Friday, December 20, 2013


I was reading an article recently about a teen that was involved in a drunk driving crash that left four people dead. This teen later gave a reason for why he should be found blameless for the accident. He (or perhaps his lawyers) said he suffered from a condition called “Affluenza.”

“Affluenza” isn’t a medically or psychologically diagnosable condition. It is merely a term that speaks about parents of upper-middle class parents who refuse to discipline or set proper limits for their children. These kids often wind up, “out of control” because they had no one to set boundaries around their lives and to hold them accountable if they crossed them.

Now, I am not writing to place my judgment upon this teen or his parents. Neither am I planning to give a Nancy Grace type commentary or synopsis of his case. I am hoping that the idea of boundary setting will begin an interesting conversation in homes across the land.

I think we can all agree that when it comes to improperly setting limits and imposing consequences on children, that it is a phenomenon that spans beyond those parents that earn a high income. Creating boundaries with your child is a really hard proposition. It is something that affects every socioeconomic group. Saying no to your children or doling out punishments are just as difficult whether you live in a penthouse or the projects. This difficulty, though is one of the things that comes along with this parenting journey. It just is what it is.

The laborious nature of setting boundaries and consequences is the reason many choose to ignore it. However, we are not doing anyone any favors by turning a blind eye to our child’s negative behavior or excessive requests. What we are doing is feeding a monster that will one day be unleashed upon society.

We are raising men and women who will one day be given the choice to obey laws and rules or face the massive consequences that come with noncompliance. Those consequences tear apart families, ruin the next generation, and cost tax payers $31,000 per year for each prisoner incarcerated in our penal system.

There is hope, however. If your kids are still under your roof or on your payroll, there is still time. The requests that they make are going to continue to come before us in some way, shape or form. It might be the desire for one more cookie, the new $500 Xbox One or simply wanting to take the car for a spin. Sometimes the greatest gift that we can give our kids is a simple, “No.” Sometimes the most appreciable lessons come when we allow our kids to suffer the consequences for their actions. There is still time.

We must learn to push through the pain of the crying, whining and nagging and do as the late Stephen Covey said in his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, “Begin with the end in mind.”
What type of adult do we want our kids to be? Most parents I talk to want their adult kids to be honest, self regulated, self confident and educated. Whatever attributes your list happens to contain, begin right there.

If we don’t set limits and consequences, someone else will. Whomever that person happens to be will not love your child the way you do. They may not use the mercy and grace that you would. Their words may not be seasoned with salt. They may not use any sort of justice or diligence in their punishment. It might be swift, cold and hard.

We still have time to teach them in a way that seeks to guide them toward a brighter future.

Teach them the importance of their actions and the unimportance of some of their desires. The world is counting on you...and so is your child.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Ask the Expert: Is Marriage Worth It?

 Q: “Honestly, I’m not sure how to ask what I want to ask here. I look around and all my friends are doing everything they can to get married. But I also look around and see all these married people doing everything they can to get divorced. It sometimes seems like marriage is some kind of trap -- like it promises more than it can deliver. I guess what I’m really asking is this: Is marriage worth it?”

I come from a long line of long marriages. I’ve been married 18 years, my sister has been married for 25, my parents for 48, and the granddaddy of them all (pun intended): my grandparents, who died two years ago, were just shy of having been married for 75 years. In my family, the message that’s communicated, whether verbally or not, is “when you get married, you’d better work on it and stay married.”

Clearly, not everyone shares that view.  We all know the statistics: 1 out of 2 first marriages will fail; 2 out of 3 second marriages; and 3 out of 4 third marriages will end in divorce.

What’s happened in our culture? If we look back 50 years, the divorce stats are not nearly that high. What’s changed? We can point to many factors, but I believe that our societal views of marriage play a significant role.

Recently, I watched a video that highlighted successful marriages, most of which had lasted more than 30 years.  It was frankly adorable (if I can be sappy for a moment) to see couples’ wedding pictures and then current pictures showing them much older yet still very much in love. The comments that followed the video were what I would expect. Most talked about how sweet the video was and how refreshing to see great examples. There were a few comments, however, that surprised me:
  • The reality of marriage is perpetual disarray and boredom.
  • I have been married four times and was gloriously happy for the first three to four years. THEN the real deal began.
  • Whenever I hear of a long marriage, I think...there is someone (or both) who has put up with a lot of pain and heartache. In most cases, one member of the couple has tolerated things that most of us would not.
  • Love is great but marriage is pointless.

Why might these individuals have reacted in such a way? What might be holding them back from experiencing a great marriage? Again, I believe it’s our expectation of marriage that’s key. So to each of the folks quoted above, here are three truths about marriage that will impact your enjoyment of and success in marriage.
  1. You cannot control your spouse.  I know. I know. This one ticks me off, too. Believe me, I’d like to think I’m powerful enough to MAKE MY HUSBAND DO WHAT I WANT HIM TO DO. Not that I’ve ever thought that way, of course, but I’ve heard that some people struggle with it. Here’s the deal. The only person I can control is me. And frankly, sometimes I have trouble with that! And while it may seem appealing to think that I could control my spouse, is that really what is best? (Well, regarding him picking up after himself, yes, but otherwise maybe not.) If I’m so focused on my husband’s actions/attitudes/irritating habits, etc., then I’m not focused on taking responsibility for my actions/attitudes/responses to his behavior. I suppose the famous quote by a wise man sums it up: take the log out of your own eye before you complain about the speck in your neighbor’s (or in this case, spouse’s) eye. Now you may be saying, “You haven’t seen the log in my wife’s eye.”  You’re right. I haven’t. But I have a good feeling she can see a rather large plank in your eye, if she looks hard enough. If all of us would take responsibility for ourselves rather than focusing on each other, we’d probably have far more peace in our relationships.
  2. Your spouse won’t always make you happy. Newsflash: All of the Disney princess movies lied to us. Yep. Bald faced lies. All of them. There is no way that one human being can be fully responsible for the happiness of another. It’s just not possible. Now, does my husband make me happy? Yeah, sometimes. He happens to be a really funny guy and we have great conversations about spiritual things, politics, and sports. But I’ve found that his eyes will glaze over if I start to talk to him about fashion for more than 15 minutes. And he doesn’t want to shop endlessly, like I do. I have friends for that. Expecting that my spouse will make me happy is essentially idolatry. It’s expecting him to be more powerful than he really is; it is an expectation that only God can fulfill. He could do everything right, and I could still have a bad day at work or receive a snide comment from someone and BOOM!  he’s failed. That’s completely unfair. My happiness is my responsibility. It’s something that comes from within and as I’ve seen, it’s often a choice. My choice.
  3. Marriage takes work.  Perhaps our “married four times” friend understood this truth, but I doubt it. Unfortunately, many people think that if they just find the right person, then marriage will be a breeze…or at least not painfully difficult. And then they’re married for three or four years and “the real deal begins,” with the real deal being that they can’t control their spouse and their spouse no longer makes them happy. Welcome to marriage! While marriage can be fun, passionate, and entertaining, it also takes a willingness to examine your own behavior and the determination to live up to your vows.  
So here I am at the end of this article, and frankly, as I look back at these truths, I wonder, “Why get married?” No, seriously! What’s the point? If I can’t get my way, my spouse isn’t going to make me happy, and marriage takes a lot of work, why embark on this pathway?” Think about that question for a minute.

Here’s my answer: Yes, marriage is worth it because the cost is worth the reward. So what’s the reward? Companionship, passion, transformation of self, children, a legacy. Want to know how I know that? I saw it on the face of my 94 year old grandfather when he held his wife’s wrinkled but adoring face and kissed her.

How to Have a Very Merry ScreamFree Christmas....Sort Of.

With Christmas only a few days away I thought it would be a great idea to give you a guide on how to stay calm during the time of year when all is supposed to be merry and bright. With holiday parties and family gatherings on your agenda sometimes we run into situations where we want to be anything but ScreamFree.

Because I realize that in the days to come you might have the urge to yell, scream or run away, I wanted to present you with a gift. I have compiled a list of the most emotionally explosive powder kegs that you are likely to face and the ScreamFree response for each. If you playfully follow my advice, you too could have a very Merry ScreamFree Christmas.

Here we go...

Situation #1

Your spouse gives you a Christmas gift that you know you will never use or wear. As a matter of fact, you know that after today, this gift will never see the light of day again.

The ScreamFree Response

Hold the up the gift and say, “Wow...a _______ (insert name of item)!” Be really careful not to make this sentence sound like a question. You want to be emphatic! “Wow... an Emergency Roadside Assistance Kit!”

Then, look at them gingerly and say, “I love you more and more each Christmas. Not because of the gifts, but because of you.”

This way you honestly declare your love for them while ignoring the hideousness of their gift.

Situation #2

You are at the annual family/work Christmas party and the host is playing Christmas carols. The problem is that they always play the really horrible carols like Christmas Shoes and Santa Baby.

The ScreamFree Response

Before arriving at the party stop by Target and go on a shopping spree of Christmas CDs. Buy some really good music from Mariah Carey or Michael Bublé. Maybe even some classics from Andy Williams or Bing Crosby. Stay away from any music produced in the late 1990s from boy bands or female pop stars that were under the age of 21. Just trust me on that one.

Wrap the music in a nice package and present it to the host saying, “I know how much you like Christmas music and I though you might like these.” After saying this, hand over the gift and simply walk away. You might have to endure the bad playlist at this year’s party, but the next one is only a year away. Hope is on the horizon.

Situation #3

You are newly married and you discover that your spouse wants to open gifts on Christmas Eve and not Christmas Day.

The ScreamFree Response

Calmly tell them that they are just plain wrong and then walk away. Just kidding.

Playfully tell them, “I don’t see how we can open gifts before Santa Claus arrives. Everyone knows he comes sometime between midnight and 5am on what is actually Christmas Day.”

This will probably invite them to get really serious with you and begin bringing up something about family traditions and such. 

At this point say, “I understand, but I would love to begin a new tradition with you.”

This way you end up sounding sweet and understanding while avoiding their original request. It works 87% of the time.

Special Note...

This is my attempt at a little Holiday satire. It is in no way a real solution to some of the typical issues that surround the Holidays.

So here is a real piece of advice. When it comes to any weird Holiday situation involving those you love so dear, calmly and honestly represent yourself to your spouse, child or family member. Your example of calm and honesty may be the greatest gift they could ever receive.

Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 13, 2013

“Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word”

Elton John sang it so eloquently. It’s a sad, sad situation, but parents and married couples know just how absurd it can become. Offering up a good, old-fashioned apology is one of the most difficult things in all the world.

As a parent, I’ll admit it: I’ve done the forced apology thing. “Tell your sister you’re sorry.” Countless parents have said this to countless kids over countless generations. It’s one of the universal “go to” phrases we believe is guaranteed to help us all get along. It means, let the other person know you regret what you did and are willing to take the first step towards making things right again.

Of course, anyone with children knows that your child’s parentally enforced apology is sometimes less than heartfelt. They stand there gazing at the floor, mumbling out the words. And you know they wouldn’t be there at all if you weren’t making them.

Still, we believe it’s a good thing for them to say so it must be a good thing for us to teach -- even if we do have to oversee it -- even if it lacks conviction. Perhaps, we hope, the sentiment behind the words will eventually click into place.

This was conventional wisdom for centuries. One generation passed it down to the next and so on and so on until we discovered that you could sell a lot of books under the premise that everything you learned about parenting from your parents was completely wrong, unhealthy, and psychologically damaging. Now we are convinced that without any connection between internal remorse and external behavior, well, words are just words.

And I get it. I do.

Ultimately, I don’t just want my kids to apologize, I want them to want to apologize. I want them to understand the impact their behavior has on others -- to know how their actions have offended someone and to feel some sense of guilt over that.

But I wonder sometimes: if we wait until all those dots get connected before we expect our kids to say the words...we might be waiting a very long time.

I’ve seen this phenomenon at work in marriages, too. Couples experience conflict, and I’ll ask, “When’s the last time either of you apologized to the other?”

Blank stares. Slow, deep breaths. Math being done in their heads. Carry the one. Someone gets out a calendar. When was the last leap year? You don’t have to be an expert to figure out that apologies are as welcome as a root canal.

It wasn’t always this way. Most married couples had conversations that involved apologies and forgiveness. Once upon a time. Over time, though, someone stopped. The practice ended and the impulse followed.

What if you did for yourself what you do for your kids? Consider for a moment what might happen if you told yourself, “Say you’re sorry. Stand up straight. Don’t look at the floor. Speak up. Say it.”

I think this might help you have a more ScreamFree Marriage this holiday season.

Of course, our little ones don’t often want to do this, and I understand why. They’re at the beginning of their journey into the wide world of relationships. They don’t fully grasp the value of words. They’re impulsive creatures who lack self-discipline.

But what’s your excuse? Even when we know the apology is merited, mustering up the gumption to utter that terrible phrase is difficult, and the longer we put it off the harder it is to do.

I can almost hear your rationalizations and justifications.

“I didn’t do anything wrong.”
What are you Mother Teresa? Can we all just admit that we all do at least a little wrong every single day of our lives? Nothing is ever all one person’s fault. If there’s conflict in your marriage -- and there is -- you own some of it. Own it.

Even if you think your spouse should own most of it -- you own some of it. Even if it’s, say, a 60-30 split (with 10% being your kids’ fault) -- you could both say, “It’s not all my fault.” But you each have something to apologize for.

So own your part -- even if it’s a small part of the big mess -- even if you weren’t the one who started it -- even if you were just defending yourself -- even if your spouse knew she was pushing your buttons -- even if you think it’s just one-half of one percent. Own it.

I know you probably have a very good reason why you did what you did or said what you said. I know that. But you also know that there’s something somewhere for which you should apologize. Do it. It’s good for you. If you wait until you are completely convinced that the problem is more than 50% your fault, well, when’s the next leap year?

Here’s a harsh reality: most people think they’re more innocent than they really are. We believe we’re easier to get along with than we really are. We are convinced that we’re the normal one, and, if only everyone else would get in synch with us, then the world would be a much better place.

But what if you’re wrong? What if you’re not as pleasant as you think you are? What if the percentage of the problem that rests on your shoulders is even a tiny bit higher than you assume it is?

Odds are your spouse thinks this is the case. Odds are an independent panel of objectives observers would agree with your spouse. You probably own more of the problem than you realize. Go ahead and apologize.

“If I apologize, he’ll think he’s right and I’m wrong.”
Yes. He might. But is that your goal here? To correctly identify who is more to blame than the other?

No. It’s not. At least it shouldn’t be. Your goal here is to simply acknowledge the fact that you own some of this. “I’m sorry I made fun of your hair. That was wrong.” “I should not have yelled at you like that. I apologize. Please forgive me.”

Note those specifics. You focus on what you did -- not on what they did to make you do what you did. If your spouse hears you apologize for what you did and comes to the conclusion, “Finally! She’s admitting that everything that’s wrong in our marriage -- heck, in the whole universe -- is all completely her fault!” then, congratulations, you married an idiot.

Of course, he may do a little bit of that at first, especially if you have a long history of escalating conflicts into contests of who’s right and who’s wrong. If you’ve made everything into a zero-sum game -- where in order for one person to win the other person must lose -- it may take a while to adjust to the idea that my apology only covers what I said or did.

Saying, “I’m sorry,” is not the same as saying, “You were 100% right.”

Over time even an idiot should be able to figure this out. And, even if that never happens, at least your apology may short-circuit the escalation of things. There’s a Jewish proverb that says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath.” Most people find it difficult to remain emotionally twisted up when someone expresses authentic remorse.

An honest and humble apology alters the dynamics of the situation.

A Final Word
A fundamental principle of human nature is this: if you want someone to act a certain way towards you, begin acting that way towards them. If you’d like someone to be friendly towards you, be friendly towards them. If you want them to compliment you, compliment them.

If you want to hear an apology, apologize.

It may not work. But what you’ve been’s that been working for you?

As you continue to apologize appropriately and authentically, you may show your spouse that apologies are not signs of weakness. The ratio may continue to feel out of balance, but I bet you’ll feel closer to your spouse than you do now.

There’s something mysterious about apologizing. There’s something in the very words, and the act of humility -- imperfect as the intention may be -- required to get them out of your mouth, that can improve your relationship. An apology -- even a less-than-completely-heartfelt one -- has the power not only to end an argument, but to heal and change the person who utters it, however grudgingly.

You don’t have to feel like doing something in order to do it. Sometimes you have to do the thing for the feelings to come.

Sorry very well may be the hardest word. It’s not easy to swallow your pride, to maintain your integrity, to be honest with the people who are closest to you (they’re the ones who can hurt you the most). But there’s bad hard and there’s good hard. There’s the hard stuff that turns you into the person you want to be. Hard stuff that makes you stronger and creates the kind of relationship you deeply desire.

Sorry definitely falls into that category. 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Avoiding an Attention-Deficit Christmas

“My life feels like a river that has overrun its banks -- oozing sideways in unmanageable and unpredictable ways, rather than flowing steadily forward in a single direction.”

I wrote that in my journal a few years ago, and I found it recently while going through some boxes in my garage. It seemed like I was writing it down as a way to force myself to confront the issue, but I realized as soon as I read it that things haven’t gotten any better. If anything, as the dad of three “tweenaged” daughters, it’s gotten worse.

Busy. Scattered. Messy. Fast. Unpredictable. Welcome to the warp-speed life of a modern 43-year-old husband, father, author, coach, friend, son, brother, man.

In many ways, life today resembles the world of attention deficit disorder, or ADD. Think about the energy, excitement and excess of life -- its quest for novelty and newness -- its chaos and confusion. Consider the ever-increasing hurricane of data. Life for many of us has become a constant state of adaptation, irreverence and incoherence.

Our world has ADD.[1]

I understand that Attention Deficit Disorder is a medical term, but I think it’s become an apt metaphor for modern life, offering a model and a guide for what’s happening today in a world where we are living a kind of life never lived before. There was a time when the symptoms of ADD described a few folks, but now it seems to describe everyone I know.

People with ADD rush around a lot, getting very little done. They feel impatient and are easily frustrated. They lose their train of thought. They get distracted by something new and shiny. They have so much energy they cannot contain themselves, but they struggle to pay attention to one thing for more than a few minutes. They have big ideas but can’t execute them. They have a hard time finishing what they start. They multitask, but never actually accomplish anything. They make impulsive and rash decisions because their brains are chronically overloaded and overstimulated. They often end up feeling overwhelmed and powerless to combat the piles of stuff accumulating around them. They resolve to do better tomorrow. They are busy but unproductive -- which may be the most frustrating feeling in all the world.

Now you tell me: does that paragraph feel a little familiar? Anyone else feel like just getting through the day is harder than riding a unicycle while juggling helium balloons and eating a sandwich? And it only gets worse around this time of year!

You may be led to believe that you have ADD now, but you may, in fact, merely have a severe case of modern life. This may be why you feel too hurried to do what matters most, why you can’t take time to stop and think.

It could be, however, that the same techniques people use to manage ADD could help us understand how to navigate our way through the world in which we live -- a world that threatens to press us into a pattern of crazy busyness. It’s time to recapture life, to take back the time seems to evaporate and regain the sense of control you’ve inadvertently given away.

As strange as this sounds, it is our desire for control that often causes us to lose it. By trying to control as much of life as possible, you can make yourself crazy -- losing control in the process. You can feel like a spoon surrounded by a circle of a dozen powerful magnets. Pulled in every direction simultaneously, you go nowhere but begin to vibrate faster and faster and faster until you begin to spin aimlessly on your axis.

Some people are too busy because they feel the need to respond to every magnet: keeping track of too many things, processing too much information, responding to too many emails and voicemails and texts and tweets and Facebook messages -- all out of a sense that this is how we must live in order to keep up and maintain control.

But you’re not in control; the magnets are. We no longer control our handheld electronic devices; they control us. They chirp; we jump. Same with our material possessions, our kids’ grades, even our toys. The laundry, the dry cleaning, the oil change, the breaking news, the holiday shopping. Our vacations are not restful, and our hobbies are not refreshing. We’ve all but given away our free time -- the time that is supposed to be free. We have no time to do nothing, to breathe, to pause, to reflect.

I’m not talking about returning to the “good, old days” -- but we have to figure out how to keep modern life from stealing from us what’s good and life-building.

Modern life gives us the illusion that we can be everywhere and do everything. But, at some point in time, we must accept the fact that we can’t track everything. We’ll never be able to control every variable. It is foolish to even try. If we could summon the strength to give up trying, then we could demagnetize the things around us and stop vibrating and spinning in place.

When we stop trying to control and react to everyone and everything, we regain the ability to focus on the only thing we can truly control: ourselves. Then, and only then, can we control enough of life to appreciate what we have. Then, and only then, can we find joy and peace in spite of our circumstances.

More than 250 years ago, Samuel Johnson spoke of “the stability of truth.” Counterintuitively, that “stability” comes with the acceptance of instability -- when we acknowledge the inevitability to change and learn to adapt to it by reclaiming control of ourselves and our own emotional reactivity.

This is not simply the wisdom of some long-forgotten sage. It is just common sense. Warren Buffett knows how foolish it is to follow each stock he owns minute-by-minute. He makes his picks, and then he waits. He relinquishes control of the day-to-day ups and downs and lets the stock do the work. He gives control to the company he felt good enough about to invest in it in the first place.

Consequently, Warren Buffett has the bandwidth he needs to think clearly.

Of course, there are many practical concerns that keep us busy. We’ve got kids to get to soccer practice and dry cleaning to pick up and dinner to buy and prepare and eat and clean up after. The bathroom doesn’t clean itself, nor does the lawn mow itself. The car needs an oil change, and there’s that project at work. And don’t forget about the office party next weekend.

But behind and beneath many of these projects clamoring for our attention lies one, simple fact that few of us care to admit: we stay busy so we can avoid looking into the abyss.

Few of us are comfortable enough to contemplate the contents of that long, dark corridor that leads to the one thing that stares each of us in the face: our own mortality.

Sure, everyone once in a while something happens that forces us to confront the inevitable reality of death. Someone dies too young. A tornado touches down. A terrible choice brings awful consequences. But most of the time we manage to avert our gaze from all that unpleasantness by watching the new fall lineup on TV. We keep busy with our fantasy football leagues and reality shows and anything else we can think of to warm us with feelings of power, productivity and progress. We feed the illusion that we can defeat death, that ultimate confounder of our control. We stay busy to look away from loss, tragedy and pain.

But, in the end, you know death is going to win. All the activity you generate can’t bring back one person from the other side. This is perhaps the most difficult truth for modern men and women to embrace. Acceptance -- not busyness -- brings us to a peaceful place. When we accept our lack of absolute control, when we accept the inevitability of our own mortality, when we acknowledge our place in the grand scheme of things, we gain the fullest life possible and the amount of control we were meant to have.

[1] I am indebted to Dr. Edward M. Hallowell for this idea. I highly recommend his book Crazy Busy (Ballentine Books, 2006).

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Ask the Expert: Homework... You can't make me!

Question:  I have a 6th grade son who is in gifted classes, and recently he has decided that he doesn’t want to do the work. In fact, he told me, “I don’t want to be in the gifted class; I don’t want to do the work, and you can’t make me.” He’s smart, and he’s driving me crazy! Help!!

Response:  First of all, let me say that I feel my own blood pressure rising just thinking about this scenario, so I can sympathize that this is one of those situations in which you want to intervene and intervene swiftly and victoriously! After all, who likes seeing good talent wasted? 

Yet, even though I agree that you are justified in feeling frustrated, the first and most important thing you can do is calm yourself and your own anxiety about him doing poorly or failing, and here’s why:

  1. The more you push on this issue, the more likely he will resist, and his resistance will probably come in the form of slacking off even more. He’ll see how passionate you are about his homework and decide that he doesn’t need to be passionate at all, OR he’ll see this as an opportunity to exert some control over his own life. He’ll see it as a power struggle and the more you pull, the harder he will pull in the opposite direction. As you back off, you allow him to take responsibility for his own actions and focus on his own desires rather than concern himself with what you think/feel about it.
  2. This is the time to let him fail.  Now I know that this statement is anxiety producing, but let me explain. From a purely academic perspective, his grades don’t really count yet. When he enters high school, his grades have an impact on his ability to get into the college of his choice, but right now, they don’t. So if there’s a time for him to experience the consequences of bad choices with the least long term effect, now would be that time.
  3. Let the consequences do the screaming.  This principle says it all—let the consequences do the screaming. Once you’ve calmed yourself, it’s important to think through what would be an appropriate consequence for failing to do homework.  This is best done before you actually need to implement it—not in the heat of the moment. And it can even be presented before it becomes necessary. For instance, “You can watch TV after your homework is done.” Do you notice how non confrontational that sounds? Very different from, “You can’t watch any TV unless your homework is done.” A slight change, but the tone is more positive, it invites less resistance, and even sounds like a reward.  One more comment on consequences…sometimes it’s tempting to pile on consequences, especially when your child starts to dig in his heels. Unfortunately that tends to backfire, so if you see yourself taking away every privilege and good thing in your child’s life, slow down. Take a pause. Mentally switch places with your child and ask yourself what it’s like from his position. Then have a talk with him, a respectful, not dogmatic talk. Maybe you’ll discover he really doesn’t like Language Arts or he doesn’t get along with his teacher or he’s distracted by a girl in his class.     
Middle school, as you know and probably remember from your own experience, is a time of transition—good transitions and painful ones. The more you can seek to develop your relationship with your son, the better you will both be able to tackle these challenges. Enjoy him. Find ways to balance the business side of parenting (supervising homework, dishing out consequences, managing the home schedule) with the nurturing/fun side of parenting. Give him opportunities to make more of his own decisions. So many kids at this age are seeking to expand their influence and wanting to manage more of their own lives. Give him those opportunities and as you do so, encourage him, praising his efforts.

And if none of these ideas help, just do his homework for him.

(You know I’m kidding, right?)

Lunatic DNA

I admit I’m a bit of an addict when it comes to taking pictures, especially pictures of my kids. And I know I’m not alone. I’ve seen the dozens hundreds of pictures you post on Facebook, too.  We love our kids and we want to show them to the world.

Well, before the days of Facebook and even before the glorious days of digital cameras, I took my kids to JC Penney or the Picture People to have their pictures taken. Now that was always a big occasion, marking a major milestone in their lives—3 months old, 6 months, 9 months, 12 months, 18 months, and then I promise I slowed down to yearly pictures. Well, maybe. Anyway, these pictures were SUPER important to me as I liked to see my kids’ growth and remember how cute they were at all their stages of life.

[Insert my shameless promotion of my cute kids at various stages.]


To say picture day was all fun would be like saying a trip to the dentist is a joyous event. It was stressful, as in everyone needed to look just right—hair in place, clothes neatly pressed, etc. Yes, I captured the everyday look of my kids, too—including faces covered in butt cream (yes, I can prove it, if you want), and still in pjs at 4 pm—but these were the special pictures, the ones we would hang on the wall.

So the day arrived for the kids’ pictures to be taken. Graham had just turned 4 and Reeve was 18 months old. My little Hannah was only 6 weeks old, so she was mainly along for the ride, although she did make her debut.

The morning started as any morning would with cereal and Dora. Then I proceeded to get the kids ready, with Graham leading the way.  After gelling up his adorable red, curly hair and putting him in his picture-perfect outfit, I did quite possibly the stupidest thing I could have done. I sent him outside to play with these words:  Don’t get dirty.

I know. I know. Famous last words to a four year old boy. I’m going to blame my insanity on being a sleep-deprived, post-partum mama. 

I proceeded to dress the other two only to see Graham walk back into the house a few minutes later---with RED GEORGIA CLAY PLASTERED ON HIS SHIRT.

My response was…well, let’s just say it was on par with a two year old. Not only was I screaming at him, but I was jumping up and down to really drive home my point. I had clearly communicated he was not to get dirty. What was wrong with him?

Never mind the fact that I, myself, had sent the boy outside .

Now let me ask you something:  When I was doing my little crazy, screaming dance, which of the following do you think was going through Graham’s head—

1.       Oh man! I really should have obeyed my mom. What was I thinking?
2.       Oh man! I have half the DNA of this lunatic woman!

Yeah. More than likely he was focused on my behavior and not his own. And that’s what happens when we do not remain calm but we lose all control. We prohibit our kids from learning from their own behavior. We invite them to focus on us and not themselves. But when we calm ourselves down, we free our kids to focus on themselves and take responsibility for their own behavior.

And isn’t that what we want? Don’t we want them to learn from their mistakes? To evaluate their own behavior? To learn to self-regulate rather than always depending on us for feedback about their behavior? 

Speaking of self-regulating…sometimes we, the parents, need to be reminded to control our own behavior rather than allowing ourselves to be so focused on our kids’ behavior.  We need to evaluate whether or not we are acting like an adult or a two year old.

And sometimes we realize that we’ve overreacted. Note the picture. Do you see the red Georgia clay? Yeah, me neither. That’s because the clay is on the shirt UNDERNEATH the vest.

And sadly, this lunatic mom knew all along the red clay would not be seen. Ah, the beauty of learning to grow up!

Friday, November 15, 2013

The More We Protect, The Less We Prepare

I have to admit I’m not in my happiest of places these days—I’m in my “writing mode.” Or, as my literature teacher wife would call it, “The Winter of Our Discontent.” See, I’ve recently begun writing my next book, tentatively titled “Launching Hope.” It’s an effort to help parents lead their adolescents into productive adulthood, and if this book creation experience is anything like the two previous, then my family can expect several months of moodiness, challenging fits of emotional reactivity, and alternating bouts of exhilarated hope and desperate doubts about the future. Kinda like adolescence itself. (Without the acne, I hope).

Photo by tfg photography
One of the themes of the book is (or, will be, I should say) about how much of the angst of adolescence, for both teens and their parents, stems from a shared misunderstanding of the whole phase itself. And of each other. What far too many families are experiencing is a dreaded tug-of-war, with kids struggling to be older too soon, and parents wanting kids to be younger for too long. What ends up happening is the worst of all ironies: young adults ill-equipped to move on, and parents wondering if they will ever move out.

I have had the pleasure of working with teenagers and their parents, in various capacities, for about 20 years. And during those years as a marriage and family therapist, high school teacher, youth minister, and speaker, I have seen countless examples of parents who, thankfully, did things differently. These different folks did not see their kids as just kids. They saw their offspring as apprenticing adults, designed to grow up and go out, and therefore, these parents believed it was their job as parents to train these kids to do just that.

The starkest example of this visionary parenting I ever encountered occurred years before I ever became a therapist. It did not involve a family I knew or had the pleasure to watch develop over the years. But I now believe it has had more influence on shaping my own thoughts about parenting, particularly leading teenagers into adulthood, than any other personal, professional, or educational experience.

That fateful day was some 16 years ago, and it occurred during my brief stint as a youth minister working with teens in a church in California. I was leading a caravan of parents and teenagers back up “the 5” from Los Angeles to the Bay Area. My wife Jenny was in the car with me, along with our then one-year-old daughter, Hannah. We had all just spent a couple of long days at Disneyland, and we were all exhaustedly heading home. About midway through the drive, it became clear that we weren’t the only ones exhausted that day.

While cruising at 70mph, I noticed an SUV, a few cars in front of us, starting to drift left towards the center rail. This drift must have awakened, or at least startled, the driver into action, because suddenly the SUV swerved hard to the right. It was an obvious overcorrection, for the vehicle zoomed across the freeway, lost complete control, and started flipping violently onto the side of the road. This instantly created a huge cloud of dust, but through it all I could see debris flying everywhere out of the vehicle. I could also see all the cars around us coming to a tire-shrieking stop. This was a serious accident, and we all needed to help.

Mine was the second car on the scene. I urged Jenny to stay in the car with Hannah. I rushed over there, anticipating God knows what. A few of our teens and parents came out from the cars behind me. It was one of those movie scenes where all these people are running to assist, until they actually get close to the action. Then everyone involuntarily slows down as they view the horror.

One woman had been thrown from the vehicle, her body convulsing on the ground. It seemed obvious she was dying. There were conscious cries for help coming from inside the Jeep, along with a screaming baby. Various automobile fluids were spreading out in every direction, and, I hate to say it, some bodily fluids as well. The smells were just as active, and disorienting. Everything I sensed was slowing my progression toward the scene, despite my desires to help. This was the case with all the other well-meaning witnesses, as well.

Except for three.

I mentioned mine was the second car on the scene. Ahead of me was a station wagon that pulled off ahead of the crash. Flying out of that car was a man and his two teenaged sons. Unlike the rest of us, there was no slow down in their approach. Not even from the two boys, whom I later found out were 16 and 13. No, what I noticed was that these three actually seemed to be speeding up as they discerned the severity of the accident.

And I noticed something else: the father had a large emergency kit in his hand, and all three were in the process of putting on white latex gloves. Apparently this man was a professional EMT, one who just happened to be at the right place at the right time. This became obvious as we all eventually reached the carnage.

In a remarkable display of leadership, this father was quickly taking charge of everyone’s desires to help. He gave each of us some basic instructions:

You, sir, go check on the woman on the ground. Don’t move her at all, just touch her neck with your two fingers, and yell out to me if she’s breathing. You, there, tell me if you see any active gasoline leaks coming from the underside of the vehicle. You (he was now looking at me), come with us.

“Us” meant the dad and his boys, and we all headed to the inside of the crashed SUV. Or, I should say, the three of them led me there. This is because what the dad and his boys began to demonstrate was a remarkable teamwork, which created such a compelling competence that I actually felt somewhat comfortable with the invitation.

Inside the SUV were three people: the driver, knocked unconscious; a large woman in the backseat, screaming in pain; and, most distressingly, a baby in a car seat, screaming even louder. I was, of course, struck dumbfounded by the scene. But I was not allowed to stay there in shock. See, as the dad checked on the baby, he started communicating to his sons in very calm, very clear professional terms:

Okay, Steven (the 13-year-old), place your two fingers on the driver’s carotidartery.  Check to make sure her trachea is not resting directly on the steering wheel. Okay, Michael (the 16-year-old), you and the man next to you (me) need to see if you can supinate that woman’s foot, so her leg can release from underneath the seat. Be careful, she’s got a compound fracture of her right femur.

Then, after responding with a clear “yes, sir,” Michael began to lead me the same way as his father:

Sir, could you move to her anterior side and hold her hand while I turn her foot? Be careful of her leg, sir, she’s in a lot of pain. Okay, that’s good. Don’t worry about her screaming, sir; it means she’s not going into shock.

On it went. Needless to say, I was out of my element. But thanks to a sixteen-year-old’s calm (and calming) instruction, we were actually able to help pry the woman from the seat, and eventually the car. She was in bad shape, but okay. And thanks to the dad’s leadership (and a fantastic car seat!), the baby was removed unharmed; just some glass in her hair. The driver was eventually revived as well.

As the ambulance arrived, and the teams of emergency professionals relieved us of our duties, I actually felt genuinely helpful. I could almost understand the appeal of being a first responder.

But I was not the story. This father and his two sons were the story. Here was a man who, most likely, spent the better part of his days dealing with the very worst life has to offer. Accidents, violence, blood, death. As a therapist, I’ve worked with a number of first responders, and the things they wish they could un-see far outnumber what any human should. But this was a dad who did not want to shield his boys from all this horror; he actually wanted to strategically expose them to it. This father did not want to protect his children from the real world all its potential ugliness; he actually wanted to prepare them for it.

And prepared these two boys were. Michael and Steven were in no way shocked by this scene in the California desert, they were compelled by it. These teenagers were in no way unprepared to handle this crisis of life; they were actually leading other adults through it. Lives were saved because of it.

Lives were changed as well. Mine, in particular. No, I didn’t go home and write some manifesto on the virtues of preparing our teens for life (that’s what I’m trying to do here, some 16 years later). But I have to say that walking and working through such an ordeal, and witnessing such a profound model of parental leadership, has undoubtedly affected the way I try to lead my kids into adulthood, and teach others to do the same.

So, what is that “way” of parenting? I’ll let you know as I continue writing…

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A Stone-Age Way of Life

I am a cartoon guy. Always have been. Always will be. I guess it is the fantasy and escapism that sort of draws me in.

As a child two of my favorite cartoons were The Flintstones and The Jetsons. I assume you are aware of these two shows. If you are, you know that they are based upon two families that live in different eras—one in the stone ages (Flintstones) and the other some time in the future (Jetsons). The futuristic Jetsons was the one, however that made me hope, dream and imagine—imagine what the future would be like in the far away 2000s.

The future always seemed so bright. According to The Jetsons, we were going to have flying cars and homes in the sky. We had a lot to look forward to. Gadgets and gizmos that were going to make life easier, all brought to life by the time we reached the year 2000.

We are in year 13 of the 2000s and many of those anticipated widgets are widely available for public consumption. We can engage in a video chat session with people next door or in another country. We carry around tiny computers called smartphones and have larger versions of those do-hickeys called tablets. As comedian Louis C.K. says, “Everything is amazing!” Most of the these inventions have something in common. They are designed either to connect us or give us more time so that we can connect with those we love.

Think about it though. Do you feel more connected today with your friends or family than you did, say 20 years ago? I know I don’t. I have fewer personal conversations with people even though all of this great technology is at my fingertips. I am less connected. We are less connected.

From a familial perspective that is concerning. I want to be around my wife and kids (most of the time). I want to be woven into the fabric of their lives, but many times I actually find myself buried into one of my “futuristic” devices. You know, the ones that are supposed to connect us.

A guy named Hal Runkel, author of ScreamFree Marriage, says, “We all crave connection.” We desire it in our marriages, with our kids, in our extended family and in our communities. Nothing gives us fulfillment like a connective relationship with someone else.

In my heart, I desire a return to a simpler time. A time when I didn’t choose to allow a tiny, little device to morph into a huge barrier between me and my loved ones. If I were going to be a cartoon character, I’d rather be Fred Flintstone than George Jetson any day. Think about it, Fred spent time with his wife, kid and friends. He had a social life. He belonged to Royal Order of Water-buffalos, for goodness sake! He might have been mad all of the time, but dog-gone it, at least he was around Wilma, Pebbles, Barney and Dino!

George Jetson, on the other hand, was always either at work, on his way to work or coming home from work. What kind of life is that? Sure he had lots of cool stuff, but it looks like he paid for it. Makes me wonder how daughter Judy and his boy Elroy turned out. Not to mention Jane, his wife.

Some of us have a lot in common with ol’ George.

We secretly wish, however, that we could go back to a simpler time when personal connection was part of our family’s DNA.

You know what though...I think we can have the best of both worlds. I believe we can enjoy what the “future” has given us while holding on to the connection that we really crave.

Here are three ways we can do so:

1. Be Present
When your spouse and kids are around, make it your aim and goal to simply be present. It is not enough to be in the room with them. Become involved with them. Talk, laugh and listen. You will always have “something else” to do. Press pause and enjoy those you love most.

2. Be Intentional
I don’t know if anyone has ever been successful in achieving the “work-life” balance. I don’t know if it is even possible to achieve. Even though the goal may be out of our reach, we still must strive to be intentional about how we spend our time if connection is what we are after. This may mean making it a point to come home from the office at a certain time or scheduling date nights once per month for you and your spouse. We are only given so many hours in a day. We must be intentional with how we use them.

3. Be an Example
Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” This oft quoted phrase epitomizes the personal responsibility that we must take in order to create necessary changes in our families. Once we decide to change our part of the “disconnected” pattern in our families, we invite each member of the family to change as well.

From this day forward, let’s be intentionally mindful of what is really important. Connection.

Fred Flintstone got it right. If only we had a Brontosaurus bone to chew on.