In Praise of Parents

1939604_10204899660594615_5063056642471817184_n“I know I need to let her be more independent in middle school, but it feels like she needs me now more than ever!”

When Cynthia Tobias and I speak with parents of middle schoolers, we often hear the above sentiment.  While there are “helicopter parents” on one side of the continuum and “don’t care” parents on the other, most parents fall right in the middle as they try to find the balance between too much control and too little.

The frustrating part of parenting is you don’t know if you’re doing it right until many years later.  The reality is that sometimes you’re going to do it wrong: you’re going to be too controlling or too lenient.  Getting into a big ugly argument about how high your 14-year-old’s heels are?  Probably a mistake.  Dropping her off at the movies with a group of friends and no adults?  Also probably a mistake.

Here’s the good news:  no single situation is going to determine the outcome of your child’s life.  You will have many opportunities to try again, and it’s perfectly okay to admit to your child that you messed up and need to apologize (which is good modeling).  You may even need to revise the penalty you handed down.  Don’t give up–hang in there and make the effort to have a good relationship with your teen or pre-teen.  At this age kids still need their parents (even though they may not admit it or act like it), and it’s important for parents to communicate their love and support, no matter what.

Today I sat in conferences with 8th graders and their parents, none of whom acted disappointment in their kids.  Instead, they said, “What’s your plan to improve?” and “Looks like you’ve got a good handle on things!”  It’s my experience that the majority of parents are doing the best they can to figure out how to help their teens (and themselves)cope with all the changes that middle school brings.  In my opinion, these are the best type of parents.

(Along with the ones who come to conferences with Starbucks for the teacher. . .)

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?

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 Help Button

hlpbtnA friend who wants to change jobs asked me to teach her how to use Microsoft Word.  I considered all that she needs to know, from creating  a document to using tables and lists. . .and I decided the best thing I can teach her is how to use the Help Button.  When she can’t remember how to insert a picture, she can use the Help Button to find the instructions–because the reality is that I won’t always be available.

Students come to me and tell me what’s wrong:  “My pencil broke.”  Though they obviously expect me to fix it for them, I respond, “You can complain about the problem or seek a solution.”  And then I wait.  Eventually, and sometimes with prompting, they figure out that they need to borrow or sharpen a pencil.  Parents of middle schoolers should do the same–teach their children to solve their own problems.  This begins with not jumping in to provide an immediate solution but asking instead, “What are you going to do about that?”

One of the most important skills parents can teach their children is how to think and speak for themselves.   By age 11, middle schoolers should order their own food in restaurants, tell the hair stylist how they want their hair cut, and describe to the doctor what the pain feels like.  When they’re unhappy with a grade, they should be the ones to talk to their teachers.  If they can’t find something, they should stop and consider where it might be instead of being told by a parent where to find it.  If they’re trying to use something new, they should be the ones to read the directions.

Independence is an important skill learned only by experience.  The next time your middle schooler asks for your help, don’t answer right away.  Instead, reply with a comment such as, “Hmm. . .sounds like a problem.  How do you plan to solve it?”

It’s like pointing to the Help Button.