Thursday, January 9, 2014

Walk in my shoes. Remember?

“Walk in my (their) shoes.”—a common phrase most of us have used or, more likely, thought to ourselves at some point. “If so and so could only walk for one day in my shoes…” When it comes to working with adolescents, I have found that my most successful moments have come when I forget how to think as an adult, and remember those shoes I walked in years ago. For me, they were Sperry Topsiders that I convinced my parents I had to have to maintain some semblance of cool. I wore them without socks when I was out of the sight of my mom. In fact, one time mom drove by as I was walking home from school with my socks stuffed in my Peechee folder (no TrapperKeeper for me) and my feet sweating away, but very cool in my Topsiders. Can you believe that she would be mad at me for walking sockless in the face of such adolescent standards of proper attire???
Do you remember those days? For crying out loud—what is wrong with wearing shoes with no socks?—or better yet, what is so blasted important about wearing those shoes with no socks? The point is, “there is no rational explanation of the rules that reign in the adolescent mind.” The problem is that there is some psychological phenomenon that allows the adult to block out those years once they become a parent. We somehow think that our own children will be more like our “ideal” middle school self that we imagined rather than that real, but distant and forgotten ancestor to our present self.
The best part of my job has been that I have had the opportunity of living vicariously through hundreds of parents prior to my own children becoming adolescents. It hasn’t made me a better parent, but I think I am able to catch myself when I start thinking, “I can’t believe…” Actually, I can believe that my hair flopping, chest-hair sprouting, voice-changing, pimple-popping, sockless self may have done that exact thing when he was trying to establish his place in this world. While I hope my children will rise above my foolishness, it definitely helps when I don’t let those hopes get too far ahead of me. Try taking a stroll in those old stinky Topsiders that your mom told you not to wear without socks. You might find that your adolescent will be just fine as an adult.

Saturday, November 30, 2013


With Thanksgiving kicked to the curb this week in favor of Black Friday (and I don’t really know what to call the sales that started at 3:00 on Thanksgiving), it seems appropriate to consider the theme of gratitude as it applies to young people. There is a growing body of knowledge on affective emotions such as gratitude in research about adolescents. These studies seem to complement those having to do with the level of engagement by adolescents in all areas of life.
Recent studies have led researchers to speculate that “one factor that may inhibit the development of gratitude is materialism” (Froh and Bono, 2010). This being the case, it seems difficult to cultivate a strong sense of gratitude when culturally we sweep our national celebration of gratitude to the side in favor of what is becoming our highest value of materialism (masked in the celebration of the ancient Christ child, though it may be). If you are a parent looking to develop a healthy life outlook in your children, we might reflect on these initial conclusions: “gratitude seems to drive intrinsic goal pursuit, prosocial motivations, and the fulfillment of higher order needs, whereas materialism seems to drive extrinsic goal pursuit, individualistic motivations, and the fulfillment of lower-order needs” (Kasser, 2002; Polak & McCullough, 2006). Not only are extrinsic goals harmful in the development of positive learning habits, but adolescents who are extrinsically motivated report more tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana use, and a higher incidence of sexual intercourse than the intrinsically motivated youth (ibid).
Suggestions?:  Extend your Thanksgiving celebrations to include frequent messages of gratitude. Consider holding off the rush to consume at Christmas in favor of the virtue of giving. The benefits may go beyond simply having more thankful kids, but may even benefit your children educationally and socially. If you do join in on the post-turkey shopping sprees, work to communicate gratitude to those around you so your children see that the pursuit of “deals” is more than simply the feeding of our consumerist soul. Studies are beginning to show that young people are better-adjusted to life when they learn to be satisfied and grateful than when they have to satisfy the bottomless pit of materialism. Take time, enjoy, say “thank you,” and treat salespeople and checkers with respect and dignity. These examples of gratitude get passed on in the form of contentment and the enjoyment of life that go far beyond the fleeting satisfaction of stuff.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

New Hunters and Gatherers

                For millennia, those we now term “adolescents” transitioned into an adult working culture in a fairly natural way. Boys in hunting cultures would begin hunting small game, girls would begin working in the kitchen or managing the household, and shepherds would begin tending the smaller animals. The idea that “the world is their oyster” was not a consideration. Now, however, young children are told that they could be anything they want to be. Think about the difference in the stress level between, “son, today you are going to go hunting for rabbit with your friends and one day you will get to hunt the big buffalo with the rest of the tribe.” and “You better work really hard in all six of your classes. Also, don’t forget that ________ (football, chess, student government) is your ticket to a scholarship.” The transition into adult culture for those in the past would have been gradual and predictable to most in society, while today it is more mysterious and ominous.
                These questions about the future have an impact on our young people. As individualistic Americans we tend to hold the value of choice up as a civic virtue, but today the choices that young people will have are relatively ephemeral. Sure, some traditional occupations will continue in the future, but many of the high-level business and technological positions are changing quicker than our educational systems, or our psyches, can handle. We, as adults, should keep this reality in mind as we coach our children in the adolescent years—the questions about the future are great and nebulous for them. Perhaps we need to avoid the age-old question of, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and replace it with, “What kind of person are you becoming?” helping adolescents move more gracefully into a character-driven life. Our focus, then, is to train them in how to think, analyze and synthesize ideas rather than how to do tasks.