10 Things I wish I would have done, done better, or not done raising my children

I don’t have many regrets as a parent. Not because I haven’t made mistakes as we clearly all do. I parented with the tools I had at the time and I had absolutely no good example to follow from my own parents. I’m clear any mistakes I made I did so out of trying to ensure my children made it to adulthood alive and as productive adults. As they have checked both those boxes I consider my parenting a reasonable success. There are some things I’d rather have done, not done or done better. I’m just going to list ten of them. Why ten? It’s an easy rounded number. Besides I’m not my wife so I can’t think of more than ten mistakes I may have made. They are presented here in no significant order of importance.

  1. Give them more of my time. I was not a neglectful father. Of this I’m sure, but we can always give them more time cant we? More tea parties with the girls, more rough housing with the boys (okay the girls too), more talks about nothing at all, more sports, more hiking, more movies to see, more everything. Whether it would make a big difference to them (it would) or not it would surely make for more and richer memories for me as it is the ones I have of them that are the most precious ones I have of my life. I’m sure they say the same. Right? Right?
  2. Never ever raise my voice. There is a large gap in ages between my three older children and my two younger ones. I became a father very young and I was a very different parent between the younger and older ones. More patient as I got older. But throughout I felt compelled at times to yell at them for something they may have done or neglected to do. I’m not talking raging or belittling, but simply raising my voice. Whether justified or not, I was usually filled with regret afterwards and pride stopped me from apologizing most of the time. I marvel at the patience level my sons and daughter have with their own children. It’s truly a sight to watch and learn from, albeit this late for me. Of course I have not found any reason whatsoever for which to yell at my grandsons. They are clearly less annoying than their parents.
  3. Let them know how proud I am of them. I did and continue to do this, but I could do it much more often. My mother ensures I know how proud she is of me every time I talk to her. She’s absolutely effusive about it to the point of annoyance. Yeah, that’s why I don’t do it. I don’t want to annoy them. You’re welcome kids!
  4. Explain to my daughters the truly disgusting nature of teenage boys. I mean seriously, they are disgusting. I know. I was one. Yet despite this, they both managed to navigate those years successfully. One is happily married to a doting and loving husband, thus far (he’s still under the spotlight and probably will be for life). The other has managed to dodge getting her heart broken and doesn’t allow herself to be taken advantage of. I take no credit for either of their choices. Must be their mother’s upbringing. Then again she chose me so what does she know?
  5. Buy my son the piece of crap overpriced car he seemed to have fallen in love with when he was a teenager. I saw exactly that. A piece of crap, overpriced money pit that would probably break down on a weekly basis. What I failed to see was the car through his eyes and he probably saw only potential. Believe me, the car had none. But most importantly, he would have had a better story to tell than his Dad refusing to buy the first car he fell in love with. Sometimes the smarter decision is not necessarily the better one. He should still thank me for the heartbreak I helped him avoid by not buying it the ungrateful cuss.
  6. Force them to learn Spanish. I say Spanish because it’s the other language I speak/read/write fluently, but any second language would do. My father, although also fluent in Spanish (for a gringo) refused to speak to us in any language other than English. He was militant about it. Why? We were living on a Spanish speaking island and he did not want us to forget English. Result? We didn’t. I should have been more militant about it. They resisted and I caved. Soooo my solution was to take them to that Spanish speaking island so they’d be forced to learn by immersion. I should have taken them to Mexico instead. Everyone in Puerto Rico speaks English, poorly or not, they do speak it.  Fail!
  7. Teach them to dance. My mother taught me to dance very young as she is a dancer at heart. At the time I hated those lessons but I was very appreciative of them when I was in my teens. I was a dancing fool in my teens and where I was raised that’s how you got the girls. My youngest is a natural dancer who’s pretty much self taught. To be honest I’m not sure if my other four can dance a lick. I made up for this by teaching them all martial arts. Only one of them has not made it to black belt. I’m not giving up on her.  Perhaps when I start training her children she’ll start again.
  8. Take them out to sea. I spent ten years of my Naval career on ships and I’ve seen some of the most majestic sights out at sea, night and day. Only one of my children has gone out to sea with me. He actually got to shoot the 5”54 caliber gun mount on my last ship (thanks Captain Frank Demasi!). They were memorable trips and I treasure the memories. My oldest served in the Navy so he’s been out there. My three younger ones have been aboard my ships but only while tied to the pier on my duty nights. Perhaps I’ll purchase a family cruise one of these days. My wife having been out to sea with me once will probably skip that cruise.
  9. Build a treehouse fort. I didn’t have one growing up so I’m not sure how much they missed out on this one but I always wanted to do this. Probably a good thing I didn’t as I’m not much of a builder and I probably spared them some broken bones. In fact they should all thank me for this one too!
  10. Create a college fund. This one is not necessarily so they could all go to college but so they would have the option. My wife and I sacrificed much financially so she could stay home, raise and educate our children. Not much was left over. They never lacked for anything but we did not put anything away for them. I would have liked to have given them the option of going to college or taking the money and bumming around the world for a few years. Wait! Bum around the world for a few years? Why should they get to do that??? Never mind. I’m glad I bought that Corvette and that motorcycle. Okay, I didn’t get those either but I sure did think about it.

I’m not done parenting my adult children so I have some time to make up for these lapses in my parenting record. I just want them to understand how precious and special they are and that because they are, I have managed to do something precious and special in my life. At least five times. Happy Fathers day to me!

Parental Butterfly Effect

     While attending a weapons seminar over the weekend in Phoenix, I witnessed an exchange between a mother and a young boy of about 8-10 that disturbed me very deeply. It being Saturday night, I was sitting outside a restaurant waiting to be called to a table (there was a 20 minute wait). As I stood by the entrance, a short distance away from the small groups of patrons who were sitting outside on benches smoking (in Arizona, restaurants are smoke free zones) I watched the young boy who was a few paces ahead of his parents and siblings walking up one of the sidewalks leading to the restaurant.

     Suddenly, his mother screeched for him to stop and come back. Her intention was to stop him from walking along the path of people smoking. At first glance, her actions would seem to be commendable; a mother protecting her child from the evils of second hand smoke. Although there was just a handful of smokers out in open air sitting on benches that were separated by this approximately 8’ sidewalk, it can be argued that in the 2-3 seconds it would have taken for this child to traverse this evil gauntlet to the front door, he may have breathed in some minute particles of cigarette smoke. I’m not trivializing the damage this could presumably have done to this young child’s seemingly healthy lungs. For all I know, he may have a medical condition that would have been greatly affected by this brief exposure. This is all beside my point.

     It was the WAY the mother yelled at her child and how she continued to berate him even AFTER he was out of the “danger zone”. In an angry contemptuous tone, loud enough for everyone to hear she called him an idiot 5 times. The boy, in the face of this assault assumed the behavior and posture I’ve seen too many times to count; the perennial submissive abuse victim’s posture. My heart went out to this poor child and I took a glimpse into his future development, through adolescence and adulthood. It looks pretty grim.

     I like to avoid snap judgments and this brief exchange was obviously not enough for me to judge this young mother or the totality of her relationship with her children. However, the ease with which she completely stripped her child of self-dignity and worth in that brief public moment spoke volumes to me. I’ve a pretty good feel for these things. I’ve been teaching martial arts to children for more than twenty years. I’ve seen the product of this soul destruction. I’ve also seen self-esteem get rebuilt and blossom into a confident young adult. It’s not an easy path and often the wounds never heal.

     The irony here is that when this child as an adolescent, or an adult, begins to make the wrong choices in his life, his mother will probably find other forces to blame. Society at large, the school system, MTV, CRap music (yes I added the C), drugs, poverty, peer pressure etc. Everything, but her own failures as a parent during the years when she could have made a difference.

     People often scratch their heads in wonder at how others take the downward spiral into the abyss of negative behavior. From passing on this abusive behavior (often physical), to tolerating an abusive lover/spouse/friend, to sinking into the pit of drugs and alcohol or to the extreme of taking an automatic weapon to school or work and indiscriminately killing innocent people. 

I’m no one to judge other parents and I don’t offer unsolicited child rearing advice (or relationship advice for that matter). For one thing, I’m not qualified. I believe there is only one true judge and we’ll all meet Him soon enough. 

     My own parents were far from the ideal. I could tell some stories that would stand your hair on end. I will however say this for my mother. She was, and is, my greatest fan. In her mind, my siblings and I were the smartest, handsomest, funniest, most talented beings to grace the planet. Amazingly, we never had to DO anything to deserve these accolades.  I never heard her utter a negative or denigrating name to us. Don’t get me wrong, as a Latin Roman Catholic woman, she had honed guilt to fine edged sword and she could rant and curse with the best of them. But in her reprimands, it was always about the behavior and not the person. What we DID may have been idiotic, but we ourselves were not idiots. You get the point. When she addressed our character and physical being her reviews were glowing with compliments and pride. They still are. We remain her life’s greatest achievement. I have retained this particular parenting skill and I use it on my own children. It is the most powerful tool in my toolbox. It helps that I actually believe it and mean every word of it. I cannot overstate the impact of this type of positive reinforcement.

     I firmly believe that a person’s self-esteem is a reflection of their parent’s assessment during their developing years. I’m not talking about having unrealistic expectations and putting pressure on performance. I’m talking about self-worth. We as parents are the custodians of this trait. They are dependent on us for this as they are for food, clothing and shelter. We can give it to them either positive, negative, or not at all and they in turn will meet our expectations no matter how low we set the bar.

For those who believe they can balance out the negative attacks with positive comments I offer that the things your children will remember vividly are the negative. They will outweigh all other things. The positive will have an effectively subtle, often unconscious effect, but the negative will have a devastating, vivid long lasting one. Try it sometime. Think how long you carried an aspersion cast against you by someone as opposed to the myriad of compliments you’ve received. See what I mean? When you add the significant need for approval of a parent to a young child the effect is magnified even more.

     It is amazingly simple to not engage in destroying your child’s self-image. It’s not even highly advanced child psychology. You don’t have to read Dr. Spock, Dr. Phil or any other Dr to learn this. It’s a matter of tapping into that moment you first laid eyes on them when you held them in your arms shortly after they came into the world. Remember? They were perfectly formed angelic creatures who were screaming their newborn heads off. It would have never occurred to you at that moment to shout, “Stop being a wimp and shut up!” Nope. Your pure instinct at that moment was to hold them close, fiercely protective and glowing with pride. Your child will provide you with myriads of opportunities to give them this positive reinforcement. If you don’t see them doing it, then create them yourself. The benefits are like compound interest for the soul.