I met Tessa, 21, in a class I taught as part of her drug rehab. What she taught me confirms the benefit of spiritual roots beginning in childhood.
Tessa (not her real name) gave me permission to use this letter she wrote as part of her recovery. Notice how she writes about her drug use as a relationship that she could turn to for support, eventually replacing it with her relationship to her higher power.
My dearest friend,
I am writing you to inform you that we can no longer be in each other’s lives. I no longer need you.
At first I loved you because you helped me through some of the most difficult times in my life. You made me feel numb to my reality, like I could do anything. You gave me power. I felt invincible. But then I became dependent to you. I was the puppet and you were my master.
I thought that our relationship was okay for a long time because I was able to function like a normal person, living a double life. Until one day I lost all control of myself and allowed you to move completely into my life and take hold of the wheel that steers my future. I trusted you to get me through the road ahead.
But you deceived me. You drove me into a world of darkness, shame and guilt. You made me do things I would never do, but you were that voice inside my head that made me believe it was okay to break in to cars and houses, and to break the law. You made me a criminal. You no longer made me feel numb. Now all you did was cause me more and more pain, and because you became a huge part of me, I needed you like fish need water.
But now, today, I am strong enough to stand up for myself against you and say that I don’t need you in my life. That I am worthy to have a good life and that I can get through anything without you because I have a loving God. As long as I continue to walk by faith in Him, He will lead me on my path. He will be there to comfort me when life gets emotionally hard.
Tessa is now relying on her relationship with her higher power— God
— to help her when life becomes overwhelming. But consider this: What if she’d had that relationship all along? What if she had a sense of spirituality since childhood and a higher power who is willing to be known? Quite possibly she’d never have turned to heroin at all.
Why not do everything in our power to give children a chance to form some kind of relationship with God?
They can always abandon it later if they find they don’t need it. But if they do—God is there.
Tweetable: Strong spiritual roots in childhood may have spared this young woman from finding love in the wrong place. Click to Tweet
I teach Life Skills courses at drug treatment centers across L.A. County. Last night I sat across from a woman who asked, “What hope do my children have of avoiding addiction when both their father and I are addicts?” In the first of a two-part blog, I offer my perspective.
Can addiction be prevented?
As I’ve sat with addicts, both in and out of recovery, I’ve spent a lot of time wondering how we could prevent addiction in the first place, and what kinds of broader societal changes might help.
The solution is probably surprising to the general public.
The solution—while not surprising to anyone who has spent time in AA—is probably surprising to the general public: spirituality. You can’t do it on your own. You need to turn to a power greater than yourself.
Put more attention into spiritual development.
Unless we put more time and attention into supporting the spiritual development of young people, Americans will continue to see unhealthy solutions like prescription drug addiction becoming more and more normal for those overwhelmed by life.
Life without God or spirituality seems fine when things are going well.
But when difficulties come and people are at the end of their rope, having depleted their own resources, they will turn to something else. If it’s not a loving God, it may be prescription drugs or heroin.
Spirituality is often an off-limits topic.
Yet investing in the spiritual development of our children is our best hope for preventing— and recovering from— our recent epidemic of painkiller addiction.
Next week, I will share a story from one of my students that prompted me to write on this topic.
- A surprising solution to the current epidemic of addiction to pain killers and street drugs like heroin. Click to Tweet
- A surprising source of hope for children of addicts/alcoholics. Click to Tweet
Comedians Amy Poehler and Bill Hader met when they worked at Saturday Night Live. They talked to journalist Neil Pond about how their parents’ specific words of praise made an impact on their future.
Hader: “I grew up in Tulsa, Okla. I was maybe 5 or 6, and we drove past Oral Roberts University, and in front are these giant praying hands. My grandmother said, ‘What are those?’ And I said, ‘They’re the praying hands.’ And she was like, ‘Oh.’ And I said, ‘And at midnight, they clap.’ She didn’t laugh; I think she thought I was serious, because I said it very dry. But my mom started laughing so hard. And we got home and she told my dad and he laughed really hard and asked me, ‘You just said that, huh?’ That was a moment I realized, Oh, that was funny.”
Poehler: “What you said about your parents saying ‘That’s funny’ is important, because kids can tell when parents notice that. When a parent says, ‘That was funny’ and means it, that’s the kind of encouragement that can send you on a crazy, 40-year journey.
The human spirit responds to praise relying on specific description.
Eric Sondheimer wrote: “Myrna Rivera was a teenager herself when she became a mother. Now she puts in long hours as an office worker to support her family, and there is little time to rest, let alone collect her thoughts and write a letter to her boy. A request from her son’s football coach coaxed her into describing his character and her feelings for him:
“I admire your efforts to be a better person. I am happy to have you in my life, though I know sometimes I may get on your nerves, but I just want you to know that all your dad and me want is a better life for you.”*
Another mother, receiving the coach’s same request, wrote in Spanish, “I’m very proud. You’re the nicest kid I’ve ever raised and during hard times you don’t ever ask for anything.”
The coach passed out letters to all his players at practice one July day. “What happened next took everyone by surprise. For the next 15 minutes or so, wherever you looked you saw players sobbing—against walls, in corners, bent over in chairs.”
A family activity teaches young kids how to give descriptive praise
The Sprinkler Wand: Young children will delight in a wand with streamers hanging from it to sprinkle family members with kindness. Teach the children what can and cannot be sprinkled on each other. Practice phrases such as, “good for you,” “you did it.” Show them how to sprinkle appreciation in the form of joy, humor, peace, happiness, brain power, safety and love. (Conscious Discipline)
Tweetable: The human spirit responds to praise relying on specific description more than on a “good job!”
With two nieces on top-ranked college volleyball teams (Hawaii and UCLA) I sat in a lot of gyms watching serves and returns.
Psychologists sometimes use the term “serve and return parenting” to refer to face-to-face, back-and-forth interactions between caregivers and their babies. Science Journalist Paul Tough observes that these interactions create secure attachments and they motivate a child’s enthusiasm in practicing social interaction, speech and language.
But I also observe the same serve and return dynamics in the development of human spirituality, sparking growth in conscience and character.
Children experience the calm in the inner space of their human spirit that they need to incubate perseverance, tenacity, and the other significant character qualities. These character qualities then carry over into their everyday life.
From serve-and-return spirituality flows an ability to calm oneself– spiritual self-soothing, so to speak. This ability to calm oneself helps children persevere through problems and to begin seeing mistakes as opportunities for learning.
Take perseverance and tenacity, for example–
“In order for kids to have perseverance and tenacity in school later on, they need to start with self-regulatory abilities—the ability to calm themselves down, to focus on something for long periods of time, executive functions, as researchers sometimes call them,” explains Mr. Tough.
Parents know all too well that their child’s self-regulatory abilities, or lack of them, mimic their own. What do you do under stress? Are you easily distracted?
Besides modeling for them, we teach younger children through activities, and older children by listening and coaching. Parents contributed these examples below that have worked for their families. What’s working for you?
Activities to practice serve-and-return spirituality
Infant – age 3: Hold the child in your lap when you’re meditating or praying to show them the habit of sitting quietly and mimicking what you do, followed by smiling, talking, laughing.
Age 4-6: Your bedtime rituals establish a family culture of serve-and-return. Your face-to-face, back-and-forth communication carries a message of unity and belonging: “These are the books, songs, chants, or prayers this family uses at bedtime and no other family uses the exact same ones. We belong to each other.”
Age 7-12: Breakfast Club (can also be done in the car en route to school): Siblings (and adults) take turns going back-and-forth with each other for a short affirmation such as:
- I wish you well in your book report today.
- I saw you studying for your math test. You can relax because you are well-prepared.
- I know you can handle anything that happens today.
- Serve and return spirituality sparks growth in a child’s character and conscience. Click to Tweet
- It pays to turn more attention to developing childhood spirituality. Three simple activities here. Click to Tweet
“We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make which, over time, add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee.” –Marian Wright Edelman
At times, I fight to believe these words.
Small daily differences don’t bring me recognition. Sometimes not even a thank you. They don’t give me any sense of achievement or accomplishment. Waiting for them to add up to some kind of big difference seems hopeless. At my lowest times, I’ve read accounts of small daily differences, written by the person who observed them, and found inspiration to keep going.
A small daily difference in one man’s relationship
Chris Erskine tells the story of a man who traveled across the country to tend to his ex-wife, helping see her through an agonizing stem cell transplant at City of Hope. It hadn’t helped so much, and now more chemo, more agony.
He explained how he’d stay with his ex-wife on those long days when her current husband needed to go home to rest a little. Mr. Erskine noted, “Marriage is hard. It succeeds pretty rarely. When it fails, the scars are often nasty and long-lasting. How many of us would have the decency and character to come back the way he has? What a lesson for kids.”
A small daily difference in one man’s career
Meg James tells the story of Ralph Roberts, founder of media giant Comcast Cable, who began taking his school-age son to meetings with investment bankers when they were doing deals. But after Brian Roberts graduated from the Wharton School, he didn’t start out at corporate headquarters. Instead, Ralph Roberts sent his son out in the field to install cable lines in people’s homes.
Brian could have started in a corner office, but he didn’t. Ralph told him that “you will share my values, and your mother’s values, or you won’t work here.” Ms. James notes, “A lot of fathers try to pass their legacy and family business to their children but few have done it better than Ralph.”
A small daily difference a young child can make right now
We supply the building blocks of a child’s conscience and character. Small blocks like Kindness Love Notes and many others, stacked consistently, make a big, strong tower.
Tweetable: Persevere in small acts of goodness; they add up to a big difference in your soul. Case in point here. Click to Tweet