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.

None of us should expect to be happy all the time.  We can, however, choose to be happy most of the time, and being happy is not only a matter of perspective, but also a healthy long-term strategy. Although the expression is “Necessity is the mother of invention.”, I have learned the importance of “inventing” my own happiness.

Stan_Freberg_Presents_the_United_States_of_America_Volume_One_The_Early_YearsIn the 1960s-era comedy record “Stan Freberg Presents – The United States of America” Columbus is imagined saying to a group of Native Americans, “Say, I’d like to take a few of you guys back with me, to prove I discovered you.”  The Chief, shocked and confused says, “What you mean discovered us? We discovered you standing here on the beach!”  Finally they agree, “It’s all how you look at it.”

We all encounter upsetting things every day. Your call doesn’t get returned.  Your car breaks down.  Your best friend breaks down!  But hiding underneath each of those events there’s always a little piece of good news.

CarBeingTowedMy friend Mitch got into a car accident.  He survived without injury, but his car suffered some serious damage. Mitch took the car to a mechanic for diagnosis and rehab.  His mechanic said, “I have bad news and good news, which do you want first?”

Being an optimist, Mitch said, “Give me the bad news first.”

“Okay,” said the mechanic, “Your car is totaled. But here’s the good news. You’re going to get a new car!”

“But I’ll have to pay for it,” Mitch said. “The insurance won’t cover the cost of a new car.”

The mechanic remained cheerful: “Yeah, but you’re still going to get a new car!”

In retrospect, the mechanic was right.  Mitch did get a new car and weeks later, after the sting of the accident had worn off, he was actually driving around on a nice set of wheels.  Although things seemed bleak at first, there was actually a positive outcome.

HorseAsianCleanThe parent of a Japanese American friend of mine once told us this story.  A farmer’s  horse had run off.  Hearing this news, all the people in the nearby town came running to the farmer’s home: “This is such bad news.  How are you going to plow your fields?  How will you make a living?”  The farmer simply said, “Good news? Bad news? It’s just news.”

The next day the farmer’s horse returned – followed by two wild horses that the farmer put in a pen.  “What good news for you!” cried the people of the town “You are so fortunate!”  Again, the farmer said “Good news? Bad news? It’s just news.”

InjuredArmStickThe following day, the farmer’s son was thrown and broke his arm while training one of the wild horses.  The townspeople bemoaned the situation: “Oh no!  What will you do?  Your son cannot work. You will not be able to harvest. This is such bad news!”  The farmer was sad about his son, but again he replied, “Good news? Bad news? It’s all just news.”

The following week the country went to war and all the young men were called to join the army.  But the farmer’s son couldn’t go because he had a broken arm….

News.  It’s all how you look at it.

As parents, our job is to teach our children how to be happy — which is why pessimism and worrying out loud are not particularly good family activities.  No matter how cynical we may have become (and a certain degree of cynicism is unavoidable), it’s our job to be idealists – to believe that picking up one piece of trash is part of cleaning up the world, or that helping a friend in need (or even a stranger) could actually save their life.  The beauty of this is that it WORKS !!!

Here are five ways to help your children find their happiness:

  1. Be Positive – Encourage them and affirm them – avoid criticizing.
  2. Share good news – Focus on the positives in your life and the lives of others. New babies! Fun visitors! Good fortune!
  3. Don’t carry bad news – Try to avoid repeating hard luck stories.  We all know people who love to gossip about other people’s problems.  Try not to be one of those people.  Share concern, offer solutions, but don’t carry that stuff around with you.
  4. Have faith and root for underdogs – Teach your kids to find the good in everyone and everything.  It’s there.
  5. Show them the silver linings – I was very small when I started high school, about five feet.  I cried about it a lot, but there was nothing I could do.  At some point, a ball got stuck on the other side of a chain link fence.  I was the only person whose hand was small enough to fit through and recover the ball.  It was my mother who pointed out that advantage to me.  Yea – it sucked to be small. But it also had benefits.

My feelings got hurt in situations that had nothing to do with me.  My heart got broken by misunderstandings – and repaired by honest communication.

Happiness is a choice, and I’ve seen that many of us complicate our lives by reacting emotionally to situations that have not yet played out.  I learned these lessons by wasting a lot of emotion.   We’ve all been there.  Stay calm and carry on.

It’s all how we look at it.

Relaxin Dad“Lazy” isn’t a word that is often associated with “better,” but I must confess that I am, and have always been, a lazy father.  Sure, I’ve coached a lot teams, driven a bunch of carpools and changed my share of diapers – but I’ve always done it the easiest way possible – MY way.

Doing things my way isn’t as bad as it sounds.  I do listen and I am concerned about the opinions of others – especially those of my wife – but I generally have a plan, and having a plan makes navigating the day-to-day much easier.

I consider myself a pretty flexible person.  I’m open to new music.  I can stop and smell the roses, I can let my kids play with the hose for hours on end.  There’s plenty of room for improvisation in our family, but I see it as my job to be sure that we all play at the same tempo and in the same key.  In that way there is harmony in our home.  By teaching our kids to play harmoniously within our behavioral expectations, JoAnn and I have simplified our lives.  Being able to rely on our children, their judgment, and the way they behave has made our job as parents a lot easier.  

 Here are three tips that will help simplify your life as a parent.

LEAD WITH AUTHORITY

ExcuseMakingFrom the start we listened to our children, but we did things our way.  Our kids had no choice about bed time, or when it was time to leave the park, or about sitting in their car seat, or about wearing a helmet when they rode their bikes.  Those issues  and many like them were not open to debate.  In fact, in our family “Because I said so!” became “This is not a debate.”

TEACH THEM TO ACCEPT NO

Once your children learn that no means no, you don’t have to expend a lot of energy explaining or debating things.  That’s just the way it goes. “No” is often a really good answer.

At some point we all have to learn to live with “no”.  The sooner we can teach our kids to accept the tough lesson and move toward “yes”, the less complex our lives will be.  We all come up against situations in which we do not get our way.  In school, it’s often a teacher who doesn’t cut us slack, or who doesn’t “understand our problem.”  Then it’s our boss, or a banker, or whoever is offering pushback and keeping us from attaining our goal.  Learning to live with authority teaches our children to operate within a system and to problem solve in order to get what they want.  Starting these lessons at home, where the “authority” is also a loving one, is the best way to ease them into a not-so-friendly world.

LET THEM ENTERTAIN THEMSELVES

I’m also not a parent who thinks it’s my job to entertain my kids.

vectorstock_127571Once I’m satisfied that they are in a safe environment (which might be slightly less safe than the environment JoAnn would call safe), I’m happy to lay back and let them figure things out for themselves.  Sometimes acclimation time is required, but my objective is to get them accustomed to entertaining themselves – whether it’s flying imaginary airplanes, conquering dragons, or playing in the dirt.

Being “bored” is a problem that children should learn to solve for themselves.  JoAnn’s mother had the perfect solution when JoAnn would mope into the room and say “I’m bored.”  Her mom would say “Why don’t you go bang your head against the wall until you can think of something to do.”  Quick, efficient, and effective.  Translation – your boredom is not my problem.  Lazy?  Some might think so – but it’s an important part of a long-term plan.  The more problems my kids can solve for themselves, the fewer I have to solve for them — and that will be true throughout their lives.

So, yeah… I’m lazy.  I don’t want to do more work than is necessary to teach my children how to navigate the world.  As I note in my book, “Raising Children That Other People Like to be Around,” being calm, avoiding panic, and having a plan teaches our children that they can rely on us, so that ultimately… we can rely on them.

 

vectorstock_1038990There are few better opportunities to teach our children about the feelings of others than their birthdays – and the way we celebrate them.

Birthday parties thrown for one-year-olds are clearly done for the benefit of the parents and posterity.  Get lots of pictures, be sure you feed the adults, and hire a clown (or enlist your most energetic relative).

The rules for two-year-olds are pretty much the same.  Line em up.  Get pictures and video (because they’re talking now).  Hire a clown who makes balloon animals.

Aaron3redhat_83liteAt three years old, the party scene gets dicier.  If your child is in pre-school, invite everyone in the class (certainly through kindergarten).  Doing this teaches kids that we are sensitive to everyone’s feelings – even the ones they don’t “care” about.  To model this sentiment, we even invite the kid with the weird parents.  We teach this lesson because we should – not because we agree about a specific kid or not.  Hindsight has taught me that these idealistic positions are absorbed, learned, and applied by our children later in their lives, so don’t be afraid of teaching your kid to do the right thing even if you’ve grown a little cynical about it yourself!

After that third birthday, our messaging about gifts and courtesy becomes more complex.

KiddieInviteI recently read about parents using electronic invitations that include preferences and suggestions about gifts for their children.  I understand the value of adults “registering” for wedding and baby gifts, but doing the same for children hadn’t really crossed my mind – because at a certain point you realize that spending more than twenty bucks on a gift for a little friend is slightly insane.  Nonetheless, I understand the concept of wanting to get gifts that will please a recipient.  This is a multi-faceted issue and just buying a pre-defined gift may cause us to miss some very important teaching opportunities.

One of the hardest things about being a parent is walking the fine line between “You are wonderful and deserve everything you desire.” and “You can’t always get what you want.”  We all know that Life is not perfect – and neither are parents, or kids, or relatives, or friends.  So, does it make sense for us to try and create a perfect world for our children?

As early as three or four years old children can be taught that giving gifts requires some creativity and forethought.  This can actually be a fun exercise.  Go to CVS, set a price limit, and tell your child to pick something for their friend.  You’ll be surprised what they find (and you can always explain why Epson Salts are not appropriate).

TantalizerSometimes birthday kids don’t know what they want, but there can be value in getting things they don’t want (or think they don’t want)…especially when a month after their birthday they’re home sick and they find the unopened game in their closet that captures their imagination for the next two days.

Yes… I have personal experience with this –  “Tantalizer” – the best game ever!

Teaching our children to receive a gift gracefully is a necessity.  This is a real opportunity to demonstrate for them that even if it’s not what they wanted, people’s feelings are more important than “things.”

The sooner kids learn to deal with disappointment, the better.  (I know some parents say that they don’t want their children to feel the sadness they felt as young people.  But I believe that creating a world for them where no one says no, or where they are empowered beyond reason is actually doing them a significant disservice.)

SingleGift2Life is not always going to go their way.  Learning to be positive about receiving any gift, even if it’s not what they wanted, will serve them well for the rest of their lives.

Even the wrong gifts are good gifts.

Birthdays are wonderful celebrations – especially when we remember to keep gratitude, inclusion, and grace on our guest lists.

dropoffpickupYesterday, I had the very entertaining opportunity to participate in morning drop-off at a local pre-school. In my capacity at the door, I observed several parenting styles at work – some I thought were quite efficient, and some I observed adding unnecessary complication to the parents’ lives.

KeepITSimpleSTart2On this blog and in my book — Raising Children That Other People Like to be Around – I’ve mentioned that my goal as a parent is to keep the process as simple as possible. This is the “KISS principle” – a common business acronym for “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” In parenting, because I believe nobody who’s doing their best to raise their children is stupid, my version of K.I.S.S. is Keep It Simple from the Start.

What I saw at the pre-school door was very interesting. In one case, a child was crying and didn’t want to go to school. His mom showed great patience and stayed very cool. She tried to enthuse him about the art project she had prepped the night before. No interest, more tears. She asked him if he was upset because he hadn’t had a chance to push the elevator button when they entered the building.  “No” he whined. “Well, maybe.” she thought.  She offered to take him back to the elevator and let him push the button, but that didn’t work either.  Throughout this “negotiation” five or so other parents walked their kids in, dropped them off, and left for their next event.

It occurred to me that this poor mom was going to be there all morning, unless she could reason her unreasonable toddler into his classroom.

Everyone has their own style, but JoAnn and I never had the patience to let our very young children make their life decisions. I believe that, by being in charge, we not only made our children more comfortable, but created a predictable environment in which we could schedule our lives by having reasonable behavioral expectations of our kids.

Crying-at-Drop-Off-PreschoolI don’t mean to imply that our children never had problems… we just tried to anticipate those times by preparing them.  On the way to school, we’d talk with them about the day ahead, or we’d enlist the aid of teacher at school who, in addition to being trained for this, would be prepared and ready to draw our child into the day’s activities.  Sometimes, JoAnn’s solution was to have me walk the kids in because they didn’t have as hard a time separating from me (mostly because they knew I wasn’t going to stick around). We usually only had to do these things for a day or two in order to break the behavioral pattern of resistance.  Click here for some other good suggestions.

At the root of this all is my belief that toddlers are not prepared to make every decision for themselves. In fact, too much responsibility often makes them more anxious than knowing a routine and following its procedures. The secret benefit that we parents derive from this is that we can count on getting to work on time or meeting our friends for coffee.

Rules and expectations create comfort in children. They know what’s expected of them, and when they comply they know that they are being good. If we deny them the chances to achieve this for themselves (and to please us), then they often decide to get our attention in more demanding and inconvenient ways.

Waiting in LineConcessionLineFixMy best adult experience analogy for this is the difference between waiting in line at the bank – with a single line from which each person goes to the next available teller — and waiting at McDonald’s or a concession stand, with five or six lines each moving at its own pace. I hate being in the slowest line at the ball game. I stand there and find myself frustrated by the lone guy two heads in front of me who’s ordering for five people, while the lines on each side of me are moving closer and closer to their burgers and fries. I want the system to be fair, and in the structured, simple bank line it is!

SusiesLipsSo, do yourself a favor. Make decisions for your children. Let the Force be with you.
Let them relax into your expectations.
Guide them in their lives and be confident about it. In the end, give them a KISS by Keeping It Simple from the Start.

 

RaisingChildrenFinalFrontCvrWebI wrote “Raising Children That Other People Like to be Around” because, after 36 years of marriage and 4 children, I believe that being good parents requires us to set a good example – and having a good relationship is the first, most important step in creating a model for loving interaction.  So here are some simple tricks that I have found helpful in keeping my marriage a happy place.

GREET EACH OTHER WITH LOVEMY Phone

No matter how my day is going, when my Caller ID tells me my wife is calling, I’ve learned to answer my phone with “Hello Beautiful” or “Hello My Love.”  It’s much better than “Yea?” or “What?” — and like most things we say out loud, the more we say it, the more it becomes so. 

AVOID THE CULTURE TRAP

ball_and_chain_wedding_topperThe Battle of the Sexes is a long-running and humorous one, and I have to be honest when I say that we men have a non-malicious, humor-oriented way of denigrating our women… just for the fun of it.  I’ve heard that women do the same – and none of us take that stuff too seriously (I hope), but — like “Hello Beautiful” — if a man calls his wife the “Ball and Chain” or constantly comments about his “henpecked” state of affairs, sooner or later the verbal images will create a new reality. 

Early in our marriage I was telling JoAnn a joke that characterized the wife as a “Ball and Chain.” She simply asked – “Am I a Ball and Chain?”  “No.” I replied.  She continued, “Is there anything in your life that I keep you from doing – besides maybe having sex with Keira Knightly (which would require a lot more than my consent)?”  “No.”  “So, I don’t think you need to perpetuate that stereotype in this relationship.”

Point taken.

feeneyWhat’s important in this story is that JoAnn was not and is not a ball and chain.  I’ve never had to complain her nagging me, condemning my need to play sports, or going to bars with my friends.  She was and remains secure enough to know that my life with my friends is an important component in the success of our relationship.  That’s the give in this give and take.

REMEMBER: YOU CHOSE EACH OTHER

Relationships are deliberate.  We find someone, we enjoy their company, we like them more than other people, we love spending time with them, and all of a sudden we’re in an exclusive relationship and things are going really well.  We share values, we share jokes, we share feelings – all of which may be subject to change.

The work of having a relationship goes on forever.  There are many good reasons you chose each other. As often as possible, remind yourself of the things you appreciate about your spouse.  Mention them every once in a while.  Compliment each other – essentially saying: “I must have really good taste, because I chose you.”  Create opportunities for flatterey.

AMGBarMDecisionCUPeople change, jobs change, children show up, money is steady, and then it’s not. Lots of things happen that seriously affect day to day life.  Staying in touch, having actual conversations, and getting things out are the best ways to keep your relationship alive.

We all have our own little secrets, but our spouse deserves to know 90% of what’s on our minds – if not “in the moment,” then a little further downstream before it becomes a burden, or a resentment, or a complete misunderstanding.  JoAnn and I have had many conversations that revealed two completely different interpretations of some interpersonal event.  Those conversations are always instructive. Some of them end in apologies and some end in laughter, but they all end in relief.

GIVE YOUR MATE THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT

He or she didn’t really mean to say that.  He or she doesn’t know you’ve had a tough day.  We all have a little alarm that detects slights, insults, or accusations, and I believe most of us have a knee jerk reaction to those things. TURN THAT KNEE JERK THING OFF.   It took me twenty years to learn that sometimes I’m erroneously making an assumption about what my wife is saying, and that it’s probably better for me to keep my fat yapper shut than it is to engage. 

THINK OF YOUR SPOUSE AS YOU DO YOURSELF

This one can be difficult, because it’s really a combination of “all of the above.”  The absolute secret of a successful marriage is to care as much about your spouse as you do about yourself, and to be willing to sacrifice something you really want in order to make your partner happy.

I’ve noted before that marriage is not 50/50, it’s 90/90 – if you both accept that you may be doing most of the work at any given time when, in reality there is probably an ebb and flow to it, you can comfortably dedicate yourselves to the common good.  Ironically, working for the common good in a relationship is actually a mater of self-interest. The more you do for your mate, the more likely it is that your mate will want to do things to please you.

REGJEGWeLoveULiteMy parents fought constantly… and it made it very hard for me to feel comfortable or emotionally safe when I was with them.  I vowed that I wouldn’t repeat that mistake – and I have worked hard to create a relationship where the “love” part outweighs the “being right” part.  People are always surprised when they hear that JoAnn and I never fight.  We disagree, we discuss, sometimes we fume a little – but we always find resolution.

These suggestions are about building a frame of mind.  It’s not easy to surrender at the back door – but if you can, you will always cross a peaceful and loving threshold, and that’s worth it.

The Blue Pink Thing is a simple term for the obvious (and not so obvious) differences between the genders.  If you’re raising both boys and girls, I’m sure you are already aware of the Blue Pink Thing.  As John Gray put it, “Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus,” and those differences manifest at a very early age.

BKGCopFixLittle boys turn pencils into guns.  Little girls like to dress up and practice twirling.  As toddlers, our boys could spend five to ten minutes doing a puzzle and then it was on to the next thing.  Our daughter, on the other hand, could sit with a puzzle for forty minutes.  She clearly exhibited much better focus at a far earlier point than the boys.  Our sons plowed their way through high school meeting their obligations and having a single, unchanging set of buddies.  Our daughter’s peer group changed like fashion… one day you were in, the next day you were out.  Once the boys went away to college, where they had to co-habit with people their age, things began clicking into place – like the need to wash clothes, dishes, and sheets.

Our daughter, Emily, has been sensitive and on-the-lookout since she was about seven years old.  She was keenly aware of her shifting friends.  Even in middle school she was providing therapy for those with less fortitude.  She saw it as her job to know where everyone in the family was and how they were feeling at any time.  To this day, she communicates with each of her brothers from college at least once a day.

EmilyFrillyShoesliteCropI suppose that hyper-connectivity can be attributed to our cell phones, texts, Instagram and emails, but, even in circumstances as simple as actual conversation, we have noticed differences.  The boys, when younger, weren’t interested in long conversations about their emotions.  But Emily could dissect every element of her feelings, and even invoke historical events we had long forgotten.  For example, “Benjy’s bedtime was nine o’clock when he was my age. Why is mine eight thirty?”  I couldn’t have remembered Benjy’s bedtime if I was pumped with truth serum and undergoing a polygraph test.

As many of you know, I believe our most important job as parents is to set an example, and Emily is a beneficiary JoAnn’s excellent relationship with her mother.  In fact, that relationship motivated us to go for “one more” when considering the hopeful addition of a female child to our family.

As JoAnn describes it, her mother was stern – but never shrill or out of control.  JoAnn’s mother was always encouraging and used “expectation” as her strongest ally.  “How could someone like you become involved in a situation like this?”  She’d say.  She had the highest possible expectation of JoAnn (as she did for herself), and somehow she and JoAnn made it through JoAnn’s teen years without all the familiar mother-teen daughter arguments.

EHGJGGBeachAs I watch JoAnn and Emily together, I see a similar bond has developed.  JoAnn and Emily are collaborators.  They discuss clothing, television, Emily’s friends, and, I’m sure, her brothers and me in loving confidence.  Many people tell us about their rebellious teenage children (especially daughters), who withhold information, sit quietly in the car, and go straight to their rooms when arriving home from school.  Although Emily is occasionally guilty of some of that behavior, I believe that, from the time she was young, she has always been able to confide in JoAnn who has always listened to, and respected, what Emily has had to say.

Additionally, JoAnn has never judged Emily for her thoughts or ideas.  That relationship hasn’t changed, only the subject matter.  Emily is not afraid to speak with us about her friends.  She knows we’re not going to call their parents (unless they’re doing something really destructive), and, if we were, she knows we would discuss it with her first.  She also knows that we’re not going to dive into her problems and intercede, so our discussions with her (and this is primarily JoAnn’s territory) are often consultations about the best way to handle her own situations.

The boys and I had our own unique relationship.  We washed cars, played catch, watched sports, told jokes and talked a lot about life.  My father had always been “instructional,” so I spent a lot of time just trying to teach them various skills and toughen them up …be brave, don’t cry, “walk it off.”   We were not immune to discussions of emotional issues, but those conversations were often intertwined with a task.  When they happened, they were quick discussions of problems and potential solutions – very male.

Throughout it all, JoAnn and I were always consulting with each other so that if an issue arose, we’d likely be on the same page.

GradKidsToday, our kids are still willing to discuss their issues with us.  Not because we did anything miraculous – but because we understood that they were growing, changing individuals and as such could not be expected to stay the same – whether that related to hair styles, friendships, or even doing things we thought were crazy (like parachuting out of airplanes).

I was about twenty when my mother questioned a specific decision that I had made.  I was pretty sure of the decision, so I said to her, “You taught me how to think.  I’m using the brain you programmed to make this decision.  I think you did a good job – now you have to believe in it.”

When the kids were young, JoAnn and I would discuss our “position” prior to our conversations with them.  We’d bounce the issues around, and usually determine an opinion or course of action together.  Then, depending on how it unfolded, the issue would be discussed with our offspring.

Through this process, they have learned to trust us, and see that we trust and respect each other.  We have high expectations of them, and they know that our expectations of ourselves, with regard to honesty, truth, and respect, are equally as high.  That formula allows them to seek and respect our opinions.

Shotguns4EmilyLite

It should be clear to any parent that raising boys and raising girls is often a different process.  The basics are the same, the rules should remain solid, but the day-to-day communication of objectives, and the application of opinion, guidance, and critique often need to be handled differently by gender (at least if you want your messages to be heard).  As a flexible, understanding parent, this won’t be anything that requires a special translator, or different family meetings, it’s just a heads up to you fellas out there that raising a girl requires more conversation and patience than putting your boy through his paces.  As you can see from the funny photo though – we’re still kind of old-fashioned.

In the end, teaching them all to be loving people is really what it’s about.  If you can do that… you’ve got it made.