Breaking Bad

By Michael Miller /

Raising kids is like being a full-time traffic cop. It’s watching every direction at every moment, trying to anticipate disaster before it happens, enforcing rules that should be common sense but are often ignored in the pursuit of speed.

“No” is the smallest big word in a parent’s vocabulary. Like the color red, “no” elicits an instant reaction of caution. But like any word repeated and repeated again, it loses its meaning and becomes just another strip in the numbing gauze of streaming information that must be processed.

We have tried to instill standards of civil and polite behavior in our two sons, Evan, 8, and Sean, 6. But sometimes, examples are far more effective teaching tools.

During a recent weekend away, we stayed at a suburban Embassy Suites hotel. It was set up for big events, with a massive open atrium and far more amenities than our usual stopover locations.

The hotel was hosting a reunion with scores of people meandering around in matching T-shirts. They enjoyed a Saturday night reception and dinner with music and seemingly a great deal of familial warmth. The center of the reunion seemed to be a wedding anniversary; the celebrated couple had a photo album and the bride’s wedding dress on display.

Even from halfway across the atrium, it was clear they were the proud patriarch and matriarch of the large family.

But as the weekend progressed, many members of the party brought children who were allowed to roam the hotel like packs of wildebeests, trampling over other people’s personal space and comfort with zero regard for basic civilities.

Our sons witnessed people bull-rushing the elevators before people in the car had a chance to exit. They saw people walking by reception buffet areas and scooping out munchies with their bare hands, dropping food and crunching it underfoot without looking back. They saw kids running in the halls, yelling and screaming as if the space outside room 404 were a playground.

swimming-pool-clipart-Hotel-Icon-Swimming-Pool-Clip-ArtAgainst our better judgment, we took Sean and Evan to the hotel pool to let them splash around and release some energy. There were eight or nine kids, none of them yet teens, none of them with parents, running around the pool’s wet tile borders, indiscriminately throwing a basketball and taking turns diving and cartwheeling into the pool, which was only 5 feet at its deepest. They were also cannonballing into a nearby hot tub, which was barely 4 feet deep and was clearly marked off-limits for anyone younger than  16. They all wore (or had discarded) the reunion T-shirts that seemingly four score other people were wearing in the hotel.

The behavior was appalling, not just for its rudeness, but for its recklessness. We tried to give our kids a small corner to splash in away from the melee, but the other kids began running and jumping in over our boys’ heads, so we soon gathered our kids and left. We talked to them on the way back about the dangerous and rude behavior they had witnessed. Sean was clearly rattled by the chaos, but Evan seemed as fascinated by the wildness as he was repulsed by it.

Part of our room arrangement was a 24-hour “refreshment center” in the form of a hallway vending machine stocked with water, soda and various candies and chips. We were supplied with a punch key code for the machine, and on the way back to our room, we used the code to get bottles of cold water and two or three munchie items. Each time we used the code, the number indicating the amount of remaining turns dropped by one —  99, 98, 97. A group of the young reunion revelers were behind us, commenting on how much they wished they could break the machine’s glass to get a bag of Skittles or Cheetos. It crossed my mind to offer to get them each something, but I would not want a stranger offering my kids a treat, so I took the few items back to our room.

About two hours later, my wife asked me to step back into the hall for more water.

As I approached the machine, the group of kids from earlier fled from me, their hands full of as many chip bags and candy bars as they could carry.

I keyed in the code for the bottle of water and saw the number: 54.

I knew I had not removed 40-plus items from the machine. As I stood there puzzling, two of the kids from the reunion came back, stepped in front of me and punched in their key code.

Which was my exact key code.

They had watched me enter the code and then kept returning to use it, just about emptying the machine. The access was a courtesy; we were not being charged per item and certainly did not plan to abscond with 50 Twix bars, but I still felt … not angry, but violated in the way one feels when something has been stolen or unfairly taken away.

The next morning, we rose early and tried to get our kids back to the pool before we left. As we passed the vending machine, I noted it was empty.

Arriving at the pool, we were dismayed to see a smaller group of the same kids from the night before were already raising hell. But this time, a hotel employee kept entering the area and ordering them out of the water, telling them they could not be in the pool without a parent. Every time the employee left, the kids literally dove back in. This game lasted about three rounds before one of the kids left and retrieved a man she identified as her father.

rule-clipart-RulesGraphicAs soon as the employee left, the man exited to an outside area to smoke and use his cellphone, his back to the indoor pool. When he came back inside, he told the kids he had not spent hotel money to leave the bed and hang out at a pool. Without breaking stride, he left.

By this time, we had our disappointed boys in towels and were heading back to pack up and leave. Upstairs, we talked to them about the flagrant flouting of rules and open lack of respect for authority and basic manners. I was being a bit hard in my condemnation of the misbehaving kids, desperate to use them as an illustration of worst-case public behavior.

It was Evan who said, “But none of them had a mommy or daddy around. Who will teach them?”

As we were reminded in subsequent days, even some mommies and daddies do not employ manners and basic civility, but at the time, we focused on the lessons to be learned from the kids we had seen.

As I turned in our room key cards, I saw the celebrated, elderly matriarch and patriarch waiting patiently to have their luggage loaded. As they waited, reunion T-shirt-clad kids pulled a plant from its vase, ran in circles among guests in line and ran waving food they had pulled from the breakfast service.

They looked sad and slightly mortified, but remained quiet, sanctioning through silence the rude and wild behavior, monarchs to generations of impolite and hazardous people.

I know we are not raising perfect kids, but we are working to raise ones who will recognize the difference between civility and boorishness, between making the occasional wave and drowning in rudeness.

A graduate of Toledo Libbey High School and the University of Toledo, Michael Miller is co-founder and Editor in Chief of Toledo Free Press, Lucas and Wood County’s largest Sunday newspaper. Michael has worked as an editor in Washington, D.C., and edited publications in Pittsburgh, San Jose, Calif. and Miami, Florida. His syndicated column, “Lighting the Fuse,” has been published in more than 40 national newspapers since 1999. In 2002, a book compiling Michael’s columns was published by American City Business Journals. Michael has won more than two dozen industry awards, including the National Society of Newspaper Columnists Humor Columnist of the Year for 2002 and was named third-best columnist in Ohio at the 2009 Society for Professional Journalists awards. He is a Toledo “20 Under 40” recipient and the youngest living member of the Toledo Libbey High School Hall of Fame. Michael and his wife Shannon have a 8-year-old son, Evan, and a 6-year-old son, Sean.


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