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


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

Overnight Camp Sensations

By Gregory Keer

CampMudWhen it came to overnight camp, I was a dismal failure. Everyone else was having a good time, but all I ever seemed to do was embarrass myself by dropping food trays to thunderous applause, lying awake nights watching spiders make plans to eat me alive, and pining for girls who would never give me the time of day let alone make lanyards with me. I only went for a week each time, but those seven days seemed like months of torture.

So, when my wife told me we were sending our kids for a month when they got old enough, bitter memories flooded in.

“What if a mean boy steals all the cookies from their care packages?” I asked.

“That’s the first thing you worry about when it comes to sleep away camp?” my wife replied.

“Those cookies were my bridge to home,” I argued. “That Neanderthal didn’t even like oatmeal raisin!”

“Did you ever stand up to that bully?” she inquired.

“Actually…when he saw I was a decent basketball player, he asked to join my team later that week,” I answered, realizing the point my wife was about to make. “We had a few meals together, too.”

“And would that kind of bonding have happened without overnight camp?” she said.

Maybe I would have become friends with the cookie bully in another situation, but Wendy was right. Overnight camp provided opportunities to live and play with other kids, without much adult intervention, so that growth could happen in ways that just didn’t occur during regular year activities. Certainly not as quickly.

So, seven years go, my oldest son started going away to overnight camp. First it was for two weeks, then for a month. Jacob, my middle child, followed suit. Both of them usually came home caked in grime and resoundingly happy from their time away. They even returned with better table-clearing skills.

This summer, Benjamin (now 15) completed his final session as a camper while Jacob (11) reached the mid-point of his camp career and Ari (8½) accomplished his first two weeks away from us. All three of them had amazingly rich, albeit different, experiences.

In his swan song, Benjamin played the part of the senior camper who savored all the “last chances” to bond with buddies from all over the country, some of whom he only saw at camp. He went on the overnight-within-overnight camp – a week of sleeping under the stars and roughing it before returning to base like warriors from battle. Upon that return, Benjamin and his cohort covered themselves in wet dirt and gave “mud hugs” to the younger campers and some of the counselors. The biggest, muddiest embrace was for his brother.

Aside from unintended mud baths, Jacob availed himself to both sports and arts, particularly ceramics and the camp play. He’s the more extroverted of our two older kids and he grabbed every chance he could to befriend all kinds of campers, at varying age levels. We used to worry about our middle child, socially speaking, and coached him relentlessly on how to talk and play with people. So we really credit his overnight camp experience for allowing him the space to be himself, without us analyzing every move, and the results have been wonderfully positive.

For our youngest, we fretted about sending Ari at such a young age, but he was rarin’ to go, especially with this opportunity to be there with both of his big brothers.  Having learned a lot from the tales his siblings told, Ari was so comfortable at camp, he helped the other kids in his bunk make their beds and not feel so homesick. He even made sure to smile for pictures so his anxious parents could see proof on the camp web site that our boy wasn’t huddled somewhere in a corner, cursing our names.

With all three kids away from home, Wendy and I had nice days to be together, without having to make lunches, arranging for babysitters, or hounding our sons to do chores. We also spent a fair amount of time missing them because, frankly, we’ve come to feel fulfilled amidst the fruitful chaos of parenting.

What are most significant, though, are the long-term gains we all receive from overnight camp. For us, it’s the satisfaction that we have afforded our kids opportunities to practice independence in a safe environment, to take “technology vacations” that free them for more interactions with live people and nature, and to collect memories of great times and friendships. For them, it’s the chance to enjoy all of those benefits, without ever having to think that deeply about it. This, I know, is a whole lot more delicious than oatmeal raisin cookies.

Posted in Adolescence, Camp, Columns by Family Man | 1 Comment

Dad’s Reel Life

By Gregory Keer

Starbuck-imageI’m such a film geek that I used to keep a journal of all the movies I saw, complete with the pompous commentaries of my early-20s bohemian phase. My celluloid nerdiness turned off most of the girls I dated before I found the one woman who liked classic-film double features as much as I did (I married her). I even studied screenwriting in grad school and now teach motion-picture history and production in high school.

So the fact that I’ve gone to a movie theater twice this year says a lot about two things:

1)           I rarely have time to go to the cinema because of the family-work vortex.

2)           The vast majority of new movies suck.

I still view films at home, though, again, I have so much less time to do so and none of my kids want to watch anything featuring black and white, ‘70s fashion, or subtitles.

While fatherhood has definitely put a put a crimp in my reel life, it has also contributed layers of perspective for my movie-going experience.

The first movie of those rare theater visits was Starbuck, which involves a 42-year-old serial underachiever named David who, in his younger days, donated sperm – often. When David’s girlfriend reveals she’s pregnant (via the old-fashioned way), she offers to raise the child without him. However, David wants to be involved and pledges to prove he can be responsible. Soon thereafter, an attorney from the sperm-donor clinic informs this loveable loser that his “quality” sperm has produced 533 children, many of whom have filed a suit to be able to contact him.

Against the advice of his single-father lawyer friend, David drops into the lives of his now-grown kids, anonymously helping them like a guardian angel through difficult situations. This is where the film hit home for me, as David’s paternal instinct and know-how accrued from his failures drive him to help the kids he so impersonally fathered. It is indeed an endless circus act to parent my children, maybe not as hard as nurturing 142 of them like the movie character, but it is something I feel compelled to do. And few things make me as satisfied as teaching them lessons I’ve learned from my own mistakes.

Late in the film, David’s immigrant papa decides to help his wayward son reach his fatherly potential because the dad has always seen the true soul of David. The scene reminded me of how my own father has believed in me, despite my mistakes, and it highlighted my need to recognize the gold in my sons’ characters, no matter what they do to make me mad or disappointed.

42-filmThe other movie that watered my 2013 film-going desert is 42. Although it’s less directly about fatherhood, I can’t think of another motion picture I so intensely wanted to take my children to other than this one about Jackie Robinson’s breaking of Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947. I’m a huge baseball fan, having shared ballpark visits, stories, and statistics with my father for a lifetime. For the most part, my sons could care less about the game, but wanted to see 42 before I even asked them because their friends had been talking about it for weeks.

In the theater with my three boys as well as another dad pal and his son, I was never prouder to be a father as we watched the story of a man of integrity, smarts, and athletic talent who weathered the heavy weight of racism to survive and thrive in baseball. My kids had questions before, during, and after the film about American history, allowing me to be a teacher and dad at the same time. Since I actually knew most of the answers, my ego floated on cloud nine. The film was an all-too-rare opportunity, amidst entertainment fare about apocalypses and cartoon mayhem, to bond with my kids over subjects that were explained to me by my father when I was a lad.

Inspired by 42, my youngest son more regularly wants to play catch and all my boys have taken at least an occasional interest in baseball. We even watched another of my favorite baseball movies, The Natural, which allowed me to talk to my kids about folk tales, ambition, and wonder.

Films continue to be a huge part of my life. I love to watch them on my own, but nothing beats the shared experience in a theater to start conversation and connect emotionally about topics we hesitate to bring up in the course of a normal day.

For Father’s Day, I don’t really need much. Just take me to the movies.

Posted in Activities With Kids, Columns by Family Man, Family Man Recommends, Film, Movies | 2 Comments


By Gregory Keer

For my fifth date with Wendy Bass, I invited her to the park to meet my kid. No, not my offspring, but something better – the 10-month-old child I was babysitting. While my friends and family had opinions about more suitable jobs for a 24-year-old dude in graduate school, my goal that day was to impress Wendy, who worked as a child development specialist.

So, when Wendy arrived, I was already flexing my baby-feeding skills, delivering spoonfuls of strained carrots with practiced dexterity.

She was impressed. Not with me, but with the adorable wee one.

“Come here, little guy,” she said brightly. “Let’s go see the trees.”

With that, she lifted him and toured him around the park, pointing out leaves, branches, and squirrels while narrating everything in vivid detail. The baby giggled endlessly and I knew I’d found the future mother of my children.

Flash forward to the present mother of my children.

“If I have to make another lunch my kids don’t eat, I’m going to freakin’ flip out!”

“What do you mean my son has another cavity? Does he even have that many teeth?”

“Get your butts into the car or I swear I’ll drive to the school bus without you!”

Funny how 15 years of parenting pressure from raising your own children goes from a walk in the park to an inner circle of fire filled with exasperation and nonsensical threats.

In the years I’ve known her, my wife has shown the cheerfulness and strength of maternal characters you read about in Southern novels, but the moments of trial and tribulation have certainly tested her mettle. This last year alone, she’s labored exhaustively to find the right middle school for our 11 year old and the best mix of freedom and restriction for our teen while dealing with increasing pressures at work, home refinancing, and health concerns about our parents.

It’s not that she’s had to do any of this alone. We battle together through it all and — because we both have diarrhea of the mouth — share every fear and frustration on the phone, email, and pillow.

Yet, I worry about how much joy gets sucked out of this woman who does so much to ensure our family’s happiness.

Recently, a change in the school district’s start of the academic year combined with a further squeeze on our finances caused us to end an 11-year run at family camp. For more than a decade, the camp gave us playtime with our kids in nature, liberty from the rat race for a designated week each year, and friends that we all grew older with. My wife and I spent days fiddling with the calendar and crunching the budget until we finally had to face reality. For Wendy, who originally got us in to the camp by working as a guest-lecturer, this decision hit her particularly hard.

“I never wanted to end a family tradition,” she said, tears welling up as we tried to fall asleep the night we made the decision.

Although my wife melts into tears on rare occasions, this latest rainfall resulted from the overall toll of the family-work grind. It was the relentlessness of obligation combined with Wendy’s own drive to keep things adventurous and gleeful.

My concern for Wendy reached its peak because I hadn’t seen her so drained. So my sons and I got proactive to fill her back up.

Ari (8) now makes sure he takes a break from his Minecraft obsession and voracious reading habit to allow Wendy to read to him the books she loved as a kid, the Little House stories by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Wendy barely allows me in the kitchen (I do suck at cooking), yet Jacob (11) will not be denied. Along with the food he’s burned, there are the veggies he roasts and the desserts he concocts to make Mom’s life easier.

Our teenager, Benjamin, has even emerged from his responsibility cocoon to take care of the dog, the dirty dishes, (occasionally) his laundry, and transportation arrangements to and from activities.

For my part, I switch days with Wendy to shuttle the kids, make (or bring in) more meals, and take the boys out so she can have alone time. I do this since she refills me when I need help and since she just plain deserves it.

Perhaps the most important thing I do, though, is remind her that she can indeed slow down and draw shade from the trees she’s planted. Her children and I are there for her because she has nourished us so conscientiously.

Happy Mother’s Day, Wendy.

Posted in Columns by Family Man, Marriage, Mother's Day, Work-Family Balance | 1 Comment

Big Babies

By Gregory Keer

This April, there are two things I’m not looking forward to – tax day and the day after that, my birthday. As I lurch toward another number closer to 50, I notice how much of my parenting life is behind me.

When did Ari (8) grow out of the pants we bought him three months ago? What is making Jacob (11) turn red every time that girl walks by? How is Benjamin (15, this month) old enough to practice driving a car?

Part of what makes this so hard is that, as I look in the rear-view mirror, I think I operated much better as a dad of babies than I do as a father of fast-developing dudes. I have to dig for details about their days that they don’t want to share with me. When they veer off the behavior track, I’m challenged to give them directions they often choose not to follow, necessitating consequences more complex than time outs. Then there’s the expense of raising growing boys, pushing me to work longer hours to pay for the field trips, sports gear, and expanding grocery list. With all this, life feels less like a feature-length movie and more like a YouTube short.

I was so present when the kids were in diapers, strollers, and cribs. I mean, nothing slows time down like the fact that babies simply cannot move fast or, as a good high chair or car seat can attest, move at all.

My wife and I spent countless hours merely staring at our sons when they were infants. We studied them like a just-assembled wonder toy. Look at those eyes that open and shut all by themselves! See how he examines his own pudgy hand? Behold his first poopie in the potty!

There was little we didn’t celebrate about our babies, from how one of them smeared yogurt all over his head to see how it felt to the way they crawled (one rocked to launch, one skooched like a locomotive, and one combat crawled).

And then there was the baby giggling. Benjamin had a deep belly laugh that would go on as long as we laughed with him. Jacob couldn’t get enough of the raspberries we blew on his tummy. And Ari screamed with glee when we plied his neck with kisses.

Since then, these toys have grown into bigger, louder machines bent on rolling boldly into the world. They won’t let us just stare at them.

My eldest, Benjamin, has become an expert in the last-minute phone-text plan and jets off to hang out with friends. He also runs cross-country, making him home late a lot. We seldom see the boy who once cried at the day-care window for us to take him with us to work.

So when I walk into his room to sit and gaze at him, he says things like, “Dad, it’s a little creepy to have you look at me for the past, like, three hours.”

Just recently, the rest of the family and I were driving home when we saw Benjamin riding his bike to meet us.

“Look, look, look,” I said. “He’s so cool on his ten-speed.”

“He’s not a baby,” Jacob groaned from the back seat.

“Yes, he is,” my wife replied. “You’re still our babies.”

“Do you guys talk about me that way behind my back?” he asked with alarm.

“Yep,” Wendy and I said in unison.

“Why do I have such weird parents?” he muttered.

Of course, these are the comments I made to my own parents as I grew from being their infant idol to self-conscious tween. That doesn’t make it any easier as I travel through the rapid movement of my parenting timeline.

While I miss those baby years – and all the satisfaction that came from doing such basic heroic acts as feeding, clothing, and comforting my children – there lies so much goodness ahead. My children will take on sports and SATs, form friendships and romances, apply to colleges and jobs, and, eventually (I hope), become parents themselves. They’ll succeed a lot and screw up a lot, but I’ll get to observe and guide, though probably not as much as I’d like. What matters is, as I age, those babies will always be the objects of my affection and sources of amazement.

As a seasoned father who can no longer outrun or outsmart his children, I have some advice for the newbie dads. Keep staring at the wonders that coo and spit up and even tantrum before you. They grow quickly, but the experience lingers forever.

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

The Devilish Advocates

By Gregory Keer

I spent much of my life in the kind of self-debate that puts Hamlet to shame. While my penchant for over- analyzing decisions sometimes yielded good results, I also wasted a lot of time failing to trust my instincts and experience.

There are all those open jump shots I didn’t take because I pondered too long.

There are all those job interviews during which I came off as wishy-washy.

There are all those girls I didn’t date because my hesitation let the other guy swoop in.

Fortunately, I didn’t waffle about pursuing the woman who became my wife, a swift decision that worked out pretty well. Yet, even after marrying Wendy, I suffered from paralysis by analysis regarding stories I wrote and career problems I had.

It took becoming a father to put me firmly on the path of confident thinking. As a dad, there’s little room for hand-wringing when faced with having to take a pee-pee dancing child into a public restroom or enforcing the rule of wearing a bike helmet.

As a dad, one of my goals is to teach my children the lessons I’ve fought to learn so they can lead more productive lives than I did at their age.

So, two years ago, when I asked my eldest son what he thought about the decisions of a 20th century president he researched for a class, he held a long pause and said, “I don’t know.”

It was a moment I had rehearsed for years, so I delivered it in my best Hal Holbrook impersonation.

“Son, never say ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I don’t care.’”

“But I really don’t know what I think,” Benjamin (then 12) replied.

“Yes, you do,” I said, hearing the music rise on the soundtrack in my head. “You have to be willing to take the risk. People respect you more if you have something to say.”

Well, my son definitely has opinions now that he’s a teenager.

The following comes from one eight-minute conversation:

“I don’t like vacations. I don’t see the point.”

“I hate Shakespeare.”

“Chinese food is disgusting.”

“I never enjoyed playing sports.”

“Dressing in nice clothes is stupid.”

My son is allowed to have opinions, but I felt compelled to say, “You’re entitled to be wrong, especially about Chinese food.”

Of course we argued for a while longer, making me wonder why I ever encouraged my son to have viewpoints. However, he’s only part of my problem.

Jacob (11) causes plenty of high blood pressure for battling with me over leaving the house on time and wearing t-shirts that fit him, but when it comes to being a contrarian, my eight-year-old takes the cake, if not the entire bakery.

Upon serving him dinner, any dinner, Ari tells us, usually with tears in his eyes, “I told you I hate chicken/turkey/fish/vegetables/potatoes.” You name it, he makes a federal case out of us trying to feed him anything but what he deems suitable for that very moment.

On weekends, when we offer to take him out to play or visit people instead of having him lie on the couch in front of the TV, Ari will protest, “I should be able to relax once in a while. I work really hard during the week.”

When Ari is asked to clean his room, he reasons, “I shouldn’t have to. You guys are the ones who put stuff in my room.”

“You mean, the clothes, furniture, books, and toys?” I reply.

“Yeah, you should really clean this up.”

It would be easy to blame family sitcoms for the smart-alecky words my son fires like a fully loaded Nerf gun, but I have mostly myself to blame.

In my effort to encourage each one of my sons to start earlier than I did on the path to definitive thinking, I’ve been drilling them since they were infants.

With baby food, I experimented until I could elicit an excited response as to which mishmash they preferred. Over the years, I also reinforced their decision to cuddle with a favorite blanket, supported them when they picked their friends for birthday parties, and high-fived them for focusing on a book series rather than hem and haw over their choices or, God forbid, not read at all.

While I may have had difficulties in making decisions, my sons boldly choose with little hesitation. As such, they have strong opinions, albeit many that run against my preferences. Still, as long as I help them work out the nuances of respecting others’ opinions and rules, I’m confident their decisiveness will serve them well in life.

I’ve made at least one decision, recently. I resolve to not get so caught up in arguing with my sons over being contrary to me. I’ll still think they’re wrong, some of the time, but I’ll take the high road of pride that they are flexing their convictions.

Posted in Child Development, Columns by Family Man, Ethics, Family Communication, Values | Leave a comment


By Gregory Keer

Following is a re-post of a kids Valentine’s Day column I wrote when my now 11 year old was in kindergarten. Truth be told, his writing skills still put me to shame.

Valentine’s Day is coming up and I’m already sweating over what my middle child will write on the little cards he’ll pass out to his kindergarten classmates. Most six-year-olds stick to filling out the basic TO: and FROM: blanks that accompany the cuddly bear or fluffy duck illustrations. Not my little Romeo. I figure he’ll write special sentiments to the handful of girls he fancies. I’m picturing lines such as, “I like your soft, silky hair, Jessica” and “I had a wonderful time on our playdate, Anna. Let’s do it again sometime.”

People think I’m exaggerating about Jacob’s love note writing, but he also flecks his daily speech with gold-plated words like “silky” and “wonderful” as if he’s a 45-year-old Casanova. He rarely misses paying a compliment toward females of all ages, from his peers to his teacher. He’s twice written about Mrs. Harris for the “Character Counts” descriptions he is assigned each week. These are, thankfully, sweet rather than sassy as he calls her “the nicest and best teacher in the whole world.” Then, there are the bold comments he makes to the moms he sees at the afternoon pick-up (pun intended). To one of the mothers, I heard him say, “That sweater makes your figure look good,” with an earnest smile that renders more innocent a sentence that sounds like a singles bar come-on.

While I have concerns that he’s a bit more romantically precocious than I’d like, my bigger issues rests in the fact that the little turd is showing me up. Not only does he say things to women that I wish I had thought of when I was an unattached adult, he writes the most charming notes to my wife. At least once a week, sometimes more, he draws colorful designs on index cards and any other paper he can find to go with “Thank you for being such a good Mommy” sentences. He even leaves these notes in clever locations, including Wendy’s laptop bag and under her pillow. I don’t know where he gets this emotive skill, but the bottom line is that I can’t compete with him — and that pisses me off.

Now I’ve got Wendy asking me, “Why don’t you write love notes like you used to?” I could reply with, “I don’t know, honey, why don’t you leave steamy messages on my cell phone anymore?” but her question makes me a little wistful. In our early years, I wrote Wendy all kinds of messages on post-its, stationery, and expensive artsy cards. I scribbled poems, proclamations of my undying love, and occasional ribald jokes. I planted them on the bathroom mirror, in her suitcases, and, yes, under her pillow.

Sure I hack out an occasional adoring e-mail, but these days, she’s lucky if she gets a prewritten card on her birthday. So I wonder, where did my Cyrano-like habit go? Is it there, somewhere buried beneath all the words I have to write on checks to the bank and college letters of recommendations for my students? That’s part of the reason, but another cause for the more shallow word well is that I often feel the pressure to say something new and creative, more indicative of the stage our relationship is in. Yet, I just can’t bring myself to write, “My darling, I long to ravish you amid the laundry piles and sandbox granules in our sheets” or “Our love is like a school backpack — filled with all the homework questions I’m thrilled to be answering with you.”

As rusty as I am with the practice of love note writing, I am actually more appreciative of my son’s suave skills than I am envious of them. He is unafraid of pouring out his feelings and observations into words, not yet aware of the world’s cynicism toward sentimentality. So I encourage him and help him spell “I appreciate you” and “I love you as deep as the ocean.” In turn, he spurs me on to jot a few more notes to my wife than I had been writing. They aren’t all that original or clever, but the mere presence of the letters on the paper makes them real and true.

Posted in Columns by Family Man, Humor, Love and Courtship | 1 Comment