The touchy topic of gun violence

Discussing touchy topics with family members often generates more heat but not more light. Because of this, touchy topics are often avoided. But one touchy topic we must touch upon in family discussions is gun violence. Only an ostrich buries its head in the sand and there can be no ostriches in our families when it comes to this important and recurring issue.

No matter what your perspective on the Second Amendment, we can all agree the spate of mass shootings is not only deplorable, but must be discussed. Rationally. Civilly. Creatively. And especially with our children.

Many of us feel ill equipped to talk about gun violence with our kids. Maybe we are reluctant to raise uncomfortable subjects in general. Perhaps we think we’re under informed about gun related issues. But for the sake of our children and our families we must nudge ourselves over the speedbump of conversational hesitation and give a little forethought to what we’re going to say.

I could suggest the usual approach: (1) make all discussions with children age appropriate, (2) don’t let your kids only see news reports, talk to them about how they feel about it (3) assure them that you will keep them as safe as possible. But in light of recent mass shootings, aren’t we well beyond “the usual” approach? Isn’t it time we try something different?

The epidemic of gun violence in the United States demands a new approach in our country and in our families. Talk to your children—and adult family members—about practical actions your family can take to prevent gun violence and then (to co-opt a phrase) “Just Do It”. For starters, go to the Prevention Institution website for practical ideas about “first steps” you, as a family, can take to prevent gun violence.

When all is said and done, more is said than done. Be the exception to this tired bromide. Do something to prevent gun violence by beginning with your family. Don’t just talk about it. Do something!

Happy birthday, Dad

If he were alive, my Dad would celebrate his 98th birthday on August 5. His life made all the difference in mine. I plan to buy him a birthday card even though I won’t mail it. Here’s what I plan to write in the card.
I’m missing you especially today and wanted to say “thanks”, once again, for all you meant to me. You spent time with me playing catch in the backyard, going hunting and fishing, and teaching me how to water ski. You showed me how to tune a lawn mower engine, scrape and paint a house, fix a leaky faucet and wire a broken lamp. I used to think you involved me in these “adventures” because you needed my help, but I can now see you were showing me love by teaching me to solve problems. Of course the ultimate expression of love was when you gave up a promising career opportunity because it was going to demand too much time away from the family. You displayed how a man establishes priorities in his life, and then makes decisions based on those priorities.
I remember the talks we had on the front porch, in the car, on the lake, and in the woods. I never felt rushed in any of my conversations with you. It seemed there was time enough for talk, but also for pauses and reflection. There was room enough for silence. You know how you sometimes feel awkward when a conversation lags and silence hangs heavy in the air? I never felt that way with you. I guess the true test of a relationship is whether you feel comfortable with quiet moments.
After many years I discovered the theme emerging from your life, Dad. Love must be both spoken and acted. Loving words must be accompanied by acts of selfless kindness. Caring deeds need the companionship of unhurried conversation. I’m grateful you lived that in front of me.

Thanks for the example, Dad. I miss you every day and remain proud to be called your son.

Love, Jim.

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The Both Way Benefits of Grandparenting

When my sister was a little girl she had the good fortune of living next door to one of our grandmothers. In fact, the families lived in a duplex with a connecting door. Whenever Linda got in trouble with my parents she would go sit by Grandma’s door, knock on it, and cry in a plaintive voice, “Gamma, I come live with you?”

I too had the great benefit of an engaged grandparent. My great grandmother, Maggie O’Keefe, lived near us and I would stop by her house once a week, on my way home from piano lessons. She would stuff me with warm bread and regale me with stories of “the old country”. I learned much about her life, and about life in general, from these visits.

Now that I have entered the ranks of grandparents I am a voracious consumer of information about how to be the best. So when my eyes fell on an article about the scientifically backed benefits of grandparents I eagerly dug in.

We all have this generalized, gauzy impression that grandparents are (mostly) good for grandchildren. They feed them cookies, take them to the park, clap wildly at their performances. But I was unaware research supports the engaged grandparent glow. Bona fide scientific studies establish children learn a variety of important life lessons from grandparents.
• They learn aging is a natural part of life.
• They have higher rates of compassion.
• They learn about supporting others (children experience support and they also lend it).
• By listening, they learn family history.
• And as a bonus, studies show you’re less likely to be depressed, both in your teen years and in later life, if you have an engaged grandparent.

And get this: being an engaged grandparent makes you live longer! According to one study, “Grandparents who babysit their grandkids live longer than same age adults without child rearing responsibilities.” Regular babysitters have a 37% lower mortality rate than those who don’t sit. The writer of the article observed, “The fountain of youth is a sippy cup.”

The bottom line is, don’t just “be” a grandparent, engage as one. The benefits are better than a retirement plan.

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An Unguarded Strength is a Double Weakness

A number of years, on a dare, a seventeen year old from East Germany landed an ultra lite glider in one of the most highly guarded air spaces in the world–Red Square, downtown Moscow, in the Soviet Union. In the heart of the Soviet’s strength, the East German had found a weakness.

A middle aged man named Gordon watched that news story and commented remorsefully to his wife, “I feel like that’s what happened to me. I allowed myself to be attacked and conquered in what should have been my area of greatest strength–my personal integrity.“ His wife nodded in sympathetic agreement. Gordon’s air space had been invaded because he had not guarded his strength.

Gordon’s was a prominent Christian leader, speaker and author. Widely respected. A role model for many. But at the height of his career, Gordon fell off the fidelity wagon and had an illicit relationship with his secretary. When he finally came to his senses and ended the affair, Gordon took steps to correct the situation as much as possible. Day by day, inch by inch, Gordon worked to save his marriage, which he did. Now he speaks candidly about his fall and how it might have been prevented.

“An unguarded strength is a double weakness”, says Gordon, quoting G. K. Chesterton. Gordon thought he would not–could not–fall in the area of his personal integrity. In fact he told a friend, prior to his affair, “It could never happen, I’m too strong in that area.”

You are probably acutely aware of your weaknesses, and are constantly on guard in those areas of your life. But what about areas where you think you’re strong? Are you guarding those as well? Identify your “strengths” and resolve to not leave them unguarded. You don’t want to end up like the red faced soldiers guarding Red Square. You don’t want to wind up with Gordon’s regrets. Guard your heart.

Trust your gut (sometimes!)

I was talking to Dr. Erin Greilik

recently about the neuroscience of brain gut connection; not the sort of topic that just comes up in random conversation, right? But Erin and I were discussing a “gut feeling” I had about something and Erin told me I should listen to it.

By personality bent and professional training, I’m not one to trust in gut feelings. As a lawyer I want to see the evidence. Prove to me that this road is taking me where I want to go. Convince me with facts. Don’t try to blow sunshine at me by talking about seemingly spongy “gut feelings”.

But Erin says there’s a basis for trusting your gut. Neuroscience supports a connection between the brain and the stomach. She told me about an experiment where volunteers were given past weather related information for a particular day and then were asked to predict what the weather the next day was. Initially the participants were right about 50-50. But the volunteers were given immediate feedback on whether they were right or wrong and after about 20 or so times, most of the volunteers got better–a lot better–at their predictions. Most of them jumped to being 70% accurate after being given feedback on whether they had predicted rightly or wrongly. The participants were then asked how they did it. What patterns did they detect? How had they improved? And you know what? None of them could explain it. The couldn’t articulate how they had improved. They just knew the right answer “in their gut”.

I found this gut brain connection has been recognized over and over by scientists, like those at the Toronto Neurology Centre where they say:
What is the Gut-Brain Axis? Have you ever wondered why we use the expressions “gut-feeling” or “butterflies in your stomach?” These phrases stem from the connection between our gut health and brain function. This connection is called the Gut-Brain Axis, which is a bi-directional communication network that links the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) with the enteric nervous system (the digestive system). Your brain and digestive system send messages to each other and can affect one another’s health and functioning. Disturbances to the gut-brain axis may be associated with many neurological conditions, some of which include anxiety, depression, autism spectrum disorder, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease.

So next time your gut tells you something, listen to it. I’m not saying your gut is always right. Sometimes we eat the wrong stuff and our gut gives us bad feedback(!) But there’s something to be said for those gut feelings. Don’t just dismiss them. Evaluate and test them.

Be Brave to Prevent Evil

I have a family heirloom in my office. It’s about six inches long, wooden , with a slug of lead embedded in one end. It’s a blackjack and it tells a story that you would not discern by simply picking up the weighty weapon. The blackjack reminds me there are times we must dare to do good by preventing evil.

One night, in the early 1900s, the weapon came into the possession of Grandpa Tom, my dad’s father. Tom was a young teen and was spending that early evening with two older friends, one of whom was named Mickey. Here’s how Tom told the story to my dad.

blackjackMickey told us he was going waylay someone on their way home that night. The guy he planned to rob usually had a wad of money on him and Mickey knew his usual route of travel. Then Mickey pulled the blackjack out of his pocket and said “I’m going to sneak up behind him and knock him out with this blackjack and take his money.” I thought this was a bad idea both for the man and for Mickey. But he would not to be talked out of it. A little while later, when Mickey wasn’t paying attention, I was able to slip the blackjack out of his coat pocket and into my own. I figured if he didn’t have the weapon he wouldn’t try the crime and I was right. Mickey later told me he had somehow lost the blackjack and had to call off the robbery.

Grandpa Tom never told Mickey he was the one who liberated the blackjack. I think he was afraid if he did Mickey might use it on him. So Grandpa kept it and passed it along to my Dad who entrusted it to me, along with the lesson that we must sometimes be brave to prevent evil.

The choice my Grandpa made that night became a lesson and a continual reminder to me every time I look at the blackjack. The small but brave choices we make can impact generations.

Avoid Snowplow parenting

When I was 16 I tried out for my high school basketball team. My school of 1800 students had 60 guys try out that year. I knew my odds were slim.

But I hustled and sweated and made the first cut to 40. Then I made the cut to 25. But when Coach posted the final cut to 15 I wasn’t on the list. I know because I checked the list three times. Neither was one of my buddies, Bob. Dejected and defeated I dragged my gym bag and myself home and pitifully flopped on my bed.

Later that night my dad consoled me, saying, “I know you’re disappointed, but I want you to know, I wouldn’t trade you for the greatest basketball player on the planet.” That helped a little. Still, I was hurt.

Days later my hurt turned to frustration when I learned that somehow Bob was a late addition to the team. How? He wasn’t any better than I was! I asked Bob what happened. “My dad talked to Coach. Dad pitched a big fit and said he’d raise a stink if Coach didn’t take me. So Coach added me.”
Frustration turned to fury and that night I vented to my own dad about what happened. Dad said in a very measured tone, “That’s too bad and it’s not something I would ever do. I know you wouldn’t want me to because Bob will always know he didn’t earn it.” End of conversation.
My Dad did not believe in what is now referred to as “snowplow parenting”. Those are the parents who unfairly move obstacles out of the way of their children. They’ve always been around but it seems like there are more of them lately. Parents like those involved in the college tuition scandal. Or Bob’s dad.

Not making the team stung but I’m glad Dad didn’t snowplow for me. Parents: put away the snowplow. Allow your children to succeed on their own merit.

Crucial Conversations in the family

I am a fan of the book “Crucial Conversations” by Kerry Patterson and Joseph Grenny. It teaches the art of having hard, but important, conversations at work or at home. Grenny says “At the heart of almost all unresolved problems is a conversation that is not being held or not being held well.”
Our family lives are filled with the need for crucial conversations. But the biting truth is, most of us avoid these conversations or do a poor job with them.
Think about the last conflict you had with a family member. It might have started out small but quickly escalated. Or the problem might have been important, but it was either ignored or turned into a yelling match.
Case in point: early in our marriage my wife and I had a discussion about the “proper” way to put bath towels in the linen closet. I had done laundry, folded the towels, and put them away. I was looking for my gold star. But instead, I received helpful advice that I had put the towels away wrong. Diane said towels need to be put away with the fold of the towel facing out, so that the next person could easily grab it. In my defense I argued, “There’s no ‘right way’ to put towels away. Let’s be happy I did the laundry and put it away!”
Diane smiled knowingly and observed perhaps I did the job wrong because my mom did it wrong. MY MOM!! Out came my boxing gloves! Put up your dukes! Nobody picks on my mom!

You get the picture. It was a small thing, but we let the conversation get out of control. Over the next few weeks we’ll explore how to have a crucial conversation but, for this week, be alert to the three signs that a conversation is becoming “crucial”: (1) opposing viewpoints, (2) strong emotions, and (3) high stakes. Keep an eye out for crucial conversations and, while you’re at it, check your linen closet to insure your towels are folded correctly.

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Adversity deepens or divides

“Love, Africa”, a recent book by New York Times correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman, is the story of Gettleman’s two loves: East Africa and his wife, Courtney. Gettleman does not love either perfectly, but he loves both persistently. Through candid confessions of his stumblings, Gettleman lets us know that East Africa is beautiful and deadly, and being married is fulfilling and challenging.

After they were married, Courtney served as Gettleman’s videographer. They travelled extensively, covering famines, uprisings, wars, and genocide. They were kidnapped and nearly killed on occasion. Through differences of opinion and near death experiences, they stayed together personally and professionally. Perhaps adversity played a role in cementing their commitment.
Danger, disagreements, deployments, disasters, and debt. All can cause rifts in even the strongest marriage. Sometimes adversity causes couples to consider another “d” word: divorce.
Author Lori Lowe wrote, First Kiss to Lasting Bliss: Hope & Inspiration for Your Marriage, which tells true stories about couples who overcame adversity and avoided divorce. Lowe suggests two keys to an enduring marriage: (1) Play as a team and (2) Look for Growth Opportunities.
The “play as a team” idea, I get. My wife and I have found we can navigate through tough times with more success and less in fighting if we pledge, in advance, to not second guess each other, and give each other the benefit of the doubt. Teamwork.
As for “growth opportunities” Lowe explains:
The stress we experience as a result of adversity—and how we respond to that stress—tends to predict how much we will benefit from it. The individuals who benefit and grow the most are NOT the ones who are able to avoid stress. Those who grow the most are the ones who may be shaken up, and then grow as a result.

man in black long sleeved shirt and woman in black dress

Photo by Jasmine Wallace Carter on

Isn’t that always the case? Adversity deepens character and strengthens marriages. But only if we team up and persevere.


man and child walking near bushes during daytime

Photo by on

Everyone agrees we all make mistakes, but the mistakes that pinch with poignant pain are the mistakes we make in our own families. Especially as grandparents.
Since I have been a grandparent for all of 14 months, I speak as something of an authority. Even well-intentioned grandparents make mistakes, and we tend to make them in three distinct areas, according to an editorial in Grandmagazine entitled “Mistakes Grandparents Make.”

First, we tend to make mistakes within ourselves. We underestimate the transformation that takes place inside of us and in our relationships with others when we become grandparents. According to Grandmagazine, we grandparents need to understand changes in our own personalities and attitudes are necessary to be an effective grandparent. Humility and self-awareness are required.

Second, we make mistakes with our grandchild’s parents, either our own child or their spouse. We often forget to listen (really listen) to the parents and respect their right to make — and learn — from their own mistakes. We sometimes break their rules and don’t respect their boundaries. We salve our conscience by thinking, “Grandparents are supposed to spoil their grandkids!” But, by doing so, we undermine relationships all around. The way we parented might not be the way our children choose to parent. Painful as it might be, we need to recognize and respect that.

Finally, we make mistakes with those charming grandkids. Some grandparents are at one end of the connection spectrum, constantly indulging grandkids with gifts and attention, while others might occupy the other evil extreme, failing to stay in touch or ignoring their milestones and accomplishments. We must strike a healthy medium. Don’t smother grandkids, but stay engaged with them.

If we want to play an important role in the lives of our grandkids, we must avoid these mistakes and remember, always, to enjoy them. I wish someone had told me years ago how much fun grandkids are. If I had known, I would have had them first.