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What do you GET to do?

April 8th, 2016

A repost from our friend and colleague, Anderson Williams,

Anyone who knows me knows I can drop the occasional four-letter word. (I am perhaps being kind to myself here.) But, with a four-year-old and two-year-old at home, I pay more attention than ever to my words.

Surprisingly, it hasn’t been difficult to avoid cursing in front of them. It really hasn’t. But, paying attention to those words has made me more cognizant of all words I use in front of them. It’s sort of like eating habits: if you give up sweets, you end up paying more attention to the other things you eat too!

My four-letter-word diet has illuminated a much worse practice: confusing the terms “have to” and “get to”.

My habit first jumped out at me one day when I caught myself telling my daughters that they “have to” go to school (daycare, but we say school) on Monday. I stopped and thought: “what a terrible message!” My girls love their school. They love everything about it (except maybe nap time). We hear all weekend about their teachers and friends and the games they played in the gym. They love it. And, here I am sending the message, or at least emphasizing, that it is compulsory; they “have to” go.

No, my girls “get to” go to school, and they acknowledge that by their desire to be there. They also “get to” go because they are part of a family that values education, has the resources and flexible enough jobs to allow for the opportunity. They “get to” go to school for many reasons that we as parents, and they as children, should always be cognizant of.

I was so mad at myself for such a poor choice of words!

And then, I did it again!

My wife and girls and I were heading out of the house somewhere and I said: “first, we have to go grab some lunch.” Have to!? Really?

At least, this time I caught myself and restated – “First, we get to go grab some lunch.” We get to go to a restaurant. We get to be together. We get to eat a meal that we enjoy. To suggest we “have to” diminishes everything about the experience we were about to share, and moves emphasis toward some other event we “get to” do later.

There have obviously been countless other times I have failed in this word choice, and almost certainly there will be more as I break the habit. Just last week, I said: “I have to go vote!” But, breaking this seemingly simple habit is core to who I am and how I want to raise my daughters.

This distinction between “get to” and “have to” isn’t about decency or manners or appropriateness like we think about with four-letter words. It’s about privilege. It’s about humility, being thankful, being present. It’s about acknowledging your own experiences and opportunities and those of others. It’s about your approach to life, not taking things for granted.

So, bring on the four-letter words, but let’s please not pretend we “have to” do things that we really “get to”. That’s a pretty [expletive]-ed up message to send to our kids.

Offer Empathy, Not Sympathy

March 25th, 2016

Brene Brown shares the basic idea of how as human beings, we need empathy, not sympathy. She says “empathy fuels connection.” Its tenets are:

  • To get in their shoes, look from their perspective
  • Offer a sacred space, no judgment
  • Recognize the emotion in other people
  • And communicate that

The goal is to feel with people. That means courageously tapping into our own uncomfortable experiences where we can remind ourselves that we know what it’s like. But then, from that place, we can authentically share with them that they’re not alone. We’ve been there. We know.

And we don’t have to use words to communicate that knowing. We can simply offer presence. We can make the better choice to truly connect and admit our lack of answers: “I don’t know what to say. I’m just glad you told me.” We can choose to hold the sacred space for them in their struggle, honoring them and how they feel and not insult them by throwing out pat answers, false silver linings or just as bad – band-aid advice.

We can bare witness to the fact that they are going through a very human struggle with tumultuous feelings and what they face is real . . . and so are they. So is the situation.

In our work with youth, we recognize that some of what they face is part of being that age. If not careful, in a quick moment of non-attentiveness we could dismiss some of those moments that are earth-shattering to them as “this will pass, get over it” and do more damage than good.

We could easily fall victim to offering sympathy (which requires little emotional commitment, no true connection and a pat response based on the surface instead of actively listening). Brene Brown’s illustration nails our tendency: “ooo! It’s bad down here. Want a sandwich?” And then we go straight for the silver lining: “it may be bad, but at least” fill in the blank: you have X, you didn’t do Y, you know Z . . .

That’s like applying a band-aid to an open wound that needs serious attention. It doesn’t do much and it certainly doesn’t heal.

This, Not That

I can recall things I’ve heard said to youth that fit the band-aid approach:

  • “I didn’t make the team” . . . “at least you tried out!”
  • “I didn’t get a good grade on the test and I studied hard” . . . “at least you’re doing well in your other classes”
  • “Jack broke up with me” . . . “at least you had a boyfriend”
  • “My best friend hates me” . . . “at least you have other friends”
  • During high school, you get to meet a lot of people. You might lose several friends and seem to have a “one or none” experience . . . “At least you got to meet a lot of different people in the world.”

As you listen to youth, be mindful in offering silence, presence and the realness of your own depth. When you work to make an authentic connection, it pays off. They know it; they feel it; and you honor who and where they are when you really listen. Without the band-aids.  Without the sandwich.



Feeding the Brain: Snacks that are Brain Boosters

March 14th, 2016

More and more we learn about the brain and what it needs to be healthy – from movement to water to music to . . . good food.  Food – the right kinds of food – can nourish the brain and help it focus and concentrate. Consider these healthy snacks for the youth in your program, classroom or at home.

1.  Yogurt – this dairy gem has often had its horn tooted for helping digestive health.  Studies now indicate that it does more than help with digestion.  It also promotes brain health.

2. Nuts – not just any nuts, but walnuts to be exact! High in antioxidants, walnuts promote brain function.  Additionally, they contain valuable acids necessary for brain health and development. Just remember – all things in moderation!  An ounce a day is all that is needed for giving the brain this brain booster.

3. Dark Chocolate – it’s very difficult NOT to have something sweet from time to time.  Research has been giving us permission to indulge – but only if it’s dark chocolate.  We know (. . . er, from experience) that dark chocolate gives us an energy boost, but it’s “chocolatey” goodness doesn’t stop there.  It also promotes alertness and attentiveness (IF it’s 60 percent cacao content chocolate).

4. Blueberries – while perhaps not always first on our list to buy when out of season, perhaps they should be snuck into the program space.  Whether fresh, frozen or dried, blueberries are a brain booster that improve cognitive brain function.

5. Pumpkin seeds – perhaps a little easier on the wallet than blueberries, this snack completes this simple list of snacks that promote focus and concentration.

Add this one to your afternoon snacks:

Peppermint tea – throw out the cokes and hand them a glass of peppermint tea. While still a little early to claim full status as a brain booster, studies indicate that peppermint tea may improve cognitive performance and increase alertness as well as calmness. It’s worth adding to the mix.

To see more foods that feed the brain and learn more about the research behind these, click here to check out the article from which the above is based.

Summer Days 9

September 29th, 2014

Summer Days are a 12-part blog series focused on lessons of gratitude passed on from dog to human. This human is still trying to embrace daily the lessons of gratitude, so much so that gratitude gets an entire chapter in the book I wrote with Ann Saylor for educators, youth leaders, and parents called Groups, Troops, Clubs & Classrooms: The Essential Handbook for Working With Youth. In there, lessons of gratitude are shared as a tool for maintaining personal power and strength . . . and teaching youth to do the same.

There have been many joys in hosting a Happiness Teacher in my home for 12 ½ years. Short, adorable and easy to get along with, my border collie/lab, Summer who conveyed so much in the past decade has taught us much about making life worth living every day. The gift-wrapped lesson that has been the most significant on a daily basis to me has been:

IMG_4090Lesson #9: Offer presence. 

Every day whenever I’m around the home, she offers presence. If I’m in my office on the computer, she comes to lie down on the rug near me. If I do bills at the dining room table, she comes to lie down near my feet with her head touching my foot. If I’m working out in our workout room on the mat, she has been known to come and lick my head as I do sit-ups, walk through my legs as I stretch or be near by as my legs scissor across the top of her body. If I have been too long on the computer writing on my next book, she comes over, nuzzles my hand for “lubbing” (love + rubbings) and if possible to pull me away from work for a quick break. Sometimes I pet her and then absentmindedly tell her to go away. Sometimes I agree that I’ve been at it too long and take a few minutes to play or walk outside with her to get the mail. If I’m too busy or focused and can’t do much petting, then she “talks” to me to voice her complaint and then she will plop down at my feet.

Her lesson in presence has been a daily occurrence. “I’m here. I’m letting you know I’m here. I care.” Nothing beats that example of simple loving presence to let me know I’m loved.

In the “human” world, we often forget how valuable presence is. We feel like we have to have the right words, say the right thing, or do the right thing. Sometimes not having the right words or actions in mind will stop us from being with someone. And the truth is: simple presence is enough.

Where can you offer presence? Who shows you support that you take for granted? When is the last time you’ve told them how grateful you are that they are in your life?

Today, express gratitude to those who show you support. Tell them how much you appreciate their friendship and presence. Look for ways you can offer presence to others. Trust in the power of presence and don’t worry about having the right words or actions if it’s a tough situation. Simply sit or be with them. Let your presence speak for itself.

Practice all the lessons of Summer Days: show love first thing each morning; be joyfully exuberant when doing what you love; delight in the now; always show appreciation to others; work and contribute; presume friendship; just be; and, sleep and eat regularly.

Making Asset Building a Mindful Practice

August 1st, 2013

“Start with one mindful practice a day…When you do this, you awaken the inner intelligence inside you.” - Dr. Deepak Chopra


You’ve learned many asset principle; many factors that contribute to the well-being of youth.

“But how,” you may be wondering, “do I make this happen on my own? How do I integrate 40 things that youth need? How do I impact them?”


You don’t. You aren’t responsible for all 40 factors.


So, first, you need to remember that you are not alone. You are part of the village and are not responsible for more than you can do.


The key to becoming even more of a caring adult in young people’s lives is to keep your personal practice simple. Choose one place to start, one action to take. Then be mindful to practice and apply that asset principle over and over again until it becomes second nature.


Which asset is important to you?  Which is important to the youth you know? Which one can you begin to mindfully practice and build into your interactions with youth?


Pick one and begin. Watch to see what happens over time.