Read an Excerpt
What Kids Wish Parents Knew
By Joe White
Howard BooksCopyright © 2003 Joe White
All right reserved.
Part I The Lights Are On, But . . .
The Lights Are On, But . . .
The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until
they're (almost) too strong to be broken.
orphan \or-fan\ n. 1. A child whose parents have left him
physically. 2. A child whose parents have left him emotionally.
3. Can be evidenced by a half-smoked joint in a jeans pocket or a
sexy love note left inadvertently in a drawer or a citation from
the local police.
Chapter One: Slipping Away
We're so busy giving our kids what we didn't have
that we don't take time to give them what we did have.
I hate to sound selfish, like everything's mine,
but please don't get mad when I ask for your time.
I'll never forget the day I hit bottom in my career as a
I first started realizing my failure the day my oldest son's
babysitter taught him how to ride his bike. It's such a
monumental achievement for a boy--in fact, five decades
haven't erased the memory of reaching that milestone in my
own life. But Brady had to experience it without me.
Busy (as usual) with work, I met Brady for a quick lunch that
day, and he beamed with excitement as he shared the news.
I had all the right things to say: "Wow, Brady! That's
great! I'mso proud of you." Then I added, "Brady,
can I come watch you ride your bike later this afternoon?"
The response from my sweet, gentle-spirited six-year-old fell on
me like an avalanche. "No, Dad, that's okay.
You're busy in the summer."
I'm fighting the tears again as I remember the deep remorse
I felt. He had opened my heart more skillfully than a surgeon.
I was losing my son.
He knew it, and I knew it.
In my job as president of a large summer camp complex, I was so
busy rescuing other people's kids that my own were drowning.
And the problem--as I knew Brady couldn't help but
discover as time went on--was that I'm busy not only in
the summer but also in the fall, winter, and spring.
Brady . . . he was so little then, but he had the super
imagination and the super-sensitivity that made his daddy work
harder on smoothing his many rough edges and his hard-driving
disposition. With a quick look into the future, I could see Brady
as a teenager in someone else's counseling office trying to
sort out his bitterness toward a father too busy to show he
Not long afterward, my youngest daughter was attending one of our
short-term camps. We agreed to abide by the rule requesting
parents not to visit their children for the entire week.
On the fifth night, Courtney got a touch of homesickness. She
began to cry, and her counselor came to her bed to give her some
hugs and tenderness.
"Corky, don't cry anymore. You'll be home in two
days, and you'll get to see your daddy and everything."
"I never get to see my daddy!" was her bold protest.
When the week was over, the camp director came to my house.
"Sit down," he said abruptly. I sat down, wondering
what this was all about.
He told me about the conversation between the counselor and
Courtney--little Corky, with long, blond hair and dimples
that can't help but melt her daddy's heart. Even when
the lower lip was out in an occasional protest, a few tickles and
funny faces could bring the dimples back to their rightful place.
"What are you going to do about it?" he asked.
I squirmed. He looked deep into my eyes.
The phone rang. As I went to answer it, the intercom buzzed. Then
someone came to the door with an emergency. After responding to
all three, I sat back down. He was still looking intently at me.
"I asked you, 'What are you going to do about it?'
"I don't know . . . it's hard . . . there are so
"Joe, who are the most important people in your life?"
"You're not showing it!"
He sat there and didn't give an inch. Finally, I agreed to
This book is an expression of my gratitude for my months of
open-heart surgery that summer. To this day, I'm carrying
out the commitments I made back then. It's still hard. The
demands are still there. In fact, they're getting worse. But
my priorities changed. I aborted almost everything from my life
that stood between my children and me. The use-of-time knife
stripped away most of the fat that surrounded the lean meat of
My wife and I continued the struggle to accomplish more during
the necessary hours of daily labor, and in the remaining hours to
prioritize time with our children above anything else during
these years while they were still at home. We were wonderfully
amazed that there was even enough time for a few luxuries.
Brady became my best male friend. I worked early and late when he
wasn't available, so that when he came home, I could grab a
bat and ball or a go-cart or a fishing rod or a made-up
adventure, all for the honor of getting to be by his side for a
few golden ticks of the clock. His brother Cooper and his sisters
Jamie and Courtney . . . all of them became World's Best
Companions to me.
The four young children who captured my heart are now young
adults. The lessons I learned and put into practice then continue
to reap a joyous harvest.
Allow me, in love, to ask you the same question the camp director
asked me those many years ago: Who are the most important people
in your life?
If it's your family . . . are you showing it?
If not . . . what are you going to do about it?
Just as during the early days of work on Mount Rushmore, when the
explosives engineer was told to blast away all the granite that
didn't look like the face of a president, so I urge you to
strip away--with dynamite, if necessary--everything in
your life that doesn't look like family gold.
Chapter Two: The Champs
All children are champs--with potential they're packed;
discovery alone is the element lacked.
Son, you're the greatest!
--Herman "Sleepy" Morgan
On that Father's Day morning, something told me I was being
All four of my children bubbled with excitement as they led me to
their playroom. I felt special to have all that attention from
the ones I love the most.
Their eyes sparkled mischievously as they showed me a big white
box on the playroom floor, wrapped in fourth-grader uniqueness
with hand-drawn decorations on all six sides. It was so big!
"Hurry, Dad, open it up!" four little voices screamed
in unison, as if from fear the box would pull a self-destruction
act before I got to the contents.
As I bent down to pull off the customized wrapping paper, the box
began to move, and I heard a whimpering, whining sound from
Instantly I knew: I'd been framed!
"There's a puppy inside that thing!" I exclaimed.
Soon the lid was attacked by eight tiny hands, and up popped an
exuberant ball of black fur.
"Daddy, Daddy, can we keep it?"
"Happy Father's Day, Daddy!"
"Don't you just love him?"
"Let's name him Champ!"
The sounds of excitement filled the house.
I'd been set up to the max. Even their mother was in on the
deal. How does a daddy turn down a Father's Day
gift--hand wrapped in crayon-colored paper, no less?
"Okay, gang," I accepted cautiously, "but only if
you take care of him."
"Sure, Daddy, we'll be happy to!"
Champ was sired by my big black four-year-old retriever, Pro.
Pro, who was from the bloodline of Old Yeller, Hollywood's
most famous Labrador retriever, now had a major problem: He had
to share everything with that yipping, biting, pestering Champ,
who was nothing but an annoyance--to both of us.
Champ may have been my new Lab . . . but in my heart, I
didn't really claim him.
Our nation's homes are full of little "Champs."
Some are boys, some girls. Some are toddlers, and some are teens.
They legally belong to a mom and/or a dad, but they've never
felt totally claimed.
In various ways they send up their signals from every city,
crying out for unconditional love and acceptance from their
Almost every day I get letters from teenagers across America who
feel like little Champ. One recent letter--from Amy, age
epitomizes their cry:
I've always wanted so badly to please my father and my
mother. I hated to be yelled at. Every time I was caught doing
something wrong, I felt worthless at home and at school. It was
very embarrassing for me to get into trouble. My mom, who
I've always been close to, kicked me out of the house and
started packing my things just to get back at my dad. I kept
thinking to myself, "Is she serious? Where should I go? I
have nowhere to go." The scars run pretty deep.
After Pro and I had tolerated Champ for a couple of summer
months, an interesting event forever altered Champ's stature
in my heart. The two dogs were bounding through our summer camp,
with Champ playing his usual game of
jump-up-and-bite-Pro's-neck, lips, and-ears. As always, Pro
used every ounce of self-control in his pedigree to keep from
making supper out of his menacing offspring.
The two black beauties apparently stopped at our huge outdoor
swimming pool--which was closed for the day--to get a
drink, and Pro fell in. Labradors are born swimmers, but the
distance between the water's surface and the deck around it
was about four inches higher than a dog can reach. After what
must have been fifteen to thirty minutes, a teenage boy walking
by the pool saw what happened next: As Pro began to go under,
little sixteen-pound Champ leaned down, bit Pro in the lip, and
with some internal shot of adrenaline pulled his sixty-five-pound
daddy out of the water.
Champ found a new place in our home that night. Same pup, same
yip, same disposition, but he had a new status. Now he was a
hero, and we treated him as he had deserved to be treated all
along. He was stroked, praised, caressed, and honored.
Champ now owned a special place in my heart--a place valued
all the more when, two months later, Pro was struck and killed
while crossing a highway. Now I regard that whimpering, oversized
box as the best Father's Day present in all the wonderful
years since I first received my most cherished title,
Do you have a Champ in your home?
After working, counseling, living, and talking with hundreds of
thousands of teenagers during the past twenty-five years,
I've found that there's a Champ in every one--if
that child's parents will only take the time to discover the
vein of gold in their child's heart.
All successful homes have this in common: the discovery of
It can be done in all kinds of homes--two-parent homes,
single-parent homes, or homes where grandparents assume the role
of Mom and Dad. My grandmother found a champion in my mom while
raising her all alone. What a job she did.
My wife is truly a champion, though her father (a Navy test
pilot) was killed when she was four years old. She, too, had a
mom who courageously and patiently raised her and her two
brothers until a stepdad came into the picture.
My daddy was fortunate to have both parents there at home to do
the job and even more fortunate that both of them recognized his
great potential and allowed it to bloom.
The discovery of champions can happen in your family too.
When Champ was two years old a sudden, tragic death took him
seemingly long before his time was due. My only consolation was
that before it was too late, we learned to treat him like the
champion he was.
Our kids' lives, too, are so fragile, and the short time
we're allowed to be with them races by . . . there never
seems to be enough.
Whatever age your children are . . . today is a great day to
bring out the best in each of their lives.
Two Mothers Who
Wouldn't Give Up
I said it would never happen to my son.
Until his seventh-grade year, Chris was polite, loving, and
content. When I saw the plastic bag of dried-up leaves in his
pocket, I didn't even know what it was.
The marijuana habit led to LSD, cocaine, and hash. He lied about
it habitually, and I so wanted to believe him--love hopes all
things. He made up wild and crazy stories that I wanted to be
true. But I couldn't deny the hard facts that followed his
His grades went down. He became a skilled player of video games
to win drug money, but it wasn't enough. He stole from our
home and burglarized others.
He sold drugs to his friends. While in the ninth grade, he was
suspended from school for dealing drugs in the library. I was
humiliated. I was scared. I wanted him to know I still loved him.
I'm told a common first mistake made by parents who learn
their child is using drugs is to look the other way and pretend
it isn't happening. A second is to look for a quick, easy
remedy. A third, when you've tried everything humanly
possible and all has failed, is to give up.
We went through stages of all three. But every night we got on
our knees in prayer. We'd made mistakes as Chris's
parents--no doubt about it. But through it all, we loved him
while hating his sin.
Chris never ran away . . . but I did. The pressure got to me. I
checked into a hotel for two nights to struggle with God.
While there, I began to see that drugs weren't the enemy.
They were just weapons. It was a spiritual battle we were in. The
enemy was after my son, my family, my marriage.
I faced all the what ifs. I was sure Chris would either commit
suicide, die of an overdose, or be killed in a car accident. It
was happening in front of my eyes, and I was powerless. I had
tried everything but couldn't rescue him from his problems.
I decided I would trust God, no matter what. That was the first
and best step. I found His peace in that hotel room.
When I went home things were the same, but I was different.
Chris had become a pro at deceit, a con artist. He hated himself,
but on his own he couldn't change. I knew something drastic
had to be done. A month at a Christian summer camp helped, but it
wasn't enough time. A year at a special home for troubled
youth also helped, but even there he smuggled in drugs and had
the wrong friends.
Then two men who were constructing a Christian camp took Chris in
and gave him five months of solitary confinement, hard labor, and
love. He would work all day, listen to Christian music and go
through Bible studies in the evening, and drop exhausted into bed
at 8:00 p.m. The work kept his mind off drugs and built his
self-esteem, something he drastically needed. Phoning him from
home, we continued to pour on the encouragement while making it
clear we couldn't allow his former behavior.
Then he came home. He was now seventeen years old. In another
year he would be out on his own. We wanted to believe he was
well. But he returned to his old friends, too weak to fight their
Then I heard about Tom Johnson, a wonderful cowboy with a youth
ranch in Arkansas. We sent Chris there, and on the way he gave up
fighting. Miraculously, all the Christ-centered experience
he'd been given, plus our continuing love and unceasing
prayers, finally took root in his heart. He asked Jesus Christ to
take over his life.
At the ranch he saw an inspirational Christian model in Tom. On
the first morning there, at daybreak, Chris helped Tom deliver a
calf. As the sun came up, Chris felt as if God were showing him a
new life. He didn't tell anyone at the time, because he felt
he had talked too much. Now he wanted to show.
He hasn't done a drug since that sunrise.
The next time we saw him, he gave his dad a great big hug.
Chris will soon graduate from college.
He shares Christ with druggies and punk rockers. With his
skateboard and drums, he gets into places a preacher could never
He'll always be on the cutting edge.
We were some of the "beautiful people" in our
community--Robert worked night and day while I played tennis
at the country club--and our teenage daughter, Sharon, was an
ornament. I had to take time away from my tennis to drive her to
school. (Kids deserve better.)
I subtly gave Sharon pressure to stay on top. She just did what I
asked her to. When I woke up she was a sizzling sixteen-year-old
brunette with big blue eyes and a body filled with alcohol and
In three hundred and sixty-five days she spiraled down from a
"most likely to succeed" to a drunk and a druggie.
No one felt worse about it than she did. She couldn't stop
because her group of friends expected her to live up to her new
image. Kids are so totally driven by acceptance. She didn't
feel acceptance at home, so she got it from whomever she could.
We were so far off as parents. We let the TV set--instead of
our example--be our child's value education. If you
don't want your kids to drink, don't drink. What you
say doesn't matter. Kids learn (or miss learning)
responsibility at home.
Things had gotten out of control in such a short time. Robert got
scared that we were losing each other over Sharon.
"You're giving her too much of your mind," he
pleaded with me. "I'm giving her up. We won't
fight over her. She's yours now--yours to love, yours to
I prayed desperately. Please take her back, Robert.
I felt like someone had blasted me with a shotgun, and I was full
of holes, bleeding.
We got her back. Then I tried everything. I played rough at
first. I took away all privileges--the phone, the TV set,
everything. But the love wasn't there to back up the
Next I tried to identify with her. I took her places. I drank
with her. I wanted her to see how to drink
"responsibly." I was desperate and ready to do
My heart was repeatedly broken during those times. She lied and
misled us. She said it was better, but it wasn't. I felt so
foolish. She said she hated us, but she was really saying,
"Help!" She felt so abused and so guilty.
Today she says, "Thanks for not giving up on me after I gave
up on myself."
Here's how the turnaround happened.
Robert and I submitted our whole family to some solid biblical
counselors. They told us to keep on believing in Sharon. At first
we reacted to that: "Believe in what?" But eventually
we completely adopted our child in our hearts . . . with all of
Next, we inventoried our own lives and began to fill our home
with consistency. We gave ourselves more lovingly to each other
and to our younger children.
I love wine, but when I caught my second daughter and her friends
downing some whiskey (from our overstocked liquor cabinet) on
their way out of the house to a party, I knew our social drinking
had to go too. (Why do we play our kids for such fools
We continued over the next six years to rebuild our ties with
Sharon. As we forged the new relationship, we wondered: How do
you go back and undo all the crossed-up circuits? She had been
programmed all wrong.
We didn't quit. We lived on our knees, it seemed.
Sharon protested, "You've never been a mother to me,
and I can't accept it now." But she did need an
authority. I kept my mouth shut and listened to her. Then I
listened some more. When she finished expressing her thoughts,
I'd ask, "What are you thinking? . . . What are you
feeling? . . . How can I help you?" I filled her with honest
praise. Then I'd state my position. Sometimes she'd get
Robert and I worked at being more honest. We became more
available to our kids. In everything, we strove to be authentic.
With the help of the Christian youth and family counselors, we
began to see daylight. In a couple of years, the storm was over,
and our skies became only partly cloudy.
Today we are close. Our house is a home. It still rains here
sometimes, but there are also sunny days to enjoy.
I believe the tragic years with Sharon actually saved us from a
lifetime of casual misery. It was worth the trouble to begin to
understand each other and really get to know the power of Jesus
Christ in a family.
Today as he left for college, my nineteen-year-old son said,
"Mom, wouldn't you rather be called a great mom than a
great tennis player or a corporate officer?" Then he added,
"You're a great mom!"
Maybe he's exaggerating with the "great." I think
"great-ful" (grateful!) is a better word for me.
Chapter Three: Who Cares?
Think I'll buy a forty-four
Give 'em all a surprise
Think I'm gonna kill myself
Cause a little suicide.
Several years ago, Elvis Presley's colorful stepbrother
spent some time with us at our summer sports camp. Elvis loved
music, but Rick Stanley loved kids.
As we talked about the plight of the modern teenager, Rick told
me of another brother's backstage encounter with David Lee
Roth, the former lead singer of Van Halen, who sang of suicide,
drugs, torture, sex, rebellion, and perversion. After a lengthy
conversation about Elvis, his fame, his music, and his tragic
death, the brother asked Roth the same question I would want to
ask him: "David, what do you think about the thousands of
kids out there in the crowd tonight who are getting stoned,
wasted, messed up?"
With a blunt, cold stare, Roth answered, "Who cares?"
At least he was honest. Roth didn't seem to care about
anyone but himself. But the problem was that so many vulnerable
kids looked up to him. At a typical concert, twenty thousand of
them--averaging fourteen years of age--would pay a half
million dollars and practically break down the doors to partake
in two hours of visual and verbal pornography. The next day at
school they'd wear their new rock T-shirts to celebrate
their evening with a hero.
Who are your kids' heroes?
They're displayed on the posters on the walls of their
rooms. Look into their eyes. What do you see?
My breakfast guest one morning was a seventeen-year-old boy who
was six-foot-two and weighed a hundred and ninety pounds. He was
as lost as a baby billy goat. He came from a wonderful home, but
nine months with the wrong three friends--and who knows how
many dozen marijuana cigarettes--had sent him into a tailspin
and turned his home upside down. To my amazement, this confused
teenager told me over breakfast how both he and his best friend
were introduced to pot by the friend's father--right in
Does that make you fighting mad?
What about the homes that expose their children to 18,000
murders, 75,000 scenes of physical intimacy between unmarried
partners, 75,000 commercials whose basic message is: "Take a
pill for a problem," and 66,000 commercials that say:
"Drink alcohol for fun"? Those are the actual estimates
of what a kid sees on television while growing up in the average
The subtlety of this invasion is crafty, and the hypocrisy behind
it is incredible. It's an intruder that slips into our homes
like a cunning burglar, and parents indifferent to it are
cultivating disaster for their kids.
Children become what they think about--it's a principle
as certain as gravity. So what type of influence at home is
worse--the father who brings home marijuana or the
"average" amount of television viewing?
Every album your kids play, every concert they attend, every
television show they watch . . . each one is like a stepdad
temporarily taking over your role of teacher, coach, and friend.
Is this the kind of stand-in you want for yourself?
Parents are the decision makers. The federal government
won't help our kids avoid the worst influences. The city
council won't. Our neighbors won't.
The responsibility is yours and mine.
So who cares?
How much are we showing it?
Excerpted from What Kids Wish Parents Knew by Joe White Copyright © 2003 by Joe White. Excerpted by permission.
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