A Time to Say Nothing

One of my favorite leadership quotes comes from Colin Powell (or at least it has been attributed to him…you know how quotes work):  “One of the most difficult things about leadership is to know when to do nothing, and then do it.”  I recently had a parental parallel of “doing nothing”, and I wanted to tell you how it worked out.   Just to warn you, it’s another New Orleans story.

So, there we were, set up in a rental property in the middle of Uptown.  We were in it for only one night, actually, awaiting our “permanent” property to come available the next day.  In the morning, we would be moving two blocks down the street.  Carson (6) and Sydney (5) were sitting on the sidewalk outside, watching the goings-on.  It was about an hour before sunset.  They noticed three kids on bikes riding around a school parking lot across the street, and immediately tried to get their attention.  They knew enough to not step into the street, so they looked like dogs on leashes, leaning forward over the curb, calling out to the kids: “Can we play with you? Can we play with you?”  I heard them calling, and stepped out onto the gallery, which had a commanding view of the entire scene from the second floor (and also immediate access via an outdoor stairway).  Bottom line, I could be next to them, if I had to be, in about five seconds or less.  I noticed the kids across the street – two girls and a boy, a bit older, maybe 9 – 11 or so.  They were circling on their bikes, running over an empty plastic water bottle, and seemingly having quite a time of it.  The boy and one of the girls were black, and the other girl was white.  No parents in sight.  Well, let’s see how this works out.

I stepped back from the gallery, but kept my eyes on what was going on.  I was having flashes of my city-living instincts: city kids – bad. City kids are trouble.  I watched.  At some point, the boy grew curious enough to ride over to the curb and stop in front of my kids. They were very excited.  “Hi, I’m Dominic, what are your names?”  He got off his bike, and I bit my lip just a bit, waiting for something bad to happen, and tensing for a dash down the stairs.  There was some small talk about where everyone was from, and then someone said “you want to play?”  They chose hide-and-seek.

Luckily, there was just enough space under the gallery/stairway, and along the sidewalk, to support a small-scale version of hide-and-seek.  It equated to hiding in plain sight, but they didn’t seem to care that much.  I remained out of sight, and silent.  Still tense, but growing calmer.  They moved to “tag.” They were having enough fun to finally pique the curiosity of the two girls who had remained across the street.  They showed up at the curb to investigate.  After brief introductions, they decided that running over the plastic bottle was more fun, and they headed back to the parking lot.

For my part, I kept thinking about saying something, but couldn’t come up with anything truly productive or instructive to say.  “Know when to do nothing.”  I did.  The only thing that I “did” was to step out and catch everyone’s eye at least twice, to ensure that everyone knew I was close by.  Other than that, I just let it all unfold. Eventually, my kids came running up the stairs to report that Dominic had gone home, but said he was coming right back.  I just assumed he was gone.  The kids returned to the sidewalk.  Lo and behold, a couple of minutes later, Dominic rolled up with a Nerf football in his hands.  They proceeded to play a mini game of football along the sidewalk.  They were having a blast, and Dominic seemed to be quite the football guy.  In later conversation, I even found out he was a Patriots fan.  Bonus points.  🙂  I had to lean over the railing twice to remind the kids not to chase the ball (or the pass) into the street.  Other than that, I was silent.

There was one moment when I heard the distinct “I’m hurt” cry, and headed out to the gallery to see what was up.  Sydney was coming up the stairs, followed by Carson and Dominic.  “What happened, Girlie?”  Carson said that he had pushed her a little bit too hard, and that she had fallen on the pavement and hit her nose.  Hit her nose?  I remained cool and calm, and took measure of her nose.  I also officially “met” Dominic, who was very gracious.  Turning back to the nose, sure enough, there was a raspberry right on the tip of Syd’s nose.  Everything else seemed fine, and she was already calming down (which she tends to do quickly).  I cleaned up the wound, gave her a kiss, and sent them back down the stairs.  There were smiles all around, and Sydney was ready to run a crossing pattern, I’m sure.

The girls visited a couple more times, but football wasn’t their thing either, I guess.  As it was getting dark, I eventually went out and announced a five-minute countdown for coming in.  The kids came in, very excited about their play time.

While I was trying to sum up and evaluate what had happened, I was overcome by a wave of optimism.  What I had just witnessed was simply awesome, not to mention a very rare thing these days.  Two kids had initiated contact with other kids, without a trace of parental guidance, influence, or intervention.  They had introduced themselves, decided to play, made up their own games, and had a complete blast.  Not a single word from a parent, and right in the middle of the city.  Though poised to intervene, I resisted my own “worries”, and did the right thing: nothing.  Not only was I proud of my kids, I was, I admit, just a little bit proud of myself, for having effectively bitten my lip, and stayed out of it.

It turned out, Dominic found us at the “new” house, a couple of days later.  He became a somewhat regular visitor, and was welcomed into our house to play as well.  We even had a couple of trips to the local playground together.  Also, one of the girls from the first night turned out to be his sister.  Her name was Seina (SAY-na).  We saw her again too.  They were both very nice, and even used the word “sir.”  Crazy stuff!  🙂  We never met their parents, and decided that it wasn’t really that important that we did.

I am very happy that our kids had this opportunity.  It doesn’t mean, of course, that I’m now going to release my kids into the city and say “see you later!”  Many parents still seem to think that I’m crazy enough to do that.  The kids don’t see this as anything but completely normal, and I will endeavor to keep it that way.  After all, what is this blog all about anyway?  Kids living the lives of kids – making friends, learning their way, and scraping their noses if they have to.  🙂  Pardon me if I see this as a minor victory in the Free Range battle.

Go love your kids!



The Tale of the Sword

I realize that most people reading this would not normally think of Mardi Gras and “parenting” in the same sentence.  However, this place is actually a giant parenting laboratory.  More on that later.  In the meantime, a good friend, who is staying with us here in New Orleans, told me about a parenting moment he experienced with a parade float a couple of years ago.  Those familiar with how Mardi Gras parade-throws work will understand this best.  My friend’s 9-year-old boy, Max, approached a parade float while it was being staged for an upcoming parade; there was a rider aboard, prepping his “throws.”  Max was interested in one particular item that he could see on the float (a cool sword thing…), and asked the rider to throw it to him.  While Max was having this dialogue, another 9-year-old boy wandered over and took interest in the very same sword.  The rider then threw the sword from the float, and Max caught it.  Max’s dad was watching this all from about 50 ft away. Just as Max began admiring his “catch”, the other kid’s dad (presumably) approached him, took the sword out of his hand, and gave it to the other kid.  He said something about “that was actually meant for [him].”  Like many former Marines, my friend has a grizzly switch that can trip quite quickly when it comes to protecting family (not to mention The Constitution… :), and he can be quite an impressive grizzly.

As he described it, he could have gone over and possibly lit off a big mess with the other dad, or he could just chill out and let it pass.  He chose the latter. The way I see it, he made the correct choice.  This was a classic match-up between “protect!” and “it’s just not worth it.”  As in all such match-ups, tamping down the grizzly is absolutely necessary if you want to take a cool, measured look at your options. Folks from my trade will recognize “wind the clock.”  I like to call it, “master the first five seconds.”  The Grizzly, on the other hand, just charges in, teeth bared.

So, as my friend exhaled a deep breath, he explained the reality of unkind folks doing unkind things; taking measure of conflict with a clear head; etc.  As for the sword, well, where there is one “throw”, there is always another.   Max went over to the rider, explained what happened, and, lo and behold, another sword fell out of the sky.

Even as I write these words, I am daydreaming about how satisfying it would have been to take that other dad down a notch or two.   OK, yeah…to what end, exactly?   There are times you should release the grizzly, and times you shouldn’t.  I only hope that I will command the same serenity of mind that my friend did, as to allow me  to see the difference.

A Stark Comparison

Earlier today, my kids and I were touring “Mardi Gras World” – the place where most of the floats for New Orleans Mardi Gras parades are designed and built.  It is an awesome operation.  Anyway, while the kids and I were wandering around the massive warehouses,  and gawking at all the floats awaiting the upcoming Orpheus parade (Harry Connick’s krewe), I caught a glimpse of something interesting.  As I walked by an older gentleman on the tour, I could have sworn he was wearing a ball-cap with a picture of the Iwo Jima flag-raising on the front of it, accompanied by the words “Iwo Jima Veteran.”  I was already five or six steps past him, on the way to the exit, actually, when my brain formed the question:  “Was that man an Iwo Jima veteran?”  I stopped, looked over my shoulder, and thought “I have to go check”. The kids and I did a 180, and I relocated the man in question.  I discreetly maneuvered for a better look at his hat and, then, there it was:  “Iwo Jima Veteran .”

I approached, with my best manners, and asked if he was, in fact, a veteran of that famous battle.  “Yes, I am.”  I extended my hand and said, as I often say, “thank you for your service.”  We spoke for ten minutes, or so, about his experience.  Obviously, I was quite familiar with the general narrative of the battle, but it was truly riveting to hear a personal narrative.  As we were finishing up, I asked the man if he would pose for a photo with my children.  He happily obliged.  I got a couple of nice shots and, again, extended my hand in thanks.  He said, “wait a second.”  He unhitched an Iwo Jima pin from his collar, and turned to Carson: “This is for you, young man.  You’ll learn about what this is later, but I want you to have it now.  It’s been a pleasure meeting you.”  Carson took it in his hand:  “thank you.”

As we parted ways, I was deeply moved by the whole idea of what had just transpired.   Carson looked up and said, “Dad, are you crying?”

“Actually, I am.”

In the five-or-so minutes it took us to clear the warehouse, I was imagining the scene: an 18-year-old Marine caught up in one of the hardest-fought campaigns in modern military history.  Amazing stuff.  However, when the kids and I finally crossed the street to the parking lot, I was brought back to Earth with a thump. Enroute to our car, we had to walk across an active railroad track that fed the port of New Orleans.  The kids asked if they could walk on the rails and play train.  I looked up and down the rails, evaluated the situation, and declared that it was safe to play “train.”  They proceeded to walk on the rails (like balance beams), blow their whistles, and say “look out, Daddy, train coming through!”  This “game” probably took them 100 feet, or so, along the track, away from the “safety” of the pedestrian walk-way.  Trust me, there was no way a speeding bullet-train was going to sneak up and ambush us.  If you’ve ever been to this particular place, you’d know what I mean.  Anyway, a few minutes into their play, a woman in a car, crossing the tracks on the road, leaned out of her window and said, quite loudly, “that’s not a good idea!”


Moments before, I had been hearing about an 18-year-old American kid who had gone to war, and run up against some of the fiercest fighting in our history.  Now, I was facing a busy-body who thought it was her business to lean out a window and tell me, in essence, that kids walking along a railroad track was dangerous.  Worlds colliding with a huge crash.  I wish I could have taken her inside the warehouse, and introduced her to the extraordinary Marine whom I had just met.  The most distressing part of this whole affair is the idea that it would, perhaps, have made no difference at all to the busy-body.  “Iwo what?  Who cares about that?  What does that have to do with child safety?”  Can you say “missing the point”?

So, should I be preparing my kids to tackle Iwo Jima, or should I be focused on keeping them off the railroad tracks, and away from all things dangerous?   I think I’ll aim for somewhere in the middle. What do you think, busy-body?



I’m 18; can I talk to strangers now?

I just stumbled across this posting/video from the Today Show, which evidently aired last week.  I was pleasantly surprised to hear what the featured guest had to say.  Link here:
Some parental common sense
Of course, this is all common sense but, these days, can be peddled as some cutting-edge parental insight.  That’s fine with me.  As long as it’s reaching the audience of generally brain-dead morning TV, I’ll maintain some hope that it will sink in for a few parents who might have been watching.  Better than nothing.

So, get this.  The number one item on the list of things that 18-year-olds need to be able to do:  Talk to strangers.  EIGHTEEN-year-olds!  Let me say that again:  EIGHTEEN-year-olds talking to strangers!  This should be amazing, but I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised that an entire generation of college-age kids is having trouble with this fundamental human skill.  Considering the fire-hose messaging on bad strangers, could this genuinely surprise anyone?

Another particularly interesting item for me was how this whole ‘list’ was packaged, i.e., “If we want our kids to survive without their phones…”  Again, can any clear-thinking human being be surprised by the role of “the phone” in the decline of people skills?  It brings to mind an incident I witnessed here in New Orleans just a few days ago.  We were riding on the St. Charles street car, heading Uptown from The Quarter.  A group of six or seven 20-somethings got on board, clearly on a tourist outing.  Maybe a 4-3 gender split or so.  Each of them had his own phone out, and the group was collectively discussing how to navigate the street car, and where they could find a good restaurant along the way.  They were in their own little world of “phone-ing” their way through the issue while, I’m guessing, four out of five people seated around them were locals, and likely had a lot of good information to offer.  While one of the men was thinking out-loud about where Napoleon Ave was, Beth turned to me and said “should I tell them?”  I said, “no, let them do their phone thing.”   Driving my “leave them alone” response was my very strong belief (I’m convinced I’m correct here, by the way) that no level of local input was going to sway them from their phone-ing.  Emeril Lagasse could be sitting next to them with street car directions and a restaurant recommendation, but if they didn’t find it on Google Maps or Yelp, they simply weren’t going to give it a thought.  Bummer.  Perhaps I’m wrong, and I hope I am.  Maybe we’ll say something next time, and see if they can actually have a conversation with a stranger!  🙂