Teens Show Bulletproof Leadership

By Gregory Keer

I work really hard at my public face. As a parenting writer and high-school educator, I try to project steadiness, calm, wisdom, and a little gentle humor. I call it my Atticus Finch persona, and it has been cultivated and is authentic. Most of the time.

Some of the time, I lose my composure, usually with my own kids. They dissolve into their phones instead of looking solidly at me when I make conversation, and that makes me upset. They repeatedly leave their clothes and dishes around for someone else to take care of, and that makes me mad. They tell me to shut up, that I don’t know anything about the way the world works today, and that makes me furious.

In my worst responses, I’ve shaken the rooftop with my anger at not being able to control my kids’ negative behavior. I’ve apologized to them, explaining that my reaction is my own fault and admitting my mistake in letting the Hulk out when I should have called upon a bit more Atticus Finch. I tell them that I allowed my message of disappointment in their actions to be overtaken by my lack of self-regulation. And I work daily at improving my responses, at increasing my level-headedness if only to show them one of my chief lessons in life: No one is perfect, but we must communicate with each other, above all else, if we are to resolve what makes us feel diminished, put down, or left out.

This central belief — in communication — is the main reason I write. It’s the main reason I am writing this piece today. I am writing to answer my children’s questions about why I, and my generation, have not made the world as safe as it could be. I am writing because I want my boys to know that I value their own efforts to figure out the problems of our time. I am writing because I need them to know that they, and their contemporaries who are speaking and acting with clarity and conviction, are showing me that they are ready to lead us to important changes for good.

Pivoting From Anger to Glimmers of Hope

Sure, it matters that I am upset for the victims of the recent shootings at Santa Fe High School in Texas and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. I am mad at the narrow-mindedness of those who cannot see the benefits of committing to more effective gun control regulation and taking automatic rifles off the market. I am furious at those in our society who do not truly value our children’s lives and their voices when our kids speak intelligently and humanely.

But it is incumbent upon me, as a writer/parent/educator/sentient being with the blessing of the ability to reason, to at least attempt to make some sense out of the chaos of a world where children die in the very places that are meant to help them grow their minds and bodies enough to become the eventual caretakers of this society.

If there is one thing I have realized by being a father, it’s that I learn more from my kids than they do from me. Sure, I have given them guidelines and tips to function as good, productive people. But they, in their clarity about fairness, capacity to forgive, and their passion for living for happiness and love, wipe away the fog that often clouds my vision through the sometimes numbing elements of work, money, responsibility.

My boys are full of imperfections, which are well documented in my writings, but they know that emotions are complex, random, hard to deal with. They shout, cry, laugh, and get sad, yet they are willing to talk about it. Sometimes with my wife and me, sometimes with friends, sometimes with their pediatrician. Yes, my wife and I taught them that this is important, that we are safe to talk to, even when we have opinions on when they’ve been right or wrong. Still, they have to walk this path of not holding inside what troubles them and of trusting that those meant to support them (their parents, teachers, health professionals) will see them as individuals who need safety nets, boundaries, and guidance.

These are boys who are able to access their feelings as well as recognize and reach out to others who exhibit feelings of sadness or distress. Feelings are more powerful than fists or bullets or any other vestiges of what some may see as strength or machismo. Feelings can lead people to bully others, to shut others out to protect oneself, and to a place on the wide spectrum of depression that this country of ours is still largely clueless about. Feelings lead to actions and the sooner our children can learn to sort through them, the better off we will all be.

Making Their Path to Change Possible

Let me be super clear about something else I’ve learned from teaching and raising teenagers in particular — they want adults to set limits, even when their feelings progress to them railing and screaming and taking off in the car in response to these lines. They need us to know we’re keeping them in bounds because their brains and emotions are a long way off from being completely developed. They need us to buck up, not shy away from their temporary shields and emotional missiles, and use compassionate firmness to keep them safe and kind in this world.

So, what else can we do, my friends in parenthood? What can we do for our children in the face of a breakdown of all we should have done to prevent tragedies such as the mass shootings in Texas and Florida? We need to double down, dig way the hell in on our efforts to make kids our number one priority. We brought them into this world, and they have repaid us with a sense of fulfillment that outpaces whatever headaches they’ve caused us. Now, we have to listen to them and their cries for safety, fairness, and reason. We have to let them take our hand down a path we started for them and allow them to show us what they need.

We have to support them with making gun laws more effective and putting more trained security professionals on campus whose sole job is to protect our youth. We have to boost them with more teachers who teach, more guidance counselors who counsel, more adult professionals who have eyes and ears on them. America is painfully behind much of the first-world in the area of financial commitment to education. We — need — to — be — number — one.

And, again, we need to let our children lead us.

Twice in the last year, my sons got my wife and I out of the house to march with thousands to speak out about human rights and dignity. They made signs, spoke to adults, and walked miles and miles. No complaining from them. Why? Because they were leading.

At my high school in the days following the Parkland, Florida tragedy, student leaders in every grade organized memorials, assemblies, and letter writing to the victims and politicians who can help prevent the creation of more victims.

With my children and my students, I have been proud to the point of bursting to provide support and guidance. But I have done little compared to them. They have led me and other adults. They have communicated their needs. And they have not lost an ounce of commitment.

For myself, I know all too well how little anger does if I don’t channel it into action and understanding. My children have taught me more about that than I ever expected. I am forever grateful to them for that. I will show that gratitude by supporting their calls for a safer, better world.

© 2018 Gregory Keer. All rights reserved.

Posted in Adolescence, Columns by Family Man, Death, Ethics, Helping Kids Understand Loss, Morals, Protecting Children, Safety, School, Talking About Disasters, Tweens, Values | Leave a comment