Cooling It On Coolness

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My daughter turned 9 last spring, so her formative years are over.

As my dad used to say, the canoe is built; now she has to start paddling. I believe my job is to help her navigate the complex currents of daily life without capsizing.

I know many parents worry that sinister forces are lurking everywhere, waiting to trap unsuspecting children who wander out the front door. These concerns aren't groundless, just exaggerated. We can't protect our kids by shielding them from the real world. I'm trying to give my daughter enough knowledge and confidence to seek out good influences, reject bad ones, and make the best use of her own special talents.

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Keep in mind that youth culture is a fairly recent development. By the end of World War II, Americans found themselves confronted by teenagers who were developing new trends in dressing, music, and social relations. Parents had become squares; kids wanted to be cool. The point I emphasize to my own child, and to anyone else who will listen, is that the pursuit of coolness is seldom satisfying. Trying to win acceptance from a peer group usually means suppressing your own individuality. It's also a lousy way to build self-esteem.

However, peer pressure is small change compared to the ongoing barrage of messages directed at kids by media and advertising. Having worked in radio and TV for almost two decades, I know the system. Commercials pay the bills, and toy commercials are always compelling. But I steer my daughter into focusing her attention on how the ads are deliberately set up to give an enhanced view of the product.

The little girls riding in a battery powered Barbie-mobile are cruising around a front yard as big as the Ewing Ranch on "Dallas." Real front yards, like ours, don't offer the same territorial options. Better still are scenes of boys playing with action figures. In many cases, the real action comes from swooping camera movements.

The only aspect of TV that I try to avoid completely is the endless stream of worthless information about celebrities. The entertainment industry generates this gossip as a marketing tool to maintain audience interest in whatever projects the stars may be involved in. Leonardo DiCaprio is probably a great guy, but I'm absolutely certain that whoever he's dating will have no effect on me or on anyone in my family.

Fortunately, my daughter likes to read and draw. Both pursuits will benefit her creative development far more than anything she might see on "Entertainment Tonight." My wife has also done a spectacular job of keeping us involved in team sports, so there's plenty of physical activity throughout the year.

Staying busy is important, along with the right attitude. Nothing disturbs me more than hearing bored, sullen kids complain that life is lousy, the world is corrupt, and there's no hope for anything better because it's all a conspiracy. The one example I try to set for my daughter every day is the importance of a positive outlook, even when things around the house are haywire.

It's hard to know what she's really thinking, though. My mother used to encourage me to be more outgoing and make new friends. She could sit next to a stranger on a plane and by the end of the flight they'd be great pals. I found this behavior mortifying. In high school, I never even said hello to the student at the next locker. Now, however, I'm on a first-name basis with store clerks, bank tellers, the UPS man, and all the neighbors.

So the ideas I'm trying to plant may not bloom in my daughter's world for a long time. But that's OK. I'm planning to be around as long as it takes.

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