The Secret to Raising Charitable Children

Co-Authored by Jason Gracia, author of Shifting the Balance.

In a world where disagreement reigns supreme, finding total agreement is virtually impossible. Difficult as it is, I found it. Whether from Jackson, Mississippi or Jakarta, mothers and fathers the world over agree on one thing: they want to raise teens of character and connection.

Character, though elusive, is vital to a person, a community, a country. Doing the right thing when the wrong is so much easier, standing up for what you believe in, fighting for a cause greater than yourself…these are just a few of the signposts of character, and the need for it in our children has never been greater.

Connection is at the root of what makes us human. The ability for your children to connect with those around them and to empathize with their situation and feelings is vital. We need children who care about other people, for in a flash they become adults who do the same.

The real question, then, is how. How do we as parents instill character and connection? What steps can we take to ensure our children adopt and nurture these qualities?

In a word, volunteering.

It’s nothing new, of course. The idea of lending a helping hand is as old as scripture. But how many parents today make it a point to seek out opportunities for our children to lend that helping hand? And how many of us realize just how profound the experience can be for teens?

From the instant we step foot into a morning, afternoon, or evening volunteering, the focus shifts, automatically, from us to them. We can’t help it; neither can your kids. The very nature of the task forces us to consider someone else’s plight, someone else’s needs, someone else. For a teen growing into a young adult, what better way to nurture empathy and compassion?

Tacked onto the benefit of empathy is the benefit of connecting with new people in new places. Again, introducing your teen to volunteerism forces the matter—they have no choice but to talk with unfamiliar people and develop the muscle to reach out and engage. Social skills, emotional IQ, and the like are all improved, automatically, as your teen learns firsthand how to navigate the waters of relationships.

Finally we have the benefit of bigger things. Most of the causes that require volunteers are striving for something greater, something that extends far beyond the issues of our daily lives. They’re making a difference. In some cases, they’re changing the world. If character requires committing to things greater than ourselves, we have another surefire way to achieve the result. Volunteering forces the issue once again.

We need children who can connect just as much as we need children with character. Volunteerism nurtures both by its very nature. And you are the key to it all.

If the process is new to your family, below are a few ideas to help get you started…

Opportunities to Volunteer

1. Start Small: Create activities around the house or neighborhood in which your kids pitch in. Chores are the low-hanging fruit, but the benefit increase as you extend beyond your own front door. Does the neighbor need help? Friend down the street? Local market?

2. Community: After looking near, look far. Does your neighborhood or city have a community center? Do they run food or clothing drives? Do they organize events to aid those in need throughout the community? Serving Thanksgiving meals? Collecting jackets and blankets during the cold winter months? Another opportunity ripe for personal growth—along with a massive amount of appreciation—is visiting retirement homes in your area. Though it can be uncomfortable for teens at first, the joy given and taken when a lonely soul gets the chance to connect and share with a young adult cannot properly be put into words…at least not mine.

3. Causes: The next step up the ladder of giving is committing time and energy to greater causes. A quick search online will bring you to dozens of important battles that are raging to end hunger, poverty, violence, disease, and more, battles that need the support of people like you and your children.

Volunteerism, in a sense, is the easy way out. You merely need to open the door. After that, the act of giving takes over and can’t help but leave your child in a better, brighter place.

Guiding Your Teens to Envision — And Build — The Lives They Want

How does a teen who can’t remember his lunch money or his homework and rarely makes his bed become an adult who creates the kind of life that brings him meaning, purpose… and joy? Does he just magically stumble into the keys to life in high school, or college?

That’s a good question, and one that parents everywhere struggle with. Is there a magic moment?

I would say, rather than a magic moment or a key secret, it’s more of a perspective that teens can be taught by their parents.

Time and again, I’ve found in my work a particular quality that makes a profound difference in every phase of a teen’s life, and that’s the ability to look into the future and paint an image in his mind of what he wants it to be like. Orienting our teens to look towards positive outcomes is critical to success.

A run-in with failure can be devastating to the inexperienced. And without being taught how to respond to it, it can be destructive in its impact on a person’s confidence. But it’s far more easily managed when you can see a positive outcome in the end.

A project is more exciting when you can visualize a successful result. Life itself is engaging, stimulating and worthwhile when you can see that the path you’re on is the one where you’re truly alive. At times like this, you know the direction you’re heading is right, and you can feel it in your gut.

Envisioning your future is the ability to project into the future that you’re living the life you want, and the success that you will have then becomes a driving force nowto get there. This is a skill that teens can develop with guidance.

Parents, tell your stories. Give an example of when you projected an outcome and it was successful. What will happen if X takes place? What will occur if you do Y and Z?

Tell the stories about your own run-ins with failure… and how you turned it around. Share how you had vision for your own future and all the things you did to help bring it into reality. Go into detail about how your own vision kept you on track in pursuing your dream.

Visualization also plays an important role in envisioning someone’s future. Show your teen how you painted a picture in your mind of your life taking the form you wanted it to take.

Creating a mental picture of an ideal outcome greatly increases its likelihood.

And here’s another way you can help: Show your teen how to recognize the powerful link between cause and effect. When you contribute negative or destructive elements to your life, like blame, apathy or negative friends, the outcome is not likely to be positive. But if you invest in positive things, like choosing healthy relationships, investing in reading and school and practicing a healthy lifestyle, the outcome is likely to be progress toward your dreams.

By the same token, if your teen falsely believes that success stems from chance, there’s little reason for them to envision or look forward to what’s to come. But when your teen sees the truth — that our causes trigger effects — they gain a sense of control, of hope and of excitement about what’s to come. And they invest in it.

So, let’s teach our teens to become visionaries so they can truly live the meaningful lives they want. Let’s model the path to get there, and who knows? …Maybe we as parents will find better paths in our own lives, too.

Dads, Step It Up For Your Teens

Co-authored by Dennis Charles, professional mentor and amazing father of five

You’re busy with work and life, we know. But put it down for a minute. Stop what you’re doing, close your computer, and put attention on your teen. We all know that teens want to be more independent and to move away from their parents, but at the same time they know dad will be there for them. Always!

Working with teens is incredible. They spend a lot of time talking about how they can’t stand their parents; but at the same time, they also talk about how they wish they could spend more time with their parents, especially with their fathers. So dads, you have an opportunity here, and you need to step it up.

As mentors and dads, we teach teens how to foster healthy relationships and fill their lives with meaning. Our jobs as mentors are important, but our jobs as dads are far more critical.

Teens need their dads more than ever to step it up. Let’s talk about ways we dads can do this.

It’s about the time you spend

Close your computer and put attention on spending time with your teen. In fact, as soon as this article is finished, this thing is getting turned off. It’s not about being in the same place at the same time as your teen, it’s about making the time to actively participate. Show up in your teen’s life, participate in your teen’s life, become engaged with what they’re doing. This means more than any words you will speak. So often clients say, “My dad just doesn’t make the time; he’s too busy.” Participating is easy to do, so close the computer, put down the phone, and do it.


Find the commonalities. It can be difficult, but looking for those commonalities is important. Do whatever is necessary to stay connected. Do you know your teen’s interests? If not, it’s not too late to find out. You may even be surprised when you find something you have in common. It doesn’t matter if it’s spending time in nature or playing Xbox. Connect, find commonalities, and embrace them. We put so much pressure on our teens to succeed in school, go to college, be the best. Back off it and just enjoy what the two of you can connect on.


Model a way to live in the world. Model how to put attention on others. Model what it means to be respectful, to have character, to show up in life even when it’s difficult. Show your teen what it means to be a good friend, a good family member, a good member of your community. In a world too often filled with dysfunctional relationships, model healthy ones.

It’s time to update your role

Your role as a dad is to facilitate the movement of your teen from dependence to independence. In essence, you’re making your caregiving role obsolete and moving into what can be a much more fulfilling role, that of being present to your teen as they emerge into adulthood. Many dads fail to make this update. If you fail to update your role, it’s like trying to run a computer on Windows 95 in 2014. The results are not pretty.

When your child was younger, you needed to give them a lot of very specific input. You also needed to set very specific boundaries. You made the rules. The communication was one way – you to them. It’s time to update your role as a dad to one that your teen is going to respond to. And the communication most definitely needs to be kept open on a two-way street.

Think of it as becoming a trusted adviser for your teen. Someone who they feel they can come and check in with, and get input on decisions they need to make. They’re not coming to you to make the decisions for them any more (and if they do, you need to teach them some decision-making skills). It’s good to listen empathetically and be present for your teen. Ask if they’d like input. If they say no, then respect that. It builds trust over time. When they say yes, give them advice as the adult that they are becoming, not as the child they once were.

Done well, you will be able to guide your teen through the choppy waters of adolescence into the world of adulthood. Your relationship will remain strong. Your teen will know who to turn to when the going gets tough and they have a trusted adviser to turn to when they’re asking the larger questions in life.

How Teens Become Responsible Adults

In this world of working parents and video games, in some families, teens can go through childhood and adolescence without a real sense of responsibility. They’re occupied, but not prepared for a successful life. Having responsibility for things that matter and that contribute to the welfare of others is part of a teen’s preparation for the future.

Responsibility can be defined as the ability to be answerable or accountable for something within one’s power, control or management.

In her article, “Is There a Responsible Adult Trapped Inside your Teenager?“, Elizabeth Wilkins refers to Robert Epstein, PhD, who says that kids in America would be well-served by being given much more responsibility.

Author of the book, The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen, Dr. Epstein contends that teens are very capable and aren’t given enough responsibility or credit in their daily lives.

He makes the point that in our society, adolescence is an artificial extension of childhood, which means the teen has too much idle time. On average, he says teens actually spend 70% of their time with peers and the media, making them the role models rather than their own parents or other healthy mentors in their lives.

So, how can a teen develop a sense of responsibility and the accountability to go with it?

I believe the potential for these things is built in, and is developed through modeling from parents and other role models. Parents can help the process when a child is growing up by first modeling tasks necessary for the family as a whole, and second watching how the teen takes to the tasks.

Parents don’t need to scream and yell to get them to comply… just model responsibility for them, and then watch them to identify ways to draw upon their natural skills when contributing to the family.

When a family volunteers together for the benefit of others, parents are modeling for their kids the responsibility they feel for their community, and the value of contributing to the welfare of others outside themselves.

There’s also a place for contributing to the family, too. Teens who help younger siblings with necessary chores such as lawn care or dishes, have the opportunity to model responsible behavior for their younger family members, while also contributing to the family as a whole.

It’s a way of life that’s introduced by his parents, but becomes a part of him. As he grows, he takes it into himself as his own.

From what I’ve seen in my practice, kids with this background have a better sense of direction as well. They know what they want and go after it with an intense level of confidence.

And along with accountability comes self-assurance. When he fulfills responsibilities entrusted to him, he gains a sense of empowerment. His self-esteem grows, his confidence grows and he knows within himself that he’s capable and learning more all the time. The praise he receives for his accomplishments is authentic, and he knows it’s real.

What’s most important is moving him from dependence to independence, as well as providing experiences where his efforts contribute to someone else, or the family as a whole, and then for those outside himself and his family. Eventually, he’s providing for his own needs, and recognizes the necessity of his own effort to make his way in the world.

The 6 Friends Your Teen Should Avoid

Great friends are hard to find and important to keep. You know this from experience. But it may not be as clear for your teen. High school is a difficult place to find people who will bring value to your teen’s life. There is so much emphasis on social groups that it’s tough for teens to be themselves, both outside and inside these groups.

Your teen needs to learn to seek out friends who contribute value to his life. These are people who earn his trust and by whom he wants to be trusted. These are the friends that last. They’re faithful in tough times, they listen and respect your teen as he respects them. They share interests loftier than group acceptance. In fact, they circumvent the social caste system found in high school to build their own place in the world.

Here are some tips for talking to your teen when low quality friendships begin to create problems.

First, let’s talk about the ones he may want to consider dumping:

1. The “it’s all about me” friend only considers themselves in every situation and gives no attention to others. While it’s true that everyone is selfish at some point, it’s important to know who is going to step up in life when your teen needs them. The person who is only focused on themselves will not be there in time of need. Encourage your teen to dump the “all about me” friend.

2. The friend who is negative about everything. This kid will suck the energy right out of your teen with his constant attention on misery. “Life sucks, my friends suck, my parents suck and school is awful.” When you talk with your teen about friendships, encourage him to not let himself be pulled into this way of thinking.

It’s defeating, not energizing. But, life is actually amazing. And it’s also hard. And it’s the combination of ups and downs that help us grow and gain confidence, and learn wisdom to make better decisions as we go. Help your teen begin to understand that when life is hard he’s truly living:

The problem + the struggle for solutions = the victory. It’s all in the rich concoction of living.

A negative person doesn’t think this way and will not easily change his outlook. This person is not receptive to learning, only to blaming. Encourage your teen to have the courage to dump “Mr. or Ms. Negative.”

3. The user is the friend who uses your teen when it’s convenient. When they are the only two people around, he uses him for company and as a sounding board. But let anyone else join the group and suddenly, this kid doesn’t know your child at all. Ignores him completely. Then, when your child speaks up to contribute to the conversation, the user shuts it down. He wants your child to be invisible to the group. This individual is typically immature and insecure and his behaviors may be to help himself feel stronger, but he’s not offering value to your child’s life. There is no room in your teen’s life for a user. Encourage him to dump that selfish, controlling kid.

4. The hater is the kid who hates everybody and everything. He believes everyone is out to get him including his parents, his friends and school. His attitude makes it impossible to connect with him and his outlook is contagious. Encourage your teen to think about how much value someone like this brings to his life. How is it helpful to your child to listen to this all the time? Can he really afford such draining influence? Help him have the courage to dump the hater.

5. The mean kid is not a friend to anyone. This kid can be really cruel and downright mean. He gets his affirmation from tormenting others and expects his friends to back him up. He’s the stereotypical bully of the worst kind. He is empowered by dictating the lives of others and having a posse to enforce his control. It’s important that you teach your kid that this kid is NOT allowed to dictate his life. Help him understand that the mean kid is the one with the issue, and cruel words directed at your son or daughter is not your child’s issue, but rather a weakness and fault with that kid. When your teen learns that the mean kid has nothing to offer him, it can save him a lot of distress. Equip your teen to dump mean kids… whether they are mean to your son or daughter, or to someone else.

6. The victim, a.k.a. “poor me” friend is always looking for advice for their problems. Find the opportunity to talk to your teen about friends like this… and demonstrate with stories of your own how to avoid getting sucked into the force field of this type of friend. While it may feel good to your teen to be able to help someone else, it can be destructive to feel his only value is to be a therapist to his peers. Ironically, when your child has a need to talk to someone about his own problems, the victim friend won’t have time for him. Your teen isn’t a therapist and shouldn’t be. He or she needs friends who carry their own weight, share core interests, and enjoy similar activities.

Cultivate conversations with your teenager about friendships. Suggest he or she consider their circle of friends and take note as to whether or not they fit into any of these categories. Help him think about the friends in his life that truly add value to his life and demonstrate character and integrity.

Out of all of all them, he may not find more than one or two who display the qualities he’d like to have in friends. But show him how important it is to his future and personal development to build healthy friendships with healthy people who have the ability to give and receive the things that matter, and brush away those things that don’t.

Step Back and Watch Your Child Build His Own Self-Esteem

“My child looks sad and walks with his head down, hiding his face with his hoodie.” Parents say this to me all the time. “I don’t know what to do, what to say, to make him feel better. What should we do?”

Your teen’s body language says it all. His self-esteem is in the toilet. Talking about his feelings to get to the root of the problem may be what you believe is the best way to help him, but a different approach is likely to bring far better results.

Self-esteem is built through the work, determination and tenacity of life experiences. Not so much through reassurance.

I say this often to parents of my clients. Instead of pressing on his fears, trying to verbally reassure him by talking about feelings, or even seeking help… take a breath and step back.

Allow your child the space necessary to work his or her way out of their current situation. I realize this sounds like you’re doing nothing, even abandoning him in time of need. But what you’re doing by stepping back is providing him with the space to make decisions, solve problems, and learn to do it composed while under pressure.

When your child is struggling with self esteem or confidence in his current situation, change your parenting pattern.

Stop telling your son or daughter how great they are. We do this too often, believing that they’ll believe our words more than their own thoughts. More than their circumstances. More than the words of their peers. They need to see proof, rather than hear more words. And that proof comes from their own problem-solving.

Never forget that every moment he’s learning how to live.

Most parents believe their child is the greatest, but they must also learn that constant praise is dangerous territory. We parents have the best of intentions, but in my work with teens and young adults I’ve learned that kids who are only praised when struggling, struggle more.

It’s like giving them a ticket out of life’s learning process. Improving life skills takes work, resilience, consistency and many failures. Resist the urge to bail them out. When we praise our children they feel this immediate pay off, and it stunts the growing up process because they stop moving forward. They get the idea that because of their greatness, life will always go their way. And it doesn’t.

Another pitfall we parents must learn to curb is praising our child when it’s undeserved. This seems like one big fat lie to them and deep in their gut they know it is. They know they didn’t earn it. They just feel confused.

When we tell them they’re the best at everything or the smartest of all, it creates a problem when they figure out they aren’t. Let’s not raise a bunch of ego maniacs who don’t have the skills to live healthy, rounded lives. Let’s not set them up to feel like hypocrites and pretenders. Let’s teach them how to have the skills necessary by toning down the praise and encouraging the battles. Encouraging determination. Encouraging resilience.

Then we’ll begin to see our children completing tasks, working through their own struggles and growing up.

Then you have something worth praising! Praise that!

Self-esteem is developed through work, effort, failing and eventually overcoming challenges.Not by what an individual is constantly told. What’s far more satisfying is the courage to keep getting back up and trying to find a solution.

Of course, it’s better to be positive in your encouragement of your child than negative, but let the encouragement be that you have confidence that he’ll find his way through this problem, rather than praising him for who he is, before he’s accomplished any victory.

When your daughter can’t do a math problem, this is a good thing. Are you tempted to do it for her? Of course, but also know that doing it yourself robs her of finding she can learn to do it, and gain prowess in the process. Help isn’t a bad thing, but it should be in the form of pointing in a direction, not providing answers. Each time she figures it out herself, her self-esteem grows a bit.

Stop worrying about your child, but rather encourage him.

When that feeling hits you to sit and talk about all the negative feelings consider that it may increase the negative thinking patterns. Instead, help them change this pattern by encouraging them to:

    • Make their own decisions, recognizing guidance is available if they need it
  • Go after what they want
  • Pursue things in life that boost their excitement

Arm yourself as a parent with the confidence that you’re guiding them down a long tested and proven path for building mastery in the skills they need to pursue the life they dream. It really is this simple because when we’re excited:

    • A lot more is possible and our self-esteem grows
  • We want to learn, create, imagine
  • We (and our kids) can handle the world and all its chaos

And remember, even if your style as a parent has always been to sit your teen down and push for understanding feelings and struggles and the root behind them, there’s no time like the present to start a new strategy. If your child seems emotionally overloaded, struggling, confused, and lacking confidence… try the new strategy of encouraging them to get back in the game.

Meanwhile, model your own resilience, determination, and courage, so they can see it working. You really are their role model … show them how it’s done. And never forget the value of telling stories of your own life, discouragements, failures, and victories. Those stories will whisper in their ears when the going gets tough, and will keep them going.

With patience, you’ll begin to see that same child who had walked with his chin hanging, now taking on challenges and breaking a sweat doing it. And when the task is complete? You’ll see your formerly sullen teen glow with pride.

That is self-esteem.

5 Ways Summer Camp Helps Your Child Prepare for Adulthood

When I think back on my own camp experience, I recall standing on a wooden tower about 10, maybe 15, feet off the ground. Several people I had recently met stood below. They were yelling at me to fall. I’d just met these people; why on earth would I trust them enough to catch me? I put my arms across my chest and fell back through the air. Whack! I’d been caught.

Experiences like these summer after summer brought about remarkable transformations in my life. I learned how to trust others, work with others and build relationships. This ultimately helped me to grow up.

Summer camp taught me foundational principles I now rely on as an adult. As a professional mentor, I encourage many of my clients to attend summer camp if possible. Watching kids and teens grow as a result of their summer experiences is incredible. Each summer, it’s obvious they have grown and matured.

When your child attends summer camp, he learns how to work with others, build meaningful relationships, accept guidance and develop decision-making skills. All of these life skills nurture independence and confidence, creating a foundation that will serve him and that he’ll stand and grow from for the rest of his life.

So how can your child benefit from summer camp?

1. At camp, kids learn teamwork, i.e., working together for the benefit of something bigger than themselves: the team. This takes attention away from “me, me, me,” and turns it toward the value of investing in others.

They learn that their relationships benefit from investment, and that the team benefits as a whole when individual relationships are strengthened. Contributing to the success of the group is empowering to each individual.

2. The camp environment teaches resilience. Kids learn to fall then get back up time and time again. One example is the ropes course, a challenging outdoor, team-building activity that you often find at camp.

Kids have to learn resilience to get through the course as they will undoubtedly fall, and have to get back up over and over. As they progress through the course their confidence builds, and in turn they accomplish a task that seems impossible… and accomplishment is always empowering.

3. Kids learn to make decisions at camp. Camp experiences grow confidence and develop good decision making skills — especially when times are tough. He also learns who to accept guidance from, in a world that’s filled with some pretty bad advice on TV, in movies and among some friends.

4. Camp sets a kid up for trying new things, putting himself out there, and making decisions to get through various situations.

Living in a cabin, cooking food, climbing ropes, and overcoming obstacles are life accomplishments young people can develop that build strength of character, courage, determination, and focus on something bigger than themselves.

As parents, we know when children only accept comfortable situations, they find themselves limited in confidence, courage, and flexibility. The actual presentation of an unpleasant or unfamiliar situation at camp gives a child the opportunity to grow in ways he never would in his comfort zone.

Through new experiences, he’s pushed into positions to grow in life. And when teens learn to push themselves to grow, they begin to accumulate understanding of what it takes to be a productive, independent adult.

5. Help your child to grow up.

While more and more our culture allows people to seek out what’s enjoyable and avoid what’s unpleasant, camp nudges your child to move out of their comfort zone to overcome.

So while our conveniences make life easier in so many ways, there are experiences missing that provide growth, strengthening of values, confidence, and development for times of adversity. Those experiences need to come from somewhere, and I encourage my clients to go to camp and absorb all the life benefits they’ll find there.

If your family can’t afford to send your kid to camp, and many can’t, try to mimic the same opportunities and experiences at home that they’d find at camp. Push to try new things, push him out of his comfort zone. Allow him to make his own decisions. Create some obstacles for him to overcome.

No matter what, it will require focus and effort to guide your child. There are many ways you can help your child gain the benefits of camp to ensure he’s equipped for adulthood. In this modern world, it won’t happen automatically. But your effort will be well worth the energy you invest.

Teens, Character and the Myth That Keeps Them Apart

Co-authored by Jason Gracia, Founder and CEO of VantagePoint Inc, and author of Shifting the Balance.

The moral character of our teens is deteriorating at a terrifying pace. We see proof in every corner of our lives, from bullying at school to laziness at work to self-absorption at home. If the children are our future, tomorrow will most certainly be filled with hordes of entitled, hormone-infused teenagers waiting for the world to see to their every unreasonable demand.

Or will it?

Though prevailing wisdom consistently casts stones at our youth, the reality is far brighter than they would have you believe. In fact, the qualities we hope for in our children surround us, waiting to be recognized and multiplied. You’ve been fed a lie.

From Maxine Coady, a teen volunteer with local hospitals, food pantries and community restoration projects (along with a stint in Zambia to nurture the lion population) to Lauren Samz, Greta Pohlman, and Chloe Johnson, advocates for animal rights, epilepsy research, and women in engineering respectively, the teens of today leave me convinced that the character we feared was missing is alive and well.

The Parent’s Role

In my work with families, I often find the respect and compassion demonstrated by the teens above is present, but sleeping. It needs a trigger to emerge and grow. That trigger is you. Time and again I’ve witnessed the undeniable truth about parenting: Nothing so influences what your child will do as what you have done. It’s your example that leads the way to success or to failure.

By focusing on your own expressions of character — instead of what your teen lacks — you’ll not only follow a better path, you’ll help your children follow closely behind. Below are a handful of ideas of help get you started.

Gratitude: Show an appreciation for what you have been given and worked to achieve. It’s far too easy to expect our children to be grateful while we complain about not having enough. By clearly appreciating your opportunities — and helping your children recognize their own — you’ll replace the curse of entitlement with gratitude and thankfulness.

Anna Gamm, 16, is a teen whose understanding of gratitude affects her on a daily basis. “I’m committed to helping people because I’ve been fortunate growing up. I was raised in a privileged home and feel if I don’t use that privilege to help those less fortunate I’m wasting my opportunity.” Because her parents took the time to explain the importance of appreciation, this teen exudes character. Yours will do the same.

Giving Back: In my work as a mentor, I’m constantly reminded how strong the need to contribute is among children and teens. We can’t help it. We’re designed to experience pleasure with the slightest gesture of giving back, which is why so many of the teens I meet with are focused on helping family and friends, school and community.

You can once again lead by example, as with gratitude, but even better is opening a door. Teens want to help. Let them. Work together to find opportunities where their time and attention can make a difference. Whether volunteering at a food bank, helping to build homes for those in need, or even spending an afternoon talking with someone who has no one else to talk to, these moments of giving back will make a profound difference in the lives of everyone involved.

Respect: When it comes to respect, it’s give to get. Offer your teens respect first and you’ll soon receive it in kind. Show respect to others, regardless of station or creed or color, and you’ll soon find your teen showing that same respect to the people in their lives. (Many of the parents I work with are actually surprised to find their teens more accepting than they are. What better chance to learn a lesson from your kids?)

Respect is a mirror. If you’re not getting what you want, chances are you — and not your teen — need to make an adjustment.

Integrity: Do what’s right, even when it’s not easy. Teens will turn to past examples when faced with a difficult decision. When they turn to you, will you be happy with the one they find? If not, start with a clean slate of integrity. Do the good, hard work that needs to be done, regardless of how difficult you find the task. And when you do, involve your teen, explaining the decision and why the harder path was the right one to choose.

When the time comes for your teen to make her own tough decisions, your example will be one to live up to and one of which you can both be proud.

Honesty: One of the most powerful expressions of honesty is admitting when you’re wrong. It’s not easy, especially for a parent, but it will make an impression on your teen that lasts long after accepting blame. How can you expect your teens to be honest when you can’t tell the truth?

Admit your mistakes. Your teen will admire you for it and live up the example when the time comes. Show your teen how to take responsibility for his actions by always taking responsibility for your own.

Character isn’t dead. It’s dormant. By leading with your example, you’ll bring it to the surface within your teen and, when you do, recognize it, applaud it and nurture it as best you can. Soon enough, you’ll realize the better nature of your teen was always there, just beneath the surface, waiting for you to clear the path to the top.

5 Tips to Transform Teen School Indifference to Engagement

Is your teen struggling in school? Does he seem apathetic? Have you lectured, grounded and threatened until you have no idea what else to do?

Here are some tips for helping your teen feel better and function better — while improving your relationship with him.

1. First, relax. Remind yourself that it’s one grade, one class, one semester; not the rest of his life. As you look back over your own life, remember that those pitfalls and oversights, failures and screw ups didn’t bring your life to a screeching halt. You know there are consequences, but your teen has to learn that too. Give him room to learn.

Try not to make this incident or semester a catastrophe. If you do, it only increases your own anxiety and the anxiety your child deals with every day. His anxiety about the future is much greater than he tells you. He needs relief from it, not having it pounded into him. He already gets it. That’s why he’s withdrawing.

Things said to him like, “he won’t make it in the future if he doesn’t perform now,” just aren’t helpful. That really makes things worse.

For his sake and yours, manage your own state of mind. Model for him the way to manage anxiety. Show him (don’t tell him) what it looks like to deal with a lot of work, while taking care of yourself and functioning at a high level. Whether you realize it or not, your kid watches your every move. Your life speaks much louder to him than anxiety-laden words.

2. Next, focus on resilience. In the course of the day, tell stories about things you experienced in school, things that relate to your child’s difficulties. Reminisce about those struggles out loud when you’re at the dinner table, walking the mall or in the car. Make it a casual family conversation that pops up at any time and show your teen what it was like for you to be overwhelmed, to fail, to feel like giving up. Include the process you went through to pick yourself back up and try again. Demonstrate through your experiences what was hard and how you got yourself on track again.

Parents need to stop saying, “I don’t understand what’s going on because it’s clear to me that you’re really smart.” This doesn’t work. It doesn’t even hit on the real problem.

Learn to break the pattern of lecturing as a parent. Your teen glazes over and doesn’t hear it, but does feel misunderstood and unsupported. Try instead to listen, and be vulnerable enough to display your own weaknesses. How you overcame them in the short term or the long term. These stories give him hope.

Sometimes it’s more important for your kid to fail and learn from it than it is for him to be pushed through by you. So when you see him struggle, stretch your memory and put yourself in his shoes. Show him you do know what it’s like to struggle, and sometimes even fail.

This is an ongoing conversation… and he’ll carry these stories the rest of his life – so be generous with your own life lessons. The effect is more significant than you can imagine … and carries far more impact than any lecture.

3. React differently. If your child seems apathetic about school and you’re struggling with it, there’s a good chance that what you’re currently doing may not be working. So try a different response.

For instance, try to respond with empathy rather than anger. Put yourself in your teen’s shoes. Consider the pressure he feels to get into college, get good grades, do well on SAT and ACT, and decide on his major. Do you really want to add to his pressure …?

It’s all just too much for a teen to handle, and he still has to deal with daily social issues and responsibilities. It’s tempting to lose your temper — but consider all this before you let yourself launch into a lecture. Empathy will help deflate the pressure rather than add to it.

Also keep in mind that he can think and function most effectively in a somewhat relaxed frame of mind. Lecturing and anger from his parents reduces his confidence and self respect, short circuiting his best abilities. Then his energies are spent recovering, setting him back further from his productivity.

4. Change your approach with teachers. Your child’s teachers are in his life to help him. They aren’t the enemy. Partner with them… collaborate for your child’s improvement.

Ideally, it’s best if you can encourage your teen to take this approach himself. If he can get on a collaborative plane with his teachers, he’ll have another motivating victory. But if you do need to get involved, work as a team with your child and his teacher. Model a team attitude for him.

5. Remember your anxiety is your anxiety. It’s yours to deal with… so stop yourself from dumping it on your overwhelmed teenager.

Take a breath, and acknowledge this to yourself before you attempt to communicate with your teen. You have to throw out your own ‘garbage’ before you can help guide your child. At the very least, know it’s there and manage it. For your sake, his sake, and for your relationship.

Let him make his own choices and deal with the consequences. Guidance is ok but step back. You want him to become an adult, to grow up. So you must give him the space to do so.

One last thought: In helping your teen work through the struggles of life, take the time to ask yourself these questions:

1. What really gets my child excited and how can I encourage that?
2. What questions or stories can I use to that will help him explore this direction?

It’s so easy for him to get caught up in a tough assignment or an overwhelming semester, and feel so beat up he can’t see past it. Then he can forget there’s so much more to life … and to live for.

This approach will help your teen to see the bigger picture and find joy and purpose in life. When that happens, some of these other struggles begin to take care of themselves.

How Saying Yes Changes Everything

After all my years working with teens and their families, I’m convinced that raising healthy, happy kids depends on two words: Yes and No.

The secret is knowing when to say which.

Kids need boundaries. They yearn for structure and limits. Few will admit it, but it’s a natural and universal need that revolves around No.

Can I eat cake for dinner? No. Can I see how far the cat can fly? No. Can I stay up late, phone tethered to hand? No. Can I treat this person with disrespect? Never.

Limitations such as these create safety. A free-for-all creates uncertainty and chaos, which leads to confusion and fear. Say No when laying the groundwork for safety and security as well as character.

But No is not always the answer.

In fact, saying No at the wrong times can shut down a teen faster than an eighth-grade romance gone bad or a cell phone battery on its last leg. It can cause stress, distrust, secrets, and separation. I’ve seen it happen countless times in my office. As dire as the situation may feel, the solution is often found in swapping No for Yes.

Say Yes to self-expression. Say Yes to unexpected choices. Say Yes to your teen being who they are or who they’re working so hard to be.

I know how hard this can be. As the adult, we feel in our bones we know the way forward, whether that entails saying no to an invitation to jump off a bridge or saying no to passing up sports in favor of drama.


Despite the difficultly, you’ll get what you want in the end if you can open the door to choices that may differ from yours but present no actual threat to your kids.

They’ve come from you but they are not you. They need to follow their path, with all its fascinating and frightening twists and turns. Giving them the freedom to write their own story ensures that you’ll be a part of it.

That’s what my parents are truly after. They want to be part of their kids’ lives. They want to be informed and involved. When you say Yes at the right times, you will be. You’ll be an influence. You’ll be a guide. Say No, and you’ll have a teen that keeps you as far from his or her world as possible.

Here are three tips to help you get started with Yes:

1. Let your teen know you understand the importance of making their own choices. Though they may differ in the extreme from your own, recognize the importance of giving them the freedom to carve out their own place in the world—and let them know you get it.

2. Show respect for their choices. This is not easy. Most parents pour their heart and soul into predicting a perfect future for their kids. When a choice appears to derail that plan, we leap to resentment or anger, with our fragile ego calling the shots. It’s only natural, but it’s not right, nor is it helpful in the long run. Shout down the ego with a love for your kids that trumps any conception of an ideal, pre-planned future. They’re writing their story in real time. Respect every plot twist.

3. Want to lock down a wonderful relationship with your kids? Go beyond showing respect for what they do and actually dive in. Take a sincere interest in their interests. You created this bundle of flesh and feelings, of bones and potential. Take joy in seeing it evolve. Take interest in seeing it fully form. As Dale Carnegie taught us decades ago, we are interested in those who are interested in us. Let your kids write their own story; then join them for the adventure.

A teen who feels understood, respected, and supported is far more likely to become the human you had hoped for, regardless of the path taken to get there.