Thursday, February 26, 2015

Father of Three Teenagers

As of today, I am officially the father of three teenagers. My daughter hung up on me three times as I tried to sing her “Happy Birthday” over the phone. I don’t think I’m that bad of a singer.  My daughters are now 13 and 15 and my older son is 17. And you know what?  Life is really good.  One of those myths of life is that teenagers are terrible.  To be sure, they do have their challenging moments and the reality is that mistakes in judgment (of which they often have very little) during the teenage years can have much greater costs than do the spills and scrapes of younger children. But I genuinely like teenagers, which is a good thing considering my job as a school counselor / director of spiritual life in a Pre-K through 12th grade school.  I feel lucky to be able to interact with teenagers on a daily basis, as they are really funny and na├»ve and quirky and challenging and unmotivated and caring and generous and angry and unique and brilliant.

Our challenge as parents of these creatures is to love them, unconditionally in the middle of their defiance and apathy. They really need to hear from us not just when they fall short of our expectations, but when they surprise us with their initiative and competence. Our goal as parents is to help our kids achieve independence by gradually giving them more and more opportunities and responsibility with the requisite preparation and experience. 

Are they going to mess up?  Absolutely, just like we do.  Are they going to cause us pain, apprehension and fear?  Are you kidding me, they are teenagers.

There are going to be times when we, as parents, do not and cannot approve of their choices and that is natural and okay. We must remember, however, that approval is not the same as acceptance and acceptance of our kids is not an option.  It’s often the fear of not being accepted that keeps some kids from sharing with their parents those parts of their lives they fear mom and dad won’t approve of, or they feel compelled to lie about when caught. We cannot assume our kids know that our acceptance of them is unconditional. Tell them every opportunity you can that you love them no matter what. Show them by really listening and being sensitive to their perspectives and individual preferences.

Every kid is different in all kinds of ways and it’s important that we acknowledge their uniqueness.  “I know you don’t want me to come to your tennis match, so you’ll have to find another ride home.” Recognizing their individuality doesn’t mean that we have to accommodate them, but it gives them the opportunity to deal with the normal consequences of actually getting what they want.  The beautiful thing is that in dealing with those circumstances, they are gaining the independence that is the goal for both of us.  Being teenagers, their ability to function without our assistance is probably closer than we, as parents, are probably comfortable with.  Having teenagers isn’t something to fear, it’s something to celebrate.  Happy birthday Sweetie!

Darren Sombke is the father of four -- two of which are no longer teens, but his love and appreciation for adolescents continues. He can be reached at

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Riding Roller Coasters: Life's Ups and Downs

I love riding roller coasters.  My wife, on the other hand, is not a fan.  So, when it came time to expose our children to the joys of roller-coaster riding, it was to be my personal pleasure to introduce them to this wonderful, thrilling invention of man.  Or so I thought.

I can remember the day when each of my children took their first roller coaster ride.  The excitement, dread and anticipation was almost too much to bear as they struggled with their decision to ride or not to ride, and then decided to go forward, reluctantly. 

Imagine my frustration, after eagerly anticipating the ride to come and the joy of sharing the experience with my child . . . and waiting as patiently as possible for up to an hour or more in the amusement park line  . . .  all the while watching as the child becomes more and more nervous . . . trying to make small talk, distract, change the subject, only to find him bailing out in tears just before boarding the ride. 

For some of them, it took several years to get up the courage to ride.  I had to wonder, if I would ever have someone to share this roller-coaster experience with.

Then I went to Busch Gardens with these same formerly reluctant, roller-coaster adverse children, all of them now in their teens or twenties.  Busch Gardens, for those of you who may not be familiar, is a roller-coaster enthusiasts’ dream with at least five fantastic coasters.  And we rode them all, over and over.  And over.  And over.  Until I, the roller-coaster master, the undisputed king, the Jedi of g-forces, had to quietly say, “Enough.”

And at this my boys said, in echoes of my own voice, “Come on dad, let’s ride again. Please will you at least try to ride with us?”

And I found myself saying, in a voice that sounded almost child-like, “I think I’m going to be sick.”

So, does this mean my parenthood journey is completed?  As the great philosopher-father Kal-El in the superman comics said, “The son becomes the father, and the father becomes the son.”  Something amazing happens to our children as we age together, and it is nothing short of a miracle.

I see this same behavior repeated in a number of other areas:  seeking a job, filing a tax return, and going out on their first date.  Not that I want to accompany my children in all of these activities, but I do see the same reluctance, fear, and second-guessing. Finally, with continual patient encouragement, an eventual victory is celebrated.  Often they surpass my own accomplishments and go on to greater achievement.

It’s a wonderful transformation.  So keep on pushing your kids.  Let’s get on the parenting-coaster and ride.  At least until I throw up.

At the time of this writing, Duane Highley’s children were ages 13 to 24.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Driving While Distracted Dad

If you have seen an episode of Oprah within the past six months you will know one of her big kicks this season is the “No Phone Zone” challenge.  She has challenged her audience, as well as guests, on her show to not talk or text on the phone while driving.  She started this “No Phone Zone” challenge after she dedicated an entire show to the dangers of driving while using your phone.  As a parent of three kids under the age of three, the safety of my children is paramount and I try my best to not talk on the phone or text while driving, even when I'm stopped at a light.  Interesting though that Oprah’s show on car safety forgot to mention another highly distracting problem that happens in my car nearly every day.  KIDS. 

Those little buggers are darn distracting.  If you are a parent you know what I am talking about.  If your kid isn’t screaming about wanting something that you don’t have the power to give them, say teleporting a grandparent into the back seat with them, then you are trying to get some food item into a close proximity of said child so they can grab it and give their mouth something to do.  During the “No Phone Zone” show, Oprah showed video of people driving while texting or talking on the phone.  It was shocking how much time people were cruising along in their vehicle at 70 mph without ever looking up at the road.  I am scared to look at a similar video set up that replaces the cell phones with kids, as I am sure I spend more time than I think trying to keep the boys happy.

Maybe learning how to drive and keep the munchkins in the back happy is a skill that comes with age.  I remember those long family vacation drives where I fought tooth and nail with my sister about how much of the seat in the back was mine.  Remember the imaginary line, and if you crossed that line, you were going to get punched in the shoulder.  It would take about 30 seconds before somebody would cross that line, and the punching would begin. 

I am sure with three boys we are going to experience something very similar in the not too distant future.  I will be forced to get a couple of pointers from my dad on the art of driving and disciplining the children at the same time.  He had an amazing ability to keep the car on the road and administer swift justice, doing it all without losing a second off of our itinerary.  I have yet to acquire this skill, and am forced to resort to turning around, which takes my eyes off the road to toss cookies at the kid in the way back, just to keep him happy. 

These cookies also serve as a way of bribing The Boy into providing status reports on the Twin-kies, such as: Are they sleeping?  Do they have pacifiers in their mouths?  Is the sun in the one of the Twin-kies eyes?  Always one to go above and beyond, The Boy will also report that “babies are screaming,” since he's not sure if I can hear the crying coming from less than a foot behind me. 

I guess for the moment, tossing food items at my kids, in the same way a zookeeper tosses bananas at monkeys to get them to do trick, is what I have resorted to for the safety of my family while driving my car.  Just another role I play each day while being a dad, a zookeeper who's training monkeys while commuting to work.  I wonder if the zoos have the same problem with the ants that my car seems to have developed.

A. Minor Baker is the father of three boys and a soon-to-be-born fourth child. He and his wife Sarah live in Austin, Texas -- the starting point of many exciting adventures for their clan. He can be reached at

Monday, February 2, 2015

Moving On

It’s so hard for me to believe that I’m sitting here listening to some guy talk to my son’s class about “Making Your College Search Count.”  Really?  How can this be? It was just a few years ago when the wife woke me up to say her labor pains were getting to the point we needed to leave for the hospital.  I seriously have never been more excited, scared, nervous . . . you name it, than I was at that moment.  Then after 25 hours of labor, finally getting the pumpkin-headed kid out via C-section and just sitting in the chair next to her bed holding him while she slept, I never wanted to let him go.

A little over seventeen years and three more kids later, here I am thinking that this kid has absolutely no clue as to what he wants to do with his life and where he wants to go to college.  If I didn’t work with high school students every day, I would be worried, but I know that my son is pretty typical.  It’s the ones who think they have their lives all mapped out and who believe they know exactly what they want to do that worry me more.  The reality is often those kids are as clueless as the others; they just don’t know it.

Last night on our way home from my son’s cello lesson, we were listening to a guy from Stanford talk about entrepreneurship.  He said life is too short to spend it doing things you aren’t passionate about and that it is really important to surround yourself with smart, quality people of integrity.  It was then  I turned to my son and said, “You know, that will be your saving grace . . . that you pretty much hang around quality kids and have very little patience for dealing with idiots.”   

His response: “Yep.” 

And I’m fine with that.  I don’t really care where he decides to go to college or what he ends up doing for a career as long as he’s a smart, quality person of integrity.  I’ve even come to the place where I’m willing to let him go.  That part, anticipating him moving out, gets easier as he gets older.  I’m wondering if I’ll be as excited, scared, nervous, etc. when he moves out as I was on the day he was born.

Darren Sombke, father of four, lives with his wife Jungah and their family in northern Illinois. He can be reached at