As I settle into the first full week of 2014, it occurs to me I have not made any resolutions for the new year. I could get out my list for 2013, and see how I did … except I’m not sure where that list is, or if I even made one.
I suppose there’s a chance that last year’s list may have included “get more organized,” something I am constantly telling my kids. It may have also said “lead by example,” and “follow through.” Whatever.
I have mixed feelings about resolutions. First, as a stubborn Irishman, it is sometimes difficult for me to admit there is … anything about me that might need adjusting — though I’m blessed with a wise friend who is gifted at showing me the error of that train of thought.
Second, if I were to concede that there may be ways to improve my life (lose 10 pounds, get a job, don’t watch any TV show that has the word “Real” in its title …) I’m still not sure how the calendar makes this the right time to change things — although, let’s face it, who can lose 10 pounds in December?
Still, the beginning of a new year apparently offers the chance to organize, lead by example and follow through … and so I have compiled not one, but three lists: one for me, one I’ll be suggesting for my kids, and one I propose for other parents. And, indicative of a procrastinator, we’ll get to me last.
For my kids:
1. READ. I know, I may as well have started with “Write hand-written letters” or, “Do your chores before school.” Some things seem to be lost from generation to generation.
When I was a kid, I read anything I could get my hands on. As the member of an exclusive society — the National Geographic Society (didn’t every grandmother give that as a present?) — I had a new issue every month, taking me to exotic places around the globe, including some places where people apparently wore very few clothes.
Each month, as the taxi-cab yellow magazine arrived in the mail (the entire sum of my monthly mail) I devoured the new issue, as well as the Hardy Boys, Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone, Comic Books, the sports page of the paper, and even the “gentleman’s magazine” I occasionally found stashed in the recycling pile in the garage.
- Dad would later say that “a hobo” must have put them in there. A hobo? … ok, Dad.
I still love to read. As the father of young children, I admit my reading for a few years was generally limited to reading aloud books that rhyme and occasionally a page of a magazine before falling asleep — then reading that page again the next night. But I’m back to real books now — plus the paper and magazines. And of course, online newspapers, like the Los Angeles Post-Examiner.
But my kids, like so many kids I know, have little interest in reading — unless it’s a downloaded game manual that will help them get to the next level or world or whatever in the new video game they’re playing.
With a bookshelf full of classics and more current fare, access to school and public libraries (remember going to the library?) and a zillion downloadable books, it’s not like they don’t have options — they just don’t have interest.
So I’m working on an incentive plan — something involving revocation of privileges of food, electricity or the ATM machine I keep on my nightstand. I’ll get back to you on that.
2. CALL. I know, another throwback. Kids now don’t call, they text. Or IM, or Instagram. They barely talk to their friends, even when they’re in the same room. If they have a phone in their hands (which is like saying “if they have opposable thumbs”) they would rather text a person then call them. I used to love spending hours on the phone (still do) with my girlfriend, or my proposed girlfriend’s girlfriend, thinking of different ways of asking whether her friend liked me as much as I liked her. How will kids today ever learn how to read meaning into those awkward moments of silence?
Did you ever imagine a day when your kids would receive a birthday card with cash, and when you say, “Call your grandmother and thank her,” they’d respond, “I’ll just text her”?
There are times when I call my kids and they don’t answer — they text back. I respond with “Call me.” They respond with “Ring ring. Hello?”
I’ve fallen into their trap. I text my kids now. They text back. Sometimes they text me from within the house, when we’re all home. “Dad, would you be a pal and bring me some chocolate milk?”
One gives me full accounts of his day, his needs, his plans, and says please. One gives me one-word answers:
Hey … we’re communicating.
For other parents:
1. Look at Your Kids Before They Go Out:
I’m not saying my boys are Abercrombie models, but they generally are at least clean when they leave the house. Clean face, clean hair, clean clothes. Wrinkled, sometimes, but clean. And most importantly, appropriate for the occasion. Because even though as children, they have the Constitutionally-protected right to wear something their parents think is dumb, they still have the fear of actually looking dumb — to their friends. It is your job to make sure that doesn’t happen.
There are two ways you can make sure they listen to you on this: You have to either throw some other kid under the bus — reminding your kid of how silly/inappropriate or just dumb that kid looked that one time at that one event, or … you have to let your kid go out in the wrong clothes, one time.
All black to a daytime pool party. Shorts and T-shirt to a fall evening event. A little too casual to something a little nicer. You get the idea.
But, it only works if you mention before they go out that they might want to consider changing. Just a calm, matter of fact, “Are you sure you want to wear … that?” from you. If they immediately re-consider, then you’ve done a great job in earning their trust. If they don’t … they will next time.
And an aside to parents of girls: Please remember what girls wore when you were a kid. Then, think about what the “professional women” along Sepulveda Boulevard in the North Valley wear when they are … making their services available. Aim for the former for your daughter.
A couple of years ago, I was sitting at a baseball field with one of my best friends, who at that point had a 12-year-old boy and an 8-year-old girl, who were sitting with us. A 13-year-old girl who we knew walked by in shorts that I believe were made from half a handkerchief. We both shook our head in disbelief, and looked at my friend’s daughter. “Is that what I have to look forward to,” he asked in horror. “No,” I said, “but your son is.”
2. Stop Posting Pictures of Meals. Please.
Does this really need more explaining? We have all seen what a pot roast looks like. And frankly, most cell phone shots of food are not that … appetizing. They’re a cross between Target dinnerware ads and crime scene photos. Stop.
Look, I admire your forethought. You dropped a piece of meat and some potatoes and veggies in a Crock-Pot before you went to work in the morning, and your family is eating together at night. If that’s the case, the picture should be of the family at the table, especially if there’s talking — that’s the big accomplishment.
I manage to get my boys to the table at dinner time whether it’s with steak off the grill or Costco chicken tenders — because they’re teenagers and they want to eat. Even the picky eater who will frown at something outside of his wheelhouse is still going to eat it. But getting them to talk? That’s the meat and potatoes of family life.
1. Be More Involved in My Children’s Lives:
My 16-year-old son recently went to a friend’s house. The friend’s name is Storm. I’m not sure if that’s his last name (great name for a weatherman, right, Dallas Raines?), a nickname (I shudder to think of how you earn that nickname), or his first name (what we called in my house growing up his Christian name … though I don’t remember a Saint Storm, so I guess not).
But it dawned on me that if there was a need for me to get a hold of my son, I wouldn’t really know how to, other than text him and wait for his one word reply (see above).
I don’t know Storm, his phone number, his mother or father, where they live, if they live together, if he has brothers or sisters … all the things my mother knew about every kid I ever hung out with.
Sure, I grew up in a small town, with only two schools, Catholic and Public. But it was more about her effort as a parent than access to information, which, let’s face it, is significantly increased today.
It really goes towards riding that delicate balance between letting your kids feel independent … and treating them like they are in the witness protection program, and you are the agent assigned to them. I’m aiming even more for the latter this year.
In journalism school, we were taught the essential elements of any story are Who, What, Where, When and Why — my kids now know this also applies to any request they have for a deviation of schedule.
And all those electronics they have: phones, laptops, etc.? I will know the passwords, or they will not have them. Operation Web Kid will be terminated.
2. Be an Example:
Here are things I occasionally do that I’m stopping, immediately: Texting at a red light. Promising to do something, and not doing it. Leave the house without making my bed.
I’m convinced (dreamer!) that if I start doing all these things right now, at least one of my two sons will be following in my footsteps, on at least one of these things … by May. Or August.
Because I’ve seen it work! Here are a couple of things I have had pointed out to me that I needed work on. When I became aware of them, I let my kids know I was trying to improve, and I have seen them copy me on them. They include: Make eye contact when talking with people of all ages. Open doors for women and anyone older than you. Rinse a cereal bowl when you finish with it.
Those are the good things. They also have mimicked me on some bad things I’ve done — see the list of what I’m working on this year.
Whatever we do, they see … and they assume it’s the way to do things. Be an example. it works. For example, I no longer swear in the house. I step outside, as do my kids.
My neighbor just moved.
3. Pay It Forward: I recently got my first parking ticket in years, while I was Christmas shopping in a record store. First, I have to admit I’m a moron for thinking 37 minutes was going to be enough time in a record store, especially when I started taking pictures of 45’s based on their titles to send to a special lady friend. Who knew the Archies hit “Sugar, Sugar” would cost $63?
My friend said she always fills up the meter to the max, no matter how long she plans on parking, and just leaves the available time for whoever parks next, Great, simple idea. I’m all in.
I admit, paying it forward kind of goes along with number 2 — Be an example. My boys have seen me pick up newspapers from my neighbor’s driveway and put them by the front door, take out or bring back garbage cans of neighbors who are away, be kind to customer service people — even in a disagreement; give a handout when I can, let someone change lanes in front of me and somehow — maybe by parental osmosis, my boys are pretty polite kids.
That’s not me being a saint, or super dad, it’s me being a human, in a world of other humans. You do something nice because you should, and because you can, not because you’re setting an example. But the fact that your kids are watching, and copying, is just the bonus that goes with it.
Whenever my boys go to someone else’s house, I usually hear how polite, or helpful, or respectful they are. Which is not only a proud and validating moment … but it means I get to find out who their friend’s parents are.
Nice to meet you, Mrs. Storm. Happy New Year!
Mike Brennan has been a Pulitzer Prize-nominated newspaper reporter, a magazine writer, an investigative journalist, a nationally touring stand-up comedian, a joke writer for the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, a morning radio host, a professional auctioneer for numerous charities, an editor, and a film and TV script consultant. He is currently working on a romantic comedy screenplay, and a humorous book on being a father, called The Tooth Fairy Doesn’t Pay for Yellow Teeth. He has lived in the Valley for 19 years, and has two teenage sons. Contact the author.