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.

 

Taking Control of Your Digital Life

Part 3 in the series on becoming “tech-wise”

The first two posts in this series laid down a philosophical framework for why we need to take control of our digital devices. Now, let’s dig into the nitty-gritty details. The following is a list of strategies, tools, and thoughts to consider as you use your electronic devices. Try some of these things this week and see what works for you. Then try some more.

Physical Environment

  1. Reduce the number of devices that you use daily and have a philosophy of use for each one. Put certain apps on each device, and intentionally delete (or at least hide) all the extras.
  2. Don’t keep your phone on your body all day long. Give yourself some physical space for extended periods of time.
  3. Reduce the number of TVs and computers in your places, and don’t make them the focal point of any room where you spend a lot of time. Hide the screens as much as you can.
  4. Use paper and pen more. A paperless life is not an ideal life.
  5. Make sure you have tech-free zones and times in your home, in your office, and in your car.
  6. Put your tech to bed early. Put your phone, tablet, laptop in the kitchen every night for charging. Don’t bring it into the bedroom. Parents may need to keep children’s devices in their bedroom, since some kids will sneak their phone at night.
  7. Practice sabbaths from technology use: weekly, daily, hourly. Give your brain a break from the screens regularly. There should be a rhythm to our interaction with technology. There should be a rhythm of work, rest, and play to each day, week, and year.

Continue reading “Taking Control of Your Digital Life”

Becoming Tech-Wise: Philosophy of Use

Becoming Tech-Wise: Philosophy of Use (Part 2 in series)

Technology continues to improve, but is our use of technology improving? Not if we use all our high-tech devices and apps with their default settings. Not if we use them in whatever way feels right at the moment. Not if we go along with what everyone else is doing. Nothing will improve unless we personally change the ways we use technology during our days.

As parents, teachers, and coaches of young people, we see the current struggles that they are having with technology, and we would like to do something about it. But we have little idea about what to do to be helpful.

The answer begins with us. We need to attempt to gain control of our own digital lives, as we also try to help young people gain control of their digital lives. We should put high-tech tools to use in their proper places, and that includes putting them away at times. We need to become tech-wise, not just tech-savvy. We need to lead by example, and teach from our experiences.

Continue reading “Becoming Tech-Wise: Philosophy of Use”

Why Technology Worries Us So Much

Since 2010, human behavior has changed. In these last 7 years, we have experienced the complete integration of smartphones, the holy grail of gadgetry, into our everyday lifestyle. In that same time frame, we have experienced the proliferation of tablets among children at play, students at school, and even in the daily life of older adults who quickly took over Facebook. The teenagers quickly fled to other forms of social media, namely Instagram and Snapchat, both of which have become youth culture phenomena. So much has changed in just 7 years, as we have all come to realize that for almost everything “there is an app for that.

We use our devices so much because they work so well at so many things, and they make life more fun, more efficient, and more… everything. Both the allure and the utility are undeniable. Just look around at all the people in any public space. At any given time, most of them are on their phones, which is a truly remarkable fact. What else garners that much attention?

There is no question about our reliance on our glowing rectangles: small, medium, and large. In fact, a reasonable argument can be made that many of us are now, at least to some extent, cyborgs. Continue reading “Why Technology Worries Us So Much”

The Social Combat of Being 13

A New World Order for Young Teens

tired stressed girl7th and 8th grade is when the social life of a child amps up in three ways: importance, intensity, and consequences.

At 13, a child’s social standing becomes extremely important to them, as it has become more important to all the other 13 year olds. For some, it is the most important aspect of life itself. Most teens would rather go without food and shelter than suffer any sort of social trouble.

At 13, a child’s feelings of insecurity, awkwardness, and fear are at an all-time high. The hormones are raging, the insecurities are constant, and the emotional swings are intense. The biggest concern of every day is how to get through that whole day without any public embarrassment. Their fears are fueled by the intense anxieties of their peers. It’s a sea of fears as far as the adolescent eye can see. Continue reading “The Social Combat of Being 13”

Take Your Kids Outdoors

Kids spend well over 40 HOURS per week in front of electronic screens, but less than 40 MINUTES per week in nature. Screens are ruling teens.

Delayed Gratification

A major component of growing up is learning to deal with long waits and unexpected delays, yet nearly everything is now available in an instant. If we are going to prepare our kids for the best things in life, we need to teach them to wait and reward them for being patient. Kids need opportunities to practice patience that are followed by rewards for sticking with it to the end—whether it’s a 500-piece puzzle or a friendship with a neighbor that takes a long time to develop.

Once again, the push-button culture is working against kids. They are constantly given immediate, customized, positive feedback from their cell phones, iPods, video games, YouTube, and Facebook. These are places where they can hit pause, fast-forward, or reset any time they like with no consequences. But in real life, and especially in the natural world, there are no fast-forward or reset buttons. In order to experience a sunset, you have to watch for a while. A computer cannot simulate that experience.

The Need for Nature

boy fishingRichard Louv, author of the best-selling book Last Child in the Woods, understands this problem more than anyone, and loves children enough to cry out for them, “Let the children play outdoors!” His books and lectures have inspired a national movement that wants to leave no child inside. He encourages all families to embrace the nature that is in their local community. “For children,” he writes, “nature comes in many forms. A pet that lives and dies; a worn path through the woods; a fort nested in stinging nettles—whatever shape nature takes, it offers each child an older, larger world separate from parents. Nature offers healing for a child.”1

Louv explains how our children’s generation is suffering from what he calls “nature deficit disorder,” a preventable ailment of the body, mind, and soul. Kids just don’t go outdoors anymore. Continue reading “Take Your Kids Outdoors”

Five Ways to Manage Your Social Media

Social media, like just about everything, can be a blessing or a curse. It’s usually both. It’s a #lovehaterelationship, right?

When we log on, we see a picture of true beauty, like someone’s adorable daughter jumping in the swimming pool with floaties for the first time, and we are so glad that she shared it.

Then we scroll down, and it’s ten straight posts of people sharing and oversharing about the most annoying things.

But what can you do about it? Continue reading “Five Ways to Manage Your Social Media”