The Best Choice Might Be No Choice

Earlier today, I had a grandfather stop by the office on a reconnaissance mission for his grandson. He was here, he said, because his grandson is undecided on a major, isn’t a very goo'Students who major in these subjects have a 7% less chance of moving back in with their parents after graduation.'d student, but he needs to get started with classes this summer. “We told him,” grandpa said, “if we’re spending $100,000 on your college degree, you need to get going.”

Don’t get me wrong. I applaud grandpa’s willingness to be actively involved in his grandson’s college education, but I can’t help but wonder if little junior didn’t wish granddad had a different hobby.

I also want to know who manages his retirement portfolio if he’s got that kind of bank to spend on his grandson.

Grandpa was particularly concerned that junior doesn’t know what he wants to major in when he starts college. Like so many folks who talk about educational indecision, though, he followed his concern by telling me “Not that I knew what I wanted to do at 18.”

Neither do most college freshman, I told him. Anywhere from 20-50% of entering freshman are undecided about a career path. Close to 75% of college students change majors at some point in their college career. You can’t hit a faculty member on most college campuses who didn’t change majors at least twice.

Like grandpa at 18, most students don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. For many students, their decision about that first major is made based on peer pressure, parents’ expectations, social media, or fear of being indecisive. As importantly, high schools can’t expose students to all the possibilities that exist, and heaven help students from low income, disadvantaged schools. We know those limitations inhibit their understanding of where they can go to college and of the possible fields of study.

I don’t blame them for not knowing. Here in Texas, we’ve decided that students should choose a graduation path that forces students to choose one of five Endorsements. As 9th graders. Because we all know what great judgement 15 year olds have. These kids can’t decide how much body spray is appropriate, and we want them to decide between a STEM path or a Public Services path. In the name of efficiency, though, we want to be sure there no children left behind and there are no wasted classes. What happens, inevitably, is that students choose the endorsements that make the most sense based on the world in which they exist. Forget the tyranny of low expectations. We’re facing the an educational fascism in the name of efficiency.

Heaven forbid some student accidentally find out there’s more to heaven and earth than contained in his parent’s or his neighborhood’s philosophy.

Understand that I’m not completely against efficiency, although I think more people need to remember what it’s like to be 15 (or 18). More importantly, we also need to keep in mind that education is a messy process filled with discovery and failure. The goal of education isn’t to see who finishes the fastest.

Anyone with kids (or who’s been around kids) knows that given a chance their interests change over time. We also know that our teenage aspirations don’t always match our abilities. There’s plenty of data out there showing that college students change majors because they realize their abilities don’t match what their parents, friends, or grandparents wanted them to do with their lives. If you can’t pass College Algebra, you aren’t likely to be a doctor no matter what dad wants. By the same token, if you are a math wizard, maybe you should consider Physics, even if you’ve never met anyone with a Physics degree or mom wants you to be an English teacher. Or, as I recommended to grandpa, maybe if the thought of sitting in a classroom four hours a day sounds about as useful as a screen door on a submarine, you might consider some sort of skilled trade. Last time I checked, apprenticeships don’t cost $100,000.

Most importantly, though, I reassured grandpa that he won’t be wasting money if little junior shows up on our doorstep without a clear career path. In fact, there are some interesting data sets out there showing that students who choose a major after their first semester persist at higher rates than those who chose a major before starting college. This is particularly true at universities who treat the first year as an exploratory opportunity. The path to degree, in fact, might be more efficient if we let students take some classes to find out both what they enjoy and what they do well before we demand they pick a career. (After all, not many kids tell you they love the classes they failed.)

Taking this approach, though, would require that we stop pushing students to make decisions about what “path” they want to pursue before they’re ready. Sometimes, after all, no choice is better than any choice.

 

 

 

Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Listen to Country Music and other random thoughts today

Some days the easiest blog is one that requires the least amount of thinking.

  1. Michael J. Petrilli over at Education Next writes in “Common Confusion” about the disconnect in parent’s ideas beliefs about their children’s academic performance and the reality of college-readiness. He argues that we must do a better job of providing realistic and honest feedback about academic performance. Too often, students go through school being told they are doing fine by teachers and getting good grades on report cards. While standardized tests could provide a wake-up call, too many parents dismiss those reports as unfair, arguing little Johnny isn’t a good test taker. Even more important, there’s no real information those mandated tests that tie the score to long-term academic performance, even though those scores often provide us with a pretty solid sense about how a student will do in the future. I can’t really argue with Petrilli’s idea that we need to be more open and honest about the gap between college aspirations and college readiness. We can start by reminding everyone, parents included, that a C equals average and average doesn’t equal failure. Most of us have strengths and most of us have some areas where we’re average. Being okay isn’t the end of the world. For most teachers, though, handing out Cs (or Ds and Fs) often leads to angry phone calls from parents that are often not worth the hassle of handing out failing grades. What I do like about Petrilli’s argument is the idea that defining the gap between college aspirations and college readiness might (and that’s a big might) spur parents to push for resources that will help unprepared students close the gap. However, I think Petrilli falls into the same trap that too many of us slide into, though, by ignoring that no matter what we do every child doesn’t need to go to college. Perhaps, instead of only identifying the gap between college aspirations and college readiness we should also use those standardized tests to reshape some aspirations and encourage kids from an early age to focus on skilled trades, military, or entrepreneurial opportunities that don’t need a college degree.
  2.  For a mere $425, you can buy jeans caked in fake dirt from Nordstrom’s. At the risk of sounding reductionist and immature, that’s the dumbest damn thing I’ve heard all day (and I work with college freshman). For my money (or someone else’s because I like to get my jeans dirty the old fashioned way), this is a bit like buying a Cadillac truck. If you want a truck, buy something you’re going to use. What’s next, a hammer pre-nicked, sold with fake bruised thumbnails and a list of cuss words to read in public? Of course, the jokes probably on all of us folks giving Nordstrom’s free publicity.
  3. Phillip Levine’s “Only a Misunderstanding of What College Really Costs Could Have Produced New York’s Flawed Plan for Free Tuition” is so much cleaner than my blog from the other day about the flaws in free tuition. The reality is that while college is expensive, actual tuition costs at many universities across the country aren’t nearly as exorbitant as most people think. Like the gap between college aspiration and college readiness, we have a perception gap for college students. College isn’t necessarily a place to go party, live on your own for 4 years, and rack up college debt. If you can’t afford $425 jeans with fake caked mud, don’t buy them. If you can’t afford $48,000 a year in tuition, pick a different college, live at home, and work part time to pay your bills. I understand the desire to move off, live on your own, and party with your dorm mates. Those are all valuable experiences, but flying to Paris and staying in a 5-star hotel is a valuable experience, too. Unfortunately, not all of us can afford such extravagance. Pick a college within your means (like Angelo State!). You’ll get a great education at an affordable price that ends with a college degree. Isn’t the degree the point anyway?
  4. Mama’s don’t let your babies grow up to listen to Country Music, unless you want them to learn all about how much fun it is to smoke pot. You read it right: Rock and roll might want your kids to rebel and fight the man, but Willie wants them to get rolled and stoned. Far be it from me to point out the contradictory nature of a genre that pretends to focus on family values and patriotic fervor (unless your an all woman band who offers political commentary). I guess I shouldn’t be surprised since so much of contemporary country music is really pop-light anyway. Either way, mom and dad, dust off those Tchaikovsky, Mozart, and Brahms albums. Those guys might have been radical, but at least they didn’t ruin any songs with bad lyrics or drug-references.

Changing the Oil–A poem

 One of the more interesting sites I’ve come across lately is Mike Rowe’s Profoundly Disconnected. Rowe, of Dirty Jobs fame, wants to challenge the “absurd belief that a four-year degree is the only path to success.”  Rowe’s S.W.E.A.T. Pledge is worth reading and I’m hoping to return to this idea in a later blog. It surprises folks when they hear that I, a tenured college professor, don’t think everyone needs to (or should) go to college. 

But it’s really cold outside, 4:30 on a Friday, and I’m not sure I’m intellectually capable of much more than promising to write at a later date.

I was, though, reminded of a poem I wrote a while back as I was looking at Rowe’s site. 

Like plenty of folks, there was a time in my life when I did many of the hard, menial tasks around the house. Not only did I save money, but working with my hands, in some ways, was a nice change of pace from writing, teaching, and grading papers. When my kids were little, I tried to get them involved. We have pictures of them painting, working with a hammer, and even crawled under the car helping me change the oil.

Of course, all those photo ops ended when they became teenagers, but that’s another story too. These days, I’m not sure they know the difference between motor oil and canola oil. Since it’s late, and almost the weekend, I’ll just blame our ascent into the middle class and smart phones. No self-flagellation heading into the weekend.

Either way, I’ll post the poem below. My advice: go visit Rowe’s site and skip the poem, but if you read I hope you enjoy.

Changing the Oil

My son’s hand stretches toward the
Oil filter. It’s not easy being five
And working on a car.

“What’s that?” his finger lost in
Dirt and grime.
He reaches up with his other hand.
“What’s a transition . . . mission?”
He corrects himself.

“What would happen”
His head turns, eyes serious,
“if the car falls.”

He asks so many questions his
Hands can’t stay focused
On the work to be done.

It’s not easy being patient,
Under a car, dirty, hot, busy.
I want to be finished. Oil
Changed, filter recycled
Grease out from under my nails.

Loosening the plug, I
Tell him we’ll get squished
“But I’ll use the bike pump
To fill you back up.”

He laughs and reaches his
Hands toward the plug,
Telling me it’s his turn.
And the oil slides down his arm
Like syrup. “Nasty”
He says laughing.

Crawling out from
Under the car is easier
When the job is complete.
“Why did we empty it,
If we have to fill it back up?”

Standing on the bumper,
Holding the funnel
He looks at me
And I keep answering
Questions. A
Labor of love. A
Job I hope never ends.

Heading Down the Highway–Finally

My youngest son got his drivers license yesterday. While I’m not a particularly religious man, I just want to say

Thank you, Jesus or Buddha or Allah or Zeus or any other deity that helped make this happen.

Our joy, as you can imagine, was matched only by his. Those car keys, if I may wax both philosophical and delve into the cliched, represent freedom and adulthood. On a daily basis, he controls some measure of his own destiny in a way that is both exciting and terrifying. He knows, in the back of his mind, that he now has the ability to move around town (or anywhere else in theory) without supervision.

The world is his oyster. He is, in so many ways, one step closer to leaving the nest.

And that’s not a bad thing. It is our job, after all, to slowly prepare our children to fly the coup, go out on their own, and hit the highway. Life, I think, is about movement and growing up not standing still and laying low.

Certainly, driving a car isn’t the only pathway to gaining independence, but we should note that the automobile holds a special place in American culture. We are, in many ways, a nation built on movement. The very infrastructure of our growth begins with rail tracks spanning the continent, followed shortly thereafter with interstate highway systems. Roads offered us a way to create new identities and opportunities to seek out new lives, new worlds, and new selves.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating that my 16 year old son grab the car keys and head to California next week, but I am recognizing that he is one more step closer to having that opportunity. If, as many of us might argue, where we live helps define who we are, he will have the opportunity to put that theory to the test.

And I’m glad.

But I’m also struck by the growing trend that many people my son’s age are not getting drivers licenses at 16. While we might definitely argue the world is a safer place with fewer teen drivers, I think we are also seeing an interesting cultural shift that begins to redefine the value and importance of physical travel and identity.

I recognize there are a myriad of reasons 16 year olds don’t get licenses. As city populations grow and we increase access to public transportation, owning a car becomes less important. We can, in many ways, move throughout most major cities without a car. Cars, like so many other things, are also becoming increasingly expensive. Gas, insurance, taxes, inspection stickers, maintenance–these all push the cost of ownership outside the financial means for some families.

It’s also true though, that those things all existed 20 years ago. We all knew friends who had a license but no car to drive or, for some, no real reason to drive.

But they could if they needed to.

We also know that cell phones and social media have created abilities to stay connected and to interact in ways unique to this generation of kids. They can text, tweet, post, and instagram, creating electronically tethered friendships–4G service means never having to face the night alone. Google maps offers a chance to see cities, towns, and even their own houses via satellite, all from the comforts of their couch.

There is no doubt virtual travel has an impact on the impetus to slide behind the wheel and roll down the road, but there are plenty of studies also showing us that this generation values human contact. We know, for instance, incoming first year students don’t like online classes. They want to be with live, real, honest to god people.

As with so many milestones, as my son prepared for his big day, my wife and I bored him with stories. In Texas, or I should say, in our high schools, drivers education was part of the curriculum. We both took the class, starting when we were 15, culminating in our learners permit. The clear message, then, was that part of our educational journey in public schools was learning to drive. Like writing an essay, doing algebra, and learning to read, driving was part and parcel of being an educated citizen.

Upon high school graduation, the system said, we should have the skills and mobility to move on and move out.

Somewhere along the way, that mindset shifted (perhaps in more ways than one) and definitions of independence and growing up became the province of individual families, something private and personal. “We just didn’t feel like he was ready to move out,” some parents tell us when they explain why their sons are still living at home.

I’m not judging. Part of me fully recognizes the value of treating maturity individually.

But it also feels like we have lost something along the way. I don’t want my son to jump in the truck tomorrow and head for Montana, work on a ranch, and call home once a week.

There is a part of me, though, that is glad he could if he needed to. Plus, I’m awful tired of driving him to school every day.

 

Fight for Your (Constitutional) Right To Party

I doubt when Adam Yauch (RIP)and his fellow Beastie Boys wrote “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party)” they had the Constitution in mind. Their hit single from their 1986 Licensed to Ill was, in fact, written as a parody of the rock anthems celebrating drunken exploits and the party culture big haired rock seemed to value above all common sense and reason.

Like every other 17 year old, though, I completely missed the point. Hell, yeah, we would yell when the song came on the radio, “Turn it up!” It was the weekend (or, at least close to the weekend) and we were tired of our “teacher preach (ing) class like [we were] some kind of jerk.” Like every other generation of teenagers, we cut loose and did things we weren’t supposed to do, hoping we wouldn’t get caught. We smoked in the boys room, raced for pink slips (or even just for fun) down by the river, fought in the fields outside of down, and, in general, tested the limits of good behavior by doing all those things our parents told us not to do. No doubt bad things happened, but we were living, growing, and becoming. There is something pretty educational about being stupid sometimes.

While I’m certainly old enough to recognize the folly of the past and I would never condone drinking and drug use as a viable and necessary part of one’s teen age years, I would argue that those follies and indiscretions were part of that long hard slog to adulthood. Harsh and cold as it may sound, some people made it to the other side and some didn’t. Alan Ginsberg wasn’t the only one who saw the “best minds of” his generation destroyed.

That destruction, and those who survived, though were part and parcel of chasing the American dream. The glory of American democracy, in some respects, is our freedom to take chances and live on the edge to find out where our comfort zone might rest. We have, simply put, a Constitutional right to be a dumb ass.

But the greatest glory of American Exceptionalism, with all due respect to Vladimir Putin, is that our country was built on ideals, symbols, and abstract concepts. No one willingly dies for the piece of red, white, and blue cloth. We can sew millions of those. Our soldiers die for that undefinable freedom, that feeling when the colors fly across the sky.

Certainly, we can think of examples that represent freedom, but the word itself exists as a truth within each of us. And it has to stay that way. The moment we create a hard and fast definition is the day we become divided. When we begin to demand, either culturally or politically, that specific political views, religions, or behaviors are un-American, we limit those people willing to defend the core ideas of America. Dogma, too often, is just another word for intolerance.

I wrote in a previous blog about Geo Listening, a company hired by schools to monitor their students’ social media sites for “troubling words and images” and about the new HR trend of using google searches as a supplemental part of the hiring process. The issue, as I noted then, isn’t that we shouldn’t be held accountable for our actions. The issue is that we are allowing these schools and companies to increasingly define appropriate social behavior. In defining what we can’t let people do, we are in fact limiting what they can do. The impact is a slow erosion of growth, and, in too may ways, legislating childhood out of existence.

In 1986, indiscretions might get you a ticket, you might spend a night in jail, or, more than likely, you simply got driven home and warned to show better judgment next time.The assumption at the time was that you would outgrow such things. We forgave youthful indiscretions.

In 2013, that same decision might get you living under a bridge or in your parent’s basement while you work the only dead end job you can find. The system, too easily, defines us. That slap on the wrist in 1986 has become a pair of handcuffs in 2013.

Worse yet, we are sitting by and letting it happen.

We need to “Fight for [Our] Right To Party” before we wake up one morning (hungover or not) and that right has been taken away.

Cutting the Cord And Hoping for the Best

My oldest son was born in a flood of taco sauce, chocolate, and ice cold coke. After nine months of eating healthy, exercising, popping daily vitamins, sleeping as well as someone carrying a 7 pound parasite can, and, in general, following the guide to a perfect pregnancy, my wife came home from work one day with a 12 pack of tacos, a bag of m&m’s, and enough soda for everyone in the neighborhood. It was the family meal deal before we really had the family.

I think my son knew it was time to make an appearance. Out of dietary self-defense. Any more meals like that and he might not fit down the tube.

And the night he was born I cried–tears of joy, relief, and abject fear that my wife and I had to take responsibility for this human being. He could be a chef, scientist, actor, writer, pro athlete; he might develop a taste for human flesh, torture small animals, or even become a politician. In those first few minutes of life, the possibilities are endless. After all, I was in graduate school studying southern literature, my wife went into labor during an episode of  Baywatch, and he was struggling down the birth canal during Bill Clinton’s State of the Union Address. (In retrospect, those last two seem strangely, and appropriately, connected.) We were, as you can imagine, a tad bit worried about those immediate cultural influences. What if he came out looking like David Hasselhoff with a southern accent and a taste for government pork?

I’ll admit, like so many other parents, I also cried last weekend when we dropped that same child off at his college dorm a couple days ago.

Joy, relief, and abject fear are those parental emotions that, we are learning, remain constant.

Joy–he finally used the potty on his own! Relief–no more diaper costs and stench. Fear–what if he has an accident at school?

Just keep adding milestones as the years go by: Joy–he graduated from high school. Relief–he got accepted to college (with scholarships). Fear–what if he has an accident. (Okay. So maybe the fear part is the same every time?)

Admittedly, everyone in our house knew it was time for my son to move out, including him. Don’t get me wrong–we love our son, we appreciate our son, and we value our son. He’s a pretty good kid and we have been lucky that we have had very few issues and problems. He’s relatively well behaved and we’ve never had to choose between paying the cable bill or sending in bail money.

But there’s a reason 18 year-olds are considered adult enough to rent their own apartments, join the military, or be tried as adults. There is a time to pack his bags, box up his valuables, and hope we spent those 18 years wisely. At some point, we have to let him put our parenting to the test out in the real world and hope the lessons stick.

Yet, as we drove away watching him stand in front of his dorm, it’s easy to travel back in time and see him as a little kindergartner standing in the room, lost, scared, happy, petrified, excited, nervous–pick an emotion and I’m sure it was swirling around. For all of us.

But at least he came home 7 hours later.

What, we wonder as we drive away, if he holes up in his room and forgets to go to class? What if he gets lost and can’t find a place to eat? What if he hates his roommate? Gets sick? Depressed?

What, we fear, if he doesn’t make any friends?

How, we wonder, will he ever survive without us?

Because, of course, without us he’ll forget how to set an alarm, become a social leper, and let himself starve in a fit of despair.

Or not.

He’s got 18 years of experience under his belt and I’m pretty sure we covered alarm setting and eating. History tells us he’ll be fine, meet new people, and continue growing up. We managed, after all, to survive after our parents abandoned us to the wilderness of the “real world” and turned our rooms into guest rooms/sewing rooms/anything but a come back and live with us rooms.

In fact, for the most part, everyone tends to grow up. Eventually. Hopefully, his path is easy, but I suspect he’ll grow up either because of us or in spite of us.

We probably need to worry more about whether he will ever visit, not if he will visit too often. Either way, there’s a time to cut the cord and hope for the best.

And the irony of parenting, it seems to me, is that we work hard to become increasingly less relevant to our children’s daily lives. Or, at the least, differently relevant. He doesn’t have to come home in 7 hours. Or 7 days. And, in fact, isn’t the goal that he knows he can but he doesn’t feel like he has to?

I just hope my desk fits under his old window and we have enough boxes for the stuff he left at home.

Discipline Breeds Performance: A Sort of Book Review

I’m about halfway through Paul Tough’s really intriguing book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Tough’s thesis, at a basic level, is that raising and educating successful children isn’t a game of chance. Instead, he argues, neuroscience, social science, and good old fashioned observation tell us that our contemporary emphasis on cognitive skills is misplaced and, eventually, not terribly effective. Too often, focusing just on knowledge attainment creates kids who know a lot of stuff (let’s play Jeopardy!), have a great deal of ambition (I’m going to be rich!), but lack volition (you mean I have to work for it?).

Instead, Tough notes, successful students exhibit an ability to persist at boring tasks, a willingness to delay gratification, and a tendency to follow through with plans. As Tough moves through the various studies and evidence (and he is putting together a pretty strong case), his discusses seven basic traits that are indicative of success: grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity.

Again, I am only about halfway through the book so I can’t say definitively how this idea “has the potential to change the way we raise our children” (as the book jacket claims), but I can say it’s about time we begin recognizing that academic success isn’t simply about, well, academics.

Note here that I’m not talking about disciplining students or punishment. The inevitable idea that threats, whether in the form of detention, time out, suspension, jail, spanking, etc. are  effective tools for altering behavior is for a different discussion. While I willingly admit that a well-timed swat on the backside or removing folks who are a danger to the rest of us might be necessary at times, we also know that those are short term solutions to larger problems. They work, in essence, as a way to get someone’s attention but they do not create long-term positive behavioral changes. There’s a reason recidivism rates are so high in American prisons.

I’ll also note that I’m using discipline in a pretty general way here as I try to simplify a really large, complex idea into a 1000 word blog, but I think the term itself captures basic ideas Tough proposes.

Discipline breeds performance I tell my children, students, players I coach, and anyone else who will listen. I recognize that is an oversimplification but I think we can also agree that things like grit and self-control fuel the other five items Tough mentions as essential for persistence toward academic success. Importantly, discipline, like writing, reading, riding a bike, and most other things in life are learned skills. Practice might not make perfect, but practice does make competence. You can’t, I tell my students, learn to write if you don’t pick up a pen. (Or, push letters on the keyboard.)

Simply put, those students who study and work are more likely to achieve success, or, and I think this is important, are more unlikely to fail. The fortitude to study, especially on those subjects we find distasteful, boring, and useless speaks to an ability to recognize long-term goals. The willingness to study provides the opportunity to succeed and, as with so many other things, success begets success. Students who master a subject, or even students who manage to survive a subject they expected to fail will by extension become more confident, optimistic, and willing to take chances learning other subjects. And, importantly, their ability to adjust socially will improve.

The 64-million dollar question, though, is how we instill those non-cognitive strengths in students at the earliest ages. Tough begins his book discussing Tools of the Mind, a curriculum “that combines activities specifically designed to promote self-regulation with activities that focus on academic skills, while also giving children the opportunity to practice self-regulation/executive function skills.”

Let me note first off that in an ideal world our parents would be teaching us self-regulation and executive function skills.

Of course, if we lived in an ideal world, I would have my own private island in the Mediterranean and chocolate would be considered a health food.

Instead, I suspect we need to re-think our early education programs. Certainly, we have to provide academic and cognitive skills at the early stages of a child’s education, but we also need to recognize that increasing as student’s vocabulary or her math skills as a kindergartner or pre-school student is less important than teaching her how to complete tasks, control her impulses, and avoid distractions.

I recognize that such a system seems a bit draconian and in direct contrast to the idea of education as a tool to teach socialization or the emphasis on standardized knowledge and grade level testing.

But, and I think this is the argument Tough is making, such a system supports both. Students who learn self-regulation at an early age will have the confidence to explore new ideas and a heightened ability to learn.

I just hope in the second half of the book Tough shows me how we can pull this off.

If Only We Had Known This Sooner

The other day, someone told my wife we should write a parenting book.

Yeah. Sure. Instead of “Parenting for Dummies,” we could call it “Parenting by Dummies: Everything We’ve Learned in Hindsight But Refuse to Try by Having Another Child.”

I guess having two children who don’t eat people for fun (yet), haven’t been arrested (so far), and can write their names in cursive qualifies us as model parents?

Either way, the statement did get me to thinking about any wisdom someone like me might pass along to perspective parents other than the only child easy to raise is one that’s not your own. Trust me–we all know how other people should raise their kids.

I might also tell new parents that you should always love your kids, but it’s okay if you don’t like them all the time. Especially at 3 am when they are crying, vomiting, or just getting home hours past curfew. (Or at any given moment between the ages of 13-16.)

One of our problems, I suspect, might be that we’ve never actually read a parenting book. I’m pretty sure we had a copy of What to Expect When You Are Expecting. To be fair, I have nothing negative to say about the book, but I’ll also admit that I also have no recollection of the book.

While I will admit that the prospect of raising a human and being responsible for his long-term mental health was pretty daunting, I always told my wife we should just follow our instincts and trust that millions of years of evolution qualified us to be parents. Of course, for all I know she’s been secretly reading parenting books for the last 18 years learning how to counteract my “instincts.”

Either way, I have been toying with an Introduction to this mythical book we have no real business writing.

Dear Parents:

Your life has changed. You are now responsible for a human being. The good news is that feeding and changing diapers is the easiest and least messy parts of the job.   The bad news is that the feeding and changing are the least messy parts of the job. While you will get plenty of advice from other parents, friends, radio talk show hosts, and random strangers who write blogs regarding your child’s academic success, we encourage you to read to your children every night (starting tonight), teach them to do fractions as soon as possible, and avoid thinking that proficiency on a smartphone is a sign of intelligence.

As you think about your child at 18, these are the five most important things you need to remember and teach your children in order to create a healthy, happy child. Please also remember that this book makes no promises and offers absolutely no guarantees that anything we say will work and we reserve the right to choose 5 more things by the end of chapter 1.

1. Remember Occam’s Razor.  Try to solve all problems, conundrums, and difficulties by focusing on the simplest possible explanation first. The simple answer might not be right, but the most complicated one probably isn’t correct either. Your child will get a fever. That doesn’t mean he has meningitis or polio or some other incurable disease. It’s probably a cold. Start there. At some point, your precious child will also miss out on a valentines day card or a birthday party announcement. This is not a sign of a grand conspiracy or social leprosy.

2. Make sure you can look at yourself in the mirror everyday. You have to be the kind of person you want your kids to look up to. If you are cheating on your taxes, stealing fruit from the store, talking bad about people all the time, and parking in the handicap spot without a reason, that’s what your kids are going to do. I can promise you that they do not understand the fine nuances of your ethical system.

3. Life is a marathon not a sprint. Your child might not be potty trained at the same time as little Sally across the street, but let me assure you that she will learn how to use the toilet. The same goes for spelling, reading, writing, speaking, hitting a baseball, and making friends. Life is not a checklist of events to cross off at specific times.

4. Keep your pants up and your lips to yourself. Admittedly, this one is more for the kids than anyone else, but you parents might keep it in mind also. If you are all stressed about this new child, better think long and hard if you want another. (Don’t think about it being long and hard, though. That might be what got you into the mess to begin with.)  In an era that seems amazingly oversexualized, it’s important to remind ourselves and our children that sometimes a hug is all we need and all we should expect. (By the way, shout out to Miss Fanny P for her Sex After Childbirth posts. That’s funny stuff.)

5. The most important thing you can remember and pass along to your child: She’s a free agent in this world. So is he. So are you. Life is full of choices from the simple (breastfeeding or formula?) to the complex (cream or sugar?). Maybe I have those backwards? Either way, each individual makes choices. Those choices have consequences. Some of those consequences are positive and some are negative. Don’t want to clean your room? Fine, but the consequence is . . . Want to eat your brussel sprouts, the consequence is . . .  (Bad example. No one wants to eat brussel sprouts.) We get to choose how we act, how we behave, and how we handle life around us.

All of us made a choice as well. We choose to accept the responsibility for this human being. Some of us did so on purpose and some of us had it thrust upon us (pun intended), but here we are.

Or rather here you are. Let us know if any of this advice works. Unfortunately for our kids, we didn’t think of all the good stuff until they were moving out but that’s okay. That just means we can help them raise their kids when the time comes.

Dad Doesn’t Need Another Tie. Or Grill.

I’m not really a big fan of Father’s Day. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the sentiment, but I think we can all admit the whole concept seems a bit like an after thought.

Mother’s Day, created in the Civil War era as a means to help national reconciliation by creating friendship clubs of Union and Confederate mothers, became an official holiday in the early 1900s. Ann Jarvis, daughter of the founder of the Mothers’ Friendship Clubs, pushed, poked, and prodded until Woodrow Wilson in 1914 established the second Sunday of May as our day officially to, by federal law, support and love our mothers. And buy them gifts. Not that I’m implying Wilson was in any way influenced by merchants salivating over the commercial opportunities.

I’m sure Wilson just wanted to show his mother some love. With flowers. It’s worth noting that Jarvis, ironically, was single and childess her entire life, eventually repudiated Mothers Day as too commercial. Maybe she just felt bad for missing out on the 10 gallon bottle of perfume.

Fathers’ Day doesn’t get official federal recognized as a holiday until the 1972 Presidential campaign, probably about the same time grills, ties with hula girls, and personalized shaving kits became readily available. While one might argue that Fathers Day gives us a chance to honor both parents, the reality is that Fathers Day really seems like an opportunity for Sears to create a second Christmas for dads while kicking off the summer buying season. He opened the Chinese market just in time for cheap ties to flood American homes.

Mothers carry us around for 9 months with swollen feet, raging hormones, unpredictable appetites and then pass that big bowling ball you call a head through a hole barely larger than post-it note. They deserve something more than stretch marks.

Dad simply had a good night and was probably back on the couch before the next inning started. Sure, he had to make food runs at midnight to Taco Bell and provide all that “moral” support for 9 months, but when his belly gets bigger that’s too many Cheetos and cold beers. He got his gift 9 months ago.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t honor our fathers, but we need to re-think our approach to gifting. After all, without kids, dad loses those tax deductions, access to little league sports, opportunities for dance recitals, and an excuse to watch Sponge Bob Square Pants.

So, this Fathers’ Day, instead of buying a gift (probably using his money) or drawing a picture he has to tax his brain to recognize, all you kids out there should just remind him how much joy you’ve brought good old dad. Take him on a trip down memory lane by talking about random events, experiences, and even those things that are only funny 10 years later. (No one really appreciates a stopped up toilet or broken window for at least 5 years.)

He wants to remember helping you ride a bike, throwing a ball, sitting at a tea party. (If he ever dressed up, pull out the photo. No Intagram, though! It is his special day.) Pull out the photos of your first camping trip, your last vacation, or the time he taught you to swim.

After all, those memories are worth more than that tie you keep thinking about buying. You can get him that for Christmas.

I Should Have Listened to My Mother

As Mother’s Day approaches, I’m thinking about buying my sons a shirt that says “I should have listened to my mother” on the front and “I never thought that would happen” on the back. The shirt would have casts, splints, and medical bills all over it. I might buy my wife her own that says “Don’t blame me. I told him it was a bad idea.”

When my wife and I started dating, we had the requisite conversation about having kids. I didn’t want any. She wanted 100 (or 6 but once you get past zero it might as well be 100). They are not, contrary to popular literary novels, cheaper by the dozen.

I argued, quite logically of course, that kids were expensive both financially and emotionally. They expect to eat on a regular basis, they want clothes, cable tv, and they will drive us to drink. Someday, I said with fear in my voice, they will want to go to college. Think, too, I argued, of all the memories they will have to repress growing up with us as parents!

And think of all the pain and agony we will endure. They cry. We spend two years wiping body parts that should remain private. They scream. They get hurt. They want stuff.

She just smiled.

Naturally, we had two boys. It’s not zero, but at least it’s better than 6.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my kids and being responsible for them has made me a better person. They have brought joy to our lives and I’m glad we had them.

But, I was right. They are expensive. They eat. A lot. All the time.

Worse yet, I’ve wiped backsides, brushed away tears, and fought the agony while watching them in pain.

And boy do they have pain. Repeatedly. There was that party “everyone” went to. There was that girl who never knew he existed. That class “all” his friends were in while he was with “no one” he knew. And a thousand other social cuts we only know happened because they came home in a rotten mood.

There were also broken bones, sprained ankles, and one finger tip cut off in a freak accident.

While I could write about the high cost of health care, the rising costs of medical insurance, and the ridiculous (and totally incomprehensible) pricing models used by hospitals and doctors, let’s all admit that the biggest cost of having kids is the emotional one. (Of course, a $2,500 medical bill just adds to the emotional baggage of any injury.)

Life is a calculated risk of probability versus possibility. We have to work hard to raise kids who make good choices but who aren’t scared to take chances. Parenting, it seems to me, is a delicate balance between protecting children and letting them roam free. As they get older, we should give them more rope, more freedom, and let them learn how to live life in a way that fits their personality.

Until they get hurt and you are forced to call into question your overall philosophy. And then you realize why some parents are overprotective and swirl around setting play dates and manufacturing friends.

It’s not about making sure little Johnny is happy. I’m pretty sure they are trying to avoid the pain and agony of injury or unpopularity.

Fortunately, we aren’t faced with a great tragedy and in my rational mind I know we are lucky parents. Our kids are well-behaved, making good grades, and we’ve never had to bail them out of jail (although they are young). Broken bones and hearts heal.

But we were reminded (yet again) this weekend that 15 year olds don’t always make good decisions. My son, a week away from a regional baseball playoff game, decided to tubing. The  kind where someone drives a boat really fast. He is the lead off hitter and starting right fielder. Or, rather, he was the lead off hitter. Now he’s a spectator with a $13,000 bone screw in his finger because he has a bone broken off at the interphalangeal joint. (The good thing about kids who get hurt a lot is you learn all the important body part names. Need any advice about fingers? Shoulders? Knees? I’m your guy. Doctors sigh when they see us coming.)

There’s a reason 15 year olds don’t vote.

Admittedly, watching him in pain was no fun, but they make little pills that help (for him–he wouldn’t share). What they don’t have is a pill to help when he has to call his coach and admit he was stupid at the wrong time.

Or a pill to help tonight when he’s not in the line up for such an important game.

And we have to watch him, knowing he’s hurting, and realize there’s nothing we can do.

Except make some shirts that say “He should have listened to his mother.”

Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

NYT > U.S. > Politics

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Dilbert Daily Strip

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)