David Code’s New Book on Socializing to Reduce Stress

Saying that modern parents are stressed out is nothing new. What is new is the emphasis that David Arthur Code has in his book, Kids Pick Up On Everything. Code, who is a marriage and family coach as well as an ordained Episcopal minister, has lived in several countries around the world, which is how he came to see that socializing was a key element in the effort to reduce stress in parents. In writing his book, Code studied neuroscience in addition to collecting his own observations.

Here are three of his top points from the book as articulated by Code:

“1) Parental stress is a major factor in the increase of child disorders today.  His research shows that kids soak up the stress in a household until their developing nervous systems hit ‘overload.’

2) Being stressed out is The New Normal for parents, and the main cause of our increased stress is NOT our jobs, or technology—it’s social isolation. Humans are social animals, with a primal need to bond.  That’s why our increasing isolation has left us more anxious and irritable, eroding our relationships as we escape into our screens.  Research shows we are far more isolated than only two decades ago.

3) Parents need to get a life! ‘If I could wave my magic wand and reduce the stress of today’s parents, I would give them a glass of wine, a friend, and a ‘piazza’–an Italian village square to go socialize in every evening.’ Sure, exercise buffers our stress, but socializing is #1.”

Another important idea Code discusses in his book comes from the fact that, while he observed families in South America, he learned that “it’s a myth that ‘the more attention you give your kids, the better they’ll turn out.’ Rather, the more time you socialize with other parents while your kids play together, the better they’ll turn out.”

Posted in Blog, Books, Family Man Recommends, Parenting Stress, Perspective | Leave a comment

Taking Action Before More Children Suffer

By Gregory Keer 

In the wake after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut, so many of us parents struggled to make sense of our emotions and, perhaps most important, what to do to prevent this from happening to more children. Some of us talked about more security for our schools to block deranged gunmen from ever getting in. I think that may be necessary to at least provide a sense of security for our children, who should know that adults are physically protecting them.

Many parents talked about gun control and urging our government to pass strict laws making it much harder for guns to be sold. This may not have as immediate an effect on the security of kids, but it is the right idea and one that has taken far too long to bring to the forefront of our national debates. As the President of the Children’s Defense Fund, Marian Wright Edelman wrote yesterday, “Why in the world do we regulate teddy bears and toy guns and not real guns that have snuffed out tens of thousands of child lives?” I believe in the Constitutional right to bear arms; I also believe that right needs to be clearly defined to provide the kind of safety that the right itself was intended to provide. Better gun laws can’t solve the situation entirely, but making them tougher — particularly where they employ improved background checks — slows down the accessibility.

Lastly, part of our debate needs to be about health care. We must have a greater emphasis on mental health and a better system to respond to caring for those who are adrift in our society. I know this is incredibly complicated, but perhaps if we normalize mental health care that allows people to affordably and regularly check in with a mental health professional like we do a physical health professional, we could have a chance at preventing “madmen” from getting to the point of such devastating actions.

I encourage your comments and hope that we will all act. We must also hug our children and talk to them about their feelings in the midst of the media storm this event has stirred up. Many of the suggestions in a previously posted item about talking to kids about disasters apply to this kind of situation, so feel free to look at that as well.

Posted in Blog, Helping Kids Understand Loss, Perspective, Talking About Disasters, Values | 1 Comment

The 5 Commandments of Fatherhood

By Gregory Keer

Ten years ago, I was getting woozy as I stared at the proof pages of a magazine I was editing. It was 4am. I had phoned my wife five times that night, promising to come home soon with each call. I really did love the work I was doing, but not seeing my kids for the  whole day left me feeling empty.

The worst of the calls involved hearing my newborn wailing in the background as my then four-year-old got on the line to say, “You’re not even going to cuddle with us tonight?

I had been prepared for missing an occasional night with my kids. I wasn’t equipped to miss the three I was absent for in that week alone. In just a few days, I had broken most of the important rules I set for myself as a father.

It took me a while to change my ways (and eventually get a different job). Not to sound too much like an infomercial, but I did it by coming up with “5 Commandments” that led me – and can help you — to the promised land of involved fatherhood.

1. You Shall Keep Your Promises to Your Kids

Too often, we worry that our employers or clients will fire us if we don’t put them first when they ask for more of our time than we expect. Even more often, we think that we can make it up to our kids for the occasions we break a promise to be home at a certain time or take them out to play catch. That thinking is wrong. The reality is that the employer or client usually won’t fire you if you set limits (often they respect you more). Your kids, on the other hand, will lose faith in you if it happens too often.

My youngest son used to hover around my home-office, waiting to play with me at my work cut-off time. After a run of days doing that, he stopped waiting and went to his room to play alone. When I was ready for him, he told me, “Daddy, I want privacy. Shut the door.” That hurt. So, now, I try to put work on hold and play with him, rather than miss my opportunities.

Keep your promise to your kid and you won’t regret it. You can always catch up with the client after bedtime or schedule another time to follow up. Use technology (emails and faxes) to work overtime for us and help keep our kids happy.

2. You Shall Not Beat Yourself Up

We can do all the right things and still seem to “fail” with our kids (like when we come home with a great Chinese food and our kids say they no longer like Chinese food). Children don’t give us grades or raises. So there really is no consequence for small mistakes other than their grumpiness. Roll with the punches. If you yell at them or come home late, don’t write yourself off for long. Get back on track because you’ll get a lot of extra chances.

I go through periods where I raise my voice to my kids too often at night. I feel awful, but I do it because I’m out of control. Rather than not deal with them and their frustrating bedtime ways, I work on my expectations and approaches, tinkering every night. I also accept small victories — I’m happy for the nights I don’t yell and even happier for the nights they do almost everything I ask.

3. You Shall Establish a Rhythm

If you don’t jog regularly, your muscles forget what they’re supposed to do and bark back in pain. Similarly, if you don’t keep up regular parenting activities, it’s hard to build much strength in the relationships with your children. Give yourself a few assignments per day that involve helping your kids and you will get in their daily rhythm. Strive to have moments with them morning, noon, and night.

Try serving breakfast each day or every other day, driving them to or from school regularly, and reading to them or checking their homework each night. If you leave before the kids go to school, put a note in their lunch or call them from work before they go. You can even email or text your older kids each afternoon, just to check in. Phone calls and emails do not replace being there, but they can certainly keep you more in the loop than if you disappear from their lives for the day.

4. You Shall Hug a Lot

Men are notoriously stereotyped as undemonstrative. That’s often correct. If you are this way, consider the cliché of a hug a day. Kids need touch for security and love. Getting a hug — maybe more than one and throw a couple of kisses in there, too — means so much to a child in a cold world. You are their reliable source for validation, so give it.

Here’s a simple idea: when you can’t think of anything to say or do with your child — whatever they’re age — give your child a hug. They may sometimes push you away — as my 10-year-old sometimes does, especially around his friends — but what counts is that they know what you mean and it means the world.

5. You Shall Take Time Off

Quality time is what matters. Being focused on nothing but your kids for more than a couple of hours allows you to know them in a well-rounded fashion. So take a vacation, at least two solid weeks a year. And take occasional days off, maybe even once a month. When my buddy Sang had his first child, he was working crazy hours and was stressed out over the fact that he couldn’t see his kid during the day except on weekends. I suggested he take one day off each month or every two months. I also recommended he run home for lunch once a week or twice a month. In the scheme of things, it’s not much time from work and — now that he does it — it means a lot to him to be with his child just a little more.

Honestly, it remains a challenge for me to follow these “commandments” to the letter, but it does help me to stay focused on some rules I truly believe in. Try some of these ideas our and/or make up some of your own. The important thing to remember is that there is no higher authority than your own fatherly voice that says the time you spend with your children is precious enough to set in stone.

Posted in Activities With Kids, Columns by Family Man, Perspective, Work-Family Balance | Leave a comment

When I’m 100

By Gregory Keer

My first grader came home recently with a completed assignment called, “When I Am 100 Years Old.” For it, he had drawn a picture of himself at the century mark, looking pretty much the way he does now, but with a long gray beard. Apparently, this is all it takes to distinguish a seven year old from a centenarian.

Under the picture was his life-topping accomplishment, “I will be a riter.”

In five words, my youngest son managed to reveal a treasure trove of insight. He told me his lifelong plans. He revealed that these schemes have to do with his connection to me, the guy he sees scribbling stories. And he showed he can’t spell worth diddlysquat.

This month marks my birthday. Because I am a “riter,” I’m spending time reflecting on how I’m doing goal-wise on my marchtoward (God willing) 100 years. There are areas I’m on target with, including keeping my marriage healthy, doing meaningful work, and making efforts on behalf of social causes. Among the aims I still want to achieve are learning to cook really well, playing at least one musical instrument, speaking Spanish, living in another city (if only for a season), and improving my free-throw shooting.

Above all, the category in which I’d like to improve most is fatherhood. It’s one reason I write these self-indulgent columns that chronicle the tinkering I do as a dad. While some of this labor is just me being nitpicky, a lot of it has to do with being better at following the biggest lesson I’ve learned about parenting – my children’s lives cannot be scripted. I cannot mold them in my image or in the image of someone I’d like them to be. I can give them plenty of good materials, but they have to craft themselves.

Having Ari say he wants to be a writer is nice now, but it’s likely he’ll do something different for a living. Ari loves to build stuff and take things apart to see what makes them tick. I have zero mechanical ability, so it’s hard for me to relate or even play alongside him when he reconfigures a door handle or surrounds his bed with various pulleys and other contraptions. My job is to let him horde boxes, tools, and various bits (which drives me nuts in that he keeps his room like a junk yard), so he can develop into who he wants to be. I’m fairly certain he will be some sort of engineer, though I’m trying to keep this kind of guessing to myself.

My middle son is most like me in his passions for writing stories, remembering lots of entertainment trivia, and having his feelings easily hurt. At the same time, his penchant for taking charge of situations and doing all his homework well ahead of schedule are far from my personal tendencies. Jacob currently thinks he’ll be an artist (architect, painter, or performer), while I imagine him becoming a creative businessman. Yet, he’s so full of interests and willingness to soak up information, he may be the kind of person who tries out a lot of things out. This could be difficult for making a consistent life, but it could also mean he’ll never be bored.

My 13 year old is the most open book of my three. He loves imaginative books, but prefers computers and science over discussing human nature. He doesn’t mind sports, though he veers away from competition. And he’s efficient at getting assignments done — when he feels it’s worth his time. As my eldest, he’s borne the brunt of my clumsiest parenting as I’ve pushed him the hardest on everything from studying more to maintaining better posture. Yet, this kid is more at ease than I ever was with a variety of friends and has a better sense of enjoying the world’s simple things. I worry he may lead a fairly modest life, but I’m confident he’ll rise to the level of happiness he wants for himself.

Too much of my early fatherhood years have been anchored in feeling I only have value if I show my sons the right way to do things. It’s often made me too intense in getting them to follow instructions and too judgmental of mistakes when I’ve warned them of pitfalls. All of this has been about making me more important to them than necessary.

For a dad – or any parent – that is a tough insight to internalize. I don’t know all the right answers, and even when I think I do, there is wisdom in keeping most of them to myself. Although I am bound by the parenting code that compels me to keep my kids safe and armed with good resources, I hope to mark the road to 100 with much more observing and cheerleading as my sons grow their own gray hairs.

Posted in Child Development, Columns by Family Man, Humor, Perspective | 6 Comments

Would You Make Your “F” Student Wear a Sign?

Recent parenting news focuses on the dad who shot bullets into his daughter’s computer for misusing Facebook and a father who sent his 7th-grade kid with a sandwich board announcing the three F’s on his report card. In an interview, the Miami-area 7th-grader, Michael Bell, Jr., said he planned to do a lot better after spending time at a busy intersection where people could see him in all his shame.

Is this tough love or too tough? While I accept that it’s entirely possible that the two aforementioned dads might have felt that the ends would justify the means, my worry is that, whatever short-term gains a parent might get in pushing a child to act more responsibly, the long-term reality is that more bad stuff could happen. Much of this feels like parenting theater, discipline for a YouTube world rather than truly effective character building.

Like a lot of parents, I get to the end of my rope. I’ve yelled, jumped up and down, even tugged out the power cord on my teen’s laptop (while making sure I wasn’t actually damaging it). What did it do for me? It scared my child for a minute and made me look foolish and out of control. So, I apologized for my behavior without condoning my son’s (he had played a video game instead of doing homework for one too many times). And then we talked about ways he could balance his priorities better. This included my commitment to checking his daily planner more regularly to help him manage his time. I won’t do his homework for him, but I can assist in getting him more organized, at least for a little while.

My plan — my hope — is that by returning to a calm, civilized approach, I’m teaching my son how to weather frustration as well as mistakes in judgement. I don’t want my child to feel shame — I want him to feel in control of his responsibilities for his own sake.

Posted in Adolescence, Anger Management, Child Development, Perspective, Tweens | 1 Comment

What Dads Need to Know: The Fatherhood Economy

By Laura Diamond

When I was pregnant with our first child, a stack of pre-natal and parenting books towered perilously high on my bedside table.

On my husband’s side of the bed was a single book for first-time fathers, bought by some well-intentioned friend (okay, maybe it was me). Giving our “friend” the benefit of the doubt, at the time there weren’t many fatherhood books to choose from. And maybe this friend didn’t read the Table of Contents. Had she, she’d have known that the book’s sole message to fathers-to-be was: You Man. You Earn Money.

I discovered this one night as we lay in bed preparing for parenthood in the way we lawyers knew how – reading, studying – and I heard him groan. I turned in time to see him holding that book, his face contorted with disappointment, the words crushing his natural excitement for his impending fatherhood.

When he explained why, I grabbed the book, checked the publication date, looking for the 1950 copyright. Nope, it was current. I tossed it aside. “That’s ridiculous.” But the genie was out.

When our first baby boy was born, we agreed I’d stay home to care for him. My husband stepped up and became the sole money-earner in our family, at least until I wanted to go back to lawyering. (Still waiting for that desire to materialize…) Over the years, he has provided for our family while staying true to his playful nature, placing time with his kids above everything. As he’s made career moves, each time he has prioritized the ability to spend time with his family. Speaking for my kids and myself, we are grateful for the law-partnership-path not taken. We like having him around.

Yet that manly-provider-thing still haunts him. A few days ago, he confessed that he had been daydreaming about returning to a law firm so that we could have more money, live in a bigger house in a fancier neighborhood, even though it would mean more hours in the office. Worse, he was indulging that waking nightmare while bouncing on the trampoline with our first-grader, usually their happy place.

Breaking into his father’s thoughts, our airborne joy boy said, “Daddy, don’t you wish I only had school and you only had work on Monday and Thursday, and we could play all day all the other days?”

Just like that, he brought him back from the brink.

Recently, a Cornell professor wrote about life lessons older Americans had for the rest of us. Chief among them, Don’t worry so much about money. Spend time with your family. Say yes to adventures.

These are modern day self-evident truths, but they are slippery, easy to lose hold of, especially with messages like the one in that loathsome book so pervasive. But being a great Dad does not mean being the best financial provider on the block. Does your family really need the latest greatest iPhone? The fanciest cars? The biggest Bar Mitzvah party? I didn’t think so.

Repeat after me: “The time I spend with my kids, present and focused and looking in their eyes is worth more than any pirate’s treasure, more than any winning lottery ticket, more than any golden parachute.” No amount of money can buy it back once it’s gone.

Try putting that on your bookshelf.

Laura Diamond is the mother of two (frequently healthy) boys. She is the editor of the best-selling anthology  Deliver Me: True Confessions of Motherhood, and is now at work on her first novel. Read more of Laura’s essays at Laura Diamond Writes On…

Posted in Featured Moms & Dads, Marriage, Perspective, What Dads Need to Know, Work-Family Balance | Leave a comment

Perchance to Dream

By Gregory Keer

The 1988 Francis Ford Coppola film, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, is a long-held favorite of mine. Like its main character, the innovative car designer Preston Tucker, the movie earned critical acclaim but little financial success.

For me, Tucker is memorable for much more, including a classic scene between Preston and Abe, the financial expert who takes a risk by joining the vehicle visionary’s effort to build an automobile that will challenge the major auto manufacturers.

Abe says, “My mother always told me to be careful not to get to close to someone. You might catch their dreams…It wasn’t until many years later that I realized she meant germs. She didn’t want me to catch someone’s germs.”

OK, maybe it’s a funny line only to me. But what really sticks is this point that dreamers – people who have these seemingly impossible goals – can spread their power of positivity to others. It doesn’t matter whether there’s a big pot of gold at the end. What counts is that dreamers and those who support them need the fuel of imagination to make life richer.

As a father, I frequently debate myself over what I’d like out of life and what I need to provide for my children. I sometimes wonder how things would be had I traveled the globe more to soak up adventures, then moved to a seaside shack to write novels and screenplays. Would I have been wildly successful in these endeavors without kids to weigh me down?

Although my hopes to be a world-famous storyteller have been with me since I was a kid, being a good dad has been an even greater goal. I don’t know when I figured this out, but it has certainly dictated most of my other pursuits so that I could have a more predictable career and income.

Emphasis on the word most, but not all.

No matter how comforting a straight and narrow path of work-home-sleep may be, I leave room for dreaming. I think it kicked in when I saw another movie, The Rookie, in 2002. The film is about Jim Morris, the real-life former pitching prospect who got injured, settled into coaching and parenting, then rediscovered his throwing ability quite by accident.

At one point in the movie, Morris seems ready to give up the endless travels of a minor leaguer that take him away from his family. On a difficult night, he talks to his son from a payphone and the son tells him to follow his dream. Morris does and finally pitches in the Major Leagues.

Seeing this, I realized it was vital to my true identity to keep the flame of dreams alive, if only to role model to my children that the pursuit is every bit as important – actually more important – than the end result.

So, while I’ve become a gratified professional educator (I teach film, among other things), I’ve pushed myself to write, usually late at night and on weekends. I’ve driven myself to peddle columns to magazines in other states and countries, and I’ve met with some success. I’ve also scribbled children’s stories that remain unsold and screenplays that have found no buyers. I get down, but I get back up – for myself and for my kids.

At a certain juncture this fall, I got a little more down than usual. I couldn’t write another word. What was the point of it all if I wasn’t going to have some kind of big achievement? I wasn’t empty because I had my teaching career and a family I hold dear. I just felt incomplete.

But I realized that the only answer to my feeling of incompletion was to keep working toward whatever results might happen. If I stopped, there would be no chance for happy surprises.

In this new year, I am more dedicated than ever to pursuing challenges and indulging what-ifs, from my writing to taking my first plunge into coaching high-school basketball. Being a responsible father need not preclude me or anyone from taking a few calculated chances. By doing this, I hope my children will catch my dreams and learn the value of having their own, now and even when they’re old like Daddy.

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

We Build: On the 10th Anniversary of the Events of 9/11

By Gregory Keer

This month, we mark the 10th year since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when innocent Americans died in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Since that time, my oldest son has become a teenager while two of my children have been born into this world in which fear and hatred too often diminish the beauty human beings can and often do show.

As a way to commemorate 9/11, I wanted to look back on what was going through my own mind as a parent the day after the terrible events, to gain perspective. I hope this piece will encourage you to think as well and perhaps to discuss with your children ways to feel more secure in a too often uncertain society.

***

My son was born on the same day, in the same hospital, as his friend Ethan.

Our families had become friends during our mutual first pregnancies. After the birth of the boys, we saw each other at least once a week, went to parent-and-me classes together, and talked all the time. If it were possible to marry another family, we would have married the Ansorges. But not long ago, our friends moved to Manhattan when Mark’s job was transferred.

On September 11, the distance became greater. That morning, little Ethan walked with his mommy to preschool and watched a plane slice into the World Trade Center. Ethan and Deborah struggled to get home in the ensuing pandemonium that convulsed New York City.

All the while Ethan asked, “Mommy, why did the plane crash into that building?”

No physical harm came to Ethan and, soon after witnessing the horrific tragedy, he was home, cuddling with his parents who cherished their very existence.

Ethan and his parents’ experience clarifies one simple thing amidst the human devastation and unending confusion brought on by that day’s events: We are still better at loving than we are at destroying.

Don’t get me wrong. I am angry, perplexed, and cynical about much of the way our world works. I am scraped raw, emotionally, when I think of that father on the flight that crashed in a Pennsylvania field. This is the man who called his wife and told her he would fight the terrorists before they did greater harm. This is the man who urged his wife and child to have a good life.

As much as this story weakens me, it also fortifies my belief that love prevails in the face of any disaster. We build on love, for love of each other. We are better at building than destroying.

And, as simplistic as it sounds, the concept of family is perhaps the greatest structure on which to build on love’s foundation. I know I might sound flower-childish or naïve. But I am struggling to be positive and state the obvious: We are a family of human beings. Like family members, we often treat each other brutally — but not as much as we treat each other lovingly.

The metaphorical, if not literal, powers of family reach everywhere. I feel that most of the sentiments expressed by world leaders and residents of other lands were heartfelt. They recognize the pain of wives who have lost husbands, of children who have lost parents. They have lost, too.

Within our own community, parents are talking with their children to ease their worries. One parent was dealing with a four-year-old son who was inquiring about the “evil tourists” (meaning terrorists) while trying to help another son who was shell shocked by the tragedy.

Another parent has a daughter who asked, “Were there any mommies or daddies in the buildings” of the World Trade Center. At the same time, these parents are giving blood and talking with each other to soothe fears.

Repeatedly, we prove ourselves to be better at bonding than at disintegrating. We may be more motivated at this time, but most of us act on our desires to respect and understand. We are also teaching our children these values.

My wife and I put our son in a multicultural day care. He has befriended kids with of an amazing array of cultural backgrounds, from West Indian to Palestinian. He sometimes blatantly states differences he has with others: “Why is Nicholas brown?” or “Why is that girl talking Spanish?” We are embarrassed at first, then we watch him hugging and giggling with these young people.

At our foundation, we are a family. No terrorists can crack the foundation because it is made of stronger stuff than metal, concrete, or even flesh and blood. It is made of love. And so we continue to build.

Posted in Columns by Family Man, Helping Kids Understand Loss, Parenting Stress, Perspective, Values | 1 Comment