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

Mass Love in the Wake of Mass Tragedy

By Gregory Keer

In the wake of the horrific mass shooting in Orlando on Sunday, June 12, what heartens me are the persistent waves of love pouring out from all over the country and the world. I believe more than ever that love far outweighs the hate in this world, and that it is something we must show and teach our children now more than ever. I also believe that gun-control action is vital, and that we must address the loopholes in our laws in the name of expanding the safety that I hope we all agree is the goal. However, what I also want to emphasize is a greater consciousness toward connecting with each other on a daily basis, not just after tragedy strikes. We have to notice and care about the pain and anger in others, then be relentless in getting help for those who show it. I am not naive enough to think that we can head all killers off before they pick up a weapon, but I do think that we should do more than tolerate each other. Everyday acts of kindness can be drops of water that might eventually fill up oceans of support to keep more people afloat in an often arid world of disconnection. We don’t have to kiss and hug everyone we meet, but we can be kind, provide eye contact, say hello. This blog, which I struggle to find time to use in this crazy, busy life, is one tool of connection for me. Maybe it will reach someone new today. I hope it reminds any reader that I am, many of us are, wanting to make things a little bit better.

Posted in Blog, Morals, Social Action, 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

Words for My Father

By Gregory Keer

DadwBenjToday would have been my father’s 75th birthday. We had been planning to celebrate it for months and months prior to this date, July 12, 2014. Cancer had other plans, and it took him away from us on February 9 of this year, following a diagnosis less than four months earlier.

After my dad’s death, I took a hiatus from this Web site, partly in keeping with the advice he often gave me to try to slow down a bit more to gather in the details of life. But, on this day when it’s so very hard to be without him, I want to recognize the meaning he had for me in some fashion that feels right. Below is a version of the eulogy I gave at Dad’s funeral. It was surreal to be speaking about him in past tense when I said the words in front of the hundreds who came out to honor him that day. It still doesn’t feel quite real — and yet it is. Grieving is a long process, but remembering is forever, especially when it involves a man such as my father.

***

There are many reasons why I write. A number of them are because of my father. Dad, the man of science, was also a man of poetry. He wrote of moments and emotions in loving phrases to his luminous wife Franny and he etched in ink words of praise and vivid observation to all his children. He even wrote a children’s story about “Rollo,” a ball who learned to keep moving if he wanted to enjoy the world around him.

At times, I struggled to talk to my dad. There was the divorce, which took him away from daily opportunities to converse and he was needed by tens of thousands of patients over a 45-year career. Sometimes, I felt I couldn’t get enough of him. I certainly couldn’t get enough of him on the phone. My sister Kim can attest to my father’s dislike of the phone — often exhausted by work calls, Dad treated the receiver like it was one of Maxwell Smart’s shoe communicators that had come in contact with a pile of dog poop.

One of my motivations to write was to find ways to stop time, particularly in the hyperspace of adolescence, and tell my dad how much I loved him, how much I needed his words of validation. In my pre-teen and teen years, I wrote cards to him, with painstakingly chosen messages. It helped, especially since he wrote back cards to me, with sentences that never failed to reduce me to tears because they shone with such love and attention to the details of my concerns.

It was partly through my father’s writings that I was assured he was always thinking of me, crafting ways to guide me, even when he wasn’t talking out loud. They also showed me how much my dad preferred action over words. Dad was a doer, and the relationship we had over 47 years was less about chit chat or parental lecturing and more about playing basketball together, going to baseball games, and taking trips. So many trips to places like Chicago to see the grandparents, Philadelphia for father-son time, the Sierras for moments of hilarity with the Sussmans, Yosemite for one of many KJ adventures, Palm Desert with all the grandchildren, and Paris for a grown-up vacation with Franny – who, together with Dad, taught me so very much about love and partnership that I was able to find the most remarkable woman in Wendy. My God, there were so many vacations that he made happen so he could enjoy his loved ones without distractions.

Certainly, there were distractions, as there are in any life led in service to a community, that wedged between my dad and my efforts to get more words and attention from him. Often, when we were out at a supermarket together or a ballgame, he’d get approached by a patient who wanted to say hello to their favorite doctor. He was a bit of a celebrity, my dad, and I was known for 30-plus years as Dr. Keer’s son. It was a great coup for me one day when Dad called me up to tell me a student of mine came into the office and asked him, “Aren’t you Mr. Keer’s father?” Finally, I had turned the tables on him. And no one was prouder of it than Dad.

I wanted this speech to be funnier – Dad had such a great appreciation for humor  — as he showed me through the tapes of Johnny Carson clips with legendary comedians, the afternoons of watching Mel Brooks movies, and his own goofiness and willingness to be poked fun at for his follicle-y challenged head, his bird-like legs, and his woefully underprivileged sense of rhythm.

But, I’m not feeling easily humored right now. I’m just beginning to miss him. I’m floating in the fog of all the subtle ways he enhanced my life through little gestures and a consistency of presence that I often took for granted. For a father of such carefully selected words and a son who never seems to shut up, we had one particular trip that was emblematic of our entire journey together. It was a weekend stay in San Francisco two years ago to see the Dodgers play the Giants, to eat great food since we both like that kind of thing, and to just — be — together. Not talking so much, just being.

He was really good at just being.

So, Dad, thank you for being with me. Thank you for being with all of us.

Posted in Aging, Columns by Family Man, Death, Grandparents, Helping Kids Understand Loss, Marriage, Perspective, Values | 1 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

What Dads Need to Know: The Role of Heroes for Children

By Dr. Marilyn Price-Mitchell

For thousands of years, heroic stories have been used to inspire, motivate, and transfer cultural values to children. The stories have a common pattern.

They begin with a likeable hero who encounters a challenge or roadblock in life. And then, with the help of others, the hero emerges from the difficult situation transformed by his or her experiences.

Heroic stories are found everywhere in modern media.

Beautiful Snow White is protected from the wicked queen by the seven dwarfs. Her life is threatened when the queen, disguised as a peddler, finds Snow White and poisons her with an apple. Rescued by the Prince, she is transformed by true love.

In Avatar, Jake Sully is a paralyzed ex-Marine who has an opportunity to walk again through a proxy Na’vi body in the world of Pandora. But he encounters an unexpected challenge. He falls in love with a Na’vi woman, Neytin, and is forced to choose sides in an epic battle between the humans and the Na’vi people. With the help of many, Jake’s leadership prevails and the humans are defeated. Jake is permanently transformed in a Na’vi body where he lives the rest of his life with Neytin.

We Are Heroes for Children

Years ago, I had the privilege of studying with Joseph Campbell, renowned mythologist and author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces. He believed people created heroes and myths out of their own human experiences. Why? To constantly remind us that anything is possible! When we face difficult life challenges, we draw on heroic stories for inspiration and to help us persevere through obstacles.

Heroes show us a way to overcome life challenges through the use of a variety of character strengths and virtues. Their stories also show us that we cannot accomplish great things unless we open ourselves to being helped by others.

Too often, children, teenagers, and adults view heroes as myths or legends rather than the representation of mere humans who succeeded in breaking barriers that previously limited them. Campbell saw this as a deep problem with modern-day individuals who failed to see the value of heroic stories in their own lives.

For parents and teachers, these stories can be tools to teach young people how to face and overcome challenges in the real world. But to take these modern-day films beyond entertainment, adults need to have conversations with youth that delve more deeply into meaning.

When watching movies with children, parents can engage in family conversations about heroes. What strengths and virtues did the hero exhibit? What challenges and obstacles did they overcome? Who were their helpers? How was the hero transformed? What strengths of character does your child share with the hero?

Classroom teachers can use heroic stories to instill character strengths and values in children. In addition to movies, books contain heroes of all kinds. Historical figures are heroes too. Use them to inspire and to illustrate the human journey of struggle and reward.

In addition to heroes themselves, the heroes’ helpers are vital to the journey of transformation. These people can be compared to modern-day role models. Children and teens need role models to help them in their own journey. They are the people who inspire others, live their values, give freely of their time, and show us how to overcome obstacles!

©2013 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Dr. Marilyn Price-Mitchell is a developmental psychologist and researcher. A mother, stepmother, and grandmother, she is founder of Roots of Action where she brings evidence-based research on youth development to popular audiences. She writes a column for Psychology Today, The Moment of Youth. She is president of theNational ParentNet Association, a nonprofit organization devoted to building parent-school-community partnerships that help kids succeed in school and life. Connect with Marilyn on FacebookTwitter or atwww.mpricemitchell.com.

Posted in Adolescence, Child Development, Featured Moms & Dads, Values, What Dads Need to Know | Leave a comment

The Devilish Advocates

By Gregory Keer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The following comes from one eight-minute conversation:

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

“I hate Shakespeare.”

“Chinese food is disgusting.”

“I never enjoyed playing sports.”

“Dressing in nice clothes is stupid.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, you should really clean this up.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Dads Need to Know: Tips for Raising More Charitable Children

By Alison Smith

Children become more charitable when they believe that their actions have impact. A few small, yet tangible ideas, put into action early on in life, can set the stage for a more charitably spirited and rewarding future.

1.      Pass it On

Nothing is better than receiving a completely unexpected, delightful, surprise.  Next time when you are at your favorite coffee shop with your kids, let the cashier know that you would like to buy the person behind you a cup of coffee or a muffin.  No need to let them know. The cashier can let the person know that it was a gift from the person who just left.   Your child will see how nice it feels to put a smile on an absolute stranger’s face.

2.      Cookie Delivery

At some point in time, we all have friends who could use a hug or need a little lift.  Why not bake cookies with your kids, have them draw a “happy” card and deliver an unexpected package to a friend’s doorstep.  This act of kindness will allow you to have the compassion conversation.   Being aware that grownups have feelings too helps kids to think outside of themselves and be more aware of the world around them.

3.      Plant Seeds and Give Them Life

What could be better than watching a little garden grow (especially in the dead of winter?) Give your little ones a pot, some earth and seeds to water and nurture.  Seeing the progress take shape before their very eyes shows kids that when they are patient and nurturing, beautiful things occur.

4.  Allowance is for Sharing

One of my personal all time favorites is encouraging kids to give a small portion of their allowance away.  Setting aside a small amount each week can quickly turn into to a sizable amount after a few short months.  Together you and your child can discuss where that money can go. It begins the dialogue of giving and sets your child on an early path that places giving as a party in their everyday

Alison Smith, a mom and  former kids furniture and clothing designer, is co-founder of ECHOage.com, a company that does good for children and charities by splitting birthday gift money between the two.

Posted in Activities With Kids, Charity, Featured Moms & Dads, Morals, Social Action, Values, What Dads Need to Know | 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