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Category Archives: Contemplative Parenting

When words get in the way

Words get in the way1

© Joshua Koepp

It has happened to all of us. Words have left our mouths that we regret. Or maybe we have done something that affected others in a way we did not intend. There are reasons why boys can be especially prone to this. If we understand why, we can give them tools to avoid and handle mistakes.

I remember once in my early teens when I was at a formal gathering. It was an anniversary celebration for our church. I felt pretty special to be included with all the adults walking around dressed in their fancy clothes.

There was a guy present who had been our music director but had moved a year or two previous. I was excited to see him since I looked up to him and he seemed to like me, which is important for 14-year-olds. I gradually got closer to where he was standing and he greeted me warmly, “Hi Joshua. Wow! You sure have grown.”

“Hi,” I said back, and not wanting to seem like a stupid kid I tried to think of something else to say. I decided to return the compliment. I blurted out, “So have you!”

He paused and forced a laugh with a look on his face that seemed to say, “You little ____.” I guess he wasn’t happy about the extra 50 pounds he had put on.

While that situation was harmless, many boys get far more sever consequences when they say stupid things, especially if they do or say something that can be understood as threatening violence or sexually suggestive. Zero tolerance policies at many schools are often ruthlessly enforced and very destructive for boys.

Here are a few of the reasons boys sometimes say stupid things:

1)     Language and emotional processing happen in different parts of the brain and those parts aren’t as efficiently linked as in girls. This makes for slower processing and more difficulty getting the words out right.

2)     Stressful situations derail the connection between the emotional processing part of the brain (limbic system) and the critical thinking part of the brain (frontal cortex). That means in a situation where stress and threat are present (social situations, conflict, being called a name), they’re not thinking as much as they are reacting from their gut or practiced responses.

3)     Testosterone encourages impulsive reactions and linear thinking. Testosterone’s effects are complex, but it does make a difference and boys do have more of it. Impulsive means blurting and having NO filter (even if they know better than to insult food at a guest’s house). Linear thinking means they may only be able to think of one thing to say instead of all the various responses available.

4)     When teenage hormones are involved, studies show that boys frequently mis-read emotional cues and respond very differently than they would have otherwise. They often feel very ashamed and regret what they have said and done. Of course, this is magnified when parents and the opposite sex are involved.

Here are a few things we can do to help:

1)     Allow for “do-overs.” When something comes off wrong or a conversations spirals out of control in the wrong direction, it’s okay to press the rewind button. I often say to my son, “Let’s stop here. I’ll give you some time. You decide if you want to revise anything you just said.”

2)      Practice different responses. In any given situation, there are many different things we can say or NOT say. It can be very helpful for boys if we help them think through what might have gone differently if something else had been said. It can also help them hone their personal style to think about what different responses look like to others.

3)     Role play situations and scenarios. While it may sound corny, boys learn through doing, and there’s a much better chance they will succeed in real life if they have a chance to run through a situation within the safety of the family.

When we’re young, the feeling of embarrassment is magnified and frightening. It can make you want to run and hide. It sometimes causes tears, which is incredibly embarrassing for boys. Remember to provide a safe shelter and support for them when they have those “I can’t believe I said that” moments.

 
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Posted by on December 31, 2014 in Contemplative Parenting

 

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Three best things

3 best things

 
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Posted by on December 20, 2014 in Contemplative Parenting

 

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Apologizing and Forgiveness

canstockphoto17001941The neighbor boys were over to play: a 12-year-old and his 9-year-old nephew, an 11-year-old and his 8-year-old brother, and a 7-year-old. My boys, 7 and 5 years-old, were having a blast. While listening in on their play, I heard one friend make a boy-tragic error. It was something like: “That sword is way too short.” Without a moment’s notice, my son shot back: “That’s STUPID. It’s not a sword. It’s a KNIFE.”

I didn’t care about the sword/knife differentiation. However, I did care about the fact that my son called his neighbor stupid. While I let many of these situations work themselves out in the normal give and take of neighborhood friendships, for some reason I felt like saying something this time.

Me: “Braden, you just called your friend stupid. I’d like you to apologize.”

Braden: “I’m sorry Tavis. You’re not stupid.”

This much I had predicted. It was what happened next that caught my attention.

Tavis: “You’re forgiven.”

I didn’t know Tavis’ parents very well at this point. When I heard him say that, I decided I wanted to get to know them more. Kids don’t just say “you’re forgiven” if they haven’t had a little bit of instruction.

I had a talk with Tavis’ dad on the playground near our house a few weeks later. During our conversation, I brought up this story. He said, “Yeah, our family has a lot of emotion. One rule we have is that it’s always okay to apologize and forgive each other.”

I loved that! I loved it for two reasons. First, it recognized that normal families have all sorts of emotion. Second, because it recognized that emotions can be messy and family members need to forgive each other.

As a side advantage, I think it also means that the boys in that family will hopefully be more inclined to forgive my boys when they do things that need forgiving (which my boys do all the time).

Final shot:

  • Emotions in families are normal.
  • We all need to have grace (forgive) each other’s emotional mistakes.
  • Parents should model apologizing and forgiveness to children by asking for forgiveness when parents make emotional mistakes.
  • Parents should teach children to apologize and forgive and allow them to make the mistakes that all children make when learning these skills (think of all the mistakes you have made).
 
 

Dads, Sons, Discipline and Adrian Peterson

dad son talkI’m a little late to the Adrian Peterson discussion, and that’s probably good timing. The media frenzy has settled a little bit, and we’re left with the more productive work of reflecting on ourselves.

First, let me say that this is not a rant against Adrian Peterson. Primarily, this post is going to be about fathers and the unique role we have in disciplining (word chosen intentionally) our sons.

I think it’s impossible for men to understand childbirth. Not just because of the pain involved, but also because of the brain and body chemicals present during labor and throughout the entire time a mother is carrying her baby. To a lesser degree, I think there are aspects of the father-son bond and discipline relationship that are very unique. Some of it seems alien and incomprehensible if you haven’t experienced it first-hand.

Just in case you were getting worried, let me say up front that I do not defend or excuse whipping a four-year-old boy repeatedly until he bleeds or punching a child in a car seat. That’s not discipline.

Let’s talk about terminology. In child development circles, the term “discipline” isn’t popular anymore. It has largely been replaced with “guidance.” Guidance accurately describes what great teachers, coaches, youth workers and many others who care about children engage in on a daily basis. There are all sorts of trendy and effective ways to do this. A few of my favorites are Jane Nelson’s Positive Discipline and Jim and Charles Fay’s Love and Logic.

The word “discipline” has taken on a negative connotation. It generates thoughts of punishment like spanking, whipping, switching, isolation, withholding needs, causing pain, physical abuse and in extreme cases causing severe bodily harm, even death.

In truth, discipline isn’t any of these things. I believe that healthy discipline is one of the most positive, affirming, and life-giving things a son can experience from a dad. True discipline is the core of what the father-son relationship is all about. In fact, for boys, I will go as far as to say that it is what sons want MOST from their dads. Let me explain.

Discipline provides the skills and strength we need to succeed. Discipline shows you a vision of your best and encourages you to get there. Discipline breaks an impossible goal into manageable steps. When we’re living and behaving in ways that hurt others and ourselves, discipline gets in our face and says, “Enough!” When we are slacking at life, discipline kicks us in the butt. When we disrespect others and ourselves, discipline holds a mirror in our face and says, “YOU are better than THAT.”

The father-son relationship is a rare container for discipline. When a dad does it right, the power it holds for a boy is incredible, thrilling and transformational. It can refine and support you like nothing else can. It gives you the courage to do anything.

On the flip side, the pain it carries when a dad drops the ball on this sacred role is devastating. Hurtful words from a father or father figure are searing. Neglect is withering. Abusive, torturous actions can send boys to a very dark place. I’ve been with boys who were there, and cried for ones who couldn’t see their way out.

Any time we, as fathers, choose abuse, fear and rage, we risk sending our kids down that road. It’s an awful exchange. It’s like losing our home to the bank when we have a winning lottery ticket in our back pocket.

When we use violence to train our kids it’s like trying to slice cheese with a chainsaw. It doesn’t do a very good job and makes a horrible mess of things.

None of us had perfect fathers. Some of us had rotten ones. The good news is that no matter where we start from, there are plenty of people and resources out there that can help us get better. There’s always room to grow. Contact me if you want a few ideas.

 
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Posted by on September 25, 2014 in Contemplative Parenting

 

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Can boys love their friends?

You Me

This is a picture one of my son’s first grade friends, another boy, made for him. I couldn’t help but smile at the honest, fearless expression of friendship captured in the drawing.

There are some unspoken guidelines for showing affection that boys and men begin to follow at a young age. My first grader already resists hugging, sometimes even touching, his younger brother. Of course, some of this is the normal dynamic between brothers. Some of it is the “boy code.” Some of it is just his natural style. While it’s okay for boys to have different comfort levels with and ways of expressing affection, I believe it’s important for ALL boys to show and experience brotherly love.

Love? Yes. In Greek they call it phileo: brotherly love, the kind that friends, teammates, soldiers, and sometimes even coworkers develop for one another. It’s the kind of love that gets lost in a culture that’s irrationally preoccupied with image, achievement, and homophobia.

The truth is, boys are lost without phileo. It’s one of the ways they find their place in the world. I honestly think they NEED it for healthy development. If we were really honest with ourselves, most men would acknowledge that we suffer from the lack of it as well. We need to stick up for our buddies. Defend them. Support them. Care for them. Feel sadness for them and compassion. We need to know that our comrades feel the same for us.

Phileo is like a magic coin. When you give it away, you find two more in your pocket. I’m thankful that my son’s friend got to enjoy the happy feeling that comes when someone receives and appreciates your expression of brotherly affection. At their age, it’s still okay to do. But even for first graders, fear starts to creep in.

For boys, fear begins to whisper questions like:

  • What if they laugh?
  • What if they say, “Eeeww, they’re holding hands.”
  • What did (insert well meaning adult) mean when they said I shouldn’t give pictures like that to other boys?
  • Am I weird because I feel affection for a friend?
  • Is there something wrong with me?

For dads the questions can be the similar:

  • What if someone teases him?
  • What if others see his drawing?
  • Am I doing my job if I DON’T tell him not to give cards and hugs to other boys?
  • Will I raise him to be gay if I let him do that?

All of these questions come from fear, and living in fear is a crummy way to parent and an even worse way to grow up. It’s important that we lay a foundation of healthy love for our sons and help them feel safe to show their feelings to us and their friends in smart ways.

Here are a few ideas:

  1. Tell your son you love him at home. Yes, it can feel awkward. That awkward feeling is fear, and men face their fears. If a side hug and “I love you” aren’t part of your interactions, figure out a way to work it in. Use humor if that makes it easier. Try something like, “What would you say if I told you I loved you?” The more you do it, the easier it gets.
  2. Make a code word. This is especially helpful for downloading love to your son if he needs it when you’re out in public.  For me and my son, the code phrase we agreed on goes like this. I say: “Do you want some coffee?” He knows that means “I love you.” Then he says: ”No, I hate coffee.” I know that means, “I love you too.” Now that it has become a mutually recognized code, he will sometimes initiate and say, “Dad do you want some coffee?” I’ll respond with, “Yes, I love coffee.” I suppose it’s an odd little ritual, but it works for us.
  3. Encourage your son to appreciate his friends. Talk about practical ways to do this, such as:
  1. Do something nice for a friend for no reason (aka pay it forward)
  2. Notice when a friend could use help…and then help.
  3. If someone helps him, encourage your son to tell the person about the difference they made.
  4. Stick up for or defend a friend.
  5. Be loyal, even if others aren’t.
  6. When others reject or mistreat his overtures of friendship (which some will), let him tell you how it feels. Acknowledge the feeling without trying to fix it (“Ouch, that hurts”). Encourage him to keep being a good friend. When boys take the high road, it’s not uncommon for good friendships to grow out of these situations in the long run.

What ideas do you have?

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2013 in Contemplative Parenting

 

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Way to go, boys. Welcome to one of the best feelings in the world.

One of the greatest feelings in the world is taking a standing for a friend. “Either men will learn to live like brothers or they will die like beasts.” –Max Lerner

 
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Posted by on November 24, 2013 in Contemplative Parenting

 

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Tips for Boys: The Art of Getting Out

little league fanWhen I played as a kid, getting out was assumed, at least for me. When I started working with children, cooperative games became the focus. I understand the benefits of noncompetitive cooperative games (heck, I teach workshops about them), and last night, I was also reminded of the incredible benefits of getting out.

My seven-year-old son Braden had a Cub Scouts Pack meeting last night. There were about 35 boys present, ages 6-10. The activity for the evening was basketball. We started with 4 stations; at one station the boys played H-O-R-S-E.

I won’t go into detail about how to play HORSE. If you aren’t familiar, look it up. The main point for this post is that in the game of HORSE, you get out after missing 5 shots (one for each letter in the word HORSE). Like his dad, Braden isn’t basketball star. Even though there are public hoops that we can see from our house, we’ve never gone over to practice our jump shots. Given my lack of fatherly encouragement and coaching, I wasn’t surprised when most of the B-mans shots sailed under, over, beside and past the hoop without touching it.

The other Tiger Cubs weren’t much better, so he didn’t show too much disappointment in his performance until he got out. Now, there are many different ways I could have handled this. I’ve seen many different techniques used to “soften the blow” of getting out in a game. Here are some of the most common.

  1. Don’t keep track. In this one, you play HORSE, but don’t keep track of the letters. Nobody gets out.
  2. Keep track, but let the players continue to shoot after they get out. Their shots don’t count, but they aren’t “left out.”
  3. Pick a different word. Instead of HORSE, go through the entire alphabet. Then people usually get tired of playing before anyone gets out.

Since it was my own son I was dealing with, I didn’t choose any of those. After he missed his 5th shot, I told him he was out. He looked at me with a nervous question mark on his face as if to say: What does that mean? I said, “You missed 5 shots, so you’re out of the game.“

I knew this would be hard for him to deal with. It was his first Pack Meeting. He was playing with boys that he barely knew. He hadn’t made any shots, and now he was the first one out. He was embarrassed, and Dad wasn’t helping. Tears came to his eyes. His lips quivered, and he made them tight and sucked them in to keep his emotion from showing. He didn’t want to cry in front of the other boys, so he scooted up to me and stood stiff as a board with his face tucked between my arm and my body.

I let him stand there for a few seconds and squeezed his shoulder. Then I said, “I know it’s disappointing. I used to get out every time when I played horse.” After another few seconds I let him in on they key to getting out gracefully. I leaned down so I could see his face and said, “One of the best things you can do right now is to give one of the other guys a compliment. It will make you feel better. When you’re ready, go over there and do it.” It took him about two seconds to blink away the tears and turn back to the group. As he called out, “Nice shot, Ben!” he ran back over with a smile enjoyed the rest of the activity.

For boys, the art of getting out is learning that there’s no shame in it. It’s not a rejection; it’s part of the game.

Tips for helping boys get out with style:

  • Give compliments. When you compliment the play of others, you’re always in the game.
  • Welcome others. More players will get out. Welcome them with a high five (or whatever is cool now) and say something like, “Nice try” or “Close one.”
  • Make a plan. Think about what you will try different next time. Watch how the other players are keeping themselves in the game.
  • Try again. Learning from mistakes and failures is fun, challenging, and the key to success.
 
 

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