How to Listen Your Way To a Healthier Relationship: A guide for husbands, the clueless, narcissists, or general turds.

This is attunement. It is the pinnacle marker of health of every relationship. It means relational homeostasis. It’s the 90-year old couple holding hands on the couch and finishing each other’s sentences. It’s what my clients are asking me for when they say they need relationship “help.”

They need attune-up.

This couple is not attuned.

Most of my couples during Session #2.

Fortunately, there is a well-established pathway to the goal. It’s called Active Listening, and there are 3 simple parts. You can listen your way to health. This is for every single relationship. I’m laying out all of my tricks here. If you can pull this off, you can avoid coming to people like me. Just send me a thank you note.


Let’s start with how brains learn.

At which stage in this process would you say learning takes place?

We love to think learning takes place because we taught them.

So, Stage 1? (A.k.a., I told him so he must know…) Nope. Stage 1 is just instinctual imitation. Kid has no idea why he’s copying mom.

How about stage 2? (A.k.a., people learn by doing…) Getting warmer. An old saying of teachers goes: “They don’t learn it when you’ve taught it to them. They learn it when they’ve taught it back to you.”

The real learning cements and encodes in the brain in stage 3. When the effort was affirmed and vulnerability is rewarded with positive attention.

This process attunes two brains – baby and mama – to a common language via a common experience.


Lets move now to adults and DEEP attunement, or Emotional Attunement.


All day every day, your brain floats through one or more emotions like these, at varying levels of intensity:

See this top half? These are negative emotions. Parents and people scrolling Twitter spend a lot of time in this half:

Negative emotions are a pain signal to help us identify and heal from a bad experience. We call them wounds or traumas. When our relationship gets “off”, its because we haven’t successfully processed these together. By processing, I basically mean digesting your feelings (very different from eating your feelings, which is ironically a way to avoid digesting them).

This guy is about to eat his sad pizza.

We process/digest the experience – NOT JUST BY TALKING — but by being LISTENED TO.

For good reason, no one really wants to deal with the other person’s 💩. Thankfully, we don’t have to process it for them! We actually just need to hang out with them while they eat their sad pizza. And try a bite with them. No one should eat alone.


STEP 1: REFLECTION is when we hold up a mirror to their emotions, and embrace them, like how Mom did with baby:

Most people don’t walk around saying “I feel sad”. It would be nice if they did. So this guy gets it. He is next level. He doesn’t need her to say it. So he can actually move to level 2: yellow belt.

This is a completely appropriate response to her statement. When someone is upset, all you need to do is make reflective statements back to them until they know you hear under the surface. Take them to their emotions.




No questions, no rambling, no answers needed. No stories of my own. Just reflective statements. People in pain will talk for an hour if you let them, as we take them to deeper levels of themselves.

The tricky thing about reflection is we actually have to listen and don’t get to hijack the conversation with our agenda (sucks, I know). And as we listen, and reflect, the person opens up to deeper levels of what’s going on.

Adopted from M. Young, Learning the Art of Helping, 2014.

If we do this reflection job well, we will listen them to a point where we feel something within our own soul stirred because we get it. We feel their pain. Often, they will break down in tears.

This moves us to–

STEP TWO: EMPATHY, actually sharing the emotion. Homosapien magic.

You can’t fake this part. I’ve watched a lot of people try, and if there is one thing homosapien brains are good at, its detecting BS. If you’re not feeling them, they aren’t feeling you as you stumble through awkwardness. Fortunately, all you have to do is be real and your brain will do the rest.

STEP 3: ACCEPTING RESPONSIBILITY is when we move toward them, and eat a bite of their Sad Pizza.

We step in and share the load because we care. We may not have caused the problem — or maybe we did — but either way we take a tiny step closer to help them in their pain. This is where the magic happens:



Those are the bones of Active Listening. Now lets put some flesh and color to it.

Level 3: Active Listening and Reflecting Anger. This takes it to the next level because here is where we, the listener, can easily get flooded. Our emotions spike with theirs because we may be in danger. Anger is a trip circuit in our brain that heightens alertness and kickstarts defensiveness. No worries – keep calm and stick to the script. This is the brown belt test.

This time, someone is at fault and there is hell to pay. He likes his jaw located right where it is, so his brain may be freaking out and trying to deflect with these strategies:

All bad ideas that get you nowhere.

Also, telling her she is sad may not actually work in reality, because she doesn’t know she is sad. This hairball takes longer to untangle. So we start at the surface.

This guy read this article, so he remains calm and stays one step ahead.

Once she has responded with an affirmation, he knows she is feeling heard. Now she feels safe and more open to calming, where she can realize she is sad. You, the calm listener, are one step ahead. It is obvious to you, but she hasn’t realized it yet. Now that she feels safe, get to the point:

Now SHE knows she is feeling sad, because he helped her digest it. Now she can verbalize it and we can do that empathy thing.

LEVEL 4: Accusation is where we separate the grown-ups from the kids. Unfortunately, most of us will need a black belt for this.

This gets personal.

This time, YOU’RE the target of the anger. Now, you REALLY have to play it cool. This one is less like untangling a hairball and more like defusing a bomb. At any point, our own emotions become triggered and our own quivering nerves will blow it all up.

SAME PROCESS: Start at the top, reflecting with a summary.

No defensiveness, no explaining. None of that. “You think” isn’t said with fear, anger, hostility, sarcasm, or mocking.

Yes, Seth the counselor gets it. You didn’t kill the hamster. Or you didn’t mean to do it. Or you weren’t trying to do it.

I get it, I get it, I get it.

OR– You are tired of being accused. Or you are exhausted from the 15 years of back and forth with this person. I get it.

OR — Your partner is emotional and irrational and a lunatic and you are tired of giving in and all those things.

I get it, I get it, I get it. Sucky for you, but none of those justifications are helpful now. You’re going to have to suck it up, put on your big boy/girl pants, and flush all those excuses down the toilet during this exchange.

Just stick with them, and stick to the script. And remember:

(C) Tatiana Gill, Facebook @tatianiagill

This guy is ready, because he still remembers:

Keep reflecting until what they are saying makes sense, and you understand their reasoning. Don’t stop seeking more info until you understand.

If you are truly a cool hand and have black belt skills, you will even be free to admit the part(s) where you were actually wrong, or the character flaw that got you accused. And it actually HELPS the situation.

Notice what you haven’t done yet. You havent:

  • Agreed with them
  • Conceded
  • Been defensive
  • Criticized or mocked
  • Made excuses
  • Blamed
  • Dismissed emotions
  • Told them they are right or they have a point

All you have done is listen to get their narrative right.

Maybe they are completely wrong. Most people self-correct when they hear themselves out loud reflected by a safe person.

Maybe they have completely mischaracterized you. Maybe they have been misunderstanding, accusing, and mischaracterizing you for 15 years. I can assure you that there is no brilliant thing you can say in one moment that will change the thousands of memories, subconscious reads, and assumptions they have of you. He can’t explain her from thinking “this is a guy who might kill hamsters” into thinking, “this guy would NEVER hurt a hamster.” Trust isn’t built through debate. So quit trying.

Keep letting them know you understand that it makes sense, until they get that you get them — and that you DON’T think they are crazy. Instead, stick to the script: “it makes sense that you are accusing me.”

Now that she has been heard and supported in her anger, with no shame, she will start to calm down and be more reflective.

No need for explanations or guesses. Just sit with them and practice empathy. Silence can be golden.

Maybe you’ll even get a chance to explain your side. But you won’t need to.

Remember the primary emotion(s) under the anger. Once we’ve defused the bomb, this takes us all the way back to the beginning of Level 1 active listening.

Time to listen some more. Almost there.

Remember the steps from there.

The beautiful thing is that no one needs you to be perfect. They just need to be listened out of their negative emotions, and then a new bond will take place:


We call it a repair, like when your muscles develop tiny tears during exercise, and heal. When we heal WITH our partner, we not only heal their emotional muscles, but we grow back together closer and more in tune. In the end, attunement through active listening builds a more formidable couple than you could have ever been before the pain.


She was a mid-50’s Latina lady who had been abducted and raped as a little girl. She came me to find forgiveness for her husband. She felt used by him for decades as his own sort of sex slave, with he debasing her while she gave in time after time to make him happy. She despised him and was desperate for a way out of his grasp.

The true grasp was the resentment gripping her heart.

We discussed the complexities of forgiveness, and I made a simple chart for her to fill out:

Two of the sentences she gave me glared at me. Forgiveness means:

  • “I surrender the work of fixing him to the LORD.”
  • “I surrender judgment to the LORD.”

Fixing. Judging. Two sides of the same coin.

Judging is the necessary precursor to fixing. If a doctor or auto mechanic wants to fix, they must first analyze and judge.

The prize? Control.

The opposite of the tree of life ISNT the tree of death — but the tree of awareness. Awareness solves no problems, but simply magnifies them, so that our choices seem more costly.

Both burdens – fixing and judging – demand an analysis, a diagnosis, and a label. These are means to the end of control.

Analyzing, diagnosing, and labeling are avenues to pigeonhole someone into a Narrative that we construct, which keeps us as “Narrative Master,” putting them in our cage. We know the story, now. We control it. I am now incentivized to make sure that every move they now make feeds my carefully constructed, hard earned set of labels.

The Narrative grows with every thought of them. Soon, it is heavy and exhausting to maintain. Every new action must fit in our predetermined framework. The investment in my narrative grows, the capital compounds. The prize of a well-constructed narrative — control — is irresistible.

Once we have them in that tightly constructed narrative box, we can fix them OR judge them.

Fix them when they comply with my Narrative; judge them when they resist — or when my fix fails.

If I fix them, they owe me. If I judge them, well — they owe me.

Both keep me in the place of Narrative Master, and they my little subject rat in a cage, my Narrative Slave who must satisfy their debt to me by repentance of every action in my Narrative in order to regain their freedom from my damnation.

My Narrative Slave now bears the burden of keeping my Narrative propped up. They are the sufferers I judge, trample and use to building a Narrative Plantation on the backs of their Name. Every new action they make, every word they say, must fit my Narrative and keep it alive. With every analytical thought, I whip them into Narrative Submission until it all makes perfect sense.

Its not long before I’ve built a clockwork Narrative Economy with my Narrative Slave at the cost of my subject’s Name. My own economy infects and entagles with the Narratives of those around me, and the debt they must repay compounds. Their Name is the only capital they have from which they will pay the price for my judgment. Their reputation shrinks until they are hardly human. No one wanted that, but it is simply the price of keeping the Economy afloat.

Once an economy is built, abolition gets political.

Far too much invested to simply let the resentment go. To change my Narrative. To assume good of them. To drop the judgment of that person who owes me so much, who wounded me so badly.

My pride, my Narrative of them, and finally, My narrative of Life itself has all become intertwined. My Story of life and justice and faith and meaning and the Divine is all at stake.

Letting resentment go would be far too costly. So costly that most people choose to harbor their resentment, or nurse their grudge. Those are verbs that require energy and payment to sustain. A Narrative Empire requires maintenance. The land on which our Narrative Slaves work to feed us demands payment. That maintenance, however, is far less expensive than abolition.

Forgiveness would be too costly. Its why we continue to feed harmful stories, insist on labels, and deepen our judgmental analyses.

He is a narcissist.
She is crazy.
He only married me for the sex.
She is out to get me.

Soon, I need my enemy to be evil just to satisfy the demands of the Narrative I am commanding. My assumptions jaded, my new mental economy no longer any has other sustenance, no flexibility, no life. No gratitude for the one made in the imago dei. My narrative of life and meaning and justice and hope itself is infected, becoming sicker and smaller by the day, with no way out but to keep the story going.

And in that day, I find my own self trapped in a cycle of slander, unable to break free, for I have no other means to build a Narrative Life but on the backs of those whose stories I refuse to liberate.

He who walls others out, walls himself in.

The true slave is the slaveowner.
The true rat in the cage — is me.


The human brain largely formed through a concept we now know as attachment.

What is the Something Bigger that you and I are attached to? 

That is the Human Question. 

And attention is our individual human answer.  Attention is where all the power of our 75 trillion cells is pointed.  It is a constant stream of consciousness always flowing towards something that receives it. 

You might say that all of the energy we consume becomes pointed towards whatever we give our attention to. 

The 11,000 watts you are burning right now are currently being burned so that you can sit in a temperate climate and read this book.  This book is the direction or flow of the entire you right now. If you were watching a cat video, the earth would be sacrificing those watts so you could bond with that cat.  But you’re not bonding with a cat video, obviously; the earth is paying for you to bond with this book.

In a few minutes or seconds, it will shift and you will focus your attention elsewhere, like your screaming kid or a work call. So attention is a meandering stream, always changing directions.

We can’t stop the flow. Trying to stop yourself from giving your attention to things is like trying to dam a stream with your hands or plug a water hose with your thumb.

Consciousness – attention – is the pinnacle of an individual’s existence and a magic gateway to higher levels.

What we give our attention to is, for that brief moment, our “why.” It is our purpose, albeit for a second. 

This girl is giving her attention to making an arrowhead.  Right now, all of her muscles, neurons, and tissues are working together in beautiful synchrony for one goal: 

a pointed rock. 

In one sense, she made it.  But in another, the universe did.  For the moment, she aligns all of her sunlight and earth toward this end.

This guy is giving his attention to flipping M&M’s in the air and catching them with his mouth to impress the ladies. 

Mother Earth’s 11,000 watts are paying for that, hoping for a return on the investment. It is also our investment of time and energy.  We give attention.  We pay attention.   

Then, something magical happens.  Our brains grow an emotional bond to its investments.  


We grow hope for something in return.  Care grows.  It’s why you care about the stocks you own more than the ones you don’t.  You clean the house you live in, not your neighbor’s.  You invest in that which… you have already invested in.  It is a cycle of loyalty.

And, thanks to evolutionary hacks, these brains don’t really care whether the investment of attention is in something concrete or abstract, living or non-living.

And here we are, 8 billion ants scurrying around, each constantly investing this steady stream of energy.  It’s sort of like our power mountain is a volcano, and attention is high energy lava spewing out our eyeballs, except this lava is a stream of gold. 

She likes it.

Attention isn’t just the most powerful thing we have.   It is the culmination of everything we have in the present.

That which has our attention has our body and all its energy and power captive

That power is quite the prize.   Win Warren Buffett’s attention for a moment, and you now have a brief shot at accessing all that power he is sitting on. 

I know– Buffett looks more like Kim Jong Un with grey hair, but I didn’t want to redraw him, K? And yes, he has way more money.

Whatever has your attention has a shot at getting some of your bank accounts, your work, your skill, your knowledge, and your loyalty.   

Interestingly, this golden stream is extremely narrow.  For all the giant reservoir of data stored up here in our head’s hard drive, the stream flowing out is pitiful in comparison.  We have billions of bytes of stored data in our memory, but our perceptual bandwidth of conscious attention is only a few bits.[1] That’s all we can focus on at a time.

And this tiny stream is guarded by a bouncer:  our conscious will or volition.  This bouncer is the boss, the head executive of a large corporation.  Unfortunately, the bouncer is not a particularly good one.[2]

If anything wants our attention, it needs to convince the bouncer.  Sweet talk this guy, and he is a sucker, always diverting the stream of our attention elsewhere like a Black Friday shopper looking for good deals.  His job is monumentally important: pay attention to the correct things, and our reservoir will continue to fill.  We will grow and become more powerful. 

Spend too much time paying attention to the wrong things, and we will be drained.  Others will siphon our power away, cashing in on our lack of discipline.

That is why there is such an epic battle going on for your attention, both inside and out.


Internally, your body is fighting for the gold.  Our nervous system is its own competitive hierarchy – a corporation – full of dutiful workers constantly seeking attention for their needs.

Assuming your name is also Larry, we’ll call you Larry, Inc.  Your body has lots of internal divisions.

This is the executive boardroom (which conveniently meets in your body’s top floor office):

Ladies and gents, the most complex organ ever created.

From the best we can tell,[3] your nervous system division reps (nerves) meet here all day with the executive team to tackle important company topics like dry skin, invading infections, bowel movements, wanting a college degree, and really liking sex. 

Here – in the brain – the big decisions are made, and the body’s attention budget is allocated.  Most smaller needs are taken care of within their own lower department.  We call these departments our subconscious

But the toughest problems, or those the lower body can’t fix alone, get their moment with the executive team: the conscious mind.

The Frontal Lobe. Execs meet here.

It’s Tuesday afternoon, and you, Larry, have a mild itch on your southern abdomen.  Let’s have a peek at the neurons meeting inside your Lobe:

Ultimately, the issues are filtered by the team. For each, they ignore it, table it, or take immediate action.  They rank priorities, also a bit like March Madness, with thousands of whiny contestants all the time:

The male dilemma.  Same finalists every time.

Here, the minor inflammation in the hips isn’t quite enough to present as conscious pain, so you, Larry, are never aware.  Neither does the infection issue, because the white blood cell team is so badass they almost always get the job done.  You thoughtlessly staved off an ephemeral urge to read a book for now.  So…hungry and horny battle it out yet again.

It is a very, very high stakes contest to capture the momentary abundance of the entire company by convincing the bouncer- the CEO – to take action.  The winner gets access to all the “voluntary” muscles of the body, the mind, and all the excess power under your control. 

The Lobe directs the whole body to go buy a cheeseburger, instead of making babies. 

But the attention battle is never over.

Say you fall and break a leg on the way to get your burger. 

The dynamic Lobe reacts and reprioritizes a broken leg over a cheeseburger.  It directs your hands to dial an ambulance, while your hypothalamus tells your stomach to shut his ass up and wait.  It taps all the resources under its power: voluntary muscles, networks of friends, 9-1-1 helpers, money, and transportation.

The same fingers that can type 911 could also be forking over $50 to someone on Venmo, or filling out paperwork for a mortgage, or typing out a Classic novel.  But in this moment, they’ve made their choice.  Larry needs help.  His leg is screaming and impossible to ignore.  And he is pouring out his assets to get attention.

We call this SPENDING.

If all we ever do is gratify our internal attention desires, our power does this:


So we must give away attention as well.

The river goes both ways, and the CEO/bouncer/consciousness – must constantly delegate access to not only internal forces, but external ones as well. 

They want the gold, too.   And they are quite loud.  And they are smart.  Mesmerize the bouncer, and you have opened the gate to Larry’s assets.

It should be no shock that the battle for attention is humanity’s last battleground.   The fight to capture attention is fierce, with giant multinational corporations at war over our 75 trillion cells and their resources. We call it the attention economy, and the prize of the attention economy is the human and everything the human controls, even if for a second.

This is the March Madness, external conference. 

All for control of a few bits of information for a few seconds at a time.

The truth is, the tiny stream of attention is in constant flow directing deals, transactions, and tradeoffs.   Every day, we wake up and spend the entire day giving our attention in exchange for something.  We trade it to feel something, or to acquire something in order to feel something later. 

We give our attention to a cat video to feel amused.  We give our attention to a Rom-Com to feel warm fuzzies. 

Or, we think longer term.  We might give our attention to a calculus professor –

to gain more intellectual power –

to exchange that for a job –

to exchange that for a paycheck –

to exchange that for a nice house –

to exchange that for —

well, others’ attention.


You’ve gotta give money to make money, and the same is true with attention.  Long term thinkers who routinely give their attention to friends and calculus probably stand to be more powerful than people who give all their attention to cat videos. Not only would they become more powerful, but they would become more mentally healthy.

That’s because we were born with a wonderful, unchangeable neural circuitry that lives in its sweet spot when we give our attention to– and attach to–humans.  We were wired each this way from birth, at a level deeper than we can control.  It is how we came to rule the world, how we created such a mess, and strangely enough, the only way out of the mess.

[1] Brains are impossibly efficient.  The actual amount you process is widely debated, anywhere from 16 bits to 20,000 bits. But we almost universally agree on this point:  Conscious perception is a tiny fraction of the total information you can access. Can  you think of every single memory you’ve ever had – all at once?  In fact, your visual perception even sucks worse than you think.  Try out this neat trick with the playing card:  Also, the bandwith of consciousness discussion, decent middle of the road explanation:

[2] I mean, I should really give him/her some credit.  Brain pruning (discussed later) is pretty incredible.

[3] Pretty good explanation here:

[4] Okay, okay, it doesn’t.  Mine is worse.

A Theory* of Autism

What if autistic kids were actually among the most socially aware of all of us?

Last night, we played Apples to Apples with my family.  Later, when I tucked my 7 year old son into bed, I knew something was wrong.  He didn’t want me to leave.  After 5 minutes of haggling through his embarrassment and fear, he confessed his trauma:


Little man had no idea what computer hackers are, but he intuitively gleaned this: there are some scary guys out there, and they might get you if you aren’t careful on your computer.   And we have computers all over the house.

My son is not autistic.  But as the old saying goes, “we are all somewhere on the spectrum.” And my son has enough of the characteristics that they haven’t passed me by unnoticed:  avoidance of eye contact, poor listening skills, hates varying his routine, constant squirming, fidgeting, quirky ideas, and a slight loner tendency at recess.  He isn’t the only one in the family.  In fact, he got most of these behaviors from me.

I am not a doctor, nor even an autism specialist.  I am an ex-teacher and counselor-in-training who has done my fair share of hanging out with kids with autism, filling out diagnostic observation forms, helping parents communicate with their child, and helping them adapt to the stressful world of school.  In my 10 years of public schools, I was on the front lines, and enjoyed a special kinship with these kids.  I usually feel like I “get” them, and we have often made great progress.   I noticed that over and over, the same theme kept coming back: the need for felt safety.

Over and over, the same theme kept coming back:  the need for felt safety.  

To be sure, autism is born from a combination of multiple sources built on a hereditary predisposition.   Despite conspiracy theories abounding, there is no one “smoking gun.”  I wish it were so.  That would constitute an easy fix, which is a understandably a hopeful pipe dream many parents to cling to.  Instead, we have found that a myriad of factors co-conspire to exacerbate autism’s symptoms.  Food intolerances, exposure to environmental chemicals, psychosocial stress, immune dysfunction, and even hormones all contribute to what I call “a full nervous system assault.”


Suruchi Chandra, MD.  Autism Research Institute © 2013

If the 21st century has taught psychologists and neuroscientists anything, it may be the fallacy of the old “mind vs body” dichotomy.  Mind is body.  There is no obvious reason to suppose that the brain treats one of these types of stress separately.  This is where most of us get off.  We must stop thinking of the mind and consciousness as separate from our physicality.

But brains just see it like this:

When a brain is free and calm, it marches forward.  We are built to be doers and risk takers who go out and face life with courage.  We tackle challenges and overcome adversity to make a mark on the world.

When the brain is under assault from stress, we retreat inward to find safety.  We ball up like a roly poly. 

roly polyNow is not the time to chance making a new friend.

Children with autism seem to be in a near-constant state of facing inward.  From what we can tell, each small assault coming at the child exacerbates an already-stressed brain, eventually threatening the safety of the entire system.  The brain’s systemic answer to collective assaults is to socially, mentally, and physically retreat into places of comfort: routines, stimulating relaxants, safe people, quiet rooms.

If only it were one switch we could flip.  But the evidence keeps telling us:  this is a whole-brain retreat.  Think of your computer running Windows on “safe mode.” This, I believe, is the function of the brain of a child with autism.


While my son isn’t on the autism spectrum, he has absence seizures.  And he is often a walking ball of fear.  At the age of 6, he would not go to a room alone, even his bedroom or the bathroom in our own house.  His toy of choice is not a race car or light saber, but a stuffed animal.  He demands his daily snuggles.  He climbs in our lap, begging for squeezes.

Seizures, like autism, seem to be caused by an abundance of factors bearing down to assault the nervous system.  One of his was an unexplained physical stress from contortion on his skull and upper vertebrae.  We took him for several rounds of manipulative treatment through an osteopathic doctor.  Each time the doctor did adjustments, his body visibly relaxed right in front of my eyes… and then his demeanor would change.

He would often go from spasmodic, goofy, joking, and squirmy to fully relaxed and yawning in a matter of a couple of minutes.  The doctor said yawning was common during adjustments, because the body was finally relaxing a bit.   One day, to my surprise, he walked straight out of the adjustment room and into the bathroom.  When I told him to hang on, he just calmly said, “its okay, dad.  I’ll go alone.”  As if this were normal.  It was like some alien had kidnapped my little spas-ball or nerves and replaced him with a chilled out little boy.  You could have picked my jaw up off the floor.

I was finding out that physical body stress had the same impact as emotional and mental stress.  Physical adjustments were actually reducing his fears. 

If that sounds completely crazy, good, because that means that I’m not alone.  But its only crazy if the mind and body are separate.  And they’re not.

Let me stress that osteopathic adjustments will not cure seizures or autism.   Despite promises of some shaman-doctors, neither will your favorite vitamin, oil, detox plan, smoothie, or air purifier.  But there are far too many indicators that multiple interventions in concert can move the needle, even if a little.

In short, when you have 20 different assaults from all angles, removing 2 of them (or slathering on lavender) probably isn’t going to do much.  But removing 10 or 12 might, even if only a bit.


Back to last night.

Here’s where it gets interesting for me.  After counseling him through his fear of computer hackers, I thought, “Good Lord, Computer hackers??  Seriously?  A person can’t even mention anything remotely scary-sounding without tripping this kid off.”

Ambient fear clings to my son like a dust-bunny on an ionized Swiffer.  If someone in the room is afraid, he adopts the fear immediately, and I am stuck trying to un-convince him.  Loud noise? Explanation demanded.  Tornado warning?  Forget it.  Today its computer hackers.  Tomorrow it will be rabid squirrels or bioterrorism.

I went off to bed last night with an even fuller appreciation of his fear-dust-bunny-clinging-Swiffer of a brain.

The light began to come on.

A brain under assault becomes a brain heightened to risks all around it.  It desperately needs to know if there is anything in the room it should be further protecting itself from.

I believe that an autistic child is a fear magnet. 

His (or her) brain is constantly scanning the room for threats to protect itself from.    If a single person in a crowded room mentions or even sounds as if they are afraid, my son’s radar is triggered.  An unfamiliar noise pops up?  He is on it.  New, unfamiliar environment?  He feels like this guy:

My boy may not know what a computer hacker is, but he has enough context clues to know — it ain’t good.  He may not even realize he is afraid, because this is his default state. 

He isn’t a good listener because he is actually a great listener.  He often missed our actual words because his brain is too busy deciphering the more basic features of tone, emotion, and other signs of threat.  In the brain’s economy, these are far more important indicators of safety than how to carry the remainder on a long division problem.  I’ve noticed that my son, like my students with autism, are always tuned in, even when they are missing large chunks of instruction.

Well meaning adults get frustrated because he isn’t listening, only to turn up the negative emotion and compound the problem.

For the longest time, we have thought that autistic children are the most socially unaware among us.  I posit that they are the most aware of all. 

After settling my boy in, I happened upon this article referencing this study:


It immediately caught my eye.  The amygdala?  Altruism?  Seriously?  (If you are unfamiliar, the amygdala draws its notoriety and infamy for being the “fight-flight-or-freeze part of our brain,” lighting up when danger shows up).  The study indicated that extreme altruists seem to have an amygdala that is 8-10% bigger.  How could that be?

And then it hit me.

Fear is largely a social construct.  Aside from a few basic primal fears, almost all fears are taught.  If, then, my son is a fear-magnet, it isn’t because he is anti-social.  It is because he is hyper-social.

The researchers mentioned call the amygdala the “seat of empathy and emotions.”  

“If my son is a fear magnet, it isn’t because he is anti-social.  It is because he is hyper-social.”

Think about it:

Bigger amygdala = more empathy = more adoption of other’s negative emotions

When you fight, flee, or freeze, you are usually doing so based on social cues you are gleaning from those around you.  To contrast – psychopaths, criminals, and those with antisocial disorders have been shown to have less volume and lower activity in the amygdala.

No wonder he wouldn’t be running out to play with everybody at recess.  Its not because he doesn’t like people.  It’s because, for him, that is like running through a mine field of new possible fears to assault him.

A kickback might be, “Wouldn’t it be also true that a child with a heightened emotional sensitivity would glean positive emotions as well?”

Yes, but there is a caveat.   Unfortunately, brains care way less about positivity.  With all humans, positive emotions have been shown to “slide off like Teflon”, while negative emotions “stick like Velcro.”  This keeps us safe.  It is why we all remember where we were on 9-11-2001.

Over time, each and every negative memory becomes encoded with experiences.  The unknown world out there becomes a frightening maze of Velcro walls, with danger lurking at every turn.  Most every experience out there being connected to a negative memory our kids find it difficult to get past.  Their brains retreat inward to find homeostasis.

For kids barely on the spectrum, this appears as non-social or anti-social behavior.

As soon as I read the article, my brain jumped up and immediately began to wonder– If my theory of autism were true, then kids with autism should have a larger amygdala.

Turns out, they do. 

Researchers have long tended to believe that the amygdala is connected to anxiety, and that anxiety can be connected with autism, as if mysteriously.  Up to 40% of kids with autism have diagnosable anxiety.

But my theory is that all kids with autism have anxious brains, whether it expresses itself socially or not.

I’d like to hear your feedback on this.  Take a look at the research and see if I’m off.  Hit me up in the comments.  We’ll be listening.



*more of a hypothesis; not the same ring to it. 

Podcast #024 – Whole Relationships: Family is an Open Circle pt. 2

We are neurologically hardwired to form bonds with concentric levels of friends, family, and community groups.   But these groups are no longer surviving in our 21st century structure.  Old, polarizing, fear-based, tribal norms of ‘Us vs Them’ are driving us apart as we pursue happiness and power.  If we’re going to live as healthy people and families, we have to claim a new kind of connection to the people who matter most.

Podcast #023 -Whole Relationships: Family is an Open Circle

We are neurologically hardwired to form bonds with concentric levels of friends, family, and community groups.   But these groups are no longer surviving in our 21st century structure.  Old, polarizing, fear-based, tribal norms of ‘Us vs Them’ are driving us apart as we pursue happiness and power.  If we’re going to live as healthy people and families, we have to claim a new kind of connection to the people who matter most.


Podcast #021 – Whole Relationships: Pain

Physical and emotional pain aren’t really very different after all.  It all registers in our sensory receptors, causes an emotional reaction, and leaves us with the choice of what to do with it.   Some of us stuff it and seal it off, but it is still there.   Sometimes we allow chronic pain to restrict our freedom to be who we are and live according to our identity.   We need to be a student of our pain, think rationally, and choose wisely how we should react to it.

Podcast #020 – Whole Relationships: Solving Conflict

Here are the two steps to solving any conflict, any time.  With kids — family — at work — friends — anywhere.  Really.

Known. Podcast can be accessed through iTunes or any major search engine.  The RSS feed link is 

Podcast #019 – Whole Relationships: Margin 2

Margin is the extra that we need.   We are a world of efficiency, and efficiency can often seem like the enemy of margin.   All healthy people and healthy relationships need space in every bank account that we have – our time, money, energy, and connections.   Putting some margin in every account allows us to truly live and have the full relationships we are designed for.

Podcast #018 – Whole Relationships: Margin 1

Margin is the extra that we need.   We are a world of efficiency, and efficiency can often seem like the enemy of margin.   All healthy people and healthy relationships need space in every bank account that we have – our time, money, energy, and connections.   Putting some margin in every account allows us to truly live and have the full relationships we are designed for.

Podcast #017 – Whole Relationships: Motives

Our brains are always at work making sense of people through ascribing motives.  But this ancient hack can fall short of serving it’s purpose in some major ways.  Here, I give 7 (or 8) principles that can help navigate the tricky terrain of making sense of peoples’ words and actions.

Podcast #016 – Whole Relationships: Truth

Whole relationships are based on trust and truth.  But what is truth?  The truth is, objective truth can’t be separated from our personal relationships, attachment, and our very humanity.  If we want to have functional relationships, we have to stop killing truth with the games that we play, and create margin for truth to grow.

Podcast #015 – Whole Relationships: Power

All relationships are power seeking power.   We often don’t realize it, since power comes in so many hidden forms, but everything we do and every interaction we have is based on this singular quest.  It is a universally human appetite that underlies every squabble and conflict under the sun.   Relationships will die if our power quest is left unchecked. There is a another more powerful force that feeds relationship: grace.

Podcast #014 – How to Grow Whole Relationships: Organic

Back to Podcasting and here is episode 1 of the next series!  If you are already a subscriber, you may need to unsubscribe and resubscribe as we switched hosts.

Episode 1 abstract:

Relationships don’t just happen.  They grow.  We aren’t machines.  Ancient cultures likened us to trees and fruit — this is us.  Every relationship with a spouse, a child, a friend, a parent, or a boss — grows from something into something.   The best relationships start with nothing on but our identity.  And from that they give and give – and become something the world desperately needs.

featured image © Mike Marlowe Gallery (and maybe a tad bit of attribution to the bridge builders as well)

Every Kid Needs a Trophy

Emotionally speaking, our kids today have one of the most challenging paths to adulthood of any generation in history.

My wife, Beth, finished the Cowtown Marathon in 2010. It took every ounce of willpower and determination she had to eek out a glorious 5-hour finish time in a puddle of sweat and tears.

Today, as we were cleaning out drawers, our 5 year old found her participants medal.

      “Mommy–did you get first place?!”

After a snarky laugh, the response came– “Sometimes, buddy, you get a medal just for not quitting.”


Some people say our kids today are entitled.  That they’re too soft.  That they need a trophy for everything.

Maybe they do.

The race they are running isn’t the same one many of us coasted through 30 or 50 years ago.

Theirs runs
up mountains of expectations,
against the winds of financial hardship and class separation,
through rains of data-driven critique,
far from home,
alone from adult interaction,
lost in a cyber-world that threatens YouTube clips any time they trip or #fail.

Their race is not for the faint of Spirit.

Every distance runner knows that the worst part of any race is the head-game.  Of course they’re sensitive. But the fact that they are still running means they’re also courageous.  They may not be making record time. But just by their not quitting, we are witnessing cause for celebration.

It isn’t easy.  Disconnection and isolation can make even a comfy Suburban life seem impossibly difficult.

So cheer your kids on today.  They need you.  Resist those grumpy voices in your head from past generations that say you’re being too soft, that you’re encouraging entitlement, that youre making them too thin-skinned.


Trust me when I say– life in the 21st century will make them calloused enough without your help.


After 15 years of youth work, I have come to this conclusion: our kids are entitled. They are entitled to every drop of our scant praise, our scarce love and our meager encouragement to keep on running.  They are entitled because they are our kids. 

The course set for them is long and hard.  And we may just be witnessing the miracle of the human spirit with every graduation, every new class, and every next step.


So give your kids a trophy.  Let love flow freely, and critique run dry.  And with your little morsel of praise to nudge them on, who knows what mountains they may conquer next?


It was a Tuesday night in December, and I was in Podunk, Texas, population 226. My students were playing basketball – the lowest-level of ball you can watch that you still have to pay admission for. This was 7th grade boys B Team, in a 1A school, in the middle of corn fields. About 16 fans were there, along with some crickets.

But there’s always that one. You know. That guy.

He was three rows behind me, yelling. Our boys were getting beat something like 12-8 and it was nearing the end of the game.

“Come on boys!!! Get your head in the game!!”‘

The yells got louder.

“You boys don’t even care– come on! You’re not even trying! Get your head in the game!”

“What you boys need to do is HUSTLE!!!”

Whose voice was this? I’m too curious. I know I should resist looking, but in a moment of weakness I turn around, and I’ll never forget the sight: a 400+ lb man, hunched over with a chili dog in one hand and a Coca-Cola in the other. Snapping.


We swim in a culture of spectators and judges.

Reality TV. Fantasy Sports. Talent Competitions. Social Media.

We’ve done it so much, it has us believing we’re somehow entitled to judge anyone actually doing something.

I sat the other night watching 9 year olds on Masterchef Jr. making Lobster rolls, and by the time it was over, I caught myself nodding with the judges and mumbling, eww, yeah, he DID brown the edges a bit…

Then it smacked me — this is A NINE YEAR OLD making LOBSTER ROLLS. When I was nine, I could microwave a Jimmy Dean biscuit.

Spectator culture has so many of us terrified of doing. My kids, as a rule, won’t even attempt anything that might end up on YouTube. Too dangerous.

And we’ve done it enough ourselves, it has us believing we’re somehow entitled to judge those we watch. After all, we paid.

Friends, no matter what you do– there will always be a fat guy in the stand, eating his chili dog, and reminding you you’re not good enough at something he could never do. Telling you you’re not trying hard enough. Laughing at your mistakes. Telling you how you SHOULD have done it.

Make no mistake– critique will flow most freely and sharply from those who CAN’T or WON’T do what you’re doing. Or from those who think they are entitled because they used to do it. Back then.

You have work to do. And you’re going to have to do it amidst the noise of the spectators. This is life.

You cant escape them. You will be watched. There are far more viewers than doers.

So, paint that picture.

Write that book.

Start that business.

Ask her out.

Play ball. Even amidst the yells, the critiques, the judges, or the comment feeds. Do your thing. Take a shot. And when you miss, turn and give the big guy a wink– and go get that rebound.

Breaking Free

We’re afraid of failure.   But we’re also afraid of great success.  Because– then what?

I’m coming to realize that, generally, we’re just afraid of being judged by reality.  

In football, I was a “blocking” tight end.  Translation:  slow and nobody trusted me to catch.   Not even me.   The last game of my senior year, the coach (inadvertently?) called a 440 Flood with me in the game.  The ball was coming to me.  It sailed about 6 feet above my head.


Whew.  Huge sigh of relief.

QB’s fault.   Crisis avoided.  I didn’t want the ball.   Too many what-ifs.   If it came to me, then what?  I either drop it — failure — or I catch it.  Then, I’d have to do something with it.

Of course we might drop it.  We all know that.  But what if we catch it? 

Its in that moment that a whole new world of what-ifs flood our reality.

This is the most frightening judgment — when we succeed and must do something with it.  Most people don’t think that far ahead.  If I can’t handle the black/white judgment of a single caught/dropped ball, how could I handle the full spectrum of judgment of deciding what I do with it when I’ve caught it?

So much easier to not know.  To leave it in limbo.  To blame the quarterback.

Many of us stay in prison for decades, because we wouldn’t know what to do on the outside.

A whole world of possibility awaits us there- outside the black and white.  Out in the open, where failure and success are falsely terrifying, because self-judgment makes everything terrifying.  The prison of ignorance is the safest place.  But its not where you were made to live.

What are you waiting for?   There’s an open door to every prison.   Time to walk out.   Jump.  Catch the ball and run — or drop it.   And don’t look back.


What High-Stakes Testing Has to Do With School Shootings

No, state tests do not single handedly Make a Murderer. There are no simple answers to systemic problems. So, contrary to the obnoxiousness we witness in our news feeds, there is no cause of school shootings.

But there are conditions.

An explosion is synergy at work. It can’t happen easily. It actually takes quite a few steps to make something – or someone – explode. Perhaps even design and skill. There are hundreds of ways that something will NOT ignite. So when it does, you know that conditions had to be just wrong.

A myriad of prerequisites drove the atmosphere from stable to volatile to violent.


Dry wood — stacked together — refined fuel — and a source of ignition.

It’s the conditions that matter.

We are a nation weary of fighting to guard against every possible spark that might threaten our tepee-stacked, gasoline-soaked piles of tinder. And too many educators like me have reluctantly participated in pouring more fuel on the stack.

Wait a minute— our kids are burn-ready, gas-soaked piles of wood??



Volatile. Have you been in our schools? Looked at depression and anxiety rates? Suicide rates? While Americans pontificate with our millions of debate-hours trying to protect them from school shooters, far more of them are killing themselves. (Suicide recently passed homicide as the #2 cause of teen death.)

Can we back up?

How did our kids ever get to be one spark away from disaster? Honestly, you can have all those spark prevention debates with your congressman or your Uncle Joe at Thanksgiving. I want to talk about our volatile kids.

These conditions did not just happen. This took a system – one that has been honed. Remember- every system perfectly executes what its perfectly designed to do.

Unfortunately, I know, all too well. I helped create them for too long. And here is how.

How to Systematically Create Volatile Kids

Say you asked me to design a system, from scratch, that would produce optimal conditions for wide-scale depression, anxiety, suicide, and, of course, school shootings. I could sadly concoct an awful, dreadful, brutally effective one.

The key is– control the weather. Any park ranger knows that it’s the weather that determines fire risk. On rain-soaked cloudy days, a fire just can’t take off.

An old adage goes, “Teachers aren’t weather forecasters; we are weather creators.” We don’t just report the rain. We make it rain. Rain that gives life to our kids is positive relationship. No fire can survive a downpour of this. Explosions won’t happen. So I’d begin with drying out the wood. Create an atmosphere of scarcity and make bullying weather.

Bullying Weather

This really does the trick. This year, there were 1 or 2 bullies in my class, sometimes 3. Depends on the week — and on the weak. It’s widely verified that bullies are created, not just randomly selected by a celestial lottery. Bullies wax and wane. Heck, “bully” itself is a bit of an arbitrary label to stick on a moving target. Humans are dynamic and fluid.

Many days, when conditions are right, I can become a bit of a bully.

“Sit down, get quiet, and get to work!”

“John– WHAT in the WORLD are you doing??”

“Shaniya– for the seventh time, GET. IN. LINE!

I just get tired, folks. Run out of steam. Spent. I’m human. So I vent, pass the buck, react. I know I shouldn’t. But against the best of intentions, I begin to create threatening- bullying- weather. It happens all too easily in a climate of accusation and scarcity.

I know full well how this plays out. I can turn students against each other with a snap of the tongue. They wont even know I’m the problem. They’ll think their classmate are. Just turn on my Accuser voice and watch as they all turn against each other.

The Accuser voice creates a perception of scarcity. Scarcity creates competition. And competition creates enemies.

The way my kids treat each other is a direct reflection of how I treat them.


Say I were to come in with a high energy smile, an engaging lesson, positive words, relaxed humor, and a contagious enthusiasm. What are the odds that fights break out?

Slim to none. Too much rain.

But if I come in grouchy and yelling? Start your timer. It won’t be long before the fights begin.

Having that snapshot, I now give you my 8 Step systematic plan to create the bullying weather necessary to produce long term, widespread volatility.

Step 1: Put many kids in a room with only one adult. Busy adults are best. Only give them the illusion of a relationship – even better than no relationship.

Step 2: Engage kids with fun. A gateway. A hook. A quick micro-burst of relational energy to attract their hearts before we distract them. Then, seamlessly transition into work. This gets them invested with as little relationship (rain) required as possible.

Step 3: Praise the successes of top kids to make the most relationship-starved ones desire praise and work harder. More work = more investment. The more investment now, the more despair we can create later.

Step 4: Analyze, analyze, analyze. Plaster successes (and implicit failures) on charts and graphs. Be specific. Make them keep track of it all, so they always remember. Emphasize their ability to get there with hard work — dried out, lonely kids will just hear, “Your shortcomings are your fault.”

Step 5: Focus, focus, focus on what’s still not right. This is especially important when students get really parched toward the end of the year. Continually remind them — even the best of them — that they are “almost there.”

Step 6: Make success a mirage. When the kids get “there,” celebrate quickly so you can move them up to the next level. Over time, this creates hopelessness.

Step 7: Repeat the cycle, day after day, year after year. More investment. Exponential growth of despair. After a while, a treadmill, but they still won’t get off. Why? They’ve invested too much. Like a man stuck at a quarter slot machine. Might as well keep going now.

Step 8: Emphasize clearly and often how much is at stake. Their college, careers, and even relationships depend on whether they will continue to run on this treadmill — whether they will keep working hard enough to earn the approval they are still seeking.

In short, if I were to design a system to create despair and hopelessness, I would essentially design the American Classroom.

Now, I know this sounds a dreadfully pessimistic caricature of what only the worst, most selfish educators would allow in their rooms. And thankfully, it is. At first.

Most teachers are just too darn joyful and positive. There is no way they would purposefully create this environment. They would only succumb to it if their own conditions were just right.

So, to create volatility, we don’t begin with students. We need concoct a way to drain teachers of their positivity and joy — and create volatility in them.

Got it. New article:

How to Create Volatile Teachers

Step 1: Put one teacher alone in a room with many kids. Kids with busy parents are best. When it’s budget crunch time, apply for a state waiver to cram even more students in.

Step 2: Engage teachers with fun trainings and emotional videos about how much they can touch students lives, and how much purpose there is in their job. Entice new teachers with promises of great vacation time and decent first year pay. Newbies will shrug at the fact that they’ll never get a raise.

Step 3: Praise the successes of the top teachers who look good in photos. Or, of the school across the lake. They must be doing such cool high-energy activities all the time. Highlight that one teacher with an awesome Pinterest wall who has no family at home and works every night and weekend.

Step 4: Analyze, analyze, analyze. Scores. Spreadsheets. Data Analyses. Do this well enough, and teachers will eventually forget to think of their students as humans with stories anymore. They will first and foremost think of them as a number. The lowest numbers will become pebbles in our shoes– problems– objects to be fixed. Relationship kills fire.

Step 5: Focus, focus, focus on what’s still not right. Forget the blood, sweat and sacrifice. Have lots of meetings that begin with a quick celebration and then get to the point – the few failures among all the success.

Repeat steps 3, 4, & 5 as often as necessary to achieve proper dehydration.

Step 6: Make success a mirage. Next failing kid. Next year. Next, next, next.

Step 7: Repeat the cycle, day after day, year after year. Treadmill.

Step 8: Emphasize, clearly and often, how much is at stake. Yes, their jobs and licenses, for sure, but even more- their students’ futures. Remind them that those mamajamas will be flipping burgers for the kids at the school across the lake if you don’t pound another 20 minutes of intervention in them today.

Follow these 8 steps faithfully, and, over time, you will see your teachers do this:




(same actual lady pictured)
Dried out.

Once again, if I were to design a system to create teachers who are dried out (or walking out), I would essentially design the American Public School System.

In fact, I would argue that great teachers are one of the primary reasons why our suicide and mass shootings rates are so low. I’m not surprised that we have suicides and homicides every day among our students. I’m surprised that we have so few, given the climate we’ve systematically engineered. Thanks, teachers.

Where does it end? Where does it Begin?

You may be wondering about the next level up. Are administrators just evil? Of course not.

Hopefully you’re catching on. Just repeat the steps at each higher level. Which is even easier.


Fortunately (for volatility’s sake), the higher you ascend the pyramid, the more the 8 Steps begin to create themselves.


First, it takes strong personal boundaries to not succumb to the 8 Steps. Thankfully (for our evil system), we don’t typically promote people with great boundaries. On average, we’ll promote the ones who are willing to sacrifice more and more of themselves for the company.

Secondly, the farther you are up the Pyramid, the more distant from your kids. Less empathy. It will be easy, almost necessary, for you to only interact with your schools’ highlight reels. Things will seem much more wonderful than they are on the ground.

Thirdly, your underlings will pretend all is well, just so you’ll like them. Just by your walking into classrooms, teachers and principals will rush to sweep their house in order.

Fourthly, leaders know full well they are still human. So the higher up they are, the more they naturally underestimate how big of a deal their words and actions are. They will utter crushing words without even knowing it.

See, a pyramid of structured leadership, in a system whose goal is to be the best, inevitably creates an inverted pyramid of pressure.


The higher you ascend, the more invested you are. The more invested, the more pressure to please your superior. The more pressure we feel, the more we pass down. Who, in this situation, feels the most pressure? Tiny directives by lawmakers easily become crushing weights by the time they trickle to our students. This may well create diamonds out of a few, but far too many are just turning to coal. Hard, charred, explosive coal.

Added Fuels

Now, to be clear, these are just wood-prepping basics. I didn’t mention the dozens of added fuels from the American Family system, such as parents distracted on their phones, overly competitive sports, unhealthy foods, or other factors you might throw in.

The bad news is this problem took millions of people decades to create. The good news is there are millions of us connected to one another who can begin to deconstruct tired old norms of racing rats. We do this by setting up personal boundaries, and living by a higher purpose than to keep our job or get higher scores.

We can reclaim our kids as humans with stories, rather than numbers on spreadsheets, when we keep their humanity our top priority.

It will take risks, for sure. It will take secure people who aren’t distracted by photoshopped highlights of the school across the lake, or threatened by their coworkers’ charming Pinterest walls. It will take millions of us being secure, amidst the insecurities and accusations of bosses, parents, and even our own selves.

Believing that we are enough and striving for more of what matters instead of more of what the system demands. It may look like lower scores at first, but if the trade-off is healthier kids, is it worth it?

Here’s to a change in climate for the 2018-2019 American School System: May it rain. May it pour down love and grace and peace. May teachers be free from the pressure to conform to the singular focus of higher numbers, and may our kids be freed from the weight of too much pressure. Then, when our kids can be fully accepted as fully themselves, will those dried up piles of tinder cease to look so threatening.

Seven Ways to Teach Your Child Their Name

We may give our kids a name at birth, but its the next 18 years and beyond that we really name them. So I thought Id come with with a short list of ways to do that, for practicality’s sake.


1. Look them in the eyes.
First, the most basic, and maybe the most important. It tells them they are human. Pay attention and, if you’re like me, you may just be shocked to realize how little you actually do this on an average busy day, especially with several kids. I mean tune out everything else and play with them or talk. But make the eye connection. Wrestle, tickle, get in their face, talk, look, and listen. Even (especially) when they’re in trouble- connect those eyes. Something miraculous happens, as if you are literally pouring part of your own spirit into them. And they receive this brief beautiful affirmation when, just for a moment, they are your priority, and they matter.
2. Remind them of their name when they forget.
Ever thought about why your mom called you by your entire string of names when you were in trouble? What was she doing? She was reminding you of who you are. You were not acting like you. She knew the real you, and you had apparently forgotten for a moment. Kids do that. So, by calling their name, we whisper to their soul, “That is not who you are. It won’t lead you to life and identity and joy. I know what will, because I know your name.” All that in three simple words (and perhaps a furled eyebrow).
Another great way this is done is to always use “we” language, and maybe throw in your family name. When one of my kids acts out, it is somewhat standard now for me to say “WE don’t do that in this house.” This moves you from “Policeman” to “Captain of the ship”, which means we’re in this together. It also holds me accountable to practice what I preach. It makes our family name a badge of pride. We are Nichols’, and we do things a better way in this house. (May sound corny, but hey, we Nichols’ dont care ’bout that.)
3. Nicknames.
Just give em one. Or three. Two generations ago, almost every kid in town had one of these. Some had several. Very often, people would even forget your real name. My grandpa was Scooter, and to him, I was Turth (I have NO IDEA what Turth means). My sister was Crystal Pistol, or just Pistol. My cousin was Peanut (and I was secretly jealous, because I thought Peanut was cooler than Turth). My OTHER grandpa just called me “Little Man.” I cant describe to you how special I felt to be Little Man.
A nickname is a way of personalizing your unique relationship with a kid. It adds a little definition to their name once theyve had time to live a little. But more than anything, a nickname reminds them (and us) to quit taking themselves so seriously. We Rat Race Suburbanites could use that every once in a while.
4. Milestones
The Jews have Bar Mitzvahs. Hispanics have Quinceaneras. But for most people in my world, milestones are sadly absent. How many college age students aren’t really sure whether they are an adult, or a kid, or what? Most people treat them like a kid, but they sort of feel like an adult, but then again they don’t. Heck, I know 30 year olds like this.
It sounds too simple, but usually all they ever really needed was somebody to just tell them they are now grown. The right somebody, that is. Parents.

Life doesnt come in neatly defined stages. It just happens, gradually, a day at a time. So milestones sort of our arbitrary way to stop and define what is happening and how far we’ve come. Because they need to know. A lot of us are afraid to tell them, because we have a hard time facing the fact that they are no longer little. (See #7 below)

How you do this doesnt matter nearly as much as that you do it. But ask yourself this: at what age is a kid an adult in your family? Maybe its 18, maybe its 21. Maybe its when they graduate. Decide this now –because you won’t be ready then– and throw them a party when they get there. Its not celebrating an accomplishment, like finishing school, but an arrival. Make it a big deal. Bless them. And let them know they have arrived, even if we all might have our doubts if they can handle it. I would even recommend doing this more than once- maybe have 2 or three big celebrations along the way, and usher them in to whats next with confidence and blessing.

5. Make Them Good at Something.

For the love of John, this is NOT taking them to practice some uber-competitive sport with 75 other kids who will make them feel like crap because they dont pitch a 95 mph fastball. How about things like–
-Catching coins off their elbow.
-Keeping a balloon bouncing without letting it hit the ground.
-shooting a slingshot at a target.
-Playing “football” with the sugar packets at a restaurant.
(And then– I am begging– quit it and move on with life before your game turns into this.)
Today, I just held up a blanket in the living room as a target and let my two girls throw a football at it. They loved it. My dad was an ACE at this. Give him an object — any object — and an unsuspecting kid, and that man will have them playing a game in no time. They will like it. And they’ll get this weird sort of mini-boost of confidence when they get better at it. (Plus, when they’re good at something nobody else cares about, it keeps them from bragging about it at school…)
Then, teach them real life skills as they grow older, and then let them be known as the go-to person the home for that. For whatever they are good at, brag on them in front of somebody else. Don’t fake the compliments. Find things they are ACTUALLY good at — “the organizational whiz,” “the music virtuoso,” etc.
Think about it. When they are an expert in their own home, you have just given them a place where they matter and are of value. When the rest of the world rains on their parade (and it will), they will have a shelter to go to where they are known and needed.
6. Land the Helicopter.
If you find yourself wondering whether you are a helicopter parent, let me help you: If you weren’t, you wouldnt be wondering (and you wouldnt be reading a blog post on parenting). You already live in a world where your neighbor will call CPS on you for not snapping the 5 point harness to drive to the mailbox.
We hover because we love her. But lets try to hover less, shall we? I say “Age+1 appropriate freedom.” In other words, just a tiny bit more freedom than their age probably warrants — enough freedom to make you constantly nervous. (You’re welcome.) They will get hurt one day, and you will hate me for suggesting this. But it might just save them from a bigger hurt.
What are you communicating when you hover? Besides annoying them to death, you are giving them a constant reminder that youre not sure if they can handle life on their own. And if you, the name-giver, are unsure, guess what that makes them? A 35 year old in your basement eating your cheetos while you fill out his unemployment paperwork.
Three of the toughest words a parent will ever have to digest: Let them fail.
7. Mourn Their Loss.
My personal rule of thumb is, one good cry per year per kid. And I dont cry. Some of you wimps need to just go ahead and schedule this in your weekly routine. Because all change is a form of loss, and all loss must be mourned. You will never get back those days when he was a baby (or age 14).
I can guarantee you this– if you never embrace the sadness of the death of yesterday, you will never be able to embrace the joy of the promise of tomorrow.
Show me a young married couple who are still tightly controlled by their parents, and I’ll show you a set of parents who never grieved a loss.
Every single birthday, we say goodbye to the child we used to have (AFTER the party, not in front of the kid, okay?!). We bury memories and let go with tears and angst. And in doing so, we set our child free to become what God has destined them to be. The greatest blessing is knowing, when we finally do set them free to fly, that we have given them a name that they now own the rights to.

Why Teachers Are Walking Out

For the last ten years, I’ve been a covert operative in Women’s World, a.k.a. Public School.  I am not a typical elementary teacher.  I am male.   And I am often confounded at what I have seen my coworkers silently acquiesce to, happily playing along, fueled only by the sense of the purpose they work from.  I am not surprised that teachers in many states have had walkouts.  I am surprised that they waited so long to start.

Obviously, I’m sympathetic to my colleagues.  I’m also sympathetic to garbage collectors, Haitian farmers, and CPS caseworkers.  In comparison, our job might be considered a breeze for the pay, with its dreamy holiday schedule and all.

Let’s not go down that rabbit hole, though, because the walkouts aren’t really ultimately about “pay,” the face usually presented.

Women are done being taken advantage of.

That’s what this is about.  Don’t think that it’s a coincidence that mass walkouts are happening within a year of the #metoo movements, the sex abuse revelations, or the women’s marches.

It’s not just about pay.  It’s about respect.  It’s about boundaries crossed and people used.  It’s about unrealistic, unspoken expectations systemically enforced, leaving the perceived inability to speak up for oneself.  It’s about a mass of subservient people waking up one day to see the reality of what they’ve been putting up with all along.

When you hear stories and shine light into cultural blind spots, you start to see that there has been wide scale, nationally accepted inequalities kept alive for decades in the dungeons of school halls, among the nations largest female workforce.


I was in a data analysis meeting with my female colleagues, needing student whiteboards for math.  (Imagine your teachers back in 1987 requesting an overhead projector.  Basic.)  A good set might run $50.

As a norm, I don’t request purchases from the “company.”  I often forget it’s even an option.  When I mentioned it to a co-teacher on the way to the meeting, she gave me a sarcastic, “Good LUCK…”

I said, “Hey, if this school, on its $10 million budget, can’t afford $50 whiteboards– how do they expect someone supporting a family of 6 on a teachers salary to be able to?” She said she had never thought of that.

She had never thought of that.  This is our culture.  Where you aren’t allowed to think about asking for your needs to be met.

The given is to figure it out.  Because women will.  Had I asked 20 different teachers about whiteboards, 10 of them would start spewing out names of stores.  The other 10 (older) would give me some DIY weekend instructions that involve table saws.  Seldom would any of them think to say, “Umm, ask for them…”

Injustice and oppression thrive in places where the norms are never questioned. 

My boss didn’t think that way, either.  Minutes before, my boss had told us, “We’ll do anything to help you.”  Minutes later, I was met with a kind sigh, “Aren’t whiteboards pretty expensive?”  One of our support staff spoke up, “Didn’t you ask me about those last year?  I’ll get you some.”  And she did.  Possibly on her dime.  I didn’t ask.

The fact that the whiteboards were such a small purchase actually illuminates the problem.

A man’s operative norm tends to be, “since its not a big deal, the company should have no problem helping you out.”

A woman’s tends to be, “since its not a big deal, you should be able to handle it yourself.”

Handle It.

— I’ve witnessed a teacher running a fever, surrounded by nurses taking her blood pressure, get up and stumble down the hall, on her way to wrangle kids.
–I’ve witnessed a teacher passing a kidney stone refusing to go home.
–I’ve witnessed a teacher get punched.
–I’ve witnessed teachers yelled at, demeaned, and criticized, and then go chase down the kid to make sure he is okay.

     And all that was just this week.  

Nothing we handle is a huge deal.  But the sum total of all of the straws on the camel’s back have become a crushing weight for so many.

It’s not about the pay.  It’s about all of the ways an entire sector of the country’s most selfless givers have been complicit to a system that has evolved to bilk them every way it can:  of their time, their money, their energy, and their emotions.

Pay for it yourself.
Create it yourself.
Stay late and put on that function yourself.
Meet during your time. 
Work during your weekend.
Be kind to people yelling, ignoring, cussing, and hitting you.  Then, make sure they pass the new standards.
…And be prepared to take bullets for them, too.

These things are not said as much as they are collectively understood, much worse.

Tacit expectations are the ones we feel least able to challenge.

See, behind each one of these expectations lies the unspoken threat– “Don’t you love your kids?”

A Woman’s Honor

I’ve learned that a woman will do almost anything to prove she’s a good caretaker and nurturer.  The female honor code is, do it for the kids, no matter the cost.  Don’t ask questions or be perceived as disloyal to your children.

And, while each woman should be responsible for enforcing her own boundaries, we should not be systematically violating them, either.  I want the women of my world free to be fiercely loyal mothers and selfless givers, without some manipulative loser-of-a-school system taking advantage of her selflessness.

But we have an underfunded system who keeps pushing and stretching for every free woman-hour and donation it can get from those fiercely loyal mothers and their Boxtops.

The system, in many places, bears a creepy resemblance to an abusive husband.  If she loses “him” [her job], she feels like she would lose everything.  He constantly tells her she’s not good enough, and has spreadsheets with scores to prove it.  He blames her for the kids problems, and offers no real help in fixing them.   But she stays and puts up with him– because she loves the kids.

He is boxing her in, manipulating her, and implicitly calling her loyalty into question every time she doesn’t bend over backwards to appease him and make him look good.

Should we be surprised that she’s finally walking out?

An Overstatement?

Maybe I am being dramatic (Hey, I’m a teacher).   But contrast this with my white collar buddies in corporate land.  If you do anything work-related, you charge it to the company, and get the airline miles in the process.   Own a business?  Buy what you want for yourself, make sure its “work-related,” and write it off.

Teachers?  They go through a 3-step process involving a waterboarding interrogation in front of a one-way mirror to get some spaghetti noodles for a lesson.  So we just do it ourselves.

Consider “Teachers Pay Teachers”

This one kills me.  It’s an online community of 2 million of us, paying each other for homemade curriculum to get the job done right.  This exists?  I didn’t know we were independent contract laborers.

But no one I know questions it.  My coworkers are happy to shell out their own dollars because, in their minds, they are helping some poor sister in south Georgia trying to supplement income.

Imagine a bunch of nurses buying morphine from one nurse who makes it in her basement, when the hospital won’t give them enough.  Or cops buying tasers from Leroy the Ex-Cop who now hand-makes tasers in his garage that don’t suck.  Or Egyptian slaves buying good brick-making tools from their fellow slaves on the black market.  Shouldn’t Pharaoh be funding this?  Nah, he’s on a shoestring, poor fellow.  I’ll just do it.

Male.  Mind.  Blown.

So, when it comes to things like…
Conferences?  Nope.
Company clothes?  Buy your own school T-shirt, if you love us.
Tools for the job?  Maybe your PTA can donate.  Or DonorsChoose.
Health insurance?  Ha ha.  Ha.
Annual raise?  A cost of living increase, less than your actual cost of living increase.
Bonuses?  Starbucks Gift cards.  From students.
Per Diems?  Travel mileage?  What are those?
Company credit card?  Not in your life. You’d be too wasteful.

But those test scores?   They’d better go up, and up, and up.


And then, there are the ways we aren’t trusted.

In Texas, we take the STAAR test.  We go through a few of hours of training each year that we jokingly refer to as “52 ways to lose your license.”   It is a State-mandated course that involves a PowerPoint detailing the ways we shouldn’t be cheating.  And if it even LOOKS like we might be cheating, we’re in trouble.

Soooo….. let me get this straight…. You pay us $60,000 a year to be a life mentor for 20 children….  But you don’t trust me not to cheat for my 10 year old on his 4th grade math test?

Consider Hattie’s effect size — famous research that determines the most impactful effects of various educational dynamics.  This poster is in our lounge.

Hatties effect

Greatest effect size?  Student Expectations.   Im wondering, if Expectations of our small humans are so powerful in determining their outcome, why do we keep breeding pathetically low expectations of our large humans?

We don’t enforce higher expectations by being meaner.  Expectations must be paid for.  We treat people as if they are capable, give them the right tools for the job, and stand back to watch in awe of what they do with them.


Is It Really a Gender Issue?

If you think its just a School culture issue unrelated to gender, you’d be wrong there. And we have coaches to prove it.  The only male-dominated sector of public school gets what they need.  I know, because I was a coach for a year.  That year, our students got new clothes, a new locker room, and new uniforms.   They got free food each week and free rides home.  Coaches got free jackets, free clothes, free food, free conferences, free high-fives, free respect, a free pass on dress code, and a free pass from expectations of student academic achievement in our classes.

But I could not get free multiplication flash cards for my math class that year.   I got more perks, bonuses, and respect in one year of coaching than in 9 years of teaching elementary school.  Its not about ONE person or school, its about systems evolving over time, built on the ways males and females most typically interact.

Waking Up, and Walking Out

It’s not about whiteboards, perks, or paychecks.  Its about a workplace culture that has formed around our most deeply invested, caring, and empathetic sector – our women.

Women, thank God, are waking up.   They are waking up to the same realization that called out Matt Lauer and Harvey Weinstein.  And they are calling out the system.

I don’t like walkouts, protest marches, or angry speeches.   A decent society shouldn’t need them.  But I do like it when people wake up, and finally say “no more” to a system that keeps demanding more while empowering less.

“I will not just be used or taken for granted.  I matter.”   This is the mantra of the new teacher. 

She is no longer just a glorified babysitter.   She is the master of a skilled profession that combines the rigor of brain science with communication skills, data analysis, public relations, and artistic performance.  She is a talented professional with the job of shaping minds, and a loving parent-figure with the job of nurturing hearts.

You get what you pay for, and if we want good teachers, we had better pony up before she leaves us to go live happily ever after with a company that will treat her right.

I am walking out with her, but mine will be permanent, at the end of the month.

Mine is a personal choice, based on my life goals.   But I do wonder whether I might have stayed longer, were it not for my inability to refuel year after year as quickly as I have been drained.   I love my kids more than ever.  But I won’t enter a classroom another year without a full tank of patience, grace, and joy.  It’s time to refuel.

All of my best wishes to those who continue to do this work, regardless of the conditions.   You are some of the best.  May our society wake up to your true value, and may your needs be fully met.   No matter how the votes turn out, you will always have mine.


More: Check out Seth’s new book “Pyramids and Trees: Attachment, Addiction, Empire, and a Nation Bursting Forth.”

Or visit the podcast.