Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Collapse of Parenting



This summer I read the book The Collapse of Parenting by Leonard Sax. I was familiar with his writings having read Why Gender Matters a few years ago (a fantastic read) and more recently, Girls on the Edge.

He bases his parenting insights on, as he says, "more than 90,000 office visits... in my role as a practicing physician between 1989 and today."

The book doesn't address everything you need to know as a parent, and for those who are Christian, you'll notice the lack of biblical insights. Yet I also had the sense that he was at least partly basing his perspective on a biblical worldview. If one feels parenting has "collapsed," then it must have fallen from some standard.

Here's a collection of notes I captured from the book. Reading through these won't take long (7 minutes?) and you really should also read the book. I'm only skimming the surface here. His stories from actual parents sprinkled all throughout the book are incredible.

Some of his main themes are:
  • Parents need to be the authority in the home, yet they've given that up. 
  • We've given kids too much freedom and not enough direction and it's hurting them. 
  • You can make some hard choices to regain your authority even if your child doesn't like it. 
  • You are their parent first before you are their friend. 
  • Do the hard thing and it will be better for them.

I've bolded a few things here and there for the skimmers our there.

Enjoy.

THE COLLAPSE OF PARENTING BOOK NOTES

Introduction: Parents Adrift
The main problems he plans to address in the book...
7 - American kids are now much more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD or bipolar disorder or other psychiatric disorders than they were 25 years ago... and they are heavier and less fit than 25 years ago. Long term outcome studies suggest that American kids are less resilient and more fragile than they used to be.... What's going on? Over the past three decades, there has been a massive transfer of authority from parents to kids... "Let the kids decide" has become a mantra of good parenting. As I will show, these well-intentioned changes have ben profoundly harmful to kids.

CH1: The Culture of Disrespect
14 - Scholars generally agree that the purpose of our specie's prolonged childhood and adolescence is enculturation: the process of acquiring all the skills and knowledge and mastering all the customs and behaviors required for competency in the culture in which you live. It takes years to master the details of Japanese language, culture, and behavior; the same is true of Swiss language, culture, and behavior. (to adapt to their local culture)... it means learning how people get along with one another in that culture.
17 - no child is born knowing the rules.
18 - Parents today suffer from role confusion. Role Confusion is a plausible translation of Statusunsicherheit, a term used by German sociologist Norbert Elias to describe the transfer of authority from parents to children.
19 - 50 years ago, teenagers would have asked parents before joining a club at school... Not so today. I posed an updated question to teens across the US, 'if all your friends joined a particular social media site, and they all wanted you to join, but one of your parents did not approve, would you still join the site?' The most common response to the question was neither Yes or No, but laughter. The notion that kids would bother to consult their parents about joining a Social media site was so implausible that it was funny. My parents don't even know what ask.fm is. They would probably think it was some kind of radion station! So why would I ask them if I should join? If all my friends are joining the site, then of course I am going to join. In american culture today, same-age peers matter more than parents.
20-in our time, the schools have retreated from normative instruction about right and wrong in order to focus on academics.
20-I have learned that when I speak to parents, many confuse "parental authority "with "parental discipline." They think that parental authority is all about enforcing discipline. In fact, parental authority is primarily about a scale of value. Strong parental authority means that parents matter more than same age peers. In contemporary American culture, peers matter more than parents.
21-When I speak about the culture of disrespect, I am referring not only to the "ingratitude seasoned with contempt "already noted, which is now the characteristic attitude of many American kids toward their parents; I mean also that American kids now commonly show disrespect toward one another and that they live in a culture in which such disrespect is considered the norm. Five decades ago, the Beatles single "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was a worldwide hit. In 2006, Akon released a single titled "I Want to F*** You." (The clean version, titled "I Wanna Love You, "was broadcast on the radio, but the original version with the foul language was the one which reached #1 in the United States.)
22-Slogans on T-shirts epitomize disrespect for one another. (JCM: vs. disrespect for parents. That reality is assumed, but he was shocked to see the great deal of disrespect for one another.)
22-23 - Looking through the list of the 150 most popular TV shows on American television right now, I did not find one that picks a parent as consistently reliable and trustworthy.
JCM: (It's not just dads that are being beat up on TV - it's ALL parents).
24 - Throughout the 20th century, the legitimacy of almost every kind of authority became suspect throughout Western Europe and North America. Politically, we might summarize the second half of the 20th century as the empowerment of the previously disenfranchised: people of color were empowered. Women were empowered. Employees (at least in theory and lip service) were empowered. And children were empowered. Nobody stopped to say, "Yes, it is right that adults should have equal rights in their relations with one another.  It is right that women and people of color should have equal rights relative to white males. But what is true for adults in their relations with other adults may not be true for parents in their relations with children." Empower everybody! Why not? My answer is: because the first job of the parent is to teach culture to the child. And authoritative teaching requires authority.

Ch2: Why Are So Many Kids Overweight?
40-New evidence suggests that allowing kids to have on-demand access to food may be one factor promoting obesity, independent of the total number of calories consumed. Ad lib feeding throughout the day appears to disrupt circadian rhythms, interfering with normal metabolism and disturbing the balance of hormones that regulate appetite. Recent studies of laboratory animals have found that animals with ad lib access to food became fatter than animals with only scheduled access to food, even when the total calories consumed are kept the same in the two groups. Restricting the amount of time when food is available to 9 or 12 hours out of 24 – without restricting calories – improves health and brings weight back to normal. "Time restricted eating didn't just prevent but also reversed obesity, "said Dr. Satchidananda Panda, author of one of the studies cited here.
41-In 1965, according to one study, the typical American spent 92 minutes a day watching TV, which works out to about 10 1/2 hours a week.
42- According to the latest nationwide survey, the average 9 year old American child now spends more than 50 hours per week in front of an electronic screen, which includes TV, computer screens, and cell phones. The average American teenager now spends more than 70 hours per week in front of the screen.
42-3 - in 1969, 41% of American kids either walked or rode their bikes to school. By 2001, that proportion had dropped to 13%.
45-One question I have asked regularly since 2001 is, "what's your favorite thing to do in your spare time, when you're by yourself with no one watching?" From 2001 through about 2010, I heard lots of different answers. But since about 2011, one answer has become predominate among American kids, especially affluent kids. That answer is: sleep. (JCM: i.e. kids are extremely sleep deprived).

Ch3: Why Are So Many Kids on Medication?
50- In many American kindergartens today, as I said in chapter 1, the first priority is more likely to be teaching diphthongs rather than teaching respect, courtesy, and manners.
50-1 - The job of the parent is to teach self control. To explain what is and is not acceptable. To establish boundaries and enforce consequences. Two decades ago, that was common sense. Not anymore. At least not in the United States.
52- He tells the story of a kid, Trent, whose parents were complaining of his consistent mood swings and wanted to attribute it to a medical condition. he responded, "His behavior was pretty much what you would expect of a kid who has never known consistent discipline."
53-when he tried to tell Trent's mom that they needed consistent discipline, rather than medication, she stormed out in a huff... and then this came out... "Less than [a few] weeks after that Mom stormed out of my office, Dr. Biederman and his two colleagues at Harvard admitted to receiving more than $4 million from Johnson & Johnson (the manufacture of Risperdal), AstraZeneca (the manufacture of Seroquel), and other drug companies. The payments were discovered in the course of an investigation launch by US Senator Charles Grassley and conducted by the staff of the Senate Judiciary committee. To be clear Biederman and his colleagues broke no law. There's no law prohibiting doctors from accepting millions of dollars from drug companies. But Dr. Biederman's action was unethical, in my judgment. I think Dr. Biederman should have told Newsweek and everybody else that he was, in essence, acting as a paid spokesperson for the drug companies. But he kept the money a secret, or at least it seems as though he tried to.
53-The temper tantrums of belligerent children are increasingly being characterized as psychiatric illnesses.
54-This phenomenon is peculiar to North America. German researchers found that during roughly the same period in which diagnosis of bipolar disorder was exploding for children in the United States, the proportion of children diagnosed with bipolar disorder in Germany actually decreased.
57- Sleep deprivation mimics ADHD almost perfectly. (tells story of kid previously diagnosed as ADHD who was simply sleep deprived. When he got the sleep he needed, the symptoms went away).
57-The basic duties of a parent is to ensure that the child gets a good nights sleep rather than staying up late playing games. (JCM: i.e. self control he mentioned earlier). That's not a new idea. But 30 years ago, we didn't have Internet enabled devices that make it easy for kids to play online with other kids at 2 AM. Now we do. That means that parents have to be more assertive of their authority than in previous decades. But many American parents have abdicated their authority instead.
59-On how medicating children seems to be primarily an American phenomenon driven by drug companies: 103 out of every 1000 American teenagers are now taking or have taken medications for ADHD. In the United Kingdom, 7.4 out of 1000 are now taking, or have taken medications for ADHD.... in other words, the likelihood of being treated with medication for ADHD is nearly 14 times higher for teenagers in the United States compared with teens in the United Kingdom... Bottom line: on this parameter, if you are a kid, living in the United States is a major risk factor for being put on medication.
61-2 - Why such increase? Why is ADHD so much more common in the United States today than it was 30 or 40 years ago? And why is it so much more common today in the United States than elsewhere? My answer is "the medicalization of misbehavior." Instead of correcting our kids' misbehavior, we American parents today or more likely to medicate our kids in hopes of fixing the behavior problem with the pill.... In most European countries, the proportion of individuals 18 and under who are on any kind of psychotropic medication is typically 2% or lower, and most of these individuals are 16-, 17-, and 18-year-olds taking medications for depression or anxiety. In the United States, the proportion of children and adolescents on psychotropic medications is now above 10%, with some surveys reporting rates above 20%. Many of those children are age 12 and under, taking prescription stimulants, "mood stabilizers." Between 1993 and 2009, the prescribing of antipsychotic medications… For American children 12 and under increased more than 700%.
64- 30 years ago, perhaps even 20 years ago, the school counselor or principal might've said to the parent, "your son is disrespectful. He is rude. He exhibits no self-control. You need to teach him some basic rules about civilized behavior if he is going to stay at the school." Today it is much less common for an American school counselor or administrator to speak so bluntly to a parent. Instead, the counselor or administrator will suggest a consultation with a physician or a psychologist. And the physician or psychologist will look at the reports from the school and talk about oppositional defiant disorder or or attention deficit hyper active disorder or or pediatric bipolar disorder... What's the difference? The big difference is, when I say, "your son is disrespectful," the burden of responsibility is on you the parent and your child. With that responsibility comes the authority to do something about the problem. But when I say, "your son may meet criteria for a psychiatric disorder," then the burden of responsibility shifts away from the parent and the child to the prescribing physician and, indeed, to the whole burgeoning medical psychiatric counseling complex.

Now he gives some recommendations:
69- Recommendation #1: When appropriate, command. Don't ask. Avoid the question mark. Instead of "Do you think maybe it's time to leave the playground?" Say "it's time to go home." The question mark undermines your authority. I'm amazed by the difficulty with some parents have in speaking to their children without question marks.
(JCM: amen and amen. This is a huge issue that most parents don't even realizing they are doing.)
70-71-Recommendation #2: Eat dinner with your kids. An no cell phones allowed, not TV in the background during dinner.
(JCM: This is fascinating that this one simple thing can have such a huge influence.)
Kids who had more meals with parents were less likely to have "internalizing problems "such as feeling sad, anxious, or lonely. They were less likely to have "externalizing problems "such as fighting, skipping school, stealing, etc. The difference wasn't just between kids who had seven evening meals a week with a parent compared with kids who had none. At almost every step from zero up to seven evening meals a week, each extra dinner a child had with a parent decreased the risk of both internalizing problems and externalizing problems and increased both prosocial behavior and the child's general satisfaction with life. The change was statistically significant at almost every step. For example, when you compare kids we have six dinners per week with a parent to kids who have five dinners per week with a parent, you find that kids who have six dinners a week enjoy significantly better well-being, demonstrate significantly more prosocial behavior, and have significantly fewer internalizing problems and significantly fewer externalizing problems compared with kids who have five dinners a week with a parent. That one extra meal with a parent, the difference between five evening meals a week together and six Evening meals a week together makes a difference.
The bottom line on family meals:
  • A family in which kids often have meals with parents is likely to be a family in which parents still have authority; a family in which parents and family interaction still matter.
  • But just insisting that everybody eat together, while the TV is blaring in the kids are texting at the dinner table, probably won't accomplish much by itself.

Ch4: Why Are American Students Falling Behind?
(JCM: America continues to drop in education stats versus other countries. Here are a variety of comments he makes on this.)
78-[perhaps] bad behavior of American kids is the price we pay for the greater creativity of young Americans. That's assuming that young Americans are more creative than young people in other countries. But is that assumption correct? (hint: he says no...)
84 - in 2012, America dropped to 17th in education in the world, below countries like Spain, portugal, and poland. 
You can't invoke the economy to explain these results. Between 2000 and 2012, Spain experienced a major economic meltdown worse than that of the United States. Poland, which trail far behind United States in 2000, moved far above the u.s. by 2012. Despite the fact that our per capita spending on education is more than twice what it is in Poland.
85-Americans waste an extraordinary amount of tax money on high tech toys for teachers and students, most of which have no proven learning value whatsoever.
The three main factors see sites are in over-investment in technology, over emphasis on sports, and a low selectivity in teacher training.
87-among adults 25 to 34 years of age, Americans have dropped to 15th place internationally in the proportion of young people that earn college degrees. We dropped from number one to number 15 in just 30 years.
88-American college students now spend less time studying than students in any European country with the sole exception of Slovakia.

Ch5: Why Are So Many Kids So Fragile?
100 - He noticed the following trend and gave examples:
In kids today, something inside seems to be missing: some inner strength that we took for granted in young people a few decades back but that just didn't develop in kids today.
The phenomenon of young, able-bodied adults not working and not looking for work is becoming much more common in the United States.
103-This phenomenon – young Americans who are fragile, give up easily, no longer have the drive to start new businesses – may have  huge economic consequences, but the causes do not live in economics. The causes live in American parenting, which now creates fragile kids.
104-[many kids] love their parents. But they are not seriously concerned with what their parents think.
If parents don't come first, then kids become fragile. Here's why. A good parent child relationship is robust and unconditional. My daughter might shout at me, "I hate you!" But she would know that her outburst is not going to change our relationship. My wife and I might choose to suspend some of her privilege privileges for a week if she were to have such an outburst, but she would know that we both still love her. That won't change and she knows it. Peer relationships, by contrast, Are fragile by nature. Emily and Melissa may be best friends, but both of them know that one wrong word might fracture the relationship beyond repair. In peer relations, everything is conditional and contingent.
105-The appropriate remedy for Julia [who is depressed]... is nto Risperdal, but rather the contruction of a different self concept - one rooted  no in estraordinary academic achievement, but in the unconditional love and acceptance that her parents are ready to offer her.
     Children and teenagers need unconditional love and acceptance today no less than they did 30 or 50 years ago. But they cannot get unconditional love and acceptance from their peers or from a report card
109-part of your job as a parent is to educate desire. To teach your child to go beyond "whatever floats your boat." To enjoy, and to want to enjoy, pleasures higher and deeper than video games and social media can provide. Those pleasures may be found perhaps in conversation with wise adults; or in meditation, prayer, or reflection; or in music, dance, or the arts.
111-some countries have traditions that help to maintain parent child bonds. In Holland, schools close at noon every Wednesday so that kids can enjoy some quality midweek time with their parents. In Geneva, Switzerland, the public elementary schools close for two hours at lunch, every day, so the kids can go home and eat lunch with a parent. Many Swiss employers accommodate that tradition by giving their employees 2 1/2 hours off for lunch, so that a parent can be at home with the child for that meal.
(JCM: can this really be true? I can't imagine this every happening in America, but LOVE the idea).

PART TWO: SOLUTIONS

CH6: WHAT MATTERS?
117-best predictor of happiness and overall life satisfaction for an 11-year old 20 years later: SELF-CONTROL.
118-Five dimensions of personality: Conscientiousness, Openness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Emotional Stability.
119-Intelligence does not predict happiness or unhappiness. 
119-you might reasonably wonder whether any of the big five traits (listed from p.118 above) could predict happiness and wealth and life satisfaction. Only one does: Conscientiousness. Individuals who are more Conscientious earn and save more money, even after researchers adjust for intelligence, race, ethnicity, and education. Individuals who are more conscientious are also significantly happier than individuals who are less conscientious, and they are substantially more satisfied with their lives. Other studies of shown that conscientiousness predicts better health and longer life. People who are more conscientious are less likely to become obese. They're less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease. They're more likely to live longer and happier lives, and as noted above, more likely to be satisfied with their lives.
121-In short, many parents have come to assume the good grades and test scores are the best measure of achievement and the most reliable key to future happiness. But they are mistaken. If you want your child to be healthy and wealthy and wise, then your first priority should not be measures of cognitive achievement, such as high grades or test scores, but measures of conscientiousness, such as honesty, integrity, and self-control.
124-In my own medical practice, I have personally witnessed a child change from impulsive and out of control to self controlled within a matter of weeks – without medication. All it takes is for the parents seriously to implement a simple program that build self control.

(JCM: This next concept provides a good nuance to a commonly held approach to child character development.)
126-7: Never tell your child that he or she is smart (identity); instead, praise him or her for working hard (behavior); Sax notes that this works well for developing cognitive skills.... But teaching virtues of Conscientiousness may be different.... When it comes to teaching virtue, identity seems to work better than behavior.... Saying, "Don't be a cheater" (identity), is a more effective instruction than saying, "don't cheat" (behavior). Apparently kids are more comfortable Cheating if they don't see themselves as cheaters.
128-In reality, behavior influences identity and eventually becomes identity. If you cheat, over and over, you are – or will soon become – a cheater. your actions will, over time, change your character. Parents used to teach these moral fundamentals, but many no longer do.
132-If you compel children to act more virtuously, they actually become more virtuous. (Proverbs... 'train up a child')
133-The Western tradition in parenting is to inculcate virtuous habits into children. Again, this goes way back. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle wrote that a person become virtuous by doing virtuous acts. Behavior becomes identity.... "We  are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act but a habit." "Teach them diligently..." - the Hebrew... "to inscribe them on your children." - i.e. "to cut with a knife."... You teach virtue by requiring children to behave virtuously. In other words, you ask them to pretend that they are virtuous before they really are. (Julie noted that so much of childhood is pretending already.)
135-the 21st-century assumption implicit in many aspects of our society, such as the national school lunch program (see previous pages for a fascinating story on this)– is that if you give kids (JCM: or adults for that matter) the choice between right and wrong and show them why they should make the right choice, then that is the choice that will make. This assumption is not based on evidence. It's based on a 21st century guess about human nature.

CH7: MISCONCEPTIONS
140-study show that, in general, well behaved kids are more likely to grow up to be well behaved adults.
142-parents need to be both strict and loving
143-virtue begets virtue. vice begets vice.
144-meg Meeker told her son Walter, "no video games. No video game devices. You're not wasting your time on that." Walter complained. "All the other boys are playing call of duty. I'm the only one who is an allowed to play. " Mom said, "too bad." When Walter turned 18 he said "I'm an adult now. I have Money that I have earned from my job. I'm going to go and buy a PS3 and some video games like call of duty." Mom said, "fine." One year later, near the end of his freshman year at the University of Dayton, Walter called his mom. "I just made $400!" He told his mom. "Guess how I did it?" Mom said, "no idea." "I sold my PS3 and all my video games. They were just gathering dust anyhow," Walter said. He explained that he saw so many other guys at college who had started playing these games many hours a week at 10 or 12 or 14 years of age. These boys defined themselves as gamers. Their sense of self was tied up with their proficiency at playing video games. They expected Walter to be impressed by their video game skills. But Walter was not impressed. He had a different perspective. During this crucial adolescent years when he was not allowed to play video games, he had developed a wide array of hobbies and interest, as well as people skills, which the gamers were less likely to have. He observed that the gamers were often clumsy in real life Social Situations.
145-age matters. If a boy starts playing video games when he was nine or 12 or 14 years old, those games may "imprint" on his brain in a way that they won't if he starts playing at 18. Before puberty is complete, the brain is a enormously plastic, as discussed in chapter 1. That's both good and bad. The plasticity of the brain before and during puberty allows it to change in fundamental ways as circumstances require. But the areas of the brain responsible for judgment and perspective arent mature.  once the process of puberty is fully complete – once the boy becomes a man or the girl becomes a woman – the areas of the brain responsible for anticipating consequences and thinking ahead are stronger.
145- Research suggests the kids have spent many hours a week playing violent video games such as Grand theft auto and call of duty become more hostile, less honest, and last kind. Not right away, not after a week or month, but after years of playing these violent games.
151-Pleasure is not the same thing as happiness. Don't confuse the two.
152-Part of the task of the parent is, and always has been, educating desire: teaching your child to desire and enjoy things that are higher and better than cotton candy.
153-The solution is mindfully to create an alternative culture. To build a subversive household in which the dinner table conversation is actually conversation, with the screens switched off. The value family time together above the time the kids spend with same age peers. To create a space for silence, for meditation, for reflection, so that your child can discover a true inner self that is more than the mere gratification of impulse.
158-If you are doing your job as a parent, then sometimes you will have to do things that will upset your child. If you are concerned that your child won't love you anymore, that concern me keep you from doing your job. Do your job.

CH8: THE FIRST THING: TEACH HUMILITY
159-Teach humility.... "humility simply means being as interested in other people as you are in yourself." (JCM: I've heard it as, 'interesting people are interested people.')
164-As you mature into adulthood... you realize that the world is, and should be, bigger than you. It's not about you. and once you realize and accept that, gratefully, you can breathe a sigh of relief. 
165-require your kids to do chores.
what does this teach them?... that...
169-"The world doesn't revolve around you. You are a member of this family with obligations to this family, and those obligations are paramount."

CH9: THE SECOND THING: ENJOY
182-The unintended message is that relaxed time together as a family is the lowest priority of all.
183-Outside North America, it's unusual to find adults who boast about how busy they are and how little sleep they get. 
184-by cramming a child' life full of activities,.. mom is sending an unintended message: what you do is more important than who you are...[we need to] do less and become more.

CH10: THE THIRD THING: THE MEANING OF LIFE
189- The primary purpose of education should be to prepare for life, not for more school.
190-If you are working 80 hours a week at a job with shrivels your soul, then you are a slave. I don't care whether you are earning $600,000 a year or more. Life is precious. Each minute is a priceless gift. No amount of money can reclaim lost time.
191-Empower your daughter or your son to take risks and congratulate them not only when they succeed but also when they fail, because failure builds humility... Steve Jobs said something similar in his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford: "I didn't see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could've ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about  everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life."
198-The most serious consequence of the shift from a parent oriented culture to a peer oriented culture is that parents no longer are able to provide that big picture to their children. A peer oriented society has turned K-12 education into a "race to nowhere,"... but they have no idea why.
204-We are experimenting on children in a way that has no precedent, with medications whose long-term risks are largely unknown.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Disappearance of Childhood Reading




I was in Barnes & Noble a few weeks ago with all three of my kids. We usually begin by getting a drink or treat, then heading back to the books/trains area and lounging and reading and playing for an hour or so. We shuffled around the edges of the coffee counter after ordering, each child anticipating the delivery of their chosen delicacy. As I poured cream into a steaming cup of joe, the man in line behind me said, "You sure are lucky your kids will come here with you." I half-heartedly mumbled, "Yeah, they love to read." With that he said in a state of semi-shock, "Boy you are lucky they love to read." I'd had enough of the 'luck' talk at this point. I felt like shouting but decide to just say louder and flatter than normal, "It's not luck." And what does he do? He says it again! "You sure are lucky." Oh no he didn't. You want to throw down the gauntlet with me? A primordial response took over: "IT'S NOT LUCK! I'VE WORKED HARD AT TEACHING THEM TO LOVE READING!"

I think it's the first time I've pseudo-shouted inside of Barnes and Noble, other than when Morris's final volume on Teddy Roosevelt came out, and who can blame me for that? ALL CAPS felt good to type - but it overstates my reaction. I know the guy at B&N didn't feel it. Nor did he understand to what I was really reacting.

Kids rarely "luck" into productive behavior. It has to be fostered. They need to be led to things that will make their life better. Leonard Sax, in his book The Collapse of Parenting, says it this way: "Part of the task of the parent is, and always has been, educating desire: teaching your child to desire and enjoy things that are higher and better than cotton candy."

Man we've worked hard to make reading something they have come to not just tolerate, but to desire, to love. And I've had three simple strategies toward this end:
1. Eliminate distractions.
2. Put good books in front of them.
3. Bribe them.
Yes, I used the word "bribe." And I'm still a Christian. Of these three, bribing is by far the easiest. I "bribe" them to go to a bookstore with me by buying drinks or a cookie. I bribe sometimes by paying to read a specific book. This summer I paid my oldest to read a book (I'll get into that later). Call it bribe, call it 'incentivize', 'motivate', or whatever makes you feel better. But the point is to use the means you have to make reading appealing. I don't pay often (I'd go broke!) but when I do, it works.

The hardest is definitely #1, Eliminating distractions. But here's how we do it. We don't allow video games in the house except on rare occasions. We don't own a video game system. There are no computers, TVs, iPads, or phones in anyone's room without permission. I don't play games. Not in front of the kids, and not by myself. I don't sit around fiddling with my phone when I should be hanging out with them. I turn it off and/or hide it till they are in bed. And honestly, even then, I wish I looked at it a whole lot less on my own. 

Why avoid video games with such rabid ferocity? I'll quote Sax's book again (emphasis mine):
If a boy starts playing video games when he was nine or 12 or 14 years old, those games may "imprint" on his brain in a way that they won't if he starts playing at 18. Before puberty is complete, the brain is a enormously plastic... That's both good and bad. The plasticity of the brain before and during puberty allows it to change in fundamental ways as circumstances require. But the areas of the brain responsible for judgment and perspective aren't mature.  Once the process of puberty is fully complete – once the boy becomes a man or the girl becomes a woman – the areas of the brain responsible for anticipating consequences and thinking ahead are stronger.
It's a long way of saying what he said before - train their appetites while they are in your home, and when they are old they might hang on to them. You don't serve a Cruller with Cauliflower. Because only one of those is getting eaten. You keep bad things away from them and put good things in front of them.

Some will say this is over the top. But I just feel like it's one of the wisest things we can do. It's hard work, not luck, but it is so worth it. All of this creates an environment where the kids must turn to other things to entertain themselves. And books are a great source of entertainment.

Sergeant Chowder Bringing the Powder
Which leads to #2 on our list of three strategies for helping our kids learn to love reading. What's one of the best ways to get good books in front of them and around the house? Read them yourself. Read good books and leave them lying around. What was your favorite book when you were a kid? Buy those and read them to your kids. The nostalgia will help you read Drummer Hoff Fired it Off for the 437th time this month. Your kids will inevitably pick them up if they are not distracted by other things and if they have some measure of leisure time.

Most summers I've done a "reading challenge" with my oldest son. This summer we didn't set it up, since we were traveling about a total of 8 weeks. Our schedule was fairly relaxed, but less conducive to a reading program. But I kept putting books in front of him to see if he'd read them or not. And here's what he ended up reading:
The Reason for God by Timothy Keller
Tribe by Sebastian Junger - A War corespondent's perspective on what draws people together into groups.
The Collapse of Parenting by Leonard Sax - parenting book addressing the issue of the transfer of authority from parents to children. Very compelling.
Hero of the Empire by Candice Millard - Story of a young Churchill's escape from a war prison in South Africa.
The Giver by Louis Lowry
Lillian Trasher - Biography of a woman missionary who established orphanages in Egypt in the 1920s.
This doesn't include a number of fiction books he read on his own like, the Blood of Olympus and a couple of Harry Potter books.

Upon reflection I realize this is a more challenging list than most adults will read this year, let alone this summer.

A couple of comments on this list: I did pay him to read The Reason for God - and he had been nibbling on it since before the summer. Also, we read about half of Lillian Trasher aloud in the car during our summer road trips - but he finished it off on his own with zero encouragement from us. The Giver was for school, though he had read it a few times prior to this summer. All the others he read because he was bored and came to me and asked, "Do you have anything good to read?" The Collapse of Parenting was the most surprising - as both he and Julie fought me for it once they read the first chapter. And it is definitely worth reading.

The fight is worth it. It's not easy, but it's worth it to be different. This summer I read the book The Disappearance of Childhood by Neal Postman. What a book. His final two paragraphs of the book are worth repeating here as an apologetic for why one should push kids to read and think and avoid excessive mind numbing media devices. Postman begins with the question, "Is the individual powerless to resist what is happening?" The bold sentence in the second paragraph (emphasis mine) is what really stood out to me.
The answer to this, in my opinion, is "no." But, as with all resistance, there is a price to pay. Specifically, resistance entails conceiving of parenting as an act of rebellion against American culture. For example, for parents merely to remain married is itself an act of disobedience and an insult to the spirit of a throw-away culture in which continuity has little value... Similarly, to insist that one's children learn the discipline of delayed gratification, or modesty in their sexuality, or self-restraint and manners, language, and style is to place oneself in opposition to almost every social trend. Even further, to ensure that one's children work hard at becoming literate is extraordinarily time-consuming and even expensive. But most rebellious of all is the attempt to control the media's access to one's children. There are, in fact, two ways to do this. The first is to limit the amount of exposure children have to media. The second is to monitor carefully what they are exposed to, and to provide them with a continuously running critique of the themes and values of the media content. Both are very difficult to do and require a level of attention that most parents are not prepared to give to child rearing.
Nonetheless, there are parents who are committed to doing all of these things, who are in effect defying the directives of their culture. Such parents are not only helping their children to have a childhood but are, at the same time, creating a sort of intellectual elite. Certainly in the short run the children who grow up in such homes will, as adults, be much favored by business, the professions, and the media themselves. What can we say in the long run? Only this: Those parents who resist the spirit of the age will contribute to what might be called the Monastery Effect, for they will help to keep alive a humane tradition. It is not conceivable that our culture will forget that it needs children. But it is halfway toward forgetting that children need childhood. Those who insist on remembering shall perform a noble service.
Keep in mind this was written in 1982.

Pushing your child toward more virtuous affections will not be popular. Not with your child, not with your friends, maybe not even with their teachers at school, but it is worth it. I'll end with this thought from The Collapse of Parenting:
If you are doing your job as a parent, then sometimes you will have to do things that will upset your child. If you are concerned that your child won't love you anymore, that concern may keep you from doing your job. 
Do your job.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Two things that are guaranteed to radically change your marriage




There are two things you can start doing right now that are guaranteed to radically change your marriage. Sound too good to be true? They really do work. Doesn't mean they're easy, but you will see immediate results.

Step One

First, think of marriage from an eternal perspective. I've know this to be true for a long time. But the hard part is putting it into practical terms. How do you imagine marriage in light of something that is infinite and eternal? It's like trying to comprehend the size of a galaxy. Our minds are not big enough to gain that kind of perspective. 

But there is a practical step you can take to get there. In the book You and Me Forever, Francis Chan shares how he approaches this. He tries to imagine himself standing before God for the first time. What would it feel like? How would he respond?
Oddly, I meet very few people who think about that moment. Is it because we don't really believe it's going to happen? We think about upcoming vacations and imagine how much fun we will have. We think about upcoming trials and worry about how difficult they will be. Why don't we think about seeing God for the first time? I'll try to think about it often because it keeps me centered. This is also why I imagine Lisa [his wife] seeing God for the first time. I love her, so I want her to be ready for it. (p.24)
What are the benefits of doing this? 
Eternal-mindendness keeps us from silly arguments. There's no time to fight. We have better things to pursue than our interest. Too much is at stake! God created us for a purpose. We can't afford to waste our lives. We can't afford to waste our marriage by merely pursuing our own happiness. (p.11)
A strange thing happened when [we] started living with an eternal lens: it caused us to enjoy the here and now! Many people will tell you to focus on your marriage, to focus on each other; but we discovered that focusing on God's mission made our marriage amazing. This caused us to experience Jesus deeply—what could be better?
Not easy at all - but I think you'll find if you begin to employ the intentional practice of considering your marriage in light of eternity, it will have a profound affect on the way you live and love each other now.

Step Two

The second is one I've heard Dennis Rainey talk about time and again: Praying Together. Again, the Chans offer these thoughts on why this is so critical to the health of your marriage:
Remember that there is an enemy who is seeking to destroy your marriage. Our battle is not against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12), so we can't safeguard our marriages through more date nights, more vacations, or more counseling. Those things are not bad, but we have to see that there is more going on. Sincere and concentrated prayer will do infinitely more than any human strategy for a happy marriage. "The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working" (James 5:16). (p.29)
It's hard to believe that these two things can make such a difference in marriage, but they really can. 

Try a one week experiment with a morning and evening approach:

In the mornings, do step one. Here's how you can approach it: Take 3 minutes and imagine yourself standing before God. Imagine how it feels, what you would hear, what you would see. Then take 3 minutes and imagine your spouse standing before God. Also imagine what he or she would feel, see, hear. Also imagine what they would look like to you in that moment. Then take 3 minutes and pray about how this vision affects your marriage today.

Next, in the evening, take 3 minutes to pray with your spouse. Simply pray for the things that came to mind in the morning. Or pray for your kids together and the biggest challenges facing your family. Make sure to begin by giving thanks for all the things that are going well in your marriage and family.

Try it for a week and see what happens.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Imitation of Christ - on humility




Of grace concealed by humility:

"It is seldom the case that they who are self-wise endure humbly to be governed by others. Better it is to have a small portion of good sense with humility, and a slender understanding, then great treasures of many sciences with vain self- pleasing. Better it is for thee to have little, then much of that which may make thee proud."

From The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis

Friday, February 10, 2017

Disciplines of a Godly Man: How one book made me read more better books


Further up and further in - a Narnian like experience

In college I read the book Disciplines of a Godly Man with two friends. One of the other guys happened upon it and thought we should check it out. Yet since I hadn't heard of it, I was skeptical (how arrogant... which was pretty par for the course at the time). The book had a tremendous influence on my life and cemented a life-long friendship with both of those guys.

There were two parts of the book that have stuck with me the longest: the Bible reading plan and the reading survey.

The Bible reading plan was the first chronological version I had seen. It's not really all that special, but for some reason it stuck with me and lead to many years of reading through the entire Bible over the course of the year.

But the reading survey was what really blew my mind. Here's a brief explanation: The author (R. Kent Hughes) surveyed a number of influential Christian teachers, pastors, and authors, and asked the following questions:
  1. What are five books, secular or sacred, which have influenced you the most?
  2. Of those books, which is your favorite?
  3. What is your favorite novel?
  4. What is your favorite biography?
Some of whom he interviewed were James M. Boice,  Bryan Chappell, Chuck Colson, Jim Dobson, Elisabeth Elliot, Howard Hendricks, Carl F. Henry, Jerry Jenkins, Harold Lindsell, Robertson McQuilkin, J.I. Packer, Pagie Patterson, Eugene Peterson, Haddon Robinson, R.C. Sproul, Chuck Swindoll, and Warren Wiersbe.

Some heavy hitters!

Other than the Bible, here's a list of the books that were mentioned more than once:
Mere Christianity (10)
Calvin's Institutes (8)
The Pursuit of God by Tozer (6)
My Utmost for His Highest (5)
Brothers Karamazov (5)
Anna Karenina (5)
Pilgrim's Progress (5)
Shadow of the Almighty (4)
Hudson Taylor's Spiritual Secret (3)
The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis (3)
The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis (2)
American Caesar by William Manchester (bio) (2)
The Last Lion by Manchester (Churchill bio) (2)
Moby Dick (2)
War and Peace (2)
Confessions by Augustine (2)
Loving God by Colson (2)
Knowing God by Packer (2)
Through the Gates of Splendor by Elisabeth Elliot (2)
NOTE: I think the list in the updated version of the book is different from the original. So I kept some on this list that do not appear in the most recent version.

The list was a revelation to me - like a wardrobe door into a strange and wonderful world I never knew existed. What were these books that so many adored? I must get to know them!

I have since read most all the books on this list (minus an unabridged version of Moby Dick, American Caesar, and I'm currently working on Through the Gates of Splendor). And I've been amazed by how much these works have shaped my life. In a future post I'll write my own answers to these questions. And I'd love to hear your answers as well.

But for now I'll offer some thought on a few of the books from the above list.

Mere Christianity
Other than the Bible, there's been no book that's had as much influence on shaping my life as this one. Reading it in college started a life long love of Lewis' works. Every Christian should read this multiple times. When I read Tim Keller I often think he seems like a modern C.S. Lewis, tackling the questions to Christianity the culture raises.

Calvin's Institutes
Didn't read this till after seminary, but I was utterly shocked by how accessible and relevant to everyday life Calvin's writing was. I've heard amazing things about this volume in particular. It's shorter than many of the versions offered today, but not because it's a modern abridgment. It is one of the earlier versions Calvin published, before some of the expanded material was added (I think something like 5 different editions were published in Calvin's lifetime). I'd encourage every Christian to eventually read through it. Maybe break it up into segments and tackle it over a few years.

My Utmost for His Highest
Growing up it seemed that many people in my church kept this volume next to their Bible and their copy of Experiencing God. It was a standard daily devotional, a notch above My Daily Bread. I first started working through it as a Sophomore in college, but found it over my head. I took a step back, worked through a Swindoll devo, and when I returned to it, my heart was ready to absorb the depths it offered. Definitely worth picking up, and its beauty is in its brevity, at one small page and one verse per day.

Anna Karenina by Tolstoy
Teddy Roosevelt read this while floating down a half-frozen river in South Dakota, in hot pursuit of a boat thief. I read it sitting in a comfortable chair at home. But the story was riveting. Especially the character development contrasts between the Anna and Levin. Some say Tolstoy infused himself in the character of Levin. Definitely worth reading, especially as a warning against the deception of following your heart.

Shadow of the Almighty by Elisabeth Elliot
Incredible story of how God worked through Jim Elliot and other young missionaries to reach a remote people group in Ecuador. Their martyrdom by those very people they tried to reach was a great tragedy, yet also launched a powerful missions movement. It definitely stirred me to consider what God had in store for my future.

Hudson Taylor's Spiritual SecretAmazing story, but what stood out was how Taylor, as a young man in America, totally focused his life, every aspect of it, around preparing for the hardships of the mission field in remote China. He created difficult living conditions for himself (like sleeping on the floor) and began learning Chinese by comparing an English Bible to a Chinese Bible. It's rare to run across someone that has such focus and clarity of purpose at such a young age.

The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis 
Still working through this but find it a rich well of spiritual encouragement. I nibble on a short section at a time. Works great as a follow up to My Utmost for His Highest. It's amazing how often this work is mentioned by other spiritual giants, like C.S. Lewis. No coincidence since it is the most widely read Christian work ever written, besides the Bible.

The Great Divorce by C.S. LewisThis book blew my mind. Especially his depiction of those that are in hell and why they are there. The imagery of the lizard locked onto the shoulder of one of the characters reminded me of Eustace (i.e. Narnia) and his own lizard skin predicament. I left the book praying that I would be able to get my eyes off myself and avoid endless empty-prattle and self-delusionment modeled by many on the bus.

The Last Lion by Manchester
Those who have read much on Churchill often label the Manchester volumes as masterful. Yet they are not easy reads and can be intimidating to some. Friends who know I'm a Churchill fan often ask about a starter book on Churchill. There really is no starter book on Churchill, but two that will do are his own biography about his early life, called (wait for it...), My Early Life. And I just finished an audio book that was an outstanding overview of his life, called Churchill the Prophetic Statesman. Both are good starters. I've also heard great things about the bio by the former Mayor of London. Also have on my reading list for this year a new book by Candice Millard. She wrote one of my favorite books on Teddy Roosevelt, about his journeys up the Amazon, and now she's turned out a volume chronicling Churchill's POW escape in South Africa. I've read Churchill's version of the story in his own bio, but I'm suspecting Millard can bring the tale to life in a new way. So I'll be moving these two works up my list for this year.

War and Peace
Probably my favorite novel of all time. When I closed the cover, it felt like I lost friends. Need to re-read. It's worth carving out the time.

Confessions by AugustineI couldn't believe that such an iconic figure of church history could be so candid about his own struggles. So many will relate to his battle with sin, and it's especially encouraging for those that come to know Christ later in life. It's also noteworthy that he had a mistress and a child out of wedlock before Christ, and yet still was used nightly by God to shape the church.



Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Surprising Links Between Lincoln and his Killer



Last year I listened through the book Killing Lincoln by Bill O'Reilly. I was hesitant to listen at first because of my love for Manhunt by James Swanson. Since O'Reilly's book came out after Swanson's book, it appeared O'Reilly was trying to ride the wave of Swanson's work, which felt a bit opportunistic to me. But since there are something like 50 biographies published on Lincoln ever year, let's chalk it up as a timing issue and move on.

O'Reilly's book covers the topic of Lincoln's death more broadly than Swanson, also addressing the events leading up to the end of the war and some of the conspiracy issues surrounding Lincoln's death. So it was enough of a different take to make it interesting and compelling.

But what was especially intriguing was the connection between Lincoln's oldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln, and John Wilkes Booth. The connection was mainly through two avenues. 

The first is that they both were sweet on the same girl, Lucy Hale. And though Booth was secretly engaged to Hale, yet Robert Lincoln still kept in touch with Hale, even spending the afternoon before his father's assassination with her. And he was not her only suitor. O'Reilly explains: 
Like Booth, she is used to having her way with the opposite sex, attracting beaus with a methodical mix of flattery and teasing.... among those enraptured with Miss Hale is a future Supreme Court justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., now a twenty-four-year-ld Union officer. Also John Hay, one of Lincoln's personal secretaries. And, finally, none other than Robert Todd Lincoln, the president’s twenty-one-year-old son, also a Union officer. Despite her engagement to Booth, Lucy still keeps in touch with both Hay and Lincoln, among many others.....
But [by March of 1865]..., their relationship has become strained. They have begun to quarrel. It doesn't help that Booth flies into a jealous rage whenever Lucy so much as looks at another man. One night, in particular, he went mad at the side of her dancing with Robert Lincoln. Whether or not this has anything to do with his pathological hatred for the president will never be determined. (p.28)
The second connection was with John Wilkes Booth's brother Edwin. Like his brother, Edwin was a well-known actor whom Lincoln had seen perform on a number of occasions. But Edwin's value to the President was so much greater than his entertainment value. Again, O'Reilly explains:
During one two-month span in the winter of 1864, [Lincoln] saw Richard IIIThe Merchant of VeniceHamlet, and, of course, Julius Caesar. The actor playing all the lead roles was Edwin booth, John's older brother. In addition to his acting, he did the Lincolns an inadvertent favor by saving the life of their eldest son. When twenty-year-old Union officer Robert Todd Lincoln was shoved from a crowded railway platform into the path of an oncoming train, it was Edwin Booth who snatched him by the collar and pulled him back to safety.
Robert never mentioned the incident to his father, but his commanding officer, Ulysses S. Grant, personally wrote a letter of thanks to the actor. Edwin's brother's reaction to this incident has never been determined – if he knew at all. (p.123)
One Booth saved a Lincoln and another Booth killed a Lincoln. 

Lastly, there's one other fascinating story I've heard a number of times but wanted to capture here, as it almost seems unbelievable. The story goes that when it was time for Grant to accept Lee's final surrender, they needed a place to meet near the final battlefield:
Lee sends his aid Colonel Charles Marshall up the road to find a meeting place. Marshall settles on a simple home. By a great twist of fate, the house belongs to a grocery named Wilmer McLean, who moved to Appomattox Court House to escape the war. A cannonball had landed in his fireplace during the first battle of Bull Run, at the very start of the conflict. Fleeing to a quieter corner of Virginia was his way of protecting his family from harm.
But the Civil War once again finds Wilmer McLean. He and his family are asked to leave the house. Soon, Lee marches up the front steps and takes a seat in the parlor. Again, he waits. (p.78)

McLean's timing was uncanny. And yet even more surprising, was the timing of Lincoln's son once again, who also appeared at the surrender. Nor was this the end of his coincidental appearances, being an eye witness to the assassination of another president: James Garfield, and being nearby when William McKinley was shot.