Mindcracker is finally here! I am so excited that this finally live. I started the story years ago. It has been a long journey with lots of ups and even more downs.
But it's finally here and that alone feels like a hug personal victory.
As always, a book is the combination of many people's assistance and support. This was no exception. Some truly lovely people helped me so much along the way and I tried to thank and acknowledge a few of them in the dedication and acknowledgment section.
One of really fun things about writing this book was all the research. To date, all of my books are set either in the contemporary world or a completely-made-up fantasy world. This one was set in the Victorian era. Of course, it is an alternate reality, but I still needed to do a lot of work to accurately envision architecture, clothes, transportation, criminal procedures, even what roads were made out of. One of the most intriguing areas of research was learning about the criminal world.
We sometimes romanticize the era, but for many--perhaps most--people, life was incredibly difficult. Simply living was very difficult and as one reads primary sources, it is clear very quickly that it was a time of great insecurity. Many did not have the means to live. Those who were fortunate enough to have a roof and a meal one day could not assume they would have it tomorrow. Employment was tenuous and sometimes very arbitrary. The times were particularly unkind and unfair for women, who often had no good choices.
Because of the difficulty that people faced, the criminal classes burgeoned and there was a hierarchy of crime with very specialized skills. Learning more about this world, their roles, rules specialties, and slang was both fascinating and quite sad as well.
I put some of my favorite photos below, but if you are interested there are more on my Mindcracker Pinterest board. The photos below should be linked to their original homes.
I am more excited than I can say to announce that I finally have a book coming out! It has been quite a while for various personal reasons. I've been working on this for at least 4 years, so this is particularly meaningful. I really hope you all like it!
I am putting the description below. If you are interested in finding out exactly when it comes out, please sign up for my newsletter (to the right) or simply email me: email@example.com.
I would be especially glad to get early reviews on Amazon and other platforms. This makes a big difference in hitting those Amazon algorithms.
At sixteen, Molly is already the best bloody thought-snatcher in Victorian London, picking people’s minds and selling their secrets. When her growing talent captures the attention of a brutal criminal, Molly flees.
Her escape is unexpectedly aided by a mysterious figure who promises to protect Molly—if she will break into the only unbreakable mind in London: Sir Edward Carlton, lockbox for Her Majesty’s Government.
Desperate to escape, Molly agrees, gaining entry to Sir Edward’s house, mind, and his mysterious, haunting memories. Sneaking into his thoughts each night is easy—at first. But before long, Molly suspects she’s being manipulated and finds herself trapped in a tangled web, unable to tell friends from enemies who blackmail, kidnap, and murder with ease.
Soon, Molly must choose between her life and the lives of those she loves—or use her wits and growing psychic powers to change the rules of a game she barely understands.
Happy New Year!
I am not big into resolutions, but I have one very important parenting resolution and I encourage every parent to make a similar one: be more engaged with our children's digital lives.
Last year, one of my kids made two mistakes online. One was a well-intentioned effort to express solidarity with a position on a social issue our family agreed with. In advocating for this position, however, my child accidentally used some terminology, the plain meaning of which was fine. Unfortunately, these words happened to have some highly-charged meaning. He didn't understand the context, nor did he realize how others might perceive this.
A second mistake came when the child responded to what he thought was a joke. Although what he did was not necessarily bad or offensive, the context was such that it could have been very embarrassing. It certainly went against our family's values.
Neither of these cases involved sneakiness or behavior that was objectively bad or offensive. Both, however, could have caused real problems for my child, and reminded me that so often, what a child meant to do really doesn't matter online.
Both of these incidents surprised me because I try to be attuned to my children's digital lives. I spend an increasing amount of time at school each year responding to problems that occur or are made worse by access to digital media. I try to learn from these and be pro-active in my parenting--and yet, I still found myself dodging some bullets. These incidents pointed out to me--again--just how seriously parents need to stay involved with their child's online lives.
With a new year upon us, I suggest that every parent ought to really consider creating a regular routine of checking in with their children about screen time, including social media, texting, gaming, etc.
The sad reality is that there are so many ways for kids to get in trouble online, and not always by doing something obvious, like sending inappropriate photos or using offensive terms (although, I would not let my guard down on these either).
Of course the good news is that many kids are fine. It's easy to hear about a few horror stories and panic. At the same time, the bad news is that it only takes one or two mistakes to potentially cause some life-changing difficulty.
However, one could say the same about driving under the influence, or texting and driving: it's only a few relatively few, perhaps. That said, none of us want our children to be among that number.
The more I work with kids, the more I am convinced that most adults, even loving, intelligent, conscientious, engaged parents do not realize the full extent of their child's online life. I am equally convinced most parents overestimate their child's ability to make mature, good decisions about that life.
This is not a criticism of either parents or kids. Kids have always lived large parts of their lives independently and out of view of adults.
And, saying kids make immature decisions online is not meant as criticism. Kids are, by definition, immature. They have very little life experience. Their brains are still developing, so they very literally don't have all the cognitive equipment needed to think carefully.
I am not saying you should ban your kids from all devices. Nor am I saying you should read every single test or message they send.
I am suggesting, however, that you engage. Just start. I'll send some very specific steps and suggestions in a subsequent newsletter.
For today, however, just think about regular check-ins. Here is one of the best ways I have found to get my kids to have important talks, and to engage in them.
You might also look into the various apps and resources that exist to help parents manage their children's digital lives. This can be daunting for sure, but there are various tools out there, and your choice doesn't have to be between total ignorance and total invasion of privacy.
You might also consider fighting fire with fire--use an app to help you. I know that might seem daunting for some people (it is for me). Happily, the folks at Consumers Advocate have put together a very helpful list of resources, They analyzed various parent control apps and the services they provide. The information is clear and easy to access. The link is here.
(Note: Short of receiving an email alerting me to their work, I do not have any relationship with this organization, nor do I make any money from them!).
Happy New Year--and happy parenting!
P.S. I have a new book coming out soon. It's a YA novel called Mindcracker. I will not do much selling here, but I will mention it a few times. Feel free to ignore! However, reviews are a critical part of launching a book, so I would be thrilled to send review copies to anyone who likes YA fiction. Some details are below for those who might be interested:
At sixteen, Molly is already the best bloody thought-snatcher in Victorian London, picking people’s minds and selling their secrets. When her growing talent captures the attention of Nicholas Montague, a brutal criminal who traffics in human beings, Molly flees.
Her escape is unexpectedly aided by a mysterious figure who communicates from the shadows in soft hisses whisper. This person promises to protect Molly—in exchange for one small favor: Molly must break into the only unbreakable mind in London, Sir Edward Carlton, lockbox for Her Majesty’s Government.
Desperate to escape Montague, Molly agrees. She gains entry to Sir Edward’s house, mind, and friendship. Sneaking into his thoughts each night, Molly soon finds herself enmeshed in a tangled web, unable to tell allies from enemies who blackmail, kidnap, and murder with ease.
As Molly continues to break into Sir Edward's mind, she starts questioning her orders and asking questions--too many for her mysterious employer.
Soon everyone Molly has ever loved is in danger, and every step she takes makes it worse. Unwilling to continue to be a pawn in a deadly game, Molly must choose between her life and the lives of those she loves—or use her wits and growing power to change the rules of the game.
My daughter is a young nurse. I'm suddenly every parent who has ever feared, and that's all that seems to matter now.
SoI am the father of a young adult who happens to be a hospital nurse. She's young; she graduated a year ago last Christmas. Suddenly, that’s really all that matters, the most fundamental part of my identity. I used to feel that I was multi-dimensional, a prism with many facets. Now, I’m more like a magnifying glass, as this single aspect of my life enlarges. This is what I think about most during the day. It is what I think about during much of the night. It is the overwhelming source of immense pride as well as almost boundless fear. It consumes all else. Every bit of news, every choice that anyone makes is all filtered through this.
I have been worried about my children before. That’s not new. It can be a difficult world and I’ve had plenty times for concern before now. Indeed, parenting in the 21st century means the reality of facing a great many fears and dangers.
But this is new. This is different. Dangers before were real, but vague. They were possible, but not this present. Before, it was like walking through a jungle full of possible, but unseen, peril.
Now, I feel like I’m standing on a hill above a beach, watching my daughter stand facing a tidal wave rolling in with agonizing slowness. We’ve all had the nightmare of not being able to move in the face of danger. This is somewhat like that, except that this time it’s the danger moving slowly. But it is still moving, and I can’t make it stop.
This feels like standing on a hill above a beach, watching her stand on the beach while a tidal wave comes. This feels like sending her off to war—without armor or even a helmet.
The strength and range of emotions I feel are impossible to describe fully. They are fiercely, viciously unique.
And yet, to many, many parents now and across the millennia, these emotions would be strikingly familiar. It's new for us, but it is not new. My fear, my anger, my resignation, my sadness, my pride in her—all of these things have been the common lot of human parents since the beginning. The uniquely personal nature of my emotions in this moment have brought me into communion with parents throughout history.
I now feel connected to every parent who has ever feared for a child’s life, every parent who felt resignation and rage that it has come to this. I feel connected to every parent who stood at the end of a line of questionable decisions made by others, lamenting that faraway choices brought real consequences for a loved one. I feel bound to those who have sent children to war, who have sent them on patrol, or who have feared that they would be in the wrong place at the wrong time, killed unjustly. Unfairly. Untimely. I am every parent who has fervently prayed, “Please, take me instead,” even as they were resigned to the reality that they could not necessarily make this happen.
I don’t know yet how this story ends. I don’t know if I will be the parent who weeps with sober joy that his child is spared, or if I will be the parent who carries a bitter ache for the rest of my life.
In a way, the answer is irrelevant, for this worldwide crisis is not about our family. And yet, to our family, it is very much about us. Thus the paradox of every family who has waited and feared. And so we wait. And go on, moving through life as if it's a dream, a familiar landscape now changed into something that seems very different. It's our new normal--just as it is for so many. Just as it always has been.
As I search for meaning in this time, this is what I hold to: every crisis is public and personal. Every tragedy, from shootings to hurricanes impact someone real, someone with feelings. Refugees, victims of violence and bigotry, targets of harassment--every tragic story on the news is really a mere cover blurb, a short synopsis about a powerful human tragedy, with a backstory and complex sequels that continue in the lives and hearts of individual humans.
My fear isn’t the same as yours because my circumstances are not the same. But if you are a parent, if you have ever feared, you are my sister or brother. We are comrades, having been in the same war, if not exactly the same foxhole or theater.
This is all the meaning I can muster right now: a greater sense of being connected to others, a more poignant appreciation for human suffering. I have feared for my child. You have feared for your child. In this there is ground for communion and human connection.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think understanding the suffering or fear of other parents through the ages is worth the price of my daughter’s life. If I had to choose, I would instantly choose her life. But that’s the point. It isn’t my choice, just as it hasn’t been for millions of others throughout life.
I believe—fervently—in God and a larger plan, and I am grateful for that. I draw comfort from that belief. And yet, it is somewhat like being starving and believing that a banquet is coming in a distant day.
For the moment, I find myself now seeing every issue through my child’s life and this has permanently shifted the way I see everything else.
There’s no silver lining right now, now chipper way to cheer myself. The only meaning I can find in this situation, the only positive choice I seem to have is to let this enlarge my heart to human suffering, to be more aware. I have always valued compassion, always tried to act upon it. It’s different now, though. There is a quiet sort of radicalization, too deep and too profound to be easily expressed.
The choice, the only real choice I have, is how I respond, how this shapes me. That is such a cliché, so thin, so worn that it has all the substance of tattered plastic wrap. And yet, it remains true. Cliches, after all, are what we often call someone else’s expression of an elemental human experience.
For now, the only meaning I can find is trying to being kinder and more gentle, more aware of others and quicker to see their suffering. There is great pain in feeling that your situation is anonymous, that no one cares. There is solace in feeling that other humans see you, that they appreciate your difficulty and hold you in their hearts and minds, even if they can do nothing to change the situation.
That seems tiny, and yet, it is sometimes everything, or at least the only thing we can do.
As a teacher, I am concerned with what I perceive to be growing trend: parents communicating with teachers and schools as if they were interacting with a digital personal assistant, such as Siri or Alexa. I have come to call this Alexa parenting. At its most basic level it consists of a parent saying, “Teacher, do this for my child” or “School do that" as if schools and personnel were interchangeable with Alexa.
It isn’t usually phrased quite that simplistically of course, and it can be very polite and sincere. Requests range from, “Tell my daughter to remember her trumpet” to “My child is struggling in math, please help him,” to “That kid did something really mean on Snapchat” to "Have you considered making sure the kids know that vaping is dangerous?” to “What are you doing to help address anxiety?” to "The other parents need to do more parenting." One could insert any number of other serious academic, behavioral, social challenges, from anxiety to suicide to consent to racism to forms of privilege to screen time to environmental problems--on and on.
Sometimes, Alexa parents are simply helicopter or snowplow parents who are too busy to personally hover or plow. Instead, they send out their instructions to schools, as if ordering groceries or customizing playlists for each room in their house. But Alexa parenting is not always trivial or over-the-top. Alexa parents can be very sincere people, worried about a child’s academic or social challenges. They might also be thoughtful people genuinely concerned about serious, legitimate cultural or societal problems.
The mark of Alexa parenting is not the relative substance or seriousness of the request, nor is it the tone used to convey the request. Rather, it is the premise that the school--not the family--has either the responsibility, tools, and resources to attend to something. Thus Alexa parenting assumes that the school can and should be doing something about a problem.
Before I go any further, let me give a few disclaimers. I am not saying that any parental request or communication is somehow wrong or inappropriate. School-family partnerships are critical. Parents ought to be able to work closely with schools and teachers, and educators ought to be as responsive as possible. I’ll address this in a moment.
I also want to make it clear that I don’t mean to sound snarky or glib. I’m not trying to criticize or unload on parents. In coming up with a name, I realize there is a risk of sounding snide. That’s not my intent, however. I think there are real reasons for this phenomenon, mostly having to do with the complex challenge of raising a child in the 21st century. As a parent I have empathy for these challenges. Nevertheless, I do think Alexa parenting is a growing problem, and not because it is inconvenient for teachers and schools. The reason it is a problem actually has very little to do with the impact on educators. I believe it is a problem because of the impact it can have on kids, parents, and families.
In order to explain, let me give some more specific examples of Alexa parenting—then I’ll explain why I think Alexa parenting is a problem and suggest some ways to help parents diagnose and address it.
Examples of Alexa parenting
As I said, some Alexa parenting is simply an expression of entitlement and over-parenting done by people who are too busy to over-parent personally. So much has been written about over parenting, that I don’t think it merits any great discussion here. Many people have written about this. Jessica Lahey's The Gift of Failure is incredibly helpful (I've also written about this, here and here).
There is also the reality that parents, even those who don't over-parent, are simply busier today. Family schedules are extremely demanding. I think many parents are overwhelmed by all there is to do. To be sure, I think schools can be part of the solution here by being very thoughtful about what they ask of families. I've written about that here, by the way.
Another reason for Alexa parenting is lack of confidence in a teacher or school. Some parents feel the need to provide detailed guidance or persistent advocacy. Feeling that your child is not getting what they need from a school is a uniquely challenging situation and is beyond the scope of this post today. I’ve been here as a parent, and I have enormous sympathy for people trapped in poor school settings. Here and here are a few thoughts on this topic. Perhaps it will help provide some food for thought. One note: I would encourage anyone in this situation to be very careful to make sure that their lack of confidence is not simply a matter of having different preferences.
Sometimes, Alexa parents worry that other parents are not sufficiently modeling or teaching the right things to their child’s peers. They may feel that other parents are not adequately monitoring social media or giving sufficient oversight for things ranging from drinking and vaping to the content of movies, gaming, and other entertainment. They may be legitimately worried that some important parenting is not happening. In these cases, they want the schools to pick up the slack.
Still another cause of Alexa parenting is when parents do not feel confident in themselves. Whether their child is struggling with academic, behavioral, or social problems, they sometimes do not feel equal to the task. Unsure of what to do, they turn to the school, wanting the school to fix the problems.
A final manifestation of Alexa parenting comes from thoughtful people who are rightly worried about a serious social problem—anything from anxiety to vaping to sexual consent to environmental damage and on and on. They feel an urgent need to do something about these very real, very serious problems, and wonder why the school doesn’t do more about it.
It is interesting to me that many of these manifestations stem from a lack of confidence in something or someone, and even a degree of fear.
Why Alexa Parenting is problematic
I am deeply sympathetic to most of these situations. Parenting can be a scary, lonely thing. This is exacerbated by the high-stakes feeling that seems to attend so much of parenting in the 21st century. It seems easy for kids to fall into all sorts of problems that could seriously harm their futures. The world we live in certainly provides plenty of cause for worry, and a great deal of the really frightening things seem beyond our control.
We also live in a time when we hear often from experts. I think this has created a sense among many of us that every problem needs an expert, or at least, that an expert can solve every problem. As parents, we certainly know we aren't experts and when things get difficult, I think our instinct is to reach out for the expert, the one who knows what to do, the one who can prescribe a solution.
Nevertheless, the problem with Alexa parenting is that it places responsibility for solving the problems with schools, who likely do not have the best tools and resources to do this.
To begin with, schools and teachers already struggle to complete a huge list of mandated tasks. The day is already packed, and most school staff and educators are already spread very thin. Most school staff, from teachers to nurses to counselors to administrators are professionals, but they might be likened to a pediatrician or general practitioner. They are generally equipped to handle a common range of problems and challenges, but some problems are big enough, deep enough, or uncommon enough that a specialist may be needed.
This is also important to remember when sending in requests for the school to address some topic, even if it's simply to spread awareness. Most teachers and administrators can probably give a huge list of suggestions they've had from parents. "Can you please talk to the kids about x?" Sometimes this is prompted by a news story about a particular problem. Other times it may come in response to what they have heard their child's peers are doing. Or possibly their child.
A few minutes here, a few minutes there quickly add up.
The problem is that when a parent requested that a school allot time and energy to a particular task or address a subject--even a worthy subject, it may seem simple. But such requests can quickly become a huge list. Schools simply can’t do all the good things that be desirable, even if the requests are important and deserving, such as addressing cyber safety, drugs, nutrition, or suicide prevention.
Beyond this, even if they had time, schools have very limited tools, which they are probably already deploying. This is an important point that I think Alexa parents often overlook. Even assuming they had the time and the bandwidth, schools are limited in what they can do because they are limited in their tools.
A trivial example makes an important point. Years ago, I directed a play with young, inexperienced actors. I had spent months trying to get them to speak loudly and clearly. I had told them dozens of times to be louder and tried everything I knew. A parent came to dress rehearsals and turned to me frequently to say, “I can’t hear. Tell them to be louder.” She correctly saw the problem, but didn’t realize I was already doing all I could. Sometimes there is not a quick fix for a problem, no special tools or silver bullet the school is hoarding.
It’s not new that schools and teachers are tasked with an enormous amount of non-teaching work. Using schools as a resource to provide social and other services has been going on for decades and more.
Alexa parenting is different because it comes from individuals, not agencies, legislatures, or society at large. Sometimes, it comes from individuals who have many other resources.
It is understandable that parents want help in addressing difficult challenges or all kinds, and it’s laudable to ask for help. I’ve written before about how teachers can be helpful mentors and guides for parents.
But, while teachers can be good allies, no teacher or school can ever really replace the efforts of a parent. This is true even when a parent is flawed and imperfect (meaning all of us).
Consider the example of online behavior and screen time. I'm using this example, but you could switch that to nearly anything else.
A school can suggest rules and teach about being careful online. They can ban phone use and filter school computers and networks. They can host speakers about internet safety, and develop policies about cyber-bullying. The can forward articles by thought leaders in school newsletters and post on social media (chances are they are already doing this with only mild success and impact).
Should an infraction occur, a school can discipline students who make bad choices. But essentially, a school’s tools are limited to warning in advance, creating rules, and addressing infractions, either by punishment or more restorative methods. Their jurisdiction is also very limited.
The power of a family
Families, on the other hand, can monitor texts and set parameters for when and how phones are used. They can have regular discussions to check in. They can discuss and reinforce a family’s values in a specific context. They can come up with unique plans and approaches to a child’s online life and help proactively strive for digital citizenship.
Should a problem occur, families can respond with something unique and tailored to a specific child and situation. They can impose corrective consequences immediately, without investigations. Parents don't have to have proof! They can create solutions that address problems as well as teaching better behavior. They can follow-up consistently over weeks, months, and years if needed.
Families may not have perfect, ready-made solutions. Some efforts may be clunky and not-ideal. Some may even be counter-productive. But families have flexibility, proximity, constancy, authority, and power. They can act based on instinct and intuition. They have maximum investment in the outcome and care about the child more than even a caring teacher or school.
From personal challenges to larger issues, families may be better suited to manage many of the things schools are often asked to address, and this is why I believe Alexa parenting is a problem for children: it overlooks the most promising solutions in favor of the least effective.
Am I an Alexa Parent?
None of this is to parents can or should do everything on their own. The point I want to make is that schools should be a resource--sometimes an important one. But they should be not the first call, and any request or suggestion needs to be carefully considered in light of what is realistically possible.
One give-away of Alexa parenting is if you ever catch yourself proposing the school do something outside of what they normally do. Even more if you then add, "I'm not sure how you would do that..." or words to that effect.
Not every request is wrong, and I don't mean to suggest that. There are times schools can and should act. But I think the pendulum is swinging away from what is reasonable and realistic. Having caught myself falling into Alexa parenting before, so I’ve developed a few questions I try to ask myself before I make a request.
1. Is this really a problem, or simply a momentary frustration?
2. Is this simply a matter of preferring a different outcome, approach, method, etc?
3. Does my request facilitate or decrease my child’s responsibility for their life, or my responsibility for my child?
4. Does my request facilitate or decrease my child’s chances to develop the independence and autonomy necessary for successful adulthood?
5. What kind of time and resources will my request realistically require from someone else?
6. Is what I am asking consistent with the mission of the school? Is it consistent with the resources of the school? Does the school have a special ability or unique tool that can address this problem?
7. Is what I am asking truly within the jurisdiction of the school?
8. Will my request require someone to exceed the requirements of their job? Am I being generous with someone else’s time and energy?
9. Is my reason for asking based on distrust, either of other parents or the school?
10. Have I already used all my own resources in addressing this—including networks of friends, family, community, other professionals, etc.?
11. Can the school or teacher realistically get the outcome I want?
12. Am I trying to get appropriate help from the school, seeking collaboration? Or am I simply telling them what I want them to do? Do I seek guidance, collaboration, and help, or do I make requests and issue directives?
13. How often do I contact the school? What is the nature of my requests? Am I treating school staff as if they are simply part of my personal support staff? Am I taking a teacher’s limited prep time with requests that they help manage my child’s life and scheduled? Am I using school staff to fill in gaps in my child or family’s communication and organization? If every child in my child’s class contacted the teacher with the frequency I do, will the teacher be able to do his or her job?
Here is the big question for me: do I see the school or the family as the primary place to address challenges and problems?
What schools and teachers can do.
Schools and teachers have a unique and limited mission. Like any other person or organization, success requires them to focus on doing a few things well.
One of the things, besides teaching, that teachers can give parents is perspective. They are not infallible, but they have wide experience with seeing children of a particular age. They can help parents know if something seems normal and usual or if there might be grounds for concern about something. They can help suggest strategies to work on various challenges. They can give advice based on what they have seen in the past.
Sometimes, a teacher might have the sort of unique relationship with a student that will allow them to have a direct conversation. They might have some influence with the child and can provide unique motivation or guidance. Every teacher I know is very willing to help all they can. But be careful with such requests. Teachers don’t have any magic wands or silver bullets. All they can do is sit down and talk. Nothing more. I think our pop culture (think every sit-com about families) has led us to think that difficult problems are generally solved with a single conversation. Sometimes, perhaps, this is true. But this is really not the way it usually works. So even if they can open up a dialogue, they are probably not well positioned to follow-up and check in with a great degree of regularity.
How to stop being an Alexa Parent
Alexa parenting is, I think, an outgrowth of a lot of complicated social factors: parental anxiety, a high-stakes world, over-reliance on experts, fear of what others are doing/not doing, perceived lack of control, increased busy-ness, worry about difficult problems. These are knotty problems with no easy answers.
Still, if you think you are prone to Alexa parenting it is worth the effort to change. Not because it will make life easier for teachers or school officials (although it will). The real reason is that your child needs your imperfect efforts far more than anything else. Your efforts are the thing most likely to help them grow into happy, successful adults. Your kids need you.
Happily, Alexa parenting can be unlearned very quickly. Simply being aware of it is the first step. Re-establishing the family as the prime authority makes a huge difference.
Beyond that, I have five suggestions. These seem simple, almost simplistic. But they have been very useful to me as a parent, and I think they would make a big difference.
1. Trust Yourself.
I think the root of most Alexa parenting is a feeling of uncertainty, a lack of confidence in our ability to address various problems. We live in a very specialized world, and can get enormous amounts of information quickly—sometimes that can be paralyzing.
We often hear from experts in many areas of our lives. That has benefits, undoubtedly, but I worry it creates an expectation that every problem requires an expert, that every problem has a clearly defined answer that someone else knows. I think many times, Alexa parents assume that someone has the “right” answer for whatever they are struggling with.
While knowledge and expertise are valuable tools, I would suggest that most often successful parenting is a process, not a collection of specific inputs or actions leading to specific outcomes.
Parenting is a cumulative, iterative process that happens over time. It’s a constant stream of conversation, correction, and recalibration. Successful parenting is less about correctly executing specific strategies at precise moments than it is about engaging persistently with a child. It is more a matter of consistency and constancy.
Trust yourself. Try something. Maturity will kick in at some point and take care of a lot of the struggles your child has. At that time, they will have the values habits they have developed. Start with thinking about what values and habits you want to help them develop.
2. Engage. Try. Repeat.
Over years of teaching, I’ve seen successful parents with many different backgrounds, approaches, and styles. The common factor is that they engaged based on their experience, judgment and values. They were willing to parent against the grain of what everyone else was doing and they were willing to endure hard battles for the long run. They said “No” when needed. When they made mistakes, they regrouped and tried something else. Sometimes many times. Most of all, they keep going and see themselves as being primarily responsible to teach, guide, and inform their child’s values, behavior, and life experience.
Leadership expert Tim Elmore tells us to parent from wisdom, not from fear. This is an incredibly empowering stance.
Next time you are faced with a difficult problem--try something. If it doesn't work, then try something else. And something else. If needed, seek guidance from qualified professionals, but humans have been parenting now for tens of thousands of years. You've got this.
3. Seek Mentors
One other thing I believe may cause Alexa parenting is that growing isolation has led to fewer sources for parents to get help. A great deal has been written about families getting smaller and social networks and institutions fraying and fragmenting. Fewer people are involved in churches, synagogues, civic clubs, PTA, bowling leagues, and neighborhoods. In the past, these institutions provided a chance to connect with people in different walks of life. One benefit of that is the chance to be mentored by more experienced, seasoned parents.
My wife and I often took advantage of this at church or at work, counseling with seasoned veterans—not our peers. Doing this often helped us find out that some problem with our children wasn’t as serious as we feared. Or, if a problem was serious, we could get guidance and suggestions. Seek mentors. Teachers and schools can be useful partners and allies, and I always encourage families to develop these relationships. But ultimately, schools must teach. They must set rules and deal with infractions, but neither their missions nor their resources are unlimited.
One of the most important things a teacher does to teach is to try to connect. Until you have connected with students, there’s very little chance of teaching them anything. Parents have a lot to do. They are tasked with an enormous amount. It’s easy, in the press of all we have to do, to lose sight of the need to connect with our children. But finding time to simply connect with them can have a huge impact on the problems that worry us. As we connect, we can discuss the problems that worry us. I know this sounds simplistic, but it really makes an enormous difference in many, many ways.
Part of this connection ought to be with other parents. Schools field a lot of complaints and concerns about other parents. Getting to know the parents of our children’s peers ought to be a priority. Hosting a social gathering for other parents, being active in parent associations, community groups, etc. can all have big benefits--far more than trying to get the school to pick up the slack for things you perceive the other parents are not doing. Build a working relationship, or at least a reasonable acquaintance with other parents, ideally before you have concerns or problems.
If problems do emerge, try contacting parents before you contact the school. I have seen complex, apparently intractable problems solved very quickly when parents picked up the phone and talked with other parents. Yes, this is a risk--and it may not always be appropriate. It's hard to give a good rule here. But the potential rewards are also enormous. My sense from talking to people is that parent to parent communication has become the exception, not the norm. I think it would benefit us all to swing the pendulum back a bit.
5. Avoid Gossip
One of the root causes of Alexa parenting is fear, insecurity, lack of confidence. One of the best ways I know to develop and feed fear and insecurity is to gossip. Texting and social media have made this ancient human tendency easier than ever. But gossiping breeds mistrust, worry, dissatisfaction. It impedes connection and confidence. It may seem harmless, but I’m convinced that it causes an enormous amount of harm.
The good news is that Alexa parenting can be stopped. It's as easy--and hard--as simply being a parent. Taking responsibility, developing confidence, finding mentors, connecting, and engaging are all powerful. Even a flawed family has enormous, probably untapped, power. As I've watched my children grow into happy adulthood, I've been struck by how effective even very imperfect parenting can be.
Happy parenting--you've got this!
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A while back I stumbled on a very simple, but highly effective way to get my teens to engage in conversations with me. Perhaps your child is different, but mine have always been highly reluctant to talk about important things with my wife and me.
An important paradigm shift
First of all, I had to learn over time that if I wanted my teens to listen, I was the one who had to work at it. That was true at home and also my first difficult year or two of teaching. My inclination was that they, as the child, should accommodate me, the adult. Now I see that as being backward.
When I finally realized I could get more accomplished by learning to adjust to them, it made a huge difference. I know that probably sounds obvious, but I think it's an easy mistake to make in the heat of the moment.
A helpful tactic
Here's a tactic that has helped me work around this with my own kids. I've mentioned it before, but it's made a huge difference, so I want to bring it up again.
I frequently say to my kids, "I need to talk to you about something. You choose the time, but within the next xxx days, (whatever period I feel is needed), I need to talk. Okay?"
Or, "I need to teach you something. It's not a huge deal, but I have some guidance for you that will help you. Will come to me when you feel you're ready to hear it?"
If they don't come in the time period, then they forfeit the right to choose. Often, they say, "Just tell me now."
Two other things I say frequently:
"I want to have an adult-level conversation and give you a voice in this situation/decision. But, you have to act like an adult. You get as big a voice as you can be rational."
"You made a mistake/This isn't working (whatever it is). I'm not trying to beat you up, but I need to know you understand what happened and that you have a good plan to fix it. Once I know that, I won't worry about it."
All of these approaches have helped me because they allow the teen time to prepare so they don't feel ambushed, it gives them time prepare their mind and emotions, and it channels their keen desire to be seen as mature and competent, the experts on their own lives.
And shorten a tad?
Last of all, I tend to say way more than needed. I think adults often do that when talking to kids.
But I don't like it when people take my time with things I feel are repetitious, and so I can't really blame my kids for not loving it when I do the same, rambling on and on when they understand already. This is especially true when I'm talking about something my child needs to do better or differently. What adults like hearing about their failings in triplicate? In my experience, most adults tend to go into lecture mode when dealing with teens; we could often get by just as well (or better) with far less. One of my writer friends once responded to a long email I drafted with, "And shorten a tad?" I'm trying to remember that when I'm addressing the adolescents in my life.
Happy parenting--you've got this!
With the end of the school year coming, students are getting ready for everything from exams to pool parties. Meanwhile, parents and teachers are dragging ourselves along, hoping to reach the finish line.
Parents, I am sending waves of solidarity. I know how crazy and hectic this time of year is. Next week is our last week and my wife and I can barely move right now.
Still, there are a few things to do now, despite being tired. These are small things that will help your child in some important, if subtle, ways.
Schedule a time with your child to discuss this school year*. What went well? What could they work on?
Obviously this includes academics. But on the social-emotional front, it's a great time to think about their relationships and the way they treat people. Few children or adolescents always get things right socially. They are, by definition, immature. Chances are there have been a few mistakes or errors. So, is there anyone to whom they need to apologize? Any bridges to build or mend? Is there anyone with whom they could make things right before the year ends? Help them figure out a plan to address this before the end of school. I've noticed that social or relational issues often seem to calcify over the summer. It's best to try to address them before school is out.
On the positive side, are there new friendships they'd like to cultivate? Summer is a great time for this, offering many low-risk opportunities to branch out socially. Can you set up a plan to invite them to go see a movie, swimming, sleep-over, or whatever your child wants to do? Kids need to do the work of making friends, but parents can help a great deal with logistical support, especially when the child can't drive.
Another thought: if anyone at the school made a difference in your child's life, may I suggest sending a note? For the recipient, hearing that you succeeded in helping someone makes a huge difference--especially in a field where there are not so many material rewards.
If your child can do this, so much the better. This kind of gratitude blesses the recipient, but it's also a happy way to live and getting in this habit can benefit a child as well.
*The idea of asking for an appointment is something I've talked about a lot before. It's just a small tactical thing that makes a big difference. You simply say, "I need to talk with you about something. You pick the time--it can be anytime in the next [whatever time period you feel is important]. If you promise to listen and engage, it only needs to take [however long you feel is needed]. This makes a huge difference in getting my kids to engage with me. Something about letting them pick the time and knowing in advance what the time limits are really helps my kids.
Now, for teachers, I'd really encourage giving careful thought to end-of-the-year projects. These can be great, but they can also be really, really stressful. Last night a friend was on social media, incredibly frustrated because her son's English teacher assigned the students to make a movie. The assumption was that any teen today knows how to do stuff like that--from filming to using editing software. A lot of teens do. This one didn't, and the stress was enormous.
I'd also encourage trying to be thoughtful about what other teachers in other classes might be assigning. If everyone is assigning elaborate projects, that can get pretty hard on a family pretty quick. And that's not even considering things like end of the year parties.
Just as we enjoy getting notes that we made a difference, I think it's a wonderful time for us to reach out to a child we've seen grow, or a parent who was wonderful, or a child who didn't grow, but in whom we see potential. I wrote a long note once to a child I hope will one day care. It may or may not help that child. As of now, it doesn't seem to have registered. But it made me feel like I had tried to do something.
One of the things I love about Christmas, of course, is the music. I love it all—the fun, seasonal stuff and also the beautiful carols that celebrate the birth of an infant king. Because these songs are repeated each year, I find that they grow in meaning. Each year adds another layer of significance as my own lived experience creates new dimensions and impact for me.
I was teaching a voice lesson recently, listening to the pure, beautiful voice of a beloved student sing, O Holy Night.
That’s always been one of my favorite songs, and it’s figured several times in important spiritual awakenings I’ve had. But whenever I hear it, there’s one experience I always relive, one I hope I’ll not ever forget.
I grew up with a large extended family. We lived near both sets of grandparents, and I had lots of aunts, uncles, and cousins. We got together frequently and I have very happy memories of those gatherings. One of the big events each year was the Christmas party, something that was often rotated from home to home given the size and demands of entertaining.
My maternal grandmother loved music. My aunts were the same, and they frequently sang together. Because of that, we always had lots of singing at these gatherings, everything from quartets to solos, and the evening almost always featured a talent show.
One year, when I was probably sixteen or seventeen, it was my family's turn to host the party. We had dinner and then gathered near the piano for the music. I sang that night. I don’t remember what it was, but I had been taking voice lessons for some time, and I do remember that it was somewhat demanding and difficult. I remember being quite pleased with my technique and performance and sat down, feeling that I was quite the rising star, a pro among well-meaning, talented amateurs.
For reasons I’ve never entirely understood, my grandma’s neighbor/best friend and her husband always came to our family gatherings. This year, was no different in that the gentleman came. If memory serves, I think he had recently lost his wife, so it must have been a very tender and painful time for him.
That year, I think for the first time, he decided to join in the talent show. I don’t remember him doing that previously, but perhaps I am wrong. Regardless, this year he decided to sing, “O Holy Night.”
This isn’t an easy song. It’s quite long, and was written for a trained voice. It requires tremendous breath control and a serious range.
This gentleman was not a trained, or even experienced, singer. He started the song, singing in a weak, quivering voice. I remember a slightly uncomfortable feeling settling over the crowd. It seemed clear that this was going to be a struggle for him. I think my cousins, my sister, and I exchanged some wide-eyed “this-is-awkward” glances that teens specialize in.
Being a teen, and therefore being gifted with supreme overconfidence, I smiled benignly, but was fairly condescending in my inner assessment. I wasn’t cruel, but I was certainly aware of how far he fell below my own lofty standards.
Partway during the song, he stopped singing--just froze. I think his voice cracked and then he got nervous, then got lost. The song is quite long and a bit repetitious, so it’s easy to do.
The poor man stood frozen in front of this large group of people with panic in his eyes. I do remember that very clearly. Now that I’m older I also realize that he had something else in his eyes: shame. He felt foolish but didn’t know what to do or how to proceed.
No one else knew what to do either. It felt tense and awkward. I remember looking down at the ground, feet scuffling, people fidgeting, etc. A few people fixed encouraging smiles on their faces.
The awkward silence grew to an unbearable level. Then my dad jumped up. He ran over, put his arm around this man and joined in the chorus: “Fall on your knees, oh hear the angel voices….”
Dad has a nice voice but he's not a trained singer or anything. He didn’t generally perform solos in public, so it wasn’t like this was in his comfort zone. But he started singing and the man joined him. They finished the song together and there was thunderous applause.
All my smug, self-aggrandizing thoughts were gone. I was a knuckle-headed, clueless teen in many ways. And my dad often drove me crazy at that age. But even I knew something special had happened.
By the end of the song, that man’s face had changed. He smiled and practically glowed. I’m sure it wasn’t because he felt he had done an amazing job. I’m sure he was aware of just how far he’d fallen short. I believe that he smiled because he felt loved. Because someone else had reached out to help him, and was invested and caring enough to stand there and finish the song with him, word for word, note for note.
My dad gave that man more than a hand. He gave him an arm around his shoulder. He gave him his dignity, far more effectively than any well-meant words could have.
Angel voices, indeed.
I hope everyone had a wonderful break this summer. I disconnected from just about everything and it was wonderful! Now that school is back I hope to resume writing this newsletter a few times a month.
I want to give a special welcome my new subscribers. The folks at the Washington Post were kind enough to publish a piece I wrote recently about the difference between unkindness and bullying and why it matters. It appears to have resonated and has had more shares, re-tweets, and likes than anything else I've ever written, so I've had a lot of new people sign up for this newsletter. I'm glad to have you here and I hope it will be useful for you.
Many years ago, I was having some trouble with the management of my classes. I confided in an older teacher whose classes were perfectly behaved. She smiled and said, "It's very simple. When I started teaching, they told me, 'Be a witch from the time school starts until Thanksgiving.' After that, they'll do what you say and you can lighten up a bit." This was pretty standard advice back when she started teaching in the late 60s/early 70s. Looking back, I can certainly see how my own teachers practiced this.
For the record, I don't believe in being harsh or mean at any time. But beneath that, there is a kernel of very helpful wisdom for parents.
However they articulate it, veteran teachers know that the first few weeks of school are critical. School is new, there is some excitement, and everyone is ready to for a new start, so minds and hearts are flexible.
This time can be used to establish routines and get students in good habits. It can be tempting to want to ramp up slowly, but jumping in and getting everyone acclimated is probably going to be a better choice. It is so much easier to start from the beginning and then moderate things if needed than it is to try to change habits and patterns that are set.
As my more experienced colleague new, it is always easier to relax things than to tighten them up.
So if there are things you think your child needs to work on--more chores at home, earlier bedtime, better study habits, picking things up, being more respectful, sharing, new limits on screen time--this is probably a great time to do that. I realize it might seem overwhelming. But chances are that your child is in the mode of new beginnings and might have more emotional and mental elasticity. Once routines and patterns become habits, it's much more difficult to make changes.
So, if you haven't done so, you might give some thought to things you want to help your child address. Start right from the beginning. It truly is a very good place to start. The biggest caution I have is this: don't try to do too much. Better to do a few things well than many things halfway.
The other thing that is very new, and worth some effort, is your relationship to your child's teacher. I've written a lot about this subject before (for example, here) and I don't want to rehash too much. I do think it's worth reiterating a few key points.
1. Good teachers work well beyond (sometimes very far beyond) their contractual obligations. It's true they are paid for their work but they don't get overtime or bonus pay, and they are paid for very little. So almost any time they get in the zone where they are changing lives, you can be almost positive they are not being paid. In fact, the more they do, the less they make to some extent. This is one reason teachers burn out so quickly and easily.
2. Teachers don't go into teaching to make money. Chances are your child's teacher went into education because s/he wanted to make a difference, loved a particular subject, and/or loves kids. Most of what really motivates them is emotional in nature.
3. If a teacher feels that s/he is accomplishing those objectives--touching lives, instilling love for a subject, helping someone--that teacher will feel energized, and motivated.
4. Thus, anything you can do to help motivate and energize your child's teacher will likely yield dividends for your child.
There's more to explain here, some complicated dynamics that you can use to your child's benefit if you understand them--but I'll save that for later. Suffice it to say, the sooner you reach out, the better. Start creating emotional capital with your child's teacher now.
Happily, it does not take a lot of time or ingenuity to do this. Send a short note when your child's teacher does something thoughtful or that shows dedication. Handwritten is lovely, but email is fine. This truly can be the work of a few minutes! If you can honestly do so, tell your child's teacher you are so happy your child got assigned to their class (even better--if you can, add why you are happy). Is the teacher famous for having a great sense of humor? Good rapport with students? A love of literature? A knack for bringing writing skills out? Dedication? Years of service? Lovely penmanship? Try to find something. It just needs to be enough to start the relationship on a good foot.
I know you are busy. But if you can, please try to show up to parent's night events. This will help show that you are serious about education and that you don't see yourself as being above the rules. There is very little that will set a teacher's teeth on edge faster than someone who signals, I'm above all this.
We're all busy. Teachers understand. So if you can't make it, send a quick email, apologize, explain why (make sure it's a good reason) and say that you invite any guidance or suggestions the teacher has. The main thing is to avoid not showing up, never communicating, and then suddenly swooping in when you have a complaint.
IMPORTANT: With both teachers and administration, one of the most important ways to have influence is to never let your first communication be a complaint or concern.
Try to realize that your child's teacher has a huge wealth of experience that can be enormously beneficial. I was talking to a friend the other day. She's an experienced teacher, but is still younger than many of the parents of the students she teaches. Moreover she does not have her own children. She was telling me that she doesn't feel the parents of her students always take her very seriously.
Those parents are missing an opportunity. After only a few years of teaching, a teacher will have seen hundreds of students in that age bracket. After five kids, I might have more experience as a parent, but even a very young teacher will know far more than I do about the age group they teach.
They will have a very good idea of developmental milestones and challenges in that age group. They can tell you if something is a simple matter of letting time and maturity work their magic. They know what sort of things might require more intervention--parental or professional. If the former, they can give a good sense of what solutions have helped other families. If the latter, they might know good professionals to refer. They can always give reassurance, guidance, and be wonderful allies.
Letting a teacher know you are committed, that you are excited, that you are reasonable and that you are open to advice and candor will pay off. As I said, more detail on this later. For now, all it takes to start is a short note (or email) and attending parent's night.
Note: I'm in NYC this week, attending plays and soaking up the ambience of old Broadway, supported by a very generous grant. I'm posting my thoughts for anyone who might be interested.
Today I witnessed magic. Yes the carpet flew Aladdin and Jasmine around the stage. Yes, Jafar melted and the Genie did any number of other magic tricks. But that wasn’t the magic I’m talking about.
I sat in the gorgeous interior of the New Amsterdam Theatre, restored to its Zeigfeldian glory. Not everyone loves Disney but they did a tremendous service in restoring that place. It housed legendary performers—Will Rogers, Fanny Brice, Marilyn Miller. I had to chuckle when I realized that most of the time, the chorus in family-friendly Aladdin wore costumes that would not have been terribly out of place in the Follies). And, more recently, it saw the premiere of The Lion King, which has become a theatrical force of nature.
A ten-year old boy sat next to me, singing show tunes as we waited for the show to start. He’s attending a performing arts camp in NJ. His mom seemed a bit wary of me until I told her I taught theatre and directed plays. I was okay after that. Tourists who spoke a rainbow of languages filled in around a woman who has lived in NYC all her life (from her accent, I think Queens, maybe the top of Brooklyn). She was taking her grandson to the show
There I am, a middle-aged theatre teacher from Tennessee. I don’t know any of these people and will never see them again. But for 2.5 hours we shared a powerful experience. We laughed. We clapped. Many of us couldn’t help but hum along. I will admit I teared up at the end a bit, to my surprise. We all willed the Genie to take an encore after “Friend Like Me.” We ooh-ed and applauded when the carpet flew Aladdin and Jasmine around the stage, hitting our cues like we were part of the show. That’s because we were. That’s the beauty of theatre. It happens in the moment, a collaboration where the audience informs and helps it. And in that process, theatre brings people together, weaving disparate, diverse people with divergent lives and experiences into a single tapestry. Together we experience human emotion—laughter. Tears. Delight. Awe.
Many faiths have a holy rite known as Communion. My own faith has this, and I participate fervently each week in an attempt to touch God. But in the theatre, I experience another form of communion where I touch humanity. In a world where we seem to multiply ways to find divisions, where we seem to delight in minimizing the feelings of others, where we find ways to invalidate and isolate, to label and de-humanize, there is something refreshing—almost sacred--about sharing emotions together. A potluck of the soul, perhaps, where we all contribute and then consume. It's something I think we could have more of, a beneficial tonic.
I will never see the grandma from Queens again, or the little boy from the theatre camp. I’ll never see the tourists from other countries. But I’m more human and richer for having spent some time communing with them. And I can't help but feel elevated for the experience.
Another form of magic I saw was the Genie. He’s making his Broadway debut, out-sparkling and outshining every sequin, rhinestone, and gem on that stage. It’s truly remarkable to watch him, both because it’s a phenomenal, high octane performance and because there is a special joy in the fact that it’s his dream come true, as his bio notes.
I have no idea what his path was, what obstacles he faced and conquered, but I have to imagine there were many. I don’t know him, but he’s my hero now. He’s the one I shall think of when I go back to school, sit in the auditorium and try to coax and coach my beloved young students into using their upstage hand, singing with their head voice, projecting to the back row, cheating out, being quiet backstage, etc. Dreams do come true, and magic does happen. However, one of the things I loved about the show was that you could see the characters sweating. I know that sounds weird. But there’s a realness, a gritty human truth about that. It’s hard work, performing like that. It’s hot under the lights. You’re doing a serious cardio work out for 2.5 hours, and there’s the need to project your emotions and soul out to an audience of 1700 people!
I like the sweat because it reminds me that magic happens, but only with hard, hard work. And kudos and congratulations to Major Attaway for making the magic happen. The glitter you wore in your makeup and the lights that followed you onstage were not half as brilliant as your work. Bravo, sir! Bravo and many, many encores.
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