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One of the things I do with parents is say, 'I'm going to help you regain the astute grasp of the obvious. You already know what to do.' Parents have to be themselves with all their imperfections; parents have to know that their children often learn more about life, become stronger, and cultivate values by learning from their parents' imperfections, honesty, and apologies. There's a myth that you have to be a perfect parent. Everywhere you look, parents worry that they don't measure up to the standard.
So they tend to just remove themselves from the challenge?
Yes, and it's a bad idea. I understand that we are afraid to find out if our kids are doing drugs or getting drunk. But parents have got to stay in there. It's okay to admit your feelings of discomfort in discussing hot topics by saying, 'Talking about this makes me nervous, but I have to say something. I'm worried about this. I want to ask you some questions.' Sharing your vulnerabilities builds your teen's character. It's frightening when we think we might have to deal with tough issues. It is important for parents to understand that even normal teens might get stoned, drunk, have sex, dress weird, listen to outrageous music, talk forever on the phone, hang out online with friends and not like to visit certain relatives. But parents have got to stay in there. They have to stay in touch with their child's world--their music and their friends. They can't make poverty or overwork an excuse for not communicating. And, most of all, don't let mistakes as a parent make you stop trying. I know parents are afraid to confront scary issues. But not being in touch with your child and your child's school life, we now know, can put children at risk. The tragedies of Columbine and other schools were also tragedies in that people knew these kids were in trouble and didn't know what they were looking at or what to do.
How do you pick the right time to start a difficult conversation with your teenager?
Your kid will signal when he or she is ready to talk. It can happen at any time and any place and, when it happens, you have to stop everything and get into it. Kids don't become alienated who have good contact with their parents. The key is to always ask your child questions about their lives, their feelings, their struggles, and their triumphs. Do it regularly and learn to listen. When your teen mentions something, pay attention. Respond. But whenever your child brings something up, it is important to engage them. It can happen at what seems the oddest times--on a car ride, heading out shopping, right before you go to bed, a passing comment at breakfast. If you're fortunate, your child will ask you directly. The bottom line is: when your child gives you any kind of signal, listen and engage.
The media is often first to blame when teenagers erupt in violence. Where do you stand on this issue?
Are there problems with violent programming? Of course there are. Are there too many guns? Of course there are. But once we start placing the blame on external factors, like the media, Marilyn Manson, or the Playstation game Doom, we ignore the more significant internal factors. Let's not solve our children's problems through litigation and politics. Kids get in trouble because they aren't loved or cared for by the adult world. Nobody's paying attention when they begin getting in trouble. Kids on the edge are identifiable, they are angry, they are isolated, and when you punch that anger down, it can explode into violence. Kids don't get violent because of TV, but from the lack of love and the inability to express love. We shouldn't see these kids as oddballs, but as kids who are desperately crying out for help. If we make the media the culprit, we miss the point. Parents have to be communicating with their children, and parents have to know how their children are emotionally reacting to all the external stimuli in their environment. We are not going to be able to live in a perfect world that says we can shut down or regulate everything our kids see, hear, and do. By the way, I asked a group of kids why they played Doom. They said they love it because it really reduces their stress.
What are you up to these days?
I've got two new books coming out this year; one is an advice book for parents of adolescents; the other is a book on forgiveness. I'm also doing a tremendous amount of traveling across the country speaking to thousands of high school kids and their parents. I'm on the guidance staff of Yeshiva University. And I run a monthly live conference on AOL dealing with forgiveness on the Addiction and Recovery Forum (keyword: A&R).
You were tremendously idealistic to have begun this journey a decade ago. Are you still as idealistic today?
I am still as much an idealist as I was; in fact, my idealism has deepened. I hope that I'm a little less naive. I'm living with what I call a "deepening towards everything." I've been privileged to watch the vulnerable toughen and grow. I am a witness to how individuals can create a new life filled with love, goodness, and compassion. So much is truly possible if we are willing to care and be involved. Caring, after all, is a virtue.
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