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Lessons of a smashed bike

by Flint Stephens on 07/23/13

Recently my grandson left his bicycle on the ground in the driveway. It was close behind a car where no driver backing out could see it. The result was predictable. When the car rolled over the bike it actually broke it into two pieces.

I wasn’t there, but it isn’t hard for me to imagine the reaction of a six-year-old boy when he discovered his completely destroyed bicycle. I’m certain there were tears accompanied by extremely loud wailing. Although such experiences are difficult, they teach an important lesson.

I know there were prior verbal warnings about the potential consequences of bicycles and other toys being left in the driveway. For a young boy, however, hearing his mother say “put your bicycle away so it doesn’t get run over” has roughly the same impact as hearing “brush your teeth so you don’t need to have a root canal.”

Children don’t understand the potential negative consequences of certain actions until they experience the associated pain or loss. The process can be even more challenging for parents than for children.

Witnessing children suffer physical or emotional pain is among the toughest elements of parenting. When possible, a parent’s first reaction is to immediately step in and resolve the problem. But that natural reaction is often not the best response.

In the situation described above, if my daughter-in-law immediately scooped up her disconsolate child and drove him to the store for a replacement bike, he still would not fully understand the consequence of failing to take proper care of his toys.

To truly learn the lesson, he needs to experience the ramifications of the lost bike. He needs to sit on the porch and watch as his friends ride through the neighborhood on their bikes. He must long for the mobility and exhilaration that he used to feel when he could hop on his bike and cruise effortlessly down the road.

His parents might even enhance the lesson by giving him chores to help replace the cost of the ruined bike. Or they might ask him to keep his other toys cleaned up for a specified period before purchasing a new bike.

In the end, it would be a much easier process for the parents to simply and quickly provide a new bicycle. But then the boy would fail to learn the lesson. Allowing my grandson to endure some anguish does not mean his parents don’t love him. In fact, it is proof that they care about him and want him to learn to avoid similar future sorrow.

I’ve talked with many agnostics and atheists who argue that the existence of death, misery and suffering in the world is evidence that God does not exist. They argue that an omnipotent and loving God could not stand by and watch his children live through grief and pain.

Those who believe in the eternal nature of life understand that even if parents had the ability to protect their offspring from everything painful and unpleasant, it might not be in the best interest of children who need to learn the lessons that come from smashed bikes.

Boy Scout decision on gays really a non-issue

by Flint Stephens on 06/13/13

Frustration and anger over the recent decision by the Boy Scouts of America allowing the participation of homosexual boys generated national attention that is out of proportion to the reality of the issue. It even prompted some sponsors and leaders to sever ties with the organization.

Scouting has been an important organization in my 50-plus years of living. I participated as a boy and earned my Eagle Scout award. I’ve spent more than three decades as a volunteer leader in several capacities. Most of that time I worked with 11, 12 and 13-year-old boys—the largest age group actively participating as scouts.

In a world where sex permeates much of society, it is not a primary focus for boys involved in scouting. Boys of that age tend to be more focused on games, refreshments and activities than on sex.

As a scout leader I spent lots of time working with boys on understanding citizenship and duty to God. We emphasized service. We talked about the importance of tolerance toward boys who might be overweight, handicapped, or have other physical or cultural differences.

We focused on activities that would help the boys learn important life skills. The only time we ever discussed sex was as it relates to the promise boys make in the Scout Oath that they will be “morally straight.”

An important line in the newly adopted resolution states: “…any sexual conduct, whether homosexual or heterosexual, by youth of scouting age is contrary to the virtues of scouting.” This is not a new policy. It has been always been among scouting’s core values.

As the largest single sponsor of Boy Scout troops, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been criticized for supporting the resolution allowing gay members. An article in the Washington Post by Michael Otterson, did a great job of explaining why a conservative Christian organization like the LDS Church would adopt such a position.

“For the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, this was never about whether the BSA or local scout leaders should try to discern or categorize ill-defined and emerging sexual awareness of pre-pubescent boys and early pubescent young men who make up 90 percent of scouting. Sexual orientation has not previously been—and is not now—a disqualifying factor for boys who want to join Latter-day Saint scout troops. Rather, it has always been about teaching moral behavior to all boys, and instilling the core values that are part of responsible adulthood.”

The article also quoted LDS Church Presiding Bishop Gary Stevenson. Prior to the vote on admitting gay scouts, he delivered a speech to an assembly of Scout leaders.

“Boy Scouts of today face issues not faced by generations before them: declining morals, technology, addictive behavior and declining academic performance to name a few. I believe that the key to solving these issues lies in family and duty to God. If boys truly understood what their duty to God entails and lived it, they would grow safely into manhood. …Duty to God is where the power lies. Duty to God is what changes lives.

“…Some may not see the sacred gate-keeping role scouting plays. They may see only fundraising and not a foundation. Others may brand scouting activities as merely outdoor recreation, but it can and must be shown that BSA is not a camping club; it is a character university centered on duty to God. I quote again from Robert Baden-Powell: ‘The whole of [scouting] is based on religion, that is, on the realization and service of God.’

“… Scouting must never overlook this core principle. We still need duty to God. We always will. When the societal and political winds come, and they surely will, scouting cannot unhinge itself from this foundational principle.”

A few years ago I participated in Woodbadge, an intensive training program for volunteer scout leaders. During the week-long course, the motto that was emphasized several times each day was “it is all about the boy.”

I regret that because of this policy some sponsors and leaders feel they can no longer be part of the scouting organization. As a result, thousands of boys who could benefit from the principles of scouting will not have the chance to participate.

One has to wonder what program these men and boys will embrace that can duplicate the benefits provided by the scouting program. Since 1910 more than 110 million boys learned the values of scouting. It is doubtful any other organization will ever be as successful in helping boys develop into men of high moral character.

Knee problems cramp spring activities

by Flint Stephens on 05/16/13

Normally, spring is the busiest season for me. As soon as winter weather gives the tiniest hint of breaking, I’m outside fixing fences, building walls, turning over soil, cleaning corrals, brushing out horses, etc.

As the weather warms, I begin planting garden areas, cleaning poultry pens and raising chicks. Whenever possible, I try to get my children and grandchildren involved. All the activity provides me with information and ideas for newspaper stories, blogs, magazine articles and more.

This year knee replacement surgery on Feb. 27 set me far behind schedule. The first four weeks post-surgery were terrible. The pain was awful and it took all my strength and effort to do simple tasks like taking a shower or going to the dining room to eat.

Thankfully, for most of those early weeks my sweet wife completely catered to me. She even did all of my daily animal chores and never complained. I also had supplemental help from other family members. I owe a lot of thanks to many different people.

After 10 weeks, I am walking without crutches or a cane. I can go up and down stairs. I can even carefully walk up and down the hill in my backyard to take care of my horses and poultry. I still get gimpy and sore at the end of the day and daily therapy to regain my strength and flexibility will be necessary for many more weeks.

Next week I was supposed to be leaving on a fishing trip to Canada. I had to back out because I am still icing my knee several times a day to control swelling.

I learned some important lessons from this experience. I saw some obvious problems with the health care system. Yet it is difficult to complain because I have an artificial knee that should carry me through the rest of my life much better than the old one could have. It might be the only joint in my body where I no longer have to worry about the degeneration and pain from arthritis.

Through the course of therapy and treatment I met dozens of wonderful people who were also dealing with significant medical issues. I was impressed with their optimism and fortitude in spite of painful and debilitating conditions for most.

Thankfully, spring did not totally pass me by. Cold weather delayed many early blooms. The lilacs are at their peak right now—about two weeks behind the typical schedule. Last week I was able to take engagement photos for my youngest son and my soon-to-be daughter-in-law. The tulips and fruit trees blossoms were glorious and we were able to incorporate them into many of the photos.

My backyard is a jungle because it hasn’t been mowed yet. I hope I can finally get to it by this weekend. And even though I won’t be in Canada next week, I hope I can make it out fishing for the first time this year. I’m not ready to put the boat in the water, but I could probably sit in a camp chair for an hour or two and catch bluegills from the harbor docks.

Keep children safe around animals

by Flint Stephens on 02/23/13

I was in the front yard giving my 10-month-old Brittany pup an outdoor break. My neighbor’s daughter walked around the corner of the fence and saw the dog. Immediately she shrieked, raised her arms and started running. The alerted pup was next to her in an instant and before I could react, he nipped her arm hard enough to break the skin.

The incident horrified me and traumatized the neighbor girl. With a little more forethought and precaution, it was completely avoidable.

A couple generations ago, when our society was more rural and agrarian, frequent interaction with animals was virtually unavoidable. As a result, most children learned something about animal behavior and how they should act in the presence of animals. Today, this kind of know-how is the exception.

I normally keep my dogs in the back yard where they are not exposed to non-family members. In the instance described above, I was wrong for taking the dog into the front without better control.

For someone afraid of dogs, the young girl’s reaction was understandable, but completely wrong. The pup interpreted her running, squealing and flailing as an invitation to a game of chase. He was playing with her as he would with another dog. Unfortunately, when dogs play together nipping and biting are part of the game.

I grew up in the country and have a great love for both domestic and wild animals. My current menagerie consists of horses, dogs, chickens, geese and cats. Even though we now live in a predominantly urban area, deer, raccoons, foxes, skunks, rabbits, squirrels and other animals are frequent visitors.

Most of my children and grandchildren inherited my fondness for furred and feathered creatures. Here are some of the things we teach them to keep them safe.


Most people have contact with dogs at some point. But there are many varieties of dogs and they have different behaviors and personalities. Children should never approach any strange dog. If the dog comes to them, they should stand still. Usually the dog wants to get a sniff and then he’ll be on his way.

If a dog acts aggressively by barking and growling, the child should back away slowly. Avoid direct eye contact because some dogs see that as a sign of aggression. Turning and running will likely provoke a chase.

Gina Spadafori, author of “Dogs for Dummies,” recommends that children should always ask permission before petting a dog and then begin by offering the back of the hand for a sniff. “They should pat the dog on the neck or chest. The dog may interpret a pat from above as a gesture of dominance. Teach children to avoid fast or jerky movements around dogs, since these may trigger predatory behavior.”

Parents need to keep a close watch any time their children are petting or holding a dog. As a young boy my brother had to get stitches in his face after a puppy scratched him. He was holding the puppy down and trying to force a stick into its mouth. Another young neighbor boy was tightly gripping a miniature daschund that didn’t want to be held. In its attempt to escape, the dog snapped at the boy’s face and gave him a serious laceration.

My daughter worked as a veterinary technician where she dealt with all kinds and sizes of dogs while drawing blood, inserting catheters and giving injections. She said the little dogs always seemed more prone to bite.

Children should never be near a dog that is eating. Dogs will often respond aggressively to protect their food. Kids should also avoid being near multiple dogs that are playing or fighting. In those circumstances a dog might inadvertently hurt a child.


Cats are not normally aggressive, but some individual animals will bite or scratch. Usually that occurs when someone tries to pick them up or hold them. Before holding or petting a cat, always ask the owner for permission or assistance. Cats should also be left alone when eating.

Horses and livestock

My horses are extremely calm and gentle, but I would never allow any child to be alone next to a horse. I doubt my horses would ever intentionally kick or bite a person. They are big, strong animals, however, and could inadvertently step on a child’s foot or knock a child over just by shifting weight. It is extremely painful to have a 1,200 pound animal with a metal shoe step on your foot.

Children feeding treats to horses or other livestock need to be taught to offer the food on their palm with the hand flat. This reduces the chance of an accidental bite when the animal is trying to grab the treat.

We often give horse rides to children. For young children we have someone lead the horse and we require that a second adult walk next to the horse with a hand on the child. It is easy for a child to slide off a horse and it is a long ways to the ground.


Some chickens act wild and never want to be touched. Others are like gentle pets that don’t mind being held. Chickens have sharp claws that can scratch and they can also peck. Roosters can be very aggressive and territorial. They will intentionally fly at the face of intruders and try to scratch them with sharp spurs found on the backs of their feet. Young children should always have adult supervision around chickens.

Virtually all children are fascinated by the prospect of touching and holding baby chicks. This activity should be carefully supervised for the protection of the chicks. One small squeeze can break a leg, wing or even kill a chick. Chicks often carry salmonella germs. After holding or touching baby chicks, children need to immediately wash their hands with disinfectant soap.

Geese and ducks

Some geese can be aggressive and territorial. They may honk, hiss, and even pinch — especially children. Those in parks or places where people feed them regularly are often competing with each other for food. As a result, they can be more aggressive than normal. Careful supervision is required. Ducks are much safer. They are rarely aggressive but should generally not be touched or handled.

Wild animals

Wild animals should be left alone. Although they might seem docile, even squirrels and chipmunks may bite if someone tries to hold or touch them. Animals like raccoons, skunks, opossums and foxes are common rabies carriers that sometimes show up in urban areas. Look but don’t touch is always the rule.

Animals can enrich and improve the quality of life for children and adults. Children can learn many valuable life lessons from interactions with animals. In order for that to occur, however, parents need to teach children how to be safe around animals and how not to be afraid.

What I wish I knew when my kids were in grade school

by Flint Stephens on 02/07/13

It’s been more than a decade since my youngest child finished elementary school and my oldest grandchildren are grade school students now. The start of every school year remains a big deal in our family, however, because my wife teaches second grade.

Over the past two decades, she also worked as an assistant principal, as a reading recovery specialist, as a science specialist, and as a mentor to university students pursuing their teaching credentials. But being a classroom teacher has always been her primary passion.

Through those years we’ve often discussed things we wished we had known when our own children were starting school. Of course we also discuss current students and ways parents could improve their school experience. Here are some suggestions:

Parent involvement is key to children’s success Parents need to actively participate in their children’s education. Read with your child every day. Make sure you have books in the home that are the appropriate reading level. If you aren’t sure, ask the teacher.

PBS Parents offers a grade-by-grade guide for parents so they can be familiar with the yearly learning principles and goals for their children.

Review your child’s homework and assignments. Emphasize the importance of education. Direct parental participation is likely the most crucial factor in a child’s educational success and progress. Frequent attendance at school activities signals that your family places a high value on education.

The National Science Teachers Association cites numerous research studies showing that early and frequent parental involvement improves children’s learning abilities and interest.

Early grades are critical If your child is struggling in kindergarten, first or second grades, don’t assume he or she will be able to catch up in later years. Pay close attention to the work your children bring home and follow up on any areas where you have concerns. If a teacher takes time to send home a personal note about an area of concern, please respond! Send the teacher an email or leave a detailed phone message since most teachers are busy during the school day.

Be a participant Attend parent/teacher conferences and join the PTA. Volunteer to help out with classroom activities, filing papers, or helping struggling readers. Make sure the teacher knows you view education as a priority. Contact your child’s teachers, school counselor or principal immediately if you have questions or concerns.

Don’t be a thorn Some parents seem to believe that the best way to get attention for their child is to be demanding. Through the years, a handful of parents have requested that my wife provide detailed written daily reports about their child’s behavior. One parent asked for an individualized math curriculum for her gifted child. One mother regularly showed up at the start of class wanting to spend 15 or 20 minutes discussing her child’s progress. A dad asked my wife to handle a 30-minute daily medical treatment his child needed.

Responding to such requests simply isn’t feasible for most teachers who frequently have no time during working hours to prep for the next day’s class.

Keep children in class My wife had a student whose parents checked him out of school three times in one year for family vacations. Each lasted more than a week. Not surprisingly, the student was behind in every subject. In a 2008 study, the National Center for Children in Poverty found that children who missed 18 or more days of school in kindergarten scored significantly lower in reading, math and general knowledge tests at the end of first grade than those who missed six or fewer days.

Take advantage of available assistance Some parents are hesitant to have their children participate in resource programs. They worry that the specialized help can result in teasing or stigmas from their peers. Most of the time the assistance is highly valuable and any teasing pales in comparison to the problems they will have in later years if they struggle to read or to do math.

Respect teachers Most teachers work much harder than you can imagine. Twelve-hour works days are far more common than eight-hour days. Teachers at my wife’s school get 30 minutes for lunch and part of that time involves taking their students to and from the lunch room. Bathroom breaks are infrequent and rushed because they usually require leaving an unattended class.

It is trendy in some circles to criticize and question public education. All the teachers I know do it because they love helping children. They gladly sacrifice personal time and resources for a child that needs assistance. Debating the national education model with them is not a good strategy.

Recognize your role School-age children spend 70 percent of their time away from the classroom. Any individual teacher normally has a maximum of 180 days to interact with a child and that time is typically divided among 20 to 30 other children. There is a limit to how much a teacher can do in that brief, finite period.

The most important thing I know now that I wish I realized before my children started school is the importance of my example. The primary responsibility for educating a child resides with the parent. Teachers and schools are merely resources.