Ten Things We Should Never Say to Kids is temporarily offered free by the author under a Creative Commons License

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I NTRODUCTION
I wrote this book because I think raising children is a drag. People who enjoy raising children creep me out a little with their cheery sayings; things like, “Once a Dad, always a Dad.” I think that’s baloney. Seriously. Don’t you find it the tiniest bit needy when a parent conspires to keep her offspring dependent into their twenties? Because if you don’t, you may not be wild about this book and my advice is, turn back now. Give the book to someone whose kids are so crazy you don’t want your children associating with them. Just be aware, if someone gave you this book, it probably means she doesn’t like your children. The exception to that would be if you got it from your parents, in which case it probably

“Once a Dad, always a Dad.” I think that’s baloney.

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means they are newly sober and still hoping that making amends comes in handy book form. For some time now—20 years, I guess—I’ve harbored the suspicion that the whole point of parenting—THE WHOLE POINT—is raising people who, bit by bit under our influence, stop acting like children and start acting like adults. How that happens—that raising adults thing—is the subject of a book called, with significant flair for the obvious, Raising Adults (thetinycompanycalledme.com). If it turns out you like what’s in this book, trust me when I say you’ll to this book. This book is about ten things that get in the way of raising adults—ten attitudes, habits, assumptions, and the unintended consequences of things I really truly believe we should never say to our kids. Please believe me when I tell you I believe these ten things are a

THE WHOLE POINT—is raising people who, bit by bit under our influence, stop acting like children and start acting like adults.

love that one. Raising Adults is the kinder, gentler, empathetic, hugging, hand-holding, sister

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genuine threat to raising the kind of people we would want to raise our grandchildren. This isn’t Ten Things You Can Say to Get Kids to Do It Your Way. This is Ten Things that Drive a Wedge Between Children and Parents; Ten Things That Make Kids Want to Smoke, Drink Huff, Cut, Vomit, Sleep Around, Lash Out, Run Away, Give Up & Die Young. So…no pressure, but… you know. This book could I suppose be seen by some as the least bit snippy. Were it a person, this volume is the sort who would want to slap that guy in the fourth paragraph—the one who is OK with raising boys and girls instead men and women—and scream Snap out of it! like Cher smacking Nicholas Cage upside the head in Moonstruck. I’m afraid that’s just the kind of book this is—don’t let the soft cover fool you. Mr. Editor is peering over my shoulder, suggesting I could dial back just a smidge on the caffeine. Fair enough; I can do that. But it won’t lessen the urgency of what I sat down at the Macintosh to write.

That urgency springs, I think, from a sense of justice delayed.
I spent nearly 20 years in sympathetic, daily contact with adolescents as a church-based

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youth worker. If you think that means I taught Sunday school, you’re partly right. The rest of my week was engaged in designing non-formal learning experiences, developing peer leadership perspectives and skills, creating prevention programs to keep healthy kids healthy, helping parents learn to understand and nurture their children and, more often than I would have imagined, crisis interventions with adolescents, parents and campus communities. And lots of hanging out, lots of listening, lots of simply paying attention. This was the main substance of my working life from 1972 (as rank amateur) through 1991 (as embarrassing middle-aged ponytail guy). I spent much of the next decade making 150 short films for people doing what I used to do. There are probably

One thing that’s held steady decade after decade is that adolescents are not treated particularly well by adults.

people who have told the stories of more adolescents across a broader range of subjects than me; but who those people are, I couldn’t say. One thing that’s held steady decade after decade is that adolescents are not treated particularly well by adults. It’s not just that they feel misunderstood. I believe they are, in fact,

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misunderstood, feared and, on the whole, disliked by their parents’ generation. Do you find that remarkable? I do. I’m amazed that, having learned so much, so little has changed. But there it is, coming out in the disrespectful way adults talk about kids when they’re not around, not to mention the disrespectful way adults talk directly at kids. Don’t tell me you didn’t feel it when you were young. Most of us remember the worst adult offenders and the wonderful exceptions—the adults who put us down and those who lifted us. We don’t tend to remember the ones who stood by passively while one of their peers hammered away at us. And don’t tell me you don’t see it now. It’s all around us. Only the haircuts have changed.

We can do better. I know it; you know it; our children don’t know it but they suspect it’s true.
The modest proposal of this book is to start by stopping. I think there are things we should never say to our kids so, of course, I think we should stop saying them. The trouble is, we learned these things from our own dear parents and teachers (and they from theirs’) and it seems

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like most adults repeat what we hear without thinking and without seeing the damage done. So, consider this the lowbrow literary equivalent of being sent to our room to think about it. All right, then. Here we go.

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Thing One “Do You Have Your Jacket-Homework-Gym-Bag-Back-Pack-Ticket-Keys?”
I’m not kidding when I say your children will despise you if you don’t stop treating them like babies. They’ve probably already warned you. “Do you have your jacket-homework-gym-bag-back-pack-ticket-keys?” is one of the cruelest things one human being can say to another. Yet it is the parting shot delivered by millions of parents as their children walk out the door each morning. Just when things were going so well… You couldn’t let well enough alone could you; you hadda go for the cheap shot. “Bye, Mom!” “Bye, honey -- do you have your jacket-homework-gym-bag-back-pack-ticket-keys?”

You hate to see that kind of thing happen in a nice family. Cryin’ shame.
The kid feels like crying because he thinks his mother is an insufferable nag—just the

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effect Mom was going for. And Mom feels like crying because her boy lacks a certain, shall we say, initiative, that makes her wonder how he’ll ever, in a million years, make anything of himself when he can’t take responsibility for something as simple as getting out the door dressed and ready for the day. I have good news and bad news. The bad news is, if that kid doesn’t know how to identify and collect what he needs for the day, it’s because his parents taught him, diligently and day-byday, that they are in charge of such things. They taught him that needs assessment is beyond him and better left to experts (like them, for instance). They taught him and he learned, OK?

Some day you won’t be there to ask.

That’s the bad news. The good news…is… Actually, there is no good news. Not yet. Why this compulsion in otherwise sane adults to hijack kids’ opportunity to learn what we all know they have to learn if they’re not going to be eaten by wolves the minute they leave the asylum? I get it but I don’t get it.

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Heck, maybe you’re one of those parents (it happens). If so, this is fair warning. Some day you won’t be there to ask your son if he has his jacket-homework-gym-bag-back-packticket-keys. You’ll have the flu or you’ll take a trip or go out to breakfast or something—and only the fact that you live in South Florida, where temperatures are moderate and citrus trees abundant, will prevent him from freezing before he starves. If you’re lucky, he’ll get some pants on before he heads off to school where he will make you look so bad, you’ll put your home on the market and move to a neighborhood where no one knows your name.

“Why are you wearing two different shoes?” his teacher will ask.
“Uh…because I have two different feet?” he’ll say, silently confident he’s right about this. “No,” the teacher will say, “Why do you have on a black shoe and a brown shoe?” The boy’s eyes will narrow, as his nutrient-starved brain weighs the options. If I look down, he thinks, everyone will laugh because she made me look... And, because he will have no recollection of putting on shoes at all, and since it certainly isn’t the sort of operation for which a person would cross the bedroom to turn on a

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light, your bright young man will be, quite simply, in the dark about the color—if any—of his shoes. He will grin stupidly, nodding his uncombed head in a way that says I’m nobody’s fool, but actually, at that moment, means I’m anybody’s fool; and he will shuffle back to his desk, dying-but-not-daring to look at his feet. Things will progress from bad to worse as the day

Suffice it say he will unfolds. At 11:30 he will complain within earshot of mumble something school administrators that he’s’ hungry because he didn’t that sounds as if he’s get any breakfast and you sent neither lunch nor money, saying you, of all and he’s not sure what’s up with that and could he please people, forgot to do just have a bite of that sandwich because he’s so hungry his homework. he’s gonna start taking food off people’s trays; so hungry he
can’t concentrate; so hungry he thinks he might pass out. I won’t trouble you with the details of what will transpire 5th period when the teacher calls for his homework. Suffice it say he will mumble something that sounds as if he’s saying you, of all people, forgot to do his homework. Matters will grow more complicated from there.

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Later, when you address his failure while he watches you fold and put away his laundry, he will give you a slack-jawed stare that will make you wonder if a jury of your peers wouldn’t applaud if you just dropped him right then, right there. Here’s the thing: Your son didn’t learn to forget his homework and lunch, and very nearly his shirt, out on the playground. He learned it from you. You taught him to believe you are in charge of the details of his life. Protest your innocence if you wish but nobody’s listening. The facts speak for themselves and CSI [insert-your- town-here] will prove the case beyond a shadow a doubt. It probably started as an act of kindness (as so many unfortunate things do). It was, most

One day, what had been a gesture of love became a matter of expedience.
likely, a series of good deeds, meant to make life easier for your son. But somewhere along the line you crossed the line, didn’t you? One day, what had been a gesture of love became a matter of expedience. You were running late, perhaps. Or your nerves were jangly from double shots of caffeine just a little too close together. And there was the boy, fumbling with

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some very simple task—the kind of thing even a child should be able to do, only he wasn’t getting it done any time this side of Christmas—so you stepped in. You said, perhaps even sweetly (though perhaps not): “Here, Bosco, let me do that.” And you did; you did it quickly and efficiently and that was all she wrote. Deal done; case closed. Except that—and how could you have known at that point (so I’m not blaming, I’m just saying)—that it was not really and truly all she wrote because pretty soon you faced a similar situation and, well who wouldn’t? you remembered how much easier it was for you to just do it and be done with it. You know the rest. We all do. How long ago was that? Can you even recall the sequence of events by which your son became functionally helpless? Probably not. You may not have been much more than a child yourself. Actually, this may turn out to be your mother’s fault. I mean, she couldn’t warn you about this? What else, Ma! What else don’t I know? So here we are: A kid who can’t dress himself, and you stuck with responsibilities you never signed up for but somebody has to do…

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STOP RIGHT THERE.

Do you see what just happened? Somebody has to take care of

his business and, since it’s apparently not going to be him, it’s clearly gonna be…who? You? Are you planning to go with him to college? Or the Marines? Because I’m not sure they allow that. Or are you hoping his college roommate will finish the job? Or his future spouse, bless her heart. Because if you don’t plan to pass these little problems along like the federal deficit, it’s time to stop the madness and I’m not kidding.

You can do it.

If he’s younger than five and you’re not blank-stare-crazy, it should be fairly easy. If he’s in grade school, it’ll be a little harder but you’ll be glad to put it behind you. If he’s in middle school or high school, count on a struggle—it is, after all, habitual by this point. If he’s still hanging around after high school or, heaven forbid, he’s moved back home after a failed attempt at whatever he swore he would do or die trying (just you wait and see!)

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… Help yourself to a lemon square and another cup of coffee cuz it’s gonna be a long night. But that’s OK; joy comes in the morning. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think a random family of monkeys would do a better job of raising your child than you are already doing. I do, however, think monkeys show aptitude when it comes to learning by example. Lacking both vocabulary and apparent motivation, rather than instruct young monkeys to refrain from flinging dung in front of the grandparents, adult monkeys focus on modeling life skills like grubbing for termites with a stick and grooming one’s neighbor. Valuable stuff in the treetops. Assuming our children are raised more at ground level, I wonder what life skills they might come to appreciate should they survive to voting age.

Here’s a partial list of life skills every entry-level adult needs:
• Timeliness • Decision-Making • Responsibility • Cleanliness (this is an obvious choice as it is next to godliness)

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• Godliness • Negotiation • Listening • Empathy • Basic Logic + Discernment • Basic Navigation • Basic Nutrition + Food Preparation • Basic Household Skills (cleaning, laundry) • Basic Phone Skills • Basic Computer Skills • Basic Physical Fitness + Health Care • Elementary Personal Finance • Practical Language Skills • Emotional Vocabulary • add your own selections, employing additional sheets as necessary • •

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Any reasonably intelligent person can learn these skills by the age of 18 and they’re abilities anyone would be proud to possess as he enters what adults so glibly call The Real World…..(You know kids hate that, right?)
Of course it’s more urgent that that. A kid needs these skills to function as an adult and he’s not gonna learn them from a book. Okay, some of them are the subjects of great fairy tales and Bible stories, so let’s not count that out. But there comes a time when a boy needs to know that empathy is not just the childish lesson of The Golden Rule (Do to others as you would have them do to you; yeh, yeh, ho hum) but the real deal at every level of human relationship. Because sooner or later some cynic will present your son with the conundrum that The Golden Rule is just kid stuff and THE REAL GOLDEN RULE is: “Whoever has the gold, rules.” And you, my friend, are uniquely positioned to help him learn empathy so thoroughly and heartily that he won’t be long fooled by any fool who tries to pull the old switcheroo.

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RIGHT HERE is one of the many places you are better prepared to parent your child than some nice troop of monkeys waiting to adopt him should you opt out. You and the monkeys can both model behavior (and, believe me, the kid is learning a LOT from what you model) but you can also engage him in meaningful dialogue of a sort the monkeys can only dream of. You can exchange thoughts and express your emotions in words so much more precisely than waving a branch in the air. You can ask questions and listen to his jumbled answers and keep asking more questions until he gets better at expressing himself and you both come to understand what the other is thinking and feeling and trying to say. I feel quite confident it’s the reflection and gift of a kind and generous Creator (if it turns out I’m wrong about that, we can have a good laugh together as we disappear into the nothingness I’ve spent no time whatsoever dreading because I never really believed it—silly me…). So, where were we? Valuable Life Skills. Right. And how exactly does one (meaning you)

Believe me, the kid is learning a LOT from what you model.

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help another (meaning your child) learn Valuable Life Skills? It begins, in my humble opinion, with learning to ask the right sort of questions in the right way. “Do you have your jacket-homework-gym-bag-back-pack-ticketkeys?” is, indeed, in the form of a question, but is it the right sort of question to help a boy learn the Valuable Life Skill of not freezing to death—or whatever? Come with me now to a household not far from my own…

IT’S FREAKIN’ BEAUTIFUL!

Interior. Morning. Kitchen.
An eleven year old boy runs a piece of bread around the rim of a jelly jar and chews thoughtfully, having decided toast is too much trouble. From another room we hear an adult voice. Adult: Are you wearing your jacket? There is silence in the kitchen. The adult speaks louder. Adult: Are you WEARING your JACKET! The boy speaks, his mouth full of bread.

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Boy: Snot Cold! Adult: What? I said, are you wearing your jacket? Silence in the kitchen. After a moment the adult hollers. Adult: ANSWER ME! The boy glances up at the clock. Indeed, he is not cold at this moment. He is tired of being yelled at from another room. In an instant the boy decides he will placate the one in the other room but, for reasons he hardly understands, he will not satisfy her. His voice rises with the patronizing tone he will use again fifty years in the future when explaining to his mother why she must eat her strained vegetables. With that, the boy dips his finger in the jelly, rubs it on another piece of bread which he folds neatly in half, walks past his jacket and out the door into the cold, clear day of his youth. (Me, Raising Adults, A Humane Guide for Parenting in the New World, 2007, p. 62)1

1

I’m sorry to be so tacky as to quote myself. I do so largely because I am nearly the only author who will allow a hack like me to quote him. You’ll find Raising Adults at thetinycompanycalledme.com

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Do you see what happened there? The wrong question—or the right question asked the wrong way—turns A Mother’s Love (note possible cable movie title) into a contest of wills between an accomplished adult and a fast-learning 11 year-old. The 11 year-old, depending on temperament, birth-order and myriad other intangibles, may be—like the legendary sled dog on the arctic ice pack—just angry and stubborn enough to face into the storm until he freezes to death (Note to self: Visit with therapist about this fixation on death by freezing. Or, perhaps, put on a sweater).

Boy: Mom, it’s too hot to wear my jacket in here—don’t worry about it.
More likely, he will find some way to make it look like your fault at the end of the day. You must not allow this to happen—the freezing to death or the blame shifting. You must seize the moment to take control of the situation. And therein lies the problem. Seizing the moment is a matter of timing, and who among us believes she has enough time as it is? Of course you’ve yelled instructions from another room, your hair tangled hopelessly in the collar of a turtleneck—who hasn’t?

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It’s just that, by the time a child—any child—attains the upper reaches of grade school, she knows what’s up. She can see you’re spread thin and, guilty pleasure, kind of enjoys watching you try to keep it all together. This is not because she hates you. Far from it. It’s because she’s settled into the game adults and kids play with each other. It’s a game built on mutual disrespect. It is, essentially, an adult game insofar as children learn it from parents and teachers; coaches, employers, retail clerks and law enforcement officers. It runs a vicious circle, this disrespect, returning at regular intervals to every player in the game. If your child seems disrespectful (it’s probably safe to say when she seems disrespectful) understand that she

By the time a child — any child — attains the upper reaches of grade school, she knows what’s up.

learned it the hard way, from the words and deeds of the peers and adults in her world. It’s a shock hearing ugly words spewing from the mouth you once fed at your breast, and seeing such awful looks from eyes that once gazed back at you with unlimited trust. Bigger still is the shock of seeing grimaces and hearing words of disrespect you know she lifted verbatim from you.

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It was never supposed to be this way. Anyone can see that.
If you’re going to break through this, it will be, at least in part, because you think far enough ahead to help your child think ahead. You can’t just tell him. If that worked, everyone would do it. And you can’t keep doing it for him unless you want him to dog you without mercy into old age. The only known solution is to get his attention and ask him intelligent, respectful questions until he learns to ask those questions for himself. At which point you’ll be out of a job. But you’ll have made a friend. And isn’t that what you were hoping for all along —that you and your child would grow up to be good friends for the rest of your life? All right, enough with the mushy stuff. Here’s how you can learn to ask the right questions (and ask them the right way). Let’s take that definition a step farther: A good question is one that can only be answered by the person you’re asking. That’s curious. What does that mean? A good question is one that can only be answered by the person you’re asking because pretty much anything else is a test. Or a trap—though, of

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course I mean that in the nicest possible way because really, who doesn’t like to be trapped? “Where are my keys?” is not a good question since the answer, spoken or not, is “Am I your keys’ keeper?”

Definition: A good question is one to which you don’t have the answer. Highlight this. You’ll need it later.
“Have you seen my keys?” is, likewise, nearly useless. The answer is: “Of course, I’ve seen your keys many times. As a matter of fact, I was with you when you changed the lock after you lost your keys that other time. Which keys are we talking about by the way?” No one looking for keys has time for this. “Will you please help me look for my front door keys?” is excellent! It can be answered specifically and directly. Ask your daughter that, and you’ve asked her to: A) recall your front door keys and, B) consider the importance of her current activity compared with the relative urgency of helping you out of a bind. When your child answers that excellent question, you’ll learn something about her

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priorities. If you say, “Will you please help me look for my front door keys?” and she replies, “I have to keep pressure on Dad’s chest wound,” well you may be disappointed but you’ll have gained some perspective won’t you.

“What did you do with my keys?” sounds desperate and hostile.

More examples: “Do you have everything on the list I’ve been forced to prepare for you because you’re so lame-brained?” may come across as the tiniest bit unfriendly. Avoid it.

“Do you have what you need for the day?” is pretty good.
“Do you have everything you think you’ll need today?” is even better. Asking the question this way suggests that you’re interested in your child and her day, without implying that you’re taking responsibility for her success or failure. The question invites her to consider the variety of activities she’s likely to undertake (classes, sports, work, transportation), the conditions she’s likely to encounter (temperature, precipitation), and prepare for those activities under those conditions.

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Assuming you’re not in a shooting war with each other, when you put it that way she’s likely to guess that you’d be willing to help if needed. And best of all, for the health of your relationship, you’ve asked a question she can answer without feeling like she’s been set up. Instead of complaining about how you always treat her like a baby, she’ll take a moment to reflect, ask if you’ll buy her a car and, when you remind her she’s ten years old and parking would be a problem for her at school, she’ll get on with her day and you can get on with yours.

There are three known catches and here they are:
1. “Do you have what you think you need for the day?” has a freshness date stamped on the bottom. Use it for a while with the understanding that it will eventually expire and your kid will give you a look that says, “You’re doing it again.” At which point you’ll be ready with another question so good it may well last the rest of your life. That’s a pretty good promise, isn’t it? Ready? Here it is:

“Can you think of anything you need from me today?”
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I love that. Simple, direct, reflective, inviting. Variations on the theme include, “Is there anything you’d like me to do for you today?” and, “Can I help you with anything today?” You get the idea, right? Once your daughter consistently takes responsibility for her own business, you can still let her know you’re engaged without seeming to hover. So that’s the first catch. Followed inevitably by the second… 2. You have to accept her thoughtful answer. Which is reason big deal.

“Do you have everything you think you’ll need today?” is even better.

enough to start with low-impact activities and days so that if she guesses wrong, it’s not a That means scaling. If your daughter is three years old and you ask if she has everything she needs for the day, she has no idea what you’re asking. So scale it down to something like, “Do you have what you think you’ll need while you’re playing at Dory’s house?” or “What do you think you might need for our walk around the block?” Help her explore some reasonable possibilities by asking questions. Take her to look out the window to see if she thinks she may

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need a sweater—that kind of thing. Train her to think by asking questions about the world. That’s pretty much how we all learn. Later, whether you started at age three or age 13, the only way to make this work is to take her word for it when she says, “Yes, thanks, I have everything I need for the day, now get off my back.” Unless guessing wrong is life-threatening, even if you believe she’s wrong in her assessment, please, please, please let her find out for herself and learn to correct her own mistake instead of telling her, which only had a chance to play it out. Finally, catch number three… 3. Occasionally, she’ll guess wrong. Who doesn’t? It’s a complicated world; she’s a complicated person. She may even guess wrong several times in quick succession—like when I locked my keys in the van four times in ten days. It was a learning experience. After the fourth time, I hid a wire shirt-hanger on the

The only way to make this work is to take her word for it.

ensures she’ll feel foolish and less than you because you picked holes in her plan before she

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exterior spare-tire rack so I wouldn’t have to borrow one to break myself in. That, of course, was enough to remind me to use my key instead of just pushing down the whatchamacallit to lock the door—which was a good thing because it wasn’t long before I

Occasionally, she’ll guess wrong.

owned a car with a flat whatchamacallit that was unmoved by shirt-hangers. In any event it was years until I locked myself out the next time (and missed a flight from Dulles to Denver… But that’s another story. THIS story is, no one died and I learned the hard way what no one could teach me by force of organizational logic). Since nobody’s perfect, see what you can do to ensure that your daughter’s lessons-learned-the-hard-way are no big deal—which means letting her suffer small failures now to avoid big ones later.

At the end of the day, this is the point:
Your children can and should and must learn to take responsibility for their own business. And the only sure way for them to learn that is practice, practice, practice. Effective parents,

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teachers, coaches, employers, mentors, aunts, uncles and adult friends help kids learn while the stakes are relatively small. Good questions asked well are the medium of instruction because responsibility can’t be taught, it can only be learned.

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Thing Two “What Were You Thinking!”
I’ve looked into this pretty carefully and it turns out that a lot parenting is thinly veiled hazing. You know: hazing—where the strong (or privileged) humiliate the weak (or recently arrived) as part of initiating them into a desirable society. And don’t you find it interesting that one of the privileges of membership is permission to inflict the same kind of humiliation on the next group? So you can see it’s not a total loss.

Hazing is a form of cultural craziness in which dehumanizing behavior is thought to make better people of us.
It’s a time-honored ritual among athletes, soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, coast guards, lawyers, doctors, gang bangers, fraternity brothers, sorority sisters, prison inmates and guards, boys, girls, siblings and—it can now be reported—parents and children. Hazing, of course, is

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not without a point. In a strange, strange twist, hazing seems to promote loyalty and buy-in to whatever else may happen. I survived the hazing; I guess I can make it through a Congressional inquiry (or a prison term or whatever it is that threatens the “team”). Parental hazing serves much the same function: Kids who get the short end of that stick from their parents tend to be very loyal for a very long time (but it’s only fair to note that things get very dramatic when they finally break ranks).

At it’s worst, hazing is brutally degrading, sexualized violence.
Consider, for instance, the molestation and rape of Air Force Academy cadets. Seven women, cadets and former cadets talked with ABC Television’s 20/20 (March 28, 2003). They described a culture in which upperclassmen exercise a virtual tyranny over freshmen, correspondent Lynn Sherr reported: They said they feared that their careers would be ruined if they reported the sexual assaults. They were taught early in basic training: protect your fellow cadets at all costs — even if it means you get hurt.

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Yikes. If it can happen at a U.S. Military Academy, can you imagine anyplace it couldn’t happen?

Ruth, who asked us not to give her full name, said she was astonished when, right after basic training, a senior female cadet pulled her and several of her classmates aside and told them that sexual assaults were commonplace at the academy. She kind of sat us down and

said, “You know, I was raped twice as an underclassman. It will happen to you most likely, and you just have to accept it,” Ruth said. In the mid-range, hazing is merely brutal—the sort of behavior identified as criminal assault if it occurs between strangers. The video image of a drunken powder puff football player pounding her teammate—her teammate!—with rib-cracking force in an affluent Chicago suburb comes to mind. It was probably just the alcohol (and if you believe that, I’ve got a couple more for you). Parental hazing is generally more about emotional assault than physical or sexual

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violence—though God knows those things happen too. An astonishing number of parents who would never hit a child in anger (certainly not a child "too old to be spanked") don’t think twice about emotional manhandling. The adult who excuses his behavior with the words “I never laid a hand on him” is just flat missing the point. You know the old saying:

Actually, that’s not the old

Sticks & Stones may Break my Bones but Words can Break my Heart saying at all; but it should be

because it’s truer by far than the playground version. Most adults—parents, teachers, coaches, employers, pastors, the whole lot—avoid using

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force with children. Instead, they employ—all right, as long as we’re being honest, we— employ harsh words, sarcastic words, dismissive, belittling words. The more verbally skilled among us do it without profanity. Vulgar language is a piece of cake compared with the subtle art of ripping a kid to shreds with Sunday School words. Adults tease, taunt, and resort to name-calling, ridicule, and disgusted looks to intimidate kids and keep them in line.

Stop me if you already heard this one:
It’s a November night, not that cold yet, but dark before six o’clock and threatening rain. The huge chair dwarfs Erik, having been summoned to his father’s home office, where he waits while his dad shuffles papers. He is 13 and his slender hands press against the arms of the chair, pushing his back to the rear of the seat. When Martin finally looks up from his desk, Erik looks away. “Erik,” Martin says quietly, “this has got to stop.” “What!” Erik objects, not sure what ground he’s defending.

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Martin cuts in, a hint of threat in his tone, “Don't! Don't you do this. Don't you take this attitude with me. You will listen respectfully and speak respectfully. Is that understood?”

“Yes,” Erik says. “I understand. Can we just get on with it?”
Erik mutters something unintelligible and looks away again. Martin presses. “Erik: Is that understood?” Ignoring the bait, Martin begins quietly, leaving plenty of room to build. “I want you to tell me what's going on,” he says. “Why are you so moody; why are you making your family pay for your unhappiness; what, exactly, is your problem?” Erik opens his mouth to reply, then pulls into himself on the big chair, groaning. “I really don't want to start this. It's not going to do any good. It never does.” “How can you say that?” Martin responds. “I'm here; we're talking. This is your chance, Buster. You tell me what's going on and let's see what we can do about it. Otherwise straighten up and fly right. You're not a baby any more, Erik.” Erik swings his feet to the floor, leaning forward. “Then why do you keep treating me

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like one?”

Martin meets his gaze. “Meaning...specifically?”
“Meaning I still don't understand why I don't get to go to the dance Friday. I think that stinks! Martin rocks back in his own chair, looking weary. “Okay. Now it's getting clear. Just how many times are we going to go over this? Did I stutter? Was I talking too fast? You’re not going to the dance! You are not emotionally—I mean good Lord, son! Look at you now! If you can't handle a little disappointment with the people who love you, just where do you expect to find the resources to handle—I don’t know—peer pressure?” Erik is curled up again in the chair. Martin continues, “Are you reading me, Son?” Erik looks sidelong at his father, biting his lip. He nods faintly. “Is that a yes?” Martin demands. Erik nods again, without making eye contact. “Good,” Martin says. “Then we can continue. Because I want to know what else is going on in there. I know it’s got to be more than that stupid dance. What is it really, son? What's

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got you moping around here like a weepy little girl?” Erik is sideways in the chair, his neck is arched back, his head pressed against the chair back. “Go on, son. We've got a rapport here. What is it?” Erik takes the chance, but hesitantly: “Dad, I just feel yelled at all the time.” The boy steals a glance at his father, who settles back in his seat, his mouth closed but working as if tasting the words. Erik's mother speaks softly from the doorway behind him. “How's it coming you two? Dinner's just about ready...”

Erik flinches as Ruth strokes his hair. “Oh, honey, nobody's yelling at you. We love you. You know that.”
“Well, Ruth, I don't know,” Martin says. “Erik here feels yelled at. I'm thinking here and I just don't know, I haven't heard any yelling, have you?” Martin closes the deal. “Son, I think that if I were yelling, you'd know it. Now if you want yelling I can give it to you and I'll tell you something, Mister, if you don't get hold of

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yourself you're going to hear some yelling and a whole lot more!” Martin stands behind his desk. “I think we're ready, Ruth. Come wash up, son. Dinner’s ready.” Martin crosses to the door, past Erik who is dwarfed by the big chair. +++++ Here’s the thing. Overpowering a child because I can out-think him isn’t the same as pinning him to the wall, but it’s still wrong. Of course I can out-think him. I’m old! Age and experience, mixed with liberal amounts of guile, make me a formidable opponent to just

Let me be as clear about this as I can: Adults do this kind of thing because it works—it works every day until it stops working; until we see and hear contempt coming back at us.
about anyone between the ages of two and ten. Heaven help the first-grader who takes me on in a battle of wits! I’ll give her a tongue-lashing she won’t soon forget. Or not. If your near term objective is to enforce noise control (where noise is defined as any behavior

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that interrupts the free exercise of your will), it’s easy and effective to silence a child with harsh language. If your goal is to reinforce your alpha adult superiority, go ahead and growl. But take my word for it: Do that and one way or

Use words against your bright, sensitive girl and she may just stop trying to communicate. She may simply shut you out.

another you’ll pay. Backtalk? Certainly. Sneakiness? Most likely. Or passive-aggression. Or silence. “What were you thinking!” you’ll demand in what appears at first to be an emphatic question (what with the question mark and all). Your girl, the apple of your eye, will take a stab at answering and you’ll roll your eyes as if you felt faint, or clutch your head as if your eardrums were bursting. Her voice will trail off, uncertainly… “I’m waiting,” you’ll say (or words to that effect) but now it will be clear to her that sometimes a question isn’t really a question. “Well?” you’ll say… She will speak softly… “I don’t know.”

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“Excuse me?” Silence. “I asked you a question; I expect an answer young lady,” you’ll say, sounding remarkably like a person you swore you would never ever become. “What exactly did you think was going to happen?”

One way or another… Some push back, some push off, but one way or another there’s a price to be paid for using words against a child.
“…I said I don’t know,” she’ll mumble. So you’ll send her to her room to think about it, which is where she’ll spend the remaining years of girlhood, until the day she emerges with a suitcase packed for her trip to Anywhere-but-Here. I know this because I’m a word guy and this is not theoretical for me. For more than a decade I used words against my daughter and I knew, more or less, what I was doing. I say more or less because I didn’t understand the extent of the damage; couldn’t see the wall going up until it was too late to do much about it. And, by then, what would I have done anyway? Talk her out of it?

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Other than one regrettable occasion, I don’t remember using profanity against her. I was, after all, a Christian youth worker. My daughter, quite sanely I think, shut me out. She wasn’t rude about it. She wasn’t even unpleasant. I think she just got very careful about the kinds of things she was willing to talk about with me. Because, why in the world would she put herself in a position to take abuse from me? So, though we remained close in many ways, we didn’t go as deep as we might have if I’d been a nicer man. In two decades of working with adolescents every day, I did that kind of thing over and over. Less, I think, in the last half than the first, but I don’t think I’m completely in the clear a full decade after I gave up my official youth worker business card. In fact, I’d be less than

The tools of my torture were sarcasm, mockery, scorn, contempt…

The walls children erect are, of course, meant to protect them by keeping us out when we go nuts on them.
candid if I didn’t admit I’m still tempted to deploy hard words to protect what I think of as my

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turf. On my good days it’s just a temptation. On my bad days it’s a sin. Still crazy after all these years… And just how insane is it that a child should feel the need to take refuge from the folks who brought him into the world? The obvious answer: It’s totally, utterly, completely mad. And, like some other forms of madness, it appears to be hereditary. Which is to say, if we see it in one generation, there’s a pretty good chance it will show up in the next as well. Which leads us back to hazing and this bizarre, Bill-Murray-Groundhog-Day-RevolvingDoor of parental misbehavior. It would be different if we didn’t know better; if we ourselves hadn’t truly hated being treated this way when we were children. Well, we did hate it, and we do know better, so there you have it. My parents, God rest them, taught me most of what I know about misbehaving. Actually that’s an overstatement. My parents provided a lot of misbehavior upon which I built to my own specifications. My mother was given to periodic binges of weeping rage that were alarming to behold. That said, I don’t know that anyone beyond our family ever beheld them. Outside our home,

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we all of us lived the nicest of lives, inasmuch as niceness was a core value in our slice of Southern culture.

Inside the house things were different.
Not everyday you understand, just now and again. I believe my mom came by her rage more or less honestly. Her mother, as I recall her, was a sour woman whom I found it best to avoid. This was difficult during the years she and my grandfather lived in our home. Granddaddy and I sought sanctuary outside the house, smoking and roaming the woods—he was a pipe smoker (Prince Albert in the can); I was heavily into dirt clods and mud puddles. I remember a lot of tiptoeing around my grandmother. I recall saying, “Yes ma’am” and “No Ma’am” but I don’t remember ever calling her anything. This was in sharp contrast to Granddaddy, who delighted us young boys with ad hoc story times and uninhibited farting— he had to know he was cracking us up but he never let on; not even a hint of a smile. I’ve heard my grandmother described as mean (though I’m hard-pressed to recall which relative said it). I never thought my mother was mean. But—behind closed doors—she could

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certainly be shrill. It seemed to me that my father and older sister took quite a few hits. I learned the duck & cover technique they taught us at school also had applications in the home. This may be why the term nuclear family carries explosive connotations for me.

The duck & cover proved useful in times of open conflict, but my father showed me other ways of dealing with conflict.
My father demonstrated the artful disappearance. I learned from watching him that it takes two to have a fight, and if you can’t gather a quorum, you can’t have the meeting. Not that there weren’t some pretty good verbal scraps around the house but, if memory serves me, most of the really good ones happened in the family car where nobody could get away. My dad avoided many confrontations simply by leaving home early and staying out late. This tactic, of course, also contributed to the escalation of hostilities once all the players were in the room (or automobile). One way to describe my father’s pattern of life is to say he was a working pastor—a preacher, as we called them in those days in that part of the world. He worked as a preacher

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while, at the same time, chipping away at an advanced degree in—this is rich—Marriage and Family Counseling. Is it just me or is the irony of a Ph.D. candidate in Marriage and Family Counseling who doesn’t have what it takes to engage in growing a happy marriage and family a painful cliché?

My dad never quite got there — the Ph.D. or the happy family.

Once my older sister was gone, I hid out more and more, immersed in sports and friendships and losing myself in science fiction books. Not that it was difficult to hide from my father who was hiding from my mother and, maybe, me. When he was home my father was a brooding, seething presence. I had no way of guessing what might set him off. Except money, which was a sure bet. When he lit up it was never as noisy as my mom, but his words tore through the house like shrapnel. So, on principle, I bunkered in, avoiding contact when I could and keeping it light when I couldn’t. Our patterns turned to habits and, entering adolescence, I was out of the house nearly as much as he was.

And then one day he was really gone.

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It had been a rocky spring; I knew that without knowing why. In June, half an hour into a road trip from Florida to California, my mother told me he wouldn’t be there when we got back. And he wasn’t. When we returned, there was evidence he’d been there with his girlfriend while we were gone and that was that; Game Over. Just how it came to that, and what we all did next, is a story for another time. For now, suffice it to say I was not shocked when my father left (though, of course, people in the church were taken completely by surprise). I was, in fact, relieved… What an awful thing to say: I was relieved when my father moved out. I felt very guilty about that for a long time. All this to say my parents loved me. They never laid a hand on me. And they could either of them take me apart without even trying—without, I think, even knowing their words were undoing me. As a consequence, without

My parents were joined by some of my schoolteachers, a few of my coaches, assorted adult relatives and legions of my trashtalking peers. In all this I was a willing learner.
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meaning to, they taught me how to turn words against them. With practice I learned to use words against other people too. Please excuse this biblical reference if you don’t swing that way. I just think it hits the nail squarely on the head. “It only takes a spark,” James wrote in the Biblical book that bears his name, “to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that.” (James 3:1-10, The Message). Here it is in context: Don’t be in any rush to become a teacher, my friends. Teaching is highly responsible work. Teachers are held to the strictest standards. And none of us is perfectly qualified. We get it wrong nearly every time we open our mouths. If you could find someone whose speech was perfectly true, you’d have a perfect person, in perfect control of life. A bit in the mouth of a horse controls the whole horse. A small rudder on a huge ship in the hands of a skilled captain sets a course in the face of the strongest winds. A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything —or destroy it!

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It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn

It feels good to administer a good tongue lashing, right up to the moment it feels bad.
harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell. This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue—it’s never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth! ”With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image.” For our purposes, change men and women

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to boys and girls, as in: With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse our children, the very boys and girls he made in his image. That’s what we’re talking about here. Finding a way to stop badmouthing our children. Finding ways to bless rather than curse them. I think it begins with looking at our children with compassion. Compassion, you may recall, is a compound word that has to do with entering another person’s suffering. This should be easy. We were, after all, in their shoes just about a minute ago. How did we forget so quickly? Or is it that our pain—so much of it inflicted by adults who were supposed to look out for us—is so keen we just don’t want to go back there? Have we seen our children hurting and turned our backs because addressing their misery means confronting our own fusty wounds? God help us if we have. God have mercy on us and help us set the world right.

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Thing Three “Because I Said So”
Dinner was over and my friend was recounting a conversation with her grown-up daughter: "Mom," Karen said in her daughter’s voice, "My whole life I swore I would never say it, but I said it anyway." She had us right where she wanted us. We waited for the next line, savoring this tale of 20-something comeuppance. She milked it shamelessly, as any of us would. We nodded, grinning; we saw it coming. "Mom, he just wouldn't shut up. He just kept after me. I was trying to look after the baby and he just kept saying it and saying it." Yes, we nodded; Yes, we know how they can be; of course! It was delicious. If Karen were a smoker this is where she would have taken the deep drag, letting smoke drift lazily from her mouth before shaking her head at the utter predictability of this crazy life. "Mom," she said, "for two solid minutes he kept saying, 'why, why, why, why?' and I can't believe it but I turned around and gave him a look and,'—we darn near finished the sentence

We saw it coming

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for her; all but spoke it aloud, in unison—' I turned around and gave him a look and said, "Because I said so! That's why! Now drop it!"' We could not have been more pleased; could not have been happier to see the young woman—who we love, by the way—brought low by a two-year-old. Now! we thought, Now she understands how we feel! Ha!

This was not our finest moment.
Why, I wonder, after 14 generations of life together as North Americans, has no one solved this problem? Why would people in their 50’s—responsible, hardworking folk—sit around and gloat over our failure to prepare our own offspring for parenting? Why, for goodness sake, doesn’t somebody just say, "I can do better than that: I have an answer that's better than "Because I said so!” This is not rocket science. We are the reasonably intelligent daughters and sons of reasonably intelligent parents in a line stretching back as far as anyone cares to remember. But we've surrendered ourselves to some…habits, let's say, that have us stuck in a revolving door.

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I say stuck. What I mean is a lot of us go round and round, covering the same ground, wondering why the view is so familiar. I suppose it's worth saying that, if you're going around in circles and you like it—if you

If we’ve learned anything at all about parenting, it’s that we can make children do what we say for quite a while.

chose the circle and it's working for you, then you’re not really stuck are you? So if that’s you, then knock yourself out I guess. I’ve come to think there's no greater waste of time than trying to convince someone things are not as good as he believes they are. In business it can be done from time to time if there’s enough money on the line. But here, where it’s just the quality of people’s lives at stake, well things are what they are. Give it time; we'll see how it plays out. But if you’re inclined to wish we could get off the carousel of noprogress, I’m inclined to say I believe we can.

One thing we’ve learned, if we’ve learned anything at all about parenting, is that we can make children do what we say for quite a while. These are the cute years. Then comes a period when we feel gratitude if our young continue along that path, and confusion,

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indignation and remorse if they choose a different way. In either event, we recognize that past a certain point there is no guarantee they will behave as we wish. What we don’t seem to understand is why one child continues to act in ways that more or less please us and another takes off in a decidedly unfavorable direction. Now I know this may seem like a stretch to you but I think there’s at least a dotted line from how parents wield power when children are young, to how those children choose to behave once they have greater distance and more autonomy from their folks.

For the record: Just saying “whatever” is no better than saying “Because I said so.”
The parent who is overly permissive is likely to find that his adolescent child experiences emotional and social vertigo—a sense of spinning out of control because he doesn’t know where the boundaries are. He feels exposed, maybe even abandoned when, every so often, he gets hammered for crossing what was to him a quite invisible line. The children of permissive parents tend to be manipulative, disrespectful, excessive, and unable to draw appropriate boundaries with others. The drug of choice is most likely marijuana. If they think their parents are not just permissive but also hostile they may gravitate

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to hallucinogens and inhalants (H. Stephen Glenn and Jane Nelson, Raising Self-Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World, Prima Publishing/St. Martins Press, 1989, page 208-216). The overly strict parent might learn —were he to ask—that his child feels hemmed in. Children who perceive their parents are too controlling gravitate toward alcohol, cocaine, and sedatives. And, if they think the control is hostile, they respond with resistance, aggressiveness, vandalism, acting out sexually, and their own brand of hostility (ditto). Overly permissive or overly strict: pick one you like as long you’re prepared to endure domestic hell before seeing your kid out the door for good.

Better yet, don’t be overly anything.
Treat your child with something like compassionate engagement, by which I mean a relationship marked by empathetic borders. The compassionate parent never forgets what it’s like to be young (and if for some reason he surrendered that sensibility, he endeavors to reclaim it for his child’s sake). At the same time, he engages each child in ways that establish clear, fair limits on behavior. If you think about it I think you’ll agree this is respectful

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behavior. If you look in the eyes of a child and see a human being with the same hope and longing and potential you have, you know shabby treatment won’t do. When a child asks the dreaded “Why?” question, “Because I said so,” falls short of both compassion and engagement. And so does, “Do whatever you want—you will anyway.” Overly strict/ overly permissive—the balance we seek is not overly anything. Here’s the better answer. You probably won’t be surprised to see it’s not a statement but a question: Q: Mommy! Why? A: That’s a good question. Why do you want to know? Now, at the very least, your kid has to make the choice to tell you what he’s thinking or risk falling in the trap you just avoided. He can’t really say, “Because I said so.” He knows that won’t fly. And he’ll quickly see the shorter, less authoritative, “Because!” is no good, if only on account of your quick comeback: “But Why?” Still, this is not a trick. Unless the lad has fallen into a bad habit of questioning without

You know shabby treatment won’t do.

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thinking, when he asks why you gave this or that directive he probably has a reason. Does he not trust you? Have you been unclear? Or contradictory? Do your directions appear fickle? I imagine you would like to understand his reason for questioning you. Well, if anybody knows, it’s him. So why not ask? I mean you do want to know, right? Even if what you find out blows your cover because you both realize you’re the one who modeled the bad habit of answering without thinking. Sometimes the truth can be truly annoying. This is important to me because, honestly, I started out wanting my child to be both strong-minded (in dealing with strangers and people who don’t meet my standards) and compliant (by obeying my every whim). Trouble is, I figured out, it’s tough to have it both ways. The conclusion I reached once I took time to think about it was that what I really wanted was for my daughter to be reasonable, no matter who she was dealing with.

Fine. So what’s reasonable?
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Perhaps you followed the gut-wrenching story of the mother who innocently told her 13 year-old son to tough it out when he called home several times from summer football camp.2 CBS correspondent Peter Van Sant spoke with her later: …he told us that they were keeping them up. We said, 'Are they hurting you?' He said no,” recalls Carol. “I assumed he was homesick, so I said, 'Stick it out. It’s a couple of days.' You know, what could be going on? There’s coaches. There’s supervision, like any other school event. What was going on was a brutal ordeal—five days when her son was repeatedly sodomized with broomsticks, golf balls, pinecones and toothbrushes while other players watched and laughed. “He was waiting for them [the coaches] to come in and save him, but no one came,” Carol’s husband, Vinny, lamented. No one came and no one told. No one. Three days after camp ended Carol’s son came to her and said, “I’m bleeding. I need to see a doctor.” That’s not reasonable behavior in any way, from any of those boys, including Carol’s son.
2

(http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/04/12/48hours/main611479.shtml)

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Where in hell did they learn that? There’s every season to assume they learned it at home and

Compliance is very appealing to institutions.

school and church and on the athletic field—all the places where power and tradition teach us to do as we’re told. I don’t think parents can rely on institutions to teach their children when to speak up, when to resist, when to stand up and walk out of the room, when to blow the whistle. Institutions are too much invested in channeling behavior to reach a goal. Because we said so, is the institutional line of reasoning, usually

softened by some appeal to a shared vision: You want to be a winner don’t you? You want to get a good test score don’t you? You want to go to heaven…don’t you? The personal, parental line is something like: You want Daddy to be proud of you, don’t you? More on that later… When a child who morning, noon and night is all about learning asks his parent for clarification and none is forthcoming beyond “Because I said so,” what other lesson than compliance is he’s learning? If children learn early to obey unreasonable directives—if we and their other teachers convince them that, as far as we’re concerned, compliance is next to godliness (and we’d pick compliance if they said we had to choose between the two)—they

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have been set up for passivity and potentially for abuse.

This is dangerously close to overstatement; I know that.
I know there are times when obedience is necessary for a child’s safety. What I don’t accept is the no-questions-asked-one-size-fits-all-I’m-the-parent-that’s-why approach to children whose whole cognitive job is learning how to think well and choose well. I think we have to engage children compassionately or concede that they will learn plenty we didn’t mean to teach. A father gives direction to his four year-old. And compassionate engagement rolls out something like this… Boy: Why? Dad: That’s a good question. Tell me why you want to know. Or Boy: Why? Dad: Because it will help me if you do it this way. Will you please help me?

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Or Boy: Why? Dad: Because I love you and I want you to be safe. Or Boy: Why? Dad: Do I say ‘why?’ every time you ask me to do something for you? Or Boy: Why? Dad: Why not? The short answer, “Because I said so,” is meant to end discussion, which, in general, seems to me like a bad idea. I think we should be constantly looking for ways to keep the conversation going. All these answers do that. They all call for a response from the child (except “Because I love you and I want you to be safe,” which I think is just nice to hear from time to time). Let’s play it out a little farther. The adult says, “We have to go now.”

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To which the kid replies, “Why?” So the adult says, “Why not?” And the kid responds, “I’m not ready.” The Enforcer inside the adult recommends saying, “Well I’m ready, so get your rear in gear.” But the Teacher inside tells the Enforcer to hold on a minute and says to the child, “Oh yeah? Well tell me about that, because I want to keep my promise to be on time to meet your dad, which means we have to go now.” The conversation could go in any direction from here. Maybe the kid looks up from his LeapPad and replies, “Daddy’s never on time to meet us anyway, just let me finish this level.” At which juncture even the Enforcer has to admit the child may have a point. From there it would be dealer’s choice. I should think the

The Enforcer inside the adult recommends saying, “Well I’m ready, so get your rear in gear.”

adult response might include an exploration of how the child feels to be kept waiting (don’t

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anticipate too much detail from a small fry but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth asking), and perhaps the promise to discuss this perceived unfairness with Daddy. Whether the adult believes it’s important to leave right then or grant the kid two minutes to finish the level, seems entirely a matter of context. The Enforcer is apt to be too strict, the Playmate (the one inside who craves the company of your child) is inclined to be too permissive. I say let the Teacher decide. “What is it I want my little person to learn?” she’ll ask, and “What’s the best way to learn that?” It may be the best response will be something like, “Sorry, kiddo, it’s going to take some time to get where we’re going and I think it’s important to keep my promises, so we need to leave now. I’ll tell you what: I’ll talk with your dad about being on time when we come to meet him. And if you’d like, I’ll try to give you a little more notice before I say it’s time to leave next time—can you help me remember that?” I think that sounds reasonable. I would want my child to be as reasonable in her communication with me (which, by the way, she was and is).

I say let the Teacher decide.

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At the end of the day, it may come down to something as clear and uncluttered as the Golden Rule. There are versions of the Golden Rule from a dozen cultures spanning the globe. My personal favorite comes from Jesus:
“Here is a simple, rule-of-thumb guide for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them. Add up God’s Law and Prophets and this is what you get” (Matthew 7:12, The Message). Teach your child to value that level of mutual respect and I think it’s hard to go very far wrong.

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Thing Four “You Are Such a Pretty Little Thing”
All things considered, I think one of the worst things you can tell a little girl is how pretty she is. “Honey, you could stand to lose a few pounds,” is worse. In the current crisis of childhood obesity—nearly one in five American children is dangerously overweight—losing a few pounds is hardly the point.3 Health is the point. “You could stand to lose a pound or two drives the conversation to its most superficial level. It’s roughly equivalent to saying, “You’re not pretty.” But how many adults are cruel enough to say something that mean? So for the moment let’s stick to prettiness.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that a child stands before us and the child in question is relatively attractive in whatever subculture she inhabits. So what?
3

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/pubs/pubd/hestats/overwght99.htm

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Telling her she’s pretty is a useful compliment the way Krispy Kreme is a food product. Tasty? Sure, if you think so. Healthy? Nutritious? An important part of a balanced diet? Are you kidding? The nutritional value of a donut is roughly equivalent to its signature shape. The only way those puffy, deep fried zeros could be less useful is if the holes were filled in and stuffed with…I don’t know…kreme? But gee golly do those bad boys sell. Some people can’t get enough of ‘em. And, to be fair, anybody looking for quick, legal, bump could hardly get there quicker than a coupla donuts washed down with a 16-ounce cuppa java.4 Telling a child she’s pretty is just about guaranteed to give her an emotional bump. But so what? Here’s what. Pretty puts a girl on emotional welfare. Pretty teaches her to trust the eyes of others to determine her self worth—which she may

Pretty puts a girl on emotional welfare.

already be inclined to do. Later, if she’s internalized the lesson of pretty as a measure of her
4

Actually, at this writing the donut industry is staggering under the weight of scandal. It turns out the active ingredients in donuts—fat and sweeteners —are being held in place by banned substances in the form of flour; a known Class I carbohydrate. This is why I’m investing in the new Little-Tub-OLard franchise. We’ll be able to drive up to the window and order flavored, sweetened lard in portion-controlled containers like the individual cream cheese servings. Dip in with the little plastic scraper (included) or use your finger! Mmm-Lardy, that’s good!

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worth, she’ll look to strangers for affirmation. And maybe it won’t matter whether the person who says she’s pretty is trustworthy, loyal, brave and true. Maybe he just has to know the magic words to put her under a spell; to get her to do things she wasn’t planning.

And maybe that won’t end badly.
The thing is, Pretty is so subjective. We know beyond a shadow of doubt there is no accounting for taste. Pretty is so impermanent. The explosive growth of cosmetic surgery—butt lifts in the U.S., for example, increased 526% from 1992-2003—affirms what we already know in our hearts: gravity gets us all in the end.5 But most of all—by which I meant worst of all—the girl has nothing to do with being, or not being, pretty. If her hair is the right color and texture to be called pretty where you live, well that’s just fortunate, isn’t it? If the tone of her skin and her body type are favorably appraised, she may do slightly better in first grade than if she were less attractive. But congratulating a child for being pretty is a meal of empty calories. She had nothing to do with
5

American Society of Plastic Surgeons, http://www.plasticsurgery.org/public_education/2003statistics.cfm

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those attributes; they are not achievements. She can take no credit for them and no blame when they fade, as they will. And then what? A child who learns to rely on empty praise lives in a never land of false expectations (I’m pretty, therefore people owe me…what? more praise? adoration? privilege?) Later, regardless of the objective facts (since there are no objective facts when it comes to beauty), when she no longer believes she’s pretty she’ll be tempted to fake it; she’ll be tempted to become a people-pleaser so folks will still like her; she’ll be tempted to obsess about something (anything) that deflects attention from her sense of faded beauty; she’ll be tempted to show off her body to attract people who will tell her she’s pretty (though she’ll doubt their sincerity); she’ll be tempted to disordered eating patterns and substance abuse; she’ll be tempted to act out sexually. I’m not saying she’ll fall prey to all these enticements or any of them; only that she’ll have been set up to face temptations she might otherwise have avoided. In a related story, 70% of teenage pregnancies are fathered by individuals over the age of

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20.6 I call them individuals because it’s difficult to call them men. I think of them as over-aged boys at best, unable to keep pace with women their own age. At worst they are predators victimizing girls along the fast track to the whole sadder but wiser thing. If you think there’s no relationship I beg you to think again. The chief basis for such encounters (they sometimes reach the level of relationship) is flattery, which you may recall, is “complimenting somebody, often excessively or insincerely, especially in order to get something.”7 As a rule of thumb the appeal to flattery is not very persuasive to a person with a strong inner compass. People— in this case girls—whose sense of direction relies too heavily on the assessments of others (even if the others are parents who love them dearly) may be lured off course by the sort of flattery that sounds for all the world like an expression of genuine regard and affection.
6

In a related story, 70% of teenage pregnancies are fathered by individuals over the age of 20.

Just Thought You Oughta Know, The Medical Institute for Sexual Health, P.O. Box 162306, Austin TX, 78716, www.medinstitute.org I almost wrote, “70% of teenage pregnancies are fathered by men over the age of 20” but that would be wrong wouldn’t it. They are chronologically men, functionally boys.
7

Encarta World English Dictionary

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All of which is to say a girl hungry for reassurance may be no match for an older male practiced enough to know what kind of line to feed her. It’s simply not a fair contest.
Of course there are other possibilities when a girl believes she is no longer beautiful in the eyes of others. Our culture is cruel about enforcing the freshness date on prettiness (so please don’t imagine girls don’t notice when the compliments trail off…). But that’s no reason to assume a girl will tumble into the abyss. Instead of faking it, maybe she’ll grow deeper than her skin—which is a good thing. The downside of course is that the credibility of significant adults who said she was pretty will come up for review, along with everyone and everything in the culture that contributed to the false sense of self she lived in all those years. Good luck with that.

But what if I think she is pretty?
Are you paying attention or what? It’s not about you or what you think or how you see the world! It’s about a girl who can never be filled up with empty praise. Ever.

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Did I say that out loud? Sorry. Look, there’s nothing wrong with beauty and there’s nothing wrong with appreciating beauty. It’s just loaded, that’s all. It’s a firecracker. Handle it wrong and somebody loses a finger. If you need a refresher course in what it feels like to be judged by the wrong criteria (including what it costs the ones who judge falsely), and if you can tolerate crude humor and what the MPAA ratings like to call adult language (and don’t say I didn’t warn you), go rent the Farrelly Brothers’ Shallow Hal on DVD. Take time to watch it all the way to the end of the credits. Or dial it back a couple of notches and rent Shrek. Or read Dr. Seuss’s Sneetches; or Hans Christian Andersen’s, The Ugly Ducking; or the Bible. And if all this just makes you afraid to say anything, I think I understand that. I’m not trying to scare you. And I hope you understand I’m not talking about political correctness; I’m talking about being and growing healthy, thoughtful adults. That involves looking past the obvious to the real. It involves learning to identify and express appreciation for what’s good and true. So try this on for size:

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Thoughtful affirmation is always better than empty praise.
If you’re taking notes that might be worth writing down. And please, I know it’s obvious. I wouldn’t even bring it up except for this annoying tendency to thoughtlessly praise kids for all the wrong reasons. Say it with me: Praise, bad. Affirmation, good. “I like your haircut” is not thoughtless praise, it’s an opinion about a choice. Everyone is entitled to an opinion. “I like your blouse, your dress, your overalls, your glasses, your boots,” are all opinions that express your taste. Nothing wrong with that. “I like your sense of style,” is a bit broader. It’s a statement of appreciation for an overall trend and that’s fine too. At this point, in the spirit of full disclosure, we have to admit that sometimes fashion is not pretty. If history is a reliable predictor you can expect our culture to recycle tasteless fashions several times before you’re too old to care. We’ve endured another bellbottom and polyester renaissance and have to assume that Annie Hall,

Everyone is entitled to an opinion.

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flash dance, parachute pants and fluorescents are cuing up for the parade. It hardly matters. As long as it’s not intentionally provocative it’s just a style. Let it be. Stick with thoughtful affirmations like “That’s a good look on you” unless, of course, the young woman is dressed like a bimbo in which case I’m not sure I can endorse the mixed message. “Hey, LaWanda, you look real slutty today,” is probably not the concept you’re going for. While we’re at it, why not broaden the scope of affirmation. “You have such pretty eyes” slides off the tongue so easily we know it’s empty before we finish saying it. “I think you have pretty eyes” is certainly in the first person so that will score points with your Marriage Encounter presenters but it still has nothing to do with anything. So how about “I’m really intrigued by the way you see the world”? That celebrates what a child does with the eyes in her head. “You are so observant” picks up that theme. “I like the way you make eye contact when we talk” takes it in another positive direction, and “The way you look at me when we talk helps me feel listened-to” builds on that notion.

“Hey, LaWanda, you look real slutty today,” is probably not the concept you’re going for.

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Thoughtful affirmation reinforces purposeful behavior (hair care, for example) instead of making flattering statements about happenstance (“pretty” hair). If you think that’s a trivial distinction, think about the different reactions you get from A) telling someone you like her haircut (in which case you’re likely to hear something like “Thank you! I had it done at that wonderful new salon over by the blah, blah, blah), or B) telling someone you really like her hair (in which case she’s likely to say she would trade her hair for more or less exactly the opposite of what God and the gene pool gave her— straight for curly; red for blond; blond for brown; brown for black; black for red; curly for straight and so it goes. The same goes for praising a child because she is a gifted athlete or artist. Being fast is interesting; becoming a dedicated and purposeful runner is fascinating. Possessing a keen eye and sure hand for drawing the illusion of depth on a two-dimensional surface is a nice trick and maybe even a gift from God; cultivating that to create emotionally arresting canvases is a gift to the rest of us. You are in a unique position to influence the path of giftedness by thoughtfully affirming every appropriate effort from the gifted.

The point of all this is to get beneath the surface.
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That’s where the truth lies. “Beauty’s only skin deep,” the old saying goes, “but ugly goes clear to the bone.” So…for the kids: Let’s try not to be ugly about being pretty.

Beauty’s only skin deep. Ugly goes clear to the bone.

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Thing Five “I’m Proud of You”
I supposed I shouldn’t have been surprised… I wrote a book called Raising Adults, the premise of which is, we’re raising too many children. We’re producing too many people who feel unprepared for life in the world as we know it. And if we keep raising children our trailer homes will eventually be overrun with boomeranging offspring come back so we can finish the job. This is, by my estimate, a less-than-positive outcome for both the boomerangs and the boomers who flung them unprepared into the world. Therefore, the argument goes; instead of raising children let’s concentrate on raising adults. This is an admittedly obvious play on words. So obvious a lot of people seemed to miss it altogether. But it’s no joke, if only because it calls into question

Instead of raising children let’s concentrate on raising adults.

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what, exactly, it is we think we’re up to. If, for example, we wanted to end up with adults at the end of 18 years or so (don’t laugh; 18 used to be the benchmark for adulthood in this culture and a lot of families measured up pretty well), then what would we teach people while they were young to assure that outcome? That’s what Raising Adults is about and you can read it for yourself (www.westofthe101.com). I bring it up here only because I was and am surprised by what turned out to be a prickly idea in Raising Adults. It has to do with the words, “I’m proud of you.” Here’s part of what I wrote: If you want to raise someone who is a human being and not a human doing, separate what she does from who she is. Feel free to disagree with me here, but I’ve chosen not to use the words, “I’m proud of you.” I tell my daughter how impressed I am. I tell her how much I admire her. I don’t say I’m proud of her. Here’s why. I’m afraid if I tell my daughter I’m proud of her it will sound like I had some-thing to do with her success. I didn’t. She waded out of a decent gene pool. She grew up in a home with people who love her and who nurtured her

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as well as we were able given a long history of craziness. She went to school in relatively affluent school districts. Beyond that context,

Kate’s achievement is all her own.

Kate’s achievement is all her own. She’s blessed with a good brain operating system, which she learned to use effectively. She doesn’t accept easy answers and she’s not an intellectual snob. She learned to articulate her thoughts directly and generously. She learned to listen well and distinguish between important information and factoids without needing to ask, “Will this be on the test?” She built a strong work ethic and a whatever-it-takes attitude. She also learned how to have fun. She knows how to listen to her friends and figure out which are fuelers and which are drainers. In the process she learned to be fueler and how to get fuel when she’s drained. Her skill as an actor is equal parts genius and hard work. The genius, for which she takes no credit, is an unusual ability to memorize dialogue quickly. But it’s hard work that turns those words into characters who are real to an audience.

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I’m impressed out of my mind by all that. I’m so fortunate to know her. I admire her work and her character. But I wouldn’t say I’m proud of her because those achievements are hers and hers alone.8 Perhaps my mistake was saying, “Feel free to disagree with me here…” because people of all ages certainly do. “What’s wrong with saying, ‘I’m proud of you?’” they want to know. “Well,” I say, “I’ll tell you—“ but they interrupt. “My parents said that to me all the time,” they declare. “Simmer down,” I say, “The trouble is—“ but I seldom get to finish my thought.

“Why do you hate America?” they scream. “In America, we are proud of our children. What is your problem!”
Just this. I don’t think we should ever give children the impression that making us proud is the point of their lives. Forget for the moment the argument about taking credit where no credit is due. Just consider this: If we let our children think that pleasing us—making us proud
8

(Raising Adults, thetinycompanycalledme.com 207, page 209,)

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—should be their primary concern, we divert them from the more significant work of growing deep and wide in the world and living lives that conform not so much to our image as to the image of their creator. That’s True North: To move toward the place where they are fully and deeply themselves, as each was created to be. An adult waving a magnet nearby threatens a child’s sense of direction. When the needle is drawn away from True North, she’s being misled.

e.e. cummings said: To be nobody-but-yourself --- in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else --- means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.9
To think of a child’s own parents conspiring with the world to make her anyone but herself…it just seems wrong. Let’s see if we can set this in concrete. When a man impresses on his son that he’s proud of him for making good grades (and when that boy believes making the old man proud is a good thing), the youngster is likely to set about trying to please his dad by presenting a record
9

A poet's advice to students. In: cummings ee A miscellany revised. New York: October House; 1965. p 335.

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of good grades. This is a common transaction between generations: trading achievement for approval. The simplicity of the exchange is exemplary—as long as the younger person makes the grade, father and son each knows where he stands. It’s a bit like quarterly earnings in the stock exchange. The analyst predicts; the company delivers, the shareholder lets his investment ride. Maybe you see where this is going. If the currency between man and boy is grades—as distinct from, say, gaining knowledge or, dare we hope, wisdom —the boy may be tempted to cheat in order to get what he wants; just as his father might be tempted to overstate earnings to deliver a positive quarter (or the appearance of a positive quarter) where that is the unit of measure. Did I say overstate earnings? That can’t be right. What I probably meant was more along the lines of extrapolating a positive trend, or projecting revenues in anticipation of an upswing…something in that vein. That can’t be all bad, can it?

Maybe you see where this is going.

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Right here is where the trouble lies: with faulty measurements. Part of the trouble in financial markets is that the unit of measure—quarterly earnings—may in themselves say as little about sustainable profits as grades in themselves say about learning. This is a problem. A century ago the nonprofit General Education Board promised: “We will organize children and teach them in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way. “In our dreams,” the Board wrote, “people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands.”10 Our molding hands…

OK, can I just say, YIKES!
Am I the only one who thinks docility is not an asset in learning? Half a century ago, the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives11 , edited by Benjamin Bloom and a host of others, was devised as "a tool to classify the ways individuals are to act, think, or feel as the result of some unit of instruction."
10

General Education Board Occasional Letter Number One, quoted in John Taylor Gatto, Underground History of American Education, chapter two, An Angry Look at Modern Schooling, page 8, http://www.johntaylorgatto.com/chapters/2i.htm
11 11

Bloom Benjamin S. and David R. Krathwohl. Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals, by a committee of college and university examiners. Handbook I: Cognitive Domain. New York, Longmans, Green, 1956.

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Again: YIKES! I’m not saying teachers shouldn’t engage students purposefully, I’m just saying I’m not sure I trust teachers who believe they know how students are to act, think, or feel as the result of a unit of instruction. In fact, I’m pretty sure I don’t. You probably know about taxonomy but just in case you forgot it’s a classification of things (doesn’t matter what) into some sort of order. The Taxonomy of Educational Objectives outlines six categories of learning, beginning with simple knowledge and peaking with complex evaluation.

1. Knowledge (e.g. remembering lists, definitions, facts and directions) 2. Comprehension (e.g. interpreting what a list, fact or direction means) 3. Application (e.g. using a list or fact to solve a problem) 4. Analysis (e.g. finding patterns between lists, definitions or directions) 5. Synthesis (e.g. making a list of lists, translating a definition in different words) 6. Evaluation (e.g. judging whether a list was worth remembering in the first place).
Honestly, when it comes to conveying "a tool to classify the ways individuals are to act, think, or feel as the result of some unit of instruction," I’m not convinced Bloom’s Taxonomy

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delivers, except maybe on the bottom end. If all that’s required is reporting back to the teacher what she said about who, what, when, where and why then, as long as the lesson was clear and correct, there’s not much range in the appropriate “ways individuals are to act, think or feel.” At that level of learning a thing is what it is and isn’t what it isn’t and that’s that. But farther along in Bloom’s Taxonomy lots of factors come into play that make predicting such outcomes difficult and in some matters impossible. For example, I have a friend whose responsibilities once included training members of a religious organization in how talk about their faith. For two decades he labored under the assumption that everyone who trusts God does so for one reason (which, oddly enough, happened to be the reason he put his faith in God). He taught hundreds of religious workers how to talk about their faith—though it was difficult to measure how well they executed what he taught them. Then, in what I thought was a grand display of an

Lots of factors come into play that make predicting such outcomes difficult and in some matters impossible.

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old dog learning a new trick, my friend conducted an anecdotal study of reasons for belief— by which I mean he asked believers all over the globe what it was that convinced them. After just a few weeks he’d categorized nine different reasons for believing. I suppose it goes without saying but I’m being paid by the word so, what the heck: Finding eight more reasons to believe caused my friend’s mission to absolutely blow up! For my white readers, blowing up is a good thing. It means my friend was able to help people learn to talk compellingly about their faith instead of his.

Isn’t this the point? That learning is more important than teaching? That embracing the lesson is more important than yielding to the power of the instructor?
If you’re a person of faith who’s read with alarm the reports of college-bound kids forgetting to pack their beliefs as they head off to school, my friend’s lesson may be important to you. If a child doesn’t embrace the reasons his parents give for believing, then of course he’ll forget to pack the family religion when he moves out. I mean if he doesn’t expect to use it, it’s excess baggage. Besides which, it’s not his. This is the same reason he doesn’t pack the refrigerator. If, on the other hand, he believes for reasons that are persuasive to him, he won’t carry the faith as baggage, he’ll be wearing it.
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All the expressions of pride from parents and other authorities are at best a waste of time because they are entirely beside the point. And the worst case is very bad indeed. The worst case is a power play in which the young are expected to comply with the wishes of the old in order to gain acceptance. This never ends well. Here’s why I think all this matters. In 2004, my publisher got an angry letter from someone at a group called Focus on the Family on the subject of Good Sex, a

The worst case is very bad indeed.

learning design I created with my friend, Kara Powell (that’s Dr. Powell to you). The letter promised to publish a review of Good Sex that in my estimation included unfounded accusations, innuendoes, near-truths, half-truths and untruths along with a handful of substantive disagreements—chief among which was that our learning design was non-directive. “I am offended for Christian families and youth who will be exposed to this non-directive and, I

believe, non-Christian curriculum,” the manager of Focus on the Family’s Abstinence Department wrote in the letter.

The concluding section of the review was titled Lack of True Teaching.

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…Directive teaching clearly states facts; it differentiates between right and wrong. Although directive lessons include thought-provoking questions and encourage teachers and students to reflect on issues, they are merely tools used to complement all of the other program components. Nondirective teaching is based on individual autonomy: "Let's discuss the issue so that you can decide what's right for you.” Good Sex is nondirective teaching. Young students need facts about sexual issues. They need to know that the Bible is very clear on most human sexuality issues They need to see examples demonstrating the benefits of obeying God in our sexual behavior, Good Sex fails to fulfill those needs. Authors Jim Hancock and Kara Powell should have spent less time watching MTV reruns and studying Hugh Hefner and given more time and energy to researching the issues they included in their curriculum. Reading Good Sex will leave youth leaders and students confused and frustrated. Focus on the Family cannot recommend the Good

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Sex curriculum to churches, parents, or youth groups. This is not a recommended Christian sexuality curriculum.

For the record, Good Sex is in fact nondirective, but not the way they characterized it.
It’s not "Let's discuss the issue so that you can decide what's right for you” which is just silly. Good Sex is a learner-centered—rather than teacher-centered—design. Do the reviewers really mean to say the only acceptable way to teach kids about sexual choices is directive instruction at the lowest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy—1. Knowledge (e.g. remembering lists, definitions, facts and directions) and 2. Comprehension (e.g. interpreting what a list, fact or direction means)? Because I don’t think so. I think the elementary levels of learning are insufficient for teaching adolescents about sex. For children, sure—children are not yet equipped to make complex judgments—but sexually maturing adolescents require a more thorough engagement of mind and heart than simply taking our word for it. Since Good Sex is a biblically informed

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curriculum, that means asking students to address the biblical text directly rather than on the basis of hearsay. Somehow I don’t think, Because my teacher said it’s in the Bible is a very resilient argument should an adolescent ever encounter a serious challenge to his beliefs about sexuality. Not that that would ever happen…but it could. You may not be familiar with Focus on the Family but I think they believe you are because I think they believe everyone knows who they are and cares what they think. And they apparently expect authors and publishers to agree with them or risk public censure. I suppose this is the organizational equivalent of hearing a parent say, “I’m disappointed in you” instead of “I’m proud of you.” It’s a power play that only works if the parent is always right and the child remains

I don’t think, Because my teacher said it’s in the Bible is a very resilient argument.

forever young (and I don’t mean in that sweet Bob Dylan lullaby sort of way). E.B. White is supposed to have said, “Who we think our audience is, is how we write.” I have the distinct impression that a lot—maybe most—adults think kids are not merely young

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but probably a bit dumb. This is why they talk and write down to them, why they pander and then preach instead of inviting youngsters to stretch and grow. I’m here to tell you, Here’s how I think it nets out, whether it’s church-based sex education or school-based world history: If, instead of asking kids to puzzle out solutions from the source material, we give them the answers and then say we’re proud of them for remembering what we said—I think we get at least two things wrong. 1.We put our youngsters on intellectual welfare when we could be putting them to work. 2.We increase the temptation to cheat and lie. Modern learners perform more like court reporters than farmers, writers, miners, inventors, filmmakers, explorers or detectives. Farmers plant and cultivate and harvest; court

If kids don’t get respect from the ones who teach them, they will turn to — and learn from — those who give them respect.

Modern learners perform more like court reporters than farmers, writers, miners, inventors, filmmakers, explorers or detectives.

reporters write down what people say. Writers observe and reflect and

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interpret and organize and communicate; court reporters read back what they wrote down. Miners dig for precious substances that have never been brought to light; court reporters regurgitate predigested words. Inventors come up with new-to-the-world ideas and processes and products; court reporters make records. Filmmakers tell stories; court reporters keep track of details. Explorers go where others do not go to witness what others do not see; court reporters wait for someone to say something. Detectives don’t stop until they find the truth; court reporters don’t stop until around five o’clock. There’s nothing wrong with court reporting. It’s valuable, honorable work and I make light of it only to make a point. Because, actually, some of my best friends are court reporters. OK, that’s a lie; I don’t know any court reporters. Someday soon I won’t be alone in this because nobody will know any court reporters, because their jobs are going to go away; outsourced to computer chips arrayed in microphones and video cameras, captured direct to hard drives, fully searchable by time-code and sound recognition software. It won’t happen while I’m writing this book but by the time you read it, the job, Court Reporter, could be gone. So you’re not doing you child any favors if you make a habit of saying you’re proud of

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her for learning more like a court reporter than a farmer, writer, miner, inventor, filmmaker, explorer or detective. The problem is, school is currently structured to teach the wrong things for where we are inevitably headed as a culture. Students don’t learn about the creative energy and satisfaction of working; they learn about the grudging rewards of jobs. Our message is embedded in our method. It’s not, Hooray! Look what you’ve learned! It’s Hooray! Look at the grade you earned! —A near-perfect metaphor for the subsistence jobs they’ll get if they learn the wrong lessons; jobs where the rewards are not for creating value but for doing what they’re told.

These days, the principal output of conventional education is the sort of compliant child who’s wellschooled in keeping his head down, blending in, keeping his most thoughtful questions and opinions to himself and, most of all, doing what he’s told (as far as you know).
This student is distinguished from his parents mainly by choices that simply don’t matter much; things likely to produce mild regret (tattoos, piercings, ridiculous fashions about as

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likely to evoke a blush response in 20 years as the ridiculous fashions his parents favored in their youth). None of these things is liable to generate significant change in the world as we know it, even if the image of Grandma Heather’s great nieces gathered round to study her tats at the family reunion does promise a certain entertainment value: “What was that, Grandma —before your skin got all saggy, I mean?” Beyond that, and despite the remarkable changes swirling around the planet, there’s not much reason to expect today’s North American high school graduate will be any different than yesterday’s model.

The thoughtful observer might say we like it that way.
Look, I know you don’t control what happens at school and probably not what happens at church. The ground you control is the place where you talk with you own child about life, the universe and everything. So, what if you made those conversations learner-centered instead of teacher-centered? What if you practiced the art of engaging your children in the task of learning for themselves?

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What if you affirmed your kids for what they discover and how they learn to apply that knowledge with wisdom and skill to solve problems for themselves and their world instead of flattering them for earning good grades? What if you stopped saying “I’m proud of you” and learned to say, “I’m impressed by your insight, you ingenuity, your perseverance, you progress?”

What if we all, in the hours we have with our children, taught them to learn, not just pass tests?
I think they and we would be better off. I think among other things they would learn, in the most positive and holy sense, to be proud of themselves. At the risk of oversimplifying maybe it all starts with going out to your parking space and scraping off that Proud Parent of a Jefferson Elementary Achiever sticker. Just a

Good Sex: The Rest of the Story…
The same week our publisher got the angry letter about Good Sex there was a very different assessment by Tim Stafford in Christianity Today. (June 2004, Vol. 48, No. 6, Page 36):

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Hancock and Powell's Good Sex aims to bring the church into this struggle. It offers a packet of materials for youth groups—a leader's guide, a student journal, and a video of discussion starters. The material would enable a novice volunteer to lead a meeting, but Good Sex really aims at veteran youth leaders who want to cobble together their own approach from a variety of resources. Hancock and Powell explain that they aim for a process, not a confrontation. In seven lessons they cover a lot of biblical ground. The Bible studies are bracketed by open-ended discussion, in which kids think for themselves and speak freely. The intent is to create a church context in which sexuality gets explored thoughtfully and biblically, and kids reach their own conclusions.

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Thing 06 “You Can Do Anything You Set Your Mind To”
When Ronald Reagan died, among the thousands viewing his coffin in California was a small boy—four or five years old I’d guess—wearing a t-shirt that said Future President. Sweet I thought. I wonder if he picked it out himself. When I was little, adults were always asking What do you want to be when you grow up? Which I took to mean What do you want to do? What will your work be? Cowboy? Fire Fighter? Soldier? Another thing I heard big people say a lot: You can do anything you set your mind to. YOU Can do Anything You Set Your Mind to!

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It is “In the eyes and attitudes of the parents and teachers who raise and educate them,” Stephen Glenn and Jane Nelson claimed that “children find mirrors through which they define themselves.”12 To answer the question Who am I? children listen first to significant adults. And they tend to believe what they hear. I’m a princess. I’m a genius. I’m just like my old man. I’m a bum. I am the future. I’m a lost cause. I’m a promise, a disappointment, a diamond in the rough, a waste of space, a star, a miracle, a mistake. Over time kids come to trust adults who shoot straight with them in age-appropriate ways. And they learn to distrust adults who are overly critical or overly optimistic—either extreme being an unreliable measure of reality.

To answer the question Who am I? children listen first to significant adults.

It takes years—sometimes decades—to figure out which is which. Therapists buy sailboats and send their kids to college on the money they make helping people understand what their parents were really saying about them and what they can do about that now. And I don’t believe there’s any shortage of conversation on this subject around the coffee pot at
12

(Raising Self-Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World, Prima, 1989, page 71).

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twelve-step meetings. Occasionally we hear about someone whose direction in life was recalibrated in a single encounter with an adult—for better or worse. But the effect is mainly cumulative. Kids come to believe what they hear over and over from adults they trust. That’s why it’s important to think about what we say to children; why it’s necessary to find out what we’re actually communicating by what we say and do.

Kids come to believe what they hear over and over from adults they trust.

Which brings us back to the Future President t-shirt and the promise that You can do anything you set your mind to (!). America’s baby boom was born in the wake of a world-shaping cultural triumph. The U.S. rose from financial ruin (a little market correction we like to call the Great Depression) to anchor the winning side in a war that threatened half the world. Europe was saved, imperial Japan was

dismantled and America seeded the first truly global economy through which she became fabulously wealthy and immensely powerful. Western science and technology broke through barriers at a breathtaking pace. There was nothing America would not attempt and price was

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no object for a nation literally printing money. In that climate the notion that America’s children of promise could grow up to do anything they set their minds to was an appealing metaphor.

It was however an expression of irrational exuberance in the economy of childhood — it was an exercise in over promising from which we have yet to recover.
A funny thing happened after dinner one night. It was the end of 1996 and Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank, made a speech that included the now famous words irrational exuberance. “But how do we know,” Greenspan mused to his after dinner audience at The American Enterprise Institute, “when irrational exuberance has unduly escalated asset values, blah, blah, blah.” In plain English, Greenspan was raising the possibility that if people get overexcited about investments they might pay too much for stock and then get nervous and bail out; which in turn could lead to a price collapse that takes longer to reverse than anyone expects. He wasn’t saying it was going to happen, he was just saying, what if it did?

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Half a world away, the Tokyo stock exchange was in session when Greenspan made his remarks, which apparently translated easily into Japanese because the Nikkei responded with a sell off that cost 3% of it’s value. Hong Kong also dropped 3%. Frankfurt and London fell 4%. New York opened the next morning down 2%.13 These were relatively small adjustments compared to what was ahead but they hinted at what many people suspected: What you see is not always what you get. Over promising may be as simple as hushing an impatient child with the promise of candy if he behaves in the grocery store and then reneging on the deal because it’s too near dinnertime.

You don’t get many of those before a child starts to wonder if your word means anything.
More complicated is the promise I won’t let anything bad happen to you, when you know good and well you can’t deliver on that assurance. Well I just want Junior to feel safe the well-meaning liar says. Then tell Junior you’ll do everything in your power to keep him safe.
13

(Robert J. Shiller, Irrational Exuberance, Princeton University Press, 2000, page 3).

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He thinks you have the office next door to God; he thinks you’re faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive; he thinks you can beat up T-Rex—or at least Barney. I’ll do everything I can to keep you safe will suffice to make him feel safe. I won’t let anything bad happen plants seeds of doubt every time Junior skins a knee or walks into a wall. He thought you had that stuff covered. Where were you! These are not days for over promising physical security. “We are,” the poet Bruce Cockburn intones, “lovers in a dangerous time.” Don’t make promises that aren’t yours to keep. More complicated still is the class of enthusiastic over promise represented by the declaration You can do anything you set your mind to. You can grow up to be President! I’m going out on a limb here and say the boy in the Future President t-shirt will not grow up to be President. Americans elect one president at a time at a rate not exceeding 25 per century. That’s not just good arithmetic, it’s the law and it narrows the little guy’s chances

Don’t make promises that aren’t yours to keep.

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considerably. This is the kind of thing you hate to see but I’m afraid the child was misled by well-meaning folk who, in their grief, weren’t thinking clearly. Of course I blame the t-shirt company whose greedy cynicism essentially made it impossible for the boy’s parents to resist. I haven’t ruled out a class action suit and I think I can find an attorney who’ll agree with me on this. Should it turn out it was the minor who purchased the shirt, that would be a different matter and all I can say is it’s an easy mistake for a four year-old to make. You can do anything you set your mind to. It brings to mind the No rain chant at Woodstock uttered with great conviction and hope by half a million in unison just before they got soaked by a summer storm. Wanting was never any guarantee of having and I’m not certain I know what putting my mind to it even means.

Desire is important but it’s not determinative.
Positions in professional basketball, baseball, football, hockey, tennis, figure skating and golf are limited. If a young person’s only alternatives are making the PGA tour cut or dealing drugs, the smart money has to be on the drugs. The same goes for star turns in the arts, which

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explains the large number of talented, hard-working, chronically under-employed actors, writers, musicians, filmmakers and visual artists. What: they’re not putting their minds to it? Many of them truly are, I assure you. I live along one edge of a religious subculture where people in good health tell people who are sick that they ought to pray harder. Pray harder? How do you measure that? Volume? Frequency? Words per minute? Is God watching the playoffs and you have to raise a ruckus to get noticed? I don’t think so. I’ve read the Bible pretty carefully and, if anything, the Bible in general and Jesus in particular discourage that kind of thing. The pagans think they’ll be heard for their many words, Jesus remarks (I’m paraphrasing from the Gospel According to Matthew, chapter six), but I’m here to tell you it doesn’t work that way; your heavenly father knows what you need before it even occurs to you to ask.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all about the praying. The nagging? Not so much.
Add my name to the list of folks who think misdirection, invention and other forms of lying are poor ways to motivate people of any age. But it’s everywhere! Half-truths and outright fabrications in support of good ends because…why? The truth isn’t compelling and

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people will thank us later for our kindness? I don’t think so. I think they’ll be mad at us and for good reason. An example from real life: I’m one of those Christians who are just the least bit snippy—I’ve met others so I know I’m not alone in this—because we think the people who first told us about life with God only told us what they thought were the good parts. They were especially strong on the part about how their lives were “completely changed” after they “met Christ.” Well their lives weren’t completely changed at all! Changed in crucial ways, sure, but that wasn’t what they said. They said “completely.” So you can imagine our surprise when our lives weren’t completely changed after we started trusting Christ. Surprised puts it mildly. We were horrified. We were ashamed. We were filled with doubt. Eventually we figured out those people were simply carrying on a time-honored tradition in sales: Accentuate the positive. Well God ain’t for sale, mister. I once made a character in a movie ask, “Someone will come to believe the truth because you start with a falsehood? No, no, no; it’s not that complicated.” I believe that; I believe the plain truth is just about right. Embellishments

I believe the plain truth is just about right.

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needlessly complicate matters. Which means, I think, that telling kids they can accomplish anything they set their minds to is just about exactly the wrong thing to say since it isn’t true and it will inevitably make them question our grasp on reality.

ON THE OTHER HAND…
This morning I saw a young man in his 20s in a t-shirt that said, “If you can’t win, don’t play.” That’s just goofy (unless he was being ironic, in which case it was exceedingly hip). Playing is the point! Stretching, trying, yearning, struggling, slipping, falling, getting back up again—these are the things people do when they’re so young they can’t even walk but by golly they’re gonna learn to walk if they’ve got anything close to the right number of feet and enough balance to stand up for even a few seconds. Lacking that, people learn to pull or push from one place to another if they’ve got any extremities capable of pulling or pushing. Lacking that, rolling is still a possibility.
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People do amazing things by virtue of being people. I’ve seen toys made by Haitian children too poor to buy bread—little wire and tin contraptions that rolled in the dirt, made strictly for the joy of play by kids for whom joy in possessions or any Euro-American standard of achievement was not in the cards, period. I’ve seen and heard works of art by people in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico, Kenya, Tanzania, Thailand, Indonesia and Bolivia who didn’t have a table to put food on; who didn’t have a pair of shoes; who hardly bother to think of themselves as citizens in any way that would seem significant to the sort of person who registers and votes and doesn’t immediately feel afraid when he sees someone in uniform carrying a gun. Humans do wonderful things by virtue of being human. Not everyone; I’m not saying that. Some people are too damaged or self-absorbed to express much in the way of creativity. Some people use up all their strength staying alive one more day and I give them credit for that. I’m just saying I’m amazed at the remarkable displays of human imagination, invention and ingenuity I’ve witnessed from folks with darn little to look forward to when the day breaks. I’m among those who think things like that reflect the creativity of the Creator if you

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know what I mean. Winning is not even on the table in the finest human endeavors. It is at most a subsidiary possibility that has almost nothing to do with the passion and pleasure of doing something worthy for its own sake. If being a star is the only thing you believe will bring meaning to life, well…good luck with that. If you transmit that belief to your child, good luck with that too. There is a guarantee you can make to your child. It’s not, You can do anything you set your mind to. It’s this:

If you think you can, you might. If you think you can’t, you won’t.
Trying is a beautiful thing and most courageous when the risk is real because the outcome is uncertain. Risk stimulates a hormone release that makes the heart beat faster and brings the senses alive. It’s great! I think children should become accustomed to finding out if they can do the things they think they can do. I’m not talking about sprinting across a busy street—that’s no good—but attempting age-appropriate feats of strength, relationship and intellect makes kids resilient, helps them build empathy with others who try and try again,

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enables a healthy assessment of personal capabilities and limits. Trying contributes to character. And to success. People who think they can often find they were right—not always but often enough to keep after it. Backing up a few paragraphs; people learn to walk because they think they can. Part of the reason they think they can walk is that, some time before, they thought they could turn over and they were right. Have you watched that recently? Have you watched an infant figure out how to roll from back to stomach? It’s really something. Go volunteer in the infant room at a church nursery for a few Sunday mornings. It’s wonderful. If there’s a risk-averse adolescent in your life, take him with you. I wouldn’t advise using the experience as an excuse for sermonizing but after a couple of mornings in that environment I bet you’ll find a conversational way to bring it up. If you think you can, you might. That’s just realism talking. It’s a message that calls for assessing a person’s goals. When the odds of success are long, is it worth it? If you come to realize you don’t have what it takes to be a

If you think you can, you might. That’s just realism talking.

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concert violinist, is it worth the effort to keep fiddling around? The answer to that question is personal and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s always the possibility of turning disappointment (I’ll never play Beethoven with the great symphonies) to unanticipated delight (I’m playing Grapelli in a jazz sextet and it’s a whole new thing!).

Anybody who ever tried to repair a damaged relationship knows there are no guarantees, if only because the other person has to be willing too.

A leftover regret from my youth is (or rather was) that I never learned the guitar. In 1997 I decided to lay that to rest one way or another. I borrowed a guitar and practiced half an hour or more almost every night for six weeks. At the end of that stretch I knew I would never be as good a player I wanted to be without giving up things I was unwilling to sacrifice. Here’s the thing: Letting go of the whole guitar thing freed up emotional energy to look for another way to make music—which I’m happy to say I found. Today I make music whenever I want. OK, last thing. Anybody who ever tried to repair a damaged relationship knows there are no guarantees, if only because the other

person has to be willing too. Where trust is broken, where the flame of intimacy is

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extinguished, where friendship has grown cold; all you can do is try. If you think you can, you might. If you want to help a youngster (or a spouse or friend for that matter) unlearn fear or overcome the inertia of perfectionism or restore shattered confidence, all you can do is try.

There are no guarantees but this: If you think you can’t, you won’t.

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Thing Seven “Let Me Tell You What Happened Here”
Everybody’s an expert. OK, everybody’s not really an expert but it’s nice to look wise now and again. It’s just that, sometimes, silence is the best part of wisdom. Like, for example, when you have the choice between explaining something to a child and encouraging him to puzzle it out for himself. Explaining what a kid could figure out puts him on intellectual welfare. You end up communicating, even if you don’t mean to, that you are here to do his thinking for him. Which, to be clear, is not a good thing. Because intellectual welfare, like its analogue in the social sector, seldom raises people much above the subsistence level. Explaining, I think, is one of the principle problems with conventional education (you may notice this theme elsewhere in this book—I don’t mean to harp; I’m just saying we can do better). Explaining has more to do with the teacher than the student. It’s more about telling

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than learning. This strikes me as just about completely upside down. Honestly, it makes very little difference what the teacher knows if she knows how to teach. The best teaching produces students equipped to learn so well that they are all but guaranteed to find out way more than the teacher knows. What’s true in the classroom is also true of lessons learned in living rooms and kitchens at home and in the parks and food courts where kids encounter their peers. When kids face unfamiliar circumstances, when they try and fail in relationships, as they certainly will, adults need to engage them with more than an explanation of how things work and where they went wrong. We fail them as teachers if we don’t respect them as learners. Exploring is how people learn. The explorer uses questions to boost the learner’s position; the explainer uses statements to maintain his own. The language of expertise is, “Let me tell you something.” The language of exploring is, “Let me ask you something.”

We fail them as teachers if we don’t respect them as learners.

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Let’s say, for example, a kid makes an error in judgment that causes her to return home two hours later than expected. The explorer takes a deep breath, thanks God his daughter is safe and begins asking questions. The explainer, on the other hand, takes a deep breath, thanks God his daughter is safe, and then proceeds to kill her; to smother her under a mountain of explanations about where she went wrong; hammering her with a catalogue of ways she is irresponsible and ill-suited for life on this planet. “What do you think happened here?” is exploring, assuming it’s a sincere question and not a trap. An honest and complete answer to this question gets two people well down the road of understanding each other. The beauty of exploring is it doesn’t matter whether the outcome of the original action was positive, negative or neutral. There’s always something to be learned by exploring.

Whether you’re figuring out how to repeat a success or avoid repeating a failure, exploring is just plain better than explaining.

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• “I’m confused; walk me through the steps so I can understand.” • “Tell me how you decided to approach the problem.” • “How did you come up with that idea?” • “How did you figure out your first approach wasn’t working?” • “What surprises did you encounter along the way?” • “What did you learn from your experience?” • “Would you do it again the same way?” • “What would you change?” • “Did you ever experience anything like that before?” When a child retraces her steps she sees how one thing led to another, where she chose wisely and where she went wrong. She makes connections between one thing and another that will enable her to succeed over and over and keep her from falling in the same hole twice.

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When she gets good at it, exploring reveals how things work (whereas explaining mainly reveals what works and what doesn’t, and only from the point of view of the Explainer). Over time, that kind of learning is transformed to wisdom.

But wait, there’s more.
Lots of kids—maybe most—grow up convinced that others have magical powers of understanding.14 They get this conviction from the way people just seem to know things. An uncle listens to a car idling and says, “She’s running a little rich; I’d adjust that.” How does he know that? A family friend bakes consistently perfect pies. What’s her secret? A child who learns to explore rather than waiting for an explanation learns to ask questions that yield valuable information about fuel to air ratios and how refrigerating a pie crust a few minutes before baking solidifies the oils so they brown in place instead of dissolving into the flour. This is useful information, not just about internal combustion engines and flaky pies but about how things work for a reason and how she can tap into that to solve problems and create value.

14

The Boy Who Believed In Magic examines the effects of this kind of magic in the form of a storybook. And the study guide is free! Get them both at thetinycompanycalledme.com

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When a girl figures out how things work, she’s less likely to believe other people possess magic powers that are unattainable to her. That makes her more likely to explore farther, learn more and grow wise. Let’s get practical. There was in chapter two a list of life skills every entry-level adult needs. I think every one of these skills can be learned far more effectively by exploring than it can be taught by explaining. Here are 18 examples. The Explainer Says
• Timeliness • Decision-Making It will take you 20 minutes to get from here to there. Here are your choices. I’ll tell you what I would choose. You knew that was your responsibility! Go take a bath. You stink.

The Explorer Says
What time do you think you’ll need need to leave to be on time? How do you see the options? How do you think your choice will affect your priorities? How did you understand our agreement? What have you done since your last bath? Because, no offense, but you don’t exactly smell fresh.

• Responsibility • Cleanliness

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The Explainer Says
• Godliness You know every time you talk back to me you make Baby Jesus cry. I have some bad news for you, honey: If you mess up, you’re going to Hell.

The Explorer Says
I want to talk with you about this Bible verse: It says, “Children, do what your parents tell you.” What do you think that means? I have some good news for you: “God didn’t go to all the Trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.”15 Do you think it would be fair if we always did only what I want to do? Let’s talk about what that means when we have to choose between two things because we can’t do both. Do you think it’s better or worse when I listen to you? Let’s talk about how that works when you listen to me too.

• Negotiation

You can’t always have your way.

• Listening

You need to learn to listen.

15

The Gospel of John, chapter three, verse 17, The Message Bible

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The Explainer Says
• Empathy You tell Tommy you’re sorry right now. Cut out that racket! It’s not that big a deal. You stop that crying. People are looking at you. • Basic Logic + Discernment

The Explorer Says
Did you hurt Tommy? How do you know? Would you like it if he did that to you? I’m glad you’re excited but I want you to use an indoor voice. It’s OK that you’re upset but you have to cry softly.

OK, this one doesn’t lend itself to a simple comparison. Learning the basics of logic and discernment involves learning to ask good questions about everything. Here are the three best questions I know—and they fit just about anywhere: What? What happened here? What do you want? What’s the big deal? So What? So what do you think that means? What difference would that make? Now What? Now what do you need to do? Now what do you know that you didn’t know before? Now what does that change?

• Basic Navigation

I’ll draw you a map—aw heck, why don’t I just lead you there?

Get on the computer and go to www.Mapquest.com.

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The Explainer Says
• Basic Nutrition + Food Preparation

The Explorer Says

Here’s an ongoing dialogue and workshop series between you and your child that, at the very least, could save him from gaining the Freshman 20 when he leaves your home. Ask your child questions about nutritional values or clean food-preparation surfaces and withhold food until he brings back an answer. Just kidding. But seriously, withhold food from time to time so he’ll learn to appreciate you. Just kidding. But seriously, start the training early enough in life and your child could provide welcome companionship and help in the kitchen. Everyone needs to know how to clean a bathroom and do his own laundry without shrinking the cotton and wool and turning all the whites pink. Everyone needs to know from experience what it takes to iron a shirt without scorching it (and to be informed by that knowledge before purchasing high-maintenance clothing). I recommend starting early training on small tasks and working up to things that plug up or plug in. How can I call him back if you didn’t get his number? Let’s make a list of information you need to give or get when you talk on the phone.

• Basic Household Skills

• Basic Phone Skills • Basic Computer Skills

This is on the list only to acknowledge that anyone growing up on the grid will need basic computer skills. This doesn’t mean you have to buy a computer for everyone in your family. It just means the jobs that pay a living wage in your child’s future assume a foundational level of computer competence. Act accordingly.

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The Explainer Says
• Basic Physical Fitness + Health Care • Elementary Personal Finance You’re a fat, pasty slob. Turn off that computer and go get some exercise.

The Explorer Says
Come walk with me. Seriously; it will do us both some good. Walk with me; we’ll leave in five minutes and be back in a half hour.

To teach your child to balance a checkbook, give her a checkbook (not a bank account, necessarily) and show her how it works. Teach her to budget money by helping her develop a budget worksheet that corresponds to her access to money. Teach her what money costs by tying her discretionary allowance to performing tasks that benefit your family (which is to say, don’t give her spending money just for being alive; give her spending money for creating value so she sees the connection between work and income). This could mean any number of things. Here’s what I mean: Words have meaning to the one who speaks them and the one who hears them. After the words are spoken it is the responsibility of the speaker and the hearer to talk back and forth until they both know they mean the same thing—even if it’s a disagreeable thing. People learn this only by doing it and there is no better place to learn it than home. If I ever hear that word come out of your mouth I’ll scrape your tongue with a steel brush. And wipe that look off your face! So, is what you’re feeling more angry or frustrated? OK; is it more frustrated or boxed in? More boxed in or trapped? More trapped or hopeless? More hopeless or worn out?

• Practical Language Skills

• Emotional Vocabulary

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So there’s the homework: 18 skills to help your child learn through exploring instead of explaining.16 That’s just one skill a year if you’re pregnant now. If your child already has one foot out the door, pick a couple of skills you think are important to work on and see how much ground you can cover without driving each other crazy.

There’s a bonus:
Exploring with the young rather than explaining things for them turns teachers into learners. Asking good questions and listening carefully reveals what a child knows and what he doesn’t know. Exploration exposes blank spots and mistakes and shows us where to focus attention. Which leads to this unconditional guarantee: When the instructor becomes a student of the student, everyone learns.

16

There are more tips on understanding and teaching these skills in Raising Adults: thetinycompanycalledme.com

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Thing Eight “That’s Not How You Do It”
And another thing! Who said there’s only one way to get from Point A to Point B (and it’s your way)? Who said the only way to fold towels is the way your mother folded them, which is the way her mother and her mother’s mother folded towels for as long as anybody can remember; probably back to the time there were no towels and people just stepped out of the river and air-dried? Whoa, whoa, wait just a cotton pickin’ minute! Are you telling me a child should go against centuries of tradition and just make it up? Just fold towels any which way? Well I’m sorry but that is not the way things work in the world’s longest surviving democracy. We vote on many things, my friend. We do not vote on towels or the folding thereof. Have I made myself clear? I should think so; thank you very much.

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In fact, here, give me the towels and I’ll fold them myself until such time as you show proper respect and due diligence in the whole towel and linen area. If you don’t mind I think I could use a few minutes to fold in peace. Thank you. Very much. You know, I can see how it’s better if the towels fit in the space where they live when not on active duty. But—and maybe this is just me—they’re towels. This is not about securing democracy. I’m thinking we could use something like proportional response in the whole towel and linen area.

Ditto the trip across town and, should you be fortunate enough to enjoy the luxury, the dishwasher load-in.
“Get over, get over! Oh, you missed the turn, son. You have to get over sooner or you’ll miss it every time. But that’s OK; you’re new at this. You’ll get it down with practice.” With that the Dad glances at his watch and lifts his right foot off the imaginary brake on the passenger side where he’s riding today. This dad is a pro. His son is lucky to have him. That’s why he is taken completely by surprise when his son says, “I don’t go that way.” “Excuse me?” the older man says in carefully measured syllables.

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“I don’t go that way,” the boy repeats. “I take Magnolia.” His father is incredulous. “But…it’s longer,” he says, something foreboding in the way he elongates the last word. “I know,” the boy says, missing the point entirely. “Magnolia’s prettier; not as busy. I’m not sure it’s not faster when traffic’s heavy on Baseline.” His father’s ears are ringing. Did he say prettier? Taking a deep breath, what he says is, “It’s good to get comfortable in heavy traffic; you know, get used to it. You may have to drive up in Capital City. You can’t just stop in traffic in Capital City, lemme tell you. You have to be fluid; confident; you have to roll with it. I just think you should learn to move that way here in Springfield; then you’ll know.” “Are you saying I can go up to Capital City?” the boy asks. “Nooo, not in my car you can’t,” Pops replies. “You have to learn to swim before you fly.” “I guess,” the young driver says.

His father’s ears are ringing. Did the boy really say prettier?

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The old man presses: “What do you mean you’re not sure Magnolia’s not faster?” “In heavy traffic, I mean,” the boy says. The experienced one chooses his words carefully. “Driving is more or less a science, son. You can’t just guess. It’s either faster or it isn’t. When you’re on your way to the hospital that can make all the difference. Do you see what I’m saying? Do you see that, if Magnolia was faster I would take Magnolia, but I know it isn’t? Do you see the flaw here?” The boy stifles a smile. “I think so. Anyway, the hospital is in the other direction and it’s what? A couple of minutes one way or the other where we’re going? I just like it better.” A long silence ensues while the older man thinks but wisely does not say, I don’t know who you are…my own son and I don’t know who you are… Don’t even get me started on loading dishwashers. Do you see that, if Magnolia was faster I would take Magnolia, but I know it isn’t? Do you see the flaw here?”

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And what do you think kids hear when they read between the lines? I respect you? I value your input? I appreciate your help? Don’t kid yourself. Children recognize this for what it is. Do I really have to spell it out? All right: It’s Control. C.O.N.T.R.O.L.

Con•trol Freak, noun Somebody who feels an excessive need to exert control over people and over his own life (slang)
There’s an awful lot of bad blood between parents and their adult children over control. What woman looks forward to having her mother visit if she’s going to unilaterally rearrange her kitchen? Or pull the water glasses out of her cabinet and rewash them? And none of this as a gesture of pitching in but unbidden; coming in and just taking over! Throw in a barb like, say…I don’t see how you can stand to drink from those and most young women would agree the deed rises to the level of a hostile act. They’re not dirty Mom; they’re spotted. Its just water. What’s your problem? Ditto the young man whose father’s assessment of his home office is not Congratulations on keeping overhead low! but something more along the lines of I don’t know how you get

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anything done in there. How old is that computer? You’re not still on a dial up connection are you? How often do those planes fly over? You don’t listen to that music all day… You do? How do you concentrate? Is that how you dress for work? This kind of thing would be difficult to take in any event but the truth is in most cases there’s a history that goes back to childhood and has to do with towels or dishwashing or navigating from Point A to Point B or any of a hundred things that hardly matter at all. Most of the time the details of these new episodes are as inconsequential as the ones from childhood. So why for heaven’s sake do we allow it to continue? Well, habit for one thing. It’s not easy to give up the expert’s role (even when we’re no longer experts—even if we never were).

And there’s also that control thing.
I’ve seen parents exercise what I thought was excessive or intrusive control over their children when they—the parents—seemed to be losing control of their own lives. Divorce will do it, as will pressure on the job, loss of a parent, sickness or relational conflict. I’ve seen parents panic when it dawned on them that their kids were high school seniors

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and still a long way from ready for the real world (there’s that bitter phrase again). I’ve seen those parents crack down on really good kids, imposing curfews where there had been none, demanding higher grades at school when that had never been at issue, turning screws I didn’t think needed turning because they were frightened. That’s one kind of control. It’s fear-based and it drives people to crazy, unnecessary acts that insult and alienate their high-functioning children. I’ve also seen parents gripped by the mania to control children who were simply doing their job, which is to say growing up. I suppose that’s fear of a more generalized sort—a dread not so much of sending a child into the world unprepared as being unprepared to send a child into the world. In any case trying to control things that don’t much matter is a poor tactic if our longterm goal includes raising people who will want to come back to our homes when they are

...a dread not so much of sending a child into the world unprepared as being unprepared to send a child into the world.

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adults and want us to come into their homes because we have become such good friends. Look, if there really is just one right way to fold a towel, make a bed, load a dishwasher or get from Point A to Point B, then it’s certainly every parent’s responsibility to train his child until he can perform the task exactly that way. But if there’s more than one way to accomplish a task, it’s a different ball game. Because, when an adolescent hears the words, “That’s not how you do it,” she thinks, “No; that’s not how you do it,” and the battle of wills is on. But to what end I don’t know. Yes, of course, we have to get from Point A to Point B safely. But I think the adult’s real task has less to do with which streets we take and more to do training his child in problem solving. I mean, what if your child invented a revolutionary way to fold towels or discovered a hidden route across town that reduced traffic gridlock and enhanced the lives of millions of commuters, all because you were open to more than one way of doing things? People would point and whisper reverently, “That’s her father.” You would be justifiably famous.

when an adolescent hears the words, “That’s not how you do it,” she thinks, “No; that’s not how you do it,”

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Or, perhaps more plausibly, what if your son’s route took five more minutes and you spent that time talking about life? And what if he loaded the dishwasher so inefficiently that some things wouldn’t fit, so you said, “You wash, I’ll dry” and stood there together for five minutes hand washing the leftover pots and pans and telling jokes and flicking water at each other and then ran a less than perfect load through the wash? How bad could that be?

If it really matters, then learn to train for it. If it doesn’t matter, why get bossy about meaningless details? Why not train for the desired outcome (A to B, clean dishes, towels neatly arranged behind a cabinet door that closes) and leave room for creativity in the process?
Seriously, why not?

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Thing Nine “Don’t Make Me Turn This Car Around”
Anybody who’s glared into the rear view mirror and growled “Don’t make me turn this car around” knows what a failure of imagination that is. For starters, it’s a lame attempt at shifting blame. It’s certainly less offensive than the churlishly violent “She made me hit her” excuse. But it’s about as obvious. Are the kids really supposed to believe they’ve made you turn the car around? Against your will? The fully enfranchised adult? Who do you think you’re kidding? Even young children see this for what it is: It’s bluffing. her trembling hands. “No you won’t,” the villain says, inching forward. And we know he’s right because it’s only the Second Act. This show has a lot of merchandise to sell before they try to get us to reenlist at the top of the hour with something even grittier and more street smart. We are as

It’s bluffing.

“Don’t come any closer or I’ll shoot,” the embattled TV heroine warns, the gun shaky in

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surprised as the villain if she pulls the trigger. But not for long. We know he’s not dead. We recognize this as a writer’s trick. They’re trying to throw us so they can surprise us again later. We’re not fooled. We may have been born at night, but we weren’t born last night. We pretty much know a bluff when we see it. It’s something we learned as children, from adults who threatened to turn the car around. Adults who try to bluff children into submission really haven’t thought through the whole threat thing in general. By the time you resort to threats (especially if everyone knows you’re bluffing) you’ve turned parenting into a zero sum game. And you’ve already lost. A Zero-sum game is an exchange with one clear winner and one clear loser and nothing between—like a hand of winner-takes-all poker. In families, zero-sum games are built on the premise that there’s not enough to go around. Not enough freedom, not enough money, not enough positive esteem, emotional space, time, fun, not enough room in this house for both of us. So when one person wins (a little self-esteem boost, more freedom, money, prestige, influence, opportunity, whatever) the other loses a

you’ve already lost.

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corresponding amount. Zero-sum games are not what you’d call friendly. I bring this up because understanding a little Game Theory is useful in resolving family conflicts. It’s how we know there really just four possible ways to settle competing interests around the household. And here they are: Win-Win is the outcome in which, as you can guess by the name, everyone ends up happy because nobody has to lose. This is the kind of outcome one expects from a friendly game of golf or one of those outmoded ceremonial wars where the whole point is to shake a few spears, stir up a little dust, make some idle threats and still be home in time for dinner. These are face-saving contests in which everybody gets credit for showing up and no one has to give up the dream of dying in his own bed at a ripe old age. In theory, Win-Win should rule the day in families since blood is thicker than water and we’re all in this together and home is where the heart is and however many greeting card sentiments you care to string together. This, sadly, is not the case. Win-Lose is the outcome in which the one person defeats the other person soundly and we hope without loss of life or property. Running the table in a game of billiards is a Win-

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Lose. Drive-by shootings, assassinations, first strikes and high-yield nuclear devices are meant to produce a Win-Lose. The brief tussle between Butch Cassidy and Harvey Logan where Butch ends the fight by kicking the dimwitted Harvey in the groin is a classic screen version of Win-Lose (Sorry if you’re the last remaining English-speaking person who hasn’t seen Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—but you’ve been meaning to rent it—and I ruined the scene for you. It doesn’t matter; Harvey ends up being elected governor of Wyoming and leading a happy life even though he walks with a permanent limp and Butch ends up dead in Bolivia— Oops! I did it again). Lose-Win is the opposite of Win-Lose. Players must consider the possibility of ending the day more like Harvey Logan (who wasn’t actually elected governor) than Butch Cassidy. In family-based contests of will (assuming no one is actually killed in the conflict) Lose-Win often gives way to years (years!) of passive aggressive payback. Lose-Lose describes what Secretary of State Robert McNamara called mutual assured destruction—"the capability to destroy the aggressor as a viable society, even after a well planned and executed surprise attack on our forces." People who consciously choose Lose-

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Lose are so angry they’re willing to endure any amount of punishment to make sure the other person loses. Substance abuse has been known to express Lose-Lose in family systems; so has retaliatory pregnancy. Nobody wins at Lose–Lose. I guess that goes without saying. So the possible outcomes are:

• Win-Win (we both win) • Win-Lose (I win and you lose) • Lose-Win (I lose and you win) • Lose-Lose (we both lose)
Can you see how this applies to resolving family conflicts? In the years I spent as a youth worker I applied this model to help me assess just how bad things were in family clashes. In most cases it was pretty easy to get family members on the same page. I mean they were mad all right, but I haven’t seen many people committed to a policy of Mutual Assured Destruction with their loved ones. Once we cool down a bit most of us, if we can avoid Lose-Win (I loseyou win), are willing to give up our fantasies of Win-Lose (I win-you lose). And honestly we’d be just as happy to figure out a Win-Win solution since we are after all family.

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A couple of times in two decades I encountered adolescents who were so angry that winning was less important than seeing their parents lose. When I pressed them to be sure I understood, they said, yes, I’d heard them right if I thought I heard them say Win-Win was not OK with them because they really wanted their parents to lose. So, if they couldn’t score an outright Win-Lose against their parents, they would rather take Lose-Lose than Win-Win.

That’s pretty angry.
For what it’s worth, once those kids were able to express themselves clearly they got feedback from their parents that made them believe they were heard and understood. With a bit of mediation we found Win-Win solutions. I bring all this up because so many family conflicts start out as squabbles about one inconsequential thing or another then escalate suddenly when someone—often a parent— delivers an ultimatum out of proportion to the subject. It happens in moment of frustration or anger and it raises a meaningless border dispute to the level of an invasion. If you two don’t shut up and get in the car right now we’re not going!

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Really? You’re going back in the house where you already declared you were too hot and tired to cook tonight? So you can…what? Send everyone to bed without supper? If that’s really what you intend and the situation warrants the action, I say do it. But if your reaction amounts to little more than an adult tantrum, I’d think twice before I let my low blood sugar talk me into an even less desirable outcome than whatever it was the young’uns did to set me off.

This is why God gave us Time Outs.
Time Out Everybody! Is this something we need to sort out right now or can we go get some dinner and figure it out in air-conditioned comfort? Because I’m tired and hungry and I would sure vote for dinner…or I could just bite your heads off and eat your brains! If you’re grinning when you say that, surely someone in the family will come to your aid —pointing out that, were you counting on the brains of your children for nourishment, it’s clear that you would starve. Part of the job is figuring out how to give kids room to grow and differentiate themselves from the rest of the family without allowing anybody to run roughshod over anybody else in the household. The journey from child to adult, from dependent to interdependent, involves

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testing boundaries, pressing limits, pushing the envelop and every other metaphor you can think of that leads to border disputes between parent and child (and, it almost goes without saying, between siblings). How could it be otherwise? Bluffing and threatening drives that process underground where it’s difficult to see, let alone influence. When border conflicts light up, the mature party (that would be you) bears responsibility to redefine the limits without resorting to a full lockdown unless that is absolutely necessary. That may mean affirming the existing boundaries. It may mean redrawing the lines—usually by expanding them appropriately but it’s been known to go the other way.

Trick One is looking for the Win-Win and teaching your children to do the same.
Most of us have a little mean streak that’s perfectly willing to accept Win-Lose even when we know how much we’d hate being on the Lose-Win side of the deal. Hint: Win-Win is difficult to achieve looking the combatants in the rear view mirror.

Trick Two is creating a consequential environment that makes sense to your child.

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Begin with the consequences of being trustworthy, loyal, brave and true: Rewards like trust, freedom, admiration, access to greater resources, increased responsibility. It’s a shame when a child (or an adult for that matter) performs admirably and doesn’t enjoy these benefits. Seeking Win-Win together has something to do with everybody seeing to it that everybody else gets credit when credit is due. Of course Win-Win is difficult to achieve when someone is just plain wrong. Creating a consequential environment for your child means that failing to live up to his promises (or trying to work the system to unfair advantage) is tied to natural and reasonable consequences. Natural consequences flow directly from behavior. If your growing boy blows his discretionary budget on expensive shoes he may find the natural consequence of spending all the money is not being able to afford movies and pizza for a while. Nothing wrong with that if that’s his preference. There is something wrong with bailing him out with a fresh infusion of cash. The way kids learn the value of money and the labor that produces money is by finding out what they can buy with money and what they can’t have without it.

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The natural consequence of staying up late is fatigue. It doesn’t make sense for the rest of the family to tiptoe around a person who is exhausted because he blew off a good night’s sleep to play a video game. Reasonable consequences are tied as nearly as possible to behavior. Since there are no natural consequences for keeping the family waiting, if it’s a pattern and your youngster doesn’t respond to reason and mutual respect, you may have to invent something. Different things work with different kids. Subtracting minutes from TV viewing, recreational computer use or the weekend curfew may do the trick. Assigning extra duty for hauling younger siblings or running family errands may do it. The important thing in defining reasonable consequences is making them both relevant and reasonable—cutting off fingers to discourage public nose picking may be relevant but it fails the test of reasonableness. If you doubt the usefulness of reasonable consequences, consider how your state government treats chronic speeders. There are no natural consequences to driving too fast (dangers, yes, but no inevitable consequences). To manage risk, the state imposes stiff and

Different things work with different kids.

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escalating penalties on repeat offenders. I’ve known quite a few speeders; between the pain of fines, rising insurance premiums and the threat of having their license pulled, they eventually get the point. Which brings us full circle to Don’t make me turn this car around! At the risk repeating the chorus of this song one too many times, this whole thing stands or falls on respect—extended by the adult and returned by the child in a generous, life giving exchange. For the most part I think our children are pretty accurate mirrors Allowing for bad hair days (heck, I’ve had bad hair years) and the possibility that something seriously wrong in the child’s life may be revealed by negative patterns (and not merely his own bad hair day)—I think our kids’ attitudes and behavior tend to reflect our own. You know: Give respect, get respect. So when I see the kind of craziness in the back seat that makes me want to slam on the brakes and yell Don’t make me turn this car around! I have to consider the possibility that I started it.

Be that as it may, I’m the big person in the car. So it’s my responsibility to address the problem with dignity and respect and an unwavering commitment to Win-win.
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Thing Ten “I Give Up”
It’s the golden hour in the suburbs. But all is not well. Gordon waits impatiently inside the front door of his home. He looks prosperous in linen slacks and sweater of sleek merino wool. But he does not feel whole. Clare enters from the kitchen; looks at her watch, then into the mirror between the ornamental coat hooks. She frowns faintly; looks back at her watch. “Does he think we have nothing better to do than wait for him?” Clare demands. “You know I could use a little help with this. I don't know why I always have to be the one who gets him in line.” Gordon looks at Clare dispassionately and takes a deep breath. She flinches when he shouts: “SPENSER! Get down here; we're waiting!” He waits a beat, then barks: “I'm talking to you!” Spenser shouts from upstairs. “I heard you! I'll be down in a minute!”

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Gordon looks at his watch: “That kid is so inconsiderate...”
“And disrespectful,” Clare adds. “...If I tried half the stunts he pulls, my old man would've decked me,” Gordon says. Clare shoots him a look. “Well, that's not likely to happen around here, is it.” Gordon yells upstairs again. “SPENSER!” Turns back to Clare, “What's your point?” “You don't spend any time with him. What do you expect?” she says. “I expect civility, Clare...” He is interrupted by Spenser’s rapid descent from the second floor.” Dad and Mom both look at their watches. “Do I have to go?” Spenser demands. Both parents begin to speak and he blurts, “Why! Why do I have to go? This is so lame! Clare cuts in: “Gordon!” Gordon has had it. “Enough, Spenser! Alright?” Spenser does that thing with his shoulders that ends with his head rolling back and to the right like it might fall off. “Yes,” Gordon is emphatic; “you do have to go...” Clare chimes in: “You most certainly do.”

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Gordon’s left eye twitches the way it does when he quarrels with Clare. “Fine,” Spenser says, “but I'm not staying. If I have to go then Hal is picking me up there...” Clare lights up: “What! Gordon! How did Hal get into this? You're doing nothing of the kind.” “Yes I am Mother. I'm helping Hal install his home theater.” Clare is at full boil now. “You are not! You're staying with us and then you're coming back to do your homework.”

“Mother! Give me a break! I'll do it tonight!”
“When! When tonight! This is tonight! Gordon, deal with this...” She trails off muttering as she turns away. Spenser turns to his dad but Gordon cuts him off. “Spenser! It's settled. You've got to deal with school. No one...” Spenser interrupts: “I'll do it!”

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Now Gordon is boiling. “Don't you yell at me, Spenser! You made your bed, my friend. Don't expect us to feel sorry for you.” Spenser is shrill: “I can't believe this! I'm living in a damn prison!” Gordon stiffens. “Is that what you think! Huh? “Cuz if that's what you think, you can get used to some solitary confinement. You are grounded, my friend. For the rest of the month. And when we get back tonight I want to see some homework. If it's prison you want…” Spenser wheels around and heads back up the stairs, muttering. “Like I care.”

Gordon watches as Spenser disappears at the top of the steps.“ I give up,” he says. “I just give up.”
Clare glares at him. “Terrific. He's grounded, which means I'm grounded. That's just great, Gordon.” She looks at her watch and moves toward the door. “I feel a whole lot like going to church now.” Gordon picks a Bible off the stand below the mirror between the ornamental coat hooks. “Just…shut up, Clare,” he says and they exit in the falling dark.

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It sucks to be Gordon. And it sucks to be Clare. Which makes a trifecta because it sucks to be Spenser too. It was never supposed to be like this. When Spenser was three months old and breast feeding and Clare was wondering if she really would go back to work and Gordon could barely concentrate at the office because he just wanted to be home where it

It was never supposed to be like this.

was safe…who would have thought it could come to this? Well, it does come to this…in the nicest families. Just to be clear, I’m not talking about the off-hand Whatever…You win…Don’t come crying to me…I give up responses people resort to when they’re tired or distracted. I’m also not excusing that. Add my name to the list of those who

think that sort of careless language is likely to bite you in the hiney sooner or later (probably sooner). To borrow a vignette from an acquaintance: If I tell my daughter three times to go take a bath, and she keeps ignoring me, and I’m watching my favorite TV show and I’m too lazy to get up and do something about it, so I roll my eyes and say “whatever”

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or “I give up,” I’m completely abdicating my authority and giving her license to ignore/disobey me and she’s going to learn very soon that she can just do whatever she wants. So later when I tell her she CAN’T get her belly button pierced, she’s going to do it anyway, assuming I’ll just say “whatever.” Other than the fact that I can’t imagine why her daughter can’t get her belly button pierced later—unless by later she means later that same night, in which case I wholehearted agree that nobody wants to pierce an unwashed navel—other than that, I see exactly where she’s coming from.

Sometimes it really is easier to give up (or at least give in).
But this is not helpful language if it leaves children confused about the difference between negotiation and nagging, browbeating, ignoring and other forms of family rudeness. Giving in doesn’t contribute to the goal of raising adults. But that’s not what this is about. This is about the feeling parents get that they don’t have what it takes; that it may not be worth it to go on.

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I’m tired. I’m discouraged. I’m angry. I’m afraid: These are declarations—maybe even confessions—about the state of things. People get there, don’t they? I do. Smart, capable, loving people sometimes reach the point where their strength is not sufficient for the day. Resourceful people run out of ideas. Even-tempered people feel angry and frightened. It happens. They say: I’m frustrated. I’m confused. I don’t know which way is up. I’m, I’m…flummoxed.

Giving in doesn’t contribute to the goal of raising adults.

Here’s the thing: These heartfelt statements are open to revision the next morning, the next week, a month from now. Whether they feel like it or not, these are temporary conditions. When a parent is that honest, no matter how empty she feels or how badly she may have failed, she’s probably not far from finding out there’s room for do-overs. And what a beautiful thing that is. I’ve probably said enough in these pages to give the impression I’m one of those people who believes there’s a Creator who made humankind in his image and loves us endlessly. If I haven’t been clear about that, well there it is.

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I readily admit I’m the kind of Christian who doesn’t much like calling myself a Christian because there’s so much baggage trailing behind that name for my friends and neighbors.
Besides which I wouldn’t want anyone to think there’s anything settled about my faith. I’m putting my life together a day at a time as I have been for a long time and I keep finding out things I didn’t know and finding that some things I thought I knew aren’t quite as they appeared. So, no, there’s nothing settled about my faith. Except this one thing: it’s settled for me that I need today what I always needed and always expect to need. The best way I know to describe that without going all churchy on you is to say that I need the mercy and grace from God that Jesus is famous for. That’s a longish story and not what this book is about, so I’ll stop right there except for one more thought, which I’ll get to in a moment. If you wish I were clearer about what I mean, send me an email with your phone number and I’ll call you back as soon as possible for a conversation on my nickel (www.thetinycompanycalledme.com).

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Now, that one more thought about my faith is this: One of my favorite things about trusting God the way I do is the happy conviction that do-overs are possible right up to the last minute. The parent, or child, who wishes she had another shot at getting it right can get that other shot. Not the same way, certainly, but starting from where she is now, she can do her best to make amends for past wrongs and pick up her half of the relationship again. And maybe— later if not right away—the person she wronged will pick up the other side and forgive her and off they’ll go again. I don’t think that’s wishful thinking. I think that’s mercy and think it’s grace and I think between humans it’s mainly exchanged by people who both know how much they need mercy and grace and how very fortunate they are to receive it. That’s why these confessions of pain and confusion and failure in relationships are hopeful signs to me. Because even at my wits end, I don’t think my heavenly parent ever gives up on me—ever gives up on us. But sometimes people do and if feels catastrophic when it happens.

The parent, or child, who wishes she had another shot at getting it right can get that other shot.

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I give up has a permanent ring to it that shocks and terrifies children when they hear it. Giving up sounds like abandonment, like the end of hope, like the death of the future.
If your child believes you’ve given up on him, there’s a scary chance he’ll give up too. But not before he tests you to see if it’s true. I give up sounds so unbelievable to a kid that he’s likely to do something provocative to see if that’s really what he heard. It’s almost a cliché but I think we see it all the time from adopted kids who reach a point where the impact of feeling abandoned by their birth parents far outweighs the warmth of being chosen by their mom and dad. So, consciously or not, they test their parents to see if abandonment is still on the table. Of course it’s crazy but, despite the years of care and nurture and love given and received, the kid wonders if there’s anything he could do that would be bad enough to get him left on the doorstep again. These are trying times… In a somewhat different way, the kid who believes he made his mom or dad give up on him will test his work to see if he’s right—not because he wants to be right but because he’s afraid he is.

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I hope your kid never believes you’ve given up, but if he does and if you sense he’s testing you to find out just how bad it really is, that’s exactly the time to call for help. It’s exactly the time to call your boss and say you’ll be out for a couple of days and call the school and say

These are trying times.

your son has a family emergency and then get him in the car and drive away together and keep driving after it’s dark; drive until you find something to say between you that is a true expression of where you’re at with each other. And then drive home to sleep in your own bed having made the promise that you will talk with someone you both trust about what to do next. Then do that when you get up the next day. At least make the call and set up the meeting. Show your child—who probably thinks your job and his performance at school are more important to you than anything— show him he’s wrong. Show him you haven’t given up and won’t give up, even if you feel like it; even if you thought about; even if you had one foot out the door; even if you left for a little while—let him know you’re here, now, and wondering what it will take for the two of you to get do-overs with each other.

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Because, no matter what it costs in time and money and humiliation and admitting where you were wrong and making amends and starting over—

no matter what it costs, giving up is the one thing you cannot and must not do.

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The Last Word | 30 Days or Your Money Back 1. Do You Have Your Jacket-Homework-Gym-Bag-Back-Pack-Ticket-Keys? 2. What Were You Thinking! 3. Because I Said So 4. You Are Such a Pretty Little Thing 5. I’m Proud of You! 6. You Can Do Anything You Set Your Mind To. 7. Let Me Tell You What Happened Here 8. That’s Not How You Do It! 9. Don’t Make Me Turn This Car Around. 10. I Give Up.
These are ten things I hope you’ll never say to your kids. Because they are the absolute worst things you can say? Of course not. What qualifies them for the list is:

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1) we hear them all the time and 2) they are relationally toxic despite the fact that 3) they sound so plausible.
These ten things are not really deal-breakers—at least not in the near term. We’re not talking about neglect or child-endangerment, physical or sexual abuse. Nothing on the list will get you arrested. In fact, I'm not sure any of these would merit a raised eyebrow from your mom. Which is precisely the problem: It’s not that we were raised by wolves; but that we were raised by amateurs. We heard all these things from the good-hearted people who brought us into the world and brought us up. They meant us no harm but look what happened. So many of us are broken in pretty much the same places as our parents. In the process of bringing many of their best traits into our adult years we also brought some of their worst—including the habit of saying things our children would be better off never hearing. It’s not supposed to be like that and it doesn’t have to be like that.

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So, in the spirit of free enterprise (and to stimulate whatever gland it is that makes people salivate at the thought of getting something for nothing) I want to offer you a 30-Day Money Back Guarantee. Don’t say the ten things we should never say to kids for 30 Days and I promise you'll see a dramatic difference in your relationship. If you don’t see a dramatic difference, I’ll give you back the cover price of the book. No kidding. I'm not asking you to do anything new. I'm asking you to hold your tongue and whatever body language you employ in conveying these ten messages. And I’m guaranteeing results. Right? I’m not guaranteeing miracles—that’s not my department. So if you take me up on it, don't anticipate an overnight response. I am promising significant results. 30 days is enough to set a new pattern. Especially when the pattern is mainly not doing something you used to do—or, in this case, not saying things you used to say. When you look at it that way, 30 days is nothing. I mean it's not like trying to start exercising or cutting back on coffee. We're talking about something you really want to do

30-Day Money Back Guarantee

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here, right? Something you have a fighting chance at; something you’ll need to do only once and it will stick for the rest of your life. OK, you’re smart enough to know that what I’m not saying may be as significant than what I’m saying. And what I 'm not saying is, if you’re in the habit of treating children…how to say this diplomatically…like people treat children, it may be harder to stop doing that for a month than it would be to start doing ten brand new things where no habits exist. And that is where the rubber meets the proverbial road. The question is: “If you’ve come to believe you’re doing some things that drive your kid nuts, can you find what it takes to stop doing those things? The easy answer is, “Of course; I’d do anything for my kid,” and if that’s your answer, the place to start is deciding to stop saying toxic things for just 30 days. The hard, realistic answer was in Thing Six: If you think you can, you might. If you think you can’t, you won’t. If you’re anything like me (I find myself half-hoping you are and half-hoping you’re not), you may need several restarts on the 30-Day Guarantee. In my case that’s because I’m a

Of course you love your child! Nobody questions that.

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career criminal when it comes to relationships. I mean well except when I mean ill. And when I mean ill, I do things that hurt—or at least don’t help—the people I love. It’s crazy. I’ve found and continue finding that I need a power greater than myself to restore me to sanity. I leave it to you to puzzle that out (with the aforementioned invitation to send an email with your phone number if you’d like to chat. I promise to call you within a year). +++++

If you or your spouse were pregnant right now you would have 18 years, give or take…
…to help your child internalize the reality of cause and effect so he wouldn’t grow up believing in magic. …to help your kid understand the law of unintended consequences and learn to think through whole scenarios instead of acting on impulse. …to teach by example the art of generous, reasonable negotiation instead of selfgratification and artless unilateral action. …to raise a young woman defined by her character and behavior—not her appearance. …to reward the right things and so teach your child to value the right things.

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…to instill a potent blend of realism and idealism so your offspring would attempt important things knowing if you think you can, you might, if you think you can’t, you won’t. …to turn your kid into a problem solver. …to transfer parental authority and responsibility to trustworthy personal responsibility. …to model the surpassing virtue of Win-Win relationships. …to engage your children with stories of mercy and grace and do-overs and so teach them to love and love and love.

Make no mistake. The ten things we should never say to kids are toxic to those outcomes.
So toxic that bit by bit they set our children against us as they come to believe we may be the tiniest bit against them—or in any event not for them. And that, after all, is what children long for: Adults—especially parents—who are wildly, passionately for them; people who treat them beautifully, who don't look down on them because they're young; people they believe will go the distance with them because they’re

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right there with them in the small things, taking them seriously (but not too critically) day after day for as long as they have.

I called this section The Last Word. We both know that’s not true. We both know the last word is up to you. God speed.

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