A letter to my son as he turns eighteen

This letter to my son on his 18th birthday is just one step I can take to foster his transition to becoming a true man.

Many men have difficulty helping their son’s transition into manhood and some find themselves disappointed to see that their sons are not handling it well.  I’ll leave this post with minimal introduction – it is a copy of a letter I wrote for my son on his 18th birthday as part of an effort to help my own son in this transitional time (posted with his permission).


It’s hard to believe you are turning eighteen.  It has been an incredible pleasure to watch you grow up. I can tell you that it has been hard sometimes to see you struggle and get hurt, but really cool to watch you do well.  I sometimes think you have had more victories in your life than you know.  There are many times when I’ve seen you do things, like your volunteer work or just being kind and respectful to other folks, that make me dance in my heart and silently shout “Whoo-hoo! That’s my boy!”  I don’t say these out loud all the time because I don’t want to swell your head too much, and also because you’d complain about me embarrassing you.

I’ve read in a number of books that it’s important for a father to officially recognize their son as “a man” – to let him know that he has been found worthy.  On one hand I like this idea, on the other hand it has made me ponder what it really means to be a man.  At what point do you meet all the criteria?

The main criteria of being a man that I hear most often is that a man is someone who can stand alone – stand on their own two feet without having to depend on anyone.  I’ve spent plenty of time in my life feeling like I’m standing alone, and you know what?  It’s a pretty lonely place to be.  The happiest, most successful men I know, are not afraid to step out and make decisions and, more importantly, they always take full responsibility for their own choices and decisions.  These men also keep themselves well connected with close friends and family.  They have taught themselves how to open up and be transparent with their friends and they lean on them for support, friendship, & companionship.  Of course, it is important to choose these friends wisely: the friend who is the most fun at parties, may not be the right person to go to when you need to work through a challenging life issue.

While a successful man knows how to depend on his friends, co-workers, and family, that doesn’t mean that he should be dependent on them.  A real man knows how to develop a vision for his life, then, usually through hard experience, learns how to overcome his fears and doubts and strive to achieve that vision.  (Wise men also learn how to adjust their visions as they grow.)

One of the biggest challenging life issues you begin to face as you move into your adult years is the lack of cheerleading and recognition you will get.  It’s been fun watching you do so well in the various sports you’ve played, and it has been fun watching you bring home trophies and awards.  Likewise, in your schoolwork, I’ve been proud to watch you do your best (ok – I know you goof off sometimes), and to get the recognition for your efforts.  Growing up, these achievements have been recognized.

As you move into the work world, you will find that frequently your achievements are not recognized.  Many managers take the attitude that they expect excellence, and so they don’t feel any need to show appreciation when they get it from you.  Many men (and a fair number of women), are competitive and feel that giving any sort of recognition will somehow give you a leg-up on them.  It can be especially difficult when you have a boss or a customer that simply doesn’t like your style of doing things or really doesn’t have any appreciation for the work you are doing.  You will certainly face all of these situations at some point in your career.  In fact, as you get older, it is rare to have people at work celebrate your successes.

As you move forward into adulthood and move out into the world, it is essential to center your sense of happiness on something other than the feedback you will get at work.  It is important to always strive to live your life in such a way as to be proud of yourself.  This is why I’ve shared with you many times the need to always live your life with integrity.  There will be many times when you will have the opportunity to cheat and cut corners on your integrity, but the few bucks here and there that you might be able to add to your wallet will never take the place of losing your ability to be proud of yourself.

Ultimately, it is important to ground your sense of value in that fact that God made you as a wonderful and perfect person.  By perfect, I don’t mean faultless.  I think God has built into us just enough faults so that we have to learn to depend on each other: this is part of our perfection.

The college years are a time when many people start to move away from God.  This happens for a number of reasons. One is that you begin to pick up enough skills to stand on your own and you start to think that you no longer need to depend on God’s help to survive.  Another is that in college you will learn how to view the world in a logical and rational way – they teach you that there is a scientific answer for everything.  Many people lose touch with God in college simply because life is too busy to spend any time thinking about Him.  Some people push God aside because they want to party and misbehave, and they cannot allow a God into their lives that comes with all these restrictive “rules”.  Finally, as a child, although you have learned of God, you may never have known God.

I’d love to spend time talking to you about these things when you are ready.  In the meantime, I hope you understand that God has been around the block a few times.  He understands young adults – He is, in fact, the ultimately cool dad (He truly is eleven cool).  I’ve got lots of rational reasons for my faith, but ultimately, I’d have to say that there have been several times when I’ve felt God working through me and this is what has helped me to just know.  So my advice, if you can remember it, is that if you wake up one morning and find that you have drifted away and life is getting hard, reach out and find yourself a couple of Christian men who can re-introduce you to His life giving Spirit.

In this letter, I’ve shared with you that the world can be lonely and recognition starved.  I’d encourage you to let God work through you and be the kind of person who always seeks to make the world a little less lonely and recognition starved for those around you.  Instead of looking at the folks around you as competition, look for ways of helping them to succeed, look for ways of making them feel encouraged.  The truth is, over the long haul, this habit will help you to be truly successful.  People like to be around people who make them look and feel good and while many people like to be team members, not many take the time and energy to learn how to be good team builders.  Teach yourself how to encourage and uplift other folks, and you will have learned how to build a team.

A friend of mine recently pointed out a verse in the Bible, 1 Timothy 4:12 (“1 Timothy” was a letter written by the Apostle Paul to his younger disciple) that reads: Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith, and in purity.  As people get older, they invariably create for themselves a worldview and then they put the world into it: in other words, they come to think they have everything figured out.  You’ll meet guys in life who will share with you their view on things and usually do so with the hopes that you will start to see things their way as well and also that you will recognize how smart and wise they are (again, people crave recognition).  It is always good to listen and learn from these people, but also recognize the wisdom in Paul’s words.  It’s not good to just accept another persons world view (except your father’s of course), but rather consider it carefully and understand the reasoning behind it.  Myself, I’m starting to come to believe that the world is too complex for any of us to really comprehend so we create for ourselves worldviews that are simplified to the point that we can function in our day to day lives.  It’s good to recognize this because it helps us to be considerate of other people’s views because we know that when we judge them through the eyes of our own simplified view, we are doing them an injustice.  Don’t misunderstand my cautions here though, men need to learn from each other and need mentors in life and at work.  You just need to take responsibility for your own choices in what you will believe.

I’ve been struggling for some time trying to decide what to write in this letter, what bits of wisdom to pass on to you as you are launching your journey into manhood.  One of the reasons I wrote Essence of Wisdom for Parents was to leave a legacy of those things that I’ve learned, sometimes the hard way, for my children.  There’s a lot of depth in some of those one-liners.  I hope as you get older, you give it a read every once in a while.  Through this letter, through the book, and through many of our conversations, I keep trying to find all the right things to say to help you succeed in life, but in the end, you are just going to have to do it yourself, and you know what? I think you will do pretty well.

You know that you, son, have made the job about as easy as it could be for a father.  I continue to be immensely proud of you – for what you have accomplished, but more importantly, for who you are.  You know that I have told you this before and I know that I will tell you again.  I have seen you grow into a kind, considerate, caring, industrious, and handsome young man.  (And I’m not just saying that last bit because you look like me.)

I can tell you easily that I don’t think I could be any more proud of you, or pleased with how you have grown up.  Like God, I’ve been around the block a little myself, and I know that there are probably a few things in your past that I am not aware of, but I know that’s the nature of life.  When the statue of limitations is up, I hope to have the opportunity to sit around a cup of coffee sometime and hear the stories.  Perhaps I’ll share a few of my own.

As usual, I’ve been able to find shades of gray where most others see black and white.  So let me end by clearly saying that yes, I am proud of the man you have become.  I cannot image being more excited to give this kind of stamp of approval.  I hope that as we move forward in life together, you will continue to let me share in it, because I can tell you it has been a great pleasure so far.



PS:  Learn how to hug!

How to Find a Church that Makes You Feel Like Staying – Not Running

In selecting a church, look for a church whose focus meets the needs of your family and whose style is compatible and enjoyable.

Country ChurchIt’s fun to listen to my teenage kids when they talk about how independent they are and how they can take on the world all by themselves.  They seem to be unaware of the vast support network surrounding them.  Our neighbors support the various school fundraisers for them, schoolteachers and coaches invest considerable time with them, many staying late just to have an opportunity to guide them a little better in life.  Then, of course, they have their parents who work to create a supportive home environment, not to mention the food, clothing, and taxi services.

When we are young, we need support to prosper and grow, when we are older, we need it just as much.  The only difference is that as adults, we need to consciously and deliberately build and maintain our quality support network.

That sad truth is that

The Love in a marriage is far more likely to fade away when a couple has no support network, because few of us, in America, grew up with the kind of role models and teaching needed to guide us in lasting love.  We just don’t know how to do it.

In my book, Essence of Wisdom for Parents, I suggest that a good church is the best place to go in order to build a quality support network. However, many people I’ve talked to have a certain revulsion to the church because of bad past experiences like suffering through monotone sermons given by someone who looks like they’d rather be dead or dealing with pews full of hypocrites that will cut you off in the parking lot right after service.  Many people have also had to deal with just plain stupid remarks made by supposed Christians either in the media, or in person.

I’ve talked with many people who have these feelings, and the truth is, I’ve had them myself.  Over time, though, I’ve found that the root cause of this revulsion is a lack of understanding about the different kinds of Christian churches as well as ill-formed expectations about how a “Christian” might behave.

Before thinking about building your support network, it is important to come to terms with the notion that all people have serious character faults.

We all have streaks of judgmentalism, selfishness, and other bits of ugliness inside. Therefore, wherever you go, this is what you are going to find if you look long enough at any person.

If you think about it, you don’t go to an auto repair shop to see well running cars, you go there when you want to get your own car fixed and what you should expect to find is other cars that are in various phases of repair.  A church is pretty much the same way, so it doesn’t make any sense to let yourself get offended if you run across a jerk in one.

When selecting a church to try out, don’t try to find one with perfect people, rather look for one where many of the people are humble enough to want to grow personally, who want to overcome some of their character faults, and who want to improve their own marriages, families, and other relationships.  This kind of church will have small group programs and may have supplemental events specifically designed for men and women.  This kind of church will have at least of few folks in it who you may later come to see as the best friends you ever had in life.  Folks that will be there for you in hard spots and be there for you in times of joy, but most importantly, be there to help you grow as a husband or wife, and as a parent.

In selecting a church, look for a church whose focus meets the needs of your family and whose style is compatible and enjoyable.

Churches have very different focuses.  Most churches have three primary goals of their Sunday service; however, there are dramatic differences in how they emphasize these different goals.  The primary goals are:

  • To bring together people and strengthen our relationships with each other through shared experiences.
  • To take time to praise God for the grace that he has given us.  (This is typically done through music.)
  • To educate us in understanding better the heart and will of God.

What you get out of a church may depend on whether or not you have chosen a church that focuses on your needs.

If you have a deep understanding of Christianity and have studied the Bible extensively, you may want to seek a church were the focus of the service is not education, but rather a shared celebration of your faith.  Many Catholic churches have this focus: they use many symbols such as incense burners and fancy robes that help to remind their parishioner of aspects of God or stories in the Bible that they have previously learned.

If you do not have this deep understanding, than an education oriented church is likely a better fit.  Within this category, there are seeker oriented churches which are often large and very vibrant.  The pastors at these churches will usually be engaging and will teach wisdom that can be directly applied to our lives today.  These churches will have very good small group and other programs that cater to the specific needs of various groups of people. However, because these churches are large it will take personal initiative to get involved in these programs.  Because of this, there is a preponderance of outgoing “type-A” folks in these churches. (I also think that they have many tall people in them, but that probably says more about me than the churches.)

Methodist churches each have their own personality, but generally are education oriented and very community oriented.  These churches will often have a kitchen and encourage families to get together for events like Wednesday night dinners.  It is easier for less outgoing folks to become connected in smaller churches because you likely sit next to the same folks every Sunday.  If you miss a Sunday, you will be missed.

There are also churches that so focus on community and inclusiveness that they ignore quality teaching for fear of offending someone.  These churches can feel very welcoming at first, but it is unlikely that you and your family will get the mentoring support you will need to raise a strong family from this type of church.  If you rarely hear something in the sermon that makes you say to yourself “ooohhh, I might need some improvement in that area”, then you are not in a church that will help you grow, either that, or you don’t get enough sleep on Saturday night.

The final criteria, is church style.  I have heard it said that the most segregated place in America today is the church.  Usually when I hear people say this, they see it as a bad thing; however, I take a different view.  We have an overriding culture in America that serves to bring us together, but we also have many different micro-cultures in our country:  from the backwaters of Louisiana, to the streets of LA, from the forests of Oregon, to the suburbs of Baltimore.  These micro-cultures have musical styles and speaking styles that can be diverse and I think it makes sense to go to a church that has a style and culture that makes you feel comfortable – as long as the church is meeting the spiritual needs of your family.

As a final note of Church explanation for someone looking at churches, there are different pastors that focus on different aspects of the faith.  Some pastor’s focus on miraculous healing, some focus on “the world is coming to an end” stuff.  Personally, I sometimes question if too much emphasis on these themes helps people to grow.  I always recommend that people read the Bible themselves so that they form their own idea of what these passages are talking about rather than rely solely on their pastor to share their idea of what the Bible says. If you are trying a church were the messages seem quite off base to you, then do not give up on Church altogether, but rather go try a different one.

Most people I know who really like there church they attend tell me that when they first started coming to the church, they “felt like the pastor was talking right to them.”  If you find a church like this, stick with it.

As a final note, if you are a women who has a husband that is less enthusiastic about the faith, then look for a church that has strong male leadership and an active men’s group.  I think there are many great female preachers out there, but most men respond better to male leadership and also appreciate strong, positive, male role models.

If you found a church that you like, I’d love to hear what it was about the church that made it seem right for you.

Breaking from the Traditions of your Parents

Do not reject family and community traditions hastily, and if it becomes necessary, do so with care and compassion.

Thanksgiving with the GrandParentsThe idea of traditions has taken on a bad wrap as the world stumbles forward, trying to make it’s way in an age of unprecedented advancements in both transportation and communication technology.

We are inundated with new ideas and new concepts that are both interesting and exciting.  Research  has shown that people (young adults in particular,) are heavily influenced by their peers and therefore we have a strong tendency to want to latch on to the new ways of thinking that spread through our social peer groups.  As we do this, we can sometimes seek to distance ourselves from old family and cultural traditions that keep us from feeling as if we are a relevant participant in the modern world.

As we race through life, though, it is important to think about the real meaning and purpose of traditions.

The primary value of traditions is that they serve as a means of creating and maintaining multi-generational relationships.

Meaningful relationships require some commonality of interest – something that all participants share in.  In any society, but in particular, our modern, hectic society, there is often very little that a grandchild has in common with their grandparents, or the janitor has in common with the lawyer.  Our traditions can serve as a glue that keeps us together.

Traditions also serve to provide a point of stability in an otherwise unstable world.

Life can be very stressful in the world today.  For some reason we humans have a natural need for things to be stable, and for the future to be predictable – anxiety grows when this doesn’t happen.  The idea that we know that the family will get together for Thanksgiving, or that the friends will gather together to watch the Super-bowl each year releases this stress and gives us the sense that the world will be OK.

Rejecting the traditions or cultural values of our parents should not be done lightly.  We need to recognize that:

One of the greatest motivators for men is to pass on their traditions and values to their children.

In fact, this is the root cause of many of the wars going on today – men cannot stand the idea of their children being taught the traditions and values of other societies and they are willing to kill and die for it.

So before rejecting your parents traditions and ideas of life, it may be a good idea to sit down and talk with them in depth about what these traditions really mean for them and for you.  If the tradition is that you sit with the family and eat unleavened bread at Passover, maybe this is one worth keeping as a means of maintaining family relationships even if you would rather be at the ball game.

In some cultures, the oldest son is treated very differently from the younger children.  If you are a second generation immigrant, this is exactly the kind tradition that you may find objectionable.  In this case, it is important to dig deep and understand the purpose of this tradition and the consequences of following or not following it within our current society.  This particular tradition is usually part of a complicated system of social security for the aged. So a discussion of this tradition will likely lead to a conversation on how your parents will be taken care of in their old age.

When you ask parents or grandparents to analyze hurtful traditions that they have kept themselves, you will force them to either admit they have been guilty of inflicting harm, or force them to reject you and your new ideas.

In my book, Essence of Wisdom for Parents, I say that all humans have an almost infinite ability to lie to themselves.  If you are confronting parents about traditions like mistreating women, or following a cast system, you must do it with gentleness and respect, otherwise, you will be forcing them to build a wall of lies to protect themselves from the pain and shame of guilt.

So I encourage people to not reject family and community traditions hastily, and if it becomes necessary, to do so with care and compassion for parents and friends who may be hurt by your view.  Make sure that you find other ways of building and maintaining these important relationships that the old traditions had otherwise facilitated.

And for parents, understand that it is important for your children that you pass on traditions as well as create new ones for your family to enjoy.

Have you ever struggled with the traditions of your parents?  Let us know how you handled it and how your relationships have been impacted since.

Teaching your son what it means to be a real man

I went and asked my 17 year old son to tell me what he thinks it means to be a man.

One of the things I used to tell co-workers that I was mentoring is that it’s a good idea to spend half your time thinking about how to do you work, and the other half of the time actually doing it.  This was an obvious exaggeration, but I said it to make a point.   A couple of years back someone from the men’s group at my local church invited me to a series of meetings that was going to talk about how to be a better husband and father.  My first instinct was to decline, but then I remembered my own advice and realized that in recent years, I hadn’t really spent enough time learning how to be good husband or how to be a good father.

In the last meeting, one of the guys challenged me a bit by asking me: Have I been teaching my own son what a real man is?  The guy had been reading Robert Lewis’s book Raising a Modern-Day Knight: A Father’s Role in Guiding His Son to Authentic Manhood which is focused on this idea of countering cultural ideas about manhood. I’ve read through the book and while some of the teaching techniques Robert talks about don’t fit my style, the ideas in the book are great ones to ponder.  The central statement of the book is that:

“A real man rejects passivity, accepts responsibility, and leads courageously for the greater reward.”

In my own book Essence of Wisdom for Parents, I talk about the importance of having good conversations with your teens, so after being challenged by my friend, I went and asked my 17 year old son to tell me what he thinks it means to be a man.  He thought for a moment and responded:

A man is someone who is responsible for himself, but knows how to ask for help when he needs it.  A man also knows how to recognize when others are in need and helps them.  Finally, a man knows how to stand up for himself.

I then asked him if having sex with a girl makes you a man, he responded with a simple No, and looked at me as if I was crazy.

I’ve been thinking about his answers and can’t help but being proud.  However, there are some deeper principles that I will have to share with him over the next year or two.  I think I’ll add to his answer that

A real man works regularly to deepen his relationship with God.

I also think I will work to modify his last point so that he understands that

A real man knows how to stand up for himself, but only after first humbly considering the idea that he may be the one who is wrong.

Maybe I’ll also teach him that advice I had forgotten:

A real man spends half his time learning how to be a better husband, father, and neighbor – and the other half of his time living it.

So how about you?  What do you do to make sure your son’s know what it means to be a real man? What do you do to teach your daughters what it means to be real woman?

Marriage, Money, Stuff, and Happiness

Learning to dissociate your personal happiness from the possessions of your neighbors and friends is a significant step of maturity that every family leader must take.

Closet of StuffMost marriage counselors will tell you that money problems are a major cause of marriage problems.  It is always a good idea to think carefully about how money is handled in your home.  In my book, Essence of Wisdom for Parents, I say that

If you are not comfortable sharing a checking account with your spouse, there is a problem that needs to be uncovered and addressed.

When you are in a marriage, and especially when you have children depending on you, it is vitally important that both think about how and why you will use the finite income that you earn.  Money is essentially a tool that can be wielded for many purposes.

One the easiest ways to get into financial difficulties is to hold onto the notion that money (and the stuff you buy with it) can make you happy.  The idea that more stuff could bring happiness blossomed in the 1920’s with the advent of mass production, rising wages, the advent of radio and the expansion of consumer advertising.  Since this time, advertisers have been continuously telling us that we will not really be happy unless we own their new deluxe, whatever it is.

Unless you happen to be Bill and Melinda Gates, it’s important to spend some time really understanding this connection between spending and happiness because, truthfully, the success of your family may depend on it.

In Allen Greenspan’s book The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World he describes his research into this connection between wealth and happiness and notes that Beyond the point at which basic needs are met, happiness is a relative state that, over the long run, is largely detached from economic growth.  The evidence shows that it is determined mainly by how we view our lives and accomplishments relative to those of our peers.

This is fascinating when you think about it.  Advertisers tell you that you will be happy if you buy the new Lexus IS C, a truly luxurious convertible.  However, Allen’s research found that you’ll be happy if you’re the first one in the neighborhood who can afford it, but once a few other neighbors have nice cars, your happiness will fade.  In fact, if everyone in the office drives Roll’s Royce’s, your new Lexus could make you feel miserable.

Learning to dissociate your personal happiness from the possessions of your neighbors and friends is a significant step of maturity that every family leader must take.

For some, this may seem difficult.  Recently, though, I asked a number of friends to tell me a bit about the different times of their lives.  Many reflected that their early adult years, when they were short on money, were also some of the best most enjoyable times of their life.  How about you?  When you look back at your life to some of your best times, was it your wealth or stuff that made life good?

Currently, I’m at that point in my life where I have four teenagers keeping me busy and a houseful of stuff I’ve accumulated over the years.  It has started to occur to me that…

Every one of our possessions, everything we buy and hold, adds an incremental burden to our lives.

For some things, like cars, and homes, the burdens are obvious.  Cars need insurance, repairs, and lots of gas.  Homes have painting, cleaning, repairing, gardening, decorating, etc.  Another, less obvious burden is just the clutter associated with stuff.  The burdens can be physical, financial, and mental.  When I was young I thought I needed to buy and collect tools, decorations, furniture, lots of things that will come in handy some day.  Now I have closets full of clothes, most of which I will probably not wear, with more clothes in plastic bags stuffed under the bed. I have tools and books and dishes and decorations.  Valuable collectibles stuffed in drawers, and bags and boxes with presents for family and friends – all of whom probably have too much stuff themselves.

All this stuff can get overwhelming, and the problem is, it is hard to clean it out because each thing I’ve stashed away has a history.  “I got this from Grandma”, “This will really come in handy if I ever take up pole vaulting”, “I’ve had this for twenty years already, I can’t just throw it away now!”  Sound familiar?

It’s hard for me to comprehend the amount of money that’s been spent on all that stuff – five dollars here, ten dollars there.  It adds up, and you know, most of it didn’t buy me much happiness, and now, years later, I find that holding onto it all slowly sucks happiness out of my life.

So if having all this stuff doesn’t really make us happy, why do people enjoy shopping so much?

Shopping and purchasing things gives us a powerful, but fleeting rush of excitement.  It gives us a moment of total control and decisiveness something we often find lacking in our otherwise mundane daily existance.

Is this really the kind of excitement that you dreamed about when you were planning your future?  Probably not.

As a husband, wife, and responsible parent, its good to understand these impulses.  If you feel a need to buy something, stop and think hard.  Do you really need it or are you shopping to fill some other void in your life?  If you do need it, do you need the deluxe model?  For an important household item, spending more on quality may be smart, frequently though; it’s our ego making the decision.

So how about you?  Any of this ring true in your life?  Have any good stories about when you’ve bought something that didn’t bring you the boost you wanted?

Have any good stories when your spouse bought something that didn’t bring you the boost you wanted?

Teaching decision making to your kids: It’s much more than teaching right from wrong!

Psychologists have found that we make decisions in two primary ways: rational and heuristic. Parents need to understand how to teach to both.

“I taught them right from wrong! How could he have been so stupid?”

A question asked by parents a thousand times.  We want our kids to make great decisions, but don’t know how to get them to do it.  In my book, Essence of Wisdom for Children, I point out that teens, in particular, often make choices in unexpected ways.

The root of our problem is that we live in cultural environment very different from that in which our brains evolved.  The human brain was “designed’ to work well when we were part of small, close-knit, nomadic tribes living on the plains of the Serengeti.  Unfortunately, our decision-making environment is quite different now.

Back on the plains, we could rely on our instincts alone to teach our kids how to make decisions.  In our modern environment, though, it helps to borrow a bit from the field of cognitive psychology.

Psychologists have found that we make decisions in two primary ways.  First, there is heuristic decisions making which is gives us the ability to make quick-reaction, gut-level decisions, and then there is a more rational, slow, and deliberate decision-making process.

It is this latter type of decision-making that we use to evaluate right from wrong.  It engages the rational, outer-layer portion of the brain that is capable of thoughtfully balancing the pro’s and con’s of our choices.  As any parent may guess, it is the former type of decision-making that we use for the vast majority of our daily decisions.  Heuristic decisions are made deeply in the core of our brain and require much less energy and effort than those decisions made in the more rational, outer layers which is why make heuristic decisions so often.

In On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard-Wired Habits, Wray Herbert introduces a number of specific heuristics wired into our heads.  The following are those that parents will most readily recognized once they understand how they work in the lives of their children:

The fluency heuristic – causes us to generally choose to continue to follow a decision previously made.

The acceptance heuristic – causes us to make decisions that will provide us with a sense of approval from others.

The familiarity heuristic – causes us to choose items or actions that are familiar to us.

Ever wonder why your young adult would ride home from a party with a drunk driver?  It may be the fluency heuristic in action.  If they had previously planned on driving home with this friend, then the brain will fight against any change of plan.

Wonder why your child would take a dare and throw rocks at a passing automobile?  It may be the acceptance heuristic in action.

Wonder why your child would ignore the “new kid” at the lunch table?  It may be the work of the familiarity heuristic.

As you come to understand that it is not simply knowledge that so affects your children’s decision making, you can release yourself from any parenting guilt you may harbor for not successfully teaching your kids right from wrong, however, you may now understand that whole new approaches to helping your child are necessary.

The key to developing a decision-training strategy is to learn to use some of these heuristics to your advantage.  Athletic coaches, police trainers, and the military have been doing this for years even if they may not understand the psychological underpinnings of what they are doing. A key strategy of working with the heuristics is to:

Teach your children to make decisions before a situation arises.

As an example of this, as I was teaching my son how to drive, I had him visualize a scenario were a dog ran out in front of him on a crowded highway.  We talked though this scenario and found that the safest course of action was to maintain control of the car and just hit the dog.  By going over this scenario several times, I was leveraging the familiarity heuristic enabling him to make this decision using the higher-speed, lower-level brain pathways.  Police trainers will tell you that in a critical situation, officers will always make decisions based on their training.

Police and military trainers use expensive simulations to mimic real-life situations as closely as possible to build in the familiarity.  This is a luxury parents rarely have; however, we can look again to science.  As it turns out, the vast majority of your brain really makes no distinction between input received from your actual five senses and input received through your imagination.  This, in fact, explains why humans have such advanced imaginations.

Imagination is the most powering decision learning tool ever utilized by human beings.

Our imagination helps us to live through life-changing situations well before we face them in the flesh.  Humans have used the imagination as a leaning tool for thousands of years.  Anthropologists will tell you that early human tribes always had their storytellers passing on the wisdom of the tribe to newer generations.  This is not just teaching the younger generation history and tribal religion.  The great storytellers activate the imagination of the other tribe members so that they can re-live the experiences of the elders, and thereby wire-up the mental heuristics so that the youth of the tribe will make the decisions needed to survive in a dangerous world.

Joshua Foer explains, in his book Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, that ancient storyteller’s use of detailed visual descriptions greatly increased their audiences memory of a the story.  These visualizations also build into the listeners mind the familiarity needed to make fast decisions when they find themselves in similar situations.

With the invention of air conditioning, television, retirement homes, and two-career households, the multi-generational tradition of storytelling is being rapidly wiped out from our societal life, and with it, an important tool in the raising of children.

This tradition is being replaced by storytelling through television and the internet, and, much to parents horror, the decision making of our youth is following the patterns that they learn from those medium.  No wonder HIV is now officially at epidemic levels in major US cities.

So as a parent, you may want to resurrect this art of storytelling, and take advantage of your kids imaginations to share life lessons.  In general, help your children to think about and make critical decisions ahead of time.

It is insufficient to simply teach your kids right from wrong.  You must do more.

Doing more can be achieved in a variety of ways.  A mentor of mine regularly told me that I haven’t met my best friend in life yet.   This simple statement helped to shake up my mental processes and now, whenever I meet someone, the first though that runs through my mind is “could he be the one?”   This simple coaching has had a powerful affect on how I interact with people.

In many ways cognitive psychology is in its infancy, and its application in child-rearing is even more so, but you can certainly start to make use of some of these basic principles even now – just use your imagination.

Do you have any good stories about how you helped your kid make the right decision ahead of time?

Rules, Principles, and Wisdom

When people live by principles, they naturally look to do what is right, when they live by rules; they naturally look to do what they can get away with.

My 7th grade daughter came to me with a homework assignment the other day.  The Road Closed Signquestion her teacher gave her was: For what principle, would you be willing to break the law?

The question made me realize that there are multiple paradigms under which we live in our society, and the paradigm within which we choose to live has a radical affect on the quality and value of our life.

When our children our young, we fill their world with rules:  Do not touch the stove, wear your bike helmet, do not talk to strangers.  These rules are good and they setup boundaries for our kids to keep them safe.  There is, however, deep within us, a driving need for freedom, a need to explore the world, to see what it has to offer us.  In short, there is, within us, a need to break the rules.

We see this in kids from a very early age.  You tell your son not to punch his sister, and he’ll whack her with a baseball bat.  “But I didn’t punch her mom!”

One of the trickiest things parents have to do is to wean their kids off rules as soon as it is practicable.  This process begins in the pre-teen years.

In my book Essence of Wisdom for Parents,I recommended that you transition from directing to steering.  This weaning is a component of the transition.

As our kids move into middle school, they become exposed to completely new ways of thought.  They have good teachers that teach them to question everything, to explore, to investigate.  School is also a place where kids learn to be accepting and respectful of other people and their way of thinking.  And of course, they have friends.  Friends who are raised under very different rules than yours.  In America today, it is common to find that your kids friends are raised within a different culture altogether.

As your children come to realize that the rules are completely different in different households, they will use the great analytical skills they have learned in school to deduce that rules are arbitrary.  If you have taught them that being good implies following the household rules, then how do they reconcile this with the fact that other households have different rules?  They will reason to themselves: “Does this mean the other kids aren’t good because they don’t know my rules?  Of course not!  My friends are good!” It can only mean that there are no absolutes when it comes to rules.  There is no way to define good or bad by the rules if the rules are different for different people.

Once people come to this conclusion, they then become free to indulge their selfish desires by looking for ways to skirt the rules.  Life is no longer about being good, it’s about not getting caught.

If left unchecked, these attitudes can persist into adulthood. They manifest themselves in little ways and big ways.  I have seen people saunter across a busy parking lot, holding up traffic because they have a right to the parking lot just like everyone else.  I have seen people protesting gay marriage at a service member’s funeral, because the law says they can do it.  And of course, many of us have met people who cheat on their taxes with inflated deductions or underreported income because they think that they won’t get caught.

It’s interesting to note in the first few chapters of the Bible, Adam and Eve had a great relationship with God, but Satan came around and tricked Eve into a rule-based paradigm.  Once Eve stopped living by principles and instead started living by rules, it was only a matter of time before she would ruin her relationships.

Living in the rule-based paradigm can be a miserable, selfish place to be and none of us wishes it on any of our children.  Therefore,

A good parent works to transform their children’s worldview from one that is rule-based to one that is principle based.

This involves upping the conversation level a bit, talking through your own life’s decisions with your kids.  In my house, we talk about caring for people.  If the kids come home and start talking about the mean kid at school, then I am going to ask them if this kid has any truly good friends.  When the answer is no, I’m going to ask them how would they feel if they didn’t have any good friends, don’t you think you might be mean too sometimes?

The biggest principle that I want my kids to understand is that we are relational creatures that have a need to be loved and a responsibility to love others, even, and maybe especially, when they do not seem to deserve it – and we will get the most enjoyment from life when we do this.

I know that if they understand this principle, then they will not need to have the rules “no hitting”, “no name calling”, “no stealing”, etc.  They will instead look for ways of sharing a compliment, or even a simple smile towards that mean kid at school.

When people live by principles, they naturally look to do what is right, when they live by rules; they naturally look to do what they can get away with.

The next difficult step, after instilling some of these principles, is the application of them.  There is so much that we, as adults, take for granted because of our experiences.  We know that telling someone that their haircut looks funny can really damage a friendship.  Kids do not necessary know this.  They do not have the experience to understand the impact that their words and actions will have on themselves and others.

Therefore, it is important to let them see how you think, let them see how you work to predict the consequences of your actions.  You must teach them that

Wisdom is taking the time to predict the consequences of your choices.

Wisdom, fortunately, is something that you can teach.  There are really two ways to gain wisdom: you can gain it from your own experiences, or you can gain it from others.  All you have to do is teach your kids to pay attention.

When I read an article about a young teen who’s been in a car accident, I share it with my children or post it on the fridge.

I’ve also talked with my kids about the “it won’t happen to me” syndrome, helping them to understand that this is a natural, but unfounded line of thinking.

Are these great conversations with my teens?  You must be kidding.  I get grunted at like all the other parents.  But as my teens have progressed from middle school into high school, our conversations aren’t about rules anymore.  Instead, they have a whole lot more open-ended questions.  I don’t order them to do their homework.  Now I simply ask them, if they have budgeted time to finish it if they go out.  The answer to me is always “yes”, but they live the consequences of staying up late to finish it on Sunday night. Of course

Most wisdom seems to be accumulated through pain.

One final thought to share with your children is to not be ashamed of or discouraged by the pains of life.  It is, in fact truly part of the great experience.  If we are never duped by a cheat, how could we fully appreciate a person with integrity? If we never experienced great pain, we would likely never recognize great joy.

How about, care to share a time that found yourself caught between principals and rules?  Ever find yourself “working the system” while ignoring your principals?



Escape Routes and Hidden Relationship Problems

Always be aware of the hidden escape routes in your life that you use to avoid relational conflict.

I was having lunch with a recently separated friend.  I had asked him shortly after he was separated if there was anything that he would have done differently.  After giving it a few months thought, he told me that in a relationship, it is important to:

Always be aware of the hidden escape routes in your life.

He explained that there were points of conflict buried deep in his relationship that he had always been afraid or unwilling to address with his spouse.  Instead of raising the issues and dealing with them, he always found ways of escaping the tension.

Most of us have experienced this.  Rather than confront and deal with a situation we might:

  • Work longer hours.
  • Get overly involved in external activities like the PTA, or church ministries.
  • Focus completely on the children or on house chores.
  • Hide out on facebook.
  • Hide in front of the TV.
  • Get overly focused on a hobby or special interest (Golf?, Fishing?, Shopping?)

Why do we do these things?  People naturally gravitate towards activities that will give them some mental reward, some form of positive feedback, or some feeling of success and satisfaction and they naturally gravitate away from tension or negativity.

Obviously none of these activities is inherently bad, but if done to avoid a conflict, or a family responsibility, then over the long run they can be devastating to your relationships.

A simple step that you can take to help avoid this kind of devastation is to:

Once a month, do a mental inventory of your responsibilities and relationship quality.

Make this an honest inventory.  In my book Essence of Wisdom for Parents, I mention the multiple layers of responsibility towards your spouse – financial, emotional, and spiritual.  Towards your children, you have these responsibilities and more: are you doing what you need to do to enable your children to be successful in their life?

Finding hidden problems in your relationships can be hard simply because they are hidden.  Ask yourself: “Do I feel better every time I’m with my spouse, do I feel better when I’m with my kids, or do I rather feel like finding one of my escape routes?”  You may need to start reading up on good relationship books (for example Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus: The Classic Guide to Understanding the Opposite Sex, or The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts) to help you even identify the things that may be bothering you and more importantly, to find positive ways of turning things around.  Few people actually like investing the time in reading this kind of material, but this is one the responsibilities that all of us have to keep our relationships on solid ground.  Besides, its a small price to pay to avoid living in a cold house, or having to start over in life at a point when you should be enjoying a great relationship.  Remember walking away from a relationship is an unhealthy escape route in itself.

How about you, care to share a time when you had some hidden escape routes that affected your marriage?  How about those of your spouse?

Anger – the morphine of emotions

Anger is the morphine of emotions, serving as an unhealthy way to avoid pain. Dealing with frustrations in a healthy way is how to let go of anger and depression.

Anger, like all human emotions, is natural and has a purpose and place in life.  An outburst of anger is the quickest way of communicating to your loved ones that you have been hurt.  There is an old joke that says the best way to remember your wife’s birthday is to forget it once – her anger will effectively communicate that she has been hurt by your thoughtlessness.

In today’s society though, many people have developed a very unhealthy lifestyle of anger – sometimes using it as a primary means of communicating. The reason for this is that we do not feel the sting of emotional pain as long as we are holding onto our anger.

Anger is the morphine of emotions.

In our society, we have not been raised to handle anger in a healthy way and we often do not fully understand the source of our anger.

Anger is an outgrowth of frustration and, besides numbing our pain, serves as a means to gain control of a situation – often by attempting to bully those around us.  Anger’s sister emotion is depression which is what we experience when we no longer have any hope of regaining control of our circumstances.

Allowing ourselves to unleash our anger is destructive to our relationships.  Usually the targets of our anger are the few people in the world that actually know us well and love us the most: our husbands and wives, our children, our parents.  These are the victims of our anger.

Allowing ourselves to suppress the anger is not healthy either.  Suppressed anger can lead to high blood pressure, hypertension, and in the end, is rarely effective in improving our relationships and circumstances.

The first step in letting go of anger is to fully understand the root cause of the frustration.

We get frustrated when people or circumstances are not in line with our expectations. Therefore, it is imperative for us to understand what our expectations in life are and why we have them.  Once we have done this, we need to educate ourselves to determine if these expectations are reasonable or if they are founded on an artificial and idealistic view of how we think the world should be.

For example, if your four-year-old child has spilled fruit juice on your white carpet after you told them to be careful you might get angry.  But was it reasonable to expect a four year old to obey your admonition?  Of course not!  That little bit of frontal lobe in their brain that controls their executive system is not really formed enough to be depended upon, their motor skills are undeveloped, a let’s face it, a four year old has the attention span of a gnat.  A reasonable parent should expect the child to forget the warning the moment the child spots a toy in the room and a reasonable parent should expect to have to buy a new carpet once their children are grown.

Often, the person that we seem to have the most difficulty with in terms of false expectations is our spouse.  Most of us have the ridiculous notion that our own experiences growing up can serve as a model and yardstick for our spouse.  We fail to understand that the environment that they were forged in was very different then that in which we were forged.

You may have grown up in a home with a strong working mom who ran the whole show.  Your spouse may have grown up in a traditional home where the father served as the family leader.  Without educating yourselves, then in this situation it is likely that the husband will be continually frustrated with his wife’s lack of trust and support, and the wife will be continually frustrated by her husband’s lack of respect.

It is sad when two people like this that are good people who actually love each other can be doomed to a life of continued anger, depression, or both – all because of erroneous expectations of life.

There are a couple of keys to re-aligning your expectations with reality.  These are:

Spent time with well-grounded people in similar family circumstances.

This can be a men’s or women’s small group in church or a group of ladies who get together at play dates with their kids.  As you listen to the diversity of points of view, you can begin to learn that your own way of looking at the world isn’t as universal as you may have thought.  It is vitally important to choose your small group of friends properly – if they do not seem to have a loving and caring spirit, then choose a different group.

Read books on parenting, marriage, or whatever topic frustrates you the most.

Parenting books can help you understand child development and what to expect from your child at different ages.  Marriage books help you understand the different types of personalities, and in particular, how the brain of the opposite sex works.  One of the big motivations for my book Essence of Wisdom for Parents was to help set more healthy expectations for parents and couples and through this, to bring a little more joy and peace into some households.

A caution here:  there is a whole media industry designed to satisfy the relational and emotional needs of people, particularly women:  this includes daytime talk shows, and people-oriented magazines.  This media source is not designed to set healthy expectations of life and, but rather is designed to serve as a surrogate for healthy real-life relationships.  Its fine for a little light entertainment, but it will not be a positive contribution to your development.

Find time to sit and talk peaceably with those that get you angry.

Talk about your frustrations and expectations.  If your expectations do not match, then it is a fair bet that the other person in the relationship is harboring feelings of anger or depression as well.  This means that they need help also.  Note that I am using the word talk here loosely.  If tensions have been building for any length of time, then it may be best to intersperse your initial conversations with some leading questions and then carefully listen to what they are saying.  Give yourself a day or two to think about what they have said before responding.

The goal of each of these three keys is to help you grow personally.  A big component of what we term personal growth, is our self-education on the complex realities of the world and the people that live in it so that we develop more realistic expectations.  The human brain was designed to be a continuous learning machine.  If we aren’t doing that then we aren’t using our brain’s properly.  For some reason, we forget to keep learning.  We think that our school years were the one time in life when we were supposed to learn.  The truth is, our school years were the time in life when we were supposed to learn how to learn.

The second step in letting go of anger is to realize that the people or circumstances around us are not supposed to be perfect.

As you talk with friends, read, and study, you will come to find that God did not promise an easy life for anyone and that everyone has flaws, insecurities, and selfish impulses.  Your anger means that you want either God or other people to care more for you in your life.  However, as you grow, you will realize that these other people need help with their issues as well.  This is an opportunity for you.

Taking your eyes off yourself and putting them on other’s needs is the healthy way to alleviate pain.

Helping others to grow in the same manner in which you are growing will help them to get over the pain of their frustrations, and, over time, will help to heal your relationship as it begins to grow again on a more realistic soil bed.

Helping others does not mean that you are their doormat. You do not need to enable their anger by serving as a human punching bag.  What it does mean, though, is that you need to look behind their angry frustrated exterior to find and encourage the good things that are hiding within.  Transforming yourself from an angry warrior to a patient, educated, loving, encourager will go a long way towards developing that sense of idealistic happiness that we all desire.

How to reject your wife through thoughtfulness

If husbands step in and help find more efficient ways to run a home, we are actually telling our wife that she is inadequate – we are rejecting our wife.

Men are problem solvers.  We like to fix things, we like to make things efficient, and most of all, we like that proud feeling we get from showering our loved ones with our great skills.

In many situations, this is wonderful.  When it comes to keeping the cars running, organizing the garage, or doing the taxes (if these are in the man’s domain of your home), this might actually be a blessing to your wife.

But the moment you step into your wife’s domain, you are stepping on shaky ground.  Husbands need to be aware that most women’s view of her person is fundamentally different from that of a man.  For a woman, her home, how she organizes it, and how she takes care of it, is an extension of herself.  It is part of her person.

If we step in and help find a more efficient way to organize the dishwasher, we are actually telling her that she is inadequate.  If we step and clean the counters better than she does, we are rejecting her as a person.

These particular examples may not apply to you, but most men, in one form or another, are guilty of doing these things.

One of the problems that every couple has when they head into marriage is that they both have pre-conceived notions of how a home should be run, generally, grounded in how their home was run when they were growing up.  If your mom scrubbed every pot until it glistened, then you think this is just how every kitchen should be.  If your wife grew up in a busy home, where the dishes were left until the weekend, then that may be her view of how a home should be run.

Even in today’s modern culture, there is a deep core in most women that wants the home to be run how they want it to be run.  It is who they are, and men who want a good marriage need to recognize and understand this.

This isn’t to say, that a women needs to be doing all the work, if you care and support your wife, you will be jumping in and working whenever works need to be done.  But the wise thing to do, is to do the work her way.

If she scrubs the pots until they shine, then when you do the dishes, scrub the pots until they shine.  If she always rinses the sponge and puts it on the left side of the sink when she is done, then a wise husband will do this also.

So what do you do if your wife isn’t running the home to your expectations?  In the old movie Meatballs, Bill Murray gives a great motivational speech in which he has his entire camp chanting “It Just Doesn’t Matter!, It Just Doesn’t Matter!”

When we step in and start doing our wife’s job for her because we don’t think she is doing it well enough, we are sending a clear message of rejection.  Over time, this will turn into distance and coldness, and we will find ourselves frustrated, miserable, and wondering why the spark isn’t in the relationship like it was before.  How many men would be willing to trade a poorly organized dishwasher to get that spark back in the relationship?  Every one of us.  It just doesn’t matter.

The bigger lessen here is to be constantly considerate of our wives. This isn’t easy because most of us don’t fully understand ourselves, our egos, our need to feel smart (read validated) all the time.  We do not recognize that these are often selfish attributes.  I mention in my book, Essence of Wisdom for Parents that both men and women in a marriage need to read books and educate ourselves on the opposite sex.  For the vast majority of men, we really have no idea what motivates and drives our wife, nor do women know all the factors that motivate and drive their husband.

So what can you do if you find yourself in this trap? Whether you are the husband or the wife, you need to talk about it.  This can be difficult to do, because for many, these issues are not recognized until the marriage has been running for years and there has already been some damage done.

Through your talking, you need to learn what each other’s historical view of a household is, you need to realize that just because you were raised one way, doesn’t mean that this is the only good way to run a home.

If you are a husband, you need to recognize that your wife needs to feel cared for and secure in your love for her.  If you are a wife, you need to recognize that your husband needs to feel appreciated and validated as a man.  It is OK to tell him “you know, how you load the silverware is much more efficient, but I don’t like it that way because it doesn’t harmonize with my thought patterns.”  This will allow your husband to get the validation he needs, but will also let him know that he’ll be hurting you if he keeps pushing it.

Our mutual cluelessness always causes unintentional pain.  Take the time to learn about each other, take the time to recognize that your spouse is not hurting you on purpose, take the time to tell them what and why you feel the way you do, and take the time to forgive each other and move on.