Monday, January 25, 2010

Good Fellas, Whiners, and the Occasional Bloody Nose

This is one of those weeks when nothing in particular is on my mind to write. At least nothing profound (not that I ever have much to say that's profound). It was just a typical daddy week. I guess the major event in our home over the last few days was when my four-year-old, William, bloodied my two-year-old, Carson's, nose. Of the two of them, Carson, has traditionally been the brute. He's the one who will push, hit, yell, and generally try to bully his big brother in order to get what he wants. Although older and bigger than Carson, William used to whine, cry, and come running to Mommy or Daddy whenever Carson took his toys, clothes, pop tart... whatever. I'm not someone who encourages violence in my household (unless it's me attacking the dog for chewing on my cell phone), but I definitely don't want William whining when someone picks on him (especially someone smaller and younger). I don't want him starting any fights, but I don't want him afraid to stand up and defend himself either. By the same token, I don't want Carson being a bully and thinking that it's okay to beat up anybody who won't give him what he wants. The last thing I need is a pint-sized "Good Fella" toddling about the house and threatening to whack anyone who won't hand over their Legos. If I don't nip this thing in the bud, I'm liable to come home one day to find Carson sitting in his booster seat wearing gold jewelry, smoking a cigar, and using phrases like "forgetta 'bout it."

While spankings, time-outs, and lost dessert privileges proved to be effective short-term fixes--eliciting tearful (if less than sincere) apologies from Carson to his brother and providing a day or so of non-violent interaction before the next punch, push, or blindside hit--they failed to permanently change Carson's pattern of behavior. So, about a month ago, I had a talk with both my sons. I told Carson that, from that point on, William would be allowed to respond in kind if Carson hit him. I also made it clear to William (or, at least, tried to) that he was not allowed to hit Carson first; however, if Carson hit him, he could defend himself.

It quickly became evident that Carson did not take the talk very seriously. Unfortunately for Carson, it just as quickly became evident that William did. It wasn't but about a half hour later that I heard William yell from another room, "No Carson, you can't have it!" To which Carson responded, "Gib it ta me!" The next thing I heard was a loud THUD! The thud was soon followed by wailing and crying. Only, this time, it wasn't William. Carson had grabbed William's toy truck and tried to take it. William said no, so Carson hit him. William responded by punching Carson and knocking him into the wall. Stunned and unsure how to handle this new reality, Carson came running to Daddy. I picked him up, hugged him, and told him I loved him. When I asked him what happened, he said, "Willy K hit me." When I asked if he'd hit William first, he said "Uh, huh." When I then explained to him why William was not in trouble, Carson just stared at me as if to say, "Are you kiddin' me?"

History has shown that power corrupts. Those who have it tend to abuse it. This is true of adults. Trust me, it's also true of four-year-olds. Allowing William to physically defend himself (while well-intentioned and, given Carson's brutish personality, arguably necessary) was like letting Hitler invade Austria: It would have been nice if that had been the end of the trouble, but it only led to more conflict. What started as William's last resort of self-defense, soon morphed into a "first strike" policy. Hence, this past week's episode. William was watching television. Ironically, he was probably watching some PBS show designed to teach kids how to play nice and share. Well, somewhere between Dragon Tales' lesson on sharing and Barney the Dinosaur's I love you, you love me... song, Carson decided it would be fun to grab the pillow William was lying on. When he did, William punched him right in the nose. So much for detente.

And so, I'm now trying to reel William back in. I'm glad he's chucked the whining for a more assertive approach. I'd rather have to tone down a wild man than rev up a whiner. But now things have swung 180 degrees. Now it's William who's learning the boundaries via the occasional spanking or stern talk. And so, gradually, the number of violent encounters between my boys are decreasing. Both know that, if they hit, the other is liable to clock him right back. Even if he doesn't, they both know that whoever starts the fight has to deal with dad when it's over. Thus, I think my boys are starting to figure out that their fights are a lot like a Georgia-Tennessee football game: Why kick-off when you know Florida is just gonna beat the winner's tail anyway?

So feel free to chime in, dads. Let me know what you think. How do you prevent your boys from being mommy-reliant crybabies who run to their parents every time someone picks on them, while at the same time making sure they don't turn into little brawlers who are prone to hitting and sporting tattoos that read Born 4 Timeout? Oh well, we're figuring it out as best we can. Hopefully we'll find the balance. In the meantime, we'll keep plenty of Kleenex on hand to wipe tears and bloody noses, just in case.

All Dadlosophies content is COPYRIGHTED, and any unauthorized use or reprinting without the consent of the author is prohibited.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Choose Contentment: It's Just More Fun

One morning last week, while taking a break from working, I stepped into the kitchen to heat up what must have been my fifth or sixth cup of coffee. While I waited for the beeping microwave to tell me that my drink was ready, I stood by the window and watched as my kids played happily with the children next door. It was an extremely cold day. Bundled up tightly by over-protective mothers, the children looked like Oompa Loompas working the frozen yogurt wing of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. Despite their extreme arctic attire, the kids were obviously freezing. Above the collars of their puffy coats, I could see little lips turning blue and tiny teeth chattering all the way from the kitchen window. Wearing nothing but a t-shirt and some old jeans, I stepped into the garage in my bare feet, the cold air cutting through me the moment I set foot outside the door. "Hey!" I hollered to my frigid little munchkins, "aren't you guys cold?"

"No!" they all answered simultaneously (shaking and shivering as the word stammered off their frozen tongues). They insisted they were just fine. My daughter, Emerson, even went so far as to try and convince me that she was hot and needed to take her coat off--an idea I quickly vetoed. Then, happy, laughing, and energetically attempting to talk over one another as they played, the children resumed running aimlessly about like little Eskimos on speed. Believing they would be okay a little while longer, I decided to let them stay out for a few more minutes. It wasn't long, however, before they, themselves, conceded defeat to the elements and retreated to our basement to play a round of their favorite indoor game: Let's Wreck Mom and Dad's Basement, Then Escape Next Door Before They Realize What We've Done and Make Us Clean It Up!

Watching my kids play with their friends made me think about how special childhood is. I couldn't help but smile and take a moment to remember what it was like to be that little and care-free. I can still remember rushing home from elementary school, throwing my book bag in the corner, promising my mother I wouldn't argue about doing my homework later if I could just go and play with my friends first (always a lie), and spending the rest of the day pretending to be a superhero, a soldier, a sports star, or some ferocious beast from another planet sent to terrorize my little sister and her friends as they played with their baby dolls or started accidental fires in her bedroom via her Easy-Bake Oven.

As I sat there thinking about life as a kid, it suddenly occurred to me why being a child is so great. It's because kids (most kids, anyway) are content! They don't know that there's another option. Oh sure, they have their occasional periods of unhappiness. They get upset when mom or dad doesn't buy them the candy bar they want or they finally open the big Christmas gift they've been eyeing since it was placed under the tree, only to discover that it's a box of socks and knitted sweaters. But those are brief emotional episodes, not outlooks on life that define who they are or how they feel most of the time. For the most part, one moment's crying child is the next moment's giggling youngster.

For various reasons, however, as we grow older, contentment becomes a moving target. For many people, it slips away without them even realizing exactly when it happens. One day we're running in the backyard, happy enough to have our favorite toy and know that Mom is making tacos for dinner. The next, we're comparing our acne-covered face to the good-looking athlete at school and wondering why God has it in for us. And that's just the beginning. As we become more and more aware of people's criticisms and expectations, we stop seeing ourselves as the superhero able to vanquish the forces of evil over recess, and become extremely conscious of our own shortcomings and limitations amidst the challenges of the real world. The comparisons don't end as we emerge "maturely" from our teen years. Gone might be the days of comparing how fast, strong, or good-looking we are compared to the other guys in gym, but there are new things that we allow to attack our sense of self-esteem. As dads, we still too often compare: Do I make the money society dictates I should make? Am I giving my wife and kids a good enough life? (By the way, what defines a "good life?") How does my job, my education, my position at work or in the community compare to others? Am I saving enough money? Am I doing enough to get ahead? How do people view my house, my career, my cars, my kids? Am I somebody people respect? Then, once we achieve what we thought we needed in order to feel secure, a whole new barrage of concerns arise: How do I take care of this money? What if I lose this great job? Sure, things are great now; but how do I ensure my family will be okay tomorrow? Far too often, staying content is like trying to catch jello shot out of a t-shirt launcher--you have it in your hand long enough to experience what it feels like for an instant, only to have it splatter through your fingers before you can get a good grip.

I know all this because I wrestle to remain content. Although I am incredibly blessed with a beautiful wife who loves me, gorgeous kids with whom I get to spend time and all of whom are healthy and happy, a nice house, the chance to be self-employed doing something I love, and with many other things I selfishly take for granted everyday, I still waste tons of time worrying about tomorrow or wishing this or that was better. But all of my emotional ups and downs have taught me one, important thing. Contentment is not found in changing circumstances, it's found in appreciating what you have regardless of the circumstances. People who are content determine their own priorities and set their own goals. They don't let society dictate to them what is or falls short of "success." Content fathers master the art of doing what they can without wasting time worrying about things beyond their control. Most of all, content fathers allow themselves the luxury of appreciating what they have here and now no matter what anyone else thinks. Yes, they can dream big and set ambitious goals, but they don't define themselves by whether or not those dreams become realities or those goals always get met. The phrase "I'm content" isn't an excuse to be lazy and do nothing. Instead, contentment is an attitude about life that allows us to pursue our ambitions free of the worries that steal our joy and cause us to miss the awesome life we have right now.

In closing, I've come to the following conclusion: Contentment is a choice! That's right, you have to choose to be content. As dads, it is easy to be ungrateful. It's easy to get resentful of that jerk at work who isn't half as smart or doesn't work nearly as hard as you, yet got the promotion you wanted anyway. It's tempting to sulk over financial burdens. Who among us wouldn't struggle with feelings of failure if we suddenly found ourselves unable to pay the mortgage or find work? But why do we struggle with such feelings? Could it be that it's because we've quietly surrendered the right to determine our own contentment to what other's around us have told us it is that should make us feel happy, successful, important, and so on? Have we let the culture we live in define what it takes to make us feel we're a real man and a good father, rather than deciding along with our wife what our own priorities and ground rules for happiness will be?

Choose contentment, dads. It's just more fun. Finding and keeping it means consciously taking time to appreciate your kids, your health, your gorgeous wife, your friends, and your talents (even if society doesn't pay well for them). Even if, God forbid, you're not healthy, your spouse is no longer with you, or one of your kids is sick, contentment is still there for the taking--more challenging to grasp, to be sure; but still there. So give yourself a break. Allow yourself the luxury of being content. Only, don't forget that it's a decision you may have to consciously make ever day--perhaps every minute--until you learn to catch jello without it splattering all over your hand.
All Dadlosophies content is COPYRIGHTED, and any unauthorized use or reprinting without the consent of the author is prohibited.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Who Needs Norman Rockwell?

Well, a new year has begun. The fun and festivities of Christmas and New Year's bowl games are over once again. Now it's time to start fulfilling those new year resolutions you came up with in order to ease your conscience as you downed your twentieth sugar cookie or blew off any semblance of exercise to watch Christmas movies and football. Yep, this is the time of season when gyms fill to the brim with well-meaning, yet soon-to-be-gone by mid-February, workout warriors who have vowed that this is the year they finally drop twenty pounds and learn to run thirty minutes without losing control of their bodily functions and falling to the floor in need of a cardiologist. It's both a dreary and an exciting time. Dreary that the Holidays are over; but exciting because of the possibilities a new year brings.

I don't know about you, but this past Christmas reminded me of a very important truth that I need to keep in mind as I head into 2010: FLEXIBILITY IS KEY TO SUCCESSFUL FATHERHOOD! As a dad, you have to be able to roll with the punches. Few things demonstrate the need for such versatility more than Christmas with the family. It's good to establish and carry on family traditions. You should plan festive times over the Holidays. Have parties. Visit loved ones. Take the kids to see Santa. Enjoy decorating the tree together as a family. But you also have to be careful. As a dad, you can't become a victim of your own expectations. If you get too locked in to your own vision of what the holiday will be, you could very easily find yourself experiencing a holiday far more reminiscent of Clark W. Griswold's than of any Norman Rockwell Painting.

Take our Christmas, for instance. In a moment of temporary insanity, Meredith and I suggested to my parents that it would be a good idea if we packed up our belongings, all our presents, and Santa's cargo, and took a road trip to visit them in the mountains of North Carolina. Thus, we committed the cardinal sin of parenthood. When you have small kids, you have a huge bargaining advantage. If grandparents want to see the looks on their grandkids' faces Christmas morning, then they have to drive to your house. It saves us parents a lot of headaches and chaos. To those without children it might seem heartless and cruel to hold your own children as Yule Tide hostages, but parents with children understand. We're not trying to be mean or deny grandparents access to their grandkids at Christmas. In fact, we'd kind of like to have them there so that we can take a nap. Rather, we're just trying to keep our sanity.

For some reason, Meredith and I chose to forfeit this invaluable home-court advantage and packed up our little crew for six hours of road trip "fun." After packing our minivan to the brim with gifts and luggage, I found what bungee cords I could and strapped what remained to the top of our over-packed vehicle. My kids were barely visible amidst the suitcases and packages as we backed out of our driveway and headed for Carolina. Every few miles I'd ask my daughter to raise her hand from the backseat just so I could see her and know that she was still alive.

Twenty minutes into the trip, my four-year-old, William, began asking every two miles when we would get there. An hour later he began whining and insisting that the trip to my parents' house was "taking forever." By the time we reached Boone, NC, William was screaming in my ear that he was "going to die if we don't get to MaMa and PaPa's house right now!" Meanwhile, Carson joined in by crying and Emerson announced every five minutes from the rear of the van that her back hurt. As for Meredith and I, we just stared out the front window of the minivan at the dark mountain road before us--envying with every passing mile those lucky CIA agents who keep cyanide capsules on hand for just such occasions.

After over six hours, we finally arrived after dark, only to realize that we couldn't make it up my parents' frozen drive. After twenty minutes of trying in vain to reach my folks' house, I finally had my dad shuttle Meredith and the kids to the house in his 4X4, while I stayed behind with the van. Too frustrated and worn out to even put on a coat, I stood there in 15 degree weather attacking the frozen tundra with a pickax, hoping to make a path for my van. It didn't work. Finally, Pop returned and suggested that he back the van onto a side road. I agreed. He then proceeded to back my van into a snow bank. We spent the next 45 minutes trying to dig the van out of the snow so that we could back it off of the main drive. I don't know what was more fun, wallowing in the snow holding a flashlight and a pickax with my private parts so cold that my testicles felt like Siberian BBs, or the exciting rush of knowing that a wild animal could emerge from the surrounding woods at any time to mangle us. Yep, it was a wonderful experience--a regular Donner Party Christmas.

Eventually, we did reach the house alive--FROZEN, but alive. A day later we were visited by a stomach virus that would have made Montezuma smile. While most people around the country were passing around the coffee and the pumpkin pie, my family and I were being visited by the Ghost of Christmas Dinner Past and adding projectile vomiting to our festive holiday itinerary. Add the three-hour power outage we enjoyed Christmas morning due to an ice storm, and it's safe to say that it wasn't the holiday I'd envisioned.

But that's the point. Things rarely go as planned. It doesn't matter if it's a Christmas gathering, a family vacation, a business deal, or a day off. What you imagine you'll have and what you actually get are usually different. This past holiday wasn't the memory I'd expected... but it was still full of good memories. In between the frostbite and sprints to the bathroom, we laughed, played bingo, enjoyed one another's company, and watched with enjoyment as the kids went nuts over what Santa had left them. Even when the van was stuck in snow on that first night I remember looking up at a beautiful, star-filled sky and thinking, "You know, once I get past the fear that I'm going to freeze to death and be eaten by my own father so that he doesn't starve before help arrives, it's actually kinda nice out here."

Be flexible dads. To find the good memories, sometimes you have to be quick to part company with the memories you anticipated walking away with. Who needs Norman Rockwell. All you need is your family. Whatever else happens, just roll with it.

All Dadlosophies are COPYRIGHTED, and any unauthorized use or reprinting of this material without consent of the author is prohibited.