Category Archives: Family

Posts relating to my immediate family, likely about my views as a father.

Avoiding “Nothing”

It’s like my 7- and 9-year-old kids were already teenagers. I’d leave work a little early to face my 90-minute commute, the occupations of my day so I can raise my family in the first place, so my excitement had plenty of time to build until I could finally see them ask, “What did you do today?”

Quite literally, I’d get “Nothing.”

I thought that sort of ennui wasn’t supposed to hit for years!

Instead of getting exasperated by it, I realized it just needed a different context. Because what didn’t they do today? They got up, they lived life, they made friends, they ate, they struggled, they achieved. It’s too basic, too overwhelming a question. If there were something worth reporting, chances are they’d tell me before I could even ask.

Still, the question was an important one to me — I want to know about their lives, even the day-to-day minutiae, because that’s where life is truly lived. Maybe I could rephrase it, getting them to share the highlight of their day, something they enjoyed, because who wouldn’t want to relive that? And it hit me:

“What made you laugh the most today?”

I first tried it out on Lauren as I was tucking her in. Her eyes lit up, and she bubbled, “Leah was so funny at lunch today!” She launched into the story before I could say a word. And we talked about what a good friend Leah is, and how the lunch ladies don’t always let you sit next to your friends, and how kids who bring their lunch are seated differently than those who buy, and….

Lauren went to sleep a little later than normal that night.

The next evening, I tried it out on Jacob. I was awarded a story about playtime at recess, where this one kid said such a funny thing, and that led to a conversation about which kids he plays with, and how the one kid dropped out of the group, and how last year’s best friend now plays with someone else, but these other two kids are good friends this year…

I now ask my favorite question a lot more frequently. Not every day, because I don’t want it to become a chore. But often enough that they can probably see it coming — and maybe they’ll be more conscious for those moments, and keep an eye out for those situations where they find a belly laugh.

At least, that’s the effect it’s having on me. I expect someday soon, they may ask me the same thing. And I have to tell you, keeping those joyful memories fresh so I can relive them later is a pretty cheerful use of brain space.

Give the kid a break

I’m at Jacob’s baseball practice, his third in four days*, where the coach is hollering. “Ball up the middle, you have to cover second!” “Be in the ready position!” “Pay attention!”

To get here felt like moving mountains. “Do you have your jacket?!” “C’mon, you’re going to be late!” “Tie your shoes, let’s go!”

Before that, it was school. A big test in social studies. Who knows what new stuff came his way, while trying to make up work for two sick days last week.

Before that, it was getting ready for school. “Finish your breakfast, you’re going to be late.” “You gotta brush your teeth!” Dragging his butt out of bed.

Before that it was a night interrupted by his lingering cough, enough to ask Mom for help.

Before all that… was a day pretty much exactly like today. And the day before that, and the day before that.

Earlier today, I heard someone ask Jacob: “I’m just asking you a question, why are you getting all mad at me?”

Sometimes, I’m glad I’m not 8 years old.

*There was also a practice on day two, which he missed due to religious education classes. There’s also practice tomorrow.

Have a little faith in yourself

This summer, my wife bought the kids a cardboard house — it’s basically a giant coloring project, giving them a chance to color in the bricks and plants and details on the outside of a house-shaped cardboard box that’s big enough to sit in.

But once inside, they’ll find the walls are blank. And that’s when the real magic happens. Because any 6- or 8-year-old can color in the pre-drawn spaces on the outside, and they’ll all pretty much look the same. But once the kids figure out that it’s actually OK to color on the inside walls of this house, well, no two will look alike.

Jacob and Lauren went to town. After a full afternoon hard at work, they finally invited me in to see, and I squeezed in the doorway as best I could to take it all in. What a great feeling to be welcomed to their world, to see how they would run and decorate a house if it were left to them.

There were a couple of portraits of distinguished-looking people (or at least, as distinguished-looking as one can be when drawn in marker). They even crafted a set of house rules, which included things like, “No running,” “No ice cream,” and, curiously, “No drawing on cardboard.” Cute as ever, and I took pictures galore.

As I twisted my body to leave, I noticed I was sitting in front of one other decoration:


I must have stared at what was clearly Jacob’s handiwork for five minutes. While we believe in God, we’ve never been a super-active religious family, maybe a couple of church visits in the past year. We almost never talk about our faith or say nightly prayers. Jacob has taken religious education classes the last couple of years, and had just started up the most recent round two weeks earlier — though he’d missed the second week.

Would this have come from his CCD classes? The way it’s phrased doesn’t look like it would have been copied from a church sign. We don’t have anything like this in our actual house, and I don’t think any relatives do either. I felt proud, but in a very confused way.

I tried to casually point out how much I enjoyed all the artwork. Who was in the portraits? Just people. Who made up the rules? That was Lauren’s idea, but they both added them.

Why did you put up the nice sign by the door?

“Just because.”

And that was that.

Like most kids’ toys, the house was used for three or four days, then banished to the basement, which is where toys go when we can’t quite bring ourselves to throw them away.

I never asked more questions about the sign. I told myself that I would, but partially rationalized that maybe this was something best for just him to know, or that it must have just been copied from something he’d seen somewhere and thought it belonged in a house, or that he wouldn’t be ready for a deep talk about faith.

But on that last point — no, it’s almost certainly me that wasn’t ready for such a talk. In my twenties, exploring religion, I happened to see some teenagers giving a speech about their unquestioned faith, which clearly gave them a confidence and peace I’ve envied and never understood. In my thirties, I went on a weekend retreat that was so emotionally powerful that I thought I’d seen the light… but after a month, that light had faded nearly as quickly as it appeared. Now I’m raising two kids in a nearly-religion-free household.

And this pops up.

I’m afraid that I’ll somehow wreck it for him. I want Jacob to have faith in his faith, to feel it in his bones in a way which I only had for one fleeting weekend. It’s something I’ve chased, on-again and off-again, trying to find a way to fully believe. Talking with him about that doesn’t seem like it would help, though I’d love to explore with him and encourage him and develop whatever is important to him. I just don’t know how.

I know parenting isn’t supposed to be easy, that there will be challenges to find ways to relate and encourage your kids to be the best they can be, even when their interests or passions are in areas that are completely foreign. Jacob turns to me often to explain his latest Minecraft revelation, a computer game that completely absorbs him but I know little about. Sometimes he knowingly says, “I understand you might not want to know about it.” But I listen to those stories all the same.

I wish I’d asked him more about his sign when it was a fresher moment, for him and for me. Perhaps I just need a little more faith in myself.


Forever young?

My eight-year-old son just educated me on Elf on a Shelf.

He first met one in first grade, you see. The elf sits somewhere in the room to keep tabs on everyone, to see if you should wind up on the Naughty List or the Nice List. “Nobody is allowed to touch the elf,” he says with all seriousness. At night, the elf heads up to the North Pole to file his reports, then he comes back — which is why he winds up in another part of the room.

What Jacob didn’t need to say was, “Since nobody is allowed to touch the Elf, well, you can see why we have proof this Elf business is legit.”

Jacob is the sweetest boy who ever lived. I know all fathers are supposed to say such things, but in this case, it’s true. He looks at the world with a genuine, wide-eyed innocence and curiosity that I don’t want to risk bursting any bubble. I mean, we’ve never had an Elf, and somehow Santa has always known Jacob belongs on the Nice List, right?

That talk is coming. And the one about the Tooth Fairy. And the Easter Bunny. All of it. My wife recently pointed out that Jacob is less than two years away from the age where she got The Talk about where babies come from. Then she threw up in her mouth a little.

It’s all inevitable, of course. I’m finding myself mentally practicing the conversations, trying to find the perfect way to teach him what’s what, without somehow spoiling the essence of what makes him so special.

He’s spoiled me, you see. He’ll still hold my hand in a store, or run to give me a hug in front of his friends. He’ll draw me pictures just because, and I can’t tell you the last time he was mad at me.

It won’t always be that way. That’s just as inevitable, I’m afraid.

But for now, I’d just like to make sure I’m taking note of how special this time is, and how magical it all is — for me. To share in that wonder and innocence is an amazing thing.

As I’m typing this, Jacob spotted a spooky spider on the wall. “Oh my!” was his reaction.

Just wait, Jake’n’Bake. There’s a lot more coming.

My best is only “average”

A year or so ago, waiting in line at Costco with my kids, the woman behind me said, “You must be a good dad.” She said my kids were so well-behaved, it was clearly the sign of good parenting.

The funny part was, they weren’t exceptionally good that day. There was a minor tantrum earlier in the store, and there was a LOT of running around, even right there in line.

That she was compelled to say something about it made me take pause. Perhaps the scale I judge my kids on is a tough one. Maybe the behavior I expect is much better than whatever “average” is.

But I realize that our family’s “average” is all that matters.

My average includes: spending as much time with my kids as I can — helping with homework, treating to ice cream a little more than I should, playing dominoes while listening to Justin Bieber. (Judge if you want, but that’s what Lauren wanted that afternoon, so that’s what she got.)

Average also involves: a talking-to if they don’t say please or thank you, hollering when the house is a mess, and (hopefully infrequent) irrational outbursts which must make them ask, “What the heck is wrong with Dad?”

And average definitely includes plenty of grumpy moods, lazy days, and times when work or my iPhone (or both) takes priority.

“Average” is hardly “perfect.”

But average is what my kids know. It’s what I know to do for them. It’s what my wife does for them. And as I always try to remind myself, it needs to be the best we can do.

My revelation of late is to make my kids think that my best is only average.

Kids have very little frame of reference for parenting. They can’t possibly understand the sacrifices made or the effort involved to provide a good life.

And they shouldn’t.

They should expect that the way they are raised is the way every child is raised.

Someday, they’ll understand that’s not the case. Last week, our local paper documented one day in a courtroom where a judge heard cases for children in need of family services. The story is heartbreaking, with multiple stories of unimaginable horrors.

Still, for the kids involved, that kind of upbringing may be “average.”

In our house, I’m proud of the foundation we’ve set. Love and compassion are what lead us. We accept and acknowledge our bad moments or days, and they’re tolerable because we always know we have each other to turn to, to fall back on, to stand up for one another.

And what really inspires me is to think that when our kids become parents someday, perhaps they’ll up the “average.”

Sticking with it

My wife’s cousin Tony has three kids — a daughter who is a high-school senior and twin boys who are 11. Not only do these kids love playing soccer, they are ridiculously good at it.

No: they are extraordinarily good at it. She was scouted throughout her junior year, and an athletic scholarship is all but certain. Most weekends, the boys travel to other states for tournaments. They always win. I use the word “always” without blinking. They’ve practiced with Chicago’s professional soccer team. One of them is just back from training with an English professional team for a couple of weeks this summer.

I mentioned the boys are 11, right?

All of the kids are as sweet as can be. They just happen to be beasts on the soccer field.

Well, that can’t quite be true — this doesn’t just “happen.” My seven-year-old son, Jacob, likes playing soccer, but I don’t expect he’ll just “happen” to start winning national championships in two years like the twins.

We caught up with them over a family Fourth of July party. While the kids played (yes, soccer), my wife started peppering Tony about what we could do to help Jake get better. He basically gave three answers:

  1. Focus. Don’t practice by shooting at a big ol’ soccer goal — aim for smaller targets, like laid-down garbage cans. Anybody can shoot at a big goal, but if you work on precision, you’ll up your overall game.
  2. Consistency. Practice often. Even if you only have five minutes one day, that’s an opportunity to practice. If you want it bad enough, you’ll keep at it and make the most of the time you have.
  3. Rewards. Set a goal — say, juggling a ball ten times — and when you get there, a reward. And up the challenge for next time: juggle the ball 25 times. You know it can be done, you’ll work hard to achieve it — and be rewarded for it. And it’s far more encouraging to focus on accomplishments than to dwell on failures.

As we drove home, we were excited for Jacob. It’s a simple plan, really. He likes soccer, and he’ll like it even more when he’s that much better at it.

But a short while later, it dawned on me: What we really talked about was how to get better at something.

This idea of improving seemed like an appropriate conversation for a child learning soccer.

But why wouldn’t it apply to adults? Don’t we also need to improve?

Wouldn’t this be a game plan for me to learn how to play guitar, or hone a work skill, or (finally!) start exercising?

. . .

In the ten days since, Jacob and I have practiced once. This is my first blog post in a week. I haven’t exercised at all.

But each day is chance to start. I set my alarm so I’d make sure to write. Our garbage was collected yesterday, so the cans happen to be empty on a beautiful, sunny day — a perfect day to focus on accomplishments instead of dwelling on failures.

We start today. And we stick with it tomorrow.