Every child in America is at-risk. They are surrounded by an inescapable culture of seduction by “sex, drugs and rock & roll.” It’s the same culture we Baby Boomers grew up in—and contributed to—except worse. I call it the “culture of more”; more sex, more drugs, more violence, racism, gangs, and negative messaging from movies, music, magazines and media entertainment.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying all music, movies and forms of entertainment are bad, but at the risk of sounding like an “old fogy” (as we used to say), I think we can agree—as in all generations—things have changed. Our kids are bombarded with more negative opportunities and instant access to things “taboo” we never had.
The term at-risk used to be used to describe minority children living in poverty, broken homes, and neighborhoods filled with gangs, crime and violence. When middle to upper middle class parents living in the suburbs heard the term at-risk they immediately thought about someone else’s kids living in less than desirable circumstances. That’s not the case anymore.
In today’s world of cell phones, tablets and lap top computers (things we never even thought about), more risk has crossed all color, cultural, class and race lines. Virtually all kids can now both send and receive negative images and information like never before. And more is coming—smaller, faster and easier. Consequently, all parents in America are at-risk of losing their children to a negative lifestyle of one kind or another.
Now, before someone accuses me of being pessimistic and sounding like a doomsday prophet (old fogy?), I do acknowledge all the good things the advancement of technology has given us as well. I don’t want you to think I don’t enjoy my iPhone, iMac (that I’m typing this article on right now), big screen-smart TV and all the other conveniences of living in the 21st century (there, I said it). However, as a parent—and teacher of parents—I can’t help but be compelled by the concerned (and heart broken) parents worried about their children being influenced by the culture of more that offers them too much and too soon. So, what can parents do to protect their children?
First, what we should not do is try to isolate our kids from dealing with reality. Isolation from the “candy” has a way of making them want it even more. And secondly, with today’s educational, economic and environmental dependence on technology, it’s impossible to shield innocent eyes and ears anymore. Nevertheless, there are ways parents can go about building up their children to live in and ultimately overcome all the distractions they must deal with.
When I teach on this subject, I usually begin by emphasizing the principle of self-examination to make sure we are not part of the problem. However, that is not my focus here, but an important reminder nonetheless. You can find more information on that subject here: http://www.richardrramos.com/parents-mission.
In this article my focus is on some promising practices parents can implement in addition to self-examination to protect and prevent their children from negative lifestyles.
I’m not talking about perfection from ever making wrong choices, but protection from choosing a negative lifestyle. That’s a huge difference and a realistic goal we can hope for as we raise our kids in the midst of a very “toxic” environment.
The metaphor I like to use, and I think best describes, our role as protective parents, I learned from Dr. Edwin Friedman in his book, The Failure of Nerve – Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, where he talks about the purpose of the human immune system and how it functions:
“A human organism’s immune system is not given at birth…The immune system develops in response to challenge…The immune response is the capacity to distinguish self from non-self…the major purpose of the immune system is to preserve the integrity of the organism.”
What we learn from this metaphor is the role of parental leadership in the home in developing our child’s integrity, or character. In other words, we are developing their capacity to be true to themselves in order to deal with the things outside of themselves that attack their integrity and make them “sick”: unable to be true to themselves.
Think of yourself as the inoculation that makes your child immune to society’s toxins. This is what all the discipline and boundaries we give our children are about—preparation for separation from us, rather than preparation for isolation from the things (toxins) out in the real world. This understanding, or mind-set, is real world help and that is always my goal in trying to help parents either avoid, or confront, things as they are—not as they should be, could be or would be. I’ve found that parents appreciate this type of straight-talk because it’s realistic—not some pie in the sky, undoable, or quick fix solution that is popular but ineffective in their particular daily situation.
With this goal in mind, I offer the following suggestions. I want to note that some of the principles I’m going to share I learned from Gavin De Becker while reading his book, The Gift of Fear. He doesn’t use the terminology exactly as I use it, nor does he refer to these things are “prevention principles”, as I do. Nevertheless, as I read his book and he talked about these things, I developed them into principles I give parents as best practices for raising strong, healthy, happy children.
1. What Opera are you singing in your home?
The Opera referred to is the tone in the words we speak to our children daily—understanding their power to destroy or build-up our children’s character, which ultimately will determine their destiny.
What are words? Have you ever really thought about it? Without going to deep here, they are one of, if not thee most, important forces in the world. By the use of mere words whole nations are moved to action, critical elections won or lost, crowds are moved to tears, laughter, anger and even violence. Through the use of words some of the most powerful and influential songs, books, play and movie scripts have been written. The human spirit can be inspired or crushed simply by the use of words. I think you get the point.
Now think in terms of your family relationships. How we express our emotion, show appreciation, influence small children and prepare them for their participation in society. It’s all done by the power of the words we use in each and every situation we find ourselves in on a daily basis. Thus—I said all that to say this—parents are in the best position, from the moment they conceive a child, to use their words as fine tools to craft, sculpt and shape their children to live in their full potential. Therefore, let us be aware of the “opera” we are singing in our homes…it makes all the difference in the healthiness and happiness of our children.
2. Don’t Raise Circus Elephants
In his book, The Gift of Fear; De Becker describes how baby circus elephants are trained. They are tied with a heavy chain to a stake deeply dug into the ground. No matter how much they struggle they can’t break free and eventually learn there is no sense in continuing to try to break free. Thus, when they get older, the trainers only need a small rope to tie around their ankle to keep them in place.
This describes how abusive parents can train their children to believe they cannot break free just like the circus elephants. They settle for a mediocre existence, not because they don’t have the ability to become someone great, but because they don’t believe they can due to the psychological training they’ve had that stifles their true ability.
What we need to do is raise eagles. Eagles are known for their ability to soar to heights other birds can’t reach. They are known for their keen vision to see clearly the target they want to attack. They are known for repeating the process with their own “children”, taking them up with them to the heights that seem beyond their ability, and patiently probing them, leading them, and guiding them to be who they were meant to be and do what they were meant to do—soar!
3. Be Low-Tech & High-Touch
Okay, I’ll admit right now that texting my wife and/or kids when they’re upstairs or in another part of the house is more convenient. Allowing everyone to have their own TV in their own room makes it a lot easier for everyone to watch what they want when they want to watch it. And yes, I’m part of the people who walk around with their heads down not looking where they’re going because they’re caught up on their smart phones—and occasionally, OCCASIONALLY, I’ve been guilty of texting while driving (I can’t believe I’m confessing all this to you!??). But now I only do it while stuck in traffic (I know, I know, it’s still illegal—and stop honking your horn at me just because I don’t move the Nano second the light turns green).
Now that I feel like I just made my first communion all over again, let’s get serious about showing affection and quality time with our children. That’s what I’m referring to as “high-touch.”
I notice that when I talk about giving affection, I sometimes get that look of—duh—from some parents. But for those of you who were raised like me, you understand why giving affection to children (or anyone for that matter) does not come automatically or easily; it’s hard to give what you don’t have. That’s the bad news. The good news is giving affection can be learned, and must be learned by parents who, like me, do not come from an affectionate family background.
It had nothing to do with my mom not loving me. It’s just that she wasn’t raised to express love that way and neither were we. So, when I had kids of my own holding them, kissing them, hugging them was foreign ground to me. Fortunately for them (and me), their mother was Sicilian. And if you’ve ever been around Sicilian or Italian people and babies—fuh-get about it (I know you can’t see me, but I’m doing the Sicilian hand thing with that phrase). They love on babies and children in the most precious way, which eventually rubbed off on me.
Don’t take affection for granted. Especially with infants and small children (not that teens and adults don’t need a healthy does as well). Give it as much as you can every time you can. It fulfills one of the most powerful human needs; to feel loved, wanted and valued as an individual. Fulfilling these needs goes a long way in protecting and preventing your children from traveling down the wrong road as they go out into the real world.
In regards to quality time, there are many ways to achieve it. The one suggestion I always encourage is the simple “old fashion” practice of eating dinner together. A lot of families these days don’t sit at the dinner table together. And, if they do, the TV is on, the phone is being answered and adults and kids are texting and emailing while they eat amongst each other—not with each other—as it should be.
There’s just something special about eating together. As my kids got older they would always want to invite their friends over for dinner. Most of the time I would say no. Why? Was I being mean, unfriendly, unsociable and selfish? No and yes; I wasn’t being mean, unfriendly or unsociable, but I was being selfish as a Dad who understood that this was an important time to build my relationship with my children, as well as, help them build their relationship with each other.
We all know what happens when we have “company” for dinner. The dynamics amongst each other change and we hardly recognize each other. All of sudden every body is acting in “weird” ways—“Gee dad, I’ve never heard you talk so much. You don’t talk to us that way.” Or, “why is he talking so mean to his little sister/brother? He’s usually very kind and tolerant.” You know what I’m talking about.
Again, although we appreciate the high-tech world we live in today, when it comes to protecting and preventing kids from joining negative lifestyles, being more low-tech and relational at home is the way to go. It builds a rapport, camaraderie and bond of loyalty that’s hard to break.