Hello and good day!
A thirteen-year-old boy walks into the kitchen.
He opens the refrigerator, grabs two sticks of string cheese, and unwraps them. He throws the wrappers on the counter and scarfs the sticks in three big bites each.
He goes back to the fridge and takes out a carton of orange juice. He pours himself a big glass, gulps it down, pours a second glass, gulps it, and then walks away, leaving a mess in his wake.
His mother is sitting on the couch. She was up early to make breakfast for her two sons and help them get ready for school.
Then she got herself together and fought traffic into the city.
It was a stressful day, putting out fire after fire, and having co-workers pull her in every direction. The traffic was terrible driving back home to the suburbs.
Her ex-husband is an alcoholic who fades in and out of the family's life.
From time to time, he attempts to go clean, but always falls back into his old ways.
When he's clean, she lets the father come around so that the boys will know and remember him.
It would be good if he were around now, because her boys no longer show her the proper respect, and she could use some help.
Unfortunately, she hasn't heard from him in months.
She waits until she is sure her son is finished eating and drinking before she decides to point out the obvious.
"You are leaving a mess son," she says in a soft and tired voice.
"What mess?" says the son.
"Look at the counter."
"Yeah. What about it?"
"Clean it up please."
"I have homework to do, mom. I'll do it later."
This is a ridiculous excuse. The boy is failing in school. He hasn't turned in homework all year.
"Please do it now son."
The boy breathes an exaggerated deep sigh through his mouth, as if his mother is oppressing him, and grudgingly walks back to the kitchen.
He pulls out a trashcan from under the counter to throw away his string cheese wrappers.
The trashcan is overflowing with garbage.
Taking out the trash is his chore.
"The trash is full son."
The boy flashes an angry look at his mother.
She pinches the bridge of her nose. She can't bear to look him in the face.
"It's your job to take it out. Please do your job. It is your responsibility," she says.
"First thing you do when you come home is start bossing me around, just like always. How come I can't relax after school? You're sitting on the couch relaxing, aren't you? I'll do it later. I promise."
"I want you to do it now son. Whenever you say you'll do it later, you never do."
"You're calling me a liar now? You don't believe me when I say I'll do it later? You don't trust me?"
The mother loses her composure.
"Take it out now! I'm your mother! It's your job! Take it out!"
The boy furiously shoves the trashcan back under the counter.
He stares his mother in the eyes.
He is taller and stronger than her now.
"Make me," he says.
They stand in silence, looking at each other, breathing hard with emotion.
The boy breaks the silence.
"That's what I thought. You can't make me do anything. You take it out."
He walks upstairs, back to his room.
He didn't put away the carton of orange juice or put his glass in the sink.
The mother doesn't cry after these arguments anymore.
She is all cried out.
She bows her head and prays for strength.
She takes out the garbage herself and then cooks dinner.
She eats alone and puts leftovers in the fridge.
Her sons will come down and eat when they feel like it.
The next day at work, she tells her best work friend about the argument.
"Maybe he needs to talk to a man," says her friend.
"I know he does, but who?" says the mother.
"His father isn't around right now?" asks the friend.
"No. I haven't heard from him in a long time, and they wouldn't listen to him anyways. They don't respect him."
"I wonder if my husband would talk to him."
The mother likes her friend's husband a lot.
"Do you think he would?" asks the mother.
"Yes, I do."
This whole story is a hypothetical to set up the following two questions.
First, if a friend came to you and asked you to speak to their kid under these or similar circumstances, would you do it?
Second, what advice would you give a kid like this?
As to the first question, I struggle to come up with an activity that could be more meaningful than trying to help out a youngster going through hard times.
Even if you feel completely unqualified and even if you have to clear your calendar, I think it'd be worth it to give it a shot.
If a friend trusts you enough to ask for your help, you ought to be there for them in their time of need.
Isn't the purpose of community to have people you can lean on when your own strength is no longer sufficient?
As to the second question, of course the advice should be tailored to the kid's state of mind, which means listening first and then deciding what to say.
However, it is an interesting thought experiment to think about what you would go back and tell your own thirteen-year-old self.
It is easy to forget that adults have perspective that youngsters don't have.
We know how the real world works and there is an assumption that kids should come hard wired with our understanding.
But that isn't how it works.
They haven't learned the hard way that a bad attitude is about the worst thing you can have.
So, what can you say to a kid who is going off the rails?
What would I go back and say to myself?
It's a hard one.
In retrospect, I think the lesson that would have served me most was the connection between effort and self-esteem.
The harder you try, the better you feel about yourself.
You can avoid effort and that might make you think you are rebelling against authority, but the truth is that you are only messing with your own confidence.
This lesson goes a long way.
You don't have to be perfect.
You don't have to get straight A's.
How people see you and judge you is up to them.
But if you give a really solid effort in all that you do, you will feel proud and that kicks off a very positive self-reinforcing cycle.
Your effort is completely under your control.
You decide on it.
Nobody can take that part of your life away from you.
And when you are lazy, you hurt yourself more than anybody else.
I've got this advice chambered in case I ever need to advise a thirteen-year-old!
Thank you so much for your time today.
I hope that you have a truly blessed day!
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