Why I Stopped Teaching My Kids the Wrong Lesson About Hard Work

If you work hard enough, you can accomplish anything. It sounds like great advice. But in the end, it’s a total disaster…

working too hard

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Last week, I was packing my family for a twelve-hour spring break car trip from Chicago to Atlanta. We had anticipated the trip for months. In Atlanta, my kids would reconnect with a cousin, I would see a childhood friend after seven years apart, and my wife would be recognized at a conference for the publication of her first textbook—a celebration of three years of painstaking work.

Days earlier, my daughter had spilled yogurt all over her car seat. I was in the kitchen, scrubbing at the seat with rags, when my oldest son remarked, “Dad, I don’t think you can get it clean.” I looked at him, gritted my jaw, and announced, “Buddy, if you work hard enough, you can do anything.”

I was running a high fever at the time.

In fact, I had been running a high fever for several days. I had the flu. And not a run-of-the-mill kind of bug—I was infected with a ferocious beast that had me aching and chilled and exhausted. My wife was sick, too. Yet, insisting hard work would win the day, I continued packing for our vacation.

Forty-eight hours later, I would be telling my son something entirely different…

A Daddy’s Letter to His Daughter (About Bossiness, Power, and Authority)

Dear Little One,

Yesterday, I overheard your brother tell you, “You’ll always be a little sister.” And you responded, with all the fire we have come to expect of you, “I’m not always going to be a little girl—I’m going to be a big person!”

You are four years-old, and you may be little on the outside, but there is nothing little about you on the inside.

ban bossy

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However, your brother will not be the last person to make you feel little on the inside. And I’m guessing someone will try to keep you feeling small with one teeny, tiny word:


With that word, they want you to remain small in the one place that really matters: your heart. They know the truth: sticks and stones can break your bones, but names can really shame you. Shame you into silence.

I don’t think they’re doing it on purpose. They’re just doing what powerful people do—instinctively clinging to their power. Men, in particular, will be inclined to use BOSSY on you. I don’t blame them. Most men have been taught from birth to believe their own worth is predicated on being strong, powerful, and in control. They’re just doing what they’ve been trained to do:

They want you to doubt the authority residing at the center of you.

The dictionary defines authority as “a persuasive force.” I’m in awe of your persuasive force. But the world will be terrified of it. Because when the “little” people on the margins of the world begin to feel strong—when the powerless begin to sense the authority hibernating in their hearts—the powerful tremble.

So when someone calls you BOSSY, I hope you will respond with two little words of your own:

Thank you.

And then tell them you have banned BOSSY in the most important place of all: your heart.

This is the beginning of a letter I wrote for Disney’s Babble.com, in conjunction with LeanIn.org’s “Ban Bossy Campaign.” To read the rest of the letter click here.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.


Next Post: Confessions of a Parent (From the Dinner Table)

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Marriage is Not a Convenience Store

What do an all-inclusive resort, a mobile device, a phone company, and marriage all have in common? We have come to expect the same thing from all of them: one-stop, all-in-one convenience.


Last August, my wife and I attended a conference in Honolulu. The hotel had three restaurants, two bars, six gift shops, a convenience store, a business center, two pools, and beach access. You could fly to Hawaii and have a perfect vacation, without ever leaving your hotel.

All-inclusive convenience.

As consumers, we have come to expect this.

An iPhone is a one-stop shop in our pockets: phone, email, text, iPod, maps, news, personal calendar, family calendar, eBook reader(s), weather forecasts, Netflix and YouTube, and the list goes on and on.

All-in-one convenience.

As consumers, we have been trained to feel entitled to this.

In Chicago, AT&T bundles home phone, mobile phone, internet, and cable service. They recently added home security. I wonder when they’ll add babysitting to the bundle. I bet they’re beta testing it right now.

As consumers, we’ve been sold a lucrative lie called convenience, and it has infiltrated every aspect of our lives.

Including marriage.

An Invitation to Dance Like No One is Watching

The ugliest thing in a person is ultimately essential to preserving the beautiful thing we are becoming…

true self

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My son pulls a book called Wonder out of his backpack. His face is full of resolve, and I ask him why he looks so serious. He tells me kids at his school keep returning the book to the library within the first fifty pages, because they get too emotional. I ask him if the same fate will befall him. He says, like the tough guy the world is training him to be, “Nah, I won’t cry.”

Two days later, he walks out of his bedroom, his face now full of crumbled resolve, and he puts the book in front of my wife. So she picks it up, and I lose her for a day, as she disappears into the fictional world:

Into Auggie’s world.

The story of an eleven-year-old boy born with extreme facial deformities.

The story of a boy beginning public school for the first time, venturing into the wild, where his tender heart is the prey, and his peers are the predators.

My curiosity gets the best of me and I start reading the book and the story does something completely unexpected to me: it turns some more of my hate into gratitude.

What Your Parents Never Told You About How the World Works

Parents want to protect their children. But in doing so, they tend to omit some vital details about life. How often does a parent tell a child people are basically good and beautiful, and the world is benevolent, and love can be trusted?


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Sometime in December—as this long, bitter, snow-buried winter descended upon Chicago—my wife was accosted by a squirrel.

She was walking out our front door when it ran up our sidewalk directly at her. She retreated inside and called us to the front door, where we looked out at the rodent through the pane of glass—the biggest, heaviest squirrel I’ve ever seen, sitting upright on our front porch, staring at us.

It was like Man Vs. Wild Goes to the Suburbs.

“Is it rabid?” my wife asked.

I scanned it for symptoms and didn’t see any. Incredulously, I responded, “I don’t think so. I think it just wants…food.”

I grabbed a scrap of bread, tossed it at his feet, and he proceeded to eat the entire thing right in front of us. And then he stared at us again, silently asking for more. We gave it to him and he disappeared around a tree.

That was three months ago. The ridiculous, record-setting winter continues, and several times a week, we look out our back door to find our big squirrel, perched on the deck railing, staring into our kitchen, waiting for food.

Recently, as I watched him eat and marveled at the size of him, it dawned on me: we’re not his only benefactors. In this long, hard winter, our squirrel is thriving because he’s learned one thing many people never learn: he exists in a benevolent world.

He’s learned to ask for good things until love responds.

Don’t Let Fear Have the Last Laugh

I used to think fear and fun could not exist together. Now I’m wondering if it’s possible to embrace any life or seize any day if they exist apart

fear and fun

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I’m writing this at an altitude of thirty-thousand feet.

The plane is bouncing like Jell-O.

We’re flying toward a Chicago winter storm, and we’re flying away from our adventure in New York—away from our appearance on the TODAY Show. The turbulence is a fitting end to an anxiety-filled week in which nothing was familiar or comfortable or predictable. As the plane jiggles, I try to make my fear go away by running through my bag of psychological tricks:

Deep breathing. I take long, slow breaths and try to create feelings of relaxation. It doesn’t work.

Visual imagery. I visualize a smooth landing in Chicago and tell myself it’ll all be over soon. But the phrase “it will all be over soon” isn’t terribly comforting when your plane feels like a roller coaster.

Cognitive restructuring. I try to challenge my fearful thoughts by recalling reassuring statistics— didn’t I read somewhere you’re more likely to get killed by an alligator at the North Pole than get in a plane crash? But that isn’t very helpful, either. Because it reminds me that crazy things do happen, like alligator tragedies in the Arctic Circle.

With my eyes shut tightly, I’m making my fear worse by trying to control it.

When Fear Rides Along

I used to think the goal of therapy was to help people vanquish their fear. Now, I think a goal of therapy is to help people vanquish that idea.

Can We All Agree On One Thing About Beauty?

Tomorrow, my daughter and I will appear on the TODAY Show.

A friend of my son asked my wife, with the kind of skepticism only a fourth-grader can muster, “Why do they want Mr. Flanagan on the show?” My wife responded, somewhat skeptically herself, “I guess they think he has more to say.” The young lady just laughed, rolled her eyes, and returned to her play.

Kids will keep you humble.


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But I do have a little more to say, because the letter to my daughter wasn’t complete. Near the end of the letter, I wrote about the last question I ask her every night: “Where are you the most beautiful?” And her answer: “On the inside.”

Why do I use the word most?

Because the last question of the night is always preceded by another question: “Are you beautiful on the outside?” And her answer: “Yes.”

Yes, I’m beautiful on the outside and, at the same time, I can affirm I’m most beautiful on the inside.

Can We Agree?

We have to ask both questions of our girls and, frankly, of ourselves. Without both questions, we end up thinking dualistically about beauty, and we end up in unfruitful debates about whether makeup is good or bad, or whether women who wear makeup are really strong or actually insecure. We end up picking sides and fighting it out.

But this is not an either-or debate.

It’s a both-and conversation. And we need to treat it as such, because we need all women together on this one. In fact, if we hope to stand strong against the messages about beauty and worth bombarding us, we need all women and all men together on this one.

The Only Guaranteed Cure for the Fear of Public Embarrassment

When we quit admitting we’re wrong, we’ve quit growing up. If we’re afraid of being caught in the act of our own immaturity, we will forever be afraid to grow… 


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I got caught red-handed.

By a bunch of observant readers right in the middle of a viral blog post—a letter I wrote to my daughter about the real source of her beauty.

Near the beginning of the letter, I wrote, “When you have a daughter you start to realize she’s just as strong as everyone else in the house—a force to be reckoned with, a soul on fire with the same life and gifts and passions as any man.”

You start to realize. Start.

Vigilant readers asked, “But what about all the women you knew before your daughter? What about your wife?”

I read the comments to my wife, secretly hoping for a little reassurance. Instead, she raised her eyebrows. And her strong eyes—the fierce eyes I fell in love with—asked their own simple question, “Well?”

My daughter comes by her passion honestly.

So, I had to sit with how to respond to such an accusation. I had to sift through all the layers of self-protection and defensiveness to settle into this response:

Good catch.

I have to respond that way, because the truth is, if we’re afraid of being caught in the act of our own immaturity, we will forever be afraid to grow.

Why One Text Message is More Romantic Than a Hundred Valentine Cards

On Valentine’s Day, we try to purchase romance with one night of intense togetherness. But romance can’t be purchased, and the most romantic things may be the things we do for each other when we’re not together…

Valentine's Day

I was an adult when I met my wife, but she turned my world upside down—I dropped about a decade from my psyche and started acting like a kid again. Around the clock, she was perched on the edge of every thought. It didn’t matter if we were in the same room or not, she was always with me.

I started writing a bunch of cheesy poetry.

Maybe all true love begins like cheesy poetry.

But it can’t last that way, can it? No relationship can sustain the passion and intensity of its earliest days—no jobs would get done, no kids would get raised, nobody would sleep. The world would grind to a halt if young love was in charge.

Yet, something essential is happening in the early days of our love, something we should not relinquish as the years pile up. We must extract it, preserve it, and live it with each new dawn.

Psychologists call it object permanence.

We All Hear Voices (Which Ones Are You Listening To?)

The world is full of voices and they all have an opinion about us. Life is about deciding which voices to let in, and learning how to keep the rest of the voices out…


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“People before points.”

It’s something I say to my kids—a reminder that people are more important than victories. Sometimes the kids remember. Sometimes they don’t. To be honest, sometimes I remember and sometimes I don’t.

The sun was slipping behind the trees and our breath was becoming visible in the twilight, when my oldest son forgot. A game of football with the neighborhood kids and one young lady dropped one too many passes and my son said one too many critical things and her eyes spilled tears and she sprinted for home.

Points before people. Whoops.

I encouraged my son to follow her and offer an apology. I admired his courage as he followed her home and knocked on her door. Her father answered. I watched my son’s lips move and I watched a look of anger pass over the father’s face before he closed the door. I don’t really blame the father—if some punk kid makes my daughter cry over a football game, I’m likely to circle the wagons, too.

Yet my son returned, tears now streaking his face, and he said, “Daddy, I apologized and he didn’t say anything. He just looked at me like I was a monster.” And then, choking on the question, “Am I a monster, Daddy?”

The world is full of voices and they all have a different opinion about us. Which ones will we listen to?