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.