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Kevin Leman

Author of  Home Court Advantage

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Interview with Kevin Lehman about Home Court Advantage, with Christian Book Previews' editor, Debra Murphy

CBP: Can you start with your Christian testimony?

Kevin: Well, you're talking to Mr. Imperfect. I'm a part of something called Kingdom Bound up in New York State, about 50,000 people come. Local newspapers just invited me for an interview, which I took. Michael W. Smith comes, and Josh McDowell, people like that. But I've done it for years, almost every year. So this reporter said to me, "What is this massive group of Christians like? Let's put it this way, what does Kingdom Bound mean to you?" I said, "It's a gathering of about 50,000 of the most imperfect people you've ever seen in your life who simply have a love to God, who want to learn more about life and have a good time with their family." That's how I answered the question.

My own life would make probably an interesting piece. I graduated 4th in my class in my high school. Unfortunately, it was 4th from the bottom and not 4th from the top. So I was 257 our of 260. As a senior in high school I was taking consumers mathematics, which is "Nancy went to the market with a dollar. She purchased three apples for 25 cents. How much money did Nancy have when she returned home?" Sometimes I got those right. I applied to a hundred colleges and universities, none of which wanted me. None. Not one. Our church denominational school turned me down. I even sent them Scripture about forgiveness. They were unimpressed. I finally got into college, on probation, with a twelve-unit maximum load. A year and a quarter later they threw me out of college for stealing the Conscience fund.

I went to Arizona where I now live, I wanted a job, needed a job, I came from a poor family. I got a job, finally after searching for about six months, as a janitor. I really wanted a junior executive level position, but couldn't find one. So at 19, I was a jerk, I was a janitor, I was going no place in life, and it's funny how God works in your life because I was, I think a year later, I met my wife to be at a mental hospital. The first thing I ever said to her was, "Pardon me, but would you like to go to the World's Fair with me?" The first thing I ever said to her. She was walking by and I was dumping trash in the men's room in a big barrel. She stopped and said, "Pardon me?" I said, "Would you like to go to the Worlds' Fair with me?" The World's Fair was in New York City, the year was 1964. I said, "How about lunch then?" So we went to one McDonald's, had one cheeseburger for 20 cents. Ten cent coke we split. And I'm telling you, I fell. I fell like a ton of bricks. Hard to believe, but my wife is about as pretty as can be. She's tall, slender, attractive even at 59 years old. So, again, God works in mysterious ways.

We dated for quite a while, and she said to me, "Would you like to go to church with me?" I remember thinking, Oh, no. She's one of them. So, what do you say? I said, "Sure! I was just thinking about going to church." I was lying. So I started going to church with her, and I remember thinking, No chick is worth this. And then she wanted me to go to church at night. Now, why would you go to church at night if you've already been there in the morning? But it was an evening with this pastor who talked about a person who knew who Christ was intellectually, but he didn't know him in a personal way in his heart. That was the evening that my entire life did a 180. God gave me motivation. I had taken two courses back-to-back at the University of Arizona, this is the same school who refused me admission as a freshman, the same school that I served as Dean of Students for 10 years. So I'd flunked geology 101 twice, back-to-back. Got my life turned around. I still had a cumulative GPA for me to re-enter the university without being on probation. Which I did. I took a 16-unit load the first semester and got on the Dean's List. Well, I'd been on a lot of Dean's Lists in my life, but never a good one. So that was the beginning.

When I get a chance to speak at a church, especially on a Sunday morning, I always try to remind people that God uses people to change people's lives. And he used a bunch of smelly fishermen and some others to change the course of mankind. In my life he used my wife, who was the trigger that set me up to say, "Yeah, God, I need you in my life." The rest is history. I did things I never thought I would do. I never aspired to get a master's degree or a doctorate degree, I never thought I'd end up on the administration of the university where I came to with 35,000 students. I knew no one when I came. No one. I didn't know I'd be looking in the eyes of old Katie Couric and all the rest of them I've done over the years. I look back, and see all those experiences, and I was the class clown. My litmus test after doing an interview is, were the jaded New York cameramen laughing.

I'm on a first-name basis with the floor directors at CBS and ABC in New York. When I come in the studio, all the crew comes around. I entertain them and have fun with them. I don't bill myself as a regular guy. I came from a family where my dad is Irish-Catholic, 8th-grade-educated, working people. My mother was a nurse, and her mother immigrated from Norway. I've never forgotten who I was, but I never tried to be what I'm not.

Part of Home Court Advantage is asking the parent to stop and ask themselves, "Who believed in you, anyway?" I use a couple of vignettes from the old Andy Taylor show, and Sheriff Taylor believed in little Opie about Mr. McBevie, even there was no way Mr. McBevie could exist. Because who could walk in the treetops and have 12 arms? You know the story. I almost get choked up thinking about that, but he chose to believe in his son. As you look at it in the spiritual sense, God believes in us even though we are one flawed group of people. As a father of five, one of the things Sandy and I have done really well is put positive expectations on the kids. We've cared enough about them to give them Vitamin N, which is "no." Consequently, they all care about other people. What else could you ask for?

CBP: What route drew you into this field, your career? You obviously didn't look way far ahead. What about this particular career, or ministry?

Kevin: I'll tell you a funny story. You heard my credentials, academically. Everyone's talking about going away to college, I'm in New York State, and everyone's talking about going to Syracuse University, Clarkson, all these private schools. I thought, "Crap. What am I going to do?" I go to my guidance counselor's office. Little guy, about so tall, little Italian guy. I said, April of my senior year, for the first time in my life, "I think I want to go to college." He said, "Lehman, with your grades and this record in school, I couldn't get you into reform school." He pushed his glasses back, and I remember thinking, That guy's a counselor? But I was mature enough in my immaturity of 17 to know that Charlie Massino had every right to say what he said. I had SAT scores that were in the zero percentile. Even if you have just an elementary understanding of mathematics, you'll figure out that 100 percent of the people who took the SAT in the country did better than me. Well, I smoked a half a pack of cigarettes at the University of Buffalo, Salems, picked a few questions that I might know, and blew it off and watched a football game. That's how you get a zero percentile. I was a screw up even at that point.

I think the fact that I had very poor counseling, as an 8th grade kid they asked me what I wanted to be, and I said I wanted to be a dentist. You would not want to be my patient if I was a dentist. I'm non-meticulous, fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants. You wouldn't want me to go root canal, I'd probably remove your ear lobe or something. I wanted to be a dentist because the orthodontist my mother sent me to could talk like a duck, and I was very impressed with that. I taught myself to talk like a duck. Do you see what I'm saying? Eighth grade you ask a kid, "What do you want to do?" "I want to be a dentist," he said, "You've got to take Latin." I flunked Latin. I flunked Latin five times.

That's why I gravitated the helping field. As a kid I thought I wanted to be a game warden, or something like that, I love to hunt and fish.

CBP: You talk about parents not believing in kids. Have we switched way to the other side where we almost believe in our kids too much?

Kevin: There was a piece in USA Today, that made me spill my coffee. They site this little league-er who's up to the bat and takes three straight pitches. After he strikes out, the parents are going, "Way to bat, Matthew! Way to bat!" I'm thinking, You know, Matthew. Truth of the matter is that was a lousy at bat. You didn't even try. But today, parents are so driven they want their kids to win at everything. "Oh, Dr. Lehman, Melanie plays soccer but they don't keep score. We believe every child should be a winner." I want to go hurl when I hear something like that. When did your life turn around? When did you come to faith? Out of victory or out of failure? Well, you came out of failure. Even the disciples who walked and talked with Jesus bellied up. I take great personal refuge in the fact that Thomas says, after Jesus gets up in John 14 "I go and prepare a place for you," and he says, "I haven't the foggiest idea what you're talking about, Lord." Then Philip gets in the act and says, "Yeah, show us the Father and then we'll know." Well, if these guys bellied up, and they saw him feed 5,000 people and saw him say, "Lazarus, come forth," and heal the blind man, what hope is there for you and me?

CBP: What is rushed love verses leisurely love?

Kevin: I thought of this too late for the book, but essentially what we do is outsource our children in our society. And we outsource them at age three. The home ought to be the centerpiece. It's the eight-year-old's birthday, and mom goes down to the little Cheese-Breath place to celebrate his birthday because she doesn't want chocolate cake on the berber carpet. But it's better that that kid is in the home, and that home permeates his being. The idea behind the title of Home Court Advantage is the sports analogy, and you're going to do better at home than on the road. And you want your kids to do well in life, and parents give them that indelible imprint. So you don't rush the love, you take time. As soon as I talk to parents about getting their kids out of activities, they all have the same question: What are we going to do with them? They don't get it. The kids need to kick back.

A friend and I built a raft every summer. And every summer it sank. We were going to float to Tahiti, but neither of us knew where Tahiti was. The point is that we had to imagine, we had to create. Now today, kids are watching Sesame Street before 20 months old. They're taught to process information. It's not good for kids, the more creativity...

CBP: Thirty-one flavors of activities -- it's the parent drooling over the choices.

Kevin: It is. I've got a chapter in other book, and I think it's the best chapter title I've ever come up called, Help! I'm a Cabbie and My Minivan Isn't Even Yellow! In the spirit of "this is good for kids," we rush kids through life from pillar to post. Oprah Winfrey did a show a few years ago on families who eat dinner together. She had the stage set with dinner tables, and I thought, You can get on Oprah by having dinner together? I live a pretty busy life, we have adult kids from 32 to 12, but you know what? They all want to be together. They take a month out of their lives to be together. As a parent, what is better than knowing your kids want to hang out with you? Our kids' friends were always surprised that their friends liked us. The Lehman home was a place that was the centerpiece of the kids' activities. If in doubt, have the kids come over here.

In our family we have Three Amigos Night, which is my cult-movie I love. My 12-year-old will say, "Dad, can we have Three Amigos Night tonight?" It's a stupid, slapstick movie that my wife hates, I love the movie and the kids love the movie. We pop popcorn, we have fun, we're a family. And that doesn't happen to most families.

CBP: With parents wanting their kids to win, where does this come from?

Kevin: It starts early. It starts at MOPS groups, you know, Mothers Of Preschoolers group. When you get moms together, within minutes they're speaking about their kids. One of the topics they might stumble upon is toilet training. "Oh, Melanie trained beautifully at 20 months." The woman turns to another woman and asks, "What about Samantha? Samantha must be toilet trained." She says, "Oh, we're still working on it." "How old is she?" "Oh, she'll be 3 in March." Here's the kicker. "Oh." That whole oh says my kids are ahead of your kids. Parents are nuts. As early as three or less, they've got them on this rat race where they have to be the best at everything.

CBP: So we've defined the problem, and we're talking about why it is that way. Parents get applause, they're getting something they didn't have...

Kevin: I can tell you the psychology of it flat out. We project our unfulfilled dreams and wishes upon our children, and that's particularly true of our first one. The first of each gender. That's why being the author of The Birth Order Book, I can tell you there's a tremendous difference between firstborns and the rest of us. Firstborns are the bluebirds, and the rest of us are little crows. They grow up to do wonderful things, and most of us just sort of...

CBP: Are we searching for significance in any way we can find it?

Kevin: Well, I talk about the ABCs of self-esteem in people: A, acceptance. I say to parents, accept your children as different human beings and treat them differently. We're at the Christian Booksellers Convention, if you walked around and asked people to tell you what Proverbs 22:6 means, which is "Train up a child in the way he should go, when he is older he will not depart from it," I can guarantee you they cannot define what it really means. They'll tell you it means that you bring up a child in the instruction of the Lord and the promise is if you do that, that child will come back and be a believer someday. That's not what it means. A couple things: train up a child. It doesn't say train down. Most parents train down. A kid brings home 5 As and a B, and the parent says, "What's with the B?" The kid would fall over if he heard, "Great job." Number two point is, in the way he should go, does not refer to the way you think he should go as a parent. That's where parents don't get it.

If you look at the Greek, the individual bests of the children, in other words, it's not the way you think he should go as a parent, it's the way God would have each of your children go. All of us who are parents look at our firstborn children and they turn left, then the second-born children turn right, it's very unusual that both children turn in the same direction. Will compete in the same sport. Will major in the same thing in college. Doesn't happen 99.9 percent of the time. The state you live in will treat your child differently. Your sixteen-year-old's driving, your fourteen-year-old's wishing. Why should two kids go to bed at the same time at night? They shouldn't unless they're twins. I'm talking about the "A" part, accept you kids for who they are.

The "B" part is make sure they belong to your family. The kid feels like he belongs to his family, he has no reason to act out in any aberrant way. That's a psychological fact. Kids belong to gangs in the cities because they want to belong to something. And then the "C" part is competence. Not confidence. They can do something. For some kids it's running through a goal post on a Friday night. Other kids it's playing the piano. Other kids it's good grades. But every kids has to be able to look at themselves in the mirror and say, "I'm a somebody."

CBP: Adding on to the reasons why they're doing these things, life is getting more complex, with high mortgages as they are, women are working outside of the home.

Kevin: Well, 72 percent of women work in the workplace.

CBP: Right, and they're climbing corporate ladders, trying to keep up with the Joneses, trying to secure better neighborhoods and schools, and I hear that a lot. Because we're supposed to be out there doing all this. I believe that relationships through character is so important, and the number one thing that employees are lacking are relationship skills and character skills.

Kevin: I talk about slipping kids commercial announcements. On the way to school, I had a conversations with my then 15-year-old daughter Hannah, that went like this, "For what it's worth, I'm really impressed with how you've handled life so far. You have some really great friends and I noticed you don't hang out with those little sleeze-balls down at school." She looked at me, "Sleeze-balls?" I said, "Honey, half those kids look like Britney Spears, I'm not blind. You always dress yourself modestly, you have great friends, you care about other people. I think you're doing great. I can't wait to see what life has in store for you in the future." I'm slipping her a commercial announcement, as I like to call it. I just told her what, your father, as senile as he is, sees that you're doing life well.

CBP: Thank you for your time, Kevin!