A Road Well Traveled

By Gregory Keer

It was my eldest son’s first winter break since he started college, and I was so happy to have him home that I had all kinds of plans. We’d watch movies, take in a concert, hit up a couple of his favorite food joints, and just sit around so I could stare at my first born.

Benjamin had other plans.

“How many days are you planning for this road trip?” I asked.

“Not that long, maybe seven,” Benjamin replied.

“Seven days? That’s a whole week,” I said, deflated.

Benjamin put a consoling hand on my shoulder, our father-son roles reversed.

“It’ll be OK, Dad. I’ll have plenty of time to hang out with you when I get back.”

Fighting my selfish inclinations, I recovered my concerned parent persona.

“Who’s car are you taking?”

“Jamie’s. Don’t worry, Dad, it’s the one with the most safety features.”

“And you’re driving in shifts?”

“Of course. All four of us will take a turn driving.”

“Four dudes in a car with luggage? That’s going to be a close fit.”

“It’ll be fine.”

I stopped at this. After all, my son was old enough for a road trip, despite my worries. Best of all, he was going with some of his closest buddies to visit another pal in the next state. Over the course of 10 years, these kids became friends at overnight camp, where they lived, played, ate, got in trouble, and eventually worked as counselors together each summer.

Along with those kids came great parents, some of whom voiced the same concerns when the families met for dinner the night before the boys’ journey.

“How many of you are packing into the car?” Jamie’s mom inquired.

“Now it’s five,” Jamie said.

“Comfy,” Joe’s dad quipped.

“That’ll smell good,” Jamie’s dad added.

““You have to be careful about not distracting each other,” Joe’s mom said.

“We’ll be fine, I promise,” Joe replied.

“You’re all staying at Mitchell’s house?” Jamie’s mom continued. “Does his mother know that?”

“She definitely knows,” my son confirmed.

“Well, we’ve certainly all had Mitchell stay with us over the years,” Wendy offered. “Last summer, he sent just his laundry with Benjamin on a staff day off.”

We all laughed at this, one of many examples of how the boys have managed to extend their relationships to each other’s families. Skeptical as we were that night, we made a few more micromanaging suggestions about eating, driving, and being safe, then collectively gave them our blessing for their adventure.

In this month of February, as my wife and I make the final decision on sending our younger two boys to overnight camp, we are bolstered by the benefits we’ve seen Benjamin receive from his summer experiences. His months away with the guys he road-tripped with, as well as several other significant friends, gave him shared experiences that go well beyond what he had during school terms. Overnight camp allowed these boys to see each other at their best and worst, in the early morning and middle of the night. They formed bonds that have made them feel like family.

Mind you, tuition for overnight camp has been expensive, often to the point where we’ve struggled to finance the costs. Yet, of all the things we have spent money on, camp has brought golden value not only to Benjamin, but also to our other boys. They’ve learned independence, tried activities that expanded their self-confidence, and managed to survive on food they sometimes didn’t like.

Most of all, though, they have been educated in the complexity of socialization. Without parent hovering, but under the care of trained counselors and professional supervisors, they’ve lived and played with all kinds of people. They’ve had to get along with kids they didn’t like and some that didn’t like them. Because of round-the-clock time with each other, sometimes the dislikes turned into likes. Our boys have had to learn about emotions in themselves and others, even early romance, that could not be explored in a typical school day. They’ve met people from other parts of the country and from other cultures, getting to know details about them that could only come from their month of living together.

While it’s not a guarantee that my younger boys will maintain the kind of friendships my eldest has with his road-trip buddies, it is apparent that camp is helping them gain the skills to find deep relationships.

Regarding that road trip, Benjamin and his band of merry men managed to come home in one piece. They made some mistakes, but also learned from an experience no parent can ever really teach. As we did with overnight camp, we had followed the belief that the best thing a parent can do is launch our kids, then let them learn on their own. Of course, it helps when they have good friends to go along for the ride.

 

© 2017 Gregory Keer. All rights reserved.

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

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

Thank You For Being a Friend

By Gregory Keer

When I was 12, my father took me to a college basketball game where we met up with a colleague of his named Herbie and his son.

“This is my boy Eric,” Herbie announced. “Give him a kiss hello.”

Could a father say anything more uncomfortable to two adolescent boys? Still, Eric and I laughed and managed to refocus our attention on the more macho pursuit of commenting on the ball game. Eric was as much a wise-cracker as his dad and that night was the beginning of a fast friendship.

This August, like we have for the past eight summers, Eric and I saw each other at a family camp run by the very college whose basketball team we cheered for 30 years ago. As is our tradition, we greeted each other with a huge hug and a kiss on the cheek.

“Why did you guys kiss?” my nine-year-old, Jacob, asked.

“Because I love this guy,” I said. “Eric and I were BFFs before there was a term ‘BFF.’ Now we’re DFFs – Dad Friends Forever.”

In the last year, my friendship with Eric has strengthened. While we were constant companions all the way through college, divergent career pursuits and widening geographical distance made our bonding time scarcer during our 30s. But, spurred by the annual connection our families share at camp, we’ve returned to “man dates” of going to basketball games and dinners.

In my 40s, making time for my buddies is more important than ever. And it’s not just because my wife has urged me to follow the scenario of the film I Love You, Man. It’s that, after the long years of struggling to mature into the man I want to be, I must now function as the man I am. The male friends I choose to hang out with make it easier because they’re no longer so concerned about competing with each other to see who can get the hotter chick, drain the most jump shots, or get the more prestigious job. We are all humbled by the challenges of life and are looking for ways to support each other. Perhaps we’re taking a page out of our wives’ social manuals to maintain more communication, but we’re man enough to admit it works. 

In the past, one of the reasons I fell out of touch with my buddies was because I wanted to spend as many non-working hours with my kids as possible. I thought that I would be stealing time from them to go out for grown-up “playdates.” Even when the kids fell asleep, I remained unmotivated to go back out for coffee with a friend once in a while because, frankly, I was dead tired. With my sons getting older, having homework and other preoccupations of their own – such as maintaining good friendships —  I find more opportunities for guy time.

I’ve even made room for new buddies, though building relationships from the ground up takes significant investment for guys in their 40s on up. So it’s really cool to get out for black-and-tan beers with my pal Jonathan, who is one of those people whose wisdom and humility help me navigate the sometimes stormy waters of modern malehood. Also, one of his sons is a bit older than Benjamin, which makes him a great mentor about what lies ahead on the road of fatherhood.

Yes, some of the stuff we men discuss actually goes beyond baseball and action movies. Talking with my dudes has been a true benefit to my sanity on the seemingly never-ending road of responsibility. I value my daily communication with my wife about parenting and other life management issues, but I need to rap with other guys about the masculine pressures of being a role model, of balancing leisure time vs. making more cash, and wondering whether we’ve fulfilled the goals we set out for ourselves.

This is why I’m picking up the phone more often, using email, and mastering Facebook to be in better touch with friends like Jeff, who lives across the country. It’s difficult to connect, given a three-hour time difference, but I value his quick wit and the similarities we have as husbands to energetic working wives, fathers to three sons, and practitioners in the writing and education fields. 

This Thanksgiving, along with being grateful for all the blessings of family and health, I want to give thanks to my friends. Because of you guys, I can forgo the facetiousness when I say, I love you, man.

Posted in Columns by Family Man, Friendship | Leave a comment