Put Down That Controller (and Nobody Gets Hurt)

My name is Richard, and I had a problem with a video game.

Legend-of-Zelda-logoWhen my children were young and asleep I used to sneak into our family room, power up our Nintendo, and quietly play the now-ancient video game with infectious music called “The Legend of Zelda” into the wee we hours,.  Night after night after night – not too different than gamers today who play “Call of Duty” or “Candy Crush Saga”.

“Just one more game,” I’d say to myself around midnight.  The next thing I knew it was two am.

I’ve been doing a lot of radio recently, and when listeners call in, the topic of video game addiction often comes up. This is obviously a worrisome subject for many parents.

Like many other forms of addiction, video games can offer escape and distraction from what’s really going on in the world. If you’re a kid and you think life sucks,  diving into a video game is an attractive way to escape.

The problem is that sometimes a kid’s life does appear to “suck.”  If a kid can kill bad guys, or can win a treasure, or can outwit the machine, then he or she gets to feel like a winner, and winning is wonderful – especially in a home where criticism is the norm and praise might be hard to come by. So it’s up to us, as parents, to give our children choices outside the seductions of the video world.

FamilyAtDinnerAs always, this should start at home.  No phones or TV during dinner – which goes for both adults and children.  Set a parental example of activity: go outside, take walks, ride a bike.  Whether your kids join you or not, you are modeling a value for them about physical fitness and use of time.  One of the benefits of having grown kids is thatI have found that they record these behaviors (even if only subconsciously) and often adopt them in their own lives as they get older.

Meanwhile, keep an open mind.  Resist the temptation to automatically disapprove of the things your children enjoy – whether it’s video games, social networks, or “that damned music.”  If we close our minds to those activities, we eliminate opportunities for contact with our children and our relationship with them begins to narrow.  This doesn’t mean we have to like what they’re doing, but we should respect their interest, consider the merit of their choice, and then share an honest opinion.  That’s part of our job.

Aces-High-imageCropBy the way, many video games help children develop manual dexterity and strategic comprehension.  As they succeed in the game, there can be genuine emotional gratification.  Our son Coby was about fifteen when he discovered an online game called “Aces High.” Teams, or “squadrons,” of players flew WWII aircraft on missions that replicated air and ground combat situations.  We initially learned about the game because it cost ten bucks monthly and required credit card payment.  When he needed credit card info I asked Coby to show me how the game worked, and he did.  His passion was evident.

aces_high_cockpitI entered payment information and left Coby to take off.  He joined a squadron, declared his rookie status, and set up his plane.  He wore a headset and communicated verbally with other members of his squadron, many of whom were retired Air Force or commercial pilots.  He was the youngest player on the team, and the other pilots — at their computers across the nation — were warm, instructive, and encouraging.  Sometimes Coby would enter the house and explain that he had a mission in fifteen minutes.  He was dedicated to the game and to his new friends.

Coby had perspective.  He knew the game was nerdy and he knew his fellow pilots (some of whom were married couples, grandparents, or educators) were not his regular set of friends.  But he enjoyed the interchange and we enjoyed watching him competently navigate in a world separate from ours.  We encouraged him to tell us more about his fellow pilots, and we often gave him suggestions for dealing with this wide range of personalities.

Coby’s experience with “Aces High” was a massive, positive learning experience on multiple levels.  The game taught eye-hand coordination, aeronautics (go into a steep dive and you’d black out), teamwork, cooperation.  This was a good video game experience.

GrandTheftViceCitySome video games, however, are like bad neighborhoods. You don’t want your kids going into them, and this is when being a parent is far more important than being a friend. If you find your child absorbed in a computer screen, ask what it is that’s so worthy of their attention.  If you don’t get a clear answer, pry a little…and keep at it.  If you notice anger, frustration, or reclusive behavior beyond the teenage norm, offer some alternatives to the virtual world. If you hear a response like, “This is none of your business” make it clear that whatever happens in your house is your business.

Ultimately, video games are just that – games.  By communicating with our children and demonstrating for them that the social interactions of everyday life, like trips to the market, sporting events, guitar lessons, or karate classes are equally as engaging as the fantasy of their game, I believe we can give them the perspective they need to step away from their controllers when necessary.

If only I could get that dumb music from Zelda out of my head.

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Yes, I Locked My Kid in the Car

3-Aarons_1st_B-day-035One day, when Aaron was about around two years old, JoAnn went out to runs some errands, leaving Aaron and me to wash my beloved navy blue two-door Fiat (because that’s what guys do to bond).  The car, being a European two-door coupe, had very little room in the back, but just enough room for a car seat.  Aaron was like me at his age. He wanted to be inside near the steering wheel, radio, and keys, so he climbed into the car while I put up the windows, closed the door, and started hosing off the vehicle.

It was a beautiful, warm late Spring day in Southern California and we were having a ton of fun.  Aaron would put his hand on the window and I’d spray where his hand was.  He’d put his face to the glass and I’d spray his face.

Funny stuff.

fiat_124_sport_coupe_gray_1975At one point, Aaron jokingly pushed down the door lock, and I mimed how funny that was.  I also mimed right back that he should unlock it, but it was too late, he was already turning and jumping like a chimp on the seat.  Oh was it fun — until he jumped his way into the back, found his car seat, and to my surprise, buckled himself right in!

Aaron looked at me for a moment and then realized he was stuck.  He started to cry.  I made funny faces and behaved in a manner that most would describe as silly to distract him and calm him down, but I couldn’t help but notice that the sun was now shining directly into the car, turning it into a dark blue sauna, and illuminating the glistening beads of sweat on his little nose.

IMG_3657Through the closed windows, I tried to tell Aaron how to press the buckle so that the car seat latch would release, but, alas, it was, in fact, childproof.  With his little face getting red and sweaty, I knew that time was not on my side.  Since JoAnn had the other key to the car, there was only one thing I could do.  I went into the house, got my hammer, and smashed the driver’s side window in order to reach in and unlock the door.

Cool air rushed in past my face as I pulled him out.  Life was good, and that adventure cost me a hundred and seventy five bucks.

RGnJGGWhen I told JoAnn about it, she didn’t criticize me for leaving our baby to run free in the car with the keys inside. She just shook her head and laughed with me – as she did when I lost Emily skiing, accidentally hit Benjy on the head with a baseball bat, forgot to pick Coby up from Sunday School, and any number of other things that may have happened along the way while raising our family of four .

My parents were pragmatists and I believe I owe them the real essentials of this story — No panic, no anger, and an ability to laugh at ourselves.  In fact, keeping our head is one of the basic keys to raising children who remain calm and learn to solve problems.  It’s about the example we set, and as parents we may not all be in the same boat, but we’re all on the same ocean.

Parenting is decision-making — thousands upon thousands of decisions.  What we call common sense is just the most reliable compass for guiding those decisions.  Trusting in common sense solutions, like calming your child prior to smashing the window of your beloved car, helps us respond calmly and effectively when raw emotion might cause unprepared parents to panic.

BTW – I really loved that Fiat.

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Are You a WIMPY Parent ?

Here are five quick tests:

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Do you…let your children boss you around?   (Do they say things like “Where’s my breakfast?”)

Do you…make excuses for your children? (“She would have said ‘Thank you.’ but she was too busy playing.”)

Are you afraid your child won’t love you if you say “No”?

Have you ever let your child tell you to “Shut up” without consequence?

Are you worried about whether or not your children “like” you? (and I don’t mean on Facebook.)

Wimpy Parenting is actually quite common, which is one of the reasons I wrote my book “Raising Children That Other People Like to be Around.”  I know that some of you may object to my use of the word “wimpy”, but, let’s face it, you know what I mean.  Besides, I grew up when sticks and stones could break my bones but words could never hurt me – so I encourage you to not be distracted by my language and hear the message.

Today, parenting has become a “profession” and, as a result, has become the focus of great examination and angst.  Sure, people always worried about their children, their health, their happiness, and their comfort, but today’s kids are coddled in ways that shortchange our children and teach them dependence rather than independence.  When I was young and bored, it was not my parent’s responsibility to entertain me.  In fact, my mom used to say “Go bang your head against the wall until you can think of something to do.”  Pretty concise don’t you think?

vectorstock_1943457I believe in simplification.  The more “power” we give our children, the more complicated our lives become.  If every decision requires a consultation like “Do you want to go to school?” or “Is it OK if mommy and daddy go out tonight?’ we are really complicating our lives.

It’s up to our children to fit into our lives – not the other way around.

Yes, having children changes many things, but those are things that we as parents change voluntarily (no more sleeping late (gotta coach the team), no more swearing (the echo machine is in the room), no more wild parties (that one’s self explanatory), etc.).

Ultimately, it’s our job as parents to lead, and it’s our children’s job to follow.

Being a Wimpy Parent takes its toll on you.  You can’t make plans.  You can’t go to restaurants.  You can’t live your life because your child or children dominate it – and what kind of life is that?

The most ironic thing about being a Wimpy Parent is that children want us to be in control.  They are not equipped to have the responsibility that we give them by letting them be our boss.  It’s just not fair – they have far less life experience than we and they are much more comfortable being led than they are being asked to make decisions.

Just try it.

vectorstock_745873Have the confidence to take control.  Team up with your mate, or parenting partner, or best friends, or whomever it takes to give you strength and start making decisions for your children.  Depending on their age, they’ll most likely resist a little, but if you stand firm you’ll find that a lot of the “noise” in your life disappears – and suddenly you have a peaceful home.

I’ve said many times that it’s “easier to lighten up than it is to tighten up” which means that your children can EARN greater decision making responsibility as time goes on, but being a pushover from the very beginning is no way to run a family.

Trust me.

Children are not as fragile as we might think.  They live through the curveballs with which we present them.  They change schools, they make new friends, their feelings get hurt, and yet they learn to love music, they laugh at funny things, and they love their moms and dads.

The process is designed to succeed.

Which brings us back to simplification.  We had four simple rules with our kids:

CasualFamily

  • Be truthful.
  • Be respectful.
  • Be generous.
  • Be kind.

Concentrate on teaching your children those values and they will most likely become people that other people like to be around.

 

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“The Circle Game”

3Generations

3 Generations

As my children have gotten older and more self-sufficient, I’ve seen them become more “objective” about the hard-earned advice I offer.  They no longer hear my voice as if it were thunder on the mountaintop.  As my role in their lives has become far less primary than it used to be, I’ve begun to think about my relationship with my own father – and how I felt about him when I was their age.

I always loved and respected my father, but as I grew up in the newer world of my own creation — my own young children, my incredibly hip friends, my co-coaches, my social scene — his knowledge and participation began to lag.  He hadn’t lost any ground in his own world.  At about my age now, he was still a highly respected businessman. He still had his group of loving friends and a new family. But my work in the entertainment industry was quite unrelated to his fascination with words and the law.

sc000189deOur careers actually collided at one point.  I had been working for a company that encountered some interesting legal problems, and I recommended that the owners call my dad for advice.  After a few months as their off-site counsel, they brought him in-house. We would see each other in the halls.  He came to be respected and even loved.  I, as always, was proud to be his son.  Aside from that, however, we stayed completely out of each other’s business — until the company needed to hire a new CFO.

Among the candidates was a young friend of mine.  A real schmoozer who wore nice leather and talked regularly of his big game studio experience.  My dad hated him.  He thought he was slick, he thought he was dishonest, and he didn’t like the way he did business.  I, on the other hand, thought my dad was “old fashioned” and didn’t understand the complexities of structuring a business in our industry.  Imagine that: my father, Harvard Law School grad and business counselor to titans, couldn’t understand how to run an entertainment oriented business.

sc000b4e78As it turned out, my father’s time-tested instinct was right.  Within a year, despite his efforts to organize and reorganize the business, it went belly up.  The investors lost their cash, the “fast talker” moved on to deceive others, and my dad retired –  more convinced than ever that “show business” was not for him.

I’m writing this because I know I still have good insights for my children.  I know there is benefit to sharing my life experience with them, and even more so when they have children of their own.  I also know I’ll have to slip them my wisdom without seeming didactic or bossy – because nowadays they only really “listen” to about twenty-five percent of what I say.

I’m not feeling sorry for myself.  I’m just honoring the passage of time and recognizing that I am now the “old guy.” They are the new, improved, self-sufficient versions of their mother and me.

Kelsie + Benjy-387This, I suppose, is the double-edged sword of parenting.  On one hand, we take great pride in the people we have brought to our community.  On the other hand, as our sons and daughters effortlessly assimilate, we feel the loss as they become immersed in their own lives.

We will offer advice.

We will guide as necessary.

We will be here to listen.  And we will remember that, for us, parenting is now mostly a spectator sport.

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Talking With Kids About Ukraine

I’ve been doing a lot of media lately, specifically about how to speak to our children about the situation in Ukraine.

Emdanglingfeet_1_96liteIt is my experience, theory, and observation that we all like to feel safe – especially children – so the idea of introducing something into the life of a small child that might create anxiety strikes me as being completely unnecessary.  I would counsel that there is absolutely no reason to tell a small child about what’s going on in Ukraine – because I think that child really only cares about what’s going on in the kitchen.

Elementary School aged children may come home with a question or two, but I’ve found that those kids are quite satisfied with simple and confident answers like “There is a war going on in another part of the World – but it’s far away and it’s not a threat to us.”

If you’ve read my earlier blogs, you’ll know that I like to use driving a taxicab as a parenting analogy, so assuming that our children are our “fares” and we are driving the cab, our job is to minimize their anxiety during the ride.  As a result, if someone in the back seat yells “What’s that?” while pointing at some smoke rising in the distance, my response would be “Looks like it’s a fire over there – I’m sure glad we’re safe here in our cab.”  I would not say I sure hope that smoke doesn’t blow in our direction and ashes don’t start falling on the car!!”

map-ukraineI don’t really think what’s going on in Ukraine today needs to be on the front burner at home.  If an older child asks what’s going on, I’d happily discuss the facts of the situation.  I’d also remind my kids, no matter their age, that we are safe here in the United States and add something about how lucky we are to live in a country where we are not threatened by being invaded by a neighboring Army.

Discussing World affairs can often lead to a good conversation about civics and the role of government (ours).  My objective in these conversations would be to present a confident and calm perception of the situation – as if to say “You’re in my cab, I know where we’re going and everything is going to be alright.”  I might also use the situation to encourage my child to join me on the computer and start looking up the facts.  This way I’d be showing the child how to get answers, and we’d have a chance to chat about the situation.

McdonaldslogoFor an older child I think I would talk about my sincere belief that asAppleLogo citizens of the United States, our trump card is our ideology.  I would explain to them that the Internet has allowed people all over the globe to see day to day life in countries where people are levisfree to express themselves – in music, politics, technology, fashion, business, etc.  I believe this leads them to Facebook_like_thumbwant to participate in our openness, commerce and artistic success.

For those who are repressed and misinformed by their governments, the truth of our imagery and the product we export on YouTube, Facebook, Google+ and other media outlets is demonstration enough that there is a better world in which they can live.

The Truth floats.

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What’s a Mommy or a Daddy Anyway?

or…  EXCUSES PART TWO

ScribblesIn a previous blog I addressed the folly of parents too frequently accepting excuses from our children. I also mentioned the possibility of parents actually making up excuses on behalf of their kids – as in, they ate sugar and got all wired up, which is why they covered the walls of their room with crayon scribbles (true story!)

But what about the excuses we make up on our own behalf — the stories we tell ourselves, and how those stories affect our roles as parents?

FatherChildIconLet’s start from our child’s point of view.  Remember, our young ones are pretty much blank slates, so they have no built-in expectation or “definition” of what a Mommy or a Daddy is and when they’re toddlers, they’re not interested in comparing their parents with other parents.  All they know is YOU.  If you’re a working mom, or a stay at home dad – you are the definition of mom and dad to them.

Our problem is that we have a tendency to put ourselves at a disadvantage through self-criticism that causes us to be defensive about the job we’re doing.  “I’m a single parent.” or “I’m a working mother.” Okay – but how does that change your responsibility to your child?  Yes, working motherhood makes things more complicated. But does that alter our child’s perception that we are the definition of what parents are?  In fact, that perception does not change whether you’re working, single, divorced, or on the road. Parenthood is defined by what you bring to your children — whether it’s by touch, phone, or Skype – whether it’s every morning, or every night, or every other night.MotherCHildIcon

Kids don’t punch a clock.  When we’re not there, they miss us – and that’s because they’re hardwired to need our guidance, our confidence, and our approval.  It’s obviously nice when we can hold them and hug them, but if it’s not always possible, it’s important that we accept that (about ourselves) and not let it affect our identity as parents. Is there such thing as a perfect parent?  Can anyone possibly “be there” all the time?

No – not possible.

The job has built-in challenges and flaws, so let’s accept them and not play defense.

When JoAnn was toilet training our children, she (and the “student”) made their way to our bathroom.  During working hours, I would be at my office doing my job – earning a living.  But JoAnn phoned me EVERY time our kid made a wee wee in the potty so that I could congratulate him or her.  I wasn’t physically there, but we managed to find a way around that without making my job into an excuse for not having “been there” and our kids were aware that Daddy was really proud!  (I don’t think they cared if I was home or on the other end of the phone.)

ManyProfessionsI loved my parents very much, but they rarely made it to my little league games.  My dad was a hard working guy.  He went on business trips weekly and he taught a class on Tuesday nights. I didn’t blame him for that, mostly because he never blamed himself. He never made excuses or felt a need to make them – that was his job, and his rhythm.  In those days, men weren’t expected to be participatory – but I didn’t feel any sort of loss because my father wasn’t always around.

My mom did a very good job of holding the line, applying the rules, and keeping me on course, but my dad was who I wanted to be like.  I’ve written about the fact that he spanked me.  I’ve written about his need to dominate discussions. But he taught me the value of honesty, and I saw how he devoted his time to doing things for other people, including me – which included the time he spent working away from home.

As parents, we are who we are.  Our identity isn’t changed by excuses, or by career demands, or by personal challenges.  Childhood may not be the time of innocence that the Romantic poets depicted, but we can do our kids a favor by not making our job as parents any harder than it needs to be by coming to it on the defensive.

And if it seems so hard that we need to start making excuses for ourselves, we should keep those excuses to ourselves.

You’re there and you care.  That’s what makes you a parent.

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EXCUSES EXCUSES EXCUSES

I meant to write this post last week, but…

ExcuseMaking

…….the dog ate it.

As a world-class procrastinator, I’ve become pretty friendly with the concept of a decent excuse. But as the son of hard-working and “absolute” parents, I’ve also learned not to accept my own excuses in bulk.

When it comes to parenting, I believe that the more excuses we make for our children, the more excuses we will make for our children.

Over the years JoAnn and I have observed many parents who excuse a toddler’s behavior with phrases like “He was born that way.” or “She just hates that color red.”  We’ve also observed these same parents making a lifetime of excuses as their children grow older — “His teacher doesn’t like him” or “She accidentally put that candy in her purse, she wasn’t stealing it!”

This pattern of excusing can begin very early.  It can start in the crib when we put our children down for the night. But then the hall light is on.  Or it’s not on.  Or our music is too loud.  Or they miss us.

CryingBabyAll of these are excuses that we recast as explanations.  We’re trying to excuse the fact that our wonderful child is starting to run the show.  Along these lines, sleep training is often the first big parenting challenge.  Even if a diaper is recently changed, a good burp has been had, and a favorite onesie is being worn, rationalizing our excuse-making is easier than listening to some whining or crying.  And that’s the real problem with excuses.  They’re so easy to come up with!

Later on, “enabling” our children to behave poorly says that we approve of their behavior.  When parents laugh because their child has just mouthed off like an inebriated sailor, this tells the child to do it some more.

That may seem obvious.  What may not be obvious is the societal context.  These days, as long as an excuse can be concocted almost any behavior is deemed worthy of one.  What motivated the Boston Marathon bombers?  Was it their bad childhood?  Did they have to share a room?  Frankly, I don’t care.

SickKidReasons for excusing bad behavior may seem valid, but we should be aware how these can become scripts kids use when they simply want to get their way.  A tummy ache might become an excuse for two full days of watching television.  At some point, we have to decide when the excuse is no longer valid and get rid of that script once and for all.  Some problems, especially those that are health-related, should be evaluated immediately.  But if calling the doctor clearly isn’t necessary, we as parents have to see the difference between a valid reason and an all-too-easy excuse.  The default for JoAnn and me – and for our parents before us — was “no fever, no vomit, no mucus, – you’re going to school!”  Obviously, if a problem persisted we got help.  But we started with the belief that our family was generally healthy.  My mother used to say, “Children don’t get headaches,” and that was that.  It pretty much sent me back to the drawing board when I wanted to complain.

Children, of course, have good days and bad.  But even in the midst of a bad day we can remind them that they are responsible for their behavior.  An excuse like, “You didn’t get enough sleep last night” shouldn’t eliminate legitimate expectations.  In fact, it should allow us to be very clear about bedtime later that evening.  (By the way, children will never admit they are tired.)

JoAnn and I had a procedure in restaurants when our toddler was crying and people around us were glaring.  We’d check that his clothes weren’t bothering him.  A scratchy tag?  An allergic reaction to the new soap?  Then we’d attempt to busy him with food, a distraction, or even a pacifier.  If that didn’t work, we’d remove him from the environment and try to talk him down.  If that didn’t work, we’d be prepared to say, “If you can’t behave, we’ll have to take you home.”  If the behavior continued, we’d take him from the restaurant quickly and unceremoniously.

pancakesThis is when the sacrificing element of parenting comes in.  We had to be ready to leave our meal in order to teach this lesson.  JoAnn really taught me the importance of following through, even when piping hot pancakes with melting butter and maple syrup had just been put under my nose.

Grocery stores are also wonderful locations for “Lifus Interruptus” — when you have to interrupt your normal behavior to prove a point.  On those occasions when our kids just would not  leave the rolls of paper towels on the shelf, we would threaten to take them home.  If they continued the bad behavior, we had to carry out the threat, even though we’d just spent the last half hour filling the cart.

GradKidsThe essential truth is this. If you make excuses, your children will make excuses.  So be firm, be fair, be consistent.  Fewer excuses lead to higher expectations.  Higher expectations help children take responsibility and understand how they fit into the world – and that’s what makes them children that other people like to be around.

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