In Memory of James Lehman

By Elisabeth Wilkins

Photo of James Lehman

This tribute was written when James Lehman passed away in 2010. We hope you, like so many parents and families who have discovered James’ work, will find something in James’ legacy that helps you on your own parenting journey.

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“Nothing makes me happier than helping my friends.”

Nearly every time we talked, James Lehman said those words to me. And like everything James said, the words were genuine, honest, and sincere. The more I came to know him over the years, the more I realized that being there for his friends and family meant everything to him.

When I became editor of Empowering Parents, I had no way of knowing that one of the best parts of my job would be getting to know James. We talked every week, and each time we spoke, his first questions were always, “How is your son? How is your family?”

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One day this spring when we were talking on the phone, my seven-year-old son, Alex, pulled on my sleeve and whispered, “Mommy, can I talk to James? You said that he helps kids, right? I have a problem and maybe he knows the answer.”

Being James, he agreed immediately. (When James was your friend, you never questioned if he would help you—he always jumped in and did what he could. He was just that kind of man.)

James listened as Alex told him about a boy who was bullying him in class. Then James gave my son advice in his warm, native New Yorker accent: “Some kids won’t quit bothering you even if you tell them to stop. I know it’s hard, but you will have to say it over and over again. Just say, ‘Don’t talk to me that way, I don’t like it,’ and turn around and tell the teacher. You might have to do this a lot of times. Do you think you can try that?”

“I think so,” said my son.

Then James got on the phone with me and told me how to handle the situation with my son’s teacher and principal.

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Each week after that, James made sure to ask how things were going. When I finally was able to tell him that my son was doing much better and that the situation was resolved, he shared my happiness and relief. 

This is just one of the many amazing stories I—or anyone here at Empowering Parents who worked with him—could tell you about James Lehman. He was a remarkable man with a remarkable story. He went from being abandoned as an infant in a tenement building in New York City, to being a teen runaway and drug addict. By the time he was in his twenties, he had served seven years in prison. A judge sent him to an accountability- and responsibility-based rehabilitation program, where inmates were responsible for helping others beat their addictions. It was there that James discovered he had a knack for helping teens. “Most people forget what it’s like to be a kid, but for some reason, I never have,” he would tell me. “I think I was given a gift in this life to be able to explain that to people, and to help parents and kids. I don’t take credit for it—it’s a gift.” And it was indeed a gift, one that has helped hundreds of thousands of kids and families, and will no doubt continue helping people for years to come. 

Perhaps one of the greatest lessons I learned from James was the impact one person’s life can have on the world, no matter what your beginnings are, and no matter what bad choices you’ve made—you nearly always have the power to turn it around and help people in some way.

There are so many things James said in articles, in his program, and in our conversations over the years, but here are a few that will no doubt stay with me for the rest of my life:

“Don’t parent the child you wish you had. Parent the child you have.”

To me, this is about accepting your child for who he or she is. We all have certain expectations, an image in our minds of what we want our lives to be, what we want our kids to be like. But that’s not always helpful or true. Sometimes, the wisest way to live is to accept what you’ve been given and move forward.

“Everybody is dealt a different hand in life. How you play the hand you were given is up to you.”

Whether you had an idyllic childhood or a tough one, the way you live your life as an adult is in your hands. You can either feel victimized by the past, or be empowered to live your life on your own terms.

“Always ask yourself, ‘What does my child need from me right now?’”

I ask myself this question every day, in nearly every parenting instance. Sometimes the answer isn’t what I want to hear—but it’s always the right thing to do.

Thank you, James. You were our teacher and beloved friend. You were one of the good guys. You will be missed.

About Elisabeth Wilkins

Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.

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