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 | 2 Comments

Soldiering Toward Tolerance

By Gregory Keer

The soldier is someone’s child, a boy raised with lessons of love, the value of tolerance, and the benefits of friendship. Eight months into the soldier’s tour of duty, all those lessons are tested when two of his closest brothers in arms are out in a Humvee, driving through treacherous desert. Manning the turret is a hulking linebacker type who joined the military to protect his skinny high school buddy, who steers the vehicle. A bomb detonates, killing one soldier, knocking the skinny guy unconscious, and ripping off the arm of the linebacker. Bullets tear into the Hummer, awakening the skinny guy. Bleeding but determined to get his big friend to safety, the skinny guy guides the damaged Hummer back to base.

The soldier now stands before hundreds of students, not much younger than he was at the time of that fateful attack, telling his story.

“Aid was administered and both survived,” he says of his friends. It is then that the soldier pauses and tears come. “You see, real men cry.”

As he holds a hand to his face, he explains his deepest understanding of what they all fought for — to uphold a vision of the world that puts care for fellow human beings, regardless of race, creed, or color, above all else. Earlier in his presentation, he said that he had lost some of his Army friends and that “many of them were not the same race as me, or the same religion as me, or the same political ideology as me. But they died just the same. The strength of this country is and has always been in its diversity, and in its fearless inclusivity. If anything makes us exceptional it is this.”

The soldier has every reason to be cynical because of his trials, but his resolution is rooted so deeply that it binds a group of teenagers who struggle with their own doubts about life’s meaning. HIs resolution is so powerful that his tears return.

And it as this point that a student, a ninth-grade girl with a titanium leg in place of the one she was not born with, rises from her seat and steadily walks up to him. The soldier’s head is down, and he notices her just as she reaches out her arms and embraces him. He leans on this seemingly fragile girl with the strength to take him in and confirm that, yes, compassion and understanding balance out all that we lack.

When the soldier, who has let us all know that he is studying for a master’s degree with his opportunity to learn more about the world, finishes his speech, everyone rises, not just that brave girl. And everyone applauds him for his courage not only to risk his life for all, but his clarity in speaking up for something all too hard for many to see — that a world that is free and fair for everyone is worth fighting for.

As a teacher, I was privileged to hear the soldier’s message and the embracing girl’s pure show of support. I was also moved to become ever more resolved to drive home the message of freedom and equality so that my children will flourish and advocate others to be able to enjoy the same benefits.

This message has never been more crucial than in this new year, with a new presidential administration at the center of debate over how this country can move toward unity in the midst of intense disagreement and, at times, hate. Intolerance has reared its ugly head in many ways, more unfiltered than I have seen in my lifetime. It worries me, upsets me, and occasionally has me at a loss for how to move forward.

Yet, I feel compelled to find answers for my children and even for the students I teach. One answer is to get my family out of the house and travel the city, state, and country to see and meet people with backgrounds that differ from ours, in other environments. Another solution is to put as many books, TV programs, and films in front of them that show diverse perspectives. And it remains more vital than ever for me to encourage and fund as much formal education as my children can handle because knowledge really is the power we need more than ever.

These may seem obvious ideas, but they provide the experience and information children must have to understand others as well as themselves.

One more tack I resolve to focus on is to listen more intently to my children. They have viewpoints that will influence the future I hope to live in for at least a couple of decades. Judging by the audience that heard the soldier speak, many of today’s young people greatly value diversity and tolerance. They are better than most of us older folks at listening to opposing opinions, and unafraid of expressing their own. I have much to learn from them and must be willing to do so. After all, if I am doing anything right as a parent, they will be part of the generation to help this country come together more than I ever could.

© 2017 Gregory Keer. All rights reserved.

Posted in Adolescence, Boys to Men, Columns by Family Man, Ethics, Morals, Perspective, Social Action, Teens, Tweens, Values | 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

Jacob Doing Work

IMG_3894Dear Jacob,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love,

Dad

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

Teens Provide Hope on Thanksgiving

As Thanksgiving comes upon us, I am deeply grateful for my wife, sons, extended family, and friends who love me, even when I’m not at my best. I am also thankful for the high school students I get to work with as their teacher and grade-level dean. This month, I’ve watched students (including my eldest) rapidly respond to the victims of Typhoon Haiyan with not one but two fundraisers to help needy families in the Philippines. Then, with little fanfare, one group of students organized a book drive that brought in more than 500 books for those who have little to read, another of the student clubs I supervise delivered 300 pounds worth of frozen turkeys to an underserved local community, and yet another made an informative and moving video to teach teens about World AIDS Day. Sure, these students still obsess over their iPhones and complain about homework, but they also give of themselves generously. Lots of reason to be thankful about a future with these kids in it.

Posted in Holidays, School, Teens | 1 Comment

Monster on Board

By Gregory Keer

For years, my 13 year old looked the part of a skateboarder. Benjamin rocked the latest Vans shoes (is it me or do they have a shelf life of three weeks?) and RVCA shirts (can we work on catchier acronyms, people?). He could also spout specifics about longboards versus short ones and explain why certain wheels were better for tricks than others.

Funny thing is, he wouldn’t actually step on a piece of rolling wood. Not even to go across the back patio.

But recently, after his long stretch of feeling too clumsy to look cool on a board, Benjamin found friends willing to show him patience as he learned to wheel around the neighborhood on plywood and pituitary power. As long as Benjamin demonstrated caution and good judgment, we allowed him to travel everywhere from his friends’ houses to the mall.

My wife and I delighted in the exercise and confidence he gained in his jaunts around town. He was never much of a cyclist, so this was a real advancement for him. And there was the added benefit of not having to drive him everywhere. Yay for us, we thought. We were shedding our overprotective nature to allow our son to spread his wings.

Then came the scrapes and bruises from minor tumbles on concrete.

“You should wear your helmet the next time you ride,” I suggested to my son, following his longest skateboard trek yet.

Whatever goodwill I had built up for giving him his four-wheel freedom rolled away.

“No one’s parents make them wear a helmet,” he shot back.

I thought about this for a moment. He was right. I never saw kids wearing protective skull gear out on the streets.

“Helmets look ridiculous,” he pointed out.

“Accidents look worse,” I scored.

“Only people doing tricks at skate parks have to wear them,” he added.

Another point for the 13 year old.

I relented. I know, I know, it was the wrong decision, but there’s still time for me to redeem myself.

Another week went by. Wendy and I discussed it ad nauseum and decided to put our collective foot down.

“I’ll buy you the coolest helmet on the market if you’ll wear it,” I offered.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” he replied.

Still, I brought him to the skate shop nearby where I asked the sales guy to convince Benjamin about helmets.

“Uh, most kids don’t wear ‘em,” he droned. Well, that wasn’t much help.

Walking out of the store without a new helmet, Benjamin threatened us.

“I won’t skateboard ever again if you make me wear one.”

I have to hand it to the kid. He knew we might cave if we thought he’d return to his traditional couch potato lifestyle.

We stuck to our guns. Benjamin stuck to his — for two days before asking me to bring the board to the park, where he was helping younger kids in after-school groups. He was hoping I’d forget about the helmet so he could skate to his friend’s house after work.

I brought the board and helmet to him at the end of the day.

“I’m not wearing this thing,” he groused.

“Do you know how many parents we’ve talked to who have given us horror stories of kids they know with brain injuries?”

“Not from riding on the sidewalk,” he snarled.

“Even from riding on the sidewalk,” I said. “One boy hit a stupid pebble, landed on his head, and is still in a coma.”

“Well, it’s your problem for talking to other parents,” he reasoned.

We argued back and forth with me finally throwing up my hands and leaving him in the parking lot, the helmet hanging limply from his hand.

Seconds later, I received a text: “I hate you! I’m not going 2 talk u 4 the rest of the week.”

As ridiculous as that sounds now, it stung when I read it at the time.

“I don’t hate you, though,” I texted back. “I just want you to be safe.”

“But I hate u,” was all I got in response.

I stewed in self-pity and anger until my wife got home.

“He said what to you?” she fumed. “That’s it. Play date’s over.”

We picked up Benjamin from his friend’s house and told him he was grounded until further notice.

Now for my redemption. Benjamin didn’t complain about being embarrassed in front of his buddy. He apologized for his rudeness to me. At home, he hugged me a lot.

This is not to say that our son hasn’t tried to raise the helmet issue again, but he has made wearing it a habit. He’s also been a nicer kid to us than he has been since adolescence kicked in.

I’d like to think that it’s because we set boundaries for him. While it’s often painful to bicker with our beloved child and uncomfortable to curb his burgeoning independence, my wife and I are doing our own growing up as parents. We’ve learned that however monstrous our son may seem in fighting against us, we’d rather avoid the scarier consequences of not drawing the line on safety.

Posted in Adolescence, Columns by Family Man, Holidays, Sports, Teens | 1 Comment

Guest Blog: 3 Most Common Parent-Kid Fights and How to Stop Them

By Vanessa Van Petten

When I was a teenager it felt like my parents and I got in the same fights over and over again. After working with thousands of teens and parents I have realized that there are several common fights parents have with their teens. Below, I have described these three fights and offered some solutions for stopping the argument cycle.

1. The “It’s Not Fair” Fight

Examples:

– Older brother gets to stay out late with his friends. Teen finds this grossly unfair.

– Parent gets to have soda, child does not. Teen finds this grossly unfair.

– Teenager cannot buy new outfit for dance because it is too expensive. Teen finds this grossly unfair.

Emotional Intent: When you hear a teen talk about how unfair something is, what they are often feeling is, “I am not important or special enough.” If you feel like your teenager is constantly arguing about justice or fairness, they are most likely feeling like they are not being heard or cared about enough to get what they want. Of course, this is usually not the case. In the examples above parents would be worried about safety, health and money, while teens feel like they are not as important as their sibling, that their parents do not understand how important the dance is, and so on.

Solutions: The best way to stop the “it’s Not Fair” fight is to address the emotional intent. The best way to do this is for parents to push into the “it’s not fair” feeling from their children instead of pushing against it. For instance in the new outfit example a parent might say to their teen, “I hear you think this is unfair, will you tell me why?” A teen will most likely respond, “You buy stuff for yourself all the time,” or “But I deserve this dress.” These answers are important because it will show the parent the emotional intent behind the upset and feelings of injustice. If a parent addresses these by saying something like, “I could see how you feel like us not buying this for you is about you not feeling worthy. But the truth is we are trying to save for the big vacation we are taking this summer—which is for all of us. I know how important this dance is for you. Maybe we can get you a new pair of shoes or…” then the fight is stopped.

2. The “Treat Me Like A Grown-Up” Fight

Examples:

– Teen wants to be able to stay out late with friends. Parents say no. Teen thinks they are being treated like a child.

– Teen wants to go away for Spring Break, parents say no. Teen thinks they are being treated like a child.

Emotional Intent: Most fights during the teen years are actually based in this ‘treat me like a grown-up’ motivation. The earlier you can catch and address it the better it will be. It derives from the fundamental pulling away that comes with a teen trying to assert their independence.

Solutions: It is very important for parents to discuss reasons for decisions that are making a teenager angry. This way teens are sure to understand the real reasons for a parent’s choice. Another great way to help teenagers get less upset in fights surrounding their maturity is for parents to help teens feel mature in other ways. For example, perhaps parents do not want their teen to go away for the whole Spring Break because they want to have family time. A great way to address this with teens is to say clearly, “We really want to have family time with you, but we know you are getting older, so how about you do a weekend camping trip with your friends for one of the weekends.” This teaches teens you trust them, but it is all about balancing needs.

3. The “We Are a Different Person” Fight

Examples:

– Parent wants their teen to join band, teen doesn’t want to.

– Parent expects higher grades and when teen doesn’t do well, a huge fight ensues.

– Teen does not keep room tidy, parent gets upset when guests come over.

Emotional Intent: Often times teenagers tell me that they will purposefully keep their room dirty or choose unapproved hobbies just so they can be different from their parents. Parents frequently misinterpret room cleaning or bad grades for laziness, when something deeper might be going on. Teenagers often will ‘misbehave’ or fight with parents simply to show them that they are their own person—even if it gets them into trouble.

Solutions: First, it’s important to make sure that you do want your child to be their own person. Be careful not to push expectations or your own goals onto your kids. Second, make sure teenagers know that some of the requirements you have for them (good grades a tidy room for guests) are not to make them feel less like an individual, but for them to have more choices in their future and to present a nice home to guests. I recommend parents being very direct with teenagers about their need to be ‘their own person’ you might be surprised what common fights are actually based in this emotional intent.

Overall, fighting can be stressful, but teenagers often tell us that ‘fighting’ with their parents is their way of discussing issues. Look at fights as a way of getting to know a new aspect of your teens and be open with them about hoping to stop harmful cycles. 

Vanessa Van Petten is one of the nation’s youngest experts, or ‘youthologists’ on parenting and adolescents. She now runs her popular parenting website, RadicalParenting.com, which she writes with 120 other teenage writers to answer questions from parents and adults. Her approach has been featured by CNN, Fox News, and Wall Street Journal. She was also on the Real Housewives of Orange County helping the housewives with troubled teens. Her new book, Do I Get My Allowance Before or After I’m Grounded?, was just released in September 2011 with Plume Books of Penguin USA.

Posted in Adolescence, Blog, Books, Child Development, Family Man Recommends, Teens, Tweens | Leave a comment

Beyond the Lesson Plan

By Gregory Keer

Ten years ago, I became a full-time high school teacher. With visions of Stand and Deliver dancing in my head, I wanted to put my real-world experience into lessons and my bad jokes into dull moments. Plus I relished learning what made teenagers tick to prepare me for my road ahead as a father.

Over the past decade, I’ve held onto the joy of teaching though it frequently makes my brain hurt and my ego crack. It ain’t easy to find the balance between the enthusiastic learners and the ones who would rather blog about toenail clipping. So, through trial and tribulation, I’ve developed methods to keep students’ attention, push them past their boundaries, and encourage them to explore their interests.

I don’t pretend to be one of the world’s greatest teachers. I’ve had those in my life, as instructors of my own and as colleagues. In 10th grade, there was Dr. Kleinz, who was nerdy, overly educated, and sweated profusely through his dress shirts. But he was funny, hip, and a good listener. Even the students with the biggest attitudes and smallest self-expectations labored hard for Dr. Kleinz. As for me, I struggled for a decent grade in his Western Civ class — and loved every minute of it.

Among my three kids, and their combined 13 years of public school, the vast majority of their teachers have been creative, effective, and inspiring. Then, there are the two who have somehow missed their calling as medieval prison guards.

A few years ago, Jacob’s instructor was intolerant of students who were not quiet drones. She gave the kids worksheets, without instruction on how to do them, for most of their day. She readily showed frustration for fidgety children and put absolutely no comments – not so much as a Happy Face sticker – on the students’ papers. And this was in first grade.

My son is energetic to say the least, but he has always been eager to please. So, when he asked for help, he was crushed by the teacher’s response to stop asking so many questions.

We tried emailing and conversing with her, but got little response. So like a number of other parents in the class who had similar worries about the instructor, we met with the principal. Sympathetic to our concerns, he went in to observe the way the teacher taught, helped her post her bare classroom walls with the work of students (to pump up their pride),  and guided her on lesson plans and techniques to channel kid energy into productivity.

As a result, the academic environment did improve. Although the teacher’s personal coldness didn’t thaw much, the partnership with the school administration made a difference.

This past year, my eldest boy endured a sub-par seventh-grade English class in which he seldom had homework, read only two books, and rarely received feedback on his work. While she did deliver some stretches of beneficial instruction, she missed weeks for meetings and field trips she went on with other classes while subs did little more than babysitting.

It’s not that Benjamin ever fretted. He got good grades for little effort and seemed well liked by the instructor. At the slightest hint that we might voice to the school our unhappiness with the rigor of his class, Benjamin feared backlash should the teacher think he was ratting her out.

Understanding this, we focused our efforts on gentle emails about assignments to the teacher and behind-the-scenes inquiries with the administration. We were stonewalled everywhere we turned despite the fact that, as we gathered from speaking to past years’ parents, this teacher had a history of doing her job on autopilot.

This time, we backed off, partly because our son still read a fair amount on his own and partly because we wanted to teach him a different kind of lesson. No matter what Wendy and I privately worked on to improve the classroom situation, we publicly told our son to work hard and figure out the best way to meet the teacher’s expectations. We never wanted Benjamin — or Jacob in the earlier case — to feel entitled to blame these or any teachers for their own shortcomings. In the future, it’s likely our kids will have other difficult instructors (and bosses, eventually), so our boys need to know how to navigate those murky waters.

Thankfully, my children’s other teachers have been stellar. Our hope is that the new school term will also be led by involved, caring educators who like kids and enjoy what they teach. Most of the time, despite the continuing budget assault on education, we are blessed by instructors who go above and beyond basic lessons to make learning a joyful experience.

So, here’s to all the teachers, even the ones who remind us of how hard it is to be good.

Posted in Columns by Family Man, Education, Teens | 1 Comment

Vanessa Van Petten on Assisting Kids With Homework

Vanessa Van Petten, the ground-breaking writer and publisher of RadicalParenting.com, focuses on assisting parents in raising teenagers. Her approach is to offer moms and dads windows into the teenage mind by posting articles based on her experience researching adolescents but also providing articles written by teens that directly speak to what they want parents to know. For this month’s back-to-school theme, here is one of Vanessa’s most useful pieces on How Parents Can (Successfully) Help Kids With Homework.

Posted in Blog, Education, Teens | Leave a comment