"Race Cars and American Idol" by Mike Donahue

Race Cars and American Idol

I love the game “Two Truths and a Lie” because I always win. One of my truths that is almost impossible to believe about me is that I was on American Idol, the TV show. See, you don’t believe me either. A few years ago, I was speaking in a school in Idaho. When I was finished, a girl came right up to me, stood about a foot from my face, and said, “I really loved your assembly.” I said, “Thank you.” Then she fired right back with, “But I’m still going to smoke pot.” As the speaker, I suppose I should have been offended right? After all, I just got done speaking to the whole school for an hour about right choices. But instead of being offended and doubling down on my message to her personally, I asked her some questions. I asked, “What is your name?” She said, “Rose.” I asked, “What is your story, Rose?” She went into detail about her crazy life. Both parents had died before she was fifteen. She had been couch hopping with different relatives that really didn’t want her there, and she was now living with a friend from school and her family until she graduated.

She went into a lot more detail, and I thought to myself, no wonder she’s self-medicating with marijuana. Her life is chaotic, with absolutely no stability at all. Then I asked Rose, “What is your dream? If you could do anything with your life, what would you do?” She didn’t hesitate. She talked for twenty minutes about singing and making a difference in the world. She shared pieces of her worldview and what she thought was wrong with society; she went on and on. It was precious. I talked with her about those things and encouraged her to pursue her dreams at any cost. I said, “Rose, you can’t change your past, but everything in front of you is your choice now. Go make it happen. That’s how you will end up living a fulfilled life.” I gave her a copy of my book and thought I would never see her again.

A year later I got a call on my business line from her, and the first thing she said to me (after she explained who she was and where she was from) was, “You helped me get off drugs and live my dream, and I just called to say thank you.” I was taken off guard a bit, so I said, “What is your dream? What are you doing?” She said, “I’m a singer now. I sing.” I said, “Oh, that’s great, where are you singing, at church?” She said, “No, I was on American Idol.”

At first I was a little skeptical, but the more she described what happened after she met me, the more convinced I became that she was telling me the truth. Eventually I saw the episodes that she was on, and we became friends. She made it to Hollywood, made it through the first couple rounds, but then got eliminated. She tried out the next year and made it again. I was on the set with her when she made it the second time, and there is a two second clip of me hugging her next to Ryan Seacrest when she came out of the room from trying out. So, I can honestly say that I was on American Idol. The whole thing was surreal and very exciting.

Let me go back to something that Rose said, though it wasn’t quite true. She said, “You helped me get off drugs.” I suppose in a way that might be true, but I promise you I didn’t say a word to her about drugs that day in the school. We talked about her dreams and what she wanted to accomplish. I told her that she was a “racecar” sitting in a parking lot. The racecar is still worth a lot in a parking lot but that’s not what it was built for. It was built to go 180 miles an hour around a track. It still looks good in a parking lot, but it won’t be happy until it is doing what it was built for. I said, “Rose, you were built to do great things with your life. Go do it. She got excited, and she realized on her own that drugs would just hinder her from getting to where she wanted to go. All I did was point her in the direction of purpose, and she came up with the details. I love this quote from Mark Twain. He said,

“The most important day of your life is the day you were born; the second is the day you discover why.”

I believe that there is a seed of greatness in all our children. We must help them discover what that is. If we just focus on keeping them away from the bad stuff, all we end up doing is policing their behavior instead of coaching them in their purpose. I think you get a lot more out of parenting when you are talking about things that have to do with the bigger picture.

In my assemblies I talk about the bottom shelf and the top shelf. The bottom shelf is where all the bad stuff is—drugs, alcohol abuse, cutting, vaping, sexual irresponsibility, and so on. The top shelf is where your dream is, which is another way of saying where your purpose is. I believe that if young people can see the top shelf in their lives, they won’t reach for the bottom shelf; but if those young people take their hand off the top shelf, it gets easy to reach for the bottom shelf. That’s why I don’t ask my children if they are doing drugs; I don’t have to. The conversations I have with them are about their dreams. I know the dreams of all five of my kids. I can tell when they are starting to take their hands off that top shelf.

We must have those conversations with our children because there is a measure of hopelessness when they stop dreaming. What good does it do to focus on the response to hopelessness? That is what the bottom shelf and self-medication is all about; it is a reaction to how they are feeling about themselves. They may not believe that their life has value, so they make choices that match that value. That is why I say in my assembly, “I don’t care about what you’re doing as much as I care about why you are doing it. Why you are doing something says more about you than what you are doing.” Behavior follows belief. So, should we really be spending all this time and money warning adolescents how bad the bottom shelf is, or should we do everything we can to help them to see and succeed in their purpose?

"School Shooters Weren’t Born Wanting To Do That!" by Mike Donahue

School Shooters Weren’t Born Wanting To Do That!

Breaking News! That’s what I read on my phone when it started buzzing on May 27, 2022. I was sitting at my home workspace doing some writing, when I got the alert that there was another school shooting, this time in Uvalde, Texas. Nineteen elementary students and two teachers were killed, and several more were wounded. It’s getting to the point where you can get numb sometimes to these shootings, but when it is as horrific as this one was, it’s hard not to let it affect your life in a big way. I want to say up front, before we get into this blog, that I am not going to make any political statements about possible solutions as it relates to the gun laws. That’s not my lane. I have my opinions, but it is not an area of expertise for me. So I’m going to stay in my lane and talk about the mental health of the American teenager, which I believe, among other things, has much to do with preventing school violence.

I listened to the news reports and read Twitter feeds for a few days, and there was one thing that I kept hearing that caught my attention. “How could someone kill little children? What kind of person would do that?” Every time I would hear that, I would whisper under my breath, “A dead person does that.”

G. K. Chesterton wrote, “He who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men. As far as he is concerned, he wipes out the world.”

That shooter died long before he walked into Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, that day. He already decided that he was dead, so in his mind, if he is dead, then everyone is dead. It doesn’t matter how old someone is or how cute they are at that point. To him, no one matters, because he doesn’t matter. I’m in no way trying to evoke any kind of sympathy for this guy who committed this awful crime, but I think we can all agree that he wasn’t born wanting to do that.

Before he committed suicide by cop that day, he was what I would call a member of the walking dead. They’re out there, you know. I’ve met them in some of the schools where I have spoken over the years. I have made my way to counselors and school officials after talking to a student and have said to them in essence, “I am worried about this kid. They said some things to me that indicated that they might hurt themselves or others. They are dead or dying on the inside and we’d better pay attention.” I don’t ring that bell often, but when I do, it’s because I sense that something is very wrong inside that student.

When it comes to school shooters, I have heard several people say over the years that they wish there was just one thing we could point to and say, “This is why,” or, “This what happened to him that got him to a homicidal state.” It would be a lot easier to prevent it if it was just one thing. Well, I’m either going to sound stupid with this next statement or brilliant, depending on how well I make my point, so here we go. I’m not trying to be overly simplistic about this, but to me it is simple. You can boil most school shootings down to just one thing: the perceived intrinsic value of the shooter or shooters.

Ironically, I was writing the “Value Up” chapter in my book when the breaking news hit. I immediately thought to myself, here we go again, another kid who saw little to no value in his life, who died a long time ago, and today decided to take some people with him.

It’s still early in the investigation into this guy’s motive, but I’m sure at some point we are going to be able to identify several markers in his life that point us to the fact that he felt like he didn’t matter anymore. Messages that over time built a narrative in his mind that there was no value left in him. It’s “death by a thousand cuts,” small, and sometimes big, messages that communicate to a young person that they don’t matter.

Lingchi is the name of the Chinese torture technique that kills a person by making hundreds of small, and sometimes larger, cuts to their skin that slowly drain the lifeblood out of its victim. In the Uvalde case, we are obviously never going to get the chance to interview the shooter directly and ask what happened to him, but if we could, we would probably hear incidents where his life was slowly drained out by the way he was treated—abandonment, neglect, abuse, and bullying on huge levels that, again, we will never really know, but I’m sure were there.

The problem is that there are hundreds of young people that are experiencing emotional lingchi right now all over this country that we don’t know about. If we did, Uvalde might not have happened. Parkland might not have happened. Columbine might not have happened, and the list goes on. I’m not trying to play the blame game, but after school shootings, we always hear about the breadcrumbs left behind by the shooters, leading us to the obvious conclusion that there was some mental illness due to certain events that happened in their lives. A death had already occurred inside those shooters long before the murders ever took place.

Mental health is a real issue and the lack of attention given to it in schools, is a serious threat to the physical and emotional safety of young people. We must put more resources into providing emotional and mental support to young people in our country. Schools are doing the best they can with what they have, but it’s not nearly enough.

Adapted from Talking to Brick Walls by Mike Donahue

"Why Doesn’t My Kid Talk to Me Anymore?" by Mike Donahue

Why Doesn’t My Kid Talk to Me Anymore?

Your teenager really does want to talk to you about their personal life, but they are not going to and it’s going to feel a little awkward when they start getting cryptic and protective with information. If your child is holding back things from you, you may be asking yourself, “What Happened, when my kids were younger, they had no problem talking to me.? Do they hate me now?” That’s what it feels like, doesn’t it? Like suddenly, when they turned twelve, they decided you weren’t cool anymore and shut down communication. That’s not what happened. They didn’t decide you weren’t cool anymore; they decided they couldn’t trust you with important information anymore, because they knew you might not like what you were going to hear.

Here is a typical conversation with an eight-year-old boy and his dad.
The child comes home from school, and his dad says, “Hey buddy, how did things go at school today?” His son replies, “Awesome! The principal bought our class ice cream bars, because we came in first in the science fair. Our class built a robot that walked and talked.” Then dad says, “That’s great buddy, what else happened?” Then his son goes into a twenty-minute blow-by-blow of all the things that happened that day. The communication is clear and uninhibited. Most eight-year-olds love talking to their parents about their day and everything in it. They can tell you everything in 3rd grade, because you are not going to have a problem with most of it.

They have no problem talking to you, because right now their world is your world, and there is no tension. The tension comes when social expectations come. The social pressure that you felt growing up doesn’t compare at all to what your child may be feeling today. You must take those old lenses off when dealing with your child. Social media and smart phones have changed the social landscape completely. There is a lot more information that your teenager must process today than you ever did. I’m not trying to insult you, but you need a baseline understanding that their social world is incredibly demanding, and it is adding tremendous pressure to their lives.

Let’s fast forward six years to when the same child is fourteen. This is how the conversation may go now. “Hey buddy, how did things go in school today?” “Fine.” “What did you do?” “I went to school.” “I know, but did anything happen?” “No, I just went to school.” “Okay, I was just wondering how your day went.” “I told you, fine.”

It doesn’t feel good when the conversation goes like that. It hurts. It feels disrespectful and rude. It is easy to take that personally and get offended, but let’s look at it for minute.

The question “how was your day” is a seemingly common and basic question to you, but for a teenager, “how was your day” is a loaded question. Like I said earlier, they want to tell you, but they will not, because they don’t trust you with the real answer to that question. The real answer most likely will raise some red flags with you. So, instead of going through the hassle of having to explain all of that to you, they blow you off with, “Fine, my day was fine.” You know there is more to it than that, so you get frustrated and try to pressure them for that information. They shut down harder, and now there is a wall.

It’s very ironic because at the time that communication needs to be the clearest between you and your child, it is going to be the most challenging. They’ll put up walls and shut down emotionally, right at the time when you need to know what’s going on in their lives. That boy’s dad probably didn’t need to know all about the science fair, but what’s happening in his fourteen-year-old’s life now is more crucial because there are potentially dangerous roads ahead.

At first glance you might say that the communication gap is a teenager’s fault. If they really loved and respected their parents, they would be honest with them. I’m going to be upfront with you and say something that might be hard for you to hear but most of the communication problems between teenagers and adults are the result of bad communication techniques coming from the adults.

Honest and clear communication is not the responsibility of young minds that are still developing. It is our job as adults to foster an environment that values honesty over desired behavior. If we favor “right” behavior over honesty, we inadvertently will create liars out of our children. Having behavior expectations without truly understanding the complexities of their social world can create dishonesty in their communication with us.

They want to talk to you, but they need you to let them know it’s safe to do so. My advice, do a lot more listening than lecturing. Try to understand their world from their perspective. Take the old lenses off and listen.

Adapted from “Talking to Brick Walls” by Mike Donahue. Mikedonahue.co