9. The RIGHT way to set up your kid’s playroom

If your son’s playroom is a bunch of action figures, video games, and heaps of broken or unused Christmas and birthday presents, your doing it… I’ll put this bluntly…wrong. Every time your kid goes into the room, he’s going to just end up doing the same thing over and over again. Probably some mundane video game. That’s what Best Buy wants for your kid, but shouldn’t be what you want. Playing is such a huge part of a kid’s childhood, you own it to him to make sure he goes about it the right way. Every brand name toy or game you buy for your kid, you constrict his fun and creativity within another mainstream product’s limitations. So what do you do? First, start with a massive garage sale. Next, read the next paragraph.

My childhood “playroom” was the carpeted basement. It was basically just a large empty room with variable sized pillows (like gymnastic pillows), and a rubber exercise ball. From a video gamer or action figure addict’s perspective, it wasn’t much. But to me, and to the friends that I rehabilitated from mainstream gaming culture, it was a sanctum. Mainly, we’d have organized pillow fights 2v2 or 3v3. Nothing better than bashing your friend over the head with a giant pillow you can barely hold. Sure there were some cuts, bruises, rug burns, and phone calls from friend’s parents to my mom inquiring why their child keeps coming home looking like they joined an underground fight club.

I remember one time my brother decided to take part in our pillow fighting shenanigans. We all admired him so much for being able to pick up the largest pillow over his head, that is until he tossed it at my friend, flinging him backward and through the nearest drywall. We all kind of just stared at my friend, now sitting in a giant hole in the wall. After a couple seconds of tense silence, we all broke into laughter. Rather than punishing us, my mom took down the broken wall, expanding the basement playroom.

There were many other games we played apart from the spartan-like combat sessions. One time we piled all the pillows and blankets between the couch and wall. We’d then took turns squeezing down in between it all. We’d time each other to see how long it took for us to start sweating. We called it the “Ultimate Toaster.” Another game we played was making obstacle courses with the pillows and balls. For example, we timed how long it took us to run down the stairs, move the largest pillow to the far end of the room, throw a tennis ball through a hoop, bounce on the exercise ball, and finally roll up in a blanket. The last, and perhaps funnest thing we did,  I highly recommend this, was sleeping-bag sledding. We’d pile all the pillows at the bottom of the basement stairs. Then we would all pile together into a large slick sleeping bag and slide down the steps into the pillows. We did this for hours and hours, days after days. Of course this evolved into us just seeing far how many stair steps we can jump down into the pile of pillows.

My friends always wanted to come to my house to play. Looking back, I know why. Because you never knew what to expect. There was always an element of risk, creativity, randomness, and of course awesome fun. The best memories spawned from spontaneous and improvised games that we came up with in that basement. Nothing exciting or random is going to happen in your video game, save maybe for some funny glitch. Get your kids some pillows and balls, and see what happens. Plus if this works, you’ll find Christmas and his birthday to be much less stressful.

8. The Right Pet for your Kid and the WRONG Pet for your Kid

Every kid growing up needs a pet that they can take care of and can call their own. Obviously dogs are great, but that’s a family pet, not a kid’s pet. There are “good” kid’s pets and bad kid’s pets. Let me walk you through the ones that are generally bad. Fish. No one wants a damn fish. The only thing a kid will remember about a fish is how you flushed it down the toilet when it died. Stay away from fish. Plus you need a ton of equipment and crap. Another common bad one is a bird. Birds are the opposite of fish. They just refuse to die. They are always there, sitting in the cage, pecking, squawking  and pooping around. Even parrots. It’s not like  the cartoons; the parrot isn’t going to hold a conversation with you. It’s going to learn one or two words and repeat them for the next 30 years. The last common bad pet is a turtle. After day one, your kid will realize it is not a ninja turtle and will get bored with it. After that, the most memorable thing a turtle can provide is it infecting you and your family with some strange foreign disease or, it dying and you having to explain to your kid why Michelangelo is just trying to get a belly tan. I’ve had all of these pets, so trust me. From my experience, rodents have been the best “kid pets.”

One day when I was seven, my mom came home with 2 hamsters. One for me and one for my older brother.  My blonde haired brother naturally chose the light-haired one. I was happily stuck with the brown-haired one. He had a very disheveled look, slightly buggy eyes, and a nervous twitch. I named him “Stinky.” Meanwhile my brother’s hamster was very groomed and proper-looking. He named him “Caesar.” And so Caesar and Stinky joined the family that day. We loved those two guys. How do you play with a hamster? I often made mazes  out of pillows, Legos, and Jenga blocks for them to run through. Somehow Caesar had no trouble finding his way through while Stinky would either just give up or ram through one of the Jenga wall sections. It is amazing how similar I was to my hamster and my brother to his. Just like my older brother, Caesar would always pick on Stinky and eat all the food away. Stinky generally didn’t really care, but when provoked too far, would put up a real scrappy fight.

The life span of our hamsters was about 1-2 years. If I remember correctly, Stinky died of “The Lump”, and Caesar just disappeared one day. They were such great pets though, my mom bought us new ones. Eventually we made the transition to rats. The rats were much smarter and cleaner. They get a bad rep for their tails, but really do make for great kid’s pets.

Pets for your kids are a great way to teach them about responsibility. Although you may have to secretly re-clean and feed the thing  yourself every once and awhile, at least your kid will think he’s actually taking care of it.

7. Just let them be Wild

People have to stop being so damn over-protective of their children. Why? Well, once they “leave your tall barbed wired walled nest” they’ll either go crazy and do something stupid at an age that they can’t afford to being stupid things, or they’ll be turtles. Turtles are people that never take risks, always will just creep back into their shell if something new or risky presents itself. No one wants a turtle. So how do we avoid these options? Easy, a wild childhood.

In elementary and middle school, my friends and I basically spent all our free time running around like animals in my yard. One time we were lighting off some illegal fireworks we found on my driveway. The wick on one of them was apparently too short or inverted. In any case, the thing bugged out when lit. We all ran. Zooming in all different directions until BANG. We turn our heads expecting the sound to be  the finale of the rogue firework. Nope. My friend had ran head on into my black basketball pole and was lying unconscious in front of it. Poor kid. After 10 seconds he awoke again. Not well versed in the seriousness of a concussion, we all laughed it off and continued. The concussed friend with the giant bulb on his forehead did seem a little weird that night though.

Another thing we did as children was tree climbing. We took it very seriously. We knew the fastest route up all the trees in my yard. It started to get competitive. We’d began timing each other to see how fast we can climb up and back down again. On one particularly balmy day, the record was set by me. A record that could not be broken because that record almost broke me. The reason the record was untouchable was because I didn’t climb back down the tree. I just fell down it. It was a glorious time accompanied by a gloriously bruised hip.

That record kind of put an end to the competitive tree climbing era. Our next obsession was “going NASCAR fast”. We started crafting together little box carts. Some made of cardboard, some out of wood. The true test of the cart was the “bike pull.” We persuaded one of my older brother’s friends to attach the carts to his bike by the crappy string we used to tie the newspapers together. We’d then sit in the thing and get ripped around the neighborhood. It was scary. None of us wanted to admit it though. Like the tree climbing incident, I felt the need to go faster then the rest, so I talked to the bike-puller to really give it all he’s got. He reluctantly obliged. Everything was okay at first. But as he went faster, my cart started to seriously get the speed-wobbles. I panicked and made the mistake of putting my feet on the pavement to slow down. The next thing I know, I’m tangled in the rope in between  the cart and bike getting dragged down the street. I was picking pebbles of pavement out of my knees and palms for days.

This wild behavior did finally come to an end in high school.  When we started saying ” do you want to hang out” rather than ” do you want to play” we really knew it was over. But our childhood activities taught us many useful things. We knew from how high up it starts to hurt when jumping off something onto the ground. We learned the proper drop and roll method when hitting the ground. We learned to judge if a branch could hold your weight or not. We learned what the signs of “going to fast” were. We learned how to play with fire, use a drill, use a hammer, and so much more. Trial and error in my childhood gave me extraordinary instincts and more importantly a good eye for what is possible, dangerous, or do-able.

6. Clutter for the Children

I wouldn’t be the person I am today without the clutter. By clutter, I mean the boxes of random items my mom saved instead of trashing. These boxes of  “junk” in the garage are where most of my “projects” started. I made models of the empire state building, used a rock tumbler machine to power the wheels of a car I constructed ( didn’t really end up working since it only went as far as the rock tumbler plug would allow), imaginary spaceships, and countless more random things. Hot glue was the rocket fuel behind all of my ideas.

These boxes of junk comprised of empty toilet paper rolls, popsticle sticks, tooth pics, tons of cardboard boxes, random metal objects around the house like springs and rods, shishgabob sticks, all scrap wood, extra carpeting/tiles, an assortment of different sized balls, and much much more. I remember one project in particular that targeted the toilet paper rolls. I would cut them in half and tape them on the wall. I would arrange them so I could drop a ping pong ball on the top one, and watch the ball roll and bounce its way down the wall along the carefully laid track of toilet paper rolls.  There were obviously many rounds of trial and error until I arrived at a track that worked every time. Sure I had to over-wipe for a couple weeks to get the necessary amount of rolls, but hey, the extra  effort paid off. It’s funny that I had a similar ping pong project in my engineering course last semester. I am telling you, this stuff is important.

So again, please designate a place at your home where you keep some boxes of junk for your kids. To you it’s crap, but to them it opens up a world of possibilities… and hot glue burns.

5. Sleep-away camp

One of the best, if not the best, memories of my childhood were those from sleep-away camp. Every child needs to experience it. By sleep-away camp, I mean a true sleep-away camp where you drop your kid off for 1-3 weeks and don’t see them until its over. Let me share with you my sleep-away camp experience for you to understand its importance. Keep in mind, my sleep away camp is a very extreme example of the perfect sleep-away camp.

The camp my parents decided to send me to was oversees in Europe near my grandparents. They dropped me off at the airport in the US and I’d fly alone. It twas a big step in becoming a man. Well, the stewardesses did shower me with toys, food, and games, but no matter, I was alone for the first time in my life.

My grandparents then picked me up from the airport and drove me to the camp. The mere location of this camp was unbelievable. You’d have to drive up a windy one-way street that is actually a two-way. After honking around turns for two hours, you’d finally arrive at this cozy little restaurant nestled in the shadow of the looming mountain. From there, you can see the camp. Only between you and it, was a giant ravine. There was a metal box attached to a mechanized zip line that transported your luggage, but as for me, there was a long tedious hike ahead. Down and up. The best part of it all was that you can hear the cries of campers growing louder and louder as you approached the camp. And then finally I was there.

There was only one way to describe this camp. Old-school. REAL old-school. The camp leader was a blind old farmer, Noldi. People called him 2 pixels because that’s just about as much as he could see. It wasn’t just a bunch of  kids with a blind old man though, there were many adult and teenage counselors, cooks, and cleaning people. At the age of 14, I was allowed to be one of these “cleaning people.” In exchange for the camp being free, I’d have to clean the dishes after all the camp meals. Together with friends, cleaning wasn’t bad at all. Plus, any really dirty silverware was thrown out the window into the deep ravine (probably like an 800 ft drop). The unexplained absence of tons of silverware did start to become suspicious… Especially when we went down to the ravine to go  swimming for a camp outing, campers kept finding forks and knives. Other camp outings included overnight mountain peak hikes where we slept in farmer’s straw barns on the way or just in our sleeping bags under the stars. It was the real deal. We only showered twice over the 2.5 week long camp. To shower, the counselors heated water in those large metal milk urn type things over a wooden fire. Then they’d set it on the second floor, attach a hose to it, and you’d maybe get 30 seconds of warm water. Everyone was basically just dirty the entire time. Deodorant was unheard of. We’d just blame the smell on the nearby grazing cows. The entire camp was enclosed in by a small electric fence. It was camp initiation to “feel the pain of the cows” and touch this fence. The best part of the camp was that there was not strict itinerary or “game plan” for each day. You’d basically just be hanging out with friends, playing games, lighting fires, making forts in the woods, you name it. There was a headcount before you go to bed, and that was it. Sure there were a lot of broken bones, fights, fierce competition in games, and such. As the only American with a funny accent, I luckily had no trouble in settling comfortably in the social hierarchy of the camp. It was like a very simplified version of real life, just in the terms of a kid. It gave me a taste of being independent.

Of course, as before, all good things come to an end. After George Bush got re-elected, I  was not allowed back.

4. The Necessary Evils

Looking back on my childhood, there were two things that I despised but forced to do by my parents: learning to play the trumpet and going to catholic school once a week. Both were miserable at the time, but were the necessary evils to make my childhood successful.

In my family learning the play an instrument was expected. My brother learned the saxophone, my sister the piano, and me the trumpet. I first started taking lessons in 4th grade with a teacher that would come to my house once a week. There is only one way to describe this man. A psychopath. He would get so mad and frustrated every time I hooted a wrong note. I admit, I teared up a couple times. Nothing compared to the tears of rage and spit that he hurled at me though. Finally, my mom decided that my mental health may be at risk, and it was time to find a different teacher.

Teacher number 2: A festively plump woman with countless small children and always in a state of questionable pregnancy. I would have to go to her house and play in her laundry rooms as she folded clothes, changed diapers, and one time even breast fed. It was weird. Also, for practice she made me blow into a black rubber bag. It looked like something one puts hot water in and sticks under the covers before they go to bed. She even insisted on me playing with her trumpet-playing husband at the some professional park concert. My entire family showed up that day to watch me pretend to play. They thought it was hilarious. Finally, my mom acknowledged that I had no future in trumpeting and let me quit. However, I think the whole trumpet fiasco did help me in the long run. I learned how to read music, the blowing-in-bag exercises may have contributed to my future successful athletic career as a runner, and how to properly fold certain articles of clothing is great for college.

The second necessary evil was catholic school. Every Thursday I’d have to go to the local religious school to learn about Catholicism for an hour. Coincidentally, my teacher was the professional trumpet player husband guy. I don’t think he ever forgave me for botching the park concert. How Christian of him. Oh well. The worst part about it all was that he would assign us homework each week. We had to write a summary about mass on Sunday. Every Sunday morning my parents would rock, paper, scissor to see who would have to accompany me to mass. It was a hassle. But I must say, it taught me a lot in the end. Gave me a healthy religious perspective on things I suppose.

3. Get ’em to be Outdoorsy

The last thing you want on your hands is one of those germaphobic kids that can’t catch a ball. Nothing against those kids, its just life is easier if you are outdoorsy. My mom would always bring us to the local creek to stumble around in the water in my dad’s rubber boots looking for fossils. Somehow we’d always end the day with fossil or shark’s tooth or something. I remember one having a weird white sticker on it. Looking back,  guess mom forgot to de-price tag that guy. But at the time, my friends and I loved it. One time we followed the creek real deep into the woods and my friend got stuck in quick sand. It was scary, but we survived. These experiences gave us humility and a sense of respect for mother nature.

As we grew older ( 10-12), fossils just wasn’t cutting it anymore. All the sudden we had this fetish for catching wild frogs. It became a sport. I’ll always cherish the honor of being the record holder of catching the most frogs in one day: 7. At first, we starting putting them in tanks, but quickly found that to be a bad idea. All those early ones died. They were the sacrificial guinea pigs in our sport that we now called “frogging.” So instead of keeping them, we just released them back into the wild. Thus, each day we’d catch the same ones. Eventually, we started naming them. I must have caught Gerald, one of the fatter and slower ones, at least 50 times. It got to a point Gerald wouldn’t even try to get away. And then there was the Flood. The great flood of 2005. It rained for 7 days and 7 nights. Not actually, but there was significant rainfall that ripped through the creek habitat, destroying everything including the frogs, Gerald was never seen again and so the sport of Frogging came to an end. We needed something else to occupy ourselves with.

Naturally, we started to dig a hole in my backyard. It was a smooth transition from killing to digging. And by digging, I mean 2-3 hours after school everyday. We had a group of like 3-4 neighbor kids that dedicated their lives to this hole. It was absurd. But at the time, it was awesome. It got to a point that we needed to build a rope ladder to get out of it. To continue digging, we needed to transport the dirt out with bags. My mom was getting a bit worried. Had she been American and aware of all the potential legal complications a massive hole in an unfenced backyard could create, she would have probably told us to stop. But she wasn’t, so instead she just bought us better shovels. But of course all good things come to an end at some point.

The story of the hole ended for two reasons. First reason was that after about 7-8 feet down, we hit what looked like a water pipe. We went about it like a group of miners or oil drillers would have done. We met one night, and very democratically took a vote on different options we had; dig around it, dig to the side of it, or dig a new hole. Of course, all the options held a future of digging in it. But to our dismay, our decision of digging to the side of it was shot down by the actions of one neighbor girl, Sally. She came prancing over to see what all the fuss was about this now neighborhood legendary hole. Sally, having the hand eye coordination of a blind 3rd grader, of course fell in the hole while looking over the edge and broke her ankle. Luckily her mother did not press any charges or anything like that, but the hole needed to be filled. That fall, instead of bringing the leaves to the curb of the road, they went into the hole. A once glorious epicenter where Caprisuns were drank and songs sung, was filled and forgotten.

2. No Pantry, No Problem

Healthy food and drink. NO SODA. This is a no brainer, but should be taken very seriously. There are only 2 types of beverage in my refrigerator ( OJ and milk). That’s it. No joke. And if there was something else in there, it was sure indicator that we were having guests over and my mother wanted to make it appear that we were “normal.” Far from it. Another great thing my parents did was NOT have a pantry. Of course, I hated this at the time. Everytime, I was hungry, I’d have to resort to the old bag of almonds or scoop out some honey bunches of oats. POW’s had more food options than me. But as my dad always tells me ( from calvin and hobbes) “it builds character.” That was basically the motto of my upbringing. Deal with it, it builds character, and you’ll understand when your older. And how very right they were. Also, another key thing is family dinners where you learn not to eat with your mouth open or have your elbow’s on the table. I am shocked how many of my friends eat like goddamn animals. I remember one time at the dinner table when I was a child. We were having spaghetti. I took a particularly ambitious loop on my fork and ended up choking. Instead of giving me the Heimlich maneuver, my dad got pissed off and told me to chew with my mouth closed and too not touch my food with my hands. Meanwhile I’m tugging on the end of the spaghetti to clear my throat. Typical dad.

1. TV is not the solution to Boredom

Yes, this may be a chafe for you, I understand, but trust me your kid’s life will be way better without that box. If you really need to satiate your Glee or Desperate Housewives urges, watch it on your laptop in the bathroom.  Instead buy tons of LEGOS. And I’m not talking about those sets that you just build the chamber of secrets and then be done with it. I’m talking industrial amounts of legos with NO instructions. I would play with legos for hours and hours, constructing cities on cities on cities. I even got my nickolodeon junky friends (yeah I actually started to make a couple, even with the now musty accent) into my lego frenzy. I remember specifically starting a lego currency. It consisted of different colored lasers. You’d have to trade in lasers to get building pieces from the bank ( which was the big box of legos which yours truly of course controlled and monopolized). I learned more about economic theory playing legos in elementary school with my friends than AP econ in high school.

There are drawbacks to no TV though. The biggest one being, when I was at school or a friends house and there was a tv on, I’d be glued to it. Especially Rocket Power, love that show. I wanted to be those guys so bad. It is no coicendence that I am competent skier, snowboarding, skateboarder, surfer, and skimboarder. (why all those start with ‘s’ is a mystery)  X-treme sports was my jam, I was always doing crazy shit. Everyday was a battle to get better and make it pro status. I would often retire at night bruised and cut up. I surrounded myself with the most competitive kids at my school. We’d always be building ramps in my driveway, which really pissed off my dad when he couldn’t park when he got home from work. Or in the winter, when everything had to be moved and stored. Sorry dad.