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.  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. Continue reading “Raising Countercultural Kids in the United States of Addiction (Part 1)”

The Holidays Are a Magnifier

The Holidays — the six weeks of Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas, and New Years — are a magnifier. In general, happy people get happier, sad people get sadder, lonely people get lonelier, etc. This is true for children, adolescents, adults, and the elderly.

For some, life is going pretty well, and the holidays are the most wonderful time of year, chock full of sentimental decorations, music, food, smells, and traditions that celebrate love, peace, family, friendship, and all that is good in life. The holidays are the icing on a good cake. Bring it on. All of it.

For others, the holidays are not so happy. Instead, it is a time full of the most painful reminders of what is not present in their lives.  Continue reading “The Holidays Are a Magnifier”

Fear Less, Parents

With the tragic news of the abduction and murder of ten-year-old Hailey Owens this week, many parents are afraid that the same thing may happen to their children. And many are wondering if they should be doing more to protect their children. Those are legitimate concerns and questions, and there is not a simple sound-bite response. Instead, I will offer two articles that I hope will help.

1. I highly recommend this article about Patti Fitzgerald‘s advice for parents of young children. It is an excellent explanation of why children should not fear all strangers, only certain types of strangers. Click Here

2. In addition, I wrote a chapter about parental fear in my book, Critical Connection. Here is an excerpt from that chapter. I hope it helps clarify that often we are most afraid of the wrong things. We tend to be afraid of the most emotionally terrifying things, but we should rather focus our attention on less scary but far more dangerous things.

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Family protectionFamily Fears

In their best-selling book, Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner explore the fears that control parents (and grandparents, teachers, coaches, and so on):

No one is more susceptible to an expert’s fear-mongering than a parent. A parent, after all, is the steward of another creature’s life, a creature who in the beginning is more helpless than the newborn of nearly any other species. The problem is that they are often scared of the wrong things. Separating facts from rumors is always hard work, especially for a busy parent. The facts they do manage to glean (from experts and other parents) have been varnished or exaggerated or otherwise taken out of context to serve an agenda that isn’t their own.1

Rumors and sensational stories rule the day, making us afraid of letting our kids near everything from tap water to corn syrup. New parents fear that their infants will die in their sleep. Parents of toddlers fear sharp edges on furniture. Parents of preschoolers fear that their children won’t know how to read before kindergarten. In fact, there seems to be a new set of fears for every stage of development, many of them introduced by marketers of child-safety products and fueled by the media’s fascinating and often terrifying stories.

Reasonable Fears

Some fear is healthy; only adolescents think “NO FEAR!” is a great motto for life. That may make sense in the video-game world where you can hit the reset button at any moment, but it’s a ridiculous notion in the real world. A little fear is a very good thing. Reasonable fears motivate us to wear seatbelts, drive within the speed limits, and avoid texting while driving. Continue reading “Fear Less, Parents”

The Peril of Productionism

 

Busy MomMy wife and I struggle with what I call productionism. It is a variation of perfectionism. It is the belief that a man’s value comes from his ability to accomplish or produce something, or that a woman’s worth is found in the amount that she can get done in a day. In other words, a good man is productive every day, while a lazy man is a lousy man. A good day for a good woman is measured in the amount of to do’s accomplished before her head hits the pillow at night.

Productionism is a little different than perfectionism because things don’t have to be done perfectly, they just need to be done efficiently. A productionist is practical and efficient, always trying to accomplish a lot in a little time.

In stressful, busy situations, productionists follow these mantras:

  • When the going gets tough, the tough gets to work.
  • If you feel overwhelmed, just do the next thing. You can do that much.
  • If you can’t do a big thing, just do a few small things. You will feel better then.

Appointments - list of day's appointments written on a spiral paProductionists brag to others about how much they accomplish. They make lists, check them off, and congratulate themselves. Some will even keep as trophies their old lists with all the crossed out tasks.

Being a productionist is not all bad, of course, but it’s a major problem when tasks overwhelm the ability to love others and enjoy life along the way. When tasks are more important than people, we are way off track. Unfortunately, the productionist will often choose the tasks over people, since there is more control and more pride in doing than in being. Continue reading “The Peril of Productionism”

Ten Ways to Help Someone in Personal Crisis

Our family has been going through rough waters related to some serious medical issues, and we have only been making it with the help from family and friends. People keep asking what they can do to help us. They want to help, but they don’t know exactly how. We have been very specific with them, which they appreciate.

Certainly, every situation is different, but here are some tried and true ways to help others in great need. 

1. Write notes, emails, texts, Facebook posts, or tweets of encouragement.

2. Gifts – flowers, fruit, ice cream, coffee, magazines, books, movies…

3. Gift cards to nearby restaurants, grocery stores, coffee shops, movie theater…

4. Do Errands – groceries, library, dry cleaners, or whatever they need.

5. Do Laundry. This can be a huge help for a family.

6. Housecleaning or yard work.

7. Child care, pet-sitting, or house-sitting.

8. Visit, according to their best day, time, length of visit, etc. Just ask what they prefer ahead of time.

9. Listen to them vent about their problems, if that is what they want to do. Be the listener, not the advisor. See note below about the ring theory.

10. Bring humor. It’s good medicine. Share funny stories. Bring a light heart, not your own set of first-world problems that you want to gripe about.

Just remember that every family is different and every crisis is different. Do your best to customize your support for their specific situation. Ask what they prefer, and ask them to be specific. Sometimes the giver must drag the information out of the receiver. Be persistent in finding out how you can bless them in the most helpful way possible.

NOTE: An important aspect of caring for someone in need is the language that we use with them. My copy editor and new friend, Meghan Pinson, sent me this outstanding article about how to communicate with people in any sort of crisis. It’s the ring theory, and it is such a brilliant concept that you must read it. CLICK HERE for the article.

 

Storm Preparation

A Creeping Crisis

Some crises develop gradually. Some are excruciatingly slow.

Perhaps it is the approaching death of a parent with terminal cancer. Or it is the military dad/son/husband who will be deployed to an overseas conflict. Or it may be a huge financial crisis, which will likely take away the family’s savings and home.

In these situations, the anticipation of the looming crisis is a danger in itself, for anxiety can take deep root early, and that can be paralyzing.

At some point a person facing a slow-moving crisis makes decisions (conscious and subconscious), to deal with it or ignore it. Psychologist call it the “fight or flight” response. We can run from our problems or fight them head on. Of course, we often do both. We fight something for a bit, then flee it for a while. I suppose, that is not a bad strategy, actually, as long as the general attitude is to win, not just avoid. So, we can fight. Regroup. Then, fight again. Continue reading “Storm Preparation”

Social Development and Kids’ Activities

Social life. Social skills. Social anxiety. Social media. Social Security. She’s so social!

When we think of the “social development” of children, what are we talking about and what is the goal? It is a confusing issue for many. For example, as an educator, I have heard a lot of people talk about how home school children need to go to school at some point for socialization. Conversely, I have heard a home school parent say, “Have you seen those kids? I don’t want my children socialized by kids who are rude, lazy, out of control, and self-centered.”

What is socialization? For some parents, it means that children need to belong to a diverse group of peers for the sake of learning how to deal with a wide variety of people in a wide variety of situations. For others, it means that children need to be a part of a homogenous group where a certain worldview and certain social norms will be taught to and required of the child. Those are two different views of socialization, and those two types of schools will look and feel quite different. One has the goal of conformity and discipline of behavior and thought (think military boarding school), while the other has the goal of independence and creativity in behavior and thought (think large urban public school). Those are two very different forms of socialization. Continue reading “Social Development and Kids’ Activities”

Thank You, Thank You, Thank You!

Anne Lamott says that in her experience the two most powerful prayers are “Help me, help me, help me.” and “Thank you, thank, you, thank you.”

We are so grateful for our recent trip to Laguna Beach, California.  The Dream Factory granted our family a first-class vacation that would suit the special needs and wishes of our daughter, Kathryn.  They paid for and arranged all the details of a trip that we unanimously hail as the best family vacation we have ever had. Thank you, Bene Messmer and all the volunteers and donors at The Dream Factory!

Continue reading “Thank You, Thank You, Thank You!”

The Power of No (Part 3)

Young teenagers often “cross the line.” It’s inevitable, so it should not surprise us. Yet, we should not just acquiesce to the lowest common denominator: “Boys will be boys.”

It’s our job as adults to help young boys and girls to live well and to move towards becoming young men and women. Adolescence should be a growth process, not a static state of being, or worse yet, a window of time in which to act like a dumb animal. Saying to kids, “No, you won’t do that,” is vital to a civil society.

Young men and women need adults to speak up, but it’s scary sometimes to be the bad guy.  For example, it can be intimidating for even a grown man to tell a teenage boy to pull his pants up, for goodness sake (click here for that story).

Being the bad guy is easier said than done, and as a parent, teacher, and coach, I often fail to hold kids to account. Continue reading “The Power of No (Part 3)”

The Race to Nowhere

The Race to Nowhere is a film that will make you think deeply about what a good education looks like.  It will challenge your beliefs about the nature of homework, AP classes, and college preparation.  You will re-think what a “successful kid” should do in middle school, high school, and college because, in many ways, what we as a society think about that fundamental question is dead wrong.

Whether you are a parent, teacher, or administrator, this is a must-see documentary because it points out some very powerful flaws in our educational system and offers some good solutions.  Unlike other recent films about American schools, it does not demand more from students, parents, and teachers; in many ways it asks for less.  It will get you thinking and talking.

There are more screenings popping up around the country, and it will eventually be a DVD to purchase.  Check it out.

If this trailer resonates with you, and you’d like a greater sense of what this movie is all about, here is what the filmmakers suggest parents do in response to their film:

Continue reading “The Race to Nowhere”

Family Matters

Imagine two American families, living on the same street, both successful in pursuing the American dream. Their Christmas cards are equally impressive. All their kids are college-bound. Their marriages are stable, and they are in the midst of meeting their career and material goals.  There are no skeletons hiding in their closets; what you see is what you get with them. But there is a difference that only their very closest friends and family might recognize.

Let’s first meet the Johnson family. Jim is an engineer, who loves to fish and go to his kids’ ball games as much as he can. He is a Boy Scout leader, a bible study leader, and a really nice guy, by all accounts.  His wife Sue works part-time as a nurse at the local children’s hospital, in addition to raising three teenagers. Jack (16) plays three competitive sports and gets mostly A’s. He plays guitar in a garage band and loves to ride his dirt bike. Sally (14) is an average student but a truly outstanding gymnast who travels a lot for competitions. When home, she likes to go to the mall or the movie theater as much as possible. Jimmy (12) is interested in everything; he has dozens of hobbies, plays select soccer, is a Boy Scout, and still manages good grades. All in all, the Johnson’s are active, productive, and very busy. They seem content with life and get along well with all kinds of people. They are good neighbors, but they aren’t home much.

Now, meet the Landry family next door. Lou is also an engineer, and Donna works part-time at the elementary school where their three teenage kids attended. The three kids are Josh (17), Bill (15), and Claire (13). They are above-average students, but do not excel in sports or the arts. Except for a few minor incidents, the kids stay out of trouble. After dinner, they like to watch movies together, so they just built a family theater and a “ping pong arena” in the basement. Whenever possible, they get away to Grandpa’s cabin on a lake, where they do a lot of fishing, waterskiing, swimming, cliff jumping, and reading (since there’s no TV at the cabin). Lately, at night, they’ve been playing some very animated games of Texas Hold-em; Mom is actually the best bluffer of the bunch. Their neighbors miss them when they are gone at the cabin because they are a fun-loving family.

So what’s the difference? It’s subtle but powerful.

 

It’s all about WITH. One family lives WITH each other, while the other does not.  The Landry’s play with each other, hang out with each other, and eat with each other. The Johnson’s, however, are not with each other much, except in the car, en route to somebody’s activity. Most people would never see the difference, but it’s a big one. One family is a team, while the other is a bunch of individuals. Yes, the Johnson’s appear to be a tight family, but they are not.  They each have their individual lives, full of their own favorite activities; they freely pursue their own happiness, free from the inconveniences of the family bond.

Continue reading “Family Matters”

Questions to Ask Kids

Kids want to be known, and not just by their parents (their #1 source of value).  They want their teachers, coaches, scout leaders, and neighbors to know their names, their interests, and their talents.  Granted, some kids seem to want to be left alone, but even the shy ones deeply desire to be known by others on some level.  It’s ingrained in all of us.  Nobody likes to called by the wrong name (sibling confusion is common).  Nobody enjoys being overlooked by the cool coach who loves to talk with the cool kids on the team.  And when it’s halfway through the year and the teacher still can’t remember your name, it hurts.

Some adults are natural-born kid-lovers.  They just know exactly how to talk to kids and make them laugh.  Somehow they get away with teasing them to no end, or the kids just flock to them because they feel safe and loved with them.  They make great youth leaders, mentors, and assistant coaches.  However, it’s not so easy for most adults to connect with kids, especially if they don’t think they have anything in common with them.

Fortunately, it’s not rocket surgery.  So, here are some easy conversation starters.  First and foremost, always call a kid by name every time you see him or her.  If you can’t remember his or her name, then find out (to avoid the same problem next time).

“Hey, Joel…

How’s it going today?  What’s up this morning / afternoon / evening?

What did you do this last weekend?  What was the best / worst part of it?

What are you doing this next weekend? Anything fun or unusual?

What are you doing for Christmas Break?  (Adapt to whatever break is upcoming)

What sport are you playing this season?  How’s that going?  What position do you play? What team?  Who is on that team that I might know?  Who’s your coach?  Where do you play?  Does your teams travel?  Is it your favorite sport?  Do you think you’ll play that in high school?

Continue reading “Questions to Ask Kids”

Questions Kids Have But Don’t Ask

Here are some of the big questions kids (10-14) have, although they will rarely, if ever, vocalize them.  Understanding the questions is half the battle; having all the answers is not necessary, even if it were possible.

Who are my real friends?  Who really likes me?  In which group do I belong?

Who am I?  How am I like and different from others my age?

What will I do with my life?  Will I be important?

What sort of career and family will I have?

What will I look and act like when I am a grown up?

Am I cool?

Am I respected?

Continue reading “Questions Kids Have But Don’t Ask”

Fandango: How boys make friends

fandango  |fanˈda ng gō|  noun
1. a lively Spanish dance.
2. a foolish or useless act or thing.

In May 1993, six young men on the cusp of college graduation, decided to forgo the prudent way to spend the final two days before final exams, in favor of driving south all night toward Mexico in a small Toyota pickup, in pursuit of an adventure worthy of a lifelong memory.  Inspired by the little-known movie, Fandango, they piled three in the cab, three in the bed, with nothing packed but a desire to do something truly memorable and perhaps meaningful.  It was their final act before each going their own way in life to sundry cities, careers, and spouses.  It would be a celebration of the privileges of youth. And it would be repeated many times later.  Only later it would be a celebration of something more meaningful – deep friendship amidst life’s struggles.

Ten years later, those men, returned to retrieve what was left behind: a makeshift time capsule buried a stone’s throw from Mexico, full of meaningful tokens, such as pictures, prophecies, jewelry, notes to self, and a pact of friendship that they wrote on the spot.

And ever since 2003, they reunite for another summer fandango (each year someplace new).  Fandango began as a silly 36-hour road trip, and it’s become a rich tradition for these men. I am privileged to be a part of that group that grows in friendship each year.

We have talked about writing a book about it, but we can’t seem to agree on exactly how to do it well. I believe that the adventures and the lessons need more time to percolate, and in time, it will make a good read.  In the meantime, we’ve dabbled with some small pieces of writing.  Last year, Yancey wrote a piece about our 2009 Fandango, and this year Jeff has written a bit about the 2010 Fandango on his blog. I think it deserves attention in this space, since it deals with how men form strong friendships.

Boys, 10-14 especially, need to learn how to make friends well, in order to grow up to be effective men.  So if this interests you, follow this link to Jeff’s article about how men make lifelong friendships.  Here’s a taste: “For guys, friendship never happens as spontaneously as we’d like. It takes props, plans, and risks, but the investment leads to a kind of laughter that is only shared by true compañeros.”

I hope it helps you better understand how to help boys make friends, for they are a very different social animal than girls.

In short, find ways to give boys opportunities (within basic safety limits) to get together to…

  • be physical  (wrestle, tackle, flip, chase, body surf…)
  • be silly  (tell jokes, tease, perform skits, practical jokes…)
  • take risks  (compete to win, jump off the high dive, ride a roller coaster…)
  • go on an adventurous journey with a mission (road trip with dad, bike ride to grocery store, hunting with grandpa…)
  • play with stuff (build forts, make a bonfire with dad, Nerf, foam swords…)

Boys need to share these kinds of experiences with other boys in order to make friends.  It rarely happens any other way.

Avoiding a Mid-Life Crisis

If you are growing old well, then you are likely to help a child grow up well.

40 is not old, but it’s certainly not young either.  It’s the start of mid-life, and it has a well-earned, dangerous reputation.  It’s when so many people have an inner crisis, even if life is sailing along smoothly on the outside.  At some point disappointment, boredom, or depression accompany the person who has a career, a family, a home, a community, and all the subsequent stress of being responsible for so much.  In addition, health problems of all kinds begin to flare up by 40, which remind us that we are decaying in far more ways than we are growing.

Many 40-somethings have established their career, have gotten married, have had a few kids, and have bought all the things they need and most of the things they want.  They have arrived at their life destination, and they wonder, “This is it?”

For others, they are still building the best  life they can, and they feel the crushing weight of pressure from what they have constructed.  There are too many things to do, too many people to care for, too many problems to solve – just too many responsibilities in every area of life.  They are caring for children, spouses, friends, employees, and even aging parents.  They get to a point where they simply cannot balance it all anymore; it’s all just too much.  In frustration they cry out, “There just isn’t enough me to go around!”

It’s a tough time of life, indeed, and for some it’s just too much, so they pull the ripcord of life.  They give up on something big, like their marriage, their kids, or their career.  Sometimes they chuck it all at once.  Or they just give up trying very hard at anything, settling into a comfortably complacent lifestyle.  They fall prey to the consumer-centered suburban lifestyle, and they go out to pasture.

So what’s a mid-lifer to do?  Well, after spending four days in Colorado with some of my favorite 40-ish guys, I’m ready to convey a few suggestions based on our conversations.  I’m sorry if any of this seems trite; I realize that all of these things are a lot easier said than done.  But hopefully, it will help in some way – for your sake, and for your kids.

  1. Focus. Identify your top four or five priorities in life and focus on them — to the detriment of all else.  Set your sights on just a few things that you are passionate about and that you have valued for a long time.  For me (at this point in my life) it’s family, faith, teaching, and writing.  If I can do those things well, then I am on the right track.  But that may mean that I am not going to keep up with all my friends very well.  It means that I am not going to be able to play golf, read a novel a month, or hone my guitar skills anytime soon.  I have to face facts: I can only do so much.  Trying to do it all is living in a fantasy world (see #4 below).  Learn to accept mediocrity in the less important areas of your life. Continue reading “Avoiding a Mid-Life Crisis”

It’s a Wonderfully Difficult Life

 

It’s a Wonderful Life strikes a chord — several chords — deep in my soul, every time I watch it.  Most importantly, it makes me want to be a better man and to live my life as well as I can for my friends, family, and community. Deep down, I want to be counted in the ranks of the George Baileys of the world.  And if I can’t, then I want my son to get there upon my shoulders.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” should be required viewing for every young person growing up.  Anyone over the age of ten should see this movie with their parents, grandparents, or any adult who cares enough to explain what’s going on as the film rolls.  If you haven’t seen it in a few years, do so.  And bring a kid along for the ride.

This movie says it all about growing up well.  It does not hide the truth that life is hard, and it’s even harder for those who choose to serve others.  It teaches just about every character trait you would want to see in a young man or woman.  In no way is it an easy life — just ask George Bailey — but it’s worth it all.

Here’s a fun little trivia game for lovers of this movieClick here


Kids Need Community

No man is an island,” said John Donne, in reference to the ripple effect of the death of one man in a community.  Indeed, we are made for community; we are not meant to live alone.  By living and working with others, we enjoy many benefits.  By choosing to go it alone, whatever the endeavor, we give up countless blessings.  While mavericks make great movie characters, real loners miss out on so much. Unfortunately, there are more and more loners in our modern world.

A large social study in 2006 at Duke University illustrated “a sobering picture of an increasingly fragmented America, where intimate social ties — once seen as an integral part of daily life and associated with a host of psychological and civic benefits — are shrinking or nonexistent.”  Click here for the article We’re not saying people are completely isolated. They may have 600 friends on Facebook.com and e-mail 25 people a day, but they are not discussing matters that are personally important.”

teen in hall alone

It’s nothing new to learn that many people find it extremely difficult to live with others.  They find themselves in all kinds of trouble when they have to work with others at length.  They hurt people’s feelings, and they get hurt.  They annoy and they get annoyed.  They both get jealous and cause jealousy.  So, they do the logical thing; they take the path of least resistance and withdraw from others.  They become independent, vowing to avoid the problems that people cause in their lives.

After all, it is much easier, in the short run, to look out for yourself and take care of your own business, steering clear of other people’s business.  But easy is not always good, especially when it comes to relationships.

Robert D. Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard and the author of Bowling Alone, wrote his famous book about the same problem – increasing social isolation in the United States.  He believes that people must make deliberate steps to join and remain in small communities; otherwise, they will suffer great long-term consequences.

Continue reading “Kids Need Community”

Teenage Media Addiction

Children of the Screen

As much as I like FaceBook and text messaging, I know that it needs to be limited a great deal in my life.  Like so many things, I have learned over the years to balance good things like FB and texting so that they don’t take up all my time and energy.  In fact, for most adults, we know our limits, whether it’s ice cream, television, shopping, or wine.  We may blow it now and then, but we learn to balance, or else it consumes us and we suffer in the long-run.

Unfortunately, teens and preteens are not very good at balancing the good things in their lives. I remember coming home from high school football practice and eating an entire large bag of Doritos and a couple bottles of Yoo-Hoo as a snack.  I remember watching three movies in a row on summer nights.  I remember playing video games for five hours straight.  And this was not at all unusual for me or for my friends.  Kids, by nature, are much more impulsive, much less logical, and much less educated about the consequences of their behavior.  They do because they can, and they don’t truly believe that there can be too much of a good thing.

cell girl

Here is an article which describes the addiction of texting and Facebook in the lives of so many teens.  It’s worth reading.  Click here

This is where we, the adults, need to get involved and discuss the consequences of electronic addictions.  We need to provide leadership.

First, we need to understand the power of teenage addictions – that teens are far more prone to addictive behavior, and their brains record those good feelings intensely and permanently.  It sets the default buttons in the brain, so that when the child grows older, those addictions come back again and again.  In other words, a teen who is addicted to something will feel that pull toward that particular addiction throughout his or her life.

Continue reading “Teenage Media Addiction”

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