For the month of March, NFI’s Dad Email
is featuring tips and advice on how dads can use technology to help them build their relationships with their kids. Check out the resources from our “Tech Savvy Daddy” campaign here
, which we’ll be updating with more information every week this month.
Last week, our focus was on “Mobile Connections,” or using text messaging to connect with teens. A recent Pew Research Study
found that 75% of teens have a cell phone. Most of them have text messaging capability, and boy do they use it! 54% of teens texted their friends daily in 2010 (skyrocketing from only 38% who texted daily in 2008!). One out of three send more than 100 text messages daily!
For those of you who are fathers of teenagers, you probably feel like their thumbs are glued to their phone. But, as our Dad Email last week
pointed out, if texting is teenagers’ primary means of communicating, why not speak their language? We put together a list of text messages that dads can send their teens to encourage them and build their relationship. Check it out here
I work with a group of high school students at my church, and I quickly figured out that texting is the most effective way to communicate with them. When we were writing the suggestions of text messages for dads, I sent a text to the teens I know and asked them, “What’s a meaningful text message your dad could send you that would help build your relationship?” If we’re trying to help dads connect with their teens, why not get advice from them?
Here’s what I got back:
- just check in and see how i was doing
- maybe like i love u just wanted to remind u
- probably a Bible verse or just a note that told me to hang in there, or an invitation to spend time with him. That always means a lot to me. :)
The point I got out of this is, dads: it’s simple. Your kids don’t need something incredibly profound from you. They just want to know that you’re thinking about them, that you love them, and that you want to spend time with them. (As busy as your teenagers are, they actually do want to spend time with you, too.)
One text I got back from a teen whose dad is not very involved hit on a much deeper issue. What would be meaningful for this teenager would be “for him to realize what he has put me through and to want to change that.” Clearly, there are years of hurt that need to be undone in this relationship and a couple text messages aren’t going to do much, but I think a little effort on the part of this dad to move closer to his child would do a lot.
I think that’s true for any dad-teen relationship, no matter how good or bad it is. A little investment in your teen’s life will go a long way. Even if it’s as simple as a text message to say “I love you.”
There is a verse from the Bible that says, What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? I was reminded of the wisdom of these words recently after reading this Billy Ray Cyrus GQ interview
where he shared his regret about how he has been raising Miley Cyrus.
In any case, Billy Rays regret is a poignant reminder of how critical it is for all fathers to protect their children. Indeed, many will come along to sell our children the whole world. But, as Billy Ray unfortunately discovered too late, the price is just too high.
A few days ago, William Shatner, as part of his new A&E show called Aftermath
, interviewed DC sniper, Lee Malvo. I have spoken and written about Malvo frequently over the years because his situation impacted me in several very personal ways.
First, at the time of the shootings, I had just moved from the Philadelphia area—the City of Brotherly Love—to the DC area. Now, Philly, despite the moniker, was no bastion of safety and security but at least we didn’t have to deal with snipers. I remember well that random activities like walking my dog, getting gas and loading groceries in the car became random acts of courage. It was indeed a very scary time that still haunts me a bit today.
Second, they caught Muhammad and Malvo sleeping at a rest stop in Maryland on Route 70. It turns out that this stop is the next exit up from my wife’s office. She is a family practice doctor in a little town called Myersville. It’s a very isolated and rural place and her office is just a “rock throw” from the highway. There’s a little BP gas station across the street from her office where she often fills her tank. You get the point…I have thanked God often that an alert trucker spotted Muhammad and Malvo’s car that October night.
Finally, I remember well the morning that the news reported Muhammad and Malvo had been caught. What especially caught my attention was that they said that the suspects were a 38 year-old man and a 17 year-old boy. I instinctively looked over at my 17 year-old son and thought: What would it take to turn him into someone who would shoot a woman in the face with no remorse? There’s a fatherhood story in here somewhere.
Sure enough, a few days later, the Washington Post reported that they had found Lee Malvo’s father who had essentially abandoned him years ago. And the rest, tragically, is history.
In any case, what makes the Malvo story “news” now is that a celebrity is interviewing him and that he has suggested that there were supposed to be other snipers involved. That’s fine. But what makes this story important for me is what made it important years ago. Malvo’s story is less about crime than about how crime is connected to father absence.
“He was a kid who was brainwashed. He was a malleable teenager and lacking love in his life," Shatner said. "John Muhammad supplies the love and influences him to become a killer, and he becomes a coldblooded killer at the age of 17.”
Shatner’s statement is on point but it’s incomplete. Malvo had a mom who seemed to care about him but what he didn’t have was a loving father. Indeed, Muhammad did more than “supply” love. He became the father that Malvo longed for much of his young life. Of note, psychiatrist Diane Schetky, who served as an expert witness for the defense at Malvo's 2003 trial, quoted him as saying of Muhammad, “Anything he asked me to do I'd do. He knew I didn't have a father.
He knew my weaknesses and what was missing.”
I often talk about “what was missing” in a child’s life—it’s a hole in a kid’s soul in the shape of his dad. Unfortunately, still today, Malvo shares a potential “weakness” with millions of other kids who are more at-risk to become prey for the many “Muhammads” of this world. However, these guys don’t always come as sniper trainers but rather as gang leaders, pimps and drug dealers who encourage children to sell their bodies and their souls.
It’s worth noting that a disproportionate number of Malvo’s fellow inmates tend to grow up in father absent homes. Despite this fact, we have done too little to address father absence in our nation. Indeed, most of the fatherhood programs that are committed to addressing this issue are grossly underfunded. I know that in NFI’s case, despite that great work that we have been doing to educate and inspire dads and the many testimonials from fathers, mothers and, even kids about the good work we do, it is a daily challenge to raise the needed funds for our important work. But, we press on because the stakes are high and we don’t have a fatherless kid to spare.
I suspect that Shatner’s Aftermath
show will do well. Sadly, it seems that time and again we are more interested in the entertainment of the “aftermath” than what needs to be done beforehand to prevent it.
This past weekend, my family and I went to see "Toy Story 3." Wow. What a great movie! The dialogue was clever and humorous. The characters and the plot were compelling and entertaining, and the movie has a wonderfully engaging blend of drama and comedy. My sense is that the Toy Story series has run its course. If so, the creators of the series ended on a very high note.
However, there was one aspect of the movie that left me a bit "animated." The plot builds around the fact that Andy, who is now 17, has lost interest in playing with Woody, Buzz and the gang. Accordingly, the urgent crisis for the toys is what would become of them now that Andy would soon be heading off to college.
At one point, there is a scan of Andy's desk and you see a picture from his recent high school graduation. There are three smiling faces: Andy, his sister and his mom. So, for me, the stuffed elephant in the living room was...Where is Andy's dad and what's his
Now, I know that this is just a movie, but, unfortunately, art can imitate life. With 24 million kids living in father-absent homes, Andy's family situation is too real and too common for too many children. Nonetheless, this was not an accident or an oversight. Somewhere during the creative process someone made the call to erase dad. Moreover, he was deleted and no reference was made to him. And, well, I am just not comfortable with this new normal.
Interestingly, there was a scene in the movie where I got a sense that Andy was not too comfortable with this either. Near the end of the film, Andy is holding Woody for what will probably be the last time and he says that Woody is his most special toy and that he has been with him for as long as he can remember. He added that Woody was always there for him and, best of all, Woody would never give up on him, no matter what.
Now, you can dismiss this like so much "psycho babble," but it seems to me that Andy, through his imagination and play, ascribed to Woody the attributes of an involved, responsible, and committed father. And, if you followed the Toy Story series, this is exactly how Woody behaved. He was always focused on being there for Andy regardless of the challenges and obstacles. Interestingly, the magic that made Woody a "real" toy was his commitment to Andy, just like what makes a man a real father is his commitment to his children.
In fact, if anyone ever questioned his priorities and purpose, Woody was quick to show them the word "ANDY" written on the sole of his shoe in permanent marker. What an amazing metaphor for what happens to a man when he becomes a dad. I have heard numerous times from fathers how something changed inside of them when they held their child for the first time. Well, I think that children are born with "magic" markers and when their dads hold them for the first time, they write their names on their dads souls to remind their fathers who they belong to.
I guess that's why I am a bit troubled by no reference or mention of Andy's dad. Because for all of the real Andys in the world, their his
tory is linked to their destiny as men and as fathers. Accordingly, they have to come to grip with and make sense of their father's absence in a real way. And there is no erasing that.See how National Fatherhood Initiative works with entertainment media projects to promote their fatherhood messages: www.fatherhood.org/entertainment
By now, you may have seen news reports regarding the brutal beating death in Chicago of 16-year-old Fenger HS honor student, Derrion Albert. If you haven't, you certainly will, because someone captured the tragic events on a cellphone. The footage
shows a group of male teens kicking and striking Albert with splintered railroad ties during the attack.
Boys will not
just be boys. Too often, boys will be violent--deadly violent-- especially if they dont have the guiding hand of a good father. My sense is that you wont have to do too much investigating to connect the perpetrators of this heinous act to a family cycle of fatherlessness. This was certainly the case with the DC sniper shootings. In fact, research shows that male inmates overwhelming come from father-absent homes. A key and essential role of a good father is to teach his son how to use his power and strength in the right way.
Interestingly, boys are often encouraged--as is evident from the gang that attacked Albert--to define themselves by how they use their power. Real men, and good fathers in particular, define themselves by their ability to restrain and direct their power in the best interest of themselves, their families, and their communities. Indeed, the real difference between boys and men is the ability to say no to the wrong things and yes to the right things.
A new study by researchers at the University of Oregon asserts that genetic factors are more important in determining when a child will first have sex than whether or not they have a father in the home. According to a BBC story
on the report, "The more genes the children shared, the more similar their ages of first intercourse, regardless of whether or not the children had an absent father."
I have a few problems with their conclusions:
1) On just about everything else where there is a genetic predisposition towards a behavior, we do not allow that genetic predisposition to act as an excuse for the behavior. Think about addictions. Drug addiction has genetic markers. Yet we don't say that a drug addict therefore has no control over whether or not he uses drugs. That would be letting the genes act as an excuse for bad choices.
2) Simon Blake, from a sexual health nonprofit called "Brook Advisory Centre," while disagreeing that genes are the overriding factor, does not then conclude that father involvement is important - even though the study showed clear correlation between early sexual activity and father absence. He instead points to the need for "better education." I guess it is hard to disagree with that, but it ignores the clear father factor that exists here.
I guess this gets back to the age old "nature versus nurture" question. What do you think? Is it genes or dads?
Having the opportunity to work with a wonderful group of high-school teens gives me plenty of opportunities to hear about the joys and disasters of being a teen. And more often than not, both the ups and downs involve family members. So last night I asked them the following question:If you could give parents everywhere a piece of advice about parenting teenagers, what would you say?
The answers were candid and thoughtful; here is the synopsis of their responses:
- Don't be my coach. Be my parent. Just be there and tell me I did a good job, but let the coaches do the coaching.
- Communication is really important to avoid hurt feelings.
- Trust us to do the right thing. You raised us right, so let us make decisions.
- Give us space when we ask for it.
- Notice when we do things right, not just when we do things wrong.
- Spend time with us and really listen to what we say.
- Don't embarrass us in front of your friends or tell people stuff about me.
- Take time to understand what is going on in my life so you know what I'm going through.
- Don't always be a parent...sometimes be a friend, because I tell things to friends that I wouldn't tell to my parents.
- Listen to us, because we might say something you hadn't already thought of.
In any case, a poignant reminder that kids need moms and dads investing in them every day.
Our friends at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy yesterday released a wonderful compilation of mini-essays on the definition and shape of personal responsibility vis-a-vis unplanned pregnancy. "Rethinking Responsibility: Reflections on Sex and Accountability
" surveyed 29 leaders for their thoughts on this critical issue.
NFI's own Roland Warren contributed an essay
on the resounding benefits of putting a ring on it.
The teen years are scary...for everyone (have you been to a movie theater or a mall on a Friday night?!?). But I think they can be scariest for fathers of daughters. To quote Britney
, she's "not a girl, not yet a woman." Teenage girls are changing in ways that dads can't understand and frankly, find quite uncomfortable. And all dads, having once been teen boys, are scared witless for their growing daughters.
I remember thinking my teen years were going to be an all-out war between me and my dad. Somehow, they weren't; we survived with relatively few screaming matches and tantrums. My father didn't say much to me about boys, but he did have this glare and this tone of voice that could instill the fear of God in anyone - including me and my homecoming date. He also had strictly imposed curfews and rules about where I could drive and with whom. Sigh...life was difficult.A recent study
shows that dads have a significant influence over their teen children. More than mom, actually. Teens with involved dads engage in fewer risky sexual behaviors - dads significantly affect the behavior of their adolescent boys and girls.
Not exactly rocket science, but a good reminder for dads who may shy away from relating to their teens, especially their teen girls. It took me quite a few years to realize that my dad was right about some things...okay, most things...he said about guys. Yes, there was some domestic strife and neither of us did everything right during those years, but I'm glad my dad braved the attitude and sulkiness and insisted on being involved.