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Music. Lyrics. Lessons. 10 Songs I Will Teach my Son

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As I drove Max to school this morning, we discussed what garbage trucks smell like, why boogers taste salty and how wearing Superman pajamas enables you to fly in your dreams. Pretty standard stuff for a Tuesday morning. Then there was a moment of silence, except for the song playing in the background. Max asked — as he often does — “Dada, what is this song about?” It was Simon & Garfunkel’s masterful “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” I told him it’s about loving someone so much, that no matter what problems they’re going through, you’ll always be there for them. He said, “Like being my Dada?” I said, “Yes, just like being your Dada.”

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After I walked him into school and hugged him goodbye, I went back into my jeep and replayed the song. As I processed the lyrics — words that have suddenly taken on a far more personal meaning — I realized that there are so many important things I want to teach Max now that he’s getting older … like introducing him to the great music that helped shape my life.

So that’s where we’ll begin.

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10. R.E.S.P.E.C.T. – Aretha Franklin

Anyone who knows me knows I have a voracious musical appetite that spans rock, soul, R&B; and pop. My coming of age was driven and defined entirely by my musical obsessions. Music was and is my refuge. My happy place. It transcends time, color, language and culture. When words fail, music speaks. Whether it was 70s Stevie, late-80s Whitney or mid-90s Radiohead, song lyrics shouted from the transistor radio the words I was afraid to say.

In a world where we’re compartmentalized by labels that divide us, music is the one thing that unites us all. And so just as my parents introduced me to lifetime faves such as Billy Joel, Elton John, Hall & Oates, and Aretha Franklin — I plan to do the same for Max. And whether it’s the songs of Freddie Mercury, Luther Vandross, Annie Lennox, Lauren Hill or Adele – (stop judging me; you know you love her) — I’ll make sure he pays extra close attention to the lyrics. Because that’s where the healing powers reside.

Bob Marley once said, “One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.” That’s what I hope it turns out to be for Max. A pain reliever. A remedy. A therapist. A friend. A magic wand that turns his bad days to good and his good days to great… just as it has for me.

Chicago Album cover

9. Hard To Say I’m Sorry – Chicago

Watch any of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” reunion specials and you’ll see how difficult it is to forgive someone who has wronged you. I want to teach Max that a big part of forgiveness is for his benefit, not his oppressor’s. I’ve seen it with some of friends and my family; when they can’t move past something they become prisoners of their negative experiences. That type of resentment isn’t healthy. If you’re bent on holding grudges, you can become so wrapped up in past wrongs that you can’t enjoy the present. By letting go of resentment, you’re able to achieve a sense of peace. It doesn’t make you a doormat; it’s more of a welcome mat towards a brighter future.

Equally important is learning to say you’re sorry. If you did or said something wrong to someone (Munchausen’s anyone?), take responsibility for it and say you’re sorry. While those three words can be hard to say, they’re very powerful because the longer you are silent, the longer you will stay silent. By admitting fault you’re able to repair damaged relationships by comforting the offended while relieving yourself of the guilt. I want Max to understand that nobody’s perfect. (We’ve all seen Adele’s pitchy Grammy performance.) We all will do something to hurt another person at some point in our lives. It’s okay — just own it. A genuine apology is an act of honesty and humility. It’s about being courageous, not weak.

Simon and Garfunkel album cover

8. Bridge Over Troubled Water – Simon & Garfunkel

No one likes the friend who doesn’t share … or the friend who brags and only talks about himself, or the friend who laughs at your mistakes; who talks about you behind your back and secretly judges you. The “friend” who throws you under the bus, and when push comes to shove, doesn’t have your back. I need to teach Max never to become that type of person. I want him to treat others how he wants to be treated. To speak to others the way he wants to be spoken to or spoken of. And lastly, as difficult as it may be, I want Max always to make an effort to be respectful, even in the face of un-respectability. I want him to be open to hearing from and seeing the other side… because that’s when he can really learn (or teach) something.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that the people you surround yourself with are a reflection of you. I want Max always to surround himself with people he admires and respects. I’ll always remember this quote by motivational speaker Jim Rohn: “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” One bad seed can ruin everything. (Two words: Yoko Ono.) I want Max to remember this as he forms social circles at school.

guns and roses album cover

7.  Don’t Cry – Guns N’ Roses

When I was growing up, society told me that it wasn’t okay to cry. Only sissies did that. Being vulnerable was unacceptable, a sign of weakness and was considered un-masculine. So you can imagine what that was like for a super sensitive boy like me. I was a crier. Tears could have started from an especially emotional episode of “Highway To Heaven” or the time my brother put me in the dryer and then turned it on the tumble dry setting. Once, I went into hysterics when my other brother accidentally taped over my VHS copy of Beaches. Let’s just say he was no longer the wind beneath my wings.

I wanted to be tough like the other Blacker boys. I never saw my dad cry. My brothers only cried when the Eagles lost. I had zero exposure to boys like me: boys who felt things deeply. Then, when I was a teenager I watched a movie on cable. It was “Ordinary People,” a family drama about loss, guilt, shame, acceptance and forgiveness. In it, a teenage boy and his father struggle to get in touch with their feelings, but once they are finally able to open up their hearts and souls with the help of a great therapist, the emotions erupt from them like a volcano. The film showed me how dangerous it is for boys and men to shut down and keep their feelings bottled up inside.

I want Max to be comfortable expressing his feelings. I want him to understand that we’re all human and we all cry, it’s just a matter of having the balls to show it. Crying does not make you any less of a man, it just shows your friends and family that behind the strong, tough exterior lies a compassionate heart that genuinely cares despite what society, and perhaps, your pride may say.

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6.  I Hope You Dance – Lee Ann Womack

When I was a kid I developed a love of storytelling. Writing allowed me to express myself creatively and I learned early on that being creative is one of the greatest joys and privileges we have as humans. I want to encourage Max to find his writing. It could be anything — sports, art, music, photography, dancing — whatever he’s passionate about. And once he finds it, I hope he makes the time to do it.

I want him to know that the best thing about having a hobby is you don’t have to stick with it if you get tired of it. You make the rules. At any point you can find a new passion. There’s a lot to be passionate about in life, so I want him to explore all the possibilities. At least the legal ones.

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5.  Walking In My Shoes – Depeche Mode

I always observed my family when I was a kid. I’d watch them engage with each other. I’d watch them chat with neighbors. I’d listen to them talk on the phone. And sometimes, when they’d bring me to work, I’d get a chance to see them interact with colleagues. I saw my parents and my brothers fight, cry, laugh and argue. And what I learned by watching them all those years was that you should never judge people at their worst moments. You should judge them on their best moments.

Everyone has those moments we wish we could take back or do over. (Just ask Ben Affleck about his former nanny.) Everyone has bad days, and it is unfair to judge people based solely on their lows. Because you wouldn’t want them to form their opinion of you based only on your mistakes. I want to teach Max to judge people on the sum of their parts, so he’s able to see the best in people, not the worst.

Bob Marley Album cover

4.  Get Up Stand Up – Bob Marley

Children can be *ssholes. And from my experience, it usually says more about their parents than it does about them. The point is — kids can be really mean. I want to teach Max to face mean kids with dignity and confidence. Instead of playing into their game, I’ll advise Max to be assertive and let people know if and when they’re being unkind. If that doesn’t work, walk away. (And if that doesn’t work, kick them in the balls as hard as you can — then run away as fast as you can.) I’m kidding. But not entirely. While I don’t condone violence, I do want Max to be confortable standing up for himself. By doing that, others will respect you and be less likely to push you around.

The one thing my husband and I have zero tolerance for is bullying. While I don’t think we’ll have to worry about Max being a bully — just this week he won an award at school for “most caring” — I want him to choose not to associate with bullies. You don’t gain anything from being in their presence and you’re not doing them any favors by putting up with their bullsh*t or rewarding them for bad behavior.

Sam Cooke album cover

3. A Change is Gonna Come – Sam Cooke

This is the thing that took me the longest to learn. Despite how hard you try, and how much you want to help someone, you cannot in fact change them. People can change — but they need to change themselves.

Look, everyone wants to be loved, respected and accepted for who they are. But oftentimes we expect people to change their goals, habits and values to be better aligned with ours. The thing is, trying to mold people into the way you wish they were is inherently problematic on so many levels.

I want Max to understand the value in accepting people for who they are … especially regarding his future spouse. We all deserve to be happy with the people closest to us. And that begins with choosing to be with those you’re not looking to change.

Whitney Houston Album Cover

2. It’s Not Right But It’s Okay – Whitney Houston

In preparation for Max’s teenage years (it’s never too soon to start preparing), it’s important for him to understand the simple reality that life is not fair. Some guys have six-packs while others have dad bods. Whitney and Prince are dead, but Ariana Grande and The Donald are alive and well. OJ was acquitted. You see where I’m going with this. Unfair sh*t happens all the time, which is why you must remain optimistic. When the unfairness of life knocks you down, instead of shouting “Why me?” to the sky – remember Nancy Kerrigan? – dust yourself off and try again. Play the cards you were dealt, and in the words of Tim Gunn, “Make it work.”

Thank you Mood.

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1. I Will Always Love You – Dolly Parton / Whitney Houston

If you ignore numbers ten through two, I’ll still love you. If (well, when) you give me lice, I’ll still love you. If you fail trigonometry, I’ll still love you. If you ever eat bread during Passover, I’ll still love you. If you scratch my 70s vinyl, steal my car before you have a driver’s license, and/or ever question your sexuality, I’ll still love you. If you ever mess up, I’ll still love you. No matter what you do, no matter where you are, no matter what you say, I will never stop loving you, not even for a second.

That said, please don’t give me lice.

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So there you have it. Ten songs and the important things they’ve taught me about life. And so now, I leave you with a few gems that didn’t make the cut:

  • Go easy on the cologne.
  • Bet on yourself or no one else will.
  • Tell women they’re beautiful.
  • Make fun of yourself. But not of others without their permission.
  • Never ask a woman if it’s her “time of the month.”
  • Never kiss and tell. Unless it’s a celebrity.
  • It’s not what you think or feel; it’s what you do that’s important.
  • Never show up empty-handed.
  • “Gay” is not a bad word. Or an insult.
  • Never stop asking “why.”
  • Make friends with the quiet ones. They have the best stories.
  • Be the designated driver. Or the guy at the party who takes all the keys.
  • Learn how to love and accept yourself so much that you no longer notice who doesn’t.
  • Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.

(, I know; I just wanted to end with another Whitney reference).

To help find your path to fatherhood through gay adoption, surrogacy or foster care check out the GWK Academy.

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