6 Conversations to Have Before Your Teen Leaves Home

As summer draws to a close and the school year starts up again, change is in the air. Many of us have children who are about to leave our homes and head off to college or the workforce for the first time. Many people are uncomfortable with change, especially big ones like this! They don’t know how things will turn out and sometimes fear the worst. That’s too bad—because change can be incredibly positive (for parents AND children).

This year’s recent high school graduates are about to experience the greatest decade of change in their lives. Some of it will be voluntary and some of it not. Some of it will be clear and some of it will have highly uncertain outcomes. Some of it will be easy to handle and some will be highly stressful. It’s all part of their journey, and their journey is what will make them, THEM! It’s important we let them live it, find themselves, and be an encourager to them along the way.

Are you a parent of a teen who is heading off into the “real world?” How are they feeling about it? Do they know how much you believe in them?

These six topics, all addressed in What I Wish I Knew at 18, will help you open up conversations about what may be in store. Share your stories about how you faced these similar changes—warts and all. Change doesn’t seem as intimidating when someone else you know has navigated it successfully and learned important life lessons along the way. Plus, it will help open up safe lines of communication when they face challenges—as they will.

  1. College majors and career paths. They will probably change their choice in career or major several times over, and this is NORMAL. The anxiety associated with this big decision is considerable, and far too many high schoolers are placing undue pressure on themselves to know their future major/career. (They’re still discovering themselves and haven’t even taken advanced courses, so how can they be so sure?) Let them know that it’s okay to change their mind and that you will be supportive no matter what.
  2. Future jobs. They will probably have five to seven jobs in their life. They will have to deal with new employers, new managers, new coworkers, new technology, and new locations multiple times. At these times, it helps to be especially proactive in meeting and engaging with new people. And, on their first day on the job, be sure they ask their supervisor how he/she defines “excellence” in this position and the one or two most significant accomplishments they could deliver in the next six months. It helps set the stage for a strong start.
  3. Moving. They’ll likely move several times, whether for long periods or for short-term assignments. The assimilation involved in each situation is significant.
  4. Dating. They’ll most likely date several different people before potentially settling down into marriage. Since there is much more at stake than during high school dating, the pressure is that much greater. Have conversations about their “need to have” and “nice to have” qualities in a long-term relationship. It becomes an invisible filter as new people enter their lives.
  5. Social adjustments. It is important to make new friends once they go off to college, but it’s also important to maintain their long-term friendships. They’ll face lots of peer pressure (and you won’t be there to coach them through it), so it’s crucial for yours to never compromise their values to fit in with a certain social group or person. IF they have to change who they are to be accepted, it’s time to move on. Self confidence when meeting new people is HUGE. Patience and selectivity are the keywords.
  6. The academic transition. There’s no way around it—college is much harder than high school, and the competition is stiffer. Like with me, their first year might come as a shock as they’ll have to develop better study habits and time management skills to succeed.

Change can seem overwhelming, and it’s wise to view it as a constant and become as adaptable as possible. That goes for all of us, no matter what season of life we’re in!

If we can embrace it as an opportunity for growth and adventure, rather than something to be feared, it will prepare us for bigger things down the road. Encourage the young people in your life to be confident and courageous—and take it to heart yourself.

Do you have a young person who is leaving your home soon? Have you talked about any of the above topics? We’d love to hear from you, so please feel free to share your thoughts or comments!

 

 

 

Our Best Success Pointer, Ever? You Be the Judge.

When I wrote What I Wish I Knew at 18, I had no idea which specific pointer might resonate most with readers. After all, each of my 109 life success pointers had its own reason, place, and value. I’m often asked which is the most important one of all. I have tremendous difficulty answering this question, and I wrote the book!

To my surprise, though, one pointer seems to be resonating most of all, especially with those who are using our student guides with kids. Any guesses? It’s the one called, “Love and friendship take time… and timing.” Surprisingly, it’s having a powerful impact on adults, too!

What’s all the excitement about? In this particular lesson, we encourage young people to be patient in cultivating new friendships. We describe a relationship pyramid with four progressive stages of depth and help kids understand the parameters and privileges that go with each level. The stages, in order, are:

  1. Acquaintance
  2. Prospect (a potential friend, progressing from an acquaintance)
  3. Friend (a “graduate” from the Prospect pool)
  4. VIP (very important person in our life—a select list!)

Those who take a healthy approach to relationship building are selective in determining who stays or moves among these stages. We help readers understand that time, trust, and shared beliefs/values/interests are the defining qualities that determine whether a relationship will graduate, regress, or stay at the same level. For example, you shouldn’t expect—or permit—the same level of intimacy and trust with an “acquaintance” as you would with a “VIP” (e.g., very close friends/family members).  Looking back, my biggest relationship messes were when I made some incorrect “stage assignments.”

Clearly, this isn’t rocket science. However, there seems to be something extra special about this pointer because we receive far more comments on it than any other. Why? In this age of Facebook “friendships” and other social media relationships (Instagram, Snapchat, etc.), intimacy (or false intimacy) can form too quickly and sometimes almost dangerously. The goal with this advice is to frame relationships in a more natural, realistic way, and offer a more mature perspective.

Many young people today are rushing into relationships and behaviors before they’ve been properly qualified (thanks, in no part, to our cultural messages). In their quest to make new friends or fit in, some compromise their values by engaging in behaviors with the two lowest levels that should be reserved for friends or VIPs. It’s happening more frequently among middle schoolers and is especially common on college campuses when students get lonesome and strive to make new friends quickly. In the end, many relationships fall precipitously down the pyramid, often with severe consequences, when regrettable decisions ensue…

It’s not only kids who need this advice, it seems. At a recent educator conference, a parent who had been going through What I Wish I Knew at 18 with her teenage daughter thanked us for this particular lesson.  “That pointer,” she proclaimed, “changed MY life!”

Have YOU been reading What I Wish I Knew at 18 with a young person or going through the Student Guide with teens in your life?  Which pointer has impacted your teen(s) the most?  Which one has impacted YOU the most? We’d love to add to list of “People’s Picks” for Best Success Pointers!

5 Ways to Help Teens Build Self-Awareness

“It takes courage…to endure the sharp pains of self discovery rather than choose to take the dull pain of unconsciousness that would last the rest of our lives.” –Marianne Williamson

Regardless of your family or career role, you probably know some teenagers you’d like to see thrive. And what is one key character trait that generally leads to a happy, healthy, and successful adult life? Unfortunately, one that often takes a back seat as we navigate the busyness of life? Self-awareness.

As consumed as teens are with schoolwork and activities, home responsibilities, jobs, college prep, family, social life, and more, self-reflection is probably the last thing on their minds. However, being self-aware and cultivating healthy self-esteem will help them in life more than they can fully realize. Here a few suggestions to help encourage the teenagers in your life to become more self-aware:

  1. Does your teen journal? If not, encourage them to take a couple moments a day to quietly reflect. Have them write down what they’re passionate about, what they value, who they aspire to be. Suggest they write about their emotions, too. They’ll be surprised at how beneficial it can be!
  2. Set them up with a mentor. We all need mentors! Mentorship relationships provide great learning opportunities for people both young and old. They allow us to model our life after someone we admire and aspire to be like, and learn practical life wisdom from the pros. Your teen’s mentor could be a relative, friend, youth leader,, or someone in their desired career field.
  3. Be open about your own life experiences. A huge part of being self-aware is the ability to identify key people and events that played a role in creating our worldview and life perspective. Talk to your teen about the people who played essential roles in your own life (i.e. your parents, grandparents, a favorite college professor, an author, etc.). One of the greatest gifts we can give the young people in our lives is encouragement and wisdom from our own life experience (the good and the bad!).
  4. Don’t always gloss over mistakes. When your teen messes up in a relationship or in school, it’s easy for us to overlook the shortfall and boost their self-esteem because we want to see them happy again. However, it is important for our teens to know their strengths AS WELL as their weaknesses. Knowing areas of needed improvement will help your teen improve his or her character and mature. Reflective conversations after the fact cement those valuable life lessons.
  5. Have them develop a “Personal Balance Sheet” of their assets (special qualities they have to offer) and their constraints (things holding them back). This exercise is both revealing and inspirational as teens reflect on themselves and receive invaluable input from others. The assignment is found

Self-awareness is a product of careful introspection. It helps us develop more accurate answers to the fundamental questions of who am I, what do I uniquely have to offer this world, and what are my opportunities. When teens focus on their own personal character, including their values, beliefs, heroes, goals, struggles, shortfalls, etc., they soon reap the benefits of being self-aware. People who are self-aware learn to act intentionally and deliberately with hope and vision instead of being reactionary, random, or impulsive. They are able to redirect negative thoughts, be true to who they are, and be a positive light to the people around them.

How would you rate your own level of self-awareness? What have you done to encourage the young people in your life to become self-aware? 

3 Tips for Conquering Conflict

Question: What do the Montagues and Capulets have in common with convincing a five-year old to eat her brussels sprouts? Answer: Conflict! We can all relate to this on some level, right? Whether it’s conflict with a boss, coworker, spouse, child, friend, parent, teacher, or even a next door neighbor, the fact is conflict is a part of life! We aren’t going to always see eye-to-eye with everyone. What matters is what we do (and how we react) when conflict arises.

We invite you to use this article as an opportunity to perform a self-check. How do you rate on your levels of self control, understanding, and respectfulness when conflict arises in your life? What can you do to better handle conflict with others?

Here are three tips to help you manage conflict:

  1. Respect yourself and your right to be heard. Whether it’s peer pressure, a challenge to your rights, personal safety, or position, it’s important to stand up for yourself. Sometimes, we allow others to intimidate or dominate us out of fear or insecurity. Also, certain personality types (especially the “S’s” in the DISC model) are so focused on “keeping the peace” that they risk being taken advantage of, especially by people with dominant personalities. Although conflict is uncomfortable, we must respect ourselves in the process while being respectful to the other party. Don’t ever sacrifice your well-being or comfort for the sake of someone else. You deserve to be heard just as much as the other party.
  2. Strive to be an agreeable disagreer. So often, conflicts arise from misunderstandings that could have been prevented or at least controlled. Sometimes they’re based on different philosophical views or perspectives where there isn’t a right or wrong answer. (This is especially true when it comes to talking politics. The current political climate is pretty tense, and conflict is high—both on social media and in real life.) We may want the same outcome as others with whom we disagree, but simply have different strategies to get there. Always strive for mutual understanding, while being attentive to your tone and body language, but agree to disagree if that’s the case. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger. Consider having a heartfelt retroactive talk about it once things have calmed, and vow to do better next time if it didn’t go as smoothly as you’d have liked. And, remember that barking, yelling, and name calling won’t change anyone’s mind, anyway. Instead, it usually emboldens.
    Finally, if you’re in a heated conversation and your emotions are bubbling, try using this phrase: “I have a different perspective.” If the other party is disrespectful after that, simply suggest a follow up conversation at another time and move on.
  3. Choose reconciliation over grudges wherever possible. We’ve all been victims of a wrong or a mistake. It causes anger, shame, resentment, depression, and worse. However, when we harbor grudges and refuse to forgive, it can be like an all-consuming cancer. Strive for reconciliation whenever possible and don’t hesitate to seek support. Holding a grudge and/or refusing to ever speak to someone again will not make you feel better—it will feel like a burden that just won’t go away.

The ability to manage conflict is a hallmark of a true leader and a symbol of integrity and maturity. What is your favorite tip for handling conflict? Do you have any life lessons from past experiences you’d like to share?

Never Underestimate the Power of Your Words

Think of a time when someone spoke loving or encouraging words to you. Those words will probably stay with you forever. However, you can probably think of even more instances when others have been critical or mean spirited or gossiped about you. Those words won’t be easy to forget, either, but for a different reason.

Words have incredible power—they can be uplifting and change someone’s life for the better, or they can be destructive and leave people with wounds that will last a lifetime. The thing is, the only words we have power over are our own. Once spoken, there is no way to get them back. Plus, we can’t control what other people do with the words we’ve spoken. Even if you don’t want them to, your words could end up traveling in a million different directions and—depending on what you said—get you in trouble one day. (This is especially true for anything we put on social media.)

It’s crucial to understand that our words reveal much about our character. Our words are reflections of our trustworthiness, loyalty, kindness, and respect for others. Also, they’re telltale signs of our temperament and self control. What do your words say about you? How are we doing as a nation?

In recent history, some horrific tragedies have occurred among young people when they were publicly ridiculed through gossip, texts, or social media posts. Some of these even resulted in suicide. So much heartache—all caused by words used heartlessly and irresponsibly. Yes, our words can literally be a matter of life or death, especially to people who are vulnerable.

Here are four ways to guard our words and ensure we’re received as a person of integrity:

  1. Only say things about other people you wouldn’t mind them hearing. Try it for a week and you will truly be amazed by how it affects your choice of words. (I wish every school would take this challenge. Imagine what it would do to bullying!)
  2. When offering constructive criticism, recite it back to yourself in your head before giving it to the person. How would you feel receiving this exact criticism? Be empathetic and CONSTRUCTIVE (not hurtful!).
  3. Do not put anything on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, or Instagram (even in private messages) that you would not want getting out. The internet is not private, ever.
  4. If you’re in a disagreement with someone, watch out for accusations, assumptions, and the tendency to name call. If you sense that you’re reaching the “boiling point,” pause for at least ten seconds to collect yourself and your thoughts. Above all, strive for mutual understanding and avoid words that incite emotion. A calm tone, especially in disagreements, makes a big difference.

When you apply these concepts in life, you’ll be admired for your tact, restraint, and uplifting spirit. You’ll see that your words can change your heart, body, and mind from the inside out, and your relationships with your friends, significant other, coworkers, and even your children will improve. And, if you can get others to join you, it might be the beginning of a wonderful movement in our culture! Are you up for it?

What are some ways you’ve helped build a positive culture of words

in your classroom, school, family, workplace, or community?

Five Tips for a Purposeful and Engaging Summer with Your Teen

I think we can all agree it feels like Christmas was just a month ago. But in a flash, we’ve blazed through winter (which for us Pacific Northwesterners means suffering through copious amounts of rain) and the end of the school year is already upon us. In fact, some college students only have a couple weeks left!

So, now what? Your teen will be home with you for the summer until you move them into the dorms or they take off to start a new career. What can you do as their parent to make their summer at home memorable, engaging, and most importantly, purposeful?

I believe summer is the best time for us as parent to take advantage of our teens’ presence and slip into some special moments that would otherwise difficult to accomplish. Without further ado, here are five tips for a purposeful and engaging summer with your teen:

  1. Dream about the future together. Over a cup of coffee or at their favorite place, talk with your teen about his or her dreams. What do they want to major in and why? What places do they hope to travel to over the next couple of years? Share your own life experience and how you’ve made your personal dreams a reality. Consider completing this values checklist together, (and this personal balance sheet, if they’re up for it) and let them know you’re always available to talk.
  2. Go on a hike. What better way to build relationship capital with your teen than getting some fresh air? Sometimes new experiences and adventures facilitate conversations you wouldn’t have had elsewhere.
  3. Encourage your teen to invite their friends over to your home. Play host or hostess for a night and get to know the people your teen hangs out with most. Be familiar with their third party voices and know that your teen’s three closest relationships are the ones that impact his or her life the most. It’s a great opportunity to see your teen in her or her element!
  4. Attend a sporting event together. Baseball season is in full swing, and enjoying the fresh spring/summer air while watching a game of ball with your teen is a great way to bond! A round of golf is another great choice—potentially a sport you can enjoy for a lifetime.
  5. Participate in a service project together. Ask your teen what causes she or he is passionate about. Seek out your local churches, shelters, or nonprofit organizations to find what ways you can get involved with your community through volunteering. Impacting the world around you will be an incredibly inspiring, uplifting, and relationship building experience that you’ll never forget.

 

Remember, your teen experiences a ton of pressure during the school year with academics, extracurricular activities, plans for future, and more.. So, be sure to use the summer months to help them decompress and do things they wouldn’t otherwise have time for. These young years will be gone in the blink of an eye (for both of you)!

What timeless memories can you build with your teen this summer?

 

Eight Ways to Avoid “Foot-in-Mouth” Disease

These days, it feels like the majority of our communication is online. Thanks to Facebook (and other social media platforms), e-mail, blogs, and the capability for many career positions to work remotely, most of us are more comfortable communicating online than we are in person. In fact, because we live in such a tech-inundated world, face-to-face communication skills (especially amongst young people) are at their all-time worst. Needless to say, we could all use some tips on how to avoid miscommunication—for those times when a text message or SnapChat just won’t do.

You see, it’s not uncommon for the messages we send to be received differently than we intend. And when it happens, it can be a disaster. It’s crucial that we are aware of the way we say things and how we come across to others. This applies to making first impressions at job interviews, dating, relating to your employers, making new friends, and more. It can’t all be done online! (Thank goodness!)

Miscommunication can happen to all of us.  Fortunately, there are some simple things you can do to minimize it. Three things affect how others receive our messages… and any one of them can be the cause of major misunderstandings if we’re not careful. As you step out from behind your computer, look up from your smart phone, and engage with the people around you, keep these three tips in mind:

  1. Word choice – This factor is huge, especially when we discuss sensitive topics and issues we are passionate or emotional about (e.g., politics and religion). In these situations, our emotions can interfere with our thinking, and we often use more provocative language that we later regret. As a result, the other person can become hurt and offended. Take a deep breath or two before you speak so your internal filter can soften your rhetoric.

 

  1. Delivery – Sometimes it’s our manner of delivery that gets in the way, even if our word choice is fine. Delivery is especially important when meeting people for the first time. Examples include speaking with a harsh (or bored, unenthusiastic, or condescending) tone of voice or displaying certain expressions and body language that are not received well by others (crossing arms, standing over someone, frowning, smirking, rolling eyes). No matter what words we use, if the “packaging” is incongruent, our message will lack credibility and rub people the wrong way. Always pay attention to the non-verbal cues your audience is sending!

 

  1. Filter – (No, I’m not referring to Instagram.) Depending on whether your audience likes or distrusts you, whether they’re in a good or bad mood, focused or distracted, your message may not get through in the way you intended. Unfortunately, this happens all the time, and you can’t control it. Filter is the one aspect of miscommunication is that most out of our control.

 

In short, here are eight ways to help you avoid miscommunication with others (and needing to put your foot in your mouth or apologize later on):

  • Be sure your expression (body language, facial expressions) are in sync
  • Think before you speak
  • Strive to be empathetic by putting yourself in the receiver’s position
  • Closely monitor the receiver’s body language to see whether he or she may be interpreting your words differently than you intend.
  • Be a discerning listener when they respond
  • Be quick to apologize for any misunderstandings
  • Avoid coming on too strong, especially with people who don’t know you well. It takes time to build the relationship capital needed for people to give you the benefit of the doubt.
  • Remember, it’s okay to be professional in casual settings, but not the reverse!

How do your own in-person communication skills rate? Do you have any other tips on avoiding miscommunication you’d like to share?

 Note: This is an excellent lesson for role-playing in the home or classroom. Encourage your teen or students to act out different scenarios in which the verbal communication could be misinterpreted. You will find a great lesson in our What I Wish I Knew at 18 study guide on this subject.

Let’s Make 2017 the Year of Listening

“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

~ Epictetus

Question: what one action fosters unity, common understanding, mutual respect, healing, better decisions, more effective management, stronger marriages, families, and friendships, and greater empathy, civility, harmony, knowledge, and perspective? (I think we can all agree these are worthy causes!) Answer: Listening. If we dedicated ourselves to becoming better listeners. I believe it would change the world.

So, what about making 2017 a year when we do more listening and “sharing with” and less “talking to?” A year when we fully engage with each other to forge stronger relationships and greater understanding? And, maybe a year when we celebrate what unites us instead of focusing so much on our differences?

From my perch, this would go a long way in healing our nation, our communities, our families, and ourselves. Here’s what I’m observing:

  • Almost everything today has become politicized, with people holding entrenched views and often vilifying others simply for having different opinions or solutions (as if this will persuade). We’re talking/shouting at each other, rather than sharing our perspectives and seeking common ground. We’re spending most of our time with people who share our views rather than respectfully engaging and listening to others with different points of view (hello college administrators!). This polarizes and divides, rather than unites, and it’s impairing our relationships, mutual understanding, and civility.
  • Technology is significantly interfering with interpersonal engagement and is eroding our relationships. (Question: was this ever listed as a potential side effect when we bought our smartphones?!?) We’re allowing ourselves to be distracted when we’re together, without realizing how this devalues others.
  • Our careers are so consuming and our schedules so full that we aren’t preserving the needed time to nurture, guide, and listen to our children as we should.
  • Businesses are often so consumed with their bottom lines that they’re not fully engaging all that their employees have to offer. Some are even expecting 24-7 responses to emails, which is interfering with family time.

So, where do we go from here? Perhaps if we try these out, we can reverse course:

  1. When we’re enjoying the company of others, we adopt a no-device rule (unless we are using them together). We fully engage with our eyes, ears, and body language.
  2. We adopt the 40/60 rule in how much we talk versus listen in our conversations. (Note: with parents, it should be more like 30/70!)
  3. We spend more time trying to understand each other rather than persuade each other. We keep our conversations constructive and strive to find common ground where it exists (we might discover that our goals are the same but our methods are different!).
  4. We reserve time to invest in our relationships and fully engage
  5. We exhibit self control, respect, and civility when we differ
  6. We listen to positive influences and tune out others
  7. We seek out varying perspectives in forming our views, making decisions, and teaching students (college administrators, take note)
  8. We put our employees first when we manage our businesses
  9. We take time to listen to our spirit, to pray if we are so inclined, and to bask in the beauty and tranquility of nature. Someone once said that “silent” and “listen” are spelled with the same letters. How cool!

As someone who tends to be outgoing and opinionated, this may be among the most convicting blogs I’ve ever written. But, I’m committing myself to do better in 2017 and beyond. I hope these ideas work for you, and the people you’re influencing, too.

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!