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Are Your Kids Sleeping with the Enemy?

This past summer, my 15-year-old niece spent about 2 weeks with me. I always look forward to spending time with her. She lives with her mother—my sister—full time. Since her dad has not been around as much as she would like, I, as her uncle, have become a “Double Duty Dad” to her.

In any case, whenever we are together, it’s always a unique opportunity to get a peek into what’s happening in the teen world these days. On this occasion, I decided to ask her about texting, which was an appropriate topic since her cell phone, like most teen’s phones, appeared to be surgically connected to her hand. So, I asked if she ever had a problem with her friends sending her text messages during the school year, late into the night. She quickly told me “absolutely” and that it’s a big problem. Although she knew that she needed to get her rest, she admitted that she is extremely tempted to respond to these nightly messages, lest she miss some important “news.”

My conversation with my niece caused me to consider two things. First, I could not help but think about the countless number of children who are engaged in nocturnal texting while their dads think that they are fast asleep. Second, I could not help but wonder why a dad would allow his child to keep a cell phone in his or her room overnight anyway. Let’s face it, unless a kid is a “first responder” (i.e. an EMT, firefighter or police officer) or President of the United States, there is really no reason—despite what a kid may say—for them to have a cell phone overnight. In fact, the more that they protest, the more reason there is for you make the nighttime bedroom a "no cell phone zone." Indeed, to quote Hamlet: "[They] doth protest too much, methinks.”

Now, you may think that I am being a bit harsh, or that I am a cell phone hating troglodyte who wants to make living with your teen…well, complicated. Nothing could be further from the truth. As a dad who raised two teen boys, I remember well the challenges and the need to pick your battles. But, if your teen is “sleeping with the enemy,” much is at stake. Here’s why.

Recently, bestselling author Po Bronson along with Ashley Merryman wrote a great book called, “Nurture Shock—New Thinking About Children.” It’s an excellent book that I highly recommend. But even if you can’t read the whole book, I strongly suggest that you read the chapter titled, “The Lost Hour,” which discusses the fact that children are getting an hour less sleep than they did thirty years ago. Bronson and Merryman lay out clearly the considerable research that suggests that this lost hour costs our kids IQ points.

Also, a lack of sleep has also been linked to a negative impact on a child’s emotional well-being, ADHD, obesity, and “fall asleep” car accidents. Furthermore, the impact of lost sleep is especially critical for teens because of the change in their circadian clock as they move through puberty.

Let’s face it. As a “tech savvy daddy,” it’s just as important to know how to limit your children’s use of technology as it is to know when and how to encourage them to embrace it. I know this can be difficult because technology tends to change faster than parenting techniques. That’s why I encourage all dads to step into the mix on this issue. Trust me. Your kids will sleep better. And so will you.

The DC Sniper Story Revisited: Before the "Aftermath"

A few days ago, William Shatner, as part of his new A&E show called Aftermath, interviewed DC sniper, Lee Malvo. I have spoken and written about Malvo frequently over the years because his situation impacted me in several very personal ways.

First, at the time of the shootings, I had just moved from the Philadelphia area—the City of Brotherly Love—to the DC area. Now, Philly, despite the moniker, was no bastion of safety and security but at least we didn’t have to deal with snipers. I remember well that random activities like walking my dog, getting gas and loading groceries in the car became random acts of courage. It was indeed a very scary time that still haunts me a bit today.

Second, they caught Muhammad and Malvo sleeping at a rest stop in Maryland on Route 70. It turns out that this stop is the next exit up from my wife’s office. She is a family practice doctor in a little town called Myersville. It’s a very isolated and rural place and her office is just a “rock throw” from the highway. There’s a little BP gas station across the street from her office where she often fills her tank. You get the point…I have thanked God often that an alert trucker spotted Muhammad and Malvo’s car that October night.

Finally, I remember well the morning that the news reported Muhammad and Malvo had been caught. What especially caught my attention was that they said that the suspects were a 38 year-old man and a 17 year-old boy. I instinctively looked over at my 17 year-old son and thought: What would it take to turn him into someone who would shoot a woman in the face with no remorse? There’s a fatherhood story in here somewhere. Sure enough, a few days later, the Washington Post reported that they had found Lee Malvo’s father who had essentially abandoned him years ago. And the rest, tragically, is history.

In any case, what makes the Malvo story “news” now is that a celebrity is interviewing him and that he has suggested that there were supposed to be other snipers involved. That’s fine. But what makes this story important for me is what made it important years ago. Malvo’s story is less about crime than about how crime is connected to father absence.

“He was a kid who was brainwashed. He was a malleable teenager and lacking love in his life," Shatner said. "John Muhammad supplies the love and influences him to become a killer, and he becomes a coldblooded killer at the age of 17.”

Shatner’s statement is on point but it’s incomplete. Malvo had a mom who seemed to care about him but what he didn’t have was a loving father. Indeed, Muhammad did more than “supply” love. He became the father that Malvo longed for much of his young life. Of note, psychiatrist Diane Schetky, who served as an expert witness for the defense at Malvo's 2003 trial, quoted him as saying of Muhammad, “Anything he asked me to do I'd do. He knew I didn't have a father. He knew my weaknesses and what was missing.”

I often talk about “what was missing” in a child’s life—it’s a hole in a kid’s soul in the shape of his dad. Unfortunately, still today, Malvo shares a potential “weakness” with millions of other kids who are more at-risk to become prey for the many “Muhammads” of this world. However, these guys don’t always come as sniper trainers but rather as gang leaders, pimps and drug dealers who encourage children to sell their bodies and their souls.

It’s worth noting that a disproportionate number of Malvo’s fellow inmates tend to grow up in father absent homes. Despite this fact, we have done too little to address father absence in our nation. Indeed, most of the fatherhood programs that are committed to addressing this issue are grossly underfunded. I know that in NFI’s case, despite that great work that we have been doing to educate and inspire dads and the many testimonials from fathers, mothers and, even kids about the good work we do, it is a daily challenge to raise the needed funds for our important work. But, we press on because the stakes are high and we don’t have a fatherless kid to spare.

I suspect that Shatner’s Aftermath show will do well. Sadly, it seems that time and again we are more interested in the entertainment of the “aftermath” than what needs to be done beforehand to prevent it.

"Say Uncle"

As President of NFI, I speak quite a bit about the need for dads to intentionally reach out and be “father figures” and mentors for children in father-absent homes. So, inevitably, since I grew up without my father around much, I am asked if a dad reached out to me. Well, the answer is “yes.”

He entered my life when I was about 7-years-old, around the time that my parents split up. Despite having a child of his own, he took time with my siblings and me. Interestingly, when my older brother and I first met him, he was introduced to us as “John,” but for some reason, we decided to call him “Uncle,” not Uncle John…just Uncle. Kids do the darndest things…

In any case, when I was 8-years-old, my 10-year-old kid brother drowned while we were on vacation. As you can imagine, I was devastated and could have certainly used a dad to help me make sense of it all but my dad wasn’t there. Uncle was.

I visited Uncle, who is now in his 80s, a few months ago and it struck me just how consistently present he was in my young life. So much so, that I have actually taken it for granted that he would always be there as if he was timeless and eternal. But of course, no one is. And now that he is moving into a season where one has more yesterdays than tomorrows, I realize just how much I will truly miss him when he is gone.

You see, just about every “first” that most boys do with their fathers, I did with Uncle. He gave me my first baseball mitt and taught me how to throw and catch. He took me fishing and helped me reel in my first catch. He took me to my first little league football game and cheered me on from the sidelines. He even took me to buy my first car and helped me fix it…often. Indeed, Uncle was first and foremost just there and I am truly thankful that he was.

So, I guess it was prescient that my brother and I named him Uncle right from the start. Because whenever the pain and sense of loss from not having my dad around was a bit too much for me to bear, I could always just say “Uncle,” and his presence would ease the pain.

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