Time to shed light on the father-son talk, although not the one you might imagine.
Just the other night, I once again asked my 15-year-old son Jack to turn the lights off when he went to bed.
A typical teen, Jack stays up later than everyone else, and also typically has the very annoying tendency to leave the lights on (sometimes the TV as well).
The truth be told, I think that even at age 14 he is still a little bit afraid of the dark. Speaking of truth, I’m man enough to admit I wasn’t much different. He gets it honestly.
The other night, though, I had had enough. I looked him squarely in the eye before I went to bed and said “do not leave this kitchen without turning the lights off.”
Now, for many of us, this would be a simple enough task, but as I would soon find out, it was so much more for Jack. So much more, in fact, that it has come to be known in our family as a “light” lesson.
Not a life lesson, mind you, but a light lesson. Let me explain.
Like most boys his age, Jack is pissed off at the world. Don’t get me wrong, he has intermittent moments of being cordial. However, for the most part, he is demanding, rude, ungrateful, and disobedient. (Sound familiar, dads?)
Because of this, I devote our drive time to school together each morning to what he himself refers to as “life lessons.” Topics can and have ranged from how to navigate a difficult teacher (boss), to how to possibly engage a seemingly disinterested (but beautiful) girl in conversation, to how to persuade a bull-headed coach (again, boss) that you deserve more playing time, to how to achieve financial equilibrium (starting with ‘stop blowing your money on overpriced sneakers and designer t-shirts’).
But today was different. Today was going to be a different lesson. And this time, the lesson was for me.
You see, the morning after I delivered Jack my late-night ultimatum, my wife, Katie, informed me that something was wrong with the lights in the kitchen. After troubleshooting the issue, we realized that someone had turned off the lights at the base rather than at the light switch that they were connected to.
When it settled in to me what had happened, I started laughing. I realized right then and there that I had failed as a parent to teach my son the most basic task: how to turn a light on and off.
The laughing, though, soon turned to self-reflection. How could this have happened? How could my son be 14 years old, have lived in our current house for four years, and still not know how to turn off the lights properly?
The answer was staggeringly simple. Because we didn’t teach him.
As I rode along in the car with Jack, I told him the story, and apologized, and told him I would show him later that night where to turn off the lights. I also told him that I would stop taking for granted that he already understood everything I meant.
Ever since this happened, I have become painfully aware of similar occurrences all around me. In one conversation with a friend of mine, a mother, she expressed to me her mystification that her 16-year-old child, a new driver, didn’t know how to put gas in her car. In another conversation, a friend of mine who is a step-father was bemoaning the fact that his step-daughter didn’t know how to go to the bank and cash a check she received from babysitting. In each instance, each adult expressed a mixture of surprise and disdain for what they perceived as this helpless, hopeless, young millennial generation.
All I could think of as I listened to both stories was ‘have you ever taught them how to do any of these things?’
I think this “light” lessons story has relevance for more than just parents, though. I think it also has relevance in the workplace. Don’t be mad at today’s college graduates who show up at your place of employment without the skills they need to “win” right away. Don’t be mad at the system that put them there. Don’t be mad at the world that these people have been born into. Instead, teach and coach them on what to do and how to do it. And while you’re at it, go home and teach your own kids a “light” lesson — a basic skill that you know you need to win in life today.
Maybe it’s something simple but profound like the crucial four “light” lessons my own dad taught me. Show up on time. Do what you say you will do. If you can’t do something, explain why. And always use your manners. I’ve done those things my entire life (…OK, maybe only after I turned 25 years old) and they have paid huge dividends.
Think of it this way. Some days, it is about life lessons. But other days, it might be more about “light” lessons.