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Gregory Keer is an award-winning columnist, educator, and on-air expert on fatherhood. He has written his Family Man. Get parenting advice, dad blog, tips for fatherhood skills, for fathers of all kinds.
The back seat. That dreaded section of the car that offers so much potential for sibling harmony. And yet, this seemingly innocuous space invariably serves one purpose — to be the horizontal haven of havoc.
Once my youngest child was old enough to leave the sanctuary of his car seat, he and his brothers formed a murderer’s row. I can’t remember the last time we had a ride that did not include a protest about not having enough space, a complaint about the unfairness of sitting in the middle, or a sharp elbow to the face, followed by a headlock, a foot stomp, and several cries for help.
I’m not really sure what my children think I can do for them in their moments of seatbelt-enhanced mayhem. I am often the one driving, so it’s unclear why they do not understand that the usual results from their mobile ring of wrestlemania are their own pain and me blowing more gaskets than exist under the hood of the car.
How I wish I could get my boys to resist their caged animal instincts. I’ve tried pre-trip lectures, incentives, even a couple of head-in-my hands emotional breakdowns on the side of the road. While the fighting may be dangerous given its distraction to me and my wife as drivers, what really gets me is how awful they treat each other in these situations. When these incidents occur, I despair that my boys will never be good friends and will decide to isolate from one another as they get older. Like most parents, I want my children to feel they can count on each other well beyond the efforts we make in their formative years.
However, for all my worries, the years of parenting multiple children have taught me that my sons’ warring ways belie their true adoration for each other. Whatever the conflict is, my boys do love each other. Ironically, their affection is built on constant testing. No matter how hard they hit each other, they will hug it out before the end of the day (sometimes two days, but who’s counting).
As a parent, it’s difficult to maintain this perspective, but it’s also fascinating to watch their dynamics play out. Between our oldest and youngest kids, who are separated by more than six years, we’ve seen how much effort Ari makes to get Benjamin’s attention. Ari tried wrestling many times, but Benjamin just wouldn’t engage — or would simply slug his brother to finish things off. So Ari has done everything from hiding in Benjamin’s room and jump-scaring him to squeezing between our eldest and his girlfriend on the couch. Usually, Benjamin yells at Ari to go away, which takes several efforts before the annoying younger brother responds.
My wife and I can hardly disagree that Ari is super abrasive in these instances, but we feel bad for both parties. Ari will sometimes look crestfallen that his brother denies his presence and Benjamin appears on the brink of insanity while warding off the assaults. But for all the years of tension, these two cuddle the most when it’s time to watch a movie. And recently, when Ari had a slight medical concern, Benjamin (who now studies Microbiology in college) was the one to ease his fears the most.
With Jacob, the proverbial middle child, everything is about competition with his brothers. Between Jacob and Ari, things have always been the most contentious. Closer in age, these two battle over everything, from who gets the bigger scoop of ice cream to who receives more time with the grandparents. Over the years, Jacob has jealously filched Ari’s candy stashes and best sweatshirts (when they were both similar in size). After years of being pounded on, Ari now has a habit of ragging on his brother for getting zits or having B.O. These two fight the hardest, but they defend each other the most when anyone else — including us parents — get in the way.
For Jacob and Benjamin, they too have battled over the years. Jacob often compared himself to his older brother in school, saying Benjamin wasn’t a cool dresser and bragging about his teachers liking him more than they liked Benjamin. When Jacob would ask Benjamin for help in math or history, the elder boy would throw him out of the room. Yet, these two competitors have become allies, with Jacob happily inheriting Benjamin’s hand-me-down concert t-shirts, and Benjamin frequently giving his brother life advice.
Watching these boys form their bonds over the years is one of the most gratifying aspects of parenting. Seeing them do it through an unending series of slugfests, insult contests, and chaotic car rides may make it a harrowing adventure, but I’m pretty certain it’s the battle-testing that will keep their ties strong.
A dozen years ago, when my sons were younger, I had a lesson to learn about All Hallow’s Eve. Up till then, I really thought I could construct the perfect trick-or-treat night. On that October 31st, I stepped into the night, ready to lead my brood through one of childhood’s greatest experiences – an evening of stockpiling candy and pretending to be a favorite character. For me, it was a chance to have as much fun as they did.
I even dressed up as Luke Skywalker, wearing a robe and carrying a toy lightsaber, though I didn’t look as adorable as my kids. Jacob (then 4 years old) dressed as Harry Potter. Benjamin (then 7) went for the medieval ‘dark warrior’ look. Ari (then 11 months) was stuffed in a puffy lion’s costume for his Halloween premiere.
As I watched my older sons ring doorbells and say thank you in voices as sweet as the treats they received, it was perfectly enchanting – for all of 15 minutes.
A car blaring bass-driven music slowed in front of us. A teenager in a Scream mask yelled out, “Happy Halloween!” then chucked an egg that smacked my pant leg.
My children thought it was hysterical.
“Daddy got hit with an egg! Can we go get some eggs, too?”
“No,” I shouted, before realizing I was cracking myself. “It’s only funny once.”
As we moved along, my wife commented, “The real Luke would’ve dodged that egg.”
I glared at her, then spied Jacob returning from a house, his mouth bulging with chocolate, ready to open a king-size Snickers.
“Only five candies while we walk,” I warned him.
That’s when my little Harry Potter quick-changed from British schoolboy to spoiled brat: “I don’t LIKE you!” he cried, dropping to the sidewalk.
I controlled my temper, firmly telling Jacob, “I can take you home right now.”
Apparently this worked because he hugged me, saying, “I’ll share some of the SweeTarts with you later, Daddy. I know you love them.”
With order restored, I pushed Ari along in the stroller, smiling as he pointed at the festive decorations of flying witches, fluttering ghosts – bloody body parts strewn over someone’s lawn.
Then, Benjamin whined, “I’m bored.”
I tried to ignore him, thinking, what could be better than going house-to-house with your family, collecting treats Charlie Brown only dreamed about?
“This is really boring,” Benjamin repeated.
“Look, guys, this house has a hundred cool pumpkins!” I said like a cheerleader. “This one is mean, this one is silly, and this one looks like Mommy without her makeup.”
Neither my wife nor my eldest son appreciated that one.
“Not funny, Daddy. I’m still bored,” Benjamin grumbled. “Can I go to Jeff’s haunted house to help scare people?”
I looked at my wife, dejectedly. “This is supposed to be a family night.”
“Let him go play,” my wife said.
Benjamin ran off and we visited more houses, but I kept feeling let down without him. Then I realized Jacob had slipped away, too. I ran up and down the block before spotting him hiding behind a bush, about to eat an unwrapped popcorn ball.
“Don’t — eat — that!” I shouted as I swatted away the sticky clump like it was some kind of grenade.
Jacob wailed in shock while I explained, “Didn’t we tell you not to eat anything that isn’t in a package?”
I leaned down to hug away his tears just as Ari, no longer content to be a live-action Simba the Lion King, pulled off his cloth mane for the seventh time and howled crankily.
“I’ll take him home,” Wendy said.
Seeing my perfect Halloween unravel, I sulked like one of my children, “But I want to trick-or-treat TOGETHER!”
My wife placed her hand on my cheek: “You need to grow up.”
Later, my family reconvened at home, munching on more candies and answering the door for other trick-or-treaters. My childish desire to be one of the kids slowly faded, especially in light of seeing Jacob handing out sweets to the visitors.
“Here’s one for you Cinderella, one for you Spider-Man,” he said before a much larger person came up, clearly an adult in a grotesque mask. Without a beat, Jacob said, “And here’s three candies for you, Scary-Face Man.”
Imagine, a grown-up trying to steal some of the fun on a kids’ night. Well, there’s always next year.
When my eldest son came home one day during his first week of third grade, he lugged in a sinister-looking black case. My immediate reaction was that he had joined the elementary school mafia and was about to make us an offer we could not refuse after making him transfer to this new school. The reality was a bit more surprising. Our quiet, seemingly risk-averse son had brought home a trumpet.
“How did this happen?” I asked Benjamin.
“They asked if anyone wanted to join the orchestra, and I said yes,” he said with a shrug.
It was that simple. He had never discussed interest in playing the horn before and, because he previously took piano lessons without much commitment, we assumed music was not his thing.
That was OK. I was thrilled enough for the both of us. Having spent much of my adult life regretting that I had given up piano as a teen and then devoting 30 years to idolizing musicians and writing album reviews, this moment was celebratory. My sons would play music.
Over the next three years, Benjamin practiced with a ragtag orchestra of kids, most of whom had never played an instrument before. However, their teacher, Mr. Geiger, steadily and expertly trained them so they got pretty darn good. Maybe some parents dread the warbly, sometimes out-of-tune seasonal concerts, but my face hurt from all the smiling I did while listening to Benjamin play in the brass section.
Our middle son was a little more intentional when it came time for him to choose whether or not to join the school orchestra.
“I’m going to be better than Benjamin,” he said, never shy about his competitive spirit.
Yet, when he came home with his own black case, this one contained a clarinet.
“Why not the trumpet?” I asked.
“Dad, I’m my own person and the clarinet is more me,” he reasoned.
Jacob performed with gusto and enjoyed being one of only two to play the instrument in the group. He didn’t practice much, but he made the most of the rehearsals and his flair for pouring his outgoing personality into the reed instrument.
Then Ari’s turn arrived. Like his brothers before him, our third child selected his own instrument, the trombone. Seriously, that thing was taller than my tyke, yet my boy was determined to master it. Of all my sons, Ari showed the most joy in playing, even though it proved a challenge to get skilled enough to blow the notes the way he wanted to. Often, he’d get frustrated.
“I’m really not any good,” he would sometimes say.
“I don’t care,” I would reply. “Just keep playing.”
I could have told him that the sounds he was creating were akin to those generated by a flatulent walrus. However, his drive to improve focused my encouragement of him. If he wanted to get good, I would not dampen his spirit. Even if it meant going to another room to rehabilitate my ears.
And keep playing he did, month after month. He got to the point of more proudly pulling the instrument out to show off his version of “When the Saints Come Marching In” and “Winter Wonderland.” And no kid waved more excitedly when we would see him in the back row of the orchestra on performance days.
While Benjamin petered out on music by sixth grade and Jacob took up the guitar on and off for the years past elementary school, Ari kept going. In the first year of middle school, he joined the beginning orchestra with which his skills really began to take flight. Much of this had to do with an attentive teacher who always found extra time for his large array of students. It is also attributed to Ari’s outside-of-school lessons with a patient and creative piano teacher and a marvelous trombone teacher. This brass instructor nurtured not only Ari’s playing, but helped him to transcribe music by ear and explore the classics of my own true musical love, jazz.
Recently, Ari emerged from a trombone lesson saying he wanted me to select one of my favorite jazz tunes each week or so for him to learn. To say that I got a little dizzy from the extra oxygen that request filled me with is not an exaggeration.
As this new school year rolls forward, I remain committed to the extra dollars and driving time it takes to give Ari as much music education as he wants. My wife and I may have led our children to the water of music, but it has been their own curiosity and willingness to take risks with their creativity that has given them a means of extra expression and an enduring love of music’s affective powers.
If I have advice for parents on this subject it is that, whatever your own musical interest is, make the effort to expose your children to playing music early and then support their pursuits to the utmost of your resources. You never know what will happen. Likely, it will be something beautiful.
Even though more men are choosing greater involvement with their families, miles of improvement are still needed to shrink the gap between the average mom and typical dad. Much is said about what the guys lack and should do to make things better. But what can the women involved do to help a father tap his potential?
1. Acknowledge the Changing Stereotype
If seeing more men at the park in the middle of a weekday or carrying a macho-looking diaper bag isn’t enough, statistics might help women see that today’s family man is different than that of generations past. A recent National Center for Fathering-Gallup Poll found that more than 90% of fathers are present at their kid’s births. A Pew Research survey published in 2013 found that, “When asked about their preferences between staying at home raising children and working for pay, a nearly equal share of working mothers (52%) and fathers (48%) say they wish they could be at home.” Going further, there are more men taking the primary child care duties, whether it’s because their wives are working more or because they are single dads.
Part of the reason for this is that many men want to be around more than their fathers might have been. The drive to improve things for their own kids makes them drive more carpool, get home on time for dinner, and take real vacation time that focuses on the kids.
Women can play up the trends and intentions by planning more social time with families that have involved dads. Men respond well to competition and hanging out with families that feature other guys who are breaking the old father stereotypes might encourage them to do the same.
2. Men Still Have Pressure to Fit Old Stereotypes
Despite the changes in how men view childcare commitment, they are still subject to the old expectations of being the primary breadwinner. Many guys feel inadequate if they don’t make as much money as their working women. And the media still reflects a general dominance of male CEOs, mainstream workers, and politicians.
Women can address these issues by removing the competitive factor that has arisen between spouses. Explain to your partner that you don’t care who makes more money in the house since it all ends up helping the family. More importantly, emphasize that what you and your husband are doing is modeling for your children. Your husband can be a leader in his own home by showing his kids that he doesn’t care about who makes the most money. What matters is the effort put into it. Then there’s the issue of the “other #1” – being a #1 father.
3. Help Him Get Involved Early
Momentum is huge in just about any long-term endeavor. That’s why the sooner a father gets involved in being a parent, the better the chance he will stay in the groove over the decades. Just as conception is always a two-person job (even with modern fertility methods), be sure to keep everything else related to the child a partnership. Read pregnancy books together, go shopping for nursery items together, and go to birthing class and the hospital (!) together. After birth, maintain the rhythm by having dad change diapers, read to baby, and feed baby bottles (breastfeeding moms can still have father give a bottle each day or a couple a week).
4. Get Out of Dad’s Way
Yes, a woman carries a growing baby in her womb, gives birth, and often breastfeeds the child. That doesn’t mean a man lacks the desire to nurture. Some men have a hard time finding that nurturing impulse, which is why the momentum factor is important to start before the birth.
On the flip side, there are guys who want to be VERY involved, but have spouses who keep all the fun to themselves. Lots of evidence points to baby’s needing more of Mommy than Daddy, especially early on, yet mounting statistics prove the significance of fatherly involvement in developing children. Studies show that children with fathers who care for them, especially from infancy, end up more secure in life, among other benefits.
Still, a lot of women think they know how to care for children best. They tell dads how to do everything, down to the smallest detail. If the fathers do something differently from the moms, they are reprimanded and often taken off some parenting duties. This is detrimental to the father, who needs confidence in his abilities, and the child, who just needs Daddy to round out her life experience.
The key here is to understand that different is not wrong. If a father feeds the kids something other than what a mother suggests, it can still be OK (as long as the food’s relatively nutritious). If Dad takes the children to the movies instead of reading books, that can be all right, too, because it’s still parenting time. It’s also important to recognize that fathers parent differently. Dads let kids roughhouse more and take more chances. This is different than moms but good for children’s developing understanding of the world and their limits.
One terrific way for a mom to let go a little more is to have a dad take one night or one weekend day alone with the kids. Mom can go out with friends, out of town, whatever, as long as dad must fend for himself. It’s tough for most dads (heck, it’s hard for moms too), but this will allow a man to figure out his own pattern with the kids and not rely on the crutch of a mother. Certainly, keep the cell phone line open for questions, but resist the urge to check in or else risk insulting a father’s capability.
5. Applaud His Efforts
We all need praise for what we do. It’s not that fathers need more of it – actually, they do. The fact is that, while stereotypes are changing, Mom is still the go-to parent in most families. The only way to ensure the shrinkage of the gap between mother and father involvement is for the dad to feel in control, confident, and satisfied. Tell your partner what he does well more than criticize him for where he falls flat. You can offer advice, but do it as a team, saying, “This is what we both need to work on.” The more a father gets in the regular rhythm of child care, the more natural it will be for the man to make good on his potential.
It was my eldest son’s first winter break since he started college, and I was so happy to have him home that I had all kinds of plans. We’d watch movies, take in a concert, hit up a couple of his favorite food joints, and just sit around so I could stare at my first born.
Benjamin had other plans.
“How many days are you planning for this road trip?” I asked.
“Not that long, maybe seven,” Benjamin replied.
“Seven days? That’s a whole week,” I said, deflated.
Benjamin put a consoling hand on my shoulder, our father-son roles reversed.
“It’ll be OK, Dad. I’ll have plenty of time to hang out with you when I get back.”
Fighting my selfish inclinations, I recovered my concerned parent persona.
“Who’s car are you taking?”
“Jamie’s. Don’t worry, Dad, it’s the one with the most safety features.”
“And you’re driving in shifts?”
“Of course. All four of us will take a turn driving.”
“Four dudes in a car with luggage? That’s going to be a close fit.”
“It’ll be fine.”
I stopped at this. After all, my son was old enough for a road trip, despite my worries. Best of all, he was going with some of his closest buddies to visit another pal in the next state. Over the course of 10 years, these kids became friends at overnight camp, where they lived, played, ate, got in trouble, and eventually worked as counselors together each summer.
Along with those kids came great parents, some of whom voiced the same concerns when the families met for dinner the night before the boys’ journey.
“How many of you are packing into the car?” Jamie’s mom inquired.
“Now it’s five,” Jamie said.
“Comfy,” Joe’s dad quipped.
“That’ll smell good,” Jamie’s dad added.
““You have to be careful about not distracting each other,” Joe’s mom said.
“We’ll be fine, I promise,” Joe replied.
“You’re all staying at Mitchell’s house?” Jamie’s mom continued. “Does his mother know that?”
“She definitely knows,” my son confirmed.
“Well, we’ve certainly all had Mitchell stay with us over the years,” Wendy offered. “Last summer, he sent just his laundry with Benjamin on a staff day off.”
We all laughed at this, one of many examples of how the boys have managed to extend their relationships to each other’s families. Skeptical as we were that night, we made a few more micromanaging suggestions about eating, driving, and being safe, then collectively gave them our blessing for their adventure.
In this month of February, as my wife and I make the final decision on sending our younger two boys to overnight camp, we are bolstered by the benefits we’ve seen Benjamin receive from his summer experiences. His months away with the guys he road-tripped with, as well as several other significant friends, gave him shared experiences that go well beyond what he had during school terms. Overnight camp allowed these boys to see each other at their best and worst, in the early morning and middle of the night. They formed bonds that have made them feel like family.
Mind you, tuition for overnight camp has been expensive, often to the point where we’ve struggled to finance the costs. Yet, of all the things we have spent money on, camp has brought golden value not only to Benjamin, but also to our other boys. They’ve learned independence, tried activities that expanded their self-confidence, and managed to survive on food they sometimes didn’t like.
Most of all, though, they have been educated in the complexity of socialization. Without parent hovering, but under the care of trained counselors and professional supervisors, they’ve lived and played with all kinds of people. They’ve had to get along with kids they didn’t like and some that didn’t like them. Because of round-the-clock time with each other, sometimes the dislikes turned into likes. Our boys have had to learn about emotions in themselves and others, even early romance, that could not be explored in a typical school day. They’ve met people from other parts of the country and from other cultures, getting to know details about them that could only come from their month of living together.
While it’s not a guarantee that my younger boys will maintain the kind of friendships my eldest has with his road-trip buddies, it is apparent that camp is helping them gain the skills to find deep relationships.
Regarding that road trip, Benjamin and his band of merry men managed to come home in one piece. They made some mistakes, but also learned from an experience no parent can ever really teach. As we did with overnight camp, we had followed the belief that the best thing a parent can do is launch our kids, then let them learn on their own. Of course, it helps when they have good friends to go along for the ride.
The soldier is someone’s child, a boy raised with lessons of love, the value of tolerance, and the benefits of friendship. Eight months into the soldier’s tour of duty, all those lessons are tested when two of his closest brothers in arms are out in a Humvee, driving through treacherous desert. Manning the turret is a hulking linebacker type who joined the military to protect his skinny high school buddy, who steers the vehicle. A bomb detonates, killing one soldier, knocking the skinny guy unconscious, and ripping off the arm of the linebacker. Bullets tear into the Hummer, awakening the skinny guy. Bleeding but determined to get his big friend to safety, the skinny guy guides the damaged Hummer back to base.
The soldier now stands before hundreds of students, not much younger than he was at the time of that fateful attack, telling his story.
“Aid was administered and both survived,” he says of his friends. It is then that the soldier pauses and tears come. “You see, real men cry.”
As he holds a hand to his face, he explains his deepest understanding of what they all fought for — to uphold a vision of the world that puts care for fellow human beings, regardless of race, creed, or color, above all else. Earlier in his presentation, he said that he had lost some of his Army friends and that “many of them were not the same race as me, or the same religion as me, or the same political ideology as me. But they died just the same. The strength of this country is and has always been in its diversity, and in its fearless inclusivity. If anything makes us exceptional it is this.”
The soldier has every reason to be cynical because of his trials, but his resolution is rooted so deeply that it binds a group of teenagers who struggle with their own doubts about life’s meaning. HIs resolution is so powerful that his tears return.
And it as this point that a student, a ninth-grade girl with a titanium leg in place of the one she was not born with, rises from her seat and steadily walks up to him. The soldier’s head is down, and he notices her just as she reaches out her arms and embraces him. He leans on this seemingly fragile girl with the strength to take him in and confirm that, yes, compassion and understanding balance out all that we lack.
When the soldier, who has let us all know that he is studying for a master’s degree with his opportunity to learn more about the world, finishes his speech, everyone rises, not just that brave girl. And everyone applauds him for his courage not only to risk his life for all, but his clarity in speaking up for something all too hard for many to see — that a world that is free and fair for everyone is worth fighting for.
As a teacher, I was privileged to hear the soldier’s message and the embracing girl’s pure show of support. I was also moved to become ever more resolved to drive home the message of freedom and equality so that my children will flourish and advocate others to be able to enjoy the same benefits.
This message has never been more crucial than in this new year, with a new presidential administration at the center of debate over how this country can move toward unity in the midst of intense disagreement and, at times, hate. Intolerance has reared its ugly head in many ways, more unfiltered than I have seen in my lifetime. It worries me, upsets me, and occasionally has me at a loss for how to move forward.
Yet, I feel compelled to find answers for my children and even for the students I teach. One answer is to get my family out of the house and travel the city, state, and country to see and meet people with backgrounds that differ from ours, in other environments. Another solution is to put as many books, TV programs, and films in front of them that show diverse perspectives. And it remains more vital than ever for me to encourage and fund as much formal education as my children can handle because knowledge really is the power we need more than ever.
These may seem obvious ideas, but they provide the experience and information children must have to understand others as well as themselves.
One more tack I resolve to focus on is to listen more intently to my children. They have viewpoints that will influence the future I hope to live in for at least a couple of decades. Judging by the audience that heard the soldier speak, many of today’s young people greatly value diversity and tolerance. They are better than most of us older folks at listening to opposing opinions, and unafraid of expressing their own. I have much to learn from them and must be willing to do so. After all, if I am doing anything right as a parent, they will be part of the generation to help this country come together more than I ever could.
My children are masters at finding my parenting weaknesses. One of them is the simple phrase, “I’m bored.”
When I hear those words, I wonder how they could be bored with me as their father? Next to a certain beer commercial character, I am the most interesting man in the world, right? I play sports, stay current on pop culture, and make clever puns. I’m also one half of a duo that provides electronics, musical instruments, playdates, Legos, and enough reading material to fill up what used to be known as a brick-and-mortar bookstore.
How could my sons lack stimulating activity?
At no other juncture of the year is the phrase, “I’m bored,” uttered as often as the winter holiday break. This is the period when many families close ranks to spend more quality time together. With their friends less available, my kids are stuck with Mom and Dad.
One of our seasonal traditions involves being with extended family for a few days in a rented condo. Continuing a custom she started with my late father, my step-mom gathers us to eat, play, and chat up a storm.
Last year, before driving to the annual get-together I announced to my sons, “No one is allowed to say they’re bored.”
I got plenty of eye-rolls, but a general agreement.
Everything went smoothly for the first night. The kids put away the electronics when asked, laughed with their cousins, and watched a movie with everyone.
By late morning the next day, Ari (then 11) broke the agreement. He plopped on the couch and uttered the fateful words, “I’m bored.”
“You just played soccer with your cousins,” I replied. “You could rest for a bit.”
“Not tired,” he countered.
“How about some backgammon with me?”
“No offense, Dad, but I need something more exciting.”
I bristled, but gathered myself to respond calmly, “Does every moment have to be exciting?”
“I think we’re all going on a boat ride a little later.”
Ari thought for a moment, then said, “Can I play on my phone in the meantime?”
At this point, it occurred to me that the problem here was deeper than boredom. It was impatience. And, doggone it, this was a teaching moment if ever there was one.
“You want to watch a video?”
Ari brightened, thinking we were about to view something with a lot of action or one of his favorite YouTube clips featuring squirrels lip-syncing “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Then I pulled up a TED Talk called “Don’t Eat the Marshmallow,” featuring Joachim de Posada, a decidedly non-superhero-looking motivational speaker.
“Dad, it’s winter break. I really don’t want to learn anything.”
“Trust me, this is interesting.”
So I played the lecture, which involves de Posada stating that he has found the key to success. He references a Stanford University study that involved a number of four year olds who were left in a room with a marshmallow. They were told that if they did not eat the marshmallow for 15 minutes, they could have two marshmallows at that point. The results revealed that two of three children could not wait — some ate the candy right away while others held out almost till the end.
de Posada further explained that, 15 years later, the Stanford researchers followed up with their subjects to see how they were doing. They discovered the kids who had shown patience, the self-discipline to wait for the bigger reward, actually were doing far better in academics, work, and life than the ones who went the immediate or near-immediate gratification route all those years ago.
At the end of the video, which also exhibited footage from a repeat of the study with other children contemplating, sniffing, and eating marshmallows, I asked Ari if he would have eaten the sugary puff.
“Yes,” he said without hesitation.
“Can you see why it might be a good idea to wait?”
Ari ponder this, then reasoned, “You want me to be patient for the boatride.”
“You’re a genius,” I said playfully.
“So, can I have some candy while I wait?”
Wise guy that he was, I let him have some chocolate before he went off to sit on the patio to watch ducks waddle past. He was plenty annoying the rest of the time before we went on that boat, but we had a new code to remind him of the value of forbearance: Don’t eat the marshmallow.
During this holiday season, my sons will again have their patience tried by sitting around with family doing very little of their usually hyper-stimulating activities. However, the gift of boredom — rather, the opportunity to practice patience — is a different kind of present I will try to give them no matter how they push me. My hope is that the gift of making them delay gratification will help them not only later in life but see the wonders of slowing down, being with live human beings, and allowing their minds to wander. Maybe I’m a spoil-sport, but I believe these possibilities are a heckuva lot tastier than marshmallows.
If you ask my wife, I am forever trying to catch up with her. When we walk the dog together, she’s booking down the road like a New Yorker trying to catch a cab while I mosey behind like a movie cowboy after a giant breakfast. Speaking of eating, my children constantly complain of how deliberate I consume dinner. I eat the way a worm might chew on a peanut butter sandwich.
Yet, when it came to starting a family, I was not alone in my slowness. While I was taking a circuitous career path through various writing and teaching gigs, my wife was also wending her way through graduate school. Neither of us was ready to have kids in such uncertainty, particularly because we were making only enough money to get by.
By the time our first child entered the world, Wendy and I were into our 30s, a decade older than our parents were when they began having kids. But we had jobs, just enough money to buy a small house, and a surrounding family populated by our son’s grandparents, several great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, and plenty of friends. We had love and support and a constantly growing wave of positivity that built as Wendy and I developed meaningful careers while we grew our family with only rare cloudy days to darken a bounty of sunshine. Life ambled at a pace that felt just right.
As I hit the late-40s of my charmed existence, the speed of existence revved up. My father came down with a virulent strain of cancer and was gone within five months. It happened so fast, I’m not sure I had enough time to draw a full breath. Now, I feel as if it was merely yesterday that he was with us. I still imagine life with him around to applaud his grandchildren’s accomplishments and just to talk about baseball on a Sunday.
Within a year of my father’s passing, my father-in-law’s health began to deteriorate due to Lewy body dementia and Parkinson’s disease. Sheldon was always a rock of a guy, a man of few words, but enduring support of his family. Worse for me has been watching my wife struggle to help him, her mom, and her sisters cope with the kind of extra care he needs to merely live out his days in ever-dimming light.
I write all of this to gain perspective on being in what is commonly called a “sandwich,” of being some kind of mystery meat between the slice of life that is raising children and the slice that is caring for aging parents. Sure, I saw a number of our friends scrambling to pick up kids from carpool and aid them with their college applications while helping parents stricken by everything from illness to financial woes. But that wasn’t supposed to happen in my family. We were meant to get our children through university, first jobs, and maybe even marriage before our parents started to fade. We had plans for our parents to coach us through a few more trials with the kids and regaling us with the wisdom of experience so that we could just enjoy the highlights of success.
Instead, we are dealing with pediatricians and geriatricians, nurturing our children’s wills while reading our parents’ wills, cheering at soccer games and hoping our remaining parents will still be able to recall our names.
Clearly, living in the sandwich is no picnic, but — it is vital to turn the sandwich into a feast of thanksgiving. We really have so much to be grateful for in that we have had parents in our lives who have loved us, taught us, and guided us so that we can bring up our own kids. We must be thankful that these parents have cherished and rejoiced in their grandchildren, and that these grandchildren have been lucky enough to be spoiled and schooled by their grandparents for every year they have had with them.
We must also appreciate that we still have a gaggle of grandmothers, and one great-grandmother, who are full of life despite the losses they have undergone or are undergoing. These women constantly remind us that the road provides plenty of detours yet strength and a focus on love keeps us all on a path of good surprises.
This Thanksgiving will be nothing like I would have imagined. It will not have all the people we would have wanted to be there and the conversation might be more about medical procedures than report cards. However, it will be a table around which sit vibrant living people and wondrous spirits who help us slow down to savor the time we have with each other.
During my tenure as a dad, I’ve weathered enough horrors to rival anything the architects of Halloween could imagine. The middle-of-the night variety of nightmares has been enough to keep my heart racing just recalling it. Nothing rattles you like being startled by a wife who says, “Go check on the baby, I don’t think he’s breathing” or having a five-year-old exhaling on your sleeping face like an ax-murderer before announcing, “Can I cuddle with you guys?” Then, there have been the screeching cats I’ve stepped on while stumbling for 3am baby bottles and the Exorcist-style upchuck projecting from otherwise angelic children at the stroke of midnight.
As I’ve grown as a parent, my boys’ travails have given me frights that chilled me to the bone. The first time I couldn’t get a return phone call or text from my eldest when he drove to a friends’ house sent images of mayhem and destruction I wouldn’t wish on anyone’s imagination. When my middle son’s face was mauled by a dog, I thought I was somehow the monster for not having been there to prevent it.
For all my horrors, they pale in comparison to the ones my children have endured themselves, especially because they lack the life experience to know how they will get through challenges that range from social pressure to emotional catastrophe. While they know they have my wife and me to support them, their quest for independence has often pushed us away. In most cases, it is best to let them suffer scares alone, since they have to develop inner resources, but heaven knows it pains me to see them in pain.
Recently, my youngest child started middle school. As our third, he has been “the baby,” the one we’ve trusted to stay young and carefree. However, sixth grade has changed that forever. He’s forsaken the hairstyles that kept his cotton-ball hair wild in favor of a close-cropped, edgier look so no one will tease him for appearing too young. Although that makes me sad since those curls had been part of his identity since he was born, Ari’s leap into the shark-infested waters of adolescent fashion has gone further.
One weekend, he and I weeded out shirts he no longer would wear. With conviction, he stuffed a bag full of too-small clothes and anything with superheroes or seemingly playful graphics.
“Wait, you won’t wear Spider-Man anymore?” I asked, thinking the Marvel hero had to be cool enough for sixth grade.
“No, Dad. I don’t like Spider-Man, anymore.”
I nodded and continued packing with him, yet stopped again when he tossed a tee with a Minecraft parody on it that I bought him just a few months ago. Had he changed his taste that quickly?
“This shirt is funny,” I insisted. “And Minecraft is for grown-ups, too.”
Ari grimaced, suddenly looking older than I am. “There are these bullies in the bathrooms who make fun of you if you wear childish clothes.”
Hearing this, my blood boiled.
“What? Do they threaten you?”
“No, Dad – don’t worry about it.”
“I do worry. Has anyone hurt you? Or your friends?”
“No. I just don’t go in the bathroom during nutrition or lunch.”
Visions of Mark Wahlberg taking revenge on teen punks flashed in my mind.
“That’s not right. I think I should let the school know.”
At this point, Ari looked at me with a mix of wisdom and steely resolve that he must have acquired overnight.
“It’s OK. I know how to handle this. I just can’t wear these kind of t-shirts.”
Something on my face clearly affected Ari as he held the shirt in his fist. He softened, and put it back in his drawer.
“I’ll wear it on weekends.”
It’s been a couple of weeks since that talk, but not a day has gone by without my thinking about what might be going on in the school bathroom or halls. What would I do if my child did get beaten up or merely intimidated into running away to hide? How does he really feel inside? Does he feel inferior to these jerks? What can I do to boost his pride and bravery?
The truth is that these are my fears, my visions of what middle-school horror is. On Ari’s part, he seems more interested in talking on the phone with his new “squad” (the word he uses) of friends and making sure his teachers see him working hard. I’ve asked him a couple of times about the bullies and he tells me to stop asking him about it. So I’ve stopped inquiring, even though I still fret over might happen.
What seems to matter is that my youngest boy, much as my older two who seemed to have more influence than I do, has taken ownership of at least some of his fears. I have to let him conquer the demons on his own, barring a raising of the stakes, of course. In this way, he gets to be the hero who defeats the villains and monsters that might plague him.
As for me, I’m sure to have plenty of other nightmares, mostly the result of my own over-heated imagination. And while I miss some of the frights associated with having to be the savior for little kids, I take a bit of pride that my children both want to and are capable of feeling their own way through the dark.
Throughout my schooling, it wasn’t English or History that stumped me. It was girls. There was my second-grade test in flirting that ended with a classmate bashing me over the head with her very fashionable purse. This was followed by years of cluelessness that led to a high-school dating career marred by an uncanny ability to misread social cues, resulting in one common response: “I just like you as a friend.”
As evidenced by my improbably long-running success with the woman who agreed to marry me, I guess I figured a few things out. But the road to my wife was full of misunderstanding and miscommunication that could have been helped by better education than that provided by my Beavis- and Butthead-like friends, the macho stereotypes on TV, or the ultra-suave characters on the big screen. I was indeed blessed with parents who taught me the value of respect toward the opposite sex, but they gave me precious few insights into the intricacies of socializing with the ladies. And even in the heightened hormone hell of high school, teachers and administrators had precious little to say about gender issues save for the basic anatomical information in Health class.
Being a parent in today’s world presents some very stark reasons why raising a boy requires a lot more focus and intentionality than the methods of previous generations. The subject of male interaction with females is one of particular concern as evidenced by ugly and aggressive actions by young men towards women on college campuses, among other places, but the fact that it happens in college means that something is missing in the education – both formal and informal — of our boys. Somewhere along the line, a percentage of our young males has opted for instinctive displays of physical dominance instead of rationalized communication in order to get what they want from women. And there is support for this physical behavior by a number of parents and other people who should know better.
While disturbing behavior by boys in college requires a worthy and in-depth discussion, one path of contemplation is about what we parents might do to instill the deepest thinking and reinforce the healthiest behavior in our guys early on. As a father of three dudes who are quite distinct from one another, I have learned as much from them as I have taught them about sex, growing into manhood, and how to treat girls in social and more intimate situations. I’ve discussed these topics with them in a variety of situations, with varying degrees of success.
Recently, my wife and I talked to our youngest son, age 11, who was part of an elementary-school guy clique that saw girls as alien creatures who had no business on the fellas’ planet. On occasion, we’d ask Ari if he ever chatted with girls, and he’d say that one was bossy or another was nice. Our goal was to make sure that he was being polite, even if females were not part of his inner circle.
Beyond his boy band, Ari has benefited from a different perspective, as he is close with a girl he’s grown up with. They were at overnight camp together this past summer and the counselors told us that other kids had been making fun of them for being boyfriend and girlfriend. So, we asked our boy about it.
“I don’t remember anyone making fun of us,” he said, with a hint of a white lie.
“How would it make you feel if someone did give you a hard time about it?” my wife asked.
“I wouldn’t care. She’s my best friend.”
For Ari, his view of girls changes with the situation, but he has made it clear that friendship is friendship, no matter the gender. Friendship, and the equality that comes with it, is the root of what we encourage Ari to continue, especially with the coming storm of adolescence. While there is nothing wrong with the instincts that many boys have about girls being different from them in various ways, problems emerge when boys see girls as something less than them — when they view girls as inferior athletes, lesser students, or more fragile than guys are. Our boys need us, as parents, to educate them about all the goals girls can kick, the math problems they can solve, and the emotional ups and downs they can endure. More than that, our boys require us to help them see that their own weaknesses can be strengthened by healthy interactions with girls rather than activities in which boys try to dominate their counterparts.
Some may think these points of education are obvious or out-of-date, given the progress our society has made in gender equality. But this is where it’s important to bring back the issue of what has been happening on college campuses and beyond. There remains a lingering, sometimes intense current of male disrespect toward females that shows up in even the most seemingly progressive places. We have seen it in the case of the Stanford swimmer who attacked an unconscious girl after a party, and the mindless coddling of that attacker in terms of his light sentence. We have seen it in the professional athletes who have injured (or worse) their spouses, then received little consequence. In one case, a baseball player who had abused his wife received an ovation after returning to the field. Absolutely, we should allow that aggressors can make amends, but what does it say to our children, particularly to our boys, when we applaud athletes while not talking with our kids about the mistakes these men made as human beings?
As parents, must discuss the tough stuff, sparing details for our youngest children, but at least broaching the big issues of fair treatment of girls and women. We should also ask our children to help girls who are being poorly treated, as the young man did who interrupted the sexual assault by the dumpster, resulting in the swimmer’s arrest. We must tell our boys to be watchful and active if male friends act improperly, and to never be afraid to break the bro code if they know something to be wrong.
Perhaps most important is the role modeling we adults do. In our relationships with women, be they in partnerships, friendships or casual acquaintances, we have to show our boys we respect women physically, verbally, psychologically and professionally. We have to illustrate how we talk things out and resolve conflicts with adult women and encourage our daughters and friends’ daughters in pursuits that are equal those of boys.
We should also actively involve ourselves in what our schools address with our children regarding all kinds of boy-girl topics. We need to ask about the programs schools are delivering, offer any concerns we might have about the programs, and discuss the topics with our children before and after they learn about them.
Among the other resources we can use are older children, be they our own kids or those of close friends. Ari is fortunate to have two older brothers, one who is starting high school and one who is beginning college. Both boys have been on the receiving end of parental talks about what they could do better and what they did right in their interactions with girls. They have also experienced a range of peers, from the most exemplary to some who have behaved questionably around the opposite sex. As a result, they have shown their little brother how to be friends with girls and how to act around girlfriends. They are the role models Ari has most closely watched, which emphasizes why we had to address issues early in our parenting career.
I am still teaching my boys about the keys to respecting the opposite sex. Frankly, I will keep talking to them about it because there are powerful forces out there that push guys to react to their basest instincts. Good guys can make mistakes, but with emotional honesty, lots of talking and ample role modeling, we can help our sons be the honorable counterparts to all the great daughters out there. That’s education with more value than any diploma can provide.