About the Author
Marybeth Hicks is a columnist and speaker and the author of three previous books on parenting and culture. Founder and editor of the blog, OntheCulture.com, she also writes a monthly family column for Catholic Digest magazine and is a regular contributor to EWTN radio. Formerly a columnist for The Washington Times, Marybeth is a frequent guest on national television and radio outlets to comment on issues that impact families and communities. She and her husband, Jim, are the parents of four children and make their home in Michigan.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Teachable Moments CHAPTER ONE
Parenting in the Moment
YOU ASK YOUR TEN-YEAR-OLD son to get the newspaper from the front porch. When he comes into the kitchen, he’s reading a front-page story about a politician whose claim to fame is his predilection for “sexting” with young women, none of whom is his wife.
On the way to school, you pass a billboard that says EXTREME METH MAKEOVER, featuring before-and-after photos of a methamphetamine addict. Your kids want to know if this is a new reality TV show.
While your older children are at school, you take your four-year-old daughter with you to the grocery store. At the check out, she points to a magazine picture of a scantily clad Miley Cyrus “twerking” on stage and asks, “What is Miley doing?”
After school, you’re the carpool driver. A fellow third grader tells your child all about last night’s episode of Glee, which focused on a gay high school romance. You try to change the subject, so the kids tell you about a boy in their class who is being bullied. They’re sure it’s because he is gay.
At dinner, your eight-year-old hums Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” while your twelve-year-old mentions that the soccer coach dropped an f-bomb while yelling directions at the team.
It’s just another day of parenthood in America, and another night in which you’ll pray that God will help you to build a hedge of protection around your children before the culture steals their hearts away for good.
There’s no way to avoid the intrusion of popular culture into our homes and families, but we don’t have to let these instances exploit and influence our children. Instead, we can use those unplanned opportunities to instill conscience, character, and faith into the hearts and minds of the children God has entrusted to our care.
Educators use the phrase “teachable moments” to describe unforeseen and unexpected opportunities to veer away from a lesson plan in order to capitalize on something that sparks students’ interest. Teachable moments sometimes arise from the day’s headlines or from something that happens in pop culture. They can suggest themselves from something exciting that happens to an individual student, or from an unpleasant incident on the playground. The lessons these moments present aren’t necessarily obvious, or even directly related to the incident itself. Essentially, teachable moments are springboards for learning—any kind of learning, about anything at all.
Educators also use the term “intentional teacher.” According to researcher and author Dr. Ann Epstein, intentional teachers “act purposefully, with a goal in mind and a plan for accomplishing it. Intentional teaching is not an accident. When an unexpected situation arises, as it always does, intentional teachers recognize a teaching opportunity and are able to take advantage of it.”
Intentionality is crucial in parenting, too, especially if we hope to pass along the truth of the Gospel to our kids.
Years ago, my late mother-in-law, a lifelong educator, made an inadvertent comment that helped me to articulate the concept of intentionality. We were visiting her with our two eldest daughters, then four and two years old, and I disciplined them for some reason (who can remember why?). Grandma Nita came to the girls’ defense and said, “You don’t need to be so strict. Your girls are so good and so well-behaved!”
I smiled at her and said, “That’s not actually dumb luck, you know!”
Lots of folks think having “good kids” is just that—luck. But intentional parenting means thinking ahead about the character traits and moral development that you want for your children.
If, by definition, teachable moments are unplanned and unexpected, intentional parents must be vigilant and prepared to recognize them and use them for good. In that sense, any occurrence throughout a typical day could represent a teachable moment. Some come from the outside world, and some develop naturally in your family’s daily life.
External moments are those presented by popular culture and current events. They come to us through the media.
American media—once a conduit to receive a limited menu of information and entertainment—is now a fixture in our daily lives, offering a diet of content that quickly overwhelms our limited capacity. Aside from causing nearly constant sensory overload, this ubiquitous media presence means that the people who control the messages that our children consume have pulled up a seat at the family table. Their ideas, opinions, worldviews, and values now are among those that shape and mold our children’s character and conscience.
But media dissemination is no longer a one-way street; it’s aninteractive component woven into the fabric of our existence. It has changed not only our vocabulary, turning random nouns into verbs (“Facebook me!” “Text me!” “DM me!”), but also the ways we relate to our children and the ways they relate to the world. So as we look for teachable moments, we must not only address media consumption but also discuss the use of technology.
It will help to have some perspective about our kids’ generation. Researchers sometimes refer to our children as “Generation M”—Generation Media. In its study about the media habits of children aged eight to eighteen, the Kaiser Family Foundation found in 2010 that young Americans spend an average of seven hours and thirty-eight minutes per day engaged with media. The study also calculated media multi-tasking (surfing the net while watching TV, for example), which increased the total average media time to ten hours and forty-five minutes per day. And this didn’t even include texting!
Parents should be concerned about the amount of time our children spend with media. Study after study proves that the content of our modern media is influencing and molding our children’s character and values. Behaviors related to sex, violence, substance use, consumerism, body image, and interpersonal relationships are modeled in the media with alarming impact. But just as importantly, our children’s attitudes and opinions are formed based on the manner in which important subjects are portrayed in popular culture, and these ideas often are contrary to the tenets of Christianity. Given the conflicting moral messages with which they are constantly confronted, it’s no wonder children and teens are confused or indifferent about how to live the Gospel values.
Still, it’s important to remember that technology itself is morally neutral. Just as it can be used to compromise or even corrupt their souls, it also can be a tool to teach and promote the lessons our children need to live moral and faithful lives. Media devices can isolate us from one another, but if we use them in a positive way, they can bring us together. The trick is to have mastery over our media consumption, and not let media have mastery over us.
It’s not just the outside world as experienced through the media that offers teachable moments. Teachable moments also come simply from living our lives. Family relationships and friendships, sports and extracurricular activities, and episodes of growth and maturity create opportunities to teach valuable lessons. The American ethos itself has morphed in ways that require families to face delicate, difficult, and even dangerous realities. Venturing out into the community with our kids means confronting inadvertent exposure to behaviors and situations we’d rather they didn’t hear or see.
Waiting for a table at the chicken wing joint on a Sunday evening after church, trying to ignore a group of college guys comparing notes about the drunken debauchery they experienced the night before.
Or walking past the toy aisles at Walmart as a mom yells at her son, “Get the (bleep) over here!”
Or sitting with your son in the waiting room of an urgent care clinic and being forced to overhear a stranger describe her personal medical issues to her boyfriend over her cell phone.
Not that any of these things ever happened to my family!
Each of these scenarios is a teachable moment. Intentional parents can use everything—cultural intrusions, gritty or awkward encounters, and personal triumphs and hardships—to communicate about what’s important.
There’s another reason why teachable moments are so critical: not infusing our values and beliefs into those moments sends an equally powerful message that the values of the dominant popular culture are A-okay with you.
To be sure, many teachable moments will feel excruciating to you and your kids. It’s not always comfortable to address the incidents that come to our attention. But if we’re going to fulfill our obligations as parents, ignoring them isn’t an option. The alternative is a society where the moral void in the hearts of our children is filled with relativism, superficiality, and even wickedness. Here’s a tragic example of what I mean.
A Cautionary Tale: Absent a Compass
In September 2010, Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi, aged eighteen, took his own life by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. Tyler had discovered that his roommate, Dharun Ravi, had spied on him during a gay sexual encounter by using a webcam in their shared dorm room. Worse, Dharun had invited others to watch along with him.
Dharun, an immature and morally inept young adult, was sentenced to only thirty days in prison, followed by three years of probation, three thousand hours of community service, and training about the use of technology and “alternative lifestyles.” He could have gone to jail for ten years for creating the humiliation and emotional distress that appears to have been the reason for Tyler’s suicide, but the judge apparently determined that his motives weren’t evil, just infantile.
Dharun’s conviction for invasion of privacy, bias intimidation, and tampering with a witness and evidence in the aftermath of Tyler’s death revealed the complete bankruptcy of conscience with which he operated. (He attempted to delete certain texts and online communications in an apparent effort to mitigate his role in causing his roommate’s emotional state).
Punctuating the case, juror Lynn Audet said after the verdict, “Deletion is futile. Text messages, tweets, emails, iChats are never gone. Be careful. I’ve already told my kids, be careful. If you’re going to put something in writing, be able to back it up.”
Underscoring the superficial morality that guides our nation’s youngest generation, the best we can come up with seems to be: “Your love of technology may come back to bite you in the butt, so watch what you say in cyberspace.”
Not exactly the lesson I would be going for in such a teachable moment.
When the story of Tyler Clementi’s sad suicide made headlines, I discussed it with my then–middle school daughter. When I told her that one roommate had invaded another’s privacy in such a brash and callous way, her indignant response was, “Who DOES that?”
One answer says it was Dharun, the immature college boy. He wasn’t malicious, his defense attorney said, but rather he meant to “pwn” (a purposeful misspelling of the word “own”—to pwn someone is to more than just own them) his roommate with a thoughtless prank. A prank? Really?
The alternative explanation—the one that gained so much traction in the media after Tyler’s death—is that Dharun exemplified the intolerance of homosexuality that prompts the bullying now epidemic across our country. Not to sound cynical, but that was a convenient conclusion for the folks promoting the gay agenda, despite the fact that Dharun had plenty of gay friends to vouch for his open-mindedness.
This was my brash conclusion: Dharun wasn’t a homophobe or a prankster. He was a kid without a moral compass.
People with a well-developed conscience know that it is always wrong to invade the privacy of another person. Moreover, they are capable of holding whatever opinion they choose about another person without acting on that opinion, whether the issue is sexuality or race or obesity or intelligence or gender. You may dislike someone because that person looks at you funny or has an obnoxious laugh or is smarter than you. You just can’t torment him or her. That’s wrong. It’s always wrong, no matter why you do it.
Put another way, there are some things you just don’t do.
This is what’s known as a moral imperative. Unfortunately, Dharun’s moral compass—the thing that should have pointed him toward true north and a path of correct behavior—was as immature as his ultimate course of action.
This sort of senseless, heartless episode is what happens when human beings are not molded in conscience and character. Because, as my then-twelve-year-old succinctly put it, good people don’t do things like that.
The Character Crisis
We’re all about “crises” in our country. In the past several years, we’ve had a credit crisis, a housing crisis, and an employment crisis, and soon we’re expecting a student loan crisis. These social and political calamities always get their own logos and theme songs on the news. That’s how you know it’s a “crisis.”
Despite the seriousness of these social disasters, they don’t compare to the real catastrophe we face: the crisis of our children’s character, as evidenced by the behavior of Dharun Ravi in the death of Tyler Clementi. I picked their story because it is shocking and tragic, and it ought to be inconceivable. But I could have used the story of the thirteen- and fourteen-year-old boys in East Harlem who tossed a shopping cart off a four-story walkway—for fun—hitting an innocent wife and mother walking below, who happened to be buying Halloween candy for underprivileged children. She was in a medically induced coma for a while and permanently lost her vision in one eye, but in court the boys said they were sorry, so there’s that.
Or I could have used the humiliating incident of the physically mature eleven-year-old Pennsylvania girl caught “sexting” topless photos of herself to her classmates. The parent of one of the recipients of her nude photos alerted authorities, who contacted the girl’s parents, who of course had no clue their not-even-teenage-daughter was doing such a thing.
Or I could have told the heart-wrenching tale of the Connecticut Boy Scout who committed suicide on the first day of school after years of bullying by his classmates. A friend described the boy as quirky and odd. He was from Poland and had only lived in the US for a few brutal and humiliating years, so maybe the kids at school were still trying to get to know him.
These stories and others like them make me ask myself: Where are we going, and why are we in this handbasket?
To be sure, some studies, such as those conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project, claim that today’s young adults are not morally insufficient, but in fact share the moral and religious opinions of their elders. Statistics such as “76 percent of eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds believe there are absolute standards of right and wrong” prompted at least one snarky editorial to note that those who are worried about moral decay in our country are just overreacting. And we’re not hip, either.
Unfortunately, opinion research doesn’t jibe with studies about the behavior and habits of young people. To put it bluntly, a large swath of America’s young people wouldn’t know right or wrong if it took a bite out of their corndog. Teens and young adults ar...
"About this title" may belong to another edition of this title.