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November 15, 2013

The More We Protect, The Less We Prepare

Image: Flickr/Reddy Aprianto

Image: Flickr/Reddy Aprianto

I have to admit I’m not in my happiest of places these days—I’m in my “writing mode.” Or, as my literature teacher wife would call it, “The Winter of Our Discontent.” See, I’ve recently begun writing my next book, tentatively titled “Launching Hope.” It’s an effort to help parents lead their adolescents into productive adulthood, and if this book creation experience is anything like the two previous, then my family can expect several months of moodiness, challenging fits of emotional reactivity, and alternating bouts of exhilarated hope and desperate doubts about the future. Kinda like adolescence itself. (Without the acne, I hope).

One of the themes of the book is (or, will be, I should say) about how much of the angst of adolescence, for both teens and their parents, stems from a shared misunderstanding of the whole phase itself. And of each other. What far too many families are experiencing is a dreaded tug-of-war, with kids struggling to be older too soon, and parents wanting kids to be younger for too long. What ends up happening is the worst of all ironies: young adults ill-equipped to move on, and parents wondering if they will ever move out.

I have had the pleasure of working with teenagers and their parents, in various capacities, for about 20 years. And during those years as a marriage and family therapist, high school teacher, youth minister, and speaker, I have seen countless examples of parents who, thankfully, did things differently. These different folks did not see their kids as just kids. They saw their offspring as apprenticing adults, designed to grow up and go out, and therefore, these parents believed it was their job as parents to train these kids to do just that.

The starkest example of this visionary parenting I ever encountered occurred years before I ever became a therapist. It did not involve a family I knew or had the pleasure to watch develop over the years. But I now believe it has had more influence on shaping my own thoughts about parenting, particularly leading teenagers into adulthood, than any other personal, professional, or educational experience.

That fateful day was some 16 years ago, and it occurred during my brief stint as a youth minister working with teens in a church in California. I was leading a caravan of parents and teenagers back up “the 5” from Los Angeles to the Bay Area. My wife Jenny was in the car with me, along with our then one-year-old daughter, Hannah. We had all just spent a couple of long days at Disneyland, and we were all exhaustedly heading home. About midway through the drive, it became clear that we weren’t the only ones exhausted that day.

While cruising at 70mph, I noticed an SUV, a few cars in front of us, starting to drift left towards the center rail. This drift must have awakened, or at least startled, the driver into action, because suddenly the SUV swerved hard to the right. It was an obvious overcorrection, for the vehicle zoomed across the freeway, lost complete control, and started flipping violently onto the side of the road. This instantly created a huge cloud of dust, but through it all I could see debris flying everywhere out of the vehicle. I could also see all the cars around us coming to a tire-shrieking stop. This was a serious accident, and we all needed to help.

Mine was the second car on the scene. I urged Jenny to stay in the car with Hannah. I rushed over there, anticipating God knows what. A few of our teens and parents came out from the cars behind me. It was one of those movie scenes where all these people are running to assist, until they actually get close to the action. Then everyone involuntarily slows down as they view the horror.

One woman had been thrown from the vehicle, her body convulsing on the ground. It seemed obvious she was dying. There were conscious cries for help coming from inside the Jeep, along with a screaming baby. Various automobile fluids were spreading out in every direction, and, I hate to say it, some bodily fluids as well. The smells were just as active, and disorienting. Everything I sensed was slowing my progression toward the scene, despite my desires to help. This was the case with all the other well-meaning witnesses, as well.

Except for three.

I mentioned mine was the second car on the scene. Ahead of me was a station wagon that pulled off ahead of the crash. Flying out of that car was a man and his two teenaged sons. Unlike the rest of us, there was no slow down in their approach. Not even from the two boys, whom I later found out were 16 and 13. No, what I noticed was that these three actually seemed to be speeding up as they discerned the severity of the accident.

And I noticed something else: the father had a large emergency kit in his hand, and all three were in the process of putting on white latex gloves. Apparently this man was a professional EMT, one who just happened to be at the right place at the right time. This became obvious as we all eventually reached the carnage.

In a remarkable display of leadership, this father was quickly taking charge of everyone’s desires to help. He gave each of us some basic instructions:

You, sir, go check on the woman on the ground. Don’t move her at all, just touch her neck with your two fingers, and yell out to me if she’s breathing. You, there, tell me if you see any active gasoline leaks coming from the underside of the vehicle. You (he was now looking at me), come with us.

“Us” meant the dad and his boys, and we all headed to the inside of the crashed SUV. Or, I should say, the three of them led me there. This is because what the dad and his boys began to demonstrate was a remarkable teamwork, which created such a compelling competence that I actually felt somewhat comfortable with the invitation.

Inside the SUV were three people: the driver, knocked unconscious; a large woman in the backseat, screaming in pain; and, most distressingly, a baby in a car seat, screaming even louder. I was, of course, struck dumbfounded by the scene. But I was not allowed to stay there in shock. See, as the dad checked on the baby, he started communicating to his sons in very calm, very clear professional terms:

Okay, Steven (the 13-year-old), place your two fingers on the driver’s carotidartery.  Check to make sure her trachea is not resting directly on the steering wheel. Okay, Michael (the 16-year-old), you and the man next to you (me) need to see if you can supinate that woman’s foot, so her leg can release from underneath the seat. Be careful, she’s got a compound fracture of her right femur.

Then, after responding with a clear “yes, sir,” Michael began to lead me the same way as his father:

Sir, could you move to her anterior side and hold her hand while I turn her foot? Be careful of her leg, sir, she’s in a lot of pain. Okay, that’s good. Don’t worry about her screaming, sir; it means she’s not going into shock.

On it went. Needless to say, I was out of my element. But thanks to a sixteen-year-old’s calm (and calming) instruction, we were actually able to help pry the woman from the seat, and eventually the car. She was in bad shape, but okay. And thanks to the dad’s leadership (and a fantastic car seat!), the baby was removed unharmed; just some glass in her hair. The driver was eventually revived as well.

As the ambulance arrived, and the teams of emergency professionals relieved us of our duties, I actually felt genuinely helpful. I could almost understand the appeal of being a first responder.

But I was not the story. This father and his two sons were the story. Here was a man who, most likely, spent the better part of his days dealing with the very worst life has to offer. Accidents, violence, blood, death. As a therapist, I’ve worked with a number of first responders, and the things they wish they could un-see far outnumber what any human should. But this was a dad who did not want to shield his boys from all this horror; he actually wanted to strategically expose them to it. This father did not want to protect his children from the real world all its potential ugliness; he actually wanted to prepare them for it.

And prepared these two boys were. Michael and Steven were in no way shocked by this scene in the California desert, they were compelled by it. These teenagers were in no way unprepared to handle this crisis of life; they were actually leading other adults through it. Lives were saved because of it.

Lives were changed as well. Mine, in particular. No, I didn’t go home and write some manifesto on the virtues of preparing our teens for life (that’s what I’m trying to do here, some 16 years later). But I have to say that walking and working through such an ordeal, and witnessing such a profound model of parental leadership, has undoubtedly affected the way I try to lead my kids into adulthood, and teach others to do the same.

So, what is that “way” of parenting? I’ll let you know as I continue writing…

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