Spinning the Presidential Election for Kids

GoodElectionImageBy Gregory Keer

Name calling, whining, blaming. If our children do anything of these things, we call them out and explain why these practices are bad. If we see our kids repeat the practices, we give them consequences to increase the likelihood they will choose a positive path.

Yet, our politicians do this negative stuff all the time. And we let them do it. Sure, we might wag our finger at them, but we do not give our politicians consequences for acting like ill-behaved toddlers. In fact, many people support it via trash-talking (sometimes racist and sexist) posts in newspaper comment sections and on call-radio programs.

Some psychological analysis would explain this as being our need to simplify our voting choices in the face of the intense complexity of domestic and international issues. We do not have time or the desire to wade through all the particulars of whether our candidates have solid ideas or track records, so we react to the most basic, gut-level feelings. We think, “He seems like he’s sure of himself or she seems tough enough,” so we go with that. This is why candidates speak to each other, and us, like we are less intelligent than we are.

However, we are smarter and more caring than that. We need to be for ourselves and for our kids. America’s young people look to us, first, not to politicians. As the primary election circus rolls through our country with the behavior of a rock band that trashes hotel rooms, we parents have the opportunity to filter what our politicians are doing and saying, and teach our children well in the harsh light.

One of the first lessons we can explain is about being nice. We ask our children to play nice, talk politely, and act with gratitude. Then they see politicians knock each other down for all kinds of reasons, some of them worth discussing, but not worth ripping each other apart by calling each other liars, cheats, and weaklings. Rather than completely shield children from the melee, manage the media your child consumes by reading news articles and sitting with them through TV reports, maybe even review recent debate footage on the Internet. Pause in your reading or viewing to explain not just what is being said by the candidates, but the way they are saying it. When your child reacts to something negative done by a candidate, explain that this what people do when they are just trying to win a game and are willing to be mean to weaken their opponent and make themselves look better by comparison. Adults do this mostly when they have little better to say. That is where the real weakness is.

Point out when you think a candidate is taking the high road to be kind or at least considerate. Help your child notice that this is when the politician is feeling more certain that his or her point is strong. The fact is that no one – child or adult – acts poorly when they are feeling confident. Guide your son or daughter to the positive statements. You can even keep track of the number of negative and positive comments in a news piece or debate and see which candidate ends up with the most high-level points.

Often, politicians knock each other down without substantiated cause. The expectation is that the voting public will not check the facts. You can select a few points from each of the candidates and fact-check them through unbiased sources on the Internet. One source is Politifact.com, a joint venture by the Tampa Bay Times and Congressional Quarterly. Doing this with your child will help them see who the real truth-tellers are.

For looking at debates and the like, it’s also important to notice which candidates listen to their opponents and those who talk over them or ignore their questions. This is the kind of rude behavior we want our kids to avoid and to expect their leaders to refrain from. Arguing is not bad as it can lead to understanding more than one’s own perspective. The problem is not being able to argue civilly and respectfully.

To give our kids a better idea of the playing field being considered, aid them with reading and seeing the perspectives of as many of the players as possible. Most candidates want to shrink the amount of information, so it is incumbent on us parents to fill in the blanks so that our children can learn how to fairly assess the situation rather than relying on others to do it for them.

All of this is lot of work, but there are few better occasions to teach our children that the reason we want them to be nicer, more fair, and accountable human beings is to feel better about themselves when all the other idiots are knocking each other down. We must educate our kids about the childish and unfair behavior in the world, too, so they can know there is plenty of weakness in the world, yet it’s possible to rise above it and be rewarded for it.

While it’s easy to call all politicians scumbags, it is important to note something I learned from a political speech writer my high school students and I recently interviewed for a debate class. When asked if all elected officials were like those seen on a TV series like House of Cards, the speech writer replied that the vast majority of politicians, of all backgrounds and beliefs, were in office to do some good.

As such, we do not want our children to distrust politics, but instead be active participants in the process of discerning who the best person for the job is. In so doing, not only do we prepare them to take care of the future, but perhaps they help us make our own in-depth voting decisions

© 2016 Gregory Keer. All rights reserved.

Posted in Blog, Columns by Family Man, Family Communication, Politics | Leave a comment

Be the Light

luke-yodaBy Gregory Keer

When the trailer for the new Star Wars movie came out, my eldest son was appalled that I waited two weeks to see it. Lucky for me, waiting allowed time for parodies to be created, and for my son to sit with me to share a few guffaws based on our common adoration of that galaxy far, far away.

Since my own childhood, Star Wars has had a way of influencing parent-child relationships. My personal love affair with Star Wars began when I was 11, as I took the stage, playing a dashing and devilish Darth Vader in what is now an immortal classic, A Star Wars Chanukah. It was a fitting part to play, since I was dealing with my own dark side as I sorted through the emotions of my parents’ break up.

My devotion to Lucas’ space mythology took a deeper turn when I saw The Empire Strikes Back. In the throes of adolescence, I had far less time with my father than I wanted. While I didn’t exactly have the paternal issues of Luke Skywalker – my dad was more prone to shaking my hand as opposed to lasering it off – I did feel a Force-like bond to a diminutive green man with a voice like Sesame Street’s Grover. For me, Yoda was the father figure I wanted, the kind of person to teach, challenge, and guide me to live well.

For a kid who lived in his head most of the time, nothing offered clarity better than the line: “Do. Or do not. There is no try.” So, I tried, with disappointing results.

At age 14, I was a middling student, a benchwarmer for the JV basketball team, a debater who approached each tournament with gremlins fighting in my stomach, and a romantic who had so little confidence in talking to girls that I wrote out scripts before I called anyone:

“Hello, Debbie, this is (rustling papers) Gregg Keer.” – “How are you?” – “You don’t remember me?” — “We (voice cracking) danced to “Freak Out?”

Yes, I certainly felt like a freak – and a geek – and I desperately wanted a Yoda. I talked to educators, a couple of whom were patient and wise guides like my English teacher Mr. West and my Western Civ instructor, Dr. Kleinz. I read magazine articles about famous actors who doled out life advice, like Paul Newman, or athletes like Magic Johnson. Everyone had something I could learn from, but it was all fleeting. The teachers at my school moved on to new students and celebrities weren’t exactly a phone call away.

One person was always a phone call away. He was even available for Tuesday carpool and Friday after-school deli lunches. He didn’t talk a whole lot, but he was there. Always there.

It was hard for me to let go of my anger and disappointment at my father’s departure from our nuclear family. I had little perspective of what was really going on with him. I was a self-centered teenager who wanted a mentor, and I thought it could not possibly be the quiet, steady man who helped conceive me.

Over the decades, my father was always present, available to listen more than give advice, though he offered life tips in simple and direct ways whenever it was needed. He practiced medicine in similarly understated manner, getting to know the parents and children as human beings with rich lives worth knowing about more than just patients who needed a stitch or a pill. His consistently ready and willing approach to everyone showed me the way, not with flash or fire but with long-lasting illumination.

When it came time for me to focus on a career in teaching, after years of trying to find myself in the make-or-break world of screenwriting, I slowly discovered the secret well-spring my father had long demonstrated. In teaching, I did not have to razzle-dazzle anyone. What I needed to do was be a rock-solid source of information and encouragement.

Many students, I found, wanted more than just a fly-by-night educator who would churn them through a year’s worth of lessons and then say goodbye. They sought a mentor who would learn what made them tick and give them a knowing nudge in the right direction for years to come. I’ve seen it in the senior high school students who ask me for assistance in choosing colleges, and I’ve experienced it with university undergraduates who request my critiques of their essays and short films. For me, having their trust in my wisdom has been immeasurably validating.

I never get tired of hearing from my students. Being a consistently guiding light, much in the way my father was for me, means so much in a world that often isolates and abandons its young people. It is a yearning that rings true in ageless science fiction characters, but is loudest in reality. Our children need mentors of all kinds, not just schoolteachers, but patient parents, coaches, karate instructors, ballet directors, family friends, employers. We adults must shed our own self-doubts, our internal and external complications, and stay committed to guiding our children. As Yoda once said, “In a dark place we find ourselves, and a little more knowledge lights our way.”

© 2015 Gregory Keer. All rights reserved.

Posted in Adolescence, Columns by Family Man, Divorced Dads, Education | Leave a comment

Jacob Doing Work

IMG_3894Dear Jacob,

When you were born, your eyes opened wide like window shades snapping up to let daylight in. Your big brown peepers compelled everyone’s attention as if to say, “That was a long 40 weeks. Now, let’s get to work.”

You’ve been working ever since. A whirlwind of cerebral, emotional, and physical activity, you are the most productive human being I know. You do everything with a fire that propels you to seize every moment with the gusto of a swashbuckling pirate. “Yar, mateys, if we keep sailing west, we can get the day’s third chest of gold booty before sunset!”

For a father who sometimes barely musters the energy level of a base sloth, this has been a challenge. From babyhood to elementary school, you kept me awake nights wailing for attention when you lost your pacifier, itself likely exhausted from overwork. You made me chase after you as you scooped up curious items from the ground – cigarette butts, coins, tree droppings – before I could snatch them from your mouth. You had me read books to you way past my bedtime and rush out to the store for more art supplies to feed your bottomless drive to draw enough pictures to wallpaper our house.

And then there were the questions. “Why is it hot? What is the name of that tree? Why did you say that bad word?”

Often, I’d fret from exhaustion. “I don’t think I can answer another question about how old everyone he’s ever met is,” I’d say. “And how many times do I have to say no to another hermit crab, hamster, or beta fish?”

You even asked for another dog, not long after that crazy hound mistook your face for a steak. Nothing could deter your quest to grab more from life, despite the obstacles thrown at you.

Mom and I have spent many nights, catching our breath from the Jacob Keer Experience. However, our exhaustion has frequently turned to laughter and amazement at how much you accomplished each day. You may have drained our batteries by sundown, but our joy in raising such a vibrant boy has recharged us for sunup.

To bask a little more in your radiance, I coached you in basketball and soccer. Corralling you for drills wasn’t easy, yet it seemed to pay off. Eventually, your athletic smarts and strength outgrew me and you became the darting demon you are on the soccer pitch. I can’t tell you the pride I felt that day last year when – after years of developing your skills through practice in the backyard and at the park – you placed a penalty kick into the upper corner of the net to secure the championship for your team.

You and I have always shared a love for music. You do my heart good when you sing classic U2, Van Morrison, Prince, and Three Dog Night songs that you’ve somehow memorized in just a couple of listens. You make me beam with pride with performances on the ukulele and guitar. And you floor me with the kind of relentless attention to detail you give in writing lyrics to a song you’re mimicking or creating from scratch.

Sometimes, a lot of times, we fight about getting out of the house, doing chores, being polite to your brothers, or whatever else fathers and sons battle over. I feel awful when I lose my temper and wonder why you don’t acknowledge that I struggle, too, to find ways to communicate the right things in the right way. And then you’ll do something like make me a Father’s Day breakfast Wolfgang Puck would be jealous of or write a suspenseful story to put The Hunger Games to shame. These accomplishments teach me that you are listening, you are learning from me and Mom. You’re just listening and learning so fast, there’s no time to sit and just say, “Wow, look at what’s happening here.”

Well, I am doing just that, Jacob. I’m saying a huge “Wow” about all that’s been happening and continues to happen with everything you do. Everything you are.

You are impressive not just because of what you achieve, but how you achieve it. You work so very hard. Even when you throw your hands in the air in frustration, teetering on giving up on an essay or planning a social adventure with a dozen friends, you gather yourself and get back to the task at hand.

You worked hard, once again, to prepare for the momentous rite of passage that is your bar mitzvah. Everyone gets to experience the fruits of your labor. As for me, I may be the slowest moving guy in the family, but my love and pride keep pace with you, Jacob. May you always love the process and the work it takes to live a life you have filled to the top since the moment you were born.

Love,

Dad

Posted in Adolescence, Child Development, Columns by Family Man, Perspective, Teens | 1 Comment

Math Mayhem

SchoolhouseRockMathIn third grade, I was a multiplication whiz. I had memorized most of the times tables with the help of Schoolhouse Rock’s clever cartoons such as “Three is the Magic Number” and “Naughty Number Nine.” I was driven by the candy rewards my teacher promised with each recitation of the correct sums.

From multiplication, I went to the world of percentages, particularly as they applied to baseball statistics. I huddled over box scores each morning with my cereal and could recite batting averages at random with my buddies as we compared baseball cards.

It all went downhill from there. By the time I reached middle school, I was a tangled mess of a mathematician. Algebra proved to be my biggest downfall. You know, the very basis of all advanced arithmetic.

In my first year of high school, I would sit with Mrs. Goldberg, a kindly, infinitely patient educator, and go through algebraic equations again and again. Almost every time we completed a problem, she’d stop to say, “Now, does that make sense?”

I’d sit there, sometimes more worried about disappointing her than myself, and reply, “No.”

She’d exhale slowly and ask, “What don’t you understand?”

My response: “Everything.”

The poor woman once snapped a pencil in two before collecting herself to try another approach.

Despite the extra help from teachers, tutors, my father – for whom math came quite easily and my struggles were a confounding mystery– I became a math disaster. My confidence was so shaken that, even if an occasional ray of light shone through in practice, I’d manage to muck things up on a test. I couldn’t so much as look at an equation or say the word “math” without feeling queasy. When I was placed in a remedial math class in 10th grade, my humiliation was complete. I felt like numerical dunce.

Try as I might to keep from transferring my issues to my children, some of this pain has reared its ugly head in my kids. Thankfully, my middle son has emerged from earlier struggles through a work ethic that makes mine pale in comparison. However, my eldest and youngest boys have been through the arithmetic ringer.

This past year, Benjamin (16) labored through a second semester of Algebra 2, nailing all of his homework assignments, yet suffering on his exams. Each time, he would go into the test feeling he knew the material, then, in the heat of the assessment, he would get stuck on a problem or two, puzzle them through backward and forwards, and invariably run out of time. His confidence dropped further with each test so much that he doubted his ability to do well even before he started. His math teacher gave him extra instruction, the department chair helped him during office hours, and we found a great peer tutor to aid with the final exam prep.

In the end, Benjamin passed the class, but not without feeling that math was a dark labyrinth that offered little daylight. This troubled me because I hated seeing my son slip down a slope of declining faith in his abilities and, worse, because I could offer no help other than commiseration.

For my nine-year-old, it’s hard to tell whether his math problems stemmed from the dislike of the challenge or from the challenge being too great for his developing brain. Just getting Ari to sit down to do calculations was like pulling on the leash of a dog that doesn’t want to go outside. When I did get Ari to approach a set of problems, he’d frequently get so tied up in knots that we splashed around countless puddles of tears (both his and mine).

From attempting to boost Benjamin’s confidence before tests to hand-holding Ari while he scribbled out answers, nothing helped pave my kids’ way to mathematical success.

I realize, after a summer of reflection, that my sons’ struggles are not necessarily mine. My genetics might have something to do with their math block, but it doesn’t mean I can be the one to fix it. In fact, the more I tried to fix it, the more I interfered in their individual process of getting out of the mess. All I saw was their pain and my need to alleviate it. As a result, we all finished the year feeling unsettled about the situation.

As the new school year begins, I intend to follow a different approach. My children’s battle with math is not a chance for me to rectify all that went wrong in my own number conundrums. Instead, I will be supportive from afar and let the fresh year, with different teachers, lead the way to hopefully a better experience for my kids. If they do struggle, so be it. I know of at least one person who made it to his 40s only being good at memorizing baseball stats.

© 2014 Gregory Keer. All rights reserved.

Posted in Columns by Family Man, Education, Perspective | Leave a comment

Words for My Father

By Gregory Keer

DadwBenjToday would have been my father’s 75th birthday. We had been planning to celebrate it for months and months prior to this date, July 12, 2014. Cancer had other plans, and it took him away from us on February 9 of this year, following a diagnosis less than four months earlier.

After my dad’s death, I took a hiatus from this Web site, partly in keeping with the advice he often gave me to try to slow down a bit more to gather in the details of life. But, on this day when it’s so very hard to be without him, I want to recognize the meaning he had for me in some fashion that feels right. Below is a version of the eulogy I gave at Dad’s funeral. It was surreal to be speaking about him in past tense when I said the words in front of the hundreds who came out to honor him that day. It still doesn’t feel quite real — and yet it is. Grieving is a long process, but remembering is forever, especially when it involves a man such as my father.

***

There are many reasons why I write. A number of them are because of my father. Dad, the man of science, was also a man of poetry. He wrote of moments and emotions in loving phrases to his luminous wife Franny and he etched in ink words of praise and vivid observation to all his children. He even wrote a children’s story about “Rollo,” a ball who learned to keep moving if he wanted to enjoy the world around him.

At times, I struggled to talk to my dad. There was the divorce, which took him away from daily opportunities to converse and he was needed by tens of thousands of patients over a 45-year career. Sometimes, I felt I couldn’t get enough of him. I certainly couldn’t get enough of him on the phone. My sister Kim can attest to my father’s dislike of the phone — often exhausted by work calls, Dad treated the receiver like it was one of Maxwell Smart’s shoe communicators that had come in contact with a pile of dog poop.

One of my motivations to write was to find ways to stop time, particularly in the hyperspace of adolescence, and tell my dad how much I loved him, how much I needed his words of validation. In my pre-teen and teen years, I wrote cards to him, with painstakingly chosen messages. It helped, especially since he wrote back cards to me, with sentences that never failed to reduce me to tears because they shone with such love and attention to the details of my concerns.

It was partly through my father’s writings that I was assured he was always thinking of me, crafting ways to guide me, even when he wasn’t talking out loud. They also showed me how much my dad preferred action over words. Dad was a doer, and the relationship we had over 47 years was less about chit chat or parental lecturing and more about playing basketball together, going to baseball games, and taking trips. So many trips to places like Chicago to see the grandparents, Philadelphia for father-son time, the Sierras for moments of hilarity with the Sussmans, Yosemite for one of many KJ adventures, Palm Desert with all the grandchildren, and Paris for a grown-up vacation with Franny – who, together with Dad, taught me so very much about love and partnership that I was able to find the most remarkable woman in Wendy. My God, there were so many vacations that he made happen so he could enjoy his loved ones without distractions.

Certainly, there were distractions, as there are in any life led in service to a community, that wedged between my dad and my efforts to get more words and attention from him. Often, when we were out at a supermarket together or a ballgame, he’d get approached by a patient who wanted to say hello to their favorite doctor. He was a bit of a celebrity, my dad, and I was known for 30-plus years as Dr. Keer’s son. It was a great coup for me one day when Dad called me up to tell me a student of mine came into the office and asked him, “Aren’t you Mr. Keer’s father?” Finally, I had turned the tables on him. And no one was prouder of it than Dad.

I wanted this speech to be funnier – Dad had such a great appreciation for humor  — as he showed me through the tapes of Johnny Carson clips with legendary comedians, the afternoons of watching Mel Brooks movies, and his own goofiness and willingness to be poked fun at for his follicle-y challenged head, his bird-like legs, and his woefully underprivileged sense of rhythm.

But, I’m not feeling easily humored right now. I’m just beginning to miss him. I’m floating in the fog of all the subtle ways he enhanced my life through little gestures and a consistency of presence that I often took for granted. For a father of such carefully selected words and a son who never seems to shut up, we had one particular trip that was emblematic of our entire journey together. It was a weekend stay in San Francisco two years ago to see the Dodgers play the Giants, to eat great food since we both like that kind of thing, and to just — be — together. Not talking so much, just being.

He was really good at just being.

So, Dad, thank you for being with me. Thank you for being with all of us.

Posted in Aging, Columns by Family Man, Death, Grandparents, Helping Kids Understand Loss, Marriage, Perspective, Values | 1 Comment

Great Expectations

By Gregory Keer

great_expectationsI always think I’m going to enjoy the holidays more than I do. I imagine the days off as time that will allow me to reduce my stress, live in the moment, and enjoy family and friends. Oh, those carefree hours to play basketball in the yard with the kids, go to a few movies together, laugh, eat and share stories around the holiday table.

Yeah. Right.

Instead, stress seems to escalate — mostly because of all these hopes. My kids don’t like playing basketball (not with me, and certainly not together). My adolescent boys see all the good movies with their friends. And meals are spent with Wendy and me running around serving people, asking the kids not to talk over each other, and usually ending with someone crying or yelling or pouting.

Often, that someone is me.

Whereas most people like to reference A Christmas Carol around the holidays, I relate more, at least in terms of the title, to Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. I set my bar impossibly high, imagining all my thirst for the joys of family life will be quenched in a mere two-week period.

This year, I aim to change all that. I’m planning to clear up all my holiday problems in one fell swoop. A lot to expect? Perhaps. So, let me rephrase — I’m going to make the winter festival season a little better by lowering my expectations.

First, I need more me-time. One of my mistakes as a parent, especially during the holidays, is believing that I have to be engaged with the children at every possible moment. When they were little, I needed to be guiding them and playing with them. Now, they don’t want to spend that much time with me, not because they don’t love me, but because they are individuating and hanging out with people who are helping define them beyond my reach. And, to a large degree, that’s the way it should be.

So, instead of licking my wounds about being irrelevant, I need to take more private hours to read one of those neglected novels, sleep in or take naps, and go to the good movies with my wife or even by my lonesome if no one will go to the cineplex with me. These are gifts I will give to myself, but they will also teach my sons that we are all better people to our loved ones when we are first good to ourselves.

Second, I need to play sports differently. So what if my kids don’t like basketball and won’t play sports together as I always envisioned they would? I’ll hit the field or court with them separately for whatever sport they wish — even if it’s just for 10 minutes each, one time each over the entire course of the two weeks. When they say they’re done playing, I’ll stop and consider the session a success. Usually, I run into problems because I nag them to play a little longer so I can teach them a few things. I have this grand idea they will learn a couple of tips from the old man. Not during these holidays, not this time. The point will just be to have fun.

Third, I will not try to turn meals into some version of The Waltons’ holiday dinners with everyone politely sitting ‘round the table, delighting in their togetherness. My children don’t even know who The Waltons were, which may be part of the problem. In fact, I kind of hate The Waltons now because they corrupted my sense of what holiday meals are supposed to be. Instead, I will allow our dinners to be as chaotic as my kids want since that’s my family’s way. In my house, the kids eat turkey stuffing with their fingers, my younger ones jump up from the table at random to sing Bruno Mars tunes, and my eldest goes on philosophical political rants with his unsuspecting grandparents. I will just sit back and enjoy the always-delicious food, restraining myself from trying to control the situation, and realizing that I’m lucky enough to have family to share the mayhem.

Honestly, I’m not entirely sure this will work out, but I have to try. After 15 years of expecting my holidays to be as perfect as the ending to It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s time to prepare a bit more for the unexpected and just bask in it.

It may be that, upon stepping back from my role as a wannabe winter-season patriarch, my kids will take up the reigns and drive the sleigh of fun and togetherness activities. Perhaps they’ll look at me and say, “Dad, we love how hard you work at family holidays so we’re going to reward you with family basketball and a dinner of toasts to the greatness of you and mom.”

But that’s a hope, not an expectation.

Posted in Columns by Family Man, Holidays, Perspective, Work-Family Balance | 1 Comment

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

By Gregory Keer

Thanksgiving has long been my favorite holiday, for every reason from the marvelous meal to the four-day block of time to just be with family. Nine years ago, the festival took on extra meaning as my third child, Ari, was born just in time to celebrate at our table. And like Thanksgiving dinner, he’s been a third helping – sometimes the source of extra happiness and sometimes the wellspring of additional gastrointestinal discomfort.

A lot of my discomfort is self-imposed because I worry that, as my “third helping” of fatherhood, Ari has gotten less attention from me than my older kids received at the same age. Benjamin had 100% of me till he was three-and-a-half and Jacob got at least 50% of me for three years of his own. Ari has simply had to share my wife and me since the moment he was born.

I do try to compensate. Ari needs more of a push to do his homework than Benjamin or Jacob did. So, following a recent stretch of watching him whine (“You have no idea how hard third grade is, Dad!”) and seeing him bring home a bounty of red marker ink on his papers, I now help him kickstart the assignments. Ari also didn’t get any athletics coaching from me until last year, when I took on three sports like only a guilt-driven father can.

No matter how hard I try to give Ari more time, I still can’t make it to enough field trips or go to as many museums as I did for my first two boys. My wife struggles similarly with her allocation of hours, so we sat in bed one night during the holidays of last year and wondered aloud, “Shouldn’t Ari be getting more from his brothers to help fill in our gaps of attention?”

With six-and-a-half years between him and Ari, Benjamin has little in common with his little bro’ other than genetics. At 15, my eldest is seldom home and, when he does grace the house with his presence, he keeps the door shut like a moat-encircled drawbridge. For years, Ari tried politely knocking on the door to get Benjamin to play Legos or handball with him to minimal avail. More recently, Ari has busted into his brother’s privacy to annoy Benjamin’s buddies or steal the hidden candy Benjamin keeps in his desk. Most of their interactions end in tears – sometimes the tears are Ari’s.

Three years separate Jacob and Ari, which has helped them to connect more. Ari enjoyed three years on the same elementary-school campus with Jacob and benefited from his older brother’s tips about running for student council and participating with the school orchestra. Yet, their chronological proximity has also brought titanic wrestling matches, bone-chilling screams, and art supply thefts that go endlessly back and forth. Worse, Jacob’s burgeoning adolescence has led him to teach his brother bad language and a premature habit of commenting on lady parts.

I imagine it’s most parents’ wish that their children get along well enough to call each other best friends. While the minimal hope is that they’ll coordinate elder care for us when we became frail, we really want them to be there for each other. It’s especially valuable for Ari, who could learn so much from the siblings who have suffered through Mom and Dad the longest.

Despite the fights he gets into with the brothers and the jealousy he burns with every night they get to stay out late or receive a larger allowance, Ari’s plight as the “forgotten little man” has seen improvement over this last year. After lectures and chastisement from my wife and me, Benjamin is showing more compassion for Ari, who just wants more attention from him. When Benjamin babysits, he now doesn’t just badger Ari to get to bed, he reads books with him and helps him with math (two passions they’ve discovered they share). For his part, Jacob talks to Ari more than any of us, engaging him in conversations about friends, school, and TV shows they frequently watch together. Jacob also laughs a lot with his little brother, often because of crazy pranks they pull on Wendy and me.

As this Thanksgiving rolls up, I’m planning to do a little less worrying about Ari and a lot more admiring of the three brothers my wife and I have thrown together. Because of them, I don’t have to be the only one to fill my youngest child’s plate.

Posted in Columns by Family Man, Holidays, Parenting Stress, Siblings | 1 Comment

Evil Dad

By Gregory Keer

Following is a Halloween column that scared up some laughs a few years back. It’s back to haunt you intrepid readers, once again. 

I don’t enjoy seeing car wrecks, reading about celebrity break-ups, or learning of the latest politician caught doing something illegal. But I do like witnessing other children behaving badly. I know it’s sinful, a little evil, even. That doesn’t stop the twisted inflation of my ego resulting from other parents having a similar or worse time than I usually have. Honestly, I do not wish misfortune on any parent — I just want to be there when it happens.

I didn’t always know I had this character flaw. For most of my fatherhood tenure, I’ve been too preoccupied to notice it while my own kids went through phases of throwing breakable items in grocery stores and telling friends that Santa Claus doesn’t really exist. My youngest boy, Ari, may be my biggest troublemaker. At an amusement park, the other day, he thought it was hilarious to randomly swat other grown-ups while I carried him through the crowd. I’m pretty sure he would have laughed harder should I have been punched in the nose by one of his surprised victims.

Although I know that all children misbehave at times – and that pushing boundaries can be healthy, especially when the stakes are low at the younger ages — I worry about the judgments of others who might see me as an ineffective parent. I sometimes fantasize about turning into a Dickens character, pulling my kids by the collar, and growling at them in a cockney accent, “Mind your manners, my urchins. It’s not wise to make your father look poorly.” (Actually, I did that once and my kids laughed at me).

But a recent conversation has allowed me to embrace my vampire-like desire to feed off other parents’ misery. During a basketball game for my oldest son, I watched a father on the sidelines, trying to give advice to his eight-year-old kid, who responded with, “Why should I listen to you, Daddy? You stink at shooting!”

Then, my friend Adam, a master of the witty aside, leaned toward me and said, “There’s a column for you. Write about how much fun it is to see other parents suffer.” We spent the rest of the game recounting tales from the parenting dark side. When once, as younger men, we might have shot the breeze about girlfriends, pro sports, and bad job experiences, we were now reduced to cackling gossips.

I told the story of the panicked mom who scoured a zoo in search of her missing son. When she finally found him in the dimly lit reptile center, in which she had looked twice before, she screamed, “Why did you go in here alone?” The child responded with the classic, “I don’t know.” As Mom launched the rest of her tirade, I tried to conceal my grin as other people escaped the house of snakes and the nearby baboons screamed along with the poor mother.

We talked about the father who leaped out of the stands to accuse the opposing coach of letting his players hit baseballs at his son on the pitcher’s mound. The agitated dad was just trying to be protective, but the tantrum stood out during a tee-ball game among five-year-olds who could barely tap a stationary ball. We took glee in the pain of the dad who, after overhearing his child refuse to share any of his toys, announced, “We’re really nice people. Please don’t judge us by our son.” And, in one of the more ugly examples, I noted the wicked thrill of seeing another parent get chewed out because his son bit my son, and not the other way around.

I am not proud of my primal need to feel better about my own failures by recalling the difficulties of others, but it does remind me of how absurd it is to try living up to the expectations of calm and wisdom most of us place upon ourselves. As this Halloween approaches, I won’t need a costume or candy. I’ll be the Evil Dad, feasting on the treats supplied by parents trying in vain to keep their kids in line in the dark of the night.

Posted in Columns by Family Man, Halloween, Humor, Parenting Stress | 1 Comment

Stages

By Gregory Keer

Performer-IMG_4990Last January, my eleven year old tracked me down in my fortress of solitude, the bathroom, and launched into “Suddenly Seymour,” his audition tune for the public arts academy he desperately wanted to attend.

Despite all the love and support I harbor for my child, my reaction was swift as I cried, “Let me poop in peace!”

This sent Jacob into a fit of laughter before he collected himself and continued his song in complete ignorance of my compromised state.

By the time he hit his final note, I had long forgotten where I was or what I had intended to do there. I just applauded.

“That was the best I’ve ever heard you sing,” I told Jacob.

My son gave me hug, at which time reality hit me that I was sitting over a toilet bowl.

“Thanks, Dad, now I can let you poop in peace,” he laughed as he took off.

Whether he’s standing on bathroom tile or auditorium floorboards, my son loves the stage. It started early, when we took a three-year-old Jacob to see his older brother in a theater-camp production of The Sound of Music. We had to hold back the nascent thespian from leaping to join “Do-Re-Mi.” Even as Benjamin grew more self-conscious about performing, Jacob’s theatrical bug never stopped buzzing.

Sometimes, that buzzing got on our nerves. We were frequently torn between encouraging his creative, outgoing nature and protecting our senses from his often disastrous training. There were countless nights when he belted a medley of the Top 40 all day long, from every room in the house – and mostly off key. He didn’t know he was out of tune, nor did he care. He also had the habit of trying to force his vibrato to sound like Justin Timberlake – only he wasn’t Justin Timberlake.

There were the mornings we awakened thinking clowns were ransacking our home when it was just Jacob leaping around his room, rehearsing hip-hop moves he learned in his after-school program. On countless occasions, we sat with frozen smiles while we watched him do modern dance versions of movies like Iron Man 2.

There were all the elementary-school plays, the ones Jacob made us practice with him for weeks, even when he only had one line to say. Worse yet, given Jacob’s perfectionist streak, we endured his criticism of how we delivered our parts: “Daddy, I really think Zeus would sound much bolder than you’re saying it.” You know there’s something wrong when your eight-year-old makes you feel like you’ll never work in show business again and all you wanted to do was help him understand a Greek god’s emotional fragility.

As anxious as Jacob’s relentless practicing of his skills made us, nothing compared to how he felt every time he tried out for a part he didn’t get or was made fun of by peers who found his theatricality not macho enough. Each time this happened, Jacob would come home angry or in tears, and we would boost his ego for being brave enough to take risks. Yet it was mostly his own sense of resolve that motivated him to try all over again.

In this last year of grade school, all of Jacob’s practice seemed to pay off. After three years in the back of the chorus, he moved to the front because he had improved his vocal pitch. After years of musical instrument obscurity, he learned the ukulele and became a soloist at his graduation.

And after endless sessions spent rehearsing dance moves, song stylings, and acting chops, he auditioned for the performing arts academy with so few available spots and so many dreamers vying for them. Weeks later, the email came with the word “Congratulations” on it. Jacob shouted and jumped high, but landed soberly and said, “What’s for dinner?”

Who knows if this opportunity to learn in an arts program will lead to Jacob’s success on Broadway or in Hollywood? What I do know is that, as much as my son has learned to follow a passion, he knows that there’s more to life than a stage. More important than any lead part is that Jacob has learned about working hard, enjoying triumphs, and weathering fear and failure. He’s also learned to balance his theatrical pursuits with friends, family, and soccer, a game he still loves. These lessons will serve him as he makes the transition from the smaller elementary school stakes to the bigger ones in middle school and beyond.

As he takes on this next challenging phase of life, I am so very proud of my boy. So proud that I’ll let him interrupt my bathroom privacy any time he wants to break out into song.

For more on middle-school change, see Middle Earth.

Posted in Adolescence, Arts Education, Child Development, Columns by Family Man, Creativity, Education, School, Tweens | 2 Comments

Inspiring School Success

By Gregory Keer

Homework imagesOne of the more prevalent questions by parents is: How can I make my child care about doing well in school? This is an age-old question, and one I deal with every day as a teacher. My only problem with this inquiry is when it comes from overly intense parents of children in their early years of grade school or even preschool. Seriously, no college is going to worry about a kid’s performance in elementary school. However, it’s healthy to lay the foundation for school success, as long as you manage your expectations and remain aware that too much pressure can backfire, either by making a child move further away from wanting to do well or becoming a perfectionist).

Here are a few ideas to start in the right direction.

Instill Your Philosophy on Academic Responsibility. Good grades are, in large part, a reflection of responsibility. You want your child to try his or her best by doing homework on time and completely, setting aside time to study each day, and behaving well in class. Discuss these expectations with your child and praise them for being responsible more than for acing their classes. With your child, work on a homework schedule for each day. Even in elementary school, an assignment book is helpful in setting up good habits and allowing a student to check off what they’ve done so they can see their progress. Remember, the key here is that you’re stressing effort, not grades. Results will come, eventually, but the work habits and sense of accountability are most important at this age.

Go Shopping! A few years back, the office supply company Staples ran a commercial that featured a parent dancing around the aisles of supplies to the tune of “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” The humor might be that the parent is just glad to get the children into school after a long summer of trying to keep the kids entertained. But there is a certain joy in getting new school stuff. The truth is that most of us still love buying supplies, including our kids. Go shopping — with a budget of course — and help your children stock up on everything they need to get their work done. Homework is not so bad if you’ve got cool pens, pencils, folders, and tape dispensers.

Model Your Beliefs. Show your son or daughter that you walk the walk. If you do any work at home, try doing it in the same room with your child, or at least the same time. Perhaps you can talk about something you think is a really hard task that you’ll just have to do your best on. Also, consider telling your child stories about your own school experiences, such as how hard you worked to do well in some area — but also how you didn’t earn high grades in others, despite trying hard.

Play to Your Child’s Interests. In addition to their reflection of responsibility, good grades are a function of motivation — kids do well at what they like. You can instill in your child a deeper love for learning by playing to her interests. Take her on field trips related to what she’s into, and praise her for her passions. In this way, you support your child’s individuality and may indirectly help the passion to spill over into other subjects.

Offer Incentive. Some folks offer money, gifts, and candy in exchange for school success. Frequently, this kind of motivation works – in the short term. But if you’re looking for ways that are a bit longer lasting, you need to reinforce that hard work and achievement are their own reward. Praise your child to your spouse, to his siblings, and to his grandparents when he finishes a tough project. Tell your child how proud you are of his efforts. Daily affirmations of a job well done are important. But don’t overdo it, since you want to allow his sense of inner pride to develop as well.

Know your child.  Remember that every child learns differently. Some children have to work twice as hard to earn a C as the child who gets an A every time.  Some kids learn slowly, and need to take their time. Others click with math, but not languages. Understand and accept your child’s weakeness as well as strengths, and don’t compare him to his older (or younger) brother or sister, his best friend or the neighbor’s kid. Learning is not a competitive sport. Instead, provide as much support as you can. If certain learning approaches don’t work, seek alternatives. Be patient but firm, and you’ll see progress that is even more satisfying to your child than it is to you.

For more things to think about to set your kids up for success, see Birthday Cutoffs.

Posted in Child Development, Columns by Family Man, Education, School | Leave a comment