For Parents

Parents No Best

My parents had the courage to say “No” when I was growing up. At the time I didn't understand. I pouted. I screamed. I ranted and raved. “I'll be the laughing stock at school!” But they remained firm: “No!”

I remember, for example, when my mom took me to buy shoes. It was never an exciting excursion in the Ellison family because we always got the same style, Dexter “Saddle Shoes.” (“Army-surplus clod-stompers,” I called them.) Oh, how I longed for a pair of penny-loafers! Then I would be able to strut in style! But, “No!” my mom said. The Dexters were eminently practical, their soles lasting a full year, sometimes two. And that was that. Who ever had parents as unreasonable as mine?

The hand-me-down clothes they gave me weren't any better. I can't describe my utter humiliation when my teachers would compliment them. “Why, Dave, I remember that beautiful sweater on your oldest brother, Kevin.” Aaagh!

The worst, though, were the trips to the barbershop. As quickly as the barber could switch on his electric razor (No need for scissors or a comb!) most of my hair would be gone.

“Hair-cuts are too expensive,” dad lamented. “We don't want to have to come back here next month because your hair has already grown out.”

Easy for him to say! He didn't have to endure the tauntings I did the next morning: “Peach-Fuz! Watermelon!” At times I imagined I hated my parents.

Now that I am a teacher, though, I appreciate their stubbornness. You see, every day I have to deal with kids whose parents haven't learned to say “No.” The results are alternately comical and sad, and sometimes even frightening.

Many of my boys, for example, simply must have their hair cut every few weeks or so in order to keep their “racing stripes” razor sharp. Likewise, too many of my girls fail P.E. because they refuse to dress for class. It seems that running or changing into T-shirts might mess-up their hair. I'm not kidding. And the craziest thing is that their parents allow them to continue failing, year after year!

Many parents now spend over a hundred dollars just for a pair of high-tech “pump-up” basketball shoes--often for kids who get winded just jogging to the cafeteria. I'm afraid to ask how much parents invest in the sport team jackets so many of my students wear, even on the hottest of days.

As I watch the poor kids sweating in agony--but smiling smugly in the knowledge that they are in style--I realize that my parents accomplished a lot more than simply save money with all their “No’s.” They communicated to me--subtly but emphatically--that impressing people with what I wore would not be a priority for me. Preparing myself for college would be. They later lavishly spent every dime they had saved on my college education.

My mom and dad freed me from the tyranny of style. They taught me to have the courage to be myself, and to struggle to make of myself somebody great. By denying me so much, they gave me what mattered most.

Red Ribbon Dialogues

Dear Parents,

Red Ribbon Week always makes me impatient with you. For example, this year I worked with some of your eighth-grade children on writing “Red Ribbon Conversations.” We had been learning to punctuate dialogues anyway, so it was only natural that we use the newly refined skill to practice “just saying no.”

My students were to pretend that they were at some party where there were drugs such as alcohol. They had to imagine what kind of peer pressure they would face, and how they would deal with it. I even gave them permission to, if necessary, tell some little white lies.

Some of your children were quite creative with their fibbing. “Oh, I'd love a beer,” one wrote, “but I'm taking some prescription anti-zit medication. I'll just have a soda.”

Others had the courage (easy in an essay for school!) to simply refuse outright: “For the third time, no! And if you call me a nerd again, I'm leaving!”

“Very good!” I encouraged my students, smiling and nodding my head. But inside I was seething. You see, it occurred to me that what I was really trying to protect them from was the negligence of you, their parents.

I ask you, Why should I have to prepare your young children for such adult situations and choices? Put more plainly, Why do you allow your kids to attend parties where there's alcohol? Really, it's you parents who must learn to “just say no.”

How many of you blissfully send your kids off to a party each weekend, assuming that someone else will ensure that it is safe, and alcohol-free? And then when your children get in a fight, drive drunk, become pregnant, get AIDS, you ask helplessly, “What's wrong with our schools?”

Frankly, I'm tired of it.

So, I have some Red-Ribbon homework for you, too. It's due this Friday, just in time for the weekend:

Pretend your teenager has just asked to go to a party. Write the ensuing dialogue. In it, be sure to include many more questions than simply, “What time will you be home?” You must practice strategies to determine the last names of your child's friends, the telephone number of their parents, the address and telephone number of the party, and the names (emphasis on the plural) of the chaperones.

Then, imagine the tremendous pressure you'll face from your child--remarks such as, “Oh, you're so out-of-it!” or “All the other parents are letting their kids go!”--and how you'll respond.

Lastly, make sure you include the line, “No, you may not go.” Believe me, it'll be a lot easier on paper than in real life; but that's why you need to practice.

For extra credit, list three alternative evening activities for your children, which you could both organize and chaperone.

Remember, parents: Education begins at home. And Red Ribbon Week must begin there too.

New Year’s Resolutions

Last December, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) published suggestions for Kid’s New Year’s Resolutions ( Among them were, for preschoolers, brushing their teeth twice a day; for school-aged children, engaging in some sport or physical activity at least three times a week; and for teens, watching TV or playing video games for no more than two hours a day.

The AAP had good reason to urge children to take at least one small step towards a healthy lifestyle. After all, for the first time American kids now face a shorter life expectancy than their parents.

Why? Because one in three children has a weight problem. Because most kids spend four to five hours a day watching TV. Because, quite frankly, they’ve inherited a decadent, sick culture.

The AAP wasn’t the only organization aghast. Last year the California Legislature prohibited the vending of soft drinks at school. More recently, Assemblyman Leland Yee, D-SF, proposed banning as well the sale of violent video games to minors. (You see, if left to themselves, businesses and even schools will exploit children just to make a buck.)

Nonetheless, I wonder: Are we deferring the raising/protecting of our children to the government? Or, as with the AAP resolutions, to the children themselves? Absent from this and just about every other discussion about youth is the role of parents. Shouldn’t fathers and mothers, too, have a part in nurturing their children? (Just call me radical!)

I’d like to counter-propose some Parents’ New Year’s Resolutions, four common-sensical first steps parents can take to dramatically improve their children’s lives.

Resolution 1: Monitor both the quantity and the quality of children’s television/video games. There is a direct relationship between TV time and obesity; a similar link between violent media content and aggressive behavior; and an inverse correlation between TV and academic success. Honestly, the most profound, loving, courageous act a parent can do is pull the plug on the Tube.

Resolution 2: Encourage children to read by modeling the behavior. If parents read for fun, if they read to their children, if older siblings read to younger, if families take more trips to the library than to the video store, then just about everything worthwhile improves—literacy, knowledge, imagination, critical thinking, college prospects, even the strength of our nation. As Jefferson warned, our democracy depends upon citizens who read.

Resolution 3: Insist that the family enjoy dinner together almost every evening. That means at the same time, around the same table, with the television off. Beware, though, because some strange, almost unheard-of phenomena might result: conversation, laughter, sharing, understanding, and an enduring sense of hearth, home, and love. In fact, the one and only experience almost all national merit award winners share is regular family dinners. I suspect it’s the one memory most gang members lack.

Resolution 4: Enable children to find success at school. This will include providing them a decent breakfast, enforcing a strict two-hour evening quiet time for homework, checking that homework periodically for neatness and effort; and helping them set clear, measurable, realistic goals for each day, week, and quarter. Yes, even in the Twenty-First Century, education still begins at home.

I appreciate the AAP’s attempt to motivate kids; and I applaud the Legislature’s effort to set some sane limits on their behalf. However, only parents can make the real difference for children. I pray that, this year, parents rediscover both their responsibility and their power. Then 2004 will be a wondrous year, indeed.

Goal Setting

Despite their repeated claims to the contrary, most of your children are glad to be back in school. (Certainly you're glad they're back!) With their new clothes, new books, and old friends, they can only barely disguise their enthusiasm.

As with so many previous Septembers, your children have begun the academic year with yet another resolution to be better students. This time they'll complete all their homework, and really study for their exams. Unfortunately, such resolutions are likely to suffer the same fate as so many of their predecessors. Your children will forget them as soon as the novelty of the new year wears thin, and they must face the inexorable rigors and routines of school.

It is not that your children are insincere in their desire to improve. It is simply that setting goals does not come naturally. It's an acquired skill, perhaps the most important of all. So, it must be taught and practiced. This is where you parents, your kids' first and most influential teachers, can make the difference.

This year, teach your children to choose a goal that is specific. It is not enough for them to vow to "do better." What does "better" mean? Such a vague resolution will not help them decide how or where to begin. Nor will it enable them to know if and when they have succeeded. A better goal might be, for example, to raise last year's History grade from a "C" to a "B."

Secondly, work with your children on developing a day-by-day strategy. What will they do tonight and tomorrow in order to realize their goal? The longest journey must begin with a first step, and you should help your children decide where to take it. Perhaps they need to spend an extra ten minutes each evening reviewing notes. Or, they could make a habit of asking and answering at least one question in each class. (Teachers could provide many more such suggestions at Back To School Night. Why not attend this year?)

Next, make sure your children set a deadline for their goal. For instance, they might decide to raise their History grade by the end of the first quarter. A deadline will provide the urgency necessary to keep your children plugging away. If the deadline arrives and they still have not succeeded, it is not the hour of despair. A missed deadline is merely an opportunity for your kids to re-evaluate their goal and strategies, and to re-dedicate themselves to continue striving. If at first they don't succeed....

Lastly, make sure that the goal your children choose (Notice that they must choose it, not you.) is realistic. Improving a grade from a "D" to an "A" would not be a reasonable objective. Instead of motivating kids, it would intimidate them, and quite possibly set them up for failure. Your children's first goal must be one they can readily achieve. Once they do, they themselves will quickly set a higher, more challenging one.

Before you know it, your children will have developed the habit of success. And there is nothing more motivating than success. Who knows? Perhaps your children's back-to-school enthusiasm will last until June!

Following My Heart

The jet airplane took a little over five hours to fly from Oakland to Cleveland, carrying me on my yearly pilgrimage home for Christmas.

In the ethereal world at 33,000 feet, the tranquil limbo between my harried life in California and the more sedate lives of my family in Ohio, I couldn't help but finally pause and reflect. An unrepentant vagabond, I marveled to find myself living where I live, doing what I do.

This year it occurred to me that my parents, who were waiting to greet me at the airport, must be similarly amused to see who I've become. And for the first time I realized that it was they who long ago had given me the freedom to choose my own path.

I remembered, for example, one incident which had seemed insignificant at the time, but which I finally recognized as a striking example of my parents' courageous restraint.

My mom and dad had visited me during my freshman year in college because I'd landed a big part in a Shakespearian play. After the performance, I brought them backstage to meet the director. ``Dave's made quite a splash in the theater department here,'' she commented effusively. ``We can see he's going to make a wonderful actor!''

My parents politely smiled, but I could tell they were stunned. They had assumed my acting was merely a hobby, that I'd major in something practical like business or engineering. In fact, my dad had once commented that any liberal arts degree was a total waste of time and money.

The following morning my parents took me out to breakfast before their long drive home. The conversation was uncomfortable, strained. I could tell they wanted to dissuade me from a career in the theater. They brought up the subject only once, though. ``Well,'' my father said, carefully sipping his coffee, ``I suppose you'll get a lot of big parts here, since the theater department is so small and unknown.''

Mild encouragement, a bit of caution, but nothing more. How difficult it must have been for my parents to bite their tongues!

I soon gave up the theater on my own--thank goodness. (I wonder if I would have done so had my parents demanded it.) But there were many other times in my life when my mom and dad forced themselves to remain mute while I went ahead and made apparently outrageous decisions.

After graduation, for instance, I spent two years gallivanting through Spain. Upon my return I accepted my first teaching job--in Texas of all places!--for a paltry $8,000 a year. Was I crazy?

In retrospect, I regret none of my choices. My many adventures, good and bad, prepared me well.

I consider myself fortunate indeed when I see some of my friends languishing in careers their parents chose for them; and when I witness students struggling at a sport or an instrument they hate, but their parents enjoy vicariously.

My mom and dad insisted only that I guard my integrity and get a good education. The rest they left up to me. They let me follow my heart. And that is why every Christmas, for as long as my parents live, my heart will always lead me back home, to them.