Seventeen. Happy Birthday Davide. Part 2

Today I have a seventeen year old. Wow. Normally for me this would be a time for me to think about and wax nostalgically about what he was like at 2 and a half when we met (a cute story to be shared later), the early fatherhood years, watching him grow and how much harder the teen years have been for me than all the years that preceded them.

Maybe later today. Right now I am waxing nostalgically about yesterday. It was a coming of age day for all of us.

Yesterday the three of us drove 100 miles to go visit Marquette University with the idea of exposing Davide to a variety of schools. The campus visit was good in that we got a feel for the physical presence of MU, the academic opportunities and the pros and cons of being at a college in the middle of a moderate sized city as opposed to out in some rural area. The day was enhanced greatly by spending time with a distant cousin who is on campus as a soph. With him Davide attended his first college class, a large lecture, and received more insight to MU and being in college generally than we could have imagined.

Yet the time together in the car provided the memorable moments. We do not make nearly enough quiet time together as a family. We occasionally will share dinner together actually at the table, but more frequently our varied and full schedules keep us from being together or dinner is in front of the TV. More meaningful communication happened in that car yesterday than has happened in  long time.

I have been concerned about my relationship with my son. Strong feelings about how poorly we have been acting and talking to each other have been brewing for a long time. Some of this is the natural evolution of parent/child relationships as teens strive for more independence and parents endeavor to provide the right balance of both freedom and guidance. We had gotten way past this evolutionary level. While my wife and I tend to focus on what we felt are Davide’s shortcomings, I  also knew that his actions are intertwined with his perceptions of how we treat him.

Bottom line is that he listened, not merely heard but actually listened. We did a better job of sharing our points of view in a way that helped him listen. He spoke. We listened.  Emotions were shared. Understanding ensued. It was a family growth moment.

It is amazing how much this car ride made us happier and feel better.  I do not believe in epiphanies that change forever the relationships between people. However, this feels like a grand step forward.

I think that I am going to have to schedule more long car rides. Even if we have no particular place to go.


Seventeen. Happy Birthday Davide. Part 1

A letter to my son.

It was a year ago that I had a chance to tell you how much I thought of you at 16. It is now a year later and I find my mind wandering to memories of you and of us, father and son. I wanted to share some stories so they are written down for all posterity.

Let’s start with our first time together. A couple of weeks after your mom and I met I came to pick the two of you up for our first date. She did not have a sitter and I saw no reason to wait for another time. After all there were several 2 year olds in my life at the time.

I rang the bell and when the door opened your mom hardly had time to say hello when you boldly took me by the hand, clutching a book in the other, and declared, “read to me”. We walked to the couch and read. Next on to the local Borders to listen to jazz. You mostly ran circles around our table while I tried to make conversation with your mom. By the end of the evening I was not entirely sure about your mom but you had won me over.

Thirteen months later we all became a family. I now had the two things most missing from my life, a wife and a child. It was a hard transition for all of us at first. You were in a strange house and missed being with Nana and Grandpa. I had immediately gone from being this guy to play with to being your dad. We both had a lot to learn about the father/son relationship. Still do.

We made the it. In those early years you and I played together. I was awful at soccer. By age 4 you were better than me. At least for several years we had baseball.  Given the chance you could spend all day playing catch. It amazes me now to look at our small backyard and realize that we were able to play there a long, long time ago. Your arm quickly outgrew the yard. Then at some point you outgrew me as I could no longer handle your strong throws.

I do not know if you remember the time, you must have been about 5, you threw the ball out of the yard I retrieved it and threw it back to you a little too hard. The ball hit you in the face. You where standing behind the bushes as I raced back to see if you were hurt. You looked at me, said something kinda like, “you are not my dad” and stormed into the house. You would hardly go near me for the almost two weeks. Those were some of the hardest and saddest days of my life. We got past that too.

So many things about you are popping into my head that this letter will become a book if I try to write them all. Let me hit some of my highlights.

Getting you ready for bed when you were young was my time. We might take a bath together, squirting each other, play with toys and laughing. Getting clean has never been so much fun since. The bed time stories I made up. Some of your favorites were the ones about the boy and the magic llama, the two German Shepard’s and their families, the knights of the round table and the three friends. Then there was the time we made the huge tower. What a project. That was when I learned how rule bound I was as a dad. You wanted to experiment and try putting pieces together your way. I insisted we follow the detailed instructions. With your son, remember to let him try different things and use his imagination as I should have with you. There will be lots of time later to follow directions.

School. You grew a lot in school. I wish I had found a way to help with your homework that would not have left us both angry. I understand why you do not look for my help now. I tend to be judgemental rather than supportive. Please accept my apology. On he other hand, the high standards that I hold for you I hope you hold for yourself. You are a bright and capable young man.

Lets see. What to talk to you about next. Sports. what else. you have natural talent and excelled at whatever sport you tried. While baseball and soccer have become your school sports, lets not forget the hours spent with basketball, ping pong, flag football, track, badminton and whatever else I forgot. I wish I had been good enough to coach you in something as your mom did in soccer. I know you think I have missed a lot of games, and I have, but I have also seen more hours of you playing some sport than I could ever count.

These teen years have been hard for me. They started so well with the wonderful performance you gave at your Bar Mitzvah. I love that you and your friends will still occasionally pull out the DVD and watch it.  

Once you decided that hugging and kissing your dad was no longer appropriate I lost a big part of the way I connected to you. I am a touchy kind of guy who wants to show affection through hugs and kisses. My dad was not that way but I picked it up from my mom. I am glad that you seem to be relaxing the rule a bit. When you woke up on your seventeenth birthday today you came over and we hugged. Thanks for that.

In about a year and a half you will go away to college and our relationship will change forever. You will be much more in charge of your life. This will be both good for you and a little hard for me. I hope that I have done my part to prepare you. Be patient with me as I get used to it.

Next year I will add more stories from the middle of your life. For now just know that I love you and am proud of you.

Wow! I May Not Be The Meanest Parent

My son regularly lets me know that I am the strictest, meanest dad of all of the dads of all of his friends. I have the highest standards (a complement in my world) and am harder on him than any parent should be.

At least I do not publicize his problems in the local newspaper.

The Chicago Tribune had an article about a mom who upon finding liquor in her 19 year old son’s car decided to sell said vehicle and took out the following ad:

“OLDS 1999 Intrigue. Totally uncool parents who obviously don’t love teenage son, selling his car. Only driven for three weeks before snoopy mom who needs to get a life found booze under front seat. $3,700/offer. Call meanest mom on the planet.”

Seems she got many congratulatory calls form other parents but her son is “very, very unhappy”.


When It Rains, It Pours or How I Spent New Year’s Eve

As we left our hotel in Maui I thought that the rain was my only nemesis. Wrong, Wrong, Wrong. Just the beginning of my personal growth opportunities.

The rain led us to need to change our flight because the 10 seat puddle jumper was not sure it could fly in the rain. So on to a more expensive and later flight. An extra 2 hours in the Maui (read small) airport. Then on to a shaky flight on a 30 seat prop plane. Our son’s friend Jon thought he was going to die.

At last we land in Kona. Sunshine, no rain. Oh, no luggage either. A fact that it took 45 minutes to discover. Four bags checked, zero make the plane. Don’t worry we are told. There is a 50/50 chance that if they are found we might get them yet tonight.  Fill out the lost luggage form and on to the car rental place.

National Car Rental has a neat policy. You go out to the lot and pick the car you want within the size category reserved. We had several different makes and models to choose from. My son picked a Chevy HHR. A cool looking car with leather seats, sun roof and XM stereo. Things seemed to be looking up.

Drive to the hotel. Check in. Park in the indoor lot. Turn off the ignition and pull out the key. Pull out the key. A not so funny thing is happening. The key won’t come out. I have owned several cars and rented hundreds, including a Chevy HHR. Never had a problem with a key before. I search for a button, I push in, I pull out and…nada. My son decides that he has the answer; I am just an idiot.  I continue to try everything I can think of for 20 minutes while my family goes up to our room. Aha, I will call the rental company’s emergency service, they will know what to do. I realize that I may not be the only one with this problem when there is a special “push 1 for key and tire problems” in the voice response system. Three different people at the other end later they admit that the Chevy HHR frequently has this problem.

Now what to do about this? Their first idea is to have me drive the car back to the airport. I decline their generous offer. Finally they agree to bring a car to me. I just have to wait over an hour for them to show up. That will mean two hours total out ripped out of our New Year’s Eve. Not to mention the added stress.

So here we are hanging out in our room in the clothes we have been wearing all day waiting for luggage and a car. The only good news of the day is that our room is phenomenal.

After our luggage was lost I had told our son that there were two ways to handle these situations. Be frustrated and angry or laugh it off. I laughed off the rain, the scary plane ride and luggage lost. At this point the best I can do is a forced smile. If  I was not trying to set a good example, I do believe that swearing would be how I spent the last of 2007.

Kid’s Sports and Parents

Frank recently wrote about the joy of a last second victory in his son’s high school soccer game.  I applaud Frank all parents who show support for something important to their child. And victories, especially last second ones, are certainly “more fun” than losing.  Sports provide a unique opportunity for parents to show support that are not available in all areas, especially academics. (I have had this fantasy of being in the classroom while my son is taking an exam and leading cheers. Go D. Think. Think. Think. Goooo Brain!)

I believe that sports can play an important role in a child’s life. It can teach teamwork, hard work, respect for others- even opponents, discipline and many more positive qualities. However, it can also be a hugely ugly experience when parents do not know how to behave. When parents are too invested in their child’s sports activities it is rarely good for their child. I do not care what the reason may be. Some parents are living their dreams through their children, others see everything their child does as a reflection on them, and some just can’t distinguish between the cut throat competition in the adult worlds they live in and healthy competition at a child’s level.

My son has played organized sports since he was 4. For many years he did not play team sports at all without there being a referee/umpire to resolve disputes and parents on the sideline watching and shouting. It was rare that parental shouting is limited to general shouts of encouragement. Far too often the parents are yelling because their child is not doing what he/she is supposed to, at least in the parent’s mind, or worse shouting instructions– go left, no right, kick the ball, what the hell are you doing, pay attention.

Often after the game the feedback to the child comes in one of two extremes: here of the list of things that you should have done differently or wow you were wonderful. Even the latter feedback has its drawbacks. It can place importance on sports that often goes beyond what encouragement the child receives for his/her other interests.

Let me share a few examples. My wife coached my son’s soccer team from the ages of 6-10. At these ages all kids of all skill levels are encouraged to participate. The primary focus is on skill development with a side of fun thrown in. The idea is build a love of the game. One year the coaches had to ask a father to leave and threatened to ban him for the season because he was verbally abusive to his son. This was a shy awkward child that over the course of the season, while never becoming a star learned to have fun playing. BTW, the father was thrown out of A PRACTICE. Not even a game.

On the other end, once my son started playing travel soccer, we would see teams decked out in very expensive matching outfits. Often parents would line up, form a bridge and cheer as their kids ran through the bridge at the beginning of the game. I am sure that these parents saw themselves as supportive as opposed to my view–way over the top. It was typically parents from teams like this who would be shouting out for their kid to hurt the other team. Several teams were clearly coached to get away with as much illegal pushing, grabbing and kicking as possible. I am still talking about 11-14 year olds.

I wish that I could say I was always one of the good parents. Always? Not a chance. I did try to limit shouting to encouragement during the game and have D let me know what he thought of the game and his play before I said anything.

The eye opening moment came for me at the beginning of freshman baseball. The high school coach showed two videos. The first were examples of parents over the edge but in a way that one could feel that some parent somewhere could act this way. My favorite was a mom exhorting her 4 year old daughter on how to win at pin-the-tail on the donkey at a birthday party. It ends with the angry and frustrated mom slamming the door on her way out and telling her daughter to find her own ride home.

The second video is by a man who has coached from Jr. High through college. He has many messages but the main one is to release your child to the sport. Let your child make the experience theirs, not yours. 

I cannot describe in words the impact of both these videos. I just wish they were required viewing for all parents with children in sports and for all coaches. There is so much good that can come from participating in sports. Let’s allow our children to get the best of the experience.


Fathers and Sons

In the last couple of weeks I have observed several father/son moments which have caused me to reflect on the current state of my relationship with D. These moments, including a brief interlude of my own, connected in my mind this weekend. In order of age as opposed to chronology they are as follows:

  • The Bar Mitzvah.  Yesterday a good friend’s son had his bar mitzvah service followed by a party today. I have seen this manchild over the years but did not know him well. The best part of the ceremony and celebration came as the mom, dad, rabbi and president of the congregation spoke intimately and glowingly about this boy. I expected as much from loving parents.  From the representatives of the congregation you often get some perfunctory and tired speech. But not this day.  I learned much about the boy including that he had a sense of humor and was not afraid to use it. This he got from his dad. The mutual love of parents and child was clear from the words and the way they looked at each other. My son went through this ceremony 4 years ago. All I could think was how things have changed.
  • The Dinner.  I picked D up from a friend’s house where he had eaten dinner. We have become good friends with the parents. The dad told me what a delight it was to have D over. How talkative he was over dinner, unlike his own son. “My son was talkative” I laughed. Not at his own house. Never at his own house with his own parents. I suggested a new rule. Once boys hit there teenage years there would be a period of time, say 3-6 months, during which we would swap sons. That way we could all enjoy the pleasure of a talkative teenage boy for awhile.
  • 31 Year Old Son. I went for a day’s ride with a good friend and his adult son. I had not observed such a relationship outside of family. Based on a sample of one, it does seem as if at some point your son no longer thinks of you as one of the most ignorant people on the planet. The conversation was sometimes man to man and other times father and son. I do not want my son to ever call me by my first name, however. I hope to always be Dad.
  • 2 Minute Parenting. This is probably a good name for the next hit book. (I can see D and me on the book tour. I think I will wear one of those professorial sport coats with the patches on the elbows. He will be in long shorts, underwear showing, and a Cubs jersey. But I digress.) It is not that one can actually parent effectively in 2 minutes but often that is all you get. I have hardly seen my son all week. I was out of town or in the office late and on the weekend he was at a game or out with friends. A few moments ago I got him to sit still for 2 minutes while I asked him a few things about what he has been up to and to tell him that I was proud of him for his grades so far this year. By the end of two minutes the siren call of the Bears game was too strong for him and the connection was broken.

At 16, almost 17, this is a hard age for me. I miss the time we used to spend together and how we would sometimes connect.  As a friend said to me today, “I guess he does not have you tell him stories at bedtime anymore”.  No. No more bedtime stories. Too bad. I was damn good at that.