Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Charlie's Uncle Gave Him "The Talk"

My old friend Charlie told me this story.

When he was 12, his uncle took him out for breakfast and they talked all morning. His uncle wasn’t at all like his dad, who was stern, demanding and hard to talk to. By contrast, his uncle was relaxed and fun to be with. In summary, the chat went something like this:
Charlie, pretty soon you’re going to be a teenager. Up until now, you’ve been a boy. But pretty quick your body is going to grow and change into a man’s body. When your adolescence is over, you’ll be an adult. So being a teenager is about preparing yourself for the rest of your life – whether you’ll be smart and successful or whether you’ll be just another loser. And man, you’ve got a lot to learn. I can help you with some of that along the way, and so can your parents. And your teachers and your baseball coach. And other people who care about you.

Also, you're going to have a lot of fun. You’re going to make good friends and have good times. And not just guys. You’ll hang out with girls, too. You’ll learn a lot about girls. Some of these people will remain friends all your life. It’s going to be cool.

But it’s also kind of a dangerous time, Charlie. If you aren’t careful, if you don’t think before you act, you could get into a lot of trouble. I want to talk to you a little bit about sex and how to handle yourself. About drugs and alcohol. Your buddies are going to feel like grown-ups long before they're actually grown up. They’re going to want you to do things with them that sound exciting but may be risky or illegal. You could get hurt. You could get thrown in jail. I want to show you how to say “no thanks” and still keep your respect with these guys.

You know, every single thing you do will have a consequence. You'll do something, and it will cause something else to happen. Sometimes the consequence will be small and trivial. Other times the consequence could be enormous. The trick is to always think about the potential consequences of what you do. Let me give you an example…..

In a friendly, casual way, his uncle went into a lot of detail. He told Charlie things most kids never hear. He gave him the “big picture” about what being a teenager is about and how to handle himself.

At the end of the talk, his uncle said. “Charlie, I want you to promise me something. When your friends want you to go along with them and something inside you tells you this could have bad consequences, I want you to stop and think about what could happen. I want you to remember the things we talked about today. Will you do that?”

Of course Charlie said, “Yes.”

He told me that he took the talk seriously. He said it meant a lot to him while he was growing up, that it helped him steer clear of all kinds of trouble. Not that he was a perfect kid, whatever that is. He did a few things he shouldn’t have, but somehow he escaped the consequences. But most of the time whenever he was tempted to do something he knew he shouldn’t do, something exciting, he remembered his uncle and the talk they had. He said that talk was one of the luckiest things that ever happened to him.

When Charlie told me this story I thought how extremely fortunate he was. The fact that his uncle took the initiative and pulled it off is almost miraculous. This kind of thing almost never happens. Yes, kids often have experienced, caring adults in their lives, but it almost never happens that one of them will take the time to put things in perspective and tell a young person the truth about the all-important teen years. In fact, I’ve talked to quite a few people about their teen years, and Charlie is the only person I’ve ever met who had a “wise uncle experience.”

Why? Because there’s a lot to say, and adults know they’re not experts in these matters. They know little or nothing about some of the most important issues. Besides, their own teen journey was probably a mixed bag. So even if they care about the young person, they don’t have the confidence to say the right things.

It made me think of my own teen years. No one ever sat me down and explained what was going on. I had plenty of uncles—twelve of them to be exact. But they lived in other parts of the country and I didn’t see them very often. If they gave me any wisdom it was imbedded in the occasional hints, jokes and small talk over the years. And my parents were so busy with work, taking care of my younger brothers and sisters, and getting through each day that they didn’t spell things out for me, either.

During middle school and high school, a few adults took an interest in me: a scoutmaster, a wrestling coach, an English teacher, an elder in my church. Later in life I had mentors who gave me advice. These people had a positive influence on my life, and I feel fortunate to have known them. So maybe if I combined all these random inputs into one hypothetical person, it would add up to my version of a “wise uncle.” Almost. Sort of.

So Charlie was really, really lucky. I know it sounds idealistic, but it makes me wish that every young person in the world could experience that wise uncle talk. Ever since Charlie told me that story, I've been thinking about all the trouble, pain and loss that could be avoided. The impact would be enormous.

And that's why I wrote these books...

Conversations with the Wise Uncle (for boys)

Conversations with the Wise Aunt (for girls)

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2011. Building Personal Strength
. (Permission to use image purchased from fotolia.net)

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