Today is my birthday.
I’ve never been much to celebrate in a big way. There are several reasons for that, the first of which is that being born near the 4th of July (or any major holiday) ostensibly means most people are out of town on your day of celebration. As a kid, I only wanted to celebrate on the actual day of my birth. It never made sense to that kids would have their parties days in advance, weeks after, or during the weekend on either end. For me, it was all or nothing – July 6th or bust.
Summer birthdays rarely benefit from the group well-wishes from class parties. There are no cupcakes at lunchtime or decorated desk or locker. Most people who know me know I much prefer intimate conversations and small group dinners to fancy extravaganzas of small talk (though I can do fancy, too!). After several glorious decades on this planet, I am totally okay with that. .
My first distinct birthday memory is when I was seven or eight years old. I remember sitting on the back deck of our rural Connecticut ranch home, watching a small table of friends sing an off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Others might have been lost in the moment, but I was looking at my mom, who was getting ready to cut slices of frozen Minnie Mouse ice cream cake that was likely super over-priced for my parents’ budget. The cake was filled with the unhealthy confectioner’s deliciousness that my mom would otherwise avoid. But hey, it was my birthday.
I remember thinking about the effort my mom went through to try and help me have a real American birthday – complete with pin the tail on the donkey, Disney themed decorations and thoughtfully designed goodie bags. My parents immigrated to the United States just a decade before, and for many reasons I can safely deduce my mother never had a celebration like this one when she was a child. In that moment, I could sense she was tired. In my mind, I was like: Wow, this took a whole lot of work.
There was something special about that birthday, too. Weeks before, I asked my mom if I invite could Beth, a friend who had been in my class since preschool and had recently undergone extensive brain surgery – half of her brain was removed – at the hands of current HUD secretary and former Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Ben Carson (oh, how small the world is…). My mom’s reply was quick and affirmative, “Sure, of course.”
I was so excited to hear Beth could come to my party. When her mom called to RSVP, she started with an apology for her delay, explaining, “I am sorry it took me a few days to get back to you. We were supposed to be in Martha’s Vineyard but moved some things around because Beth really wanted to come to your birthday. It is the only one she’s been able to go to all year.” I still think of that conversation and how much it meant to me that she came.
Beth’s story gained national attention for many reasons, one of which is her amazing friendship with Mr. Rogers, who visited her bedside at Johns Hopkins, and she was most recently profiled in Atlantic editor James Hamblin’s book, “If Our Bodies Could Talk.” She’s in good health, and is a wonderful writer – and when I asked what she hopes to do next, she was quick in her reply, “I want to become a world famous author and speaker.” In a time when we desperately need more stories of positivity and hope, Beth’s story and message is an important one.
In the last few months, I’ve seen more and more videos and clips of Mr. Rogers – especially this one from when the 1970s when public television was under threat of losing funding – and every time I think of Beth. We often see the public figure without fully knowing who they are in real life – and from what I have heard over the years, Mr. Rogers certainly was incredible. I truly hope more and more people will hear Beth’s story, in her own words. Her vision of kindness, healing, family and humor is a powerful one worthy of reflection for kids and adults alike.
Last week, nearly thirty years later, I had a lovely dinner with Beth and her parents on Martha’s Vineyard. Her parents look the exact same as from my childhood, and Beth and I are both just a little older. Three of our birthdays – Beth, mine, and Mrs. Usher’s – are all within a week of each other, and it was a wonderful way to celebrate another year around the sun.
Anyone who spends even a bit of time with my father quickly realizes his idiosyncrasies are sitcom-worthy – harmless and hilarious all at once. For instance, I’ve been in the same office for nearly a decade now, and each time my father visits he brings a shopping bag – this week’s was one from the Nordstrom’s half-yearly sale – filled with random office supplies that my stepmother has likely urged him to throw out. Instead of getting rid of them, of course, he truly believes I can find use for them… and passes them along to me.
This week’s “gift”? A label maker from the mid 1970s in – wait for it – original packaging
. This poor label maker made it through one cross country move and at least two California household moves in original packaging. Clearly, my father refuses to follow Marie Kondo’s
advice on finding joy – or maybe, instead of throwing things away, he simply brings them to my office to share the “joy.”
But I digress. Over the past few years, I’ve thought a great deal about how my work has been so focused on helping students build their own blueprint for success rather than borrow someone else’s. I’ve talked about the importance attitude and approach in encouraging a child to his or her own vision of success, even when that vision may seem muddled, and may completely change course. Sometimes supportive parenting is about listening, asking open-ended questions, being positive and encouraging children to dig deep and find the solutions within them.
When I think about where I learned that most, I know my father’s role was uniquely important. On this Father’s Day, I wanted to take a moment and reflect on three different moments where my father’s attitude and approach made all the difference in helping me design my own blueprint for success.
When I was five years old, I wanted to be on a soccer team – sounds simple, but there were no girls soccer teams in my rural northeastern Connecticut town in the early 1980s. So, my father thought nothing of petitioning to have me join a boys team, and then spent Saturday mornings fielding soccer balls as the assistant coach for a team with circumspect athletic abilities. What I remember most was that it was no big deal – I wanted to play, and his attitude was, “Go for it!” He helped me figure it out at a time when I was too young to do so for myself. I actually never thought twice about the fact that I was the only girl on the team until the mayor’s wife came up to me after a game and remarked how brave I was (I think – or hope – she was referring to the fact that the ball had just hit me in the head).
It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized how my father’s “Go for it!” attitude allowed me to dig deeper when things didn’t go as planned. A few months after graduating from college, I told my parents I wanted to start my own business
and “just do my own thing.” This was sixteen years ago, long before entrepreneurship and self-employment, freelance and start-up life were a way of life for many. Most of my classmates were focused on attending graduate school and/or getting jobs with companies offering benefits and retirement plans. There were far fewer (if any) NYTimes stories focusing on women and entrepreneurship.
But, in a short six month period since graduating from college, I moved (temporarily) to NYC for investment banking analyst training, took the train into the World Trade Center up until two weeks before 9/11, and had an emergency appendectomy after taking myself to the ER at 4 am on a Saturday morning in NYC (and completely thought I was going to die). Then, in November 2001, I was laid off from my banking analyst job along with about half my analyst class. The post-9/11 time for a recently laid off recent college grad was bleak for many reasons, and so when I told my parents I wanted to do my own thing, I was surprised by their two simple questions:
“Can you pay your rent?” Yes.
“Do you have health insurance?” Yes. (side note: it was much easier – and cheaper – to buy a single plan those days. I think it cost $90 per month).
“Then go for it.”
I think of that conversation often, especially when I see recent grads and young adults get advice that takes them away from their intuition and their own sense of purpose. I knew I wanted to write, travel, and help people, and was lucky to have a severance package that I could use to start my own business. I liked my job (still do!) and my work has evolved in ways I could have never expected back then. But I know that my father’s encouragement at that critical moment made a world of difference. He didn’t have the answers (and definitely did *not* provide any financial backing – ha!) but he knew I could figure it out. His positive attitude and realistic enthusiasm freed me from taking on any extra anxiety or concern, and allowed me to spend my energy finding solutions rather than fighting off doubts.
And finally – in September 2008, I called my dad from the corner of 17th and Broadway in NYC after finding out I landed a book deal with Perigee, a division of Penguin (now Penguin Random House) for my first book, That Crumpled Paper Was Due Last Week.
I am fairly certain he had no idea what that really meant, or what a big deal that was for a twenty-seven year old with very little published writing experience, but I distinctly remember his response, “NO KIDDING!!!” His excitement was palpable. He had very little idea on how I had worked to make it happen, but knew that was my dream and was happy for me.
My third book is coming out in August, and this one – Social Media Wellness: Helping Teens and Tweens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World
– was by far the most difficult to write. I re-wrote the entire draft from scratch. I had surgery (I am fine). I dealt with crazy happenings. And even through everything, my dad was like, “Just finish the book already, everyone will be happier – including you!” That was the version of “Go for it!” that I needed.
I know my father is proud of me (I know this because he tells me *all the time*), and I also know he believed in my ability to design my own blueprint for success from the beginning. He never subscribed to one version of success, and when something didn’t work out, he encouraged me to refocus to find something else that would come together. His optimistic wisdom and gracious determination has made all the difference.
So, for the father who reminds me to cook at home (it’s healthier!) and to drive safely when it is raining, thank you for always believing in my possibilities. Your attitude and approach has meant the world to me.
And also, please stop bringing me office supplies disguised as Nordstrom half-yearly sale purchases. But I digress.
Happy Father’s Day.
I was doing some research for my upcoming book Social Media Wellness when I came across this 2002 article entitled “A Stranger in Your House” in the Palo Alto Weekly, a local paper near my office. The article discusses how media influences the lives of kids, and what we as parents and educators should do about it. The organization highlighted in the piece, FIRM (Families Interested in Responsible Media) has since grown to become the well-respected and influential Common Sense Media.
Reading the article caused me to reflect on how far we’ve come over the past fifteen years. In 2002, Facebook (and Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat) didn’t exist, my iPhone with all its apps was likely a figment of someone’s imagination, and getting a cab on a rainy Friday night in San Francisco was a non-existent proposition. And the issues highlighted by the article – for instance, television commercials with scantily clad women or age-inappropriate topics – seem downright quaint in comparison to the things we see and deal with today. Many parents and educators don’t fully realize the powerful impact of bringing computers and tablets into the classroom, and Common Sense’s Common Sense Census reports that today’s teens now spend nearly nine hours on some form of media per day – and that doesn’t even count the time spent completing homework. (To note: Common Sense Media has done some amazing research, and provides many wonderful tools for parents and educators on their site.)
Even as so much as changed, some things remain the same. The article recommends keeping computers and televisions out of the bedroom; today things are a bit more complicated as lightweight portable devices can easily get snuck in, and the smartphone serves as a television, movie screen, camera and video recorder that fits into the palm of a hand. Even so, l still recommend parents encourage students to do their homework outside of their bedrooms, because separating work and rest can be an effective way to promote wellness. Most kids who try to complete homework while sitting on their bed find that they end up feeling drowsy or falling asleep, and for good reason: their brain associates their bed with rest and sleep. And, getting devices out of the bedroom promotes a more restful sleep – especially for teenagers. Even if we want teens to learn how to self-regulate and make good decisions, they often still need parental structure, and these tips can help with turning off messaging at night so there is less temptation.
At the same time, the notion of media being the “stranger in your house” reflects the fear factor approach used over the past fifteen years as the way to talk about how media is impacting kids. In a conversation with IB Times UK, Tink Palmer, head of the Marie Collins Foundation, an online child abuse charity, focuses on the importance of “teaching children about the dangers of communicating online.” That’s likely not the most effective approach when we know teens and tweens are spending fifty plus hours a week online – they’re far past the “stranger danger” conversation.
While there are certainly dangers online, I would argue there are dangers everywhere, and we have to shift the conversations we’re having with our kids to be less-fear focused and more wellness-centered. Many teens and tweens use messaging and social media apps to communicate with friends and friends of friends as another level of socialization – so while some are certainly communicating with people they’ve never met, many are simply spending time in a new (online) venue with people they already know.
One of the biggest things I’ve learned over nearly two decades working with kids is that fear only gets us so far – and helping students find intrinsic motivation to make healthier choices that promote their well-being is far more effective in the long-term. Social media isn’t good or bad, it is simply a tool that has created new languages for parents and educators to make a better effort to learn and understand, in order to promote healthy socialization, effective self-regulation, and overall safety (the three S’s in my book).
One of the biggest compliments I received about my upcoming book was from Andrew Davis, who is the Head of School at Mt. Tam School in Marin. He wrote me after reading an advanced copy of the book and said, “You nailed it. I love how you don’t go down the fear path and that you give parents very real, actionable advice.”
He didn’t realize that was my goal – to move past fear and focus on giving practical, actionable strategies that work. It’s the evolution of a very important conversation.
Pre-order Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced World, here. And when you do, send us the receipt at socialmediawellnessbook at gmail dot com, and we’ll send you a free reading guide. Please specify if you’d like the parent, educator, or student version.