Imagine a group of musicians each playing a different song, in a different key at a different tempo. It would be chaos – and it would sound terrible.

Now imagine a family like that.

If you’ve ever played, sung, or performed musically with others, it should be pretty easy to understand that parenting is a lot like leading your own band.  

As parents, our job is to raise our children as if we were band leaders giving them music lessons, helping them to understand how to play their individual instruments (personalities) and teaching them to integrate our choice of tempo, key, and volume into their daily lives.

notes-on-music-staffWhen our children are very young, we start by teaching them specific behaviors – like saying “please” and “thank you.” How to sit still, and the importance of looking at people when speaking with them are the equivalent of teaching them to play scales on their instruments. The more often they practice those “scales”, the more comfortable they become with their position in the band.

In our family, the tempo is relaxed but firm. We expect our children to learn their basics and to practice them at every possible juncture. If we go to the market, we teach them to say hello to the checker. When they have class, we teach them to be on time. When they need to play well with other children, we teach them to share. These are the basic forms (scales and melodies) that they will play throughout their lives.

Music Jam RGWhile they’re learning what’s expected of them, we also make a point of playing our own instruments at the tempo we expect. We set an example in the house by remaining consistent and calm. If Mommy or Daddy is on the phone, it’s not the right time to interrupt. When it’s time for bed, well, it’s time for bed. If someone else in the band (a sibling) needs a little extra practice time, we expect our other children to understand – and if they don’t understand, we explain that perhaps they need to spend some time practicing on their own, in their room.

We also pay attention to the “key” in which our family is playing. I grew up in a home where loud arguing was a norm. At some point in my life I decided that I didn’t want my home to sound like that. So JoAnn, my wife, and I chose to omit the whole angry yelling thing. It doesn’t mean we agree about everything. We just agree not to raise our voices about it.

Music Jam AMGSome people think that imposing expectations or restrictions on their child will inhibit creativity, but just look at music to understand how necessary and liberating a controlled and structured environment can be. Everyday we are entertained by the conventionally confined, well-structured creativity that is the world of music.

Once the scales, tempo, and key have been determined, we have to demand a certain level of performance from our kids. We do this by letting them know when they’re out of time or off key, and by encouraging them to listen better and to stay in tune. At some point, the kids begin to see themselves as active participants in the band. They understand that when they are moving in our tempo and our key, things sound pretty good around the house. Most importantly, once they as players have proven that they know their basics, we – as band leaders and conductors – can allow them to improvise more and more. This is where their creativity and individuality comes in.

Music Jam 2 BlogLike any band, ours is made up of different instruments. Each of us has our own sound, our own range, and our own part in the songs that are being played. Some of us may like to play the melody, while others may prefer to harmonize or just “keep time.” By respecting these differences, we are able to arrange the music we play (as a family) into music that is comfortable and pleasing to all of us..

Ultimately, as parents it’s our job to create harmony, and to lead our children to play parts that fit well with everyone else. For our own sanity and comfort, it’s necessary to get everyone playing the same song, at the same tempo and in the same key.  Ignoring dissonance allows it to become a habit – and so we always seek to correct the sour notes.

Over the years we have all learned to listen better. We have learned to compliment each other’s solos, to choose similar themes, and to share the enjoyment of playing together. Like any good band, we respect the basics, we remember our scales, and we encourage each other to improve. We also roll our eyes every once in a while.

Be a rock star parent, teach your children to play and to listen. Before you know it, your home will be filled with harmony and you’ll always be looking forward to your next “jam” session.

Photo Credit: Marisa Quinn

SavenickYoungWhen we were newlyweds ourselves, JoAnn and I were often successful matchmakers. We had one friend in particular – a talented, smart, and handsome co-worker of mine named Phil — who was very eligible and very single.  I was pretty direct with him about our desire to fix him up.

chasidic_jewOne day, as I was telling Phil about a particularly wonderful candidate, he said something that would inform me for the rest of my life:  “You know those Chasidic Jews who walk down Farifax Avenue (a Jewish section of LA) wearing black outfits with big furry hats?” “Well, I’m not one of them – but I’m glad they are.”

I didn’t quite understand “So?”

Then he said “You and JoAnn are happy being a couple.  You enjoy being together and sharing your lives. I’m not one of you, but I’m glad you are.

There it was, the best definition of tolerance I’d ever encountered.  It was a method for recognizing, understanding and appreciating the differences between myself and others.

I believe that wonder and the ability to listen to many different kinds of people are skills that need to be taught at an early age. One reason I wrote my book was to help guide parents toward open, secure, and loving family relationships that would facilitate honest communication and appreciation of differences.

diversity-detailThis perspective is easier to assume locally than it is globally, because we can operate based on our own experience. It’s a matter of teaching our children to be curious about other cultures, to understand other religions, and to appreciate diversity in their world and even in their own family.  Every time I completely “misjudge a book by its cover” I am reminded of this.

Hate is simply an expression of ignorance.

HappyAfricanChildrenAs humans we have so much in common – the love of our children, the joys of music, dance, and laughter.  Since these exist in every culture, it’s hard for me to understand people who can’t just “live and let live.”  Yet no matter how I wish those people weren’t out there, they are – and teaching our children not to let those bad apples spoil the whole bunch is another important lesson for all of us. As Rodney King said “Can’t we all just get along?”

This has been a very busy week. A lot of opinions have been flying around in social media – about depression, about Gaza, about Ferguson, Missouri.  These are all important subjects and very worthy of discussion.”  But the “discussions” so quickly dissolve into name-calling and re-proclaiming entrenched positions.  All issues generate opinions, but others also require facts. I believe “The Truth Floats” and, sometimes we just have to wait and see where we end up.  But arguing and name calling doesn’t seem to get any of us closer to a solution.

GreenFamHawaii2014There is no question that life is a work in progress and that we make sharing a planet much more complicated than would seem necessary.  But if we can start by teaching tolerance within our own families, we may, someday, have a better world.

So, I’m not one of you, but I’m glad you are.  Thanks for reading.

RGGoalieSMALL“Don’t get a big head” was what I heard from my high school soccer coach. I had just debuted as the team goalie and we had beaten our biggest rival in a 1-0 shutout. After a childhood filled with criticism fueling piles of self-doubt, getting a “big head” was as far from my nature as things could get. Nonetheless, I took the pats on the back with a smile and great pride.

Later in the year, I was playing catcher on our school baseball team when we faced the same rival. As their number four batter stepped into the batter’s box he looked at me and said “Hey, you’re the goalie, aren’t you?” I acknowledged his recognition and we played on. It felt good. I was somebody. I was the goalie.

That was my first brush with celebrity, and I really liked it.

Over the years I yearned for broader success; the admiration of a community that went beyond those I actually knew. I hoped for recognition as a smart executive, creator of a television show, writer of brilliant screenplays and, to some degree I worked toward those goals simultaneously.  But I also got older and wiser.

kate-middleton-3Over time I have observed the lives of many celebrities. Some are our friends, with whom it’s always exciting to “hang,” and some just people caught in the limelight whose every move somehow seems noteworthy.  Hanging out with them is cool.  You get the aura without the oppression that life as a celebrity brings. Imagine having people trying to photograph you at all times, not being safe to sunbathe on your own porch, or having a moment of emotional honesty become everyone’s “business.”

The majority of my time getting older was devoted to making the most of my marriage and parenting our four kids.  I dabbled with the famous screenplay, I went to work every day and tried to make good deals, and over time I found myself becoming the hero I wanted to be by just doing my job as a dad. When I chaperoned the fifth grade lake trip, I gained Sportsmanship notoriety by effectively and immediately quieting my bunk through the simple dropping of one “F bomb”.  My baseball teams were known for good sportsmanship.  I was the guy who announced at the Christmas show that it wasn’t very nice to leave before the show was over, just because your child had already performed. These things were my stuff of local legend.

While that was going on, my kids were being surrounded by a different type of celebrity: athletes shooting steroids, singers using drugs, vapid starlets making headlines for the size of their bottoms or the cut of their dresses.

RCEHalloweenAs I saw it, it was my job to be the guy who my children most admired. That didn’t mean I gave them everything, or that I coerced them into loving me via Stockholm Syndrome.  I just tried to be the person who they knew had an answer for them. I wasn’t about athletic prowess, although I played softball every Sunday, and I wasn’t about medical knowledge, although I cleaned a lot of wounds and kissed away a lot of boo boos.

I was about showing them that I could be their hero because I knew who I was. I tried to be confident, but not pushy; flexible, but not a sucker; and even funny, but not at the wrong times. This, to me, was the behavior of the type of celebrity I most wanted my kids to emulate.

REGJEGLagunaSo, my once huge celebrity goals have been revised downward. I am, to some degree, satisfied with being a celebrity in my own family. My wife and I started the fan club – we are each other’s biggest supporters — and then we created a flock of children who revere me, listen to me, and are (most times) proud to be with me. Like all celebrities, I am subject to criticism from my fans – usually about wardrobe choices, loud chewing, and telephonic habits.  My grand plan now involves having grand children…and making them laugh.

I’ve also recognized that I still haven’t given up on getting out my message. I admit that I’d like very much to be recognized for a parenting philosophy that is approachable and easy to understand.  I am still excited every time I write a blog post offering others good information, and me the opportunity to be recognized, just as the goalie of my youth.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d be happy with a thousand Twitter followers, or increased books sales.  I’m eager to put myself out there to make those things happen.  But being the husband of my favorite person and a celebrity in the lives of my children will always be good enough for me.

FullFamBKGKSGWedding

Aaron3superman_83liteI’ve encountered a number of parents who, in their zeal to have “creative” children, resist discipline in their parenting process. They explain that they “want their child to be free to create” and to be “undiminished by structure” – which is fine if you and your family live in a vacuum.

Being the logical sort that I am, I am keenly aware of the structures and “systems” that surround our lives. I wake up, I get out of bed, I wash my face and hands, I floss (maybe), I brush my teeth (for sure), I dress, and I go to work. That is a “system”. Each event within that system has its own procedure.   Our lives are filled with systems most of which are “creative.”  In fact, one could argue that any system that allows variation is creative.

Driving is wonderful metaphor for understanding the creative process.  As drivers, we make a lot of creative choices; we choose our routes, we control our timeframe, and we achieve the goal (of getting to our destination). In the process, we could exclusively use DSC_0237our gas pedal all the time.  We could ignore all signage or other drivers and be unfettered by the limitations of the “system.”  That might work for the short term!   During that time, our “creativity” might be un-hindered by the oppression of structure, but the people around us would be pretty disturbed, and to some degree put at risk.

Creativity without a system is chaos, and I choose to avoid chaos.

“But my child is only two!” you might say. “They’re not driving!”  And I’d say, “The earlier your child learns the rules of the road, the sooner he or she will be a safe driver who can navigate the world and make smart “creative” decisions.

School-children-playing-violinAnother wonderful metaphor for proving the importance of discipline in creativity is music.

Anyone who listens to music is subject to the conventions of the musical system.  Almost every song we listen to is structured and thousands of them are derived from the same three chords. When musicians play in “ensemble” there is a need to keep their sound harmonious; which is achieved through “key” and “tempo”. Even jazz, the most “fluid” of the musical genres, has a structure.

When musicians are young, they learn to play their instruments. They play scales, they practice, they count, and they listen. Once they can play their parts they can learn to improvise. Sure, there are exceptions, but all professional musicians know the basics of the system.

ExcuseMakingThe last ingredient in this process is wonder.  Developing a child’s sense of wonder is as easy as wondering about things out loud when you’re with them.  “Where do you think clouds come from?”  “Do you ever wish our dog could talk?”  “What’s your favorite color?” “How does a lightbulb work?”

When they respond, do your best to engage.  Listen to their often very entertaining answers… and don’t criticize their theories (as my parents did).  Guide, but don’t humiliate.  Teach, but don’t preach.  Lead to conclusions – don’t land on them.  All of these steps will help your child learn the imaginative process and gain confidence as they explore the world around them.

So, how do you build your creative child?

  1. Teach them the basics.
  2. Show them how to operate within the system.
  3. Encourage them to wonder about things…and
  4. Allow them to improvise in harmony with the rest of your family.

CautionSignAnd the next time you find yourself falling for the “discipline stifles creativity” stuff – think about the value of teaching your children to run red lights.