March 8, 2016

Of Astronomers and Astronauts: How to Empower Your Teens

This article was written for Parenting Beyond Punishment as part of their month-long No Spank Challenge to encourage and teach peaceful parenting. This article will also have an accompanying webinar. Those links will be posted here as they become available.

Teenagers. The wonderfully smart, independent, contrary, complex, emotional, and social people that live in your house and eat all your food. How can you empower them? Will they even listen to you? How can you build a supportive relationship with them? I have taught leadership for young people for many years. Let me shed some light on working with teens in peaceful and powerful ways.   

Imagine the job of an astronomer. They study objects in outer space. They study the moon. They look at the phases of the moon and the effect of the gravitational pull on our planet. They map the stars and planets and orbits. They do all of this critical observation from earth. It’s interesting. It’s useful. It’s very safe. Our parenting and our schools have spent the past ten years or so teaching our children to be astronomers and our children enjoyed it.

However, now that they are teenagers, they don’t want to be astronomers any more. They want to be astronauts. They want to go where they have not gone before. They want to leave the safety of earth, take risks and explore new worlds. They don’t want to look at the moon. They want to go to the moon! It’s exciting. It’s breathtaking. It’s risky and they can’t wait.

This can be very challenging when you have been Mission Control for so long because now they seem to have no mission and you have no control!

So what can you do? How can you empower them? How can you build a supportive relationship with them in this new vocation of theirs as risk-taking astronauts visiting new worlds?

Listen Without Judgment
First, your relationship with them has changed (whether you wanted it to or not!) To use the terms of the author Starhawk, your relationship has shifted from “power over” to “power with.” They no longer accept being told what to do but want to have their own voice. They have their own interests, ideas, dreams and passions. Take time to listen to them wholly and fully. Put down your phone, stop doing laundry or multi-tasking while talking to them. Like every person, they want to feel heard for their thoughts and ideas. Be present. Give them your full attention.  

Ask Questions that Encourage Them Along Their Path  
After they have told you their ideas, refrain from offering your opinion, your advice, your judgments or your perspectives. Unsolicited advice is rarely welcome, especially between parents and teens. Ask questions that support them and their judgment. “What do you think is your next step?” Or, “what do you want to do about that?” And if you don’t know what your child wants or needs, it is perfectly ok to ask. “How can I be most helpful to you? Do you want me just to listen? Do you want my ideas?” Then, the conversation is on THEIR terms and you can support them in whatever ways are most helpful. Simply asking these sorts of questions shows respect for the young person and shifts the power dynamics of your relationship toward “power with.”  

Let Them Risk. Let Them Fail.    
Maybe they want to save the world. Maybe they are in the throes of their first romantic relationship. Maybe they want to get a job. As long as they are not on a path toward mental or physical trauma, let them go and try out their ideas. It’s like learning to ride a bike. The way you learn to ride a bike is by riding without Mom or Dad holding onto the seat. You try to balance, you wobble, you fall. Maybe you skin your knee. It hurts but it’s not life ending. And the exhilarating feeling! The wind in your hair. The moment when you felt balanced before the crash. Despite what our culture tells us, failure is good. It is how people learn. Expect it. They will only learn the balance of life after you let go and give them the freedom to fail.

Be Supportive
We all remember what it felt like to crash and burn as a teenager. Perhaps that first relationship? Or your first job? Or that hard class that you just couldn’t pass? What are the words you wanted to hear from your parent in those moments? “I told you so?” Probably not.

Try “I believe in you.” Or, “I know you will find a way forward that works.” Tell them your story when the same thing happened to you as a teen. It’s ok to be human with your children. It’s ok to be vulnerable. It’s ok to tell them when you failed too. Support them as they leave the gravitational pull of mother earth. This is the moment for which you have been preparing them for the last 14 or 16 years. Trust your parenting. You have done your best and now it is their turn.

I think you will be amazed to see the capabilities of your own child when they embark on a mission of their choosing. It may be one small step for your child but one giant leap for your parenting. I believe in you. You can do this. Commence empowerment in T-minus 10, 9, 8....  

January 16, 2016

"Remain Nonviolent"

On this 30th anniversary of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, I reflect on the social turmoil of the past year. 1202 citizens were killed by police in the United States in 2015. Truly tragic. Something that echoes clearly in my head is the voices of our politicians who, in the face of unrest, told the public to "remain nonviolent."

As a teacher of nonviolence and leadership, what does that mean? "Remain nonviolent." We all know what it means for the politicians. In the face of injustice, please pretend that everything is fine. It means, "don't break anything."

It is time for us to reclaim the word, "nonviolence" because it is used by politicians without any understanding of what nonviolence is. What they fail to recognize is that people are not out to break things. We are out to fix what's broken. Nonviolence is not the opposite of violence, it is the antidote. It is the cure. Nonviolence is not passivity living in fear of destruction. It is courageous action out of love for the transformation of our society.

To me, "remain nonviolent" means implementing constructive programs, as Gandhi taught us. That means working together to build and empower our communities with programs that lift people up economically, spiritually and politically. That means reinventing the job descriptions and job training for police officers so they learn to be more compassionate and work with, not against our communities. We are in this together.

In his book, "Stride Toward Freedom," Dr. King talked about agape love or unconditional love as the wellspring of nonviolence. He called it, the "insistence on community even when one seeks to break it." It is "a willingness to go to any length to restore community." That means there is no us vs. them. There is only "us" as one Beloved Community seeking to correct the unjust system of which we are all tragic victims. I take inspiration when I hear the words, "remain nonviolent." It says, remain hopeful because we will make it together. It says, be courageous because the future is what we create together. It is an invitation to all to join in implementing the solutions we need for a brighter future.

"Remain nonviolent" also means being active in seeking peace. Remember, Dr. King taught us that "peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice." That does not mean that the grand jury must convict every police officer that took another life. At that point, we are too late. That is not justice, nor peace. Justice means correcting the conditions that lead a police officer to choke a citizen for selling cigarettes in the first place. It means bridging relationships in the community so police speak with their words and not their bullets.

"Remain nonviolent" means living up to the best of who we are and what we are capable of. It means mourning together when a citizen is killed and then working together for solutions. It means acknowledging anger in the community and hearing the unheard voices rather than launching tear gas at them.

On this 30th anniversary of the King holiday, let us renew our commitment to each other. Let us renew our commitment to change the unjust systems that continue to destroy our communities. Let us invite others to join us on this important journey to "remain nonviolent."