This is not what I signed up for…

Distraction: The Detriment to our Tomorrow

Twenty years ago when I entered college as an aspiring educator, I had a host of things I knew to be true about the profession of teaching.  I expected to work hard, which would require a grueling work ethic that summer would not absolve. I knew I would have tough parents, and with my special ed background, I definitely expected challenging students.  I knew I would be held accountable to the state with tests that seemed pointless but were not going away. I understood that there would always be politicians making uninformed decisions on behalf of educators everywhere.  I accepted that I would not become rockstar rich and that “appreciation” would be a currency that was in either feast or famine. I expected to be pushed emotionally, physically, even spiritually. Knowing this path, I signed up for this life of service without a millisecond of reservation.

I have taught in the same community for my entire career.   I have been blessed with good administrators and even better colleagues.  However, along my journey there has been a subtle progression of change that now, as I look back, is a gaping shift in the world we call education.  Schools have transformed from a place of learning content to a respite for repair. The few students who used to be hindered with emotional hardships or trauma are becoming the many.  The handful of students who feel such immense unworth they are willing to hurt themselves are now dozens. The number of children who require emotional support are growing so significantly that we are saddled with the challenge of figuring out how to create the components of healthy homes within our school to teach the basics of compassion, empathy, and self-love.

Absorbing this raw emotional pain in students, which often looks like disrespect, fighting, complete disengagement, or risk taking behaviors such as experimenting with drugs, takes a toll on the educators who are trying to bandage the wounds of our current societal reality.  Overwhelmed teachers look up while overwhelmed administrators look down. We respond with meetings, more meetings, data, and more data. We begin talking louder and with less compassion because we see problems that need immediate fixing! Our hands stop picking up and begin pointing. Chaotic energy fills the air with conversations of blame, distrust, proclamations of problems, more blame, more problems, disrespect, more blame, and just in case you didn’t catch it the first time: another dose of problems in a louder voice.  Life around us is racing, and we do not know how to respond. We just know we need the world, the day, the minute, the second to just STOP so we can catch our breath.  

Our schools are a mirror of our communities.  Our communities are a product of our society. Our children are the products of their surroundings.  A parent may see their one child growing off track, whereas educators have a front row seat to witness the concentrated view of the collective.  A parent wants a fix to this problem, not realizing that their one is a representation of the many. In behavior we look for trends; the trendline in my little corner of the world is off the charts in the amount of need our children are requiring. 

This harsh reality has me awake at night relentlessly searching for the “why” that can lead me to action.  In those moments of silent reflection, a glaring culprit keeps coming to mind: distraction! We are reaping the consequences of living in a world built around distractions.

If our children are a reflection of our adult decisions, we must examine our own distractions.

You can become distracted by wanting unrealistic outcomes for your children.

You can become distracted by wanting to create an “image” of your family or children at the cost of ignoring the true selves that comprise your family.

You can become distracted by absorbing yourself in your own stress or pain so much so that you are not available to guide your child through their personal stress and pain.

You can become distracted by chasing the thoughts in your head about what you need to do tomorrow or what you didn’t do today.

You can become distracted by absorbing yourself in disempowering emotions like anger, regret, or resentment.  

You can be distracted by your need for validation through constant connection-seeking on social media.

Long story short, we have gone into a universal coma and all the while our kids are growing up wondering where they fit into the picture.  Many have been shown the gift of things, while missing out on the gift of time.  Of course we never intended to slight our children or do anything that would potentially cause them harm. However, to understand the pathology, we must look at our actions even when they contradict our words and how we often operate in a world of two extremes: neglect or smother.  We either ignore our kids by focusing on our needs alone, or we smother them through the pressure of what they should be which is often a projection of our own needs.  

So what do kids do to cope?  How does our behavior manifest in our children?  They distract themselves. They turn to the false reality of social media.  They turn to self medicating or even real medication to turn off their emotional output.  They put their focus on the things around them that makes them feel good, distracting them from their insecurities or feelings of ineptness.  

This societal culmination is creating an educational climate that I did not sign up for.  I did not sign up to be the parent, the teacher, and the villain in the same sentence. I did not sign up for the responsibility of the collective future…. I was naive enough to think that empowering the lives of a few would be my contribution to the many, but in the lens of today that is not enough.  

Parents, community members, anyone who cares to hear this, we must respond to the universal message educators are communicating: Kids are hurting in extremes of self loathing and doubt.  Educators need help. We cannot carry the torch alone. We need partners in our vision and in our actions.

If distraction is a hidden culprit, what next?  The answer is simple, yet so difficult. We must combat this with presence.  We must step into the moment and SHOW UP.  Parents need to show up. Educators need to show up.  Kids need to show up. Being present means being brave to the moment, needing neither past nor future to make sense of the now.   This means that when moments are trying, uncomfortable, overwhelming, terrible, and hellacious we are responsible for accepting the present without tapping out!  We exercise compassion and honesty with ourselves and with others, without distracting ourselves with blame or any other plethora of favorite sidetracks. 

Where do we start?  

Unplug:  We have all been there.  We drone on about wanting our kids off of technology, while we curl up in our fuzzy pants with our good ole friend Netflix.  Not that life may not periodically call for a prescription of binge watching and greasy food, but there comes a time when we lose our balance. Collectively unplug the shit that wins out over family.  Yes, your children will complain, cry, or call you names. So what. You are parents; lead the way. The duration of complaints will fade as kids, no matter how old, want to know that you care to spend time with them.  Be the quiet in the storm of social media for your child. Remind them that your relationship is an anchor of reality and safety, free from judgements found on media feeds.  

Set time aside: Life is busy, so get scheduled time on the books.  If you have a teenager who complains about being “forced” into family time, a scheduled time makes the expectation less contentious.  Not all family time has to be at Disney World. A simple walk in the evening or card game after dinner is enough to establish a reconnection.  The goal is to create opportunities for communication. Older kids who are not used to this attention, may need to adjust at first. Don’t give up on it.  Have you seen Good Will Hunting?  Like Robin Williams, sometimes you have to be consistent and wait a person out.  Consistent times will also build trust with your child as they begin to trust that you “want” to be with them, not just going through the motions.

Examine and align with your values:  What values do you want your children to live out?  Select a handful of priority values in your household such as honesty, kindness, or perseverance.  Communicate those values frequently and bring them to life through your own behavior and choices. Words alone cannot bring power to this strategy; adults must practice what they preach!  When those values are not honored, address them with honesty, openness, and a plan of restitution. For example, in my house honesty is key. I have a cheesy catch phrase I drop on my kids constantly to remind them of this core value.  I also have to ensure that I hold myself to the same standard. This means when I accidentally forget to ring up a gallon of milk on the bottom of my cart, I go back to pay no matter what. This means when my 5-year-old daughter grabs two prizes out of the prize box at the dentist’s office when the expectation was one, you drive back and she returns it (even when the lady at the front desk, sympathetically tells her there is no need).  Does this mean my children do not lie? Um, no. Of course they try to fib their way out of trouble or to get what they want. However, I have to remember that my consistent response a hundred times over is critical to their character development when that good ole frontal lobe develops and they begin making less impulsive decisions.

Connect with nature: Step outside or just feel the breeze on your face.  Pause, stop, feel your surroundings. Many people feel something special when out in nature.  When I see a sunrise I have a moment of thought that reminds me that life is bigger than my worry.  Our stressors are a sliver in our life, yet when left unchecked hold the weight of John Cena’s bench press.  Life is as simple as we make it. Life is a balance of energy. We get what we give. We see what we feel. What we feel is what we project.  Nature is an example of the simplicity of existence without the construct of worry.  When we leave worry aside we can focus on those around us and be present to their needs.

Embrace struggle: Parents understand that your child will need to struggle to grow!  Encourage them that the discomfort they feel is normal and GOOD for them.  Struggle will unveil a child’s strength in a way your accolades cannot. They must fall in order to learn they can get back up on their own with the gifts they bear inside.  They must be reminded that they are enough for the bad moments, instead of just being trained to believe they are entitled to only the good. Children benefit from learning that their deficits are as much as a gift as their strengths.  There are no mistakes. We are made as we should be to fulfill the purpose in our hearts. Failure is an opportunity as long as we choose to see it as such.

Start small and build:  Just begin.  Begin making a dent in the amount of time and focus you give to the present moment.  This does not mean you hyperfocus on everything you child says or does. This means taking a step to listen when they speak.  This means accepting an invitation to play or talk. This means being a role model for your children, showing them how to focus on the positive and good of each moment, good and bad alike.  Simply put, arrive to the now and the quality to the moments that usually evaporate in distraction.

Looking back on my years in education I can say with honesty that I did not sign up for this, yet here I am.  I did not ask for the burden of this heavy awareness and sense of purpose, yet here I am. I was not prepared for the reality of these moments, yet here I am.  Without a millisecond of hesitation, I SHOW up. I show up because the other choice is to give up on the kids who did not ask for this either. Communities across the nation are unsettled with the trends in teen suicide and school violence, yet here WE are.  WE. Not them. Not you. WE. If we want better then we all have to choose to show up for our kids, even though we didn’t ask for this.

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