Archives For Parenting

“In Other Words”

January 6, 2014 — 7 Comments

Over the next five days, I plan to blog about the research and history behind the idea of teaching with pictures. It’s actually quite fascinating, and sets up our release of three Habitudes® resources this month. Hope you enjoy!

We live in a culture rich with images. Kids grow up with photographs, TV, movies, video, VH1, DVDs, Facebook and Instagram. We can’t escape the power of the visual image—and most of us don’t want to. We’ve grown accustomed to watching, not merely listening to, our music; radio gave way to TV, which gave birth to MTV. Even our music is inseparable from images. Our grandparents grew up listening to the radio for entertainment; kids today grow up watching YouTube. And the pace of this visual expansion accelerates. As a child, I was among the first to mature with the television set—the “one-eyed babysitter”. Today’s adolescents can aptly be called “screenagers”, as their screen time is not limited to a television but has expanded to laptops, video games, tablets and smart phones. Within the next six years, 90 percent of the content we’ll receive on our cell phones will be visual not verbal.

I wonder, however, if most people recognize the history behind the use of images to communicate, pass on values, and teach the younger generation. How important have images been to mankind’s communication? What role have they played as cultures talk to one another? And just how central will they be to our future, as information becomes ubiquitous yet ideas become more complex?

Consider this: As we make progress, there seems to be a regress to this simple, original pedagogy of pictures. The new isn’t new at all; it is a return to something old. As we progress further into the 21st century we seem to be magnetically drawn to pictures in order to translate and transmit ideas to others. Our international road signs communicate to oncoming traffic with simple pictures. The pictures are, indeed, a universal language. As NCAA sports become more complex, a growing number of athletic coaches use visual systems to call plays, snap counts and formations on the sidelines. Pictures are, indeed, a multi-generational language. Our human population, in many ways, is becoming iconic: information is passed along via a simple icon. Again, pictures are a timeless language, and effective leaders understand this. Best-selling author Tom Peters said, “The best leaders, almost without exception and at every level, are master users of stories and symbols.” As you read further, I’d like to challenge you to reflect on the research and learn from our rapid migration back to this instrument—images—for relaying thoughts. It is safe to say, the visual is going viral.

The Art of Human History

Humans have a robust history of using icons, diagrams, symbols and pictures to communicate. Centuries ago, Mesopotamia and Egypt used them on cave walls to educate new generations about their past. Throughout time, images have been used in political, spiritual, cultural and military arenas to affect the schemas of that particular population. Spanning from pre-historic to modern times, images have impacted the way we think, process information, and engage the culture. They impacted the memory process, the learning process, and the level of personal engagement they inspired during each time period.

The primary purpose of using images, however, was to tell the story of a culture. Some common themes arise during the early pre-historic periods based on the images facilitated on pottery and cave drawings. The types of images used were very pragmatic and reflect the type of hunting, living, and values of the day.  It’s almost as if the people were recording their story to engrain in the memory of future generations and to improve their culture’s chances of survival.

photo credit: afcone via photopin cc

photo credit: afcone via photopin cc

In the ancient Hebrew culture, parables and metaphors were employed to remind common people of important truths. This has been seen not only in archeological discoveries but in the evolution of language in their ancient writings. By this time, pictures were still used to teach, but they took on the form of stories and symbols. Instead of listing rules of conduct in a left-brained style of pedagogy (e.g. the Ten Commandments), Christ was known to have told parables as pictures of truth, enabling hearers to reflect on life lessons they could relate to through the characters in the story or the objects in the scenario. These visuals were a right-brained approach to learning.

In the Renaissance period, an array of communicative channels utilized images to enhance memory, helping people retain information longer than in the past. Books used visual metaphors, paintings and sculptures of the day were central to education, and the stained-glass windows of the cathedrals contained pictures reminding people of what was most important. This has carried on for centuries, as teachers today find symbols and visuals to be very effective in helping student retain information. Despite our Western preference for didactic teaching methods, educators in health and science are utilizing images to educate more effectively.

During the 18th century, as the United States of America was born, images played a central role in galvanizing patriots to the cause of freedom and revolution. We remember Benjamin Franklin’s use of symbols and illustrations, especially the snake warning the British “Don’t Tread on Me”, as a sobering reminder even to those who couldn’t read that revolution was immanent. Through the course of the Revolution, pictures of branches, eagles, trees and nooses, and the Liberty Bell were tools to call people to the cause. When Franklin was chairman of the flag committee, they chose stars and stripes in symbolic colors to remind Americans of their roots. Each of these took on special significance in the American story.

The fact is, history is communicating that the message that gets through is usually one that contains imagery. And today, we recognize this timeless truth again. Tomorrow, I plan to post Part Two of this series—and whet your appetite to engage students with images, stories and conversations.

Looking to develop leaders with images, stories, & conversations? Check out

Habitudes: Images That Form Leadership Habits and Attitudes

We will be releasing 3 Habitudes resources this month!


Historian Neil Howe tagged the youngest generation of kids “The Homelanders.” They were  born about the same time  the Dept. of Homeland Security was birthed. They’ve grown up after the turn of the century and follow Generation Y. They are toddlers, elementary school children and young middle schoolers. While the majority of our work at Growing Leaders is with universities, I get asked about these younger children all the time.


New research was just released that provides a hint at the fast changes taking place in kids today. In short, if you need help navigating your portable device—you may just want to ask your toddler. They seem to have intuition about technology.

Over one third (38% to be precise) of children younger than two-years old have used a mobile device, up from 11% two years ago, according to a national survey by Common Sense Media. Another study done last year reports that 90% of preschool kids are using technology. The proportion of young kids using devices nearly doubled over a span of two years. These same children are watching less television.

“This is a really significant shift,” said James Steyer, CEO and founder of Common Sense Media. “The data shows rapid and profound changes in the 21st century in both childhood and learning.”

What’s more, while there is a gap between rich and poor in the ownership of mobile devices, that gap is narrowing. Among poor families—those earning less than $30,000 a year—access to smartphones increased from 27 percent to 51 percent in two years, while tablet ownership went from 2 to 20 percent.

What’s all this mean?

In short, these children are not merely adjusting to new technology, they are growing up with it from birth. How will this impact education?

  1. While Generation iY grew up typing on keypads, these kids are growing up with touch screens. They will want to manipulate the device in front of them.
  2. They will expect to use portable devices in the classroom, and wonder why schools don’t speak their language if teachers don’t offer them.
  3. They will not be conditioned to merely sit and watch or listen. They will want to participate and interact with a screen and video.
  4. They will likely be less patient than older generations, having everything at their fingertips, from day one. Waiting on answers will be difficult.
  5. They will be problem-solvers, but may lack resilience, as progress and solutions have come fairly quickly for these children.
  6. They may be more comfortable learning from a screen than from a real person. It is clear they will learn more from a portable device than a classroom.

Talk to me. Do you know any young children? Are you observing any patterns or changes in them? What will educators need to do to reach them?


Artificial Maturity
photo credit: Julie70 via photopin cc

If you ask the average parent or teacher these days about school safety, they’d reply how fearful they are. Each year, more school policies are put in place to ensure that kids remain safe, and campuses are free from lawsuits. Consider some of the new rules schools have erected in the last year:

  • Coghlan Elementary School no longer allows hands-on play at recess.
  • A New Jersey school has now banned hugging. Too many germs.
  • A Connecticut Middle School has banned any balls on the playground.
  • California and New Mexico schools now outlaw Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
  • A Toronto school now bans cartwheels or jump rope on the playground.
  • A school in England has actually banned “best friends” at school.

We have become absolutely obsessed with children’s safety. Just look at our signage everywhere: Danger. Off-Limits. No Running. No Jumping. Toxic. We are certain that the world is going crazy. It’s easy to conclude school has never been a more dangerous place. I mean, it’s true, isn’t it?


May I share the truth with you?

Schools are not more hazardous today. Despite the school shootings we all heard about in Newtown, CT, or Aurora, CO or Pittsburgh, PA or Decatur, GA…school violence is actually down and the safety of our schools is up. For America’s 55 million K-12 students and 3.7 million teachers, statistics tell a different story than the one we have in our heads. Despite two decades of high profile shootings, school is not only as safe as it was twenty years ago, it’s become an increasingly safer place.

The Department of Justice released new numbers from the National Crime Victimization Survey, and they are astonishing. More than twenty years ago, in 1992, 181.5 students per 1,000 were victims of crime at school. Last year, it was 49.2 victims per 1,000. Not only have the numbers not gone up, they’ve actually dropped. Overall, the number of non-fatal victimizations has also dropped by 71%. That’s a lot.

So why are we so scared? Consider the facts.

1. We hear about everything today. Several all-day news cable channels make sure we hear all the gory details of every campus crime, and we’re sure our kids’ school will be next. Information is ubiquitous, which causes our fears to climb. Lots of information creates a growing awareness, which leads to fear.

2. We’ve renewed our battle on bullying. This is a good thing, but because awareness is so high, we automatically assume the numbers are rising. Perception becomes reality. Parents and teachers are always on the lookout for it, and we tend to see what we look for and what we expect to see.

3. We keep expanding safety equipment. Although this is a good addition to our lives, it also creates a heightened sense of accidents, broken bones, scrapes and cuts. From bulletproof backpacks to secret hiding places in school classrooms, we now are mindful of the worst that could happen. The fact is, the more we focus on solving the problem externally, the less we prepare our kids internally.

May I suggest we build a fence at the top of the cliff not just a hospital at the bottom?

While I understand the attention given to keeping intruders out of schools, I believe we must look inside, not just outside for the solutions. We continue to create rules, safety policies and external legislation, when the real problem lies inside of the kids. (And by the way, it usually is a young person who is the perpetrator.) I think parents and educators need to push for mental health and wellness services. In fact, I think we need to find ways to cultivate virtue and character—far beyond the “word of the month” system most schools use.  This is a mental, emotional and spiritual health issue that we can prevent, not just prepare for. This is one reason why we created Habitudes—Images That Form Leadership Habits and Attitudes. I don’t think we need more ridiculous rules. We need to work on developing kids internally, so they’ll be ready for the world that awaits them. Again, let’s think about building a “fence at the top of the cliff rather than a hospital at the bottom.”

Your thoughts?


Looking to develop leaders? Check out

Habitudes: Images That Form Leadership Habits and Attitudes


I’d like to start a conversation with you on a topic that is being debated all over the world, particularly in industrialized nations. It revolves around the question:

“Should kids be ready for adulthood by the age of 18…or not?”

People are leaning in both directions, with good arguments. Because I train students to be leaders, we believe this is a critical issue to understand. Can a teenager really live and act like an adult? Can they be responsible to carry out important and even meaningful tasks? Can they care for others (a team or family) and make a significant contribution?  Let’s look at the logic for both sides.


Point: We Should Not Expect Kids to be Ready…

New techniques for tracking brain growth are showing us that our brains are still forming until our mid-twenties. Males, on average, are two years behind females. The portion of the brain that enables them to make good decisions and balance benefits and consequences is not fully formed at 18 years old. Dr. Ian Hickie, of the University of Sydney, is among the experts who believe it may be time to rethink the idea of independence and maturity among young adults at this age. He believes it’s not the time to leave our kids to their friends and hope that everything will be fine. Hickie says, “Brain maturation is a very complicated, complex and dynamic process that goes through adolescence from puberty right through to the early 20s.”

Most neuroscientists today agree that the pre-frontal cortex is not fully developed until about 25 years old. The functions of the pre-frontal cortex include planning complex behaviors, personality expression, decision-making, and managing social behavior. The common term for these functions of the pre-frontal cortex is executive function. This is the ability to differentiate conflicting thoughts, determine right and wrong and the future consequences of conduct, and the ability to suppress urges that lead to inappropriate outcomes.

On top of that, we now expect people to live much longer today. Often young adults argue that since they’ll likely live to 90 or even 100 years old, why should they rush their entrance into adulthood or careers. After all, they’ll have plenty of time for that later. Many college students have said to us in our focus groups: “Hey, let me be a kid. I can only enjoy this time of my life once.”

Counterpoint: We Should Expect Kids to be Ready…

Others who see it differently argue that for centuries, adolescents have somehow been able to take on responsibility, sometimes at far younger ages than 18. One hundred years ago, fourteen year olds were working the farm, seventeen year olds were leading armies, and nineteen year olds were getting married and having children.  This is not to say kids must do this today—but simply that it is possible to expect a young adult to be capable, since they have done so in the past.

This perspective has less to do with brain development and more to do with emotional and social health. Maturity is not about an accumulation of knowledge and experience but demonstrating responsibility toward others. The lack of maturity we see today in teens has less to do with brain development and more to do with the fact that the majority of their time is spent with peers, rather than adults who model what maturity and wisdom looks like. They’re still into themselves.

On top of that, society has slowly diminished their expectations of teens. (Tiger Woods was 34 when his sexual affairs became public. His agent said, “Give the kid a break.”) As self-actualization and affluence has increased, we have more time for entertainment and leisure. Kids who once needed to learn to work jobs to help support the family often don’t have to today. The average teen is not employed with work, but with recitals, practices, rehearsals and schoolwork. These are simulations of the real world, but consequences for failure are virtual, not real. How can a young adult really learn responsibility unless it is actually given to them?

What Do You Think?

Both perspectives make sense, don’t they? Let me know what you think and what you’ve observed in your world. Should we expect 18 year olds to be mature and to be responsible? Or have we always expected too much of them?


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photo credit: Leo Reynolds via photopin cc

I’ve developed another theory based on research I’ve done on student athletes and their corresponding adult coaches and parents. After interpreting the results of a coaches’ poll recently, it is clear that resilience among kids today is diminishing. In fact, while young people have many advantages kids did not enjoy fifty years ago, they are showing a decline in personal drive and a rise in mental health issues. In short: ambition is down, anxiety is up.

What’s up with that?

As adults, we push our kids because we see so much potential in them. They often feel, however, that adults push them too hard, and that playing sports is more about pleasing dad or a coach instead of about the fun of the game. HBO is currently running a special program called, “The State of Play: Trophy Kids.” It’s about this gap between kids and their parents (and even their coaches).


Let me decipher what is happening millions of times around the U.S.

From ages 5-10, kids are awarded trophies just for participating in sports or other activities. However, between ages 10-18, students begin to be pushed by their parents to work harder. This causes some students to experience emotional trauma, as hard work was not embedded in their upbringing. Suddenly, ambition and resilience plummet. We’re shocked. But to students, parents who have lived vicariously through them suddenly transition from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde.

Here is the sequence that happens millions of times each week:

  • For parents, teachers, coaches, we see a lack of ambition in students.
  • We also see so much potential inside we don’t want them to miss.
  • We begin to challenge them to be and do more, to put out more effort.
  • Eventually—we create a Performance Trap, where they begin believing our approval of them is completely dependent on their achievement.

Sometimes, even nominal amounts of pressure turn into a Performance Trap for them because we failed to build resilience and identity—they want to quit, when the smallest obstacle surfaces. It’s not fun…because it’s not easy. We should’ve built a love for the struggle, but we didn’t. Their motivation quietly shifts from a love of the game to pleasing a parent or coach. It’s artificial and won’t stand the test of time. And if they decide to stay in the sport, they become mentally or emotional unhealthy.

If parents and coaches hadn’t made the mistake of rewarding everything in our young children—when the stakes are very low—we would have better prepared them mentally and emotionally for adolescence. In fact, I contend that keeping score and providing trophies to only the highest achievers will actually boost the self-esteem in our children. They would comprehend the value of achievement and aspire to it. When everyone gets a reward, its value drops and it begins to mean nothing. This does not bolster self-esteem—it boosts narcissism. It’s artificial confidence that unfortunately can’t withstand the pressure we apply when they grow older and we expect more. It’s like building a house with heavy bricks and sheet rock on a foundation of sand. Of course it won’t stand up to the weight—it’s not sturdy. So, our kids advance into adolescence with greater levels of depression and anxiety than any generation of children in modern history. We did a disservice to them.

Moving From Performance Traps to Empowerment

May I suggest the following initial steps for you as a coach or parent:

  1. Help them establish their identity outside of a sport or a course.
  2. Affirm your support and belief in them, regardless of their talent.
  3. Consistently affirm variables that are in their control, such as effort.
  4. With their help, establish standards for them to aspire to as they perform.
  5. Reward them only when they reach those standards.
  6. Continually communicate the potential you see in them.

Dr. Michael Unger, a child therapist, writes: “We seem these days to have a magical notion that children can learn…by just watching and listening to others talk about it. That just isn’t the way our brains develop. We are experiential beings. Lev Vygotsky, a famous child psychologist from Russia, demonstrated very well what he calls ‘zones of proximal development.’ We need to be pushed, not too far, but just enough to learn something new. Good development occurs when we are invited to accept challenges that are just big enough to demand we work at solving them, but that they don’t completely defeat us.”

One more thing. The surest way to develop an unhealthy student athlete (or “mathlete” for that matter) is to vicariously live your life through them. If your identity is too closely tied to their performance, it always leads to trouble. In short, we adults need to get a life, too.


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After you confirm your subscription, you’ll be sent a link to download 52 Leadership Ideas absolutely FREE.