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Even though I’ve written a book about parenting, the process of building a happy family continues to evolve, and after raising four children over a period of thirty-six years, there are a few things that stand out as lessons learned.  Here are three new observations that have recently bubbled up.   I consider these to be simple tips for helping parents unify their families and raise happy children.

Be Idealistic

When our sons were young, perhaps nine and twelve, they were playing with our neighbor who had a go-kart. Both boys were salivating at the prospect of driving it. At that time, the neighbor made a point of telling Aaron he could drive the cart, but Benjamin (our second son) couldn’t. Benjamin came home (across the street) to tell me about it.

It was more the neighbor’s tone than not being able to drive that was upsetting Ben, so I called Aaron over for a chat. “Our neighbor is being really mean to Ben.” I said. “Being brothers is a package deal and I don’t think it’s right for you to ignore that behavior, even though you want to drive the go-kart. If our neighbor is going to be mean to your brother, then you can’t let him get away with it.”

At the time, I was holding my breath. I thought – gee, only an idealist would expect his kid to step up to this – but Aaron followed instructions and abandoned the mean neighbor kid.  The boys came into the house and busied themselves with something else. I completely forgot about it until twenty years later, at his bachelor party, Ben explained that he knew what being brothers truly meant the day that Aaron chose not to drive the go-kart.

Hey! It sunk in.

Promote Family

The house I grew up in had pictures like this on the walls.

We had a small area in the living room with some pictures of our cousins, and my parents had various pictures of themselves and loved ones (including my sister and me) in their bedroom… but that was pretty much it.  I always got the impression that my mom felt that putting pictures of ourselves around the house was narcissistic.

Once JoAnn and I started building our family, she began decorating our home with photos.  As our family grew, so did the collection. For a period of at least ten years, we took a family portrait every Thanksgiving so that we could send it out as a holiday card.


At the same time, we took individual pictures of our kids and those were used to decorate the immense set of shelves in our family room. It was (and remains) essentially an altar to our family and loved ones.

At first I thought having all of those pictures of us and our kids on display was egotistical (after all, I am my mother’s son). When I think back on it today, and I imagine that family room full of laughing children, I can see how our senses of unity and love were reinforced by the images around us.  So, these are the pictures our children grew up with.

More fun I think.

As a result, I encourage you to do everything you can to unite your children. Promote group activities. Take family pictures and put them where everyone can see them. Show your kids and the world that you are proud of your family – and they will be proud of it too.

 

Pay Attention

We have a grandson now, so I’m far more attuned to people with strollers. What I notice is that many parents are talking on their cell phones while pushing their toddlers through town. Whether or not the child needs attention, it’s probably clear to them that they’re not number one on their parent’s agenda.

There was a time when we made fun of this phone addiction with a family photo.

I know it’s hard to put the phone down, especially when it seems as though the baby is being entertained by all the things you’re walking by, but the fact is that children are aware of everything we do, and parents who are paying attention elsewhere are denying themselves and their children excellent opportunities for intimacy.

The same goes for the dinner table.  Try asking everyone to put their phone somewhere out of reach at dinner time. It’s hard, but it’s only thirty to forty-five minutes… set a timer if you have to, but without our phones, we actually look at each other and have conversations.  Now my kids yell at me when I get a text during dinner.

None of these things is particularly easy….well, maybe the photos thing is… but what they all require is an understanding that, as parents, our job is to show our children what family life should be, even if we’re cynical or tired or not in the mood.   We have the power to build our families from scratch. My family is different from the one I grew up in, and so is yours. Make that a difference that you’re proud of.

I find, and have found, refuge in this optimism, and I believe you can too.

wishfulthinkingfingerscrossedFor many children, this time of year is about getting gifts far more than giving them. This is completely understandable, as these holidays are for many parents an opportunity to show children that we love them and we want them to be happy. But it’s also important to teach our kids that giving presents can be as gratifying as getting them.

I believe that generosity is inherited. If we parents show our children how to care about others, they too will want to help out. Take time to put meaning in the holiday. Tell some stories of your most wonderful experiences, watch a family movie, be grateful, and consider these three simple suggestions to help get the message across:

1. Make them part of the giving process.

Ask your kids what they think their dad or mom might like for the Holiday. Ask them about their siblings. Make the gift purchase your private conspiracy. (Besides, our kids are usually better informed than we are). Let them see how excited you are about also being able to give. Take them shopping and make them part of the decision-making. Use the opportunity to teach them about budgeting by giving them an idea of what things cost. Teach them to budget, save, coupon-clip.

2. Create a family ritual and slow things down.

The holidays come and go quickly.  To slow the process down, take some time to savor each experience — like trimming the tree, lighting the candles, and decorating the house. Remember, until those gifts are opened we parents have enough leverage to insist on certain behaviors from our children.

Here’s a suggestion that came from our very organized daughter. Instead of letting everyone just open their gifts in a paper-tearing frenzy, have everyone (including mom and dad), gather their unopened gifts in front of them.  Once the gifts are gathered, go around the group, having each person open one gift at a time. This gives children the opportunity to share in the pleasure of seeing how excited others get, and it’s also a way to prolong the fun for everyone. It takes a little discipline, but sharing the pleasure of the Holiday makes it that much more of a unifying experience.

3. Do something for others.

Whether you simply ask your children to help you decide on an online donation, hand them money to put into a Salvation Army kettle, or work serving holiday meals to the less fortunate, it is always good for children to see their parents being generous.

vectorstock_6496697‘Tis the time for all of us to promote “Peace on Earth and Goodwill Toward Men” (and everyone else). This holiday season, teach your child how to be a loving and generous person.

That’s a gift that will pay off for the rest of their life (and yours).

Happy Holidays!

Richard

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.

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.

RegalDaisyFor a while my days were almost perfect. I could sleep wherever I wanted, wander the house at will and always find food in my bowl. I could daydream for hours while my masters talked or watched that glowing box.  It was peaceful, but there were trade-offs.  I didn’t get a lot of attention.  Sure, I got some nice rubs once in a while, but I was given a bath only once a month, the menu never changed, and I rarely went outside the walls of my perfect prison. For the most part, I lived the classic dog’s life.

Then “it” happened.

I don’t know what they were thinking. Was I too boring? Did they need a challenge? Maybe I ate too loudly. I just don’t get it. I thought I was being the perfect dog – and then they brought “it” home.

For years my human sibling, the Long Haired Boy, had been bugging my masters to “get a puppy.” He said, “It’ll keep Daisy young,” and stuff like that. Well, I’m not feeling particularly old. In fact, I’ve had a pretty good run so far. Hips are in order, eyes are working pretty well, ears have never been that great. So aside from the fact that I poop every four hours, which the vet says is fine, I’m showing very few signs of age.

On the other paw, my two-legged owners have changed quite a bit. The little one who smelled the best moved out over a year ago, and the Hairy Guy has been home quite a bit (but he’s not taking me on any walks or anything.) The Pretty Lady with brown eyes (like mine) still brings me my crack crackers, but she’s not taking me on walks either. Basically, we’ve been pretty lazy around here for the last year or so.

2CuteGirlsinCarOn the whole, hanging with the Lovebirds was fine with me – until they brought home the little idiot they call Delilah.

For the first few days, I wanted nothing to do with the intruder, but my humans were obsessed with her. “Blah blah blah blah Puppy. Blah blah blah blah Delilah.” They were giving me that “extra nice” treatment… but it’s kind of crazy watching them get so excited about the little ball of fur that doesn’t know anything except how to jump up into my face and try to bite my jinglers. Can I just get five minutes?

That puppy doesn’t know anything. She breaks all the rules. She pees in her bed, she chews on the chairs, she grabs paper towels. Worst of all, the minute she sees me she comes flying in my direction and tries to bite my ears.. Lately the little bitch (literally) has been showing me up. My human says “Sit” and she sits. What a tool.

GrowlyLookAfter a few days of total puppy avoidance, my Masters forced us to get together. They held The Energizer still and let me give her a good sniffing. Not too bad. Puppy smell; simple, clean, new, and a little vulnerable. The two-legged ones forced us to get to know each other and then we started playing. A few well-timed bites, a big growl or two, and now little D knows how it’s gonna work around here.

Sure, I let her lay in my bed. I let her bite my leg. I let her try to steal my snacks and my masters are really grateful for that.  The puppy’s so enthusiastic I have to cut her some slack. I’ve got the energy. We’re both taking vitamins now. I’m even getting brushed once in a while.  All in all, I think this might be a gain.

DaisyHoldsHerOwnMore good news! Suddenly everybody is paying attention to us dogs, and even though they’re mostly petting the fluffy younger one, they’re being pretty darned nice to me too. HE actually gave me a bath, which HE hasn’t done in about ten years. I get a ton of treats. I’m sore from the regular walks and that stupid puppy is actually getting me into shape.

I’m also getting a lot more personal attention. It’s like my two-leggeds don’t mind having me around any more. They see that The Energizer will do anything I do, so they’re counting on good ol’ me to set an example of how to behave. This older sibling thing could really score me some points.

Today they rode in the Windy Box to the Land of No Leashes. Every once in a while the Masters are kind enough to take Delilah there so that I can get some rest. In those lovely, quiet moments, I can lie anywhere I want and not have to worry about being jumped. It’s kind of funny though. I actually miss that little puppy when she’s gone.

DogTugofWarAt first I thought this growing family thing was going to be a bummer, but I was wrong. It’s good to have a new friend.

Gotta go now, the puppy’s getting in trouble and I like to watch.

EmSonogramIf I could tell parents one thing, I would caution against thinking or emoting on behalf of their children. I would tell them that their young children don’t care if they are a working mom, or a stay at home dad, or a traveling salesperson. Their children only know one type of mother or father – and they are it – whether they are single, divorced, gay, straight, working or not. They are the definition of “parent” – and they have a responsibility to do the job and not make excuses based on their situation or what they believe their child is feeling or thinking.

RaisingChildrenFinalFrontCvrWebI truly appreciate the reviews my book gets on Amazon.com. I think the feedback is instructive and important. A recent review notes that the reader was turned off by a perceived “traditional two parent perspective” and that my book “does not address modern families in their many permutations.”

When my editors and I sat down to finalize the content in the book, we were very aware that it was largely based on my experience as a father in a two-parent household. Far from NOT recognizing this situation, we saw the vastness of trying to speak to all types of parents. We determined that I should write what I know in a mindful and practical way.

I concluded, for example, that the S.M.A.R.T. principles laid out in the book (Set an example, Make the rules, Apply the rules, Respect yourself, and Teach in all things) are applicable to EVERY type of parent.
AskDadCleanNo matter the structure of your particular family, it’s absolutely essential that you set a proper example for a child – whether you are a father, mother, step mother, step father, uncle, aunt, best friend, or whatever. I find that parents often believe that a change in their circumstances (their marriage, their dating life, their employment) affects the way that they parent their children. But no matter what happens in our lives, as parents we must always remember that our children are looking to us as examples. If we handle life with grace, gratitude, and kindness, so will they.

In setting an example, we are asked to define our values. Those values don’t change because we live in a blended family, or because our dad is single. When we work to make the rules, it doesn’t matter whether we’re a two parent family or not.

IMG_2734Applying rules gets a little more complicated because we may not be the only ones guiding our children through the process. Nonetheless, it’s important that we think of ourselves as team managers. Although we can only be responsible for the way our children are treated when they are with us, it doesn’t hurt to communicate our expectations with everyone involved in their care.

If there is no communication between parents, I’d ask the parties to return to setting an example (of how to communicate like adults) and attempt to do what’s in the best interest of the child. If that doesn’t work, I’d suggest parenting as best you know how – because you’re the only person whose behavior you can control.

No matter your circumstances, it is unlikely that your child will respect you if you don’t respect yourself. Respecting yourself is transferrable no matter what type of family you’re living in. Mom is mom, dad is dad – we have our expectations, and if our children fail to meet them, it is up to us to let those children know how we feel about it.

BE FIRMMy wife’s mother used to say “People will treat you the way you allow them to.” This goes for your children too. If you let them get away with back talk, disobedience, or other forms of disrespect, you’ll end up with uncontrollable children. Period. So, it doesn’t matter whether you’re in a blended family, or a single parent, or a gay parent, or whatever – the need to believe that you are worthy of respect is absolutely crucial.

When it comes to teaching, the bottom line is we’re all teachers. Every person our children encounter has the ability to teach them something, whether it’s the mailman who is kind and reliable, the grocery clerk who reminds you that you forget one of your bags, their teacher, your best friends, your spouse, your significant other, or whoever. Our job is to teach our children to navigate the world and, no matter who else is offering lessons, it’s our responsibility as parents, or step parents, or half-parents, or foster parents to be confident in the things we teach them.

It’s true that I’ve had the benefit of parenting with a wonderful partner, and my children have benefited from the consistency of a two parent household. But there are plenty of children out there who have benefited from common sense values and principles – whether their parents read my book or not.

Believe in yourself. Believe in your children. You will not be disappointed.

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.

I meant to write this post last week, but…

ExcuseMaking

…….the dog ate it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m a guy.   I like my space.   I like my stuff.   I love my wife.

For the first time in thirty three years I have them all back to myself.

EmilyDropOffYes, the Dropoff at school was successful and it appears our adorable daughter will merge into the flow of college like a good driver getting onto the freeway.  The road is clear (we like her college), and she’s a very responsible driver.  Worst case she has three brothers and two parents for GPS.

Our empty nest is, of course, relative.  In today’s connected frenzy there is no real solitude (nor would I want that), but JoAnn, my lovely wife, no longer has to feel the compulsion to cook, or be a waitress, or monitor every coming and going in our daughter’s life.

Our grown sons, bless their male souls, have found a wonderful rhythm with us.  They check in, say hello, give brief updates, and then move along their way.  This is fine for me, as it’s my style of communication.  If they want to “get deep”, like talk about their problems or something, I hand the phone to their mom.  They know what type of advice I give best, and they know that their mom will listen for much longer.  That’s the beauty of this thing.

REGJEGLagunaPundits, our friends who have been Empty Nesters for at least one semester, tell us that we have plenty to keep us occupied.  We’ve got a wedding in October and, someday… we’ll be grandparents.  Ironically, as much as JoAnn feels sadness about having this empty nest, she’s not particularly interested in having an infant or toddlers running around right now either.  Even more ironically, I kind of like the idea of grandchildren.  It’s really about finding the new balance.

For thirty-three years we have been parents.  What were once discussions about music, movies, adventure and dreams were partially hijacked by discussions about our kids, their teachers, their sports, their friends… and that was perfectly fine.  In fact, empty nest or not, our conversations are still dominated by issues related to our roles as parents and that’s OK, we love what our children bring to our lives.

JetskiSuddenly, however, we’re back to us.  My career has morphed, and JoAnn’s continues.  For the first time, though, I’ve heard her talking about the possibility of a change – of diversifying her interests and looking at some new things.  Maybe she’d be willing to collaborate with me on my next project… “THIS, I think, is what being Empty Nesters is about!”

It’s day three, and already the possibilities are limitless.  Anyone want to go Jet-skiing?

JealousChildI have a friend who feels that when her little brother was born, he “stole” all the love and affection that her parents had previously been giving to her.

I suspect that this is a common feeling among first-born children.  In this case, my friend dedicated herself to giving her own first-born preferential treatment and, by treating that child differently, created an imbalance in the family; ultimately recreating the situation she had complained about in her childhood.  This would either cause her other children to feel less loved or neglected, or her first-born to become so sensitized and aware of her favor that anything short of extraordinary attention would feel like neglect.  This situation clearly wasn’t going to lead to measured and equal loving throughout the family.

Ironically, this friend — whose child is now old enough to go to therapy with her — explained to us recently that she was shocked to hear that he always felt separate from his siblings.  Because he was always treated differently, he didn’t feel like “part of the family.”

The effort she had made to single out her son had been successful. Unfortunately, it backfired.  Not only did he not feel he was getting anything special; he actually believed he was being separated from the others, and was, therefore, not equal.

BoysAdmireBabyEmJoAnn and I believe in “100% Maximum Love.”  Typically, the group who qualifies includes our children, our siblings (and their families), our parents, our grandparents, and a few whacky individuals who are “family” (phony aunts and uncles, etc.)

Recipients of maximum love have no need to compete for “favorite” – because everyone is the favorite.  When asked by one of our children, “Who do you love more?”  we reply, “We love you all equally — the maximum.”  When we’re asked, “Who is your favorite?” We say, “You are all our favorites.”

GradKidsMaximum love really simplifies family life and allows us parents to completely avoid that whole “How much do you love me?” battle.  When we asked our third son, Coby, if he knew how much his mom and dad loved him.   He said “ “You love me as big as the sky.”

He was absolutely right.