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From Violence to VirtuesMay 24, 2015
When my husband, Dr. Dan Popov, my brother John Kavelin and I started The Virtues Project more than twenty five years ago, the leading cause of death of youth age 15 to 24 was murder, car accidents and suicide. We were inspired to do something about this rising violence, keeping our children at risk at their own hands and those of others.
Years before, as a therapist in an urban mental health clinic, I was seeing teens who had attempted suicide. One day I went to the head psychiatrist, and said, "Why am I seeing all these kids after a suicide attempt? Shouldn't we do something for prevention?" He smiled and said, "Do it!" "What do you mean, do it?" "Come up with a program," he said. This was years before our family founded The Virtues Project and I didn't yet have the tools it offers. So, I went off to pray and think, and decided to ask the teens themselves what would have been helpful before they became desperate enough to attempt suicide. Although in many cases it had more to do with peer bullying or a failed romance than their relationship with their parents, many did say, "Fix my parents!" Often I heard, "I just can't talk to them".
In those days, in the U.S., there were parenting programs such as PET, Parent Effectiveness Training, which taught parents how to talk and more importantly how to listen to their children. Using some of that information and other ideas which came from my therapeutic practice, I set up a program that included individual and family therapy as well as a course for parents on something simple yet rarely practiced – how to be present to their children -- how to talk so their children would listen and how to listen so their children would talk. One of the main ingredients of the six week course was anger management, because people who feel helpless become angry. The goal was to give parents some skills to empower them, relieving the vulnerability to helpless rage. Even though the course was just a shadow of what became The Virtues Project years later, it worked. The suicide rate went down, and families became happier and more unified. At the end of the six weeks, I had a private session with Katy, a bright, pretty teen who had survived attempted suicide. I asked her, "Of all the things we did – your individual sessions, the family sessions, the parenting course, what was the most helpful?" She said, "I don't know what you did to fix my parents, but it worked. It was that course. My mom doesn't beat me anymore, she asks questions. It's a miracle."
What is the miracle, you may wonder? Here are a few simple tips to move from violence to virtues:
- Appreciate the good in children. Catch them in the act of committing a virtue. Replace shaming with naming virtues. Replace words that put them down like "lazy", "stupid", "good for nothing" with words that lift them up. Whether praising or correcting, use virtues such as "helpful", "peaceful", "honest", "loving." "Please be helpful" or "Thanks for being helpful!"
- Appreciate the good in yourself. Don't blame yourself and sink into guilt when your children make mistakes or do bad things. Be grateful for your own love and loyalty to them. Focus on simple changes you can make to improve the relationship.
- The three most important things to do are: Listen, listen, and listen. Ask what and how questions rather than giving quick advice. "What was it like for you when you were bullied?" "What's the hardest thing about John breaking up with you?" rather than "There are plenty of fish in the sea".
When I was on the Oprah show with The Family Virtues Guide, she said, "Parenting is the hardest job on earth. Kids don't come with a guidebook. This is one." She referred to our book as the best guide for raising kids to do the right thing. Okay I admit that was name dropping. I hope it got your attention.