Three amazing teenagers. How did that happen?!? Parenting tips from the pleasantly surprised.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Tough Choices

“It’s your choice,” I said to my 17 year old son as we finished driving the long way home so we could conclude our conversation, “suck it up or sell the puppy.”

One week before, we had achieved the impossible. Since early childhood, he had been listening to stories of dogs I had as a boy and how much I loved them. “A boy and his dog,” I would say, “there is no greater love.” For a decade and a half we had presented this maxim to the boss and she always said, “Cats are fine. Dogs are not.” So we had cats. Still do. Then came the week of the father-son suck-it-up-or-sell drive-time chat.

She had finally said yes! We found the perfect puppy. We brought it home. We arranged my son’s room so he could train and entertain a puppy. And then the week from hell began.

The puppy whined. It bit. It peed. It barked. It pooed. It chewed on things. It attacked pant legs. All the things that had been endearing to me when I was a boy were driving my son insane. His gentle nature would not allow him to be firm with the puppy. He even grimaced when I played with her because of how rough I was. But then he would say, “You’re so good with dogs.” I could see something was up. He needed to toughen up and roughen up or she was going to eat him for breakfast – for the rest of his life.

Five days after getting the puppy, as we drove, he said, “Dad I can’t do it. I need to be more firm with her but I feel mean when I try. You can do it because you are more relaxed. I am stressed around her and I can’t relax and be in charge of her.”

“You mean, in control,” I said. “You can’t control her.”

“Exactly!” he said. “She doesn’t do what I say. I know she can’t understand yet and I need to train her but I don’t think I can get that far. I worry about her all the time. When I’m at school, when I’m trying to sleep. Every noise she makes and everything she does – I feel like I need to be there watching and making things safe for her.”

“She’s a dog,” I said. “Not a baby. She can spend hours on her own and be just fine when you get home from school or wake up in the morning.”

“I know,” he said, wiping his eyes. “I just have a lot of work to do on myself before I can work on her.” He often says insightful things like this. 17 years of living with him and I’m still not completely used to it.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You know I like learning things about my character,” he said. “And I like working on it.”
I nodded my head. Everyone in our family knows this well. Never have I heard of another teenager calling a family meeting and saying, “I need your help. I know there are things about my character than I need to work on but I can’t see them because I’m not watching from the outside. What can I work on? What needs to change? Be honest, I can take it.” And so we were.

He’s been that way since he first learned to say, “No.”

And now, he had realised something that only a dog could teach him. He has an overwhelming need to be in control of anyone or anything for which he is responsible.

“Well son, you’ve got a choice to make,” I said. “And I’m not making it for you. Raising this puppy would be one way to work on your control issues. Or recognise, this is not a required relationship. We can find a home for the puppy where she is a better fit.”

He nodded, quietly.

“So, it’s your choice,” I said as we drove up the driveway, “Suck it up or sell the puppy. What’s it gonna be?”

And to his credit, he chose to sell the puppy. Not an easy choice, believe me!

As we watched the puppy and her new family drive down the driveway, my son said, “Dad, I have learned so much about myself. I would never have known how much I struggle with control if I hadn’t had the puppy. Now that I know this about myself, I can think about it, work on it, plan for it and conquer it when it resurfaces.”

And I know he will.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Telling and Living Good Stories

While spending some extra time in the Melbourne airport recently, I met a lovely four-year-old girl named Tory. Tory was with her Mum, Dad and older brother. Tory was talkative, playful and very happy. She absolutely radiated self-confidence and a love for life.

I spent quite awhile talking to Tory, her brother and parents and I saw the way they treated their children. It wasn't hard to notice this couple really enjoyed their kids. Tory's parents didn't treat her any differently than they treated her brother. The kids interacted freely in our conversation and laughed at our banter. They were just normal kids. But, to everyone who walked by, Tory was the centre of attention. She was anything but 'normal'. People stared and smiled. Some people stopped and talked - to Tory, or about Tory to her parents.

Finally, as we boarded the plane to LAX, I noticed Tory and her parents boarding with us - in the cattle cars - long after the first class, business class, premium economy, etc. They could have boarded first - when the announcer always calls, "Any parents with young children or those in need of assistance or extra time to board, please come forward first." But they didn't.

Tory's parents are telling her a powerful story about herself. They are teaching Tory that she is just like everyone else. Yes, she is a dwarf. Yes, she moves slower and is a lot smaller than everyone else. And yes, she is cute beyond belief. But, Tory's parents treat her like a normal kid. And, having spent a few hours observing her, she is just that - a super awesome normal kid!

The story we live in front of our children and the children around us tells them the truth of our lives and theirs. If we see and say the positive stories in life, our kids will see the world as a positive place where they can interact and make a difference.

If, on the other hand, we constantly comment on the negative state of the world, the problem with the neighbours, the unfair hand we've been dealt - our children will learn to be critical and afraid. This is a great way to ensure our children grow up to be judgmental and self-centred. They will see others as dangerous and suspicious rather than unique and beautiful. In our words, our actions and our attitudes toward others – whether they are different in faith, culture or lifestyle – our children are watching us and they are becoming like us.

As family-centred leaders, we need to send positive messages to parents and kids. Tell stories that empower rather than impede. There are so many positive messages that raise people up. In our mentoring of teachers, parents and kids we should be seen to be encouraging positive action rather than discouraging negative action.

Teaching kids to be judgmental of others, or at least wary, strengthens the attitude of "us and them". We need to be drawing all men, women and children toward Love. This "drawing toward" comes from the same core leadership desire as "drawing away" but looks, sounds and feels very different. And it most definitely creates different kinds of children and thus a different kind of world.

We are all like Tory - we are all beautifully unique. And we need to tell ourselves that. And tell our children that. The stories we tell, both verbally and with our lives, will either empower the next Generation or limit them. Don't repeat bad news. Tell good stories. Live with joy and passion. Smile.
Keep changing the world - one story at a time.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Caring Like Elephants

One Sunday, my 14 year-old son and I went to the Melbourne Zoo to see the baby Elephant. We made a day of it, riding too the zoo on the train and having lunch at Central Station on the way home. We had no idea the amazing scene we were going to witness or the lessons we would learn.

After an hour on the train and a walk through the zoo, we arrived at “The Trail of the Elephants” where we found the baby, his mother and the rest of the herd in the last elephant enclosure.

The baby and two other small elephants were in the middle of the enclosure near an empty concrete wading pool. Three large elephants milled around in the shade near the wall of the large enclosure - quite some distance from the baby who was curiously exploring the area around the dry pool.

As we watched the little guy exploring his terrain, we were in for a surprise. The pool area was fenced with a solitary piece of string tied to tall metal stakes. Normally there is an electrified wire to keep the adult elephants out of the empty pool area. Because of the presence of the little elephant, the electric wire had been replaced with string. The elephants, of course, did not know this.

The baby clumsily climbed up the concrete area bordering the pool and wobbled toward the string. As he got closer to the empty pool his head bumped the string. The baby let out a panicked squeal. He lurched, trying to get away from the string, but ended up rushing underneath it into the roped off area. He clearly knew this was a bad thing. He roared his distress - repeatly calling for help. I was amazed how low his voice was. The lions in the "ROAR" exhibit would have been proud to have this little guy's resonance and depth!

The other elephants reacted instantly, rushing to the string. It was clear which elephant was the baby’s mother as she waved her trunk under the string and scuffed her feet in the dust. Every other elephant in the enclosure gathered around the mother, clearly wanting to help.

One of the elephant handlers appeared at a gate and hurried into the enclosure. The baby was continuing to call and the adults to answer. The man navigated around the herd of concerned adults cautiously but quickly and reached the empty pool. The handler called the baby elephant and lifted the string up. The baby crossed underneath, rushing to his mother.

Then the rest of the herd did something amazing, they formed a protective huddle around the mother and baby. As one massive group, they quickly shuffled away from the pool area. Once they reached a safe distance, they scuffed their feet and blew their trunks into the dirt creating a dust cloud. The baby disappeared in the protective huddle. In the wild, this would serve as very effective protection and an intimidating display to any would-be-baby-killer!

The elephants stayed huddled around the little baby while the handlers opened a huge gate at the far end of the enclosure. Once the herd could see an exit from this stressful (and dangerous!) environment, one elephant lead the way and the others followed. The entire heard left the scary enclosure behind and journeyed to greener pastures.

What if the community we built around our kids was as caring as an elephant herd? What if every one of us responded to the stress the world brings our young? What if we gathered around struggling and stressed parents to provide strength in numbers?

What if nurture came as naturally to us as it does to elephants? It can! We just need three things: Big ears, quick feet and small groups. We need to be listening carefully - the cries will rarely be as loud as an elephant! We need to react to what we hear, running to support those who are suffering, struggling or stranded. And we need to gather together regularly in groups small enough that we each know, love and care for each other.

Seven years ago, our family left Tasmania. During the two years we lived there my wife was part of a small group that met weekly. Yesterday, a card and a gift arrived from the small group. They had heard that my wife was going through a tough time as she dealt with both her father and myself each having a tumor. Her small group heard, ran to the need and huddled together, signing the card and wrapping the gift. Even after seven years, a small group never forgets.

There are many more stories like this one, of people caring for their friends and family because they listen, gather and care. When we spend time together regularly, nurture comes naturally.

It is impossible to quantify the gift you are giving your children by building a strong network of caring adults. Their cries will be heard. Their needs for community will be met. You will have a group of people ready to care when a young one encounters his first string barrier or a not-so-young one has a life crisis that takes them beyond their depth. It may seem small to you but rushing to their aid, or just gathering around them, could make all the difference.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Silent Treatment

There is always one thing a child has control over – their own silence. Sometimes the refusal to speak can push an adult right to the edge of sanity. We are busy. We want to solve problems and move on. We want a respectful response.

My three kids all require different strategies when they are angry. Forcing them to open up – demanding their attention and answers usually just escalates the problem. So, here’s what I’ve learned.

The first thing I learned, early on, is they are all different. The oldest, a boy, is quiet by nature and could happily go all day without speaking to anyone. The next, also a boy, chatters constantly and if there’s no one to talk to he will talk to himself – even now, at 16. The youngest, a girl, loves a good conversation, when she’s ready.

So when dealing with the anger of each, different strategies are necessary.

With the quiet self-motivator – direct questions. Sit, next to him (driving works). He loves a challenge. He will answer anything. He once came into the lounge room (just last year, 17 yo) and said, “I need you guys to help me out. What can I work on regarding my personality and interpersonal skills?” We gave him a list! Amazingly, he was grateful. When he was about 4 he said, “Dad, can you not be so silly around me? I like it serious.” So, I try!

With the talkative boy – leading statements. Sit, facing him. Eye contact helps keeps him on topic. “That really seemed to upset you…” Then listen. That usually works. Then positive present statements / questions (don’t compare to the past him, or to his siblings) “That looked like fun, at first.” Or “You were having fun playing, what happened?” or “I noticed your attitude changed about 2 minutes ago. What happened there?” This boy is very talkative. I try to guide his verbal flow, keeping it on topic and leading to solutions.

With the conversational girl – clarity and patience. Sit, patiently. This one, being the last of three and the girl, has lots of useful examples. She watches her brothers. She watches Mum and Dad. She studies everyone! And she has heaps of emotional intelligence. When she is upset, she is upset at herself as much as the other people – because she doesn’t want to be upset. So, the strategy I’ve found is, when she is angry, just say, “I have noticed you are angry and would like to talk about it. I will be on the couch reading, when you are ready.” She will come. It may take hours. But, she will come. And, I love reading!

We all experience the silent treatment from those around us. Learning how to use it for their benefit, rather than your frustration, will make your day so much better! Perhaps you see one of your kids in my examples. Perhaps your kids are different than mine. The key is to watch yourself and learn – when something works, ask yourself why. Apply and refine your learning each time you encounter the silent treatment.

That’ll get them talking!

Saturday, March 12, 2016

My Catch Phrase

Mikey at 12... He's 16 now!
When my three teenagers were children, it was so easy to spend most of my time telling them what they were doing wrong. Having three kids within three years meant they were always up to something. Because I didn’t want to focus on the negatives, I came up a phrase to help me look for positives – because that’s who I want them to become.
"Catch them doing something right and tell on them!"
We all want to be noticed. We repeat actions that get us attention. That’s human nature. We become the ‘me’ that gets noticed. Catching (and praising) your kids for doing the right thing is very powerful. It can change an attitude for life!
You could catch them smiling, sharing, playing, creating, listening, sleeping, eating, or any positive action you want to see more of in your child. Let them know you saw what they did and that they are awesome!
"Catch them doing something right and tell on them!"
Once you’ve caught them doing something right, make it a priority to ‘tell on them’. This takes careful consistent effort as a parent.
When kids do something wrong, it usually makes a good story. So we tell it – to family, friends, teachers, even strangers! It lets others share the parenting journey with us.
Hearing a story about yourself forms identity as much as what actually happens to you. A story about you is attention given to you. So every story reinforces the behaviour in the story. Each time you hear a story about yourself, it becomes more and more ‘who you are.’
Choose carefully the stories you tell about your kids – especially in front of them. Ask, “Is this story about who I want them to become?” We become the stories we hear and tell about ourselves. Choose the positive stories and tell them often. Then watch you children shine!