Category: parenting

A Simple Canoe Trip

Tomas is off today on a “simple” canoe trip. Heading off in Northern Maine for a three night/four day adventure with the other young men in our church. They’ll be traveling about 40 miles, from what I’m told. He left at 6:30 this morning and won’t be back until Saturday.

I don’t think I ever did a single campout trip with a youth group growing up. I went away to summer camp quite a few years, but in terms of your standard “bunch of boys going camping,” that never happened. Tomas has now done a few of them, and I’m happy for him to have the opportunity.

It’s funny. When he was younger and I thought about camping trips, my initial plan had been that I would go with him on all of them. I thought it would be important that I could be there to supervise and make sure everything was okay. But as he grew older and I thought about it more, I changed my way of thinking. It became more important to me that he begin to learn to operate on his own. Independence was a bigger goal than supervision, and if it came at the cost of some mild stupidity on the side, then that was a price worth paying.

The ultimate goal of any parent, I believe, is to raise your kids to the point where they can leave your house and become fully functional adults who can live and be happy and successful without your help. Getting to that point can be difficult and painful, but it’s important to always keep that goal in mind.

So when Tomas was about ready to head off this morning, I gave him the following advice: “Don’t do anything stupid.”

That didn’t feel like quite enough, however. So I decided to define “stupid” for him. “And when I say stupid, I mean if you’re about to do anything, and you think to yourself, “This isn’t the best idea I’ve ever had, and this could really go wrong,” then don’t do that. That’s the stupid thing I’m telling you not to do.”

I almost did a really stupid thing that fits that definition perfectly in college. I lived in DT, and our floor was having a bit of a feud with the floor of a building right across from us. They were posting insults to us in our windows. We were posting insults back.

Stupid.

So we tried to figure out a way to really get even with them. The idea, in the end, was to take paint balls and a slingshot and plaster the outside of their windows with paint. A friend had the paintballs. Another friend figured out how to open our permanently locked  windows, and I had the slingshot.

The night came. We had everything set. I had the paintballs locked and loaded in my slingshot, and I was all set to rain fluorescent fury down on those windows. And then I stopped, looking at the situation. This seems like a really bad idea, and something I could get in a fair bit of trouble for, I thought to myself.

But all my friends were there, egging me on. Encouraging me to go through with it. A fair bit of pressure.

Which I stood up to. I shook my head in the end. “This is a bad idea,” I said. “Let’s not do it.”

See? I can actually make reasonable decisions, every now and then.

Here’s hoping Tomas can do the same . . .

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Eighth Grade “Graduation”

Tomas had his eighth grade “graduation”/celebration event last night. I didn’t know too much going into it, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I’m a staunch supporter of schools and teachers, and so not attending wasn’t an option, but I still wasn’t sure exactly what would happen there.

In the end, I’d have to say my reaction ended up being quite a bit more negative than I would have anticipated. I debated even writing up a response, but often I write blog posts to make sense of things myself, and so my hope is that by writing this, I can get a bit of a better handle on why I thought it wasn’t a good event and what might be done to change it.

On the surface, I can see the reasoning behind the celebration. Get all the eighth graders together, call out their names, and have them walk across the stage to get a certificate of completion. Sure, it’s about as meaningful as preschool graduation, but at the same time, making it through middle school isn’t easy, from a social perspective. It can bring some closure to the students’ experiences, and get them hyped for high school. (I suppose?) That in and of itself isn’t anything to get worked up about. It’s an hour long event. No big deal.

But at the same time, they also handed out awards to students. And this is where I began to get uncomfortable. They don’t tell any of the students ahead of time who might win an award, and they don’t really tell students what it takes to win an award at all. There are a slew of awards handed out. Each teacher of each subject gets to give at least a couple. Some areas gave out as many as 10 or 15, as I recall. It’s what took the bulk of the hour to do.

And the whole time they were doing it, I couldn’t help but do the math. There were around 150 students in the audience that evening. I’d guess there were about 50 awards given out (maybe less?). Some people got multiple awards. Some kids as many as five or six, I’d guess. So perhaps 30 of the students got an award. 20%. Which means that 80% of the students sat there the whole time, wondering if they might get an award, but ultimately getting nothing but the piece of paper that says they successfully finished eighth grade.

Which on the surface shouldn’t upset me, should it? I mean, I don’t believe in giving out awards to everybody. I’m all for recognizing hard work and effort. If everyone gets an award, then it’s about the same as no one getting an award.

But when the criteria for getting the awards are so fuzzy, things begin to blur. From an outsider’s perspective, it began to seem more and more like the teachers picked who would get the award for their class was by picking their favorite students in their class. Which, okay fine. Each teacher will have students they connected with more. Or who they felt really went above and beyond.

(And in case you think this is about me having sour grapes Tomas didn’t get an award, it isn’t. He got one. I’m proud of him, but still very uncomfortable with what went on.)

This is middle school. Rough times, indeed. And for 80% of the students, their night was taken up watching all sorts of other kids get picked over them. And the whole time, they might have been thinking, “Maybe this award will be one I get.” Because they weren’t all even academic. There were awards for PE, School Spirit, Most Improved, Art, Health, Community, and more.

That’s a lot of rejection to get in one evening, in my opinion.

How could this be changed? Well, they might switch things around to recognize groups of students. “Students who got an A in Science, please stand.” “Students who played a sport, please stand.” “Students who were on the robotics team, please stand.” The criteria there would be much clearer, so kids wouldn’t feel like they were losing anything or getting passed over for anything, and yet the ones who made extra effort in areas could still be recognized.

On the other hand they could also make it an invitation event, where students who won an award are invited to attend with their families. Then at least every student who’s there knows they’re winning something, and the “rejection” of the other students isn’t as obvious.

They could still hand out the awards, but do it when they send out report cards. So the student knows they did well, the parents do too, and yet there’s no public shaming of the ones who were passed over.

I think the evening was supposed to be a celebration. A last chance for teachers to recognize students. But because of the way it’s organized, it turns into a last chance for 80% of the students to leave middle school with a bitter feeling. “I thought Mr. _______ liked me a lot, but I guess he didn’t like me enough to give me an award.”

Once again, this is my personal feeling. It’s not based on any discussion I had with any middle schooler. They’re just the thoughts I had running through my head during the awards, and hours after. I wonder if I was the only person thinking them.

In the end, I’m just not convinced the price of the event (hurt feelings for 80% of the class) is worth the reward (recognizing the other 20%).

What do you think?

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Dealing with Bullying

One of the biggest challenges I’ve found as a parent is wishing I could do more and not knowing where to stop. There’s a pull between wanting to help your kids out as much as possible, and wanting to let them be self-sufficient. In some cases, the choice is clear, and you don’t really need to debate too much about whether to help or stand back. Cleaning their room, for example, is a task best left to the kid. I’ve stepped in to help my kids clean their rooms over the years, and I’m discovering in hindsight that was only enabling their “live in sloth” habits. Now that we have the newly made chore sheet, I haven’t had to do any room cleaning, and the kid rooms stay much cleaner.

On the flip side, there are times it’s definitely worth it as a parent to step in and help. When they’re struggling with homework, for example. A case in point has been my efforts with DC to improve her reading this year. (Proud Dad moment: DC has been reading books on her own for a while now, and entered in a “Bikes for Books” program at school. You got one entry for every book you read, and she did six or seven, telling us she wasn’t taking to too seriously. She won a bike. I know compared to Tomas 6 or 7 books read isn’t a huge accomplishment, but I also know that the DC from the beginning of the year would never have voluntarily read through 6 or 7 chapter books on her own. She’s come a long way, and as we read in the evenings (We’re up to Castle of Llyr now in Prydain), I’m consistently impressed by how much her reading has improved. I’m not saying that’s all due to me reading with her, but I know I’ve helped, and that feels great.)

But not every decision has an easy answer, and I think that’s where the whole Helicopter Parent route becomes an easy trap to fall into.

You want your child to succeed. You want to do everything in your power to make sure they do, because heaven forbid twenty years down the line, when they’re struggling with finding a job, you wonder if you’d only pushed them harder in school in second grade if this all could have been avoided. That’s partly a joke, but there have definitely been times when I’ve felt like the failures I make as a parent now are messing up things for the future, and that’s a bad feeling to have. (Interestingly, I don’t blame my parents for any of my screw ups as an adult, though I do credit them for many of my successes. Is that called “paying it backward”?)

But it’s more than just schoolwork. Fact: middle school is hard stuff. I remember living through it, and it wasn’t an easy ride. I went into Junior High with one group of friends and came out with an entirely different set. The friends I’d had before pretty much turned their backs on me, and I had to flounder a bit to find my place. My old friends stopped being interested in the same things I was. They started being meaner. Or maybe it was just to me. I know not everyone goes through that, but I certainly did, and I see my kids going through rough times at school as well. Times that they’ll remember for the rest of their lives, the same way I still remember those times way back when.

And I want to step in. I want to shield them from insults and bullying. And Denisa and I do step in from time to time, emailing the school and making sure they’re aware what’s going on. But it’s Lord of the Flies in there sometimes. Teachers can’t watch kids the whole time they’re at school. There’s recess and gym and lunch, and you should never underestimate the ability of kids to find a way to make their opinions known. I hear what’s been said to my child or about one of my child’s friends, and I just want to run into the school and Hulk out on the people saying it. At the same time, I think back on the careless things I said in school, and I try to assume the same thing is what’s happening now. It’s so easy to focus just on yourself as a child. To not realize the words you say have real impact on other people. Kids can be so set on proving how normal or cool they are they that they’re willing to stomp on just about anyone or anything to get there.

That said, if any of you have experience helping your kids through bullying at any age, I’d love to hear how you handled it. I learn a lot from others, and I’d definitely like to crowdsource this one. Thanks in advance.

Developing Self-Confidence

As I work on raising happy children, one of the things I keep doing is looking at myself. What makes me happy? What qualities or skill sets have I developed that help me most? And I think one of the biggest is the ability to be self-confident. Specifically, the ability to be able to ignore what other people think I should be doing (or wearing or thinking or saying) to instead have confidence that what I am doing is good for me.

(There’s the flip side of this, of course, which is dangerous: being unwilling to acknowledge that what I’m doing is harmful to myself or others. Balance in all things, but today’s post is on developing self-confidence.)

There are two big things that come to mind when I think of how I’ve become self-confident. The first is a small 6 second clip from The Jerk. In the movie, Steve Martin’s character has become fantastically wealthy. He has all the money he’ll ever need. And what does he do with it? He spends it on trying to become the “cool” people he sees in the media. This is best summed up in this clip, where he’s been trying to recreate a drink he’s seen in commercials, because he wants to “Be Somebody.”

For me, this represents just how shallow and useless trying to “be somebody” is. You can do whatever you want to try and look cooler or fit in. You can follow the herd, but in the end, you’re still the same person you were before, just with a stupid drink and a tiny umbrella in it. Once you can realize that having something or wearing something doesn’t actually change anything, you can break outside the constant drive to conform.

The second big thing is a broader concept that I don’t, unfortunately, have any short movie clips of. It’s a principle I’ve heard years ago, and it’s stuck with me: Avoid the need for external validation. I’ll call it the “Who’s a Good Boy” principle, because it always reminds me of dogs. Dogs are all about the external validation. They want to be told what a good boy they are. So they’ll eagerly do what you ask, so they can be rewarded. Cats, on the other hand, embody internal validation. They know just how awesome they (think they) are, and so they don’t care what in the world you do or say. They just go on doing what they want.

In people, of course, this looks a little different. External validation for people (in my opinion) means you get an actual “thing” that shows you you’ve succeeded. It’s different from the first “Be Somebody” concept because the thing in this case is something you need to earn. You can’t just buy it. So it might be getting a promotion at work. It could be winning a prize in a contest. For a lot of writers, it’s getting that fabled book deal.

Don’t get me wrong. Getting promoted or having your book published is lovely. But it can’t be the main reason you’re working or writing. Or at least, it’s really better if it isn’t. Because external validation is almost always out of your control. You can write the best book you can, and things might not pan out in your favor. You can work as hard as possible, and someone else might get that promotion. And then what are you left with? No validation at all, and that’s a crummy place to be in (especially when you’re downtown and need someone to pay your parking).

It’s much better to be doing something because you want to do it. Because you enjoy doing it. Down that path, you’re happy because you’re doing what you want, not because someone gave you a Scooby Snack. External validation also seems to be the root of peer pressure. You want the praise of your friends, so you do things you wouldn’t necessarily do otherwise.

How do I try to avoid that trap? I ask myself if I’m enjoying what I’m doing, whatever it may be. If I’m not, then I ask myself why I’m doing it. Sometimes you do things you don’t like because you have to. That’s life. But if the only reason I’m doing something is so I can get something else, it’s a good idea to examine that “something else” and see how worthwhile and necessary it is.

If my kids could all grow up to know they don’t need to fit a mold to be successful or happy, and they don’t need someone coming and giving them something to be happy either, then I think they’d be well on their way to becoming happy people.

How about you? What techniques, approaches, or gems of wisdom do you use as you do your best to raise self confident kids?

On Parenting

Since the beginning of the year, Denisa and I have been attending a weekly parenting class offered by our church. (Well, most weeks. Some weeks it was just me, some weeks it was just her, and we had to miss entirely once or twice, because life.) It’s been an interesting experience, as much of the learning was done through sharing different experiences between the parents who were in the class.

My biggest takeaway was that each family is very different, and the things that work for one household won’t necessarily work for another.

This is frustrating in some ways, because I like to think there is a Good Way to do things, and that if you talk to enough people, you can figure out what that way is and make it work for you. But with so many approaches out there, that throws a wrench in that plan. You might follow someone else’s advice perfectly, only to find that it totally didn’t work for you.

The other takeaway is that parenting isn’t a thing that you learn once and then master. It changes from child to child, and from age to age. What worked for one child perfectly might stop working as they get older, and it might not work for the child’s sibling either.

As if that weren’t enough, it seems to me that no parent can really truly prepare for what’s going to hit them as soon as they get a baby. I remember the old “What to Expect When You’re Expecting Book.” It made it all seem so straightforward. And it kind of is, for those first few years. As a parent, you have a fair bit of control over what your child does, who they play with, what they eat. You name it. You have a lot of control.

But as they get older, it’s your job to cede that control over to them bit by bit, so that by the time they’re heading to college or a career, they’re fully ready to tackle the challenges life might throw at them.

Parenting it tough stuff, and I think my biggest frustration with it is how much of the time it feels like I’m flying blind. I’m on a rollercoaster with no brakes, no rails, and no real guarantee that the thing is going to turn out okay in the end. Denisa and I have come to points where neither one of us really has a clue what we’re supposed to do, and the advice we solicit from friends and family doesn’t seem to help too much either. (Because of that whole “what works for one might not work for all” thing I noted earlier.)

So what do we do? Honestly, we pray for guidance a lot, and that’s gotten us as far as we are now. I have to hope it’ll continue to help.

In the end, I think I’d sum up my parenting style (so far) as follows: I like to treat my kids as full fledged members of the family. I want them to know that their voice is heard and their input is important. When we make rules, we make them with them, not simply “for” them. Communication is a huge part of it for me. The most frustrating times have been the ones where my kids just don’t want to talk about what’s upsetting them, and I enjoyed the pieces of the class that went over different approaches to talk to kids.

For me, family comes before friends. I’m much more concerned that all members of the family are getting along and spending time with each other than I am that my kids are having great friendships outside the home. This doesn’t mean I don’t want them to have friends, but if something comes up that conflicts with a family activity, family wins out. I still talk to some of my high school friends and a few college friends, and there are a couple of middle school friends I have contact with now and then, but they play such a small role in my life. On the other hand, I’m still with my family. Those ties are strong. I want that for my kids.

I wonder how many times over the years I’ve said things (on the blog or in person) that have shocked other people. Things I take for granted that most sensible people believe, which actually many people don’t. I assume it must be fairly frequently. At least a few times a month. Maybe even a few times a week, since I blog so publicly. I base that assumption off the fact that in the bit of interaction I have with friends, they still manage to surprise me now and then by what they let their children do or don’t let their children do. There are things parents allow (or don’t allow) that just don’t compute with me, so logic says there must be things I do or don’t let my children do that seem like terrible decisions to others.

This is another one of those blog posts that doesn’t really have a conclusion. There’s no big “aha” moment that brings it all together. Just a general observation that parenting is difficult, and if I (or you) think someone is clearly doing it wrong because it’s different from how I (or you) would do it, it’s perfectly fine for me (or you) to take notes about how I (or you) won’t make those same decisions, but as for speaking up and telling you (or me) how that’s wrong for you (or me)? Maybe it’s better to bite my/your tongue and realize we might both be right (or wrong.)

How’s that for a sum up?

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