Monthly Archives: March 2013

Tell Your Sons: Avoiding the Big Stupid Mistakes

Let me start by stating the obvious: the sexual assault of the inebriated young woman in Steubenville, Ohio by two high school athletes was a heinous act for which punishment is just and proper. This is a tragic case in which everybody lost. A young woman will be haunted by the sexual assault itself, by the knowledge that online images of the assault will be floating around the town and the world forever, and by the fact that members of her community (incredibly) fault her for turning the boys in. The two young men who digitally penetrated her as onlookers stood by watching and recording them will be incarcerated, will have to register as sexual offenders upon their release, and will have to live with the responsibility of ruining a young woman’s life. Whatever hopes and dreams all three of these young people had in life are changed irreparably by the horrific circumstances of one Friday night.

As the parent of a young adult daughter, I shudder to read about that poor young woman surrounded by attackers and people who failed to help her. And as the parent of two teenaged sons, I shudder to read yet another story of young men allowing a night of partying to turn into a night of sexual assault. We’ve seen this before. Fueled and confused by the lethal combo of alcohol, a bravado born of the hero-worship that local athletes often enjoy, and an abandonment (however temporary) of any kind of moral decency or good sense, young men cross the line to commit terrible crimes. It would be easy to dismiss these young men as perverted lunatics, but watching one of the young men’s hysterically tearful apology to the girl and her family lets us know that the story is more complicated than that. How do we as parents use these cautionary tales to instruct our boys and girls about avoiding opportunities to get into serious, terrible trouble?

I write this from the Bahamas, where high school and college kids have gathered during Spring Break to take advantage of warm beautiful weather, a lower drinking age (18) and the absence of parental supervision to party like it’s 3am all day. As I walk past throngs of young women wearing next to nothing bikinis or impossibly short dresses with more impossibly high heels, gathering to plan their next moves, I want to gather them and warn them that no good can come of the combination of their outfits and the abundance of alcohol. As I see the groups of young men eyeing these young women I want to stop and tell them don’t lose your sense of right and wrong, don’t be goaded by your friends into taking risks, stay aware of your surroundings and have good common sense at all times. I’ve had this conversation with my son dozens of times, and now I want to yell at all of them at the top of my lungs, “PLEASE DON’T BE STUPID”.

Don’t be stupid. How often have we said this to our sons, to ourselves? And yet daily our children take chances, some of them really stupid, which lead them to face unfortunate but completely foreseeable consequences. If it were only so simple that issuing a note (or a million notes) of caution could make the difference.

But there is another side to this: a little bit of stupid can go a long way. Learning not to be stupid involves making a few mistakes, so you can see firsthand how not to make them again. As parents our job is not to shelter our children from the opportunity to choose to do the right thing. College infirmaries are filled with kids whose parents shielded them so well from the stupidity of indulging in bad behavior that the first day they were on their own they overdid it. As I see it, our job is not to protect our kids from making any stupid mistakes; it is to arm them with as much common sense as we possibly can, encourage them to use that common sense to think their way away from potentially bad situations, and pray fervently that this will all work to keep them from making the Big Stupid Mistakes. Talking to our (age appropriate) children about all of the lessons of this tragic Steubenville case is a good start.

It is easy to be judgemental, to survey those kids in Steubenville or these kids in the Bahamas and smugly assure ourselves that our son or daughter will never participate in any such reckless behavior. It is harder to acknowledge that some of us came to know the problems of reckless behavior from personal experience. Maybe we were in a party where stupidity reigned and consequences flowed, or we knew people for whom being in that crowd was a really stupid mistake. Hopefully not a life altering or criminal mistake, but a really stupid mistake nonetheless.

As parents we dance on the head of a pin stuck between constantly saying “no way” based upon our knowledge born of experience, and allowing our children to develop and use the common sense that they need to have on their own. It is an exhausting marathon dance. Stories like the one out of Steubenville remind us that we can’t stop dancing. Talk to your teenaged sons and daughters about the Steubenville case. Talk to them about knowing when to stop, when to walk away and when and how to get help (and contact you) in dangerous situations. Tell them how much harder it is to do these things when alcohol blurs judgement. If you decide to let them go, tell them to have fun and be safe. Remind them you’ll be there no matter what, but that part of the deal of letting them go is that you trust they can and will stay focused on not being stupid. Then try not to hold your breathe until they come home.

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Filed under Ages 16-18, College Bound Students, Parents, Resources, Saving Our Sons

David J. Johns: New Head of White House Initiative on African-Amercian Educational Excellence

Last year, GCP reported President Obama’s establishment of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African-Americans (“President Obama’s Plan to Help African American Students Succeed”, July 28, 2012). The President defined the mission of this Initiative as “[strengthening] the Nation by improving educational outcomes for African-Americans of all ages”.

Here’s an update: This month U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan appointed David J. Johns as Executive Director of the White House Initiative. Johns will work across federal agencies and with communities nationwide to identify evidence-based best practices to improve African American student achievement—from cradle to career. Johns is a graduate of Columbia University (with a triple major in English, Creative Writing and African American Studies) who went on to earn a master’s degree in sociology and education policy at Teachers College of Columbia University. He comes to the position of Executive Director from the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, where he was a senior education policy advisor.

Throughout his career, Johns has worked on issues affecting low-income and minority students, neglected youth and early childhood education, and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). His research as an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow served as a catalyst to identify, disrupt and supplant negative perceptions of black males within academia and society. You can read the full press release on his appointment here.

As we noted in our earlier post, the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African-Americans has a very broad-based mission, and is an ambitious but welcome effort to come out of this administration. Looking forward to hearing about Johns’ plans to move this mission forward. Will keep you posted.

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Filed under Academics

Self Esteem: High Enough or Too High?

Two recent news items give us food for thought with respect to the development of a young person’s self-esteem. Yesterday’s New York Times features an article found here about Joel Baumann, a young African-American sophomore on the University of Minnesota’s wrestling team who is also an aspiring singer and rapper. His latest video, “One’s in the Sky”, which urges people to pursue their dreams, can be seen on YouTube and purchased on ITunes. He wants to inspire people through his music, and he proudly claims to live his life by his two mottos: “I Will Inspire” and “I Will Impact”.

The N.C.A.A. is not inspired by or impressed with his budding musical career. They have ruled him ineligible for the remainder of this wrestling season, claiming that he violated an N.C.A.A. bylaw prohibiting student-athletes from using their name, image or status as an athlete to promote the sale of a commercial product. While Bauman says he wants to continue wrestling, he does not want to give up his music. He refused to remove his name and likeness from the videos on line, and refused to use an alias to promote his music, even after being told that this would enable him to regain his eligibility. He explains, “I’m Joel Bauman. My message is: I will inspire, and I will impact. I am not going to hide behind an alias to do that, because that’s my message. I can own up to that message.” Bauman is now on partial athletic scholarship, which he will lose next year if he remains ineligible. But he remains undaunted in his quest to be a musician-athlete. “I have a plan to figure this whole thing out, to be able to do both [music and wrestling],” he said. “But my message is more important than my eligibility in the long run. So if I can’t, then so be it.”

Putting aside any thoughts about this ridiculous application of the N.C.A.A. rule, GCP readers, what do you think about Bauman’s perspective and plan? I’m all for inspiration, and it is great to see a young man who at 21 already feels as if he can make a big impact on the world, but I hope he will be able to stay in school without an athletic scholarship. Rappers with big dreams who aspire to make an impact with their message are looking at NBA draft-like odds of making it to the big time. Is he right to pursue his dreams, or is his strong self-esteem getting the best of him? What would you advise your son to do your son were he in this position?

Those of us with younger children who wonder how we should go about building their self esteem can take a look a video from the Wall Street Journal online, found here. This video discusses a recent study’s findings that praising and encouraging your child too much can ultimately be harmful to him as he matures, because, among other things, it renders him unable to deal with life’s setbacks. The study suggests that parents should encourage their children to be positive but realistic about their capabilities, and they should strive for that middle ground between making their children feel they can do no wrong and having them feel depressed about areas in which they are not excelling. In my experience this middle ground can be tough to find, and it tends to shift regularly. But it is good to be mindful of the potential dangers of overpraising, especially when children are in their younger years. GCP readers, your thoughts?

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Filed under Ages 13-15, Ages 16-18, Ages 5-7, Ages 8-12, Parents