Family ManŽ: On the Loose

By Gregory Keer

I have a bad stomach. Some of it is due to my inability to digest dairy products and Indian food, but most of it stems from stress.

Days before a deadline or hours before a public speaking appearance, my tummy plays host to a band of demonic scientists gleefully mixing chemicals to see which combinations create the grandest explosions.

But it's not the big anxieties that trouble me most. It's the countless little ones that buzz around my nervous system each time I try to do my work well enough to keep my job, take a frantic trip to my kids' schools to pick them up on time, and compose a column that keeps people from dropping off to sleep. (If you're still awake, you might notice the perspiration beads dotting the spaces between the words on this page.)

While I derive some benefit from the adrenaline that keeps me striving to be my best, what really bothers me (see, more anxiety!) is that I am not modeling the right attitude for my children.

Yelling at the computer map directions when I can't find the house for a birthday party, barking at the kids when they don't put away their Converse All-Stars, and snipping at my wife about who does more of the kitchen cleanup might be fine if these cracks in the armor appeared occasionally. However, they show up way too often and send my children the message that sweating the small stuff is OK.

I should know better, right? Like everyone else, I have Dr. Phil and aisles of self-help books to tell me that stress kills and life is too short to persistently beat myself up over imperfection. Given this public opportunity to announce my annual New Year's resolution, I confess to being worried (there it is, again) if I can actually achieve my promise to be less tightly wound.

Yet, hope springs from my very own children, who aren't all that anxious. Ari is only 3 years old, but he already has a devil-may-care attitude that projects favorably for his older years. How else can I explain the way he carelessly grins as I holler about the beverages he purposely spills at home and in my car?

Jacob, who used to closely approximate my neurotic nature, has become serene as he takes on the big tasks of kindergarten. Formerly, he would tantrum or shove a kid who messed up his art project. Now, he shrugs and makes a new drawing.

My 9-year-old, Benjamin, has developed a relatively breezy view on life that I envy. Whenever he hurts a friend's feelings, he smoothes things over by nightfall with a sincere apology. If he gets in trouble at school for talking too much in class or earns poor marks because he forgets to turn in homework assignments, he promises nothing, telling us that he'll "try to do better." For a while, it drove me nuts that he seemed so nonchalant about his slipups; that he rarely wilted when I lectured him about making an effort. How could a child with my genes not get twisted with concern about fixing everything?

The answer is that Benjamin simply goes ahead and does more than try. It's not that things come easy to him; he cares about others and works hard. It's just that he never overthinks anything, opting to let actions speak more loudly than anxiety attacks.

So, why can't I be more like my kids? I could get weighed down by the logic that my children don't have the burdens of adult responsibility. They have the luxury of thinking that, no matter what mistakes they make, there is still fun ahead. They won't lose a job, no one will break up with them, and no one will tell them their cholesterol is too high so they can't have the whole portion of bread pudding.

But should any of those reasons stop me from goofing around for the sake of goofing around like Ari, shrugging off the barriers others put in my way and moving forward like Jacob, and thinking less about learning from my mistakes and just doing it like Benjamin? My stomach says this is the year to find out.