Tough Talk

My 17-year-old, Sam, will graduate high school in May. He’s pretty much decided on a college for next fall and he’s been enjoying all the “senior” things about this year that a young man might enjoy--homecoming game, school dances, senior events. I notice a growing air of confidence as the year progresses and he’s earned it; good grades, clean reputation, letterman athlete, nicely rounded group of activities and a diverse group of friends. We’re very proud of him and try every day to encourage him to continue to make good choices. We support as much as we can and resist the temptation of smothering him. We see a lot of his friends and team mates because we seem to be the parents that always drive. We typically drop off and pick up an extra kid or two every time we bring Sam home from any activity or sports practice. “Hey, Mr. C, thanks for the ride.”

Lately there haven’t been as many riders. I didn’t really notice at first but have been seeing the drop off more and more. I asked Sam about it. He shrugged, smiled and said, “You’re scaring everyone off.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked. I had no idea what image I was portraying that would scare a young man off. “Dad,” Sam said in that plain speaking tone of his that he uses when I wear tube socks with shorts or cowboy boots with a three-piece suit and he doesn’t want anyone to see me. “You ask all my friends what they are going to do when they graduate and if they say they don’t know you start pushing all kinds of suggestions. Most guys don’t want to talk about that stuff.”

“But they need to know,” I whispered.

“It’s not your job,” he shrugged. “If their parents aren’t pushing them why do you think you should?”

And that moment gave me pause enough not to continue the exchange. I just nodded and let it end there. He’d been honest and he wasn’t correcting me he was just telling me what the reason was. So I asked myself why I thought I needed to take such a position and push their choices at all. Maybe the kid had a point. Maybe I shouldn’t intrude or think it my business to get involved. But was that how I was raised? Was it only my parents that were “allowed” to ask about my future? What would be the possible downside of another adult asking a kid what he planned to do with his life?

My answer came back with a resounding smack on the back of my head. I’m asking because somebody should be asking those questions, somebody should be pushing them and they should be, even if it’s just a little bit, worried about their future. From whom the question came didn’t matter. The fact that they were not only avoiding the answer but avoiding people that might ask such a question began to really tick me off.

When I finished high school I recall EVERYBODY asking me those questions. 

“So where you headed, Ronnie?”

“Whatcha gonna do with yourself, boy?”

“Got some plans now, Ronnie?”

And each and every time I was expected to come up with an answer; a good answer, something that showed some future, some insight. After all, the people asking me were adults and people who’d watched me grow up in my hometown for 18 years. They had a certain investment in me as a future citizen of this town; not just Ron and Patricia’s boy. I was becoming a young man of my own and men are supposed to make choices and show some confidence.

I couldn’t get over the comment this really was; young men not wanting to be “pressed” to consider the future or look ahead with any sort of plan? What business of this was mine?  Plenty. If their parents aren’t pointing them down any path at the age of 18, shame on them.  I’m really such a bad man to avoid because I have EXPECTATIONS? If either of my grandfathers were alive I’d have their opinions ringing in my ears about what was expected of them at 10 let alone at 18. And they didn’t have luxury of a lot of choices back then either. I recall my dad’s dad telling me that during the Depression he was responsible for putting meat on the table at the age of 10. And I don’t mean by working, I mean by hunting; rabbit, possum, squirrel, fowl – any kind of meat meant a hearty meal that would feed a family of four boys, two parents and two grandparents all of which lived under one roof. My mom’s dad had to quit school to support his parent’s home because his father, who dug basements, had a run of gout and couldn’t dig like he used to. He delivered milk, ice, coal anything he could from the time he was 13 years old. In his later years, the arthritis that those hard years had inflicted gave him many an ache and pain. I only knew it because I would see him wince now and then when he stood or crouched, not because he ever complained.

And I’m not trying to thump my chest and give the old “In my day…” speech. I just think there’s some merit to the notion that it takes a village to raise young men and women. People should take an interest of the youth that crosses their path. Sure there are questions that are tough to ask, uncomfortable to answer but they must be faced. I’d encourage any parent who just kind of “lets things go” to engage as a responsible leader and remind your kids that it matters. They need to know that if they drift around and don’t make any decisions about time, time will make the decision for them.

I watched a store proprietor refuse a couple older teens a 12-pack of beer one recent weekend. He wasn’t calling the police on them or anything but he told them to sit down because he wanted to talk to them. By the time I got my things and checked out at the other register he was talking very frankly to the boys who were sitting there in the window seat by the door staring at the floor and one of the boys was in tears. Maybe when they left they made an obscene gesture and just went to another store. Maybe they mocked and laughed at the old man the minute they walked out the door. Or maybe he said something that stuck and he made a difference. Maybe it was worth trying.

Ron Ciancutti has worked in the parks and recreation industry since he was 16 years old, covering everything from maintenance, operations, engineering, surveying, park management, design, planning, recreation, and finance. He holds a BS in Business from Bowling Green State University and an MBA from Baldwin Wallace University and has held his current position as Director of Procurement since 1990.