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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Winter Colds - A most unwelcome winter visitor

With a winter cold going through my family like a six year old through Christmas wrapping paper, I thought a column about avoiding winter sniffles and flu bugs would be a good idea. I will concede my judgment maybe clouded a bit given that I am popping cold pills like Pez. I will also concede that most of what I will write in this column is far from ground breaking medical research, and is as likely to come from your grandmother than the latest issue of the Journal of the AMA.
You can try digging a deep hermetically sealed bunker to spend each winter and attempt to avoid a cold or flu; but in addition to contracting cabin fever, you would miss out on the wonderful winter sports, and the sights of North Idaho covered in white. So, if living in a bunker is not your future, I first suggest trying to avoid hugging and kissing anyone who currently has a cold and washing your hands often in case holiday relatives ambush you. You can also help yourself before you even come out of your bunker by eating well, and getting plenty of rest.
The Chinese have a proverb that maintains, “The superior doctor prevents sickness; the mediocre doctor attends to impending sickness; the inferior doctor treats actual sickness.” I agree with this basic premise; all things considered, avoiding the cold or flu in the first place is the preferred course of action. This can be especially difficult if someone in your family has a cold and it falls to you to nurse them back to health. At the risk of being redundant, dispose of tissues immediately, wash your hands often, and limit how much you touch your face. If you share a keyboard or register at your work, make sure you disinfect the keyboard as often as possible.
Go to the Doc and get your flu shot. I know, some of you don’t believe in immunizations and truth be told I am not fired up about needles either, but there is now a flu immunization that is administered by a nasal mist. The flu can be fatal to certain populations such as the very young and the very old, so in addition to preventing yourself from feeling like Death warmed over for a few days, you will be doing something very nice for people you may never know.
Taking a multivitamin and even certain herbal supplements such as Echinacea are believed to help the body’s immune system, while green and black teas provide antioxidants. Honey can coat a scratchy throat, while menthol can help open nasal passages. In the last few years, I have read research documenting the benefits of chicken soup, stress reduction and, believe it or not, physical activity. Several of my family members are convinced that a hot toddy (comprised of a cup of hot water, a splash of lemon juice, a tablespoon of honey and a shot of whiskey) is helpful. They also maintain that in a pinch, all of the ingredients except the shot of whiskey are optional!
I wish you and yours a happy and very healthy New Year. Hopefully by following some of these ideas you will avoid the colds and flu so many of us will sniffle our way through. Of course, if you are so blessed to avoid being sick you could commiserate with us just a bit and not be so smug when we whine a bit.

Mark Altman is a speaker and leadership consultant with the Altman Leadership Center. He has graduate work in Marriage and Family Counseling and is the author of Leadership For All the Mountains You Climb. He can be reached at

Friday, December 19, 2008

A Burden to Bear

The other day I had the chance to see the wonderful movie, Freedom Writers, starring Hillary Swank. This movie is about a teacher in an inner city school, Erin Gruwell, who uses a lesson about the Holocaust to begin the process of getting her students to write about their own lives and engaging in the educational process. All 150 of her students graduated High School; many have since graduated college, several are now teachers themselves and a number are actually pursuing PhDs of their own.

In this movie, Scott Glenn, Gruwell’s father makes a comment to her that is something like, “You have been blessed with a burden, how many Dad’s get to say that to their daughter’s?” While I enjoyed this movie very much and its inspirational story; I would, if I met him, have to quibble just a bit with Mr. Gruwell. His daughter is not the only daughter, or son, with a burden to bear; every parent has a child with a burden to bear.

When I say this, I am not referring to the financial and time constraints of living in the modern, western world. I am referring to the burden borne by each of us as moral and ethical persons to make our world a better place, and to alleviate the suffering of those less fortunate than us. Teaching children this lesson, like most lessons, is best done by example. Unfortunately, most of us treat this social responsibility in the same manner Churchill described our encounters with the truth, "Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened."

We recognize the work that needs to be done; we see it every day, in things large and small, and yet walk on by “as if nothing happened.” Research has shown time and again that a person’s resilience to life’s challenges increases as they perform service for those less fortunate that themselves. This phenomenon, and the benefits gained, hold true whether your challenges are relatively large or small. As your mother instinctively knew, “There is always someone less fortunate than you.”

Teaching your children compassion, empathy, and patience for others not only benefits those your child interacts with; it benefits you with more fully functioning family relationships, provides your child with tools they will need in the future in marriage and as a parent, and provides us all with kinder, warmer and more polite communities. Surely these benefits to ourselves is enough to motivate us all to serve others a little more.

With the holiday season in full swing and an economic crisis hanging like a cloud over our heads, many are tempted to use these as excuses to withhold help or put off performing service for others. I encourage all of us to help another person whenever help is needed; financial help, certainly when possible, but emotional help, compassion and a kind word go a long way as well and cost nothing more than a little empathy. I leave you with the wisdom of Albert Schweitzer, “It is not enough merely to exist. It's not enough to say, 'I'm earning enough to support my family. I do my work well. I'm a good father, husband, churchgoer.' That's all very well. But you must do something more. Seek always to do some good, somewhere.”

Mark Altman is a speaker and leadership consultant with the Altman Leadership Center. He has graduate work in Marriage and Family Counseling and is the author of Leadership For All the Mountains You Climb. He can be reached at

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Time is precious, don't wish it away

Early morning a few days ago, I found myself in a deer stand with my bow, waiting for the sun to come up. For me, this time alone is a good time to think and enjoy nature. However, like most of us, I found myself being impatient and hoping time would pass more quickly. In this case, I was impatient for the sun to rise, for the day to begin with all its promise.

I was excited to know whether I would get a chance at a mature buck, but even more anxious to see the squirrels and rabbits play, and the birds visit in the tree next to me. This anxiety led me to wishing the sun would rise, the day would start, and I would realize the potential the day held. What I wasn't, was in the moment.

That moment, that time before the sun rose, on that day, will never come again. The cool, still air would be interrupted in a few precious minutes; and with a wife, four kids and a host of relatives, the rest of my day would be filled with activity I would find difficult to escape. Therefore, the minutes I was wishing away were important and deserved to be honored and enjoyed for the glory contained in them.

This early morning revelation is something I have to remind myself of often because I tend to live my life in the future, always planning and working toward the next thing. The holiday season tends to push us to wish time would pass, so the holiday hustle and stress would end, or so we can see relatives and friends with whom we don't spend enough time. To my great fortune, several years ago I read "The Book of Virtues" by William Bennett.

In that book is the story of a little boy, who like most of us, sees the glorious spring day and wishes to be playing instead of inside a classroom. He daydreams away his education for the day, and on his way home wishes the school year would end and summer would arrive. A beautiful woman approaches and offers him a silver ball with a little thread hanging out. She explains this thread is his life thread and if he desires time to move faster when he is bored or in pain, all he has to do is pull the thread. However, when he has pulled all the thread then his life is over.

He pulls the thread when he gets bored in school, when he can't wait to marry the girl of his dreams, when his kids are sick, when he is imprisoned for his political beliefs and when he has to go to war. At the end of his life when his wife is sick and he has no money for a doctor, he pulls the thread and she is gone. . . He looks down to see golden thread coming from the ball and realizes his life is nearly over and he has missed so very much, pulling that thread.

He goes back to the stream and sits on a stump and mutters about his poor luck in owning the ball. A ragged old woman appears before him and castigates him, "You silly man, you begged for the ball despite my warning and now you bemoan the loss of your life." He tells her he is sorry and he didn't realize that the bad times of his life were important and sacred too. She offers to take back the ball on the condition he never again wishes for time to pass quickly. When gratefully he agrees, he awakens as a boy, having simply fallen asleep during lessons.

I remind myself of this story anytime I find myself wishing for time to pass quickly. I hope during the stress of the holidays and what the New Year might bring you, this story brings you the lesson and solace it brings me.

Mark Altman is a speaker and leadership consultant with the Altman Leadership Center. Mark has completed graduate work in Marriage and Family Counseling and is working on a Ph.D. in Leadership studies at Texas A&M University. He is happy to speak or provide a workshop for your organization and can be reached at

Friday, November 28, 2008

A Holiday Wish for My Grandmother and Yours.

We have all gotten through Thanksgiving and hopefully each of us has plenty to be thankful for again this year. And while I certainly have been blessed beyond measure again this year, I write to all of you this week with a heavy heart; my maternal grandmother is in the last stages of life in hospice care. She is the last grandparent I have still living and so there is something particularly poignant and sad for me about her passing.

Don’t get me wrong, she has had a wonderful life worth celebrating. She was happily married to my Grandfather for over fifty years until he passed away several years ago; she raised three kids and has a bushel basket full of grandkids and great grandkids. She had a career in the banking industry when women didn’t usually have careers outside the home. She traveled quite a bit, including a trip “Down Under”. However, even though she is wonderful to my family and me, this column is not just about her.

As the holidays come near I hope to encourage you to visit the elderly people you might know. This is especially important if you suspect they will be alone for much of the holiday season. Keep in mind, with everyone feeling the pinch of the economy right now, our children and elderly populations are most at risk. So, anything you can do as a family, such as visiting an elderly neighbor or an assisted living facility is always a welcome event.

You will want to call before you go to get the rules of the facility and take their suggestions as to how to proceed. For example, many of the residents have special dietary restrictions that must be adhered to if you are to bring foodstuffs. Many facilities keep their residents busy, so again call ahead to make sure you come at a time when you are not interrupting the schedule and the residents will be able to visit with you. It is precisely the human interaction that most residents crave the most.

On the other end of the age spectrum are the children of the community and like most grandmothers, children are especially dear to mine. The Children’s Village is always in need of volunteer help, toys, food items and of course financial support. You can find them on Hanley Ave. or at The work they do is invaluable to the community and a life saving influence for the children they serve.

Most of us are reminded of our social obligations around the holiday season with columnists who publish the obligatory holiday columns such as this one, but I hope to call us all to action more often than once a year, and I hope that each of you will respond in the way your talents and resources allow. I am sure it is what my grandmother, and likely yours, would want us to do.

Mark Altman is a speaker and leadership consultant with the Altman Leadership Center. Mark has completed graduate work in Marriage and Family Counseling and is working on a PhD in Leadership studies at Texas A&M University. He is happy to speak or provide a workshop for your organization and can be reached at

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Holiday relatives are coming back!

We are getting closer to that wonderful, dreadful, time of year called the Holiday Season. This time of year typically is thought of as beginning at Thanksgiving and ending with the beginning of the New Year. Some believe this month long trial by fire is rigged by Santa to lessen the number of good boys and girls he has to visit every year. Ok, I admit it, it’s only me that believes it; however, I hope you will agree it is a conspiracy theory that has as much merit as any other.
Last year I published a guide to not only survive the holiday season, but actually enjoy the time with family, and come to the New Year admitting those crazy people really are related to you and not just some unfortunate clerical error at the hospital. I am going to print a reminder of the guide and add a couple of points to build upon the wonderful progress we all made last year.
The first thing to keep in mind is to set reasonable expectations for the holiday gatherings. If your family resembles a 3D version of Bart and Homer Simpson during the year, it is highly unlikely you will function like the Huxtables, or George Bailey’s wonderful holiday family. Stress and proximity tend to cause old wounds to open, not help them heal; but, if you can manage your expectations then at least you may experience less stress. While it may be a tempting thought, more eggnog is not usually the healthiest answer to holiday family challenges.
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 to him or her. Just because the gathering is in 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, you prevent 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.

Mark Altman is a speaker and leadership consultant with the Altman Leadership Center. He has graduate work in Marriage and Family Counseling and is the author of Leadership For All the Mountains You Climb. He can be reached at

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Teens and the "Idiot Box"

Two weeks ago the Rand Corporation released a study showing that teens who watch racy shows are twice as likely to become pregnant or be responsible for a pregnancy over the next three years. Researchers rightly point out, the reasons for teen pregnancy are both diverse and complex and therefore have no single determining factor as to which kids will get pregnant and which won’t. However, the kids who watched the most sexual content on TV were twice as likely to be involved in a pregnancy as the kids who watched the least sexual content.

A different study conducted several years ago by some of the same researchers, indicated that kids who watched sexual content on TV had sex at earlier ages. You might be tempted to think the solution is simple: limit or eliminate the TV sexual content teens see. Of course, this solution doesn’t take into account the sexual content teens are exposed to on the Internet, in magazines, music and movies and ignores the technical challenges and Constitutional concerns in limiting such content for kids while not interfering with rights of the general public.

Researchers point out that another aspect of media depictions of sexuality is those depictions are not realistic. For example, all media formats are notoriously silent on the consequences of sex such as diseases, pregnancy and the moral implications. The limited information available is either wrong or not in keeping with the message parents would like to send.

For these reasons, the authors are not calling upon any particular TV show, channel or network to be held accountable. Instead, they believe more realistic plotlines, and frank discussions of consequences will be of greater benefit to both parents and their teens.

Kids today have greater success of information than at any time in human history. Compounding this phenomenon is the fact that kids are maturing earlier physically, but later socially. Menarche is occurring sooner for girls, but they marry later. For boys, puberty is sooner, but the age they are expected to enter the work force is later for most. The place where these factors collide is where this problem lives.

In our own family, now that we have teenagers, we have found success in monitoring what the kids watch; not to limit any particular programming, but to know what they are watching in an effort to be able to have frank, sometimes uncomfortable, discussions. We have found it to be far more important to ask their opinion of these situations, listen carefully, and then ask other questions to allow them to discover answers for themselves. Lectures, especially lectures disconnected to their reality are of little perceived value and probably limited real value as well. To use this method a parent must be confident in their values system and their ability to discuss it intelligently.

As parents, there is an attraction to shielding our kids from depictions of explicit sex, violence or drug use; much in the same way that I am not ready to have the kids start dating. However in the case of dating, my wife’s wisdom is prevailing. She points out that if they are dating for a couple of years while living at home, then we can guide them through the process; but if they were to wait until after they are married (my favorite option), then we would not be there to help them be successful.

Mark Altman is a speaker and leadership consultant with the Altman Leadership Center. Mark has completed graduate work in Marriage and Family Counseling and is working on a PhD in Leadership studies at Texas A&M University. He is happy to speak or provide a workshop for your organization and can be reached at

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Rx for a sick Nation

As I am writing my column I am watching the election coverage to determine who our next President will be. It is worth noting that by the time this column publishes we will know who that person will be, likely the nation will have begun to accept the will of the people and I hope we will have largely moved together to tackle our nation’s problems. The problem of the economy will likely be the first problem touching American families the new President will have to address, and an important part of this problem is that of affordable health insurance.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau Idaho has 213,000 people, or 14.7 percent of its population were uninsured in 2004-5. The nation as a whole has 45.7 million without health insurance and many of those are children and the elderly. If you believe this is bad news, then the worse news: these numbers are pre-economic downturn and we don’t have numbers after the downturn.
Like most policy decisions, this one has numerous facets with many stakeholders and each of the facets of the problem can lead to any number of unintended consequences. Lack of health care for children for example, feeds a number of problems such as avoidable illness, higher medical bills for ailments that aren’t caught early, and lower academic performance in school.
Part of the challenge for policy makers is medical science itself. On the one hand we live longer than ever before in human history, and on the other the medical costs for procedures is higher than ever. American companies, trying to increase profits so stockholders do not take investment monies to countries where health care costs are much less (partly because companies are not expected to provide employee health care benefits), are decreasing benefits. We now have medical procedures that can heal problems that certainly would have been fatal even 25 years ago.
Some of the debates the new President will have to judge are, “As a society, what resources are we morally and ethically obligated to commit in order to lengthen a lifespan?” Connected to that question is, “What resources do we commit to early detection and preventative care?” Last, “To what ends can society demand its citizens take care of themselves?” “Do we continue to make smoking harder and harder to do through taxation and limiting where people can smoke?” “Should we “punish” drinking and poor dietary habits?” “Do we mandate physicals for school age children as we do immunization?”
We have had more political participation in this election than in almost any other in the nation’s history. However, the new President, whichever candidate wins, will need the help of an educated, engaged, populace interested in solving the challenges like this one that have no easy answers. Please stay excited and involved by writing your political officials and attending town halls and meetings, making your feelings known. Your family’s medical and financial health and the nation’s economic well-being depend on it.

Mark Altman is a speaker and leadership consultant with the Altman Leadership Center. Mark has completed graduate work in Marriage and Family Counseling and is working on a PhD in Leadership studies at Texas A&M University. He is happy to speak or provide a workshop for your organization and can be reached at

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Poitical Hatfields and McCoys

Unless you have been on another planet for the last year or so, you know that on Tuesday we will all go to the polls to vote for the next round of office holders; from local offices all the way to the Presidency. This election cycle has seen a level of partisanship not seen for many years, maybe ever and this partisanship has spilled over into our every facet of our lives. From work and school, church and civic groups, and yes even, maybe especially into our families.
While it can be a source of stress in a family to be divided over something as personal as political party or policy position, I argue assuming the family handles this challenge well, this is a sign of strength and healthy function. If everyone in a family seems to agree politically or on social positions, in addition to being highly unlikely, this could be a sign of a patriarch or matriarch who has failed to encourage independent thinking in their progeny. However, if you are bemoaning your family’s abundance of independent thinking allow me to suggest some tips that may restore your sanity, at least for this election cycle.
1. Don’t take it personally. Much like people can when rooting for a favorite sports team, sometimes we are too invested in the victory of a particular side.
2. Argue fairly. Try to keep the debate on topic and avoid belittling or calling names. Telling a child, “When you get older you will know better” or a parent, “You are just too old to understand”; is both outside the rules of debate and demeaning.
3. If one party believes the debate becomes acrimonious or hurtful, then both parties should agree to avoid talking about politics at least for a time.
4. Our nation seems to favor switching between the two major parties, especially at the national level; however, we see this phenomenon at every level and it is probably a healthy thing for our system.
5. Remember that our political system has survived bad office holders at every level of government. If the “wrong” candidate wins, don’t be overly alarmed as most office holders end up better than our fears and worse than our hopes.
6. Keep in mind that even more than our nation and communities, your families have more in common in terms of ideology and experiences that bring you together than divide you.
For all of us, voting is both a right and a privilege that we wish to pass along to our children. As parents our hope should be that our children exercise their rights even if they come down on the other side of issues or candidates than we do. Please vote on Nov. 4 for the candidate of your choice.

Mark Altman is a speaker and leadership consultant with the Altman Leadership Center. Mark has completed graduate work in Marriage and Family Counseling and is working on a PhD in Leadership studies at Texas A&M University. He is happy to speak or provide a workshop for your organization and can be reached at

Friday, October 24, 2008

Enjoy a less scary Halloween

The end of the month brings one of my favorite times of the year. What's not to like about candy, tricks and treats, scary movies, candy, costumes, a Charlie Brown special from my childhood, and of course more candy?

However, this time of year brings some challenges for parents not found during the rest of the year, and I'm not referring to finding the latest super hero costume.

Costumes are a great place to start in our safety checklist. You should make sure the kids' costumes fit correctly, because if they are too long a child can trip as they run from house to house. Of course, this is a problem not so much because of a skinned knee, but because the candy might spill and other kids could pick up your child's spoils. Make sure costumes are flame retardant and try to avoid masks; if you can, use face paint instead as it doesn't impede peripheral vision.

Make sure the costume can easily be seen at night. We would all like to believe that anyone driving on that evening will be extra vigilant, but kids can be very difficult to see, so give drivers a helping hand. A "chemlight" or "glow stick" is very valuable but inexpensive insurance. Besides, they look cool at night.

Stick to houses you know or go to a school or church event. This may mean fewer houses, but the upside is the treats are usually better if the people giving the treats know the kids coming to the door. Some public safety agencies or hospitals will X-ray bags of candy free of charge, but regardless, throw away any treats not in a tamper-proof wrapper unless you know the giver very well.

Ensure your kids know that vandalism and petty crimes such as shoplifting are crimes at any time of the year. Make them do clean up if they egg or toilet paper a home, and pay restitution if that is appropriate. Practical jokes can be fun if no one gets hurt and property is respected; help your kids know where the line is.

I can't urge you enough to go with your kids. Get into the spirit (no pun intended) and dress up yourself -- there is no substitute for your supervision. However, if that isn't possible, try these suggestions to keep everyone safe and having fun. Set the ground rules and a curfew, know where they are headed and provide a cell phone.

As kids get older they lose interest in trick or treating and instead opt for parties. If this is something your kids wish to do, consider being the house to throw the party. While it is usually a lot of work, you do get to know where your kids are and you get to see their friends in a social environment. Priceless.

You can rent a few scary movies or have a pumpkin carving contest. A Halloween-themed scavenger hunt in the neighborhood, or acting out a murder mystery, are great themed parties.

The one thing you should not do, under any circumstance, is provide, or allow minors to have, alcohol. This is illegal and can bite your backside more ways than you can count. No, not every parent does this, and it is a bad idea no matter the circumstances or precautions you take.

Halloween has been a fun and scary time for hundreds of years. With a little planning and a dose of common sense, your family can have a great time and both give and receive sweet treats. As for me, I like "Whoppers". . . and "Milk Duds". . . and "Jolly Ranchers". . . and, well I'm sure you get the idea.

From the Altmans, have a frighteningly good Halloween!

Mark Altman is a speaker and leadership consultant with the Altman Leadership Center. Mark has completed graduate work in Marriage and Family Counseling and is working on a Ph.D. in Leadership studies at Texas A&M University. He is happy to speak or provide a workshop for your organization and can be reached at

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Birds and Bees

This column was written several months ago, but I just realized I had not posted it here. The information is still valid.
Because of the passions ignited over the topic of sex education in schools (no pun intended, ok, yes it is intended, I couldn’t resist) I have purposely tried to avoid putting a dog in the fight. However, in the last two weeks two major studies have come out providing strong evidence for both the necessity and the efficacy of formal sex education.
The first study, says 1 in 4 teenage girls has at least one sexually transmitted disease. This study was reviewed in the Press a week or so ago and sends the blunt message that “abstinence only” sex-ed messages don’t work. The study was national in scope with the data extrapolated from a study conducted in 2003-04. For girls who admitted to being sexually active, the rate jumps to 40 percent, with the majority of those having contracted HPV or human papillomavirus, the virus that can lead to cervical cancer.
The second study used data from a 2002 survey but used a bigger sample of participants; about 1700 of them answered questions about their sexual activity and the kinds of sex education they have received. Teens that have had formal sex education had lower pregnancy rates than kids who had either abstinence only sex education or no sex education at all. While studies have consistently shown abstinence only programs to be less effective in reducing the onset of sexual activity and the pregnancy rates of teens, than formal sex education; this is the first national study to compare the effects of comprehensive sex-ed and abstinence-only education, according to Pamela K. Kohler, of the Center for AIDS and STD at the University of Washington in Seattle.
I realize there are parents who are not a fan of the schools teaching sex education, and if we are talking about the schools doing the entire job themselves then I agree. However, much as I try to use a hammer when I want to hit a nail, and a screwdriver when I wish to tighten a screw, I believe in both parents and teachers doing the part of this job to which they are best suited. In practical terms, this means parents taking the lead by teaching the moral, philosophical, and possible life changing implications of sexual activities, while professionally trained teachers provide accurate, fact based biology and physiology lessons.
Parents have a number of challenges to overcome in order to provide biology and physiology lessons themselves, not the least of which is having accurate information available to pass on. The next challenge is the communication of that information. Parents and their teens are often embarrassed by having conversations about sex and associated behaviors. This embarrassment is usually a barrier to conveying much needed information, information that can impact the health and well being of all our children.
For these reasons and likely a number of others, many parents are doing a very poor job of holding up their end of the bargain. Parents, if you fail to do this job adequately your child can have their life derailed or even ended before it can begin. Please maintain a positive relationship with your kids, do your research, and ask for help if you need it. The stakes are too high to do any less.
Mark Altman is a speaker and leadership consultant with the Altman Leadership Center. Mark has completed graduate work in Marriage and Family Counseling and is working on a PhD in Leadership studies at Gonzaga University. He is happy to speak or provide a workshop for your organization and can be reached at

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Big "C"

Last Friday I noticed a lump developing under my left arm. I have had a lymph node removed under that arm due to a scorpion sting in the Mohave Desert while in the Army. So I figured I had another lymph node acting up; but when it began to swell about the size of a tennis ball my wife decided it was time to see a doctor. Initially I refused to go, but something about a “double standard” when it comes to our health and a moderate dose of a guilt trip, quickly changed my mind.
With an elevated white blood cell count, a fever that comes and goes, and a general lack of energy, the Doc isn’t ruling anything out until later this week, giving the antibiotics a chance to kill the infection we all hope is the culprit. Please understand, I do not think I have cancer and I am not worried; if you know me and would be inclined to worry for me, please don’t, but I thank you for the thought. However, as you can imagine this episode got me to thinking, “How will I react if I find out that I do in fact have a form of cancer?”, “How do I hope I will react?” For the last year or so, my first thought when faced with a life choice or difficult circumstances is, “Hey, I should write a column about that. Maybe it will help someone in similar circumstances.”
As I began my research, I noticed two things right away: every source I read suggests becoming the best and smartest patient you can be, and second, having a loving support network of family, friends and fellow patients to walk this journey with you. While the research offered suggests men and women deal with their disease in different ways (men tend to crave information to help themselves intellectually but keep their emotions bottled up, and women tend to share emotions and experiences), the commonality for both is make sure you do not try to be “The Lone Ranger.”
At the website, Doctor Creagan advises that right after you receive your diagnosis you should make sure you bring someone along with you to the doctor’s office because most people are not in the frame of mind to remember many details. Along with that, learn the particulars of your disease, “What kind of cancer is it?”, “Where and what size is it, and has it spread?”, “Is the cancer slow growing or is it more aggressive?” Further, seek a second opinion but if those two opinions are close, don’t waste a lot of time going to six or seven doctors, the opinion is not likely to change.
After you have learned all you can about your disease and have become comfortable with your doctor, then learn all you can about your treatment options. The website suggests in general, there are four possible treatment options: surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and “watchful waiting.” Make sure you understand the risks and benefits of each of these options; while you and your oncologist are in a partnership, at the end of the day, you are in charge of your body and health.
The last piece of advice my research provided is advice everyone can benefit from: Seize the Day! “Carpe diem” for those of you still familiar with Homer. And no I do not mean Homer Simpson for you jokers in the audience. Live each day for all that day is worth and be “in the moment” as much as you can. When you live one experience but worry about two others at the same time, you are not honoring the life you are in. Cancer or not, you could get hit by a bus tomorrow so live today as it’s your last, it just might be. Oh yeah in case of the bus thing, remember to wear clean underwear.
Mark Altman is a speaker and leadership consultant with the Altman Leadership Center. He has graduate work in Marriage and Family Counseling and is working on a PhD in Leadership studies at Gonzaga University. He can be reached at

Teaching Children about Politics

As adults, one of our best opportunities to have our voice heard and consequently one of our greatest responsibilities as citizens is to cast a ballot when we are given the opportunity to do so. This is true whether you are voting for a candidate or expressing your opinion of a bond or social issue. Passing on the importance of this civic duty to your children is just as important.
This year we are fortunate to have our children watch us vote for our own national leaders while at the same time, we can juxtapose our political system against the troubled areas of the world such as several African nations, Iraq, and Afghanistan. We are also fortunate to show our children a historic Presidential election. We have taken a huge step toward true political equality to minorities and women, as we have a minority candidate that seems to be gaining momentum every day and may well win the Presidency and if he doesn’t then a female candidate will be the Vice-President.
This new chapter in American history provides a fascinating backdrop for parents, as we teach our younger citizens one of the safeguards to our freedoms in the educated participation of all our citizens in the political process. Families can do several things to nurture a lifelong interest in politics, governance and public policy in their children:
Do your best to understand our political processes and the political systems of other countries. You can’t accurately explain what you don’t know. Be fair when explaining positions you don’t agree with, it will bite your backside if you don’t.
Encourage polite, open, and honest debate; especially if your children disagree with you. Your willingness to listen just might convince them you will listen if they need to talk to you about something really important.
If you don’t know the answer to something don’t fake it. Kids have a BS detector as sensitive as my beagle’s nose begging from the kitchen table. Besides, they will probably be given the right answer next week in school, so don’t knowingly undercut your credibility. Far better is to sit down together with a book or at the computer and look up the right answer.
Talk to your kids about how various public policies affect your family directly. Make sure your children know you vote in every election. If you know a service member, talking about their service immediately personalizes much of our foreign policy and opens doors to a chat about domestic policy.
Encourage them to write their political leaders with polite questions or comments, most will write back with an answer. Take them to a city council, school board meeting, or a political event.
Ask them their opinions; they may surprise you with their insight. If they disagree with you, don’t shoot them down; ask more questions, eventually they will figure out the “right answer” even if it isn’t your “right answer”.
Political growth is a process like mental and physical growth. You don’t get angry with your child for being only four feet tall; likewise, don’t be angry when they disagree with your position on Darfur or abortion. With your help, they will come to their own truth on these and other issues; but more important, they will be ready and willing to engage in the debate as knowledgeable adults and take their place as citizens.
Mark Altman is a speaker and leadership consultant with the Altman Leadership Center. Mark has completed graduate work in Marriage and Family Counseling and is working on a PhD in Leadership studies at Gonzaga University. He is happy to speak or provide a workshop for your organization and can be reached at

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Our Canine Companions

This last week my best non-human buddy, a mostly beagle and terrier mix with a dash of dachshund of dubious parentage, “Copper” managed to get hurt out at the ranch. The Vet isn’t sure if he got kicked by horse, tried to jump on something and fell, or just managed to harm himself in one of another million ways. We tried asking the Vet and Copper, but so far no definite answers are forthcoming from either.
My sister found him as a puppy trying really hard to avoid being run over along an interstate, and brought the mess of a canine that would come to be known as “Copper” to Dawn and me to “watch him for a few days.” As all of you realized before I did, that dog was never leaving our house. He has now been a loyal family member while I was in Iraq, and through our move to Idaho and back, and has been a very good companion. Well, other than getting in the trash on occasion and that one time he snagged two perfect lamb chops off the counter in a caper worthy of Mission Impossible.
He is not a guard dog; in fact, for a treat he would probably help carry out the TV. While I had high hopes he would make a good rabbit and squirrel dog, I think he made a deal with the little critters, “Look guys, if you stay hidden for a couple of hours, I will bark like crazy every so often to make it look good. Then he and I will go home where I will get a treat, he’ll take a nap, and you guys won’t get shot. I don’t think he can hit the broad side of a barn, but let’s not take a chance. Do we have a deal?”
He gets his spot on the bed at night and Dawn and I get what’s left over, but if your heart is heavy or you are sick he is right there next to you till you feel better. He is always good for a laugh, and when he does something bad he can look so sad and pitiful, it’s hard to get mad at him. Copper definitely lives by the great American humorist Josh Billings’ sentiment, “A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself.” This alone made the 300-dollar vet bill a non-decision even though we still don’t know what is wrong with him.
I wouldn’t think of trading Copper for any pure bred dog, no matter how high dollar. Please consider carefully whether you have room in your life for a pet, then make sure you have your pet spayed or neutered. Try adopting your next pet from the local animal shelter; they always have animals in need of adoption. “If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man.”- Mark Twain

A Taste of Your Hometown

As many of you may know, my family and I have moved back to Texas to be near family while I finish my education. Our moving led to Dawn and me walking through a small family owned business that has made hats here in Texas for eighty years. They have made hats for most of the cowboy and western movies many of us enjoyed as kids and continue to make hats with handmade craftsmanship.
Our little excursion precipitated a conversation between my lovely bride and me about how often most folks, us included, tend to neglect to visit those local treasures within a short drive of our homes, often for years. While in our case the treasured place was a family owned business, I am certainly thinking of local state parks and historical sites as well. So this week I wanted to list a few places we enjoyed while we lived in Coeur d’ Alene and encourage you all to visit them or see them again with new eyes if you have been before.
Old Mission State Park is the site of The Mission of the Sacred Heart, which in addition to begin very beautiful, is the oldest standing building in Idaho. The park has exhibits highlighting the role of the Mission in the lives of the Coeur d’ Alene tribe. The park is open from 9 am – 5 pm year round.
Downtown in CDA is the Fort Sherman Museum on the North Idaho College campus. This museum holds artifacts from both soldiers and Indians from the 1800s, and is open from 1 pm to 4:45 pm from 1 May to 30 September. The museum has a store and nearby is the Ft. Sherman Chapel.
Post Falls is home to both the Treaty Park Historic Site and Falls Park. With several picnic areas, paved trails and handicapped accessible, these parks are both beautiful and historically important to the entire North Idaho area. There are also areas to have family or class reunions that can be reserved by contacting the Parks reservation office at 208-773-0539.
In Wallace, you can find both the Sierra Silver Mine and the Oasis Bordello Museum (the only other Museum dedicated to a brothel I have come across was in Fayetteville, Arkansas). However, a quick search on the internet proved several states have such museums, so I guess I have lived a sheltered life. The mine and the museum have something of an intertwined history in that the mining industry and the lack of women in North Idaho at the time saw the birth of the brothel. Although, it was interesting to find the world’s oldest profession managed to operate openly until 1988. While it is suggested you bring a light jacket to the mine, the museum requires no such preparation.
Last on my list for this week is the geyser in Soda Springs. This geyser is notable because the water combines with the carbon dioxide gas in an underground chamber and is released every hour on the hour.
I hope you will take your families to these Idaho treasures, the sites themselves are great, but the memories you will create together will be the lasting treasure. As for me, I think I am going to buy a hat like my favorite western hero!

Do the Good

“Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do”- Voltaire
This quote came to mind the other night as a friend and I were talking about community activism. He rightly pointed out, that while there is never a shortage of people available to launch slings and arrows at those who would do their best to help our community, state, or nation move forward, there is definitely a shortage of those who will roll up their sleeves and do the hard work helping the community to become better. “What is ‘better’,” you might ask?
In my mind, “better” is anything that increases our care, compassion, and empathy for one another. “Better” is independent of political ideology, education, intelligence, or talent. “Better” is anything one can do to lighten the load for our fellow man. “Better” means working to help those who can’t help themselves such as children, the elderly, or frankly even someone who just finds themselves going through a rough spot in life. George Bernard Shaw sums up this idea, “The worst sin towards our fellow man is not to hate them but to be indifferent to them; that’s the essence of inhumanity.”
Helping others has a restorative power for us as well. Psychologists and sociologists use the word “resilience” when they wish to describe the ability of people to persevere in the wake of tragedy and challenge. Resilience and self-esteem are both increased when a person engages in selfless service. As you can see, there is a payoff for the giver of time and talent as well as for the receiver of those gifts.
If you become overwhelmed when trying to find ways to make a difference in regard to society’s problems, then I suggest you start simple. Read to a class of youngsters, talk to a classroom of kids about living through WWII or the Civil Rights Movement, volunteer to organize a “board game night” for a group of elderly citizens, or offer your construction expertise to Habitat for Humanity. “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” – Aesop
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about our interdependence, our reliance on others. "As long as there is poverty in the world I can never be rich, even if I have a billion dollars. As long as diseases are rampant and millions of people in this world cannot expect to live more than twenty-eight or thirty years, I can never be totally healthy, even if I just got a good checkup at the Mayo Clinic. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way our world is made. No individual or nation can stand out boasting of being independent. We are all interdependent."
At no time in history was his observation truer than now. With instant world-wide communication, and a global economy, we are all connected to each other in ways that are alternatively scary and exhilarating. While competition will move an individual forward, only collaboration will provide the ability to overcome the challenges that face us locally and globally. "The ancient human question 'Who am I?' leads inevitably to the equally important question 'Whose am I?' -- for there is no self outside of relationship." - Parker Palmer
None of us knows where tomorrow will find us, or whether it will find us at all. For this reason alone, do not put off the good you can do today in the hopes of a greater good tomorrow. Gerry Harvieux noted, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is today.”

Teaching Self-Control

“Control thy passion lest they take vengeance on thee.” - Epictetus
Last week I wrote the school system should not be responsible for disciplining children, parents should. Because I do not believe in pointing out a problem without providing some kind of solution, I want to reiterate what experts have to say on this subject and pass on some of the tools and techniques they suggest.
Research across the US suggests that a child’s level of self control relative to their peers is largely set by age 10, and while the development of self control will continue as they mature, they will not suddenly become more disciplined than their peers if they were less disciplined at age 10. The primary cause of low self control is believed to be parents who fail to monitor the child’s behavior, and using a loving, consistent, reward and punishment system, modify the child’s behavior. You will hopefully notice none of these methods include corporal punishment. So to that end here are a few suggestions to developing self control in your children:
1. Be a good example. “He preaches well that lives well.” – Miguel De Cervantes. If your children see you flying off the handle at traffic, your spouse, or the child themselves, they will see little reason to exhibit self control. So when disciplining your child, stay in control yourself and explain there are consequences for losing one’s self control. Then calmly explain what those consequences are.
2. When your child is angry, excessively excited, or too wound up encourage them to “take a break”, chat with them a moment about what they are feeling so they learn to recognize the signs of a meltdown.
3. Set fair and reasonable limits. These limits must be consistently enforced whether in public or at home.
4. Make sure your instructions are clear. If you were unclear or if the child did not understand or is not capable of complying that is your shortcoming as a parent, not the child’s behavior. Chalk it up to your own learning.
5. Use appropriate rewards. Small, constant, positive feedback will go a long way to teaching self restraint. This feedback and rewards can be simply, “I am so proud of the way you handled yourself back there, that was very grown-up.”
6. The National Association of School Psychologists have a website ( with age appropriate role playing games to help you speak on a child’s level (as young as 3 to 5 years of age). These games are intended to work on self control in a positive manner and teach parental skills that can be modified as the child grows.
7. Be consistent, be fair, and do what you say you are going to do as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow.
8. Last, and by far most importantly, love your children. Hug them, touch them, be unselfish to them, serve their needs before your own, and by all means tell them you love them and are proud of them constantly. When you do this, the child is far more likely to want to please you to hear such things.
Teaching your children self-control and self-discipline is your responsibility and while the failure to do so is yours as a parent; your child will pay the price for your failure. This can be a difficult job, especially if your own level of self control is low; however the reward for doing a good job is a successful, well adjusted child, of whom you maybe justifiably proud.

Teen Dating Violence

This week I was supposed to cover how to have as healthy a divorce as possible, and I promise I will do that next week. As so often happens in my life, I find more pressing matters sometimes preempt my best-laid plans. Such is the case this week.
My friend Camie Wereley, from the CDA Women’s Center, and I were talking this week about the teen dating violence awareness workshop I attended a couple of weeks ago, and she informed me this first week of February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Week. Because I have four teenagers, two boys and two girls, I get to enjoy four helpings of the angst every parent is served when their teenager begins to date, and so this topic holds particular concern for me. It should hold general concern for all of us as we guide our teenagers through learning to be in relationship with each other. For those of you from the “Show Me” state, and anyone else that is skeptical this is a problem. . .
The following statistics are from the Bureau of Justice in May 2000:
Thirty to fifty percent of high school students report having already experienced some form of teen dating violence.
One in three either have been or will be in an abusive relationship.
Young women (16-24) experience the highest per capita rates of intimate violence- almost 20/1000
38% of “date rape” victims are 14-17 years old and 68% of women raped knew their rapist as a boyfriend, friend or acquaintance.
While boys can be abuse victims, usually it is not with physical violence but controlling behavior such as constant texting or calling and threatening to harm herself if he ends the relationship.
There are other statistics showing how wide spread the problem is, my hope is you are asking yourself what you can do about it. If you are a teen and experiencing dating violence then tell someone you trust and get help. Telling your parents is a great place to start; they want to help. However, if you can’t tell them, call Project Safe Place 208-676- 0772 and the Women’s Center has a 24 hr Crisis Intervention Line 208-664-9303.
If you are a parent, modeling good relationship behaviors is the place to start. Dad, your kids see how you treat your wife, or partner, in the case of divorced homes. Girls from a home of abuse are more likely to have every social problem we know of from teenage pregnancy, to drug abuse, to being abused themselves. Mom if you are being abused and staying with the relationship, your daughters are far more likely to be abused and your sons far more likely to become abusers. Parents, communicate with your kids LONG before they begin dating. Let your daughter know what behavior she should expect from a date and make sure your son knows the behavior you expect from him.
Learn to recognize the signs of abuse and do not be afraid to get involved in your child’s dating habits. They are learning how to be in relationship and need to be coached; either you will coach them or most likely the friend you like the least is going to. You should meet and get to know every date. If you see a boyfriend being controlling, physical signs of injury, failing grades or truancy, use of drugs or alcohol, emotional outbursts or changes in mood or personality then get involved. Let them know you’re there to help and support; use active listening skills and try very hard not to be judgmental.
Parents and teens alike, this can be a special time in both of your lives with a little common sense, open and honest communication, adherence to agreed upon family rules, and love and respect.