7 Great Books For Your Parenting Toolkit

As co-authors of two parenting books (Parenting for the Launch: Raising Teens to Succeed in the Real Worldand Wings Not Strings: Parenting Strategies to Let Go with Confidence), we greatly enjoy (and benefit from) the writings and perspectives of our peers. We especially appreciate books that discuss the state of children and young adults and those offering practical parenting tips to add to our quiver. Truth be told, writing parenting books is a convicting experience because neither we, nor anyone else, is a perfect parent. As such, the works of others provides new insights and reality checks on the guidance we give through our writings. 

In the past several years, we have read numerous books that we wish we had while our children were under our roofs. Each offers unique insights and thoughtful advice and wisdom. So, with a spirit of gratitude to these authors and our desire to encourage and equip those of you who are parents, we offer these book recommendations to add to your parenting quiver. 

Parent on Purpose, by Amy Carney. Amy offers compelling wisdom and strategies to help parents lead, love, and launch their children to fulfill their dreams and purpose. It’s an inspiring and practical guidebook to building and sustaining a strong family.

Get the Behavior You Want without Being the Parent You Hate! by Deborah Gilboa, MD. Dr. G guides readers to raise children who are responsible, respectful, and resilient—her 3 R’s. Geared toward parents of young children to pre-teenagers, she offers practical tips for growing these leadership skills in different stages of childhood. 

Boy Mom, by Monica Swanson. Don’t be fooled by the title because this book is just as compelling for moms of girls! Monica tackles challenging issues like focusing on the big picture, setting boundaries, building a strong relationship, fostering confidence and emotional health, cultivating strong character, and teaching the value of work, with uncommon wisdom and flair. 

How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough. Paul takes head on the fallacy that success is about smarts. Rather, it’s about non-cognitive (character-related) skills such as grit, optimism, resilience, motivation, integrity, social agility, gratitude, and resourcefulness. It’s a healthy reminder to parents of the importance of building a leadership foundation in our kids. 

Your Teenager is Not Crazy, by Dr. Jeramy Clark and Jerusha Clark. The teen years are filled with angst and wonder. This book shares the changes teens face, and with uncommon compassion and empathy, offers practical advice to help them navigate their biggest worries and challenges. It’s a book every teen would want his/her parent to read. 

How to Raise an Adult, by Julie Lythcott-Haims. With the uncommon perspective of a former dean of freshmen at Stanford University, Julie understands the young adult landscape like few others. With this firm foundation, she attributes many student challenges to the way they are parented. This is a no-nonsense challenge to helicopter parenting in order to build independent, competent, and confident young adults. 

Connect with Your Kid: Mastering the Top 10 Parent-Child Communication Skills, by Dennis E. Coates, PhD. An expert in brain research, Dr. Coates expands his territory into the softer aspects of parenting: building an enduring relationship and communicating effectively in the often-charged teen years. He offers essential skill-building tips in areas such as listening, coaching, encouraging, appreciating, giving feedback, engaging, and resolving conflict. 

We strongly endorse these books and are confident that they will help you become the best parent you can be. 

Happy Reading,

The LifeSmart Team

Can Good Business Principles Make us Better Parents?

I know what you’re probably thinking. “Is this guy crazy? What could business principles have anything to do with the way I am raising my children?” And “Can parenting well really make me a better supervisor?”

But, hear me out. I actually think you may be surprised!

As most of you know, I enjoyed a successful, 30-year business career before founding LifeSmart Publishing. Through most of it, I worked for an incredible global company, Russell Investments, who was awarded “Best Place to Work” any number of times. And, I spent 27 years evaluating organizations and leaders—researching and observing the best and brightest. I learned their best practices and applied them to the best of my ability when managing my employees.

During this period, I also became a father of two kids who are as different as day and night—that would be Michael and Lauren. After some time, I realized that what I learned in the business arena could be applied to my parenting… and, what I learned in my parenting could be applied to my management! And I think my lessons can work for you, too.

So, here goes—six successful business strategies to help you become a better parent!

1. Adopt a goal orientation: We all achieve more when we set goals. Whether it’s a five-year strategic plan or a daily to do list, our goals give us focus, direction, and a target to hit. They help keep us motivated, too. And, so it goes with parenting. What if we were to set goals for our parenting? For our families? And, to encourage our children to be consistent goal setters? No doubt about it, we’ll accomplish more. You can find a sample Parenting Mission Statement here which helps us develop family goals.

So, be as strategic as you can and don’t let the day-to-day busyness keep you from achieving your longer-term goals.

2. Utilize effective motivational techniques: Whether we’re in the management or parenting realms, we notice that some people are self motivated while others need a little nudge. Researchers have discovered that among the top motivators of a workforce are being: 1) appreciated and recognized, 2) invited into and involved in decisions, and 3) understood by their “boss.” And, so it goes with parenting a teenager, doesn’t it? We regularly hear complaints from teens that their parents: 1) seem to stress their performance rather than the person they are, 2) make all the decisions or minimize their input, and 3) don’t listen to or try to understand them and their world. The parallels are striking, aren’t they? 

3. Empower rather than micromanage: Most of us loathe having controlling supervisors who hover, nag, interfere, and manipulate. We feel disrespected, devalued, disempowered, and distrusted, and rightfully so. And, so it goes with the helicopter parent who employs these same micromanagement tendencies with their teens. Isn’t it interesting that we detest it when it happens to us at work, yet we can fall into this same trap when we parent? But, when we adopt an empowering parenting style, our teens will develop greater self confidence and decision-making skills. 

4. Promote high standards and strong character: As managers, we certainly want our employees to perform. And yet, the most successful leaders stress the importance of upholding high standards of excellence, including strong character and ethical behavior. Qualities like integrity, dependability, initiative, team-mindedness, positivity, self control, work ethic, and resilience are telltale signs of excellent employees. So, when it comes to parenting, let’s remember to honor the great character traits and behaviors in our children, not just their outcomes. It will serve them well in all aspects of life.

5. Engage in effective collaboration: In today’s more relational workplace, teamwork is highly valued. Being able to work effectively with others with different skills, styles, and backgrounds in a harmonious way produces happier workers and better outcomes. The same is true of families who value one another, work together on family projects and chores, and invest in their relationships. While the teen years can bring extra relationship challenges when children express greater independence (and sometimes appear to devalue their parents’ input), it nonetheless is helpful to reinforce the “family as team” whenever possible. One team, one dream, does pay off. 

6. Commit to continuous improvement: As the world has become more competitive, companies are managing their personnel more intensively. Nowadays, we have to deliver excellent performance just to keep our jobs. So, it’s not surprising that employees who are committed to continuously improve their skills through training, etc. are best positioned to succeed. And, so it goes with our children. By building a growth mindset and a love of learning and self improvement in our children, parents can prepare them for the demands of the real world and help them fulfill their dreams. So, encourage your children to seize those opportunities to sharpen their body, mind, and spirit. It’s huge.

So, taking a page from the business management playbook can actually help in our parenting and pay dividends, too. Keep an open mind, give it a try, and let us know how it goes. 

We invite you to explore our two parenting books, Parenting for the Launch: Raising Teens to Succeed in the Real World, and Wings Not Strings: Parenting Strategies to Let Go with Confidence. Each reinforce these lessons and offer parents practical strategies and encouragement for navigating the teen years.

To better parenting…and managing! 

Financial Lessons from 2020 (So Far)

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

~ Benjamin Franklin

Life is filled with lessons learned the hard way. Sometimes we genuinely don’t understand the risks in advance, but often we do and take our chances anyway. “It won’t happen to me.” “I’ll get around to it soon, I promise.” “I’ll just deal with it if it happens.” And, then, the unexpected strikes. Our company goes belly up. I get laid off after 30 years of service (or because I was the most recent hire). Or, in the case of 2020, we have a brutal pandemic that causes societal chaos in our lives and livelihoods. Lessons learned again, the hard way.

When I wrote What I Wish I Knew at 18: Life Lessons for the Road Ahead, my goal was to provide students advance wisdom for their upcoming transitions into adulthood. 109 Life Success Pointers—well beyond an ounce—and including a chapter on financial matters. Oh, how many of them have been put to good use this year! 

Regardless of how well prepared you were for the economic risks in 2020, we thought it would be helpful to reiterate some key financial pointers to help you navigate today’s turbulence and prepare you for the next battle.

  1. Build an emergency fund for unforeseen circumstances. One of our first financial priorities is to create an accessible fund of liquid, short-term investments amounting to four to six months’ worth of your expenses. When times are hard, as 2020 has proven to be, this fund can help soften the financial blow and provide a source of cash for critical needs. Generally speaking, the greater the uncertainty, the greater the number of months reflected in your emergency fund.
  2. Keep your fixed expenses under control. Hard times are made harder when over 40% of our income is devoted to paying our fixed expenses (housing, utilities, debt payments, etc.). These expenses must be paid regardless of our circumstances, unlike discretionary expenses (travel, leisure, dining) that can be curtailed. Generally speaking, the lower the percentage of our fixed expenses, the greater is our ability to navigate difficult economic circumstances and maintain peace of mind. Those who apply this practice live within their means and can still generate positive cash flow. 
  3. Use credit sparingly and wisely. It goes without saying (but we still will!) that those who are conservative with respect to credit card usage are better able to withstand financial turbulence. Large credit card balances increase the cost of our purchases and represent significant fixed costs that must be paid to maintain a good credit rating. During tough times, a cash-only approach to spending helps us exercise prudent financial discipline. 
  4. Diversify and periodically rebalance your investments. The pandemic has caused significant gyrations in the stock market this year, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average ranging from 18,592 to 29,551 in a short period of time! This volatility illustrates the importance of holding some fixed income securities to reduce risk, and of monitoring your allocations to stocks and bonds to ensure they’re within acceptable ranges. For example, at market highs, your allocations to stocks may have gone above your target range, in which case you could have trimmed your exposure, lowering your risk. At the same time, at market lows, your allocations to stocks may have fallen below your targets, indicating it’s time to increase your exposure and buy at lower prices. 
  5. Don’t let your emotions interfere with your investing. There are two facts of life when it comes to investing that can get in the way of making sound decisions. First, the markets tend to decline more quickly than they rise, which is scary. Second, the market bottoms when the news is still bad. We want to wait until the news is better, but we will have lost our opportunity to buy at much lower prices. For these reasons, individual investors often display a “buy high, sell low” approach to investing when the reverse is the way to go. Over the long term, this tendency lowers our investment return. This is one reason why automatic investment programs are so helpful—they help take the emotions out of our investing.  
  6. No matter the circumstances, remain a cheerful giver. Even during financial hardships, it pays to find ways to help support those in even greater need. Sure, we may not be able to write as large of a check to our favorite charities, but even a little is good for the soul and for others. We can also be searching for opportunities to donate our time to these causes—another great way of cheerfully giving to humanity. It helps keep things in perspective, too.

Whether you check all, a few, or none of the above six boxes, we hope this encourages you to explore how you can “up your financial game.” It will not only help your financial picture, but also increase your peace of mind. 

Best wishes to you and yours,

The LifeSmart Team

The Truth for Youth Podcast: Life Lessons with Dennis Trittin

One of the most encouraging and inspiring aspects of our work at LifeSmart Publishing is meeting amazing young people who are motivated to impact the world. One such person, Jonah Swanson, is an incoming first-year student at Westmont College who is already making a difference. In addition to his studies, he is passionate about bringing practical life wisdom to youth through The Truth for Youth Podcast he created. Since this is perfectly aligned with LifeSmart’s mission, it was an honor to be invited for a two-part interview to discuss our book, What I Wish I Knew at 18: Life Lessons for the Road Ahead. Please note that, as a Christian, Jonah’s goal is to provide insights on contemporary life issues young people are facing through a lens of faith. 

In Part One, we focused on the book’s first two chapters: Life Perspective and Character. With each chapter, I selected five of my most pivotal and timely Life Success Pointers. In Life Perspective, we discussed the importance of developing a positive and healthy outlook, as this frames the way we live life. It is very difficult for young people to flourish in life without getting this one right! In Character, we tackle the all-important question of who we are and our personal brand we bring to this world each day. As students enter adulthood, a strong character foundation makes all the difference. 

In Part Two, we tackle chapters three and four: Relationships and Communication, and Adversity and Spirituality. With emerging adults often entering new environments and leaving home, their ability to make new friends and ambassadors is key. And, with all of the change, pressures, and decisions in the young adult years, everyone experiences adversity in one form or another. The question is how they deal with it when it’s their turn. Finally, these years are especially foundational for building and sustaining a healthy spiritual life; we explore some strategies to foster that. 

I hope you, and the young people under your influence, will have an opportunity to listen in and to get acquainted with Jonah and his work. Here are some links to help you get started:

  • To subscribe and listen click here.
  • To learn more, listen in, and view links and information referenced in the podcasts, click here.

Thanks, Jonah, for your heart for youth and for inviting me on your podcast! And friends, I hope you enjoy the shows! 

4 Concerning Reports About Today’s College Experience

Maybe it’s the time of year. Or, maybe it’s a sign of the times. If you ask me, it’s both…

Over the last several weeks, with a new school year upon us, I’ve been reading more concerning reports about today’s college experience. Some are from reflective faculty members who witness it firsthand, while others are from parents who are footing the bill and employers who are hiring young adults. No, they are not necessarily new issues, but the confluence and intensity are palpable. I realize these concerns cannot be generalized to all colleges, but from all indications, they’re becoming more pervasive and disturbing. But, before getting to the specifics, I’d like to prep you with a story…

Once upon a time, a group of music aficionados from all walks of life banded together to create an experience unlike any other. One to be enjoyed by people from every background and generation. One to celebrate what we know and love and to explore new possibilities. One so inspiring that people from all over would return in masses each year.

The event, America’s Virtual Music Experience, would be a week-long, outdoor summer festival that would celebrate the best of every music genre in our nation’s history. Individual stations would be set up for each category, and the audiences would be treated to all-time great performances (selected from fan surveys and music experts) that best represented the genres. In this smorgasbord of creativity and diversity, people could savor the best of: Rock and Roll, Folk, Jazz, Bluegrass, Gospel, Easy Listening, Hip Hop, Soul, the Blues, Country, Classic Rock, Pop, Rhythm & Blues, Spirituals, Metal, Americana, Funk, Disco, and Ragtime. Amazing! The founders were unequivocally committed to quality and variety to fulfill their mission. And fulfill it, they did.

Imagine the joy of three generations sharing their favorite music genres with each other. Grandpa loved Jazz. Grandma adored Gospel. Dad preferred Classic Rock, while Mom was an R&B fan. The son, oh how he worshiped Hip Hop, while the daughter was filled with Soul. Sure, their respective favorites would remain the same, but they left with new appreciation for the other genres they sampled. The energy on the way home was kinetic as they recounted their day. The memories would last forever.

Some five years later, the family decided to relive this, their all-time favorite experience. But something was different this time—they could sense it. Maybe the novelty had just worn off. Or, maybe there was more to it. After wandering around for a while, Grandpa was the first to notice something—there were fewer multi-generational families in attendance. What was that all about? Soon after, Grandma commented that her favorite Gospel station was nowhere to be found. Also, conspicuously absent were the Country, Americana, Easy Listening, and Jazz stations! Even some of this year’s song selections were lacking, unlike before.

At the same time, the grandson counted four stations devoted to Hip Hop, and the granddaughter noticed three for Metal! Sadly, they were really looking forward to the “forgotten” ones, because they enjoyed the variety as much as their favorites. Now, in order to experience them, they’d have to go elsewhere. But, why?

Curious, the mother and father called the event producers to find out why things had changed. They learned that last year, three of the five original founders retired, handing over the reins to some new faces. It just so happened that none of them were fans of Gospel, Country, Americana, Easy Listening, and Jazz, so they were deemed expendable (much to the chagrin of their sponsors!). But, because they loved Hip Hop and Metal so much, they decided to make room for more! And, they decided to select the songs by themselves, rather than go with survey results. Surely the audience wouldn’t notice it much, and besides, the new music mix was better anyway. Or, so they thought. 

Clearly, the current regime did not share the founders’ unwavering commitment to diversity and quality, as they willingly changed the nature of the event. With each passing year, more of their least-favorite genres were dropped.  Not surprisingly, the family never returned, and the reviews began to sour. You see, America’s Virtual Music Experience wasn’t the same inspiring, diverse, and universal experience anymore. It had lost the magic of the original.       

So, what on earth does this has to do with college, you ask? Why did I even tell you this story? I created this analogy to capture the essence of the concerns I’m hearing:

1.     Colleges have become increasingly politicized and biased. My college years were spent during the Vietnam War and Nixon debacle, as well as the Cold War and malaise of the Carter years. Despite that fodder, I cannot recall a single class where professors (who, in their power position, ought to be held to a higher standard) expressed political views in the classroom (much less proselytized them). Numerous reports indicate this is now widespread, especially among Humanities courses where professors are decidedly slanted toward one political party. This impacts free and open discourse, diversity of ideas, and objectivity, which are vital to achieving the college mission. It is also manifested in the worldview imbalance of professors, speaker selections for campus, fair treatment for clubs, shaming/canceling of professors with “minority” views, and incidences of grading bias. While some of this is anecdotal, it is well documented and contrary to the virtue of exploring best ideas without fear of retribution. 

The solution? I recently read a profound meme from Kevin Tiddy: “If your students know your political affiliation, you have failed as a teacher. Teachers are there to help students think for themselves, not to think like you.” I couldn’t have said it better, and judging from the feedback from his post, many others agree. It’s beyond time for college presidents to put it into practice and demand accountability. #educationnotindoctrination.

2.     Colleges are facilitating a “victim vs. victor” mentality, impeding grit and resiliency. Tenured professors and employers are reporting alarming fragility among students when dealing with challenges, classroom discussions, and even constructive feedback. While a certain degree of empathy is a good thing, colleges are increasingly displaying coddling behavior toward students rather than fostering grit and resilience and treating them as adults. This is ill-preparing their students for life in the real world. 

3.     College students are increasingly engaging in caustic communications instead of demonstrating civil discourse, mutual respect, and conflict resolution skill. Newfound independence often comes with a price of arrogance and boldness in young adult communication. Nonetheless, we are witnessing growing verbal aggression with both peers and adults. Sadly, I’ve read and heard numerous reports from devastated parents who “no longer recognize” their young college student and are unable to carry on a civil conversation or be treated with respect. While colleges are designed to expose students to new ideas, it appears they are failing to teach students the responsibility of disagreeing in an agreeable manner. This is an urgent need.

4.     College students are increasingly revealing socialistic and anti-American tendenciesIt is quite baffling that today’s entrepreneurial young adults are increasingly supportive of Socialism. Granted, they may be new to economic and political philosophy (so some naivete is understandable), but these concerning views aren’t just happening by accident. Related, it often appears that in our attempts to celebrate diversity (a worthy cause!), some institutions are unintentionally causing disunity and disharmony. If we don’t also consider what unites us as Americans, we lose societal cohesion. We need both.

Like the successors to the founders of the American Virtual Music Experience, it seems like many colleges have lost their way, and their sense of what made them great in the first place. Whether intentional or not, we’re seeing the profound effects in many ways.

It’s time for colleges to take stock and reset. Let’s get back to scholarship, citizenship, and leadership.

The Most Important Goal For This School Year…

In a world consumed with constant distractions and multitasking, it seems like we’re becoming more like bumblebees—paying short visits to one flower after another. We’ve never faced “incoming data” like this before, and it’s affecting our attention spans, stress levels, and ultimately, our productivity.

With the world of politics feeling incredibly polarized, the news cycle (with lots of alarmist stories!) going 24/7, and social media at the very tips of our fingers, life feels distracting, overwhelming, and at times, suffocating. How do we stay focused and working toward our goals?

How can we help our children navigate this noisy world where they’re being pulled in so many directions? How can we help them understand what they should pay attention to and what things should probably just be ignored?

In my years of evaluating leaders, I’ve come to appreciate what virtually all of them have in common:

  1. Vision: They have an overarching idea of where they want to go, the person they want to become, the impact they would like to have in this world, and the life they want to live. This focus on the future allows them to “drown out the noise” so to speak, and focus on moving forward.
  2. Intentionality: a commitment to setting goals and plans to turn their vision into a reality. Goals that are challenging but realistic, specific, and measurable. They choose not to waste time on activities that do not bring them closer to their goals.
  3. Relentless Effort: They are self-motivated and focused like laser beams to achieve their goals and implement their plans. They don’t just work hard—they work smart. They have high standards and manage their time effectively and efficiently. And, they regularly review whether they’re on track and make midcourse corrections along the way.
  4. Resilience: They have an ability to overcome and learn from their mistakes, shortcomings, and failures. They don’t let disappointments defeat them; rather, they face their challenges head on and persevere. After making a mistake or experiencing a hardship, they get back up and try again.

With a new school year upon us, this is a great opportunity to teach your children and students how to ignore the constant “noise” from the outside world and apply these concepts in their lives. Arguably, this could be their most important learning lesson of the year!

So, whether you’re a parent, teacher, mentor, or coach, have the children under your influence set new goals and strategies for the coming year. Encourage them to develop at least one goal in each of the following categories:

  • Career: surveying career matches, attending job fairs, creating a resume, sharpening interview skills, meeting people in careers of interest, etc.
  • Education: improving a GPA, taking valuable courses, reading specific books, watching/listening to media-based programs/trainings, etc.
  • Character: developing strengths, addressing weaknesses, modeling qualities/soft skills of admired people, etc.
  • Relationships: improving existing relationships, building new ones (peer, network), etc.
  • Skill: learning a new skill for personal growth, fun, creativity, etc.
  • Service: volunteering time and talent to support your community
  • Experience: checking off a “bucket list” item or two

The more we can instill the value of setting goals, plans, and strategies for life in our children at an early age, the better positioned they will be to achieve success, fulfillment, joy, and impact. Otherwise, especially in this day and age, they’ll be destined for distraction and random outcomes. It may be a mindshift for them, but they and their dreams are worth it! 

And, trust me, one day they’ll thank you for it!

How to Start Treating Your Teen Like a (Real) Grown-Up.

affection-dad-daytime-960829Parents: how many times have you heard your teen say, “You treat me like a kid!” How many times have you responded, “Well, it’s because you act like one!”?

Teens are constantly and increasingly tugging at the reins, wanting more and more slack. When teens ask to be treated like adults, what they’re really wanting are the privileges of adulthood. A car. Money in their pockets. Decision-making authority. Autonomy. Unfortunately, because of the nature of childhood (immaturity) and the tendency of some parents to rescue, pamper, and enable— that day never comes (or doesn’t come soon enough).

With summer almost over, many teens are entering “the next phase” of life, which for some recently-graduated teens looks like college or an internship, and for other teens, it’s their first year as a high school junior or senior–their last years of youth. Some teens might be entering thier first year of high school and they’re ready for much more freedom (at least they think they are).
Have you ever wondered, when I am SUPPOSED to start giving them more leash?

The reality is most teens are ready for more responsibility than we give them and need opportunities to exercise it. Adults have extra rights and privileges that kids look forward to enjoying and usually want now. But remember that for adults, those privileges are usually attached to responsibility. For example:

  1. I have a car (privilege). I must earn money to fill the tank and pay the insurance and maintenance (responsibility).
  2. I can stay up (or out) as late as I want to, every night (privilege). However, I have children who need to be off to school early in the mornings, and a busy daily schedule that requires me to have enough sleep to be in top form (responsibility).
  3. I can make any decision I want to (privilege). However, I have a spouse and children (and neighbors, employers, coworkers, friends) whose lives and happiness are influenced by my decisions. Sometimes, what I want to do is outweighed by what honors and benefits others (responsibility).

What children need to understand is that privileges, in the real world, are attached to responsibilities. If we give them the privileges, but don’t require responsibility, we set them up for an entitlement mentality—and for struggles in the real world. Folks, this is a pervasive issue.

So, the next time your teen tells you he or she wants to be treated like an adult, do it! Treat him or her like a real adult—not just with privileges, though. Make sure there are responsibilities to go with them and explain the connection. You don’t need to give up full control all at once. But, you can start by requiring them to do things like:

  • Contribute to their own income by getting a job (or babysitting, etc.)
  • Buy their own car (or make a significant contribution to it) and pay for all or most of their gas
  • Make their own appointments (dentist, doctor, hair, etc.). Encourage them, as much as is appropriate and realistic, to go to the appointment themselves, fill out the paperwork, etc.
  • Do their own laundry and make their lunch
  • Clean up the house before and after they entertain friends.

If you are a parent who draws a great deal of identity and personal fulfillment from doing things for your children, it can be difficult to change your habits. You may feel like you’re being mean. But, if you want to set them up well for the launch and equip them to be happy, healthy, functioning, and successful adults, it must happen, especially now, as the school year is transitioning them to a new season (first year of college, senior year of high school, etc.). It will pay huge dividends in the long run to start moving now to the passenger seat and becoming more of a cheerleader/coach as your teen learns to operate in the driver’s seat of his or her life.

This is a wonderful time to check out our parenting books that can guide you and equip you as you navigate this new seaason of parenthood. Wings Not Strings and Parenting for the Launch can be purchased here.

Building Better Decision Makers

pexels-kat-wilcox-923657It is undeniable that the quality of our decisions has an enormous impact on our happiness, well-being, and life success. With the benefit of time and reflection, we can see how the cumulative effect of our decisions, both good and bad, has led us to where we are today. And, they have an enormous impact on where we will be tomorrow.

All of us guiding children have a special responsibility to develop their decision-making capability. (Not surprisingly, employers routinely cite decision-making and problem-solving ability as among the most important qualities they seek in their employees.) However obvious this sounds, it’s easier said than done. Among the challenges are:

  1. Our brains are wired differently. Some children are more analytic while others are more intuitive, creative, or impulsive. This greatly affects how we naturally make decisions.
  2. The types of decisions we make vary widely. Here are just a few examples:
    1. Yes or no. Here, our options are binary. We either do it or don’t.
    2. Multiple options. Here, we have several different choices, each of which have their advantages and disadvantages. Think college or career selection.
    3. Now or later. Here, our decision involves when. A good example is do I borrow money to buy a computer today or save up for it and purchase in the future.
  3. The context of decisions varies. Examples include our health (food we eat), finances (spending, investing, budgeting, charitable giving), career, relationships (friend selection), faith, activities/entertainment, time management, and a host of other arenas. Some lend themselves to objective criteria while others are highly subjective.
  4. Some are more consequential than others. The impact of choosing which outfit to wear to school pales in comparison with which career to pursue. This has major ramifications on the depth of research and consideration that ought to be applied to different decisions.
  5. Values may come into play. Some decisions will test our adherence to our core values and integrity. With children, this surfaces mightily in friend and activity selection. The consequences and potential regrets can be life altering.
  6. Educators are not always prioritizing decision-making skill development in the classroom. An increased focus on “teaching to the test” and varying course offerings and instructional methods naturally leads to inconsistencies in outcomes. It also produces a false sense of adult readiness in our students that reveals itself after high school.
  7. Parents are missing out on opportunities to build these skills. With control-based parenting approaches such as helicoptering now widespread, many parents are making decisions or micromanaging children in ways that are contrary to building independence and decision capability. It is also breeding a fear of failure mentality in children.

What to do?

Here are some suggestions that can help build these critical skills:

  1. Provide exercises and homework that challenge students with real life decisions with varying outcomes. College and career selection, grocery shopping within a fixed budget to make a meal, and how to save up to purchase a car are excellent examples where critical thinking can be put to the test. It’s especially helpful to teach them to: 1) identify key decision variables, 2) analyze pros and cons (or costs and benefits) of different options, 3) and consider potential consequences of the various choices.
  2. Resist giving children “the answer” when they ask. As parents, it’s so easy to fall into the trap of solving their problems, making their decisions, and telling them what to do. We want to be helpful. It’s easier. We’ve been there, done that, and can swiftly give them the answer. However, a better approach is to thank them for asking but to have them think it through and offer their preliminary decision before you share your opinion. It not only builds their decision-making skill, but also demonstrates your confidence in them.
  3. Share the “why.” Some of us grew up in the “because I told you so” age of authoritarian parenting. It was certainly an efficient way to parent, but it didn’t build wisdom and perspective. One of the most common qualities of successful decision-makers is their ability to factor potential consequences of various choices. Teaching them how to make decisions and why they’re important makes training more relevant to our children.
  4. Give them opportunities to build skills. This can include activities or fun “what if” scenarios that make for energized classroom discussions or dinner table conversations. There are any number of ways you can foster critical thinking using real life examples. Review the life categories mentioned in point 3 (decision contexts) and create discussion topics. What factors are important in choosing a career and how will you approach it? What might be the consequences of spending most of your free time playing video games versus other options? What are the pros and cons of the various colleges you’re considering? How will you react if your values are tested at a party? What goals are most important to you and how will you achieve them? How will you save up for that car you want? What are the most important qualities you desire in a friend and how will you apply them in your relationships? How can we save more money as a family to fund our summer vacation? You get the idea.
  5. Share your experiences. What key decisions have you made and how have they turned out? What lessons did you learn from decisions that didn’t turn out well? With perfect hindsight, could you have approached it differently? (Note, sometimes we give it our best thinking, but things just don’t go our way, and that’s okay!)

Let’s all commit to seeking out creative opportunities to sharpen these skills in our children. It won’t take long for them to forget the facts they memorized to ace a test, but by teaching them how to make decisions, you can give them a gift for a lifetime.



Making Friends in New Places

This time of year always brings back memories of my first semester in college and the social adjustment I hadn’t anticipated. As a small town guy who knew everyone, being surrounded by a sea of strangers instead of my “regulars” was a brutal reckoning that life would never be the same. In those days, we lacked technology to keep us connected, and phone calls were simply too expensive. I remember resorting to writing letters to my friends who had scattered and were experiencing the same case of the “lonelies.” Then, like now, simply being surrounded by loads of others didn’t make me secure… any more than having 1,000 Facebook “friends” does for people today.

The good news is that new environments offer a great opportunity to make new friends, some of whom may prove more durable than the ones we left behind. Sure, it’s a “trial and error” thing, but provided we approach it with the right attitude and methods, we can develop a new layer of friends and support system.

Borrowing from What I Wish I Knew at 18, here are our best ideas for winning great new friends in new places and avoiding poor choices that often derail college (and other) experiences:

  1. Set a high bar. In the young adult years, peers can have a tremendous impact on our lives. So, be choosy and only surround yourself with people who: 1) share and respect your beliefs and values, 2) lift you up with positivity, 3) enjoy similar interests, 4) allow you to be your authentic self, and 5) demonstrate motivation and trustworthiness.
  2. Consider your current “BFFs.” Your best friends aren’t your best friends by accident. Your relationships developed over time and with testing. Take time to reflect on what, specifically, you value most about them. This, together with the first point, will allow you to create a “friend filter” in your mind that you can apply to new acquaintances.
  3. Be uncompromising about values. So often, our friend-making mistakes come when we hang out with people who don’t share our values. This is especially common when we’re lonely and want companionship. One way to prepare is to review the Positive Traits and Values list that you can find here. Which qualities are most important to you? They’re important to include in your friend filter.
  4. Remember, it’s all about quality. Quantity matters in many areas, but when it comes to friend-making, it can’t compete with quality!
  5. Be patient. It helps to remember that your current best friends were made over a lengthy period of time. Resist the temptation to rush it. Relationships develop in a progression (at LifeSmart, we describe it as going from acquaintance to prospect to friend to VIP). Most of the people we meet in life will stay as acquaintances, and that’s fine.
  6. Seek out “common denominator” settings. One way of making a big place seem smaller is to find opportunities to meet people with similar interests. In the college scene, you can find them in specific courses, clubs, organizations, intramurals, the arts, and various affinity groups. What do you enjoy doing most? Are there organized opportunities to meet similar-minded people to give you a head start?

Finally, as important as it is to make new friends, it’s even more critical to avoid destructive people. Often, these are folks with a different value system and who attempt to lure you into comprising yours. In the college scene, there are many students who are clearly not there for the academics—even if the price tag is expensive! Be sure to take the following story to heart:

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” 

He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Be choosy, be patient, and enjoy your friend-making journey.

A Call for Love, Harmony, and Forward Progress

These last few weeks have been profoundly heartbreaking. My emotions have run the gamut, including anger, pain, grief, disgust, frustration, weariness, and a deep sense of loss for the families, friends, and communities of George Floyd and the many other victims who have perished in this horrific and unjust tragedy. At LifeSmart, we join the peaceful cries for justice, pray for the hurting, and stand for meaningful solutions that allow all people the opportunity to flourish.

Just so you know, incidences of injustice are personal, professional, and now, familial to me. I have many dear African American friends who I consider mentors and role models (Mike James, Willie Stewart, Bea McLeod, and Antwine Jefferson to name some). And, at LifeSmart, we are blessed to serve many racially diverse schools and regions and have special regard for the incredible dropout prevention/career readiness program at Jobs for America’s Graduates, whose teachers and students we serve are often minorities. Finally, I’m excited to mention that we have a new addition to our family—a son-in-law, Bruce Spencer, who is an Army officer, a true gentleman, and who happens to be African American. We love him dearly and are starting a wonderful new relationship with his family, too.

As I reflect on 2020, I’m struck by how many of us have experienced injustice in one way or another. Small business owners deemed “Non-Essential” and shuttered even when we could have operated safely, if given the chance. Churches who are facing tighter restrictions than other organizations. Speakers banned from campuses because of their political or religious philosophies. I bring this up not to diminish the injustices from racial mistreatment in any way, but to call us to be vigilant to the many injustices surrounding us—and to be the comforters, advocates, and change agents on their behalf. To be warriors against injustice whenever or wherever we see it.

So, where do we go from here, and how can we be part of the solution? Let me offer three themes for you to consider today: Love, Harmony, and Forward Progress. I recognize there may be some views with which you disagree, but please know my intentions are from the heart for universal good, and through the imperfect filter of my beliefs and experiences. I hope it’s as helpful to you as writing it has been for me. Now, let’s talk about LOVE.

Love is at the Center of the Solution

Love is the answer to many things, and in my opinion, it’s the foremost ingredient to resolving issues of injustice, discrimination, and reconciliation. Sure, we can find ways to “get along” or “peacefully coexist,” but shouldn’t we be challenged to a higher standard? In my Christian faith, I am called to love God with all my heart, soul, and mind, and to love my neighbor as myself. For me, these are inextricably linked, and they’re not mere suggestions. I realize my readers have diverse beliefs on the God part, but I suspect we can agree that IF we were able to truly love our neighbor as ourselves, our world would be a much better place, and injustice would diminish. The bottom line is this: love should be the overriding principle and motivator in our relations. Only good can flow from this.

How can we as individuals demonstrate love in a way that combats injustice? Here are some examples: through affirmations of worth and value, dignity, respect, acceptance, appreciation, empathy, compassion, and encouragement. I have always found word opposites to provide extra clarity, especially when dealing with the subjective. To that end, I developed a one-page summary of word opposites that relate to love and harmony you can find here.

I encourage you (and your families, students, etc.) to carefully reflect on each line, because they clarify what love is and isn’t. In doing so, you can gauge your personal “love quotient” and perhaps identify ways to strengthen your game. Trust me, if you stay in the left column of the document, you will be fostering justice and a whole lot more.

In my book/curriculum, What I Wish I Knew at 18, I share a life success pointer, “Demonstrate Your Capacity to Love.” It is such a powerful (and timely) nugget and bears repeating:

“Can you imagine what our world would be like if our lives were defined by the love we demonstrated toward others? What if—instead of by our winning percentages, job titles, or personal wealth—we were measured in terms of units of love, kindness, generosity, compassion, and encouragement offered to others? One thing’s for certain. The world would be a far better place and, amazingly, it wouldn’t cost us anything. 

People with the most admirable character traits demonstrate an incredible capacity to love. It’s woven into their very existence, and you can recognize it in an instant. In addition to their inherent kindness, they have a special way of showing others that they’re worthy of being loved. This is an extraordinary gift to give others. It simply requires a mindset (and “heart set”) and a commitment to use every opportunity to show you care. After all, isn’t that how you would like others to treat you?”

Friends, let’s renew and strengthen our commitment to love. Let’s do this first.

Harmony as a Relational Goal

Our backgrounds, experiences, families, characteristics, values, philosophies, personalities, and passions are so different. They each make us wonderfully unique, which is a good thing. However, as we all know, this produces challenges and conflict, too. It’s always been this way.

Given this, I think harmony is a wonderful aspirational word for our time. When discord, division, suspicion, and harsh rhetoric seem to rule the day, harmony is a great rescuer. Consider these synonyms: unity, peace, friendship, tranquility, understanding, cooperation, and togetherness. Oh, how we could use more harmony today! Like love, I believe the more harmony we have, the less injustice we’ll experience.

One way to promote harmony is to model the left-hand column of our Love and Harmony Word Opposites resource. Another way is to actively avoid some alarming and prevalent sources of disharmony that are harming many relationships today:

  1. Politicizing almost everything. Honestly, I think this is just dumb. Please, let’s stop this.
  2. Holding biased and entrenched views. Depending on one’s key media and information sources and experiences, it’s easy to develop extremely biased views and interpret opinions as fact. When our sources are consistently one-sided, our views can easily become entrenched. This compromises our perspective, decision-making, and communications. Let’s be more open to diverse views.
  3. Overly focusing on our differences. I am all for appreciating our uniqueness, but it can overshadow what unifies us if we’re not careful. We need both.
  4. Generalizing and judging. Often, due to identity politics run amok, people assign blanket generalizations about each “bucket.” “If someone is a ___, then I don’t want to associate with them because they believe ___.” Huge and unfortunate assumptions are being made, and it is caustic and divisive at the core. Let’s first give everyone the benefit of the doubt and focus on the individual… we will likely find more common ground than we think.
  5. “This, not that” rhetoric. Partly a downside of social media, we are increasingly seeing critical, dogmatic expressions of opinion with an underlying arrogance. Many are viewing complex issues as black or white (not racially), when they are more likely gray. This “I’m right, you’re wrong” approach to communicating shuts down conversation and inhibits what ought to be our chief goal: mutual understanding. Excessive virtue signaling and shaming people who hold different opinions are alarming sources of disharmony today. We’re seeing too much coercion and too little conversation. For harmony’s sake, this needs to change.

In James 1:19, we are encouraged to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. This is wise advice for today.

Finally, in my book, What I Wish I Knew at 18: Life Lessons for the Road Ahead, I share several life success pointers that foster love and harmony. If you have the book, I encourage you to revisit these sections because they are so relevant today:


Direct your life toward others * Don’t define success by riches * Demonstrate your capacity to love * Live to serve * Be proactively nice * Give everything your best * Take responsibility for your mistakes and shortfalls * Choose humility over self-pride * Be an inspiring team player * Be an encourager rather than a critic and always look for the best in people * Don’t say something about someone else you’d regret if they heard * Steer clear of destructive people * How you say it can matter more than what you say * Solicit and embrace constructive feedback * Talk it out, don’t write it out * Regularly show appreciation and gratitude toward others * Strive to be an agreeable disagreer * Choose reconciliation over grudges whenever possible 

Harmony makes for beautiful music and beautiful relationships. It means wanting the best for everyone and having their back. Trust me again: more harmony means less injustice.

Moving Forward

Oh, how I wish I could just snap my fingers and make all the injustice and division go away! I’m sure you do, too. The fact is, each of us has unique settings, roles, and opportunities to make a difference. Ultimately, though, it begins with each of us looking in the mirror, honestly assessing our heart, repenting where we need to repent, asking for forgiveness when we need to be forgiven, forgiving and extending grace when we need to forgive, and vowing to live a life of love. We may not be in positions to influence policies or practices, but we can control what we can control: our commitment to loving others and being a part of the solution.

However, beyond us as individuals, some solutions to improving justice and harmony and reducing disparities involve our systems: government, business, education, family, media/entertainment, and the faith community to name a few. To that end, here are a few suggestions that immediately come to mind:

  1. To the extent we are in positions and organizations that have a national, regional, state, or local role, let’s review policies and practices from a perpective of fair treatment. Are there overt or subliminal biases that need to be corrected through constructive reforms? Are we seeking out and listening to people who might have special perspectives to offer?
  2. For our policing communities, what are the best opportunities, policies, and practices that allow you to protect citizens, provide fair and equitable treatment, and reduce risks of excessive force and mistreatment? What barriers (e.g., union representation) are necessary to modify to ensure that officers with behavior risk are removed from service? What enhancements can be made to hiring practices (e.g., emotional intelligence testing) as a prevention measure?
  3. For our educators, let’s strengthen our leadership, character, and life skills training so that all young people are better equipped to flourish in adulthood and to avoid poverty and other derailers. Often, racial disparities have economic and other roots, so this “upstream” training can have significant benefits.
  4. For all of us, let’s vow to strengthen families which are so vital to the health and well-being of children and society. There is excellent research on the impact of family on socio-emotional wellness and life success, and this should be applied in both preventive and responsive contexts. This is universally relevant and beneficial information that gives everyone the best chance to flourish.
  5. Let’s promote “best ideas” thinking and diversity of opinion regardless of political persuasion. Unlike the business community where it is easier to solicit best thinking toward common goals, it is sadly more challenging in the political arena. When it comes to many issues, our political parties often seem more focused on their power and receiving credit than on best solutions from diverse perspectives. Perhaps an increased use of independent commissions/task forces can offer better solutions to polarizing issues or those with divergent policy prescriptions. No one party has a monopoly on best ideas when it comes to issues like justice and economic opportunity! 
  6. Let’s promote diversity of opinion in media and on campuses. Related to the preceding point, we’re witnessing significant ideological bias in these contexts. In the media, it is becoming increasingly difficult to gauge objective truth versus opinion. When we have diverse perspectives, we are better informed, make better decisions, and understand each other better. The same is true on our college campuses where conditions are becoming more polarized and students are not always receiving diverse perspectives. We have certainly made strides on campuses with respect to tangible diversity metrics, but worldview diversity could stand some strengthening. Again, no one political ideology has a monopoly on best ideas—on issues of justice, or any other.
  7. Let’s increase our investment in non-profit mentor programs to provide support, guidance, and leadership building. This can significantly help address disparities and allow more people to thrive.
  8. Let’s welcome faith-based organizations to be a part of the solution.

So, these are our thoughts for the day—straight from the heart and mind. At LifeSmart, we remain committed to be a part of the solution. As always, please let us know if there are ways we can support your efforts to improve lives and society.

With love,