FamilyLife Today® Podcast

Breaking the Chains of Low Expectations

with Alex Harris, Brett Harris | September 4, 2008
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The hardest things are the smallest things. Those are the thoughts of brothers Alex and Brett Harris, authors of the book Do Hard Things and creators of the popular teen website, Today, Alex and Brett tell Dennis Rainey why teens are capable of stepping up their game and doing great things for God.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • The hardest things are the smallest things. Those are the thoughts of brothers Alex and Brett Harris, authors of the book Do Hard Things and creators of the popular teen website, Today, Alex and Brett tell Dennis Rainey why teens are capable of stepping up their game and doing great things for God.

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

The hardest things are the smallest things.

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Breaking the Chains of Low Expectations

With Alex Harris, Brett Harris
September 04, 2008
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Bob: Brett and Alex Harris are freshmen in college, 19 years old, and they have a challenge for moms and dads.

Brett: We're really challenging them to let their kids get into the right kind of trouble; get into trouble because they're living the Great Commission; because they're doing hard things, great things for God at young ages.  You know, young people today are getting into trouble, why not let them get into the right kind of trouble?

Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, September 4th.  Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.  We'll talk about what the right kind of trouble for teenagers is, and what parents can do to get their teenagers into it on today's program.  Stay tuned.

And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us.  You know, it can get a little discouraging when you have guests on like we've got on this week, you know what I mean?

Dennis: How so?

Bob: Well …

Dennis: Are you comparing how you did it as a parent?

Bob: A little bit – you look at these two guys, and you think …

Dennis: I have a feeling a few of our listeners have done some comparison earlier.

Bob: My kids …

Dennis: Aren't like this.

Bob: They pushed back a little bit.

Dennis: Well, just think of this – these young men are twins, by the way.  Brett, Alex, welcome back to FamilyLife Today.

Brett: Thank you.

Bob: The Harris twins.

Dennis: The Harris brothers, that's right.  Listen to what they have accomplished.  They have written a book, "Do Hard Things."  They've been on an into tour speaking, they've been national debaters all around the country.

Bob: They served as interns with the Alabama Supreme Court, they've set up websites that have been visited by millions of people from all around the world.

Dennis: And they're not 20 yet.

Bob: And …

Dennis: And they're not 20 yet.

Bob: I heard that.  And – well – by the way, welcome back to FamilyLife Today, it's nice to have you guys here.

Brett: I think this necessitates some clarification.

Dennis: A disclaimer?

Brett: A disclaimer, yes.  It is just so amazing to us, you know, the things that God has allowed us to accomplish that He's strengthened us to do and our message, you know, the reason our message is effective, you know, is not because we're out there saying, "Hey, look at us, look at how great we are," because if that's what it was, no one would listen, you know, they'd turn off the radio right now.

Alex: They should.

Brett: They should turn off the radio – well, not – on us, not on you guys – but they shouldn't read our book, they shouldn't come to our conferences, they shouldn't visit our website.

Alex and I are a product of an idea, of a mindset that really takes ordinary teens and allows God to use them in extraordinary ways.  And so the message is not look at us, we're so great.  It's to say, "Look at what God can do through unlikely heroes."

Bob: And that's a great message, and we're glad you're here to share it, but I just want a little hope and a little reality check and, Alex, have you ever been grounded?

Alex: We never did grounding, but we have gotten in trouble quite a few times.

Dennis: Did you ever get a spanking?

Alex: Oh, yes, many times.

Bob: Well, I'm thinking, though, during the teenage – did you get spanking during the teen years?

Alex: No, not quite so much.

Bob: What's the biggest trouble you got in at home?  What did you do that got you your biggest punishment as a teenager?

Dennis: Bob, this is national radio.

Bob: I know it's national radio, but here these guys are coming off sounding like they're just – I just want some real dirt on you so I know that you …

Dennis: Do you want to tell it on each other or tell it on yourself, we'll give you the choice.  They're looking at each other right now.

Brett: We did shoot a hole in the window with our BB gun one time.

Alex: But that was before the teen years, Brett.

Brett: And break the garage door.

Bob: Yeah, so the biggest trouble you got in as a teenager?  What's the biggest thing wrong you did?

Brett: What if our parents don't know about it yet?


Dennis: Yeah, that's for sure.

Bob: Do you gripe about stuff?

Alex: Oh, we've definitely griped about things.  Our parents have made decisions that were really hard for us where it was …

Brett: They were the right decisions …

Alex: They were the right decisions, we recognized that, but it wasn't easy, it wasn't …

Brett: I would definitely say there were conflicts, there were times when we were very frustrated and, you know, still are, and I think that the number-one thing, which I mentioned earlier, is that we know that they're making the decision because they love us.

Alex: We can't doubt that even when we …

Brett: Disagree.

Bob: But when they say that, and "We're doing this because we love you," that doesn't mean that you go, "Oh, okay, well, then it's all right," right?

Alex: No, no, not at all.  There have been times when there's been a process we've had to work through in our own hearts.

Dennis: Pushback – a little pushback here and there?

Brett: It's a lot like faith in God, you know?

Bob: I just want to make sure you're real teenagers.  You are real teenagers, right?

Alex: We are real teenagers.

Bob: You are not really 40-year-old men looking like teenagers, right?

Alex: We're nearly 40 when you put our ages together, but individually …

Brett: But, on the other hand, you know, what parents can get excited about is the fact that we, hopefully, represent a different way of living the teen years, and as much as we definitely want people to know we're normal, we're not …

Alex: We're flawed.  We sinful.

Brett:  We're sinful, yeah, thank you, Alex, for tossing me words there.

Alex: You're welcome.  We interrupt each other.

Brett: We need people to toss us words. The point really is that when you live a different way, there are different results, and I think if we were to go too far and just try to make a – we're just ordinary teens, we hate our parents, too, but, you know, we just get over it.  I think the point of our book, you know, the point of what we share, is that this whole mindset, the teen years and the teenage rebellion and the storm in stress model, and these are ideas that are based on evolutionary psychology.  The idea that teens, you know, we live through the evolutionary process as we age, and that the teen years are the caveman stage.

That's where those ideas come from, and they've done studies now that are coming out that show that teens have no higher significant level of stress than adults do.  It's really just the fact that we expect them to have it.  We give them permission to act out on it in ways that are not appropriate, and so much of our message is just so counter-intuitive because of the way that we've grown up in this culture that it sounds shocking.

But I think the encouragement is when you clear away some foundational myths, which is what our book does, young people and, hopefully, adults, are ready for a completely different way of living the teen years.

Alex: And I just wanted to respond to yesterday when we were talking with you, you interrupted me to say, "You know, but parents are thinking 'My teen can't do hard things.  They can't even clean their room, what's up with this?'" and our encouragement there is the reason why we wrote the book, "Do Hard Things," the reason why we have our website and conferences is we're communicating to our peers …

Dennis: To clean their rooms.

Alex: That's where it starts, that's where it starts.  We've often spoke about how the hardest things …

Dennis: Man, we just sold a ton of books.

Alex: The hardest things are the smallest things and, let me tell you, and it hopefully won't get distracted from …

Dennis: I would have bought a box of them, because we spent all day Saturday cleaning the house.

Bob: Stop it enough, he's trying to keep going with these ideas.

Brett: "Do Hard Things," to the teen listeners here is not just about cleaning your room.  "Do Hard Things" is about 15-year-olds who are fighting to abolish slavery, it's about young people reaching out to the homeless in their cities, it's about young people fighting to get a shock jock off the air – big, big things, but it's also about cleaning your room.

Alex: When we were in Alabama doing our internship, that was pretty exciting, that was cool, we were pretty pumped about that, it was high profile.

Bob: You were interns for the state Supreme Court, right?

Alex: We were interns at the state Supreme Court in Alabama, and yet the hardest thing while we were there was not the work we did at the court.  The hardest thing was keeping our rooms clean, helping out with the chores of the family we were staying with, reading our Bibles in the morning before we had to get to work early, and keeping in touch with our family back home.  Those were the hardest things, because nobody sees those, and that's where real character comes into play.

So we talk to young people, and we talk about doing hard things, we're saying these small things are part of it.  You know, "Do Hard Things" includes those small things, and those can be some of the hardest things, and those are where you can really build the strength to be able to do bigger hard things. 

God says in His Word that if you're faithful and little, He will put you over much, and that little is the things that people don't usually see.

Bob: Are you suggesting that the teen years, the adolescent years, have become a uniquely sociological invention; that post-puberty is really the beginning of adulthood, and that's how we need to be viewing it as parents?

Brett: Well, we've become so off-course that we have young people, you know, young adults, who are in their late 20s, even 30s, sometimes even 40s, and they still have not grown up, you know, in the sense that they have responsibilities.  They have a term for it – kidults, or adultescence, and it's extended adolescence.  And what that really proves, you know, to Alex and myself, is that this mindset of the teen years, this whole mentality of viewing it as a time to goof off, and the sense that we can just flip on responsibility later in life, that it's not a muscle that we have to exercise.  It's just a switch that we can turn on and off.  That's extending this behavior further and further, which shows it's not just hormonal, it's not just, you know, psychological.  It is just …

Alex: It's a social …

Brett: It's a social …

Bob: Should I view my 14-year-old as a young adult, then?

Alex: I think that's a great time to start expecting increased responsibility.  It's not that they are expected to suddenly be as mature as you are, but it is – they are expected to begin exercising maturity and responsibility for themselves and growing that muscle, because responsibility, as we've said several times, is a muscle.  You can't just flip the switch.  You have to build it up.

Dennis: You have a blogsite that I went to, and on your blog you gentlemen compared the teen years, or at least the mindset of teens, around an illustration related to an elephant?

Alex: Exactly.  We – that has become – that illustration has been one of the defining aspects of our message and really put it into words for us.  And that is that in India they have trained elephants that they use to pull up trees out of the ground, haul loads, carry things on their backs for transportation and things like that, and these are huge, enormous, powerful beasts, and you wonder what do they do with them at night, these farmers?  They don't have these big barns, they don't have big cages like the zoo does.  How do they keep these elephants from just wandering off?

And the answer is surprisingly simple, and that is that the owner simply takes a piece of twine, ties it around the right hind leg of this massive elephant, and attaches it to a wooden post in the ground, and that's it.  The elephant will not move from the spot.

Dennis: And the reason is …

Alex: And the question is, how is that possible?  What's going on here?

Brett: He's ripping trees out of the ground during the day.

Alex: He's ripping trees out of the ground during the day.  This little post is keeping him captive at night.  He could break the twine just by kicking his foot, and yet he doesn't.  Why not?  And the answer is that when he was younger, his owners chained him with heavy iron shackles to a large tree, away from his mother.  He tried to break free, he never could, no matter how hard he tried, and after weeks and weeks and months of this, he finally gives up.  And eventually the owner can replace the chain with a rope, and the tree with a post, and then finally just a piece of twine.  As soon as it feels that slight tug, feels that rope around its ankle, it gives up, because it's bought into the lie that it can't go anywhere when there is something around its right hind leg.

Dennis: And the lie for teenagers is?

Alex: And the lie to teenagers is this idea that we call the myth of adolescence, the idea that the teen years are a vacation from responsibility, and young people have bought into that, and as soon as things feel difficult, they stop.  As soon as things feel grown up, they feel "that's later," and they're robbing themselves of the freedom and the responsibility and, really, the fulfillment that God has for them in doing big, hard things for Him right now as teenagers.

Brett: The most frustrating thing is that pathetic piece of twine.  It is not a significant obstacle, and we have found out, with our message, with our conferences, with our website, is the number-one response we got from young people is "I thought I was the only one.  I thought I was the only one who felt this way, and I was just going along with the way all my friends act and behave because that was the only alternative, that was the only option I was given.  I didn't know what the alternative was."

And we've seen, as soon as young people can catch a different vision, as soon as they can see examples, historically, modern-day examples, young people just like them, they are ready and willing to break the twine.

Dennis: And the reason they do adopt the value system of their peers is the very reason you're talking about – they've never seen anything different, they don't see anybody breaking from the herd, they don't see anyone cutting their own swath toward a purposeful existence.

Alex: Exactly.  If you were to grow up in a society where everybody crawled on their hands and knees, you would not get up and start walking on your hind legs.  You know, and if you saw someone walking on their hind legs, you'd probably think they were an oddball, a freak, what are you doing up there?

Eventually, if you start seeing another person and another and another walking on their hind legs, standing upright, you realize, "Wow, they can move a lot faster than I can.  They can reach higher.  Their hands don't get all dirty," and eventually, you know, you get up, and you try it, too.

And that's what our book, our conferences, our website, are intended to be is to be that resource for young people to come and see, "Oh, my goodness, there's hundreds, there's thousands of young people around the world who are living a different way."

Brett: And the encouraging thing is that it starts with baby steps.  Whenever you start walking for the first time, you're taking baby steps, whether you're a toddler or whether you're a teenager or whether you're 40 years old.  The encouragement of "Do Hard Things" is, it's a muscle, it's something you learn how to do, and we have young people who are starting out, learning how to walk for the first time in a culture that where everyone crawls, and it's exciting, and it's okay to fail when you start out.

And that's why Alex and I, we feel like we're, hopefully, an example of this message – hopefully, we're an example of someone who has grown up this way.  Not everyone is going to have grown up with these ideas, but wherever you are, start now.  Start getting on your feet and walking and running – soon you'll be running.

Alex: It's never too late to do hard things.

Brett: And this has been really key for us – the reason why we're confident in writing a book called "Do Hard Things," calling young people to live a different way, the reason why we're doing our conferences, is because we trust what the Bible says in Psalm 127, where it says, "Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it.  Unless the Lord watches the city, the watchman stays awake at night in vain."  We feel like this is something God is doing in our generation.  It's not something we've engineered, we came up with a name for it, we came up with some ideas, but it's not our ideas.  This is something God is doing.

We went to Tokyo, and we're using translators.  We can't speak Japanese, they can't speak much English, and yet as we're communicating these ideas about rebelling against low expectations, doing hard things, we have these young guys coming out to us, teenage guys in Japan and in broken English saying, "What you said" and then just pressing their hand on their hearts and, you know, tears in their eyes, and that was all they could say, but, you know, we had tears in our eyes, too, because it was so powerful to see, you know, cross-culturally, totally different culture, across the Pacific Ocean, and yet this same message resonates in the hearts of young people.  That's not something we've done; that's something God is doing, and that we are so excited, God is working in our generation. 

So if there are any young people listening to this, we just encourage you – join what God is doing, because it's exciting.  He is raising up a generation to do hard things for His glory, and it doesn't have to be 10 years from now, it can start today.

Bob: But the teenager who says, "But I'm 14.  I can't even drive yet.  How can I make a difference?"

Brett: Well, it has been so exciting to us to see that young people have an ability to make a difference unlike they have ever had before, and the reason for that is technology.  Technology is allowing 16-year-old twins from Portland, Oregon – or, actually, Gresham, Oregon, you know, to start a blog and end up here today.  You know, technology has opened up the doors and allowed young people to reach out and touch people all the way across the world. 

And what's so exciting to us is we have young people who are starting bands, they're releasing CDs, they're making independent films, they are raising money to dig wells in Africa, they are fighting to abolish slavery, they are reaching out to the homeless in their cities, and these are all young people who have been able to connect with each other, who have been able to connect with mentors and get resources and it's all because of the opportunities that have really come about in the last five, 10 years.  It's just extraordinary.

And what we really have stressed and really feel is that our generation is living at a time with the most opportunity ever and the most distractions ever.  And we don't think it's a coincidence that they come at the same time, and, you know, the truth is is that technology is both a distraction and an opportunity.  And whether you use it as a tool or a toy is going to determine whether you benefit or are sucked down by the culture.

But Alex and I have found, with our blog, with our conferences, that when we give young people a vision, and we can give them a vision through our website, even though we've never met them before, we have never known their name otherwise, our conferences – we recruit teams through the Internet, through our website, young people to put on our conferences. 

Our local coordinators are 15-, 16-year-olds.  Our entire teams are staffed by young people.  We have, you know, 14-year-olds working with the Minneapolis Convention Center where we're bringing our conference this year.  We have 15-year-olds who are publicity coordinators and are involved in getting us on radio stations, distributing brochures and recruiting publicity captains.

And all of this is just to say that this message works in real life.  All of this is for us to say, "Our conferences are living out the message that we speak about."  Young people can do these things, and when we give them the opportunities, when we give them the tools, which technology is now providing, they will do those things.

Bob: You looked over at me with that smile, "That's cool" smile that you've got on your face, you know?

Dennis: Well, you and I both know, Bob, we've been talking about how we believe the hope for the Gospel here in the United States as well as around the world is not found in the missionary who is paid to be good.  I don't mean that disparagingly, I'm just talking about the hope for the world is not in those who are in vocational Christian ministry.  Now, there will be those who are called to do that, but I believe the hope for the world is around engaging laymen and women who are volunteers.  It's the baby boomers, some 77 million who need to volunteer, perhaps to engage the teenagers and call them to step up.

And I believe it's all the way down, as you guys have said, to the emerging generation which, by the way, what do you call this emerging generation?  Are these millennial kids?  Who are they?

Brett: There are so many different terms, we can't even keep them straight.  We like to call them Rebelutionaries.

Bob: We'll go for that.

Dennis: Well, let's engage the Rebelutionaries and call them to invest their lives.  And the reality is, there are a number of issues around the world, especially as we look at 143 million orphans.  I mean, there are some issues of compassion that the Christian community must figure out a way to address.  And there may be, right now, 14-, 15-, 16-year-olds listening to our broadcast – we'll even let the 17- and 18- and 19-year-olds in on this, too, who are listening who can say, "You know what?  I'd like a piece of that action.  And, yeah, I'd like to do something using technology to pool my friends together and help address some of these issues of children who have no one to protect them.

Bob: You know, you read today the accounts of the guys who started, I don't know, Facebook and Google and some of these – the entrepreneurs who are reshaping the landscape of technology, and you think, "That can be done for the kingdom."  In fact, it's been interesting to me to see the young filmmakers who are starting to emerge.  I'm talking about high school and college-age students who are spending a lot of hours making films that can compete in the marketplace.

And these are the kinds of things that you are encouraging students to go for in their high school years, their college years – to get a jump on life; not to postpone their kingdom activity but to engage now, where they are, with what they can do with their gifts.

This is really the theme of the book, "Do Hard Things," which we've got in our FamilyLife Resource Center.  This would be a great book for small groups of students to go through together, maybe in a youth group setting or as a part of home school or in a Christian school environment.

Again, we have copies available.  You can go to our website,, and on the right side of the home page, you'll see a box that says "Today's Broadcast."  If you click where it says "Learn More," that will take you to the area of the site where you can find information about how to order copies of Brett and Alex's book, "Do Hard Things, A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations." 

Again, the website is  You can also call to request copies of the book – 1-800-FLTODAY is the number, 1-800-358-6329, that's 1-800-F-as-in-family, L-as-in-life, and then the word TODAY, and when you contact us, someone will take the information they need so we can get a copy of the book sent out to you.

Since we're talking about this today, I'm wondering how many young listeners we have who are also financial supporters of FamilyLife Today.  I've been encouraged to see my sons get active and aggressively involved in giving.  That's not something that they've done grudgingly, but they've started to do it cheerfully and to see it as significant for the kingdom, and, of course, because we are a nonprofit organization, we know how vital it is for ministries like ours to have folks who support the ministry.  We appreciate those of you who not only listen to FamilyLife Today but who also provide financial support for this broadcast and for the other outreaches of FamilyLife Today.

This month, if you are able to help with a donation of any amount, there is a two-CD series we'd like to send you.  It features a conversation that we had not long ago with Tim and Joy Downs, the authors of a book called "The Seven Conflicts of Marriage."  We talked about some of the more common areas of conflict that can exist in a marriage relationship and about how we resolve that conflict when it occurs.

If you'd like to get a copy of that conversation on two CDs, you can simply request it when you make a donation this month of any amount for the ministry of FamilyLife Today.  If you're making your donation online, when you come to the keycode box on the donation form, type in the word "conflict" so that we'll know to send those CDs to you.  Or call 1-800-FLTODAY, make your donation over the phone and just request the CDs on the "Seven Conflicts of Marriage." Again, we're happy to send them to you as our way of saying thank you for your financial partnership with us here at FamilyLife Today.

Tomorrow we'll continue our dialogue with Brett and Alex Harris and talk about what teenagers can do to make a difference for the kingdom in the world.  I hope you can be with us for that.

I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team.  On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine.  We'll see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas – help for today; hope for tomorrow. 


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