The game within the game

photoAccording to a 2013 article from ESPN The Magazine, approximately 21.5 million kids between the ages of 6 and 17 will participate in a team sport each year.  As a former youth football and baseball coach and current father of two girls between the ages of 2 and 7, this number couldn’t be high enough.  The enormous benefits of competitive sports are too long to list, but suffice it to say that every child walks away from this experience armed with a set of skills that will serve them well in future sports, and more importantly, in life. 

A few years ago, my daughter participated in her first competitive sports opportunity, a local YMCA soccer team.  Each week as I watched her practice and play in games, I quietly celebrated the physical and mental maturation that I was witnessing.  Although she was often confused as to where she should be on the field or when she should kick the ball, it warmed my heart to know that she was simply playing the game. 

Today, as my daughter nears the age where the high stakes nature of competitive sports is ever-present, I can’t help but think of a new game she will be playing, which often goes unnoticed by parents and coaches.  No, I’m not talking about a particular sport.  I’m referring to what I call The Game Within The Game.   Let me explain by sharing a personal story.

The year was 1987 and I had just received the news that I was the only Sophomore to make the Varsity Football team.  As I walked into the house following practice, I shared the news with my two biggest fans, my parents.  As you might expect, they were both elated and quickly asked, “How do you feel?”  Expecting me to mirror their joy, the answer they got was far from joyful.

“I don’t know if I want to be on the Varsity team.  I don’t think I’m good enough.”  The tears that followed were a symptom of a much bigger game, which I was clearly losing.  Sure I was good enough to excel at the game of football.  What I was lacking, however, was the ability to master the game within the game; the mental game.  While my athletic ability warranted the potential to win on the field, my lack of self-confidence was causing me to lose in my mind.

Aside from my parents, I often kept these thoughts and emotions to myself.  After all, a macho high school quarterback isn’t allowed to be vulnerable.  I was supposed to be the leader that had it all together.  The many masks I wore in an effort to uphold the confident quarterback image were successful in the short-term.  However, in the long-term, I continued to battle with the mental game.

Having said all of this, I’d like to share two critical skills that ALL athletes must possess in order to be successful, on and off the field.  Athletic ability alone is not enough. 

#1 – They must possess the skill of self-awareness.

I remember my parents asking me why I didn’t believe in myself and my answer was always, “I don’t know.”  You see, I just assumed that my brain was wired to think like this.  It was the classic, “That’s just the way I am” response. 

The skill of self-awareness allows you to practice metacognition.  Simply put, it’s your ability to think about your thinking.  Every athlete possesses negative thoughts, which can hinder their performance.  As coaches, however, it’s easy to look past the power of an athlete’s thoughts and expect them to simply perform.  Unfortunately, young people are conditioned to mask their thoughts and feelings for fear of being perceived as weak. 

If we simply expect them to show up and perform, without teaching them the skill of self-awareness, we are overlooking the game within the game. 

#2 – They must possess the skill of emotional management.  

If I sat down with a group of high school athletes and informed them that we were going to talk about their emotions, I’m guessing that their collective groan would be loud enough to wake a bear in hibernation.   If you have a teen, or work with teens, then you know that talking about emotions is extremely low on the cool meter. 

So, rather than beginning a presentation by telling them we’re going to talk about emotions, I make a simple request.  “Please raise your hand if you ever experience emotions such as anger or worry.”  Other than those who are in denial, the majority of the hands go up.  While this simple request may not make conversations about emotions more appealing on the cool meter, it does begin to break down a huge barrier.  Let’s face it, there is nothing you do can to escape the fact that you are an emotional being.  We ALL have emotions and we are ALL influenced by them.  As an athlete, you have two choices: let the emotions control you or learn to control your emotions.  When you learn to do the latter, your game on the field will drastically improve.    

If we simply expect them to show up and perform, without teaching them the skill of emotional management, we are overlooking the game within the game. 

If you’d like to learn more about how I empower athletes (and parents) to cultivate these skills, please email me at mike@kaleidoeye.com. 

 

Teens and social media

imagesI can still remember the moment my parents purchased their first cell phone.  Complete with a beautiful leather briefcase, this brick…err, I mean phone, quickly became the talk of the family.  We finally had something else to do in the station wagon besides listening to cassette tapes of Neil Diamond’s greatest hits. 

Oh, how things have changed.  Now my two year-old daughter can navigate my iPhone like a seasoned veteran.  Mobile technology is no longer confined to a handheld device that required an extra seat in your car for storage.  We can literally communicate with anyone, anywhere, at any time from the palm of our hand.  No briefcase required.  This is a good thing, right?

If you are a parent of a teenager, then suffice it to say that you may have differing opinions regarding the use of cell phones.  While I marvel at my daughter’s ability to create a harmless Elf Yourself video on her own, I know full well that it’s just a matter of time before I’m faced with some major concerns regarding her use of mobile technology.  At the core of these concerns is the ever evolving world of social media.

Regardless of what apps she will use, many of which don’t even exist today, my emphasis will always be on how she is using them. 

Here is an open letter I wrote to my daughter, which contains three critical ideas I’d like her to consider when using social media.

Dear Ivy,

Let me start by saying that I am not writing this as the social media police.  I recognize that social media is a critical part of your culture and in many ways keeps you connected to those closest to you.  My goal is NOT to stop you from using services like Instagram or Twitter, but rather to empower you to use them effectively. 

Each time you share something on any of your social media sites, I want you to consider the following…

#1 – Your posts have a ripple effect.

We’ve talked in the past about the ripple effect and the fact that everything you say or do influences the people around you.  Well, social media is no different.  Each time you share something, whether it’s a picture, a comment, or a quote, every person it reaches is influenced.  So, if you have 1,000 people that are viewing your posts, then you have the potential to influence 1,000 lives in a positive way.  Actually, it’s a much larger number than that because when you influence one person, you indirectly influence the people in their network as well.  Needless to say, your potential ripple effect with social media is far reaching.

#2 – The number of likes, comments, or re-tweets you receive does NOT equal real happiness.

It’s easy to become a victim of the social media ‘numbers game’.  Instead of considering the content of your posts, the urge is to compare your numbers with others and consequently design a plan of attack to reach their status.  This often results in you posting comments or pictures simply to gain the recognition of others.  Sadly, if your happiness is based on social media numbers, you are in for a long ride on the emotional roller coaster.

Here’s the great news.  You CAN find happiness on social media.  Neuroscientists (the people who study the brain) have proven that one’s happiness levels are increased greatly when gratitude or acts of kindness are a part of their daily routine.  Social media is a perfect platform for doing just that.  Instead of posting a random selfie that you took during your fifth period Science class, why not post a picture of a friend and take a moment to express your gratitude for her in a single sentence.  This act of gratitude just might influence thousands of people in a positive way.

I know what you are probably thinking, “But, it’s not cool to do these types of things.”  To this, I would respond – Is it not cool to be happy?  Try it and see what happens.

#3 – Everything you post will forever shape your reputation.

Please keep in mind that your peers are not the only ones who will see the content you post.  Believe it or not, when you finish school and eventually apply for a job, your employer will likely look at your social media activity.  You can say all of the right things to wow them in an interview, but your social media content over the course of several years will serve as a more consistent portrayal of your values.  Fair or not, what you share online will forever be a part of your reputation.

Remember, you have the potential to positively influence more people than you could ever imagine, using social media.  Let the ripple-ing being. 

With love and encouragement,

Dad

NOTE:  If you are a parent of a teen, a teacher who works with teens, or know of teens who use social media, PLEASE share my ‘21-day Social Media Challenge’ with them.  Watch the video below and share away.    

Be more like a duck

imagesEvery now and then, after dropping Emerson off at school, my youngest daughter and I will walk across the street to pay a visit to our friends, a family of ducks that make their residence in the lake which sits directly across from the school.  Overcome with an abundance of curiosity and joy, Ivy often watches in awe as the ducks jockey for position, clearly hoping we are there to feed them.  In the midst of this rugby-like scrum, it’s common for one of the ducks to submerge, only to appear moments later.  Each time this happens, Ivy looks at me with wonder and asks, “How does he do that Daddy?”

On the surface, the answer may seem quite obvious.  However, the deeper meaning is one that we can all benefit from.  Believe it or not, one of the most powerful mental toughness strategies I teach is to be more like a duck. 

Before I elaborate, I need to make it very clear that I’m not encouraging you to be more like an Oregon Duck.  As a proud Oregon State graduate, I would always suggest that you err on the side of being more like a Beaver.  However, for the sake of this blog, I’ll pay homage to the ducks.  :-)

It’s a little known fact that ducks possess a special gland called the ‘Preen Gland’, which is near the tail area.  This tiny gland produces an oil which the duck uses to coat its feathers.  After picking up the oil with its head and beak, the duck proceeds to smear it all over its body to make the outer feathers waterproof.  Without this protective barrier, a ducks feathers would become waterlogged.  Put another way, it allows the duck to be resilient in the face of water. 

While humans certainly don’t have a ‘Preen Gland’, we do possess something far more powerful, which is our ability to manage our thoughts and emotions.   While the ducks use their oil to become waterproof, we have the ability to use our minds to become bullyproof, negativeproof, pessimismproof, fearproof, and the list goes on. 

A duck spends most of its day surrounded by water, which makes waterproofing absolutely necessary.  As humans, however, we spend the majority of our day surrounded by people, some of whom contain a tremendous amount of negative energy.  Whether it’s at school, the workplace, or even at home, we are influenced by other people’s energy.  The negative boss who continues to point out all that you are doing wrong.  The pessimistic parent who models doubt and fear for his/her children.  The rude co-worker who talks behind your back.  Unfortunately, these things are commonplace.

This is precisely where the mental toughness strategy of ‘being more like a duck’ comes in.  While we certainly can’t control other people’s energy, we can control whether or not we allow their energy to enter our minds.  Just as the duck uses the oil from the Preen Gland to create a waterproof barrier, we too can use our minds to create this same barrier.  A barrier for any kind of energy that we don’t want to occupy space in our minds. 

In a previous blog, I shared a simple strategy called ‘No Vacancy’, which will help you to practice being more like a duck.  Click here to read it. 

In closing, I have one piece of parting advice.  The next time you are around Negative Nelly or Pessimistic Paul, remember this – You really can let their energy roll off like water on a duck’s back.  

Do we really need the trophies?

Dear Mike,

We will be collecting $10 from each family in order to purchase a participation trophy for each child on the team.

Thanks,

Coach 

My daughter was 5 years old when I received the above email from her soccer coach.  I’d heard a myriad of stories from other parents about the trophy culture of youth athletics, but could never quite understand it until this moment. 

As we drove home following her last game, Emerson’s eyes remained fixated on the trophy.  While she quietly pondered where she would display it in our house, I found myself struggling with a tremendous amount of emotional discomfort.  At the time, I was completely unaware of the source of my uneasy feelings.  I remember thinking to myself, “Come on, it’s just a cute little trophy.  What harm could it cause?” 

It wasn’t until the other day, after a conversation with a well-respected youth golf instructor, that I realized the true root of my apprehension regarding participation trophies. 

While my daughter continued to celebrate her trophy, I longed for her to celebrate the numerous intrinsic gifts she received by simply playing the game. 

Over the next several months, the trophy would continue to touch her hands, but it’s the aforementioned gifts that would forever touch her heart.  I decided to leave the trophy on our shelf, but set out on a mission to make her aware of the unseen gifts she received from playing soccer.    

The gift of mental maturity.  While there are obvious physical benefits of participating in sports, the not so obvious amount of mental maturity that takes place is truly remarkable.  Scientists have provided extensive research on the effects of play on the brain.  Some of these benefits include increased problem solving skills, greater capacity for creativity, and actual strengthening of brain cells. 

I know what some of you are thinking, “This sounds great, but how am I supposed to convey this gift to my child?”

Here’s an example of what you might say.  “Did you know that playing soccer (or any other active sport), actually helps your brain grow stronger?  Isn’t it cool to know that you can play soccer and grow your brain at the same time?”

The gift of failure.  One of the biggest mistakes we make as parents, especially as parents of young athletes, is to expect perfection from our children.  I have worked with countless students who are deathly afraid of failing, not because of the failure itself, but rather the reprimand they will receive from their parents.  The fact is that failures (or mistakes) can serve as tremendous learning opportunities.  Within every failure is a powerful lesson to be learned.  Our job as parents (or coaches) is to help our children discern the lesson, not punish them for the mistake.  You show me a successful person and I’ll show you someone who has experienced countless failures.

Let’s imagine that you are riding home after a game and your child is clearly frustrated about a costly mistake they made during the game.  Here is an example of what you might say to them.  “Every mistake has a lesson to teach us.  So, rather than giving all of our power to the mistake, let’s spend some time talking about the lesson that can help you prepare for the next game.   What do you think this mistake is trying to teach us?”

The gift of communication.  In a day and age when kids as young as 7 or 8 are using cell phones as their default means of communication, face to face communication skills are absolutely vital.  While you can certainly sneak a phone into a classroom or a family dinner in order to avoid authentic communication, it’s kind of hard to take your phone with you on the playing field.  Quite frankly, sports are one of the most effective ways to foster communication skills.  In addition to verbal communication skills, young athletes also learn the importance of their non-verbal language.  In other words, they begin to understand that their body language and posture can greatly influence the entire team.  

Now let’s imagine that you are riding home from a game and your child seems frustrated about a lack of playing time.  Rather than using it as an opportunity to throw the coach under the bus, use it as a teachable moment to convey the gift of communication.  Here’s what you might say.  “I noticed that you were very encouraging of your teammates throughout the game.  You may not realize this, but your encouraging words likely made a tremendous difference in the outcome of the game.  You were a spark for your teammates.” 

If your child is currently participating in a sport, I invite you to share some of these gifts with them.

photo         

Grateful Glenda or Grumpy Gordon?

imagesKS7XN293A very famous man once said, “The lens through which you view the world will greatly affect the quality of your life.” 

Okay, he wasn’t famous, nor does he aspire to be.  His goal is very simple.  It’s to be a spark that creates positive, sustainable change in the lives of others. 

That man is me and these words will continue to serve as a foundation for everything I teach.

Simply put, life looks a lot different depending on the lens through which you view it.  You see, life is just out there lifing.  We all have similar circumstances.  The single most important factor in determining the quality of our lives is NOT our financial means, but rather the lenses through which we consistently view the world (and ourselves).

Sadly, the default lens for many is what I call the powerless lens.  Some refer to it as having a victim mentality.  Life through a powerless lens is accompanied by feelings of anger, fear, and jealousy, which are a direct result of the quality of our thinking.  While we may appear to have it all together on the outside, our powerless thoughts act as poison on the inside. 

The gratitude lens, on the other hand, is perhaps the single most powerful lens we possess.  Instead of complaining and blaming, our gratitude lens allows us to be present to what we have, in any given moment.  Instead of giving our power away to a life event, we can choose to maintain our power in spite of what some would say is a bad circumstance. 

Below is a poem which illustrates the difference between the two lenses.

Grateful Glenda awoke in the morn, eager to embrace the beauty of everything He has adorned. 

Grumpy Gordon, on the other hand, stumbled out of bed.  Thoughts of despair raced through his head.

During her morning commute, Glenda encountered a traffic jam which seemed to stretch for miles.  Just as a careless driver abruptly cut her off, she couldn’t help but notice the van next to her, where two children sat patiently, waving their tiny hands and beaming with smiles.

Gordon drove into the same traffic on his way to work.  However, he yelled obscenities at the careless driver, who was still jockeying for position.  What a jerk!

Glenda arrived at the office, ten minutes late for an important meeting.  Even though she was greeted with several unwelcome looks, she was grateful for the lone welcome greeting. 

When Gordon finally arrived at work, with a distraught look on his face, he proceeded to inform his cubicle mates about the crazy guy who had turned the traffic jam into a race.

Later in the day, Glenda sat down for lunch, anxious to eat her delicious leftovers from a family brunch.  As she grabbed her banana and began to peel, she thought of the wonderful friends who had prepared the meal. 

As for Gordon, he ate lunch at his desk.  His angry thoughts continued to fester as his mind remained firmly entrenched in the events of his morning mess.   

The end of the day had finally arrived and Glenda was pleased with all she had done.  Despite the difficult circumstances she had faced, she quietly celebrated her choice to be grateful.  She had won.

Gordon sat at his desk, papers stacked to the ceiling.  He thought to himself, “If only the man who cut me off knew how I was feeling.” 

Glenda lay her head down at night and quietly whispered this simple prayer, “God, thank you for giving me the freedom to choose my lens in any given circumstance.  Thank you for the many gifts you bear.” 

Gordon lay down at night, glad to see an end to his horrible day.  Just before he closed his eyes, this is what he said, “I wonder what terrible things will happen tomorrow?  Those cars better stay out of my way.”

As I said, it’s not the circumstances that define us.  It’s the lens through which we choose to see the circumstance.  Take it from Glenda, gratitude works.

Speaking of gratitude, I would like to wish each of you a very Happy Thanksgiving!  I’m grateful for each of you. 

P.S.  Here are a few additional resources that might interest you.

Click here to read an article from the Ahwatukee Foothills News, which highlights my recently published book.

Click here to order a copy of my book, which contains an entire chapter on the power of gratitude.

Click here to visit my Facebook page, where you will find a short video about the importance of “expressing” gratitude. 

5 truths that EVERY child needs to hear, EVERY day

photoThe year was 2008.  I sauntered into the house after another tireless day as an elementary school teacher. My head was dragging and my heart was void of any real desire.  I slowly placed my stack of ungraded papers on the counter and sunk into my favorite chair.  After a deep breath and a long exhale, I said these words to my wife; words that would ultimately shape my journey and give me the confidence to step out of my comfort zone and into my life’s mission.

“Honey, I want to make a bigger difference.  I’m tired of spending my day adhering to district mandated “blocks” of time for core content, when I could be teaching them about life and leadership.  I’m tired of creating behavior plans that seek to remedy the symptoms, when I could be teaching them how to manage their own thoughts and emotions; which you and I both know serve as the root of every choice they make.  I’m tired of attending meetings where we spend one hour learning about a new initiative that will surely be extinct by this time next year.  I’m tired of being told what and how to teach, when I feel like I’m the one who knows what my students need most.”

Rather than letting me continue my pity party, my wife politely interrupted me and simply said, “Let’s do it.  It’s time for you to fill this void and share your important message with every child.” 

From that moment, my life as I knew it would completely change as I confidently stepped into my dream.  A dream that would allow me to act on the belief that I knew what students needed to learn, which was well beyond the antiquated model of the Three R’s. 

Although I’ve had the great fortune of sharing my message with thousands of students thus far, I’m not willing to stop until ALL students have heard it. 

Below is an open letter to ALL students, which contains 5 truths that I believe EVERY child needs to hear, EVERY day.

Dear students of all ages,

Let me start by saying that I’m well aware of the fact that each day you arrive at school, the expectations we have for you are limitless.  You’re expected to absorb a huge amount of information, only to regurgitate it frequently in the form of tests and quizzes.  You’re expected to follow the rules and make good choices.  You’re expected to be engaged and interested in what you’re learning.  You’re expected to listen to what the teachers are teaching you.  The list goes on and on. 

As a former teacher, I will be the first to admit that there is one thing we often overlook in this sometimes crazy world of education.  In our quest to adhere to the Common Core and countless other student benchmarks that exist today, believe it or not, the easiest thing to overlook is you, the student.  Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes we make is that we see you only as a student, and not as a human being.  We fail to recognize that, much like us as adults, you arrive at school with all sorts of thoughts and emotions that may interfere with your ability to learn or perform.  You may be struggling with self-confidence, yet it’s not cool to admit it, so you plaster a fake smile on your face, making it appear like you are ready to learn.  You may feel so much pressure from your parents to achieve perfect grades that you mask your stress with a fake sense of peace because the last thing you want to do is to let your teacher know that you’re struggling.  After all, there is plenty of learning to take place.  The fact is that while your bodies may be in the chairs, your minds can be in a completely different place.

Imagine if the school day began with an opportunity for you to unload your emotional backpack and cleanse your mind, which would perhaps allow you to be in a position to actually learn. 

Here are five truths I want you to know that you won’t learn in a textbook.  My hope is that you will remember these truths each and every day and use them as a foundation for what really matters.  Sure your grades and test scores will ensure academic success, but it’s the following truths that will contribute greatly to your life success. 

#1 – YOU LEAD, AND THEREFORE, YOU MATTER.

Despite what others may tell you, leadership is NOT about authority or control.  It’s NOT about popularity or having the greatest number of followers on social media.  Leadership is influence, nothing more and nothing less.  Everything you do or say has an invisible ripple effect on the people around you.  You have the power to create massive change simply by focusing on your own ripple.  When you go to school each day, be intentional about the ripple you are going to create and align your actions with that intention.  Your actions and words are contagious.     

#2 – IF YOU WANT TO CHANGE SOMEONE OR SOMETHING ELSE, YOU MUST FIRST CHANGE YOURSELF.

It’s easy to point fingers at other people and blame them for your current mood.  The fact is that it’s NOT your circumstances that are causing you to feel a certain way.  If there is someone in your life who is causing you distress (teacher, parent, etc…), you must look inward for change.  The more you try to change them, the more out of control you will feel.  Lasting change begins with you.  You are the driver of your life.  You can’t control the road conditions, but you will always be able to choose how you drive.    

#3 – YOU SEE LIFE THROUGH DIFFERENT LENSES.  SOME ARE EFFECTIVE AND SOME ARE NOT. 

Your mind functions much like an information processor, constantly making sense of the world around you.  A large majority of the thoughts you have during the day are out of your awareness.  They happen without you even knowing it.  However, when you practice awareness, you can catch yourself in the midst of “stinking thinking” and choose a new lens, or way of thinking, that will process information in an empowering way.  You are ultimately in charge of your thoughts, so why not choose thoughts that will serve you. 

#4 – YOU HAVE THE POWER TO CHOOSE WHO YOU ARE.

You will always have people asking you what you want to do when you grow up, but the most important question to consider is – Who are you?  You see, in order to do something in life, you must first consider who you want to be.  Who you are is not a name or a job title, but rather your character.  While society will continue to tell you what you should wear, what you should look like, or what you should purchase, I want you to recognize that who you choose to be trumps all of this.  It’s your character, NOT your appearance or possessions, which will shape your future. 

#5 – EMOTIONS ARE A NATURAL PART OF BEING HUMAN, BUT THEY ARE ALSO A POWERFUL SOURCE OF ENERGY. 

I want you to know that emotions such as anger or jealousy are NOT bad emotions.  We all feel them.  It’s important to understand, however, that every emotion contains a certain amount of energy.  It’s your thoughts that fuel this energy, so when you choose new thoughts, the energy changes.  If a friend at school is triggering angry feelings in you, the easiest course of action is to unleash your anger on them, which often leads to regret.  However, the most effective action is to use the anger as an opportunity to hold onto your power.  When you are angry at another person, you are essentially giving your power away.

As academic expectations continue to grow, please remember that the only thing you can truly control is yourself.  School will continue to be school, but the experience of it will change dramatically when you learn to embrace these truths. 

I believe in you!

Sincerely,

Mike 

P.S.  If you’d like to learn how to make these truths a part of your life, I invite you to read my book (click here).  I wrote it especially for you.     

Quote With a Call

Normally I send out a new blog each Tuesday.  This week, however, I have something a little extra that I wanted to share with you. 

I have always been fascinated by the power of quotes.  Not only are they short and sweet, but they also provide a wonderful opportunity to use a curious/creative lens to determine how the words in the quote can come to life.  Simply put, without any action or implementation, quotes are just a compilation of words.  It’s the action that gives power to the quote.   

Having said this, I am committed to providing you with a weekly Quote With a Call.  Each week, I will share one of my favorite quotes, but more importantly provide you with a call to action, or a plan to apply the quote to your life.

Below is this week’s quote.  I would be grateful if you would share this with anyone who you feel could benefit from this message.  

Gratitude AND Empathy on Veterans Day

On my wedding day with my childhood friend, Kyle, who currently serves in the U.S. Marines.

On my wedding day with my childhood friend, Kyle, who currently serves in the U.S. Marines.

It’s only fitting that my blog this week is written in honor of the men and women who have risked their lives in order to serve and protect our beautiful country.  Below is a post I shared last year at this time, but the message is equally powerful today.

I have very fond memories of Veterans Day as a child.  Perhaps the greatest memory was our family’s annual tradition of attending the Veterans Day parade in my hometown of Albany, Oregon.  The odds of a cold, rainy day were usually pretty high, but that didn’t stop thousands of people from lining the streets in anticipation of seeing their favorite float or watching the local high school band march in perfect unison as they played their shiny instruments.  For many of the adults present, it was an opportunity to celebrate and honor local veterans who had served in a time of war.  As a child; however, the highlight of the parade for me was the Albany Woodpeckers fire truck, which was populated by a group of men who served as a local hospitality committee for the city of Albany.  Adorned with bright red jackets that could be seen from miles away, each of the Woodpeckers would throw handfuls of candy to the crowd.  In fact, it was quite common to see children jockeying for position in hopes of receiving more than their friends, or in my case my brothers.  I can still see the smiles on the Woodpeckers faces as they watched us throw our hands up in the air, in anticipation of more, more, more.

I mention this childhood memory as it serves as a great reminder of the narrow lens we tend to have as children with regard to veterans.  At that age, it wasn’t about honoring THEM (the veterans); it was about ME and how much candy I could amass.  On a day that was meant to celebrate veterans, I was celebrating myself.  What was lacking?  Perhaps a dose of empathy.

Today as I reflect on the importance of Veterans Day, it’s not about a parade or candy, but rather the tremendous amount of gratitude that I feel in my heart for our veterans, past and present.

This past week, I presented a lesson on empathy to several hundred students, ranging from kindergarten through eighth grade.  My aim was to encourage them to practice “standing in the shoes” of others, regardless of whether or not they could personally relate to their circumstances.  This means acknowledging what the other person might be thinking, or trying to feel the various emotions they might be feeling.  While we all possess the ability to do just that, it’s only possible if we are willing to set aside our own thoughts and feelings so that we may see life through their eyes.  I call it putting on our empathic lens.

Well, today it donned on me that what our veterans deserve most is our empathy.  It’s easy to thank a veteran for his/her service or to attend a parade commemorating their commitment to our country, but it’s much more difficult to spend time acknowledging what they might be thinking, or attempting to feel what they might be feeling.  While their time of active duty may be over, let’s not forget that all veterans possess a varying degree of thoughts and emotions that are a direct result of the many difficult events they either witnessed or experienced.  Furthermore, let’s acknowledge the fact that it’s these same thoughts and emotions that tend to manifest in different ways.  Some experience post-traumatic stress disorder while others struggle with mild to severe anxiety.  While it may be easy for a fellow veteran to empathize, the fact is that the majority of us can’t even fathom what they might have experienced.  Having said this, it doesn’t mean we can’t try to use our empathic lens and attempt to stand in their shoes.

So, in the spirit of empathy, next time you see a veteran, rather than simply saying “thank you”, try saying “I care about you”.  I care about your service, but more importantly I care about you as human being.

What do “weeds” have to do with it?

untitledEven though it was ten years ago, I remember this event like it was yesterday.  Shortly after receiving the keys to my very first home, I walked around the exterior of the house, grinning from ear to ear, quietly celebrating perhaps my biggest adult milestone to date.  When I reached the back yard, however, my excitement quickly turned to dread.  The yard wasn’t really a yard, but rather a compilation of any type of weed you could possibly imagine.  Some were almost as tall as me.  So, rather than letting my dread get the best of me, I did what any first time homeowner would do.  I grabbed my trusty weed eater, which I had just purchased at the local Home Depot, and went to town.  In less than an hour, my backyard was completely transformed.  Or so it appeared.  

You see, the mistake I made is one that transcends weed eating.  In an effort to achieve instant gratification, I chose to treat the symptom (weeds) instead of addressing the cause (roots of the weeds).   What ensued were months and months of weed eating, only to see the same weeds appear in a matter of weeks. 

While treating the symptom is certainly a viable option, it’s not the most effective long-term strategy.  Below is a common situation where it’s easy to fall into a “symptoms based” approach, along with an alternative solution that is geared toward addressing the cause.

Situation: A child is misbehaving at home or in school.  

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s easy for parents and/or teachers to solve a behavior problem with a quick-fix approach, such as a timeout or a loss of privilege.  While these punitive measures will likely address the obvious symptom (child’s behavior), the underlying cause (reason for child’s behavior) is often overlooked because it’s much more difficult to discern.  The end result is that much like the weeds that continued to reappear in my backyard, the child’s behavior will most likely do the same.  

Alternative solution:  Empower the child by addressing the cause of the behavior.  

What we often fail to recognize as parents and teachers is that behaviors are influenced by thoughts and feelings.  Therefore, it’s important that we empower our children with emotional intelligence strategies, such as self-awareness and self-management.  Instead of simply telling a child that what he/she did was wrong, we can empower them to reflect on the thoughts and feelings that led to a specific behavior.  

Here is a simple emotional intelligence strategy I teach that I encourage you to share with your child.  It’s called MORE (Monitor Own Replace Empower) and it serves as a simple acronym to use in any situation.  Below is a brief video where I explain how to implement the strategy.  

Empowering questions

untitledParents, can you relate to the following conversation?

“So, how was school today?”

“Fine.”

“What did you learn?”

“Nothing.”

“How did your test go?”

“Okay.”

I hate to admit it, but this was about the extent of my replies when my parents would pose the same questions.  In fact, my mom and dad read all of my blogs, so they are probably smiling right about now, saying, “It was like pulling teeth to get him to share.”

While most parents are genuinely interested in their child’s life, a typical pre-teen or teen may perceive these types of questions as probing or interrogation, thus resulting in very brief answers.  They may also be perceived as an ulterior motive to get to something more personal or sensitive in nature. 

If you think about it, the nature of the above questions, which we have all asked as parents, is quite vague.  When you ask a child what he/she learned during the day, there are so many possible responses to choose from that the easy route is to simply say, “Nothing.”  The end result is often hurt feelings on the part of the parent and a further push for independence (or space) on the part of the pre-teen or teen.

I have a simple solution to this common disconnect.  Try changing the questions you ask.  Ask questions that are child driven, not parent driven.  Ask questions that allow your child to own their response and in doing so, feel a sense of pride as they answer. 

Below are three possible questions you might ask that will hopefully provoke a much different response. 

Question – “So, what was the most exciting part of your day?”

Not only are you giving them an opportunity to provide a more specific answer, you are also modeling how to accentuate the positive.  Don’t worry if their answer has nothing to do with academics.  Remember, the purpose of your question is not to probe your way into something deeper, it’s simply a chance for them to own and celebrate a highlight of their day. 

Question – “Would you mind teaching me something you learned today?”

I’ve always believed in providing students with frequent opportunities to “teach to learn”.  When you allow your child to teach you, there are countless benefits for everyone involved.  Aside from the child benefitting from actively reinforcing or relearning specific content, you are able to model curiosity and creativity, both of which are critical skills for lifelong learning.

Question – “Did you feel confident while taking your test today?”

So often our questions around academics have to do with the result, which in most cases is a letter grade or percentage.  I wrote a previous blog about the dangers of praising only the result (click here).  By asking about a feeling such as confidence, you are essentially allowing your child to reflect on the process that led up to the test (i.e. studying).  Whether or not the conversation continues and you are able to address some of the issues you may see with regard to studying, you have at least planted a seed of self-reflection. 

While these questions aren’t necessarily going to guarantee improved communication between you and your child, it’s a great place to start.

I invite you to share a question in the comments section below, which you feel would be empowering in nature and may provoke an alternative response.