Do children need praise, or is it counterproductive?

This question was asked on a Quora forum that I subscribe to. Since this is an area where I’ve done quite a bit of literature review I decided to answer.

It’s VERY important to differentiate between “praise” and encouragement/positive recognition. At first this sounds kind of like a silly thing to gripe about, but I’ve come to believe it is true. I’ve also seen it work like magic with my own boys. Alfred Adler taught this years ago, and recent research by Carol Dweck Ph.D. (Stanford) has proven it again. Praise is indeed counterproductive. Encouragement, on the other hand, is essential. I’ll tell you the reasoning behind it, and you can make up your own mind.

For those who care, I’m an Adlerian psychologist and use Rudolf Dreikurs’ child guidance work as a foundation. Dreikurs taught, “A child needs encouragement like a plant needs water.” In other words, encouragement is essential. Children may not die without encouragement, but they certainly wither.

However, praise can be counterproductive, because kids become approval junkies. They do stuff to get the buzz from the praise rather than for the intrinsic motivation of doing something well and being proud of themselves for their effort. Additionally, if they DON’T get praised for something, they think they didn’t do a good job and even that they aren’t “good enough.” Children can feel this way even if they put out really good effort, made improvement, or did something really well. By praising in the wrong way, we can actually sabotage children’s ability to ever feel truly good about themselves. This is because they constantly crave more and better praise from others. In the end, they can become emotionally fragile, codependent, and “people pleasers.”

So let’s talk about how incredibly powerful encouragement and positive recognition are and how they differ from praise. I’m going to use some resources from Positive Discipline to demonstrate this. Here’s the source: Encouragement vs Praise.

Encouragement helps children to reflect on their achievements and efforts. Sometimes kids don’t realize how meaningful and important something they did was. Sometimes they don’t realize the great effort and good things they did. When this is the case, we can help them realize it with encouragement. Additionally, when they do know they did something well, encouragement helps them think about it in a way that brings it in deep and cements the power of it. Here’s a useful resource: Praise vs. Encouragement PDF

Here are some examples:

Praise: “I’m so proud of you. Here’s your reward.”

Encouragement: “You worked hard. You must be so proud of yourself.”

Praise: “You are such a good girl.”

Encouragement: “Thanks for helping. It made this go much better. I truly appreciate it.”



A Cubmaster’s Reflection on the American Flag and the Pledge of Allegiance

By Joshua Koepp

[Shared with the parents of our Cub Scout pack at our den orientation meeting.]

Part of the Cub Scout program is to have a flag ceremony and recite the Pledge of Allegiance at den and pack meetings. In light of recent events, discussions, and peaceful protests, I thought I’d share a bit of my personal reflection so you could know where your Cubmaster is coming from.

The first time I led the Pedge of Allegiance at a Cub Scout meeting, I had an odd feeling. I had to think for a while about where that feeling came from. Why would I feel strange? After all, I had grown up reciting the Pledge of Allegiance every day in school. I’d said it so many times that I didn’t even need to think about the words.

So I took some time to really think about the text of the Pledge. What stood out to me the most were the last three words: Liberty and justice for all. To me, that is the heart of the Pledge of Allegiance, and there was no doubt in my mind that I believed in that. Of the five words in that phrase, the one that is the most important to me is the last one: All.

However, I realized that the odd feeling I had when I led the Pledge of Allegiance did not come from whether or not I believed in it. It came from the fact that I was leading a group of wonderful, impressionable boys to recite a script that started with the words: “I pledge allegiance.”

Throughout history sincere, eager-to-please-and-follow boys have been inspired and sometimes indoctrinated to pledge allegiance. They have pledged to many different people, organizations, creeds, and governments. Sometimes the purpose was to benefit the boys, guide their energy, and help them grow. Other times, the purpose was to control, exploit, and profit.

As a father and Cubmaster, it is my mission to, at all times, be working for the positive development of our children. I encourage each adult to talk with your scout(s) about what the ideals of “liberty and justice for all” mean to you, your family, and our country. How do we live that out? How do we change when we find that we are not living it out? Then, when we recite the Pledge of Allegiance, it can be a reminder to recommit to our highest ideals, both individually and as a nation.

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Posted by on September 29, 2017 in Present Moment Parenting


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Northwest District Roundtable Presentation

12790953_10153938923408050_5003491458974357349_n-1Here’s a link a PDF of the slides from tonight’s presentation on boys and brains at the Northwest District (Do Your Best) roundtable. As always, feel free to contact me if you have questions.


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Posted by on January 13, 2017 in Present Moment Parenting


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H.U.L.K. Emotional Intelligence

hulk13I was driving back from a family weekend in Iowa and had some thoughts about the Incredible Hulk. He’s always been one of my favorite superheroes, not because of his uncontested physical power, but rather because of his emotional intelligence. What? You might say. How can The Hulk, a rage fueled master of destruction be a model of emotional intelligence? Here’s what I think.

There is a decisive scene in one of the Avengers movies when Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner says, “That’s my secret, Cap. I’m always angry.” He then turns into Hulk and tips the balance in favor of civilization.

All superheroes are models of different aspects of the human condition. In the case of The Hulk, Banner starts out with significant childhood trauma and exposure to experimental technology that makes him vulnerable to emotional/biochemical influences. Can anyone identify with that on any level? The beauty is that The Hulk learns to control and manage his explosive power.

So, as I was driving, I wondered if I could figure out a good acronym for H. U. L. K. that would serve as a reminder for me (and maybe others) when my temper starts to take over. Here’s my favorite idea. Let me know if you have others.





This one is my favorite because they are one-syllabus words that can come to mind quickly when thinking of HULK.

“Hold Up” makes me remember to pause and take a breath.

“Laugh” reminds me to smile and chuckle at my situation, which is ipso facto stress relieving.

“Kid” serves a dual purpose. For me, it can remind me that kids are kids (if I’m getting frustrated at my boys) and they aren’t supposed to be perfect yet (or ever). This could also be helpful for children or youth who are putting too much pressure on themselves.

The other application of “kid” is to remember humor. Of course, the word “kid” can also mean to joke. There is humor in everything we go through, and often it’s just downright funny to realize how seriously we take situations.

So, I think it can be helpful for me to Hold Up and Laugh Kid when I start to feel angry and frustrated by what’s going on. Maybe it will be for you too.


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Posted by on December 31, 2016 in Present Moment Parenting


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The Yardstick

Here’s the inspirational piece that I shared at the last roundtable as a parent recruitment tool. When it came time for our pack meeting, I actually ended using it as the Cubmaster Moment at the end. I didn’t use the powerpoint slide show in the meeting this time, but rather read through the script/slides and just let the audience focus on the yardstick (which I pre-scored) as we snapped off the pieces. Pre-score the yardstick at 3 inches, 5.5 inches, 9 inches, and 11 inches. Snap off the sections after slide 7, twice during slide 9, and after slide 10 so you’re left with 2 inches. You can download the whole Powerpoint and put your own Pack number etc. in it at the bottom of the pictures. This is an old, traditional tool that has been used by many organizations. The version I have was originally adapted from Bryan on Scouting, but it didn’t start there.


Download the Powerpoint Here

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Posted by on October 28, 2016 in Present Moment Parenting


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October Pack Meeting Resources

responsibility-color-sheetHere are the resources I shared at the October Northwest District Roundtable for use in the October Pack or Den meetings. The script is from Pack 634’s October 2015 Pack meeting, and is what I use to keep me (Cubmaster) on track as I run the meeting. The theme was Responsibility for the value and Fire Safety. We also had a Bobcat Badge ceremony, but I couldn’t find the script for that one. There are excellent ones online. The color sheet above as well as the song sheet and Cubmaster Script are available as downloads at the bottom.


Here are the songs:

The Smoke Alarm Went Off

Alice, Golden Empire Council

(tune: The Farmer in the Dell)


The smoke alarm went off

The smoke alarm went off

It’s warning you though you can’t see

The smoke alarm went off


You’ll hear the loud beep — beeps

You’ll hear the loud beep — beeps

It smells the smoke, it’s not a joke

You’ll hear the loud beep — beeps


If you see smoke, get low

If you see smoke, get low

It’s cool and clear down near the floor,

If you see smoke get low


You need to go outside

You need to go outside

The meeting place will keep you safe

You need to go outside


Now don’t go back inside

Now don’t go back inside

Just stay and wait and you’ll be safe,

So don’t go back inside.


Bananas, Coconuts And Grapes

Baloo’s Archives

This song is often referred to as the “Cub Scout National

Anthem.’ But I would vote for “Duke of York.”



I like bananas, coconuts and grapes

I like bananas, coconuts and grapes

I like bananas, coconuts and grapes

That’s why they call me:



Sing the song through three or four times:

The first time loudly;

The second time softer

(except for the “Tarzan” part – always YELL that)

The third time even softer

And finally whispering

Remember, always yell the “Tarzan” part; the last time, no

one makes a sound until all shout in unison, ‘TARZAN …






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Posted by on September 9, 2016 in Present Moment Parenting


Boys-Anger and C.A.P. Approach


© Joshua Koepp

The sixth-grade boy standing 7 feet away from me had just blown through the cafeteria like a tornado. Now he was leaning against the wall with his eyes on the floor looking tougher than Clint Eastwood. I was used to seeing a hard shell on this guy, but today was different. Today he was very angry.

I get asked about angry boys quite a bit. When I present workshops people say things like: “He gets angry so easily.” “He’s seems like he’s ALWAYS angry.” “I don’t know how to help him when he’s angry.” “He was always such a nice kid, and now he’s angry at me and his little brother ALL the time.”

In this post, I’m going to share some of the things that are most useful for me to remember about my own anger, my sons’ anger and when I am with angry children and youth.

He has lived here, in St. Paul, Minnesota, since he was 8-years-old. Before that, he survived fear, abuse and danger that most of us can’t imagine. His family is from Karen, a small state in Burma, near Thailand where civilian villages have been massacred and burned and many people driven out. They escaped and lived in the forest in Thailand. In order to have access to minimal education he was sent to live in a refugee camp.

Anger is not a solo act. Boys and men have deep, complex emotional worlds, whether we know it or not. Sadness, fear, compassion, pain, we’ve got it all. However, many boys get the message early on that expressing emotion is a good way to get teased, bullied, and shamed…sometimes even by their parents. One emotion, however, is exempt from this treatment: Anger. Anger becomes the acceptable emotion to show, but there’s always others hiding behind it. Many others.

Once he told me about the time when he had to run through the jungle with his dad and hide under branches so Burmese soldiers wouldn’t find them. Another time in the camp he went down to the river and a guard caught him and made him stand still while his shins and calves were struck repeatedly with a bamboo cane. At the refugee camp school, for punishment, he had to hold a stick in his teeth with a weight on the end. When the ache in his jaw allowed the stick to droop, the cane left welts on his body. He was between six and seven years old.

Anger saves face. Boys learn to be stoic. Sometimes that’s necessary for survival and self-protection. We teach it to little boys: “Stop with the tears.” “Take it like a man.” Here’s the problem: Unprocessed emotional energy builds-up over time. When it starts to leak out, acting angry is a great way to mask the anxiety and fear it causes. Anger can look cool and feel powerful, which is the opposite of the way we actually feel when emotions leak out unbidden.

He was standing sideways to me, leaning on the wall. I moved a little closer to him, but not too close. I wanted him to know I was there, but also that I would respect his space. After a minute or two, he changed his posture to angle slightly toward me. I had a connection. I said, “It seems like you’re really angry. Are you mad about something?” He grunted back. It was the “affirmative” grunt.

Anger is language. Most boys and men have not practiced their emotional vocabulary. It is difficult for us to talk about feelings. Showing them comes easier. Especially for the little guys, acting out physically can be the only way they know to tell you that they are in distress. In addition, when we’re under emotional stress, our amygdala hijacks our limbic system and cuts off access to the “thinking” brain. We’re left with our “fight or flight” brain. The language of anger is sometimes all boys have available, especially if they’re still learning English.

Why are you angry?” I asked. He mumbled something I couldn’t quite understand through his heavy accent, but I thought I heard him say something about an iPod. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t understand everything you said. Did you say iPod?”

He mumbled in a voice that seemed exceptionally deep for his size, “Teacher. Take. iPod.” It all suddenly made sense to me.

He doesn’t have much and came from a place where he had even less. His parents figured out a way for him to have an iPod, the quintessential symbol of membership in modern youth culture. Now his most prized possession had been taken by a guard again. How could this not trigger all the fear, helplessness, and panic that he felt in the camps, jungles and other mini-hells he had been through.

Anger is natural. It’s a normal reaction to injustice, having our sense of power threatened, being made to feel small. For many boys, especially teenage boys, have larger amygdala, higher testosterone and lower serotonin. That makes anger hotter, faster and more immediate. That doesn’t mean we have no choice. It does means that it’s a more difficult choice, one we need to practice.

“Wow. I get it,” I said. “If someone took my iPod, I’d be very angry too. If you want, I can help you find out what your teacher’s plan is.” Almost as soon as the words were out of my mouth, he seemed to relax. A few seconds later, he shuffled slowly to the table and sat down.

Anger is sometimes the easiest way to ask for help. Instead of treating his angry outburst as a behavior problem that needed to be controlled or punished, I tried to find out what was behind it. Doing this reduces the need to act out. I like to call it C.A.P.: Connect. Acknowledge. Protect.

Connect: Non-verbally join with him using a non-threatening and respectful presence and body language. If you use words, keep them very limited and kind. If you connect with him, he doesn’t need his anger to get your attention anymore.

Acknowledge: Let him know that you see his emotional expression and know that it means something. “You seem upset. Are you angry about something?” If you acknowledge the message he’s sending with his anger, he will feel “heard.”

Protect: Validate his right to have feelings. Give him a safe place to feel. “I can see why that would make you feel angry.” If you protect his dignity, he will be more able to take off the mask of anger.

Here are a few other tips that help me:

  • Help him learn accurate words and language to describe what he’s feeling. DON’T try to do this in the middle of an angry moment. Rather wait until things have settled down. Model it for him by naming your feelings as you go through your day. Even older boys and teens will need practice at this, since experiences get more complex as they get older.
  • Help him practice basic coping tools like taking a deep breath, taking a break from stressful situations and getting help from someone he trusts. Again, this is most effectively practiced when he’s not upset and easiest to understand if he sees you doing it.
  • Allow for some kind of movement (even if it’s just squeezing something or playing with Legos), outside time, and/or food to help process emotion. Anger happens in the body, not just the mind. Many boys process physically and can talk more easily when engaged with some kind of task.

By no means does what I’ve written here cover all the complex issues that can cause anger for men and boys, nor does it offer solutions for everything. I’m always happy to listen to your story and help out in any way I can.


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Posted by on December 12, 2015 in Present Moment Parenting


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E. Q. for Boys: The Swim Test

Beach Brothers

Beach Brothers ©Joshua Koepp

“Thank God for your son,” the brown-haired mother said as she walked to stand next to me on the beach.

“Oh? What did he do?” I asked, trying to act oblivious. The truth was, I knew what I had told him to do. I was curious to hear from someone else what he had actually done.

It was the last day of our week at YMCA Camp du Nord, a family camp north of Ely, Minnesota near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. In a matter of minutes, one of the highlights for the kids was about to start: the counselor hunt. On the last day, all of the counselors hide around camp and the children and youth who were their “age group” during the week run around and find them. The whole adventure converges on the beach where campers and counselors attempt to wrestle each other into the water and dump each other.

You can imagine the chaos. It is very fun but also very rough and very wet. With all the pandemonium, some safety measures are prudent. All the young campers are required to take a swim test and receive a wrist-band which designates how far out into the water they can be during the melee. A wise safety measure to be sure, but one that is ready-made to trigger a crisis of status and identity for many young boys in the 7-9 year old range.

According to my son’s logic, nobody really gives a rip if you can’t swim by yourself when you’re six. Some kids can swim when they are seven, but you only feel a little embarrassed if you can’t. Once you’re eight, many of your friends have learned to swim, so it’s kind of a big deal. You’ll be thinking about the swim test and anxious about saving face if you fail. You may even come up with excuses ahead of time:

  • The waves were big.
  • It was windy.
  • I was tired.
  • Someone pushed me.
  • I don’t like swimming in lakes.
  • I’m more used to the pool where I work out with “my competitive swim team.
  • It wasn’t a fair test, etc.

If you’re nine and you can’t swim you’re likely to pick a fight with the troll under Angel Bridge in hopes that he will take a big bite out of your foot, thus making it impossible to go into the lake because of the open wound. Since most boys have done it, it’s easy to recognize a faked or manufactured injury or malady (AKA the losers limp). However, desperate times call for desperate measures, and most of the time the other guys don’t call your bluff.

To make matters even more risky for young and fragile male egos, after the swim test you are tagged with a colored wrist band that identifies you as a non-swimmer, restricted access swimmer who has to stay in the shallow “kiddie” area, or a unrestricted water-competent resident of Atlantis who has spent some time in Aquaman’s private guard.

Most adults have forgotten what it felt like to be a kid and about half of adults have never been boys. To them, it is confusing why a little guy would suddenly lash out, avoid eye contact, be rude to loved ones, retreat into their own little world, and have a complete meltdown if someone tries to pry. They don’t understand the existential crisis that will be caused when he is strapped with a wrist-band below the rank of his peers.

That’s what happened to the brown-haired mother’s little guy. For whatever reason, he didn’t pass the test. He was crushed. He was crying. There was nothing mom could do. He ran down the beach to get away, too embarrassed to even stick around.

I had seen this before. Several times, actually, only a month earlier. That was when my eight-year-old son publicly failed the swim test at Cub Scouts camp, over and over again, in front of his friend (who passed on the first try) and about 50 other scouts and dads who were swimming in the pool. Truthfully, I’m not the kind of parent who tries to rescue my kids from these situations. Failing repeatedly teaches you to keep trying and that it’s not the end of the world if you screw up and embarrass yourself. You’ll survive. Most of the time nobody cares, and if they do, that’s their problem, not yours.

Today, however, my son’s experience had been different. This time he had passed on the first try and gotten a white wrist-band. When we saw the other boy take off, I quickly said to him, “Hey, you know how that feels. Go talk to him. Tell him you failed a swim test too.” Then I left to find my younger son.

I returned a while later to the brown haired lady thanking me. “He was just an angel. He came and told Rider that he had bombed a swim test once too. Then he talked him in to trying again and even went and got the counselor to give them a retest. They took the test together and they both passed. He saved the day.”

When it comes to emotional intelligence, it’s very important for boys to learn to handle their own emotions. However, the next and equally important step is to learn how to respond to the emotions of OTHERS. Sometimes it’s appropriate to simply respect someone’s process and protect their dignity while they feel. Other times we can come alongside and be a brother in time of need. Getting outside ourselves and caring about our fellows is what psychological health is all about. I’m glad my son got a chance to see how facing his challenge gave him the tools to help someone else in the long run.


Posted by on October 3, 2015 in Present Moment Parenting


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Camp Akela R & T

IMG_1030There was a lot of rough-and-tumble play at Camp Akela last weekend. Camp Akela is the summer Cub Scout camp for the Northwest District of the Boy Scouts of America. It was my son’s first year, and we plan to make it a tradition.

Cub Scout camp is packed with many wonderful planned activities that fit in the rough-and-tumble/big body category. I’ve provided some pictures of the obstacle course and a game called “finger fencing.” **

Of course, besides the planned activities, there was down time as well, much of which was filled with all manner of boys wresting, chasing, tackling, rolling down steep hills, running down hills until they fell and sometimes just laying in a pile together.

IMG_1024It was very cool to see the boys practicing the unwritten rules of rough-and-tumble play. They naturally stopped when it got too rough or someone wasn’t having fun. They pushed harder and tested each other’s strength in a friendly way. They assessed the risk of an activity and pulled back when it was too much.

Most of all it was wonderful to see relationships develop between boys who didn’t know each other as they joined with others in rough-and-tumble play. In this kind of play, you become friends by showing that you respect the other person enough to play empathically, up to the level of physicality that the other person is comfortable with.

At no time during the weekend did I see any boys angry or crying because other boys hurt them. There were times when it got too rough, and they boys backed off, still friends.

IMG_1043There was one exception to this. My son came up to me after leaving a large game of ultimate soccer. In this game, there are many balls, all the boys play together, and dads were playing with the boys. My son didn’t seem too upset, but I could tell he was intentionally leaving the game. When I asked him what happened he said that another dad made him fall down hard by sweeping his feet out from under him.

Intentional or not, this dad wasn’t following the rules of rough-and-tumble play. He was too big to be playing that hard. However, even situations like this highlight a benefit of rough-and-tumble play. My son got the chance to assess his feeling of personal safety, self-regulate his involvement and choose a different activity.

Thanks to all of the staff at Camp Akela this summer. Looking forward to seeing you again next year.

IMG_1052** In finger fencing, two players grasp hands with index fingers pointing out. The goal is to use your finger to touch your opponent without being touched. It doesn’t count to touch the arm that is grasping your opponent’s hand.


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Be a Better Mirror

Red Head Sad squareRed Head Happy Background 2 squareWhat’s the difference between these two boys? Yes, this is a shameless trick question. On the surface, they have a different mouth and background. One looks happy, the other a little sad. The REAL reason I asked this question is because there’s another less obvious but more significant difference: Me.

I made these drawings when my wife was recently out of town for a week…in Hawaii. The boys and I were not in Hawaii. We were at home…in Minnesota. In January. Minnesota and Hawaii have the ability to create different moods in people, especially in January. Add in a very busy week full of long hours, solo parenting, and science fairs my stress level went up a few points.

By the end of the week, I realized that the look on my boy’s faces had changed too. Sure, they missed their mom, but I knew that wasn’t the most significant factor. I had let my stress, low energy and winter blues get the best of me. My boys were mirroring the expression they were seeing from me. No only that, they were taking on my mood as well.

When children and youth see a steady stream of adult expressions that are moody, depressed, frustrated, stressed and in general less than happy, it sends a non-verbal message. Non-verbal messages are powerful for boys, especially when they come from men. They can easily internalize the belief that it’s “manly” to be frustrated, over-concerned, controlled by circumstances and in general less than happy.

The good news is that we don’t need to leave it that way. We can be a better mirror. We can model self-awareness. We can choose our response to our circumstances. We can show with our actions that, even though life isn’t always easy, our mood is our choice. We can make a joke. Crack a smile (if it feels unnatural, you need to practice it more). Be playful. If you’ve forgotten how, just lay down on the floor in the middle of the living room. If you’ve got little boys around they’ll remind you.

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Posted by on February 8, 2015 in Present Moment Parenting


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The Mask You Live In

Here’s the video from my workshop yesterday at the MnSACA-MnAEYC conference. The film is premiering at Sundance right now, from what I understand. Looking forward to connecting with all of you again. If you like my facebook page (upper right), you can get regular updates as I post more information.

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Posted by on January 31, 2015 in Present Moment Parenting


When words get in the way

Words get in the way1

© Joshua Koepp

It has happened to all of us. Words have left our mouths that we regret. Or maybe we have done something that affected others in a way we did not intend. There are reasons why boys can be especially prone to this. If we understand why, we can give them tools to avoid and handle mistakes.

I remember once in my early teens when I was at a formal gathering. It was an anniversary celebration for our church. I felt pretty special to be included with all the adults walking around dressed in their fancy clothes.

There was a guy present who had been our music director but had moved a year or two previous. I was excited to see him since I looked up to him and he seemed to like me, which is important for 14-year-olds. I gradually got closer to where he was standing and he greeted me warmly, “Hi Joshua. Wow! You sure have grown.”

“Hi,” I said back, and not wanting to seem like a stupid kid I tried to think of something else to say. I decided to return the compliment. I blurted out, “So have you!”

He paused and forced a laugh with a look on his face that seemed to say, “You little ____.” I guess he wasn’t happy about the extra 50 pounds he had put on.

While that situation was harmless, many boys get far more sever consequences when they say stupid things, especially if they do or say something that can be understood as threatening violence or sexually suggestive. Zero tolerance policies at many schools are often ruthlessly enforced and very destructive for boys.

Here are a few of the reasons boys sometimes say stupid things:

1)     Language and emotional processing happen in different parts of the brain and those parts aren’t as efficiently linked as in girls. This makes for slower processing and more difficulty getting the words out right.

2)     Stressful situations derail the connection between the emotional processing part of the brain (limbic system) and the critical thinking part of the brain (frontal cortex). That means in a situation where stress and threat are present (social situations, conflict, being called a name), they’re not thinking as much as they are reacting from their gut or practiced responses.

3)     Testosterone encourages impulsive reactions and linear thinking. Testosterone’s effects are complex, but it does make a difference and boys do have more of it. Impulsive means blurting and having NO filter (even if they know better than to insult food at a guest’s house). Linear thinking means they may only be able to think of one thing to say instead of all the various responses available.

4)     When teenage hormones are involved, studies show that boys frequently mis-read emotional cues and respond very differently than they would have otherwise. They often feel very ashamed and regret what they have said and done. Of course, this is magnified when parents and the opposite sex are involved.

Here are a few things we can do to help:

1)     Allow for “do-overs.” When something comes off wrong or a conversations spirals out of control in the wrong direction, it’s okay to press the rewind button. I often say to my son, “Let’s stop here. I’ll give you some time. You decide if you want to revise anything you just said.”

2)      Practice different responses. In any given situation, there are many different things we can say or NOT say. It can be very helpful for boys if we help them think through what might have gone differently if something else had been said. It can also help them hone their personal style to think about what different responses look like to others.

3)     Role play situations and scenarios. While it may sound corny, boys learn through doing, and there’s a much better chance they will succeed in real life if they have a chance to run through a situation within the safety of the family.

When we’re young, the feeling of embarrassment is magnified and frightening. It can make you want to run and hide. It sometimes causes tears, which is incredibly embarrassing for boys. Remember to provide a safe shelter and support for them when they have those “I can’t believe I said that” moments.

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Posted by on December 31, 2014 in Contemplative Parenting


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Three best things

3 best things

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Posted by on December 20, 2014 in Contemplative Parenting


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Ninja dad wins by quitting

bo 2 Joshua KoeppLast night at karate Braden had a big win. It wasn’t against another kid, nor was it by breaking a board. For me, it was even better than that, because it reflected a parenting achievement as well. The interesting thing about this achievement was that it came from me taking myself OUT of the picture. Here’s the story.

I have posted about being a Ninja Parent and Perfectionist Dad in the past. Both of these were mistakes I made that I tried to remedy. At Braden’s karate lessons, I had been making too many comments and giving too many looks when he would make mistakes. Yes, I knew better, but sometimes we all get caught up in the moment.

I clearly saw the negative effects of my critical eye in the way Braden performed. He constantly looked over at me to see if I was happy or unsatisfied with him.

His frequent glances cost him. He lost sparring points and got punched and kicked when he looked over to see my reactions. During form practices, he missed instructions, got distracted and lost his spot.

In the Perfectionist Dad post I explained how difficult it can be for kids when nothing is ever good enough for their parents. It’s easier if we can pick one bite-sized goal to work on. I had done this with Braden and usually asked him in the car what HIS goal was for the lesson. I did not to judge or evaluate. It was his goal, not mine.

However, we still had the problem with dad distraction whenever I came to watch. His teacher commented on it one day when he performed far below his skill level: “Braden, one day you won’t need to look at your dad because you’ll already know what he thinks when you do your techniques.”

I decided to back off even more. We created a hand signal together. When he sparred or did forms, I would subtly shade my eyes with my hand like a visor. For him, this meant, “Don’t look at me.” For me, it meant, “No comments—verbal or nonverbal.” If he looked, he would see the reminder. He should focus on his moves, his targets, and the instructor. Nothing else. I even stopped asking him about his goals. I had to let it go.

Last night, I stayed at the lesson, and was amazed by his focus. He practiced a new, very complex form with the bo staff and made several mistakes. Still, he kept his eyes forward and made corrections according to Mr. Carnahan’s instructions. I didn’t say anything at the moment, but when we got home, I mentioned it.

His answer: “THAT was my goal.”

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Posted by on December 18, 2014 in Present Moment Parenting


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Another boy living from the heart

Devonte Hart’s story shows how boys have tremendous emotional capacity even when they have come through sever trauma, neglect and abuse. However, Johnny Nguyen’s photos (below) of what he did at a Ferguson rally may say it best. Don’t miss the chance to read this great story.

Devonte Hart


Posted by on December 3, 2014 in Present Moment Parenting


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E.Q. Tips for Boys (and my latest drawing): Afraid


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Posted by on November 12, 2014 in Present Moment Parenting


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Look below the surface

Wave Rider's Flyer 2

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Posted by on November 7, 2014 in Present Moment Parenting


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Here’s one way to truly “man up.”

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Posted by on November 1, 2014 in Present Moment Parenting


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E.Q. Tips for Boys

Bad Day

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Posted by on October 31, 2014 in Present Moment Parenting


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When boys want us to tell them to apologize.

canstockphoto2807075In my previous post shared a story in which I told my son I wanted him to apologize to his friend. Some people will disagree with this on the grounds that it’s not best practice to force a child to apologize.

I understand the reasons behind this belief and agree that a huge power struggle complete with punishments for not apologizing is certainly counterproductive. However, like most things, there’s more than one way to intelligently look at asking children to apologize.

The assumption that I see in a lot of the “don’t make your kids say they’re sorry” articles is that the children don’t want to apologize. This isn’t always an accurate assumption. Nor is it always true that asking them to say it doesn’t make them feel it, that it doesn’t teach social skills, and that it automatically makes them feel unhealthy shame and embarrassment. Let me explain.

During any given backyard or playground romp with buddies and brothers, my sons will accidentally or on purpose hurt, get hurt by or have some sort of conflict with the other kids. That’s normal and healthy. It’s how children learn to get along (aka social skills).

Wrapped up in all of this is an interesting dance of status, posturing, testosterone/amygdala driven emotions, and face-saving. Most of the time it all works out well in the end. Sometimes, one of the fellas gets a stinger that hurts more than they can just shake off, or someone throws an insult or angry words that are more extreme.

Here’s the truth: When a boy hurts someone physically or emotionally, he feels sorry. Really. Boys are not emotionally bereft. They are actually very sensitive. Often the bravado we see is self-protection. To sort out and respond to all the emotional data on the spot, in front of others, can just be too much. In our culture it’s much easier to drop an F-bomb and walk off in a cloud of smoke.

But all those unresolved emotions don’t just go away. They stick in our bodies and minds. Sometimes they get all twisted up. Eventually they cause problems. One way to help with this is to apologize. When the mess of emotions and stories is too knotted up to quickly sort out, being able to simply say “I’m sorry” is a great way to take some of the pressure off. It says, “There’s more to this than I can figure out, but I see I hurt you and I wish I hadn’t.”

Many times boys WANT to be able to express compassion and regret for their actions, but rules of status and the boy code get in the way. When that’s the case, sometimes boys really need an adult to give them the chance to apologize by telling them that it’s time. It can be an incredibly kind thing to create this container for them.

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Posted by on October 16, 2014 in Present Moment Parenting


Apologizing and Forgiveness

canstockphoto17001941The neighbor boys were over to play: a 12-year-old and his 9-year-old nephew, an 11-year-old and his 8-year-old brother, and a 7-year-old. My boys, 7 and 5 years-old, were having a blast. While listening in on their play, I heard one friend make a boy-tragic error. It was something like: “That sword is way too short.” Without a moment’s notice, my son shot back: “That’s STUPID. It’s not a sword. It’s a KNIFE.”

I didn’t care about the sword/knife differentiation. However, I did care about the fact that my son called his neighbor stupid. While I let many of these situations work themselves out in the normal give and take of neighborhood friendships, for some reason I felt like saying something this time.

Me: “Braden, you just called your friend stupid. I’d like you to apologize.”

Braden: “I’m sorry Tavis. You’re not stupid.”

This much I had predicted. It was what happened next that caught my attention.

Tavis: “You’re forgiven.”

I didn’t know Tavis’ parents very well at this point. When I heard him say that, I decided I wanted to get to know them more. Kids don’t just say “you’re forgiven” if they haven’t had a little bit of instruction.

I had a talk with Tavis’ dad on the playground near our house a few weeks later. During our conversation, I brought up this story. He said, “Yeah, our family has a lot of emotion. One rule we have is that it’s always okay to apologize and forgive each other.”

I loved that! I loved it for two reasons. First, it recognized that normal families have all sorts of emotion. Second, because it recognized that emotions can be messy and family members need to forgive each other.

As a side advantage, I think it also means that the boys in that family will hopefully be more inclined to forgive my boys when they do things that need forgiving (which my boys do all the time).

Final shot:

  • Emotions in families are normal.
  • We all need to have grace (forgive) each other’s emotional mistakes.
  • Parents should model apologizing and forgiveness to children by asking for forgiveness when parents make emotional mistakes.
  • Parents should teach children to apologize and forgive and allow them to make the mistakes that all children make when learning these skills (think of all the mistakes you have made).

Dads, Sons, Discipline and Adrian Peterson

dad son talkI’m a little late to the Adrian Peterson discussion, and that’s probably good timing. The media frenzy has settled a little bit, and we’re left with the more productive work of reflecting on ourselves.

First, let me say that this is not a rant against Adrian Peterson. Primarily, this post is going to be about fathers and the unique role we have in disciplining (word chosen intentionally) our sons.

I think it’s impossible for men to understand childbirth. Not just because of the pain involved, but also because of the brain and body chemicals present during labor and throughout the entire time a mother is carrying her baby. To a lesser degree, I think there are aspects of the father-son bond and discipline relationship that are very unique. Some of it seems alien and incomprehensible if you haven’t experienced it first-hand.

Just in case you were getting worried, let me say up front that I do not defend or excuse whipping a four-year-old boy repeatedly until he bleeds or punching a child in a car seat. That’s not discipline.

Let’s talk about terminology. In child development circles, the term “discipline” isn’t popular anymore. It has largely been replaced with “guidance.” Guidance accurately describes what great teachers, coaches, youth workers and many others who care about children engage in on a daily basis. There are all sorts of trendy and effective ways to do this. A few of my favorites are Jane Nelson’s Positive Discipline and Jim and Charles Fay’s Love and Logic.

The word “discipline” has taken on a negative connotation. It generates thoughts of punishment like spanking, whipping, switching, isolation, withholding needs, causing pain, physical abuse and in extreme cases causing severe bodily harm, even death.

In truth, discipline isn’t any of these things. I believe that healthy discipline is one of the most positive, affirming, and life-giving things a son can experience from a dad. True discipline is the core of what the father-son relationship is all about. In fact, for boys, I will go as far as to say that it is what sons want MOST from their dads. Let me explain.

Discipline provides the skills and strength we need to succeed. Discipline shows you a vision of your best and encourages you to get there. Discipline breaks an impossible goal into manageable steps. When we’re living and behaving in ways that hurt others and ourselves, discipline gets in our face and says, “Enough!” When we are slacking at life, discipline kicks us in the butt. When we disrespect others and ourselves, discipline holds a mirror in our face and says, “YOU are better than THAT.”

The father-son relationship is a rare container for discipline. When a dad does it right, the power it holds for a boy is incredible, thrilling and transformational. It can refine and support you like nothing else can. It gives you the courage to do anything.

On the flip side, the pain it carries when a dad drops the ball on this sacred role is devastating. Hurtful words from a father or father figure are searing. Neglect is withering. Abusive, torturous actions can send boys to a very dark place. I’ve been with boys who were there, and cried for ones who couldn’t see their way out.

Any time we, as fathers, choose abuse, fear and rage, we risk sending our kids down that road. It’s an awful exchange. It’s like losing our home to the bank when we have a winning lottery ticket in our back pocket.

When we use violence to train our kids it’s like trying to slice cheese with a chainsaw. It doesn’t do a very good job and makes a horrible mess of things.

None of us had perfect fathers. Some of us had rotten ones. The good news is that no matter where we start from, there are plenty of people and resources out there that can help us get better. There’s always room to grow. Contact me if you want a few ideas.

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Posted by on September 25, 2014 in Contemplative Parenting


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How To Be A Perfectionist Dad

I’m a perfectionist. It’s part of my personality. My standards are impossibly high. I can’t help it. It’s difficult for me if I don’t manage it, but for my kids’ it’s a living hell.

There are many people who have high standards, attention to detail, and a persistent dedication to quality…but that’s not perfectionism. My Jung Typology is INFP. I’m an idealist. If I’m not careful, I will NEVER judge anything as ideal. I just keep wanting things and people to be better. Nothing is good enough

No matter how careful I try to be, sometimes my son falls victim to my out-of-whack standards. Little boys always want their daddies to be proud of them, and he knows that I am. However, he also knows when I’m not satisfied. I’m not talking about when he has done something mean to his brother or made a mistake. I’m talking about when he has done something GOOD and my inner perfectionist thinks it’s not good enough.

It happened at karate the other day. My seven-year-old had a long day, and he was tired. He went to karate anyway, and he was a little slow and dull throughout. After the lesson, he came out the door, looked at me and said, “Sorry.” He thought I was disappointed in him. I realized I had been wearing an unimpressed stare throughout the lesson. I think I had even thrown in a few head shakes. It was a poignant moment.

So what’s a perfectionist parent to do? We all love to watch our kids do their best, right? After all, it’s a competitive world out there. If they don’t get top grades, make the “A” team and keep up with the pack, they’ll never make it, right?

Wrong. There are some very good reasons why our hyper-achievement culture isn’t healthy and may actually produce the opposite of what we really want. For more on this, take a look at the above trailer for Race to Nowhere.

Here are some thoughts for us perfectionists to remember if we want to keep ourselves from projecting the wrong message to our kids:

  • “Good enough” is a responsible option.
  • Our children’s performance should not define our success or identity.
  • Making mistakes is ESSENTIAL for healthy learning and development.
  • It’s O.K. to just participate (and not win).
  • Realize the hypocrisy of the phrase, “I just want you to do your best.”
  • Let them define their best rather than you.
  • Show them they belong and are loved when they lose and under-perform.

Practical strategies for perfectionists:

  • Since nothing will ever satisfy our need for perfection, we need to clearly define realistic goals in partnership with our kids so that they can know when they have succeeded. For instance, my son can choose one skill to improve on at karate and feel good about rather than feeling like he needs to be Bruce Lee then entire lesson.
  • Focus on the process by asking them to think about something that worked and something that didn’t.
  • End the day by sharing the three best things from the day (you too) without any evaluation (just acceptance).
  • Instead of only celebrating successes, surprise your kids by going out to celebrate THEM sometime when their effort was less than par.

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Father’s Day: For dads of boys when…

Joshua KoeppFor Fathers Day, here’s my advice to dads about the three situations that regularly bring out the worst behavior from dads of boys at child-care programs. Providers ask me about these at nearly every boys workshop I present.

For dads of boys when… (from a dad of two boys)

  1. your son wears “fancy” or “girly” dress-up clothes at daycare.
  2. …you want to tell him to stop crying and take it like a man.
  3. …you’re temped to tell him it’s okay to “hit back” to stand up for himself.

your son wears “fancy” or “girly” dress-up clothes at daycare. Don’t worry. It’s normal. It can’t “make him” gay any more than dressing up for Halloween makes him a ghost. Dress-up play is one way boys grow their brains and make sense of their world. It helps them experience and understand what other people think and feel. In fact, boys are more likely to be confused if they DON’T get to play dress-up.

Resist the urge to disapprove or tell him “boys don’t dress like that.” In his little mind all that would do is make him feel like Dad is upset and there’s something wrong with him for playing and having fun. It can also send the message that women are inferior and anyone who does certain jobs or roles doesn’t deserve as much respect. Ironically, when we teach children not to fully respect others, they end up thinking they don’t deserve respect themselves.

…you’re temped to tell him it’s okay to “hit back” to stand up for himself. Give him more credit. Soldiers and martial arts experts know it takes more strength and skill to solve conflicts without force. “The strong survive” only works for wild animals. Human evolution actually favors the males who learn to make friends, get along and solve problems. Even bullies respect the kid who knows how to make friends. Living by the sword only ends well in movies. In real life, there are better ways to feel capable, safe, strong, and win a fight.

If your son gets physically assaulted by another child, he doesn’t need you to give him boxing lessons. Rather, he needs you to let him know there’s no shame and you still respect him. Teach him that you both have skills to handle what comes without regressing cave-man status. True strength and authentic manhood can start young, and Dad is the one who gets to model it. Giving-in to violence is a cop-out that makes more problems than it solves.

I know first hand how emotionally charged and difficult these situations can be when you’re in the middle of them. Send me an e-mail if you’re seeing red and want a set of fresh eyes.

…you want to tell him to stop crying and take it like a man. Be careful. Crying is the body’s normal, automatic expression of emotional processing and release. (It can also be a way children try to manipulate and control adults, but that’s a different story.) In the first case, telling him to “man-up” and stop the crying makes emotions even more confusing and sends the message that men and boys should be ashamed of something that’s normal. Living in an emotional straight jacket causes all sorts of problems, but to understand and manage our emotional landscape has huge benefits.

My son and I have discovered a counter-intuitive formula that is healthy and actually seems to help tears end sooner. I call it C.A.P. Connect. Acknowledge. Protect.

Connect: For boys, this is most often done non-verbally through physical proximity. To just stand or sit near him is often enough. Sometimes an arm around the shoulder or hug for the little guys helps. Don’t get too close if he’s not ready.

Acknowledge: A short phrase. Usually something like: “You seem sad, angry, upset (fill in the blank).” “That was pretty tough.” “Do you feel? I can understand if you do.” The key is to recognize that he has emotion and give it a name if possible.

Protect: Let him know he is safe with you (from ridicule, judgement, shame) and protect him from embarrassment. When necessary or possible, find some privacy for him.

In many cases, this whole process only takes us a manner of seconds, but you don’t want to rush it. The counter-intuitive part is that it usually helps him stop crying in a few seconds. That’s not the goal, but it usually works that way. Which makes sense, when you think about it, because it helps to process the emotion. Once the emotion is processed, crying is unnecessary.


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Cullen, 4, wants to be a…

CullenDadJump1:50 P.M.        Me: “Existentialism can help you figure out what gives you the will, the drive, the courage to continue pushing through all of the challenges you’ll face during your college journey. That’s what experiential values, creative values, attitudinal values, transcendent values are all about. That’s why you’ll tell me about them in Assignment 2…”

(Must wrap-up lecture. Cullen’s pre-K graduation. Must leave by 2:00)…

1:55 P.M.        Student: “Professor did you get my email…?”

1:59 P.M.        Me: “I’ll be sure to look at that grade again…”

2:01 P.M.        Walking to parking ramp. On the road soon.

2:45 P.M.        Ms. Ann: “Next we have Cullen…”

Today, I had the pleasure to attend Cullen’s graduation from Roseville Friendship Connection’s Jump Start to Kindergarten program. I went to Braden’s ceremony two years ago and wrote a post about the importance of rituals. This time, however, the change hit me a little harder.

Cullen was born early, and it wasn’t an easy road for him or my wife. I took a leave from work, and we decided, because of the shape our lives had taken, that I would stay home with the boys and not return to full-time career life.

I moved into the wonderful and challenging world of being a full-time dad. Honestly, I find that term disingenuous. Sarah also became a full time mom, AND she worked full time. While some don’t think it’s possible, I know that many dads and moms work full-time AND parent full-time. But I do believe there is an experiential difference when you are not committed to a full time job.

I say experiential very intentionally. There was a difference in my EXPERIENCE, not in the quality, the significance, nor the emotional investment between me and other fathers and mothers. It was different…different because I’m a man, and male culture attaches a lot of meaning to careers. It was different because I was frequently figuring-out my next paycheck. It was different because I’m unique, just like all of us.

Today, however, I didn’t think about the differences. Instead, I thought about how happy I was to have enjoyed the gift of the last five years with my boys. It was wild. It was joyful. It was frustrating. It was rewarding. We were real.

It all came together when Ms. Ann called Cullen up for his certificate and reported the 2 things he said he wanted to be when he grew up.

“Next, we have Cullen. He wants to be a doctor when he grows up and a DAD.”

I couldn’t have asked for a better endorsement.

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Posted by on June 12, 2014 in Present Moment Parenting


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Boys: Testosterone and Emotional Repression

9947161_sIn Wave Riders we talk about boys, testosterone, and the effect it can have on their emotions and actions. It shouldn’t be minimized, and Noah Brand, an Editor-at-Large at Good Men Project, explains his take on it below. Follow this link to read the full post Five Important Things Women Don’t Know About Men


Short version: testosterone is a hell of a drug. Those who’ve taken it as adults as part of a gender transition tend to report intense cravings for physical catharsis, flashes of inexplicable rage, and similar effects. And that’s taking it on purpose, knowing that it’s a drug, with an adult level of brain development and emotional maturity. Now imagine that happening to you without warning when you’re thirteen and have no idea what’s going on.
Almost every adult man walking around spent at least part of his adolescence dealing with sourceless, purposeless anger and a desire for violent catharsis. It’s like having a little devil on your shoulder constantly making the same unhelpful suggestion.

“I don’t know how I’m going to deal with this test Friday, I can’t cope.”

“Have you considered… VIOLENCE?”

“Shut up, shoulder devil, nobody asked you. Hmmm, what do I want for lunch…”

“Have you considered… VIOLENCE?”

“Shoulder devil that is NOT EVEN A FOOD.”

And so on. We spend years learning that our immediate emotional responses to things are absolutely not to be trusted. The first response to an emotional impulse must be to ignore it and repress it, just for safety. The men who didn’t learn that reflex? They’re the ones with criminal records for assault.
Once we mature out of adolescence, the hormones calm down and we’re fine, but by that point the cultural conditioning has been drilled in beyond repair, a million repetitions of “man up” and “crying is for girls” and on and on and on. What was a safety precaution in high school becomes a socially mandated norm.


The message to stuff emotions starts long before the teen years in early childhood with dire consequences long term. In Wave Riders we talk about how we can help boys understand and appreciate the full spectrum of their own masculinity and unique style.


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Feedback on Wave Riders: Nurturing Boys for Emotional Health

Joshua KoeppThe 5 week online offering of Wave Riders: Nurturing Boys for Emotional Health just concluded and I thought I’d share one of the final reflections I received.  If you’re interested, the course will be offered again in November. Here’s the Eager to Learn Link.

Reflecting on this course it is wonderful the amount of information that was covered in such a sort time period. I feel I have gained a greater understanding of what makes boys, boys. I am more comfortable talking to boys about their emotions and helping them process their emotions. Lastly I have a more concrete understanding of emotion intelligence.

During this course I learned about the difference in brain development between girls and boys. This has been very useful and was very meaningful to me. Having the knowledge that boys brains develop differently helps to have an understanding on why they behave the way they do sometimes.

The verbiage I learned from this class has been very beneficial to the boys and has helped give them the words to describe their emotions. The boys in my care seem to understand their own emotions more and are improving on being able to label their emotions. I also feel more comfortable with my overall knowledge on emotional intelligence, what tools to use in supporting boys’ emotional health and regulating emotions. I can see that my comfort with discussing emotions is passing on to the boys in my care. They are becoming more comfortable with handling their own discussions.

Reflecting on the class and the learner goals I set for myself, I believe we covered all of them with this class! I can now identify how boys are “programmed” and what causes them to behave the way they do. I learned tools/tips to use when managing boys and their behavior. I know how to support boys to process their emotions and to support them with their emotional health.

I really enjoyed this class. It was helpful to have a variety of people in class to network with. Hearing other providers and teachers experiences is nice to know I’m not alone. I felt the structure of the class was smooth and the content/material was very useful. I am thankful I participated in this class.


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Testosterone Tip #2: Let him fight monster.

Let him fight a “monster.” One provider I know really turned up the gas on this to help solve some problems she was having with fights in the block area. There were some cool castle blocks that all the boys wanted. Even before the little guys were in the block area they were sparring about who should get them.

She made it into a story and said to her little guys, “We have a monster in block area. This monster makes boys get into fights and hurt their friends. Here’s a picture of the monster (she printed off a silly cartoon monster from the internet).”

She said that she needed the boys to fight the monster and that only little boys had the power to make him go away. She said that the monster would go away of little boys would hiss at it. She taught them to take really long, deep breaths and let it out slowly with a “sssssssssssss.” Every time you feel like fighting over the blocks, you need to make the “ssssssssssssss” and the monster will go away. “Every time we scare the monster away and get along with our friends, I’ll put a monster on the chart. Lets see how many monsters we can scare away this week!”

Of course, the snake breath is one of the most basic coping techniques for dealing with emotions, but the boys don’t need to know that for it to work. They’re probably still hissing!


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Turning Testosterone Around in Childcare

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I talked recently in one of my workshops about some of the ways testosterone affects boys on a physical and emotional level. In this post I will give a short-list of some of those, and over the next several days offer suggestions for ways childcare providers can turn the power of “T” to their advantage. If you don’t work in childcare, adapt the ideas or get in touch with me about your individual situation.

In boys testosterone is associated with:

  • A tendency toward risks
  • Aggressiveness
  • A tendency to compete/boast–fight/argue
  • Linear problem solving (there’s only ONE way rather then choosing from multiple solutions)
  • Immediate release (no delayed response)

Those things can all cause problems, but testosterone can also inspires boys to:

  • Rescue
  • Protect and serve
  • Defend
  • Be Loyal
  • Assert
  • Stand Up For Others
  • Plan
  • Get Stuff Done
  • Take Action/initiative
  • Fight for a Cause
  • Make a Difference
  • Go on a Mission.
  • It can relate to executive function, the ability to break something down, figure out the steps, and make it happen.

All of these are good things if we can steer them in the right direction. Here’s one practical idea.

Idea #1: Give him a mission. You can do this in simple ways or complex ways. Just telling a boy that you have a special mission for him can be a great way to get some help with a little job. It also gives him a sense of purpose and accomplishment. He will be proud that he has helped you. But you can make it much more fun than that.

I talked to a provider who had a problem with a wet area on her playground. The boys were ALWAYS magically drawn to the water and mud and she was sending them home with muddy clothes daily during the springtime. It’s great to let boys play in the mud sometimes, but it’s okay to know when to say when.

I recommended that she have a talk with the boys and tell them she needed their help. Tell them that she had a special mission for them. It was their mission to keep all the kids safe from “quicksand mud hole.” She asked them for some ideas and if they could help her teach the other children how to stay clear of the water.

They really got into it. They made yellow triangle caution signs, put up cones and ropes, talked to all the kids about the “danger,” and in general became the mud hole lifeguards.  Naturally, they had to set an example for the others as well. In the end, the number of plastic grocery bags being sent home full of muddy, wet clothes was greatly reduced, and the little guys got to have a meaningful role they could be proud of.




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The Mask You Live In

Here’s the video from my workshop yesterday at the MnSACA-MnAEYC conference. The film is premiering at Sundance right now, from what I understand. Looking forward to connecting with all of you again. If you like my facebook page (upper right), you can get regular updates as I post more information.

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Posted by on April 6, 2014 in Present Moment Parenting


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The Difference Between Men and Women

For my Wave Riders course participants, this story is a pretty funny illustration of this week’s course material from Dave Barry.

Let’s say a guy named Fred is attracted to a woman named Martha. He asks her out to a movie; she accepts; they have a pretty good time. A few nights later he asks her out to dinner, and again they enjoy themselves. They continue to see each other regularly, and after a while neither one of them is seeing anybody else.

And then, one evening when they’re driving home, a thought occurs to Martha, and, without really thinking, she says it aloud: “Do you realize that, as of tonight, we’ve been seeing each other for exactly six months?”

And then, there is silence in the car.

To Martha, it seems like a very loud silence. She thinks to herself: I wonder if it bothers him that I said that. Maybe he’s been feeling confined by our relationship; maybe he thinks I’m trying to push him into some kind of obligation that he doesn’t want, or isn’t sure of.

And Fred is thinking: Gosh. Six months.

And Martha is thinking: But, hey, I’m not so sure I want this kind of relationship either. Sometimes I wish I had a little more space, so I’d have time to think about whether I really want us to keep going the way we are, moving steadily towards, I mean, where are we going? Are we just going to keep seeing each other at this level of intimacy? Are we heading toward marriage? Toward children? Toward a lifetime together? Am I ready for that level of commitment? Do I really even know this person?

And Fred is thinking: …so that means it was…let’s see…February when we started going out, which was right after I had the car at the dealer’s, which means…lemme check the odometer…Whoa! I am way overdue for an oil change here.

And Martha is thinking: He’s upset. I can see it on his face. Maybe I’m reading this completely wrong. Maybe he wants more from our relationship, more intimacy, more commitment; maybe he has sensed – even before I sensed it – that I was feeling some reservations. Yes, I bet that’s it. That’s why he’s so reluctant to say anything about his own feelings. He’s afraid of being rejected.

And Fred is thinking: And I’m gonna have them look at the transmission again. I don’t care what those morons say, it’s still not shifting right. And they better not try to blame it on the cold weather this time. What cold weather? It’s 87 degrees out, and this thing is shifting like a garbage truck, and I paid those incompetent thieves $600.

And Martha is thinking: He’s angry. And I don’t blame him. I’d be angry, too. I feel so guilty, putting him through this, but I can’t help the way I feel. I’m just not sure.

And Fred is thinking: They’ll probably say it’s only a 90-day warranty…scumballs.

And Martha is thinking: Maybe I’m just too idealistic, waiting for a knight to come riding up on his white horse, when I’m sitting right next to a perfectly good person, a person I enjoy being with, a person I truly do care about, a person who seems to truly care about me. A person who is in pain because of my self-centered, schoolgirl romantic fantasy.

And Fred is thinking: Warranty? They want a warranty? I’ll give them a warranty. I’ll take their warranty and stick it right up their…

“Fred,” Martha says aloud.

“What?” says Fred, startled.

“Please don’t torture yourself like this,” she says, her eyes beginning to brim with tears. “Maybe I should never have…oh dear, I feel so…”(She breaks down, sobbing.)

“What?” says Fred.

“I’m such a fool,” Martha sobs. “I mean, I know there’s no knight. I really know that. It’s silly. There’s no knight, and there’s no horse.”

“There’s no horse?” says Fred.

“You think I’m a fool, don’t you?” Martha says.

“No!” says Fred, glad to finally know the correct answer.

“It’s just that…it’s that I…I need some time,” Martha says.

(There is a 15-second pause while Fred, thinking as fast as he can, tries to come up with a safe response. Finally he comes up with one that he thinks might work.)

“Yes,” he says. (Martha, deeply moved, touches his hand.)

“Oh, Fred, do you really feel that way?” she says.

“What way?” says Fred.

“That way about time,” says Martha.

“Oh,” says Fred. “Yes.” (Martha turns to face him and gazes deeply into his eyes, causing him to become very nervous about what she might say next, especially if it involves a horse. At last she speaks.)

“Thank you, Fred,” she says.

“Thank you,” says Fred.

Then he takes her home, and she lies on her bed, a conflicted, tortured soul, and weeps until dawn, whereas when Fred gets back to his place, he opens a bag of Doritos, turns on the TV, and immediately becomes deeply involved in a rerun of a college basketball game between two South Dakota junior colleges that he has never heard of. A tiny voice in the far recesses of his mind tells him that something major was going on back there in the car, but he is pretty sure there is no way he would ever understand what, and so he figures it’s better if he doesn’t think about it.

The next day Martha will call her closest friend, or perhaps two of them, and they will talk about this situation for six straight hours. In painstaking detail, they will analyze everything she said and everything he said, going over it time and time again, exploring every word, expression, and gesture for nuances of meaning, considering every possible ramification.

They will continue to discuss this subject, off and on, for weeks, maybe months, never reaching any definite conclusions, but never getting bored with it either.

Meanwhile, Fred, while playing racquetball one day with a mutual friend of his and Martha’s, will pause just before serving, frown, and say: “Norm, did Martha ever own a horse?”

And that’s the difference between men and women.

See more awesome stuff by Dave Barry in his ‘Complete Guide to Guys’


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Teach Boys Emotional Regulation with the 5 Point Scale

5-Point-Scale-Dunn-Curtis-2003During my Wave Riders workshop tonight I mentioned that I would post information and links to the websites about the Incredible 5 Point Scale. This is a great tool to help boys learn to assess and regulate their emotions.

I will plan to do a more in depth post with some ideas  you can use, but for now, here are links to the original website as well as a few samples from Google searches that I’ve found helpful.

The Incredible 5 Point Scale

Some Excellent Printable Resources from Indiana University

David’s Scared/Afraid/Trembling Scale

Superman Self Control ScaleSuper Behaviors Deserve Super Visuals

Super Behaviors Deserve Super Visuals

Google Search Results



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Posted by on March 21, 2014 in Present Moment Parenting


Dad teaches son emotional intelligence

I love the way this dad teaches his young son emotional intelligence in this video. The boy is crying about a sad song. Dad stays connected to his son, but doesn’t force him cheer up. He asks him what he wants, and the boy doesn’t want to change the song. He lets him fully experience his emotional response and shows him that it’s okay for boys and men to be sad without having to stuff, mask, or dull the feeling. No shame.

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Posted by on February 5, 2014 in Present Moment Parenting


For dads of boys when…

SibblingBullies1For Fathers Day, here’s my advice to dads about the three situations that regularly bring out the worst behavior from dads of boys at child-care programs. Providers ask me about these at nearly every boys workshop I present.

For dads of boys when… (from a dad of two boys)

your son wears “fancy” or “girly” dress-up clothes at daycare. Don’t worry. It’s normal. It can’t “make him” gay any more than dressing up for Halloween makes him a ghost. Dress-up play is one way boys grow their brains and make sense of their world. It helps them experience and understand what other people think and feel. In fact, boys are more likely to be confused if they DON’T get to play dress-up.

Resist the urge to disapprove or tell him “boys don’t dress like that.” In his little mind all that would do is make him feel like Dad is upset and there’s something wrong with him for playing and having fun. It can also send the message that women are inferior and anyone who does certain jobs or roles doesn’t deserve as much respect. Ironically, when we teach children not to fully respect others, they end up thinking they don’t deserve respect themselves.

…you’re temped to tell him it’s okay to “hit back” to stand up for himself. Give him more credit. Soldiers and martial arts experts know it takes more strength and skill to solve conflicts without force. “The strong survive” only works for wild animals. Human evolution actually favors the males who learn to make friends, get along and solve problems. Even bullies respect the kid who knows how to make friends. Living by the sword only ends well in movies. In real life, there are better ways to feel capable, safe, strong, and win a fight.

If your son gets physically assaulted by another child, he doesn’t need you to give him boxing lessons. Rather, he needs you to let him know there’s no shame and you still respect him. Teach him that you both have skills to handle what comes without regressing cave-man status. True strength and authentic manhood can start young, and Dad is the one who gets to model it. Giving-in to violence is a cop-out that makes more problems than it solves.

I know first hand how emotionally charged and difficult these situations can be when you’re in the middle of them. Send me an e-mail if you’re seeing red and want a set of fresh eyes.

…you want to tell him to stop crying and take it like a man. Be careful. Crying is the body’s normal, automatic expression of emotional processing and release. (It can also be a way children try to manipulate and control adults, but that’s a different story.) In the first case, telling him to “man-up” and stop the crying makes emotions even more confusing and sends the message that men and boys should be ashamed of something that’s normal. Living in an emotional straight jacket causes all sorts of problems, but to understand and manage our emotional landscape has huge benefits.

My son and I have discovered a counter-intuitive formula that is healthy and actually seems to help tears end sooner. I call it C.A.P. Connect. Acknowledge. Protect.

Connect: For boys, this is most often done non-verbally through physical proximity. To just stand or sit near him is often enough. Sometimes an arm around the shoulder or hug for the little guys helps. Don’t get too close if he’s not ready.

Acknowledge: A short phrase. Usually something like: “You seem sad, angry, upset (fill in the blank).” “That was pretty tough.” “Do you feel? I can understand if you do.” The key is to recognize that he has emotion and give it a name if possible.

Protect: Let him know he is safe with you (from ridicule, judgement, shame) and protect him from embarrassment. When necessary or possible, find some privacy for him.

In many cases, this whole process only takes us a manner of seconds, but you don’t want to rush it. The counter-intuitive part is that it usually helps him stop crying in a few seconds. That’s not the goal, but it usually works that way. Which makes sense, when you think about it, because it helps to process the emotion. Once the emotion is processed, crying is unnecessary.

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Posted by on February 1, 2014 in Present Moment Parenting


Can boys love their friends?

You Me

This is a picture one of my son’s first grade friends, another boy, made for him. I couldn’t help but smile at the honest, fearless expression of friendship captured in the drawing.

There are some unspoken guidelines for showing affection that boys and men begin to follow at a young age. My first grader already resists hugging, sometimes even touching, his younger brother. Of course, some of this is the normal dynamic between brothers. Some of it is the “boy code.” Some of it is just his natural style. While it’s okay for boys to have different comfort levels with and ways of expressing affection, I believe it’s important for ALL boys to show and experience brotherly love.

Love? Yes. In Greek they call it phileo: brotherly love, the kind that friends, teammates, soldiers, and sometimes even coworkers develop for one another. It’s the kind of love that gets lost in a culture that’s irrationally preoccupied with image, achievement, and homophobia.

The truth is, boys are lost without phileo. It’s one of the ways they find their place in the world. I honestly think they NEED it for healthy development. If we were really honest with ourselves, most men would acknowledge that we suffer from the lack of it as well. We need to stick up for our buddies. Defend them. Support them. Care for them. Feel sadness for them and compassion. We need to know that our comrades feel the same for us.

Phileo is like a magic coin. When you give it away, you find two more in your pocket. I’m thankful that my son’s friend got to enjoy the happy feeling that comes when someone receives and appreciates your expression of brotherly affection. At their age, it’s still okay to do. But even for first graders, fear starts to creep in.

For boys, fear begins to whisper questions like:

  • What if they laugh?
  • What if they say, “Eeeww, they’re holding hands.”
  • What did (insert well meaning adult) mean when they said I shouldn’t give pictures like that to other boys?
  • Am I weird because I feel affection for a friend?
  • Is there something wrong with me?

For dads the questions can be the similar:

  • What if someone teases him?
  • What if others see his drawing?
  • Am I doing my job if I DON’T tell him not to give cards and hugs to other boys?
  • Will I raise him to be gay if I let him do that?

All of these questions come from fear, and living in fear is a crummy way to parent and an even worse way to grow up. It’s important that we lay a foundation of healthy love for our sons and help them feel safe to show their feelings to us and their friends in smart ways.

Here are a few ideas:

  1. Tell your son you love him at home. Yes, it can feel awkward. That awkward feeling is fear, and men face their fears. If a side hug and “I love you” aren’t part of your interactions, figure out a way to work it in. Use humor if that makes it easier. Try something like, “What would you say if I told you I loved you?” The more you do it, the easier it gets.
  2. Make a code word. This is especially helpful for downloading love to your son if he needs it when you’re out in public.  For me and my son, the code phrase we agreed on goes like this. I say: “Do you want some coffee?” He knows that means “I love you.” Then he says: ”No, I hate coffee.” I know that means, “I love you too.” Now that it has become a mutually recognized code, he will sometimes initiate and say, “Dad do you want some coffee?” I’ll respond with, “Yes, I love coffee.” I suppose it’s an odd little ritual, but it works for us.
  3. Encourage your son to appreciate his friends. Talk about practical ways to do this, such as:
  1. Do something nice for a friend for no reason (aka pay it forward)
  2. Notice when a friend could use help…and then help.
  3. If someone helps him, encourage your son to tell the person about the difference they made.
  4. Stick up for or defend a friend.
  5. Be loyal, even if others aren’t.
  6. When others reject or mistreat his overtures of friendship (which some will), let him tell you how it feels. Acknowledge the feeling without trying to fix it (“Ouch, that hurts”). Encourage him to keep being a good friend. When boys take the high road, it’s not uncommon for good friendships to grow out of these situations in the long run.

What ideas do you have?

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Posted by on December 15, 2013 in Contemplative Parenting


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Star Wars Snowflakes

DSC_0009Had a great time with Braden this afternoon making snowflakes for the window while we watched football. For the cool “Star Wars” snowflake designs, check out Anthony Herrera Designs.


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Way to go, boys. Welcome to one of the best feelings in the world.

One of the greatest feelings in the world is taking a standing for a friend. “Either men will learn to live like brothers or they will die like beasts.” –Max Lerner

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Posted by on November 24, 2013 in Contemplative Parenting


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Tips for Boys: The Art of Getting Out

little league fanWhen I played as a kid, getting out was assumed, at least for me. When I started working with children, cooperative games became the focus. I understand the benefits of noncompetitive cooperative games (heck, I teach workshops about them), and last night, I was also reminded of the incredible benefits of getting out.

My seven-year-old son Braden had a Cub Scouts Pack meeting last night. There were about 35 boys present, ages 6-10. The activity for the evening was basketball. We started with 4 stations; at one station the boys played H-O-R-S-E.

I won’t go into detail about how to play HORSE. If you aren’t familiar, look it up. The main point for this post is that in the game of HORSE, you get out after missing 5 shots (one for each letter in the word HORSE). Like his dad, Braden isn’t basketball star. Even though there are public hoops that we can see from our house, we’ve never gone over to practice our jump shots. Given my lack of fatherly encouragement and coaching, I wasn’t surprised when most of the B-mans shots sailed under, over, beside and past the hoop without touching it.

The other Tiger Cubs weren’t much better, so he didn’t show too much disappointment in his performance until he got out. Now, there are many different ways I could have handled this. I’ve seen many different techniques used to “soften the blow” of getting out in a game. Here are some of the most common.

  1. Don’t keep track. In this one, you play HORSE, but don’t keep track of the letters. Nobody gets out.
  2. Keep track, but let the players continue to shoot after they get out. Their shots don’t count, but they aren’t “left out.”
  3. Pick a different word. Instead of HORSE, go through the entire alphabet. Then people usually get tired of playing before anyone gets out.

Since it was my own son I was dealing with, I didn’t choose any of those. After he missed his 5th shot, I told him he was out. He looked at me with a nervous question mark on his face as if to say: What does that mean? I said, “You missed 5 shots, so you’re out of the game.“

I knew this would be hard for him to deal with. It was his first Pack Meeting. He was playing with boys that he barely knew. He hadn’t made any shots, and now he was the first one out. He was embarrassed, and Dad wasn’t helping. Tears came to his eyes. His lips quivered, and he made them tight and sucked them in to keep his emotion from showing. He didn’t want to cry in front of the other boys, so he scooted up to me and stood stiff as a board with his face tucked between my arm and my body.

I let him stand there for a few seconds and squeezed his shoulder. Then I said, “I know it’s disappointing. I used to get out every time when I played horse.” After another few seconds I let him in on they key to getting out gracefully. I leaned down so I could see his face and said, “One of the best things you can do right now is to give one of the other guys a compliment. It will make you feel better. When you’re ready, go over there and do it.” It took him about two seconds to blink away the tears and turn back to the group. As he called out, “Nice shot, Ben!” he ran back over with a smile enjoyed the rest of the activity.

For boys, the art of getting out is learning that there’s no shame in it. It’s not a rejection; it’s part of the game.

Tips for helping boys get out with style:

  • Give compliments. When you compliment the play of others, you’re always in the game.
  • Welcome others. More players will get out. Welcome them with a high five (or whatever is cool now) and say something like, “Nice try” or “Close one.”
  • Make a plan. Think about what you will try different next time. Watch how the other players are keeping themselves in the game.
  • Try again. Learning from mistakes and failures is fun, challenging, and the key to success.

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Wave Riders: Here’s the post about crying.

Here’s the post about crying that I mentioned Wednesday night during the workshop.

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Posted by on November 21, 2013 in Present Moment Parenting


Dads, mentors, caregivers of boys: Watch this.

Warning: This is kind of heartbreaking, but important to see. It shows 30 seconds of one of those “boot camp my kid” shows. I’m opposed to such shows and think they exploit children for entertainment and financial gain. However, this kid’s answer to the drill sargeant’s question is profoundly revealing and brings the drill sargeant to tears. Dads, mentors, caregivers of boys, don’t let the message slip by you. (You’ll need to turn the volume up)

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Posted by on November 17, 2013 in Present Moment Parenting


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Wave Riders: Boys football team scores with emotional intelligence

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Posted by on November 15, 2013 in Present Moment Parenting


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Karate kids don’t want ninja parents

First BoardMy son started karate when he was 5 years old in the “Little Masters” program at National Karate, Arden Hills. He loved it from day one and broke a board a board at age 6 in front of a crowd of people. During the first year, I watched almost every lesson from the observation gallery. Sometimes I made comments. Sometimes I tried to explain things. Sometimes I gave encouraging looks, and, yes, I admit, I also gave judgmental frowns and occasionally barked a correction. I knew better, but would get caught up in the moment.

Ninja parents are the karate version of helicopter parents. They’re always watching and jump out of hiding to rescue their kids, fight their battles or get involved when they don’t really need to be. While I don’t really consider myself a ninja parent (who does, right?), I realized I was starting to act like one when I caught myself making comments from the parent gallery. It’s almost always a bad idea. Here’s why:

  1. It embarrasses and disrespects your kid.
  2. It steals their opportunity to learn (yes, even if you’re just trying help).
  3. It undermines the role of the instructor.

Think back to when you were a kid and your parent stuck his or her nose into you and your friends business. How embarrassing, right? Even if you have a very young child in karate or another sport, it’s important to remember that this is a time when he wants to see himself as strong. This is his chance to put his game face on. There’s no better way for me to screw that up than to chime in with advice about how to correct his form or execute his move.

Even “encouragement” isn’t really all that helpful. If he does something good, he already knows it. I need to let him enjoy his moment of accomplishment and soak in the satisfaction that comes with it. If I bust out with all sorts of praise and affirmation (even non-verbal), I run the risk of making my kid’s success dependent on my approval. He can start to always look to me for a thumbs-up or thumbs-down about everything he does. I’ve learned to save my affirmation for after the lesson and let him relive the moment again in the car on the way home.

This lesson the hard way with my son. I had the bad habit of shooting him a frown during the lesson if he was being lazy or sloppy. I’d also give him a nod if he did something good. He started looking over at me after every move to see what I was thinking. This caused the most problems when he was sparring, because in the moment that it took for him to look over and “check in” with me, his partner usually threw a kick or punch and scored a point. Besides that, he wasn’t rating his own performance and self correcting. He was constantly looking to me.

But what if my young karate kid gets frustrated and starts to cry? What if the instructor is being too hard on him? What if he loses it and gets angry?

When these situation come up, it’s important to keep in mind that the student/instructor role is a subtle dance, especially in karate. Karate instructors are like coaches, teachers, role models, and trainers all wrapped into one. When they’re working with little kids, they walk the line between pushing and praising. Let your child and his instructor develop their own relationship. It will be something they value. Sometimes instructors might be tough on them (just like you). Sometimes they won’t push hard enough. That’s okay.

Karate instructors are long-term. Kids often stay with the same teachers for many years. They grow up with them. This kind of long term relationship has GREAT benefits and goes through different seasons at different times. Unsolicited “help” from the parent gallery sends the message to your child that you lack confidence in his or her ability to understand the relationship and grow with it. It sabotages the subtle dance between student and instructor.

I don’t watch every lesson anymore. I stop to observe now and then, so I can be connected and help my son celebrate his achievements.  Children learn best when they can, for the most part, work out their challenges and solutions themselves. It can be frustrating to hold back, but it’s also very rewarding.

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Posted by on October 22, 2013 in Present Moment Parenting


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Boys Boys Boys

SibblingBullies1 I’m the featured speaker on the Dakota County Technical College Early Childhood and Youth Development blog this month. Follow the link above to hear me talk about boys and emotional development tips.


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I love the way this illustrates the desire to rescue children from the small box and share with them the life, energy, spirit, and flow that their hearts, minds and bodies long to find in nature and play. To see more amazing work by Ransom and Mitchell, check out their website.


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Play these games with the kids

ultimate_camp_resourceI came across this brilliant website when I was looking for some fresh activities for my Power of Play workshop. The section on games is especially EXTENSIVE.  It’s the kinds of activities that we should be doing with kids and even trying out and modifying with other adults, at work, with our families. This kind of play helps us experience community and remember what it’s like to have fun and feel joyful.

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Posted by on September 12, 2013 in Present Moment Parenting


Project Wild Thing cinema release in 3 months

This looks like a really neat project.


Comments on “You Just Broke Your Kid”

14511567_sI just read a blog post from Dan Pearce on his blog Single Dad Laughing. The name of post was “You Just Broke Your Child. Congratulations.”  It tells the story of an angry dad he saw at Costco who was emotionally and physically abusing his son while waiting in line. He goes on to give a pretty impassioned exhortation to all of us dads to be present with our kids, understand our impact, and learn to control our emotional lives.

I know there are many of us who have done and said things to our kids that we deeply regret. I know there are many dads out there who would like to do better and be better. If you’re interested in judgment free coaching to improve your skills, get in touch with me.


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Play at Home Today: Arrow Paper Airplane

Joshua Feb 27 2013I’m writing this post with my son, Braden. We decided to share this idea together, since it is a project that we enjoyed doing together. In addition, it was one of our best flyers. Let me explain.

Braden gave me a calendar for Christmas (he wanted to make sure I mentioned that). It was the Paper Airplane Fold-A-Day Calendar by David Mitchell and Kyong Lee. Today we did the January 12 & 13 page. Arrow, as the design is called, was our fastest plane and best flyer yet.

This calendar is brilliant. It only costs about $15.00 and is a ready go-to activity for playing at home. The image above shows how it looks. You follow the directions on the current day’s page to fold the previous day’s page. Each page is printed with fun colors and neat designs that make the final airplane look really cool.

The image and the link above go to the publisher’s website, but it is also available from Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Incidentally, the publisher, Accord Publishing out of Denver, CO, looks like the have lots of really neat titles for children.

Here’s what Braden had to say:

Me: What do you like about the calendar?

BK: That you get to make paper airplanes.

Me: Anything else?

BK: That we get to do it together.

Me: Me: Anything else?

BK: It was a Christmas present from me.

Me: If you were going to tell somebody else why they should get one for their dad, what would you say?

BK: Because it’s a nice and quiet thing to do. It’s relaxing. It’s good to do when someone is napping like your little brother so you don’t wake ’em up.


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Responding to “I HATE YOU!”

9947161_sFew phrases are more difficult for me to hear as a parent than “I hate you.” Whether one of my boys directs it at me, his brother, or even a toy, hearing “I HATE YOU” always triggers a response.

It’s important to be able to stay in the “parent place” when it happens. Here are some tips and insights that help me.

First, (as always) be self-aware. I use Daniel Siegel’s C.O.AL. acronym for this.

  • Curiosity: What feelings am I having? Why did he say that? Did I ever say that as a kid?
  • Openness: Can I respond with humor, insight, compassion, silence etc.?
  • Acceptance: His emotions are valid. My emotions are valid. I can’t change the past. The future will be fine. Stay in the present moment.
  • Love: Connect with my heart. Follow its lead.

What it feels like “I HATE YOU” means:

  • He hates me.
  • He doesn’t appreciate everything I do for him.
  • He can’t handle his emotions.
  • He’s going to grow up to be a violent kid.
  • Him and his brother will never get along.
  • If he says that here, he’ll probably say it in public.
  • He’s depressed.
  • I’m depressed.
  • The list goes on.

It’s important to note that many of my automatic emotional reactions above are fueled by fear, anger, or sadness.

What “I hate you” REALLY means:

  • I don’t like the boundary you set on my behavior (even though that’s what I thought you’d say).
  • I’m sad (mad, afraid etc.) and don’t have the words to say it another way.
  • I need to save face, so instead of crying I’ll be angry.
  • Will you always love me, even if I say this?
  • Since you can read my mind, I know you’ll understand what I really mean.
  • I feel powerless, and saying “I hate you” gives me the power fix I need right now.
  • I want attention, and this usually gets some.
  • I’m having a testosterone surge and it’s making me crazy.
  • My brain can’t process emotional data fast enough, and I need to say something  NOW.

Responding during the situation:

  • Keep your cool. By keeping my response calm, I stay in the parent role and model for my boys the best way to handle strong emotion and maintain their dignity.
  • Remove energy from “hating.” By responding with as little energy as possible (not yelling, jumping up, making faces etc.) I send a message to my son’s brain that there is no reward for that kind of behavior here. For more info on the energy match, check out Nurtured Heart Approach and Present Moment Parenting.
  • Validate his emotions: “It sounds like your frustrated.” “Is it a tough day?” “I know this is disappointing.” By acknowledging his feelings, I show my son that it’s okay to have emotions and that I have respect for what he’s feeling and processing.
  • Use non-verbals. Observe his body language and subtly mirror it by being calmly present with a similar (appropriate) posture, position, or action. If he needs space, move away, but don’t disconnect.  Give a pat on the back, or just sit. These nonverbal often communicate better than words that I care, I understand, and I’m here for you.
  • Use humor.  No demeaning sarcasm, but don’t miss the chance to lighten the mood if you can. “You hate me? Well I HATE MUSHY PEAS!”
  • Do something unexpected. This is one of my favorite Adlerian Child Guidance Principles. Have fun as you tailor it to your own style and relationship. For instance, I might start singing loudly “I am Henry the Eighth I am. Henry the Eighth I am I am. I got married to the widow…” If he says, “SHUT UP, I HATE THAT SONG,” then I might say “Well, at least you’re not hating me now.” Start throwing popcorn in the air and catching it in your mouth. Do the cinnamon challenge.
  • Delay teaching and lecturing until later. When emotions are high, the lizard brain is in charge. There’s not much higher-level thinking, learning, or emotional processing going on. Wait for calmer times to do your instruction.

Responding after the situation:

  • Especially for boys, set up teaching moments in the right container. Doing some kind of physical activity, eating, or driving often works well. Barry MacDonald has great resources on Action Talk.
  • Teach feelings language. For boys in particular, avoiding phrases like “I hate you,” requires that they be given the right words to use. Help them think about what their feelings really were and what shades of emotion best describe it.
  • Make a plan. Think together of a couple different ways he could respond to the things that stress him into hating. Give him some of the basic strategies like deep breaths (for younger kids I use snake breaths), positive self-talk, or taking a break. If I don’t use these techniques often enough myself, I start modeling them.
  • Practice other responses. Actually play out a situation or two and have him practice the new response. It’s amazing how powerful and effective this is. This can even be done with older youth, especially if points 5 and 6 from above are used.
  • Try using the Incredible Five-Point Scale. Talk about what it looks and feels like when emotions are at a 5. What it looks and feels like when they are at a 4, 3, 2, 1. Collect ideas about how to move down a step.  Then, during heightened moments say, “It feels like a 5 right now, and I’m going to bring myself down to a 3.”
  • Provide healthy opportunities for power. If “I hate you” gets an angry response, it’s a real power trip for him or her. Learning to get power in healthier ways reduces the need to automatically to hating.  (See the Adlerian Mistaken Goals Chart for specific ideas on this).
  • Provide healthy opportunities for attention. Similarly to the above point if the mistaken goal of saying “I hate you” is attention, consider healthier ways to meet the need for attention.
  • Give energy to success. Whenever I see my son managing emotions, I always recognize it and let him know he’s using his skills. In fact, even if I know he’s likely going to need to manage emotions, I try to set him up for success by reminding him of how much I appreciate it when he uses his skills. This is a proactive approach from the Nurtured Heart Approach and Present Moment Parenting. After all, why should negative behaviors have all the fun! Right?

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