Launching a Becoming Year for your Tween

It is her 12th birthday and we are meandering through Central Park when we are stopped by a poet.

She is a kind-looking woman standing at a crossroads; one I usually would ignore, but this time, am compelled to give my attention. Hers is a unique request: can I give you a poem? What transpires is so beautiful she and I both end in tears and an embrace. She gifted me with a blessing of motherhood. Then it comes out that today is my daughter's birthday and the poet is also a singer. She belts out the birthday song in a beautiful alto voice that sends shivers down my spine. 

As we continue walking, my daughter says, I think she was the face of God. I say, women create when they offer life and beauty to the world.

We came to New York City to launch her Becoming year. In my customary surprise, I whisked her away to the airport with a packed bag in the trunk. For our launch, we would begin to answer the question, where did you come from?, as well as dip our feet in the categories of womanhood we would build a scaffolding around this year. 

I have found that if you have eyes to see, there are models and metaphors everywhere, even in the Ramble in Central Park.

As part of the reveal, I gave Sophie a letter to provide some framing for the weekend. Here is a section:

Into what family story were you born? What is the backdrop of the Bruno story that you entered in May of 2006? There are many ways to answer this! Yes, you were born “on vacation” in Charlottesville, Virginia. I’m from there and we stayed with my parents for two months waiting for you! But we returned to Turkey and that is also an important part of our family story and yours! Your first home was in Turkey. Your first babysitter, your first steps, your first words… all there. I cannot wait to show you!

But there is another aspect of your story that starts long before Virginia and long before Turkey.

Dad and I met in Chicago. You know this. Actually, we met on the phone when I was still in high school in Virginia! But, the whole reason I was interested in Northwestern is because I was interested in cities. And I had been for a long time.

Every year growing up, we drove to Pennsylvania to visit my grandparents. I loved them! They lived just a few hours away from New York City and took us there once or twice. I will never forget the first time we drove into the city and I saw the skyscrapers. I was in the front seat in between my grandparents in their massive station wagon. From beneath the rearview mirror, I gazed up toward the sky, snapping pictures with my CD camera! I remember driving through Chinatown and Little Italy and past the Statue of Liberty and at some point, I think I said to my 10-year old self, you are going to live in a big city one day. I fell in love with cities in New York, which led me to only look at colleges in big cities, which led me to Northwestern and your dad and the rest is history.

But long before I gazed up toward the sky, my descendants and dad’s descendants walked the same streets. To New York, came my grandfather’s father from Norway and my grandmother’s mother and father from Scotland and Pop’s grandfather from Italy and Oma’s grandparents from Germany. Through New York, to start a new life in America that would one day birth you.

A gateway city from the old to the new. Where did they come from and where were they going?

Imagine the stories! Imagine the hope and fear and sacrifice and determination!

It all courses through your blood too. They are your stories.


On Day 1, we explored immigration:

At the Statue of Liberty, we lingered over Emma Lazarus' 1883 poem, "The New Colossus":

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Emma was an incredible example of how women create life and beauty through our actions, words, and choices (and funds for the statue pedestal!) Past and present blended as we contemplated those words in light of the current immigration conflict.

At the Ellis Island Museum, we learned about the waves of immigrants from the 1880s to the 1920s, the reasons why they came, and the eerily similar American sentiment that made them stop. Over 20 million in 40 years, many of whom we're related to, built the infrastructure of our country.

We walked through Little Italy for lunch and then took a tour in the Tenement Museum. This incredible story-based immersive museum is in an original tenement building that was vacant for 60+ years. Little has been changed, so the floors are still slanted, the linoleum layers visible, the small 300-square foot apartments furnished and the 2 toilets per floor kept the same. We learned about a Jewish Lithuanian family who ran a sweat shot and a Polish family who began working in a garment factory after electricity changed everything. We learned about the life of the women and the life of these early immigrants, all desperate to make a better future for their children. They were an example of how women sacrifice as they humble themselves to others without losing their voice.

And then we had Dim Sum in Chinatown and talked about the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Her first Becoming year book is Dear World by Bana Alabed, a story of escaping Syria written by an 8-year old. This is not just history anymore. This is one of the most important things for us to do: learn about the themes which propelled our own ancestors to immigrate and understand how we might address the same problems today. 

How does this break Jesus' heart and therefore, how must it break ours?

On Day 2, we met my editor at Hachette Book Group's NYC office. Keren is championing the voices of women and offering a platform through the books she acquires. She was an incredible example to Sophie of how women lead by wrestling with an unknown future on behalf of another.


On Day 3, we were given a tour of the United Nations by my Honduran sister-in-law's sister! She is one of 8 Honduran delegates passionately representing her country in the General Assembly. We were able to sit in on a Security Council meeting in which they discussed Sudan and Somalia and hear all about the UN's 2030 Sustainable Goals. Yolanni was a great example of how women fight as warriors fueled by the passions of redemption. 


And then we saw Wicked: an incredible storyline of two women who love fiercely, and the capacity for good that is unleashed.

Women lead. Women love. Women fight. Women create. Women sacrifice.

Where have you come from? You've come from a long legacy of women reflecting the image of God in these ways, the very ways in which women are still reflecting the image of God. 

What a beautiful launch into a Becoming year. I can't wait to see who God brings us to meet and learn about this year!

Want to do your own Becoming year? Learn about the book that started it all.


Every Mom’s Worst Fear: How to Protect Your Children from Sexual Exploitation

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When moms learn of my work to prevent human trafficking, the conversation always turns to fear for their own children. They wonder, how do I protect my kids? They ask, what can I do to prevent this from happening? They assume multiple wrong things because they believe the stereotypes and what they’ve seen on TV.  And then they’re shocked when I explain how exploitation usually begins.

Perhaps this short list of ideas to protect kids in the 3 main stages of childhood will help you not only feel better, but make a proactive game plan for your family. However, this list is not a surefire abuse protectant nor is is meant to create any guilt or shame if and when your child is harmed. The unfortunate reality is that we can do every single "right" thing and evil is still present. I offer this merely as a primer to get past fear and paralysis and think prevention.

Under age 8:

1.  Use real terminology for your child’s private parts. Why? If they are disclosing to a teacher, counselor, coach, etc. and use confusing code (someone touched my ding dong or ate my cookie), how will the adult know what they are really hearing? We do not want their first attempt at seeking help to be dismissed because of misunderstanding.

2.  Listen to their hesitation, discomfort, or resistance when going to certain homes or seeing certain people. If they react atypically around someone, you need to notice and respond accordingly. Do not force them to sit on his lap or endure his tickling. Do not leave them alone in this situation until you fully understand what is going on and if you never do, then you never leave them alone in this situation!

3.  Help your child listen to their gut. Debrief experiences- good and bad- and give them language to describe feelings. “So, did you like meeting your new teacher? What about your new teacher made you feel good?” or “Oh, you felt funny? What did your teacher do that made you feel that way?” When they express a gut feeling about someone, do not dismiss it!

Ages 8-11:

1.  The sleep over stage. Consider implementing some strict boundaries around sleep overs or not allowing them at all. Certainly, consider who is allowed over and who your child is allowed to stay with, making sure this list is narrow. Keep doors open at all times. Turn off wifi and cable when you go to sleep if it is not already restricted. Ask the parents with whom you might allow your child to stay if they have similar boundaries in place. Make sure you know of older siblings, relatives, and other guests in the home. Once you feel comfortable with the plan, communicate clearly to your child and agree on the rules. Then, be prepared to constantly adjust!

2.  The stranger danger lie. By this age, most kids will roll their eyes about “not talking to strangers.” They know to not open the door to a stranger or talk to one on the street. Unfortunately, this does little to protect them from the real danger: people they know. 9 out of 10 sexual abuse cases result from familiar perpetrators. It is time to speak frankly about being safe around everyone.

3.  The risk of first exposure. The majority of kids are first exposed to porn at age 11. They accidentally see something on the side bar of You Tube or in a Google search and curiosity leads to more. Have you installed security measures on your internet and devices? Talk to your kids about your fear: once you see something you cannot unsee it. Tell them what porn is so they know it is bad for them when a friend shows them. Tell them it is as addictive as drugs and can impact their brain development. Watch this.

Ages 12-18:

1.  Love them with everything you have. Kids who know they are deeply loved and seriously protected have a stronger sense of self, even when the drama of teenage years overwhelm them. Communicate openly and frequently about everything. At age 12, they should know what your expectations and/or parameters are around dating. This is not a free for all. Tell them your hopes and rules around relationships and check in repeatedly.

2.  Monitor social media age appropriately. Watch this PSA on how normal it is for “cute 15-year olds” to actually be perpetrators. Talk with your kids about safety protocols with apps and create rules for what and with whom they share.

3.  Give them something bigger to live for. Get them involved in something meaningful where they can experience healthy relationships, another adult role model or mentor, and activities outside of themselves. Being a part of a positive community keeps them grounded and less likely to be targeted by those looking to exploit.

4.  Remind them over and over again that they are more than the relationships they have in their lives. Cast a vision for their future that aligns with who you see them becoming. Start making future plans with them. Dream with them. If they are dating, do not allow the relationship to consume them, isolate them, or change their personality. If this begins to happen, intervene immediately.

5.  If you know of past trauma or abuse, get your teen in counseling with someone they enjoy talking to. If you can find a group of other teens who have had similar experiences, do this too. If you can find a support group for parents of abuse survivors, join. Do not overlook or underestimate the power of healing to prevent future exploitation. Too many child sex abuse victims come to believe they are damaged or worse, to regain power they exploit themselves on their own terms.

At some point in this last stage, we need to focus on training rather than protecting. We need to equip our teens to notice suspicious people and train them to know how to act in a compromising situation. If you started early, hopefully they have learned to listen to their gut. Let us raise our kids to be people who notice and upon noticing, act.