Often, their opinions extended to the repulsive girls who were dumb enough to date me, the vile parents who thoughtlessly brought me into the world, and the loathsome bosses who hired me solely to disturb their lives. Fortunately, the latter group is the only one they threatened to kill with any notable frequency.
As you might now imagine, my days were challenging. I was sucked into a fruitless cycle of give directions, watch directions get ignored, reprimand ignorers, and absorb hostility. I witnessed few of these guys moving toward positive choices. In fact, the overall direction of the group seemed to be violently stuck in reverse.
One day, in the middle of an exceptionally lawless rendition of this cycle, one of my supervisors pulled me aside. He pointed out that I always seemed to be down on the group, that it seemed to come easy to me to criticize their behaviors.
If you just heard a loud thud, it was the 20 year old echo of my jaw plunging to the forest floor as I absorbed the notion that I was remotely responsible for the bad boys gone prison break scene carrying on around us. I won't deny that coming down on the guys came easy to me. In fact, if anything had ever come easier to me than identifying and criticizing the delinquency of nearly every breath and movement that poured from these guys, I didn't know what it was. But that was me identifying behaviors, not me responsible for them. And in so many words, that's what I told my supervisor.
"I understand that," he told me, "but that just makes you good at doing what every other adult in their lives has ever done - point out what they're doing wrong. And like you pointed out - he took pleasure in reminding me - there's no challenge in that. You're simply finding the obvious. If you ever want to be someone different in their lives, someone who makes a difference in them, you have to find a way to catch them doing something right."
I had a lot of respect for this supervisor so I was troubled to hear him say something so stupid. I assured him the boys unloading chaos by the truckloads around us were not being failed by a leader who refused to acknowledge their redeeming qualities. To the contrary, if one of them ever dared show a glimmer of a good side, not only would I be the first to notice it, I'd be the one organizing a ticker tape parade to commemorate it. I encouraged him to take a look around, though, in case he had notions of a parade coming to town anytime soon.
I have a history of ignoring good advice in favor of my own incompetence, only to later discover what a bad idea that was. That's my explanation for writing off the challenge to catch them doing something right as a text book counseling strategy my supervisor was obligated to share, but inside, I was certain, scoffed at it every bit as much as I did. Over the next couple of weeks, though, in the midst of bad attitudes charging at me like burning lava from an angry volcano, I found myself senselessly looking for something right. And each time I wound up asking myself how my supervisor ever became a supervisor.
But one day in the rarest of quiet moments while walking down a trail to breakfast, I noticed something unusual about Terrence Davis, the young man walking next to me. I noticed his shoes were tied. You're thinking that's not a big deal, I know. But had you ever arrived at the dining hall with our group on any of a thousand mornings, famished, only to be turned away because Terrence Davis had shoestrings sprawled and dangling behind his feet like a recently detonated can of Silly String, you'd not only understand the big deal in this discovery, you'd feel it.
So upon this discovery I said, "Terrence, your shoes are tied. And nobody had to tell you to tie them. Great job."
Terrence cussed me the rest of the walk to the dining hall for issuing a kindergarten compliment to a fully grown juvenile delinquent. In spite of his resistance to me catching him doing something right, however, we not only made it to the dining hall, when we got there we ate. Food always seemed to tame the sting of even the most vile profanities. At least for me.
Here's the real moral to that compliment though. About a week later I realized Terrence hadn't been told to tie his shoes since that day. And I eventually realized he would never need to be told to do so again. Ever.
So I began to notice kids who went five minutes without cussing, even if I knew deep inside they were simply too exhausted to spout another word. I made a point to notice boys who took even momentary breaks from pummeling the groups favorite punching bag Diego Rodriguez, even though I knew it was likely because they were simply bored with his crying. I noticed when they less than politely said "pass the salt" instead of screaming "give it to me."
I noticed, to my growing surprise, that there were indeed fleeting moments of sunshine in what I had convinced myself was an untiring hurricane.
With very few exceptions, the more I noticed these things - the more I caught them doing something right - the more I saw the right things come out of them.
Dads, in many homes we are the primary disciplinarians. It's so easy to allow ourselves to believe this responsibility is all about catching our kids breaking the rules, willfully defying our directions, and then taking on the mission of making sure they never do it again. I'm glad I learned with that group of boys in the middle of a forest that that approach is not only exhausting, but applied by itself, it is fruitless.
The secret to getting kids to make the right choices, I've discovered, isn't about pointing out when they've made the wrong ones - although that is certainly a part of it. But our kids need to be motivated to make good choices, and I've found no better way to provide that motivation than catching them doing the right thing. Even if that choice is only as right as tying their shoes.