Archive for the ‘My Thoughts…’ Category

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

A few words to the pains I hear in so many voices… be they the stories of the teenage students I work with, the parents of the children I know, posters of blogs, teachers I spend my days with, or the friends and family I love.

None of us our alone in our pursuits of ease, and we are all more capable than we know of finding such peace… regardless of the chaos, the hurt, the fear, the loneliness or the loss that comes to us.  It’s a miraculous moment to be able to feel something we wish we were not feeling… and not need to rush or push it away… to quietly feel as graceful with our pains as we are appreciative of the pleasures that find us… finding strength in our confidence to endure the darkness, and in the knowledge that it is all merely texture, albeit at times indescribable pain, simply  waiting for its time to turn to something else.

I hear so many speak of their pursuit of happiness, and every time I hear of such pursuits, I feel only confusion… because for me, an untextured life defined only by the one emotion is not only an impossibility, but an unwanted reality. For me, I find peace in an unwavering pursuit of grace… I find peace in the idea of spending my days growing better and better at  being truly okay with each feeling that is stirred by the moments of my life, without preference and without need. And should I be fortunate enough to become graceful with the full texture of being human… I’m sure, without any doubts, that among them will be many moments of joy and happiness.

No, we will never invite darkness when we can be in light, but should the darkness find its way to our days, through mindless violence or natural disaster, the quality of grace, unreligious yet personal and deep, is a force that can ground us during such times of uproot… when all we have to move us forward, is the next strained or easy breath… and our connection to each other.