Father’s Day Stays

Fatherhood.  What do I know about it?  I’m a mother.  And just because I’m a single mother, doesn’t mean that I know anything about being a father, or that I DOnick-wilkes-490 the role of a father.  I do the role of a single mother.  That’s what I am.  And I’m so proud of it, that I don’t need to claim recognition on someone else’s day.

I was really shocked this week when I heard about this publicity stunt – err,  excuse me – proposal by a child services educator to rename Father’s Day as Special Person’s Day.  Is nothing sacred anymore?  Is the Queen’s birthday up for grabs next?  We might offend the Australian Republicans, you know.  Brazenly celebrating the monarchs and all.

The professor behind the noise is a Dr. Red Ruby Scarlet (because THAT is a serious name of someone worth listening to) claims that the movement towards changing the day is one about inclusivity.  And before I totally dismiss that there could be any logic behind her proposal (which I’m unashamedly about to do), I would like to acknowledge that Father’s Day is not an easy day for everyone.

There are families who have never had a dad in the picture.  There are families who have recently lost theirs.  There are people who only see their fathers in their nightmares.  And others who wonder if they’ll ever even know his name.

As sad as these situations might be, they are no less real for families who struggle through Mother’s Day, Christmases or birthdays.  None of us are untouched by grief.  We all have places in our hearts where loved lived and left, or where loved should have lived and never existed.  Nobody said life would be easy.  We already know we won’t get out alive.

We can’t take away the darkness.  But nor should we let it rob us of the brightness that deserves to be celebrated.

There are some incredible fathers amongst us.  In my opinion, unpopular as it probably is, they don’t receive anywhere near as much recognition as mothers do.  Maybe it is because childrearing has been a traditionally female role.  Or maybe it’s an echo from the feminist movement.  Every time I see a girl power sticker that says some version of “Women Can Do Anything”, I wonder to myself why we need to keep announcing it?  And I also wonder how people would react if the sticker said “Men are so Powerful”, or some other shameless version of the male might.

Personally, I find it embarrassing.  There’s plenty of room on the podium for both the guys and the gals.  Everyone gets a turn, so chill out Dr. Ruby Raving Mad Scarlett and go make yourself a cocktail.  Sounds like you need it.  Today we are cheering for Fathers, and that’s ok.

We are saluting the men that went out at 2:48am to get their pregnant wife tavern chips and gravy, because it was the only thing in the world that mattered to her at the time.  We high five the nappies you changed balancing on chipboard at Bunnings.  We thank you for the safe arms you wrapped around our toddlers when they learnt to walk.  Thank you also for the awful meals you tenderly made- which everybody hated, because it didn’t taste like mum’s.

We appreciate how hard you’ve worked through the years, even when it kept you away from the bedtime stories you would have rather told.  Thank you for the bugs you’ve killed and for the mouldy mysteries you’ve fished out from under the car seats.  We salute the single dads buying tampons for their teenage daughters.  We are grateful for the men who sacrifice precious time with their families in order to serve their country abroad.

There is really so much beauty in Fatherhood.  Oh, and noise and vomit and exhaustion too.  Fathers deserve to be celebrated every day.  As do mothers.  That, in my opinion, is true inclusivity.  When I sent my ex-husband a text today saying ‘thank you for being an amazing dad to our boys’, I didn’t feel like it detracted anything from me as their mother.  Yes, we kill bugs and work long hours too.  Nobody said we didn’t.

Iron Sulk

usa_avengers_chi_ironman_n_cf2a66b6What do you do with a sulky child?  My ten year old has a tendency to be more negative than the others and I have to admit my patience gets really low when I hear him complain about things for no good reason.  Why are we having left overs again?  Why can’t we play outside for longer?  Why did he get more Milo than me?

My usual tactic has been to start listing off all the things he has to be grateful for, and I’ll usually throw in some dramatic examples of my own childhood as a refugee immigrant for additional dramatics.  Somehow, this never tends to elicit the spontaneous gratitude that I keep hoping for.

The other day it occurred to me that the problem with sulking is not necessarily an issue of gratitude.  It’s perhaps more of an issue of managing emotions; as intertwined as the two may be.  We may FEEL upset, angry, jealous or disappointed… but the key point is that we don’t have to ACT upset, angry, jealous or disappointed.   After all, I don’t want to necessarily teach my sons to suppress their emotions.  Only to handle them better.

Naturally, I turned to the Avengers franchise for some assistance.  We were driving to school and I asked the kids to imagine what it would be like to own an Iron Man power suit.  What could it do?   What powers would the suit give them?  How strong would we feel?  After a long list of ‘cool stuff’, I casually mentioned what a shame it would be, to have an Iron Man power suit hanging in your closet, if you only ever chose to wear pyjamas.

Duh.  Now wouldn’t that be dumb, we all agreed.  Then of course, I made my point.  Feelings are spontaneous.  They often just happen, they hit us from out of the blue.  Sometimes like bullets.  If you’re just wearing your pyjamas, you’re going to get injured.  But if you put on your suit, if you switch on your brain, you can filter how the world comes at you.

Being ACTIVE in the processing of your emotions is an acquired skill, and one that as Latin American, I may always wrestle with!  But it is something to aspire towards and something I’d like to encourage my children to practise.  We pulled up outside the school and I turned to Max:  The world isn’t happening to YOU, kid.  YOU go and make things happen in the world.

He swaggered out and waved goodbye at me with a smirk, “Thanks for the TED talk, mum”.  Anytime.  Now, cheer the heck up.

Broken Glass

Screen Shot 2017-08-09 at 2.02.44 amI WAS going to write about something really sweet and positive this week, but something more important has come up.  And it is, perhaps, one of the things I most dislike.

I had just walked in the door from a long day of work. It was late, kids were hungry and restless. I kicked off my heels, changed into Ugh boots and announced that we would head to the tavern for dinner. My plan for a quick exit to place with Sauvignon Blanc was foiled by a fight that erupted between sons #2 and #4.

It’s not worth making a ‘long story short’, because the story IS short. Ridiculously short. The older boy pinched a dollar from the little one, and decided to run around in circles, laughing maniacally at the frenzied state of his little brother as he chased him, trying to recover his pocket money. It’s not a complex plot. But it was enough to send my blood boiling, because of the nature of the offence: bullying.

I dealt with the matter quickly (and loudly) and then drove us down to the tavern. But I wasn’t done. As I pulled into the carpark I locked the doors and turned to my sons, announcing that they would not be unleashed onto tavern parmies until they had heard a story about something I witnessed when on a trip to China many years ago.

I had been walking along when I noticed a homeless child on the street, playing with what may have been his prized possessions: a pair of discarded medicine bottles which he was using as pretend superheroes. I watched him for a moment, when I suddenly witnessed two businessmen approach him, and saw one of the men kick the bottles from the little boy’s hands for amusement. It makes me sick even remembering. The little boy scrambled to collect his broken bottles as the men strolled off laughing.

The story brought silence to the car, and tears to a couple of their eyes. I voiced the obvious- these men were bullies. Horrible bullies. And yet, how can we look at their actions with disgust, if we treat each other in the same way?

Bullies come in many shapes and sizes, I told the boys. And each are as disgusting as each other. A bully can be the kid in the playground hating on your yellow shirt. Or the smug corporate mid-60s in a board-room, looking right past your 20 years of experience, at your cleavage. It could be the person who talks down to the Indian telemarketer because he/she somehow feels superior, instead of having some perspective around privilege. It could be anyone. From a family member who hides insults in their jokes, to an ethnocentric politician drunk on misappropriated power. ANYONE.

I eyeballed to the boys and I summed it up like this: a bully is anyone who tries to pull you down. They are the people who would choose to sit at a broken table pilled with criticism, instead of dining at a banquet of potential. They are the voices who would want you to question who you are; who would steal your joy or kick your little glass bottles.

The car was silent. One of the kids piped up and asked if I had confronted the men I had seen mistreat the young boy in China. Of course I had. And despite the language barrier, I am fairly certain the two men had no doubts about my disgust. Not that it would have made a difference to their future behaviour. But it hopefully made a difference to that young boy, to know that someone stood up for him.

I unlocked the car door with this final warning: so let it be known, each time you bully each other, you are no different to those men on the street…. So don’t look so shocked when I don’t let you get away with it either.

Invisible Hormones

Screen Shot 2017-08-01 at 10.18.15 pmI always like discovering new words, and this week I found one which has helped me understand my sons a whole lot better. It’s called Adrenarche. It’s rather appropriate that it kind of sounds a bit like ‘anarchy’, because that’s what led me to go looking for it.

The benefit of having four sons (and God help us, there HAVE to be some), is that you have the opportunity to notice patterns. Recently, Cruz- my third child to turn 10- has been acting up a lot. He normally has such a lovely nature, but lately he’s been excessively reactive, emotional and just all round volatile.

The other day he ran into the house really upset over a soccer goal that was scored against him, and as I watched the other boys rush in behind him, complaining that he had ‘lost the plot’, I thought to myself: this scene looks familiar. Both his older brothers had a really nasty patch that came out of nowhere around the same age. Could there be something more to this?

So I took to Google and came across Adrenarche, which is a sort of silent pre-puberty that hits children around the age of ten. In preparation for the body changes that lie ahead, the adrenal glads (over the kidneys) suddenly come alive and begin to secrete a cocktail of androgens, which apparently affect young boys a lot harder than they do girls.

It’s interesting because we girls go through such visible changes in puberty that ‘oh it’s just hormones’ becomes a very plausible way to dismiss tricky behaviour. Boys dealing with Adrenarche however, may not generally have access to the same level of awareness. It must be a confusing and challenging time for them.

Long story short, I gathered Cruz and his older brothers and explained my findings, using (as I always do) analogies to help simplify the matter. “It’s like your brother has suddenly found himself behind the wheel of a much bigger and more powerful car than the one he’s been used to driving. We can’t get angry at him for not knowing instantly how to control it. We have to help guide him.” I reminded the older boys that they had gone through this transition too, and they had been right trolls to deal with- so they owed me some help.

Imparted with their new status of ‘driving instructors’, it has made for more peaceful and compassionate dynamics. And not to mention, Cruz feels a lot more empowered to handle this little bump in the road.

Thank you, Google. You have all the answers.

(Photo by Nick Schumacher)

Starting Fresh at the Finish Line

FullSizeRender 4Well, I finally did it.  When I first decided to start writing this blog, I set myself a goal to write an article every week, for one entire year.  It’s not always been easy, or convenient.  I’ve often struggled for ideas, energy and time.  But here it is- one year of articles.  Done.

The reason I wanted to pen one year of stories from our lives was simple: to create a kind of journal for my sons.  Life has a way of scrolling by so quickly.  There are details and opportunities that I miss every day.  Writing about our life has in many ways forced me to slow down and become more observant.

A lot can happen in one year.  There have been happy days and holidays, sick days and messy days.  There were birthdays and celebrations.  There were good news, sad news.  There were days that dragged and days I feel that I entirely missed.  I got promoted, I got made redundant, I started my own business.

I made new friends, said goodbye to others.  Started relationships.  Ended them.  I’ve cried.  I’ve made people cry.  I’ve had moments of quiet pride; and quiet moments of terrible shame.  I’ve questioned myself as a parent and as a woman.  I’ve felt like I understood nothing.  And then in fleeting little moments, I felt like I understood everything.

We’ve laughed a lot.  We’ve played games, cooked together.  Tried new parks and gone back to old ones.  We read books, found new music.  We’ve tried things for the first time.  We’ve tried things for what I hope will be the last.

There have been cuddles.  There have been fights.  There were tears and apologies.  There have been words I wish I could take back.  There have been stupid things I swore I’d never do again; and then I did.

And there have been days that I wish I could have stayed in forever.

But it is all happening so quickly.  That’s why I decided to write one year of it down.  To mark the moments and search for some permanence in the details.  Because if I don’t stop and think about every week, they just slip through my fingers like rain.

I was pregnant, and I couldn’t wait for them to be born.  They were born and I couldn’t wait for them to start sleeping.  They started sleeping and I couldn’t wait for them to walk.  Then to start school… now suddenly I blink, and I have a son in high school!  Everything in me is begging for the rush to stop.

Please just slow down, let me cup my hands and catch it.  Because once we pass this moment, we won’t ever have it again.  The world is so concerned with destinations; a flustered race towards some event.  Waiting for something to happen.

What writing this blog has taught me is that the ‘something’ is now.  If we just paused and opened our eyes, there are moments to write about within each day.  Destinations happen all the time.  Not just when the kids grow a bit more, or when I get more balance with work, or when we get through the school term.

I want to wake up inside of every moment and remember that I’m already there.  The curtains are up and my life is happening now.

The encouragement and feedback of so many of you has been worth the world to me.  Plenty of times I wondered if there was any reason to keep writing, and your kind words kept me going.  Now, at the completion of ‘one year in our lives’, I am grateful for the humbling experience of being able to share so intimately from my life and family.

What next?  The start of something new.  I feel like I’ve said enough and I would like to start sharing content from other writers, god help us, maybe even professionals who actually know what they are talking about!  I’m sure there will be moments that I will want to share; but overall, I am taking a step sideways and inviting other voices to the microphone.

I started this blog on Valentine’s, and it seems appropriate that I finish on the same day.  Despite all the topics we’ve covered, and all the things that have happened and changed, there is one thing that remains untouched.  Unaffected, for even one moment.  My love for those boys.  My commitment to make their lives better.  The hope I carry that they grow into good men.

As I take a step back from writing weekly, I can genuinely say that I am proud of all the words that captured our year.  Because it showed me that even though so much happens in twelve months, so much more can happen in one moment if we just learn to look for the stories.

That is what I have learnt in one year of writing.  So much is always happening.  What a shame it would be to miss it all, because I’m always looking to the horizon, wondering about what is going to happen next.

Next is now.  Thank you all for reading.

Win or Lose, you learn.

Screen Shot 2017-02-06 at 12.22.21 AMIt’s been a big week for sports.  Federer defeated Nadal in what proved to be an epic final of the Australian open.  Greene got 10 rounds of controversial revenge on Mundine.  And a very aggressive season of my Kitchen Rules got off to a punchy start.

Adding to the excitement, my boys played several matches of futsal, one of them started tennis and my grade oner had a brawl with a bully in the school yard.  Like I said, It’s been a big week for sports.

And as always, the results are a mixed bag.  There are always wins, there are always losses.  There are times of beauty and grace, and others of shameful disgrace.  Whether it’s on a world stage, or in the back yard, there are moments that make you shriek with excitement and moments where even your breath feels too loud.

This is why we love sports.  Every match, round or game is a little pantomime of life.  It’s seldom an even playing field.  Everything is a mysterious combination of skill, effort, courage and chance.  And at the end of the day, the score card isn’t always fair.

But there are always lessons to learn…

Winning.

I remember jumping back into the car after one particularly gruelling soccer game, having a revolting sock shoved into my face by one of my sons, and hearing him say, “Take a deep breath, mum.  It’s the smell of victory”.

Winning is fun.  We try and tell the kids that it’s not about winning, but let’s be real for a sec.  It’s sport.  So it kind of is.  I hear a lot of parents say that “it’s just about having fun”- and that’s great.  But have you ever had a season where you spend week after week getting defeated?  It’s not that much fun.

So here goes… in my opinion, of the three top things that kids can learn from winning, the first one is:

  • It’s ok to want to win.  Desire, focus, motivation… none of these are evil, but our culture has an insidious way of pairing these emotions with their sinister counterparts like greed or arrogance.  Let’s never ask our children to apologise for having the audacity to see themselves as little champions.
  • Winning takes effort.  It’s true that every game has an element of chance.  There are lucky shots and fortunate coincidences; but they are usually only moments, and very rarely responsible for the entire sum of the final score.  It’s important for our kids to re-inforce the correlation between effort and reward.  One day, it might mean a promotion, or a marriage saved.
  • No victory is permanent.  I am fortunate enough to coach one of my son’s futsal teams.  The kids are young and some are new to the sport.  We win a few, and we lose a few.  The important thing to remember when we win, is that there are no guarantees for next time.  We respect each brand new opportunity to prove ourselves and we guide the kids in being gracious in both victory and defeat.

Loosing.

Loosing isn’t QUITE as much fun as winning, but knowing how to do it well is an important part of life.     Here’s why…

  • You have a chance at some objective self appraisal.  With each loss, we are able to reflect on our limits and make an assessment about the things that we could have done differently.  I find that so long as we are kind, it’s important to be honest with our kids.  Don’t tell little Johnny that he played magnificently, if he spent most of the game picking his nose in the shade.  Highlight the good things, and ask your child to make his own observations for areas he would like to improve.
  • You gain empathy.  It stings, it always stings.  Knowing what it feels like to lose,  allows us the perspective and compassion to handle our victories with more grace.
  • No defeat is permanent.  Kids amaze me with their ability to bounce back.  The paralysing grief that follows a devastaing loss can usually be dissipated with vanilla milkshakes.  By next week, nobody really remembers the score and even if they did, it is no longer relevant.  In sport, like in life, the only thing that matters is:  what will you do next?

At the end of the day, that’s all the matters.   The spirit with which you recover from a loss and the grace with which you handle your victories.  There’s a lot to learn from both winning and losing; the important thing is to stay out there, and keep playing… both in life and in sports.

As I said to the boys recently- play life a little bit more like it’s a game.  And play your next game a little bit more like it’s your life.

Making Manners

Screen Shot 2017-01-29 at 11.08.50 PMIt’s an old English saying that the boy’s father often says to them: “manners maketh the man”.  And although it sounds funny, the older I get, the more it rings true.  You can truly tell a lot about someone’s upbringing, values and social awareness by the manners with which they handle themselves.  It’s not about being a snob; it’s about making the decision to be considerate to people around us.

We never sheltered the kids to the world when they were little.  We travelled with them from when they were only a few weeks old, we continued to work, socialise and live our lives.  When people used to question me as to why I was so relaxed about the lack of routine, I used to tell them that I didn’t want to raise children who expected the world to adjust around them, but who understood that they would need to adjust to the world.

In my opinion, having manners is one small way that we show that adjustment.  In a world where everyone appears desperate to be different, the resistance against complying to convention often leads people to confuse the absence of traditional manners with individualism.  “I’ll burp loudly if I want to.  It’s who I am.  People can take it or leave it.”

In my opinion, if your display of ‘individuality’ involves a lack of consideration for others, you’ve actually become desperately unoriginal.  Ignorance is not scarce.  It seems to me that sadly, with each generation, it’s the kids with manners that are starting to stand out as unusual.  For that reason, and many others, I have always made it a priority to ensure the boys grow up into well mannered men.

Back in the days when I was a corporate trainer, I came across a term I’ve never forgotten and now use heavily in parenting: experiential learning.   Endorsed by personalities from Aristotle to Sir Richard Branson, experiential learning is simply the process of adopting new skills or principles through personal experience (and reflection), rather than through theory.

Run a search on google if you like, and you’ll come across a plethora of research that supports experience as being an accelerated way to learn, problem solve and retain a lesson.  If we look at the ‘learning curve’ – a term we all use frequently – what it basically tells us is that the absorption rate of something new decreases from 100% on the first day, to 50-80% by the second day, to approximately 2-3% after thirty days.

Well at least this helps explains why we find ourselves repeating things to our children a million times.  They’re not just trying to annoy us.  Turns out, this is a ‘thing’.  In the world of corporate training, this is why your weary HR department hires people in bright t-shirts to make you play trust games and other joyful activities with your reluctant colleagues.  You’re more likely to remember something you did, than something you heard, saw or read.

When it comes to trying to teach the kids something, I often ask myself the question, “can I turn this lesson into an experience?”  It doesn’t have to be anything dramatic, even little moments can have a lasting impact.

One such moment presented itself earlier this week, when the boys and I were walking down to our local sushi place for dinner.  I was trailing sightly behind, when we passed an older gentleman watering his roses.  The boys are normally fairly polite kids, comfortable with greeting adults when warranted.  But on this occasion they walked right past the older man, absorbed in their chatter, and ignored him.

I caught up to them quickly and without explaining why, instructed them to turn around and go back up the hill.  They were confused and reluctant, asking questions as to what madness I might be up to now.  We walked back to where the man was watering his garden and I explained to them that on their first pass they had failed to show the man the respect he deserved, and for that reason, they were going to do a take two.

The gentleman was watching us with curiosity now.  The boys were a little embarrassed, but I reassured them that we would loop back twenty times if required and repeat the greeting until it was sufficiently warm and polite.  With sushi on their mind, they went all out and showered the stunned gentleman with excessive hellos, good afternoons and nice roses!  He chuckled and thanked the boys warmly.  It was clear that he was a little chuffed. 

The second part to Experiential Learning is reflection.  As we sat down over our teriyaki chicken bowls we discussed the importance of being aware of people around them, and the value of not missing an opportunity to make someone’s day a little better.  Manners aren’t just something you bring out when you want something.  Saying please and thank you is something we could almost train our dog to do.

Manners are small gifts of character that we offer others in order to improve the quality of our interactions.  Whether it be opening a door, offering someone a drink, helping someone or giving a genuine compliment, it all goes to say the same thing: you are important.

And there isn’t one of us who doesn’t need to hear it.

To Compose a Life

cello-110981_1920Every now and again, something beautiful just catches your breath.

It’s Sunday evening; the kids and I were all on the lounge room floor labelling books for the start of the school year tomorrow.  In the background I was playing some of my classical favourites.  I love all types of music, and my long suffering neighbours can probably verify that the boys are exposed to everything from Broadway musicals to 90s grunge, to the great rock gods of the 70s and hipster acoustic remakes of everything in between.

But when I’m seeking to create peace for my spirit, I can never go past Bach.  So there we were, listening to Johann’s beautiful cello suite number 3 in D major, surely his best known Aria, when one of the boys actually turned to the speakers with undisguised awe.

“What is that music?”

The fact that the music had caught his breath, caught my breath.

I put the books aside, turned up the incredible piece and took a moment to tell the boys a little bit about the man behind the music.  Even though we now call his music classical, for the people of his time, Bach was radically controversial.  He took the piano to technical levels that others were afraid to follow.  He pushed his compositions further than anyone, always searching and finding beautiful new places to take his art.  His organ pieces were so daring, they were seen as dissentious by church members.

Bach was often criticised, dropped by patrons and questioned by the public… but he was uncompromising.  He backed and believed in himself despite it almost costing him his reputation.  Today, of course, he is hailed as one of the greatest musical geniuses of our time; the ‘father of harmony’, as Beethoven would put it.

We listened to a few other musical mavericks.  The great Czech composer, Dvorak, the devout patriot who infused his music with his Bohemian and folk heritage.  He brought gypsy and even African elements into his powerful orchestral pieces, unafraid to challenge contemporary expectations.  We listened to Gershwin, the great American composer, whose music became a quintessential part of New Yorks identity as it rose out of the Great Depression.  Criticised for daring to blend elements of jazz unashamedly into sacred classical melodies.

Both men were later hailed for their originality and brilliance.  The greats are remembered for their boldness; and the critics are always silenced by time.

As I tucked my eldest son into bed, we spoke briefly about the day that looms tomorrow- his first day of high school.  I asked him how he was feeling and he admitted to being nervous.  It’s a big school, he knows nobody.  Has he got the right shoes?  His pencil case is looking old.  He doesn’t like the way I’ve cut his hair.

To make things even harder, he is part of a small group of kids going into a program of Spanish immersion.  High school can be a tough gig, for these bunch of kids, it’s going to be even harder.

I put Bach’s Aria back on as he drifted off to sleep and I encouraged him to remember that being ‘different’ is not something to be afraid of.  In the years ahead, being comfortable in who he is, will become his biggest asset.  Kids around him will wrestle with their identities, trying to fit in, even when ‘fitting’ in sometimes goes against ‘who they are’.

Our lives are a composition of all the influences that are important to us.  In order to make choices around our values, we need to know what they are.  Just like the great composers, who stuck unashamedly to the music that they loved, we all have a choice to pick our tune and walk proudly to it.

There is nothing more appealing in a person, man or woman, than personal confidence.  I kissed my son goodnight and told him that I wasn’t going to give him any advice for high school, other than to remember who he is, and who he wants to become… and never ever compromise on anything that asks him to be any less.

Business Boys

c9fqyqiecds-mike-petrucciIt always astounds me that whilst our education system happily covers topics such as the use of synonyms and the patterns of continental climate… that it generally fails to deliver much substance across more hands on, real world subjects such as financial planning, relationships or personal development.  God forbid we teach our children something they might actually use.

I’m not having a go at teachers; goodness knows I admire them deeply.  I’ve been fortunate to know many that tackle their role with incredible pride and prowess.  But even the most proactive teachers are bound by the state curriculum; and it’s important as parents, not to abdicate entirely the role of ‘education’ to our education system.

I feel it unfortunate that the school system does not generally reward risk, or mistakes, or originality.  It does not overly welcome change or challenge.  Instead, it mostly applauds conformity and the regurgitation of pre-determined information.  You get ticks and stars for the ‘right’ answers.  That is perhaps why innovators, mavericks and entrepreneurs do not usually thrive within the school system.  Education prepares a young person for further education (tafe, university), but in my humble opinion (of which I’ve got plenty), it is not a great instructor for the world of business.

Learning to manage your finances can be a bit like learning to drive a car- you could learn all by yourself, but it’s so much better (and safer) to be taught by a person who already knows.  And you’re less likely to make a mess.  Unfortunately, the stats show that when it comes to our finances, most of us do make a mess.  The current national credit card debt of over 32 Billion sort of confirms that.

Putting aside my disillusionment with the state curriculum, I do believe it is important to begin bridging this knowledge gap and take a more deliberate attitude to preparing our young people to manage their future finances.  One practical way to do this, is to help your child set up a little business.

My sons came to me earlier this week with a proposal.  They had an idea for a business and were requiring my help to get it started.  The concept was pitched: a dog walking/washing/minding service for busy families in our area.  Whether their little business works or not, isn’t important.  What was important, was jumping on an opportunity to learn practical lessons that could really count later in life.

So I decided that if they wanted to do this, they were going to do it properly:

  1. We had to come up with a business name.  We bounced around a lot of ideas, testing them for marketability and searching for available domain names.  We settled on a name that was playful and easy to remember.  We registered the business name, website domain and email.

Ok, I know that this may seem excessive, but I want my children to know that ‘starting a business’ is not reserved for someone with special permission, or knowledge, or money, or tools.

The first step to building a business can be taken by anyone with an idea… and a little guts (and it’s not that hard).

2.  I then suggested that we develop a basic business plan.  We took some paper and wrote down a general action plan.  Which afternoons would they use?  How many dogs could they walk?  What would their rates be?  How would they distribute profits?  Which percentage of profits would they re-invest?  How would they grow the business?

3.  Marketing.  We jumped on the computer and designed a little flyer for distribution.  We looked on google maps and made a decision about the area that the boys could cover.  We also brainstormed about ways to source organic business, building incentives and freebies for anyone who refers a new customer.

4.  Admin.  We created and printed templates for keeping detailed customer records, payment records and a bookings calendar.  Since this was the least fun part of the exercise, I asked the boys to imagine how much harder it would be to run a business without keeping careful books… and the problems it could lead to down the line.  No thanks.

5. Goals.  Finally, we wrote down some basic short and long term goals.  I believe it’s important to teach children the art of simple, but specific goal setting.  Setting targets that were: quantifiable, measurable and dated.

Once again, with all of the above, the point wasn’t really about trying to set up a dog walking empire (insert poolside visions of my early retirement).    Whether this little venture does well, is almost irrelevant.  For me, the focus was on teaching principles; because principles, after all, are timeless and transferable.  I would rather lessons be practised and learnt within the confines of a little neighbourhood enterprise, than later on when their mortgage is on the line.

And so, the boys are soon set to open doors to their little gig… and I’m certain that the lessons to be drawn from this are still plenty ahead.  At the end of the day, however, the greater lesson that I hoped my sons would gain is:  don’t be afraid to have a go.  No matter who you are, what you have, what you think you’re missing, what anyone else is doing… take a chance.  And do it well.

Every success story starts with a dream.  Every dreamer was once a child.

Your Move

b4op5oz4x5q-lou-levitJanuary would not be January in Australia without tennis, soaring temperatures and random torrential rain.  It was on one such afternoon last week when we decided to christen the new wooden chess set the boys had received for Christmas.

As a bit of a chess enthusiast in my youth (yes, I was a nerd…ah, am a nerd) I fancied that I may well be able to impart onto my sons some mild interest on the strategic game.  To my surprise, the boys took to chess like naturals and it wasn’t long before a full tournament had been announced.  The next couple of days were spent listening to the rain, glaring at each other across the black and white battlefield with furrowed brows.

I brought my best game, and yet it didn’t take the young men very long to defeat me.  I experienced pride and a slight touch of humiliation.  Several victory dances were performed.   We all remained reasonably good sports.

Eventually, the rain dried up and the sun came back out.  We were on our way down to the park when we started recapping the epic two day tournament.  Suddenly, and entirely out of the blue, one of the boys commented that the best thing about chess, was that it was just like real life.

Curious about such a casually profound statement, I asked him if he could please explain to me what he meant.  Soon enough, all the boys were piping up with little theories of the ways that playing chess emulates every day life.  In their words, I would like to share what they came up with:

With each move you make, you have to be careful with what might happen next.  It’s true, everything we do in chess and in life, has a direct consequence.  My role as a parent is to help my sons understand that no action goes without repercussion, and it’s important to think ahead.  We can usually track our mistakes two or three decisions back.  The lessons that we don’t learn now, life will teach to us later.  Only usually, with less mercy.  

When you change positions, you gain some things… and you lose some others.  Life is full of trades.  We make career and relationship choices, financial trades, we surrender time, opportunities and lovers.   We call these decisions sacrifices, but they are really trades.  When we look back on our lives, all we can hope for is that we made those trades consciously and that each transaction was worth the price.

There’s always risk.  All you can do is make sure the risk is not too big.  Whether it’s in business or relationships, small decisions or big adventures, there is always an inbuilt risk within every decision.  As my sons grow, however, I often talk to them about embracing risk.  You’ll never see the view from the top, if your feet are always safely on the ground.  Success belongs to the greatest risk takers and bold decision makers.  The most dangerous risk, is not to risk anything at all.

Sometimes you have lose one good guy, to take down a better one.  It’s one of the hardest things to do, but sometimes you have to walk away from something good, because you know that you deserve something better.  It may be a job, or a partner, a friendship or even a lifestyle- it’s painful, but part of making mature decisions is the ability to surrender the pleasure of instant gratification for long term reward.

If you make enough bad moves, you’ll probably end up stuck.  It’s true that it’s ‘never too late to change’, however when we stack one bad decision on top of another, it does become increasingly hard to turn back.  We are all faced with the chance to make ‘comebacks’ in our lives: from neglected health, finances, relationships and from mistakes.  Recognising incorrect choices early is one way to ensure that we don’t go too far down the wrong path, that it becomes too far a distance to come back.

 

Aside from these great observations that my young children drew from playing chess, I gained one additional insight myself.  In the noise of life, caught up with everything that keeps me busy, ticking off all the boxes that I hope make me a good parent (like ‘would Jamie Oliver approve of the food in these lunch boxes?’)… I forget the value of offering my family some uninterrupted time.

It’s something that can’t be bought, but has more value than anything else I may be able to give them.  My time.  A simple game of chess, a little chat on the hammock, extra long cuddles at night.  Really really listening when they explain why Anakin Skywalker turned to the dark side.  Really engaging in the game of soccer like the entire Real Madrid team was counting on me.

Like most parents, I have little free time and even less of an idea what to do with it.  Sometimes I get discouraged that I can’t do more to inspire, impress and entertain them.  What I learnt from our chess tournament this week, is that it doesn’t take much.  A wooden board and some carved shapes provided two days of thrills and connection.  Not to mention a myriad of lessons.

We are always looking for the big extravagant move, but at the end of the day, even a pawn can kill a King.  There is power in simplicity.

The ancient art of raising boys, as mastered by none.