Stealing the Youth from Youth Sports

am-youth

His name was Max Gray.  He carried a huge, faded army rucksack over his shoulder, filled to the brim with baseballs, helmets, and bats.  There wasn’t room for anything else.  Not even a cigarette.  So he stored that in the corner of his mouth, right next to a southern drawl so thick that anyone outside of Oklahoma would think the man was speaking a foreign language.

We would meet Max at the neighborhood ball fields once a week.  We’d park our bikes just outside the fence.  Upon arrival, he’d drop the bag on the ground and a dozen second graders would rush toward it, bathed in a plume of red clay dust.

“Y’all come gitcha’ a ball and start to ketchin.” 

His methods were unorthodox.  The early years of kid-pitch baseball can be scary.  Most eight year olds can barely control their bladders, much less a curveball.  So, when I kept backing away from home plate with every pitch, Mr. Gray grabbed that green rucksack and put it right behind my heels.

“Son?” 

A three letter word stretched out on his tongue in two syllables. He called each one of us by that name, as if we were all his children.

“I just put a mess’a angry rattlesnakes in this here bag.  And if you step on ‘em, theys a gonna’ bite-cha. So ya’ best stay in that there batter’s box.”

And everyone laughed.

And everyone played.

The Surrey Hills Colts don’t have a plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.  None of us played pro ball.  Heck, I don’t even think a single one of us was among the 2% of all athletes to earn a college scholarship.  But we all learned to throw a ball and “put some pepper on it” as Max would say.  We tested our courage against hot ground balls, putting our gloves on the ground and taking bad hops to the chin.  Cory Schroeder, the only one on the team man enough to play catcher, learned the value of a protective cup.

We won some and we lost some.  But no matter the outcome, at the end of the game, Max would stand at the end of the dugout, tell us all he was proud of us, hand us each a little ticket and say,

“Now y’all go gitcha’ a sodey-pop.”

I loved that man.

Max Gray died just a few short years ago.  When I heard the news, I felt like I had lost a piece of my childhood.  But sadly, I think Max Gray’s passing signaled something greater for me.  Perhaps you’ve seen it, too.

It appears we’ve stolen the youth from youth sports.

I realize that indulging in nostalgia can be like covering the past with a fresh coat of paint.  I’m quite certain there were parents in my day who yelled at the refs and pushed their kids too far.  But today, the pressure feels greater somehow.  And I’m getting swept away.  My kids are still fairly young.  Just 8 and 10.  But when I see all of the opportunities for elite teams, travel tournaments, private lessons and year-round sports specialization, I ask myself:

“Are my kids getting left behind?”

“If I don’t take advantage of these opportunities, am I somehow harming my child?”

“Will they feel left out if they don’t participate?”

When I was a kid, each sport had a season, and you played with kids in the neighborhood.  Usually, a local pizza joint would pay for your uniforms in exchange for putting their logo on the back of the jerseys and a promise to host the end-of-year team party in their game room.

Today, the opportunities are endless. An ESPN study estimated that youth sports leagues handle $5 billion every year.  And CNBC reports that the youth sports travel business wasn’t even a category four years ago.  Now it’s a $7 billion juggernaut.  That’s billion.  With a “B.”  We’re not just talking about a few families here.  It is an industry all by itself.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying travel sports are bad.  Some kids thrive in this environment.  Their passion for the game is so great that they would be playing 24/7 if God didn’t require them to sleep.

But it’s not all kids.

In fact, even with all of the additional opportunities available, participation in youth sports is declining.  The Sports and Fitness Industry Association reports that from 2009 to 2014, kids’ participation in athletic activities has declined by 4%.  And the number of sports played by each child has decreased by 10%.  In theory, most families would have had more money to contribute to a child’s extra-curriculars in 2014 than they might have in 2009 at the height of the recession.  But still, the decline exists.

Why?

Researchers at Michigan State decided to ask the kids. Their Institute for the Study of Youth Sports found that 70% of kids quit playing sports by age 13.  We could chalk this up to the fact that kids just develop different interests after middle school.  Like music, or drama, or dating.  But it’s more than that.  The study showed that the number one reason kids provided for not playing sports was this:

“It’s just not fun anymore.”

follow up survey conducted by George Washington University asked kids to rank over 80 different aspects of youth sports to determine what was “most fun” to “least fun.”  It was a long list, to be sure.  But when the ranking was done, the results were surprising.  The items at the top of the list were all things like “trying hard”, “getting to play”, “positive coaching”, and “sportsmanship.”

And where was winning?

#48

Trophies?

#67

It appears that, unlike me, kids are more concerned about the process than the outcome.  And as much as I would like to think differently, perception is reality.  In my quest to teach my children a strong work ethic and to give them opportunities for excellence, I have subtly made my love contingent upon how they perform on the field.   All I have to do is think back over the past couple of seasons.  A crazed, sports-loving parent, yelling at my kids from the sideline during the middle of the game.

“Stay with your man, son!” 

“Hustle!”  

“Go Audrey!  Pass the ball!”

Only I’m not the coach.  But still I would offer advice from the stands.  Cheering when things went well.  And grimacing when it didn’t.  All in full view of my kids.

Apparently I’m not alone.  When researchers observed parents back in the late 80’s, they found that most parents were silent for nearly 90% of the game.  And when they did verbalize, only 5% of those comments were negative.  Two follow up studies in 1999 and 2007 found that parents are now far more involved in games and practice, and the number of negative or “performance contingent” comments has grown to 30%.

But we’re helping them, right?

Apparently, what kids want most from us is to simply be there, and to tell them we love them.  As for the game? When researchers asked kids what they would most like to tell parent spectators, two responses were the most popular.

“Just shut up,” and

“Let us play.”

If you would like to hear it in their own words, this must-watch video is pretty damn powerful.

We have met the enemy, and it is us.

My good friend Margot Starbuck explains it well in her new book, Overplayed: A Parent’s Guide to Sanity in the World of Youth Sports.  She shows how we’ve taken a game that, by definition, should be fun, and have turned it into a job.  And we’ve done it with the best of intentions.  Our kids say they want to play, so we sign them up for lessons.  They say they want to be the best, so we have them try out for select teams.  When it stops being fun, we remind them of their commitments and tell them to stick it out until the bitter end.  Even if it means they miss out on time playing with friends, or going to church, or traveling on family vacations.  All the while our kids are saying:

Let. Us. Play.

It’s time we give the game back to our kids.  The revolution starts with us.

Because there is no honor in shouting insults at referees.  Just as there is no harm in cheering for kids on both sides of the ball.  Our role is not to project our own desires onto our children. To push, prod, advise and judge, all in the hopes of placing a shiny golden orb around their neck that proves their worth.

No, our role is something entirely different.  To model the selfless love of the Revolutionary who has gone before us.

Because in the end, very few people can recall who was crowned the Super Bowl MVP in 1998.  Or who won the Cy Young Award in 2007.  But every single one of us knows a Max Gray.  He’s someone who devoted time to you, without asking anything in return.  He believed in you, supported you, and encouraged you.  With smiles, hugs, and uplifting words when you were down. And win or lose, you knew that he loved you.  Without hesitation or condition.  Just the way God loves all of us.

Yes, my friends, we must always remember that sports are sprints.  But the game of life is a marathon.  And our goal as parents should be to arrive at the finish line with our children at our side.  Helping us along.  Teaching us.  Reminding us.  That the most important thing we could ever do…

is just be mom and dad.

* If you’re interested in how to change the game, check out the book Overplayed, or look into the Changing The Game Project.  Well worth a look!

* If you enjoyed this post, subscribe by clicking on the link at the top of the page.  Or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.  And, if you’re still dying for more, pick up our book The Year Without A Purchase, (ironically) sold on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or WJK Press.

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A Prayer for the POW in All of Us

am-pow

Today is my wedding anniversary.  Fourteen years ago, my wife and I committed our lives to one another.  In sickness and in health.  Good smells and bad.  Til death do us part.

I am grateful to say that we’re still in love.  Every day, scattered among my absent-mindedness and Gabby’s Looks of Mild Disapproval TM, you can find at least one good belly laugh and several sincere hugs.  Over time, we notice that the little quirks that used to mystify us have slowly become some of our partner’s most endearing qualities. Like the way I sing to myself in the bathroom.  Loudly. Or the way she can remember the tiniest detail about everyone she’s ever met, but still remains baffled by time zone changes (P.S., in case you’re wondering, I just asked Gabby, and the current time in Tacoma, Washington is eleventy-seven o’clock).

While discussing young love with family this past weekend, nieces and nephews were sharing stories about potential mates who didn’t make the cut for one idiosyncrasy or another.  Too hand-hold-y.  Too friend-y.  Too weird-hobby-y.

Then Gabby got into the mix.

“How about one guy I dated who asked to use my bathroom on the first date, then stayed in there for ten minutes to ‘secretly’ do a bunch of push-ups?!”

Our nieces asked, “Why the heck would somebody do that?!”

To which Gabby replied by looking directly at me and asking,

“I don’t know, Scott.  Why would you do something like that?”

Busted.

For some reason, when I first met Gabby, I thought she was a gal with really high standards.  As I drove to her house for our first date, this voice inside my head kept saying,

I’m probably not cool enough for her.  Or sophisticated enough.  Or muscle-y enough.  Is my car too cheap?  Is my job too boring?  Will she think I’m a loser?  

Trapped in this never-ending self-talk, panic set in.  I have never been a “cool guy.”  I couldn’t become more sophisticated over night.  Nor could I buy a new car or change my job.  But there was one thing I could do.

So I went into her bathroom, stretched out in front of the sink, and did just enough push ups to temporarily bulk up, but not so many that I would break a sweat and kick start my B.O.  I also made sure to destroy the evidence of my neuroses by rubbing the handprints out of the bathroom rug.  After all, I wouldn’t want her to think I was too desperate or crazy or something.

Several years into our marriage, I confessed this little gem to my wife, and she thought it was hilarious that my anxious thoughts would cause me to do something so silly.  As if bulging pectorals was her number one criteria for lifelong commitment.

And she’s right.

It’s hilarious.

This time.

But not all the time.

Sometimes that voice in your head starts out as silly.  Nothing more than a random thought.  But then you feed it with worry.  You water it with self-doubt until it breaks through the surface and begins to affect your everyday life.  Nourished by the judgment of others it grows like a noxious weed. Unrestricted.

And that’s when things get really bad.

These damaging thoughts multiply, growing into an army of negativity.  Each one firing its own special brand of ammunition.   Insults.  Abuse. Slurs and slights.  Sure, these weapons may not have seemed so formidable on the outside, when they were disguised as criticisms from acquaintances or passive-aggressive remarks.  But here, confined within the space of your mind, they ricochet off the walls, tearing your soul to pieces bit by bit.   And there is no retreat.  No escape. So you dive into your foxhole.

The P.O.W.

Prisoner of War. 

Not like those real heroes that sacrificed for freedom.  No. You’re just trapped by doubts and fears that no one else can hear, but all of us share.  

The following thoughts have echoed through my brain, and maybe they’ve done battle in yours as well.

My skin is pale.  My head’s too big.  I need a Ph.D.  I should be a better spouse.  A better parent.  A better neighbor.  I’m too lazy.  Too selfish.  Too broken. I’m a push-over.  A pretender. A nobody. I’m not good enough. Or smart enough.  Or manly enough.

I’m not enough.

Period.

I wish I could say that I’m good at fighting myself like this.  But I’m not.  The battle’s not even close.  My negative thoughts are too overpowering.  My true self just sits defenseless, absorbing the bullets and body blows without even bothering to turn away.  As if the onslaught is deserved.

And maybe you do, too.

It’s truly baffling.  We would never sit idly by and allow another person to be attacked with verbal bombs such as these. No, we would readily come to a stranger’s defense, jumping in harm’s way to deflect the explosions, then turning back to offer encouragement and love in an effort to repair any damage that may have been done.

But me?  No sir.  I’m just a P.O.W.  A Prisoner of War. Not the true hero kind, though.  I’m locked in a cage of my own making.  Leave me be and save yourself.

I’m not worth it.

The trouble is, the more we say these things, the more we start to believe them.  All the while, running further away from the One who made us in His image.  Making it ever more difficult to hear His voice.  The one whispering our name the same way it’s been whispered throughout eternity.  If we just bend our ear His direction, we can make out the words, dancing on the breeze.  The small, omnipotent voice, saying…

My child, you speak the truth.  You are, indeed, a P.O.W.

A Person of Worth.

Have you forgotten the ancient prayer?  The one that boasts of how I knit you together in your mother’s womb? The one that declares how you are fearfully and wonderfully made?  All of my works are wonderful, and you should know that full well. (Psalm 139: 13-14)

Or what about the words of the most perfect soul to ever walk the earth?  The one who reminded you that even two sparrows, worth no more than a penny, are precious to me.  So just imagine how valuable you must be! (Matt 10:29-31)

Yes, indeed.  A Person of Worth.  Each and every one of us.

So my prayer today is this: That when the battle starts to rage in my head, and the most familiar voice I know begins to assault itself with “not’s” and “should’s” and “can’ts” and “coulds”, that I can hear the voice of love.  Reminding me that I’ve been created by good…

for good…

to bring a bit of Heaven down to Earth.

And, that, my friends, is a battle worth fighting.

* If you enjoyed this post, subscribe by clicking on the link at the top of the page.  Or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.  And, if you’re still dying for more, pick up our book The Year Without A Purchase, (ironically) sold on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or WJK Press.

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Scared Stupid

AM scared stupid

When I was eight years old, my good friend Barry was the first one in the neighborhood to have HBO, and everybody knew it. But it wasn’t because he was a blabbermouth. Back in those days, there wasn’t cable TV, so HBO would come and install a giant antenna at your house. Standing at the end of my driveway, it looked like someone tried to build a full-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower in the Cunningham’s living room, then cut a ginormous hole in the roof when they figured out the ceiling wasn’t high enough.

One summer afternoon, weary from our escapades on the Slip-n-Slide, we sat down for some R&R in front of Barry’s console TV. That day, HBO’s midday programming consisted of a kid-friendly, non-stop marathon of Friday the 13th Part II. Even though he was a couple years younger than me, the terror and gore didn’t seem to faze my buddy one bit. But me? I had been raised on a steady diet of The Price Is Right and Brady Bunch reruns, so seeing people hacked to death at summer camp left me mortified. Most kids would just look away or fake a stomach cramp and go home. But I couldn’t. I was riveted by the terror.

That same night, my parents went out on an “overnight date”, and I stayed at Barry’s for a sleepover. I was still scared out of my mind, imagining that a madman in a hockey mask might appear at any moment and stab me with a lawn dart, but I did my best to hide it for fear of looking like a sissy.

As bedtime approached, Mrs. Cunningham directed me to the master bathroom to get cleaned up. She filled the tub for me, and left me alone in the tiny, echo-filled room to defend myself against a bloody massacre using only my limited wit and a wilted bar of Irish Spring.

That’s when it happened.

As I twisted to grab the shampoo bottle, my keester slipped on the bottom of the tub. My flailing arm hit the bottle, knocking it to the floor and making a loud noise that most certainly sounded like a murderer breaking down the door. The surprise scared the crap out of me.

Literally.

That’s right.  Overwhelmed by fear, I had turned my neighbor’s sunken tub into a giant toilet.

Now, for those of you who have never pooped in a bathtub (which, I assume, is every person on the planet except me) allow me to elaborate.

When you’re terrified, half-submerged in a small pool of water, and surrounded by little tugboats of your own feces, many thoughts come to mind.

This can’t be good.

I’m eight years old, for Chrissakes!

OH MY GOD!

I am going to stink FOREVER!

What if Barry finds out?!

It’s floating towards me!

Am I dying?

SO MUCH POOP!

Although no self-respecting, axe-wielding maniac would come within a hundred yards of anyone trapped in my revolting situation, I saw no silver lining. I was in a full-blown panic mode now. Fear on top of fear. Unable to make any rational decisions. So, I did what any panicky second-grader might do.

I got out.

Toweled myself off.

And pulled the plug.

As the water drained from the tub, I could tell that there was no way the evidence of my crime would be washed away. Kohler doesn’t make drains that big, and Jesus doesn’t answer that prayer. So, in a final bout of irrational thought, I just walked out of the bathroom, hoping for the best.

Now, some careless mistakes might go unnoticed by a busy mom. Like a capless tube of toothpaste or a toilet seat left in the “up” position. But soggy turds in a bathtub? That’s hard to miss. It wasn’t ten minutes before I heard Barry’s mom bellow from the bathroom.

“What is that?!” (insert uncomfortable, mortified pause) “Is that poooooop?!”

As soon as Barry heard his mom shout the word “poop”, our epic Hungry Hungry Hippos battle didn’t seem to matter anymore. He ran past me to investigate. I followed.

Standing over the tub, we all gazed down at little nuggets of doodoo surrounding the tub drain like it was some sort of campfire. Since I was the only wet person around, it didn’t take Barry too long to realize I was the culprit. He reacted with as much restraint as you might imagine a six-year-old can muster. And, while a broad spectrum of understandable responses were at Mrs. Cunningham’s disposal, she chose the humane route.

“Barry, be quiet!” she scolded, doing her best to stop his giggles and schoolyard taunts. Then she focused on me. “Scotty, are you feeling OK?”

Admitting that I was terrified of scary movies would have been second-grade social suicide – akin to throwing up in the lunchroom. So I lied.

“Yeah. I don’t feel so good. My stomach.”

At this point, the woman felt horrible that she had a sick neighbor’s kid on her hands. She was anxious to take care of the situation, while simultaneously “awfulizing” about how my folks might react if their night of romance was interrupted by news of a soiled tub.

“What do you need, honey?” she asked.

“Can I bring Buckwheat to sleep with me?”

Buckwheat was my little dog. Cute. Cuddly. And just as sweet as a wolverine after eight shots of espresso and a surprise prostate exam.   Even so, Mrs. Cunningham compassionately walked me to my house and we retrieved him.

Fear piled on top of fear, and bad decisions multiplied.

That night, not to be outdone by his owner, Buckwheat peed on the corner of Barry’s sister’s bed. And next morning, Mrs. Cunningham just happened to be painting the hallway with a fresh coat. As I opened the door to let Buckwheat out of the room, he ran through the roller tray and tracked little footprints all over the hall. I added to the mess by chasing after him.

It was a complete disaster.

Some may see this episode as evidence why we need parental controls on television, complete with statistics showing how kids who are exposed to ultra-violent TV shows and video games are more likely to be abusive adults. Or axe-wielding psychopaths.

But it’s bigger than that.

I’ve been somewhat paralyzed by negativity and fear lately. Scrolling through Facebook and news sites, I am presented with an ever-growing list of headlines designed to scare me. And they’re incredibly effective.

  • Stories abound showing how vaccines are killing our kids, or how anti-vaxers are going to kill us all.
  • And GMOs? (genetically modified organisms) Depending on what you read, they are filling us with cancer. Or, without them we won’t be able to grow enough food to feed the planet.
  • And let’s not forget the election. Donald Trump will start World War III. And Hillary Clinton will usher in the Apocalypse.

Don’t get me wrong. I have strong opinions on all of these issues. But the more I read about them, the more fearful I become. So, against my better judgment, I end up sharing “my side” of the story in the hopes of giving voice to the voiceless. To rise up against injustice. To stand up for my cause.

Only none of it makes me feel better.

Not a single heart is changed.

And not a single problem is solved.

In fact, by highlighting the most negative aspects of an issue or a person, or painting the future in the bleakest of terms, I only pour more gasoline on a raging inferno. Encouraging fear of the “other.” Driving a wedge between us. And scaring everyone stupid until we’re all sitting waist-deep in a sewer of our own making, unable to think straight.

But why is that?

Neuroscientists agree that our brains have a basic filing system. Anytime we encounter new information, we perceive it as either a threat or a reward. The default appears to be the threat state, which is good. If a poisonous snake crosses your path, you wouldn’t want to instinctively try and pet it.

The challenge is that the more we perceive threats, the more anxious we become.   All of our mental energy is channeled toward our fight or flight response. We become trapped in our reptilian brains, cut off from logic and reason. No capacity to listen. No energy for empathy. Running away from those who don’t share our beliefs, and fighting off our imaginary enemies with one-sided arguments.

And this scares the crap out of me.

Maybe you feel it, too? Not so long ago, to disagree with someone you actually had to get to know them first. Have a conversation. Learn their story. Human to human.

But today?

I somehow believe that a Facebook post or a yard sign is all that’s required to truly know a person. As if you can know a book by reading just the middle chapter. So I enter an imaginary fight by posting “my side” of the story, and flee by “unfriending” those who don’t share my beliefs. Cordoning off my own little section of the world where we can share a common distaste for the “other”. Growing ever more irrational and intolerant by the day.

Piling fear on top of fear.

And it’s time we stop.

As Christians, we must do better. It’s our call. The greatest peacemaker to ever walk the Earth implores us to love our neighbor and our enemy. And the funny thing is, the only thing separating the two is our own faulty judgment. But Christ reminds us that our job is to love without condition. And in tackling this troublesome task, he also reminds us…

Do not be anxious…

Do not fear…

Do not worry…

For every day has enough worry of it’s own.

And every person has a story to tell.

So today my prayer is this: That I can do my part to move beyond the fear. That I can move beyond my discomfort and get to know others who are different from me. That I can see beyond the sound byte and hear the true story. The story of another human who simply longs for peace. And contentment. And joy. Just like me.

And in truly connecting with my neighbor, may we tackle the challenges before us.

Together.

Unafraid.

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The One (Simple) Thing We Can Do to Protect Our Daughters

Untitled

“What?!”

The words came out of my mouth before I had a chance to consider my audience. Standing in the crowded check out line at the local grocery store, my two-year-old daughter’s tiny voice cut through the high pitched beeps of the scanner and the scattered conversation of the dozen or so people standing nearby.  Time stood still.

And she interpreted my “What?!” to mean that I didn’t understand her the first time.  So she said it again.

Louder.

“I SAID (pausing for effect)… my VAGINA BOTTOM HURTS!”

This is what happens when I am allowed to parent unsupervised.

A few weeks prior to what I’ll now refer to as “The Target Incident”, I reached an important fatherly milestone.  That moment when you realize that protecting your daughter is less about wrapping her in a big plastic bubble and brushing up on your Ultimate Fighting takedown skills, and more about teaching her to be a strong, confident woman.

Around this same time, I read somewhere that it was important to use the medically appropriate terms when referring to your child’s anatomy, instead of making up cutesy words like “hoo hoos” and “tiddly bits”.  The article said that such words might create a sense of shame about the body.  So I did my best to teach my daughter a new vocabulary.  Unfortunately, I forgot to teach her about the appropriate times and places to use such words.  The result was like toting around a little Dr. Ruth Westheimer doll with a pull cord.

Since that day, I am happy to report that my daughter is very confident and no longer spouts anatomical terms at random.   At just eight years old, she knows who she is, and we do our best to reinforce just how powerful and capable God made her to be.

Even so, I still worry about her.

There are countless news reports that highlight the dangers women face every day.  Human trafficking.  Domestic violence.  Sexual assault.  The stories appear daily.  We see accounts of thirty men assaulting a defenseless teenager in Brazil. Or pre-teen girls stolen from their homes and sold into prostitution. Or beloved comedians taking advantage of young women with the help of spiked drinks and a gullible public.  And every time I think about such tragedy finding my daughter, it scares the ever-loving fecal matter out of me (to use a medically appropriate term).

I soothe myself by reasoning that these cases are anomalies, and the odds of such random, headline-worthy events ever happening to my child are slim.

I also tell myself that building confidence and strength in my daughter will greatly minimize the risk.

And while I blanket myself in these lies, I mask a sad truth:

One in five women will be raped in her lifetime.  And one in four girls will be sexually abused before she turns 18.

When I read these statistics, I come to a harsh realization. And maybe you other dads are seeing it, too.  Confidence and strength are no match for this beast.  We can teach our daughters to use commanding voices and karate chops ad nauseum and it will barely move the needle.  By focusing on our daughters, we have been woefully out of touch, indirectly fanning the flames of victim-blaming.  Offering our girls a thimble full of water while ignoring the inferno being set ablaze behind our backs.

Dads, if we want to protect our daughters, it starts with our sons.  And teaching them about consent.

Because stranger danger isn’t the problem here.  It’s the cute kid your daughter works with at the fast food restaurant.  The funny guy in her church youth group.  The helpful one on her group project team.

It’s my son.

It’s your son.

And to think otherwise is to live in a state of denial.  Because eighty percent of sexual assault victims know their attacker.

As dads, we all know that it’s our job to have “The Talk” with our kids when they are young.  To teach them about the birds and the bees.  Explain where babies come from.

The good news is, if your calendar fills up and you miss the chance, you know the fifth grade sex ed class or your son’s friends will fill in the gaps.  It’s not an ideal situation, but your little guy will learn the truth about human reproduction sooner or later.  Alternative theories like storks and dolls born in a cabbage patch just don’t hold up under close questioning from a determined middle schooler with access to YouTube.

But consent?

That’s a different story.

Your son is bombarded by images of women every day.  And a majority of these show women as objects to be desired.  A form of entertainment.  Watch any sporting event on television and tell me it’s not true.  From the cheerleaders on the court to the ladies peddling Viagra during commercial breaks. It’s non-stop.

But it’s gotta’ stop.

A few weeks ago, I noticed my ten-year-old son talking to his friends about girls.  Who they liked.  Which ones had a girlfriend.  Who was kissing on the playground.

Seeing an opportunity, I sat down with my boy.  And I’m not gonna’ lie.  It was awkward.  But I did it anyway.

“Hey son.   I want to talk to you about something.”

“OK Dad.”

“It’s about kissing girls.”

“Can we talk about something else?”

“Yes, we can.  Later.  But right now I need to be sure you understand something very important.”

“OK”

“There might be a time when you feel like kissing a girl.  And kissing is great!  But you need to be sure she’s OK with that.  It’s not OK just to grab a girl and kiss her.  You’re not in charge of her body.  She is.  And even if she says it’s OK to kiss her, your lips may be one inch away from hers, and it may start feeling really great, but if she changes her mind and says ‘no’, you have to back away.  Even if the kiss already started.  Girls are allowed to change their minds.  In fact, based on my experience, you should expect a girl to change her mind a lot.”

“And, if you and a couple of your buddies are with a girl and you ask if she wants to kiss any of you. She might say yes.  But she might not mean it.   Kinda like when your buddies gang up on you and dare you to do something stupid, you might do it because you feel pressured, but you don’t really mean it.  So don’t ever pressure a girl like that.  It’s not right.  In fact, not only is it not right to do these things, but it’s also against the law.  Get it?”

“Yeah dad.”

“So what am I saying?”

“Ugh.  Do I really have to say it?”

“Yes.  I want to make sure you got it.”

“Don’t kiss a girl if she doesn’t want to.”

“Right.  And don’t ever coerce a girl into saying yes, especially with a group of people.”

“OK.  Can we talk about something else?”

“Sure.  But we’ll probably talk about this again sometime.”

I’m sure psychologists all over the country are cringing right now, just like my son. It’s not enough just to offer general platitudes and tell our boys to respect other people.  Just like the birds and the bees, we need to provide details about what consent really means.  Otherwise, we are the ones responsible for painting a black and white issue with shades of gray.

Sometimes giving voice to the voiceless and truly loving our neighbor starts at home.  Within your own four walls.  So, if you’re a dad, I implore you, for the sake of daughters, wives and mothers, man up. Teach your sons about consent.  If you need some help, I’ve compiled some simple suggestions from various resources below.

But enough is enough.

The time is now.

And the answer starts with us.

Tips for Teaching Consent to Your Kids

Toddlers:  Start to build awareness early. When you are playing, make sure “no means no”.  If you are tickling, teasing, or chasing, the instant someone says “stop”, respect their wishes.  If anyone has to say “no” more than once to get a behavior to stop, make sure whoever did not stop on the first request offers and apology (especially if the offender is you).  And never coerce them into physical contact with another person (hug your Aunt Kelly!)  Ewwww.

Pre-K:  Teach the difference between silence and expressed consent.  Before initiating physical contact, always ask permission. “Can I give you a hug?”  “Is it OK if I move you to this chair?”  And rather than waiting for a “yes”, acknowledge when body language is saying “no” and tell them you understand.  A tentative yes is not a yes.

Young Children to Pre-teen: Respect your kids’ need for privacy in bathrooms, when changing, etc.  And ask for privacy yourself.  If they aren’t knocking on doors yet, teach them by modeling the behavior.  And, if you have the official “birds and bees” talk, make sure you talk about consent as part of the discussion.

Teenagers: Be as specific as you feel comfortable here.  Bring current events into the discussion.  Talk about how alcohol can impair a person’s ability to express and acknowledge consent. If you would like a humorous, yet specific, discussion of consent, consider this one.  Or, if you prefer an unfiltered discussion, this groundbreaking article by a NFL hero doesn’t pull any punches.

* If you enjoyed this post, subscribe by clicking on the link at the top of the page.  Or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.  And, if you’re still dying for more, pick up our book The Year Without A Purchase, (ironically) sold on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or WJK Press.

Resources:

How to Teach Consent to Kids
http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/02/how-to-teach-consent-to-kids/

We Can Teach Kids Consent without Brining Sex into the Conversation https://rewire.news/article/2015/04/09/can-teach-kids-consent-without-bringing-sex-conversation/

National Sexuality Education Standards
http://www.futureofsexed.org/documents/josh-fose-standards-web.pdf

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Why I Stopped “Helping” My Kids

AM Stop Helping

“Who’s that?” my sister-in-law, Kerri, asked, her index finger planted firmly in my chest.

She was speaking to her son, Jackson, who, at the time, was the cutest toddler on the planet. Objectively adorable by all scientific measures.

“Uncle No,” he answered, staring right at me.

The nickname “Uncle No” was well-deserved.  In Jackson’s eyes, my main function in life was to utter the word nonstop while following him around and forcibly removing anything remotely entertaining from the clutches of his chubby fist. His estimate wasn’t far off.  My diligence was fueled by a selfish desire to avoid getting any of the GerberSaurus’ slobber on my stuff and a genuine concern for the child’s welfare.

I wish I could say that my irrationality has subsided now that we’ve been raising our own little funk factories for the past decade, but I still find myself saying “no” a lot.   A typical conversation goes something like this:

“Dad, can we go to the park by ourselves?”

“No”

“Why not?”

“Because you’ll probably take off your shoes, and then you’ll get a splinter of mulch stuck in your foot.”

“That won’t happen.”

“Yes it will.  And you’ll scream like an angry monkey and won’t let me dig it out, so it’ll get infected.  Two days from now we’ll go to the clinic where the nurse will give you a shot to numb your foot.  But you’ll fidget, so the needle will break off under the skin, causing major nerve damage.  It’ll get so bad that we will probably have to amputate.  And then we won’t be able to find a prosthetic that feels comfortable to you since you can’t even find shoes that “feel right,” so I’ll have to spend the rest of my life being your nurse while I watch my retirement dreams of traveling the world with your mother die a slow, painful death.”

“So we can’t go to the park because you want to go on a world tour with mom instead of taking care of a one-legged kid?”

“That’s right.  Now go cure a disease.”

Ok.  Maybe I exaggerate, but I have noticed this tendency in myself.  Anytime our kids venture out on their own, my mind conjures up all the awful things that could happen and my knee-jerk response becomes “No.” This is likely a result of a steady diet of fear.  My own programming dates back to an 80’s after-school special on the dangers of being a latch-key kid, and is reinforced by today’s non-stop news cycle is filled with countless stories of child abductions, human trafficking, and school violence.

I’m suspect I’m not alone in this.  Many of us are cautious with our kids.  We don’t want to subject them to undue harm, so we make rules, set limits, and erect borders.  And many would argue that our vigilance has been productive.

Statistic show there has never been a safer time to be a kid in the United States.  The rates of violent crime, physical abuse, sexual abuse, abductions, and motor vehicle injuries are far lower than they were for the previous generation of children. And it’s not just that. Playgrounds are like paradise.  The pinching metal hooks and rusty nails of my childhood have been replaced with kooshy foam flooring and corner-free molded plastic. School lunches are healthier, too. Ketchup, once considered a vegetable, is now a lowly condiment again.  Even rates of bullying have decreased.

So what’s the problem?

Sometimes we take this desire to protect our kids a bit to0 far, and it morphs into a misguided attempt to manufacture their happiness.  Call it “helicopter parenting”. Call it “over-parenting”.  But whatever name you give to it, it’s not helping our kids,

Don’t get me wrong, the intent is noble.  As hands-on parents, we know the negative consequences of poor life choices, so we coach our kids to avoid them. And we’re with them every step of the way.

We monitor every play date and group interaction to make sure they don’t do something to hurt someone else or get hurt themselves.

When they forget their lunchbox, we drive it up to school for them because we don’t want them to go hungry.

We check every sheet of homework, find their mistakes for them, and work together to correct them.  Why? Because we don’t want them to screw it up so bad that they get a bunch of horrible grades that ultimately impact their report card or their ability to play in the big game.

As they get older, we call prospective employers to see if they have summer job openings and then review our kid’s job application to make sure it’s worded just right, so they won’t be rejected.

And we insist that all of our prodding is for their own good.  We’re helping them avoid the same mistakes we made, right?

Wrong.

The truth is, when we shield our kids from struggle and consequence we rob them of their strength and resilience. And when we have such a direct hand in their victories, they cannot claim any for themselves.

Studies show that “over-parented” kids report lower rates of physical activity and higher rates of obesity.  They are more likely to be bullied, and more likely to take anxiety medication.  “Over-parented” kids also report higher rates of depression and lower rates of life satisfaction when they eventually leave the nest and go to college.

That’s right, our quest to manufacture happy kids is inadvertently creating unhappy, unhealthy adults.

The statistics are bad enough.  But when I look at myself as a faithful person, I can see that my tendency to over-parent exposes an internal contradiction as well. And maybe the same is true for you.

It’s as if I’m completely confident that God will take care of me, but I’m not so sure he’ll do the same for my kids.

Simmer on that one for a moment.

Faced with this realization, I’ve started to parent differently.  Adopting some simple rules to try and bring us back into balance and get clear on what are real dangers to our children, and what are only perceived threats. I wish I could say we do this 100% of the time, but we’re still human, and still making mistakes ourselves.  But here’s the gist.

Remember how much you have gained from your struggles.  Think back to the most pivotal moment in your life.  The experience that taught you your greatest lesson.  Odds are good that the situation involved struggle, pain, or tremendous effort.  We rarely learn from the experiences of others or successes that were handed to us.  Your kids will be no different.

Change your questions.  When our kids push for autonomy, too often we ask, “What’s the worst that could happen?” This question only encourages us to think of horrible outcomes that have very little likelihood of happening.  Instead, ask, “What might they learn from this?” and “What strategies can I teach them so they can avoid real danger here?”

Be there when they fall.  Notice it doesn’t say “catch them”.  You don’t have to rescue them.  Nor do you have to pontificate or extract life’s lessons from every misstep.  Consequences are life’s greatest teacher.  So, when failures happen (and they will), your job as the parent is to help them process their pain, acknowledge the heartache, and remind them how much you still love them.  Then they’ll be ready to move forward on their own.

In the end, we need to realize that we can’t do our jobs as parents if we’re also doing the jobs of our children.  We must step back and allow them to make mistakes, remembering that true joy doesn’t come from a stress-free life, but rather, from knowing we have been made in the image of God.  With strength enough to brace ourselves against life’s boulders, grace enough to forgive ourselves when we’ve fallen short, and love enough to share with all those we meet along the way.

What more could any child need?

* If you enjoyed this post, subscribe by putting your email address in the box at the upper right of the page.  Or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.  And, if you’re still dying for more, pick up our book The Year Without A Purchase, (ironically) sold on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or WJK Press.

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God is a Narcissist

I Googled myself today.

No, I’m not proud of it.  It’s probably the most narcissistic thing a person can do.  It’s the online equivalent of standing in front of a mirror at the gym, kissing your own bicep, and flexing until you pop a vein in your forehead. Which, incidentally, I may have done this morning while in an exercise-induced stupor.  My sincerest apologies to the patrons of the Williamson Country Recreation Center.

Anyway, back to the Googling.  I was curious to see if anyone had posted a recent review of my book.  One of the first links that caught my eye was labeled “Scott Dannemiller Quotes.”  My heart raced as I pondered the notion that someone in the universe might find me quotable.   My glee was tempered when I clicked the link and found the page to be blank, save for one poorly worded sentence that I probably never said in the first place.

The next link that drew my attention was called “Authors like Scott Dannemiller.”   As I prepped my finger for the mouse click, I hoped this page would be completely empty, proving that I am one-of-a-kind.  However, what I saw on the screen was a list of dozens of names, and all but three of them had either a) written more books than me, or b) had more followers than me.  One writer named Chip Ingram has authored 122 books.  Which makes him 121 better than me. And I’ve never even heard of him.

Licking my wounds, I ventured over to my Amazon page, where a glowing review of my book sat alongside another that was simply titled, “Ummm… No.”

So, what started as a harmless online query landed me in a steaming pile of disappointment.  I wish I could say it’s the first time, but it’s not.  What the heck did I think I would accomplish by looking for myself on the internet?

Dr. Jean Twenge, Professor of Psychology at the University of San Diego believes we are in the midst of a “narcissism epidemic.”  In her book by the same name, she and her colleague Dr. Keith Campbell demonstrate that, since the 1980’s, people are gradually becoming more self-centered, individualistic, materialistic, and entitlement-minded.  I may as well be Exhibit A.

“It’s all about me.”

The funny thing is, I frequently join in the chorus that calls this kind of behavior selfish, egotistical and childish.  But when I dive into the reasons behind my own actions, I’m finding an uncomfortable truth.

This brand of narcissism isn’t self-serving.  It’s self-seeking.

It’s easy to feel empty these days, losing yourself in a barrage of “ought to’s” and “should be’s.”. Just this morning, I received emails telling me I need to shrink some things (my waistline, my debt, and my carbon footprint) and make some other things bigger (my bank account, my home, and my wiener).  Catalogs filled my mailbox, displaying all of the things I lack in life.  I didn’t even have to solicit this advice.  It just came to me.  Free of charge.  Like a digital friend who feels compelled to tell you that you have a booger on your cheek and corn stuck in your teeth.  Still, all of these messages bury into my subconscious, creating a made up version of myself that just doesn’t measure up.

So I check Facebook to boost my mood.

There, I see people I know – real people –  living amazing lives.  They are eating fabulous food. Sticking their toes in the sand. Winning awards.  Meanwhile, I am sitting on a worn-out couch trying to drown out the sounds of my kids fighting, silently wondering if that lump on my shoulder is a potentially cancerous cyst or just a sub-surface zit that’s been lying dormant since junior high (should I Google that?).  It’s no wonder that research shows that surfing social media tends to bring about feelings of mild depression.  Comparison can be a dangerous thing.

But still I share on Facebook.  Deep down, I honestly think there’s a healthy aspect of this.  It’s the way we remind ourselves of the blessings of life.  When I yell at my kids , snap at my wife, or do what I want to do instead of doing what’s right, it leaves an aftertaste that’s hard to shake.  And who wants to share that with the world?  Could you imagine?

AM Facebook Farce

So I edit out the guilty, shameful parts of my life.  And maybe you do, too.  Hiding the junk we think others might find unacceptable.   Putting our best selves on display and hoping others will like what they see.  Fishing for compliments in a world of comparison.  And we’re not being fake.  The smiles in the vacation photos are real.  Our pride in our kids’ accomplishments is genuine.  And we truly love our spouses.

Unfortunately, when we edit out the truth, we’re denying one of the most wonderful truths of all.

God is the original narcissist. (well… not really… but follow me here)

If we trace narcissism back to it’s source, we find that the term originated with a story from Greek mythology of a hunter named Narcissus who was known for his incredible beauty.  Unfortunately, Narcissus met an untimely demise.  One day, while seated at the edge of a pristine body of water, the hunter looked down and saw his reflection on the still pool below.  Narcissus was so taken with the glory of his own image that he fell in love with it. And the love was so deep, that he could think of nothing else, denying himself even food and drink, until he eventually died, his gaze forever fixed on the image he created.

AM Narcissus

*Narcissus, by Caravaggio

Sound familiar?

It does to me.

No matter how much guilt and shame and emptiness we feel, we cannot deny the truth that we were all created in the image of God.  And that same God looks at His image reflected in us and loves us deeply.  To the point that he would lay down his life.

And this is the good news. God is not only in love with the pretty parts.  No.  He loves every last ounce of our being.  Our faults and our failures.  Our sins and our struggles.   And while many will say that our God loves us in spite of all these things, I would suggest that he loves us because of all these things.  Because the feelings of emptiness that come from our lowest of lows reminds us that He is still God, and we are still dust.  Incapable of going it alone.

And for this reason, I shall go on searching.  Hoping to find myself in both the happy and the hopeless.  To finally see myself as God sees me.

Broken and blessed.

* If you enjoyed this post, subscribe by clicking on the link at the top of the page.  Or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.  And, if you’re still dying for more, pick up our book The Year Without A Purchase, (ironically) sold on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or WJK Press.

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Searching for Something We Never Lost

AM Never Lost

There’s something magical about this turning of the calendar page, when the warm golden glow of December’s nostalgia makes way for the fresh white canvas of January.  It’s a time to reflect on life and your place in it.  Often, we use the blank slate of a new year to make new promises to ourselves.  We vow to make our waistlines smaller and our generosity bigger.  Resurrect our virtues and cast away the vices.  The air is pregnant with promise.

That is, until most of us crumble into a heap of miserable failure a few weeks later.

I’m only half-kidding. Statistically speaking, there are actually 8% of us who keep our resolutions the full twelve months.  Still, when January 1st rolls around each year, we commit to changing something about ourselves.   It’s a curious quest.  Given the dismal numbers, you may be wondering why we do this year after year.  What do we gain from this cycle of committing to a goal and failing, and what is it that we’re truly seeking in the first place?

A couple of years ago, our church’s discussion group was studying a book called “The Power of Enough” by Lynn A. Miller.  As my wife and I lay in bed one Saturday night, cramming for the next day’s class, she turned her gaze toward me and simply asked,

“What if we didn’t by anything for a year?”

I pretended not to hear her, but she kept talking anyway.

“I think we need to do something drastic to get back in touch with that’s important.”

She reminisced about the year we spent serving as missionaries in Guatemala and the deep feeling of connection we felt.  Not only a connection with God’s calling, but a connection to our brothers and sisters in Christ.  We lived with a Mayan family in a tiny adobe house. We earned just $230 per month.  Yet we had more than we needed.  The experience was so meaningful for us, that it spawned a family mission statement:

To tirelessly seek God’s will by living lives of integrity, owning what we have, growing in faith together, and serving all God’s people to create a world without need.

And this mission statement, born of simplicity and service, was now emblazoned on a $500 custom-made piece of artwork in our home.

Therefore, that January 1st began what we now call our “Year without a Purchase.”

Our challenge was not about saving money.  Instead, it was a quest to live with intention and reconnect with the important things in life.  To place a greater focus on relationships, and decrease our emphasis on “stuff.”  The rules were simple.

  1. We could buy stuff that can be used up within a year (food and hygiene products were OK)
  2. We could fix stuff that breaks, unless a suitable replacement is available
  3. Gifts had to be in the form of charitable donations or “experiences”

We chose not to tell our kids about our little experiment.  They were five and seven at the time, and we thought they could be our litmus test to see if we could live up to Jesus’ prayer in John 17 to live “in” the world but not “of” the world.  If we could make it through the year without them noticing, we would consider it a success.

Our friends, on the other hand, thought we were nuts.

On the surface, we agreed that our challenge sounded absurd, but not for the same reasons they did.  The truth is, 80% of the world’s people live on less than $10 per day. Our New Year’s Resolution is a daily reality for the majority of the population.  It’s likely that any family struggling to make ends meet would find it laughable or even insulting that some suburban, middle class family was “experimenting” with their reality.

Even though we have never been shopaholics, we did occasionally pop into a store and buy a new pillow for our couch, a small gift for a friend, or a pair of shoes to update our wardrobe. So this new way of living would require a shift in mindset for us, and we hoped this shift would be a constant reminder of how others in God’s kingdom go about their everyday lives.  Heck, it might even lead to more compassionate hearts.

The challenge was hard at first.  Like a smoker quitting cigarettes.  In fact, during the second month, I happened to step on a scale and found that I had gained seven pounds.  Apparently, anytime I felt the urge to buy something, I ate something instead. I was taking the “food loophole” to new extremes.

But it wasn’t long before we began to develop new habits.  I started exercising. We unsubscribed to coupon lists.  We limited exposure to media.  We started to treat stores like ex girlfriends, only driving by to see if they were still there, but never making direct eye contact. For twelve months, we did these things.

And we were failures.

According to our rules, we purchased three non-approved items during the year.  We bought my son a new pair of shoes, even though he had another pair that would work.  We bought my daughter a pair of swim fins when she remembered how we had promised her she could have them the previous year.  And we bought a vacuum cleaner instead of borrowing one when ours was broken beyond repair.

So then, back to our original question.  What did we gain from this process of committing to a goal and failing, and what were we truly seeking?

Taking a break from shopping gave us the space to think about what and why we purchase.  Sadly, I determined that many of the things I desired, like new phones or new clothes, were not things that would make my life easier or more meaningful.  Instead, deep down, I believed they would make my life more enviable.  Effectively separating me from those I professed to love.

I also found myself wanting to purchase things for my children.  I would fearfully ask, “What might happen if they don’t have this thing?  Will other kids make fun of them?  Will they think I love them less?  Will they feel left out?”  For some reason, I thought that purchases could bring them joy.  I thought that purchases could give them a sense of belonging.  I thought that purchases could be God for them.

That’s way too much pressure to put on a purchase.

We also learned the value of community.  We put more of our time, money and energy toward shared experiences.   Conversations with friends got deeper.  Time with family became more meaningful.  When things were broken, like backpacks and toasters, our friends would find they had extra and would give to us from their abundance.  And even though it wasn’t a goal of ours, we did save money throughout the year.  Enough to add to our retirement nest egg, and donate twice as much to charity as we had in years past.

To this day, we are more apt to ask “What function will this thing bring to my life?”  We also continue to place a value on time together as a family and focus on gifts of experiences.

But our biggest learning was this:

Prior to our challenge, we believed purchases might somehow increase our happiness.  But they didn’t.  So we changed our behavior, thinking that avoiding purchases would somehow bring happiness.  And we were wrong on both counts.

As human beings, we are constantly setting expectations for ourselves to become better people.  And this goes far beyond New Years resolutions to exercise more or spend less time on the internet.  We dream of what we might be when we grow up. We focus on career goals and financial success.  We chase images of parental perfection and harmonious relationships.  We desire to build legacies that live long after we’re gone.

And inevitably, in the pursuit of all of these goals, we will experience setbacks. The lost job.  The irreparable relationship. The missed opportunity. The broken dream.   And in these times, it is easy to feel like we don’t measure up.  It’s easy to feel worthless.  But it’s in these times that we must realize that in our single-minded pursuit of our goal, we’ve all just been searching for something we never lost.

The love of God.

It is planted deep inside each one of us.  The seed of our soul, where true joy is found.  Always there.  Surrounding us in success and failure.  Wrapping us in acceptance.  Whispering that “better” is an illusion. It is a love that fills us with hope. And peace. And grace.  Something no accolade or achievement can provide.

So whatever challenges you pose for yourself in this new year, may you always feel this love of God as an ever-present reminder that you were created in His image.

Failing and flawed.

Wonderful and worthy.

* This article was first published in The Church Times in the UK.  If you enjoyed this post, subscribe by clicking on the link at the top of the page.  Or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.  And, if you’re still dying for more, pick up our book The Year Without A Purchase, (ironically) sold on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or WJK Press.

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