Archive for the ‘For Educators’ Category

The word “provoke” is usually heard as a bad word… something to avoid.

“Don’t provoke me”.

“One of my students provoked another… and they ended up fighting”.

“It wasn’t my kids fault… they were provoked”.

The truth is, if we want to inspire lasting, meaningful change in the children in our lives… we need to learn how to more intelligently provoke them.

Take our over-confident, seemingly arrogant and entitled children. The ones who talk about achieving more than they actually achieve. The ones who look down at others or disregard rules and authority. The ones who want a lot and make endless demands, with no thought of their roles as children or what’s expected of them.  Ask yourself what might be missing in that child? Think about what quality or feeling might bring that child into a healthier state of mind and lessen, or even extinguish the less attractive, more disruptive qualities of over-confidence, arrogance and entitlement?

It’s humility. And if we want to get them to behave differently and respond to authority and rules differently… and if we want them to work harder, see themselves more honestly and interact more appropriately with others… then we need to be the ones to provoke this humility. True… felt… slightly uncomfortable humility.

And now think about the children who cut themselves. The kids who are clearly struggling with their emotions, feeling overwhelmed and wondering if all the thoughts and emotions they’re keeping to themselves make them “crazy”. Imagine how lonely they must feel in their own minds, how self-conscious, untrusting and how desperate they must be to feel differently from how they do. And now ask yourself what feeling(s) might balance out the panic, anxiety, self-doubt and desperation that’s feeding their self-injurious behavior?

It’s reassurance. It’s calm. It’s acceptance and fearlessness. And if we want to help rid these children of the urgency and isolation that’s compelling them to cut themselves… and if we want them to feel safe enough to talk with us about the thoughts and feelings that are driving them to feel so “crazy”… then we need to provoke in them the feeling of calm. We need to provoke in them the fearlessness to speak openly and freely. And we need to provoke in them the feelings of reassurance and acceptance so that their insecurities and loneliness give way to courage and trust.

And what about our aggressive children? Our bullies? What feeling is missing from them that allows them to be cruel to others? What quality is absent from these children that allows them to cause others physical and emotional harm? And what quality would STOP them from feeling comfortable enough to justify their hurt of others?

It’s compassion. It’s not punishments that will stop the aggressive and bullying behaviors, although punishments and consequences can be a part of the rehabilitation process, it’s compassion that will get these children to be less mean… and more kind.  And we have to provoke this compassion. Somehow, even after they’ve irritated, disappointed and even angered us with their mean-spirited actions, we have to provoke in them the feeling and quality of compassion. We have to provoke in them this quality  which they’re most likely extremely unfamiliar and uncomfortable with… a feeling which they’ve most likely been taught to view as a weakness. We have to somehow find the words and convey the sentiments that will get them to feel bad, even awful, about hurting others. We have to find a way to stir them away from thoughts about themselves and the justifications they have in their minds… and teach them how to think about others. To get them to FEEL the pain that they caused another human. To get them to FEEL the sadness and self-hatred THAT THEY caused another child… because this is the only way to get them to WANT to stop being violent.

As with any behavior, there’s an underlying emotion, or an absence of an emotion, that drives, or allows that behavior. Too often do we, as adults, get caught up in our reactions and needs to visibly do something (like assert our authority with consequences, outrage and punishments).

But when we stop and really reflect on the specific behaviors of our children that are causing us so much pain and confusion… when we deeply think about the nature of learning, and of influencing others… we’ll see that inspiring change in our kids is less about what we DO, and more about how we can make them feel.

Which is why we want to learn the art of provocation. Because if we want our kids to work harder in school, we will need to provoke in them some fear… some genuinely felt anxiety… of the consequences of continued apathy. But we don’t want to end our provocation there. What we want to do is provoke a series of feelings that ends with them feeling the benefits of change. We want to shake our apathetic underperforming children out of their complacency… and into some fear and anxiety of continued failure… to the shame of disappointing themselves and others… to feeling supported and cared about… to excited by the prospects of improved performance… to the pride of growth and accomplishment.

And this path goes with any behavior. First to shake and stir and provoke our kids from whatever state of mind is allowing them to do harm or feel paralyzed… and then, when they’re feeling open, and yes, vulnerable… to provoke in them the feelings or qualities that will allow them to feel motivated to do better and be healthier. Like compassion. Like connection. Like excitement.

But this will only happen if we’re deliberate with our words, purposeful with our decisions, aware of our mannerisms and gestures… and more determined to provoke in them the emotions that will drive healthier behaviors than we are reflexively driven by our own disappointments, desperation and outrage.

Sure, we can continue to feel overwhelmed by all the news reports and statistics illustrating the growing frequency of teen violence, bullying, school failures, suicide and risky behavior… and we can continue to look outside of ourselves and our children for answers… but the simple truth is that emotion does drive behavior, and if we want our kids’ behaviors or performance or moods to change, then we need to get them to feel something other than what they’ve been feeling. Which means quite simply… we need to be better provokers.

 

 

 

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Imagine a timeline spanning history. A straight line.

And now imagine a teenager walking this timeline… passing the various forms of media and technology along the way up to today.

Cliche as it may be, the imagery is simple. Over the years since the advent of the printing press and radio, on to television and through vinyl albums, 8-track tapes, cassettes, cd’s, dvd’s, ipods, 3-D movies, internet, smart-phones and all the latest forums of social media… our teenagers have progressively existed in a world, from the first moments they wake each day, where their minds and hearts are relentlessly bombarded by exhausting stimulation and powerful influences.

Before it all, our children were influenced only by their immediate environments… the trees, the sunshine, their families, day to day survival obligations and the occasional exposure to neighbors and peers in school. Their ego’s, identities and skill-sets influenced only by those closest to them and the natural world around them… mixed gently with their own biological inclinations.

But today is a very different story. Today, our children’s characters are over-exposed to influences that threaten their footing, personalities and well-being every minute of every day… and we’re seeing our children’s immune systems taxed in ways that go far beyond catching the “flu”.

What’s happening to our children is shear exhaustion. Their immune systems are spent, working overtime to manage the relentless stresses and stimulation; their style, language and interests more easily influenced by exploding exposure to pop-culture; and they’re more sensitive and anxious than ever because of the uncertainties of a precarious world they simply can’t avoid hearing about…

And as a result of such over-stimulation and weakened immunities, we’re seeing in our teens:

– Shorter attention-spans from endless media jumping.

– Weakened self-esteems born from comparisons to unnatural standards of beauty.

– False over-confidence… like the characters in videos, television and movies.

– Increased fighting and violence spreading like the flu from media… infiltrating our already impressionable adolescent population.

– “Why bother, what’s the point” attitudes stirred by constant streams of negative world events leading to rises in risky behaviors.

And on and on and on.

But all hope is not lost. The strength of youth remains as available as ever… but only if we can find a way to rebuild our children’s immune systems and remind them that THEY CHOOSE what words, images and messages get inside and behind their defenses.

Somehow we need to teach them how to be near influences, but not be so influenced by them.  We need to coach our children how to listen to music, watch television and movies, look at magazines, hear the news, surf the web, play video games,  and how to witness all the glorifications of violence, superficiality, materialism and unhealthy gender norms… without being defined by what enters their eyes and ears.

Somehow, we need to educate our children how to be entertained by entertainment and informed by newsworthy realities without being overwhelmed by them.

And somehow, we need to reclaim the throne of the most influential influence in our children’s lives (which means putting our own exhaustions aside) while at the same time, cultivating in them the knowledge that their greatest asset is their own sense of self.

At this point, it’s fairly obvious that there’s no real way to protect our children completely from unhealthy or damaging influences, but if we can strengthen our children’s resistances to the powerful forces around them, then they’ll be far better equipped to make the healthy choices we want them to make… from their own consciences, rather than from the collective conscience of an irresponsible, yet wildly entertaining (and occasionally scary) media.

Why?

Maybe just because…

Chemistry + Conditioning + Climate… Minus… Connection = Combustion

Secrets kept inside?  Emotions unexpressed? Over-exposure to violence? Under-exposure to good, kind and beautiful?

Unmet needs.

Arrogant adults too enamored with what they know?… and not humble enough to listen?

Exhausted adults too spent to deeply see… their children?

Maybe it’s not so complicated.

Maybe dark is just dark because it can’t always be light…

And maybe all we can do to lessen the frequency of human-made tragedy is to be better people in our own small worlds.

And if everyone did this… well…

But this suggestion will not be appreciated, because maybe we need the answer to be beyond our reach…

So we can not be held responsible… and we can blame the media… and we can cry for others, but be quietly relieved for ourselves that it was not our fault.

I don’t know… none of us do… no matter our degree or expertise.

But we keep trying to “know”… as if once we knew, such monsters would cease to live to take lives… and such stories would cease to fill our airwaves.

I don’t know… and people like me are expected to know… “experts” of minds and emotions and actions.

I don’t know… though people like me, and people like you, desperately want to know… so that children don’t die.

I don’t know… maybe sometimes monsters just are…

But what I do know, is that if we’re not the monsters, then we should be the hero’s… like the ones who already are… even if only in our small worlds.

I’m sorry small towns… who shouldn’t be so known…

I’ll do better.

When scary thoughts get planted in our heads, we want to look away from them… because they’re scary.

But like gravity, these scary thoughts have a way of methodically and irrepressibly pulling our attention towards them… gnawing at us and whisperingly calling to us until the seeds of self-doubt and fear begin to move us closer and closer to them.

Like driving in the outside lane of a high bridge on a black, stormy windy night… we grip tighter and focus on staying in the lane, fighting the pull of the image in our minds of that split second loss of control that could send us over the edge.

There’s a parable I read once about an old Buddhist monk, slowed and shrunk by his years. This monk, on a beautiful, crisp blue sky’ed day was walking a group of young apprentices through the impeccably manicured grounds of his monastery when they walked past an enormous dog tethered to the fence. As they continued on their walk, silently appreciating the subtle beauties and colors of the landscape, the collection of monks heard a loud snap. And when they all turned around they were immediately jarred away from the peace of their attention on the world around them… instantly drawn to the frothing dog bounding directly towards them. Reflexively, the group of young apprentice monks took off, running as fast as they could in their flowing robes away from the on-rushing dog… all except one… the old monk slowed and shrunk by years. Instead, this old, tired, worn man ran in a different direction… instead of running away with the other, younger monks, his instinct took him directly towards the ferocious beast hurling towards him threatening mayhem and injury. And as the distance closed to the point that he could see the brown of the dogs eyes and feel the heat of the dogs breath, the young monks saw what they never imagined they would see… they saw the anger and rage and hunger of the dog turn… and they saw this tiny, frail man standing still and tall above the dog… who was laying on it’s back, legs splayed, in it’s show of submission.

I actually tell this story to the students who come to me with fear or apprehension in their eyes… which is many, especially nowadays. With all the media attention focused on all things scary and ominous… teenagers committing suicide… mass killings in schools… stories of Mayan predictions of the end of days… with all these fearful thoughts pulling our children’s attention (as well as our own), like gravity, away from the details and simple realities and futures of their young lives, they need to know that they’re more powerful than their scary thoughts.

They, just like the rest of us, need to know that if we run AT the dogs… the ones bearing down on us in our thoughts… they will submit.

No, we don’t want to promote foolish or ignorant bravery, because there are times in our real, physical lives when it’s time to walk away, leave or run. But not when the fears come to us in our minds. These are the fears we can and need to dominate.

Our kids need us to show them how to stare down their demons.

Our kids need us to say the scary things that we know are on their minds.

They need us, the adults in their lives, to run AT the words suicide and school tragedies and failure and loneliness and pain and trauma. Because if we don’t, these fears become contagious and evolve into the driving forces of their behavior… which may be why we’re hearing of so many more stories of bullying and teen suicide and mass killings… and on and on.

They need us to show them that feeling brave and strong and confident come to them only AFTER they face the thing they’re afraid to face, and that being scared is normal but does not have to paralyze. And we do this by inviting conversation. By asking our kids to put to words their thoughts and fears and ideas… and by listening to them and showing them with our attention and our compassion that the things that scare us do not have to control us.

Our urges to protect our children from all things bad and scary are beautiful urges… but despite the strength of our convictions, these urges won’t prevent the barrage of negativity inundating the airwaves from imbedding themselves into the thoughts of our kids.

This is the world we live in, beautiful and ugly, and putting our heads in the sand, because we so badly wished the world were different for our kids, doesn’t stop the media from exposing the darker sides of humanity to them. Unfortunately, looking away from something doesn’t mean it is gone.

So if we know this… if we know that in our kids’ minds are the scary thoughts of real life demons… and if we know that these thoughts are pulling their attention away from their lives and onto the fearful words and images gnawing at them in their heads… then we need to arm them with a strategy that makes them feel more powerful than the mental gravity of unpleasant thoughts.

We need to make the time and speak the words they may be too afraid to speak… we need to teach them to run at their dogs… so they can see themselves, with us next to them, standing tall, over, above and in control of the fears they’re so scared will pull them over the edge.

And once we’re done staring down demons and running at dogs with our kids… then we need to kick them out of the house, with or without us, to go see something beautiful or do something fun.

These will not be cheery words… because this is not a good day. Children’s lives have been cut way too short in a manner way too heartbreaking.

Every day… I choose to risk losing a child to suicide. And it drives my vigilance.

Every day… I choose to risk missing the warning signs of a child wired to injure or kill. And it feeds my attention.

Every day… I choose to be near the very real, all too frequent, tragic stories of children. And I persist anyway… as does every individual who has chosen to commit themselves to standing with children.

Frustratingly, those who do not work in schools or with children do not, or can not, fully understand the breadth of our days… and I don’t mean this as an attack. I mean it as a plea for others to try harder to understand the weight we carry… because it is a heavy one… and as articulate as educators and counselors are… there simply aren’t words to describe the depth of our connection to our jobs and to the children we get to know.

Yes, we laugh and feel the pride of watching young people achieve… and yes, we enjoy our summers off and extended weekends.

But there is a cost for the laughter, pride and time away from our jobs.

Teenagers that we know do take their own lives… and young adults, recently out of high school, that we once knew, do decide to return to their schools with loaded weapons ready to take their own lives after they’ve taken the lives of others.

To most, children are simply beautiful children, with the potential to live amazing lives and accomplish amazing things… but to us… to counselors and educators, we also have to see each child as a potential tragedy, with the potential to do monstrous things… and we carry this fear with us always… because we are expected to prevent these tragedies by all those not doing what we do.

No, our days are not absent of the glory of being a part of the small and large triumphs of children… but the rewards of our efforts, in the smiles of our students or in their improved grades… never completely silence the fear of witnessing their failure…

or of their destructive actions…

or of their death.

We heavily know, every day, that the more children we get to know, the more stories of defeat we’ll also witness… and this breaks us down and inspires us… every day… and will continue to do so until our retirement party.

Every one of us… teacher, counselor, principal, bus driver or aide… in our small interactions, carries with us, every minute of our day, the knowledge that we might not catch the child who is falling.

Every one of us… in our small interactions, every minute of our day, carries the weight of knowing that each word we speak, or don’t speak… could fail to prevent tragedy.

And yet we  punch our time cards every day… without hesitation… and often with the knowledge that others look at us as “babysitters” or “enablers” or “lucky bastards for having 2 months off every year”.

And we wish everyone could understand the toll our chosen jobs take on us.  How strong… AND spent… we really are.

Parents and families leave their children with us… trusting we’ll keep their children safe… without exception… and when the news of school tragedies finds our eyes and ears, our hearts not only break for the beautiful, innocent children and their families… but they also break for the loving, compassionate, determined adults who put their souls into caring for children who are not their own.

We are grateful for our jobs and the amazing people we work with.

We are grateful for the wonder that children bring to our lives.

We are grateful for the trust that parents place in us.

And we are grateful, especially in times like these filled with so much sadness, for the strength and resiliency to continue to be champions for our children…  undeterred by the judgments of others, or by those children we could not save.

In one year, two 9th grade girls found the courage to speak words that no child should ever have to speak…

It guts you… absolutely rips at your insides, to hear children speak of being molested by someone in their family.

As a counselor, it was, and will always be, my job to temper my own emotions and reactions to the stories of others… so I can find the way to help them begin their healing. And this is no easy task.

With these two girls, it started with a gut feeling… and one that I get all too often in my line of work. The student(s) walk into my office, either on their own or because a teacher sent them to me, and I start my process. I make sure my own “stuff” is put to the side… and I pay attention. I look. I listen. I quiet things down inside myself to be sure that I don’t miss a cue. I mind my tone and my volume. I mind my expressions and my posture. I watch for their reactions to my presence and I make any necessary adjustments until I see ease on their faces and hear in their words the trust I need to hear to move forward.

I know how badly each child needs to be seen, and it’s my job to give them an adult who sees them. Sadly, to really see the students who come to me, I have to keep the horror stories close in mind. I need to keep the worst case scenarios accessible because for them, the words won’t come easy… at least not yet… and for the healing to begin, sometimes they need me to carefully guide them towards the places that scare them most.

But the steps they need to take won’t be taken unless they feel assured that that they’re no longer alone with their demons… and that I am not afraid of their demons.

My goal for these two girls who had experienced the most heartbreaking betrayal of trust imaginable, is the same goal that I have for any child I speak with about a hurt or a trauma they’ve experienced:

To move them through their hurt towards the strength that’s already inside them… so they can someday speak, with steady voice and strong eyes, about what they’ve endured… and have now overcome.

For three years, I made adjustments with these two amazing young ladies… separately… all the while following their leads and reading their needs. When to challenge. When to stir laughter. When to invite tears. When to validate strength… and when to face vulnerabilities.

For three years (and countless other big and small student issues), I had to know when to give space, when to reach out, when to look back at the past… and when to demand that they start looking forward. And for three years, I met with them separately in pursuit of that strength that allows people to one day own their scars and speak of them fearlessly.  Which each of them found.

I don’t remember exactly what made me suggest that they meet each other (which they both agreed to without hesitation)… but I suppose it was the way they could both speak to me about their pasts and their futures… with laughter… with humility… and with a perspective reserved for only those children who have known and faced demons we all wish they never had to.

And so there we were… the three of us. Some counselor guy, and these 2 beautiful, strong, intelligent champions.

Needless to say, it was super awkward. There I was sitting with 2 teenagers who had been molested by different family members (which remains hard to say, hard to write, and most definitely hard to hear)… and somehow, I had to kick things off. Which I did, with the same lightness and confidence that I knew they both possessed.

“So yes, I am fixing the two of you up, strange as that sounds, and from the looks on all our faces, mine included, this is pretty awkward… but we’ll get through it, ’cause you guys have gotten through stuff much harder (I say with my most reassuring smile)”

Chuckling ensued (not me, just them)… which eased the room.

“To move this forward, I’m just going to say it out loud… the two of you share a story, and have come so far, and I couldn’t be more proud… both of you, separately, have worked so hard and shown so much courage… I just felt that the two of you could give to each other a kind of support and understanding that I, for obvious reasons, just can’t… plus, you’re both just really cool kids who I thought would get along”

More smiling… and now, eye contact between the two of them…

“So how about we start with who it was that hurt you…”

And without hesitation, looking directly at each other…

“My father” says one…

“My brother” says the other…

And I sat back, eyes watering… humbled beyond words…seeing the tears run down their cheeks and the smiles on their faces… watching them gently listen to each other… and hearing them speak fearlessly about the shared stories they lived.

A young boy, about 14, came into my office with 4 other boys. They were all there to try to find out how they could get their ID’s so they would be let in to the cafeteria. The 5 of them shared the same expression… the expression that nervous kids wear when they’re trying to appear comfortable.

It was their 2nd day of high school as new 9th graders in my Brooklyn high school with almost 3000 kids. Their nervousness was obvious, normal, and to be expected.

My words came easy to me (I’ve done this many times before), and after a few kind, understanding words, and a couple of comforting (and deliberately unfunny) jokes… they bravely (though still nervously) went on their ways together through the crowded halls to the cafeteria.

Except one.

While the others were leading the reluctant charge out of my office, the 5th boy, who stood behind them all with his back to my wall, who was a tallish, lean, good looking kid with shaggy, “skateboarder” type hair, asked me if there was any way he could be allowed to wear his hood.

His question piqued my curiosity… as do most strangely placed reasonable questions asked by a student. It was respectful. He asked because clearly, he didn’t want to break a school rule. And it was definitely motivated by some other less obvious need… and so I did what I normally do when a young person does or says something that triggers even the slightest hint of a concern… I smiled at him and told him to grab a seat “for a second”.

And it didn’t take long to get a clear picture of what was going on. This kid was a good kid, clearly. And he was carrying with him an added anxiety that made him ask me, a complete stranger, to be allowed to do something we both knew he wasn’t allowed to do.

And so after less than a minute, and with some purposefully placed and reassuring questions, this young man bravely told me that he’s been losing his hair, and “not just a little”. He explained to me that the doctors were trying to figure out what was going on, but that “his bald spot just kept growing”. And after this young man showed me the bald spot that covered nearly the whole back of his head that was barely obscured by his intentionally long and shaggy hair… I got it.

I got his need. This kid, on his 2nd day of high school, was just looking for any way possible to minimize the likelihood of being teased. He was just trying to find a way to keep the anxiety of starting high school at it’s normal level and not have it magnified by this “really weird” (his words, not mine) bald patch on the back of his head.

So with my most reassuring smile, I set out on my mission. I set out, with my tone, my directness and my confidence, to assure him that I was going to listen to him and help him navigate his minefield. I committed to teaching him, in this first interaction, that 1) there was an adult in this huge new and unknown building that he could talk to about anything, that 2) good things can happen when you communicate honestly and openly and bravely, and most importantly, that 3) there was a way to not have to hide, and a way to trust that he’d be fine, regardless of how he looked, or what others said to, or about him.

Right now, all of us are in period where the issue of “bullying” is on every adult’s, and child’s minds. We’re all worrying about the impact that being bullied has on a young persons safety and sense of self. We’re worried about kids killing themselves to escape bullying and we’re worried about kids becoming bullies as a way of stealing back some power.

And here I was in front of one of the thousands of kids I’ve known and will get to know, giving to him the gift that each kid deserves to be given… the idea that there is a way to reject and remain unharmed by the verbal and emotional attacks directed towards them. That there’s a point any of us can get to, where we realize that we have the power to choose whose words affect us… and whose don’t.

No kid deserves to be taunted or teased. Every kid needs to know there are adults in their lives who will back them up. And every adult needs to be more vigilant to the realities of young people today.

But whether we like it or not, teasing and harassing and bullying are a part of the developmental process. It’s true. We all know it, no matter how old we are, and because of this irrefutable truth, we need to do a better job at arming kids with the tools to cope, rather than fruitlessly trying to shield them from something that’s inevitably going to happen.

Instead, we need to teach our kids, like this kid with the “weird bald spot”, that it’s in them to have the quiet confidence that can empower them to hear verbal attacks, yet not let them in to cause harm. And I’m not talking about telling our kids to sit back and allow the abuse to continue… of course we should teach them to reach out for support when it exceeds a threshold we help them define. Nor am I suggesting that we teach our kids that bullying is normal or acceptable.

What I’m saying is that it’s in each kid, if there are adults in their lives to tell them as such, that they are more than capable of hearing a tease or a harsh word, of looking the bully in the eye, of shrugging off the attempt at harm, and moving forward in the direction of their choice.

Just as it’s in this young man with the attention-grabbing bald spot to be able to react to the next kid who says something stupid and mean, with a confident look, a sturdy shrug, and a step forward in the direction of his choice.

I spoke to this 9th grader for a few more minutes. We talked about quiet confidence. I told him that when, not if, the teasing happens, he’s got adults he can come to for support or help if he needs it. I told him that he wasn’t alone. And I assured him that everyone who has ever walked the planet, has had insecurities targeted and mocked by others… including me.

And then I introduced to him to what I knew. I told him the truth that the character and the confidence he needed to become graceful and strong with any shot that comes his way, was absolutely already a part of who he was. I told him straight away, that sitting there with me and speaking to me as openly as he did, was proof that it was in him to walk tall with ease and confidence… with or without the hair he preferred.

And he cracked a smile, looked me in the eye, and answered my question by saying “yeah Mr. Rockman, I believe you”.

And then I wrote myself a note to check on him the next day…

Whether it’s your own child, or a student of yours, the following is an example of a way of asking a question that can lead to a profoundly positive change in your relationship… and it can be used with all of the most uncomfortable, scary or emotionally charged issues. It’s not soft and it doesn’t lessen your authority, in fact, it magnifies your authority and role models courage… and more importantly, it gets the result you want:

“So, I’m going to ask you a pretty direct question, and it’s not to make you uncomfortable or because I want to tell you what to do or what not to do, I just want to be sure that you fully understand what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it.” 

Obviously, it’s a long lead in to ask a question, and it’s geared more towards adolescents than younger children, but there is a point. And while you may choose different words that sound more natural to you, when you approach a provocative topic in a thoughtful and purposeful way, you’re truly maximizing the likelihood of getting an honest answer and ending up with a strengthened relationship.

I’m going to break down the elements of the above sentence to illustrate the purpose of each word.

“So, I’m going to ask you a pretty direct question”– This sentence prepares the child for what will be a more serious topic, and it guides them into a more appropriate state of mind… without scaring them or making them feel too cornered.  Though you are essentially cornering them into a conversation they most likely don’t want to have, this preface definitely eases the blow a bit. It simply shows that you respect them enough to not blindside them.

“… and it’s not to make you uncomfortable”– This disarms them by showing care for their feelings. And it shows understanding, because they most likely will feel at least a little uncomfortable (just as you will). It also begins to clarify that your intentions are good ones, and are not to “catch” them.

“… or because I want to tell you what to do or what not to do”– This portion is very important developmentally. When talking to an adolescent, you’re talking to a young person who is growing into independence. One of the most important needs of a teenager is to feel as if they have more control over their lives than when they were younger, and by stating that your intention IS NOT to control, you prevent them from being able to accuse of of trying to control them… which happens easily and often with teens. It shows that you respect them enough to make decisions for themselves which will make it safer for them to be more honest with you… even though underneath the surface, you may be afraid of what they may be doing. It simply increases your chances of having a conversation… instead of a fight.

“i just want to be sure that you fully understand what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it”– This is your big dismount. By saying these words you’re showing respect for their rights to make choices for themselves while also conveying your authority, life experience and wisdom. You’re essentially telling the child that your goal is simply to arm them to make the best decision for them… without telling them what to do. These words will make them feel guided and cared about… and not minimized or controlled. And these words may seem sneaky, because they are in a sense, but they’re sneaky in a way where both parties win. You win as the adult by making it difficult for the child to refuse to talk or to be honest… and your child wins because they are being inspired to be more thoughtful and reflective about their choices.

Whether you’re asking your student or child if they’re using drugs, having sex, involved with a gang, failing their classes, bullying others or doing any other potentially risky or hurtful behavior, when you choose your approach and words deliberately, you’re more precisely targeting the best possible results. As the adult, you may not want to have to be so careful, and you may just want to ask what you want to ask without seemingly “pandering” to your teenagers volatility, but if you want genuine honesty and calm communication, taking a little extra time and putting in a little extra thought will get you the results that you want far more often.

And once you get through your opening, and the safe, honest, respectful exchanges begin to flow, just keep the same principles in mind… choose your words thoughtfully and respectfully… and then listen well. Regardless of the answers you get from your child or student, whether they’re comforting illustrations of good decision-making, or admissions of dangerous or unhealthy decision-making… just be sure to honor your intention of arming them with the insights and information they need to make the best possible choices, and resist, with all your might, the temptation to overpower.

because when we’re away from you, on our own, faced with a choice,  we’re going to feed the most powerful need or go after the most enticing feeling… no matter how many times you warned us.  for us, NOW is the only thing that matters.  what feels best RIGHT NOW.  what choice avoids the most pain or discomfort RIGHT NOW.  we’ll cut class even though we know we have a test tomorrow because it’s more fun and we want to feel connected to our friends… RIGHT NOW.  we’ll smoke weed or take a drink instead of taking a stand against it because if we don’t, we’ll get teased or mocked… and RIGHT NOW, we’d rather laugh with others than get made fun of by others.

if our need for acceptance is stronger than our desire to feel like a leader or an independent thinker, then we’ll follow the crowd. if our need to avoid loneliness is more powerful than our hope for a “healthy” relationship, then we’ll choose to be with friends or boyfriends or girlfriends regardless of how “unhealthy” they are for us.  if our need to feel visible by our peers is stronger than our need to learn what the teachers is teaching, then we’ll goof off in class rather than quietly focus on the lesson. for us, it’s all about how we feel and what we need most in the moment, and if it conflicts with what you’ve taught us or what you want us to do, than your wisdom might  lose out, and often does. at least until we start to see or feel some real benefit to making the tough choice.  somehow, we need to KNOW that your wisdom will lead to feelings that are as great as you say they are… we won’t just take your word for it.  for example, if you want us to make the tough decision that will bring us a feeling of dignity or pride, but we’ve never really felt those feelings, then they’re not real to us. and because they’re not real, we won’t choose them over the feelings that are real, like feeling understood by our peers.  if we’ve never experienced the feelings of courage or  honor, than we’ll most likely choose the path of lesser resistance, like acceptance or connection.  a lot of the decisions and choices we make are to avoid unpleasant feelings like loneliness, shame, embarrassment, rejection or powerlessness… rather than in pursuit of feelings like dignity, honor, pride, self-worth and courage.

we act out in class so others don’t see that we don’t know the answers… to avoid feeling ashamed or embarrassed.  we have sex with people we know we shouldn’t, and sometimes don’t even want to, just to avoid feeling lonely and to prevent feeling rejected.  we’ll mistreat or abuse others, even though we know it’s wrong, just so we don’t have to feel powerless in our lives (which we often do).  are you starting to see? do you understand just a little better? does it make more sense to you now why we often ignore your advice and wisdom? it’s not because we think you’re wrong or want to piss you off (well, sometimes we do), it’s simply because your advice usually offers rewards that we’ll appreciate more when we’re adults … while we’re more focused on feeling as good and as safe as we can RIGHT NOW… IN THIS MOMENT.

as young people, we’re constantly being barraged by wisdom, lectured, and preached to by adults who have learned their lessons… but remember, just because your advice might in fact be “good” advice doesn’t mean we’re going to integrate it into our lives quickly. our priority as young people is to survive and feel as good as possible, and if it means defying you or ignoring your sage words… then there’s a possibility we’re going to disappoint you on occasion. so keep this in mind, and use your understanding of our motivations to more creatively try to motivate us to follow your leads… because frustratingly for adults, defiance is a normal part of the process of us growing up.

in fact, when it comes to our underachievement, “laziness” is a lazy explanation.  beneath our appearance of lazy is always a more accurate explanation. our “laziness” could be the mask we wear to hide that we’re ashamed of having fallen behind. or it could be the mask we wear to hide that we feel unprepared, deficient in skills or embarrassed for not knowing something we’re “suppose to know”. for us, it’s less painful to be called lazy than it is to feel stupid. in our minds, lazy means we’re capable, but we just “chose” to not try. but if we try and fail, than we feel stupid, and this feels bad… so we just don’t try and take the “lazy” label from others instead of the “stupid” label from ourselves. at least this way, we protect our ego’s and keep our pride.

we sometimes underachieve because we’ve only been spoken to about achievement, and not inspired by people who have actually achieved. sometimes we don’t work as hard as we should because the adults in our lives don’t really know how to hold us accountable for our efforts in ways that motivate us… they just rely on shaming us or threatening us to get us to work harder, which rarely works (though there are a few of us, usually older, who are motivated by shame and threats… but we’re few, and you’ll have to know us pretty well to know this).

sometimes we perform below our abilities because some of our teachers and parents find it easier to blame us for our “laziness” than to look at themselves for new ways to inspire us (even though it is more our responsibility than yours). sometimes we underachieve because the expectations of us have been lowered so much for so long that we can do nothing but meet these low expectations. sometimes we underachieve because there are other activities that draw our attention or are more entertaining than studying. and sometimes we underachieve because we don’t value learning as much as we value feeling popular with our peers… and these aren’t excuses (although they may sound like them)… these are alternative explanations that you’ll need to know if you’re going to light a lasting fire under us. we’re young, and as such, we do require guidance, we do need to be taught and we do need limits and boundaries. we need to feel that people have faith in us to work hard and meet higher expectations. we may whine and complain and make excuses when you hold us to these standards, but it doesn’t mean we don’t need you to. for us, it’s not about who’s to blame for our low achievement, we just need help becoming competent, self-sufficient young adults… because despite what you may think or what we may say… we most definitely prefer success over failure.

we know it’d be much easier for everyone if we were all simply born with work ethic and intellectual confidence… but that’s just not reality for all of us. so if you know a kid who seems “lazy”… don’t be lazy… dig a little deeper and find the real reason we’re not working harder and achieving more… and then push a little smarter and harder to get us to.

Administrators, charters, networks and politicians want to see data illustrating mass student learning and progress.

Educators want to see children in their seats with writing utensils in their hands, paper on their desks, mouths closed (unless they were given permission to speak) and eyes on the board or on them.

Parents want to see report cards filled with A’s and B’s and they want to see their children devoting some time at home to completing assignments and studying for exams.

Clearly, there are giant canyon-sized gaps separating the expectations of critics, administrators and funders of schools, the realities of educators, and the hopes of parents.

Sadly, the likelihood of bridging these gaps, and of putting an end to the relentless game of blaming that all parties are stuck in, is very small. It seems many of us are too deeply entrenched in the habits of blaming and resenting our positions to constructively partner with each other… and I say this not to claim defeat or add to the culture of cynicism that already exists. I say this so we can move forward and find the way to remain constructive with our children and our students, even when it feels impossible.

Complaints and blame are easy… maintaining professional and role integrity is hard. Especially when we’re feeling attacked and/or exhausted. And catching ourselves when we fall into the cliched (and human) habits of martyrdom and resentment  allows us to step forward beyond our bitterness and back to being what we’re supposed to be… good for kids.

While it may be true that no one person can change the whole culture of blaming that is feeding the feuds between governments, administrators, educators and parents… each of us do in fact get to choose how we spend our energy.

Whatever your role… a suit in a government office in Washington… a superintendent in a city hall… a principal with your own private bathroom and faculty members more bitter than you’d like… a teacher with 5 preps and too many under-performing students… a school counselor with too many troubled kids on your caseload… or a parent with a child in a public school that you didn’t choose… if each of us can remember one simple, but all too neglected job responsibility, we’ll end up not only challenging each other to do better, but we’ll also end up being better for the children in our lives.

And this job responsibility is simply to take the highest road possible when in the company of young people. Not to draw attention to yourself (that’s arrogance) and not at the expense of a sense of humor (because that would make your job really crappy) and not to put unrealistic pressure on our children to be perfect (because we do need to teach them how to be humble and graceful with imperfections and mistakes)… but simply to role model the best qualities in people.

Parent. Principal. Teacher. Or President of the United States. If we’re an adult in a position to impact the lives of children, our job responsibilities aren’t limited to the tasks we have to complete (easier as this may be)… our job is also to do and say and role model all the things that are in the best interest of children, and to never make it about our own needs. Whether it’s for 8 hours a day after we’ve punched the time clock at our school, or any moment that we’re in the company of our own children, if you’re doing your best to take the high road, chances are you’ll be the kind of adult that young people need you to be.

Sure, we may annoy some (though not all) of the people we work with. Sure, you may be thought of as or called “righteous” or “holier than thou”… but ask yourself, what matters more? how we’re perceived by our colleagues? or showing young people that integrity and dignity and self-control and perspective and character are qualities that do exist in people?

And if, when some of us are busy taking the high road, we disagree with each other as to what the high road is… just freakin’ (sorry, I would have swore, but I’m trying to take the high road) listen to each other… and keep listening to each other and keep discussing your points of view until you come to some agreement as to what’s best for the kids… because it’s not about getting your way… it’s about getting it right.

And then, when you’re off the clock, not in your classrooms, and not in front of your children, and your need to feel more human rises up (which it always will) and the urge to express your particular neuroses grows (which it always does… especially for me), go right ahead… let the beast out.

Stress at home? You’re going to be at your desk and you’re going to do the job that is expected of you as a student.

Drama with your boyfriend or girlfriend? You’re going to respect school rules and the authority in this building.

Violence in your neighborhood? You’re going to wake up on time, get to school on time and go to all your classes.

You’ve been victimized, traumatized or neglected? You’re going to pay attention to your teacher and turn in your homework when it’s due.

While the above assertions may sound harsh, they are the most supportive expectations we can put upon young people who are currently experiencing hardship and obstacle, or showing behaviors most likely connected to difficult pasts.

One of the larger misconceptions today is that caring about or paying attention to the context of a child’s life is equivalent to making excuses for them (especially by individuals who are struggling to have the influence they want with the children they’re dealing with)… but this is most definitely not the case. Just because a counselor is understanding… or a teacher is compassionate… or a dean or administrator is aware… does NOT mean our demands of our students change, or need to change. It’s true that we want to be aware of the obstacles or challenges that our students are facing, but never should our awareness lead to excuse-making for misconduct or poor effort.  Having an understanding of our student’s lives should be used only as motivation to remain mindful of our approach so that we can maximize our influence… never to lower expectations.

Delivering appropriate limits and clear expectations (to a student not meeting standards of effort or conduct) without knowing the context of a teenagers life will most likely sound dramatically different than delivering limits and expectations with their contexts in mind… and this subtle difference can make all the difference in getting what we need from them. The message will be the same, but the delivery will be different, and consequently, so will the results.

Sometimes by simply stating, with both sincerity and authority, that “I understand you may have a lot going on right now, but right here right now, what’s best for you is to learn what I’m trying to teach you… and when we’re done, I promise I’ll do what I can to get you the time and help you need to deal with what’s going on” is all you’ll need to do to corral a young person who may be too loose, disengaged or distracting in your room. Other times, it may not be so simple, and may require other interventions.

Being able to assess the magnitude of need or the level of emotional urgency will allow you to decide whether to press on with your expectations, or deviate and make the appropriate allowance for the struggling child. Unfortunately, this decision will have to come more from your gut, than from any established decision making scale… and it is an important one. Just as we never want to make excuses for our children and lower standards, we also want to make sure that we’re not punishing them for being affected and emotional.

Helping young people develop the quality of fortitude means teaching them how to compartmentalize their days more effectively. And as adults with our own separate and emotional personal lives, we have plenty of opportunities to role-model compartmentalization. As a high school counselor, I’m often asked how to teach teenagers in class who are clearly struggling with some domain in their life. A romantic relationship. Home uncertainty. Trauma. Neglect. Violence. And my message, I hope, is always the same… help them to do what is expected in the moments you’re with them, and then connect them with others better positioned to meet their other needs. A young person who can learn how to attend to their responsibilities DESPITE the emotional temptations put upon them by their lives is a young person who will be better equipped to cope as they move on in years.

And this does not mean ignore their harsh realities in the classroom, it just means that you are to show them how to do their jobs… by doing your job. Resisting your inclination to pity, over-sympathize or change your role from content area teacher to counselor role-models healthy compartmentalization, difficult as this may be. The only thing you might need to change, is your tone.

When in the classroom, a student who is being mistreated at home needs to perform the same tasks in the same timeframe as a student who is not being mistreated in the home. The only difference is that this student may need to hear what is expected from them in a way that conveys more compassion (even though compassion may not be your strong suit). And when the child is done meeting your classroom expectations, you can connect them to someone who has more time than you and whose role it is to provide the necessary emotional support. And if this child does not respond to your compassionate authority, and they earn consequences because of their defiance, then they need to receive these consequences… which can be administered by your school disciplinarians in concert with the individuals in your school equipped to address the underlying motivations of their misbehavior.

Counselors are not content area classroom teachers… and content area teachers are not counselors… but if there is partnership, role respect and communication between these two vital players in the lives of students, then the students can have both their academic and emotional needs met within the school borders. Educating young people that there are times and places for learning information and necessary academic skills, and times and places for developing insight, expressing their emotions and getting support with their difficult lives, are crucial lessons in preparing them for adult life… and they are lessons that most of us are more than equipped to administer well.

Most of us grew up thinking that invisibility was a superpower possessed only by superheroes. Even as adults, when we play the game with our friends asking each other which superpower we’d most like to possess, invisibility always makes the rotation, especially if we’re thinking about all the ways we feel nagged by others or burdened by responsibilities.

But beneath our playfulness and imagination is a more painful interpretation of this idea of invisibility. Think for a second about a moment when you didn’t feel seen by others… when the thought crossed your mind that at that moment, no one was thinking of you, or worrying about you, or cared at all about what happened to you. A moment when you felt utterly alone, but wanted real badly the company of others. Think about a period in your life when you craved someone to understand who you really were, and what you were really feeling… but looked around or through your list of phone numbers, and had no one to do this for you.

For so many young people, feeling invisible isn’t a sensation that fills them with wonder… feeling invisible is a sensation that is crushing beyond words.

Feeling misunderstood compels young people to act in ways that people understand and draws attention… but isn’t really who they are.

Feeling invisible drives young people to think “why bother, no one sees me anyway”… and then to act recklessly because in their worlds, there’s nothing to lose.

Feeling alone forces young people to seek others who might claim to see them more honestly, and might not be good for them… because the need to feel like they exist is that strong.

Feeling unseen stirs paralysis… inhibiting any effort that might improve their lives because to them, no one seems interested anyway.

I see weight of invisibility everyday on the faces of my students. In the words they speak… and in the words they don’t speak. And I see the influence of invisibility every day in their risky behaviors and apathy.

But here’s the thing… I see the kids who are struggling with feeling unseen because it is my job to see, and because I never forget how painful it feels to wonder if anyone cares enough to look… and if I had no other responsibility given my title as “counselor”, seeing young people, and I mean fearlessly seeing them for who they really are and not who we think they are or should be, would be more than enough to inspire them to be more invested in their lives.

Which is why it confuses me so that we have so many young people struggling as profoundly as we do… because all they really need, after their plates are filled with food, their backs are clothed and their heads are covered by a roof… is for the adults in their small, but significant lives, to look at them… without a need to see anything other than what is real for that child.

Because then it’s easy. Once we know the true need… we can go ahead and meet it.

is that why you don’t try harder to get to know us? are you so afraid you’ll find something dark about us that you won’t know how to deal with? are you so worried that you’ll end up feeling helpless to fix our “problems” that you don’t even try to understand why we’re struggling? we may put on good shows that make you think we’re fine, but we’re often struggling with, or questioning something in our lives. we need you to not be afraid of us or of our truth. we need you to understand us or at least try to. we wonder about the big issues like future, love, death, loyalty, suicide, sex, temptations and right and wrong, whether you wish we did or didn’t… and we also wonder why it seems so uncomfortable for so many of you to just sit down with us and talk about these things.

there’s a lot of scary, unpleasant stuff in this world and we know how overwhelming life can be, but if the adults in our lives don’t show us how to be brave enough to face the demons that lie inside all of us, how can we be expected to rise above our demons? maybe when you were young, you were told simply to move on and quit whining, or maybe people treated you like a freak if you did express such confused or provocative thoughts… but whatever your reasons were for bottling stuff up, they don’t help us.  it’s a different time now and we’re exposed to different things. we can’t keep bottling up our fears and confusions because they just keep collecting and it feels like poison inside us.  we’re young and haven’t been around that long and every day we’re exposed to new ideas, experiences, social issues and pressures, and every time we come across something new (which is all the time, especially with all the new technologies and media), we have questions or we feel new feelings that we can’t quite get our heads around.  it’s true that we hate admitting that we don’t know everything and feel overwhelmed at times… just like everyone else, but we want you to know that if you choose to ignore the stuff that weighs us down because it’s “too stressful” for you, or because you love us so much that you can’t bear to acknowledge our pain, then we are much more likely to act in risky ways or make poor decisions.

inconvenient as it may be to you, we as your kids or students would be much safer and would feel much more supported if you had the courage to want to know what lies inside us, even if it disagrees with your beliefs or how you were raised… and we may even need you to help us find the words. if we have to keep our insecurities, fears, confusions, doubts and anxieties bottled up because everyone’s too prideful, rushed or scared to ask us what’s going on, we’re much more likely to be destructive… but if we have adults in our lives who show us how to be brave and help us look inside ourselves with confidence and fearlessness, then we’d be much more likely to make better decisions and build healthier relationships.

because that’s the best way to get us to live healthy lives. if you have a problem with drinking too much, the best way for you to prevent us from developing a drinking problem is for you to do the hard thing and get and stay sober.  as you may know, behaviors and habits can get passed down from generation to generation… just like eye color or height can get passed down.  stuff like hot tempers, aggression, drinking, violence in relationships, drug use, promiscuity, teen pregnancy, poor work ethic, dishonesty and even eating disorders get cycled through families.  we learn from the environments we grow up in, and if certain behaviors are “good enough” for our parents, many of us will just end up mimicking what you do when you’re around us. what we’re asking is that you find a way to break your bad habits… if not for you, then for us.

we’re asking you to look in the mirror, even if it’s painful. and we want you to know that preaching to us about the dangers of  bad habits isn’t nearly as loving, or effective, as showing us the courage to break them.  and while parents might feel they’re doing the right thing by lecturing us to not follow in their footsteps and to learn from their mistakes, for us, they’re just empty words.  breaking habits and family patterns takes strength of character and courage, and if you can’t do it… how are we supposed to be able to? and while some of us do have the resiliency to resist following the unhealthy leads of our parents, a lot of us are just too vulnerable and impressionable. and we’re not saying it’s easy. but we need you to understand how important it is to us that you dig deep and figure out how to be better role models for us than your parents may have been for you.

and if you do show us how to free yourself from the patterns and scars of your pasts, than we’ll absorb your bravery and resiliency and have the futures we all want us to have. the truth is that we do love you and look up to you, even when you’re doing dangerous, scary or unhealthy stuff… and we just need you to show us how to walk the paths you want us to walk.

When you’re at your most emotional… when you’re feeling profound sadness, pre-occupation with uncertainty or pure and simple blind rage… how would you respond if someone told you to be more logical? It might not go over so well would it? You might get angry, you might tell the person directing you to put aside your feelings to buzz off (or some other four letter word)… or you might just shut them out and ignore their direction.

So why are we surprised when our exceedingly emotionally driven inner-city teenagers, or any teenagers for that matter, are failing at math and the sciences? Why are we so confused by our students’s rejection of linear and logical thinking?  And if our goal is in fact to facilitate ownership of information and critical thinking skills, why are we ignoring or looking away from the likely psycho-social obstacles inhibiting learning?

But before you think I’m going to suggest babying our emotionally needy students, keep reading… because I’m suggesting the exact opposite. I’m suggesting we re-focus on preparing them and teaching them how to NOT use their feelings as excuses.

While experts in education continue their obsession with data collection and analysis, many of our students continue to grow more and more disengaged from our math and science content areas. Teachers all across the country, and not just in our city schools, seem to be flailing in quicksand when it comes to getting their kids to absorb their math and science curriculum.

As professional development workshops continue to target teacher inclusion of technology, “creativity” and “interactivity” in lesson planning, I feel compelled to speak from an entirely different paradigm. Assuming there is nothing physiologically or neurologically different with todays youth from youth of the past, there must be some other explanation as to why our collective math and science proficiency continues to decline. And we can choose to keep slapping different coats of paint on the same old tools… or we can be a little more creative and think differently about a problem we’re getting further from resolving.

As a counselor, my lens obviously draws my attention to the emotional, developmental or environmental factors possibly causing student defiance towards math and science instruction… and while I’m no mathematician, biologist, physicist or chemist, it seems pretty evident that these content areas require more linear and logical processing than other content areas.

For a growing population of urban youth, their environments and circumstances are stirring a sense of entitlement. Something along the lines of “my life and my neighborhood are rough… and as such, the world owes me, my emotions are justified, and therefore, my actions, no matter what they are, are also justified”. Because of the stresses and perceived threats they’re living with every day, many children are exhibiting an emotionality and volatility that conveys “the right” to do and say whatever it is that their mood dictates… and this sense of emotional entitlement is over-powering the calm, logical state of mind that math and the sciences require to stay on track. And this “survive the moment” mentality is preventing them from seeing any future… and if a kid isn’t thinking about their future, or of goals, then the need to learn boring, but valuable lessons today becomes almost non-existant.

And consequently, given the emotionality and entitlement so many teenagers and younger students are bringing into their classrooms, many more educators are being forced to spend more time managing their classroom climates than instructing and checking for understanding… which simply positions teachers to fail. As administrations and funding sources continue to look more and more at data which inevitably minimizes context and the true texture of a learners mind, teachers are more and more finding themselves frantically trying to get through material and adhering to their pacing charts… rather than taking their time to ensure knowledge acquisition. Essentially, educators are being compelled to honor the needs of the decision makers more than the needs of the students.

Basically, it’s the perfect storm right now for educators, and especially for those charged with the responsibility of teaching content areas that allow less for abstract and tangential thinking. Math and science are slowly becoming stigmatized to many students as “unnecessary”, and not because they necessarily believe they’re unnecessary subjects.  They’re getting stigmatized because the kind of thinking math and science require is in such conflict with the emotional mind, that it’s just easier to write the content off as useless than it is to figure out how to put their personal needs and feelings aside enough to absorb the lessons.

So rather than trying to convince a child, or a classroom of students that math and science are fun… and rather than running yourselves ragged trying to prove just how necessary and important the material is… perhaps an educators best strategy (depending on the age of the students) would be the most transparent one. Maybe the bells and whistles promoted in professional development workshops need to give way to an approach that honors the developmental needs of these certain kinds of students who are fundamentally rejecting more technical content areas.

Maybe instructors of math and science need to 1) acknowledge and validate the students disinterest and/or difficulty with the subject (instead of trying to sell something that simply won’t be bought), 2) improve classroom management abilities to create and maintain the low-energy climate required to calm emotionality and improve focus and 3) emphasize over and over again, that regardless of a students feelings about a subject (or even a teacher), they can in fact learn it, and learn it well.

Many students, and an increasing number of educators are under the false impression that enjoyment and “happiness” are required for learning… and this perception is doing nothing but holding instructors hostage. Instead, let’s all remain mindful that we’re educators, not entertainers, and that boredom or disinterest or personal feelings do not need to be catered to in classrooms (that’s more for the counselors in 1 to 1 or group sessions)… and that there are in fact ways to teach subjects that students aren’t good at or don’t like without having to put on a clown suit or amp up the special effects.

Be honest. Be direct. Be deliberate. Validate your students perceptions and emotionality… and then instruct them with the foundational understanding that school will always be about preparing young people to complete tasks, overcome obstacles, answer to authority and do jobs… irregardless of personal feelings or circumstance. Yes, easier said than done… especially by a counselor… but maybe a truth nonetheless.

If teenagers can be conditioned to believe that “getting by”  is a goal they’ve chosen for themselves, or that their futures are limited by the circumstances in which they grow up… then they can be conditioned to break stereotypes and become much much more. Despite all that we read about inner-city youth, it is this simple. The behaviors and choices of our struggling urban youth are manifestations of their environments. When asked, their ideas about themselves sound more like cliche sound bites than honest reflections… and strangely, their inauthentic senses of self gives us hope, because it means their true natures have yet to be defined or discovered.

The only antidote to the toxic messages of inability that so many city children have absorbed is a crystal clear understanding of two truths.

1) That up until the moment they become aware of the ways they’ve been conditioned, their lives and their futures have not been their own.

2) They are without question, responsible for every word they speak and every action they take.

Black. White. Russian. Indian. Chinese. Hispanic. Middle Eastern. Muslim. Jewish. Catholic. Baptist. Wealthy. Poor.

Regardless of demographic, if a teenager can be guided to understand that the strengths and weaknesses they currently possess have been cultivated by messages from family, from music, from friends, from movies… than they can guided to realize that they do in fact have a say in how the rest of their futures play out. They can be freed from the delusion that they’re self-made and introduced to the idea of determining their real selves. And this is what they need to know to begin taking ownership of what they do with their days. In school. At home. In parks. With others. On their own. And this is when we might start to see the conviction and effort we so badly want to see.

Every day I hear the conditioned words and witness the conditioned choices of teenagers expressing a profound lack of fortitude, ownership and creativity. And what is saddest about what we’re seeing from so many inner-city teenagers, is that their deficiencies were not chosen by them… they were given to them. It is absolutely true that many city children are raised in broken families, exposed to traumas and neglect or compelled to endure stresses caused by economic hardship, but what they haven’t yet learned is that while these truths may steepen the incline, they in no way prevent ascent. The fortitude to learn and achieve is just as much their right as it is the right of anyone born into privilege… they just need to be guided past the maze of built-in excuses and justifications.

And this is where opportunity lives. The opportunity for individuals in positions to influence to stir the self-awareness needed to spark ownership… and the opportunity for the young people themselves to begin identifying and pursuing the lives they want to live.

Jeans sagging below backsides. Swear words every 3rd word. Reactive aggression. Sought conflict. Violent relationships. Drug use. Teen pregnancy. Failing grades. Issues with authority. Gang involvement. Bullying. Whatever the cliched behavior we’re witnessing from our inner-city teens, all they need is permission to be different, and a person insightful and direct enough to intelligently hold up a mirror and hold them accountable for the choices they make… and yes, it is possible to validate circumstances without pitying… and it is possible to hold accountable without being insensitive to circumstance.

If we’re trying to find the right buttons to push, we have to make sure our efforts are driven by an honest belief in their capacity to work harder and achieve more. There’s no room for guilt, pity or blinders when trying to light a fire in a child… because there is nothing more oppressive than low expectations or unrealistic goals.

If we’re trying to re-condition young people to believe in their actual abilities rather than accept their rumored inabilities, then we have to make sure that we never convey satisfaction when low expectations are met. And if we’re trying to incite personal revolutions in so many inner-city children who’ve been shackled and brainwashed by subtle, sneaky and crushing stereotypes… then we have to be transparent and relentless in what we know… which is that they’re living in a world that is either forgetting, or neglecting just how impressionable young people are, and that they are in fact powerful and capable far beyond what they currently feel.

No, my words here don’t answer the question of how to run classrooms in under-funded urban schools filled with under-performing students, but a deeper understanding of the obstacles and needs of our kids is a great place to start… and just as our inner-city youth are far more capable than they’re showing… so are the rest of us.

because we’re way too self-involved.  most everything to us feels like a “life or death” situation, and because of this, we often lose our perspective.  our lives and relationships consume us and this is when we lose focus or our tempers and make unhealthy or impulsive decisions.  when you make jokes, you teach us how to keep perspective and how to not get so lost in the stuff that isn’t THAT big of a deal.  granted, we may not always laugh at your jokes, and we most definitely aren’t asking you to minimize our lives or the things we think are serious, but a well placed joke or bit of sarcasm can help us lighten heavy moments that don’t need to be so heavy.  it also shows us that you’re calm and confident, and this puts us at ease… unless of course your attempts at humor come off as condescending or dismissive. and if this happens, and we get mad at you or snappy, don’t feel embarrassed, just say something like “i wasn’t trying to laugh at you or what’s going on, i was just trying to help lighten things up so we can see it all a little more clearly.”

i guess what we’re asking is that you at least try to find ways to help us lighten up.  it feels like there’s so much negativity everywhere and pressure to perform and to act certain ways, we need help staying balanced and not being so stressed out and tense.  so crack your corny jokes if you have some.  throw a little good natured sarcasm our way if it’s in you (but pay attention to how we react to make sure we got it and didn’t get hurt)… and above all else, role model for us how to keep perspective so that when stuff happens that feels serious or bad and tempts us to feel overwhelmed, we’ll be able to keep our heads, handle our emotions gracefully and see our options clearly.

and slowly crush our confidence. it seems that many people with authority or experience think that because we are young, or because we’ve had difficult lives, or because we’ve somehow been oppressed for how we look or how much money our families have, that we’re not capable of the same successes as other, more privileged people.  making things easier for us is far more oppressive than challenging us. making things easier for us only sends the message that you think we’re not as capable as everyone else… and it keeps us from building our mental muscles to their fullest abilities. the dangerous thing here is that because we’re young, we’d much prefer things to be easier than harder.  and because of this, we’ll usually just accept the lower standards rather than ask to be challenged. and if you do lower your expectations of us, we’ll end up just feeling pleased with ourselves for accomplishing small, basic tasks, rather than feeling the pride of pushing ourselves beyond what we thought we were capable of.  the bottom line here is that we are capable of more. it is not in our “best interest” to make things too easy on us. and the only way we’ll find out how great we can become is by being challenged and inspired to work harder and aim higher. so even though we may not have had easy childhoods, we won’t benefit from being patronized… but we will benefit from your faith in us to do better.  if there are people in our lives who don’t allow us to “coast” or use our lives as excuses, than you’ll get to see us shine and overcome.  otherwise, if people keep relying on lowering the standards to “build our self-esteem”, we’ll grow up unprepared, hiding behind false arrogance and not knowing how amazing real confidence rooted in ability really feels.

and because of this, we often feel like strangers in our own families. we have different styles, different ways of speaking, different opportunities, different influences and different expectations of ourselves… and this often makes our lives very confusing. we love our parents, but we don’t understand them, just as they don’t understand us. and this causes us great conflict. we go to school and need to make friends and fit in, but when we go home, the ways we try to fit in at school seem childish, shallow, disrespectful and unnecessary to our parents.

our parents grew up in a completely different environment with their own pressures and opportunities and values, and as a result, we often argue over how we should act and what our priorities should be. for us, fitting in feels like survival. if we don’t fit in, we feel alone, lost and scared. if we don’t acclimate to the values and pressures of our peers, we get teased and bullied. and if we don’t abandon some of the ways of our parents, we’re left on the outside looking in.  and it breaks our hearts to “betray” our parents as much as it breaks the hearts of our parents. but we are teenagers, which often means we’re going to be more selfish than deferential. these are the choices we’re compelled to make as children of immigrant parents and our parents just don’t see how and why we make the choices we do. it’s not that we don’t love them, or even respect them, but when most of our time is spent away from them and in the company of our peers, it’s inevitable that we absorb the ways and manners and styles and priorities of those around us.

we understand the desperation our parents feel when they’re watching us evolve into “pop culture” or “typical american” kids… and we can even understand why they try so desperately to impose their culture and faith upon us. but their refusal to accept us for who we are hurts. and all we wish is for our parents to partner with us in finding ways to juggle both worlds.  our choices to “fit in” are not just “rebellious” acts. we just feel that to survive our teenage years and high school, we have to make decisions that go against our “differently” raised parents.  we’re not thinking about ways to aggravate our parents, we’re just doing the best we can to satisfy both their expectations of us and our expectations of ourselves… and if there were ways to remain connected to our roots and the fundamentals of our cultures and faith AND establish our own identities as young people raised in american society… this is what we’d want. all we need is for our parents to be willing to partner with us in finding this balance.

The truth is, despite all the words in my other blogs, and all the books on the shelves of stores, and all the advice scattered over the internet… affecting teenagers really isn’t as difficult as we’ve been conditioned to think it is. The only thing that gets in our way of having the relationships we want and the influence we want is ourselves. And as strange or irritating as this might sound, keep reading if you’re at all curious, and more importantly, if you’re willing to make a few subtle changes.

Regardless of the behavior that’s confusing us or frustrating us or scaring us, we can, at the very least, be connected to our kids while they’re doing what they’re doing… even if we don’t understand why they’re doing it.  Drinking, having sex, using drugs, failing classes, fighting, breaking curfew, hiding, defying, wearing clothes we think bizarre or hurting themselves are all behaviors that have reasons… and we can learn what these reasons are if we can just learn to simplify.

Now before you write off this notion of simplicity as naive, absurd, unrooted in reality or maybe even condescending, try to understand what I’m saying and why I’m saying it. What our kids are doing is serious. Their lives are in danger and their futures are in jeopardy and they need to be affected by someone if they are to change course. And if you can put aside for the moment all  the different strategies and interventions and explanations you’ve read or heard about, you can see what you can do differently.

In simplest terms, influence over another person requires a connection. It’s no different than a light bulb. Without a connection, the light doesn’t get the electricity it needs to shine. The mistake many of us make is in thinking that our only chance is if we find “the right words” or make the “right decision”… when in truth, the words and decisions mean far less to our kids than does the feel of the connection.

If you’re a parent with a teenager who’s doing something, anything, that is causing you concern, frustration or any unwanted feeling, you just need a few seconds before you speak or react. These few seconds will decide whether or not you have a chance at having influence. It’s these few seconds before we speak the reflexive emotional words we normally speak that make the difference.

The bottom line is whether you fear your child is suicidal or at risk… or you feel the urge to lay hands on your kid because they continue to get suspended for fighting… or you are carrying an unspeakable sadness in you because it just doesn’t seem like your child “fits in”… if you can learn, or bring to mind, the qualities of the best people you know, you can take your interaction with your kid in the direction you both need it to go.

And you’re going to have to take my word for it, as over-simplified as my words sound, because I commit every day to employing this simple strategy. I commit every day I go to work at my huge New York City high school, to choosing the qualities I want to exude. And this is it… this is the way to keep influence simple. It’s to let go of the idea that some highly technical or clinical or clever approach needs to be learned and tried… and it’s to identify and choose the right qualities to convey to your kid. And I didn’t learn this in graduate school over years of study…  I learned it by trying too hard, by making my share of mistakes and by reflecting before, during and after my interactions with others.

First, you take in the words of the teenager (by listening) and sense their mood, need or state of mind.

Second, you recognize the emotions you’re feeling in reaction to the child in front of you.

Third, you catch your urges, no matter how strong, and you choose not to act on them.

And fourth, you choose to embody the absolute best qualities that exist in people… not minimally, but with complete sincerity, regardless of how you were raised or who your role models were.  You embody the qualities in the words you choose, in your tone of voice, in your facial expressions, in your posture and how you position yourself next to your child, and in the volume and pace with which you speak.

You commit, in the highly emotional moment, to being authentic… to being compassionate… to being understanding… to being attentive… to being patient… to being humble… to being direct… to showing your integrity, and above all else, to role-modeling the qualities you want your child to someday possess. And you commit to these qualities because they are your only chance of having the connection you need in that moment to affect your child.  Call it a more “Eastern” or “Zen” or “Buddhist” approach if you will, but know that as simple and “touchy/feely” as these suggestions may sound… they will give you more power and influence than you ever thought possible.

And this isn’t to say that you don’t ultimately set limits or administer consequences… because young people most definitely need and earn both. But it’s the qualities we exude and the approaches we choose (as 1970’s “love, peace and joy” as this may sound), that dictate whether our children resist, shut down and defy, or remain receptive to and trusting of our authority and influence.

I see it work every day. With any and all kinds of demographics. With kids from intact and broken homes. With kids with physical and emotional scars, and with kids who’ve grown up spoiled and entitled. The profile and issues of the teenager don’t matter as long as we are approaching them with the qualities I mentioned above.  The words and decisions will come to you, and more often than not you’ll choose the right words and make good decisions… but only if you can lock in, quiet down and listen, realize what you’re feeling, hold your urges to react, and choose to play, with authenticity, the role of the kind of adult you want most to be, and the kind of adult they most need you to be.

New to this blogging thing, I’ve been searching the internet to see what’s out there… and so far, I’m a little disappointed. I’m disappointed not because there aren’t great pieces written by amazingly inspired and intelligent parents and professionals, because there most certainly are, but I’m disappointed in what I’m not seeing.

I’m not seeing much for the urban parents struggling with their inner-city teens. I’m not seeing much for the single inner-city mothers. The grandparents raising too many grandchildren. The foster parents fostering young teens who have been heart-breakingly neglected or worse. I’m not seeing original and authentic ideas about why so many of our urban youth are barely meeting the low standards we set for them, and I’m not seeing thoughtful and simple suggestions as to how to get a kid to be the first in their family to go to college. And I’ll keep looking… but so far, not so good.

Urban teens absolutely get attention in the media, but other than the overwhelmingly negative depictions on the news of what urban youth are doing with their time, or not doing in school… I don’t see much of anything constructive. And I’m not trying to diminish the efforts or authors that are out there, because I have the utmost respect for anyone sharing their stories of triumph or their ideas about how to improve things, I just want a lot more attention given to this growing population of youth sinking deeper and deeper into their own apathy and resentments.

And I’m not here to pretend to know what it’s like to be a marginalized inner-city teen of color, nor would I ever presume to understand the plight of the young minority parent struggling with money and fighting to find a balance between meeting their own needs and meeting those of their teenager… but I am here to do everything I can with the skills, insights and experiences I have. I work with kids thinking about suicide. I sit with kids who are cutting themselves. I speak with kids in gangs who see fighting as a normal part of their week. I listen to kids who cut school to go to sex parties. I hear the stories of kids who have been molested by family members. I’m explaining to kids the possible consequences of sexting and sending facebook threats. I’m supporting victims of bullying, and the bullies themselves. I’m disciplining kids taunting teachers and harassing their peers. And I’m stirring kids to think more deeply about their own disinterest, self-loathing, apathy, hopelessness, helplessness or obsession with physical appearance. You name the issue, and I’m dealing with it every day.

I want to share what I’ve learned and I want somehow for my words, insights and suggestions to find there way to the urban parent who more than likely, isn’t looking for a blog on parenting. I want  somehow for my years of experience working in urban schools, shelters, group homes, drop-out prevention programs and with post-incarcerated teens to shed some light on what’s going on with kids, and how to approach them in ways that actually help them break bad habits.

I’m not claiming to have figured anything out with certainty, but I am claiming to have a lot of springboards… and by springboards, I mean words and ideas and suggestions that adults can use to jump in and stir some actual change in their own lives as parents, and in the lives of their teenagers fighting to navigate big city neighborhoods and schools.

So maybe this particular blog finds someone with some connections who feels so moved to connect me to a larger forum… or maybe this particular blog ends up just being a reminder to myself to keep trying… but whatever comes of it, I want nothing more than to affect some raw, positive, authentic change in the lives of our urban kids. Because underneath their alleged “anger” problems, and beneath their apparent “apathy” towards learning, and buried with them under the weight of neglect or subtle racism or abuse or misfortune, there’s a kid, just like any other kid, with all the skills and potential in the world. And all this kid needs is an adult or two armed with a little more insight, the humility to shut up and listen, and the courage and the care to talk to them directly without pity, and with respect and conviction.

You see the cuts on your 14 year old daughters arm for the first time.  Your 17 year old son won’t come home until after midnight every night and when he does, he smells of alcohol.  You get your 15 year old kids report card in the mail and they failed all but one of their classes and the one class they passed was phys. ed.  You can’t get your 10th grade students to do their homework or stop talking in class long enough to absorb the material they should have learned 3 years ago.  You hear from your 15 year old client that they’ve already had 9 sexual partners.  Whether you are the parent, their teacher or their counselor, you are going to feel things when you find out what your kids are doing.  You’re going to feel many things. You’re going to feel panic, shame, disappointment, anxiety and frustration and you’re going to feel the pull to react from these feelings.  The urge to yell and cry and fix and shame and pity will be strong.  The temptation to throw the biggest consequences you can think of will feel irresistible or you’ll feel the urge to try to hug their problems away.  You may want to get on the internet right away to find the toughest boot camp or you may feel compelled to call information to find the closest psychiatrist who can medicate your kid…

… And this is precisely the moment you need to find a way to NOT do something.  As hard as it will be, you as the authority figure will need to figure out how to stop before you react emotionally so you can position yourself to have the greatest impact you can on your child’s behavior.  You will need to stay focused on your goal of helping them develop more than on the discomfort of feeling what your feeling.  At this moment, you need to understand two things; one, that your emotions and needs are trying to drive your behaviors, and two; that there are most definitely emotions and needs driving your children’s behaviors.

Our children and students are acting in ways that we don’t understand. They’re making decisions that scare us and they’re doing things that confuse us.  They’re reactive and impulsive and self-destructive and we feel helpless to have the impacts we want to have.  We’re feeling more disconnected than ever from the young people we know. We get frantic and feel a sense of urgency and we start to feel hopeless and powerless to wake them up to the short and long-term consequences of their actions… which is why we need to slow down and simplify.

First, ask yourself what an emotion is.  Right now, think about what it means to feel and recognize that our actions are separate from our feelings.  Think about the sensations in your body when you’re angry.  Think about the tightness in your chest when you’re anxious, the pressure behind your eyes when you’re sad or the heaviness in your limbs when you feel exhausted.  Remember what it was like when you were young and you felt stupid, ugly, unprepared or misunderstood.  Remember how those feelings drove your words and your actions.  Maybe you fought.  Maybe you buried yourself in your studies.  Maybe you drank, smoked pot, broke curfew or maybe you tried to be the perfect son or daughter.

Now, think about why you’re reading this blog.  What emotion compelled you to take the time to look for and read these words?  Was it fear?  Was it curiosity? Was it frustration, helplessness or professional obligation? Was it hope for a closer, stronger relationship with your child or student?  Too infrequently do we stop to think about the emotion that drove us to take a certain action.  Too often are we reacting to and dealing with our kids’ behaviors instead of the underlying forces driving them.

For all of us, especially impulsive youth, how we feel, how we want to feel, and how we don’t want to feel fuels what we do and the decisions we make.  This is our foundation.  This is the lens we need to see our kids and students through, and once we begin seeing the true forces motivating their strange and harmful behaviors, we’ll be far more prepared to influence them. Below are a few behaviors we’re seeing in our kids and some of the emotions driving the behaviors.  Remember, sometimes behaviors are in pursuit of certain feelings, and sometimes the behavior is trying get rid of certain feelings.

  • Having sex with multiple partners to quiet loneliness, feel more attractive or feel more loved… or all of the above.
  • Disruptive classroom behavior to hide the shame of not knowing or to feel more powerful and influential over others… or all of the above.
  • Using drugs and alcohol to numb the enduring pain of trauma or to take a vacation from the stress of ones life… or both.
  • Cutting ones own skin to distract oneself from feeling overwhelmed or to feel more in control of their pain… or both.
  • Joining a gang to feel more respected and connected or to feel less lonely and alone… or all of the above.
  • Fighting to release frustration, to feel more powerful or to find a skill that allows them to feel unique… or all of the above.

If we look at any action we take, deliberate or instinctive, driving it is some emotion.  Defiant actions are often driven by the need to feel more powerful.  Self-destructive actions are frequently driven by the need to avoid pain.  Dating can silence the feeling of loneliness, taking a higher paying job can help us feel more secure and lending a helping hand to someone can make us feel useful, thoughtful and generous.  We’ll read because we want to feel inspired, watch romantic comedies to feel joy and hope and we’ll exercise to feel more energetic and sturdy.  We often do things or react without stopping to think about the forces driving our behaviors, but if we can find a way to know more clearly why people do what they do, we’ll significantly increase the chances of having a positive impact on whomever it is we wish to impact.

Apply the framework of “emotion drives behavior” to the young people in your life.  Think about their behaviors and ask yourself what emotion could possibly be driving them.  But be careful not to believe too much in your own theories.  Remember that your explanations are only theories, and that their explanations and reflections hold the keys to their changed behavior.  Once we are more clear about the origin of their behavior or the need they’re trying to meet, than we can communicate with them in more constructive ways and we’ll be better equipped to use our authority and wisdom in ways that are in fact in their best interest.

Always remember to look beneath the behavior.  Be as curious as possible when a child tells you they need something.  A child who says they “need” new clothes may be looking to feel more confident, accepted, and/or less insecure.  A student who says they “need” to change their teacher or is acting out in class may be feeling doubtful about their abilities in a particular subject.  If we’re trying to influence our kids’ behaviors, we need to keep in mind that there is always an emotional reason for their behaviors or stated needs.

As parents, teachers, counselors or caretakers, remaining mindful of the connection between emotional needs and actions will keep us constructive and productive. For each person and child, the emotions driving the behaviors may be different.  Understanding your child or student and the larger context of their lives will help you to more accurately identify the underlying motivations of their actions.  A student raised around violence may be conditioned to feel powerless and act out in their own violent ways to feel more powerful.  A child whose emotional needs were ignored or dismissed by parents might be conditioned to feel invisible and lonely and may seek connection by engaging in sexual activity before they are ready.  Always remember that we won’t know until we find out from them, why they’re doing what they’re doing and what feelings or needs are driving their behaviors.

Being able to remain thoughtful during emotionally charged interactions is hard (and feels impossible at times), but it empowers us to remain more purposeful and influential.  Being able to reflect about our own histories with different emotions prevents us from becoming too righteous or enabling.  Keep in mind that we’re all conditioned in our own ways to cope with different feelings. One person may reject sadness while another person may wallow in it.  One person may take their hurt out on others while a different person may take their hurt out on themselves.  The less we judge the chosen behavior and the more we seek to understand the emotion driving it… the closer we’ll be to our kids and the more influence we’ll have as we pursue their empowerment.

I’ve heard many times from parents that they think their children are “just trying to get back at them” by acting in destructive or lazy ways.  If you as an adult have ever thought that “revenge” was the emotion driving your child’s behaviors… look a little deeper.  Young people only seek “revenge” when they feel they have been harmed in some way. Whether you as the adult agree or disagree with your kids’ behavior or their explanation, remaining more curious than irritated keeps you in a position of influence.  So instead of accusing them of being full of sh&t, be curious about why your child might feel compelled “to get back at you”.  Ask yourself if you somehow misused or abused your power at some point and made them feel powerless.  Ask yourself, rather than react with shock, judgment or righteousness, what emotion could be driving their actions and what approach you should take that maximizes the likelihood that they begin trusting you enough to re-connect with you. Getting defensive or righteous when our kids accuse us doesn’t help us, our relationships or our abilities to influence their behaviors. Here are a few more behaviors and some of the common emotions that drive the behaviors.

  • Truancy to avoid facing the hopeless feeling that comes with having fallen far behind at school.
  • Defiance to authority and rules to feel less powerless or more free or less constrained or more independent… or all of them.
  • Insulting, teasing and bullying others to feel more powerful or less victimized… or both.
  • Cheating on tests to feel the pride of a parent or to feel clever… or both.
  • Playing excessive video games to feel more in control or to avoid the frustration of a life where you never feel demoralized that you can get ahead… or both.
  • Silence and isolation to avoid the fears and uncertainties that come with relationships.
  • Watching excessive television to minimize anxiety or feel comforted by something familiar… or both.
  • Bragging and boasting to feel more confident and less insecure.
  • Obsession with style to feel more attractive or distinct.
  • Eating disorders to feel more in control.
  • Suicidal ideation to feel less constrained and more free.
  • Speaking threats and showing intimidating behaviors to feel more impactful on others.
  • Following the negative or disruptive behaviors of others to feel more belonging.
  • Running away to feel more independent or less dependent or to escape the feeling of confinement, loneliness or fear… or all of the above.

Remember, every child is different. Sons and daughters are different from their parents, and students and clients are different from their teachers and counselors. We all respond differently to the people and situations in our lives and we all deal with or avoid our emotions in our own ways.  Which is why it is so important that we avoid imposing our feelings and beliefs on our kids and simply try to understand what life is like for them.  Having grown up in a culture that undervalues communication and emotional awareness and glorifies aggression and reactivity, many of us, and especially our kids, never learned to truly connect with others or how to be thoughtful and reflective.  This chapter was about stirring you to think differently about the forces that drive your behaviors and those of the kids in your lives.  So pay attention to your kid.  Be curious about your students.  Try to understand the emotions driving the behaviors of the young people in your lives because they are undoubtedly different from your own. And when you’re tempted to freak out because you found out your kid is having sex or doing drugs, or you go home from school having exhausted yourself trying to teach the class from hell, first, catch your breath and quiet your brain as best you can, and then make your reflections and interactions about your kids.  If you can keep this curiosity and commit to their development, then you will have influence.

but whatever you do, please, don’t try to be our friend and tell yourself that it’s in our best interest.  because it’s not in our best interest. it might be easier for you to be our friend and it might allow you to feel younger or enjoy our relationship more, but it’s definitely not in our best interest. the last thing we need you to do is act how we act.  of course we want to trust you and of course we agree that communication is important, but trust and communication with friends is very different than trust and communication with adults… and it needs to be different. we need to trust that adults will keep us safe and help us focus on developing and growing. with friends, we just need to trust that they won’t betray us and that they’ll go through stuff with us.  we need adults to be separate from our chaos and uncertainty so that they can be objective enough to help us endure the challenges of youth.

we’re kids, and we need people to guide us and teach us more than we need older people to try to relate to us on our level.  we need to know that when we mess up, the adults who care about us can care about us enough to point out our mistakes and teach us how to avoid the same mistakes in the future. friends our age don’t usually do this for us. if you’re our teacher, we need you to just be yourself and do your best.  if you’re spending time trying to get us to “like” you, then we’re not learning as much as we can. for us, it’s far more important to respect you… and you will get our respect only if you honor your jobs as role-models and educators and prepare us for our futures (though be mindful, we can be very clever in enticing you into trying to get us to like you).  we need you to establish boundaries and roles, without abusing your authority… just using it to build our skills. look, we’re not saying you have to be robotic and can’t be funny. and we’re not saying that you can’t be playful with us and enjoy your time with us… we’re just saying that before you’re more relaxed with us, make sure you’ve established your priorities and our different roles and responsibilities. make sure if you’re our parents, that we know that your priorities are to teach us, keep us safe and hold us accountable. and once you know we’re clear about the boundaries and roles, and once we’ve earned the more relaxed version of you by doing our jobs as students and children… than you can be a little cooler with us.  but until that time, please, don’t give in to our manipulative ways or your fears of our defiance… and just be the adults we need you to be, and the adults you’d like us to become.

and there’s nothing we or you can do about it.  it’s like being born black in a racist society, being handicapped in a world that ignores people in wheelchairs or having acne, a big nose, thick thighs and a bad hair cut when you’re a teenager… we simply need to find a way to be at peace with who we are, regardless of how others feel about us.  no matter how uncomfortable you are with us being gay, we can’t change the truth of who we are and who we are attracted to any more than you can.  despite what you may think, we do not choose this lifestyle just to be different, we don’t “become” gay just to rebel or make our parents angry, and we are not perverts or deviants. there’s no voodoo that can be done to “cleanse” us and there’s no prayer you can send into the cosmos to change our “nature”.

we want love, connection and healthy relationships… just like everyone else. we have ambitions, want acceptance and appreciate family… just like everyone else… and yes, we get hurt when you look at us with loathing or shame… just like you would if someone you cared about didn’t like something about you that was fundamental to who you are. because it’s such a harsh, judgmental world, we’ll sometimes try to convince ourselves we’re straight when we’re young… but we can only deny or hate ourselves for so long.  we’re just built differently than heterosexuals, just like someone who shines in the spotlight is built differently who thrives in solitude.  regardless of our or your religious upbringing or philosophical beliefs, eventually, we need to be who we are… just like you do.  we don’t lie or keep the secret because we feel it’s wrong to be gay (although some of us do grapple with the notion of “right” versus “wrong”)… we’ll lie and keep it a secret from you because we fear most of the rest of the world thinks it’s wrong.  some of us do experiment when we are young because we aren’t certain of who we are or who we’re drawn to.  it is confusing being young. if we were hurt over and over again by men, we might explore relationships with women… if we were hurt over and over again by women, we might explore relationships with men… but here’s the thing, and it’s very, very important… no matter what you think about being gay, whether you’re our parents, our teachers, our counselors, our priests, our pastors, our rabbis, our bosses, our brothers, our sisters or the people we most look up to… you can only hurt us and our relationship if you try to impose your beliefs on us or rush us into making decisions that we’re not ready to make. so please, just try your hardest to care about us more than you hate the idea of us being different from you.

Let’s just get the scary word out there. Suicide.  It’s a word most people are too afraid to say to young people.  Suicidal thoughts are more common than anyone wants to realize.  Kids and adults all over have thoughts about death and yes, even taking their own lives. When things are rough, and they are staying rough over a period of time, many people start thinking about ways to end the “rough” times. This is when thoughts of “suicide” can enter your mind because it seems like “a way out” of the rough patch. Understand that thoughts of suicide don’t make you crazy, it just means that you’re struggling to find a way through something scary or painful and that you simply need a little help finding your way through… and most importantly, that you WANT to feel better.  While asking for help and being honest with someone about how deeply you’re struggling may be hard… know that it will help. Feeling lonely or alone stinks, and the best way to feel connected to others is to share your secrets and to be real with people.  Don’t worry so much about how people will look at you and don’t silence yourself just because you’re afraid no one will understand. Be honest.  Be open.  Be brave enough to say out loud  what you’re going through because it’s very likely that the person you choose to talk to will have gone through something similar… and if they don’t respond in a way that helps you feel better, talk to someone else, and keep searching until you find someone who puts you at ease… and trust that good, understanding people do exist, either in your family, in your circle of friends, or a teacher or counselor at school.  And know that every effort you put forth towards trying to feel better will feed your confidence and remind you of just how brave and strong you can be. Death is permanent, but your sadness, confusion or pain are absolutely NOT permanent… and you will feel better again soon.

If you’re getting bullied, harassed or teased, know with absolute certainty, that you do not deserve to be treated this way.  It is not okay.  You do not have to “just accept it”, and there is nothing about you that is “asking” to be bullied, harassed or teased.  All it means is that the person treating you this way is insecure and lacks courage. To put an end to their mistreatment of you, dig deep and find the courage to look them in the eye and ask them to stop.  Let them know, without being threatening or aggressive, that they need to stop.  Let them know that if they continue to treat you or talk to you this way, you’ll let an adult know… and not because you’re scared, but because they’re not listening and you will stand up for yourself. And remember, they want you to feel too afraid to tell someone… so they can keep doing what they’re doing. This is why the bullies created this rule that “snitching” will get you hurt… so that they can keep you scared, and they can continue bullying. And if you do tell someone, and they don’t do something to help, go to someone else. And keep going to someone else until you find the adult who will help… just never give up and never “get used” to being bullied, harassed or teased.

even if you think they’re silly. do you want to know why we pierce ourselves, get tattoos, wear the clothes we wear, put make-up on the ways we do, listen to music that hurts your ears or use the language we use? because it’s actually quite simple, and it’s not just to aggravate our parents or get attention (although sometimes, it is).  we experiment with different “identities” because for us, having an “identity” means that we’re visible and that we are somebody distinct.  during our teen years, we’re going through so many changes and we feel so much doubt and uncertainty inside, that having an “identity” gives us something solid to hold on to.  we can say… “i’m a jock, i’m a rebel, i’m alternative, i’m gothic, i’m the self-destructive kid, i’m the risk taker, i’m gay, i’m a ladies man, i’m a popular kid, i’m the cheerleader…” and on and on and on. we look at adults and they seem so formed, and we think to ourselves that we want to feel as formed as they look… so we choose an identity that we think might help us feel visible and confident and connected to other like-minded young people our age.

we know a lot of you wonder why we choose such “strange” identities that often conflict with your beliefs or your sense of “sane”… but you should know that it’s only sometimes that we choose identities to spite you or to cause you irritation. usually we choose an identity that reflects some quality or need inside us…like the need to feel less afraid of judgment, or the need to express creativity, or the need to feel and look more powerful. and sometimes we do just end up with an identity that is shared by a few other kids we’ve made friends with. but this doesn’t mean the identity we adopt isn’t genuine, and it doesn’t mean we’ll discard the identity just because you call us “followers”. as soon as we adopt an identity, we’re going to keep it for a while and we’re going to make it ours… so do your best bet is put aside your judgments, and be curious about what’s going on inside our heads and hearts that drove us to look and act the way we do. and then right after you express your curiosity about the identities we’ve selected, remember to continue to appreciate the character underneath the show you see. our experimentation with different identities and labels may or may not become permanent parts of our personalities, but whether they do or don’t, if we’re not causing others harm or putting our futures in jeopardy, try to keep your cool and just stay as connected to us as you can.

Most books about parenting or dealing with young people focus on doing the “right” thing with them.  But as we all know, we don’t always do the right thing or say the kind words.  Kids push our buttons.  We’re sometimes (and often) not in the mood.  And our lives and needs occasionally feel more important than theirs… which is when we do damage to our connections.

Damage to our connections with our kids is as inevitable as it is serious.  Without healthy connections, we can have no influence and we can lose sight of what’s going on with our kids, which can lead to other bad stuff.  Knowing when the connection is damaged and how to repair our connection with them is vital in preventing risky behavior and influencing healthy behavior.

Obviously as adults, we’d all like to handle situations with our kids perfectly and prevent miscommunication and disconnect.  But this should not be at the expense of discussing the utility of mistakes and the growth that can come with good repair work after relationships have been damaged.  The mistakes we make with our kids can become profound opportunities to teach and learn lessons… as long as we’re humble enough to own them and self-aware enough to recognize them.

The list of tempting “reactions” to our kids’ behaviors is long.  We’ll hit, yell, scold, shame, over-react, punish too harshly, insult or just plain be mean.  Our emotions in these moments are driving us, not our intellect or pursuit of their development.  Our unfiltered human expressions of emotion, painful as they may be to our kids, can either end up giving them permission to express themselves thoughtlessly, or they can be used as the vehicles to take them (and us) to the healthier place of mindfulness and thoughtfulness.

After we’ve “reacted” and caused damage to our connections, what do we do?  Do we blame them for triggering us? or do we own our recklessness and find ways to hold ourselves accountable?  Do we allow our guilt for having messed up to drive us to buy them stuff they haven’t earned or give them privileges they’re not ready for? or do we express our guilt to them and share with them the ways we’ll try to be more constructive and thoughtful in response to their behaviors?

Repair work is nothing more than the efforts we put forth after we’ve screwed up or role-modeled qualities we don’t want to promote in our kids.  It role-models self-awareness, humility, courage and communication skills and it can go a long, long way in building trust and credibility with our kids.

Knowing that we can “repair” fractured relationships doesn’t mean we should give ourselves permission to be reckless and thoughtless in how we respond to our kids’ behaviors. This would simply end up role-modeling empty apologies.  Repair work is only useful if it stirs lasting changes in communication, judgment or behavior.

Given the fragility of children’s ego’s, we need to remain very mindful of just how powerful our reactions are and just how deeply they affect our kids.  Obviously, we’re going to feel and react at times without thought, but when we do this, if we can go back to our kids and listen to how our “impulsivity” affected them, than we’re increasing the likelihood that something good comes out of something “bad”.  No, we don’t want to baby our kids (unless they’re actually babies), and there will be times when we need our words and decisions to leave a mark (and I don’t mean physically), but we can’t just leave the mark without being sure that we’re leaving the mark we want to leave.

Repair work ensures that lessons are learned and that the damage we’ve done isn’t permanent.  The conversations we have after damage has been done to trust and connection are the mechanisms for growth and change, both for them as well as for us.  So when (not if) you screw up, in your home, office or classroom, with your kid, your client or your student, at some point shortly after you lashed out thoughtlessly or selfishly (and once you’ve cooled off), get a moment alone with the kid and have a conversation.  Repair what you’ve broken and show your kid how to do the same.

We haven’t heard them all, because humans have an infinite number of them… and the ones kids make are usually the best.  No matter how absurd, shocking, irritating or funny they are, they do serve purposes.

“My alarm clock didn’t go off.  My teacher’s a racist.  I had a long day. My parents were fighting all night long and fight all the time.  My friend got shot this weekend.  I had to take care of my little sister.  I sprained my ankle.  It was raining, I stubbed my toe, I sneezed 5 times in a row, my head hurts, my ears ache, the President of the United States is black, I’m white, you’re fat, I’m Hispanic or my family’s poor”.

I often ask my kids if they know the difference between a reason and an excuse (usually just after they made an excuse), and 9 times out of 10, they pause, smile a sheepish grin and get my point.  It’s very easy for young people to confuse legitimate reasons and excuses or justifications.  Even the above list of excuses challenges us to think about what’s legitimate, and what’s an excuse.  For example, if one of our students lost a grandparent recently, does this justify getting failing grades all year long?

Our reactions to their “explanations” can be very subjective.  When our kids come to us with their “explanations”, it’s our job to assess the validity of their claim, whether or not their claim actually justifies their behavior, or whether or not we’re going to accept their “explanation” and how long we’re going to accept it.  Remaining mindful of our own emotional reactions to their “explanations” or circumstances is crucial in making the decision that is best for the kid.  Sometimes we’re just too tired to call them on their lame excuses and challenge them, and sometimes we just feel so sorry for them that we make allowances for them as a gesture of our sympathy.  Either way, we need to be mindful of the reasons behind our decisions and try as hard as possible to make the decision that teaches them the most.

Challenging our kids (as well as ourselves) to think about the difference between reasons and excuses compels them to move closer to the “adult” behavior of taking responsibility and away from the juvenile behavior of blaming outside forces.

Excuses are designed to justify behavior.  We make them for ourselves, and we listen to others make them.  It’s rare to meet someone who never makes excuses and takes full and complete responsibility for every decision they make.  For our kids, excuses are often their first and last resort.  But for us, the adults in their lives, the 2 most damaging things we can do to our kids development are 1) make excuses for our own misbehavior, mistakes or lack of effort, and 2) make excuses for our kids misbehavior, mistakes or lack of effort.

When we accept or make excuses for our kids, we’re essentially lowering expectations of them.  We’re delivering the very powerful message that we do not have faith in our kids to do right, even when circumstances are difficult.  Lowering expectations of our kids is a trend that society as a whole seems to be following.  We use race, gender, neighborhood, family dynamics, sexual orientation, family income or any other differentiating detail to “explain” a young persons behavior or performance… and this does nothing but inhibit our kids’ growth and diminish their fortitude and effort.

Obviously, there are forces that make things easier or harder for certain kids.  But there is a huge difference between harder… and impossible.  Kids that grow up in neighborhoods where violence is “normal”, may have a harder time focusing on their futures… but it is not impossible and they are just as capable.  Kids who belong to a demographic that statistically shows lower average academic performance doesn’t mean they lack the ability to perform as well as the demographic that shows higher average academic performance levels, it just means they need the right support… and to be challenged thoughtfully.

When our kids have real factors working against them, it simply means that the adults in their lives have to work harder to get them to rise above the built in excuses or “explanations”.  The hard part for many adults is finding a way to both validate the challenges they face AND hold them accountable for their effort, behaviors and performance.  And for anyone who doubts whether this can be done… it can.  We simply have to give our kids the time, the support and the space they need to deal with their harsher, more unfortunate or challenging realities… and then we have to stop pitying them and stop them from pitying themselves… and then we have to take them by the hand, move on and get back to work.

As soon as our kids hear from the adults in their lives that less is good enough, they’re going to achieve less.  As teachers and parents, we can deliver this message in many ways. The most common ways we send the messages that less is enough is when we lower standards and expectations or when we make things easier on our kids despite their obvious capacities to do more.   But this is not what’s best for our kids.  It may be what alleviates our guilt or gets our kids to like us or love us more… but it will not prepare them for independence.

DESPITE their circumstances and WITH  the heavy baggage that many of our kids carry, they need to continue to work and perform.  They need the adults in their lives to role model courage and how to endure and overcome challenge, and they need us to partner with them until they develop their own momentum.

This is not to say that we ignore our kids’ struggles and just rush them forward. In fact, our kids need time to make their excuses, whine, complain and talk about the obstacles they’re facing.  They deserve opportunities to cry about the hard stuff they’ve been through and the pains they carry with them every day.  But they can not have endless opportunities.  As the adults, we have to separate the times we listen and validate from the times we challenge them to work and push through.  Kids need from the adults in their lives the structure that teaches them that there’s a time to sit and feel and mourn and grieve… and there’s the time to step ahead, even with heavy hearts or uncertainty.

Making excuses can become habitual… we all know this.  And lowering expectations can be very sneaky and there are countless ways we can justify accepting less from our kids (as well as ourselves).  But just like with every other worthwhile cause, with a little self-awareness, transparency, accountability and effort, we can get better at seeing through our kids excuses, validating them AND holding them accountable, and making sure we’re doing everything we can to help them become the best versions of themselves they can be.