Kids Need Hope More Than Fear

 

Hope EnduresWants versus needs. We humans seem to want everything, but actually need very little. Children need love, safety, security, shelter, clothing, and food. They need to be engaged in character-building activities. They need to be taught how to be decent human beings who accept as an axiom that all life is sacred. They need to be taught that life doesn’t revolve around them, that they are part of a larger world – family, neighborhood, community, city, country, planet – and that they are not entitled to have everything they want. Healthy fear is also a need. It helps protect us from making dangerous choices. However, scaring kids is never a good idea. Irrational “the sky is falling,” “we are doomed,” kind of fear is unhealthy and leads to destructive, rather than constructive, behaviors in kids.

 

Years ago, many states instituted “Scared Straight” programs as a result of a famous documentary wherein wayward teens were taken to a maximum security prison and threatened by the inmates. They were told horrible things would happen to them should they end up in prison. Several of those teens later ended up incarcerated, one for twenty-five to life in the very same prison where the documentary was filmed. The “scared straight” program didn’t work anywhere it was tried in the country and often proved harmful, likely because it created a self-fulfilling prophesy in the minds of kids who’d already been labeled “bad.” Those kids needed hope, but they were given fear. And it didn’t work.

 

In some cities, teens are taken to the morgue to view the corpses of drunk driving victims in the hope that they will be scared enough to avoid driving drunk or riding with someone who had been drinking. These programs also proved ineffective, as did all the “Red Asphalt” videos shown to kids in driver’s education classes. Across the board, adults think that scaring kids, and sometimes each other, is the best way to generate positive results. But how can a negative lead to a positive? They are opposites, after all. Kids at all stages of their development need hope much more than they need fear. And so do adults.

 

Which brings me to the environmental movement, the backdrop of my novel, Warrior Kids. Our careless destruction of the environment and its ancillary effects – climate change – are immense areas encompassing all walks of human life. There’s shifting climate patterns, GMOs, poisoned water, fracking, land fills, oil spills, air pollution, CO2 levels – the list goes on and on. Too often, the environmental movement is about doom and gloom – the sky is falling and we need to act now by donating money to this group or that one. Almost every non-profit involved in the environmental arena says to give money to them because they have the inside track and all the answers. Sadly, people are profiting off of environmental destruction, and I don’t mean the obvious beneficiaries – fossil fuel companies, paper mills, coal producers, natural gas extractors and other industries. I mean people supposedly on the “right” side of the issue. They’re making bank, too, and scaring people in the process.

 

Climate changes fueled by our abuse of the environment could be the defining issue of the millennium, but just this year a new poll indicated that one-third of Americans don’t think there is any climate change at all, and even if it is happening, they don’t believe anything serious will affect them during their lifetime so they don’t care. It’s the usual selfish, shortsighted aspect of human nature that is the root of all human problems – putting “me” over “we.” And in the case of environmental abuse, adults are putting themselves and their personal comfort zones over the needs of their children and grandchildren. It’s disheartening to say the least, but real solutions seldom come from the generation that created the problem. Real solutions come from the generation inheriting the problem. In our time, it’s the millennial generation stepping up to defend and restore the planet. Worldwide, kids are standing up for the environment and their generation. But we need to engage and encourage more young people to take an interest in the big picture. We can only do this by giving them hope, not fear.

 

Kids need to know the sky isn’t falling. They need to know they can help ensure a better future for themselves and their own children yet to be born. This is the message of my novel. The book presents facts about environmental abuse and pollution, presents tangible solutions to some of the issues, and empowers kids to take real action in their homes, schools, communities, and on a national level by mobilizing via social media.

 

My goal as a lifelong youth leader, mentor, teacher, coach, volunteer has always been to empower kids, to give them hope for a better future, one they can help bring about by their own choices and actions. Scaring kids with environmental tales of doom and gloom over climate change will just paralyze them and lead many to seek out destructive, self-absorbed hedonism because they figure, why not? The world is crumbling and there’s nothing I can do about it, so I might as well have self-serving fun, right? Wrong. There’s plenty kids and adults can do. The most significant action adults can take is to lead by example, to show kids what real power they have, and give them hope, ideas, and motivation to step up and be leaders in their own right.

 

Kids rule social media. If they wanted, they could crash the congressional servers with demands for action. They can work within their schools to make them more environmentally friendly. They can do the same in their communities. They can petition their mayors and city council people to take real action on issues that affect them now and will impact them in the future.

 

Youth have an innate capacity for hope. I’ve worked with so many kids over the years whose childhoods have been hell on earth. You wouldn’t wish their lives on the most evil of humans. And yet they still have hope that the future can be better, that they can still have happy, productive lives. They continually remind me that life is sacred and all life is a gift. Hope needs to be nurtured in children and teens, not scared out of them because adults have an agenda they want to push or profit from. Even when the motives of adults are pure, if the methodology is wrong, the adult is wrong. Period.

 

It comes back to wants versus needs. Too many people want to be celebrities and be famous. Some are using the environmental crisis as a springboard to fame and self-aggrandizement. Conversely, many in the environmental arena are genuinely concerned and seek not to profit from the problem, nor become famous as a result of it. But people need to closely examine each organization they consider supporting, especially where their kids are concerned. Parents should make sure that their kids are not following “It’s all about me” environmentalists or they will lose even more hope because they’ll see selfishness and greed that isn’t any different from that exhibited by big industry and big government. Hypocrisy in arenas that impact the lives of children is beyond disturbing, but sadly it exists across the board. Between the self-absorbed environmentalists and the fear-mongering ones, kids can feel overwhelmed and paralyzed and hopeless.

 

Parents and honorable adults must lead by example and direct kids toward real solutions to all of life’s problems. In my fictional story, the adults do this – they lead by example, they model “we” over “me” thinking, and they refuse to allow the “cause” to be all about them. As a result, the millions of children and teens who follow them do the same. It’s not difficult to choose “we” over “me,” but it might take daily practice to shift one’s consciousness in that direction.

 

Try this experiment for yourself and your family: commit to one day per week – the same day every week – during which you will consciously choose “we” over “me” from the moment you wake up until you go to sleep that night. In other words, throughout that day look for every opportunity to serve the needs of others in some fashion. This could translate into being more focused on recycling, not using Styrofoam cups, not throwing away food or useful items – all of these and every other environmentally friendly action clearly helps other people by helping the planet. Or you could commit to helping individual people in some way – people in the community, school, or the workplace. There is always someone who has less than we do and always someone who needs assistance of some kind. For you kids, it could be reaching out to that student who is super shy, or even super annoying, and extending a hand of friendship. The possibilities are endless. If everyone on the planet adopted this idea – to not self-obsess one day per week – can you envision how much better the world would become overnight? It would be transformative. Please try this out for yourself. Commit to this experiment for one month. My guess is that you will find such innate joy and hope in choosing “we” over “me” that you will continue well beyond that month. And I predict you will add more days of “we” over “me” to your weekly schedule.

 

Hope. It comes in many forms and from many sources. It is the cornerstone of a positive, productive life. It is an essential ingredient for all of us, especially kids. Adults must model it. Adults must share it. Adults must embrace it. I have always done my best to share hope with even the most damaged kids I know. And they continue to share their hope with me. It’s that “we” over “me” mentality. When we look out for the needs of each other, everybody wins.

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Why I Write Diverse Books That Are Outside-The-Box

The Boys of SPINNER

As an urban high school teacher for twenty-five years, I primarily taught kids of color. And yet, in the books and stories we read, almost all of the characters were Caucasian, and most with reasonably stable home lives. I decided as an author to write about the kids I knew best – kids of color, gay kids, marginalized kids, poor kids, kids with disabilities, gang members, and incarcerated kids – because I want all youth to see themselves represented in a positive light within the pages of teen literature.

To that end, I crafted a five-book series called The Children of the Knight Cycle that takes a fantasy concept – King Arthur in modern-day Los Angeles – and uses it to showcase a laundry list of crimes this society perpetrates against kids who don’t “fit the norm,” or won’t be shoehorned into the “one size fits all” mentality of public education, or don’t want to be a mini-me version of their parents. Virtually all the main characters in my series are teens of color, including Native Americans. Some of them are gay. But all are dynamic, memorable individuals that readers can relate to. Every day in America such kids are kicked to the curb. We don’t want them in our homes or classrooms or in our books. We’d rather they just disappear. In recent decades, we’ve decided we like putting them in prison. A staggering number of states arrest children aged ten (and younger) and charge them as adults for imitating the anti-social examples of adults, or for copying illicit behaviors popular media models every day.

I present these kids as real human beings with the same hopes, fears, needs, and wants as everyone else. My characters benefit from adults who choose to love them no matter what and who show them how to do what’s right, rather than what’s easy. The kids learn that every one of them can make a positive difference in this world, and that’s a message the students in my urban, working-class high school seldom got from the books I was forced to teach them. In those books, only “white” kids succeeded.

In my teen horror thriller, Spinner, I highlight the other forgotten kids I taught for many years – those with disabilities. These kids tend to be the most overlooked of all high schoolers because it is “assumed” by adults that they will never amount to much in life. Kids with physical or learning disabilities are no different from those without them – they can learn and achieve, but maybe not in the same cookie-cutter fashion school systems like to employ. I know what I’m talking about because I have a disability of my own – hearing loss. I’ve lived with a severe sensorineural hearing impairment my whole life, and did not have access to hearing aids until I was in college.

I also didn’t know anyone with hearing loss until after graduate school. I was the only kid like me, and that kind of singularity can be isolating. Even though people don’t always mean to be insensitive, not a single day went by that I wasn’t made to feel “different” because of my disability. On the plus side, my isolated childhood gave me true empathy for every youngster who was “different” in some way, and likely directed me to seek out such kids and work with them. After graduate school, I joined the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, wherein adults mentor kids with no father in the home. I was matched to a 14-year-old boy with hearing loss, and the experience was revelatory. Even as an adult, the relief that I felt to finally know someone who grew up with hearing loss was palpable. Imagine what it’s like for kids like me to see themselves in books they read, to understand that they aren’t alone or broken or crippled, to see hope for their lives because they see others like them achieving greatness. We all need to know that being different is not wrong. In fact, being apart from the norm is most often a net positive. But, my disability never defined me, and I want kids to see that theirs don’t define them, either.

I think publishers are skittish about books like mine that mash up various genres and focus on outside-the-box characters, stories that don’t fit an established pattern that can be “pitched” easily, and can’t be described as “the next Hunger Games” or something of that nature. Children of the Knight was released by an indie publisher that seemingly lost faith in the project because there was no visible attempt to promote it to the target audience. They even labeled it a romance on Amazon and it’s not a romance. I made a big push with Spinner to engage the interest of an agent or larger publisher and got nowhere with either. An indie publisher, YoungDudes Publishing, saw potential in the book and chose to release it. As a startup, they have no budget for promotion, but they are awesome people and working with them has been wonderful. But without the marketing arm of a big publisher, without those necessary journal reviews, like School Library Journal, nobody knows the book exists. This is the dilemma every writer must face, especially if, like me, you write outside the box and outside the genre mold.

Having said that, I would not change what I write to fit those molds or to make my books more “white,” assuming that is the goal with publishers. The main character in Spinner is Caucasian, but his friends are kids of color and they all have various disabilities. I took an interesting class last year about cover art on books for teens and children, and learned that even if the main character in those books was a child of color, the cover had been whitewashed in some fashion so the race or ethnicity was obscured. That class opened my eyes to how the publishing industry works and maybe showed me that, just as I never did in life, I might never fit into their predetermined “molds.”

One reviewer of my Children of the Knight series applauded me for breaking the teen hero mold by presenting a strong teen boy who is conflicted about his sexual orientation: “Lance is the hero around which the action pivots. Not many authors would have given such a character the heartthrob role. But Bowler takes a chance, fashioning something completely different by having such a key figure question his sexuality.”

I suspect a major publisher would have told me to “make him straight” like every other teen boy hero. I never had the chance to make such a choice, but I hope I would have said no. Lance is far more interesting and real for his inner turmoil, and for his desire to “fit in” the way society says he must in order to be a “real” boy.

No matter what we look like or how much money we have or how smart we are; no matter our race, ethnicity, gender, or orientation; no matter our abilities or disabilities – at the end of every day we’re all the same. We’re all human. We’re human first, and everything else second. We spend way too much time in this country focusing on what we perceive to be the weaknesses or differences in others. The teen characters in my books prove that our strengths always outweigh our weaknesses, and our diversity, i.e. our differentness, is to be celebrated, not hidden away. If more adults would focus on the natural talents and gifts of kids instead of always trying to make everyone “fit in,” then all children would have a real chance to soar. As a writer of teen lit, my goal is to empower every kid, not just the ones most Americans “look like” or even “act like.”

The Children of the Knight

 

Lance Statement

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why the Genre Term “Young Adult Literature” is Dangerous

Young Adult

I hate the term “Young Adult Literature.” Teens and children are NOT young adults and they never will be young adults. Twelve and under are children or kids. Thirteen to eighteen are teens or adolescents. Eighteen years old is the beginning of young adulthood in America, and the adult brain isn’t fully formed until age twenty-one plus. That’s real science, not my opinion.

I point this out because it’s a major theme in my writing. America seems bound and determined to rob children of their childhood. Even on such supposedly safe channels as Nickelodeon and Disney, shows often depict kids as young as ten or eleven pursuing romantic relationships.

These storylines put ideas into the heads of kids at home that there must be something wrong with them if they don’t want a boyfriend or girlfriend in elementary or middle school. Kids that age should NOT be pursuing such complicated and stressful relationships. They should be building friendships that are strong and binding. Developmentally, they are figuring out who they are as individuals and don’t need the pressures of a “relationship” they can’t fully understand and don’t actually want. I talked to an eleven-year-old recently who said he wanted a girlfriend. When I asked why, he didn’t have an answer. I know the answer – it’s because the media keeps pushing that idea and kids always want to “fit in” with whatever is the current trend. Why the media pushes romantic, and by extension sexual, relationships on children is a disturbing question to ponder. No good can come of such poisoning of children’s minds and souls in this fashion, and yet we as a society allow it to happen. That’s scary.

There’s another, even more insidious aspect to labeling kids “young adults.” Children today are exposed to more and more adult behaviors, usually bad ones, and when they copy those behaviors they are expelled from school or arrested. If the behaviors are really serious and somebody gets hurt, these children are put into adult court and sentenced to prison. I know a large number of them personally. I’ve spent time with seven and eight year olds in juvenile hall. Children reflect the society in which they grow up, and America is teaching them how to be self-absorbed consumers with little regard for others. Maybe that’s the plan – keep them self-absorbed with “me” centered behaviors and they won’t challenge the status quo. If kids, i.e. the next generation, don’t challenge the status quo, corruption and greed win every time.

Young children can be tried as adults in many states and the media always labels these kids “young men” or “young women.” Why? Because readers or viewers won’t feel sorry for them and think of them as the damaged children they actually are. Even when children do something positive, they are still referred to with those factually and morally misleading terms “young men” and “young women.” It’s clearly an agenda designed to benefit adults. There’s no other explanation. If society decides children are “little adults,” then anything goes with those kids, right? They can be put into prison, used sexually, or forced to work so parents or guardians can make money off of them.

My Children of the Knight series explores these themes in depth. My young characters rebel against societal brainwashing and use social media to galvanize their peers across the country to do the same. A revolution ensues that continues in the latest installment, Warrior Kids: A Tale of New Camelot. Children and teens are the only ones who can make society better because they will run it some day. Brainwashing them to obsess over themselves – as though kids don’t do this enough already – is the easiest way to ensure that those in power across the board won’t be challenged. Sadly, the tactic seems to be working. It’s my hope that kids who read my books will come to the same awareness as my characters about what is really going on and feel empowered to rise up and stop it.

Vigilant parents keep their kids away from media, and screen everything, within reason, that kids watch or read. And allow their children to grow developmentally along natural milestones. Rushing children to “behave” like adults is a net negative. Far too many adults are poor role models. These adults don’t want to make the world better for kids because they personally benefit from how it is now. I don’t want my children copying the behaviors of most “famous” people, or even characters in so much of what passes for children’s entertainment these days, because then my kids will become part of the problem, not the solution.

So yes, I decry the term “Young Adult” applied to children and teen lit. It’s just an excuse to distract kids by putting more adult material into their books, mostly sexual material, and get away with it because the books are for “young adults.” No, they’re not. These books are for kids who are still developing and are not young adults and never will be young adults until they actually grow into young adults. I write books for teens and tweens that can be enjoyed by adults of all ages. Now I just have to convince the rest of the industry to call teen lit what it is – teen lit. If more parents complained on a grass roots level and emailed publishers and Amazon to replace that “Young Adult” moniker, we could seriously challenge the status quo. Or we could just succumb to the brainwashing and do nothing. I prefer to challenge. And then go after Disney and Nickelodeon.

Anyone with me?

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Michael J. Bowler

Michael J. Bowler Amazon Page

Should 14-year-olds Have the Right to Vote?

Children of the Knight Mid Res CoverIn the United States today a citizen must be 18 years old to vote in any federal, state or local elections. How many of you out there believe, as I do, that the voting age should be lowered to fourteen? A crazy idea? Let’s explore it, shall we?

The cons are easiest to start with since most adults would instantly say them: Fourteen-year-olds aren’t mature enough. Heard that one before? Fourteen year olds aren’t smart enough. Fourteen year olds aren’t educated enough. Fourteen year olds are just kids and they don’t have any life experience to go by. How about this one – if we let them vote, they’ll get to sit on juries. Then what’s next – they drop out of school and join the work force? That would cheapen the adult workers because non-union kids would work for less and take jobs away from adults! And if they can vote, they’ll want to drive cars and join the military. That would undermine the entire social fabric because we’d have a bunch of immature kids on equal footing with mature and capable adults. Are these arguments sound? Do they seem reasonable to you? Is it idiotic to allow fourteen-year-old kids to “be” adults and participate fully in the adult decision-making world? Maybe. Maybe not.

How many of you out there are aware that in 45 out of 50 states, juveniles as young as fourteen, sometimes thirteen, are already considered legal adults? You didn’t know this? Oh, maybe that’s because the adult voters in those states decided that juveniles are adults in only one way – when they get in trouble with the law. In every other way, hell no, they’re just immature kids who don’t know anything! But when it comes to crime, to life in the streets, to gangs and their overreaching influence, to resisting peer pressure – suddenly and magically they become adults. But only for that moment when they made the bad choice. Oddly enough, when they do something good or positive for society, they’re still just punk-ass kids who know nothing and should be seen but not heard, and sometimes not even seen unless they’re good-looking or get good grades.

Make sense to you? How many of you out there truly believe that thirteen or fourteen-year-olds can be an adult today to get caught up in a crime, but not be an adult tomorrow to sit on the jury to hear that crime, or to vote on the very laws that “adultified” them in the first place?

I have spent my entire life working with kids, particularly teenagers. And they’re not adults. Not yet, even though many states like to pretend they are when they get in trouble. Kids don’t have the experience to process feelings like we do, and they can’t reason things out as well. It’s not built in yet. This country wants to pretend children are adults so we can put them in prison when they screw up because we are too lazy and caught up in ourselves to give them a second chance, or a third, or even a fourth. Kids screw up. That’s been the case throughout all of human history, and when they do, those kids need adults to help them become better so they don’t keep screwing up. They don’t need adults who just want to toss them into prison, out of sight and out of mind.

Too many adults in this country want kids to be magically grown up so they don’t have to parent them and role model for them and set good examples for them, but the bottom line is children are children and need to be allowed to be children. Children can’t, and never will, think and feel like adults because they aren’t adults. Not yet. And the adult society in this country has a throw-away mentality. If the kid screws up, throw him away. We’ll just get another. That’s like the farmer who leaves the barn unlocked and his horse escapes and tramples his crops. Farmer’s solution? Shoot the horse and just buy another. After all, it was the horse’s fault right, for trampling the crops?

So we return to my original question – should fourteen-year-olds be allowed to vote and by extension sit on juries to hear the cases against them? I say yes. If, in our collective idiocy, we are going to pretend they’re adults for doing something wrong, then they sure as hell can be adults to do something right! Or are we, as country, simply afraid of our young people? We seem to be incarcerating a vast number these days, so the answer would appear to be yes. But are we even more afraid of giving them the power to decide laws, to elect presidents and representatives, to pass or reject propositions that would seek to criminalize them just for being kids?

I say if fourteen-year-olds are adult enough to commit a crime then they are more than adult enough to vote! Who’s with me? C’mon, people, let’s start a revolution. . . a children’s crusade for equal rights. . .

Sir Lance says, “I’m fourteen-years-old. I can go to prison, but I can’t drive a car. Crazy, huh?”

Arthur’s Camelot and Its Relevance to 21st Century America

The story of King Arthur and his Round Table of knights has great relevance to modern America in the 21st Century, especially within the context of my new novel, Children of the Knight.

First of all, the Britain of Arthur’s time was a fractured, divisive land with disparate groups of peoples like the Gauls, the Gales, the Normans and others vying for power and prestige.  In America today, many in the public sector make their livelihood and base their political survival on pitting this group against that group or this race against that one and they never allow for real unity because with unity might come an end to said public person’s career and funding base. The media is even worse, always stirring the pot, often by dispensing inaccurate or incomplete information in the hopes of generating controversy. In simpler terms, divisiveness is profitable.

When Arthur became High King of Britain his first order of business was to unite all the distinct groups warring against him and each other, which he eventually did through numerous costly battles. However, once done, he had to keep the peace, so as he tells young Lance in Children of the Knight, “I gave them all a purpose in life other than hating one another.” He brings that same purpose to the warring gangs and unrelated street kids he recruits as his new Round Table in the newly released novel.

America of today has systematically failed her children in every area of life, from education to criminal justice to media influences. The one-size-must-fit-all-or-you-can-get-out approach to modern public education is disgusting and antithetical to human nature. Since we can never all be the same, what happens to those kids who just don’t “fit” that one size? They drop out, join gangs or crews, do drugs, make babies they can’t take care of, and engage in all manner of anti-social behaviors they have learned from adults. And what about the war adults have waged against gay youth with their preposterous notion that these kids willingly made a choice to love someone of the same gender and thus willingly chose the hate, mockery, bullying, and marginalization that go with being gay in America today? Let’s face it, there are a lot of stupid, selfish people in this country, and kids are paying the price.

In my book, Arthur returns from Avalon and finds all of this discarded and wasted “might” at his disposal, kids no one else wants, most of them boys with a lot of potential energy within them for good or ill. There are a lot of homegirls on the streets, as well, but most gangs are male-dominated because of the sense of empowerment these usually poor, ethnic, marginalized kids desperately seek. Before Arthur, all the combined might of these gangs and street youth has been directed toward the detriment of society because that’s all they’ve been taught by the adult world that raised them. They make war on each other and on the innocent. But Arthur comes along and teaches them discipline through mastery of swordplay and archery, and he convinces them, as he convinced the various factions all those centuries ago in Britain, to put aside their own petty rivalries and use their collected might for right in order to finally gain the power they had previously sought through violence and mayhem.

Arthur’s objective is to win the approval and support of the voting public and use that support to take on the feckless, self-absorbed politicians who run Los Angeles. From LA the crusade will then move on to all of California and then to the country as a whole. Its ultimate goal: restoration of the right of children to be children, and human beings, and not the mere property of adults. Will he succeed? You have to read the book to find out.

ChildrenoftheKnight-Bowler_bookmarkV_Harmony

Oh, and why did Arthur come to America rather than Britain? Since his purpose is to save childhood it is also, by extension, to save this most promising child of Britain from itself. After all, a country that fails its children is ultimately doomed to assume a well-earned place on the scrap heap of history.