Let this teen inspire you!

Thanks to the Huffington Post for bringing this story to my attention. The above photo was shared on Facebook by Eric Gaines with the following caption:

“I watched as this young kid was walking pass, stopped and walked over to this sleeping homeless man; touched him and began praying over him… This was an amazing sight! I pray this kid becomes a leader amongst his peers, and continues on this path!! Not all Baltimore youth are lost!!” (sic)

What a beautiful act of compassion!

Yet as I move beyond being thankful for this reminder of the good in young people, I reflect on what this photo prompts in me as a mother. As a parent, I have many kinds of desires for my children. Of course, I would love for my son to be the kind of young man who would quietly, humbly care about a stranger. But if I am honest, I would also love it if my son were smart, talented, well-mannered and known for such qualities. The question is, which desire is stronger? You see, I find it hard not to live through my children, and very hard not to puff up my own reputation through their accomplishments. So which do I want more? A child who would stop on his own, alone, to notice and care for another person who may never notice him back; or a child who wins grades, awards, and a great reputation?

Why do I have to choose? Because I expect that the humble goodness this teen demonstrated is snuffed out in families that prioritize recognition; and when grades or talents are prioritized, the pressure to perform leaves little time or energy for selflessness. If I only praise what brings my child (and by extension myself) positive attention from others, it is very unlikely that my child will one day act like the young man in the photo. In addition, my child will do what I do (most likely) — do I model the same kind of compassion as the young man? If this story inspires me to believe that some teens are really doing okay, it should also inspire me to look at myself and my parenting. Am I nurturing selfless compassion in my children by modeling it, noticing it in others, and reminding my child that I care more about how they treat others than how they perform? Or am I just another performance driven parent feeding off the recognition and accomplishments of my children.

And if it were my teen in the photo, would I allow it to remain anonymous? Or would I have to share it with all my friends? What would you do?

Be a pesky parent…it’s good for your teen!

With all the negative talk about “helicopter parents,” sometimes we are shamed into thinking we should be hands off with our teens.  Don’t you believe it!  There’s a difference between being overly controlling and properly supervising.  You child still needs you to keep an eye on things.  He or she may not like it, but your instinct…that being around and being aware will keep your son or daughter safe…is correct.  A study reported on recently in the Washington Post indicates that teens who spend more than the average amount of unsupervised time hanging out with peers are more likely to smoke cigarettes and marijuana, and drink alcohol.  The study’s authors expected to see a greater protective effect from structured activities, but they they found that “Organized time, such as arts classes at school, religious activities outside school and community volunteer work, had a very modest protective effect. Kids with the most time in these activities showed a 7 percent to 18 percent lower than average risk of drinking or smoking.”  Compare that to the effect of unsupervised activity: “They found that teens who spent the most unsupervised time with peers were 39 percent more likely to smoke cigarettes, 47 percent more likely to drink alcohol and 71 percent more likely to smoke marijuana than average.” Apparently, it’s most important to avoid regularly letting our kids simply “hang out” day after day without any adults around to keep a watchful eye on things.

How a Bad Apple can change a School

Rotten Apple

Most of the stats that we include on our site, in our blogs, or in our classroom instruction refer to the general population of the US. While they are generally accurate, and I can confidently say they reflect many if not most situations, there are always exceptions. We teach at over 35 schools whose health classes vary in size from 5 (yes, 5) to 90. In almost a decade of experience, I have seen a school’s cultural attitudes about sex shift in both positive and negative ways. My experience has taught me a lot about the power of one Bad Apple.

In any given school climate, regardless of how hard teachers, parents, and administrators have worked to instill good values in their students, you occasionally run across a cluster of kids making poor decisions at a disproportionately greater rate. This can happen in both public and private schools, though ironically I find the power of a Bad Apple is more potent in the private schools, simply because they are smaller. It might look like this: at a middle school that almost always has “good” kids, where hardly anyone has actually had sex, suddenly a class comes along that misbehaves more in 6th grade, rebels more when they get to 7th grade, and by 8th grade, the principal is dealing with cases of oral chlamydia.

I don’t have time or space to dissect the sociology behind the phenomenon, but I do want to discuss what parents should consider and how they can help inoculate their child against it. First, I should say that there isn’t always just one “Bad Apple.” I use the term to refer to how an attitude or idea can slowly seep into a population and turn an otherwise positive culture into an unhealthy one. It might start with one person, but one could rarely actually pinpoint that person. So be slow to point fingers.

Parents do need to recognize, however, that the power of a bad apple makes it impossible to completely shield their child from negative influences. For example, I had a friend whose parents sent her to a Christian school, hoping for the environment to shield her from the worst of popular culture. In hindsight, however, she had a harder time making good choices than a similar friend at a public school. In the small, private school, a few bad apples had introduce and normalized oral sex among the students. My friend had been taught to follow the Christian culture of her school, so when oral sex was normalized among her supposedly Christian peers, she felt like it was okay to go along with it. In contrast, my friend at the public school had been taught not to go along with the crowd and to expect to stand out (she was also from a strong Christian family), so when her friends started engaging in oral sex, she figured it was another thing to avoid rather than follow.

The difference between the two is that my friend in the private school had not been taught to recognize and steer clear of the influence of a bad apple. When parents ignore the possibility that an otherwise positive, healthy culture can suddenly become hijacked by a bad apple, they can fail to teach their child to make good decisions despite an unhealthy culture.

What can you do? Talk to your teenager about how the poor decisions of others can influence their thinking, normalizing unhealthy behavior. Here is an example of a small high school of about 300 that suddenly faced 20 cases of Chlamydia. My guess is that a bad apple influenced the school’s cultural attitudes about sex, resulting in high rates of risky behavior. Would your teen know what to do if 20 of their friends were making unhealthy decisions? How would they respond?

Family Ups and Downs

I often receive questions from parents about how to communicate less than perfect personal and family histories to teens. As we’ve been talking about sharing family narratives with children, many parents out there are probably thinking of a few stories they’d rather not tell. There may even be whole sides of the family that you don’t want to encourage your teen to spend time with due to the potential for bad influences. This week, we’ll examine ways to talk about the family ups and downs.

The same research that looked at the importance of teens knowing a lot about their families also looked at the types of stories told. There were the positive family narratives, of how the family just keeps getting better. The negative stories of how a family lost everything. And then, there are the oscillating narratives, which are the healthiest, according to the researchers:

“‘Dear, let me tell you, we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital. But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.’ ”

When a teen sees himself as part of something bigger, he can take on the experiences of previous generations as his own. When that bigger picture includes good times and bad, a teen can develop a sense of being able to overcome – to ride the ups and downs in her own life just like the generations have been riding the ups and downs of the family. That healthy sense of being able to navigate both successes and failures without being defined by either one can build confidence and resilience.

The upshot is, less than perfect families still benefit from sharing their stories and building a family identity. Yes, it is important to look for positive stories – or at least a positive spin on some of the stories that are harder to tell. But it isn’t actually helpful to pretend like the hard times didn’t exist. Sharing the lessons learned from a job loss, a divorce, or a family member’s drug addiction can be invaluable for a teen.

That being said, sharing the negative stories can require some finesse. Here is a helpful blog with 5 suggestions for successfully sharing past mistakes with kids. In cases of family members who provide a bad influence, it may help to find ways to incorporate those family members’ stories into the bigger narrative without necessarily encouraging your child to spend time with them or see them as a role model.

Furthermore, it is occasionally necessary for a parent to experience emotional healing or closure before he or she is able to share pieces of family history in a healthy way. This relates closely with #1 from the above link. If a parent has never processed the pain of a past mistake or past wrong with an adult, it is unlikely that they are ready to discuss it with their children. In the case of larger issues (abuse, divorce, a past abortion) it may even be necessary to seek professional counseling or a support group before sharing with your children.

Using Movies to Talk to Teens

OReel of Filmne of my favorite summer activities was (and still is) watching movies. Whether it is catching up on older movies no longer in theaters or splurging on seeing the latest blockbuster (and enjoying the theater’s air conditioning), summers and movies go together like macaroni and cheese. Since we at Amplify are always looking for ways to help you in the daunting task of raising teens, I’d like to share with you a great way to use movies this summer to have meaningful conversations with your children.

Amplify Youth Development has created a free e-course called “Using Movies to Talk to Teens.” If you sign up, you will receive two emails a week for the next five weeks. One email discusses strategies for how to effectively use movies to address difficult topics with your teen. The second email each week discusses a specific film and which topics could be addressed with your child during or after viewing the film together. The movies included are all available to rent or from your local library and cover topics such as bullying, pregnancy, dating and marriage, and internet safety.

You can learn more or sign up here. There is no cost for this e-course! Comment below if you have any questions or to share your experiences with the movies.

Sifting through the dangerous trends

We’ve shared articles in the past about some of the crazy stunts teens will try (dusting, OTC medication, cinnamon). Here’s another, but with a twist — this time the “trend” probably isn’t that common or dangerous. What Maanvi Singh adds in this article, however, is a reminder to parents of how to sift through all the new and supposedly viral trends to learn what really may pose a threat to children. And in case you were wondering about the music video mentioned in the article, here it is:

 

STD Prevention that starts early — but not how you think!

STD prevention can, and should, start in elementary school — but not by distributing condoms or teaching explicit sex ed. Data from the University of Washington looked at risk factors from early in life that predicted a higher number of STDs during the later teen years. There have been many correlations drawn between early sexual debut (the definition of “early” in this study was before age 15) and higher numbers of sexual partners as well as higher numbers of STDs. According the article, “Of youth in the study who became sexually active before age 15, more – about a third – had an STD compared with about 16 percent of those who were older when they started having sex.”

Correlations were also found between youth who grew up in well-managed households with rules, discipline and rewards and later sexual debut. Students who were engaged in school and had positive feelings towards school and their teachers were also less likely to have sex early, as well as students whose friends did not get into trouble. So the secret ingredients to STD prevention (or, some of them, anyway) seem to be a positive, well-managed home environment, strong school engagement, and friends who have a positive influence. Not a huge surprise to those who work with youth, but helpful information nonetheless.

What can YOU do? If you are a parent, continue to learn about positive models of discipline, and don’t shy away from the tough battles during the early teen years. Some of the critical years looked at in the study were ages 10-14. Also, try to find support from one or two other parents who can encourage you in your disciplinary efforts. Raising teens is HARD. You’ll need friends who can act as both coach and cheerleader to make your job a *little* easier.

If you are NOT a parent, look for ways to support positive youth development in your community. Support local schools, volunteer with after school programs, or simply be a friendly, encouraging face to the teens bagging your groceries.

And if you have influence in the community or local school system, support programs that encourage early family engagement and youth development — as early as elementary school. Find ways to encourage teachers and administrators to create positive school environments and fund efforts at early intervention. The earliest STD prevention may look nothing at all like sex education, but if you can help families start off on the right foot and get students engaged in school, it makes a difference!

Going to Bed Late Linked to Poorer Outcomes Years Later

It’s a constant battle for some of us to get our kids to go to bed at a decent hour.  What is “decent” is actually not too hard to figure out due to recent research by UC Berkeley.  An article discussing the research reported that “teens who went to bed later than 11:30 p.m. on school nights and 1:30 a.m. in the summer had lower GPAs than teens who got to bed earlier. They were also more susceptible to emotional problems.”  This was not a short term problem, that sleeping in on weekends solves.  The research showed an association with poor educational and emotional outcomes an entire 6 to 8 years later!  What can we do as parents?  One thing my husband and I did was put our router in our bedroom, with a timer on it so that the internet turned off at 11:00.  With cell phones now offering 24/7 access to the internet, it’s important to cut off phone access at night as well.  We are host parents for international students, and the private school they attend requires us to have the students park their phones outside their rooms overnight.  We use a table in the hall outside our bedroom.  Parents…do you have any ideas to share?  We welcome your comments.

Questions Teens Have About Sex

Perusing the internet for ideas for this blog, I could’t help but notice how MUCH interest teens have in sex.  Not like it’s a surprise or anything…but they certainly are curious!  So, parents, who’s going to fill them in?  Their peers are certainly giving advice, much of which you wouldn’t agree with.  TV shows aimed at teens tell them what’s “supposed” to be normal…often not messages you’d like your teen to absorb.  Or they may look online, and that would open up a whole world of mostly bad ideas.  SO…how about YOU giving them some answers?  You could wait forever for your teen to approach you.  So be proactive.  As always, look for opportunities, and be prepared by thinking through how you want to address questions you teen might have about sex and dating.  Here are some questions teens have, according to National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy:

  • How do I know if I’m in love?
  • Will sex bring me closer to my girlfriend/boyfriend?
  • How will I know when I’m ready to have sex?
  • Should I wait until marriage?
  • Will having sex make me popular?
  • Will it make me more grown-up and open up more adult activities to me?
  • How do I tell my boyfriend that I don’t want to have sex without losing him or hurting his feelings?
  • How do I manage pressure from my girlfriend to have sex?

It wouldn’t be too hard to think of a LOT more questions teens have, but this is a good start.  Remember, expressing a strong expectation that your teen will wait to have sex, makes it more likely that he or she will!  But helping teens think through the reasons WHY waiting is healthier is the best way to make your advice hit home.

How Teens Hide Online Behavior and Parents Trust Too Much

A 2012 McAfee study showed that 70% of teens admit to hiding their online behavior from parents, compared to just 45% two years earlier.  Meanwhile, almost 3/4 of parents (dare I say naive parents) say they trust their children not to access inappropriate content. With the consequences including emotional harm and dangerous and even illegal activities, it’s time we put the necessary effort into becoming tech savvy.  So let’s allow the teens to tell us how they’re hiding what they’re doing (from McAfee.com):

  1. Clearing the browser history (53%)
  2. Close/minimize browser when parent walked in (46%)
  3. Hide or delete IMs or videos (34%)
  4. Lie or omit details about online activities (23%)
  5. Use a computer your parents don’t check (23%)
  6. Use an internet-enabled mobile device (21%)
  7. Use privacy settings to make certain content viewable only by friends (20%)
  8. Use private browsing modes (20%)
  9. Create private email address unknown to parents (15%)
  10. Create duplicate/fake social network profiles (9%)