Annie Fox's Blog...

Thoughts about teens, tweens, parenting and this adventure of living on Earth in the 21st century.

Annie Fox, M.Ed., is an internationally respected parenting expert, award-winning author, and a trusted online adviser for tweens and teens.

Talking about talking trash

January 30, 2014

It seems like we’re always swimming in social garbage – everything from the “just kidding” remarks from so-called friends to the snarky comments from people who hate you (online and off). When it comes to social garbage all of us have had it dumped on us. And all of us have dumped it on others. Weird thing, though, when I talk to students they all wish their school was a place where they could  be accepted for who they are… without all that other crap.

So how do we get there from where we are now? How do we get everyone (including ourselves) to wake up and smell the garbage? This excerpt from my book, Teaching Kids to Be Good People, gives you some new ways to think about gossip, rumors and what it takes to clean up your act.

Don’t Add to the Garbage

Hey, this is our park!

Hey, this is our park!

Up our street lies Faudé Park. Undeveloped except for some narrow trails carved into the hill, this 13.5 acre community treasure offers a mini-retreat to everyone wandering through. When David and I first ventured up to Faudé’s highest point, we were delighted by the knockout view of Mt. Tamalpais. We were also depressed by the thick carpet of broken beer bottles tossed by partygoers who obviously enjoyed the “natural” environment. (A trashcan sits 20 feet from the peak. But hey, the ground’s handier, right?)

David and I aren’t neat freaks. Far from it. But we hated seeing all that glass in such a beautiful setting, so we started cleaning it up. The first day we spent 30 minutes picking up the biggest chunks of glass. When we returned a week later, new chunks replaced some of what we removed. But we weren’t deterred. Over the next several months, we kept picking up glass.

At some point things began to change. Weekend revelers stopped tossing bottles on the ground. Maybe because they could now see the ground! Or maybe the beauty of the park became apparent and now they decided it wasn’t cool to mess it up. Can’t say for sure, but whatever the reason, David and I were happy with the change and didn’t mind taking a little credit for getting things rolling in the right direction.

Turns out the trends we observed at the park reflect a bona fide sociological phenomenon called the broken windows theory. Apparently, the more rundown a neighborhood becomes, the more likely people will break windows in abandoned buildings, graffiti walls, and litter. The crime rate increases too. Conversely, when a neighborhood gets cleaned up, everything improves.

The turnaround at Faudé Park happened years ago, but I’m pleased to report that as of my walk this morning, the overlook is still totally free of garbage. Of course, not all garbage is equal, and the kind infecting most schools, aka social garbage, is of the invisible yet more toxic variety.

I frequently ask students: “If you walk into a room already littered with trash, is it OK to toss your candy wrapper on the floor?” Some kids will say, “Sure, it’s OK.” Why? Because “everyone else is doing it and you won’t get in trouble.”

Then I ask, “If the floor is clean, is it still OK to toss your trash?” Now most kids will say no. But a few kids are likely to let me know it’s never OK to add to the garbage. Which is when I switch the discussion from candy wrappers to rude comments, rumors, and the rest of the social garbage many kids slog through every day.

A school’s mission statement typically mentions something about respect and social responsibility. But how are schools teaching these values to their students? How are we, as parents, teaching them to our kids? We want them to grow into thoughtful, compassionate young adults who take time to think about their choices before they act, hopefully reflecting: “If I really want less garbage at school and at home, what can I do? Am I willing to watch my mouth and keep more hurtful comments to myself? Am I willing to stand up for someone being teased? Am I willing to speak out against demeaning ‘jokes’? Willing to sincerely apologize when I mess up and hurt someone? Willing to reach out to someone who needs a friend?”

As I see it, the goal of effective parenting (aside from keeping your kid alive and well), is to help him develop a code of ethics. If you want your child to become a good person whose actions demonstrate a high level of personal integrity, if you want her to help promote more friendship, peace, and justice in the world, you need a plan.

Character development is an ongoing process for each of us. We have to consistently work through all these issues with our kids and our students, our colleagues and our partners. Talk about ethical behavior where you see it and where you don’t. Model it in your own life. Help children evaluate their choices and learn from their mistakes. Help them deal with intense emotions in appropriate and responsible ways so they don’t intentionally hurt other people.

There are no easy answers here, but one thing is for sure, the world desperately needs less garbage.


Kid Power: How much is too much?

January 26, 2014

Delicious food or cruelty on a plate?

Delicious food or cruelty on a plate?

The prologue of the January 17th episode of This American Life (Stuck in the Middle) grabbed me in such profound ways that I haven’t stopped thinking about Elias, the 7 year old’s whose love for animals and  compassion for their suffering led him to the logical conclusion that eating meat is wrong. His parents, who reportedly “never ate much meat to begin with” supported their son’s values by becoming a vegetarian household. All good. And healthy too. The challenge for this family and for Mom in particular, was the ongoing battle between her Animal Lover son (who cried with real anguish when he thought about people eating meat, especially lamb) and her younger Meat Lover son (who lived for pizza day at school when he was free to pile on the pepperoni.)  Without getting into  details, Mom walked a fine line in which she tried to a) make peace between her two sons,  b) help her younger son appreciate his older brother’s feelings about the importance of not eating meat and c) help her older son to recognize that it’s not his “job” to dictate to his brother what he can and can not eat.

I’ve been recalling families I’ve know over the years whose kids seemed to usurp control over parents and/or siblings. One boy made such a fuss whenever he lost a board game, card game or video game, his Dad made sure the kid always won. Yes, Dad was educated and at least peripherally aware that he was helping to raise an entitled kid who would unrealistically expect to always win at everything, but hey, the kid was volatile, so Dad did whatever he could to avoid the storms. Same with the Mom of the girl who so loved candy, chips and soda that she’d blow up at the supermarket if Mom refused to buy them. You’d better believe that Mom quickly reconsidered her initial response.

I’m guessing you also know kids and parents who lean in this direction.

I’m not saying the kid from This American Life was consciously being manipulative. I don’t believe he was. If you listen to his voice you won’t doubt that he has a hero’s heart filled with kindness and the desire to protect the most vulnerable creatures. And yet, there is something to be said about empowering your child to believe that they have the power to control other people’s behavior. They believe it most often when we show them they can control us.

How do you personally walk the line between empowering your child and allow that child to impose his or her will on the family?


Filed under: Parenting — Tags: , , , , — Annie @ 2:04 pm

Why school friendships teach kids so much (for better or worse)

January 24, 2014

Most kids fall into friendships like they fall in love. Most adults do too. Your son and his best buddy met and bonded at age seven when they played on the same soccer team. Your daughter met her bff when her fifth grade teacher paired them up for a science project. When temperament and the friendship gods are aligned, friendships grow in positive directions and both kids benefit greatly. Both sets of parents may also become friends. Siblings too! And so the circle of friendship grows.

It’s also true that a friendship, just like those two kids at the wheel, can grow apart. Sometimes the parting is a gradual and gentle fading that leaves only positive feelings and memories. More often, especially in 5th-8th grade, a friendship’s demise is more dramatic because the desire to “get away” is one-sided.  Because most kids don’t have the tools to be simultaneously assertive and respectful they may feel stuck, vulnerable, unhappy and/or coerced to be mean.

Here is just one the recent friendship questions I’ve received:

Did you hear...?

Did you hear…?

Tween: Me and my old friend have a lot of history together and we always fight and argue. I can’t trust her no more. Like always, today she went and talked behind my back. We texted and talked it out she said she didn’t say these things behind my back when I know she did!  I can’t trust her.  I’m just confused. Should I give this person another chance and be her friend?–Confused Friend

When kids clearly express what’s upsetting them I’m always surprised when they follow it up with “I’m confused.” I guess I shouldn’t be. When it comes to what they feel about the way they’re being treated, there is no “confusion.” But typically, the girls and guys who write to me are “confused” (aka clueless) about how to respond to someone who treats them badly. Their inability to stand up for themselves will come back to haunt our kids again and again in their friendships and in later romantic and professional relationships. 

Teaching our kids Relationship Smarts is part of every parent’s job description. It’s not just The Talk, it’s many open and honest conversations that help kids understand what a healthy relationship looks and feels like plus what to do when a course adjustment is needed. We need to teach our children how to create a set of friendship standards. It starts with the understanding that all relationships are a 2-way street and that real friends (the only kind worth having) are trustworthy, respectful, and supportive. Real friends are also willing and able to resolve the inevitable conflicts that arise in all peer relationships.

That’s the curriculum they need along with lots of time to practice and perfect their skills and to learn from their inevitable mistakes. It’s an ongoing process. But I usually get just one shot at teaching anything to the kids who email me. Here’s my reply to Confused Friend:

Annie: You can’t be close friends with someone you don’t trust because trust is the basis for a real friendship. Without it, the friendship is broken. If your old friend has continually proved to be UN-trustworthy, why do you want to set yourself up for another disappointment or betrayal by giving her another chance?

Tween: Thx you are right. Why would I want to set myself up again? But if I tell her I’m not her friend no more she will get angry and sad and cry.

Annie: She may. But you still have to tell her, just say the words in a calm and respectful way. Explain to her exactly why you are taking a “break” from this friendship. (“I don’t feel like I can trust you any more.”) Then say goodbye and spend time with other friends… people you can trust. And please, make an agreement with yourself not to talk about your old friend to anyone. That’s gossip and it’s hurtful. You’ve been on the other side of that. Make sure you don’t do the same thing to someone else. I hope this helps.

In friendship,



Filed under: Parenting — Annie @ 11:10 am

I have a dream that every school…

January 20, 2014

Thank you, Dr. King

Thank you, Dr. King

I have a dream that every school is a safe and nurturing place for all children. A place where kids want to be because every adult who works there respects students and shows it.

I have a dream that every teacher loves teaching and comes to school every morning with affection, compassion and understanding for his or her students and colleagues.

I have a dream that no matter how a child looks or learns, dresses or speaks he or she is at ease at school (“at home” if you will)  because no one will ridicule, tease, ignore or intentionally hurt that child.

I have a dream that every child has real friends at school that he or she can trust and count on.

I have a dream that teachers are always cognizant of the power of their influence on children and their responsibility (and honor) to guide and encourage all kids to fulfill their potential and become good people who have the social courage to do the right thing.

I have a dream that every school has a gifted school counselor with the training, time and patience to help children sort out their feelings whenever they feel overwhelmed by anger, worry, loneliness or confusion.

I have a dream that every school has a wonderful library and an enthusiastic librarian who loves sharing with children the wonders of opening doors onto the world through books.

I have a dream that every school provides instruction in art, music, theatre so students can learn to express themselves creatively and appreciate the unique gifts of every individual.

I have a dream that every school cafeteria serves healthy, nutritious, beautiful and lovingly prepared food.

I have a dream that every school is a fun, exciting, innovative, creative  place in which teachers, administrators, staff and students take pride and where they truly enjoy working and learning together.

I have a dream that every school is a welcoming place for parents. And that teachers, administrators and parents eagerly work together in a synergy because they fully understand that when it comes to the intellectual, social and emotional development of students they are on the same team.

I have a dream that every school works unrelentingly to actualize its mission statement. That carefully chosen words used on the school website, words like “dignity” “respect” “leadership” “worth” are the daily guiding principles motivating and inspiring every interaction within the school community.

I have a dream that no matter what a child’s home-life is,  school is a place in which he or she thrives and receives whatever is necessary to build a life of unlimited potential and fulfillment.

Filed under: Parenting — Tags: , — Annie @ 11:15 am
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