Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day and the Ghost of Crap Advice

Two things converged this weekend:  Memorial Day and streams of advice from questionable parents...

I know you want me to dish, but I'm going to make you wait... for a minute.

Memorial Day has always been the day when we break out the grill.  It's the first real day of summer.   It's that day we get off work so we can go fight the crowds at Coney Island or the street fair and we can drink way too much beer and get ourselves all worked in a dither about the best way to cook a four inch thick Rib Eye?

(Sear on both sides in a cast iron skillet the approximate temperature of the sun for about a minute on each side, then stick it in the oven until it's about a nice medium rare, then cover it in foil and let that sucker rest for a good ten minutes, maybe more.  This is the most important step.  While you wait, you can ponder the wisdom of buying those four inch thick rib eyes at Costco for $30 each when you had no clue how to cook them in the first place and thank whatever deity you worship for having me here to keep you from tossing them on a grill until they "looked ready" and end up with eating something akin to a size 13 work boot.)

There is something else about Memorial Day...

What was it?

Oh, right.  It's about honoring the dead.  Our dead.  The people who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces.

There are some who believe that it's an opportunity to honor all our passed relatives.  It's a lovely gesture.  We take one day to look back at those who came before, often doing things so well and effectively that we can’t help but choose to ignore their wisdom and completely screw things up because "we know better."

Memorial Day.

It is not a day to honor living service members.  That's what Veteran's Day is for.  I don't know when that also became part of Memorial Day.  I think sometime after 2002, as we increased the number of people honored on Memorial Day, honoring the living became a way to avoid confronting the truth about our increasing dead.  I completely understand that.

We honor the dead, those we know and those we don't, because it is the right thing to do, because we never want to forget sacrifices made and lives lost whether our cause be just or not.

I heard a saying the other day:
"Honor those who gave their lives by pestering your elected officials to ensure no more have to."
I like that.

Now, if you do want to thank a living service member, present and past, I'm sure that's fine.  (Some fine friends and fellow vets did that today and I thank you.  I feel honored.)  You can also thank them on Tuesday, and Wednesday, and Thursday, and especially on Voting Day.  Elect someone who might take that billion dollars for fighter plane we no longer use and gives our soldiers on the ground a raise.  No matter what your politics, I’m sure we can all agree that having service members on food stamps is unacceptable.  That may be the biggest thanks we can give them.

With all of these thoughts of Memorial Day swirling around in my head, my wife and I were flooded with really strange parenting advice.  It was strange because it came from other parents who seem to have done a really shitty job or just plain given up.

Just for fun, let's look at their advice and compare them to the things the United States Navy taught me.

(This is addressed to the givers of bad advice... Not you, gentle reader.  And this is not boy-centric.  "He" is also "she.")

YOU!  Yeah, YOU.  I saw you drop that box-  Nay, throw that box intentionally at a small tree on the sidewalk in front of your kids.  There is a trash can twenty feet away.  Pick it up.  Have pride in yourself and where you live.

Oh, you don't live here?  Then respect the people who do.

"Don't let him play with his tricycle.  He'll hate it.  My kid does."

This is not your child.  My kid loved it - the tricycle itself, just not so much the actual riding  of the tricycle.  Not quite old enough to master pedals that parents are unable to disengage...  (Not such smart engineering, there Go Green.)  He loved pushing it, steering it around, rolling it, talking to the handlebars like microphones.  Let your kid try - not the just way you think he's supposed to, but in the ways he thinks he's supposed to.  He might surprise you.

"You'll learn at some point, they’re just going to do what they want to do.  You just have to give up."

No.  Your oldest is always stoned, dropped out of school, hangs out in grandma's basement selling dope to other 17 year olds because you're of your inability to discipline.  Saying, “Hey, you know better,” and then throwing your hands up is not discipline.

If he's out of line, you send him to marching party, you send him to Captain's Mast and you drop his rank and paycheck.  There is no excuse.  You get your kid out of that basement, back in school or you come up with options that are acceptable to you.  He is the child, you are the parent.  Act like it.  The consequences for both of you are too dire.  The consequences for us as a nation are even worse.

"Your kid is smart.  He needs to be in school now, or he'll lose all of that."

He's 2.  He's smart because he is curious and this is the exact age for him to be exploring and learning from the world, not a book.  He doesn't need to be able to read Kierkegaard.  Basics.  Small steps.  Then expand!  (I promise the two of us will break out my dusty copy of Virgil and be translating the Latin soon enough.)

"He outside already.  It's too early.  My kid is still asleep.  He refused to go to bed last night.  I just let him sleep.  Kids need their sleep you know?"

It’s 11:00 A.M.  Your child may still be asleep because you keep him out while you partied.  He's running the hallway at midnight.  Yes, he does need sleep.  Maybe you could set up a routine.  Story, Bath, Brush, Kiss Daddy, Comfy Comfy (pj's), Sleepy Sleepy is a routine that works for us.  It's nightly.  We pay attention to the details of each element of the routine and therefore he pays attention to the details.  Does he stay awake sometimes?  Like now, as he's trying to climb into my lap to see what I'm typing?  Yes, he does.  (But it's only 7:30 P.M.)  Does the attention to detail pay off? Absolutely.  How do I know?  My kid was asleep at a decent hour and, to steal a line from the Army, did more by 10 A.M. than your kid did all day.

"He looks sunburnt!"  "Is he eating enough?" "Oh, he drinks milk?  Not chocolate milk?  You should give him chocolate milk...  or a juicy drink.  Or maybe a Gatorade. It'll keep him hydrated."

No.  Yes.  Are you high?
I interpret this one as simply knowing more than a toddler.  A toddler wouldn't think about sunscreen and a hat.  I do.  A toddler wouldn't pay attention to what or how much he ate.  I do.  A toddler wouldn't think twice about drinking liquid candy or some noxious neon colored sugar water.  I do.  I know better.  Because I'm squared away like that.

My advice to these nosey parents is this:  Teach your younger kids these things now or shove your 18 year old into a recruiter's office and sign him up.  I'm a big fan of the reserves or national guard if you can't make the commitment.  No, I'm not a war monger, nor am I an advocate for violence or armed conflict.  I am an advocate for the lessons the military can teach a young man or woman who has not been exposed to them by age 20.  I had excellent parents and most of these lessons I already knew, but in my need for college funds I joined the Navy Reserve and I found that I was lacking in the way I integrated those lessons into my life.  I think EVERY child, should be required to go through boot camp.  I think EVERY child should then give two years in service, be it in the military or peace corps or whatever.

Which brings me to my last lesson.

"You make Turtle clean up?"  "You make Turtle share?"

You're damn straight I do.  But most of the time, I don't have to.  Why?  My child sees us picking up random bits on the playground and keeping it clean for everyone, so he is in the habit of doing the same, doing his share.  This simple little lesson permeates everything he does:  he helps clean in his little group class; he shares; he helps around the house, trying his best to sort laundry - even the stuff that’s already been folded; he wants to be involved in the most mundane chores, often pulling his stool to the kitchen sink because dishes look like fun - and the sooner they’re finished, the sooner we all can enjoy story time.

He will become an adult who believes in the simple power of service.

That's advice everyone should take this Memorial Day.

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Christopher T. VanDijk is an actor, writer, and dad in the NYC enclave of Astoria.  He can be found in the local parks picking up random bits of debris, grumbling to himself about pride, respect, and service nearly every day.  The script for his film "Cowboys Versus Indians" is currently in pre-production and his latest play is nearly... nearly... nearly finished.  He is a proud member of Partial Comfort Productions and the NYC Dad's Group.

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