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Yo-ho-ho and a Disappearing Dad

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Read Time: 3 minutes

This post comes from Jeff Nelligan, author of  Four Lessons from My Three Sons – How You Can Raise Resilient Kids, now in its second edition.

Calling All Pirates:

My two eldest sons attended an all-boys middle school and one spring its sister school (i.e. all girls) was putting on a theatrical production, “The Pirates of Penzance,” which required — you guessed it — a lot of pirates.

Naturally, the show’s producers came to my sons’ school to recruit boys to fill out the cast of pirates to be on stage during key scenes.

My two eldest sons dismissively told me about the casting call. My immediate reaction? “Boys, you need to do this!”

Of course they immediately balked. 

“I’ll be waiting outside,” I promised.

So first, I badgered them: “C’mon, boys. This is no big deal. You both play on fields in front of a hundred adults.” No dice.

Second, I tried reason. “Volunteering for this deal will go on your school record.” Nope.

Third, I simply gave up and bribed them. “Okay, you each get ten bucks if you just go to the tryouts. If you don’t like it after the first five minutes you can leave and I’ll be waiting outside.”

Bingo. That Saturday morning at the sister school they got out of the car with ten-dollar bills in their pockets and departed through the auditorium doors. Guess what happened next.

I didn’t wait outside. I drove away.

So maybe I lied…

I returned to the school at noon and they walked out dressed like pirates. They got in the car and I said with forced heartiness, “Well! I’m glad I didn’t stick around too long.” 


Then the eldest said, “Nice try, Dad.” 

I looked in the rearview mirror at him. “Me and Braden got in there and Mrs. Cameron came up and said she was counting on us. She gave us this pirate stuff and said all we have to do is be on the stage when the pirates are yelling and swinging these swords. We figured we couldn’t leave because of her. Besides, we knew you already left.”

I turned around to face them in the backseat. “You guys really know your old man.” “Yeah, we do.” And then all three of us started laughing.

Ghosting as a parenting technique.

“I’ll be waiting outside” entered the Nelligan family lexicon that day. A throwaway line uttered when one of the boys was walking into a tough scene or just the unknown, always uttered with humorous resignation.

“Big game this afternoon.” “This biology test is going to hurt.” “Do I have to go to the dentist?” And then always, “And yeah, Dad, I know. You’ll be waiting outside.”

That’s because in an odd fashion, this phrase provided an element of mental strengthening. At 9 and 10 years old both boys had pushed pass the anxiety of trying something brand new. After the experience with Penzance — and with other potentially daunting scenes — they actually began to understand that they could push past an unusual challenge; one gave them a framework for the next one, whatever it was.

Even at West Point:

Fast forward many years later and I’m dropping off the youngest son at West Point for the start of his grueling four years of Army life. In a crowded auditorium full of edgy parents and anxious kids a General shouts, “Parents! You have one minute to say goodbye to your Cadet and exit the building!”

Everyone reflexively stands and despite the emotions we both feel, my son turns to me with this big grin. I’m grinning as well; we both know the score here. “Dad, don’t even say it.” Then he shakes my hand and walks away.

Nelligan’s  Four Lessons from My Three Sons – How You Can Raise Resilient Kids describes the parenting techniques that propelled his sons to the U.S. Naval Academy, Williams College, West Point and beyond. Jeff is a senior executive at FDA.


  1. MMark says:

    I see no remarks on why the author managed without HIS parents behaving so.

  2. MMark says:

    I fear I would have reacted very badly to such deceit, betrayal — however good-hearted, at wit’s end. Glad it works for you guys, whoever else.