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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.


I want what she’s got!

November 21, 2013

The following post is an excerpt from my latest parenting book, Teaching Kids to Be Good People. You can read all of Chapter 1 right here.

Life, bring on the lemons!

Ever been up close and personal with a lemon tree and noticed how cool they are? I never had until I moved to California. Now I’ve got my own dwarf Meyer lemon and I can tell you that tree is an underrated miracle of nature. Right now, November 21st, it’s got teeny flower buds, heavenly smelling blossoms, baby green fruit, and ripe golden orbs, all at the same time. On a cosmic level, the lemon tree is constantly manifesting its entire life cycle, simultaneous living its past, present, and future! How cool is that?

One might assume straddling the time-space continuum causes internal conflict for the tree. Like maybe an undeveloped puny green guy eyes a juicy yellow beauty and gripes, “Damn! How come I’m not more mature?” Or some blossom whose petals flap in the wind, whines about how unfair it is that she’s no longer taut and firm like that sweet young bud over there. But noooo. The tree has evolved to a point where no phase of life is any better or worse than another. In the realm of lemon trees, there are no complaints, only total acceptance. What is, is. Lemon embraces all of it with equal acceptance and grace.

We humans on the other hand are hardwired for complaining. Even (maybe especially) those of us who have pretty soft lives compared to most folks on the planet. Adults often evaluate things in terms of what’s “wrong.” So how surprising is it that our kids frequently complain? The older they get, the more likely we are to find fault in what they do or fail to do! In addition to what we’re teaching them through negative modeling, teens are already incredibly judgmental. After all, they’re grappling with some key questions of their own:

Am I cool enough? Am I hot enough? Am I good enough?

The less confident they feel (from their own self-doubt and from the feedback piled on by their “friends” and parents), the more likely they are to complain. The more they complain, the more we complain about their complaining. Ugh.

Now I’m not advocating an all- Zen-all-the-time approach to living, where we make damn sure we never find fault with anything. That’s too tough to be practical. Besides there are certain situations that are inherently faulty. Like when the cottage cheese has gone off. No amount of Ohmmming is going to make me smile when I lift that lid and get a whiff. So yeah, life serves up plenty of unacceptable tidbits. When you’ve got one, just do something about it. Complaining is never a prerequisite for action. Nor is it a substitute.

When a family member presents us with something unacceptable, rather than exploding and losing control of mind and mouth, try this instead: “This cell phone bill of $1,000 is unacceptable. You will pay this, not me.” That’s not a complaint. That’s a simple directive. When we whine less and fill our sentences with more verbs (calls to action), we might get more cooperation and less complaining from our kids. At the same time, we are teaching them that a positive attitude helps us deal with life’s inconveniences more effectively than complaints.

On that positive note, I want to report that last week I picked all the ripe lemons from the tree and made lemon marmalade. Not to complain or anything, either the recipe was wrong or I misread it. Either way, the results were . . . uh . . . not edible. Fortunately the tree’s still got plenty of green babies. In another month or so, I’ll take another shot at it.


Day 7 Kindness and Respect Challenge (We’re here to help)

October 7, 2013

On Saturday (Day 5 of the Challenge) I drove to Stanford to a Challenge Success student event. My job was to lead two round table discussions. The topic: “Too Stressed to Think?” in which I would help tweens and teens understand the link between being in so-called emergency mode and doing stuff we later regret.

I’ve written a lot about stress over the past eight years. Done countless presentations for kids and the adults who live and work with them. Even though Saturday’s event was at a world-class university, teaching doesn’t rattle me. What did shake me up in advance was the challenge of finding exactly where I needed to be. Stanford is a big place and map-reading is not my thing.

Arriving in the vicinity I asked some students for directions to the Graduate School of Education. They wanted to help, but they were newbies and like I said, Stanford is huge. So they kindly brought over this older guy who knew the campus well. He was kind and patient. Helped me decipher my map (yeah, I had one) then told me a) where to park-no charge on weekends! and b) where my building was.

After the event, heading back to my car, I spotted two confused people peering at a map. I asked them if they were lost. They were looking for the campus bookstore. I admitted I was also a visitor, but I wanted to help them. (Pass it forward, right?) Between their map and my knowledge of the name of the building I had just emerged from, we figured it out.

So, take this into the new week: We’re here to help each other. Sure, there are more self-serving ways to play the game, but I don’t recommend them. For one thing, it feels good to help. For another, there’s karma and being helpful will help you. If you need more motivation to go out of your way to help other people, how about this: it’s the right thing to do. Not always easy, as I told the girl who asked this question, but always right.

Got another minute? Read on:

A girl has bullied me forever. She just got glasses and now people are making fun of her. Should I stick up for her? (Illustration © 2013 by Erica DeChavez, do not reproduce without permission)*

What a great question! Isn’t life interesting the way things can turn around? This girl picked on you, so you might be thinking, “Why should I help her?” The answer is simple: Because she needs a friend right now. Another reason you should help is because you know exactly how bad it feels to be teased. If you stand by and let others make fun of her you’ll be unhappy because you’ll know, deep inside, that you could have done something to make things better.

The answer to your question is yes! Stick up for the girl with the glasses. It’s the right thing to do. But you already know that because you’ve got a hero’s heart (otherwise it wouldn’t bother you that people are making fun of her).

If you help her maybe she’ll learn something about the importance of respect and kindness. Then who knows? This may be the beginning of a great new friendship!

*(Excerpted from my upcoming Girls’ Friendship Q&A Book)

Check out Day 8 of The Kindness and Respect Challenge

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