Do the Math

Starting at a very young age my son loved country music and even more so, loved to dress as a cowboy. He was the proud owner of cowboy boots, a cowboy hat and a big belt buckle by the age of two. His outfit was always pulled together with blue jeans and a button-down shirt. He refused to dress any other way.

Until…

He was in the 1st grade.

In 1st grade, my son started playing soccer on the playground with his classmates during recess. Every day, during every recess, he would play soccer.

Each day I would pick him up after school and we would make the short drive home. It was just the right amount of time to hear about his day. Most of the time, the talk was about how many goals he made that day playing soccer.

One day, however, the conversation about soccer took a slightly different turn. When he got into the car, he insisted that we go shopping for new clothes for him. More specifically, he wanted me to buy him sweat pants to wear to school.

I was taken by surprise with his request. In the past, I had tried to get him to wear sweat pants, but with no luck. So, I was curious to learn more about why he had changed his mind about wearing them now.

So I asked him why he so desperately needed sweat pants. His response was, “I can’t play soccer very well in jeans. EVERYONE who plays soccer at recess wears sweat pants, so I need them, too.”

The logical side of me could definitely see how wearing sweat pants would be better than jeans when playing soccer, but I was struck by his statement that EVERYONE who plays soccer wears sweat pants.

I made a few quick decisions that day in the car driving home from school. First, I decided I wasn’t going to rush to the store to buy him sweat pants. Secondly, I decided to give him a math assignment. I asked him to go back to school the next day and count how many soccer players were wearing sweat pants and how many weren’t. Once he reported the numbers back to me the next day I promised we would re-visit the conversation about buying sweat pants. I told him that I trusted his excellent math skills to get an accurate count.

The next day after school my son couldn’t wait to get into the car to give me his sweat pants report.

“Mom! I counted how many people were wearing sweat pants playing soccer today!”

“Great,” I said, “How many were there?”

“There were 6 who were wearing sweat pants,” my son replied.

“How many were not wearing sweat pants?” I curiously asked.

“Nine”, my son quicky answered.

“So, there were 6 who were wearing sweat pants and 9 who were not wearing them,” I summarized.

“Yes, Mom! Now can we go buy some sweat pants?”, my son insisted again.

“Well, not until we talk about this some more,” I responded.

I reminded my son how he said he needed sweat pants because EVERYONE who plays soccer at recess wears them. However, according to his count, NOT EVERYONE was wearing them. In fact, I helped him to see that there were actually more soccer players that were not wearing sweat pants than those who were.

I helped him to see that what he perceived to be true the day before really wasn’t true. By doing the math he was able to reveal the truth.

Perceptions drive our behaviors. What we perceive as being normal or acceptable is likely to influence what we do. It doesn’t matter how young or how old you are either. Perceptions influence all of us – every day. But sometimes our perceptions about what is normal or acceptable or popular are wrong.

I’m sure you have heard something like this from your child more than once, “But, everyone’s doing it. I’m the only one who isn’t!” At some point, your child will believe they are the only one who isn’t wearing the latest fashions, staying out late, having a cell phone or having access to social media. The need to fit in and be accepted grows in importance with kids the older they get. The pressure to do what they think everyone else is doing increases.

The question is, “Are your kids right? Is everyone really doing these things?”

Starting in the middle school years and through high school more kids will begin to experiment with alcohol, cigarettes and other risky behaviors. If we look for kids who are participating in these behaviors, we will find them. So, will your kids.

For example, what would catch your attention most – six teenagers walking down the sidewalk smoking cigarettes or thirty teenagers behind them who aren’t smoking? Without doing the math, we are likely to focus on the six who are smoking and quickly conclude that a lot of kids are smoking cigarettes. We might even believe a majority of kids are smoking. Your kids aren’t going to stop and do the math either. They are likely to come to the same conclusion as you.

What’s the danger in coming to this conclusion? Research shows the sooner a child perceives everyone their age is smoking, drinking or doing other risky things, the more likely they will do the same. Why? Because your kids’ perceptions will drive their behaviors.

And, the sooner you perceive your child is the only one who isn’t doing these things, the more likely you are to relax on your rules and expectations for your child and give in. Why? Because your perceptions drive your behaviors, too.

The problem is most kids and parents are wrong on what they think everyone is doing, especially when it comes to risky behaviors. The reality is a majority of kids do not drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes or engage in risky behaviors. According to the 2019 National Monitoring the Future Study, conducted by the University of Michigan, 92% of 8th graders, 82% of 10th graders and 71% of 12th graders had not used alcohol in the past 30 days. Chances are your kids aren’t any different than their peers nationally or even locally. A majority of them are doing what is right and normal. They are NOT engaging in risky behaviors.

So, the next time your child says, “Everyone else is!”, don’t believe them so quickly. Look around. Ask questions. Talk to other adults and parents. Do the math.

Chances are your kids are already doing what everyone else is doing. Don’t expect anything different or less.

If you’re wondering whether my son got the sweat pants he asked for, the answer is, “Yes!” But, I bought them with the understanding between him and I that he was getting them because they are easier to play soccer in and NOT because everyone who plays soccer wears them.

Buying the sweat pants also ended the days of my son dressing as a cowboy. From there on, his life became focused on doing what he needed to do to become the best soccer player he could be. I would like to believe the sweat pants in 1st grade contributed to his soccer achievements over the years – making the varsity high school soccer team as a freshman, playing college soccer, and eventually, becoming the youngest varsity high school head soccer coach in Nebraska at the age of 22.

But, more importantly, I hope the memory of those sweat pants remind him of the importance of still doing the math when he thinks he needs to do something he perceives EVERYONE else is doing.

The One Thing Most All Parents Have in Common

A number of years ago an inner-city organization gathered middle school aged youth together weekly who had one thing in common with each other – their mothers were incarcerated.

The community-based organization offered tremendous support and programming to these kids. My association with them happened when they chose to bring the program to the kids. As the trainer of All Stars, I spent time with them their staff on how to effectively deliver the program and adapt it to the special needs of their kids.

All Stars offers the opportunity for kids to think about and imagine the best future for themselves. It challenges them to consider what they need to do and not do to achieve their best future and create a road map on how they will make it happen. They identify the four things they most want and least want in their best future. They commit to a reputation they most want and don’t want in their future. They write personal and voluntary commitments to what they will and will not do when it comes to risky behaviors in their future. All Stars is not about the past or even about the present. All Stars is about the future. It gives kids hope for their future and a pathway to get there.

At least four times during All Stars, kids are asked to share what they are thinking, planning and committing to in their future with at least one important adult in their life. The kids can choose who this adult is for them. For kids who do not have an adult in mind, time is taken by the All Stars teacher to help them identify one.

Most kids will choose a parent to talk to in All Stars. Other kids will choose a grandparent, an uncle or aunt, a teacher, coach or friend’s parent. It doesn’t matter who the adult is – as long as it is someone the student chooses.

When it came time for the group of kids whose mothers were incarcerated to have their first All Stars conversation with an adult, the organization’s staff asked them to do something additional. Along with choosing their one adult to talk to, the kids were asked to also have the same conversation with their mother. Essentially, the students were asked to have the same conversation with two different adults – one they choose and the other being their mother.

Every month the organization provided van transportation for the kids to travel together to visit their mothers in prison. During All Stars, each student needed to show the staff person they had their All Stars conversation worksheets with them and ready to share with their mother before they got into the van to make the trip.

On four separate occasions, the students talked with their mothers about their future plans and intentions and asked their mothers for advice, feedback and support using the conversational questions provided by All Stars. They talked about the things they wanted in their future – like education, achievement, acceptance, respect and fun – and the things they didn’t want – like addiction, conflict, loneliness and disease. They visited about the reputations they wanted and didn’t want and what their intentions were when it comes to drinking alcohol, using tobacco or marijuana, being sexually active or fighting in their future.

Each time the kids made the 2-hour trip back home in the van, the staff listened to them talk about what their mothers said to them. Based on what they heard, the staff knew something special was happening during these visits.

When All Stars was over and the conversations connected to the program ended, 95% of the mothers asked for similar guided conversations to continue with their child. In fact, the community organization had never received more thank you notes from the mothers to anything else they had done than when they did All Stars.

In one of the notes, a mother wrote:

“Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to talk to my son about his future. I not only heard what he wants or is thinking for his future, but he also heard what I want for him. I did some awful things in my past that I now regret. But just because I have done bad things in my past does not mean I want the same for my son. I told him this. I want him to have something different and better. I want him to have the best. I may not be able to give him the best, but I want him to know I expect and want it for him. The conversations we had during All Stars was the first time I was given the opportunity to express this to him without judgment from anyone else. Thank you for not forgetting that I am still his mother and for letting me still be his mother.”
 

Sometimes when we work with parents we can become judgmental. I know I have been. We can be quick to evaluate a parent as being a “good parent” or a “bad parent” based on what they have done or not done. Honestly, most of us would probably not think of incarcerated mothers as being “good parents” based on our own criteria.

But, the staff at this community organization saw it differently. They knew something that I believe many of us need to be reminded of…

Even parents who have messed up in their past or even in their present, really don’t want the same for their own kids. Not all, but at the core of most parents – from the best to the worst and every one in between – is the desire to want the best for their kids. They really do desire something better for their own kids than what they have or had for themselves.

The challenge for parents is overcoming the belief that they CAN expect and express something different or better for their kids without being a hypocrite. Breaking through this barrier is critical for parents and giving them the permission and the opportunity to do it is so important.

Another challenge for parents is not always knowing HOW to give their child something better. Research shows that most of us parent the way we were parented. Recognizing that parents may lack the knowledge, skills and resources to do what they really want to do is critical in our work with parents. It’s important for us to give them the tools they need and empower them to use them.

All Stars was the catalyst for empowering the incarcerated mothers to express their desires and expectations to their kids in ways they were never able to do before. The fact that 95% of them wanted the conversations to continue tells you and I how important and meaningful it was to them.

But let’s be honest…the experience for these mothers happened because the staff at the community organization broke down the barriers and set aside any judgment based on what they knew to be true…

Most parents really do want the best for their kids’ futures – even incarcerated mothers.

P.S. If you want to learn more about how All Stars can be the catalyst for empowering your students to think about and plan for their future AND empowering them and their parents (or other important adults) to talk about it, download the or visit the ! Feel free to also me. I would love to visit with you!

 

To Tell the Truth or Not

“Miss Kathleen, did you drink alcohol when you were my age?”

I froze in my tracks the first time a student asked me this question as I was teaching an alcohol and drug prevention program years ago.

I didn’t know how to answer the question. In fact, I have no recollection of how I answered it – if I did at all.

Whether you are a parent or someone who works with kids, one of the most challenging situations we can be faced with is when kids want to know what we did when we were their age – specifically when it comes to risky behaviors.

Kids are naturally curious. It should be no surprise they would be curious about our past. Most of the time, they are looking for another person’s experience to help them determine what their own current or future actions might be.

Here’s the dilemma you face:

If you DID drink alcohol, smoke or other things that were risky when you were their age and you share this with them they could see it as an excuse or permission for them to try it, too – even if you experienced negative consequences, talk about how bad it was for you or did it just once or twice. Kids already think they’re invincible and nothing bad will happen to them. They could see you as someone who did it and turned out just fine years later which affirms their belief about themselves. Worst yet, they could see you as a hypocrite if your expectation is that they not do the same things.

If you DID NOT drink, smoke or engage in other risky behaviors at their age and you share this with kids, they might think you don’t understand them, can’t relate to their situation or they won’t believe you.

It seems neither response is better than the other and no response isn’t a good option either.

So, what’s the solution? What should your response be?

Here are some helpful suggestions:

1. Don’t overreact by getting mad, defensive or ignoring the question.

2. Treat the question as an opportunity to talk with your child about your expectations of them. Ask them a question back to start a conversation. Ask, “Why is my past behavior important to you?”

3. Ask, “Will what I did or didn’t do years ago make any difference to the decisions you are going to make?” If your child answers yes, ask how.

4. Be sure to note to your child, “It’s important to me to help you figure out what your future is going to be like. My experiences, whatever they were, are not likely to help you do that. You can have or be whatever you want in your future. I want you to get the best future you can possibly get and to help you do what it’s going to take to get it because you deserve it. That’s my commitment to you.”

5. If you choose to disclose information about your past behavior, be sure to do it in a one-on-one conversation where you can help your child process it in a way that is helpful to them.

6. Don’t glamorize your past behavior. Speak about the negative consequences your past behavior may have had on your life or future and what you wish you would have done differently.

7. Take their question as an opportunity for you to express your expectation of them when it comes to engaging in risky or other behaviors. Remember the rule of thumb when it comes to setting expectations: You get what you expect. So, expect the best for your child.

Most importantly, keep the conversation focused on your child and not on you. Their future can be anything they want it to be.

Just because you may have done something when you were their age does not mean you’re a hypocrite by expecting something different for your child. Don’t let your past influence what you want for your child or anyone’s child. If you want something different or better, then expect and express it.

The real truth is…Your past is your past. Your past does not need to be your child’s future.

P.S. This is my fourth blog post in a series of blogs I am writing on parenting. I’ve had a lot of requests from my followers as to if they can re-print my articles. You are more than welcome to re-print or share them with your parent friends and family, the parents you work with, the parents of your students or others. The only thing I ask is that you give credit to me as the author: Kathleen Nelson-Simley of KNS Learning Solutions. Thank you!