The Power of the Project
Give your kids a sense of the future, keep them out of jail
Wes Denham is the co-author of "Arrest-Proof Yourself" and author of "Arrested, What to Do When Your Loved One's in Jail." He is currently at work on “The Crime Wasn’t Murder: The Death of Trayvon Martin and the Prosecution of George Zimmerman.” You can reach him at wesdenham.com.
From the depths of Police Zone 1, I offer a Christmas gift to the parents of teenagers throughout Northeast Florida. This gift cannot be bought in stores. Its price is spiritual, mental and physical; its value is beyond price. This gift cannot be given, only encouraged. When it appears, it will come, mysteriously, from the depths.
The gift is a project, a difficult and worthy goal for your children. As they mature, nature will push them away from you and out into the world. They should stride into life with direction and purpose. They should never wander, lest they enter my world of jails, prisons, courts, cops, guns and corpses.
As I research a book on the death of Trayvon Martin and look at other, eerily similar cases involving other young men, one thing stands out: boredom. Bored, too, are all the kids locked up in that horror house on Eighth Street we call the Duval Regional Juvenile Detention Center.
Absent a project, human beings regress to simple biological imperatives. Boys need to be manly, so they become tough. Sometimes, as with Trayvon, things go horribly wrong. The girls? Biology tells them to have men and babies. So they do.
You can't push a project. You can only encourage it. More important than the achievement itself is developing character, discipline and the habit of hard work. The fire must come from within. Remember, to a young person, ambition is an absolutely new experience. Unlike a wish, it doesn't evaporate with the next phone call or text. It stays, burning warm or hot, day after day. A worthy project, powered by ambition, forces the development of a mental ability rare in young people: the ability to project oneself mentally into the future.
Kids with projects can say, "In two years, I will have accomplished this. I will no longer be here. I'll be there." With future projection comes prudence and the ability to make choices. Goal-oriented kids have less trouble with drugs and sex because these things mess up the project. They keep their noses in the books because, almost always, education is essential to reaching the goal. When their friends want them to stay out all night, they say no.
When you talk to teenage murderers, robbers and drug dealers, you notice that they all lack any sense of a personal future. When you ask, "What are you going to be doing in five years?" they reply, "I'll be dead" or "I'll be in jail." I don't think they mean this literally. Rather, they've never thought about a future. Mental projection is not a skill they possess. Instead, they have impulses instead of mentation. So, if they're hungry, they eat. If they're horny, they fuck. If they're pissed off, they fight.
This project can be small or large, as long as it's interesting and worthwhile. Sports work if your child is athletic. So do learning languages, working in the family business, building model rockets or learning ballet. Huge is good. In college, I met kids who had already climbed Mt. Everest and translated the 100,000 verses of the Mahabharata from the original Sanskrit.
Kids can astonish you.
The other day, I talked with a young girl, a junior in high school. When I asked her about her future plans, she said this: "I will become" — not "I dream of being" — "a nurse-anesthetist or anesthesiologist. After graduating with a bachelor of science in nursing, I will enlist in the United States Navy and request flight nurse school in Norfolk, Va. I will serve aboard an aircraft carrier. If my grades are good enough, I'll apply for med school. …" This girl was 5 feet, 2 inches — but mentally and spiritually, she was much bigger than that.
She made me cry.
So, from the depths, more than they who watch for the morning, I wish for you and your children worthy projects, not for Christmas, but for life. When they get going, get busy and get ambitious, they will never have to suffer or die.
In Crime City.