The threats we don’t see coming

Fifteen years ago, I wrote a column for the Abilene Reporter-News – a newspaper for which I still worked remotely as online content editor even though my family and I had moved from Abilene, TX to Little Rock, AR. (My blogging buddy Deana Nall used to write a wonderful, somewhat-similar column for her hometown newspaper, The Baytown Sun.) I thought I’d re-post a few of my entries, as she has occasionally done with some of hers. My column was called “Parenting on Purpose.” This was the sixth installment.

(originally published September 20, 2002)

Most of us parents, I think, do our best to protect our kids from the threats we can see coming. We have them fingerprinted at a table set up by the police department or a parents’ group in front of Wal-Mart. We attach a school picture to it, maybe even a lock of hair for a DNA sample — if we’re willing to envision a worst-case scenario.

We restrict them to the part of the neighborhood visible from our doors … buy them helmets and shin-guards and elbow-pads … try to get them to eat nutritious meals … make sure they brush their teeth.

Maybe even install protective software on our home computers and program v-chips on our TV sets.

I’ve even seen little black boxes for sale that filter out a fair percentage of objectionable language from the television.

But recently I’ve become concerned about some threats I haven’t seen coming; threats broadcast to my kids’ minds and hearts, so subtle that no little black box can filter them out:

Greed. I know commercials are there to sell stuff. (I used to write them.) I’m glad that advertising gives us free television programming. I don’t think my kids need — or truly even want — most of what they think they want. So I’ve started countering with “Well, if you’re still talking about it by Christmas (or your birthday), I’ll know you really, really want it.” It scares me when I hear myself repeating my mom, but sometimes I can’t do better.

And I still see too many characters in kids’ TV programs who live for nothing but accumulation, for better or worse.

A preoccupation with things that are just plain gross. I’m not talking about Gak or Slime coating the willing participants of kids’ game shows. I mean the almost-constant references on the new cartoons to rotted food and excretions that only ear, nose and throat specialists should have to deal with. I guess it’s harmless now … but where will programming go when those references seem tame?

Gender prejudice, and a disturbing portrayal of virtually all adults as completely incompetent. Adult television, in many ways, has become so self-conscious about not offending minorities of any description that it suffers from “Stupid White Male Syndrome” — the only people portrayed as dumb are white men. Kids’ TV shows, and especially those Saturday morning “teen” shows, seem to get around that conceit by pitting one gender against the other in a never-ending smarter-stronger-cooler-better competition. In these shows, all grown-ups are idiots. Which leads me naturally to ….

Smarmy attitudes; smart-mouth insults and put-downs. This staple of “grownup” TV humor is now the rule for kids’ TV, too … as well as young characters with that attitude that once only Eddie Haskell had and nobody admired. They act as if they respect adults, but only when adults are around. The insults, though, are not restricted to adults, and they are as biting and acerbic as anything H.L. Mencken could have generated.

And have you noticed that the items hawked by the commercials on these shows are too young for teens?

I really see only one defense against the onslaught. I have to sit down with my kids when they watch. Occasionally, I have to let them know where I sit on an issue: “Gross!” “That comment was unnecessary.” “Is that really the way people ought to talk to each other?”

Sometimes my kids respond, “Dad! It’s just a TV show.”

That’s fine.

As long as they know that.

When we’re not sure, there’s always the “off” button.

Keith Brenton is the father of Matthew, 9, and Laura, 6. He and his wife, Angi, are adoptive parents. As content/media editor, he helps maintain Reporter-News Online and works at home. You can reach him by e-mail at [no longer active], but he admits he doesn’t have all the answers.

Unstuffing rooms takes a Labor Day

Fifteen years ago, I wrote a column for the Abilene Reporter-News – a newspaper for which I still worked remotely as online content editor even though my family and I had moved from Abilene, TX to Little Rock, AR. (My blogging buddy Deana Nall used to write a wonderful, somewhat-similar column for her hometown newspaper, The Baytown Sun.) I thought I’d re-post a few of my entries, as she has occasionally done with some of hers. My column was called “Parenting on Purpose.” This was the fifth installment.

(originally published August 16, 2002)

Maybe it was because we’ve been reading “Little House on the Prairie” with Matthew.

Maybe it was because we’ve been reading “Bearenstain Bears: Too Much Stuff” with Laura.

Maybe it was because we had gone to one of those prairie settlement recreations with the kids the Saturday before and saw how little the pioneers got by with.

Maybe it was just because Angi has been vowing to do this for months.

Whatever the reason, we spent most of our Labor Day un-stuffing the kids’ rooms. We laid out the big black lawn-waste bags in the hall. Matthew made signs for them reading “Toys Only” and “Trash Only.” And we dived in head-first, because that was really the only way to get into their rooms.

It’s incredible how much stuff accumulates there, because our kids not only want every toy they see on television, but also to keep it forever, plus the box or blister it came in. When the accumulation gets past a certain point of diminishing returns, it’s too intimidating for a grade-schooler to tackle alone.

We knew that The Great Un-Stuffing would take coaching, so we split up: Angi with Matthew and Laura with me. I mention them in that order because little Laura is better about divesting her stuff than I am. Only once did she ask if we could keep something: her doll stroller, and in the garage.

“There’s no room in the garage,” I said. “You know that.”

She just looked at me. She knows whose stuff fills the garage to overflowing: mine.

While I worked at organizing and weeding out trash, Laura filled one of those lawn-waste bags with her working (but outgrown) cast-offs in pretty short order. No tears, no wailing. We didn’t hear any from next door, either, where Mom and Brother were working.

In fact, he filled two of those bags with his toys and one with trash.

We labored nearly all of Labor Day.

In the end, they had vacuum-able, navigable floors … desk space they could actually use for writing and drawing … accessible toys and clothes.

— As well as a lot of pride in what they had accomplished.

Mom and I were proud of them, too. Though we were tempted, we didn’t offer any kind of reward — edible treat, swimming or museump trip, or (heaven forbid) new toy — for their work. Our instincts were on-target this time: having the clean room was its own reward for them.

I wish I could have taken the kids with me when dropping off their stuff at the Goodwill collection center. But they’ve been there before, and have seen the smiles and heard the thanks given back by the folks there.

We used to put our unwanted stuff in a garage sale. We’ve done pretty well at that, too. I don’t think we’ve ever made less than $400. One of those garage sales in a toasty garage on a blistering August afternoon in Abilene made us swear them off for good. We always ended up donating the unsold stuff anyway, so now we just skip the part about having the garage sale first.

I think the best reward for me was overhearing the kids react to a commercial the morning after The Great Un-Stuffing.

“I want that,” Laura giggled. “Matthew, do you want that?”

He thought. “Not really,” he said. “I can do without it.”

“Yeah,” she replied.

Excuse me, please.

I’ve got to go un-stuff the garage.

Keith Brenton is the father of Matthew, 9, and Laura, 6. He and his wife, Angi, are adoptive parents. As content/media editor, he helps maintain Reporter-News Online and works at home. You can reach him by e-mail at [no longer active], but he admits he doesn’t have all the answers.

Children without heroes perplex Dad

Fifteen years ago, I wrote a column for the Abilene Reporter-News – a newspaper for which I still worked remotely as online content editor even though my family and I had moved from Abilene, TX to Little Rock, AR. (My blogging buddy Deana Nall used to write a wonderful, somewhat-similar column for her hometown newspaper, The Baytown Sun.) I thought I’d re-post a few of my entries, as she has occasionally done with some of hers. My column was called “Parenting on Purpose.” This was the fourth installment.

(originally published September 6, 2002)

Dear Readers,

I know it shouldn’t be the parenting columnist asking for advice in the column, but I can’t help it.

I’m completely distraught. My children have no heroes. At least, none that they’re willing to tell me about.

I asked Laura, 6, who her heroes were — hoping, expecting to hear “The Little Mermaid” or even “Barbie,” but she just shrugged, “I dunno.”

I asked Matthew, 9, and his eyes just twinkled; a smile quivered at the corner of his mouth and he said, “Ed from ‘Ed, Edd and Eddy’ ” — a carton on Nickelodeon that he knows I don’t particularly like because all of the characters are doofuses.

When I was a kid, I had heroes. I made do with “Batman” until “The Green Hornet” came along — he was much cooler — and I discovered “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” in its last season. Napoleon Solo was okay, but Ilya Kuryakin had the patent on cool. The guy with pointed ears on “Star Trek” could neck-pinch them all to oblivion, though.

I still have heroes, though my definitions of “cool” and “hero” have changed over the years. (Matured, I like to think.)

Now I have heroes like Richard and Linda, folks with ordinary jobs who pretty much put their two kids throug hcollege at ACU, and — at the same time — a student from Africa who had lived with them throughout his high school years.

I have heroes like Bob and Kathy, who — with their natural children pretty much grown — are foster parents for babies in transition for adoption. They fell in love with two special needs children and adopted them, rearing them to ages 9 and 14 now, I think.

I have heroes like Robert and Michelle, whose son Riley suffered a cerebral hemorrhage at two weeks of age. Now 3, he’s learning at Easter Seals to communicate the only way he can — with American Sign Language. Did I mention he has two older sisters and a younger brother?

I have heroes like Angela, a single parent who for years desperately waited for a kidney transplant while rearing her three kids — now teenagers — from her wheelchair. She couldn’t even make herself pray for a transplant, because she was afraid the price would be some other children’s parent. Her friends prayed for her. But the transplant never happened, and she passed from this life last spring.

So I have some ordinary heroes, too: people who check that little box on their drivers’ licences to donate their organs.

You can understand why I’m distraught, can’t you. I’ve always had heroes. I thought every kid had heroes, needed heroes — those brave, super-powered unconquerables whose secret identities you would never, ever share. Not with your friends, not even with your best friends, especially not with your … parents.

Oh. Yeah.

That’s right. If you leaked their secret identities, they’d lose their super powers … their abilities to do mighty deeds … because they’d never have time off from being heroes. Come to think of it, my kids know all of the heroes I’ve described.

Never mind, dear readers.

Forget I asked.

Keith Brenton is the father of Matthew, 9, and Laura, 6. He and his wife, Angi, are adoptive parents. As content/media editor, he helps maintain Reporter-News Online and works at home. You can reach him by e-mail at [no longer active], but he admits he doesn’t have all the answers.

Shameless spanker admits to the practice

Fifteen years ago, I wrote a column for the Abilene Reporter-News – a newspaper for which I still worked remotely as online content editor even though my family and I had moved from Abilene, TX to Little Rock, AR. (My blogging buddy Deana Nall used to write a wonderful, somewhat-similar column for her hometown newspaper, The Baytown Sun.) I thought I’d re-post a few of my entries, as she has occasionally done with some of hers. My column was called “Parenting on Purpose.” This was the third installment. It was not controversial.

(originally published August 30, 2002)

I spank my kids.

There. I admit it, you can hate me for it, and that’s fine. I’m convinced that my kids don’t, and that’s all that matters.

So I have to take issue with the detractors of spanking. That includes one former Reporter-News parenting columnist who recommended that when a child misbehaves to the point of driving you crazy, you should take a hot bath, light some candles, and play soft music.

While the child — in this case it was a two-year-old — parents himself … possibly by giving himself permission to tear the house apart or otherwise endanger himself.

To clear up any misconceptions, I don’t beat my children. I don’t abuse them. I spank their bottoms. I use my hand.

In my book, to hit anywhere else would be insulting, disrespectful, abusive. In my book, to hit with anything other than the hand would be the same, at least in this time and culture. My hand is a good gauge of how much pain I’m inflicting and gives me pretty good indication of when to quit.

And I think my hand should hurt when the punishment is applied, because my child’s failure to obey almost always means that I’ve failed — at least in part — to communicate to them that the punished behavior is unacceptable, and why.

I can still remember the last time my mother spanked her disobedient, only son — even though I’ve long since forgotten why. She turned me across her knee and administered the spanking with such frenzy that she hurt her hand badly, popping a small blood vessel.

I was too old to be physically hurt, but it broke my heart to see my mom crying because she was hurting so much. I remember promising her I would never make her want to punish me like that again. Then I hugged her and went to get her an ice pack.

I usually warn before I spank, unless the behavior is so heinous or so defiant that the shock of immediate punishment would make the warning less effective, rather than more. Two misbehaviors invariably warrant a spanking from me: Insolence, and hurting someone else. Hypocritical? I usually follow it with the explanation: “You seem to have forgotten that when you hit, it hurts the other person.”

I don’t have to spank often. Just often enough to convince my children that I will, in fact, do it when I’ve warned them.

One good swat will usually do the job. No use overdoing it. I’ve made my point.

Those of you who are rolling your eyes and trying to think of a way to file suit against me are probably thinking, “Now he’s probably going to say that his children respect him for it.”

Well, yeah. In part. I think the other part is far more important: that I let them know that I unquestionably, undeniably, unchangingly love them no matter how they behave.

I want my kids to fear me in the same way that I think the biblical writers enjoin their audience to fear a loving God. I want them to know right from wrong while they’re young.

Because if they misbehave when they’re older, law enforcement officials will not go sit in a bath surrounded by candles while listening to soft music.

Keith Brenton is the father of Matthew, 9, and Laura, 6. He and his wife, Angi, are adoptive parents. As content/media editor, he helps maintain Reporter-News Online and works at home. You can reach him by e-mail at [no longer active], but he admits he doesn’t have all the answers.

Parental pride takes form of a party

Fifteen years ago, I wrote a column for the Abilene Reporter-News – a newspaper for which I still worked remotely as online content editor even though my family and I had moved from Abilene, TX to Little Rock, AR. (My blogging buddy Deana Nall used to write a wonderful, somewhat-similar column for her hometown newspaper, The Baytown Sun.) I thought I’d re-post a few of my entries, as she has occasionally done with some of hers. My column was called “Parenting on Purpose.” This was the second installment.

(originally published August 16, 2002)

A couple of weeks ago, families in our small group at church gathered in our living room to have a “parental blessing.” We’d been studying Christian parenting every Wednesday evening since September of last year and had come to the conclusion what we didn’t tell our kids often enough just how much we’re proud of them and why.

So six pairs of parents told our 15 children — ages 2 through 9 — exactly that. Together we gobbled down a potluck dinner where every family had contributed ingredients to curry chicken. The kids played together for a while, as they always do. Then we collected everyone.

The dads read a short scripture that has special meaning for them when they’re interacting with their kids. Every reading was different, and each one gave a little more insight about that family. Since our two children are adopted, I read from Romans 8 and told them that not only is the whole creation on the edge of its seat waiting for God’s adoption, but that I’m sure He is, too — because I know how their mom and I felt, waiting for those who calls from our adoption agency.

Each parent, in turn, told each of their children one or two reasons why we are so proud of them, right there in front of their friends and family. And every kid beamed when hugged and kissed and given a simple white ribbon that said, “#1 Kid.”

The reasons were as varied as the kids’ natures and interests. It took a while … 45 minutes or more. There was a little squirming, but for the most part the children were riveted by the events. Parents expressed pride in athletic and academic achievement … in hobbies and interests … in sweet natures and curiosity and compassion. The very youngest one — a precious little blonde-curled toddler — gave her daddy extra pride “because she’s always singing happy little songs about Jesus.” When she heard that, she giggled and did a little dance of joy.

We briefly thanked God for them and prayed His blessing on them throughout their whole lives. Then we let them go play together again. (While romping, one 7-year-old girl fell on our sidewalk and knocked out two loose front teeth. We all scoured the walk for the missing teeth so that the Tooth Fairy wouldn’t pass her by.)

Nobody complained that it took too long. None of the kids asked how they could all be “#1 Kid.”

Maybe curry chicken isn’t your taste. Maybe you could do without the prayer and the scripture. Maybe six or seven families and 15 kids is too many for your house. But I can’t help but think that every family would feel as uplifted as we did, just by getting together with dear friends and having a little parental pride party for the kids.

Keith Brenton is the father of Matthew, 9, and Laura, 6. He and his wife, Angi, are adoptive parents. As content/media editor, he helps maintain Reporter-News Online and works at home. You can reach him by e-mail at [no longer active], but he admits he doesn’t have all the answers.

Despite flood, kid’s a happy camper

Fifteen years ago, I wrote a column for the Abilene Reporter-News – a newspaper for which I still worked remotely as online content editor even though my family and I had moved from Abilene, TX to Little Rock, AR. (My blogging buddy Deana Nall used to write a wonderful, somewhat-similar column for her hometown newspaper, The Baytown Sun.) I thought I’d re-post a few of my entries, as she has occasionally done with some of hers. My column was called “Parenting on Purpose.” This was the first installment.

(originally published August 16, 2002)

A few weeks back, nine-year-old Matthew went to camp. It was one of life’s milestones for him, and for us — his parents — too. For the first time ever, he was miles away from Mom and Dad and little sister for an entire week where phone calls to us are possible only in the gravest emergency; surrounded by a hundred or more diverse mentalities in a range of two years above and below him; supervised by other, slightly-older kids with whom I entrust my son but might not entrust my car.

We dropped him off Saturday afternoon. It was raining as we left. By Sunday morning, Mom was already fretting: “I hope he’s getting along okay.”

The weather forecast was for more rain in the camp’s area. She sent him a letter Monday morning.

By Wednesday afternoon, she was calling me from work. “Do you think we should go up to camp and go to church with him? I talked to some of the other parents and they said there are always a few who live there in town who drop in for assembly Wednesday night.”

Diplomatically, I said, “I’ll be glad to do whatever you decide. What I’m more concerned about is not that he’ll want to come home, but how you’ll react if the first thing he says is ‘Can I stay another week?’.”

We drove to the campground Wednesday night. It rained most of the trip, and when we got there the kids were gathered in the dining hall rather than outside. I dropped off Mom and little sister and parked. When I walked up, as far as I could tell, we were the only parents there.

Matthew was already telling Mom how he rode a horse that ran off with him and that his cabin had flooded and all his towels for the pool got soaked and the counselors found some more for him and how he and his cabin-mates were crowded into another cabin and could he show us now?

We asked his counselor if we could go see the new cabin, and he said sure. It felt funny, asking a high-schooler’s permission. We ducked between the raindrops. Matthew showed us the soaked, smelly old cabin and the clean, dry new cabin. He pointed and named each kid’s bunk. We took his soppy towels so they wouldn’t mildew.

It was time to go. The moment of truth had arrived. He opened his mouth, and I held my breath. “Goodbye, Mom. Goodbye, Dad. See you Saturday.”

The other shoe failed to drop. I can’t say the same for my jaw.

On the trip home, Mom turned to me. “The first thing he said was, ‘What are you doing here?’ The second thing he said was, ‘Can I stay another week?’.” I grinned.

She added, “I feel better now. You think I’m silly.”

“I don’t think it’s ever silly for you to be a Mom,” I said.

I should have told her that I felt better, too.

Keith Brenton is the father of Matthew, 9, and Laura, 6. He and his wife, Angi, are adoptive parents. As content/media editor, he helps maintain Reporter-News Online and works at home. You can reach him by e-mail at [no longer active], but he admits he doesn’t have all the answers.

Children’s Questions Offer Deep Insight

Eight years ago, I wrote a column for the Abilene Reporter-News – a newspaper for which I still worked remotely as online content editor even though my family and I had moved from Abilene, TX to Little Rock, AR. (My blogging buddy Deana Nall used to write a wonderful, somewhat-similar column for her hometown newspaper, The Baytown Sun.) While I’m trying to take it easy on my carpal-tunnelled wrists and still try to keep up with New Wineskins editions and work on my book, I thought I’d re-post a few of mine, as she has occasionally done with some of hers. My column was called “Parenting on Purpose.”

(originally published November 15, 2002)

You never know what’s going to come out of the mouths of your children, but as a general rule you can bet it will come straight from their hearts.

Sometimes they have insights that go deeper than we can imagine.

When Laura was just 4, and romping at the play place of the fast food restaurant at the corner of the Mall of Abilene’s parking lot, she began to notice skin color. Her playmates looked as if they had been cast in Hollywood, they were of such diversity. Her concern was for two African-American children.

“Daddy,” she whispered hesitantly, then pointed. “Are those people OK?”

The question took me by surprise, and I didn’t know how to answer.

“I don’t know what you mean, sweetheart.”

“Are they … burnded?”

Well, I couldn’t help but smile. It wasn’t racial sensitivity she was expressing, but concern.

“No, hon, they’re just fine. God makes people of all different colors to make the world a prettier place.”

She thought a moment, and said brightly: “Like a rainbow?”

“Yes! Just like a rainbow,” I told her and gave her a hug.

Then she went off to romp with them some more. A Hispanic mommy nearby traded grins with me.

I know Laura’s not the first person to make that connection; the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition predates her by decades. But the fact that she made it at age 4 made Daddy proud.

I’m not as proud of my response to Matthew, who as a barely-more-than-babbling toddler one night asked the question, “Daddy, why is the moon?”

I started guessing.

“Do you mean, ‘why is the moon in the sky?’”

He shook his head.

“Why is it round?”

Nope.

“Why is it bright? Why is it white? Why did God make the moon?”

No, no, no.

Nothing I suggested was anything close to the question Matthew wanted to ask.

We got a little frustrated with each other, and I finally had to apologize for my ignorance and tell him I could not understand the question.

He looked up at me as if to say I surely must be the most stupid person ever to walk the earth and to look up at the moon — if in fact I ever had looked up at the moon.

It may have been our first intergenerational communication failure.

At the time, I chalked it up to the fact that he just lacked the words he needed to express the question.

Sometimes I wonder if it wasn’t just one of those questions whose depth goes way, way beyond words.

Either way — sadly — Matthew does not remember it now. So I am left with the question.

I haven’t looked at the moon the same way since.

Keith Brenton is the father of Matthew, 9, and Laura, 6. He and his wife, Angi, are adoptive parents. As content/media editor, he helps maintain Reporter-News Online and works at home. You can reach him by e-mail at [no longer active], but he admits he doesn’t have all the answers.

Who Are We Going To Be This Year?

Eight years ago, I wrote a column for the Abilene Reporter-News – a newspaper for which I still worked remotely as online content editor even though my family and I had moved from Abilene, TX to Little Rock, AR. (My blogging buddy Deana Nall used to write a wonderful, somewhat-similar column for her hometown newspaper, The Baytown Sun.) While I’m trying to take it easy on my carpal-tunnelled wrists and still try to keep up with New Wineskins editions and work on my book, I thought I’d re-post a few of mine, as she has occasionally done with some of hers. My column was called “Parenting on Purpose.”

(originally published October 25, 2002)

I can only remember a few of the Halloween costumes I wore as a kid: a tiger, a clown, and a dog costume.

I can clearly remember, though, the annual reaction of my neighbor, Mr. Loudermilk, upon seeing my disguise at his door. No amount of trickery could fool him. A child photographer, he was a keen observer of his son’s neighborhood companions and could recognize us a block away. So he would always say, “Hi there, Keith! Who are we this year?”

Well, we’ve finally managed to encourage our two children to decide who they would be this year. For Laura, it was not as much of a challenge. Early on in the shopping, she fastened on a sparkling pink bunny costume (Easter, not Playboy; she’s only 6). For Matthew, at 9, it was more of a struggle.

Yesterday, he settled on a shuttle astronaut’s costume with a clear faceplate and a cool inflatable backpack — kind of a sequel to last year’s Stealth fighter pilot.

That decision was the culmination of many trips to five stores and flipping through racks and racks filled with a dizzying array of choices.

I couldn’t help but notice how the selection had changed since I was a kid. Not so much the range of choices, but the proportion of scary to non-threatening options.

Sure, there were plenty of cartoon character and classic hero costumes when I was young: Mickey Mouse and Superman and Batman (though the hero costumes didn’t have built-in foam pectorals). But there were lots more of the frightening variety: vampires and wolfmen and Frankenstein monsters and witches and goblins and spooks.

You can doubtless tell by the costume choices my mom made that she read Dr. Spock, whose child manual dithered over the wisdom of “giving 3-year-old Keith a toy gun.” (Discovering it later, I wondered why in the world he had to choose MY name.)

Angi and I discovered early on with our all-boy boy that it didn’t really matter that we wouldn’t buy him a toy gun; he’d just create one from Lego blocks and go around “shooting” everything in sight. As he got older, he picked up on our distaste for guns and stopped shooting his sister, then the cats, then anything.

Then last year, about six weeks before Halloween, the world changed. Something happened that made us all long for the days when the scariest masks we could find were of former presidents.

We saw a hint of a change in Matthew’s choice of a Stealth pilot costume last year as the war effort in Afghanistan geared up. He bypassed the Jedi lords for it, since he thinks all the Star Wars movies look too violent and won’t watch them.

This year, he’s aware of snipers shooting children in schoolyards. So a few nights ago, he enlisted his sister’s help in running all over the house “shooting back at the bad people.”

Yesterday he paused a few times over this year’s newer, real-life Halloween hero selections: medical scrubs, fire and rescue jackets, police uniforms, and, yes, even a soldier.

Mr. Loudermilk’s question goes a lot deeper than it used to.

Keith Brenton is the father of Matthew, 9, and Laura, 6. He and his wife, Angi, are adoptive parents. As content/media editor, he helps maintain Reporter-News Online and works at home. You can reach him by e-mail at [no longer active], but he admits he doesn’t have all the answers.

Separation Anxiety: It’s Not Just for Kids

Eight years ago, I wrote a column for the Abilene Reporter-News – a newspaper for which I still worked remotely as online content editor even though my family and I had moved from Abilene, TX to Little Rock, AR. (My blogging buddy Deana Nall used to write a wonderful, somewhat-similar column for her hometown newspaper, The Baytown Sun.) While I’m trying to take it easy on my carpal-tunnelled wrists and still try to keep up with New Wineskins editions and work on my book, I thought I’d re-post a few of mine, as she has occasionally done with some of hers. My column was called “Parenting on Purpose.”

(originally published October 18, 2002)

I’ve just returned from a three-day business trip a much more enlightened person. Now I know why parents who go on business trips bring home presents and souvenirs for their kids.

It’s not just that it’s a nice thing to do, or that the kids want and expect gifts. It’s certainly not because the kids need more stuff.

It’s guilt.

We bring home little guilt offerings with us to reduce the pouty lips and hurt feelings of the tender little hearts who had to stay in after school care instead of being picked up … who had to share bedtime story space with a sibling instead of having it all to oneself … who only got hugged and kissed and disciplined and listened to by one parent in our absence.

We’re guilty by absence. We’ve messed up their routine. We’ve disturbed their security. We’ve introduced the possibility that there actually could be a gaping hole in the family where somebody should be; a place that no one else can fill.

And we realize how big the holes in our own lives would be if not filled by those little persons.

At dinner during my trip, a young mom and grandmother were trying to encourage their rambunctious five-year-old boy to finish eating so he could go to a nearby playground. I ended a long silence with my traveling companion (who also happens to be my children’s grandmother on my side) by saying, “Sorry, Mom. I hardly know what to do at dinner if I’m not helping entertain two children.”

She shrugged and smiled: “Enjoy it!”

I could, but I couldn’t. I missed them. I couldn’t imagine what it must be like for a single parent who has to go on a business trip out of town. I only get the merest taste of what it’s like to be a single parent when Angi has to take a business trip.

On one of those occasions, little Laura – who has always had more of a challenge with separation anxiety than her brother – came and stood almost out of my peripheral vision while I was working at the computer. I swivelled the chair around to see those big brown eyes. “I miss Mommy,” was all she said.

“Me too,” I told her. I gathered her up in my lap, and we just sat for a long time, not saying anything. When the world was okay again, she went off to play.

My mom was along on this business trip for her own business: dropping off some papers of my great-grandfather’s at a university archive. He was a traveling minister in the Midwest, who occasionally took the train to preaching appointments as far away as Nova Scotia without enough money in his pockets for the return trip. But he always made it back home.

As we drove back, we wondered what it must have been like for him, and for great-grandmother left back home with the boys. Chances are, he didn’t have even enough money to bring home a trinket or two for them.

The two boxes rattling around in the back seat contained little more than that: a cheap glass chess set for new chess-enthusiast Matthew and a plastic combination-lock bank to hold all the money Laura has saved. But, of course, the expense of the gift doesn’t really matter.

It’s the guilt that counts.

Keith Brenton is the father of Matthew, 9, and Laura, 6. He and his wife, Angi, are adoptive parents. As content/media editor, he helps maintain Reporter-News Online and works at home. You can reach him by e-mail at [no longer active], but he admits he doesn’t have all the answers.

Attempting the Absurd to Achieve the Possible

Eight years ago, I wrote a column for the Abilene Reporter-News – a newspaper for which I still worked remotely as online content editor even though my family and I had moved from Abilene, TX to Little Rock, AR. (My blogging buddy Deana Nall used to write a wonderful, somewhat-similar column for her hometown newspaper, The Baytown Sun.) While I’m trying to take it easy on my carpal-tunnelled wrists and still try to keep up with New Wineskins editions and work on my book, I thought I’d re-post a few of mine, as she has occasionally done with some of hers. My column was called “Parenting on Purpose.”

(originally published October 11, 2002)

In my copywriting days at a big advertising agency, I wore a blue lapel button that read: “Only by attempting the absurd can we hope to achieve the impossible.”

I thought about that button when pondering possible motivations to threaten/entice my fourth-grader to either complete his work at school or bring it home and finish it. Grades didn’t seem to be doing it. Loss of privileges wasn’t cutting it either.

So I just told him, “You need to decide to do this. Doing your schoolwork helps you learn. It will also make your teacher and Mom and Dad very happy, and we will quit hassling you about it. In fact, it would make me so happy I’d dance.”

Then I went too far.

“Why, I would even do the Daddy Dance of Ultimate Embarrassment if you’ll get that work done at school.”

When his teacher called to tell me he hadn’t brought home a note from her about incomplete work, I told her we were as frustrated as she was about finding something that would motivate him.

That’s when I made my second mistake. I told her about my promise to do the Daddy Dance.

Last week on the way home from school, my son presented me with another note from his teacher, folded and stapled, on which he had hand-lettered “Please read.” When I opened it, I saw the three least-expected words I could have received in his teacher’s Spencerian script:

DO THE DANCE.

Well, there was no avoiding it, no delaying it, no hem-hawing or protesting or even explaining that even at my best I dance like a prairie chicken on a hot metal roof. So as soon as I parked the car, right there in the garage, I danced like a prairie chicken on a hot metal roof.

I did the Daddy Dance of Ultimate Embarrassment.

It’s kind of a jig, kind of a reel, kind of a Texas two-and-a-half-step. Kind of a vaudevillian disaster, actually. But the children like it. As a matter of fact, I’m a little worried my son is going to hurt himself, rolling on the concrete garage floor like that.

I’ve had to do it twice now. It seems to be pressing the magic button. Now my daughter, on her second jaunt through kindergarten, is hoping she will have schoolwork she can complete or bring home to finish.

There’s no going back now. Once I get on a creative kick (or twirl or two-step), it just takes over.

Yesterday afternoon I turned on the closed-captioning on the big TV that the children like to watch.

“Why are you doing that?” my son asked.

“To help your sister see the words as they’re spoken.”

“Oh,” he said. “Neat!” she said.

And I’m going to finish the discipline shelves for the kitchen. The discipline shelves, inspired by Matthew’s first-grade teacher, feature a flat wooden angel and a turkey for each child. For good behavior, they can pull an angel feather (half of a tongue depressor) with the treat promised on the back. For behaving like a turkey, they must pull a turkey feather with a punishment hidden on the back.

I’ll keep you posted, but for now it looks like I’ll be dancing for a while.

Stupid lapel button.

Keith Brenton is the father of Matthew, 9, and Laura, 6. He and his wife, Angi, are adoptive parents. As content/media editor, he helps maintain Reporter-News Online and works at home. You can reach him by e-mail at [no longer active], but he admits he doesn’t have all the answers.