been that you’re simply going to be in situations in which it’s available and I hope – and expect – that you’ll remember that there are consequences to poor decisions.  This was followed by two addendum:  the first addendum being that if he ever needed a bad guy upon which to place responsibility or blame with his friends, he should feel free to use my name as liberally as necessary.  The second addendum was that if he ever found himself in any situation, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and call me immediately, and that included his friends as well.  Middle is aware that many universities are taking a hard line towards alcohol and imposing penalties towards students who are found drinking and/or drunk in the dorms and this reminder was again passed along as well.  One of his older buddies commented that he didn’t even make it through the first night on campus his freshman year before the campus police entered his dorm room and arrested the roommate for underaged drinking.

But it was in the next moment that Middle popped the question, Did you ever get drunk in college? and it’s a moment for which every father should be prepared as the kids grow.  I’m fortunate that I could honestly say No, buzzed several times but never out-and-out drunk.  I saw others drunk and hated the notion that if drunk, I was passing my judgment and responsibility for my own safety to others, who even if they weren’t drunk, might not necessarily be my friends and interested in my safety as much as their own entertainment.  Four years at a university known even then for hard-drinking and I’d been privy to enough debauchery to detest being at another’s mercy and whim.  As dangerous as that can be, it’s made worse decades later by the presence of smartphone cameras and social media, used to spread and memorialize the drunk’s embarrassment.

Drinking and drug usage are just later variants of the question, which is liable to cross your child’s lips even in preschool.  So decide early on, how much are you willing to share?  Do you prefer to downplay and distract them, if they’re young enough, with other topics (and that is certainly a possibility)?  Do you choose to acknowledge misbehaviors – and we all have them – in a general sense or do you explore them when they’re old enough?  Do you simply not respond and let the kids wonder?  This last was my own father’s approach and the company line was that he was always on the straight and narrow.  It was when I reached my own college years that he began to share stories from his own youth and I was flummoxed to find that there were periods when he couldn’t have followed the straight and narrow with a yardstick and a magnifying glass.  Christ, compared to this guy, I’m a friggin’ saint…where did I go right and how much fun did I miss?   When I asked him why he never revealed anything until I was in college, he grinned sheepishly and commented something to the effect that if I’d done some of his (mis)deeds, he probably would have killed me.  His job as a father, he said, was to be an example.

And he was correct, the disingenuous bastard.

One friend is also an older father and has been very open with his own kids about his early years, which were far hairier than my own.  But they also understand the ways in which things can go wrong by dint of Dad’s mistakes and he is secure enough to dissect his own situations with them, giving them a heads-up on their peers who don’t have the parental sharing.  The technology base might change, but the youthful errors remain the same. 

So take some time to think about how much of your own past you choose to share with the kids?  Do you handle it as a novelist, ascribing some of your own experiences to a fictitious buddy that the kids can never meet because he-was-such-a-great-guy-it’s-a-damned-shame-that-he’s-dead and use the experiences to teach and entertain?  Do you take my friend’s route and share the stories openly, using them as examples of how things can go wrong and what not to do?  Or do you take my father’s route and go silent, talking to them but trusting that nothing stupid is going to happen?  The questions will come and begin after the kids begin talking, so the sooner that you have your approach, the better off you’re going to be.  Because the kids can sniff out hypocrisy like a hound looking for his favorite bone.

Politicians and Parenthood:  The Message

There’s a huge and well-deserved knock on politicians, and if a kid states that she someday wants to be a politician then the response of most would be to fault the parents.   But there is one particular attribute of successful politicians that parents should remember: stay on message. 

Staying on message means that you aren’t easily distracted from one or more salient points that you continually return to when you’re with the kids.  There can be entire weeks that you don’t mention that message but if the opportunity arises, you return to it consistently, bringing the point home again, and again.  The message is typically something that drives you and that you want the kids to take to heart, that they’ll carry with them moving forward.  It’s a message that is short and succinct, a parental tagline that fits into the short attention span mindset and is especially crucial in a period in which the kids are getting more conversation from the entertainment/media complex than from their own parents.

In my particular childhood and youth, there were two salient messages that came through from both of my parents.  My mother’s mantra – derived from a Great Depression childhood – was simply we’ve gotta pay the mortgage.   In a society in which the consumerist mentality had begun to blossom, this simple message was the response to the purposefully created need versus want confusion.  You can certainly ask for the latest and greatest toy or trip, but we’ve gotta pay the mortgage, so your wants be damned, the need of putting a roof over the head first must be met.  When I got a little older, it became a running joke with the family and I’d sit at the dinner table, taking potshots like an absurdist ass: Mom, can I have a new pair of shoes?  Nope, (answering myself) gotta pay the mortgage.  Mom, can I please have a second helping of carrots?  Nope, (answering myself) gotta pay the mortgage.  My mother suffered the slings in good grace and it wasn’t until I was finally living in my own apartment with the full freedom and responsibility of adulthood that this message came back.  I worked for a corporation with a load of other twenty-somethings and the conversation amongst multiple co-workers would turn to spending on this or that and presented with a particular decision on a major purchase decision, I found that phrase creep back repeatedly into my head: gotta pay the mortgage.  I could certainly afford the particular item if I took a second job to cover the cost along with the other necessities, such as rent.  But the stretch was such that if I lost my primary job, I’d be forced to return home.  Gotta pay the mortgage.

The message from my father was blunter and broader: pull your head out of your ass and look around.  It was a message that I received repeatedly from around fourth grade onwards, when the thought process starting going to hell.  It was harsh and consistent, and would be trotted out when he’d encounter some ‘tween/teen stupidity that either I or my sister had said or done.  It also became a weird form of bonding between the two of us and when I reached my later teens, we’d actually joke about it and he’d even note that he’d done something proving that he’d demonstrably had his head up his own ass.  It was only in my adulthood when he began to open up to my wife and I about his Korean War experiences that the import behind this message came home.  There was certainly an element of fate about whether or not a shrapnel fragment or bullet took you out, but there was also an element of carelessness and lack of thought that got you killed as well.  As a company first sergeant, which he reached at the tender age of 20 via the demise of his predecessors, he routinely told new arrivals that if they wanted to survive, they’d better find one of the veterans and pay attention to what they did and then copy it.  The verbal message to me was harsh but he never scared me with the stories of why he stressed attention, awareness and thought; that phrase is one that I swore that I’d never use with my own kids but there have been a very few instances when it’s been trotted out. 

My own taglines are simple and one of them is a G-rated version of my father’s acidic remark: Think.  Use your head for more than just a hatrack.  The second pertains to the college experience and debt, we need to get you through with as little debt as possible and I talk consistently about the impact of debt on the ability to actually get out of the house and on with their own lives.  There’s no guarantee of what job or career you’ll get, but there’s no sense making things worse by starting out with a small mortgage hung around your neck.  The phrases aren’t embroidered and hung upon the wall nor are they used on a daily basis, but I try to use them consistently and in the same format every time so that it winds up as a rhetorical bumper sticker pasted to their thought process, one that they see every time that they decide to take it out for a ride.

Understand that when the kids get older and more into the world of school and peers, your time around them will lessen.  Decide what you value and the lessons that you wish to impart and then find the tagline that best captures what you want to say.  Then deliver it again and again and again.  Expect that you might even be teased, but keep it up because it’s sinking in and it’s liable to be at a crucial moment in your child’s life when that tagline pops into his head and makes all the difference in a particular choice facing him.

Exposing the Kids to Reality

It was the other day that Youngest, now with a PS3, asked for permission to buy the Call-of-Duty: Black Ops game and my response was a firm no.  I understand that he’s played the game elsewhere, will certainly play it again at some friend’s house and that’s alright.  But I’ve made it clear that I won’t be purchasing such a game because I want him to understand that there’s a grim reality behind the virtual sterility of the two-dimensional game, a world of pain and loss that only the combat-initiated can truly understand.  It’s a function of my own father, who returned home from the first year of the Korean War a changed man who sold his hunting rifles and swore to neither fire a weapon nor sleep outside again.  It was this desire to teach the reality that led to a Swedish father’s trek with his two sons when they asked for a Call-of-Duty game.

This father took his two sons on a journey to the Middle East in early 2014 to show them the reality of warfare.  Much of the game – like other first-person shooter games – takes place in an urban wasteland of ruins and debris.  But it’s one thing to move among the virtual debris and fully another to see the rubble around you and recognize that it doesn’t go away as it does when the television is turned off; let alone the notion that the people there have to live among it with the knowledge that to them, that brick pile might at one time have been called home.  It’s an admittedly over-the-top exercise, an expensive lesson that does however, prove his commitment to his personal beliefs.  In the course of the two week excursion, they visited a refugee camp and had the figurative impact of young people paralyzed by taking rubber bullets to the spine with the commentary that these youngsters, their own age, would never again be able to engage in any of their favorite sports and activities.

This father does understand that he and his wife are not the only adults having a conversation with their sons.  The reality is that the kids – all of them – are having an ongoing conversation with the media/entertainment complex and honestly, it’s occurring more readily with many than with the parents.  The great majority of fathers in today’s world spend less than a half hour each day in any meaningful interaction with the kids while the kids themselves are having a good six hours daily in some interaction with the media/entertainment complex.  That complex can be seductive and fun, requiring nothing of the kids apart from their brand loyalty and ongoing viewership.  The complex has no other role in raising the child and demands nothing, holds none accountable for grades or chores and will never, ever have to clean up the pieces when the child or teen does something that goes spectacularly, explosively wrong.  The only surefire option to competing with the complex is to go full-tilt Amish and for the great majority, that’s neither a valid choice nor even an option; what is required at the minimum is the understanding that the other conversations exist and more importantly, the ongoing effort to continually engage the kids whenever and wherever the opportunity arises.

We’ve had similar opportunities for mind-expansion in this household, although not to the extent of Mr. Helgegren.  The first was the decision to let Youngest watch Saving Private Ryan as a third grader.  I knew from conversations that he was playing Black Ops at friends’ houses, yet wanted him to have a sense of the reality of war and the Spielberg film was the closest that I could conceivably get short of taking the kids to an actual war zone.  The effect was what I hoped as he was clearly moved at the grinding violence of the film’s opening invasion sequence and it served as the departure point for further, later conversations.  The other major occurrence was the decision – only a few weeks after viewing the film – to take the kids to Athens’ Syntagma Square during the much awaited – and saved for – trip to Europe.  The demonstrations that year took off on the first leg of our trip to Rome and I made repeated visits on the hotel computer to the US State Department website to determine whether there had been a travel advisory issued for Athens.  Between that and touching base with the tour company’s guides in Athens, we decided to go ahead with that leg of the trip and while it was safe, it was eye-opening for the kids to see militarized riot police and to do so a full three years before the rest of America saw them in Ferguson, Missouri.

And that’s the point of exposing the kids to the reality.  It’s important that we as parents act in what has become an almost counter-cultural fashion because the culture now promotes behaviors and norms that are crass at best and detrimental at worst to the well-being of our kids.  There is liable to be blowback to our efforts at conversation and you might even wish to book tickets for a flight to Syria, one-way in the worst moments.  But understand that if you keep chipping away at it, keep making an effort, keep finding ways to expose the kids to reality, then there’s a decent chance that they’re going to actually listen and adjust accordingly.  Letting the kids’ reality be shaped by the media/entertainment complex is setting them up for future heartache, unprepared for what they actually see when the blinders come off and they have to live in the real world.

So, What Did You Learn?

There are moments when it’s entirely appropriate to rain fire and brimstone upon a kid or teen for behavior or stupidity, and there are other moments when it’s unnecessary because they’re raining it upon themselves.  This typically happens in competitive situations when an error causes points to score and it’s especially likely – for many kids – when it involves a team sport and the letdown affects teammates as well. There are parents out there who will willingly take the kid to task for the error but it is, in most cases, needless and unnecessarily painful because any worthwhile kid is beating himself up for all of them.

Such was the case this entire baseball season for Youngest, whose team is providing ample opportunities for what can best be described as "character-building lessons".  Decent pitching and hitting is wholly overwhelmed by poor fielding and a complete lack of understanding on what to do with that round white thing when it’s hit into the field.  Dropped balls are treated as dead plays when they are actually as live as a hand grenade and easy outs are wrapped in tinsel and handed to the other teams as tickets that can be exchanged by opposing teams for more and more runs.  Once that truck starts moving downhill, then it’s difficult to stop and eventually everybody climbs aboard as almost everything degrades.

With multiple kids, other responsibilities and two parents, it’s problematic getting to everything and I missed seeing a recent Saturday afternoon game.  But I heard about it in glorious, gory detail in the kitchen as Youngest related one particular play in which he was involved and which allowed the winning run to score in the last inning.  I could hear the embarrassment in his voice and even though it takes more than one person to make up a team, he blamed himself. 

So what’s the best approach?  Do I look for the bright side in every little thing and minimize the particular play?  Or do I lose my cool and hammer the kid?  God knows that I’ve heard plenty of parents through the years hammer their kids for a mistake.  There’s ultimately no way to put lipstick on the pig so after hearing the story, I opted to simply stop preparing dinner and ask so what did you learn from this?  What’s your lesson?  And after stopping for a moment, he simply responded I have to know where the play is going to be made.  

A similar scenario played out with Middle in an after-school conversation the other day.  He has a teacher whose reputation is that he’ll challenge the kids and he apparently lives up to it, based upon what I hear.  In class, the teacher posed an analogy for the Ottoman Empire with a $5 payoff to anyone who could get it right.  Multiple kids took the stab and failed and Middle mouthed an answer to a neighbor, who then claimed it publicly as his own.  It was also the correct answer and the neighbor took home $5.  When Middle approached the teacher after class, he admitted that he’d seen Middle mouthing the answer to the other kid yet did nothing when it was claimed…so what did you learn from this?  I inquired.  Middle shook his head and acknowledged that he might as well take the shot at an answer, at a minimum.  I agreed and noted that the teacher was also explicitly teaching him – Middle – a lesson that is invaluable even if it doesn’t come from a book.

Our job as fathers and parents is to prepare them for life, to help them learn to think for themselves and stand on their own and that’s not going to happen if we don’t stop and make them think.  I’ve even walked through my own screwups and laid out the lessons that I should take from the situation, what my own father referred to as the Post Mortem.  Giving them pep talks or dressing them down simply isn’t of much value unless they actually learn the lesson that should flow from their growing experiences.