Posts

GreenFamHawaii2014According to Merriam Webster Online, a quid pro quo is “something that is given to you or done for you in return for something you have given to or done for someone else.”

I believe in the Kid Pro Quo, which I define as “something that your child gives or does for you in return for all the things you do for your child.” Essentially, it’s creating an expectation of emotional and behavioural repayment for the years of selfless, generous, and loving attention that we parents shower upon our lovely unsuspecting children.

Sounds pretty basic, doesn’t it? Yet believe it or not, there are parents who dote on their children — buy them everything, drive them to dance, or little league, or karate — without any expectation of Kid Pro Quo at all. I understand that “it’s a parent’s job” to do those things. But common sense tells me that it’s important to expect something in return – because sooner or later our kids will enter a world that expects gratitude, or at least a “thank you.” It’s a little like teaching the Golden Rule: treat your children the way you expect them to treat you.

Over the years, I have observed that by expressing gratitude for the things around us, we have taught our children (and others) to appreciate the things we all have in life – whether it’s a meal, a beautiful sunset, a car that works, or a spouse who is an excellent Mom. Every time I express my appreciation I am essentially defining a value for my children. It’s value that is not about them, that is external , but it’s one they should equally appreciate.

Children who are grateful have a tendency to respect the good things that come their way – good things like us, for example, their parents.

Aaron12kitchen_92liteSometimes even wonderful children need a little guidance. We were once expecting visitors from out of town. We had told our oldest son, Aaron, that the guests were bringing their teenage niece with them. We had also told Aaron that we expected him to help the girl feel welcome. But when the fateful day came and they arrived, Aaron was hanging out with a his friends.

I sought him out and said, “Our guests have arrived. Please come and meet Jeannie.” His response was, “They’re your friends, Dad, not mine.” Although I was upset by that comment, I stayed calm and again asked him to join me away from his friends.

Once we were in a relatively private situation, I held his shoulders firmly, stared directly into his eyes and said, “Understand this, dear son: If what is important to me is not important to you, then what is important to you will not be important to me. And, at this point in your life, you need me — for a ride to baseball practice, for example — much more than I need you.”

Aaron immediately grasped the concept and said, “Let’s go say hello to our guests.” As it turned out, the niece was really fun and Aaron ended up very happy with his decision to help out. Things your children resist often turn out quite nicely for them. It’s important to remember these positive outcomes so that they can be cited downstream when resistance raises its head again.

vectorstock_634418It’s perfectly reasonable to expect a Kid Pro Quo. It’s important that we recognize that life is full of give and take, and that by catering to our kids without expectation, we are not preparing them for the road ahead.

As is the case with many parenting issues, teaching our children to be grateful and respectful is connected to the example we set. I wrote my book to create a logical and methodical process to help give parents confidence enough to have high expectations of their children and themselves – to demand the Kid Pro Quo.

Teach gratitude, and if that doesn’t sink in, tell your kids what Bill Cosby once jokingly said: “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out.”

JusticeMany important issues are raised by the abuse Adrian Peterson, of the Minnesota Vikings, administered to his son.  Although there is absolutely NO justification for Peterson’s behavior, and he has been arrested on a felony charge, there are other, somewhat related questions of a milder nature.

To spank or not to spank – is one such question. Beating a child is completely unacceptable. But spanking, far less severe, is in some homes a functional part of the parenting process.

As parents, each of us carries what the writer Selma Frieberg has called the “Ghosts in our Nursery.” They are the enduring remnants of how we were parented. They are inherited behaviors that travel silently with us into our adulthood.

Early in my book, I suggest that parents sit down and examine the ghosts in their nurseries by answering a simple Parenting Questionnaire. The questions can help us define those ghosts so we can decide which ones to repeat (like being sung to at night) and which we’d like to eliminate (like spanking perhaps). The objective is to create a parenting plan whose methods are clearly understood and thought out, rather than unconscious “ghostly” reenactments of the past.

TheAuthor copyIn my childhood, punishments were doled out as if in a court of law. If I said or did something unacceptable, this was discussed and, when the charge was serious, like lying, I was told to go to my room to wait for my father. He was going to come “give me a spanking.”

As this took place, my father usually said that he hated having to do it but my behavior forced him to discipline me. We’d discuss what I did, I’d indicate that I understood, and then I’d “take my medicine.” There were limits. I was never hit with anything other than my father’s open hand. Done. Case closed.

For me, it wasn’t so much the pain of the whacks. My rear was designed to handle adversity. It was mostly the humiliation of facing my own powerlessness under the circumstances. And that was my father’s objective: letting me know he was the boss and he wasn’t kidding around.

As a dad that makes sense to me.

LittleGoldenBookI once tried putting a Little Golden Book in my pants as protection against my father’s firm slap. But my dad was no fool and he yanked it from my bottom before administering the three quick slaps that were my punishment.   I wished he would have seen the humor in it and given me a break – but no deal.

I was spanked a lot. My kids, not so much – but I spanked at least one of them before my lovely wife convinced me there were other, less violent ways to punish our children. I don’t regret having spanked my eldest. For one thing, the “legend” of his spanking traveled down to his three siblings: “You really don’t want to get dad angry.” And he doesn’t seem to carry any grudge. Luckily.

AaronCrew2002-1With our other children I employed the modification of dropping to a knee, firmly holding the little bicep (to avoid squirming,) looking them squarely in the eye, and then in my deepest and most serious “dad voice” stating that their behavior was unacceptable. I would often make clear that continuing the bad behavior would end in a serious punishment. That usually worked, but the physical component, including eye contact, was a significant part of that warning.

For me, though, grabbing the arm or even spanking wasn’t about punishing as much as getting their attention. I wanted my kids to know that the infraction they had just committed was outside the expectations of our family. Corporal punishment was reserved for only the most heinous of crimes – like lying or disrespect.

I’ve noticed that this issue usually breaks down along gender lines. Many men were spanked as kids, but women much less often. Historically, men are taught to solve problems physically, and women generally aren’t. So there can be a disconnect on this issue.

What’s the solution? I believe that “rules are the arms with which our children can embrace themselves.” Discipline is important to me. It’s up to each of us as parents to decide what we think will work best within the values of our family. I can’t say that all spanking is bad. because it worked for me and generations before me. But there is a significant difference between spanking and child abuse – and I think for most people the difference is obvious.

3GenerationsI grew up to love and admire my father, who administered the spankings.  I didn’t fear him, because there was always a logical component in his behavior. But I’ve evolved to a point where I can communicate my anger without having to hit. It was a conscious effort, just like marriage, but I did it.

Ultimately, I’d like to believe that no father wants to hurt a child. I’d also like to believe that most parents can be mature enough to control their anger. But the only father whose behavior I can control is me. I can advocate increased communication, I can encourage parents to separate themselves from their anger, and I can guide grownups toward having a plan, so that panic doesn’t take control. Sometimes the issue becomes a legal matter. But I don’t think legislation is the solution.

As Common Sense Dad, I think the common sense of this is pretty clear.  Our children want to be loved – they trust us – and it’s up to us to keep their trust by acting in their best interest. The Golden Rule applies: Would you like to be treated the way you’re treating your child?

To spank or not to spank? That is your question.

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.

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

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.

What happens when two strong individuals come together to raise a child?  Are they able to surrender control?  How do they deal with sharing tasks?  Who gets to be right and who gets to be wrong?  How can they make positive communication a habit and avoid criticizing each other.  Most importantly, how can they make their baby a project that will bring them together rather than drive them apart?

Thinking about this, JoAnn (my wife) and I recounted some of our experiences as new parents. And even though JoAnn has a Masters degree in Education, I found that our mutual common sense had been an additionally important guide.

vectorstock_920433We thought of the process as a SHARED adventure, and imagined that we had been dropped into the jungle together with machetes, but no compass or map.  From there, we’d decide to chop our way out based on our gut feelings.  If one direction didn’t work, we’d reassess and try another knowing that we were making the decisions together and we’d ultimately  find our way out.

First, we had to accept and embrace our rookie status.  As rookies, we could look at each event as a new adventure.  Changing a diaper, cleaning an umbilical cord, putting the baby in and out of the car seat – these were entirely new experiences to be shared, discussed, and dissected in a loving and mutually helpful way.  We were both equally interested in pleasing the other and protecting the baby.  So accepting that a slip of the hand, or an accidental pinch with a buckle was “nobody’s fault” made us equally confident.

The early tasks were simple. The baby was either hungry, playing, tired, or asleep.  In the first months there were worrisome little things; rashes, crying, maybe a cold or fever, but generally speaking we saw our job as welcoming the baby into the world and helping to make the baby comfortable.

Around four months, there are actual biological changes occurring in babies that make them increasingly aware of the surrounding world.  Suddenly, they have opinions.  They cry when we leave them alone and they start expressing themselves.  When these control issues arose, JoAnn and I counted on each other for collective intelligence and strength.  It’s human nature to want things to go your way, but with babies, you don’t really have as much control as you’d like.  In our case, we knew we had a bigger picture.  We wanted to fit our babies into our lives, rather than change our schedules to accommodate them.  We wanted our babies to understand that we were determined, as a team, to do what was best for them – within the framework of our reasonable expectations.  Having a plan allowed us to roll with whatever came our way.

As parents, we were both equally new to the task, and we each brought our own skills.  Once problems popped up, we would discuss them.  If we felt marginalized – we’d bring it up!  If one of us had disengaged, the other would reconnect!  As rookies, how else would we learn?  The shared adventure allowed even the most ridiculous moments to bring us together.

AMGBabyAtHatchcoverOnce, as an infant, Aaron was listless and had a fever.  The doctor gave us some liquid medicine.  Unfortunately, Aaron was determined NOT to take the medicine.  We filled the dropper and, over a period of ten minutes, both JoAnn and I tried approaching him in every possible cute and innovative way.  He would have none of it.  When the dropper would come near, he’d clench his lips and turn his head from side to side.  Although this made a nice purple horizontal line on his cheeks, we were stuck.  How were we going to get this serum into our very willful baby?

We talked about it a bit and, despite Aaron’s tears and objection, we knew we had to give him the medicine.  We put him on the floor and, while I held his flailing hands, arms, and legs down, JoAnn locked his head between her knees and forced the dropper between his lips.  Once she squirted the medication into his mouth he froze, stopped crying, and made a “What the heck was that?” face.  We had been pushed to an extreme we had never anticipated.  We had just used  physical strength to overpower our child in order to do what was right.  We stared at each other, emotionally spent.

vectorstock_745873It wasn’t fun. It was a real challenge. But we both knew it was part of our job.  We laugh about it now, but at the time we never thought we’d have to get physical with our children.  We knew we’d done what had to be done.  We’d done it together, and that’s what mattered.

As parents and partners, we have to do our best to give up our critical ways.  We have to understand that the process is unpredictable, a set of lessons to be learned. We must never forget that the process has enough flexibility to allow for mistakes. What’s really important is learning from those mistakes by sharing them, talking about them, and even laughing about them.

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.

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.