We Need To Talk…

Parenting is Full of Difficult Conversations

Situation:

Shelby’s best friend since Kindergarten is Angel. Shelby’s parents Tim and Cheryl haven’t allowed her to spend time with Angel outside of school because they don’t like how Angel’s parents let her do whatever she wants. Shelby’s parents think Angel is becoming a bad influence on Shelby. They haven’t told Shelby any of this though, they just tell her no when she asks to go over to Angel’s house. Shelby feels frustrated, upset and confused which has led to her arguing and being more defiant at home.

Problem: 

Tim and Cheryl are avoiding a difficult conversation with their daughter. Also, they’ve set a new rule with no explanation for why it’s been set.

  • There’s no ‘perfect’ way to tell a child they can’t spend time with a friend anymore. But, avoiding the conversation isn’t helpful either.
  • Children do well with consistency and structure. When that structure is changed, it’s common for a child to feel ‘off’ and act out as they try to understand their new normal, especially if they have little parent support

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Strategy: Fumbling is better than Avoiding

  1. When any difficult situation comes up in parenting, (limiting friendships, puberty, death of a loved one, etc.) it is vitally important that a two-way conversation occurs between you and your child.
  2. It is also important for the conversation to keep happening. Once may not be enough. Allow your child to ask questions. If they understand, they are more likely to be able to accept.

This strategy won’t work in every situation. But, it’s a good start for trying to figure out how to change a child’s behavior for the better.

Questions? Contact RaisingUpDads@gmail.com or @raisingupdads on Facebook and Twitter! Go here to find more parenting strategies!

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Are You Lying to Me?

The Trap of Forced Truth

Situation:

Kylie’s frustrated with her oldest son, Jacob who is 9 years old. Jacob won’t stop lying about everything! Even in situations when Jacob is clearly lying, when the evidence against him is indisputable, he still lies. Yesterday, Kylie watched Jacob hit his younger sister. Kylie asked Jacob why he hit his sister. Jacob said he didn’t hit her. Kylie said she saw the whole incident and demanded Jacob tell the truth. Jacob refused, telling more lies instead. Kylie eventually gave up and walked away because she was so angry.

Problem: 

Kylie thinks she’s doing the right thing by trying to get Jacob to tell the truth, but really all she’s doing is giving Jacob more opportunities to lie and to tell better lies

  • Children generally receive a lot of attention for telling lies, but very little attention for telling the truth
  • The more a parent pushes a child to tell the truth, the more opportunity there is for the child to tell more lies

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Strategy: Stop Feeding the Lie

  1. If you suspect (or know) your child is lying, issue them a negative consequence. Don’t question the lie, demand the truth, or give any more attention than necessary to the lie.
  2. Don’t take the lie personally. Children don’t understand lies in the same way adults do. Even for teenagers, their understanding is not as advanced as an adult.

This strategy won’t work in every situation. But, it’s a good start for trying to figure out how to change a child’s behavior for the better.

Questions? Contact RaisingUpDads@gmail.com or @raisingupdads on Facebook and Twitter! Find more parenting strategies here!

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The Anguish Beneath

The Anguish Beneath

“While you may feel physically and mentally strong, you still experience a forceful undercurrent of anguish. You sleep well, you work well, but there are few waking moments when you do not feel that throbbing pain in your heart that makes everything seem up in the air. You know that you are progressing, but you can’t understand why this anguish keeps pervading everything you think, say, or do. There is still a deep, unresolved pain, but you cannot take it away yourself. It exists far deeper than you can reach.

Be patient and trust. You have to move gradually deeper into your heart. There is a place far down that is like a turbulent river, and that place frightens you. But do not fear. One day it will be quiet and peaceful.”

– Henri Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love

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There is a pattern to my life, a pattern which I became consciously aware of last winter. First, there is anger. Then, there is sadness. Anger and outrage at injustice I perceive in the world, anger and outrage at injustice I perceive within myself. Then, a deep well of sadness that seeks to drown everything that I do, a grief that protects me from those who are strangers and a grief that keeps me from those who are closest to me.

It is a pattern I know is coming, but it’s a pattern I often feel helpless to stop. I quickly grow tired of it. Tired of the physical toll anger takes on me, tired of the mental toll sadness takes on me. Tired of wanting deeply to respond to the love and kindness of my friends and family around me but unable to do little but sit stoically as I refuse to let even a smile cross my face.

Yet, strangely; I feel I am making progress in the midst of this bitterly cold winter season. A paraphrase of a song lyric by John Mark McMillan has stuck with me these last few months; “may a river of joy flow forth from the cup of suffering you have received…”

I have only just begun to explore the interconnectedness of joy and suffering. On the surface, it seems like such an absurd premise if not a bit trite to one who may be suffering. It’s an easy platitude to say to someone who is suffering to try to explain away the often unjust luck of fate from which suffering lands.

It has always been easy, almost natural, for me to explore the suffering my own mind imparts on my life. Since around the time of early adolescence, it is what I have known, one of my oldest companions. Joy is a much more difficult, almost frightening, state as it is largely an unknown.

That is not to say I haven’t experienced joy or am opposed to joy. It certainly seems like an attribute worth striving towards. I have experienced joy in my relationships, in my accomplishments and I see joy all around me all the time, especially in my wife and children. But the thought of sustained joy is what eludes and frustrates me.

Why frustrates? Because I convince myself that I should be joyful and happy. I live in a privileged time in history and in a privileged place in the world. What right do I have to not feel joyful at all times?

Ah, but such is the dirty trick of suffering. It convinces me that my own suffering is nothing compared to someone else’s. And then it adds guilt that I should be wasting the access to joy I have been freely given through no work of my own.

Twice now in the last 12 months I have been in conversations with others where I have made some sort of comment along the lines of “In my life, I can identify several factors that could put me at risk for suicide, but suicide is not an act I have ever really contemplated.” Both times I made the comment (once in passing, once during a training I was leading), it was intended as positive reflection on the status of my mental health. Both times, the comment shook me deeply as immediately the question came to my mind of “why not?”

I hadn’t really contemplated this question before. I mean to sit around and wonder “Why had I never considered suicide?” is a bit of an odd practice to say the least. But, I had made the statement and now I had to wrestle with the question.

As I have wrestled with that question these last few months, here is what I have concluded; my overly logical unconscious mind has been looking out for me.

That is, on some level, I had convinced myself of the logic that no matter how angry and sad I might be, objectively speaking because of the privileges I enjoy and have access to, I had no right to feel so badly about myself and my life that ending it was the solution. The problem though is, all those reasons are external supports. My successes, my career, my status, etc. For most of my life, I had relied on these external supports to carry me through my deeply held mental health struggles. So then, the next question became, “What would I do if those supports were removed?” or more so “What if those supports upon which I was basing the whole of my identity were removed and I was left with just myself to fall back on for support?”

It took me awhile for my conscious mind to come to this last question, but I think my unconscious mind sensed it immediately. I believe the reason why the original comment shook me so much was because deep down, I had no good, comforting answer.

But, I did come up with a plan that would lead me to an answer. I took a step I had been contemplating for years, but never I had actually followed through with because I had convinced myself that it wasn’t a step for me. I didn’t feel like I was too good to take that step or anything obnoxious like that, but rather again, I let myself fall into the trap that by external measurements I wasn’t ‘broken’ enough to take the step I needed to. That by taking that step, I was taking up resources that could be better used by someone else. Again, the dirty tricks of suffering are subtle and powerful.

That step I took? I began attending therapy.

It has not been easy, as like any good therapy, it requires me to work on myself, to wrestle with my inner darkness, to fail at making changes, to get up and try again and perhaps most importantly, to accept myself, to accept my strengths, to accept my faults, to come to terms with my own cup of suffering that life has given me.

Slowly I can see progress being made. Slowly I experience more joy in my life. Slowly I come to believe more fully in the ethos of the faith I follow. Slowly, slowly, slowly the cup of suffering, the stream of anguish beneath all I do is turning into a river of joy that seeks to over-run the banks of the my life. Yes, the suffering will always be there, like any stream that feeds into a river, but someday it will be but a slight undercurrent to the peaceful and calm waters that surround it.

Thank you for the gift of your time, I hope I have used it well.

JP

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We Took A Trip

We Took a Trip

A Trip to Nowhere in Particular

A few years ago, my wife and I moved our family back to the area of the Midwest where we were from. We had been living in Las Vegas, Nevada for several years and though we very much enjoyed living there, we wanted our children to have the opportunity to grow up around our respective extended families, both sides of which live within 30 minutes of where we now live.

I have no significant regrets of moving as it has been a tremendous boon to me personally (not surprising as I have been able to invest significantly more time into personal growth and social relationships) and professionally (somewhat surprising to me as moving resulted in me leaving my career at the time.)

I will readily admit I do sometimes miss living in Las Vegas. I miss the people with whom my family and I grew close. I miss walking down the Strip, where I relished the opportunity to be anonymous in a sea of people. A sea of people who often displayed the gritty hopes and dashed dreams that Vegas has been built on. I miss the food and in the midst of Midwest winter, I miss Vegas weather!

My family and I have not been back to Las Vegas since we moved away. Life has a way of moving on and we moved with it. My wife and I had discussed visiting sometime, but the timing just hadn’t worked out yet. But, last winter (likely sometime after another late season storm dumped several more inches of snow on the ground) we decided that we were going to go back and visit for a few days during our kids’ winter break from school.

We made our plans and a few days after this last Christmas, we were ready to go. When we did the math, we realized that it would be cheaper to drive than fly so we rented a car (as ours is not in good enough shape that we trusted it to make such a long drive,) packed it full of luggage, food and a variety of entertainment options for our children. We choose a route through the Southwest as we wanted to avoid the typical wintry weather of the upper Midwest, Colorado and Utah. Our biggest worry was how our children would handle a 20+ hour car ride.

Unpredictable Factors

In a bit of an ironic twist, our biggest worry was nothing to worry about at all and one of our minor worries became our biggest. That is, our children were incredibly well behaved throughout the course of the trip, but driving through the typically mild-weathered Southwest became extremely complicated by not one, but two recording breaking blizzards hitting New Mexico during the days we were scheduled to drive through that state.

The weather conditions were such that we reached a point where it seemed unsafe to press on and waiting it out would have delayed us so much that by the time we reached Vegas, it would have been time to go home. So, we turned around.

Over the first hour after we turned around, I drove mostly silently as I ruminated over the series of events that had led to us feeling like we had no choice but to turn around. I was trying to identify the ‘fatal’ mistake we had made, the mistaken decision made (even in good faith) that started us off on the path of eventually turning. After some thought, I concluded that the ‘fatal’ mistake I made was engaging in rock brain thinking rather than flexible thinking.

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Different Ways of Thinking

Rock brain and flexible thinking are terms coined by Michelle Garcia Winner in her social emotion learning curriculum for children titled Superflex. In over-simplified terms, rock brain thinking is stubbornly holding to an opinion and an inability or unwillingness to consider alternative viewpoints. Flexible thinking is being able to consider a variety of options and choose the best one.

Most people in non-stressful situations can use flexible thinking. When stress is introduced though, it becomes harder and harder to make a well-informed decision. For example, imagine ordering a meal in a reasonably quiet restaurant versus ordering dinner in that same restaurant while an upset baby cries loudly next to you.

Further, say you wanted a specific item off the menu. And say the restaurant happens to be out of said item. In a non-stressful situation, you may engage in rock brain thinking initially and insist that the menu item you wanted is the only item you wanted. But eventually, you’ll likely consider other options such as another menu item or going to another restaurant.

Now, imagine that scenario again but with the screaming, crying baby next to your ear. The stress of that situation is going to make it much more difficult to consider other options. Instead of considering another menu item, I may insist on what I wanted, demand to speak to a manager, yell at the baby, become highly irritated and refuse to listen to anyone who is telling me I can’t have whatever menu item it is that I wanted.

In my situation, the menu item I wanted was to take the route I had planned to take and to make the stops along the way we had planned to make. The screaming, crying baby was the blizzard and ever worsening road conditions.

As my wife and I talked through our options, it seemed like the only good option was to stick to our plan with the only deviation being to stay a day extra at one of our stops in hopes that the weather would quickly pass. Suffice to say, the only good option didn’t pan out and as I mentioned above, we eventually turned around. Not surprisingly, once we turned around and the stress was removed of trying to get where we wanted when we wanted, we suddenly were able to generate several options that likely would have allowed us to reach our destination. If only we had been able to think so flexibly while stressed, right?

But, it is not impossible to engage in flexible thinking during stressful moments. It takes awareness and practice.

Awareness includes anticipating potential stressors and thinking through what you would do if that stressor occurs. For me, though I had anticipated weather might be an issue, I didn’t fully consider the potential impact of poor weather over the whole trip. I only thought through the impact of poor weather in the Midwest.

Awareness is also knowing the signs in the moment that you are engaging in rock brain thinking. Do you get irritated at the suggestion of another option? Are you acting abnormally to how you normally act in order to get your way? Do you feel physically agitated or on-edge? Answering yes to any of these may be an indicator that you’re headed to rock brain thinking.

Practice is admittedly more difficult to do as I am not suggesting you purposely create stressful situations for yourself in order that you can practice handling said situations better. Rather, make a habit of intentionally applying flexible thinking to non-stressful situations and slightly stressful situations.

For instance, I live in a city with a lot of railways across main streets. When I find myself delayed by a train, I think about what alternative routes I could take or what signs I could have looked for to avoid the train. Most of the time, the trains only delay me a few minutes so it’s not really worth taking an alternative route, but if there was ever an emergency situation that I needed to get across town for, I have already practiced what I would do and would be able to immediately engage in flexible thinking to quickly find an alternative route.

Flexible thinking isn’t going to ‘save’ every stressful situation. But, it can help to make difficult situations less stressful and potentially lead you to a more helpful outcome.

 

 

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Why We Need Others

“No man is an island…” begins John Donne’s well-known poem simply titled Meditation XVII. I first read Donne’s works in high school when I was forced to by an English teacher who knew better what was good for me than I would have cared to admit back then.

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The selection was included during a unit on English poets who we were studying. For whatever reason, British prose never caught my attention, (much to the chagrin of my older brother who would sometimes criticize my decisions to read modern American fiction…we led a bit of nerdy childhoods at times…) but Donne’s declaration has always struck with me.

I found the statement ‘no man is an island’ to be challenging. Growing up in an area of the American Midwest which has and continues to be shaped by generations and generations of Protestant self-efficacy, I felt to need the support of others was akin to admitting to defeat. I would blaze my own trail with or without the support of others as my own self-inflated view of my strong work ethic would allow me to function without the need of others (it’s fair to say I was also wholly unaware of the factors outside my control such as my gender, race, educational opportunities, family supports, etc. that heavily contributed to any success I’ve had ‘blazing my own trail’.)

Then, I met the woman who I would eventually marry. I quickly realized living on the self-centric island of my own ego I had created was not where I wanted to be. We dated, broke up, dated again, married and now have been together for more years of our lives than years apart. As we have walked through our lives together, she’s been a constant source of grace and encouragement. And, in a probably less romantic but still tremendously helpful to me role, she’s always been my editor.

In college, I always asked her to read my papers because she usually graded harder than my professors. I knew if I could get a paper by her with minimal red marks, then I didn’t need to worry much about my final grade. Now, she reads every article I write for this site, all the boring technical writing I do for the Raising Up Dads program model and anything else that may come up that I could use a second set of eyes on to make sure what I have written is true to what I’m trying to say.

A few weeks ago, after editing Mister Rogers Got It, she remarked that there seemed to be a theme of combating perfectionism in a healthy way running through it in the last few articles I had posted (You’re Doing A Good Job! and The Jealousy of Good Things.) She asked me if that was intentional.

It wasn’t, but she wasn’t wrong. To me, those articles were merely responses to random thoughts I had had or situations I had observed. There was no deeper insight into myself to be gleaned (or at least I wasn’t aware of any deeper insight to be gleaned.) But, as I considered what she said and re-read what I had written, I realized there was truth to what she had seen.

That is, I have always been a perfectionist. It’s been easy for me to deny because I am not a perfectionist in the stereotypical way (i.e. My desk is never well-organized and tidy, I don’t get upset if a plan doesn’t quite come together in the way I wanted, I don’t expect others to be perfect, etc.) But, I have always had extremely high standards for myself, standards that I know I will never attain but to which I still strive anyway. Usually I can reasonably manage my perfectionist desires, but when I am stressed, overwhelmed or experiencing significant life change, my perfectionism is at its most destructive. I put tremendous pressure on myself to not miss a step. For whatever reason, not only can I not allow myself to fail, I can’t allow myself even the possibility that failure even exists.

A few weeks ago, I was in the office trying to write some curriculum after working with clients all day. I was exhausted so I asked a colleague who is an amazing clinician, how she balances switching gears from meeting with clients to doing more detail-oriented, monotonous work such as paperwork. Her answer: “I don’t, I go home and do it the next day.”

Her answer struck at the root of what my wife had observed in what I had been writing. She recognizes the limits to what she can reasonably do in a day’s work. If something doesn’t get done, she’s okay with it because she knows there’s always another day. In the moment, I struggle to recognize my limits or accept that I can’t do it all.

Over and over again in my life, I return to a pattern of wanting to be John Donne’s anti-man who lives solo on an island of his own making. However, I am learning having others in my life is vital to stopping this pattern (and other potentially destructive patterns of behavior.) We need each other, and as much as I would like to think I can go it alone, life is teaching me this is just not true. I am also slowly learning that life is actually better together anyway.

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The Jealousy of Good Things

The Jealousy of Good Things

Recently, I read about a philanthropist who made a very generous gift that will positively impact mental health in their community both in the present and generations from now. It was an exciting and praiseworthy gift.

Yet, as I read over the press release, I only felt a sense of failure and frustration. I felt a failure as I had to admit to myself I would likely never be able to give such a gift. At best, I can do the work that said gifts often fund but that rarely comes with the adulation and praise that I pettily desire.

I felt frustration at allowing myself to let such envy take hold of my mind. Frustration quickly led to quiet anger, restlessness and unhelpful ruminating. I spent the rest of the day in that state, growing more and more weary as I tried to fight off the demons of my self-created vulnerability.

In a sense, I am suffering from the Facebook effect. The Facebook effect is the very real phenomenon of people developing depressive states from viewing their friends social media posts. This happens because we tend to post the highlights of our lives on social media. As I scroll through Facebook all I see are happy moments. It makes it seem like everyone else’s life is amazing and wonderful and perfect and I am forced to consider that my life is not as amazing and wonderful and perfect 24/7.

But, the Facebook effect is not new. Though the format in which it occurs may be new, the jealousy of good things has been around since the earliest days of humanity.

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For my birthday a few weeks ago, my wife gifted me A Song of the Sparrows by Murray Bodo. It is a collection of poems and meditations on life and spirituality. The next morning after the evening I spent alternating pitying and loathing myself, I came across the passage below. (Passage in italics, my reflections follow.)

“When I compare myself to others, I have an immense sense of failure, of inadequacy because I see only their strengths which seldom are my strengths.”

No matter how much I try, I can’t have it all and I can’t be everything. As a child, I never liked Choose Your Own Adventure books. I wanted all the adventures. I hated being limited to only one option and knowing if I picked a particular option then all other options were likely off-the-table. What if I picked the wrong one?

As an adult, I have made intentional choices to prioritize my family over my career. I made this decision knowing full well how it could potentially negatively affect my future earnings and opportunities of influence I may have been on track for.

But, I love the opportunities focusing on my family has given me to spend time with my children and spouse! Being a stay-at-home dad has been an amazing opportunity that has allowed me to build stronger relationships with my children, be a better support to my wife and to go through my own much-needed time of self-introspection and maturation.

And yet, in the moment, I allow myself to feel like a failure when I learn of others who are further along in their careers, make more money, have more influence and success, etc. In other words, I let myself feel poorly for not doing things well that are not strengths I have prioritized developing.

“But when I forget comparisons and look only to what needs to be done, what can be done, I am at peace in the knowledge that I have something to give, something to offer. If I give of myself, it will make a difference, even though someone else could be given more, could have loved more perfectly, could have succeeded where I failed.”

A few years ago while working on a residential treatment campus for adolescents, a youth who was upset told me that I was the worst teacher on campus. For good child development related reasons, I was trained to avoid getting into content with youth when they were upset. But, sometimes, I couldn’t help myself. I responded somewhat jokingly but truthfully that I did not feel I was the worst teacher on campus. I could think of others who were better, but I could also think of some who were definitely worse. And that, all things considered, I didn’t feel I was anything less than the third worst teacher on campus.

There will always be someone better than me at anything I do. But, I have become okay with this knowledge as it allows me the opportunity to fail and not be a failure. It gives me the opportunity to do good work and not listen to the voice in my head that attempts to remind me that I could have and should have done better. I don’t have to be the best at everything I do, I only need to give an honest effort at what I do.

“If only everyone realized that the gift she or he can give is unique and does make a difference! What pain of self-pity he or she would be spared!”

For me, to accept that the gift I can give is unique is extremely difficult. It is easy to assume any skill I have is a skill anyone can learn. When I see people with skills I do not possess any form of mastery in, it is easy to conclude there is something wrong with me that I cannot do everything everyone else can do. It’s a rather selfish way to view others. That is, that another’s uniqueness is merely a function of my own limitations and not a reflection of said person’s unique skill and the discipline it took them to master that skill.

My younger brother is an excellent musician. He can pick up an instrument he’s never played before and within a few weeks, he’s attained some level of mastery over it. On the other hand, my brief middle school band experience as the 3rd chair in a two person trombone section more than confirmed to me that I lacked the ability or discipline needed to be even a mediocre musician. I could pity myself for this. I could be bitter towards my brother that he somehow stole all the family’s musical talent. I could dismiss his talent as a worthless pursuit. Or, I could appreciate the uniqueness of my brother’s gift and enjoy the fruits of his labor. I have long since chosen the latter option and appreciate the opportunities I have since had to enjoy the ways in which he uses one of his gifts.

“We can never be the people we admire. We can only be ourselves, and that alone is admirable.”

What else can really be said? I can never be anyone but myself. If I spend my life wanting to be someone else, I am likely to end up loathing myself as that is a goal I will never be able to achieve. But, if I can accept my faults and focus on my strengths, then perhaps who I am will eventually be someone I want to be.

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Mister Rogers Got It

Mister Rogers Got It

Living and parenting from a strengths-based mindset

My wife and I recently viewed the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? about the life of Fred Rogers and his television show Mr Roger’s Neighborhood. After watching the film, we discovered several seasons of his show could be found on Amazon Video. Both my wife and I, like so many in our generation, grew up watching Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood so we were excited to be able to share that experience with our children.

A few days ago, I found myself sitting on the couch and watching Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood with my children. There was a segment with a man who set up intricate displays of dominoes to be knocked over. The man explained how it was all done, then someone was given the opportunity to knock over the first domino.

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The man had setup over 3,000 dominoes and they fell quickly. Towards the end, the dominoes split off into two paths. The main path continued on and finished its run. The second path stopped short of completion and several dominoes were left standing.

The man who had set up the dominoes expressed something along the lines of “Oh, no they didn’t fall!”

To which, Mr. Rogers immediately replied, “But, look at all the ones that did.”

Mr. Rogers got it.

Mr. Rogers saw all the work the man had put into setting up the elaborate display of dominoes. He saw that even though the display did not fully meet the desired expectation, it was still a success in its own way. He saw that a few un-fallen dominoes takes nothing away from the effort and experience that went into setting it up.

Where the man saw 10 dominoes that did not fall, Mr. Rogers saw that 2,990 dominoes did.

I find that time and time again, people struggle to focus on anything other than what went wrong or on weaknesses. When I receive feedback, I often wait impatiently for the positive feedback section to end. Positive feedback is nice and all, but I want to know what “really” needs my attention and correction.

The problem with this mindset though is that I am left never satisfied with a job well done. There is always room to move the goalposts slightly further and further back until they reach a point that even if I am perfect, I still fall short.

Perhaps it is time to see the 2,990 dominoes instead of the 10. Perhaps it is time to rejoice in the successes while taking note of the failures. Perhaps it is time to live joyfully in reality rather than discouraged by a lack of unobtainable perfection. Perhaps it is time to learn from Mister Rogers. Our children and ourselves will be better for it.

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You’re Doing A Good Job!

You’re Doing A Good Job!

As I have mentioned elsewhere, my wife and I spent several years running a home for adolescents. Since then, we have transitioned from raising children whose parents were unable to, to raising our own children. Due to these experiences, it occurred to me last year that at the time, my wife and I had parented children of every age from birth to 18 except 7. In all of those years raising children, we had never had a 7 year-old.

Our oldest is 7 now and we are completely lost on what to do! We are only hoping to get through the year until she’s 8 and we can fall back on our prior parenting experience with 8-year-olds.

I kid, of course.

Seven-year-olds are different from children of other ages but the principle of being attentive and sensitive to their developmental needs still applies.

All that to say, as my wife and I have raised children of all ages, we have been around parents who are at all stages of parenting whether it be through play dates, extra-curricular activities or something else.

From being around other parents, two refrains seem to most often come up regardless of the child’s respective age or gender.

One, is my child normal?

Two, am I doing everything right?

Is my child normal?

No, your child is not normal. There does not exist a ‘normal’ child. Normal implies a specific set of standards from which every child can be compared against to determine how many standard deviations away from normal they may be. The interplay between genetics and environments is much too complex for anything such as a normal to reliably exist.

At best, a child can be considered normative. That is, a child who is normative generally meets the broad developmental guidelines that are expected for children their age assuming no developmental delays or other barriers have occurred. I.e. Talking between 1 – 2 years old, tying their own shoes around Kindergarten, being able to think critically in their twenties, etc. As these guidelines are broad, there is much variance in when a child may achieve them.

Most parents seem to readily accept that their children are normative. And when there are concerns, there is help often readily available through a child’s pediatrician or a mental health professional. I would even go so far as to suggest that the question of “is my child normal” is actually just another form of asking the second question listed above.

Am I doing everything right?

No, it’s likely that you are not doing everything right in your parenting. It’s likely you’ve missed an opportunity to reinforce a vital lesson. It’s likely that more than once your perfectly planned day has gone horribly awry within five minutes of your children getting up. It’s likely you’ve prioritized something else over your children at some time or another. It’s likely you didn’t start your children early enough or you had them specialize too late for them to become the best in the world at whatever hobby they showed a passing interest in at some point.

In our culture, there is incredible pressure to do everything the ‘right’ way. And by right, I do not mean morally/ethically. By right I mean, in a way that it is clear that I have ‘won’ the most complete victory possible at the game of life. The problem though is that just as there does not exist a ‘normal’ child from which we could objectively draw a path from to ours and develop specific steps to make up that gap, there does not exist a clear, objective ‘right’ way to parent.

There are broad parenting approaches that very much should be incorporated into parenting such as attachment theory, positive reinforcement and modeling the behavior you want your child to display. But, the problem with parenting approaches is that everyone has a different way of implementing them.

There is no absolute parent who is number one at parenting and everyone else is attempting to mimic or knock them off their perch like in college football during the fall. Though, admittedly,  a weekly ranked poll of “Best Parent in America” does seem like something in the wheelhouse of our culture.

Parenting is tough work. You’re never going to get it completely right no matter how much you know and how hard you try. Not because you’re doing it wrong or because theories of child development are wrong. No, you’re never going to get it completely right because the children you are raising are born with a natural self-efficacy that sometimes wants the exact opposite of what you want. We do not take home robots from the hospital who are just awaiting the proper programming that will guarantee the most success in life.

Now that it has been established that you are probably not doing everything right as a parent, I have a question and an observation.

First, the question:

So, what?

So you haven’t done everything right, so what? You’re likely doing more right than you’ve acknowledged. Just the fact that you’re reading this suggests to me that you are probably doing a lot right. Not because I have anything profound to say but because any one reading this likely has at least a desire to be a good parent.

Well-placed desire can go a long way in raising happy, healthy and successful children as desire challenges us to be better. I.e. My desire to be a good parent doesn’t drive me to do nothing, it drives me to examine my current parenting practices and determine where changes need to be made.

Of course, desire can be misplaced. Desiring to be a good parent for the good of your own self-image over what is best for your children is probably not great. The desire to be a good parent causing you to feel overly anxious and self-critical is, obviously, not great. But, again, well-placed desire allows for honest introspection, healthy seeking and good implementation of the best parenting approaches.

If I was only allowed to say one thing to parents, it would be this:

You’re doing a good job.

If you’re not abusing or neglecting your children but you are consistently there for them in whatever way you can be, if you’re trying to raise your children to be the best versions of themselves, if you’re just going day by day feeling like you’re barely surviving the chaos that parenting often is, if you’re trying at all in some way to be the kind of parent your child needs, then you’re doing a good job. Keep it up!

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Could I Be Wrong?

Could I Be Wrong?

When I was in high school, the school I attended had several athletic rivals. These were schools who were mostly nearby and roughly the same size in terms of school population. I played against these schools several times a year across different sports so a bit of familiarity grew between us. Not familiarity in the sense of getting to know someone but familiarity in that if someone gave me a cheap shot during football season, I knew I likely would have an opportunity to get them back during basketball season.

In my eyes, one school was perceived to be our ‘biggest’ rival. In almost every school-sponsored sport I played, a main goal of the season was to beat this particular rival. When effort in practice was lacking, we were reminded the other school was practicing harder. When we complained about extended early morning practices, we were reminded the other school was practicing earlier and for longer. When we argued and fought against each other, we were reminded that the other school never argued with each other but when they did they fought harder.

Not surprisingly, I had few (if any) positive opinions of our rival school. To my adolescent mind there were no redeeming qualities that could ever be found in anyone who attended the rival school.

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Through my participation in track and field, two things happened to crack the veneer of ‘otherness’ which I had been conditioned to attach to this rival school.

During my freshman year of high school, I had the opportunity to be on the Varsity track team with my older brother who was a senior at the time. As a freshman, I was not necessarily deserving of being on the Varsity team but no one liked running long distance so the numbers worked out in my favor.

Track is a bit of an odd sport in that it’s almost several sports combined into one. No one runs all the events at a track meet so there is often a lot of time between the events one might participate in. The time between events was spent warming up, cooling down or socializing…mostly socializing.

After a few meets, I noticed my brother was often talking to runners from other teams. He would warm up with them before a race, beat them in the race, then cool down and hang out with them after. There was no observable animosity between them. The most paradigm-challenging event occurred when I observed him socializing with runners from our school’s biggest rival. The school whose students had no redeeming qualities. I was forced to consider why it was he was spending time with these heretofore nonredeemable people.

Perhaps, he was only being nice and tolerating them?

Perhaps, he was getting in their heads and creating a competitive advantage?

Or, perhaps, he actually liked them and they were somehow friends?

The next season, my brother had graduated so I was on my own at meets. Not knowing any better, I did what I had observed my brother doing the year before. I socialized with other runners from other schools. At some point over that season, I started to get to know a runner from my school’s biggest rival. I remember thinking something along the lines of “this guy isn’t anything like what I assumed people from his school were like, he’s actually a decent person and we’d probably be friends if he attended my school.” And then, “If this guy’s alright, then maybe the other students at his school aren’t so bad either.” At this point, my worldview had been thoroughly shattered.

Two core beliefs have developed from these events.

One, I began viewing people as potential friends rather than viewing people as potential rivals. As much as possible I try to live up to the mandate of the faith I follow to live at peace with others. I fail often, but this mindset has allowed me innumerable opportunities that I would not have had had I continued to view others through a culturally constructed lens of hate and intolerance.

Two, could I be wrong? I had previously assumed my belief about my school’s rival was correct. Through the events described above, I was forced to consider that my belief might be wrong. Which it was. Which has led to me applying this question to every significant belief, interaction, experience I have had since.

Could I be wrong?

It is a question that runs underneath everything I believe. It is a question that has forced me into humility as it makes me admit that I don’t know everything and my conclusions are only my interpretations of truths I have learned.

It is a question that sometimes leads me to despair as I so desperately want to have the answers to the deeply complex problems of our world, to the mysteries of the faith I follow and to the questions of my own self and why I do the things that I do though I do not want to.

It is a question that drives me to what will be a life-long journey of gaining knowledge and understanding as I will never be fully satisfied that I have reached the end of learning.

It is a question that brings me great joy as I do not have to fear new knowledge or learning of different ways of doing things. I have the freedom to change my mind if I am presented with a better, more reasonable or helpful perspective. I also have the freedom to not change my mind if a core belief is challenged and not feel threatened by whomever may be challenging said core belief because I am already accepting of the idea that I might be wrong.

Now, I may be wrong about this, but there seems to be a pervasive belief in our society that we must be right about everything. To admit not being right, is to admit weakness. And, what is worse, especially for men, than to be weak?

To me, this adherence to being right at all costs and not ceding any ground reeks of arrogance and fear. Arrogance that somehow where billions of people have fallen short, I alone have the correct answer to life’s most difficult-to-answer questions. Fear that if I were to allow my interpretation of life’s truths to be held to up to the light, I might find them wanting.

Though I still struggle at times with arrogance, being weak has allowed me to live without fear. It has allowed me to admit I don’t know everything and to follow whatever path leads to the answers I seek.

A couple years after my worldview shifted, I was at another track meet. A different rival runner from the one I mentioned above was running an event while I waited for mine to start. We had become friends so I cheered him on. A nearby teammate saw and asked what I was doing. I said he was a friend and I wanted to be encouraging. My teammate pointed out that if my friend won his race, we might lose the meet. I agreed that that was true. My teammate seemed confused, and he walked off a bit annoyed with me.

A few years after that, my friend died. His friendship impacts me still to this day. Even just last week, I realized a small way in which his friendship set the foundation for me to years later gain a deeper understanding and acceptance of my own identity. A friendship that never would have occurred, had I not been willing to consider that I could be wrong about what I believed to be true of others.

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Under the Rule of Pirates?

Under the Rule of Pirates?

I recently read a passage from St. Augustine that resonated with and challenged me to consider more deeply the steps I take as an individual to contribute to building a good and just world that will still be here several generations from now.

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As a parent, I often find it difficult to balance the desire to do great good with the often minute-to-minute needs of my children. To some extent, I feel I have been able to live in the tension of this balance.

Whereas previously, I have shared my thoughts on how to raise socially conscious and empathetic children, the following is more focused on how I believe we, as a community of individuals, can take steps toward creating a world that reflects the values we often try to instill in our children.

As such, I may make points you disagree with, I may draw conclusions you do not like. If that is the case, I invite you to reach out to me through email or private message on our social media accounts. I do not respond to vulgarity or personal attacks other than to acknowledge that the opinion exists but short of that I am willing hear differing opinions and attempt to seek common ground.

That being said, I am (sincerely) always hesitant to share thoughts related to politics. In fact, I don’t much like politics. There is some irony here as my undergraduate degree is in Political Science.

I find political conversations are generally driven more by uninformed policy positions and manipulative propaganda techniques than by nuanced and thorough discussion and understanding. To me, politics as presented by the 24-hour news outlets is often fickle and more of mind with groupthink and the mob mentality.

For me, politics is less about a set of ever-changing stances on (mostly) social and (sometimes) economic issues, and more about the ways in which massive systems of power and authority actively engage decade after decade in disobedience of the law to which they hold private citizens and non-citizens accountable. These systems grow so large that their actions are considered acceptable not by moral or ethical standards but because there is no system that is larger that could possibly hold them accountable. Rather, they are free from accountability, too big to fail.

In truth, my ‘politics’ can be better viewed through the lens of my beliefs about wealth inequality and the subjective application of the rule of law than through the lens of a specific political party. I tend to be slightly conservative in that I prefer slow, sustainable change. But, I also firmly recognize that inequality and injustice does often require a swift and far-reaching response. I also believe there is a moral and ethical imperative for those in the minority to be protected from the potential tyranny of the majority (whether that majority be government institutions, corporate interests or a specific demographic of people.)


In the early 5th century, St. Augustine of Hippo wrote a book called The City of God. This work touches on a variety of topics, one of which is the danger of unjust rule.

Augustine points out that without just rule, governments are little more than large-scale bands of pirates. [Bracketed words are my addition]

“The band itself is made up of men [legislative bodies]; it is ruled by the authority of a prince [head of the executive branch], it is knit together by the pact [the Constitution] of the confederacy; the booty [tax revenue] is divided by the law agreed on.”

Further,

“If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity.”

To illustrate his point, Augustine shares a story that comes from the writings of Cicero, a Roman politician and orator, of an exchange between a pirate and Alexander the Great. The pirate was questioned by Alexander why he had terrorized the seas in such manner.

The pirate’s bold response:

“What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor.”

Augustine’s writing begs the question, have we ever been ruled by a just government or has it always been the band of pirates? Where in our global history can we look to a time when the rule was just?

Over the last few years, I have been drawn to the concept of restorative justice. I find it to be an encouraging theory and model, I agree with much of what I have learned about restorative justice.  But, lately, the word restorative has challenged me as I cannot help but wonder to what are we hoping to restore ourselves to?

I understand the use of restoration on the individual level but when applied on a global-scale, to all of humanity, when was there ever a time in which all were treated with adequacy, equity and equality, not merely those who were fortunate to match the demographic characteristics of those who ruled?

I have often heard a lament that goes something like this: “If only things could be how they used to be, everything used to be so much better. People treated each other better, everyone worked hard and had enough.” Though I readily admit that those who lament in such a way are generally sincere in the interpretation of their experiences in years gone past, I fully reject that a return to the often oppressive and demeaning practices and attitudes of yesteryear is the solution.

At best, when viewing history through the criteria of adequacy, equity and equality for all, there have been pockets of just rule. Or at least, there has been good law that has attempted to provide the foundation of just law, though often the enforcement of said law has been lacking.

I am not as well-versed in the history of cultures outside of my own, but within the history of the faith community in which I belong, there can be found many commands that if applied well would result in a community that is justly ruled.

The jubilee year and the treatment of aliens as described in Leviticus and love one another as described in the Gospels are just three such examples.

It would seem the ideals of just rule have always been present, but we often choose to ignore them due to greed, selfishness, fear, and several other reasons all of which are found just as wanting as the ones I listed. So then, again, how do we restore our communities, our country, our world to a state that never existed in the first place?

There’s no easy or simple fix to this question. But, a first step is that our mindset must change. We must evolve in how we view our individual responsibility to those who are different from us, who do not live near us or who even seek to hurt us. Instead of the tribe of Republicans vs. the tribe of Democrats, the tribe of Christians vs. the tribe of all other faiths, the tribe of America vs. the tribe of any other country in the world; we must band together to be one tribe; the tribe of 7 billion plus humans. All of whom are unique and worthy of receiving the opportunity of living a good life that does not come at the harm of others.

There was a beginning to humans. Whether you believe in the creation stories of the faith community to which you belong, the scientific explanation of evolution, or something else altogether, there is a common ground in that once there were no humans, then at some point, humans came into being.

We would be well served to remember that my enemy across the aisle, my enemy across altar, my enemy across the ocean is also my cousin. They are family. And how do we treat family? How do we want our families to treat us? Shall we not aspire to be more than a band of pirates? Shall we not demand to be ruled justly, restored to the highest ideals of our past and future hopes?

I want a government (past, present and future) that rules justly rather than like a band of pirates who have after enough theft and treachery gained the ability to rule with impunity.

The framework for such a just society can be found scattered like ashes throughout the great civilizations of the past. When seeking an answer to perceived present-day immoral and unethical actions, perhaps, we should look to these ashes instead of nostalgia-heavy, childhood memories? And, then instead of lamenting that these past civilizations ultimately failed, we should try again.

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