You Can Complain about the Problem. . .

brknpncl“I broke my pencil.”  The student looked expectantly at me.

“I see that,” I said.

“I can’t do my assignment with it.”

“You know, you’re right.”  I waited.

Finally she asked, “May I borrow a pencil, please?”  And I directed her to the cup full of lost and found pencils on my desk.

In our family we raised our kids with this saying: “You can complain about the problem, or you can seek a solution.”  We wanted our boys to be able to think their way out of a dilemma, because we knew we wouldn’t always be around to come to their aid.  I use this in my classroom to help students think for themselves when they approach me about issues such as a locked door, a missing notebook, or a forgotten combination.

In today’s busy world, parents sometimes just solve their kids’ problems because they have neither the time nor the patience to wait for them to figure out what to do.  This keeps kids dependent on Mom or Dad to rescue them while robbing them of the self-confidence that comes fromfiguring it out for themselves.

Independence and responsibility don’t magically happen after high school graduation.  Teens need opportunities to practice along the way, and chances to suffer the consequences if they don’t think things through.  The next time your teen comes to you needing help, stop yourself from giving an easy answer and ask a question instead:  “What do you want to do about that?”

Because you solving all the problems is not the best solution.

To Tell the Truth

 

(Re-posted from April, pn2010, when I wrote much longer blogs):

From a blog reader: “Why do so many teenagers feel compelled to LIE? There are days it seems my 17-year-old lies just to lie. I know sometimes he just doesn’t want to be bothered with a conversation, but other times it’s because he doesn’t want me to know things and yet there are times I feel he is just being plain evil. Too big to “spank”, not sure soap in the mouth would work, do you have a good solution to help resolve this issue?”

Teens lie for two major reasons: to get what they want or to get out of trouble. They also lie for a host of minor reasons: to be funny, to test your mood, to tick you off, to irritate their siblings, to get out of chores/homework/punishment, to let you know they think the question you’re asking isn’t worth their time, to avoid a scene. . .

Sometimes you can just laugh it off with a “yeah, right,” and get a grin of acknowledgment in return. Sometimes you have to confront it head-on and call it what it is, and then issue consequences that fit the crime as much as possible. I do think it’s important to deal with blatant lying, because if you don’t, you’ll be encouraging a really bad (not to mention really immoral) habit. You can also give a teen a false sense of power if he thinks he can outsmart you.

The rules for dealing with any issue with your teen are always the same: keep your cool and stay connected. Most teens have an arsenal of ways to distract you (blaming you, changing the subject, out-and-out attack) – be on the lookout and stick to the task at hand. Sometimes prolonged eye contact – without any words – can result in an admission of guilt. Your goal is to avoid blowing up and creating new issues. Remember: don’t waste your air by asking useless questions like “What made you think I wouldn’t find out?” (you won’t like the answer anyway), or by launching into a lecture. One or two sentences about the importance of being trustworthy or what it means to be a person of integrity, and let it go – for now. You can revisit the topic later in a nonthreatening way when he’s in a more receptive mood.

But what if you know he’s lying and he won’t admit it? First off, make sure of your facts. If you have little or no doubt, then be prepared to be patient. Calmly present your evidence – “I read the text on your phone” – and give him a chance to respond. If he still denies it, tell him you’re going to give him time to think about it. Take his phone and ask him to hang out in his room (or wherever you think is appropriate), and put some distance between the two of you. After a couple of hours you might stop in the doorway and casually ask if he wants to change his story. If you get a glare and a sullen “No!” just fade away and leave him alone. When he’s finally willing to admit he lied, issue a reasonable, appropriate consequence (grounding for a month is usually pretty extreme; missing a social event or staying off the computer or video games for a week or two will usually do the trick). If he never does admit it, sadly express your sorrow that he doesn’t trust you enough to be honest with you – and then issue the consequence anyway.

You will also want to have a conversation about how hard it will be for you to trust him in the future, but don’t make a federal case out of it. Keep giving him “second chances,” and make (casual) mention of your appreciation when he chooses honesty over lying. And remember this: if he does choose honesty, don’t discourage the behavior by “going off” on him. His response will be, “See? When I DO tell you the truth, you just freak out! What’s the point?” Encourage honesty by making it worth the effort, “Thanks for coming clean. Because you did, your consequence will be less than it would’ve been if you’d gone on lying to me.”

It’s too bad that Pinocchio nose-growing thing never panned out, isn’t it?

“You Know What Would Be Funny?”

jasvcoSee that middle schooler?  He’s a nice kid, as is the one next to him–and the one on the other side of him.  On their own, none of them gets into much trouble.  But put them together and leave them unsupervised at, say, the mall?  Now you’ve got huge potential for trouble.  Somebody asks that fateful question–“You know what would be funny?”–and suddenly they’re trying things as a group that they’d never do alone.

Part of it is physiology (see Blame it on the Brain), but another part of it is a version of “gang mentality.”  Notorious for acting first and thinking  later,  two or more teens hanging out together without adults around will gather courage from each other.  I’ve heard students tell of stealing bowls of Halloween candy from porches, throwing popcorn in movie theaters, and riding bikes off roofs.  I’ve seen photos of girls dressed in goofy outfits in dressing rooms and heard their confession of running out and leaving the mess behind, laughing at how angry they’d made the store personnel.

While sometimes it’s just harmless fun, at other times it can be outright dangerous.  Young teens have been know to sniff, drink, or ingest dangerous substances, as well as set fire to, blow up, or even microwave crazy items.  Afterwards, of course, they suffer remorse (and possibly bodily harm), but at the time it seems like such a great idea.

Parents who drop off their young teens without staying with them–or at least tailing them at a discreet distance–are putting their kids at risk.  Hang around and be available, and you’ll find that your presence is often enough to head off trouble.

Think of yourself as a cross between Jiminy Cricket and the Secret Service.

Relax Your Grip

“Welcome to 7th grade!” I smiled at the parent entering my classroom.

“Whoosh!” she said.  “I don’t know if I’m ready for this!”

I was about halfway through Before-School Conferences, and already this was the theme that kept popping up.

Some parents dread having their child enter middle school because of what lies ahead:  adolescence and teenager-hood.

Do you remember learning to drive?  The harder you tried to steer the car, the more you went off course.  It wasn’t until you learned to relax and quit fighting the steering wheel that you could be successful.

Parenting a middle schooler is like that; it works best when you learn to relax and quit fighting so hard for control.  The happiest combinations of middle schoolers and parents that sat at my conference table were those where Mom or Dad made suggestions (if they said anything at all) but left final decisions about where to sit and where to put stuff to the student.  These parents communicated that they trusted their kids’ judgment, and the kids responded.

Make your expectations clear, offer suggestions, and then relax a little and give your middle schooler a chance to make the right decision.  Don’t be too quick to assume the worst and overreact, or you could create problems where there were none and slide right off the road.

And remember – to avoid oversteering, keep your eyes on the road ahead, not on what’s right in front of your bumper.

(Reblogged from August 2012)

“I Don’t Know What I’m Supposed to Say!”

hisnsetSeveral years ago our drama teacher passed away unexpectedly, and it fell to me to tell the 7th and 8th grade drama students.  After I broke the news, they sat in silence until one young lady said, “I’m sad, but I don’t feel like crying,” and another said, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to say!”

I’ve spent time over the years explaining the grieving process to 8th graders, assuring them that the sadness will come and go in waves, and that it’s okay to have happy times even when you’re grieving.  They feel guilty for being happy (or angry), and they’re surprised when people laugh during or after a memorial service.  Dealing with grief is a life experience that teens know comes with adult rules and expectations–but they don’t know what those are, and they’re afraid they’ll do or say the wrong thing.

Recently our school community had to deal with the loss of a beloved former student in a tragic accident.  As the news spread via social media, we adults found ourselves not just counseling teens through their sadness, but answering questions like, “Is it normal to feel this way?  Is it okay for me to do this?”

Some teens want to talk through their grief right from the beginning, but others will need time to process.  Wise adults will avoid asking direct questions like, “Do you want to talk about it?” or “How are you feeling about all this?”  Instead, listen for opportunities to approach sideways, like heavy sighing (ask, “Feeling kind of emotional today?”) or watch for a sad expression (say, “I’m missing her, too).

Remember, it’s not your job to cheer up a grieving teen; you are there to listen with empathy and understanding. Offer assurance that there is another side to the valley of sadness, but it’s better to trudge through it than try to avoid it.  When teens start laughing again and moving on with life, reassure them that it’s normal and expected.

And know that it’s okay for you to laugh, too.

Do You Think He Has ADD?

alanWhen I am asked this question, I always answer with, “Maybe, but it doesn’t matter to me if he has an official diagnosis.  There are things we can do now to help him improve his focus and organization.”  (I then refer them to their pediatrician for a formal evaluation if they’re still concerned.

I am the person who walks into a room with my coffee cup in hand and loses track of it one minute later, with no recollection of it ever leaving my grip.  Consequently, I have huge empathy for the student whose pens and pencils disappear during the first week of school, or who finishes every assignment on time but can’t find it when it’s time to turn it in.

“I bought her a planner, but she won’t use it!”  This complaint indicates an organized parent who would be lost without her own planner.  Fact is, some of us just aren’t “planner people.”  (Cynthia Tobias calls us “piles and files” people.)  I suggest students try a variety of methods for keeping track of assignments, including sticky notes, digital devices, and a wipe-off board at home.  Some students just keep a blank sheet of paper in their binders and list assignments as they go (then hope the binder goes home with them).  I also encourage students to make use of school websites to find homework due dates.

Sometimes what looks like a focus problem is just a learning style.  In her book The Way They LearnCynthia says that visual learners need to picture the lesson, so they look like they’re daydreaming.  Auditory learners need to talk about the lesson, so they look like they’re interrupting.  Kinesthetic learners need to move, so they look like they’re just fidgeting and not paying attention.

Once students know their own learning style, they can take steps to adapt in the classroom. For example, visual learners might draw picture notes instead of writing words; auditory learners might make up rhymes inside their heads; kinesthetic learners might have a (quiet) fidget toy.

For both focus and organization solutions, experimentation and proving it works are the keys to finding a good system.

Does he have ADD? Perhaps. . .but the more pressing question is – “Does he have the coping skills he needs?”

The Hugging Rules

imageParents dread the first time their middle schooler rejects their hug by pulling angrily away and hissing, “Stop!”  It seems backwards that just when a child’s self-esteem takes the hardest hit, they refuse comfort from the people who care most about them.

After speaking with many middle schoolers, I’ve learned there are specific situations in which they’re willing to be  hugged – but only in the right way.  Parents would be wise to heed the Hugging Rules:

1. Let your middle schooler initiate the hug, at least most of the time.  You’ll get a more satisfying hug that way.

2. Don’t linger.  A quick hug, especially if it happens when you’re saying good-bye, is more appreciated than a long (translation:  embarrassing) one.

3. Do it in private as much as possible.  Within the family is safe, at bedtime is usually acceptable (you can even sneak in a kiss then, too), but at school you’re in dangerous territory.

4. Save the big hugs for holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving.  (Okay, the 12-year-old boy who shared this one got laughs and teasing from his peers.)

As with all rules, there are exceptions:  some middle schoolers say they have no problem at all with hugging their parents anywhere, anytime, while some parents complain about overly affectionate middle schoolers.

But for some parents, the best advice is to treat your middle schooler as you would a persnickety cat – approach only when invited, be thankful for any affection you get, and try not to take any rejection personally.