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What It Takes to Raise Kids Who Will make Good Decisions

Mastering the Art of Better Listening

The Seven-Year Stretch

How to Say It to Teenagers

Helping adolescents build character through adversity

by Christine Ratliff

As our kids grow, they are no longer the sweet and snugly children of yesteryear. The amount of time they spend with us dwindles, along with their interests in anything we have to say. Despite this inevitable distance, it is not too late to take an active role in fostering values and character development.

In their book The Seven-Year Stretch, family therapists Laura S. Katsner, Ph. D., and Jennifer Wyatt, Ph. D. present the idea that, "The often-missed opportunities for character building rise out of the three D's of experience: disappointments, difficulties and dilemmas."

How can we steer our children down a road paved with strength, wisdom, individuality, fortitude, courage and perseverance? How can we enable them to be responsible, active, problem-solving participants consciously mapping out their own lives?


Sometimes, bad things happen. They can be a direct result of poor choices, but other times, they happen simply because that is how life is: unpredictable and often beyond our control.

Andi Waller, a single mom who lives in Oakland Park, was diagnosed with cancer three different times. The first time, her daughter, Sarah, was 7. The third time was the morning that both daughters graduated from elementary school - an emotional day even without the added burden of being told your cancer is back.

Andi has spent years healing from her own adolescence, when her father was diagnosed with cancer. Although his death was imminent, it was never discussed, planned for or dealt with. As a result of her family's denial and utter lack of communication, Andi carried a heavy load of regret and low self-esteem for many years following the death of her father.

Because of that experience and its troubling consequences, she says, "I communicate with Sarah about everything. We talk about sex, drugs, cancer, and AIDS. "This is how I feel," I tell her. "Tell me how you feel because I want to know."

"The best thing my mom did," Sarah says with certainty, "was to never give up hope. We needed a plan in case my mom should die, and we had one. That helped me a lot. I didn't have to worry so much about what would happen to me."

By being open and honest and sharing their feelings consistently, somehow Andi and Sarah managed through the worst of times. "Once or twice," Sarah says, a shadow passing over her dark eyes, "my mom would try to keep things from me. That was the worst. Not knowing what was going on was really scary for me."

Suppose your son goes out for the football team and doesn't even make second string. Or your daughter tries out for cheerleading only to learn that she's just not cheerleader material? How do we deal with our kids' disappointments while simultaneously helping them to build character, an acquisition that lasts much longer that football season?

  • Explain that they are not going to be a winner at everything, but that they shouldn’t give up.
  • Have your child talk to the coach and see where you went wrong. Find out which areas need improvement in order to make it the next time
  • Have them start getting ready right away to try again.

What to expect from your child:

  • Don't expect your kids to jump off their beds, wipe their tears and get to work right away, though. It takes some time for the whole experience to sink in, to be assimilated.
  • Encourage your kids to choose to be resilient. When you're resilient, you can survive almost anything -- being hurt, frustrated, or let down; losing friends, making mistakes, and much more.

Share stories:

  • Thomas Edison’s teachers told him that he was too stupid to learn anything. He read all the books in his local library on his own and became the greatest inventor of all time, with more than 1,000 patents issued in his name.
  • Beethoven's music teacher once proclaimed: "As a composer, he is hopeless."
  • A newspaper editor fired Walt Disney because he had "no good ideas."
  • An editor told Louisa May Alcott that she would never be able to write something that would have popular appeal.
  • 23 publishers rejected Dr. Seuss’s first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.

A dilemma is a situation that requires one to choose between two alternatives. A dilemma may seen, especially to an already overwhelmed adolescent, much like an unsolvable puzzle. Sometimes, we may find our kids splayed across their beds, heads burrowed beneath their pillows, overwhelmed with the choices they are suddenly expected to make.
During this phase of our parenting careers, as dilemmas come and go, we have several courses of action from which to choose:

  • We can advise our kids, tell them what we would do.
  • We can "mount a high moral horse, expose a bias, dropping a few pearls of wisdom about friendship, loyalty and commitment," write Kastner and Wyatt in The Seven-Year Stretch.
  • We can guide our children toward their own problem-solving skills, their own reasoning techniques, and help them arrive at their own unique solutions.

As parents, we will try all three at some time or another, often in combination. But what works best in the long run is the method of helping kids arrive at their own right decisions.

If we force our kids to do things our way, they learn something about us. If we allow them the time and the space to make up their own minds, they learn something about themselves.

Undoubtedly, the years ahead will not be easy. The three D's will splash in and out of our lives like waves crashing relentlessly on a rock. The goal, I think, is like that rock, to stay firm while growing smoother as a result of difficulties, disappointments and dilemmas that wash over us all.

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