In Defense of Participation Trophies

Let’s not blame the trophies.

First, it’s important to note that I’m not addressing the concept of “grade inflation” or the idea that every child in a given class is an honor student (as was eloquently written about by Michael Sigman in his article “When Everyone Gets a Trophy, No One Wins.”)

I’m writing about sports — and specifically the types of trophies that athlete, and Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison denied his children and posted about on Instagram. In his post, Harrison pointed out that “Sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better.”  James Harrison’s parenting decision is a reflection of the values he wants to teach his children, and I applaud his making a point and defining those goals for his children, however I don’t think they need apply to everybody.

Here’s the thing. When you’re nine years old, it’s probable that your best isn’t going to be good enough. In fact, maybe when you’re that age the functions associated with being on a team, learning to accept that other people play before you and that you’re not cut out to be an athlete may actually be your best.

My father wasn’t in the NFL.  I was a marginal athlete — but I still love and play sports.

I was getting Little League trophies for being part of the team long before they became controversial. I didn’t have the luxury of being one of the “stars” — but I knew who the stars were — we all did. They were the guys who got the MVP (most valuable player) and were named team captain. They were the kids with a drive that I didn’t have for sports, who were ultra-competitive, and who cried when our team lost a game. They were often the kids with parents who were driving their sporting careers, even though, as eight-year-olds, they were a long way from the majors.

I wasn’t ever going to be one of them.

But I loved getting my year-end trophy. I loved having the coach say a few encouraging words about me at the season ending pizza party. I liked being part of a team — a group of kids who had been forged into friendship by our ups and downs on the field — and watching my teammates each get recognized and kidded about events during the past season was as fun as the games for me.

We knew who sucked, and we knew who didn’t.

My trophy wasn’t about my on-field achievements, at least that’s not what it represented to nine-year-old me.  It reminded me that I was on a team with my school pals. It reminded me that I should be at the game a half hour before game time so that I could warm up. It reminded me that I shouldn’t ask the coach when he was going to put me into the game. It also reminded me that I had made one miraculous catch, and even though I’d never gotten a hit that year, my friends accepted me as a member of their team.  It was mostly a souvenir – a physical representation of the experience.

So, why would we want to deny our children an icon that would similarly remind them of those experiences? Trophies aren’t entitlements. This isn’t about teaching our children that only the strong survive (at age six through twelve). This is about marking the fact that they had kept a commitment and shown up to the games. That they had experienced the wins and losses with everyone else, and had contributed, to the best of their abilities, to the outcomes of those contests.  Participation trophies are not a gateway drug to entitlement.

As far as I can tell, none of my peers lost their “drive to want to do better” because they’d gotten a trophy for participating. Many of my Little League teammates grew up to be hard-working professionals, run businesses and even supervise school districts.

I coached Little League. I coached AYSO. My kids had winning and losing records, but all of my clubs were taught what it meant to compete and to be part of a team. If the league didn’t provide trophies, I would make a certificate for my players. I gave a Sportsmanship Award. I gave a Best Attitude certificate, and then a series of funny, personalized “awards” like the “Timex Award” for a player who took a licking and kept on ticking. These awards were given at a group event, with appreciation, understanding and humor.

Not everyone on our team was great, but all of them made some sort of contribution — even if their contribution was teaching the better players how to be patient with teammates who weren’t as skilled as they.

My mantle no longer holds my participation trophies, or those of my children, but all of our trophies served a valuable purpose in our lives. In those moments they reminded us that we were part of a team, something bigger than ourselves — a lesson that shouldn’t be lost on today’s youth.

So, let’s not blame the trophies.  Let’s take responsibility for the way our children are being parented.

Although slightly modified, this blog originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

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The Problem with Perfection

HappyIsPerfectGrayThey say “nobody’s perfect,” and they’re right. Perfection is a myth.

Really.

The problem is, that if we look at Instagram, Facebook, or other social media postings, it might appear that a lot of people have really perfect lives.

What does that say to our kids? The digital natives who will follow in our footsteps as long as their GPS supports the direction we’re going. Will they feel badly about their “imperfection,” and with whom will they share those feelings?

I’m usually pretty comfortable with social media. I don’t really see it as a threat to people who understand how to interact face to face. More and more however, our youngsters are killing themselves because they can’t live up to the perfection that their propagandizing friends project.

Hopefully, your kid isn’t “different.” According to the Megan Meier Foundation (An organization whose mission is to promote awareness, education, and positive change in response to the issues surrounding bullying, cyberbullying, and suicide), “Among overweight adolescents, 61% have received mean or embarrassing posts online and 59% have received mean texts, e-mails or instant messages.” But, that’s not really a problem, ’cause there’s an app for that!

By downloading the app “Facetune” by APK we can slim ourselves down to meet that perfection standard without a problem. That’s right — why deal with reality, when we can show our friends something completely different?

Got a skin problem? No problem, there’s an app for that too! Use Facetune again, or go buy “Acne” by Modiface, both will clean up your skin as quickly as you can say microdermabrasion. Did you always wish you had blue eyes? No problem, you can change those in your photos too — no need to wear those troublesome contact lenses.

Today, it’s as much as an augmented free world, as it is a brave new one.

We’d all like to live in an ideal world, but that’s just not what life is about. So how can we condition our children for reality and keep their feet on the ground?

Give Them a Sense of Self

We can teach them that they are “good” by setting boundaries for them. Starting at an early age, it’s important to teach kids that following the rules (or living up to parental expectations) makes them “good” children. It’s often as easy as praising them (honestly) when they are behaving properly, or ambushing them with compliments like “I think you’re a good person,” or “I appreciate it when you neaten your room.” These doses of appreciation give kids an inner sense of “goodness” that strengthens them against the surface truths of social media.

When they get their first phone or online account, have an honest conversation with them about the pitfalls of social media, and teach them to be skeptical. By giving them some objectivity, we can teach them to question the images they see in their social sphere and gain a perspective from it. Make a confidentiality agreement and encourage them to discuss their observations with you. Understand the etiquette of social media and discuss boundaries with them. I was surprised to learn that it was bad when I “liked” something on the page of one of their “friends.”

Teach Them to Be Truthful

I was always uncomfortable keeping secrets. I would worry about being found out and getting in trouble. My parents gave me an out by saying, “If you ever do anything that you think might get you in trouble, and you come talk to us about it before we discover it on our own, we will not punish you.” That made sense, and it always resulted in an honest conversation about how to avoid doing it again. My parents called that an Armistice, and at its most basic, gave me, and my kids, the ability to believe in justice, and gave us hope that “cheaters never prosper.”

Give Them a Perspective About Others

I don’t know how many times my wife and I have had to say to our kids, “The only person whose behavior you can control is you !!”

There are many disappointments in life, and young people don’t make that any easier when they attack each other’s weak spots. When someone posts false information, or says something that causes a child to be humiliated, it’s important to help our children understand how to control the way they react to those feelings. The best thing to do is to teach our child to control their reaction, because the behavior of insensitive people is usually more their problem than ours. Why give the bully the satisfaction of knowing they’ve gotten to you?

Reaffirm your child’s goodness: “You are an intelligent, loyal, and friendly person. You tell the truth, you care about your family. That person has a real problem if they’re being mean to you!” Either your child will agree (as they cry in your arms), or they will confess as to why it is the other kid was really being mean. Either way, it’s a win-win.” In this way we script our children with a self-affirming pep talk that they can use to protect themselves from those who attack their imperfections at any time.

Be Honest and Loving at Home

Nobody’s perfect. Nobody lives perfectly, and, certainly, nobody parents perfectly.
As I believe my cab driver should know where he or she is going, so I believe our children should know that we are confident in our roles as their parents. Confident parents are able to listen to and value the opinions of their children. With teenagers, “My way or the highway.” is not a successful tactic. A child on social media is forming an identity — often right before our eyes. They are sensitive to the opinions of others, and, whether they like it or not, their parent’s opinions still matter. By being loving, fair, and firm, we create a home for our children that is safe and reliable. This place where they are valued and respected by parents who listen, and explain, gives them very solid footing out in the world.

Ultimately, making our children comfortable with themselves (and their reality) is the best way to protect them from the feelings of inadequacy that the “perfection” of others can cause.  Despite the perceptions that they may be getting from social media, it’s critical that we teach them that life is full of imperfection.  Showing them how we deal with it, keeps them from being threatened by the propaganda of others.

After all, happy is truly as perfect as any of us will ever get.

This blog originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

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The Evolving Dad

vectorstock_3042159We’re evolving – all of us – and so is our world, or should I say “our worlds” as each of us is surrounded by our own experience.

As society has shifted away from the “good ‘ol days” (a “Madmen” episode filled with smoke and sexism), we dads have had to pick up a bit more of the parenting load.

My father used to come home to a ready dinner, a relatively content wife, and two smiling, freshly-washed children.  And, even though my mom worked hard serving us and the community, my dad was the king of his castle.

That was that.

My pop worked hard, and when it came to imparting wisdom, he was compassionate, loving and focused. My schoolwork and social life were just not part of his purview. He and my mother had a good partnership; they found an odd balance between common sense and criticism, as in “How could you be so dumb as to not have thought of that?”

When I became a dad, I lived in a modified version of my childhood. As I’ve written before, we’re products of our parents; often dealing with the residue of their individual personalities and their generation as a whole as we navigate our lives, and because our society changes, so must our parenting styles.

I think I saw my father cry twice.  In my childhood, if a coach or player cried at a news conference, they would have been branded a “sissy” – which was, and probably still is code for “not a man.”  My kids see me cry every time we watch “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Sometimes I even cry because I’m moved by a commercial (you know the one, daughter grows up in the passenger seat of the car – drives off to college).

Although I wasn’t taking my kids to doctor’s appointments, or buying them clothes, I fulfilled my role as the “man of the house” (as a guy in my generation would).  I did “guy” things. I fixed stuff, changed bulbs, carried the “baby bag,” I had the cars serviced, fixed the computers, did the science projects, drove carpools, coached teams, wiped away some tears, and even shared some of my own.

vectorstock_1010664I don’t think it was women who kept dads from being more involved. I think it was society. An interesting source for this possibility is defined by the Masculinity Index, a measurement created by sociologist Geert Hofstede that “describes the degree to which masculine values like competitiveness and the acquisition of wealth are valued over feminine values like relationship building and quality of life.” On the scale, Japan is the most “masculine” country at 95, while the U.K. and Germany tie at 66, the U.S. scores a 62, France a 43, Spain a 42, and Sweden an 8. For me, however, it’s not so much about the “global” aspects of the index as it is the way it applies to my personal “world.”

In the early years of our marriage, I found myself perpetuating concepts born of my social “masculinity.” It would have been quite acceptable to describe my wife as a “ball and chain,” my kids as “rug rats,” and to believe that paying attention to injury made me a “pussy.”  My ego would be upset if JoAnn disagreed with me in public. Over the years, and through my wife’s brilliant use of logic (like “Am I a ball and chain?” “Are our kids a pain in the ass?”) I was led to evolve away from those old “standards.”

Today, there are many contributing factors as to why fathers are more involved. In addition to the fact that more moms are pursuing out-of-home careers, it has become professionally accepted for dads to prioritize their “Dadness” and carry their share of the load (a “share” that should be defined by each set of parents on their own). Happily, we dads have benefited by this change through being involved in every aspect of our children’s lives, as well as through the acceptance of our more sensitive “feminine side” (like being allowed to express fear, or truly appreciate musical comedy).

And we’re all the better for it.

Most importantly though, aside from the re-distribution of labor, I think the basic rules of parenting remain largely the same. Both parents are involved in the process of setting an example, and nothing teaches children more than the way, and comfort with which, roles are shared in the house. Each of us needs to decide what works best for our family.

In my marriage it was JoAnn’s job to give our children a soft landing place, and it was mine to teach them that the world outside our “nest” wasn’t necessarily a friendly place. Of course, we weren’t stuck in those roles; we traded off as necessary. But today our children know exactly what they’ll get from each of us. We’re both about appreciation and love, but JoAnn is their go-to for compassion, and I’m all about common sense – without the criticism.

You see, I am evolving.

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How Sports Teach Us

This is a great time of year for sports. We’ve just seen a great French Open, Stanley Cup Final, and NBA Final.

DodgerStadiumWhether you’re an athlete or not, sports offer real opportunities to teach values, focus, and tenacity.  As parents, even just watching sports with our children provides us all with many teachable moments.

Fairness
Sports is one of the few places where decisions are made instantaneously, and rules are applied absolutely. If a player’s foot is on the line, the ball is turned over. If the puck is thrown to the opposite end of the ice, it’s brought back for a face off in the offensive end of the rink.  If a ball bounces out of bounds in basketball, it changes hands.  A strike is a strike – and the umpire is always right.  Im many cases, we, as players disagree with these calls – but learning to live with them is an important part of the “game.”

Heroes Being Parents
Some people have criticized Golden State’s Steph Curry for bringing his two year old daughter, Riley, to his press conferences. Not only has this highlighted him as a calm and loving parent, but Riley’s managed to melt everyone’s heart and remind us all that even if we’re basketball’s MVP, our primary responsibility on Earth is to love and guide our young ones (as he does so well).

Meritocracy
EmBaller2
On the playground, away from parent coaches and organized activities, participation in sports really comes down to an outright meritocracy. As children, athletics often present us with our first opportunities to prove ourselves and our abilities. Ironically, athletics also present us with the realization that we may not be chosen first, or that our friends aren’t necessarily very nice when they’re competing. These are real feelings, and the sooner our kids learn to deal with them – to focus their frustration, and hone their competitive instincts — the better they will be able to deal with this type of adversity as they get older.

Handshakes
StanleyCupThin
One of the things I like most about hockey is the post-game lineup for handshakes – especially after a particularly hard-fought series (as we saw this week in Chicago). Despite the brutal competition and apparent anger that arises during the games, the winning team is forced to stop their immediate celebration in order to congratulate their opponents on their valor and the quality of their play. This goes for every player and coach on the team – who all dutifully line up behind their captain and share the humanity that lies at the base of their competition. The Stanley Cup is full of tradition, much of which my children have taught me to enjoy.

Chooser or Chosen?
When it comes time to pick teams on the playground, you are either a chooser or a chosen. Typically, the best athletes are given the honor of choosing and it’s clearly in their interest to select the most able player available. It doesn’t feel very nice to be chosen last… but it happens, and it happened to me as well as many others.

VVSBasketballHeightLineI recently attended a gathering of elementary school friends who came together to honor one of our classmates. This classmate had been a stellar athlete in our childhood – he was definitely a “chooser” – who, after thirty years as a coach, classroom teacher, and principal recently accepted the position of Superintendent of Schools for our childhood district. During our verbal tributes, one of our classmates pointed out that Steve, our honored friend, had always chosen him, despite his self-professed lack of athletic ability. In response, Steve explained that Stephen (our other classmate) had thanked him many years earlier “for always choosing me, so that I didn’t have to be last” and that having heard that  Steve was so touched that it changed his lifetime approach to teaching his students a more sensitive way to chose teams.

Being a “good sport” is something our children will carry with them for the rest of their lives.  Using sporting events is a wonderful way to create some perspective about the importance of winning, and to motivate conversations about competition, and fair play

Although sports is no longer the exclusive domain of Dads, this is a great occasion to wish a Happy Father’s Day to all the brave guys (and gals) who teach kids to deal with “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

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3 Simple Solutions to 3 Common Parenting Challenges

There are very few things that I find “absolute” in parenting. What works for one family may not work for another… except for the three strategies I am about to share with you. These primarily concern multi-child households. They worked really well with our family and I believe they will work equally as well for yours!

Kid of the Day

Aaron3superman_83liteAny parent with multiple children will mention certain annoying issues that arise constantly, like who gets to hold the remote control, or who chooses the music in the car, or who gets to sit “shotgun.”

As kids get older, it’s harder to offer decisions based on chronological age, or current level of politeness. So courtesy of Jerry and Carol in the long proven tradition of handed-down parenting tips, I bring you “Kid of the Day.”

It’s quite easy. Get a calendar and mark the alternating days with each child’s name. Show it to your kids.

You will never have to do that again.

From the moment we implemented “Boy of the Day” our three sons managed that calendar with the absolute precision of Swiss watchmakers. In fact, they knew the calendar so well that they traded future dates and remembered them. Most importantly, neither JoAnn nor I ever had to decide who was sitting in the front seat again.

One Divides, One Chooses

RCEHalloweenI have an older sister. There was always a tussle regarding the fairness of a split when it came to a piece of gum, or Halloween candy, or generally anything we had to share. As a parent, I was witnessing the same bickering among our kids. Then one day someone said, “Why is that so complicated? Take yourself out of the middle! One divides and one chooses.”

Wow – so basic. One child, knowing that the other will ultimately get to choose his or her piece, divides the stick of gum, candy bar or can of soda as carefully and equally as possible. They both know that when the other chooses a piece, the person dividing is going to get what’s left.

It works like a charm. Occasionally, you might even notice the “chooser” selecting the smaller piece to reward the attempt at fairness by the divider.

Reciprocal Birthdays

Kids all love their birthdays. They get parties, presents, and lots of attention. But what about their siblings? They usually just get to eat birthday cake and help clean up the wrapping paper. Our friends, Carole Ann and Marco, shared this brilliant strategy with us many years ago:

vectorstock_1038990When your child is having a birthday, have that child give a gift to each sibling. Not a re-gift of something they got, but an actual gift of their choosing. Encourage them to think about what gift each sibling would really like, give them a price limit per gift, and teach them the joy of generosity. If possible, have them explain why they gave that specific gift to each sib. They usually know what to give much better than we would. In this way, everyone ends up looking forward to all the birthdays.

In each of these solutions the common threads are collaboration and harmony. These are wonderful opportunities to teach our children that there are ways to be “fair,” and that rules can be comforting. Our children are now grown, but if it came down to it they could probably tell us who would be Kid of the Day today.

None of these were our ideas. We were lucky enough along the way to have friends who shared their “lessons learned”. I hope these can be helpful to you and encourage you to pass them on.

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The Power of Appreciation

I’ve lived long enough to see many of my divorced friends find new mates. It’s quite a relief actually – not because I think everybody needs to be a couple, but because their divorces have left scars that I’m happy to see healing.

ball_and_chain_wedding_topperIn many cases my friendship with these people began with deep discussions about their marital relationships, and their hopes and concerns for their families. In some cases, I learned that everyone’s good intentions had somehow been lost to an ego-driven selfishness. That selfishness could be justified by phrases like, “Well, she doesn’t care about me.” or “Nothing pleases her.” In some cases, this inability to be pleased, by either a husband or a wife, would lead to a deliberate desire not to please – and everything would go downhill from there.

Sometimes the couples were just incompatible. Years of therapy couldn’t help unravel the knots that had been tied. No one was willing to surrender their hurt in the name of healing, or if they did it was to no avail. So divorce ensued.

For some, the post-divorce period led to great introspection. “Was it me? Was I the problem? Why couldn’t I make it work?” Those who chose to heap blame on themselves continued to do so, until they were able to recognize that compatibility with another person depends a lot on the other person.

Then, not surprisingly, some of them found other people, and in almost every case they said things like, “She appreciates me.” and “He’s so grateful when I let him know where I’ll be.”

REGJEGFeetAnnivLiteAs I look at the ties that bind me to my wife of thirty-seven years, I have to admit that appreciation has always been one of the keys. We’ve always done things for each other, often with little expectation of payback. We’ve accepted that our marriage is not a 50/50 thing. It’s a 90/90 thing, and at any given point one of us may be working harder than the other. I make our bed (fluffy pillows and all), not because my parents hounded me about it, but because I know it makes her happy.

I used to tell people that the person who won the arguments in our relationship was the one with the most passion for the result. Our issues generally fell along traditional lines. I cared more about teaching our sons not to quit when they were having a tough time on the baseball team, and she cared more about who their upcoming teacher might be. I wanted them to learn to work with their hands, and she wanted them to dress adorably. In each case, we yielded to each other and accepted the other’s leadership. If either of us felt really strongly about something, we articulated our argument as best we could and hoped the other would see the light — even if it took a day, or week, or month. In the end, the truth would float.

Which brings us back to the divorced friends.

In each of the cases I’ve seen, their new relationships thrived because the individuals are grateful to have someone who appreciates them just for being around. Maybe it’s something one learns from being alone, or unappreciated, but it’s definitely an essential ingredient in a successful connection.

CasualFamilyI’m writing to remind us all that a little appreciation goes a very long way. So whether you’re grateful that your mate keeps the house stocked with toilet paper or spent the whole day dealing with your mother, take the time to say thanks and add another stitch to the ties that bind you together.

For an added bonus, teach your children to do this too.

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The High Cost of Bad Parenting

vectorstock_969927I believe that most parents are good parents.  It’s my observation that a majority of our citizens are well-behaved, respectful, and law-abiding.  But I also see a society that devotes an immense amount of energy and resources to deal with the minority of adults who are products of “bad” or no parenting.

Laws have been created so that our society doesn’t run amok and, for the most part, I think they’re working.  Some argue that all regulation is bad, but I like knowing the other car is going to stop because there is a red light.

When I was young, there were no laws against sexual harassment. My parents taught me to hold the door and that ladies go first. If parents today could teach their children to treat everyone with respect, males and females, I don’t think we’d need to spend billions on behavioral training, and then spending even more to apply and enforce the rules when they misbehave.  But I’m an optimist.

Surgeons usually think surgery is the best solution. Psychotherapists usually think they can solve the problem with some very serious conversations. I’ve been focused on parenting for a while now, so that’s why I think these solutions can all be presented during the parenting process.

vectorstock_634418Why do I think that? Whenever I examine my morals, manners, and values it always comes back to my parents. My parents respected each other and the people in their world. Our house was not a place where women were considered unequal, although my father would only allow me to use bad language when he and I were alone (something I thought was pretty cool at the time).  I didn’t consider it discriminatory, I considered it polite. Ironically, I saw it as a sign of respect for my mother, not a measure of her frailty.

I’m also aware that those are the rules that I took into the world.  So whenever I hear of kids who went off the rails, or who behave as though the rules don’t apply to them, I have to look at their parents as the origin of the problem. In doing so, I usually conclude that parenting is also the solution.

Although my book is about raising children that other people like to be around, it’s really about asking parents to create respectful and considerate people that they like being around. Do you want to live with a whiny kid who can’t stand to hear the word “no”? Do you want to live in a chaotic world where bed-time is defined by the four year old in your house instead of the adults? Is it acceptable in your world to be bossed around by my child? No. No. And NO.

It is not my job to make my child happy. It’s my job to teach my kids how to make themselves happy, especially when things don’t go their way! That’s the best gift I can possibly give them.

So, what does this have to do with the high cost of bad parenting? It is very likely that:

  • A child who respects his mother, is not going to sexually harass a co-worker.
  • A child who has been taught to take responsibility is going to think twice before bilking people out of thousands of dollars.
  • A child who has been taught to respect other people’s property and points of view is less likely to paint graffiti, or burn crosses.

What does that take? Perhaps we should all take a parenting pledge:

CSDParentingPledge

When these principles are taught, I believe our children develop a sense of self-worth; a level of pride that protects them as they move forward, and helps them better understand others. These rules teach them that they are loved and protected, but the world does not revolve around them. This is, essentially, building your child from the inside out.

When typewriters were part of our daily lives I used to say, “Children are like pieces of paper in a typewriter. They need to have margins set, so that when it comes time for them to go outside those margins, they still remain on the paper.”

We can’t guarantee that everyone will raise their children with high expectations, but the more we expect of them, the better off we’ll all be.

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The Hugs I Regret Not Giving

I don’t typically regret much. I believe what’s past is past. As I get older, however, the passage of time allows me to look back and consider life’s lessons.

FullFamBKGKSGWeddingOur children are now grown, for the most part. Our sons are certainly men, our daughter is a very self-reliant college girl, and our daughter-in-law is more mature than any of us. As a loving family, we remain intimately connected.   No regrets there.  Read the book.

But here’s the catch.

Cobylittle_5_93liteWhen I see a little kid whose front teeth are crazy, or a tot opining about why he or she likes a particular song, picture, or TV show, I feel like giving one of my kids a hug. It’s not that I miss my children’s love, or feel I didn’t get enough hugging when they were young. It’s just that I’m not over wanting to let them know how much I enjoy and have enjoyed them – from their goofiest to their most grownup.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI suppose it’s not so much the hugs I regret not getting, as it is the ones I still want to give. There is just something about the way a kid fits into your arms or contours into your shoulder that’s different from that perfunctory, semi-formal hug that populates our adult landscape.

I’m not looking for sympathy (although I wouldn’t mind getting a hug or two out of this).  I think my real objective is to raise the flag to all of you who are still raising young children.

Get and give those hugs. Now. Today. Tomorrow.

Dadnaaronsleep_81liteMaybe I’m writing this to recapture time. Maybe it’s about recognizing those cliché moments when we think, “Youth is wasted on the young.” It’s not so much that it’s wasted on the young, but that we waste it when we are young! I recently confessed to a friend that I’d always wanted a Porsche. Now I’d rather have a car that’s easier to get in and out of.

Enough moaning. Having recently been told that I am a didact, I ask: “What are the lessons here?”

Aside from the part about grabbing all the love you can (while your kids are still young and bite sized), I think it’s important to recognize that things change, as they always have and always will. The more we can accept those changes, the easier it will be to keep moving forward. It is, after all, our job to guide our children into adulthood.

EHGTiredAthleteAs parents, I’ve found that many of us don’t want our kids to grow up. But we really do them a disservice by keeping them too close and dependent. So for every wish I have to be hugged by my children, I also have a silent appreciation of the fact that they’re out in the world using the skills my wife and I have worked hard to give them.

I guess the next time I see an incredibly adorable toddler, I’ll just have to think, “Been there, done that,” and then offer a small prayer to hasten the arrival of grandchildren.

No pressure kids.

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It’s All My Fault

REGCollegePhotoWhen I went to college in the mid ‘70s, I made fun of people who sat in the front row of the class. I thought their eagerness to get good grades was a “kiss ass” thing and that real “free thinkers” didn’t have to conform to the rigorous judgments of academia. This attitude was reinforced by a set of shifting societal values reflected in films about anti-heroes like “Easy Rider,” “Midnight Cowboy,” and “Taxi Driver.” It was a time of upheaval with Vietnam and Watergate.

After college, many of my friends went to professional schools – law, medicine, business, dentistry, and they benefited from their earlier academic focus in very positive ways. Others of us dove directly into the workforce, where we worked hard, got ahead, and maintained a residual belief in the value of achievement.

Our childhoods had been simple. The government was good, the doctor knew what was best, and by working hard and respecting the system, someday we could earn our place at the top. There were three television networks, and the press extended simple courtesies to the private lives of public figures. In those days, making a porn tape (or film) was not considered beneficial to your career.

Things have changed, and it’s certainly not making parenting any easier.  But before we get to how we’re raising our children, here’s a little more backstory:

vectorstock_3612155Once, I had to go to traffic school.  I chose a “comedy” traffic school because six mandatory hours of humor seemed more attractive than any of the alternatives. One of the first questions asked was “How many of you are in here for speeding?” I raised my hand. “Why were you in such a hurry?” he asked the class. A number of people suggested possible answers, and then I got to offer this brilliant piece of logic: “When I speed, I only have to worry about half the cars.” The instructor looked at me quizzically. “Well,” I explained, “when I’m driving faster than the other people I only have to worry about the cars in front of me because all the others are behind me.”

The teacher gave me that “so you’re the wise guy look” and then an oafish guy in the back of the room bellowed “Yea!! That’s why I speed too! I don’t want to have to think about the people behind me!” Suddenly, I had empowered the least responsible repeat offender in the room, a guy who was happy to have a meaningful rationalization for his otherwise stupid behavior.

When we returned from lunch, the instructor showed us “Red Asphalt,” and made it clear that we were watching this extremely gory movie in retaliation for our (meaning my) flip attitude toward speeding laws.

By disregarding those highly focused do-gooders in the front row, I was really just trying to justify my unwillingness to compete. I was essentially saying that “I have a high bar, I don’t need others to define or measure it.” But what I didn’t recognize was that lots of people, many of whom didn’t have as high a bar as I did, would embrace my defensive discounting or my wise-guy interpretations in order to justify their own poor performance.

Multiple lessons learned: Don’t speed, and never empower the moron.

vectorstock_2874420Today, we’re living with these mistakes. Many Americans believe our government does not have our best interests in mind. Many people believe that they know more than their doctors, or their children’s teachers. The police are no longer perceived (or portrayed) as protectors (when, ironically, the vast majority of them are).

So what does this have to do with parenting?

Hold the bar high!

Sadly, we’ve seen those rebellious years reflected in a growing generation of children who do not respect authority, who believe rules don’t apply to them, and whose parents have avoided teaching them about adversity.  What’s worse is a friend recently told me his daughter didn’t turn in her homework because she didn’t want to seem “too smart”!

Although, it’s probable that our neighbors will help our children, we’re so bombarded with negative media, that it’s hard to believe that’s the case. Even though teachers have chosen a low-paying profession because they care about our children, parents regularly undermine their authority and empower toddlers to ignore them. Although children are quite resilient, some parents believe they don’t have the authority to impose an expectation of high standards on their kids.

It’s time we examine our priorities.  Praise real achievement.  Encourage our children to understand their surroundings, and give them a sense of community and purpose.  It’s not all about them.. it’s about US.

vectorstock_745873I wrote “Raising Children That Other People Like to Be Around” to give parents a sense of their authority, and to encourage the understanding that what our society fails to give our children is now completely our responsibility. It occurs to me that the more negative we are in our homes, the more negatively our children will perceive the world. My choice is to encourage comfort, satisfaction, and optimism. They’ll learn about all the other stuff later.

I’ve written this so you won’t have to spend any more time wondering how the world could have gotten so screwy. My suggestion is to ignore the world, make your home and family a happy place, and just blame me when things don’t go right.

It’s OK. I can take it.

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A Legacy Of Love

NathanCaplanAMGLite2My Grandfather, Nathan, was an incredibly shy man.  In addition to being very short (5’4”), he was a quiet and kind immigrant who listened far more than he spoke. He came from Russia to pursue a better life, and made his living as a bicycle-riding handyman in Toronto before moving to Detroit, where my mother was born. Sadly, Nathan became a widower when my mother was three.

As a single parent, Nathan left many of the child-rearing responsibilities to my mother’s siblings, Aunt Pearl and Uncle Al. He never remarried.

NathanWCarLITENathan worked as a plumber and got involved in the fledgling automobile business as a mechanic and inventor. He was so shy, he would send my toddler-aged mother into his shop to shoo away the creatures that huddled around their warm stove overnight.

Ultimately, he invented the brake rest, as well as an improved bumper. When Henry Ford used the bumper on the Model A, my grandfather sued him and won.  He got no enormous cash payout as compensation, but remained proud, nonetheless, that he lived in a country where a poor immigrant could successfully sue the richest man in the nation.

When my mother was sixteen, she and my grandfather came west to join Pearl and Al who had started a small loan business in Los Angeles. My grandpa liked getting his hands dirty, so he ran a small trailer lot, like U-Haul, and tinkered in the back. He lived a very quiet life.

MarcieJannStepsHUFFMy mother, Marcie, was an active teenager.  She was a great athlete and an excellent student. When she entered U.C.L.A. she was living with my grandfather and taking care of him. One night when she got home from school, he announced to her that he was going to be taking dance lessons at Arthur Murray on Tuesday and Thursday nights. She looked at him and said “Dance lessons?” He just nodded.

The next night he said to her “You know, Masha, (his nickname for my mother), you can make plans for tomorrow night. I have my dance lesson.” In that moment my mom realized that Nathan was taking the lessons so that she wouldn’t have to come home to care for him at night. He was forcing himself to do something he had no desire to do, in order to allow his daughter the freedom she needed as a teenager.

My grandfather wasn’t rich. He didn’t buy things for his daughter. He didn’t take her out to fancy dinners, or on long trips – what he did was sacrifice. He put his feelings aside, because he knew that my mother wouldn’t leave him alone unless he found a way to be busy outside of the house. He pushed himself to do the right thing, even though it was uncomfortable and inconvenient.

This story of my grandfather reminds me that the job of parenting is often a selfless one. It’s often about the practical sacrifices we make, emotionally or physically, to do what’s right for our children.

Sometimes these sacrifices mean taking an uncomfortable path – saying no and going through the discomfort of teaching our kids to deal with adversity. Sometimes, it’s about the devotion of real time, leaving all else alone and putting down our phones to look our kids in the eye when we’re having a conversation with them.

PearlnMarcieNZaydieLITE

Pearl, Nathan, and Marcie

The days of doting offspring seem long gone, but it’s clear that children still care about their parent’s feelings, opinions, and concerns. It is our job to help our children grow, even if it sometimes goes against our nature to hold them, cuddle them, and protect them. We don’t need to take dance lessons to release our children from their obligation to us, but we do need to consider their lives, their ages, and their feelings as we continue to set for them an example of how thinking, loving adults behave.

If you sometimes feel overwhelmed by driving your kids to school, or signing them up for summer camp, or letting them walk to the park, remember that you’re doing the right thing.  You might also tell them about their grandparents. It will give them a sense of pride, and the foundation they’ll need to stand tall.

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