Tools for Online Pursuits

As a mom, I feel it is my job to make sure my children know everything they need to know when I send them out into the world, but there are two problems with that. First, how could I possibly know all that they will need to know? And second, I can’t keep up with the ever-changing world to make sure my children are fully protected with an armor of knowledge. I can only give them tools they will need to build their own armor and change it as necessary. And the tools they will need are constantly evolving.

Take the recent situation of one of my students as an example. She did everything as she thought she should, yet she still got stuck in a situation that seemed a bit sketchy. Thankfully, she recognized enough signs of danger to seek advice.

I entered the situation as she was negotiating feelings of mounting unease around a potential job opportunity. She had responded to an interesting job posting she found on a professor’s course site, a seemingly legit opportunity because of where she found it. She applied, and—through communication completely via text message—was asked to attend an interview, which she did. But the interview situation was a bit off. First, the student was greeted by the father of a client (here is where age and experience are beneficial—those of us who have been in the real world for any amount of time know that a professional organization would never have a client greet a potential worker in the first interview.)

When the interviewer finally did show up, she was dressed in leggings and a t-shirt and made excuses about the work not being conducive to business attire. Both of these things caught my student off guard, and made her more attentive to her feelings about this job.

It wasn’t until the following week that she dug in her heels. The woman texted my student that she had scheduled an orientation session before the second interview—in fact, it was before she had officially been offered a job—and it would be that afternoon. The student was given an address and a time and told to bring her identification documents.

It seemed like an odd turn of events, and this is where I started asking questions: What is the name of the company? Where are they located? What will you be doing? When she could answer none of these questions, we sat down and did some research. We looked up the address that she had been given for her “orientation.” Google maps gave us a nondescript office building on which there was no company name. We Googled any and all information the student had, but we came up with no more answers than when we started. At that point, I advised her to forgo this particular job and look for something more certain.

A few days later, she and I sat with the Career Planning director to figure out where the job posting had originated and how best to deal with it. The director had the same advice that I had already given the student. Even if this was a legitimate job offer, the company was so unprofessional that she didn’t want to work there, anyway.

In truth, there is no way of knowing what might have happened if my student ignored her instincts and went to the orientation session. However, this situation got me to thinking about how best to guide my children as they navigate the tangled web of the “business” aspects of the online environment.

Teach your children—and any young people you are in contact with—to be aware of fraud and scams such as this may have been. Teach them to look for inconsistencies, to be alert to potential problems, and help them to determine when something is legitimate and when it is not. The fact that there was no searchable company information on this job posting was the first of many red flags.

Let your kids know that the rules of safety in social situations also apply to any other situation that is unknown—professional opportunities, buying/selling items off Internet sites, meet-up groups, etc. Bring a buddy, let others know where you are, check in, and meet in a neutral and public location.

If things don’t seem to add up, don’t pretend they do or dismiss any warning signs. It is easy to excuse one issue. Okay, the interviewer is dressed for comfort because the company works with children. However, when there are two things that don’t add up, three, or four, pay attention. The pieces don’t fit together because the situation may not be what it seems to be.

Encourage your teens/young adults to listen to their instincts. That “bad feeling” you have? It’s there to warn you. Too often, we encourage ourselves to deny our gut reactions to situations. Animals are equipped with instinct to protect them from harm. We, too, are animals, and if we pay attention to our instincts, they will help to guide and protect us.

Teach them to ask for help when they need it. If young people need advice about a situation, or they are feeling threatened, they shouldn’t hesitate to seek help—even if that means making some noise. And likewise, if you see a young person who seems to be struggling or needs some advice, step in and offer to help them out. So many young people are left to figure out the subtleties of life, of growing up, on their own, and they may welcome the guidance an older, more experienced adult.

Raising Teens

A month or so ago, a local teenager made a reckless decision and the decision had dire consequences. The story was on the news and all over social media, and the accompanying images were horrific. On social media, the responses to the story were brutal.

“Serves him right!”

“Where are the parents?”

“I have a 15 year old, and I always know where my teen is.”

I experienced such a visceral response to these comments that made it difficult for me to write anything for a time. Some time has passed, but this story still claims a large chunk of my emotional energy. There are a couple of points on which I remain stuck.

First of all, what’s up with the bullying among adults? Is it any wonder that we have bullying issues in our schools? When children see their parents making comments like these, they must begin to believe this is the way to respond to other people. And with the exponential growth of social media, there is no question that children see what their parents post—even their responses to news stories. After all, the parent’s name is attached to the comment, so anonymity… it’s not really a thing in an online community.

Perhaps these comments are born out of the need to uphold one’s own superiority, but it seems we have become so competitive that we have lost sight of compassion. The I am better than you mentality has taken over society, and we are unable to reach out to those who are suffering without claiming some imaginary trophy and keeping score. Bullying starts at home. It starts with adults who see no problem with posting brutal responses to tragic stories because they need to feel that they are better than others—just as a school-yard bully would do; they need to claim the position as better parents, better guardians of their teens, more efficient workers, etc. This competition is so destructive to society.

This situation reminded me of another horrible accident a year or so ago in which five teenagers were killed in a head-on collision on the highway. It was late at night and they were driving home from a concert. A man with a mental illness and a commitment to destruction of everything around him was driving the wrong way on the highway after a failed mental health visit to the ER. Now, if you have ever encountered a wrong-way driver on the highway in the dead of night, you understand how extremely disorienting it can be. You will likely not even realize what is happening until the other driver has passed, at which point you slam on the brakes and think, “Wait, what just happened??” If I’d been on that road that night, I wouldn’t have stood a chance just as these kids didn’t stand a chance. Yet, in the comments of this news story, responders blamed the parents for letting their teenagers attend a concert. I’m not sure when it became irresponsible to allow a teenager to attend a concert, but I digress.

As for the commenter who always knows where her teenager is…. I can pretty much guarantee that she does not. I have worked with teenagers for thirty plus years, I have three teenagers of my own, and I (sometimes) understand how teenagers think. It’s not necessarily that they disobey, but rather, they omit. History and literature are rife with examples: Rapunzel, Romeo and Juliet… these parents thought they knew what their teens were doing, as well. But in truth, try as we might, we don’t always know where our teens are and what they are doing. Maybe it’s okay not to always know. In fact, maybe it’s healthy to give our teens an increasing amount of space to make their own choices and decisions as they grow and mature. How are kids supposed to learn responsibility and how to face tough decisions if they are not given the room to do so?

Over the years, I have worked with some practically independent kiddos, and I have worked with others who still need a good deal of guidance; I have taught A students and F students; I have worked with wonderful young leaders and painfully shy followers. And I have seen everything in between. All of the teens I have worked with over so many years have one thing in common: they all have a still-maturing teenage brain that is not fully able to think through all of the consequences of a decision, and therefore, they are prone to making the occasional bad decision. It is through these questionable decisions that teens grown and learn how to make better decisions.

Maybe we could all work together to encourage our teens—and all the teens we come in contact with—to make smart decisions. And maybe we could work together toward healthier reactions and less judgment. If our first response is to have compassion rather than to chastise, we might be able to build some mighty bridges and educate our children in the process. After all, our children learn far more from our actions than they do from our words.

{Image is a photo taken by my daughter}

Road Rage Cure

If everyone was required to drive around with something silly in—or on—their car, people might be less angry as they drove around. And after a couple of recent incidents with road rage, that would probably be a good thing.

Most recently, over the weekend, we suddenly—and unintentionally—took a detour into the creepy and frightening land of road rage. I’m not exactly sure what set off the driver who was behind us at a stoplight. It had something to do with my oldest child, in the backseat at the time, who made eye contact with the driver of the other vehicle. She was a middle-aged woman.

Now, I don’t want to meddle in her life, but perhaps she had bottled up too much of the week’s negativity. Whatever it was that set her off, it was very clear that she had a profound need for attention, and she was willing to compromise the safety of everyone else on the road in order to get it.

At the next light, she pulled up beside us and tried to get me to roll down my window. But thank you anyway, I know better than to engage with a crazy stranger. Through the window, I could hear her screaming and cursing, and my peripheral vision was catching her wild gestures.

The light turned green. “Go!” I instructed the fifteen-year-old driver (who remained amazingly calm), and he turned left around the corner. The woman swerved her black Mercedes from a non-turning lane, and that’s when it was clear we weren’t going to lose her any time soon. At the next light, she again pulled up beside us, this time on the left, her hands still waving as her passenger window lowered.

I picked up my phone. We had just passed a cruiser, so I knew there were police in the area. I debated calling 9-1-1, but opted instead for the non-emergency number. But this was not my town, so I had to go through directory assistance, all the while, the woman was in hot pursuit and my son continued to drive.

In the back seat, my daughter was audibly hyperventilating at the same rate that I was silently hyperventilating. As the adult in the situation—and clearly the only adult despite the middle-aged woman in the car beside me screaming obscenities—I was responsible for displaying an impression of utmost calm.

“Police Department, can you hold?” the voice said.

“Uh, not really,” I responded, my heart pounding in my chest. “I’m in a road rage situation.”

Bit by bit, he took pieces of information, and I updated him on my location. One mile. Another. Finally, as the woman pulled up beside me, I was able to read her license directly to the dispatcher, and I think she realized what I was doing. It was at this light that I heard her scream, “Is that your son? You should teach him some manners!”

I have never been more relieved than I was when she turned right onto the side street at that light. She was probably trying to disappear before the police caught up to us.

But the police had her license number and a description of her car. I really hope they found her. It seems she might benefit from a lengthy discussion on, well … manners.

And I would definitely benefit from carrying a silly inflatable animal in the back of my car.

Don’t Say Anything…

When I was a kid, my mother made sure I was kind and polite, and she often repeated the adage, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” I will admit that even as a young girl, if I wasn’t careful, I would easily tumble into a snarky comment before I could catch myself. But with my mother’s frequent reminders, I learned to think before I spoke—most of the time, at least.

These days, it seems “If you can’t say anything nice…” has gone by the wayside. More and more frequently, it seems people on social media sites are posting comments specifically to pick a fight. I am not naïve enough to think there are so many full-grown adults who are incapable of recognizing inflammatory remarks when they are posting to social media. Kindness just takes a bit of forethought.

If we are trying to discourage our children from engaging in cyber-bullying, why are so many adults modeling the opposite behavior? Why are we so quick to be nasty to others behind the shield of our computers? In the early days of the Internet, online comments were made under a guise of anonymity. Nowadays, people on social media post their comments—anything from nice and complimentary to mean and judgmental—attached to their full names.

The lack of kindness has grown tiresome, and with everything else that’s going on in society, I have decided I am going to opt out of all this negativity. I am going to create a blog exercise designed to promote positivity. The Positivity Project. Now, I’m not going to argue life is all sunshine and rainbows. Not even close. But I am going to suggest that if we look hard enough, we can find something positive in [just about] every situation. And if we get in the habit of looking for the positive, eventually, it will become second nature, and we will notice the positive without looking.

I would like to puncture the bubble of negativity that threatens our society and instead, start a wave of positive feelings, thoughts, and ideas that can carry us forward from here.

Today was positively productive for me. I completed some necessary work, and I was able to do some cleaning and organizing. And now, I invite you to join me! In the comments below, or on your own blog, write about one positive thing from your day.

Lessons from the Tollbooth

Every experience, good or bad, can be considered an adventure. And every adventure, positive or negative, has its lessons. Let me set the scene….

It is 6:00 in the morning. It is still dark, and there is an unmistakable crispness in the air, despite the calendar’s July date. My daughter and I are traveling an unfamiliar highway in a Midwestern state to get to the airport for an early flight home from a nearly week-long adventure.

I have my electronic toll pass in the car with me, and even though it is from our home state, in theory, it should work here. The toll experience on the way in was spotty, but we made it through. Our home state removed the gates on their tollbooths many years ago in favor of speed and efficiency. Such is not the case here in this Midwestern state.

At the first tollbooth, we pull up to the gate, but the booth does not pick up the signal from our transponder. I wave it around in the car. Nothing. I push the “help” button on the tollbooth, and a male voice wishes me a good morning. I explain my situation. He asks me to read my transponder number. Um… it’s fairly dark in the car and I don’t have my reading glasses, but I don’t tell him this. I pass the transponder to my daughter. She reads the number, and I repeat it to the voice in the void. Once he confirms that I do, in fact, have an account, the gate rises, and I drive through.

After an hour or more on the road, the second tollbooth comes into view. We pull up, fully expecting (well… hoping for) our toll pass to work. Of course, it doesn’t. I roll down the window and lean way out, holding it under the barcode scanner that I discovered at the last tollbooth. The bright red laser line crosses the code. I watch the gate, but it doesn’t move from its persistent placement directly in front of the car. I push the “help” button and wait for a friendly voice. Nothing. In my rear view mirror, I see a semi truck approaching, but I figure he will go into a different toll lane. He doesn’t. In seconds, the massive rig is directly behind my car. We are trapped, and my daughter is trying desperately to hold herself together as she begins to panic in the seat beside me.

I step out of the car into the chilly dawn air, transponder in hand. I frantically wave it in front of the scanner while simultaneously pushing the “help” button. This tollbooth is completely unresponsive—nothing functional here, it seems. I breathe deeply, forcing air into and out of my lungs. I turn to the truck driver behind me. I muster my most helpless and apologetic expression and I shrug, still holding my transponder in my hand.

He pauses for two seconds. Then motions for me to get back in my car, and he begins to slowly back up so I can switch to a lane with a real, live attendant. But not only does he back up, he angles his truck in such a way as to block any traffic that might be approaching. Oh, bless you! I think to myself. I roll down my window as I move over several lanes, and I wave my thanks.

“How many more tollbooths do we have to go through?” my daughter asks quietly.

I sigh, reluctant to tell her. “I think only one,” I say, keeping my tone low and tender.

It’s finally light out when the third—and final—tollbooth comes onto the horizon. The tension I feel from the passenger seat is pulling on my heart. I take a deep breath. “It will be fine,” I say by way of calming us both down. And it is. We sail right through. What? How is that possible? I glance in my rearview mirror, looking for answers that are not there. I take a deep breath and finally relax.

We survived and have had substantial time to decompress, and I am happy to share the lessons I gleaned from my not-so-good-morning at the tollbooth:

Don’t believe everything you hear or read on the Internet. We heard our toll transponder would work, but I checked the website to confirm. Even so, our transponder didn’t work exactly as we’d hoped.

Trust that people will work with you and rely on the kindness of strangers. For the most part, if people see you are in a tough situation, they generally offer their assistance. That could come as a helping hand, but it could also come as a truck driver backing up and blocking oncoming traffic so you can do what you need to do.

Always have an escape plan, or just a plan, in general Even if you don’t need it, it is good to have a plan in the back of your head. Just think, for a moment, about what you will do if you get stuck. What is it they say…? Anticipate the worst but hope for the best.

Be a calming force for those around you. Now in reality, I had no idea how we were going to get out of our predicament. But experience tells me that these things have a way of working themselves out. And after only a brief panic, they did work out. After all, when was the last time you heard of someone being permanently stuck in a tollbooth?

{Image: FreeImages.com / Travis Cripps}

A Mom’s Reflections on High School

When I was a teenager, I attended high school. Well, you’re thinking. Didn’t we all?

Yes, we did. But recently, I have become convinced that many of us block out the truth of our high school experience—the feelings of being a lone boat adrift on an endless sea—and that is a distinct barrier to effectively parenting our teenage children.

In reality, my high school experience is the single best training I have in my quest for effectively relating to my own teenagers, and I will be a better parent if I can tap into the feelings I had in high school.

If I can recall all the times I felt out of place and lonely, when I was laughed at or pushed aside, I will be able to relate to my children when they come to me in tears after being rejected or treated poorly by a peer or peer group.

If I can conjure the relief that came with the end of the school year and the long summer vacation, I will be able to reassure my children that two months off fixes a great many ills that have festered over the long months of a confining academic year.

If I can elicit the intense need I felt to stretch my wings beyond the walls of the school, I can help my children to see the promise of the future rather than dwell in the tedium of the daily life of cliques and classes.

If I can remember all the reasons I was never seen without a book tucked under my arm and all the times I used the book to hide, I can help my kids find their own healthy means of escape.

But most importantly, if I am able to reflect back on my own high school career with an honest perspective—remembering both the good times and the challenging, I can help my kids to recognize that high school may not be the best four years, but it doesn’t have to be the worst four years, either. Instead, it can be the beginning of a period of intense growth as they begin to discover who they are and what they want from life.

Yes, I attended high school. And yes, my four years in that environment can help me to better understand and empathize with my children. I will be a better parent if I can not only tap into the feelings of being in high school, but be willing to share those feelings and experiences with my own children.

And maybe, just maybe—as we navigate the challenges—I can convince my kids that they not only have the ability to make their own lives better, they also have the opportunity to better the lives of the other students they pass in the hallways.

Of Memory and Circuses

In honor of the final show of the of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus that is happening today, May 21, I thought I would reminisce on the circuses of my past. In truth, my life as a single mom is often a bit of a circus, but I will stick to a discussion of circuses in the entertainment sense of the word.

When I was very young, I attended my first circus. I don’t remember how old I was, and I don’t remember where the circus was. I only remember that it was under a tent in a large field. It was a cold, rainy day, and my very scattered memories of that event include the fabric of the tent, the hay that was scattered on the ground to keep the mud under control, and the mingling smells of damp hay, dirt, and animals. I remember Dad’s large, warm hand holding my small one as we made our way to our seats. And that is pretty much my only recollection of that trip to the circus.

My second trip to the circus did not involve a performance under a tent. This one was a performance of The Great Moscow Circus in a large indoor arena about an hour from our home. [Side note: my childhood took place during the Cold War years]. It was a beautiful, sunny day, though I cannot remember the season of the year; I think it may have been somewhat cool outside. We made our way to our seats, and Dad left to visit the men’s room before the show began. A few minutes later, as my sister and I bounced in our seats in anticipation, we heard an announcement that began, “Ladies and Gentlemen….” The announcer continued, letting us know that we needed to evacuate the arena. We had a brief moment of disbelief before Mom gathered us up and headed for the door. As we descended the stairs and began to move toward the exit, we met up with Dad, and we made our way back to the car. We sat in the car, listening to the local radio station, but no news came as to why we had to evacuate. After a time, we were allowed back in the building, and the show went on as if nothing had happened. Later, we would learn there had been a bomb threat which necessitated the evacuation for a thorough search. I don’t remember any of the show that day, only the evacuation.

My third trip to the circus was to celebrate my younger son’s sixth birthday. We went to the Ringling Brothers pre-show first, where we met some of the clowns and saw some of the performers. I’m not sure how much of that experience my children will remember as time marches on. This is the only circus performance I remember—because it was much more recent—and I only remember bits and pieces. I think traditional circuses tend to be far too busy and flashy to appeal to those of us who can only pay attention to one thing at a time.

The moral of my circus story is that parents can spend time with children in all kinds of activities. Ultimately, what children will remember is the time together (and sometimes any occurrences out of the ordinary) rather than the activity, itself.