Not too long ago, one of my kids wanted to quit a sport. When he told me he wanted to quit, I squirmed inside. I asked him why and he said, “It’s not that fun and I don’t enjoy all the practices.” As a kid, I was always taught to never be a “quitter.” That old-school mindset was branded into my mind as far back as I can remember.
But as I’ve gotten a bit older, and hopefully wiser, my mind has changed. Now I kind of think, “Who the hell cares? The purpose of a sport is to enjoy the value of team and healthy competition, develop a talent, and have some fun. If you don’t like the three hour practices five days a week, then go find something else you enjoy.”
So the idea of forcing my kid to continue to play a sport, which he really doesn’t enjoy anymore, seems like weird thing for a parent to do.
I realize that much of my “never be a quitter” mindset is based on fear. The illogical thinking goes like this:
1. To be successful, one must work hard and be determined.
2. Quitters don’t work hard and are not determined.
3. Therefore, quitters will not be successful.
It’s not the end of the world if your kid wants to quit.
Edison won an academic award a few weeks ago. It was a big deal. Huge. I want to give parents a tip on what I did to get him to win this distinction.
He was one of only 40 students. Out of over 2,000. Top 2%. These students had the greatest improvement in their grades over a one-year period. There was an award ceremony: school president, principal, senior staff, heads of departments. The principal spoke. Some students moved grades from 1.5 grade point average to 2.0, some form 4.0 gpa oa to 4.5. That kind of thing.
I sat with all the proud parents. Clicking away on our cameras. I thought about how I never received any award in high school because of my fortitude and capacity for consistency—I held about a 1.8 gpa, all the way through.
I sat there and thought about how, three years earlier, I found myself caught-up in the obsession. Many of us parents have it. We refer to it as education but has little to do with learning. I sat and thought about the vision I had when my kids were younger. I wanted them to be “ahead” of everyone else. That was my goal, though their mom was always far more balanced.
So when Edison entered high school, I hired a college counselor who had helped parents get their teenagers into Princeton and Harvard. She helped confirm the carefully written plan I had devised for my 14-year project, through my own research. All the hoops to ensure his future success: extra circulars, sports, starting a club, academically challenging classes, Latin, be the team captain, get on the good side of the best teachers because they will write a letter of recommendation when you apply to college.
And I obsessed about a few things. I obsessed about his grades. Daily. These grades “count.” I checked Aeries every day. That’s the thing teachers use to record all the grades.
I knew what quizzes were coming, tests, projects. I obsessed and I was super stressed-out about each of them.
I obsessed over the iPad. The iPad the school gave him, The iPad he needed for every class. The iPad I stripped of games and social media apps. The iPad he could message friends on because Apple doesn’t let you delete its texting app, Messages.
I obsessed over his internet browser. He needed one for school. I downloaded some mobi-something-or-rather browser. It had a filter. Safari didn’t. He’d text me during class almost every day. “Dad, I’m supposed to be downloading a PDF right now but this broswer isn’t letting me because it’s blocking the site.” I’d send him the restrictions passcode so he could download Safari and work on his project.
“Dad, everyone else has Safari, this is so awkward.”
I called the IT department of the school almost every week. “You mean to tell me that of the 2,500 students, I’m the only one that doesn’t let his kid have Safari and other apps?”
“Well, Mr. Martin, I can’t speak into what other parents do, but in order for him to download class assignments at school, he’s going to need a different browser.”
When I saw him after school I’d get rid of Safari and change the restrictions passcode.
This happened almost daily. I started running out of ideas for passcodes. At first I started with the month and the day. So if it was Septmeber 25th, I’d write 0925. But then a few days would go by and I’d forget if it was 0924 or 0925 or 0926. I tried to make it simpler—the first four numbers corresponding with the first for letters of the current month. So Novermber would be 6683. I think I tried using day and month of the kids’ birthdays too.
I ended up having to erase his iPad a bunch of times to get new apps he need for class and he wasn’t happy.
And he didn’t always turn in his homework on time. I knew because, remember, I checked Aeries. Every day. And I’d ask him why and he had a soccer game and had to leave early and he had spoken with the teacher. I was treating him like a five year old.
Parents, your teenagers don’t like to be treated like five year olds.
And I looked over his shoulder, literally, at home to make sure he was on task. And I’d tell him the BS parents us tell our kid-projects: “I just want what’s best for you.”
In reality, I wanted what’s best for me.
Month after month, I hounded him, grounded him, lectured him. He needed a only a 92.5 on every assignment. That’s it. That gets you A’s. Not A minuses. And A’s get you into top universities.
He wasn’t getting only A’s. I wasn’t happy.
“I want you to do your homework at your desk so I can see you are working and not…wait!, how did you get Instagram?”
“You gave me the passcode today so I could download Safari, I was just checking something.”
Every day. Grades. Pressure. Obsessing. Nagging. Fear about the tragedy of not attending a top university a top university a top university a top university. Our relationship was about his grades, his future college dreams, his success, I mean my grades, my future college dreams, my success.
I read Friedman. Forty years of counseling chronically anxious families. “The children who end up being able to work through the latter difficulties in life are those parents who made them least important to their own salvation.”
It all came crashing down. It came crashing down because I was objectifying my son. Parents do this today all in the name of love with quantifiable performance measures for school and sports and whatever else activity.
It’s not love. It’s conditional love.
Edison had become a means to and end. HE HAD BECOME AN OBJECT I COULD MANIPULATE OUT OF MY NEED TO HAVE HIM “SUCCEED.”
And I realized the whole top university thing was never about the goals or dreams or ambitions of kids. It was something parents wanted, like a Mercedes Benz or trendy vacation destination or designer handbag. Some call these kinds of things “positional goods”—things you get so you can impress others.
I later heard of a popular book called Yes, Your Teenage Is Crazy. I’ve raised one teenager and am currently raising two, and when I saw the title I thought, in actuality, it’s the parents who are f***ing nuts.
But blame the craziness of your obsession and lust for status symbols on your kid.
People, success has nothing to do with where you go to college or if you go to college.
Success is about pursuing truth and honesty, helping others, finding your passions and living YOUR dreams, not those imposed on you by the vulgarity of this phony culture of facades.
I have a degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the world hanging on my wall and it doesn’t mean shit.
But how I treat my kids matters more than anything.
I happened upon Natalia Ginzburg. Her views on education. How wonder and learning and imagination are the most beautiful intrinsic goods. And she said this, too:
“We should not demand anything; we should not ask or hope that he is a genius or an artist or a hero or a saint; and yet we must be ready for everything; our waiting and our patience must compass both the possibility of the highest and the most ordinary of fates.”
Summer came. I was done. I didn’t want to live this way for another year. No. I wouldn’t do this to him for another year.
“Edison, you need to know something. I love you. Not your grades. Not your school activities. I could really give a rip about any of that crap anymore.”
He looks at me, startled, perhaps frightened.
I go on, “I was a disaster last year. Our relationship was tense because I was treating you like some kind of object. I needed you to pump out A’s and ‘succeed’ because that made me feel better about myself.”
He looks at me, speechless.
“Education is about wonder and learning, not just finding all the tricks to get high grades.”
“Oh, and Edison, you don’t have to go to college.”
I meant it.
“I love you for who you are, no matter what you decide to do with grades or soccer or your school club.”
“Nothing you do or don’t do will ever cause me to love you less, not even average grades.”
“Pursue your passions and interests, I want to see you become who you want to be. A college degree opens doors for sure, and if you decide to go, I’ll support you in every way I can, but it’s your life.”
“And education today has been hijacked by parents like me who treat it as a status symbol so we can brag to our friends.”
He finally, with a calmness I had never heard before.
“Dad, I want to go to college.”
“Okay, that’s fine. But whatever you decide, I’m not going to pressure you anymore.”
I never looked at his grades again. Not in his sophomore year, not in his junior, not this year. Not once. I never asked him about tests or quizzes or homework. Not once.
But when he got home I asked him about his day. “Learn anything interesting?” I did go to some soccer games and tennis matches and Mock Trial competitions. But I never encouraged him or helped him or “advocated for him.”
I just enjoyed what he was doing in life.
It’s been the most joyous time together.
And when I heard he got this big award. I decided to write about it.
So, what did I do to encourage my son to win this prestigious academic award?
The award was big. Huge. Because he did it on his own. All on his own.
I’m so flipping proud of him.
Doing nothing might be the best way to encourage our kids.
Plus it’s a much better way to have a peaceful home.
I took my morning run today at 5:30. I was tired. It was cold. On this particular morning, I thought true thoughts.
I thought of my two legs—I have two legs. I thought of my three children—I have three children. I thought of their health—they have health. I thought of my warm home—I have a warm home. I thought of my incredible friends—I have incredible friends. I thought of my mother and father and three sisters—I have a mother and father and three sisters. I thought of my three brothers in law—I have three brothers in law. All good men. I thought of my faith—I’m grateful for my faith. I thought of my car—I have a car. The heater works. The brakes work. So does the radio and the GPS and the generator and the battery and the alternator and the rear window defroster. It gets great gas mileage.
I thought of my ten fingers and ten toes—I have ten fingers and ten toes. I looked down and thought of my New Balance 993′s—I have New Balance 993′s. Two pairs, in fact, one gray, one black. I thought of my books—I cherish my books. I thought of my trial—trials turn to gold. I thought of my freedom—I am nobody’s slave. I thought of those living under oppression—I am not oppressed. I thought of my education—I am grateful for opportunities to learn and grow. I will always grow.
I panted in the cold air as I ascended a daunting hill. There are many hills in this life. I have a will and a body and faith to get over hills.
The sun broke through these dark clouds and I saw radiant beams of sun. I thought of my eyesight— I can see.
I had no pain in my body. No pain in my body. I had no pain in my body.
I thought of my children again—they are healthy and funny and grounded and happy. They are tucked in their beds, secure, warm, content. I thought about later taking a picture of the four of us. On Martin Street. Where I grew-up.
My lungs work. My heart works. My mind works.
I am loved. I am accepted. I contribute to the wellbeing of others. My friends mean the world to me. And they care for me. My family means the world to me. And they care for me.
Many of my problems are in my head.
I never want to complain about another thing as long as I live because there are just too many things to be thankful for.
I let Edison spend the weekend in LA at a “carnival” called Camp Flog Gnaw. He left Saturday morning. The event started at noon, to be held at The Coliseum, to be attended by tens of thousands. He stayed the night with three friends at his sister’s apartment at UCLA. After he drove away, I got this text.
In spite of his assurance, I was still nervous. All day. All night. In LA. At a rap festival.
That voice in my head — “Paul, he’s still a minor child.”
Some of you will think I’m a negligent parent with my head in the sand. You might be an evangelical Christian. You might believe it’s the duty of parents to protect their children, even if those “children” are nearly 18. These concerts are carnal, you say. Bad influences. “Kids” will get into trouble.
Others will think I’m a paranoid parent with my head in the sand. You question why I would try and control a young man who is 6 months away from legal adulthood. You think kids gotta grow-up at some point, and it’s our duty as parents to let them and reap the consequences of their choices. It’s just a stupid concert. Let him go.
Originally, Edison asked if he could go to Camp Flog Gnaw a few months ago. “Hey, Dad, I’m almost 17 ½, can I go to this all day and night concert in LA in November?” After weeks of indecision, and weeks of him reminding me of his age — “Dad, seriously, I’m almost 18!” — I relented. I said okay because last year he wanted to go to a music festival in the Coachella Valley. (I forgot the name of it. Not Stagecoach, the other one.) He wanted to spend the night out there at some house with his friends from high school. I said no.
So I felt I owed this one to him.
So, here are pretty much the exact thoughts that bounced around my mind in favor of saying no:
1. It’s called Camp Flog Gnaw. I don’t like the name. (I learned later that that spelled backward it’s Camp Wang Golf.)
2. The creep that created Camp Flog Gnaw is 24 years old.
3. I don’t like rap. It’s not real music. If it was a country music carnival I’d feel better about it.
4. I don’t like rappers.
5. The names of the “bands” or rappers or whatever are weird.
6. Drugs and alcohol. Concerts and drugs and alcohol go together. I don’t want him around drugs or alcohol.
7. Sex. People have sex when they do drugs and alcohol.
8. My Christian friends will judge me. Especially the parents who have kids that listen to Christian music and only let their 17 1/2 year olds go to Christian concerts.
9. My kids don’t like Christian music very much. And that’s my fault.
10. If something awful was to happen, I’d second guess my decision. So would all the parents that think I had my head in the sand.
11. Can I trust Edison?
12. I am afraid.
And here are pretty much the exact thoughts that led me to say yes:
1. I believe in operating from a place of trust as a parent.
2. I will not allow fear to govern my life. And I won’t make decisions based on worse case scenarios because that’s no way to live.
3. I think too many parents infantilize their kids today, even their 17 1/2 year olds.
4. I don’t want my kids to rebel later in life because I shielded them too much. I’ve seen that happen far too often.
5. I don’t want my kids to lie and hide where they go because I’m too strict. I’ve seen that happen far too often, too.
6. I don’t believe in a “teenage brain.” Robert Epstein, a Harvard teen psychologist, debunked that myth. And, for most of history, teenagers had families, fought in wars, and held jobs. The whole teenage brain thing is a bunch of crap.
7. Drugs are on every high school campus in Orange County, not just at Camp Flog Gnaw.
8. Edison is old enough to make his own decisions regarding sex and drugs.
9. I want my teenage boys to be in the real world, and not only in an evangelical Christian pseudo-world that is produced and governed by the fear of chronically anxious parents.
10. I don’t want my son to be shielded by his dad, when be becomes a man.
11. He is a man.
12. I respect him.
Camp Flog Gnaw 2015 is over.
Edison arrived home safely on Sunday morning.
Next year he can decide for himself because he will be away at college.
It took out Paul’s iPhone so it could write Paul’s thoughts.
It remembered the almost fluorescent red color of Elliot’s tonsils when the doctor saw him on Friday.
It wondered how long it would take the antibiotics to make him feel better.
It wondered why Paul didn’t take Elliot to the doctor on Monday.
It accused Paul of being a bad dad.
It thought about Mom.
It though about Paul’s visit on Saturday. About Paul, Mom, and Vince. About how Vince tried to get her to speak Italian. About how he said to her, “Luigia, say ‘Paul is my son.'” It thought how funny Mom’s reply was. About when she shook her head. “No he’s not, he’s my son.”
It felt relieved that Edison and friends were safe in Bree’s apartment at UCLA after a day at Camp Flog Gnaw.
It wondered if Paul was a bad dad for letting Edison go to a thing called Camp Flog Gnaw.
It thought about how raising teenagers is hard.
It thought about what President Obama said about ISIS the day before the massacre in Paris. “ISIS is contained.”
It knew President Obama was regretting those words.
It thought about how Paul wasn’t a big fan of George W. Bush, but how “W” would be kicking the shit out of ISIS by now.
It wondered why darkness is scarier than daytime, and how the scariness proves we all want to see what’s coming in life.
It thought about how we never really know what’s coming in life.
It thought about The House On Mango Street.
It wondered if the gluten free diet will soon be replaced with another diet.