by Joe Nathan
“Simple Choices” is one of the wisest, most humble and helpful books for parents that I’ve read in a long time. It’s written by Lisa Graham Keegan, a nationally recognized educator and political leader who has had to deal with her father’s desertion of the family, discovery that she is carrying a genetic disorder and several other huge challenges. But with laughter and love, she has emerged as a kind, caring, positive parent. She has wonderful stories to tell and creative suggestions I’ve read nowhere else.
This is the most personal book I’ve ever read by an elected official. Keegan started her career as a speech pathologist, worked with military veterans, was later elected to the Arizona state legislature and later was elected as the state’s commissioner of education. She worked with Sen. John McCain and former President George H.W. Bush.
Keegan praises her mother for protecting her from her biological father, who left the family when Keegan was about 3. Her mother avoided the temptation to relentlessly criticize the man, simply telling her children than he loved them but felt he had to do other things.
Later, when Keegan divorced, she adopted a similar attitude in talking with her children about her former husband. She thinks it’s vital that parents put aside their own anger, frustration and rage, and stress to children that, no matter what, they are loved for who they are.
One of the most moving parts of the book is when Keegan quotes from letters she has written to each of her children. I had not thought about doing this, but plan to do it now. She points out accurately that in the day-to-day rush of family life, it’s often not possible to communicate clearly to youngsters about how proud we are of them and how much we appreciate their special gifts and talents. The letters are not lengthy – often a page or less. But they are clear, compelling demonstrations of love, affection and respect. This is a great idea!
Keegan believes each of us is here to help improve the world. This came from her family: “We were expected to make a difference. We were expected to find our purpose….it was our job to discover what we could do to improve the world.”
But she emphasizes the need for parents to help youngsters discover their own interests and talents, rather than attempting to impose our preferences for careers on youngsters.
Keegan is eloquent about the power of family, friends and educators to have an impact on young people. Her experiences at the Veterans Hospital and with family taught her that “the willingness to exert or risk oneself was inspired or diminished by the behavior and beliefs of others.”
Her consistent positions in favor of families sometimes got her in trouble. For example, she was a leader in Planned Parenthood and in groups advocating for school choice. She sees both roles as part of her advocacy for empowering families – even if some people who agreed with her in one area passionately disagreed with her in another.
Having been deeply involved in education, she believes “excellence abides in all types of schools,” whether district, charter, magnet, private or parochial. She goes farther than I would in school choice. She believes that tax funds should support family choice of schools not only among district and charter, but also private and parochial. But this is not the focus of “Simple Choices.”
Whether she’s dealing with divorce, death, gender identity or genetic disorders, Keegan demonstrates how to help young people develop in positive, loving ways. I was sorry when the brief, 130-page book ended. I strongly recommend it.
Joe Nathan, formerly a public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome, and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.