Perhaps this sounds familiar: You’re a Dad with a son who has everything he needs and most of what he wants and you’re a bit helpless as the Christmas frenzy escalates. As the father of three boys, I know exactly how you feel.
That’s why one December when reaching this frustration point I decided it was time for a major-league change. Forget the gifts that bring a sugar-high joy but are discarded in a month. I was going to give them items that had staying power.
What I didn’t know is that these thoughtful, inexpensive gifts would endure for years, right up to today.
Here they are:
The Year in Review
Every kid produces a record. And by that I mean: schoolwork, art drawings (yes, when they were four-years-old), photos from the last soccer season and winter swim meets and the family vacation; a program from the college football game that he insists on keeping; the Earth Day report with glued leaves and twigs; test papers and report cards and the certificate from the Science Fair and the community newspaper article with his name in it. I could go on but I imagine you get it. Like many parents, I’ve held onto it all.
The day after Thanksgiving, I rummaged around throughout the house, basement, and attic, gathering up all this kid flotsam and then carefully sorted it, making a stack for each kid. Photos and other docs that were on my computer – I printed them all out.
Then, I painstakingly placed the items in plastic sheet protectors to each added a whimsical note. All was inserted in a three-ring binder for each kid, on which the front was written, “The Year in Review.” Yeah, a scrapbook, with the items chosen for maximum joy and inspiration and laughs.
The binders were the hit of our Christmas. This wasn’t a material thing – it was an entire year of page-by-page good memories and surprisingly, they were pored over throughout the year by the boys.
In fact, “The Year in Review” has been going now been going for 16 years. It’s easy and rewarding to put together – I make a point throughout the year of keeping every document and photo related to each son.
Indeed, the “Year” provided all three sons with a priceless glimpse of their achievements and happy times.
As they got older, one year set the bar for the next, and they kept raising the bar. The accomplishments became more important, the events are more momentous, the memories stronger, the stakes higher. The Year was a constant and colorful reminder of what they had achieved.
When the eldest kid, out of college, was at home packing his gear for a Naval deployment in the Far East, I offhandedly asked him what he was taking, “Volume two.” he said simply. “If I get homesick, I can pull it out.”
The Saturday Bleacher Report
Most Dads know it takes effort to spend unrushed and undistracted time with your son. You’re grinding at work all week, your kid is at school, there are after-school activities, he’s got homework, it’s now 8 p.m. and you’re already thinking about tomorrow. It’s the iron grip of the Schedule.
After yet another year of this perpetual motion machine, I decided I needed to get a grip on this madness and take control. I sat them all down one weekend morning in December and said, “Guys, we’ve been all over the map this year and it’s no good. Next year is going to be different and you’ll see what I mean on Christmas Day.” From the web, I downloaded three copies of a blank office calendar for the next year and performed some primitive artwork on each with colored pencils.
On Christmas Day, I distributed a calendar to each kid. “Ok, you’re wondering, what’s the deal here? We’re going into a hard routine, gents. You will notice that each Saturday as marked on your calendar, one of you lucky guys – just one – leaves with me at 9 and will be home by noon. If you have a game, it’s gonna be Sunday. There’s only one requirement for each Saturday: Be prepared to run and to talk.” Over time, this became known as the Saturday Morning Bleacher Report. I and the designated son would grab some breakfast at a local diner and then go to the fields at the local high school, which on any given Saturday morning is one of the most peaceful places on the planet. We’d throw around a football or lacrosse ball or a baseball for an hour and afterward, sprawl across several rows of bleacher benches and just talk. It was simple – I’d think up some topics to draw him out and then we’d slide into the rundown: How’d the week go? Name one big success, one big fail; ok, here’s what happened during my week.
What’s coming up that makes you nervous, confident? There were zero distractions; the phones were left in the car, there were no brothers to interrupt – just the fields stretching before us as we graduated from everyday stuff to serious stuff.
This routine never varied. As the years went on, the conversations became more important inasmuch as the boys were wrestling with academics and sports and friends and the college matters.
The Bleacher Report never ended. My youngest kid was home from college over this past Thanksgiving and I’ll let you guess where Saturday found us.
Ask yourself how much it drives you nuts to see your kid gazing at his phone like a zombie or manipulating a video console like a jacked-up rat. Here’s how you can change that and it comes from a very wise Mom I know (my solution to this was different and her way was better.)
In our electronics-saturated culture, it’s easy to see that kids are increasingly distracted and even addicted to screens. It’s too late to make any kid go cold turkey on a phone. But there is a way to seize control, and like some aspects of parenting, it comes down to negotiation. This is why a Mom came up with The Contract.
It’s simple: You sit your kid down with a piece of paper and you talk terms: The kid is allowed so many hours of screen time per week – phone, computer, video games – and if he honors the commitment, he gets something he wants. With a young kid, it can be new sports equipment or a sleepover with his pals. With an older kid, it’s the car for a night or cash for a dinner out. Negotiate tight and then tighten them over time. Then you and Junior sign the contract.
If the contract is not honored, it’s a reduction or outright abolition of screen time for a period of time, and/or no car, imposed curfews, restrictions.
Of course, you’re counting on trust. In fact, you’re engendering trust, which is already a victory. A firm contract will seize the kid’s imagination, develop personal responsibility and accountability and delay gratification. I will tell you as a Dad who waged war against screens and mostly won, kids who forego screen time turn out to be better kids – more alert, more sociable, and more independent.
The Year in Review, the routine one-on-one time, the cutback in screen time – they are huge aspects of parenting and they helped me propel my kids to the U.S. Naval Academy, Williams College and West Point. I guarantee these three inexpensive but thoughtful gifts will change how you interact with your son.
Indeed, Christmas presents with a shelf life of not month, but years.
Have you read the original anthology that was the catalyst for The Good Men Project? Buy here: The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood
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