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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Christmas Values

Well, before the gluttony of our feeding-frenzy Thanksgiving Day feasts could wear off, many of us were engaging in gluttony of another kind: Black Friday. At least as far back as 1841, marketers and retailers have been using the image of Santa Claus to entice holiday buyers to part with their money. Over the years this marketing device has taken a life of its own, and now Christmas buying accounts for approximately 25 percent of annual consumer sales.
I acknowledge that at this point in history, our Christmas buying may well float not only our economy, but several other nations’ economies as well; however, as this column deals with family issues and not economics, I am comfortable with framing this issue as it relates to families. The Christmas buying so often bemoaned has not always been our tradition. In fact, the Christmas holiday itself has not always been popular in the US. In the 1600’s the Puritans made it illegal to mention St. Nicholas, exchange gifts, sing carols, etc.; however, some of the early settlements enjoyed Christmas as best they could with the challenges of early American life. Christmas did not become a Federal holiday until June, 1870.
Christmas marketing took a turn toward what we know today when in 1931 Coca-Cola began using Santa in advertising and in 1939 Montgomery Ward handed out a poem about everyone’s favorite reindeer, the subject of which was later recorded as the song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” by Gene Autry; which continues to be the second most popular song of all time, right behind “White Christmas”. The recognition that a time of gift giving in the name of love, could be marketed to and even enhanced by said marketing, was coupled to our capitalist economy and consumerism society, all but drowning out the original purpose for the holiday.
I believe you will find it very difficult to fight our culture, especially on an issue that permeates our economy so completely. So I encourage you to behave as if in a rip tide and swim parallel to culture, not against it. In practical terms this means three things:
· Insure your family understands why your family exchanges gifts. Gift giving is one of the five love languages and has been an almost universal way to express love as far back as we have a historical record; so make sure you take the time to have age appropriate conversations about this process, being grateful for the gifts and more importantly, the love behind them.
· Make a renewed commitment to serving others during the holiday season. Most charitable organizations find themselves in greater need of help and financial assistance during this time of year, so you should be able to easily find an organization worthy of your time and money. Serving others, especially those who have a greater need, tends to help us realize the proper place our own challenges belong.
· Reevaluate your spiritual life and your personal growth. In almost every culture, in almost every time in history, the marking of the passing of the year has long been a time of reflection and making changes. Take advantage of the school holiday and begin this process by talking as a family one evening with hot cocoa and s’mores. You can draw up a plan of action for the coming year and follow up during your family meetings.

The key take away for this week is to try to avoid the guilt and angst the holiday season can bring by embracing the positive of the holiday season, as opposed to trying to struggling in a fight you can’t win. Communicate love, both inside and outside your family during the holiday season and you may find yourself making a statement against rapaciousness after all.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Holiday Relatives

Most of us have relatives that cause us stress at family gatherings every year. Children coming back from college, children’s spouses, elderly parents less tolerant of the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, Aunt Edna who always seems to have something caustic to say, and Uncle Ed (maybe because of Aunt Edna) always seems to have too much of the holiday “spirit”, can all wreak havoc on our own enjoyment of the holiday season. For the most part we can’t choose our relatives but you can enjoy this time of year and keep your sanity if you follow some simple guidelines:

  • If you have children coming home from college, remember to negotiate expectations in advance such as: plans over the holidays, bringing home boy/girlfriends, visiting friends, household rules such as curfew, also try to discuss grades beforehand so there are no ugly holiday surprises.
    Celebrate in a location that makes life as easy as possible for the majority of members. If someone finds it difficult to travel because of pregnancy, infirmity or illness try to bring the gathering there. Just because the gathering is one member’s home doesn’t mean they have to do the majority (or any) of the cooking.
  • While on the subject of cooking, if you have special dietary needs or wants, don’t expect the hosts to provide for your situation. If you are diabetic or vegetarian, bring your favorite dish with a little extra so others may try it as well.
    If you are the host, invite a stranger to the gathering. By inviting a friend to the occasion who has nowhere else to go, prevents them from spending the holiday alone and can add a complementary personality flavor to the kitchen flavors, while sometimes bringing family members together as they make the guest feel welcome.
  • Learn to ask for, and accept, help! If you are kept prisoner in the kitchen, then not only are you run ragged and can’t spend time with family; they do not get to spend time with you either. Everyone from children, to adults not cooking, can do chores like set and clear the table or do dishes.
  • Last, try to think of “the other” first when making decisions or before getting angry when your expectations aren’t met. Whether “the other” is your parent, your child, your spouse, sibling or an ex-spouse, try to put their needs first without resentment, but with patience and a sense of love. You may find the feelings reciprocated, but even if you don’t, you will have found the true meaning of the holiday season.
    My family and I wish you all the best of holidays, full of love and family. Happy holidays!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Choosing a University

This column should be a note of encouragement and validation for some students and their families, and a big nudge for other students and their families. If you are deep into the application process of choosing a University and filing out financial aid paperwork, then this column should serve as a check that you are headed down the right path; however, if you are still struggling with what school to go to, and are procrastinating filling out the FASFA and scholarship applications, then this should be a reminder to get with the program.
I strenuously argue that you should first find the right university for you, and then figure out how to pay for it. There are so many options today to finance school; lack of funds is rarely a reason not to pursue an education.
Another philosophical decision you must make, is why are you going to school. Are you going to play a sport, find a spouse, are you there to get a piece of paper to make more money, or are you there to actually become educated? I can’t argue enough that the last reason is the only reason to attend a university. This is a critical decision because if you are there for any reason other than becoming educated, where you go is of little importance.
In general, there are three things that must be done simultaneously to successfully to attend a University. First keep your high school grades up. Some seniors get Senioritis in the spring, this malady doesn’t look good on your transcript and reflects poorly on your maturity. Second, make the best choice you can in picking which university to attend. Last, apply for financial aid.
Choosing a university is a bit like choosing a car; much of the decision is personal preference, and you should “test drive” as many as you can. While you should try to avoid attending, and getting kicked out of, a large number of universities, visiting as many as you can is a good idea. Visit at least one small, medium and large university, even if you believe you know what size school you wish to go to. The visit will confirm or deny your belief and make you more comfortable with your decision. Talk to friends, family and alumnus of the universities you are considering.
Decide if you want to attend a local university or one further away. If you want to go out of state, and there are a number of good reasons to do so, make sure you visit the campus before making your decision final. Visit both public and private schools as they each have a different feel to them and you may find a preference for one over another.
Once you have taken all factors into account: quality of the institution, cost, friends already at the school, size, geography, location (urban or rural), and any other factors effecting your decision, then choose three schools; one you aren’t sure you can get into, one you are confident you will get into, and then one you are certain to get into. Remember, if you don’t get into your dream school, perhaps you can go there for graduate school.
Last thought. If you didn’t do well in high school, you didn’t take college prep courses, or if high school was more than a few years ago; it is never too late. Regularly people in their twilight years are featured for finally graduating from college. You can take basic courses here locally at NIC, sometimes called stem work, and then move on to a four year school. Help is available from counselors at the High School, the local colleges and the school you wish to attend. Just remember, only consider accredited schools and stay away from diploma mills. Education should be a life-long path; sometimes the path is steep and difficult, but the views along the way are breathtaking beyond belief.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Developing Respect

Ignoring a child’s disrespect is the surest guarantee that it will continue. – Fred G. Gosman

The Brits are having a terrible time with their youth; gang violence, vandalism and the general terrorizing of citizens. Social research shows this problem has been many years in the making and until a few years ago, the behavior was more than a nuisance, however less than criminal, and therefore very difficult for anyone to stop. The police could not stop the behavior for many of the same reasons our legal system is limited and if the victim tried to stop the youths, especially by physical means, then the police would be forced to arrest the victim. Now the behavior is very violent, more than minor crime, but very difficult to deal with because of sheer numbers of youths involved.

The Brits current difficulty is largely the product of the eroding of societal values and morays; specifically, a healthy respect for others as a whole and authority figures in particular. I use our friends’ plight across the pond as a parallel to our own. I was explicitly asked to write about developing respect by several adults in our community that see a lack of respect in our children. A couple of them are people that work in local schools, or with youth groups; however, I was most persuaded by the folks that provided anecdotal evidence from their daily lives such as in a checkout line or in a movie theatre.

I offer the following as what each of us can do to stem the tide of disrespect many see all around us:
- Make it a point to be respectful of everyone you meet regardless of age or position in life. You cannot reasonably expect respect unless you willingly give it first.
- Insist you are treated with respect by others. If you are not treated with respect, then POLITELY inform the other person you do not appreciate being treated poorly and you kindly ask them to treat you in a respectful manner.
- As with any desired behavior, start as young as possible. Insist children speak to adults using their proper title, even if that title is merely Mr/Mrs/Ms; as this practice consistently reinforces society has a hierarchy, and who is in charge in the relationship. If you are an adult, let’s say over 30, don’t try to be “cool”, “hip”, “fresh” or anything else; take on the role time has so unfairly given you, and help the rest of us by holding youth accountable to societal standards.
- In a similar vein, insist they use Ma’am and Sir to you and to other adults for the same reason above. The use of Sir and Ma’am is a big reason the South has always been considered the most polite region in the US; however, as more people than can be culturally assimilated have moved into the region, they are slowly getting away from this practice, and it has begun to have a negative effect on their youth.
- Last, help the children you are around develop self respect; without self respect it is very difficult to have respect for others. Encourage them in dress and habits to show respect for themselves and others. If you are a parent, fashion and haircut choices should be made with an eye toward the adult you would like them to become; just because school dress codes are non-existent, too loose, or not enforced, does not preclude your parental privilege in mandating your child’s dress.

Respect for others is not an optional attribute in a functioning society, especially as population densities rise. The only way children will learn respect for themselves and others, is if we as adults, teach them respect, hold them accountable to their behavior, and model respect to them and each other.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Character Education for Kids

“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. . . Intelligence plus character- that is the goal of true education.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

My kids recently took their mid-term exams for the semester and that event caused me to think again about education and ultimately its purpose. Herbert Spencer said, “Education has for its object the formation of character”, and Teddy Roosevelt famously remarked, “To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.”

A hundred years ago schools very unapologetically taught morality and character. For example when I was a boy in Texas every morning began with the Lord’s Prayer and then the Pledge of Allegiance and closed with the National Anthem. And if you acted up during any of these, your teacher would warm your little bottom for you right there; no need to even go to the Principal, your needs were served right there with a smile. This kind of instruction was seriously affected when society began the debate on whether religious instruction belonged in public schools, and if it did what that instruction should look like. A debate that is neither settled, nor likely to be settled, any time soon.

The greatest challenge to character education comes from the high values we place on separating church and state as well as individual freedom and autonomy. These philosophical challenges coupled with the make-up of the US becoming ever more diverse, to overcome both our interest and ability to address every religious, moral and ethical outlook in a scholarly way. As we usually do in public policy, we immediately threw the baby out with the bath water and with few exceptions stopped teaching morals, character and ethics.

Schools have had a reawakening to the ultimate purpose of education and teaching ethics, morals and character. They are using literature and physical education as the primary vehicles for this education; however, the ever increasing trend of using standardized tests to gauge school performance are limiting the time available for character development.

If you wish to be helpful in this discussion, the literature on the subject suggests the following:

  • Read to, and then provide, books to your children that illustrate character, ethics, morals and values like Aesops’ Fables and The Book of Virtues by Bill Bennett.
  • Encourage them to read biographies of individuals that exemplified values you wish to teach. If you email me I can provide a list.
  • Collaborate with your child’s teacher about how to use these materials in projects and school assignments. As children get older they are able to think more deeply, with more insight and apply what they have learned to their own lives.
  • Use movies, TV shows and other media to illustrate good and poor values; however, here use this time to ask them what they think. This can be a great time to influence their choices of entertainment and gauge where they are in developing their character.
  • Last, be a good example! It is difficult to overemphasize the impact of a good example on your child’s development. “He preaches well that lives well.”- Miguel De Cervantes

Education is important as a life-long activity, not just because of what it teaches us about the world around us, but for what it can and should, teach us about ourselves. Be engaged in the debate of character education; demand from teachers, administrators, and law makers that character education become a cornerstone of education again. While there are certainly challenges in presenting the material with honesty and sensitivity to others, we stand to gain so much for our trouble.