Monday, June 29, 2020

The New Adolescence

The New Adolescence, Christine Carter

I have greatly benefited from this wise and sensible book by Christine Carter. She notes:
"In a single generation, how we all communicate, create, work, and think has fundamentally changed. But the technological revolution we are living through hasn’t really reshaped the current generation of teenagers as much as it has shaped them to begin with."
The rate of that change has overtaken parents, and so we haven’t been able to keep up with the change of technology and society, meaning “that our world is being re-shaped faster – way faster – than we have yet been able to reshape our parenting. It’s no surprise that the kids are feeling unmoored.”

So, her goal is to provide “a handbook for handbook for helping our kids thrive in an age of accelerated change”, allowing us to adapt as parents to the two major transformations in our families: the developmental transformation of adolescence and the technological transformation of the age we are living in. In using the term adolescents, she includes pre-teens, teens and young adults, and so can cover the age range of 10-25.

Part 1 looks at how to influence your teen without micromanaging them. The best chapter heading is here: This is going to be easier than you think. Thank you Christine! Right away, parents are encouraged rather than depressed or overwhelmed. At a macro level, she says that kids need to be seen, safe and soothed.

She points out that over parenting does not work. You will get fired as their manager, what you want is to be rehired as their coach. Our goal is to allow them to make decisions, and give them the skills to do so.
“The key difference between managing and coaching is that parent-managers rescue their teams from pain, where is parent-coaches see the kids as capable of making choices and solving their own problems. As coaches we can ask questions that help our teen see the possibilities of positive action. Instead of making their decisions for them, we can help them make better decisions for themselves.”
She examines what we can do when they are struggling, and considers ways to help them manage disappointment and stress, which include acceptance of a situation. There is advice about encouraging a positive outlook, through love, gratitude, and thinking positively about the future. I see real echoes here with much of a balanced faith life, we choose to be thankful, we know the grace and love of God and how that helps us in all situations, and we move to others in love looking to help and serve and pulling us a bit outside of ourselves.

She then considers how to influence your teen without being bossy. She encourages finding ways to speak to them while conveying respect and acknowledging they are in control of many things. She notes that our motivations here are actually unified:
“Our adolescents want to feel like competent, well-respected, autonomous adults, and in the end we want our children to be competent, autonomous adults who make choices we respect and admire.”
Part 2 consider three core skills for the digital age: connection, focus and rest.

Connection is about ensuring our kids have real connections, with family, with friends and find meaning for their lives. She notes that the more digitally online they are, the less connected with real people they are.

With focus, there are very helpful comments on how to recognise teen distraction, attempts at multitasking, and how ineffective much of their time is, and then proposes some ways forward for greater productivity and awareness of the challenges to staying on task.

Rest addresses the need for kids to really have downtime and proper sleep. "The best thing that we can teach them to do if they are feeling overwhelmed and time starved is to stop. Remind them what they need more than time is downtime without stimulation." We can teach then not to fear silence or contemplation.

These three chapters were the prompt I needed for discussions with our teens about these areas: they do self manage much of this, while still acknowledging we have input to offer.

Part 3 considers what the sex, alcohol and drugs, and money talks look like in this new era.

The sex talk chapter was excellent, and very direct. She considers the impact of pornography, sexting, gender issues and harassment and assault. Parents need to be ready, willing and proactive to talk about all of these things. I loved her comments regarding consent, for while it is essential, is actually a very low bar, and we should be encouraging people to desire enjoying and mutually satisfying sexual experiences, whenever they enter into such relationships. One piece of advice that was great - encourage young people to talk about what they would like, enjoy, don’t like with a partner - for if you can’t talk about it openly and honestly, you certainly shouldn’t be doing it. Some Christian parents will hesitate with some of her information, but the reality is that many kids are facing these challenges, and even if your own kids aren’t at the moment, their friends are.

The information about alcohol, marijuana, vaping, and other drugs was sensible and balanced and she promotes a policy of no use at all with her teenagers, while giving them the information they need to make choices.

The money chapter included teaching your children how to budget money, to understand credit and debit, and how to many their own finances. There is wisdom in talking about how you value money in your household, and considering what messages they hear from you about money. In a world of rampant materialism, we can point out that money won’t buy you happiness, but it will certainly help with many things that you need. I agree with her comment that regular chores should not be linked to pocket money, because children need to learn to contribute to a household, rather than doing chores to be paid.

Her conclusion is that that connection is what really matters. Not academics, not success, not happiness, but connection. If you have children in or near their teen years, you will greatly benefit from the wisdom here. If you want a taste of her writing, you could check our her blog too.

Monday, June 22, 2020

What Grieving People Wish You Knew

What Grieving People Wish You Knew, Nancy Guthrie

Many of us feel ill-equipped when a friend’s loved one has died. We don’t know what to say, we worry we’ll say the wrong thing, we might offer platitudes that aren’t helpful, or perhaps we avoid the person all together. If we ourselves have not yet walked the road of strong, personal loss, we can be feeling our way with little knowledge or experience.

If you are like me and know you still have a lot to learn in this area, Nancy Guthrie’s book What Grieving People Wish You Knew About What Really Helps (and What Really Hurts) will be of enormous benefit, both humbling you and helping you.

I have previously appreciated Guthrie’s wisdom biblical teaching and wisdom though her devotional Praying the Scriptures for Your Children, and readings for Christmas (Come Thou Long Expected Jesus) and Easter (Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross). Yet, you may not know that she and her husband have experienced their own personal grief, having lost two infant children, leading them to minister to others in grief. She is eminently equipped to write on this topic.

This is an excellent book. I hesitate to say ‘resource’ because we want to view coming alongside people in their grief as a service and a friendship, not a project. Yet, we may still benefit from advice and warnings before we wade in.

Guthrie starts with “what to say (and what not to say)”, making the clearest plea of all - say something. It’s so painful when others do not acknowledge your loss and grief. She walks the reader through numerous suggestions, including:
  • Let them take the lead
  • Don’t compare 
  • Don’t feel the need to fix
  • Don’t be in a hurry
  • Don’t make it about you
  • Listen more than you talk
  • Don’t tell them what to do
  • Esteem their grief
  • Don’t be put off by tears
  • Don’t ask potentially painful questions out of curiosity
The next chapter “typical things people say (and what you can say instead)” is honestly heartfelt pointing out how even well-meaning comments can be taken. She’s realistic and gracious noting that people will say the wrong thing, yet encourages readers to apologise where necessary, and keep trying to be helpful. One key thing is to keep using their loved one’s name, to keep talking about them, and being willing to hear about them.

Then she turns to the assumptions that keep us away and what we can do, providing numerous suggestions for how to be practically helpful and get involved without being overbearing. Most of it is being present, being a safe person who actively looks for ways to help, remembering that grief is a long road, and that we support people long term. Of course there is much wisdom needed to know what would be helpful for your friend, and what you are able to do.

She considers the online expression of grief, and acknowledges some people’s choice to grieve via social media and how getting likes or comments can validate their grief. This was a helpful perspective, because I haven’t always been sure how to respond to online expressions of grief. As she also notes, online messages can be an easy way to support people that shows you love and care. Indeed, a friend will notice if you respond to their other posts, but not their grief posts. Part of this is realising that everyone grieves differently, and uses public methods in various ways, so you can let the grieving person drive it.

Guthrie then turns to heaven and reflects on the unhelpful and incorrect things people say. She explores why comments like “they are in a better place”, or “God needed them more than we did” can be hurtful. She clearly outlines what she believes does happen from death to resurrection body, and deals with common lies and misleading platitudes, such as how people become angels when they die or that they are now taking care of us from heaven. Guthrie is candid that sometimes heaven does not feel like enough because it is so far away from where we are now, and truthfully, sometimes we long to see our loved ones more than Jesus in heaven. This chapter had biblical focus and pastoral insight, and aids in us forming a biblical view of heaven, which informs our hope.

She finishes with some questions and answers, with the final one a very honest message to the grieving person about whether they are willing to forgive the people around them who make mistakes with them during their grief.

This is clearly a book about grief related to loss through death. I wondered if there could have been an acknowledgement that not all grief is related to death. There are other griefs one might face in this world including: the grief of people turning away from the Lord, the grief of children that are not as expected or hoped, grief of infertility, and grief over certain circumstances. However, I suspect that would have complicated the subject too much, and would have taken away from the strength of what this book does offer.

As Guthrie has lived this and walked along many others, she speaks with knowledge, wisdom, insight, grace and gentleness. She draws extensively on the comments of others, so you are given a wide range of feedback and insight from dozens of other people’s experience. At about 160 pages, it is a quick read, but not an easy one. Those willing to learn will be greatly helped as they walk beside others in their grief. Highly recommended.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Identity Crisis

Identity crisis, Ben Elton

Ben Elton has yet again proven his skilled, cutting ability to assess and rip into current societal trends (I have briefly mentioned some of his other books here). Nothing is off limits in this mystery which starts with police inspector Matlock reporting the murder of a woman in a London park at night. In a press conference, he suggests that women should be careful at night, and it was a sad case of her being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A media storm ensues, as he is accused of suggesting she is to blame for what happened to her. Bewildered, he makes the requisite apology. Alongside this, various story threads emerge and start to intertwine. There is an impending referendum between England Out and Team UK and both sides are desperately trying to get votes. A reality TV show, Love Island, has had its first case of #ItsNotOK with a female contestant alleging a non-consensual kiss. A transgender person has been killed, and there is uproar over the lack of police awareness, while other people are protesting that the similar death of a young black woman did not get any attention. A female historian is trying to get women of the past acknowledged, and have dead men of history charged for past crimes. Parallel to all this, Maliki, a mathematician in a communications company is becoming increasingly aware of her role in writing the algorithms which spark such reactions.

Considering that subject matter, Elton can comment on both sides of numerous topics through the characters involved: gender and identity issues; feminism, #MeToo and men that reject it; Christians; nationalistic politics; the revision of history (markedly relevant this week); and the ongoing bile and hatred in the online space. Really it’s an opportunity to stick the boot into everyone, pointing out inconsistencies in almost all arguments, especially those conducted online. It is insightful, ironic, and at times laugh out loud funny. But it is also crass, vulgar, and contains all the strong, graphic hate language that is often used in these arguments. It’s appropriate in the context, but some readers may struggle.

To get a feel, I’ll include one longish quote:
"Who were these people, these furious tweeters? 
Matlock never ceased to be amazed at the violence of the abuse. He had met a number of transgender individuals in the course of his duties and without exception they had been polite, considerate and seemingly without any unusual degree of malice. Yet somewhere out in the ether there appeared to be a small group of non-binary people who were in a permanent state of blind fury and a hairtrigger away from taking massive, absolute and unforgiving offence. And of course it wasn’t just transgender people: the same things seem to be the case for all self defining groups, which, in the current identity-focused social landscape, appeared to include absolutely everyone. From men to women. From cis to trans. From new-age Travellers to white supremacists. From vegans to pagans. From Celts to carnivores. From anti-vaxxers to enlightened humanists. From the proudly plus-sized to the assertive anorexics. The long, the short and the tall. The good, the bad and the ugly. 
The entire population appeared to be itching for a fight because everybody else afforded them insufficient respect. At least they were once they got on the net. That was the strange thing. Everyone seemed perfectly normal when you talked to them personally, in the street or on the bus.… But in the virtual social universe of the internet everything had gone completely potty."
It's fiction, but at times seems markedly close to reality. Elton has written an enjoyable, insightful, searing and highly relevant consideration of the world today, in both the online and offline space. 

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Fiction mini-reviews

The Clergyman’s Wife, Molly Greeley 
A Pride and Prejudice fan novel (see another by P.D. James here), that follows Charlotte Lucas, who married Mr Collins, the annoying clergyman who would inherit Longbourn (Elizabeth’s childhood home). Greeley has creatively explored what Charlotte’s life would have been like post-marriage with a husband who was earnest, but foolish, under the intrusive patronage of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Charlotte is now a mother, and has struggled to find her place in the parish until a friendship with local farmer Mr Travis develops. I read with some trepidation from here, but I felt that Greeley kept true to the conventions and social requirements of the day. It ended up being a very enjoyable dip back into a similar world to the one Jane Austen created. 

Victoria, Daisy Goodwin 
A very readable historical fiction covering the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign. She was brought up in protected seclusion by her mother and her advisor, Sir John Conroy, who long to control her, but Victoria is determined to forge her own path upon becoming queen at 18. However, she lacks any real knowledge of how to fill that role. Enter Lord Melbourne, the Prime Minister, who takes her under his wing, teaching her what is required. Victoria is outspoken and strong-minded, and many people around her are convinced she needs a husband to help ‘tame’ her. Yet, are her affections drifting towards the wrong man? It has led me to search for more reading on Queen Victoria, for I suspect she is a fascinating character study. 

Saving Missy, Beth Morrey 
Missy is 79 and completely alone, rattling around her large London family home. Her husband of 50 years is gone, she longs to see her son and grandson, but they’re in Australia, and she’s estranged from her daughter. After chance encounters with two local women, she ends up minding a dog for them, Bobby, which forces her to engage more with her local area and the people in it. As she gets involved in other’s lives, she opens herself up to them as well. Woven throughout the current day events are her memories of her childhood, university days, marriage and years of mothering. There were a few turns along the way that kept both interesting and realistic. A lovely gentle book about a woman finding the value of sharing life with others.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Where did my libido go?

Where did my libido go? Dr Rosie King

Please note: this review contains reasonably direct references to the sexual life of a married couple.

While not universal, it is not uncommon for wives to note that their desire for sex is lower than that of their husband. Australian doctor and sex therapist, Dr Rosie King has written this book to help women understand and address the differences in their sexual desire to that of their partners.

Her aim is to help women and their partners understand:
  • How sexual desire works
  • How to maximise libido
  • How to increase their sexual enjoyment and
  • How to create a regular, satisfying sex life even if they have low desire
She identifies the desire complaints she regularly receives, which fall into three categories:
  • I don’t want as much sex as I used to
  • I want sex, but not with my partner
  • I don’t want sex as often as my partner does
She then considers three cornerstones for overcoming low libido, so together with your husband you can work together to:
  • Maximise your sexual desire
  • Ensure your relationship is happy and healthy
  • Make your sexual activity as enjoyable as possible
King then explores the natural range of desire that women feel, and how it can be affected by life circumstances and stages of a relationship. She analyses some of the chemistry and biology behind desire, and what generally are the inhibitors or enhancers of desire for both men and women.

She explores the question that many women ask: “what’s wrong with my libido?”, especially when they compare it to their partner’s. She helpfully explores the following statements:
  • For him sex is relaxing, for her it’s hard work
  • His desire is robust, for her it’s conditional
  • Stress kills off her sex drive, but not his
She explores medicinal options including testosterone therapy, although concludes it should only be used with reasonable caution. She also considers how the media has unhelpfully contributed to the idea that all women should be interested in sex (much of what she is referring to is mainstream media as well as pornography). She notes how the pendulum has swung completely, for pre-1960s it was assumed women were not interested in sex, in fact there were thought odd if they were. Now with the sexual revolution it has gone completely the other way, with the assumption that all women want and get great sex. As she dryly notes, “we have progressed from the Victorian idea of sex as a marital obligation to be endured by women to the modern notion that all women should be sex-crazy.”

She spends some time considering that numerous women in happy relationships are open to sex, and enjoy it when it happens, but rarely pursue it: “they no longer feel levels of lust high enough to motivate them to initiate sex with their partners. This is such a common scenario it must be considered normal.” In this case, often desire comes after arousal, not before, and so changing expectations around desire can help, as “it is not a prerequisite for enjoyable sex”. This is one of the most helpful observations of the book, along with the further explanation and mindset that accompanies it.

She introduces the idea of the pursuer-distancer cycle, and its impacts on a couple. There are helpful analyses here of how both pursuers and distances relate, and what happens when ‘mercy sex’ is granted, when the distancer does not want it but does so out of guilt or other motivations. She encourages both partners to stop blaming and rather establish goodwill, being able to see the situation from both perspectives.

Part 2 turns towards maximising your desire and arousal. When considering desire, she encourages couples to consider the physical, psychological and contextual factors that inhibit their desire, and then turns to relationship and sexual inhibitors, considering ways to address each.

This includes healing your relationship, by fostering goodwill: “Goodwill is the key to a happy relationship and a fulfilling sex life.” There are ways provided to assess your relationship, how much goodwill you have and whether you really need professional help. Then she progresses to ways to increase goodwill, including an attitude of gratitude and appreciation, identifying and avoiding resentment, and communicating love. She considers Chapman’s love languages as well as some of Gottman’s ideas here. Obviously, increasing the overall quality of relationship comes prior to re-establishing a satisfying sex life.

There is a chapter about the male and female bodies, including considering one’s own sex-related inhibitors, with detailed explanations of the form and function of the male and female genitals.

She then works through three things to help:
  • Create the right conditions for sex
  • Create a strong focus on erotic pleasure (she is open to pornography use here), and there are detailed exercises for individuals and couples to use (there are some similarities here to what Patricia Weerakoon suggests for couples)
  • Ensure one is adequately stimulated (she supports fantasy and pornography use)
Part Three turns to balancing your sex drives, and stopping the pursuer-distancer cycle. This will be helpful for couples who are able to communicate about these things. She then consider why we have sex at all, and how to make it easier to say yes to sex, including the concept of good enough sex, being "an enjoyable emotional and physical connection between two people who care for each other".

I don’t tend to read many non-Christian books about sexual intimacy, as there are likely to be numerous things I disagree with or would not recommend. At some points this is the case, including her suggestions to potentially use pornography and fantasy as stimulation, regular use of masturbation for the higher desire partner, a brief comment about the possibility of open marriages (although she acknowledges few people can actually do this) and the suggestion that ‘outercourse’ is a good safe-sex option for teens. But, these are not the main parts of the book, and all her suggestions can be utilised without these options.

However, taking those things into consideration, this is a very helpful book. For those women that experience a ‘desire discrepancy’ from that of their husband, they are likely to find much here to be of help. Whether it’s her honest assessment of some situations (there will be couples who have not have sex for years, and the wife does not want to at all) or her openness about the benefit of change, couples who are stuck in their sexual relationship (or lack of it) may find much of help here.