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My name is Richard, and I am an addict.

Legend-of-Zelda-logoWhen my children were young and asleep I used to sneak into our family room, power up our Nintendo, and quietly play the now-ancient video game with infectious music called “The Legend of Zelda” into the wee we hours,.  Night after night after night – not too different than gamers today who play “Call of Duty” or “Candy Crush Saga”.

“Just one more game,” I’d say to myself around midnight.  The next thing I knew it was two am.

I’ve been doing a lot of radio recently, and when listeners call in, the topic of video game addiction often comes up. This is obviously a worrisome subject for many parents.

Like many other forms of addiction, video games can offer escape and distraction from what’s really going on in the world. If you’re a kid and you think life sucks,  diving into a video game is an attractive way to escape.

The problem is that sometimes a kid’s life does appear to “suck.”  If a kid can kill bad guys, or can win a treasure, or can outwit the machine, then he or she gets to feel like a winner, and winning is wonderful – especially in a home where criticism is the norm and praise might be hard to come by. So it’s up to us, as parents, to give our children choices outside the seductions of the video world.

FamilyAtDinnerAs always, this should start at home.  No phones or TV during dinner – which goes for both adults and children.  Set a parental example of activity: go outside, take walks, ride a bike.  Whether your kids join you or not, you are modeling a value for them about physical fitness and use of time.  One of the benefits of having grown kids is thatI have found that they record these behaviors (even if only subconsciously) and often adopt them in their own lives as they get older.

Meanwhile, keep an open mind.  Resist the temptation to automatically disapprove of the things your children enjoy – whether it’s video games, social networks, or “that damned music.”  If we close our minds to those activities, we eliminate opportunities for contact with our children and our relationship with them begins to narrow.  This doesn’t mean we have to like what they’re doing, but we should respect their interest, consider the merit of their choice, and then share an honest opinion.  That’s part of our job.

Aces-High-imageCropBy the way, many video games help children develop manual dexterity and strategic comprehension.  As they succeed in the game, there can be genuine emotional gratification.  Our son Coby was about fifteen when he discovered an online game called “Aces High.” Teams, or “squadrons,” of players flew WWII aircraft on missions that replicated air and ground combat situations.  We initially learned about the game because it cost ten bucks monthly and required credit card payment.  When he needed credit card info I asked Coby to show me how the game worked, and he did.  His passion was evident.

aces_high_cockpitI entered payment information and left Coby to take off.  He joined a squadron, declared his rookie status, and set up his plane.  He wore a headset and communicated verbally with other members of his squadron, many of whom were retired Air Force or commercial pilots.  He was the youngest player on the team, and the other pilots — at their computers across the nation — were warm, instructive, and encouraging.  Sometimes Coby would enter the house and explain that he had a mission in fifteen minutes.  He was dedicated to the game and to his new friends.

Coby had perspective.  He knew the game was nerdy and he knew his fellow pilots (some of whom were married couples, grandparents, or educators) were not his regular set of friends.  But he enjoyed the interchange and we enjoyed watching him competently navigate in a world separate from ours.  We encouraged him to tell us more about his fellow pilots, and we often gave him suggestions for dealing with this wide range of personalities.

Coby’s experience with “Aces High” was a massive, positive learning experience on multiple levels.  The game taught eye-hand coordination, aeronautics (go into a steep dive and you’d black out), teamwork, cooperation.  This was a good video game experience.

GrandTheftViceCitySome video games, however, are like bad neighborhoods. You don’t want your kids going into them, and this is when being a parent is far more important than being a friend. If you find your child absorbed in a computer screen, ask what it is that’s so worthy of their attention.  If you don’t get a clear answer, pry a little…and keep at it.  If you notice anger, frustration, or reclusive behavior beyond the teenage norm, offer some alternatives to the virtual world. If you hear a response like, “This is none of your business” make it clear that whatever happens in your house is your business.

Ultimately, video games are just that – games.  By communicating with our children and demonstrating for them that the social interactions of everyday life, like trips to the market, sporting events, guitar lessons, or karate classes are equally as engaging as the fantasy of their game, I believe we can give them the perspective they need to step away from their controllers when necessary.

If only I could get that dumb music from Zelda out of my head.

3-Aarons_1st_B-day-035One day, when Aaron was about around two years old, JoAnn went out to runs some errands, leaving Aaron and me to wash my beloved navy blue two-door Fiat (because that’s what guys do to bond).  The car, being a European two-door coupe, had very little room in the back, but just enough room for a car seat.  Aaron was like me at his age. He wanted to be inside near the steering wheel, radio, and keys, so he climbed into the car while I put up the windows, closed the door, and started hosing off the vehicle.

It was a beautiful, warm late Spring day in Southern California and we were having a ton of fun.  Aaron would put his hand on the window and I’d spray where his hand was.  He’d put his face to the glass and I’d spray his face.

Funny stuff.

fiat_124_sport_coupe_gray_1975At one point, Aaron jokingly pushed down the door lock, and I mimed how funny that was.  I also mimed right back that he should unlock it, but it was too late, he was already turning and jumping like a chimp on the seat.  Oh was it fun — until he jumped his way into the back, found his car seat, and to my surprise, buckled himself right in!

Aaron looked at me for a moment and then realized he was stuck.  He started to cry.  I made funny faces and behaved in a manner that most would describe as silly to distract him and calm him down, but I couldn’t help but notice that the sun was now shining directly into the car, turning it into a dark blue sauna, and illuminating the glistening beads of sweat on his little nose.

IMG_3657Through the closed windows, I tried to tell Aaron how to press the buckle so that the car seat latch would release, but, alas, it was, in fact, childproof.  With his little face getting red and sweaty, I knew that time was not on my side.  Since JoAnn had the other key to the car, there was only one thing I could do.  I went into the house, got my hammer, and smashed the driver’s side window in order to reach in and unlock the door.

Cool air rushed in past my face as I pulled him out.  Life was good, and that adventure cost me a hundred and seventy five bucks.

RGnJGGWhen I told JoAnn about it, she didn’t criticize me for leaving our baby to run free in the car with the keys inside. She just shook her head and laughed with me – as she did when I lost Emily skiing, accidentally hit Benjy on the head with a baseball bat, forgot to pick Coby up from Sunday School, and any number of other things that may have happened along the way while raising our family of four .

My parents were pragmatists and I believe I owe them the real essentials of this story — No panic, no anger, and an ability to laugh at ourselves.  In fact, keeping our head is one of the basic keys to raising children who remain calm and learn to solve problems.  It’s about the example we set, and as parents we may not all be in the same boat, but we’re all on the same ocean.

Parenting is decision-making — thousands upon thousands of decisions.  What we call common sense is just the most reliable compass for guiding those decisions.  Trusting in common sense solutions, like calming your child prior to smashing the window of your beloved car, helps us respond calmly and effectively when raw emotion might cause unprepared parents to panic.

BTW – I really loved that Fiat.

Here are five quick tests:

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Do you…let your children boss you around?   (Do they say things like “Where’s my breakfast?”)

Do you…make excuses for your children? (“She would have said ‘Thank you.’ but she was too busy playing.”)

Are you afraid your child won’t love you if you say “No”?

Have you ever let your child tell you to “Shut up” without consequence?

Are you worried about whether or not your children “like” you? (and I don’t mean on Facebook.)

Wimpy Parenting is actually quite common, which is one of the reasons I wrote my book “Raising Children That Other People Like to be Around.”  I know that some of you may object to my use of the word “wimpy”, but, let’s face it, you know what I mean.  Besides, I grew up when sticks and stones could break my bones but words could never hurt me – so I encourage you to not be distracted by my language and hear the message.

Today, parenting has become a “profession” and, as a result, has become the focus of great examination and angst.  Sure, people always worried about their children, their health, their happiness, and their comfort, but today’s kids are coddled in ways that shortchange our children and teach them dependence rather than independence.  When I was young and bored, it was not my parent’s responsibility to entertain me.  In fact, my mom used to say “Go bang your head against the wall until you can think of something to do.”  Pretty concise don’t you think?

vectorstock_1943457I believe in simplification.  The more “power” we give our children, the more complicated our lives become.  If every decision requires a consultation like “Do you want to go to school?” or “Is it OK if mommy and daddy go out tonight?’ we are really complicating our lives.

It’s up to our children to fit into our lives – not the other way around.

Yes, having children changes many things, but those are things that we as parents change voluntarily (no more sleeping late (gotta coach the team), no more swearing (the echo machine is in the room), no more wild parties (that one’s self explanatory), etc.).

Ultimately, it’s our job as parents to lead, and it’s our children’s job to follow.

Being a Wimpy Parent takes its toll on you.  You can’t make plans.  You can’t go to restaurants.  You can’t live your life because your child or children dominate it – and what kind of life is that?

The most ironic thing about being a Wimpy Parent is that children want us to be in control.  They are not equipped to have the responsibility that we give them by letting them be our boss.  It’s just not fair – they have far less life experience than we and they are much more comfortable being led than they are being asked to make decisions.

Just try it.

vectorstock_745873Have the confidence to take control.  Team up with your mate, or parenting partner, or best friends, or whomever it takes to give you strength and start making decisions for your children.  Depending on their age, they’ll most likely resist a little, but if you stand firm you’ll find that a lot of the “noise” in your life disappears – and suddenly you have a peaceful home.

I’ve said many times that it’s “easier to lighten up than it is to tighten up” which means that your children can EARN greater decision making responsibility as time goes on, but being a pushover from the very beginning is no way to run a family.

Trust me.

Children are not as fragile as we might think.  They live through the curveballs with which we present them.  They change schools, they make new friends, their feelings get hurt, and yet they learn to love music, they laugh at funny things, and they love their moms and dads.

The process is designed to succeed.

Which brings us back to simplification.  We had four simple rules with our kids:

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  • Be truthful.
  • Be respectful.
  • Be generous.
  • Be kind.

Concentrate on teaching your children those values and they will most likely become people that other people like to be around.

 

Here are 5 do-able resolutions that can help you and your family make the most of the coming year.

1. Ambush Your Kids With Something Positive Every Day

positive_kidI was recently speaking at an elementary school when one of the parents asked about consequences for bad behavior.  I thought about it for a moment and then realized that I preferred to give and receive consequences for good behavior.  Most of us are in the habit of telling our kids what they’re doing wrong, but it’s just as easy (and more effective) to bath our children in positive reinforcement rather than negative.  Not only does this tell your children what pleases you, but over time, it becomes a habit and tips the scale toward more positive conversation and less criticism.

Try some of these phrases:  “I like the way you are sitting quietly.” “Your teeth look really good when you brush them.” “Sometimes I just love hearing your voice.”  “It makes me really happy when you are polite.”

2.    Review Your Family Tree.

Family_Tree_TemplateHaving a family, no matter how complex yours might be, gives our children a foundation.  One of my grandfathers emigrated from Russia, through Canada to Detroit.  My other was born in Decatur, Illinois, where his family had a dry-goods store.  My wife’s family came from Poland through Ellis Island.  Each of them had multiple brothers and sisters and, as a result, our extended family is sometimes hard to understand – but always interesting.  Nonetheless, I’ve noticed that over the years our children have repeated family lore to their friends (calling us for confirmation) and grown to take pride in their own family history.

Today, the Internet offers a variety of tools for building and tracking your family tree, but telling stories about our family and reviewing old photographs often reveals a passion that really captures the interest of our children.

3.    Do Nice Things Without Expectation.

GrocerycartBy returning someone else’s grocery cart, holding a door, or picking up a random piece of litter, we are showing our children that we have a responsibility to help take care of other people in our world – even, or especially, when no one is asking us to.  I try to explain to them that doing good deeds makes me feel better about myself – just for me.  By modeling these behaviors, and occasionally enlisting the help of our kids, we are giving them a chance to do nice things for other people – which is better for all of us.

4.    Avoid Creating Feelings For Your Children

socceryounggirldribbling2I was coaching AYSO for my daughter’s U6 (under six years old) team when it occurred to me that my young players didn’t really care about whether they won or lost.  In U6, the emphasis is on positive coaching, good sportsmanship, and player development – it’s not on winning – and the kids seemed just fine with that until their parents started telling them how to feel.  “You played well, but you don’t want to be a loser do you?”  Last I looked, that little girl was indifferent about the result of the game, she was just wanted to go get an ice-cream, but according to her well-meaning mom she was now a loser.

None of us can be sure what our kids are thinking or feeling.  We often think that the way we would feel is the way they’re feeling – but that’s not always the case, and it’s something for us to be aware of.   Things like “You must be sad because Jonah didn’t invite you over to play.” are complete projections of how we feel as opposed to how our child is reacting.  It always makes sense to be compassionate and ask our children about their feelings – but it’s better to let them define those feelings themselves than to tell them what we think they might be.  In my book I call this “Leading the Witness”.

5.    Verbally Express Gratitude Each Day

I was about thirteen when a homeless person approached my father and asked him for some money.  My father gave him a quarter and then said to me “There but for the grace of God go I.”  I never forgot that phrase or that feeling.

KidsAtBKGWeddingjpgEarly in the development of our family, I was working six, twelve-hour, days a week.  After about a year, JoAnn “suggested” that I be home for dinner at least once a week and work only one Saturday per month.  At that weekly dinner, we’d go around the table and individually define at least one thing for which we were grateful.  Week after week this dinner offered us an opportunity to share our feelings and remind our children how lucky we are to have each other, to live in our house, to have food, school, pencils, television, friends, etc.

Expressing gratitude doesn’t require a formal occasion, it’s as easy as looking out of the car window and saying “Isn’t the world amazing?” or “Aren’t we lucky to have a car – what if people still had to ride horses everywhere?”

…and speaking of gratitude…Happy New Year Dear Readers.  Thank you for giving time to my blog and for sharing it with others.  May 2014 bring you all health, happiness, and simplicity.  No matter how ridiculous our lives may seem, we are all truly lucky to be here.

Wedding Photo Credit – Paige Jones Photography

BlogLite21As this week marks the thirty-sixth year of my marriage, I thought I’d try to offer some of the little lessons I have learned through co-habitation.

None of us is entitled to the “perfect” partner.  We just don’t come out of the box in a manner that allows us to fit seamlessly into the lives of another.  But we are creatures who can learn and adapt and, as such, we are capable of making choices about how we’d like to live.  These lessons have simplified my life and strengthened our relationship as parents:

#1 – There is a Bigger Picture

JoAnn and I had been married a few years before  I had gained enough insight to avoid blatantly ogling other women in her presence, but one night we were out to dinner at a nice restaurant when a statuesque woman entered in a very sheer top, grabbing the eye of every male in the room.  No big deal.  I kept my eyes fixed on my wife.  Later, as we were driving home in the car I said to her, “Did you see that woman who came into the Shoesrestaurant?”  JoAnn looked at me with disgust and replied, “Did you see her shoes?”  I had to confess.  I hadn’t seen her shoes.  JoAnn then explained that open-toed shoes with stockings immediately meant that, as women go, that one was asleep at the wheel.

Shoes.  Gotta pay more attention to shoes.

#2 – Embrace The Differences

DSCN0338I’ve played baseball in one form or another since Little League, and today I am part of a softball team that has played together for forty years.  Over the years, I have experienced every situation that can happen on a baseball diamond and I believe I know what to do (as an outfielder) in any circumstance.  Two outs, one man on.  One out, two men on, etc. etc.

Couples often fight about the way women spend money and men use their leisure time, but while I was devoting my time to baseball, JoAnn was honing her shopping skills to near perfection.  I have learned to marvel at my wife’s ability to drive a hard bargain, return an item without a tag or receipt, and generally make the system work for her.  I occasionally have the pleasure of watching her navigate the retail world.  I just sit back and enjoy.  I know that she is as concerned with our finances as I, and I respect her ability to make smart decisions.  It’s all how you look at it.

#3 – Think of Your Mate as You Do Yourself

We once went out on a double date with a couple whose company I enjoyed.  I thought the guy was funny, and I thought his wife was sassy.  When JoAnn and I recapped the evening I said, “That Roger guy is really funny, don’t you think?” To which she replied, “He’s not very nice to his wife.”  “Whaddaya mean?”  I asked.  “He treated her like she was stupid, and she isn’t.” She continued, “If he treats her like she’s stupid, and he’s married to her – then he must be stupid for marrying her.”

Done.

In the end, if you can find ways to appreciate and affirm your spouse’s intelligence then you’re really complimenting yourself for having convinced someone so smart to marry you!

#4 – People Don’t Change

IMG_0621For everything my wife does that drives me crazy, I’m sure there are multiple things I do that make her nuts.  I’m a little messy and often don’t pick up my clothes.  I sometimes watch football ALL DAY.  Sometimes I forget to tell her something important.  On the other hand, JoAnn occasionally leaves the butter out all afternoon, or leaves dirty pans on the stove where they cool and become harder to wash.  Sometimes she misses a material fact in a story.

Nobody’s perfect – but we’ve realized that arguing about unchangeable elements of our personalities only leads to acrimony.  Take a deep breath and carry on in the name of a peaceful home.  These days I pick up my clothes because I know it will make her happy – and also because she’s not nagging me about it.

#5 – Fidelity – The Bottom Line

When JoAnn and I first got together, she put fidelity into a perspective I could barely believe.  “If you want to sleep with someone else, you can.”  “What??” I said.  She repeated “If you want to sleep with someone else, you can.”

“Seriously?” I asked.  

“Sure,” she said, “as long as it’s oaky for me to sleep with someone else too. Because if it’s okay for you, it should be okay for me, right?”  Then, she added, “there are probably a lot more men who want to sleep with me than women who want to sleep with you.”

Ouch.    Extortion, but effective.

I am/was a flirt by nature and JoAnn knew that when she married me.  For her, it is both an endearing and exasperating quality that comes with the package.  She has allowed me considerable leeway in my relationships with other women, and, all along, I have understood my responsibility with regard to those relationships.

We have both worked to remain “attractive” to the other and throughout the years in which we had children at home we always took time for ourselves.  JoAnn has remained primarily “My Wife” and secondarily “The Mother of Our Children.”  We have always prioritized each other – and this has given our children perspective.

JoAnn never restricted me in my guy-type activities.  She knew when I was going to a bachelor party or had been to a “Gentlemen’s Club”, but she also respected that those male-bonding experiences were enjoyable for me and in no way a threat to our relationship.

REGJEGLagunaMarriage or cohabitation is not easy.  Reasonable people can make it work through diligent, honest communication and consideration.  Among the side benefits of doing so is that fact we teach our children how to respect others and accept imperfection.  Modeling a positive, communicative relationship is a slam-dunk way to raise happy, respectful children.

My friends used to ridicule us for our hyper-communicative relationship.  I withstood all that because I knew in the end that we’d still be looking at each other and saying “You’re the only one” (I can stand being with for long periods of time).

Happy Anniversary my love.

MarcieNKids1954cuOur own life experience is our greatest parenting resource.  In my book, Raising Children That Other People Like to be Around”, I suggest that parenting is like driving a cab: if you don’t at least ACT like you know the way, your passengers (children) are going to be nervous and uncomfortable as you would be with a rookie cab driver.

But how can new parents proceed with confidence?  By looking backward at the way they themselves were parented.

All of us are influenced by what Selma Frieberg, author of The Magic Years, called the “Ghosts in our Nursery” – essentially, the voices of those who raised us.  Learning to recognize how our parents influenced us may be the most effective way of preparing for the job ahead.  What did your parents do that you remember most positively?  Were there hugs at night?  Surprise trips to the ice cream store?  Goofy family photos? What makes these events so memorable?

dunce in cornerWhat do you remember that was negative?  Was it discipline with a belt, or friendly persuasion?  Was it time in isolation?  Was it “no dessert”?  Did your parents explain their motives, or just make you frustrated and angry with them?  How can you avoid repeating those mistakes with your own children?

I put together some simple questions for you to ask your spouse, parenting partner, or co-parent, in order to better understand the emotional land mines that you might encounter. Use these questions to help you clarify the values, vision, and goals that will define the system you apply as you define your family.  These questions should help you narrow down your parenting objectives and unify your message.  They are of value no matter how old your children may be.

  • What did/do you love most about your father?  Your mother?
  • Did you know your grandparents?  What do or did you love  / remember most about them?
  • In what ways do you think your parents are like their parents?  In what ways do you think they are different?
  • Were your parents always honest with you?  Did they always tell you the truth?
  • What do you think were your parent’s biggest mistakes?  Successes?
  • At what moment were you proudest to be the child of your father / mother?
  • At what moment were you most embarrassed by your father / mother?  Would you be just as embarrassed today? (Do you feel embarrassed just thinking about it?  If so, feel the power of this memory!)
  • Do you remember whether or not your mother was always busy?  Was your father?
  • Which or your behaviors did your parents punish most severely?  Do you agree with their decisions?
  • What behaviors did they encourage?  Will you encourage the same ones?
  • How did your parents let you know they loved you?  Will you (or do you) do the same with your children?
  • Did you ever really disappoint your parents?  How?  How did that behavior affect the way they treated you?  How did your behavior or self-image change as a result?
  • When did you most feel loved?  Why?
  • Did your family have any rituals / holidays / quirks?  What was your role in them?  How did your parents handle them?  Were they the leaders?  Did they ever let you lead?  How did you feel about that?
  • Who is your favorite relative?  Why?
  • Who is your favorite parenting role model?  Why?
  • What is your greatest fear about being a parent?

couple-talkingCuteAlthough I originally created this as a one-time organizational tool, I have learned that part of a successful parenting system is the regular recalibration of messages and techniques. The values you define from this lesson can be the foundation you fall back on, year after year, as you build the “emotional scaffolding” inside your children.

Consider these the rules of the sport that your team will be playing.  As managers, you and your partner will have to remember to watch game films at regular intervals, to review the day, to change the plan, to hold a mirror up to each other to see if you’re both still on track.  If you desire, document your conclusions after reading the questionnaire and check them every once in a while to see if you’re still on course.  Are you avoiding the behaviors you disliked in your parents?  Are you being positive with your children?  Are you communicating and reflecting your thoughts regularly with your mate?

couple-talking-moneyKeeping these resolutions in mind will make the process quicker and easier than having to always start at scratch.  Remember, parenting is a practice, it evolves, and lessons are taught to us every day.  The more we do it, the more we reflect and share, the easier it becomes – and the more proficient WE become.  Sharing and defining those lessons is one of the keys to staying on course.

We all have our own stories — and, to me, everyone’s story is interesting.  Essentially, these questions ask, “What makes you who you are?”   Think of your own questions and add them to the list.  Then decide, from this discussion, how you’re going to communicate, how you’re going to strengthen each other’s confessed weaknesses, and protect each other from your fears (JoAnn and I came up with “key words” to let each other know that we’d fallen off course).  Remember those resolutions, and use them as your litmus test when you regularly recalibrate.

DecaturStoreGreenbergsNot everything our parents did was right or wrong. How we raise your children is finally and entirely up to us – but starting with our past is a good way to build a value system, recognize our strengths, and move forward with confidence.

LEFT – The Greenberg Bros. store.  Decatur Ill.  1911

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.