Tuesday, February 5, 2013

We need mentors for more than a few good men

Family history isn’t just about yesterday.  It’s also about tomorrow.

My father-in-law turns 83 today.  I have a mental picture of him at 22—a two-year-old son hangs onto his right pant leg, a one-year-old onto his left.  Their future is in his hands.

They turned out to be good hands.

Years before, when napping on the floor after a full morning of farm work, four-year-old Garth clutched the straps of his Dad’s bib overalls so he’d be sure to wake up when Dad went back to work.     

As his father had done, he taught his sons and a daughter how to work.  Even in their play, they dug tiny irrigation ditches and channeled water through them.  They learned to complete every season’s farm tasks, and along the way, how to stay focused until a job was done.

When Garth was 32, a derrick pole fell on him, breaking his back. Eventually, he went back to work and has been on the job ever since.

Besides a work ethic, he gave them an “ethics ethic:” be kind to people and animals, be a good citizen, keep your word, give a day’s work for a day’s pay. He served for many years on the local school board, and made sure his children went to college. My husband was blessed to be loved by such a great dad. 

Garth is completely opposite from a character in a new sit-com, said to be “an alcoholic father who scams friends and family outrageously and disappears for long periods of time.” 

That’s not comedy—it’s tragedy.  Other leading men aren’t much better—scripted as incompetent, immature or self-absorbed. In the media, “Dad” means, “Kick Me.”

With role models like that, I worry about the boys of tomorrow.

Experts report, “By eighth grade, only 20 percent of boys are proficient in writing and 24 percent proficient in reading.  Young men’s SAT scores in 2011 were the worst they’ve been in 40 years. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, boys are more than 30 percent more likely than girls to drop out of both high school and college.” (The Demise of Guys: Why Boys are Struggling and What We Can Do about It, (2012) Philip G. Zimbardo and Nikita Duncan, e-book)

Today’s boys face not only peer pressure, but also digital peer pressure, including cyber bullying. Unlike Garth and his sons, they don’t have meaningful physical work that makes a difference for their family and builds their self-esteem. How can we keep them from drifting into dead-end lives?

None of us has the answers for all boys, but most of us have influence on a few boys—and a few girls. We can mold our children, grandchildren and neighbor kids into responsible adults. We’ll have to be tolerant, patient and creative in this world of video games and busy after-school schedules; we may even have to bribe them with their favorite foods—but think of the rewards! Here are some ideas:

--Notice them. Say hello and use their names, even if they act sheepish and embarrassed. Gently teach them to look you in the eyes, greet you and shake hands. Someday, these social graces may make the difference between whether they are employed or unemployed. 

--Mention their positive traits with love, and as my mother often spelled to her older children when a youngster was acting up—i-g-n-o-r-e their negative ones.

--Talk to them; tell them the stories of your life.  Build a loving relationship with hugs if they allow them; high fives and fist bumps if they don’t.  And learn their language—“Friend” them on Facebook and text them—be part of their world.

-- Remember, LOVE is spelled T-I-M-E – take time to show them their unique gifts. If they don’t know what those are, work with them to find work, hobbies or sports that they are passionate about.

--Teach them to work.  Even ten years ago, kids delivered papers, washed dishes and de-tasseled corn—jobs that have disappeared for today’s young people.  We need to get creative and find these kids some work, because nothing builds self-esteem like learning how to do a job well.

--Hold them responsible to show up, be on time, dress and speak appropriately and do their best in school. We do them no favors if we’re soft, because the world will rough them up if they are slackers.

-- Encourage school and community leaders to look on each child as a unique individual with the ability to lead and excel.  If we build this expectation in the folks who help us train our children, and if we live up it ourselves, there is tremendous hope for the future of our boys and girls.