Raising Countercultural Kids in the United States of Addiction (Part 1)

In the late 1990s, author J.K. Rowling invented the term “muggle” as a derogative term for the normal people of modern Britain. Muggles are all the ordinary human beings in Rowling’s wildly popular Harry Potter book series. Muggles do not have any magical powers or awareness of anything magical. They live for comfort, they conform to society, and they have petty concerns. They are boring and bland, at best – miserable and mean, at worst.

In the context of this very ordinary world of muggles, Rowling created a parallel universe of magic. At the center is Hogwarts, the school for youngsters who wish to pursue magic, a better way of life. Rowling knew that children wanted more than what the modern world was giving them and that they would identify with the struggle against muggles, scoundrels, monsters, and villains.

Young readers happily entered the Harry Potter universe in droves. Reading among adolescents exploded worldwide, as hundreds of millions of children read 600-page book after 600-page book. Even adults joined in. Rowling struck a chord. People want more magic, less muggle. And a whole generation, now known as the millennials, identifies with the Harry Potter, the boy who struggles to live with more magic and less muggle.

It is no different in America today. The typical American is a muggle. Isn’t it the norm to seek comfort and conformity? Isn’t it normal for us to be a little bit foolish, a little petty, and sometimes mean? Doesn’t social media illustrate these things pretty clearly? We are muggles, more often than not. However, if we are honest, none of us thinks of ourselves as muggles. Nobody wants to admit it. And yet, if we are honest and will peer around our blinds spots for a moment, we can see the muggle inside us and all around us.

Turn on the TV. Look at social media. Read the news. Just look around the very place you are sitting in at this very moment. Or go to a truly beautiful place, like a beach, and look all around. Don’t just look at the Instagram-worthy viewpoint, but look all around. It won’t take long to find something ugly, dangerous, or sad, like the kids glued to their smartphones for hours, rather than playing in the waves or building with sand. We live in a world that is both beautiful and broken, magical and messy, terrific and toxic. It is good to see things clearly within us and within the places and people around us.

The real world is not like Hogwarts where powerful forces of good win out over powerful forces of evil in fantastic displays of drama and special effects. The real world is not like Instagram, where everything is a happy highlight with stylish filter effects. Our children need to learn that life is imperfect, and that we are all imperfect. While some parents choose to protect their children from these truths, it is best for these truths to be explained very early in life. Our children can handle us walking them through the realities of life, with all the muggles and the magic, as long as we make sure they feel deeply loved and well protected within the family.

Facing the real world is what makes us healthy. It is when children face the world alone that they are vulnerable. And this is where society gets it all wrong. Children are taught to be individuals and to spend their energy on expressing themselves and seeking whatever makes them happy.

Western culture now values the self above all things: self-actualization, self-satisfaction, and self-justification. This sounds good and feels good, but unfortunately it does not deliver on its promises. Unchecked self-focus leads directly to loneliness, which can lead to very dark places, like depression and anxiety. It can lead to personality disorders, like narcissism.

Loneliness is a defining feature of America in 2018. Families are disconnected. Communities are disconnected. Sure, we are more connected than ever electronically, but we somehow feel less connected than ever to friends and family. It is normal for children to grow up without a sense of attachment to family or friends. They don’t know exactly where they belong or who they are. This is where things have gotten sideways with regard to mental and emotional health. This is why so many young people relate so strongly to Harry Potter, a lonely orphan who was neglected and mistreated by his adoptive aunt and uncle. Our kids feel lost and lonely in a world of muggles.

Psychologists know that a lack of deep emotional attachment to at least one caregiver, combined with a temporary sense of loneliness, creates emotional pain, most often in the form of depression and anxiety. In a formula: Lack of Attachment + Loneliness = Anxiety + Depression. For more information about the importance of attachment, click here.

America is sick with epidemic levels of anxiety and depression. 1 in 5 Americans has a diagnosed anxiety disorder, while many are undiagnosed and untreated. 1 in 6 will experience clinical depression in their lifetime. But the real story is the rise of anxiety and depression among young people now. An estimated 25% of teenagers have already experienced depression in their lifetime. Ask any counselor or school teacher if they think that anxiety or depression is increasing, and they will affirm the sad trend. A recent nationwide survey found something surprising about loneliness in the younger generation. “Our survey found that the younger generation was lonelier than the older generations,” says Dr. Douglas Nemecek, the chief medical officer for behavioral health at Cigna. Read this article for more information.

In order to relieve the sharp uneasiness of anxiety and the dull pain of depression, Americans cope by consuming substances that are highly effective at making a person feel better immediately. We have an insatiable appetite for what is easy and comforting to get more or what is easy and comforting to get more of what is easy and comforting… in order to avoid the difficulties within us and all around us.

We consume loads of junk food, alcohol, drugs, video games, social media, streaming video, pornography, and material goods – anything to help us feel better immediately. We feed the senses of sight, sound, taste, touch, smell, and imagination in order to distract the mind, avoid family problems, avoid existential questions, avoid difficult friends, distract from negative emotions, and gain a little sense of control and comfort. Neil Postman wrote famously in 1985 that we are amusing ourselves to death with television. That was long before the internet and smartphones. Where are we now?

Unfortunately, our coping mechanisms are not powerful enough to overcome our mental health problems. Instead, we are caught up in self-destructive cycles, and we are addicted to our coping mechanisms. Some addictions are more harmful than others, of course, but none of them are good if they are helping a person avoid their problems day after day, year after year. If we do not face our fears and problems, then we are not growing. If we deny, distract, and desensitize too much, then we lose our mental health and are prone to addiction. And addiction is a slow form of death.

The good news is that we do not have to live as a muggle in the United States of Addiction. We can choose a better way of life. But that better way must be countercultural because the culture is toxic to mental health. The culture is toxic to the soul.

It is good news is that our children and teens do not have to settle for the so-called “good life” of being momentarily happy all the time. There are better ways of living. Coping is not the answer. There are ways to thrive, not just survive. Our kids can learn to be more magician than muggle!

 

* Part 2 in this series will examine how to think about addictive behaviors in light of what society tells young people. Part 3 will focus on the practical aspects of teaching young people to live free from addictions.

 

3 Skills + 1 Passion

For young people to achieve success in their career, it is no longer enough to have a college degree. New college graduates feel like a successful, satisfying, and sustainable career is out of their reach. But there is good news for them that is not dependent on the whims of the labor market or the stock market.

The answer to this problem can be found in a simple equation: 3 + 1.

“3 Skills + 1 Passion” is an idea I am recycling from Tim Ferris’s new book Tools of Titans. In it, Scott Adams, creator of the comic strip Dilbert, explained what he calls the “double or triple threat.”

Continue reading “3 Skills + 1 Passion”

Living on 1 Dollar Per Day

Young people in America need to know more about real poverty, and this video is possibly the best I have ever seen at getting kids to relate to abject poverty. It’s entertaining and educational. They pack a lot of information and experiences into just 28 minutes. Plus, it’s appropriate for kids age 11 and up, since there are no deeply disturbing images.

 

Discussion Questions for Kids

1. How would you describe these men and their lifestyle in America?

2. Why do you think they decided to set such strict rules for their time in Haiti?

3. Does this sort of adventure appeal to you in any way? In what ways?

4. What would worry you the most about living in a tent in Haiti for a month?

5. How tolerant are you of being hungry and eating only simple foods like rice and beans?

6. What is the longest you have ever been hungry? Describe that time.

7. Describe the most grueling physical work you have ever done. What was it? How long did you work? Did you get paid (or fed or anything) for your work?

8. What part of this 28 day experience do you find most intimidating or terrifying? Explain why.

 

Parenting is Regulating

Every parent should regulate their children’s behavior until they are ready to regulate their own. It will likely be a 20-year process, which starts with full regulatory control of the infant and ends with total release of all control at adulthood.

What does it mean “to regulate?” In grammatical terms, it is a transitive verb, meaning that a subject rules or governs another object by adjusting the time, amount, degree, or rate of something upon the object.

Let’s take food, for example. An infant has no idea how to handle his hunger pains, can’t make decisions about food, and can’t feed himself. It is the parent’s job to fully control the diet of the child. The twenty-year old, on the other hand, should have mature eating habits within his full control: when to eat, what to eat, how much, how to shop, how to cook, how to balance his nutrition with exercise, etc. Continue reading “Parenting is Regulating”

The Power of Kindness

Josh was a normal teenager whose father died. His mother moved them from their home in the country to the city, with the hope that a fresh start would improve their lives.

But Josh was ridiculed in his new school for no good reason. In fact, he was ridiculed for a horrible reason.

Instead of responding with hatred or melting into melancholy, Josh chose to be kind. To everyone. Simply kind. And his world changed.

Josh’s kind strength is what our boys and girls should imitate in their own ways.

Teach Your Kids Sportsmanship

If more parents focused on character over performance, then we would not need signs like this.

Sign at a youth hockey game.
Sign at a youth hockey game.

The Distance Run

CSC_0569I coach middle school cross country, which is not a glamorous job, but it is uniquely rewarding. For young distance runners, the hardest part is embracing the pain that creates stronger legs and faster times. I try to make practices and meets fun, but there is no way of getting around the fact that running really fast for 15-20 minutes is going to be painful, especially for growing little bodies.

Most of the kids who run cross country learn that without a healthy dose of pain every day they will not improve. No pain, no gain. Convincing kids of this is no easy task, but over time the sport tends to naturally reward those who fight through physical pain and emotional weakness.

When a young person develops some mental and physical toughness, they are growing up well. It’s incredibly rewarding to see the progress that these kids make over a season.

Some of my fellow coaches, Doug and Jennifer Meyer, use a fairy tale metaphor when explaining the need to persevere over a long distance. It also applies to many of life’s challenges that require stamina.

Parenting is a distance run, after all.

The Wolf

Somewhere in the middle of the race, there is a big bad wolf lurking around the corner. He will try to get you to slow down.

He sneaks up next to you and says things like, “Slow down. You’re hurting yourself. This is crazy. What’s the point of this? It’s not like you can win the race. You’re not very fast. Doesn’t this hurt? Just take it easy. No one will notice.”

The wolf doesn’t want you to work hard to achieve your goals. Continue reading “The Distance Run”