Technology, Fairness and Kids

It’s not fair!  It’s just not fair!

Almost all of us with kids have heard this phrase from their mouths at one time or another, especially if the child has a sibling.  It’s been a chronic complaint for generations of parents as the egocentric kids worry that Sib is getting more than they are, whether it’s a smartphone, an Easy-Bake oven, a Hula hoop or a Dick Tracy detective kit.  And the response of most parents is a sigh or groan and an explanation that the Sib is really not being treated preferentially.  But does this age-old situation taken on a new face?  Has the technology curve changed how we handle the concept of fairness and equity with the kids and how do we manage it?

From talking with my peers over the years, the common recollection was that most parents tried to maintain an almost mechanistic even-handedness in dealing with the kids.  Like my own parents, if one child got a real desk at 10 years of age, then the next child received the same item at the same age.  It was a realistic defense in dealing with the kvetching that comes from kids sensitive to anything that threatens their own perceived place in the world.  And if anything can drive a parent batshit crazy, it’s the constant grousing from one or more of the kids who chronically attempt to prove their point, as pointless as it may be.  My own history was one of the mechanistic even-handed sort.  My older sister got some milestone item at a specific age and when I reached that same age a few years later, I received a like milestone item.  Desk?  check.  Decent bicycle?  check.  With many of my peers, it was a similar situation because typically, a kid didn’t need a specific item until there was actually a perceptible need for it. 

While my wife and I worked with this process through the early years of our children’s lives, it has taken a decidedly different turn in the past several months because of technology, specifically laptops and smartphones.  Until a few years ago, the family line was that there would be one family computer for the kids to share and that device was located in a common area of the house.  None of the kids had laptops that could be removed to bedrooms and there were no smartphones; the word on mobile phones was that when circumstance dictated it, then a child got a cellphone.  When Eldest was fifteen years of age and traveling to a distant city for a week-long event, we got her a cellphone.  As her high school graduation gift, we footed a nice, high-end laptop that would last through college.  Several years after Eldest blazed the way, Middle got a cellphone just before he was eligible to drive.  His laptop however, was earlier since the school decreed that all students would receive free laptops for use and lo and behold, a laptop appeared years before we had planned to foot for one and household guidelines had to be revised accordingly.  When the school district redrew boundary lines for the various schools to rebalance the size of their respective student bodies, we found that Youngest would be attending middle school at the school that was the further away so he got a simple cellphone for use in case or emergency; this was at an age several years younger than his siblings.

But the push has been on for months about upgrading to a better phone and by better, I mean a smartphone.  The repeated requests have been at Youngest’s behest because his simple phone is incapable of handling the communications now used by his peers, all of whom possess one manner of smartphone or another.  As one of his buddies commented, Dude, you should get an Apple…we’re an Apple family!  We’ve found that some of his friends will text with him simply because they’re friends but he’s the only one with whom they text and all else is handled via Instagram; this means that in oversight, there have been multiple events and get-togethers from which he’s been excluded and despite subsequent apologies from his buddies, it still hurts.  This realization has led to more discussion in the household.  Should we let the fact that he’s the only one without the latest and greatest drive a family decision?  What are the new family guidelines on smartphone use?  How fair is it to the older siblings that he’s received earlier access to technology and in some instances, by years?  Because Eldest was home visiting from college over a recent weekend, she responded that it was really irrelevant now.  The communication platforms favored by the youngsters – even younger than the college crowd – has changed significantly from when she was that age less than a decade before and if it was interfering with his capability to have a healthy and active social life with his peers, then it was worth the upgrade.  To be fully equitable however, we also upgraded Middle to a smartphone and as a favor to me, my wife also got me one as well.

So technological change has altered the question of maintaining a degree of fairness amongst the children.  What we’ve seen is that the other factor which makes it more pertinent is the age differential between the various children.  If you have only a few years between the children, then the matter won’t be a potential booby-trap.  But if you’re talking anywhere around the vicinity of five or more years between the kids, then it’s liable to be more of a concern.  There are no right or wrong answers here.  But it’s worthwhile to be aware of the trip hazards as you negotiate the debate.

Embracing the Suck

The term embracing the suck was popularized some years ago as a military term, the modern equivalent to the WW2 GI terms FUBAR or SNAFU.  The gist of the expression is that there are times when regardless of what you try to do, you’re going to be stuck with something so you might as well make the best of it.  It’s a term that’s come into use in the PracticalDad household and particularly in regard to Youngest, who is now in middle school – Dear God, when did that happen? – and finding it as I did during that time, a purgatory to be endured until able to move on to someplace better.  The issue surrounds interpersonal stuff with kids, especially the use of nicknames. 

It’s an issue that I know all too well, having spent years – from late elementary school through high school – with the moniker “Weird” attached to my last name.  It came quickly enough in elementary school when Bill Cosby premiered his Fat Albert show on Saturday mornings and the kids in my class latched onto it since the character’s first name is literally the same as my last name.  But the name stuck for more than a short period and suddenly, I found it downright painful at times.  I don’t know that I was any more weird than any other boy of that age, at the cusp of puberty and entering a phase that truly can be odd on any number of levels.  Regardless of my own opinion, the name stuck.

In Youngest’s case, his is a nickname that comes not out of behavior or appearance but instead, circumstance.  Youngest is an active kid who is in some ways a throwback with his neighborhood buddies, a group of boys who have routinely gathered at different yards after school to play sandlot football and generally beat the crap out of one another.  But through the unorganized activities and the various sports, he’s incurred a string of significant injuries over a span of time that have, in each instance, wiped out months of any strenuous physical activity.  The most recent injury has had a permanent effect since he’s now forbidden to play organized football in school, a sport for which he’d campaigned for several years and one which his mother and I had finally relented, agreeing to give permission to play.  With all of the facts now coming out about traumatic brain injuries and the recurrence rate among athletes who have already incurred such an injury, the risk is simply too great.  With yet another freak accident this Autumn, his fate and nickname were sealed and even kids at school who don’t know his real name, recognize him by the nickname.

Youngest would come home and in discussing the day, he’d express frustration at the ongoing situation.  Not only was there too much drama among the collective hormonal melting pot, but now there was this damned nickname.  As the conversations continued, he learned that there are really only three options when dealing with the interpersonal crap from others.  The first is to simply try ignoring it in the hopes that it either becomes boring for others or someone else is gifted with an even worse moniker to steal the verbal limelight.  The second is to make an issue of it with others and deal with it head-on, and typically in an aggressive and occasionally violent way.  The third is to simply embrace it, taking it on and trying to make peace with its existence.  The first option of trying to ignore it is, for a kid, largely unrealistic.  Kids have little patience and sense of time and it would probably take much longer to die away than they’re willing to wait.  I discussed my own experience with him and freely acknowledge that my own situation eventually went on for years…so look how well that one turned out for me, son.  The second, aggressive, option is generally unworkable since there’s always – and at any age – some ass who’s more than happy to twist the knife and watch the ensuing fireworks.  The reality is that by going off, you’re surrendering control of the circumstances and wind up dancing to another’s tune.  The last option is to simply try to find a way to make peace with the situation and even work it to your advantage, i.e. embrace the suck.  This option is the one that I adopted in my own youth after some conversation with my own parents.  The opinion that I took was that if I was going to be called weird, then I might as well give people something to talk about and hey, maybe even have some fun in the process.  So yes, I wound up doing some things that I might not have were it not for the nickname but the truth is also that I had a bit more fun that I would have had otherwise.

Youngest realizes that of all the possible nicknames in the world, his isn’t even remotely the worst possible one; this is especially after learning from his grandfather that one of that man’s childhood friends was nicknamed booger, a moniker still attached even after six decades.  Youngest has also decided to embrace the situation and one of his Christmas gifts was something that he can wear to school that pokes fun at his own situation.  It’s something that he asked for specifically after seeing it advertised and it now awaits the proper moment for an appearance in school.  I have to admire his willingness to go ahead with it and understand it completely since purposefully trotting it out in front of others takes their power away by showing that you can’t be affected by their own remarks, comments often made with the intent to belittle and cut.  I have no idea when he’ll pull out the item and it’s possible that it will wait until the weather is not so bitterly cold.  But it will come out and Youngest will embrace the suck, a lesson in character that will last him, like others, a lifetime.

Something Wicked This Way Comes: Kids and Dystopian Lit

As I write this, the latest wave of dystopian young adult lit, Hunger Games:  Catching Fire and Divergent, are respectively on Demand and in the theatres.  Dystopian is a word that means, as I explained to Youngest the other morning, the opposite of Utopian; it pertains to a situation or circumstance that is dysfunctional, dark and bleak.  The genre is nothing new as it offers an opportunity for society to fictionally work through the dark fears and nightmares that concern us.  This might be the long-term effects of radiation that framed some of the better sci-fi movies of the 1950s or the soulless impact of the corporate/big-brother world of the Matrix movies.  Even young adult fiction has had its dystopian elements, but the latest incarnations – coupled with conversation with my own kids – has me wondering what exactly is going on.

Youngest’s reading interests have always been a bit different.  He’s never taken to the Harry Potter books like his siblings but he’s become steeped in Greek and Roman mythologies, with all of the earliest stories of heroism and character failings.  He likewise has taken to young adventure and is an avid fan of Anthony Horowitz’ Alex Rider as well as The Young Bond series by Charlie Higson.  These are classic examples of the good/evil adventure stories with heroes and villains, except that the heroes are in their mid-teens and infinitely more identifiable to the reader.  But several months ago, he began reading another series by Charlie Higson, The Enemy.  The premise centers on the lives of young London tweens and teens trying to survive in the midst of a global zombie apocalyse and each of the books examines the separate lives and adventures of specific characters; the characters – those who manage to survive – don’t meet until one of the later books in the series and it’s this book in which he’s presently immersed.  What’s different about this particular series however, lies in the seeming hopelessness of the struggles that these kids undergo.  Youngest came down to breakfast one morning recently and shook his head as we talked about this particular series.  What was brutal for him was that the author would develop young characters with whom he could identify and appreciate, only to have the characters either die or become infected and become zombies; I really get to like somebody and then *bang* he’s gone.  It’s been rare that I’ve censored a kid’s reading choice, typically opting instead to keep tabs on it and perhaps looking to follow up in later conversation about the topic and that’s the route I opted to take in this instance as well.  I was then relieved when he put the novel aside for a break: but that was shortlived as he substituted another for it, Divided We Fall.  This particular novel is a teen political/action thriller that tells the story of a high-schooler/Idaho National Guardsman who is caught in a blossoming conflict that has the seed of a second Civil War.

It’s the nature of the dystopia that gives me pause.  Youth literature has been filled with dystopic themes for many years but it’s only been in the past few that the shift has seemingly gone from the fantastic – Harry Potter and the Twilight series – to the more realistic political and social realms.  While the rap on the youngsters is that they don’t pay attention, the reality is that they do pay attention; unfortunately, few adults are actually explaining things to them and they consequently suffer from a deficit of both information and the context into which to put that information.  Enough teens are seeing their older siblings and friends return home or scrounge by with considerable debt to understand that things are not going well.  Likewise, they are also learning that their electronic tethers are increasingly monitored by the government that has professed to be their lifetime bud; unfortuntately, that bud is in the process of becoming a confidant as well, whether they wish to share the information or not.  Couple this with the rise of the corporate society – where they aren’t so much a generation as a marketing cohort – and the 1984 parallels are unnerving, if not downright frightening.

The title of the essay, Some thing Wicked This Way Comes, is a classic Ray Bradbury novel that came out when I was a toddler and which I gobbled up in the entirety in middle school.  In the story, the protagonists are young teen boys who must face a terrifying experience that is first portended in quiet, unnerving ways.  Bradbury does a great job evoking an atmosphere of growing uneasiness amidst the promise of garish, carnival-like entertainment long before things spin out of control and it’s this same scenario playing out amongst the kids long before they actually have a sense of what’s facing them. They are surrounded by any number of escapist opportunities via an electronics consumer society, yet they sense that events are coalescing in ways that they can’t immediately understand and it’s this sensibility that is spinning out of the minds of authors for the kids’ consumption.

Today’s stories are a reflection of the fears that face our future adults.  Their problem is that many don’t understand the context of the situations facing our society today and without that understanding, they can’t frame a coherent response to it.  So when you see the tweens and teens reading some of this dystopian literature, consider whether they like it because it’s just a "ripping good yarn" or whether there’s a nugget of something else occurring.  Then take the time to chat with them and see what you can help comb out of their concerns, putting the story into context.  You have the benefit of age, experience and hindsight to help put things in context, while some they might only have a vague uneasiness about what they hear and see.  That is, ultimately, our principal job – to teach them, help them make sense of the world so that they’re prepared for it when they step out into it.

Kids and Language:  The Cussin’ Code

It’s clear that society has coarsened over the past four decades and that’s especially the case with language.  What was once utterly unacceptable now hits the airwaves and across the texting media, both in terms of sheer language and also sexual imagery.  While I’m a father and supposed to serve as a role model for the kids, my own language has always been "earthy" and my ex-army DI father could curse as unconsciously as others breathe.  As the author Jean Shepherd once commented about the father in A Christmas Story:  "He worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay.  It was his true medium; a master."  That has rubbed off and I’ve had to work to control it over the years, sometimes more successfully than others.  But if I’m not Ned Flanders, is there a language compromise – an ethics of cussin’ – that I should adopt?  To thine own self be true (dammit).

Being a member of the ’70s generational cohort that popularized the term you suck – and knowing that it was originally referring to male genitalia – it’s jarring to hear the phrase used simultaneously in a grocery store by a grandparent and her early elementary school granddaughter in the local grocery store.

Granddaughter:  Ewww, I don’t like that cereal ‘cuz it sucks.

Grandmother:  Oh, I’m sorry sweetie.  I didn’t know that it sucked.

Listen to the conversation and mentally complete the comments with a parenthetical slang term for male genitalia and you too, can experience the cognitive dissonance.  I almost had an ear-bleed when I heard my own mother use the word suck in a conversation.  Well, that meal sucks.  (pause)  Honey, what’s wrong?  

While the mental picture of childhood is puppy dog tails and Little Golden Books, the reality is that they’re going to hear the language far sooner than later.  The term m*****f***** first came off the kids’ lips when Middle asked me – then in preschool – what it meant.  I actually pulled the car over and asked where he heard it and he responded that a classmate blurted it out when her block tower toppled over that morning.  While I tried to monitor my own language and be an example through the years, the influx of other words and phrases crept into the household from outside sources, typically the school but even church. Being asked by a middle-school kid at my church whether I was familiar with the term donkey show – a slang phrase so foul that I won’t even link it to a definition – was literally jaw-dropping.  So how do I respond to all of this?  How do I walk a line that allows me to be, as Saint Paul once wrote, in the world yet not of it? 

There are several parameters to my handling of the cursing issue. 

The first parameter pertains to the kids understanding that Dad is the go-to guy for practical, factual information on what these various terms mean.  Because the kids hear some profanity cross my lips, they’re more comfortable in bringing unfamiliar terms and phrases to me than to their mother and it’s that willingness that I encourage.  I’ve told each of my three kids, early in their puberty, that I’ll give them an honest definition of a particular phrase or term brought to me; they’ll likewise also hear any synonyms for the phrase so that they can then put it context wherever they hear it next.  They also hear some guidance on appropriateness.  The reality is that they’re going to certainly hear the terminology around their peers and it wouldn’t surprise me – disappoint perhaps, but not surprise – if they also used the language to at least some extent.  But all three also gain a perspective on whether something is just cussing or whether there’s something truly objectionable about a particular term.  They hear what terms I simply refuse to say and they hear the reasons why I choose not to say them, either because they’re simply too profane or because of the second parameter, political correctness. 

Let me be frank in that I don’t like political correctness.  Let me also be frank in acknowledging that the issue has run amok in the school system and there is a form of language/thought police activity occurring in the school system, a process that actively roots out any commentary regarding gender, race or sexual orientation.  I do understand the rationale behind it even if I believe that it gets carried to an extreme and in the heat of the moment, one wrong remark can land a kid in the principal’s office; calling someone a dummy is sticks-and-stones material but referring to someone in an ethnic or gender format will land a kid in the doghouse, at least at the lower levels.  Using language based upon a person’s appearance or gender also lessens the ability to learn to judge a person based upon their behavior and the content of their character, a crucial skill that many never master but important as a person navigates life.

The third parameter is admittedly odd, but it’s that there are so many perfectly useful words that already exist and that simply slipping into profanity is simple laziness.  This came up in a conversation with Youngest some months ago when I heard him use a profane term to describe a person that didn’t go to the stupidity of that kid’s actions.  He could have used terms such as idiot, stupid, dumb, cretin or moron but he opted for the other instead and this was pointed out to him vigorously.

The fourth parameter is that there is a time and a place for profanity, although there are some who will certainly disagree.  On multiple occasions, I’ve used profanity in order to drive a point home, making it a verbal and audible exclamation mark for the kid in question.  If my entire vocabulary consists solely of profanity, then using it to make a definitive point is lost as it simply becomes another expletive-laced tirade and the message’s import is lost.

Okay, So Green Lantern is Gay…

…and apart from DC Comics making money from it, how is that any different than what the kids see when they go to the mall?

One of the traits of our society that I do admire – and there are still some – is that over time, Americans have the capacity to accept change as generations come and go.  People can argue that racism still exists and to an extent, it still does, but so long as there are people, racism will always exist to one degree or another; the same goes for religious bigotry and sexism.  But the prevailing attitudes change and society as a whole becomes more tolerant and what was once harassed is able to come out into the open.  So it is with homosexuality.  In the relatively short time frame of four decades, homosexuality has shifted out of the closet and into the mainstream consciousness as gay men and women protest and proselytize for their rights.  Their road has not been easy and there’s been a tendency to flaunt their beliefs in ways that cut against still-extant Christian values, but there has been demonstrable progress.

Unless parents want to raise their kids in a compound, there’s no way to shield them from societal change.  What we can do is pay attention and use the instances to teach the lessons that we want pass along our values to the kids.  Our first foray into explaining homosexuality was when Eldest was in elementary school; on a trip to the mall, she saw a lesbian couple walking down the corridor with arms around one another’s waists and as they passed, she turned and watched them from behind as they walked away.  The questions soon arose but our first lesson was not to stare at someone as it’s impolite.  After that point was made, there was further conversation about the basic difference between homosexuality and heterosexuality.  The big difference, Eldest, is that gay people find romantic interest in someone of their own sex…  Regardless of whatever you believe about the issue, you have to ready and able to discuss it with them and not just turn away because it isn’t going to go away.

The point is this:  DC Comics’ action is really in the interest of profit and not in empowering gay role models for impressionable young readers.  As social mores shift and change, these events are going to occur and as parents, we have to aware of them and be ready to discuss it with the kids.  They do see sexual identity issues amongst their peers as their friends and acquaintances – maybe even they themselves – puzzle it out, even at the elementary school level.  Use the opportunity to make whatever point you want, but don’t think that you can just ban it because these developments are everywhere.

Middle and Youngest are both comic book fans and when I shared the story with them at Saturday’s dinner, their response was surprise.  It didn’t make them want to avoid the character and the conversation shifted to the plot details including how there could be two Green Lanterns in alternate universes.  But I thought that Hal Jordan was into women, at least he was in the movie…Where the conversation broke down was in the actual dialogue between Green Lantern and his boyfriend as the superhero described a planned date as magical; even the 10 year-old noted the incongruity between a powerful superhero and stereotypical language.  Dad, why couldn’t he have just said "fabulous"? 

So just a quick note to the writers at DC – if you want to shatter stereotypes and empower gay youngsters, avoid the trite terminology.  You’re killing yourselves.


Plan 9 from the Kitchen

Cell phones can be wonderful tools, but several other parents and I have noted they can be impediments when in the hands of teens.  The problem that we’ve all noted is that while the kids can be in almost instantaneous communication with one another to plan something, anyone’s different thought, idea or issue is immediately brought up to the cell-linked hive mind and innumerable alternative plans are spun to the point that ultimately, either nothing occurs or what happens in no way resembles the original plan.  Not to say that the "old days" were necessarily better, but with only one line to a house and the pain-in-the-neck nature of plan changes, a plan that was generally agreed upon was maintained. 

The term Plan 9 or Plan I came into being in this household when several months ago, I watched Eldest run the gamut in the kitchen.  My wife and I were puttering in the kitchen when Eldest entered and announced that she and several friends were going to gather for something or another.  Shortly after she entered, her cellphone noted an incoming text and when she read it, she reported that somebody had asked if someone else could come – and naturally, that led to the question of how the newb would be transported and who could do so.  As she plunked in a response to the hive-mind, I glanced at my wife and commented that this was going to be Plan B.  Eldest finished her texting and was in the process of putting down the phone when another came in with someone else tossing out a question, which led to another furious round of texting and a quietly dry Plan C commented to my wife.  By now, there was a full-fledged exchange of texts from the hive-mind and my wife and I slowed down to watch the process.  I was now standing at the kitchen island nursing a cup of coffee and as Eldest would remark upon the newest response, I’d remark that this was Plan D…wait, now here comes Plan E…whoa, someone else has some input for – wait for it – Plan F…nah, that’s not gonna work so we’re onto Plan G…okay, so it looks like we’re set for Plan H…nope, Plan I.  My wife handled it more gracefully than me since I was openly laughing as I remarked upon this trainwreck of a social gathering.  Eldest finally harrumphed with a nasty glance in my direction and left the kitchen and to this day, I don’t know if they managed to round the bases to Plan Z. 

The upshot of this is that first, Eldest frequently makes her hive-mind plans out of my presence.  Second, we’ve learned that there are liable to be changes in the plans between when they’re made and when the car leaves the driveway.  Knowing that the hive tries desperately to bend to the needs of the members, changes can occur and our request is that we apprised of significant changes, such as final destination or time of return; we also reserve the right to veto anything that we deem necessary and yes, I’ve kept the prospect of a physical location check on the table. 

When a teenager leaves the house with friends, you can never be certain of where they’re actually going to wind up or what the final plan is.  Especially with this hive-mind generation, plans seem to change in a heartbeat and you can only lean upon faith and what you’ve taught them as you’ve raised them; that there are such things as respect, limits, consequences and ultimately, right-and-wrong.  There can be legitimate changes in plans that entail acceptable deviation and it’s our job as parents to work with that.  But ultimately, they need to know that the cellphone connects to home and once that call is made, the constant changes will stop and gel into a firm plan for the remainder of the gathering.

Co-ed Sleepovers

This only happened to other people.  People who didn’t provide clear guidelines to the kids as they grew and who didn’t pay attention to what was going on.  People whose kids obviously didn’t know what they would say on a particular question.  And yet, it happened to me and it was stunning.  Within a two week span, each of the older kids asked if they could attend a co-ed sleepover.

For the record, most of the comments in the above paragraph are snark although the requests did have me asking them do you honestly think that I would even consider saying yes to this?  The reality is that no matter what you do in raising the kids, no matter how clear the expectations and how insistent you are upon those pesky, stupid values thingies, the kids will frequently want to go do something that is contrary to what you believe is right, let alone proper.  Coed sleepovers are just one more instance of the ongoing conflict between the family’s values and society’s values. 

The separate questions led to a reasoned conversation with one child and a more testy exchange with another who didn’t like the exasperatedly blunt no that came in response to the question.  And I admit that I could have handled the question better in the moment.  Regardless, why would I say no to such a request, especially since the parents are going to be there?

  • Parents are older and at some point, are probably going to sleep and when that happens?  Well, gasoline, meet match.  Teens in groups are frequently combustible with a noxiously potent stew of testosterone, estrogen and poor judgment and putting a bunch of them in the room together for a prolonged period without supervision is asking for major trouble.  It doesn’t mean that there will be issues or problems, but it ranks up there with – as PJ O’Rourke once wrote – giving whiskey and car keys to a bunch of teenage boys.  Remember, the teen battle cry is What Could Go Wrong?
  • Are the parents even going to be there?  Teens are exquisitely sensitive to perceptions of parental overinvolvement and any infringement upon their growing independence and will actively discourage any contact between parents, whether because they’re actually plotting or just hate the concept of checking up.  There is an active divide and conquer strategy among some teens and it can become unpleasant for parents who override their wishes.  That said, I’ve never had a poor exchange with another parent and have actively defended parents who have come to our front door for pickup or dropoff.  Four minutes of facetime doesn’t mean that Frank can tell whether I’m an axe murderer, but it does give a decent insight into what’s going on in the household.
  • There’s also the question of propriety, the increasingly antiquated noun which the root of (in)appropriate.  What does it matter what a bunch of people think of what I do?  These are the same people that might be called upon to hire you for a part-time job, write a job or college recommendation or even wonder whether they want you to date their own child in two years.  Honestly, it also bears upon my own reputation and I have no intention of placing my reputation in the hands of a tribe of teenagers. 
  • Everyone does it and besides, almost all of the kids there are either lesbian or gay.  Really?  And are you lumped into that category by the other kids trying to finagle their folks into agreeing to this?
  • Finally, it simply isn’t right.  When the kids are adults and on their own, then their actions are their own responsibility and they live with the consequences.  But as a parent, I do have a say in what’s considered to be acceptable behavior and letting legally minor children cohabitate, even for one night, isn’t right.

The question hasn’t been raised again but I suspect that it might and once again, it will probably be a tense exchange as the kids test the boundaries and limits.

A Tribe of Teens

Teens are fascinating to watch.  They’re so thoroughly involved in finding their identity and fitting in with a particular group that the various masses of teens change form reminiscent of an amoeba, as various members roll in or choose to – or are expelled – leave, thus altering the amoeba’s shape again.  It would be a fascinating minuet to watch but that teens generally don’t participate in something so intricate; that particular skill comes later.

The best way to describe teens in the group setting is almost as a tribe.  They cluster together and the more time that they’re spent unmonitored, the more opportunity that they have to blend their hormonal sauces into what can be a highly combustible stew.  It’s bad enough when no adult is around to just keep tabs on things, but the pure absence of parental supervision can distill a 100-proof moonshine of sheer lunacy.  The kids are gathered around with the metal or techno-pop roaring in the background, the bass reverberating against the walls and as conversation passes with time and merges with the beat of the rhythm, a recognizable pattern begins to emerge from the noise, a patois that seamlessly merges the steadily cadenced rhythm with the muttered conversations that finally emerges as a simple chant reverberating off of the walls…

Hey-ya-wanna               Hey-ya-wanna              Hey-ya-wanna             Hey-ya-wanna            Hey-ya-wanna           Hey-ya-wanna          Hey-ya-wanna         Hey-ya-wanna        Hey-ya-wanna       Hey-ya-wanna      Hey-ya-wanna      Hey-ya-wanna     Hey-ya-wanna    Hey-ya-wanna   Hey-ya-wanna   Hey-ya-wanna  Hey-ya-wanna Hey-ya-wanna Hey-ya-wannaHey-ya-wannaHeyyawannaheyyawannaheyyawannaheyyawanna…

Hey, ya wanna jump off of the roof?

Hey, ya wanna climb the town water tower and hang upside down?

Hey, ya wanna smack each other with a stick?

Hey, ya wanna paint Steve’s toenails?

Hey, ya wanna get Ozzy’s face tattooed on your butt?

Hey, ya wanna ride to the 7-11 on the roof of my car?

The permutations are often novel, especially in this day of Youtube, but mind-numbingly similar in their sheer and utter lack of self-regard and common sense.  Anyone with teens will recognize the egging on and it quietly terrifies me as I can see any number of ways that something can end badly.  It’s this concern that causes us to provide a place for them to gather, a place that they can be exceedingly, frustratingly and wonderfully stupid, a place that we can at least have a sense of what’s happening.  If ‘wonderfully’ seems to be an odd wordchoice, it’s one that I use because the rhythmic chant stirs up old, fond memories of when I also belonged to a tribe.  One that I’ve outgrown but still holds a special place in my heart and soul. 

So my wife and I will provide the facilities as they’re wanted, and we’ll do our best to keep tabs on the comings-and-goings.  And I’ll continue to mutter the occasional silent prayer that our kids not kill themselves in those moments when we can’t keep tabs.


Who Are You to Judge Them?

I believe in serendipity and after tonight’s dinner conversation about judging people, I was struck by Gonzalo Lira’s essay on our collective unwillingness to make judgments.  Mr. Lira makes his case about our unwillingness to pass judgment, especially in light of former Vice-President Cheney’s recent book being issued shortly.  His stance, eerily similar to mine, is that we have to be willing to make judgments as we go through life and that these judgments are best predicated upon some basis of morality.  If there’s no framework for making decisions based upon a common sense of right and wrong, then decisions are reduced to the more base calculations of economic, social and political self-interest.

I am a child of the 1970s and actually nodded my head as I read Lira’s spot-on commentary:

"Starting with the 1970’s, our society has marinated in the notion that no one has a right to judge how you live: You can do your own thing, to borrow the phrase from the time. Not only does society not have the right to judge the way you live as to its rightness or wrongness—society does not have the right to judge you. "

The dude’s got it right.  I recall conversations with my Red Forman-esque father, who passed judgments frequently and as I later came to recognize, with uncanny accuracy.  I had my own set of rules that I’d adopted – yes, I actually wrote up a series of basic rules for living my life – and foremost of which was that everybody had a story to tell and a right to be heard.  It didn’t sink in that listening and drawing someone out required an ability to not make judgments lest the person be offended and their story not be heard.  I was fed by the decade’s mantra also because making a judgment is an inherent criticism, for better or worse.  The person on the receiving end of the judgment will likely be upset and in the age of Mr. Rogers, Sesame Street and the Electric Company, we wouldn’t want to upset someone because that wouldn’t be nice and might hurt their feelings.  My father would listen to me and point out how things were and there were moments, like Eric and Red Forman, when he flat out called me a dumbass.  

What I realize thirty plus years later is that that was part of his job as a father.  First, kids and teens are acutely aware of the social order and the social interactions amongst them can be brutal and cruel; they simply haven’t had the time to grow the thick skin that comes with experience and many are consequently loathe to say anything that sounds critical or judgmental.  Parents have to worry about putting a roof over the head and food on the table and kids worry about whether or not they’re liked by their peers and anything that endangers that desire for love is anathema.  Second, morality is learned instead of instinctual and if someone isn’t willing to demonstrate that being moral sometimes requires a rather hardheaded attitude, then the kids simply won’t learn because they haven’t seen it.  Going along to get along isn’t always the best choice for handling a situation.

So who am I to make judgments? 

  • I’m the guy who’s been around long enough to recognize the potential for a train wreck.
  • I’m the guy who’s willing to incur both your wrath and the wrath of others when they discover that I really don’t trust them, and kids talk enough that they will learn precisely that.
  • I’m the guy who’s ultimately legally responsible for your actions until you reach the age of adulthood. 
  • I’m the guy that will talk to you even after there’s been a significant blow-up, which isn’t always certain with friends and peers.

Until you’re either willing to make value judgments or are old enough to entertain the legal and moral consequences of not making them, then I’ll make whatever judgments I believe need to be made.


Do Parents Belong at Rock Concerts?

One of the touted punk rock events is the annual Vans Warped Tour, which travels from city to city with a line up of dozens of bands.  While  I enjoyed the occasional show in my youth, it’s different when you bring the kids.  The music is stunningly loud and the crush in the pit up front tight enough that I’m content to sit in the back and actually enjoy some of the music while I read.  Or write, for that matter.  But does a middle aged man even have a place amongst this hip venue?  Exactly what the hell am I even doing here?

First, let me provide a background.  This particular event – tickets purchased almost a half year in advance – is a peace offering to Middle.  While I was gone for a weekend with Eldest and her peers, Middle entered an online radio station contest using my name, since I’m technically an adult.  He informed my wife, who approved, but neither actually informed me.  (Un)fortunately, he won the prizes and the station manager rapidly understood that it was a  minor’s entry when he called me days later to congratulate me on a win about which I was utterly baffled.  Whe he asked about the age of the actual entrant, I told him the truth. 

Two lessons for future use, son:  first, tell me if you ever use my name and ask permission first;  second, don’t expect me to lie for you.

I still felt terrible since he missed an opportunity to meet the members of ‘Avenged Sevenfold’ and receive an electric guitar signed by the band.  Even my wife was appalled at my inability to cope with the phone call and seize the prize.  Hence, the concert.

But shouldn’t teens go to concerts themselves?  Isn’t that part of the experience?  Frankly, no.

  • The event occurred across state lines in a city in which Eldest, who drove, has never been.  Middle doesn’t have the navigational skills yet and I saw no value in sending two teen minors through major metropolitan rush hour traffic enroute to a concert.  Eldest still drove, but I handled the navigational and color commentary duties and given the afternoon parking lot on the expressway, I’m glad that I went.
  • This is a full-blown rock concert and there are all manner of teens – and adults – there and not all of them give a rat’s ass about someone else.  We’ve tried to raise the kids with both the expectation of considering consequences as well as acting in a moral and civilized manner.  The unfortunate reality is that a substantial number of kids and young adults haven’t been taught the same thing and I’ve witnessed circumstances in which behavior regresses to a Lord of the Flies level.  If this is their first experience, then I want to at least be in the background to keep tabs on things. 
  • I’m continally curious about the teen/young adult scene and what’s occurring there.  The more information and experience that I have, the better that I’m able to assess what’s going on.
  • Stupidity is contagious and teens whose hormones and judgment are affected by ear-bleeding rock music are especially susceptible to catching it.  If you’re not certain, you can ask a kid who comes in one evening with green hair.  Hey, they said that they’d done it before.  What could go wrong?
  • Taking them isn’t the same as being with them the entire time.  They brought along a friend and I simply arranged to meet them at periodic intervals, letting them experience the music and event. 

Right.  ‘Nuff said.

Finally, some of the music is actually good and I’ve now got several tunes that I’ll be buying for the mp3 player.  It wouldn’t happen if I were still listening to the "Greatest Hits of My Life" format, so I’ll find my spot with the other parents in the back and sit back swilling the $3 bottled water.