How an 8th grade fundraiser reminded me not to over-parent, intervene, or try to prevent my children from failing.
You may know (or you may not) that I write a parenting newsletter. It's based on my observations as a parent and teacher. As the father of five I seem to have made almost every mistake one can, although, I manage to devise completely new mistakes with subsequent children. And in the rare cases where I didn't make the mistake personally, I have likely seen another parent make it in my career as an educator. I decided someone should benefit from all those mistakes. Hence the newsletter.
I wrote the following piece for the newsletter, but it is an important enough issue that I thought I would share it with a wider audience as well. If you wish to sign up for the newsletter you may do so here. This is an experience I had that reminded me how important it was to let kids take risks and fail without intervention.
Earlier this year some of my students had a really bad idea for a special initiative. It was obviously going to be a colossal failure. I was tempted to intervene and stop them, but decided instead to let them learn a lesson from their imminent failure.
One of my responsibilities at school is serving as the advisor for a committee of eighth students charged with raising money. The funds they raise pay for various items, including a gift the graduating class gives back to the school. The work of this committee is challenging and it keeps us all very busy, trying to raise the needed funds.
Even more challenging is the fact that this committee is specifically designed as a leadership opportunity for eighth graders. Thus, while the immediate goal is to raise money, the overarching objective is to help develop leaders.
Additionally, the committee changes each year as students graduate and move on. Consequently, every year brings a new learning curve and one of my main responsibilities is finding a diplomatic way of helping them re-think a problematic ideas, or guiding them to see that something is impractical or unworkable.
A few months back the students had a new fundraising idea. With my greater understanding and experience, I knew at once that it would not work. I tried to nudge my committee away from the idea, but they were very determined to try. Since it wasn’t dangerous, illegal, unethical or otherwise problematic I finally approved it. While I knew it would be a dismal fundraising failure, I hoped they might learn some good lessons.
I sat back and waited, making mental notes on a speech to deliver when the results bombed. With gentle sympathy in my voice, I planned to say something like, “I’m so sorry this didn’t work the way you thought it would. I am proud of you for trying and glad you were willing to think out of the box. I imagine there are some good lessons we can draw.”
I imagined a wonderful teaching moment. With sympathy and a bit of wry humor I’d leave them humbled but hopeful. I was imagining Atticus Finch mixed with Mother Theresa with a touch of Andy Griffith thrown in.
To my astonishment—and that of most other adults—the fundraising idea succeeded beyond anything I would have ever imagined. We made significantly more with this fundraiser than we had with several other fundraisers combined.
I later told my boss that I was giving myself the speech I’d prepared for the students, telling myself this was a great opportunity to draw some good lessons. He told me he was doing the same.
There has been a lot written recently about how important it is not to over-parent, to not intervene and solve every problem. In order to grow, kids need to experience struggle and even failure. I believe that very much. We rob our children of future strength when we intervene, organizing and directing every aspect of their lives.
But this experience reminded me of another reason not to intervene: we actually don’t know everything. While this particular initiative worked out well, a lot of other ideas over the years did fail, and there were times I was correct in my forecast. The trick, however, is that one can’t know when the wonderful surprise success will come. Sometimes our intervention will not prevent the failure or disappointment; it may actually cause it. Had I followed my impulse, this would have been the case with my committee.
Adult intervention to prevent failure and struggle can be problematic because it may also prevent adolescents from experiencing truly amazing success.
This experience reminded me that one of the best things I can to help my own children succeed is to give them the freedom to try, fail, and solve their own problems. Not intervening (unless there is serious danger) can be unsettling. It can feel like cutting the safety rope that keeps them from falling. But that rope can also be a tether, keeping them from reaching their fullest potential. By giving them the opportunity to fail, I allow them to learn important lessons when they fall. But I’m also freeing them to soar to far greater heights than I had imagined.
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Thank you to all who served and all who sacrificed! As I sit in my quiet backyard this morning I am aware that our peace has come with a high price. My grandmother lost her brother on D-Day. She was never the same; it haunted her for the rest of her life. Thank you to the families who lost loved ones.
A few weeks ago I was with students in Washington D.C. The Vietnam Memorial really caught their attention, which is interesting since it’s so stark. They spent a lot of time there and we had to pull them away. Many of them were fascinated by the various artifacts and mementos people leave at the wall for their loved ones. One that I found particularly moving was a high school wrestling trophy. This young man was voted “Most Improved” in 1966. Only a few years later, he was killed in action. The students really seemed to think about what that meant. Just a few words but it captures so well the tragedy of a life cut down so early. As we left, I saw of few of them pick clover blossoms to place on the wall. They had nothing else but wanted to honor the sacrifice they sensed. I whipped out my phone to get a picture because I thought that small gesture was perfect. Thank you again to those who served and gave all they had. And thank you to their families.
As a parent who also happens to be a teacher I straddle two worlds, and each informs the other. This year those two worlds aligned even more than usual and it has me more grateful than ever for the teachers who work with my children. Let me give one small example.
Every May, I leave to help chaperone a group of eighth grade students on a trip to Washington D.C., the culmination of their time at our school. This follows a very busy few weeks at school, physically and emotionally demanding. As usual, I went again this year, but this time one of the students was my son, so the trip brought together the two strands of my life, helping me see with a richer perspective.
In the time we visit D.C., our group wanders through the monuments, memorials, and museums, encountering hundreds of other students having the same field trip. They are obvious and easy to see, often wearing brightly colored t-shirts (helpful for trying to spot wandering students from a distance). In every group there are teachers like me, outnumbered by at least fifteen-to-one. They are even easier to spot than the sea of children around them, rising up from this turbulent adolescent sea like the Rock of Gibraltar.
No matter their size or shape or specific age there is a common characteristic: tired eyes and a slightly haggard, bedraggled appearance unique to D.C. trip chaperones. They walk briskly and energetically as they hustle their young charges along, but in moments of stillness, standing in lines for example, there is a sudden slump of the shoulders and a squint of the eyes as weariness catches up.
During our trips, I frequently make make eye contact with another chaperone. Sometimes it’s when we wearily flop down on a bench in the Visitor’s Center at Arlington National Cemetary. Sometimes it’s in the gift shop at Gettysburg when either they or I tell a student something that is as obvious to us as it is elusive to the student: “No! You can’t buy eight pounds of fudge,” “Please don’t spill water on the signed books right there." You hear the teachers saying with a resigned weary voice, "Stay to the right! We are not the only one on the sidewalk!” Or, my personal favorite, "Stop body-surfing down the Lincoln Memorial!" Often these useful warnings come as one or the other of us is trying to point out the significance of a particular site, sometimes sharing a memory of an event we lived through--something we thought of a as a current event that is now considered history.
I sing these teachers, tired-eyed and shoulder-slumped, adults who form rocks of reliability in the changing seas of adolescence. I sing of these quiet heroes who leave home and family to herd puberty-stricken children through our nation’s most sacred sights, hoping that something seen or said will kindle a spark that will keep freedom’s lamp burning bright in the next generation.
You can say it’s their job, and that would be true. But there is no way of paying them for all they do. The hours they spend and the energy they give cannot be counted. The effort of trying to help explain the magnitude and meaning of the Vietnam wall while keeping the peace between feuding girls or trying to redirect belching boys to look at the Constitution is not something that can be totted up in a ledger.
All of these teachers are human and, therefore, flawed. They each have weaknesses as people and professionals. One can note and discuss these easily. Of course, weaknesses can also be found in the lives of the famous figures whose statues and monuments these educators point out. Certainly human failings are also discernible in the powerful figures that rush past through D.C.’s hallowed halls or diagonal avenues, surrounded by aides, motorcades, and the trappings of power.
I sing the teachers who have no aides and no motorcades, surrounded only by energetic, noisy teens. They call out for students to leave space on the sidewalk for other pedestrians and government workers on their lunch-hour runs. Like the security personnel one often encounters, they are always scanning their environs, watching over charges who do not always welcome the vigilance.
I sing of these teachers, heroes of our Republic, patiently explaining what this monument means and why it matters while groaning inwardly at all the emails that are piling up in their absence. Their work is demanding, but not dramatic. It is not always even obviously successful. But they are there, and their presence matters. While the world may little note what they say and do, they are on the ground, trudging through rain and heat, explaining self-government while watching for hurt feelings, food allergies and homesickness. They are there.
They are there, meaning they are not at home. Not with their families or their hobbies or their small comforts. They distribute meds and try to be aware of who is feeling left out, making sure everyone gets something to eat and has someone with whom to eat. These teachers often use the small breaks that come to solve their own problems--giving instructions to babysitters, dog walkers, counseling older children via text or refereeing fights from a few thousand miles a away.
That ought to matter to all of us, for it is from the ranks of these students that tomorrow’s leaders will be drawn. It is those students who will one day bustle through the halls of power and eventually occupy the motorcades. It is those students who will make the choices that will lead to honor or infamy. It is those students who must pick up Liberty’s banner when their teachers and parents are old and spent. Because it must be the students tomorrow, it makes what the teachers do today all the more important.
With all my heart and voice, I sing the teachers who care. Who walk. Who explain and watch and herd. Who are there. As a citizen, I salute you. As a parent I thank you.
I talked recently to a friend of mine. He's English, but has lived in both Australia and the U.S. He thinks highly of America, but said something interesting. He said that Americans struck him as particularly fearful lot. He thought it odd, indeed, he was almost incredulous, that the most powerful country in the world was so full of fear.
He was speaking mostly of geo-political matters, but his comment went along with something I've been thinking about lately.
If you've read my blog before you likely know that one of my own greatest fears is that we are slowly tearing ourselves apart as a nation. We seem to have lost much of the common ground that once allowed us to have different opinions. Bitter, acrimonious division seems to be the rule now. I don't know how long a country can last like that. Yes, I know there have been contentious times in the past. This seems different to me, and I find it alarming. Perhaps the thing that worries me most is that more and more people seem to see a lack of empathy with others to be virtuous, something to be celebrated.
I've wondered, with growing anxiety, what we could still have in common. Then I happened upon an article about the new adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. It's a chilling premise--religious fundamentalists stage a coup and impose a system of grinding oppression, reducing once-independent women to slaves.
As might be expected, those with a more progressive bent find the series to be both excellent and chilling, while those who are more conservative find it to be pretentious and paranoid.
This reaction reminded me of another cultural phenomenon that elicited the same reactions but on different sides of the aisle. Back in the 90s, there was a very popular series of books, the Left Behind series. Written by an evangelical pastor and speaker, this was about a group of Christians persecuted by a one-world government bent on their destruction. It was first a book series, then some movies. These books were a big deal to conservative Christians, while they largely drew snickers and scoffs from more liberal, secular sorts.
Full disclosure: I have not read either Atwood's book or the Left Behind books. I haven't watched the new series based on her book and my only experience with the film adaptation of Left Behind was about ten minutes of the film adaptation once while home sick. I was flipping through cable channels (as I recall, it involved poisoning Bibles and snowmobiles kidnapping Kirk Cameron. But I could be wrong. Like I say, I was sick.)
My point in writing is not to laud or criticize either of these works. And if you comment, please be courteous. People can have different literary and film tastes.
My point is that both secular progressives and conservative Christians embraced a series that was based on their deepest fears. As my friend observed, we Americans really are a fearful lot, sure that the people in Red or Blue states want to take away our freedoms. Clickbait headlines to the contrary, I think either of these dystopic futures are not exactly imminent, even if we don't like specific current developments. If we take counsel from our fears, we can find conspiracies and frightening omens in almost anything.
Converting bogeymen and nightmares into entertainment isn't new. Ghost stories, Grimm's fairy tales, and any number of other storytelling traditions go way back. We have always coped with the shadows around us by confining them into the confines of a story.
Progressives scoffed at the ideas that shaped Left Behind and the certainty many on the right had that the Obama years were the opening lines that would lead us into this nightmare; conservatives think it's ridiculous to imagine Massachusetts as a giant fundamentalist cult and don't think it likely that even if he is a serial harasser, Donald Trump is going to lead us into this future.
Right now, you are likely rallying arguments for why your side is right, why your fears are different. The other guys are demonstrably hysterical and irrational. Your fears, by golly, are the fears of any right-thinking, intelligent person with half a functional brain who is not evil and stupid.
Can we set that aside for a minute? Don't focus on the content of our fears, and let's not shout at each other about whose fears are more rational or likely. Let's focus on the underlying human emotion. Fear is fear. It is a terrible thing, something none of us want.
These books/film adaptations remind us that we all fear. Red, blue, purple--we fear for our loved ones and ourselves. We fear what the future holds. Most frightening, we don't fear foreign armies, we fear each other. And that is frightening. Truly frightening.
When I was a kid, I worried about nuclear attacks and Russians parachuting into the country and quietly taking over. I didn't fear what other Americans would do if they got in charge. But now, many of us do.
Ironically, this fear leads to anger and hate, which perhaps then increase our polarization. Should any of these terrible situations ever come about, I suspect it will be because we so feared the other that we struck preemptively. Fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy at some point.
But that does not need to happen. My hope is that we can look at each other and realize that we all know fear. We are human, at the end of the day, not so very different in the ways that matter most. And our fear, while different in form and shape, feels the same. Perhaps if nothing else we can start to find some sort of humanity in the other, developing some empathy here. A sort of compassionate confederation where we retain our disagreements but see the other side as acting on emotions that also stir us.
And perhaps, by doing so, we can prevent the worst dystopias from every coming about.
Several years ago I started writing posts based on my observations teaching and parenting middle school students. I called this series Middle School Monday and they got a lot of traffic, shares, and comments. Then I got busy and blogging couldn't be a priority. I've decided to start doing these posts again, but I'm doing them as a newsletter. I usually send one or two posts a week. If you want to sign up, you can do that here.
Many years ago I got a bad case of mono. I didn't know I had it and I likely had it for months before being diagnosed. I found out about it only when my body crashed and stopped working.
I would love your help choosing a tagline for an ad. It's for The Missing Heir. One of the main characters is created to be a monster, and his instincts drive him to kill. When he meets Tallie, he starts to resist those instincts, triggering and intense battle inside of himself. He wonders if, being a monster, he can ever be anything else. Even if he resists the impulse, does the fact that he has it make him bad? At any rate, I'm trying to find a good tagline for this ad. I'll use the picture above, although it will be darkened to hide most of his face except his eye, which will glow a little.
Here are a few suggestions. Which do you like? Do you have a better idea?
1. Can a monster stop being a monster?"
2. Is a monster made by his nature or his choices?
3. Does evil define a monster who wants to do good?"
4. If a monster hates being evil, is he still a monster?"
5. Can a sliver of light change a heart full of darkness?"
6. Can a monster choose to be good?"
7. Good vs. evil, light vs. dark, Monster against himself. Who will win?"
I love having giveways and contests. So, I'm starting the new year with a giveaway for a $25 Amazon gift card. But to do it, you need to sign up for my newsletter. I won't spam you. I normally send something out every 4-6 weeks, plus letting you know if I have a new release--which I always offer at a discount for my newsletter subscribers.
Once you sign up, I'll send you the details. The link to sign up is here. Cheers!
I am incredibly excited to tell you that my next book just went to the editor. This book for middle school readers is a tale of loyalty, love, sacrifice, and redemption. I'm anxious for you all to read it. I anticipate that it will be ready by mid-January. Pre-order details are below.
A heartless monster. An innocent girl. He holds her life in his paws, but she holds his soul in her hands.
Twelve-year old Tallie knows she shouldn’t break Mother Kyraisa’s rule and summon the lights again. But she does it anyway. When Mother Kyraisa catches Tallie, the ancient nun evacuates the orphanage, ordering it burned immediately. She then crams Tallie into a lead-lined coffin and flees into the desert, whipping the horse the whole way.
With no memories, no heart, or even a name, X is a monster. Fiercest of the Bestials, his predator’s instincts are controlled only by powerful spells binding his life to the Regent’s will. When a flash of apostate magic betrays the hiding place of the late Queen’s daughter, the Regent dispatches X to kill the child—her niece and the long-hidden heir to the throne.
Following the child’s magic, X tracks Tallie to her hiding place. He prepares to kill her, until Tallie surprises him with a sincere request for help.
Tallie’s innocence and trust awaken a small spark of humanity inside X, and he tries to help her. But he remains a monster, bound by instinct and unbreakable oaths. Helping Tallie triggers a ferocious battle, as X fights his primal nature for her life—and his only hope of redemption.
Meanwhile, Tallie grapples with the tragedy of her past and her identity as crown princess. As royal heir, Tallie finds access to immense power—enough to destroy her enemies, but possibly her own soul as well, turning her into a monster far worse than X.
My latest releases:
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Thoughts about raising and teaching adolescents. You can read the complete series here. (What in the world are Middle School Mondays?) Click here.
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