By Jonah

What role do (non-parent) adults play when a child misbehaves?

The Role of Adults in Child (Mis) Behavior

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Number eleven had apparently forgotten that he was playing soccer. He more closely resembled an MMA fighter.   Recklessly and relentlessly, he swung his elbows at our players, kicked at their shins, and sent them to the earth with extended forearms. What role do (non-parent) adults play when a child misbehaves?The referee, a well-meaning but inept father from the other team, blew his whistle when our players were thrown violently to the ground, but he never issued a warning to number eleven, nor did he explain what eleven had done wrong. It was extremely frustrating on many levels.   The ref during the first half of the game (full disclosure—it was me) had kept control of the players on the field. Kids were playing hard, but not in a dirty manner. Secondly, and more to the point, number eleven pummeled and punished our players without a single comment from his coach. Had one of our players displayed even a fraction of the savagery that eleven showed, Emil, the head coach, or I, the assistant, would have pulled him off the field with an explanation as to his misdeeds. Eleven’s coach, however, watched the proceedings without comment.

Eleven’s behavior became increasingly bad as the game went on, and Emil and I considered pulling our boys off the field to keep them safe. Blessedly, the referee blew his whistle signifying the end of the game. We had won handily, but I felt no joy- still outraged by eleven’s style of play, and the adults who had let it happen. I replayed the first half in my mind. There had been no hard fouls, only a couple of blatant off-sides penalties. They were easy calls, but the opposing coach hadn’t thought so. “One of our parents will ref the second half,” he called threateningly.   At the time, the plan had seemed fine. It seemed fair that one of their parents would officiate the second half as one of ours had officiated the first. I should have been more concerned however, but I was blissfully unaware of the overly aggressive play to come.

So, who was at fault? Number eleven holds some of the responsibility, obviously.   He did perpetrate the shoving, elbowing, kicking, pushing and hacking. However, he is a child playing on a team coached by an adult who did nothing to stop the egregious behavior during a game officiated by an adult who did nothing to alter eleven’s style of play. What a disservice to number eleven (not to mention to the many bruised and battered boys on our team). I considered saying something to eleven post game. In retrospect, I would have approached him, complimented him on his aggressive mentality, but given him suggestions how to do it cleanly. At the time, I chose not to say something. Eleven probably would have misinterpreted any such communications as criticism (and who could blame him). It is not, after all, the job of an unknown adult to advise him how to behave. It is the job of familiar adults: coaches, referees, parents. Sadly, none of those adults did their job, and it is likely that number eleven will play as recklessly and unsafely when we have our rematch.

One can view the opposing coach as a parent who lets his child scream and bother others at a restaurant without taking any action. The parent was not doing the yelling, but the problem starts and ends with him. We are, after all, ultimately responsible for our children’s behavior. The opposing coach did nothing to address his player’s misbehavior so it persisted much in the way that a screaming obstreperous child will continue unless addressed by a parent. Calming such a child is not a herculean task. Talking to the offending child in a patient, soothing voice and really listening to what it is that is bothering them will frequently dampen the fire of his irritation. Not doing so, will fan the flames of his tantrum. One could view the referee (a parent who presumably knew number eleven) as a non-stranger adult who should have helped as well. A calm comment regarding number eleven’s transgressions would probably have curbed them. The lack of such a comment led to greater and greater transgressions.

 

It's back to school. What happens when your kids are not excited to return?

Another First Day of School

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The memories are still clear in my mind. Fondly, I can see my boys racing through empty school hallways, hear their footfalls on the squeaky clean floor as yet uncluttered by the year to come. Their gleaming eyes dart from side to side in search of the familiar faces of friends not seen since the previous June. I remember sharing their excitement as we found and set up their desks, serious work intermittently interrupted by explosions of chatter at the entrance of a new friend to class.

It's back to school. What happens when your kids are not excited to return?

The start of school used to be very exciting for our family. My boys were anxious to see their friends and meet their teachers. I would look forward to the seven-hour daily respite that school provided me. The summer months required a lot of work, shuttling the boys to and from activities or trying to fill their home hours with something other than television. The structure that school provided helped me as much as them.

There has been a polar-shift, however. My children are literally too-cool-for-school. They are supremely unenthused by the prospect of school restarting.   The old spark is missing. It makes sense. They have experienced multiple first days of school. This will be my oldest son’s ninth first day (K-8); it will be my youngest boy’s eight first day of school (PS-5). The thrill is gone for them. The spark of excitement that I used to feel at my boys’ returning to school has dimmed as well. My boys are greatly self-sufficient and quite easy to monitor. Their going back to school won’t make my life easier- just more quiet.

Perhaps a wiser parent than I would simply accept the changing times yet I continue a pointless quest to make the start of school exciting.   I ask my boys pointed questions regarding friends whom they have not seen in a while or about changes in their classes. “Will the school feel different without R there?” I ask them open questions: “what do you think it will be like having Mr. D as your teacher this year?” My queries, which would have begun animated conversations a few short years ago, are now met with unintelligible grunts.   Still, I try – without success- to drum up some enthusiasm for the coming school year.

The start of school, though less necessary for my sanity, still seems exciting to me. I dropped off some vaccine forms there this morning and was delighted to see many teachers and parents whom I’ve not seen in months. This is cool, I thought, a whole new year of school. Then my thoughts shift to my boys. Perhaps I could impart some enthusiasm with…. But I stop myself in mid-thought. My boys’ reactions to the start of the school year are completely normal. The lack of excitement is not satisfying, but it makes sense developmentally. My trying to inject enthusiasm into their systems vis-à-vis school’s starting seems futile.   I need to accept the changing times. I’ll always have the memories.

Thinking about when to let your kids start using social media?

A Conversation About Social Media

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Thinking about when to let your kids start using social media?

“Your mom and I have heard you pleas, but our position remains unchanged. NO SOCIAL MEDIA.” All your friends are on facebook, instagram, or snapchat, you claim, but we are not swayed. “How about JP, EH and BL? we remind you. They are not connected to social media.   Nor are GD, HC, or UD. We are aware that your friends through soccer are connected, but we do not know them as well as we do your school friends.”

“All right, all right,” we respond to your heated rebuttal. “We hear you. You want to spread your wings and meet and interact with more people than you do in your school,” (an admittedly very small independent school). “Social Media, however, is not the best way to do it.”

“You’re right. We are older than you, and times have changed, but older does not mean wrong. There are healthier, safer ways to meet new people,” we continue.   “Take soccer. You have made many good friends through your team(s) and have done so the old-fashioned way—face to face.”

It’s not just those friends whom you’re interested in interacting with, you point out, you want to connect with girls.

“How about the girls at school,” we counter. “Many of them have crushes on you. Why not pursue one of them?” You have known them too long, you moan, you see them as sisters or friends, not girlfriends. “What’s the rush? Girls can wait,” we argue. You brush off the comment, irritated that we have steered away from the topic at hand.   Girlfriends can wait, you agree, but if you’re going to tap into the pulse of the broader world, you need to be connected to Social Media.

Perils abound there, my wife and I argue. There are predators in chat-rooms who impersonate teenagers. And there are troubles that young, immature minds can get into. We recount a tale told to us by an internet-safety expert who visited the boys’ school. The girlfriend of a HS boy sent him nude pictures of her. When, later, she broke up with him, he became angry and sent the photos to his school community. The girls parents contacted the police who charged the HS boy with possessing and disseminating child pornography. The HS boy has been branded a sex-offender.

I would never have shared those pictures, you cry, offended. I would have deleted them.

“Of course, we know that you would have showed greater kindness/judgment than the high schooler in question, but our point stands. Social Media leads to no good.”

You give us a charming, beseeching smile. “You don’t want me to be left behind socially, do you?”

****

My son might not always be happy about them, but these conversations are essential. Keeping the lines of communication open with one’s children is always a good thing. Such conversations can be illuminating for the parent as well. Despite my words, I grow less and less sure of my position vis-à-vis social media. There are certainly dangers that surround it, but most can be avoided with common sense. It seems to me that a parent should trust that his or her child would and could make healthy and safe decisions regarding social media. What’s the point of all the coaching/educating we do as parents if not to let our children interact freely with the world that surrounds them (a world that includes social media). I still have significant reservations regarding social media and children, and another year without it will not clip my son’s social wings irreparably. But the time seems unavoidable when I will relent and let him connect to facebook, instagram or snapchat. I can imagine how the news would be received and how I might deliver it, but I am not ready to have that conversation quite yet.

 

Beautiful lessons on teaching your kids without saying a word

Family Vacations: The Best Lessons Are Never Spoken

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Frequently the most important lessons we can teach our children are best done without words.   Nonverbal teaching helps to avoid the parent-is-talking filter that seems to reside within the inner ear of all children. Travelling with children is a first-class way of imparting the messages so often blocked by our kids’ internal editors. Our family recently returned from a trip that, as well as being relaxing and fun, taught important lessons more eloquently than I could have.

Beautiful lessons on teaching your kids without saying a word

Our trip took us to Ecuador where we spent time with good friends who recently moved back there. Our friends, E and N and their kids R and S, invited us to E’s father’s tiny farm in the Ecuadorian cloud rainforest. Lessons abounded at the farm. The most immediately evident one involved the importance of hard work. Someone was always working at the farm. E’s brothers and fathers walked the cows to and from the pasture, milked them and cleaned their stall.   They fed and cleaned the pigs stalls and cared for the chickens. Whenever the never-ending repairs need to be done on the farm, they do them.   E’s mother and sisters constantly worked as well. The arose early, and began to prepare food to replenish those who gathered and milked the cows. Once, the prepared food, which was delicious, was eaten, E’s mother and sisters began on lunch, then dinner. All the time we were at the farm, I never saw his mother more than five feet from the kitchen. Keeping everyone fueled for the daily grind is a herculean task.

My boys loved the food they ate, and this served as another lesson well taught. The meals featured ingredients that had all come from the farm. There was nothing processed or artificially sweet or salty. Like all good parents, we have encouraged our boys to eat healthy food, but our words frequently fall on deaf ears. E’s mother’s meals were just what the doctor ordered. “This is the best food I’ve ever had!” our youngest marveled. And it was good for him too.

The positive messages concerning healthy living did not stop at the dinner table. Rather than passing the time sitting in front of a TV (which I am sad to report my boys are doing right now), J and L happily followed R and S on walks through the jungle (machete in hand). They also played soccer and frolicked with the seven totally dirty and mostly sweet dogs who live on the farm.   Rather than play video games, they played in local rivers. The wholesome living seemed nearly as foreign as the land in which we were, but they engaged in it, and they loved it.

One does not need to voyage far to experience people engaged in grueling work. One need not take a plane to eat food that is good for you.   And one doesn’t need a passport to find enjoyment outside of electronics.   The process of going somewhere foreign, however, opened my boys’ minds to possibilities that they would not have considered at home.   This added dimension of receptivity allowed J and L to accept experiences that they normally would have rejected. During our voyage, the boys gained insight into other ways of living. They dallied in novel behaviors and experiences.

Hard Work Is Important. Healthy Food Can Be Good.   You Can Have Fun Without Turning On The TV Or XBOX.

Three nuggets of parental wisdom successfully imparted – and I didn’t need to open my mouth.

Ever wondered about birth order and how it impacts your family?

Why Birth Order Complicates Setting the Table

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The dance occurs nightly. “L,” I call to my youngest son, “come set the table. Dinner’s nearly ready.” After one or two summons, he arrives with a big smile.

“You called?” His eyes glimmer with mirth.

“Time to set the table,” he’s reminded. A pause ensues as if he’s trying to translate the message into his native tongue. The pause lengthens, and when he meets my eyes, his grin has broadened.
“Cool Papa Bell,” L says referring to the all-time great Negro League baseball player, “once stole home plate from first base.” I’m reminded that he’s evading something, but he’s so genuine, and I do love sports. Indeed, stealing home from third is quite a feat. But to do it from first base…. My musings are turning toward sports, away from household chores. Then, I snap out of it.

Ever wondered about birth order and how it impacts your family?

“L, the table,” frustration seeping into my reminder.

My boy nods, raising his hands both in surrender and in a calming gesture. I start to relax as he moves toward the cabinet to fetch the plates. Then he spins and begins a goofy dance with the counter. Hands on his head and still smiling, he wiggles his skinny hips.

“L,” I say with conviction, “SET THE TABLE!!!!!”

“Alright,” he says in a falsely soft voice, “no need to shout.” Smiling still, he gets two plates and traipses toward the table and puts them down carefully.

“That’s good, Luka,” I say trying to keep my voice steady, “but you forgot to put down the placemats, and there are four of us who eat here.”

He nods at me. I got this, Dad. He swivels his head toward my wife. “Hey Mom,” he asks with wide grin, “do you think there are grey wolves living on Mount Rainier?”

“L, SET THE FRICKIN’ TABLE!” I roar. I want to throttle him.

The Psychology of Birth Order

Such frustrating behavior could drive a father crazy. Understanding L’s motivations, I decided, would make his table-setting shenanigans less irritating. Alfred Adler (1870-1937), a Freudian psychiatrist, developed the Psychology of Birth Order in which he postulates that when one is born has an impact on one’s personality.

Could L’s being youngest explain his behavior?

Adler describes the personality of the first-born, second-born, and youngest. (He also considered the only child and twins, but that did not apply to my family). According to Adler, the first-born is reliable, conscientious, structured, cautious, controlling,and achieving. The oldest child develops the above parent-pleasing traits in an attempt to regain the undivided attention that he enjoyed before his sibling’s birth. Adler’s theory is not absolute.

My eldest is not at all cautious, for instance, but the wisdom of Adler’s paradigm still resonates. My oldest boy is very structured, conscientious, and high-achieving although I am pretty sure that he would not say that he acts thus in an effort to gain my wife’s and my undivided attention.

But as to my younger boy and his table setting— has Adler any thoughts?

He identified the following characteristics in the second born child: people-pleasing, somewhat rebellious, good friend, social and peace-maker. Youngest child characteristics include fun-loving, uncomplicated, manipulative, outgoing, attention-seeking and self-centered.

As with my older boy, my youngest does not conform totally to Adler’s traits. He is neither attention-seeking nor self-centered. Elsewhere, he conforms quite nicely to Adler’s description. He is somewhat rebellious (i.e. table setting) and has formed many strong friendships. L is social and helps to solve problems in school. True to the theory of the Psychology of Birth Order, my youngest is fun-loving, outgoing and can be manipulative. His approach to table setting backs this up nicely. He moulded the situation to get out of his task, but did so with a smile and an array of jokes.

Adler seems right on here, but I feel unsettled by the notion.

Being manipulative has a dark connotation that seems too harsh for L. He’s not a sinister puppet master pulling strings, just a smiling boy avoiding a tedious task. I’ll throw a bone Adler’s way and stick with the term manipulation.

Luckily, the Austrian psychiatrist has an explanation.

Due to his birth order, the youngest is least capable and experienced. To compensate for this fact, he develops social skills that allows him to get others to do things for him. A simplification to be sure, but the last couple of nights, during our table setting dance, I’ve looked upon L, bemused. “That’s my second born/youngest,” I’ve thought with a knowing smile.

The Ups & Downs of Vicarious Living

The Ups and Downs of Vicarious Living

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I am tempted to buy my boys’ soccer club’s uniform in adult size which my wife (thankfully) has forbidden me to do. I refer to their teams as “our” teams. I spend hours on-line following their teams’ progress, and countless more watching practices and games. I am living vicariously through my children.

The Ups & Downs of Vicarious Living

Pride and Joy

I am always pleased to walk alongside my older son, but when I do so and he is clad in his full soccer gear (club training jacket/pants and club backpack) I walk with a straighter back and a pep in my step. I’m with the center back!!!! A casual observer might assume that I had some connection to the team. I do not. More evidence of vicarious living.

Soccer GoalMy younger son recently scored a hat trick in a state cup game. Each wonderful goal is etched in my mind. Other parents congratulated me as the game progressed. I wanted to hug each one and express my heartfelt joy. Instead, I accepted the kind words with a smile and a shrug. I wanted to appear cool and humble. On the field below me, my son was doing the same thing, deflecting the enthusiastic words of his teammates with a simple nod and smile. Father and son experienced the success in the same way. The key difference was that he had actually scored the goals. I live vicariously through my boys.

Too Invested?

Such an existence can be nice, but it has its dark side. After last week’s tryouts, it was unclear whether my younger boy had made his team. As we awaited the results, a thick knot of unease tightened around my stomach. I experienced dread, disappointment, worry, fear, and outrage. Was it my team or his?

My older boy went through a rough patch a few years ago during which the coach played him less. I was wracked by self-doubt, defeatism, anger, and sorrow. The situation weighed heavily on me for weeks. Had I lost my starting position or had he?

There is a dark side to the parenting phenomenon that I am describing. Many adults cross the fine line between sharing and supporting their kids’ hopes, dreams, and successes and becoming too invested. My older boy has played with a child who doesn’t even like soccer, but plays because his parents insist. Some parents heckle and intimidate players on the opposing team. Mostly, the misbehavior is motivated by love and magnified by the current culture of helicopter parenting. Occasionally, it can be driven by more complex factors such as control, parents’ thwarted dreams, and distorted expectations for a child’s future. Whatever the motivation, such excessive behaviors are equally unpleasant for children and observing adults.

A Balancing Act

Parenting GoalI find myself in a conundrum. How do I strike a balance between the pride I feel for my boys (and for the role I played in their success) and still allow for their achievements and challenges to remain their own? The question is essential because the entire point of all this is helping my kids develop the skills they will need in life— how to work hard to achieve a goal, how to handle disappointment and loss, and how to continue to grow. My tendency is to joke about the wealth of pride that I have for my boys’ athletic achievements, and hopefully remain aware of the boundary between exuberance and boorishness. As a parent, I am a spectator and a supporter, not an actor. Humor is the route I chose, but there are others. T is equally invested in his boys’ athletic life (they are excellent fencers). He navigates the boundary differently. For him, every moment is a teachable one, particularly those where challenge and failure predominate. One of his boys came in last in a tournament, and T spent a lot of time explaining the usefulness of the experience. The emphasis was on the opportunity for improvement when facing challenging opponents, not on berating his son for a lack of success. In our culture of achievement, the end point is often the only point with parents forgetting the importance of the journey.

It can be be a bumpy road. Events over which I have no control (or role) jerk my emotions from happy to sad, angry to contented, rejected to accepted. I love my boys tremendously and I experience their excitement and disappointment more vividly than my own. As evidenced by my behavior, I occasionally lose track of whose experience it is that I’m feeling. Vicarious living is a difficult but unavoidable part of parenthood.

Child Abuse Awareness

Free Fall: The Destabilizing Effects of Child Abuse

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Development theorists have stressed the importance of a child’s feeling safe. Without a sense of security, they posit, a child will fail to mature in a healthy manner.

Child Abuse AwarenessDuring my years working with children as a social worker in a mental health agency and Seattle-area schools, I witnessed what happens when a child develops without a sense of safety. I spent many hours a week with vulnerable kids, both in individual therapy and in a group setting. I represented a healthy adult presence in their tumultuous lives, and they liked me, but our interactions were characterized by the abuse they’d suffered. Victims of physical abuse can fluctuate between withdrawal and aggression.

Glimpses of Child Abuse

M, a five year-old boy who was in a day treatment program that I helped run, refused to speak to me for an entire year. Four days a week he remained withdrawn and quiet except for the times that he would lash out angrily, snarling and hitting.

Another boy, a six year-old named K, would self-soothe, rocking in his chair and sucking his thumb. Unlike M, K was very verbal, but he, too, frequently hit and kicked in anger.

L, another boy with whom I worked, would beg for food from classmates or steal it if none was forthcoming.

B, a child who showed signs of physical neglect, frequently displayed fatigue or listlessness, yawning constantly and often falling asleep in class.

A and C, two six year-old girls, engaged in inappropriate sexualized play with their classmates.

The children with whom I worked demonstrated a wide array of behavioral indicators for emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. One behavior seemed most pronounced in every child. Every boy or girl would test the adults. They’d act in provocative, defiant and often cruel ways then watch closely to see if the adults would give up on them. The children did not believe that an adult caregiver could be counted on and expected to be abandoned. They had no trust in adults. And why should they?

Impact of Child Abuse: The Statistics

A sense of safety is essential to a child’s development. A child, confident in his or her emotional and physical well-being, develops a trust in the world that opens a path to successful maturation. Parents shoulder the responsibility for creating a safe environment in which a child develops the ability to trust. Sadly, as evidenced by the children with whom I worked, mothers and fathers frequently fail.

  • There are 2.9 million annual reports of child abuse in the United States (Safehorizon, 2012). The victims of abuse are more likely to demonstrate anti-social behavior and violence.
  • They score lower on tests of cognitive capacity, language development, and academic achievement.
  • Victims of child abuse are more likely to suffer from chronic health conditions and are more likely to develop at least one psychiatric condition by age 21.
  • Many homeless teens run away to escape abuse.
  • They are 59% more likely to be arrested as a juvenile and 28% more likely to be arrested as an adult.

The negative outcomes of child abuse are clear, and they last long after the actual abuse has ended. The children in my day treatment classroom had been removed from their parents’ care, but still demonstrated multiple deficiencies. They were denied safety when they were very young so never developed the ability to trust. As long as this incapacity burdens them, the maladaptive behaviors created by child abuse will persist.

Supporting an Abused Child

Helping these children succeed is difficult, but there are steps that can be taken.

Global Child Abuse HotlinesFirst of all, the abuse must be recognized, and the child brought to a safer environment. This can be a difficult process. It is often our inclination to look the other way rather than face a very unpleasant reality. To combat this, there are laws to require people in certain positions to report suspected abuse. These mandated reporters act in jobs that put them in a position to most easily recognize the signs of child abuse. People who work in school settings (teachers, administration, teachers’ aides, paraprofessionals) and those who work in healthcare (doctors, nurses, dentists, hygienists, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers) are mandated reporters. Police officers, emergency medical technicians, and foster care workers are also mandated to report suspected abuse.

Once the abuse has been identified and the child has been removed to a safe place, there are other steps that can be taken to help the victimized boy or girl heal. Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness predominate. Victims often have little to no self-esteem. The children need support to accomplish realistic goals (in school and at home). Such support can aid the child on the road to rebuilding their self-esteem.

Abused children also require structure and consistency. Abused children feel powerless over their lives. To cope, they may refuse to exert any control on their environment (even when they are able) and/or try to manipulate everything they can through explosive behaviors and/or controlling others. Adults can help the child attain a sense of control in a positive manner (expressing one’s self through art, music or play rather than explosive behaviors).

Adults should help the child realize that he or she is valued and accepted. Abuse leaves a child feeling alone and unworthy. A sense of belonging needs to be instilled to help reverse both sentiments.

Hope for the Future

The task is daunting, but achievable. Two of the boys whom I described earlier, B and K, are brothers whose early childhood was filled with abuse and neglect. Their behavior gave evidence of their tumultuous past. Both manifested manipulative and testing behaviors as well as violent tantrums. Despite their circumstances, however, they were more fortunate than their peers. Their grandparents took them in, providing them a patient, loving home environment that was structured, consistent, and offered a sense of belonging.

In the years I worked with them, they made slow, but steady progress. They moved out of the Seattle area many years ago, and I have not seen them since. I found out recently, however, that one of the boys will be attending college and the other completed high school and has a job. I was delighted by the news. When they were five years old, I would not have predicted such a happy outcome.

In Maslov’s Pyramid of Needs, Safety is a foundation upon which all other development rests. Erik Erikson’s first stage of psychosocial development involves the issue of trust. A properly cared for child will develop this ability, but victims of child abuse will not be as lucky. Instead of building their individuality on the firm platform of trust, they have to grow into adulthood as they hurtle through life unsupported, in free fall.

Resources:

Signs of Child Abuse

Warning Signs of Abuse and Neglect

International Child Abuse Hotlines 

Reference Material:
1. Child Abuse Facts – Safe Horizons
2. Supporting Victims of Child Abuse

Boys Night In

Boys’ Night In – Our Special Father and Son Time

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Boys Night In

My wife’s job has always been demanding, and her schedule is occasionally unpredictable. This creates challenges for all of us. My wife regrets not being at home and misses us. I wrestle (often literally) with the energy of two growing boys who love and torment each other with equal fervor. My boys, although they are accustomed to my wife’s schedule, still miss their mother. Like all kids, they crave the stability of routine. The boys ask my wife every morning about her schedule so they can know what to expect. When she’s going to work late, they’ve come to expect Boys’ Night, the framework that’s evolved to pass the time while mommy works.

Boys’ Night – The Early Years

Boys' Night MenusIn its early days, Boys’ Night consisted of three distinct phases. Phase one, which occurred from 5 to 6 at night, consisted of playing games/sports with the boys. Ideally, the boys would have fun and remain uninjured while I retained my sanity. Phase two, 6-8 PM, addressed both entertainment and nourishment. During this time, we would eat a take-out pizza (on a tablecloth spread in front of the TV) as we watched a movie. From 8-8:30 was phase three, bedtime. Though the shortest of the three phases, bedtime was often the craziest, as it involved bathing, reading, brushing teeth, and tucking in. If all went well, the bedtime slot would see the boys, now bathed and with clean teeth, into bed. And keep them there. Boys’ Night made up a three and a half hour block, a predictable routine that left my boys exercised, entertained, fed, bathed and put to bed. Just what the doctor ordered for the times when my wife worked late.

Boys’ Night Grows Up

Boys’ Nights are still in effect, but they’ve gotten significantly more complicated. School ends at 3, not at 5 like daycare, so I have to entertain them for longer, but with their homework and soccer practices we don’t have as much time on our hands anyhow. I now find myself bending the Boy’s Night schedule to fit my sons’ soccer training. “J, I’m not sure if we’ll have time to watch a movie tonight. If you’ve finished your homework, you can watch a show while L and I are at his practice. I’ll feed you when you’re home after your practice.” Or. “L, J has practice later tonight. It’s not fair if you and I watch a movie while he can’t. So you can pick a show to watch, then we’ll pass the football.”

The food we eat for dinner has diversified by necessity. Dominos Pizza now makes me queasy, so we branched out (that being said we just went through a stretch of four Boys’ Nights during which we twice ate pizza for dinner…just not Dominos). There has been a broadening of our Boys’ Night palates. We frequently eat Chinese or Mexican or Vietnamese or Teriyaki or (very occasionally) sushi. And yes, sometimes I cook for us. But it just doesn’t feel like Boys’ Night unless I am paying someone else to make our food. I added the ‘paying’ part because my wife has multiple times tried to cook us meals that I can heat up. It’s not the same though (I don’t care if her cooking is better and healthier!)

Boys' Night MoviesFinally, our taste in movies has changed. What we watched used to be the easiest part of the night. For a while, it was “Cars,” then “The Incredibles” or “Monsters Inc.” or “Ratatouille.” Then, my boys (and I was with them to be honest) decided they no longer wanted to watch animated movies. Enter the Star Wars and Harry Potter movies. Then we moved on to Iron Man, the Avengers, Thor, Captain America and Spider Man. Those brought us to the murkier territory of PG-13 movies, for which the boys campaign heavily. The boys have begun to demand (with occasional success) Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller and Will Ferrell movies (the PG-13 ones). The movies are very funny, but the raunchy humor pushes the boundaries of appropriateness for our thirteen year-old (not to mention his younger brother). When denied their preferred movie choice, the boys protest passionately and plead for me to reconsider. There have been times when one or the other of the boys has stormed off in protest of a proposed film. Using my considerable diplomatic skills, I usually manage to wrangle them back. The drama! Boys’ Night was easier in the old days.

Creating Traditions and Memories

Still, Boys’ Night serves many purposes. It provides me with a fun chance to be with my boys wrapped in a neatly scheduled package. The stabilizing routine of Boys’ Night makes mommy-free nights predictable and enjoyable. Finally, despite her not being present, Boys’ Night helps my wife. She feels connected knowing what is going on at home while she’s at work.
“J, Boys’ Night tonight,” my younger son told his older brother last Friday morning as the family was eating breakfast. His eyes gleamed with anticipation. The food, the fun, the movies.
“Cool,” my older boy responded, seeming blasé about the news. “I get to pick the movie,” he added with a sharp glance at his brother. My younger boy hunched his shoulders and held his palms to the sky. Of course, it’s your turn. Relax. The mood around the table was light. Boys’ Night. Smiles all around.

Competitive Youth Soccer

Down the Rabbit Hole of Competitive Youth Soccer

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Competitive Youth SoccerDown the Rabbit Hole

“Come on, dad,” my thirteen year old son pleaded to me when he was eleven, “I’m not going to get better at soccer if I keep playing Rec. I need to do Premier like CC.” He gazed at me earnestly. He had mentioned his interest in Premier soccer before, but I had always hoped that his interest was fleeting—that he would outgrow it like so many other absurd notions in childhood. He was deadly serious though, and the sincerity in his brown eyes weighed on me.   I gathered my thoughts, unsure what to say. The ticking of his New England Patriots clock- situated next to the Red Sox emblem painted on the light-blue wall- sounded above me. The second hand of the clock ticked off ominously like the count-down to a blast-off. Would the mission be successful? Would it crash and burn? My son continued to stare at me, and I could feel sweat begin to form on my forehead. The decision was above my pay-grade. “Let’s see what mommy thinks,” I said, clinging to the familiar lifeline.

CC, the boy who already played Premier soccer, was two years older than my son. His parents are great people whom my wife and I like very much, but their decision to let their son play Premier had always confounded us. Their entire life seemed ruled by soccer.   Their experience seemed ludicrously complicated to us. They brought CC to three (sometimes four) hour and a half practices a week and one or two games per weekend.   They could not plan vacations or even nights out without checking their availability vis-à-vis soccer commitments.   And CC’s soccer season did not end. Ever. Fifty-two weeks a year (holidays off- usually). My wife and I could not see the logic in letting one’s life be dictated by a youth sport. But my son was correct. If he wanted to get better at soccer, he would have to leave Rec. Rec, or Recreational, soccer is an enterprise that adheres to two main tenets: soccer should be fun win or lose and everyone should get equal playing time. Premier, on the other hand, is a wondrous meritocracy that produces results. If one works hard, one gets better. And earns playing time. My wife and I discussed these truths, but came back to another undeniable truth: our son was too young to have his (and our) life dominated by a sport.

Soccer State CupI love athletics though and have instilled a healthy (my wife would call it over-the-top/potentially unhealthy) love for sports in my boys. I am exactly the sort of sucker whom Premier preys on.   “Just take a tiny sip of the Kool-Aid. You’ll love it!” And sip the Kool-Aid I did. Hell, I chugged it, inhaled it, became addicted. Premier Soccer now rules our life (our younger son does it as well). And I’m not embarrassed to admit (well, maybe a little) that I am fine with it. I attend five and a half hours of practice a week (three for my younger boy for whom I am the only driver; and one for my older son who is part of a carpool), I spend hours (literally) checking and writing emails regarding soccer. I follow my boys’ teams’ progress on- line (both teams are undefeated and have won their divisions, thank you very much) as if they were professionals. It’s crazy. I admit it. But I love it.

Premier soccer has taught my boys that if you work hard and put in 100 percent effort, you will succeed. (I know that I sound like an after-school special, but when the shoe fits….) It has also provided them with a group of friends whom they would not have met otherwise. It has exposed them to some feedback that can be hard to take in the form of criticism from coaches. Learning to accept such criticism, however, is an essential life-skill.

We have seen the bad and the good in Premier Soccer. Its intensity has serious impact on our life.   Our experience is by no means unique. Other people’s children might pursue musical instruments, or drama or art or chorus with a similar vigor. Any serious pursuit of a childhood activity should be examined thoroughly. At my older son’s school conference on Friday, his advisor commended him on his good grades. They were particularly impressive, she said, in light of his having a second job. She was referring to Premier Soccer, and she was mostly joking. But her comment raises an interesting point. Are my wife and I saddling our son with too much pressure/responsibilities given his youth? Of course this important question did not occur to me at the time. I have already plunged, head-first, into the deep rabbit hole that is Premier Soccer.