Adolescent Fears Strike Out

HalloweenSpiderBy Gregory Keer

During my tenure as a dad, I’ve weathered enough horrors to rival anything the architects of Halloween could imagine. The middle-of-the night variety of nightmares has been enough to keep my heart racing just recalling it. Nothing rattles you like being startled by a wife who says, “Go check on the baby, I don’t think he’s breathing” or having a five-year-old exhaling on your sleeping face like an ax-murderer before announcing, “Can I cuddle with you guys?” Then, there have been the screeching cats I’ve stepped on while stumbling for 3am baby bottles and the Exorcist-style upchuck projecting from otherwise angelic children at the stroke of midnight.

As I’ve grown as a parent, my boys’ travails have given me frights that chilled me to the bone. The first time I couldn’t get a return phone call or text from my eldest when he drove to a friends’ house sent images of mayhem and destruction I wouldn’t wish on anyone’s imagination. When my middle son’s face was mauled by a dog, I thought I was somehow the monster for not having been there to prevent it.

For all my horrors, they pale in comparison to the ones my children have endured themselves, especially because they lack the life experience to know how they will get through challenges that range from social pressure to emotional catastrophe. While they know they have my wife and me to support them, their quest for independence has often pushed us away. In most cases, it is best to let them suffer scares alone, since they have to develop inner resources, but heaven knows it pains me to see them in pain.

Recently, my youngest child started middle school. As our third, he has been “the baby,” the one we’ve trusted to stay young and carefree. However, sixth grade has changed that forever. He’s forsaken the hairstyles that kept his cotton-ball hair wild in favor of a close-cropped, edgier look so no one will tease him for appearing too young. Although that makes me sad since those curls had been part of his identity since he was born, Ari’s leap into the shark-infested waters of adolescent fashion has gone further.

One weekend, he and I weeded out shirts he no longer would wear. With conviction, he stuffed a bag full of too-small clothes and anything with superheroes or seemingly playful graphics.

“Wait, you won’t wear Spider-Man anymore?” I asked, thinking the Marvel hero had to be cool enough for sixth grade.

“No, Dad. I don’t like Spider-Man, anymore.”

I nodded and continued packing with him, yet stopped again when he tossed a tee with a Minecraft parody on it that I bought him just a few months ago. Had he changed his taste that quickly?

“This shirt is funny,” I insisted. “And Minecraft is for grown-ups, too.”

Ari grimaced, suddenly looking older than I am. “There are these bullies in the bathrooms who make fun of you if you wear childish clothes.”

Hearing this, my blood boiled.

“What? Do they threaten you?”

“No, Dad – don’t worry about it.”

“I do worry. Has anyone hurt you? Or your friends?”

“No. I just don’t go in the bathroom during nutrition or lunch.”

Visions of Mark Wahlberg taking revenge on teen punks flashed in my mind.

“That’s not right. I think I should let the school know.”

At this point, Ari looked at me with a mix of wisdom and steely resolve that he must have acquired overnight.

“It’s OK. I know how to handle this. I just can’t wear these kind of t-shirts.”

Something on my face clearly affected Ari as he held the shirt in his fist. He softened, and put it back in his drawer.

“I’ll wear it on weekends.”

It’s been a couple of weeks since that talk, but not a day has gone by without my thinking about what might be going on in the school bathroom or halls. What would I do if my child did get beaten up or merely intimidated into running away to hide? How does he really feel inside? Does he feel inferior to these jerks? What can I do to boost his pride and bravery?

The truth is that these are my fears, my visions of what middle-school horror is. On Ari’s part, he seems more interested in talking on the phone with his new “squad” (the word he uses) of friends and making sure his teachers see him working hard. I’ve asked him a couple of times about the bullies and he tells me to stop asking him about it.  So I’ve stopped inquiring, even though I still fret over might happen.

What seems to matter is that my youngest boy, much as my older two who seemed to have more influence than I do, has taken ownership of at least some of his fears. I have to let him conquer the demons on his own, barring a raising of the stakes, of course. In this way, he gets to be the hero who defeats the villains and monsters that might plague him.

As for me, I’m sure to have plenty of other nightmares, mostly the result of my own over-heated imagination. And while I miss some of the frights associated with having to be the savior for little kids, I take a bit of pride that my children both want to and are capable of feeling their own way through the dark.

Posted in Adolescence, Child Development, Columns by Family Man, Education, Halloween, Holidays | 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

Letter of Recommendation

By Gregory Keer

HSGradDear Benjamin,

I am writing to spill my guts about your high school graduation and the beginning of your new journey at college. You know much of what I’m about to say, but try to hold your usual criticism of my logic – one of the many things I thought I would not miss, but will.

To say I’m not ready for you to go would be untrue. I’m ready mostly because you are ready. It’s been 18 years of taking you to school, coaching you for sports, figuring out what you’ll eat for dinner, counseling you when friends let you down, and losing my cool when you make errors in judgment. I’ve been there to clean up your throw-up and taken you to medical appointments for everything from broken bones to acne. I’ve watched you sing at the top of your lungs, become too embarrassed to say hello to a relative, then make a speech to an entire student body.

I know you are prepared to handle many of life’s challenges. You can handle an interview without us in the room, maintain a checking account (you even bought me dinner with your first debit-card transaction), and explain molecular biology with enthusiasm.

You worked your tail off to build a rounded high school portfolio with challenging courses, community service, leadership, and athletic accomplishment (which you did begrudgingly, but one day will appreciate). In a college-application process that is absurdly grueling and unpredictable, you wrote soul-searching essays by the dozen, not without struggle, but with the honesty and clarity of a young man who knows who he is, and worries little about who others expect him to be.

Why wouldn’t I be proud to see you capable of flying on your own? It has been our job to get you out there, and that is what we’ve done – though with a lot of trial and error.

Part of me hates to see you leave because I like you. I like your laugh, which has been low and easy since you were a baby. I like your random hugs. I like your condescending tone when you say, “I will, Dad,” when I ask you to take out the trash or call a grandparent or eat lunch. I like your mop of hair, of which I am very jealous because, as you enjoy reminding me by tapping my bald spot, I am follicly challenged. I like the space you fill in our home, our days, our hearts.

Your departure will create a void, yet I am thrilled to see you go off on one of the adventures I have dreamed of for you. You are our first-born child. All of these emotions and experiences about culmination are new to us, and they sometimes feel like a giant load of laundry we just can’t carry to the washer without losing a few articles along the way. Only it’s not clothing articles we’re shedding, it’s tears.

Yes, you are your own man, Benjamin. You’ve weathered my suggestions, critiques, and harangues with the patience of a saint, and filtered the words to select what works for you. Sometimes I’ve bridled at your independence, but in my most rational state of mind, I’m so proud of your development that I get a little tingly. Sorry if that sounds weird, but indulge your old man a bit longer.

You have been an excellent role model for your younger brothers. You are respectful of us, careful with money, and an engaged student. Your siblings follow suit and have learned more from the way you do things than from anything we have taught them. Yes, you have sometimes been impatient and annoyed with them, but what sticks out in their minds are the times you drove them to activities, picked up their favorite box of cereal, and read with them and kissed them good-night.

As your grade-level dean at school for the past two years, I’ve been able to see your growth few from a vantage point few parents get to enjoy. I’ve run many class meetings for you and your class. I’ve embarrassed you plenty, though always out of love, which you’ve endured graciously. In one of the meetings, at a recent school event, we held a traditional “yarn ceremony” for the seniors. Sitting in a circle, each student said a few words about what they were grateful for before passing a large spool of green yarn to someone special to them. One of your friends called you out and explained how you were there for him during a particularly difficult period. As meaningful as it was for you, it was even more so for me. I saw the impact of your generous spirit, something you’ve shown for others since you were in daycare.

Your ability to connect has allowed you to maintain friendships since preschool and make new friends almost at will. By your own admission, you are no social butterfly, but you are easy to talk to and listen better than anyone I know. I’ve been privileged to see this in many situations, not the least of which is your relationship with Lili. Your attentiveness, fairness, and loveliness with each other go far beyond your years.

Society marks success for teenagers for all kinds of achievements, but seldom commends them for compassion and caring that likely matters most in the long term.

These qualities shone through at the talent show for your school retreat. To humor your sentimental dad, you agreed to come on stage at the end of my annual Tigger song performance. On cue, you walked up, dressed as Eeyore, to the applause of scores of people who know you to be shy but always a good sport. I told the audience you had been the inspiration for my singing a few bars of the little ditty that became my theme song years ago, and that the inspiration would continue even with you moving on from high school.

I hugged you tightly and you hugged back, burying your face in my neck. As tall and accomplished as you are, the gesture reassured me that you will always be my cuddly son. It’s a moment I will get to replay forever.

Love,

Dad

 

© 2016 Gregory Keer. All rights reserved.

Posted in Adolescence, Blog, Child Development, Columns by Family Man, Education, Graduation, School, Teens, Values | 3 Comments

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

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

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

What Dads Need to Know: I Don’t Want to Go to School!

By Betsy Brown Braun

BraunNow that the school year has begun, it won’t be long before one morning you’ll awaken to the declaration, “I don’t want to go to school.” It’s a cry, actually more of a plea, which every parent is likely to face at least once, if not ten times, each school year.  It’s never music to your ears.

Not wanting to go to school for the younger child or proclaiming “I’m not going to school” for the older ones, can challenge even the most savvy parent.  How easy life would be if there were a one size fits all answer that you could whip out of your back pocket.  But the response to this showstopper will be different for every child.  It will depend upon your child, upon what’s going on in his life, and upon you and what’s going on in yours.

“I don’t want to go to school” seldom means just that. It is usually the tip of an iceberg.  There is either a need that is not being met or a cry for help about something. It is your job as parent to play sleuth and figure it what is really going on.

Here are a few tips for figuring out what’s behind “I don’t want to go to school.”

Ask yourself how long it has been since school began. It takes 6 full weeks for a child of any age to dig in and get comfortable in school.  Give it time before assuming the worst. The child may not have adjusted to a new schedule, may not know the ropes and feel overwhelmed, may still be in transition. Give it time.

It is not likely about school.  With preschool age children, the issue is often about separation. Learning to attend school without a parent is very different from being left at home with a sitter but without you. Remember, the process of separation can take anywhere from a few days to a few months. It takes time to form a trusting relationship with a teacher and to make new friends. Your child just might prefer to be home with you.

What is going on at home?  If grandma is visiting, if Mommy is taking a sick day, if little brother is having a playdate, if the workmen are at his house, the child might want to be at home where the action is.

Is she not well? Your child just might be coming down with something. You know that when you feel sick, your get up and go is gone!  But beware of the child who feigns illness to get out of school.

With elementary school age children, all of the above may be at the source, but any of the following may also be the cause:

Does your child feel that she doesn’t fit in?  As children mature, so too grows their social awareness and their need to fit in. Does she feel that she has no friends?  It’s no fun to go to school if you feel out of it or feel like you have no one with whom to eat lunch.

Friend trouble?  It can be difficult to face social issues. Things that you might brush off can deeply affect a child and make staying home a much more appealing option.

Is there teasing or bullying going on?  You’ll have to do a lot of fishing, as it can be hard for children to ask for help with teasing or bullying. Elementary school age children often think they should be able to tolerate or solve these problems, but they can’t. Staying home enables the child to avoid them all together.

Is the course material too difficult?  Fear of failure is enough to make a child want to stay home. And her pals’ awareness that she is having trouble makes it even worse.

Is your child bored…really bored?  There are some students who are just that advanced. Without a challenge or new material, school can be pretty dull. Teacher trouble? The child who has gotten in trouble, has had a consequence imposed, is embarrassed to be outted, just may not want to go to school and face the music.

With middle and high school age children, all of the above may apply, but in addition:

Social issues are the number one cause of a child refusing to go to school.  There can be bullying or teasing on the campus or via cyberspace.

Genuine fatigue can be debilitating.  Teens need much more sleep than their interests and life styles allow them.  You child may be exhausted. Period.

The method for uncovering what is underneath your child’s school refusal will be different for every child.  What is the same, however, is every child’s need to be heard, acknowledged, and understood.  That is the first step in solving the problem.  When the child knows that his feelings and problems are heard, he will be much more open to brainstorming about a solution.

Betsy Brown Braun, is the bestselling author of the award winning Just Tell Me What to Say (HarperCollins 2008), and You’re Not the Boss of Me (HarperCollins, 2010), also a best seller. A child development and behavior specialist, popular parent educator, and mother of adult triplets, and grandmother, she is a frequent speaker at educational and business conferences, has been a guest expert on Today, the Early Show, Good Morning America, Dr. Phil, Entertainment Tonight, Rachel Ray, Fox and Friends, and NPR, and has been cited in USA Today, the New York Times, Family Circle, Parents, Parenting, Woman’s Day, Real Simple, and Good Housekeeping among countless other publications and websites.  As the founder of Parenting Pathways, Inc., Betsy offers private consulting and parenting seminars as well. She and her husband live in Pacific Palisades, California.

Posted in Child Development, Education, Featured Moms & Dads, School, What Dads Need to Know | 1 Comment

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

Birthday Cutoffs – To Hold Back or Not

Good piece from ModernMom on school and birthday cutoffs. With our youngest boys, who are fall birthdays, we held them back. It has worked for us as they’ve gotten older because our boys have had time to mature, both behaviorally and emotionally, so that they’re at least on par with the other kids in the class. We made our decision in kindergarten, but it can be done later, preferably in elementary school at least a year or more before the next transition to middle school. As a teacher, I’ve also seen benefits for the students I have taught in high school who were held back. It’s a matter of months, particularly for boys, but it makes a difference, especially in adolescence. It may not work for everyone, but it does for us. What are your thoughts? What worked for you?

For more thoughts about school, see articles like The Tortoise Wins the Race.

Posted in Blog, Child Development, Education, School | Leave a comment

Ways to Raise Creative Students

Dr. Michele Borba, an educator and parenting expert who tirelessly writes and speaks about ways to guide children, pointed out the following infographic. It’s called “29 Ways to Raise Creative Students,” and it’s a marvelous tool to remind us all of the simple and unexpected tips not only for our kids, but for ourselves. While I have tried to instill many of these suggestions in my sons, showing them this graphic gives them a visual means — and better yet, someone else’s recommendations since they often tune me out — to be motivated toward creativity.

In seemingly everything I read, see, and hear, including great TED talks, the working world wants its people to think creatively, to come up with solutions that are out of the box. Because education can often become obsessed with teaching to tests and hitting benchmarks, we parents should supplement our children’s learning with incentives to be innovative thinkers who are willing to fail in order to experiment.

While the only point that doesn’t apply to kids is the “Drink Coffee,” a few of my favorite tips on this infographic are “Quit Beating Yourself Up,” “Practice, Practice, Practice,” and “Stop Trying to Be Someone Else’s Perfect.” These ideas and more encourage our children to make an effort to think and follow through on their creative thoughts. We, as parents, need to follow through by applauding theses efforts and motivating them to keep it going.

29 Ways to Stay Creative

Explore more infographics like this one on the web’s largest information design community – Visually.

Posted in Blog, Creativity, Education, Values | Leave a comment