The Best Gift I’ve Ever Given. . .

What’s the best gift you’ve ever received? How about the best gift you’ve ever given? Can you come up with your top three? What’s the common denominator between them all? What makes the gifts so special?

More often than not, when I ask people these questions, they usually respond with gifts that:

  • were not expected
  • were ones they (or the other person) really needed
  • showed how much one person knew or understood the other
  • were not necessarily things, but experiences
  • were sacrificial on the part of the giver

That’s how I would describe the favorite gift I have ever given. And today, I’d like to tell you about it. Grab a nice cold glass of egg nog and enjoy . . .

It would be my first Christmas away from home. Four months earlier, I trekked from Wisconsin to my new home in Seattle to seek my MBA degree. Having left all of my family and friends behind, I knew Christmas of 1979 would be tough.

After experiencing (and not enjoying) my first solo Thanksgiving, I decided to see if my meager bank account could support a surprise trip home. Although a flight to Green Bay was out of my price range, I could pull this off if I flew to Chicago and had someone drive me the remaining four hours north. Bless his heart, my friend Bruce offered to be my chauffeur to and from O’Hare.

Once my top secret trip was scheduled, I made a point of sounding extra lonesome on my weekly calls home. (Yes, a little nasty but in the end they wouldn’t mind!) My parents were having mixed emotions about this Christmas, too.

After our long, snowy ride, we arrived at my brother Rick’s house late on the 23rd and reviewed our plans. Rick had acquired a large empty cardboard box, big enough to fit yours truly. It would be addressed to my parents from the North Pole, and the grand unveiling would be set for 9:00 a.m. Christmas eve on their upstairs apartment doorstep.

As Rick drove me to my parents’ place, the suspense became almost unbearable. When we arrived just outside their door, I placed the box over my head and crouched down, sitting on top of the bottom flaps to hold it in place. After giving the “all clear” signal to Rick, he rang the doorbell and rushed down the stairs out of sight.

Let’s pause so you can fully imagine this. You are an unexpected Christmas gift on your parents’ doorstep and are about to shock the living daylights out of them! My heart was about to explode.

My mom, in her mid-Sixties, answered the door and shouted, “Oh my, Lil, what’s this?” (Lil was a similarly aged neighbor visiting.) Her presence only added to the raucous. Next was “My, this is heaaavvvvyy! What could be in here?” Lil added, “I don’t know, but let’s try lifting it.” Listening in on their speculation, I almost lost it!

Well, to make a long story short, these ladies tried their best to lift it (while I, inside, was desperately holding down the flaps!). When one of my boots stuck out, I knew it was time. I counted to three and in one move jumped out of the box and cried, “Merry Christmas!” Just try to imagine their shock. It was truly priceless. And, within five minutes, it was all around the entire complex.

A Christmas present no one would ever forget.

This season, we focus on what I personally consider to be history’s greatest gift—a savior, named Jesus. He was and is an unexpected gift that came to mean everything to this world, and He came from a Giver who knew exactly what we needed.

Over the next week as you spend time with those you love, think about the reasons behind your gifting. Is this the year for your greatest gift?

Merry Christmas from the LifeSmart family.

Holiday Traditions to Start with Your Kids and Teens

We’ve arrived the holiday season and the hustle and bustle abounds. There’s a holiday activity to attend at every turn—tree lightings, festivals, family parties, cookie exchanges, Christmas pageants, church services, and much, much more. For a family with kids—especially ones in early teen to older teen age range—it can be hard to find activities that “fit” their current interests.

It’s not too uncommon for teenagers sense the independence in their future and pull away slightly from parents and family (we wrote a bit more about this phenomenon here). In fact, I recently had a conversation with a friend who was trying to enjoy holiday traditions with her teen son, but she described him as disinterested and sullen. This mom was frustrated and nearly at her wit’s end—she said these things were so much easier when he was younger.

As a parent with two adult children, I’ve been through this stage myself. I can understand the pull between wanting to enjoy the holiday season with your kids, and also wanting to respect their changing interests. In order to help, all of us at LifeSmart have put together a list of ideas for things to do with the teens or young adults in your life during the month of December. Without further ado’, here it is:

  • Go to an outdoor ice skating rink. These are becoming increasingly popular and are popping up in shopping centers or city centers all over.
  • Watch a Christmas movie, their choice. Don’t try and push “White Christmas” or “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Let your teen pick the flick . . . and the snacks.
  • If you celebrate Hanukkah, let your teen pick the theme of each night. As they get older, they may not be as interested in the little gifts. Choosing a theme allows your family to branch out and participate in activities that engage even the older kids.
  • Donate to a charity or complete a service project of their choice. Is there a kid at their school who may need help with Christmas gifts or food this year? A cause your teen is passionate about? Make your holiday giving about something that’s important to them.
  • Have them invite their friends over to do some holiday baking. Teens are often more likely to enjoy a family activity if one or two of their friends get to join as well.
  • Let your teen lead the Hanukkah rituals and activities—and allow them to invite their friends to participate as well.
  • If you’re up for helping to host, let your teen host a Christmas party. Planning it can be their job. It can be a great chance for them to learn administrative and organizational skills! And, if the Christmas party idea isn’t a hit, perhaps a get together to watch the NCAA football conference championship games.
  • Paint Christmas ornaments at a local pottery painting studio.
  • Go skiing, snowboarding, or sledding as a family.
  • Check out an area play or concert, including local high school performances
  • Ring the Salvation Army bells as a family or as a group with their friends.

Creating new winter holiday traditions as your children grow and change their interests can be hard to navigate as a parent. The important part is communicating that you care, and are willing to adjust your own expectations in order to spend time with them. It’s a great opportunity to let them take the lead on ideas and event planning. And, most of all, to share in their world a little bit more.

May this season bring you love, joy, friendship, and endless fun with family.

Happy holidays from LifeSmart!

Keeping the Peace During the Holidays: Part Two

In last week’s post, I shared four things to help avoid communication breakdowns, especially during the holiday season when we’re surrounded by so many family and friends. One consideration for promoting peace and harmony (and not just for the holidays!) is the form of delivery our communication takes, especially when dealing with a highly charged topic.

Writing letters, emails, or texts is certainly easier than speaking about sensitive subjects in person, especially if you’re the type to avoid confrontation. The distance provided by written forms can theoretically offer a protective shield. However, if the receiver doesn’t accurately perceive your intended tone, it can be an unmitigated disaster. Interestingly, this is becoming a big issue with the younger generation that prefers to communicate via technology than face to face.  BIG problem.

Whenever you’re dealing with sensitive, controversial, or emotionally charged subjects or feelings, it’s generally much better to talk it out rather than write it out. Here’s why …

A friend of mine once sensed a growing distance with a family member and was feeling improperly judged. Rather than talk about it personally, my friend decided to write a letter. After reading the carefully crafted draft, I implored my friend not to send it, for fear it would be misconstrued. Unfortunately, my advice was ignored, and in the aftermath, their relationship was severely damaged. My friend made the mistake of assuming the receiver would insert the intended tone when reading the letter. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that way. Their relationship has never been the same.

This is a classic example of what can happen when you use written communication in a situation where face to face (or at least over the phone, if that’s not possible) would be better. When speaking, you’re in control of your tone of voice and body language, and there’s less chance of misinterpretation. At least if happens, you’re there to correct the situation through give and take. In contrast, written correspondence leaves far too much to chance and takes much longer to rectify if your words are misunderstood. It’s a risk to avoid if you can.

Another problem with written communication—especially in this digital age—is that you have no guarantee it will stay with the intended recipient. When you send a text or email, you have no control over where it goes. With the ability screenshot everything, who knows where it could end up! (It also means we should think twice before hitting “send” on basically everything.)

I can’t stress enough why it’s so important to try and have our sensitive conversations in person. It may be easier to jet off an email or post a rant on Facebook, but in the long term, that’s probably not going to be your best bet.

If you have a strained relationship with a friend or family that you are looking to reconcile before the holidays, I urge you to reach out to that person and ask them out to coffee (or some other comfortable setting). Although the thought of confrontation may be uncomfortable, the outcome will likely be much better than if you sent a text.

May your holidays be filed with good conversation, reconnection, reconciliation, peace, and unity for you and your families.

How do you handle the communication of sensitive or emotional topics? Have you ever written out your feelings in a letter, email, or social media posting and later regretted it? Or, been on the receiving end of someone else’s?

 

Happy Holidays from the LifeSmart team!

Keeping the Peace During the Holidays

Now that Thanksgiving and the holiday season are upon us, there are a few things we can be certain of: good food (and too much of it!), sweet treats, festive activities, shopping until we drop, and time with extended family.

Unfortunately,, for some of us, time with extended family can be strained. And when tensions are high, people are much more likely to take offense. This week, I’d like to talk about HOW you communicate with others and how you can avoid conflict as you interact with family, friends, and others over the next month.

Miscommunication and spats happen to all of us, probably more often than we’d care to admit. There are, however, some simple things you can do to minimize them, especially by remembering how others receive our messages:.

 

  1. Word choice – This factor is huge, especially when we discuss sensitive topics or relationships (here’s a hint: No talking politics over turkey dinner!). In these situations, our emotions can interfere with our thinking, and we often use more provocative language that we later regret. In the “heat of battle,” we can be so focused on proving our point that we forget to show tact, empathy, and understanding to the other party. The end result is that things spiral out of control, and frustration and anger take over..

 

  1. Delivery – Sometimes it’s our manner of delivery that gets in the way, even if our word choice is fine. Examples include speaking with a harsh or condescending tone of voice or displaying arrogant facial expressions or body language (e.g.,, eye rolling). No matter what words we use, if the “packaging” is incongruent, our message will lack credibility and rub people the wrong way. No one is convincing when they show disrespect to their audience.

 

  1. Form – Ever wanted to jet off a nasty email when you’re upset or irritated? Don’t be so quick on the draw. The advantage of verbal communication is that the audience hears you speak, allowing your tone to help convey your ideas. In contrast, written communications (e.g., emailing, texting, social media comments and messages) have a major disadvantage because the audience imposes their own interpretation of your tone. Aunt Sue’s perception may be light years away from what you intended. If so, you have a big problem on your hands.

 

  1. Filter – Depending on whether your audience likes or distrusts you, whether they’re in a good or bad mood, or focused or distracted by other thoughts, your message may not get through in the way you intended..Unfortunately, you can’t control their filter.

 

There are two other irritating tendencies that are becoming more common and sabotaging our times together. One is when people use every opportunity to politicize, even during get-togethers that are supposed to be festive and harmonious. The second is when people emphatically express opinions as though they are facts. This is a predictable consequence of the media bias we are seeing. Please be mindful of these tendencies and respectfully suggest a change of subject if you’re on the receiving end.

This holiday season, I hope you never find yourself having to say “I didn’t mean it like that!” to an uncle, aunt, parent, sibling, or cousin. By remembering these influences before you speak, you’ll do your part in spreading peace and harmony to others.

Do you pay close attention to how you communicate and how your words are being received? What are some ways you’ve learned to be a more effective communicator?

 Happy Holidays from all of us at LifeSmart!

The Gift of a Giver

During this time of year, we are inundated with suggestions of ways we can help others. Whether it’s the Salvation Army volunteers wearing Santa hats and ringing bells outside your local grocery store (I do that!), organizations making it possible for you to “adopt” a family less fortunate than yours, or packing up shoeboxes full of goodies to send to children in third world countries—there are countless ways you can make a difference. To be honest, I think it is a welcome change from the messages we most often hear all the other months of the year.

“Follow your passion. Do what makes YOU happy. You’re awesome. Find yourself.” These phrases should sound familiar, because they seem to be everywhere these days. Young people all across the globe are being encouraged to discover themselves and follow their hearts. These messages aren’t necessarily bad by any means—we all need to follow our passions—however, life really isn’t all about us. When taken to the extreme, this mindset contributes to self centeredness and an entitlement mentality and can send our children the wrong message. So, this holiday season, and for the other months of the year, I encourage you to direct your life toward others.

As the holidays approach swiftly, what if we all went from being self-focused to other-centered? Think of what a difference we could make in the world! After all, I think most successful people would say that their biggest life accomplishments have more to do with what they’ve done for others, rather than what they’ve done for themselves. Giving can be a greater gift to the giver than to the receiver.

Where are you directing your life right now—toward yourself or toward others?  Spend some moments thinking about how you spend most of your time, energy, and resources. Talk with your family about the ways you can shift your focus toward others. Whether it’s by yourself, with a friend, or as a family unit, brainstorm some ways you can impact your community during the holidays and beyond.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Donate a Thanksgiving meal to a local family who can’t afford one this year
  • Serve meals or collect clothing for your local mission or shelter
  • Adopt a family (or child). Some organizations you can do this through are: Doing Good Together, Soldier’s Angels, World Vision, and the YWCA. Also look for local organizations or programs near you.
  • Visit those who are lonely (bedridden, in a nursing home, etc.). Call local senior centers or nursing facilities to find out how you can help. Dust off those rusty caroling skills! Or, take someone out to lunch who is missing a loved one.
  • Donate to Toys for Tots or similar programs
  • Make a difference in the lives of foster children. Look into ways you can help during the holiday season with organizations like Together We Rise or Children’s Action Network.
  • Encourage paying it forward. Even if it’s just buying a Pumpkin Spice Latte for the car in line behind you at Starbucks, it will bring joy to someone’s day! One of my favorite stories is about someone who pays for the groceries of others.

 

I promise, you’ll receive far more in return than you give. Your life will have more balance, your spirit will soar, you’ll make new friends, and you’ll maximize the impact of your life. Oh, and you’ll also make the world a better place in the meantime! What’s not to love about that? Happy holidays!

 

Friendsgiving and the Four Stages of Friendship

The holidays are already just around the corner (how did that happen?), and so many of us are already filling up our calendars with festive events, dinner parties, school functions, and traditional gift exchanges. It’s a season to focus on family and friends. How many of you are having a Friendsgiving celebration this year? I know that I am, so I definitely have the topic of friendship on my mind.

With so much focus on spending time with those we love, I’m reminded of what real friendship looks like. “Friend” is one of those words that has taken on a new meaning in today’s social media-inundated world. Now, the word “friend” can easily refer to a life-long confidante, or simply someone you just connected with on Facebook or started following on Instagram! BIG difference, don’t you think?

Generally speaking, healthy long-term relationships progress through four stages and—no offense to Facebook—“friend” isn’t the first stage. Ideally, each relationship stage should build on the other and at the proper pace. What advances a relationship to new stages or levels, IF it is meant to advance at all, are: mutual trust, compatibility, a shared interest in cultivating a deeper friendship, and the tests of time.

The stages go like this (imagine a pyramid, starting at the base):

  1. Acquaintance
  2. Prospect (a potential friend)
  3. Friend
  4. V.I.P. (Very Important Person)

Every person who becomes more than an acquaintance will start in the first stage.  Most stay there forever while others may progress into the next stages. Only a very few will make it to the VIP stage—and that’s the way it should be. Most of us usually have 4-5 VIPs, the crème de la crème of people in our lives.

Unfortunately, many people—particularly young people—can rush the stages, prematurely moving from one to the next in a quest for intimacy, new friends, popularity, or a full social calendar. When the stages are rushed, people exhibit behaviors in one stage that should be reserved for a deeper one. Inevitably, these relationships disintegrate due to a breakdown in trust, a loss of interest, or a pace that is uncomfortable for one or both of the parties. Note this applies to both friendships and romantic relationships.

If you want healthy, lasting relationships, don’t rush to stage four (like they do in the movies!). When you do, you risk making an emotional investment without really knowing the person—a mistake that can take a major toll when the relationship ends. It’s better to go slow through the stages and reserve the VIP level for people who really prove their friendship, commitment, and compatibility over time.  Don’t forget that good friendship and true love take time and good timing, and that’s okay.

Take some time to think about your current relationships. Can you recognize which stage each one is in? This holiday season, make a conscious effort to invest your deepest relationships and those poised to move up to the next stage. Those are the friendships that will build you up and last a lifetime!

Casting Your Vision for 2017

So, how was your 2016? Despite the holiday frenzy, I hope you took some time to reflect on the year, highlighting your blessings and, yes, considering what might have gone better. What brought you the greatest joy? What were your personal growth successes? Whose lives did you impact the most? What lessons did you learn from your greatest challenges? Does your future look differently?

Soon, the bowl games will be over and it’ll be time to cast your vision for the new year (including completing our goals from 2016!). With a renewed spirit and fresh thinking, some exciting opportunities may be in store.

Here are some tips to help you craft your vision for 2017:

Personal Growth:

Regardless of our age, we can always take steps to improve our personal (and professional) brand. Perhaps you’ve received some constructive criticism. Or, you wish you possessed a quality you admire in others. This list of positive attributes might stimulate ideas. Here are some additional questions to consider:

  • How would you most like to improve your mind, body, and spirit?
  • Which growth goals, if achieved, would have the greatest impact on your life and on others?
  • What new experiences and learning would allow for growth, enjoyment, or potential impact on the community?
  • How might you manage your time more effectively and reduce distractions?
  • Do you have a solid understanding of your assets, interests, and passions?

Relationships:

Positivity is a powerful force in life, especially in our relationships. It’s why we should begin each year by identifying the relationships we’d like to improve and how we might begin the process. (Yes, it generally pays for us to initiate the steps rather than wait for the other party… as difficult as this may be.)

Here are some other questions worth considering:

  • How is technology affecting your relationships with family and friends? Consider making your family time tech free. Technology IS having a serious effect on relationships and communication, so be on guard.
  • For parents: who could become a potential role model and mentor to your children? They’ll help foster new, valuable relationships and help your children build their network. Also, how can you build stronger relationship capital with each of your children?
  • Are politics getting in the way of your friendships? If so, it’s repair time!

Community:

Our greatest sense of joy, purpose, and fulfillment often comes from serving others. If giving back to your community is an area you’d like to strengthen, these questions might help channel your desire into a plan:

  • If you didn’t have to work for a paycheck, how would you contribute to society?
  • If you could solve any problem or pursue any cause, what would you choose?
  • Which people or needs tug most at your heart?
  • Which organizations or programs are aligned with your passions and could benefit from your talents?

Always remember, someone out there needs exactly what you have to offer!

Career:

No matter where you are in your career, there are always opportunities to “up your game.” These ideas might take yours to a new level:

  • For students, take a skills and interests inventory to identify potential matches. Then, as your candidate list narrows, talk with people in those jobs to gain from their wisdom. It’ll either confirm your interest or steer you away. By investing in your career exploration and understanding your talents, passions, and interests, you’ll be in great shape to find a good fit.
  • For experienced employees: 1) is there a new skill/training that will position you to advance? 2) how can you improve your existing job performance? 3) is there someone you would like to be mentored by or whom you can mentor? and 4) what ways can you contribute to your employer’s success that may, or may not, fit within your job description?

Finances:

Finally, we all should be reviewing our financial goals annually as a course of habit. What ways might you learn to save and invest more, spend more wisely, give more to charitable causes, and improve your financial literacy? Are you on a pathway to achieving your financial goals? What tweaks do you need to make?

Best wishes on your vision casting and for a fantastic 2017!

 

 

What Christmas Traditions Can Do for Your Teen

cookies“Aaaaw, do we really have to do        __this year?” (eyes roll)

Got teens?  If so, it may be easy for you to fill in the blank. Many times, these are the years parents get the most pushback from their kids when it comes to family traditions.  (Think Audrey in Christmas Vacation, if you’re a fan.)

But while some Christmas traditions may well need to be put on the shelf as children get older (e.g., a 16-year old on Santa’s lap at the mall to get that annual photo may seem a little over the top to some and downright humiliating to others), many traditions can serve to reinforce the bonds we share as a family.

As our (Arlyn’s) five children were growing up, we went out each year on the weekend after Thanksgiving to cut the family tree (more visions of Christmas Vacation, the slightly-edited-for-language version).  Early on, in an attempt to settle the inevitable squabbles that would arise as we searched for the “perfect tree,” we settled on the practice of having a “girls’ year” and a “boys’ year” to pick the tree. Did this eliminate conflict?  Not always, although it certainly minimized it. What it did do was cement a tradition that to this day continues to forge an impression in our kids’ minds of who we are as a family: we do things together. We communicate. We negotiate. We take turns.  These are important aspects of our family brand—all year long.

The “kids” now range from 19 to 30. And we still go out to cut a Christmas tree together each year … adding sons and daughters-in-law and a few grandkids to the mix, and still alternating girls’ years and boys’ years!

The traditions your family establishes and maintains—like going to church together on Christmas Eve, taking cookies to your neighbors, wearing matching jammies on Christmas morning, or whatever—can accomplish far more than just fun memories. They can be a significant part of creating a strong sense of security, identity, and values in your children. These are the kinds of qualities that can ground them and give them the internal strength they need to navigate the world with confidence.

Trust me, there were a lot of eye rolls and even a few spats over the years on our annual Christmas tree expeditions. (I remember an apple fight that turned ugly one year; the boys found rotting apples in a nearby orchard and decided to pelt the girls with them!). But bottom line, the tradition became something that contributed much more to our family brand than we ever anticipated: our traditions helped to cement our relationships.

What traditions does your family practice at Christmas?  Have you ever thought about what qualities they contribute to your family brand? Please share your ideas and memories with us; we’d love to hear!

An Out-of-the-Box Holiday Idea

Tired of shopping from gift card-laden lists that remove the element of surprise? Tempted to play it safe yet again? Or, are you willing to take a calculated risk and think “out of the box” for the special people/person in your life? Allow me to share a true story that might just influence your decision… and add a little magic, too.

I grew up in a family with limited financial means but who went “all out” at Christmas. Imagine a Norman Rockwellian Christmas on steroids. That would be us! Cookies and candies made from scratch. Tinseled tree. Snowball fights, sled riding, and ice skating. Midnight mass. Caroling in the neighborhood. Home made eggnog. There was nothing like it.

But things were looking different for us in the Christmas of ’79. Earlier that summer, I moved from Milwaukee to Seattle to attend grad school. I didn’t have the money to fly home so this was destined to be my first Christmas away. We avoided the subject during my weekly calls and for good reason. I knew this would be hard on all of us—probably me the most.

However, I decided to play a hunch in early November. What if I flew out to Chicago on a cheap ticket and had someone drive me the rest of the way? Ka-Ching! I immediately made the arrangements with my friend Bruce and didn’t tell a soul. I even sounded a little extra “down” during our December phone calls to help “set the stage.” Okay, I was milking it!

After the four-hour winter drive from O’Hare, I arrived at my brother Rick’s house where I plotted the big event for the following morning. I would be placed inside a large cardboard box sent from the North Pole on my parents’ upstairs apartment doorstep. Rick would ring the doorbell and “ditch” out of sight. And, at the appropriate time, I would jump out of the box and shout, “Merry Christmas!!!”

Now, I’d like you to imagine this for a moment. You are inside a box about to startle the living daylights out of your parents who are clueless to what they’re about to experience. Try to imagine.

My heart was pounding like never before as I sat inside the box. Eventually, my mom answered the door and immediately called out to her (visiting) friend to see what was on the doorstep. For reasons of space, I can’t replay the entire event, but imagine two ladies in their sixties trying to lift this mysterious carton into the apartment, utterly clueless as to what was inside. After they put in some effort, I knew it was time. I counted to three, and jumped out, providing the most delightful shock of our lives. Within five minutes, the story spread like wildfire throughout the apartment complex. A surprise for the ages.

My first Christmas away would have to wait for another year. Simply unforgettable.

As I reflect on that moment, I am reminded of what made it so special:

  1. It was a complete surprise—certainly not on their list!
  2. It was a gift from the heart—it spoke volumes about their importance to me
  3. It was creative—you might say, “Out of the box!”
  4. It made a lasting memory

And, wouldn’t you know it, but years later, I would receive my all-time favorite gift—one that possessed these same qualities.  It was an engraved license plate frame from my kids on Father’s Day that says, “Dad’s are Cool!” Now, that’s a keeper!

So, to you adults: who might benefit from an out-of-the-box type of gift that reveals how much you care? And, to you teens: what might you share with your parents, teachers, mentors, etc., that honors them for their investment in you?

It needn’t be any more elaborate than a handwritten note, straight from the heart.

Merry Christmas everybody!

 

 

Because We’re Thankful For You

As we enter Thanksgiving week, we’re grateful for your tireless investment in the next generation. Whether you’re a parent, guardian, educator, or mentor, we’re celebrating YOU with our annual holiday sale, now through year-end!

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