A Road Well Traveled

By Gregory Keer

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.

 

© 2017 Gregory Keer. All rights reserved.

Posted in Boys to Men, Camp, Columns by Family Man, Friendship, Teens | 1 Comment

Soldiering Toward Tolerance

By Gregory Keer

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.

© 2017 Gregory Keer. All rights reserved.

Posted in Adolescence, Boys to Men, Columns by Family Man, Ethics, Morals, Perspective, Social Action, Teens, Tweens, Values | Leave a comment

Schooling Boys About Girls

By Gregory Keer

respectThroughout 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.

© 2016 Gregory Keer. All rights reserved.

Posted in Adolescence, Blog, Boys to Men, Columns by Family Man, Education, Family Communication, Friendship, Gender, Morals, Protecting Children, School, Teens, Tweens, Values | Leave a comment

Coming of Age Film ‘The Way, Way Back’ is a Summer Treat

Reviewed by Gregory Keer

Way Back imagesMy sister and I used to sit in the way back of our parents’ Ford station wagon. Like a lot of kids did, I felt like I was on an amusement park ride, going backwards. Of course, there were those times when it was embarrassing as hell facing the driver of the car behind us, so it was good that our parents traded the wagon in before I hit adolescence.

Duncan, the 14-year-old boy at the center of the coming of age film The Way, Way Backdoesn’t have it as easy as I did. He’s sitting in the last row of a station wagon at an age when he’s trying to mature while most of the grown-ups around him act like impulsive children. Played with slow-growing confidence by Liam James, Duncan is much like I was as an adolescent — awkward but feeling older in my head than my appearance. In this truly wonderful comedy-drama, written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who won an Oscar for writing, with Alexander Payne, the screenplay for The Descendants), Duncan learns to make the most of a summer vacation in which his mom (Toni Collette) is dating a conflicted jerk (Steve Carell), and Duncan is worrying about a possible romance (with the character gracefully portrayed by AnnaSophia Robb) as well as concern about when he will next see his father. The kid really needs someone to take him under his wing to show him how to enjoy life in a world in which all the adults are unhappy. Cue Owen, the man-child who hires Duncan at the local water park and helps Duncan find self-worth and age-appropriate fun. Sam Rockwell is so freakin’ good as Owen, it seems high time that this dude get his Oscar nomination since he consistently colors his characters with texture and wit.

I highly recommend this film as one parents should see with their children, age 13 on up. It raises issues of family, love, and maturity in a way that isn’t heavy-handed but very honest. I saw The Way, Way Back with my wife and my way-back partner, my sister, and her husband. We all experienced it with laughs and tears and the feeling that it depicted a universal experience worth sharing with our older children.

Posted in Adolescence, Blog, Boys to Men, Family Man Recommends, Humor, Movies | Leave a comment