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.

 

(Un)Happy Holidays

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.

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 “(Un)Happy Holidays”

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”

Phone for the Holidays

Watch this video first, then read on.

I applaud Apple for making a video that affirms the family. This ad does an excellent job of showing how wonderful family can be. Yes, it’s sentimental and pulls at the heartstrings in ways that some would call cliche, but it’s very well done. It’s a beautiful portrait of a family that loves each other and enjoys life together in the everyday mundane socks-on-the-kitchen-floor sort of way. And I love that. In addition, it shows how blessed the boy is to have such a wonderful family. In the end, he affirms and accepts the blessing. Even better, he reciprocates the love in his own special way, a way which is deeply appreciated. He is actually contributing to the family by chronicling and highlighting its beauty. It’s a wonderful family. We need more portraits of functional families on TV. So, thank you, Apple, for bringing some warmth to TV.

On the other hand, I wonder if this depiction is based in reality. Continue reading “Phone for the Holidays”

The Story of the Book

Everyone has at least one book in them. Critical Connection is mine.

Ever since I was ten, I wanted to grow up and have a happy family.  Since I was sixteen, I wanted a career in which I could help teenagers to grow up well. As a teacher, coach, and parent, it has been my privilege to do so – often ineffectively, of course. One of the things I have learned along the way is that there are very few good books out there about parenting early adolescents (10-14 year olds).

In 2009, I started blogging here at Growing Up Well, and over the next few years people would say to me, “You really need to write a book.”  Continue reading “The Story of the Book”

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.