Being a Dad Without Directions

Martin Vern Bonsangue is a mathematics professor at Cal State Fullerton

I love my barbecue. Fifteen thousand BTUs, double burners, enamel finish. But, most of all, the set of directions. The directions tell me how to assemble, cook and troubleshoot. Burner won't light? There's a checklist in the directions. Need to replace the canister? There's a picture in the directions. Need a good marinade? There are easy-to-follow recipes in the directions.

The directions are clear, concise and complete. Because of them, I am an instant barbecuing expert.

Unfortunately, my daughters did not come with a set of directions.

For 14 years, I've watched them grow from babies to little kids to young adults. Nap time and lap time have been replaced by telephone calls and shopping malls. Friends are more important than family, and even the smallest setback can be devastating.

When they were little, I could fix the tricycle or kiss a boo-boo and make it all better. Increasingly, though, it gets harder for me to know what they need or how to help. I used to have the answers; now I'm trying to figure out the questions. For all concerned, it's just hard to grow up, even in the best of times.

And if you're 14, I think that these are not the best of times.

We all have a basic need to feel that we belong, that we fit in and that we are safe. But the culture of youth does not make this easy. The following encounter illustrates this point.

As I went in to the convenience store, he was coming out. We reached for the door at the same time. He was 12, maybe 13, with a skateboard in one hand and a Slurpee in the other. As we simultaneously crossed paths through the doorway, I smiled and said "Excuse me." He looked right at me, a small sneer forming on his lip, as if to let me know that this was his store and that I had no business being there when he was. He rode off muttering something under his breath.

Who is this child and how did he get to be so rude? Bart Simpson? Possibly. Peer pressure, the need to conform? Undoubtedly. But most of all, he is the child of the children of the '60s and '70s, who have more, get more and demand more than any other generation in the history of this country. Like his parents, he has a deeply held sense of entitlement.

It is good to feel that one is a part of a group and has a place there. But entitlement pushes beyond that to the point where others live in the shadow of self. Somehow, we owe him.

Now I do not mean to imply that all young people are like our Slurpee-sucking friend. You probably know, as I do, some great kids: upbeat, positive and polite. But if you're a young person, I think it's really hard to be that way. Rudeness is cool, meekness is not. Beavis and Butt-head exert far greater influence than does Barney.

Without question, my children's adolescent world is a rougher place than was mine. Harsh language and exclusive attitudes are more commonplace than I ever experienced. It is a less safe place to be, emotionally as well as physically. The culture neither expects nor values gentleness.

But I do.

And so as a father, I try to live this out each day with my family. Teach kindness. Model respect. Hold one another accountable for intonation as well as words. Spend more time with my daughters than I do with "Xena." Find out, as much as they will share, what is going on in their lives. Laugh together. Choose not to be a clueless dad.

I am reminded today that my most important job occurs not at work but at home, to engender in my children their own sense of entitlement, to give them the essential things to which they, as all children, are entitled: a family that nurtures but does not indulge; a lifestyle that develops self-discipline, self-acceptance and respect for self and others; and a dad who loves them, will be there for them and will always try to help them. Even without directions.

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