Dad Jeff Nelligan wanted tough and resilient sons. He shares the “dad sayings” he used to get them.
I see the four cornerstones of discipline as these: Personal Conduct, Securing a Worldview, Resilience, and Aspiration.
Sure, these words sound good – it’s the kind of helpful you’d get from an earnest and well-meaning child psychologist. But we’re not talking about the musings of a Ph.D. in Synergistic Jargon or notes from an office visit. We’re talking the real world – my world, your world, our world. Here’s how I got my sons to anchor themselves to my four cornerstones, and thus become consistent in attitude and behavior.
I’m a simple, dogmatic guy, which led to my strategy, beginning when the eldest was in 6th grade and which continues through today and tomorrow. I drew parables from daily modern life and pounded them home with exhortations. My book: My Three Sons: How A Bad Dad Raised Good Kids contains two dozen such gems, each fashioned for a particular moment to spur my kids to self-control and resistance to obstacles. And here are three:
“If you’re five minutes early, dammit, you’re late!”
I was lucky to attend Basic Training at at Fort Benning, Georgia, “The Home of the Infantry.” BT is a non-stop physical and mental trial, accentuated by the use of authority to enforce discipline. And to this day, my memory is of Drill Sergeant Harrison, tall, strong, big, and black – a real bad-ass and a man with enormous leadership presence.
A lot of the Army consists of just being places. Wherever we had to be anywhere as a platoon, Drill Sergeant Harrison demanded that we get there way ahead of time. When the last couple guys would come running up to our platoon’s formation, you’d hear it loud and clear – “If you’re five minutes EARLY, dammit, YOU’RE LATE!” I heard that, no exaggeration, hundreds of times. And there was retribution for anyone who was four minutes early, agony for those on time.
I believed it was imperative my boys lived Drill Sergeant Harrison’s motto and
hence, they heard that phrase incessantly. And all four of us would bellow it in the countless situations in which kids have To Be Somewhere.
Equally important, my three sons learned the corollary – that being late is rude. Not being punctual displays laziness and selfishness. Being tardy leads to excuses. Being late, in fact, becomes habitual.
Being EARLY develops responsibility, allows for last-minute disruptions, and makes an impression on whoever is in charge. Being early shows respect and pinpoints an individual who is organized, allows you to how situations are shaping up, and gives you a sense of calm before whatever you’re attending heats up. Being early flows over into every other aspect of your life. So does being late.
Over the years and to this day, there is hardly a week where the phrase isn’t uttered a dozen times. That’s because with Dads and kids, there is always somewhere to be. You are always arriving. The greatest joy was to hear an 8-year old yelling the signature phrase and kids and parents looking on in puzzlement.
There was another slogan Drill Sergeant Harrison used that became a family punchline. When the boys and I would see kids and parents running up late to some event, while we were already there and ready for anything, we’d say, and sometimes yell, “And when you’re LATE, dammit, you’re WRONG!”
It was the eminent psychologist Ron “Jaws ” Jaworski, B.A. Youngstown State, 1973, who defined the essence of a proper worldview: It was Jaws’ signature comment when talking about a pro quarterback leaving the pocket and instead of keeping his eyes downfield to find the open receiver, was looking down at his feet: “Facemask up!” he’d scream.
It’s a plain metaphor in a cluttered age and has a simple meaning: Be alert. Pay attention. Take in the entire field and world. See and value the landscape in front of you – absorb and appreciate. And for goodness sake, get your damn eyes away from the glowing rectangle and your fingers off the Xbox controls. I placed heavy-duty restrictions on screen time of all types. And yes, I did it because I’m the adult and they’re the kid. Any parent who doesn’t understand the role of saying “No” and “Put that thing down” is already lost.
In addition, the phrase means that as a parent, you begin and end every encounter with your boys with everyday questions and prods: How many employees behind the counter of Five Guys? What are the names of the checker and the box boy at the Safeway? Did you introduce yourself to five new people this week? What were their names? What are your three fave teachers and why? Question after question about surroundings and people, a stream of inquiries about everything.
When the boys were with Dad, they knew the game had begun. This was my singular method to make them think about the world, to encourage them to look genuinely at all elements of their daily lives, and not get trapped with impatient eyes yearning for the zombie land of glowing rectangles. A kid glued to a screen at 14 is going a master gamer at 30. Heaven help in any Dad who is fine with that. Facemask Up, indeed!
“But fellas, I have a golden arm.”
A chilly November day at Landon School field and the Nelligan Four are in contests: 100 consecutive throws of a lacrosse ball without a drop, the end-zone tackling game and kicking through the uprights, using my left shoe as a tee. Most fun of all was in throwing routes to the boys — I have a fair arm, as does probably any Dad who has boys.
The afternoon was winding down and I said, “Hey, two more completions and let’s go get some ice cream.” This was a regular part of ending the weekends. Then I unleashed a strike downfield.
As the one son maneuvered under the long throw, my eldest son came up to me visibly upset. “But Dad!” he shouted almost in desperation, “It’s cold outside and you’re losing your job!”
“But fellas, I have a golden arm,” I replied automatically as the other son hauled in the pass 25-yards downfield. Outwardly, I was reflexively upbeat. Inside, I was stricken. .
We all knew the score. I had just finished up work on the wrong side of an election, I had no job, and I was living for free in an apartment with a generous Army buddy.
“OK men, have a seat in my office,” I told them, pointing at the 50-yard line. They gazed up at me as I stood over them. “Look, I’m not going to give you a fairy tale. Yeah, I’ve lost my job but I’ll get another one. You know I’m gonna rally. I have you boys to keep me company and besides, you saw me throw today,” and as I stood over them, posing dramatically with the football, “Golden arm, fellas.” It was such a silly and offbeat thing to say that we all laughed out loud.
The key is, we’d confronted adversity and had not flinched. I’d shown them that what was important was confidence and resolve, not wallowing in self-pity or despair. Resilience in the face of adversity, not excuses or whining. This wasn’t the last time any of us faced failure; “Golden Arm” came up in the ensuing years. And it reminded all four of us that driving forward was the only way out.
“Now gents, we’re going to get the ice cream. I can afford it and when I can’t, trust me, you’ll damn well be the first to know. Now gimme that ball and one of you go long.”
All of the above is a lot to take in. In fact, I’ve written a book, referenced above, based on the methods I’ve used to raise three sons. The book is unpublished but thus far, the methods I enunciate, the Four Cornerstones and the consequent Sayings, have worked. And they can work for you, and your son.