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.