11 (Make That 12) Steps to Great Kids

I have two boys. Ahem. I have two sons that are now late twenties. When I wrote this missive in 2004, they were seventeen and nineteen. I had two great boys then and I have two wonderful young men for sons. It’s not blind… maybe a little prejudiced, but as I muse the truth of their good-ness, I believe that somehow, just somehow, we did something right. We are not alone, of course: we read and see and hear of good things, good people. But more often, we are bombarded with the junk about mankind that makes us feel better about ourselves, as in, “There but for the grace of God go I.” So let’s not make this about good in relative terms… Let’s just say they’re good.

We were lucky. Yes, but we did some things really right, and I will share those 10 steps with you now.

  1. Stay married.
  2. Have grandmas and grandpas and aunts and uncles in your midst. Let the children get to know them.
  3. One of you stay home or at least work a job that allows shorter hours and/or less stress to save mental and physical energy for your kids.
  4. Join the PTA at your kids’ schools. You’ll know what’s going on (They’re not being coy or private all the time. The kids don’t know or can’t remember —really, they don’t — by the time you see them at the end of the day.) Oh, and stay involved all the way through high school. Most parents drop out after elementary, but it’s almost more important when your kids are older!
  5. Find something that grabs their heart, mind, or body to carry them through the tough times. Being a kid is harder and harder. If they don’t have a talent, hobby or sport to start with, keep digging until you find it. Don’t give up.
  6. Make school and grades important. There is no way they’ll succeed in this world without the knowledge of how to learn. It’s not just the facts and figures that will help them: It’s knowing how to learn to learn. This one ability will serve them their whole lives long.
  7. Talk to them about sex. Really. They get exposed to it in school, but it’s somehow more important to them that you have the guts to talk to them about it. Even as young adults, they’ll appreciate your awareness that they’re tempted, but that it’s dang important not to get pregnant or make someone pregnant.
  8. Have a religion. I don’t care what. It helps them feel a connection to a higher power, and helps them develop a moral compass.
  9. Celebrate birthdays and holidays with abandon. Decorate, invite family, and have big parties. It doesn’t have to be expensive. The 99-Cent store is great. Burgers and dogs. Pizza. Home made and cheap is better. Celebrate family.
  10. Know where and who and when. It’s easier with cell phones than in the past, but don’t substitute technology for knowledge. And finally…
  11. HAVE YOUR KIDS WAKE YOU UP WHEN THEY COME HOME at night. It’s not necessary to stay awake. It is necessary to have them wake you. First, it gives them accountability; second, it’s an easy out for them to blame leaving an uncomfortable situation on their parents, and third, you can look into their eyes and see if they’re “okay.”
  12. LOVE!!!! They’ll know you love them from the other 11 steps, but don’t forget to tell them every single day.

Try to set a good example. We make mistakes, sure, but believe me, your kids know every single one of your faults. They also know when and how you’re trying to be better, that you’re trying to help them succeed, and that you’re paying attention to them. They also know when they mess up, and ours did. They were not perfect, but they didn’t make the big mistakes. We were lucky, as I said.

Two-income working parents are exhausted at the end of the day, and the kids know it. I get it. We’re all busy, but I heard one parenting specialist say, the best rule for raising good kids is “get up off the couch.” (My rule was, “Don’t sit down.”)

I know a lot of people with good kids. I know some that have kids that strayed. I’d say from my limited survey — the above formula works, with minor variances.

Good Luck!

Bonus Material — Definition of “Good kids”

  1. Good kids get relatively good grades. B’s and A’s. With the emphasis on grades, and with tutoring, mentoring, and learning schools like Sylvan and Kumon, it should be doable even for lower income folks.
  2. Good kids have something they care about besides themselves and their friends. It can be a sport or a hobby, a community group or their church. Scouting, if you can possibly sell it, leaves a huge positive mark on the kids’ souls. (Both of our kids are Eagle Scouts.)
  3. Good kids don’t drink, have sex, or smoke cigarettes, and they don’t do drugs. In our day we did some of those, but somehow, we knew where to draw the line. I’m not sure why the line is so murky these days.
  4. Good kids respect adults and the law and they respect themselves, their teachers, and their God, whoever that may be for them.
  5. Good kids care when you do well, when you’re sick, or when someone they know and love has gotten sick or has failed or died. They value life because they value themselves and their family.


The eighth grade boy was the only one in the classical dance show last night. It was an arts school, yes, but he was alone on the stage. How would he spend his day at a normal school? How does he make this decision every day —to  be different, so different? Because something in his heart makes it worth the pain, and we can only be reminded of Mikael Baryshnikov… a truly great dancer who despite being Russian, was probably still derided by his vodka-drinking buddies for doing pirouettes instead of playing soccer. There were undoubtedly days of being called gay or being thrust head first into a trashcan, or pelted with tomatoes on the way home from the ballet studio. Yet he persevered.

It is scary to think that people who dared to be different may have succumbed to peer pressure; to the pain of being different — and gave up. What if Mozart had given up? Michael Jordan? Bill Gates? How do you know you’re different enough to be really good, though? What about all the male dancers that never make it to that top, and just go through life being different, feeling the pain but never achieving success with it?

Somehow, one must be able to withstand the separateness by basking in the sheer joy of doing what you do because it’s what you crave. It makes you happy; it provides moments of unbridled peace, calm and beauty. It eschews the idea that success in life is measured by money or fame, but rather is discovered by realizing that there is something that makes you so happy you smile from the deepest core of your being all the way out to a glow on your skin. Many people never find that. It’s a shame!

It’s probably because this happiness comes at the cost of the pain, and the moments of frustration and solitude endured by hours and hours of practice in a room with an instrument, at the ballet barre, at the computer, at the driving range, in a swimming pool, or wherever one does one’s servitude to the god of Perfection; and she rarely yields her blessing. Perfection arrives sporadically if at all; sometimes never. Mostly in the blink of an eye, then it’s gone, and you doubt it was there, because, it really could have been better, couldn’t it? Probably so.

So, you’re left wondering… I did it perfectly, or nearly so, and I practiced until my eyes crossed, my toes bled, my muscles screamed in agony, my head pounded. And finally, I tried out. I auditioned, I competed, I sent it off, I played my best, did my best, sounded my best. But what if I did not win, get the part, make the grade, or achieve that illusive next level? I still I love what I do. So I will keep trying, remain different, and be joyfully alone and true to myself.

Other People. Not Us.

I will not tell you her name, but this woman that I know (as in this was not something I read in the newspaper) lost two sons to hang gliding! There are few words to describe the unconscionable sorrow. What? You lost one? Then another? What were they thinking?

What could they think? There are no words. Well, there are words, but they are the sad words — the grief words, the loss words that are colored black, gray and brown. They are the depressing shades of all of them: mineshaft black, grunge gray, bad-hair-dye brown. They’re not happy colors you would put on the walls

We have two sons. I cannot fathom, nor imagine these things that happen to other people. These events crawl through newspapers and seep out of the lips of media mouths.

Other people. Not us.

It did enter our neighborhood and came down our street, but it didn’t come in our door. A distanced ex-sister-in-law had a daughter from her first marriage (and it could have been us, had they still been married, but they weren’t). This young woman shot herself over some boy she thought she was in love with.

Other people. Not us.

My matron of honor’s brother committed suicide.

Other people. Not us.

One of our son’s Boy Scout friends committed suicide. I knew his mom and dad and brother. The funeral service filled the community’s church. We were all there to mourn, but perhaps to be glad that it wasn’t us. Did I say that?

Other people. Not Us.

We read the newspapers, watch the evening news, listen to morning radio. We learn of the mayhem, floods, bombings, accidents, earthquakes, shootings, tornados and destruction. We exhale. Because just for today. For this moment. For now it’s …

Other people. Not us.

Life Is A Bicycle Ride

“In the end, we’re all just riding bicycles.” The buzz in the room stopped. We all knew we were in thj0149029e presence of a deep philosophical certainty. We internalized the analogy, knowing that sometimes, the road of life is so steep that it is insurmountable. We may pump and strain, slipping into lower gears. We struggle to hang on. Some people can ride longer than others. Some people walk their bikes at the first tiny grade that impedes their progress; the first rotten apple that life throws at them. Others dig in, set their brains for the battle, every muscle straining, every bit of resolve steeled against the challenge. Some days, the roads are littered with abandoned bikes — the little baskets with broken dreams hang off the fenders. We loathe this ride we call life. The damn bike doesn’t have the decency to have a flat tire, so we cast it aside. Bike stand? Forget it. We hope someone will steal it. We want to walk home, maybe even to die.

We like the ride when it goes down hill. We don’t have to pump. We don’t have to pedal. We can relax. Sometimes this ride lasts for days. Maybe weeks. It feels good. Too good. It has to end. The hill down is the back side of an up hill. There’s no slacking off without eventually paying the piper, right?

We ride different bikes. Some have of us ten-speeds. Some have road bikes. Some of us wear bike pants, prepared for the long haul. Others don’t know that they make hand pads, soft seats, and toe holders, and we ride in pain the whole way, discomfort slowing us down as if we had sand bags on the back fender, or a two-ton gorilla breathing banana breath KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAdown our necks. Some people go through life with their own personal gorilla slobbering, leering, and slowing to depression what should be a manic down hill ride.

Riding a bike upsets your crotch. Life attacks all our parts, eventually. Riding life is mostly uncomfortable. It’s a long haul, and there are high years and low years, high gears and low gears. Some of the best parts of life are in the low gears, when you think all is lost, when every intersection you come to has cross traffic, stoplights, and people who get in your way. As you look back, those years sometimes provided the map for the easier, higher gears ahead. How else can you learn? How else could you have known what it took to get what you wanted had it not been for the bumps, the curves, and the hills? Then, there are comfortable times — squishy, soft-seat, downhill times. They help us hang on when the crotch-grabbing times won’t go away.

I’m riding a bicycle with five gears today. It’s on flat ground. I have to pedal, but I am going somewhere. I don’t have to struggle today. I have to keep pedaling, sure. But I find routes that avoid the hills if I can. Sometimes, I can’t. The terrain is not always a choice. It lies before me, and I must take it to find the reason I am here. But ride, I will, for that is what we do. In the end, we are all just riding bicycles.

Summer Spiders

j0178905In summer, countless spiders dot my front and back yards. They look like little Christmas ornaments hanging from tiny invisible hooks, and they cast miniature, blurred shadows against the walls behind them when the morning sun hits them just right.

Last week, a particularly plucky spider stood guard at my front porch. She was there every morning as I opened the door to pick up my newspapers. She seemed to taunt me, knowing full well, as spiders do, that we humans hate to pass through a spider web. Reluctantly, I dismantled her miraculous (how in the heck do they DO that?) all-night construction wondering if it was her dream home. Mostly I felt regret knowing it was her source of breakfast, or at least an early lunch.

I was pleased to note that she was able to learn, at an ever so rudimentary level, as the week wore on. Every morning for the first three mornings, I broke her landlines and disturbed her semi-sleep. After I broke the line, she would scamper to the safety of the nearby bush, mumbling an arachnid epithet under her breath. Finally on the fourth day, she heard my front door open and scuttled to the bush before I broke her bracing line.

I told Mrs. Spider she could spin her meal-trap elsewhere, but she was not as sharp as her ancestor Charlotte of Charlotte’s Web. Stubborn yes, smart, no.

A few days ago, I opened the door to reassert my human superiority when I saw she was gone. Had she learned the final lesson—that this was not a good place to build? Or had she gone to that big spider web in the sky?

At first I thought that summer spider season might be over. Nope. We still have webs aplenty everywhere else. Hopefully she’s just found another spot, having learned the mantra of real estate in a relatively painless way. Location. Location. Location.

I miss her.

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