3rd Quarter Slump

Imagine being on a 3-day road trip: on the first day, your excitement and the newness carry you through; on the last day, you’re almost there so you know you can hang on. But on that second day, it’s just the same thing all over again, as you find yourself stuck in the car watching the same scenery go by.

That’s the 3rd quarter of school for some teens. The newness of September is a vague memory, and June is a loooooooooong way off. Homework? I don’t feel like doing it anymore. And maybe if I ignore it, it’ll just go away.

Parental nagging and threatening are just exercises in futility – and a good reason to start an argument with Mom or Dad, which puts off homework even longer. Better solutions: incentives and/or consequences, agreed upon by all parties involved.

Incentives work best (after all, it’s usually the promise of a paycheck that gets me out of bed on a Monday morning). Start with a question like, “What’s it worth to you to bring that midterm D up to a B by the end of the quarter?” or “What’s it worth to you to have no late assignments in the next two weeks?” Negotiate until you can agree. Some parents flinch at the idea of paying for grades, but I’ve found success is its own reward.  Hand over the cash (or movie tickets or dinner out) a couple of times, and you’ll find self-discipline becoming a habit in your teen, because it feels so good to do so well.

Consequences can also be effective, but they need to be agreed upon by everybody.  Otherwise, it’s just another parent-imposed threat.  Ask a similar question:  “What would be a reasonable consequence if you still have a D at the end of the quarter?”  And again – negotiate until you agree.

BUT – whether you’ve agreed on incentives or consequences, you  may not nag or threaten:  “Oh, well – I guess you don’t want that money after all!”  or “If you don’t get busy on that homework, I’m going to quadruple that consequence!”  Once you do that, you’ve set up yet another power struggle.  It’s just inviting your teen to be uncooperative.  Let the incentive/consequence work for itself, and keep your reminding (nagging) to a minimum.

In the meantime, I’ll refrain from reminding  you that Spring Fever is just around the corner. . .

A Poetry Lesson

Thought for the day: It’s not wise to teach research-paper writing at the same time as the digestive system. Because, in case you hadn’t noticed, “theses” rhymes with “feces.” Go ahead and snicker – my 8th graders always do! (Should I be concerned about them knowing which of those are due on March 8?)

It’s a Blog Night, but I’m too under the weather to compose. I’ll just invite you to check out the new look of the site – and maybe leave a comment? I love comments!

Reward Responsibility – Not The Opposite!

You’ve probably gotten these phone calls:  “Mom!  I forgot my uniform and there’s a game today!  Can you bring it?” or “Dad!  My paper’s still on the printer!  Would you bring it to school?” or “I forgot my lunch!  Will you drop it off?”

Every time I teach a workshop on parenting teens, the question is invariably asked:  “How can I teach him to be more responsible?”  The answer is simple to say but very difficult to do:  “Stop bailing him out.”

We raised our kids on a simple bit of advice given us by someone who was very wise:  “The behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated.”  This works both negatively and positively.  If, for example, you pick up the forgotten uniform and deliver it to school, you have rewarded her forgetfulness.  Next time she forgets it on a game day, why shouldn’t she expect you to deliver it again?  As difficult as it is for parents to watch their kids suffer, sometimes a little suffering of a natural consequence (like a missed game) can go a long way toward teaching responsibility.

Responding to every cry for help is sometimes called “rescue” or “helicopter” parenting.  Certainly we need to be there for our kids, but at the same time we have to do our job of preparing them to get along without us.  This won’t happen as long as we are going along behind, picking up after them and keeping them from experiencing disappointment or frustration as a result of their irresponsibility.

So the next time you get the call – “I left my assignment in the car!  Can you bring it to school?” – respond, very sadly, with “I’m sorry, but I can’t do that.”  (Or, if you’re not in the mood to be sympathetic, just say, “Bummer.”)  If you’ve always been a Rescue Parent, you’ll be met with gasps of disbelief, and probably even some anger – “You don’t care if I get an F?!”  Assure her that of course you care, and you feel bad about the F, but you just can’t help her out.  Once again, resist the urge to lecture or to gloat (as in “Maybe next time you’ll listen to me when I tell you to put it in your backpack”); instead, let the consequences speak for themselves.

On the flip side, be sure to comment now and then on the acts of responsibility that you observe.  But play it cool!  Don’t say, “Wow!  Good for you!  You remembered to take all your homework to school!  I’m SO proud!”  Instead, keep it understated:  “Hey, I noticed you took all your books and assignments this morning.  Bet that felt good.”

Remember:  it’s the responsibility you want to reward – not the IRresponsibility!

A Real-Life Example of Empathy in Action

As my husband and I sat gazing proudly across the arena at our high school junior, we could see immediately that he was NOT in a good mood.  It was Presidents’ Day, and we had driven 150 miles that morning to hear him sing.  We were facing another 150 miles back home after the concert, and we could tell already that the trip  had as much potential for fun and laughs as sitting down to do our taxes.

When we met up after the concert, he gave us a perfunctory hug before launching into his litany of complaints:  “I told you the concert would be obnoxiously long, didn’t I?  Sitting on those bleachers for three hours really killed my back!  Our hotel accommodations were awful – we were as far away from the door as you could get.  Had to start at least FIFTEEN minutes early just to get there on time!  And the food!  Don’t even get me started!  I didn’t know scrambled eggs and sausage could taste so bad!”

Instead of countering with a lecture on gratitude for having been able to experience such a weekend of singing with a premier choir, or delivering an explanation of the logistics of feeding, housing, and transporting a thousand high schoolers, or even reminding him that we hadn’t seen him in four days – we responded with empathy.

To his comments about the concert we replied, “Yeah, it was pretty long, wasn’t it?  The music was awesome, but it was a long time to sit.”

To the hotel complaint we replied, “That happened to us once.  We were at a youth conference, and our wing was so far out it seemed like we had to walk a MILE to get to the front.”

And when he was ranting about the food, we came back with, “Oh, that’s a shame.  You’d think that catered food would be really outstanding, not lousy.”

By the time we got to the car, all he wanted to do was get something to eat. But even his request for a restaurant was negative:  “Let’s go to Burger King; I’m in the mood for something greasy and salty and really unhealthy.”

After three Burger Shots he was ready to talk about the more pleasant events of the weekend.  You see, he’d really had an awesome time and already couldn’t wait to return next year – but before he could get to the good stuff, he’d had to work through his exhaustion and general grumpiness.

Had we given in to our parental instincts to interrupt his raving with lectures, we’d have found ourselves with a sullen, defensive passenger on the trip home.  But because he’d had a chance to vent – AND to feel like he’d been heard and understood – he was actually quite pleasant company.  (Okay, he slept most the way home, but still. . .!)

Empathy works – you just have to practice so it becomes second nature.

He Said What?!?

The other night a parent contacted me, upset because her son had allegedly said some mean things on Formspring.me about a girl at school.  She was asking advice on how to handle the situation.  If you haven’t heard of Formspring.me yet, you will soon.  It’s a site where you sign up and offer to answer anything asked by anonymous questioners (invitations are being posted on Facebook, among other places).  Sound frightening?  That’s because you’re an adult and know the dangers of anything that can remain anonymous.  To a teen this is a thrilling opportunity to have some fun.

But what do you do if you discover your teen has been saying mean things on the internet?

First of all, try to get some written proof.  Anything that can be seen on a screen can be copied and pasted into a document and printed.  Once you’re convinced the words came from your teen, confront him as if it were a done deal.  One important piece of advice: don’t ask pointless questions!    One of the biggest wastes of parental breath is the phrase “What were you thinking?”  Like there’s even a good answer to that question!  Also avoid, “Did you think I wouldn’t find out?”  Obviously.  “Did you think this was funny?”  It doesn’t even matter now, does it?  Skip the questions, get right to the consequences, as in:

“I’m really disappointed that you would do something like this.  You know there will be consequences.  Do you have any suggestions for what would be appropriate?”  Depending on your relationship with your teen, you might get an answer like “Ground me?”  From there you can negotiate an appropriate consequence, like No Screens for One Week or You’re Not Attending That Party This Weekend.  If you don’t get a helpful suggestion, simply issue the (reasonable) consequence, much like Mr. Calm Police Officer would hand you your speeding ticket.  No ranting, no yelling, no swearing – just hand out the consequence.  Your teen knows he’s done wrong; you don’t have to make him admit it.

At this point, resist the urge to lecture.  Save that for later, when you’ll have a less embarrassed and hostile teen on your hands.  In the next day or so you can make some brief comments about the cowardice of those who hide in anonymity, and the importance of only saying online what you would say to someone in person.  You can express again your disappointment that he stooped to such low behavior.  But use as few words as possible; if you “go off” on your teen, pretty soon you’ll be the only one listening.  Then you’ll have to deal with the issue of him not listening to you!

Parents often ask me, “But what about apologizing?”  I do believe in apologies, but not when they’re forced (“Say you’re sorry!  Say it right now!”).  Though sincere, face-to-face apologies are best, written apologies are a good second.  Just allow them to come from the heart, and not as a result of a parental demand.

Riding Out the Storm

Ever feel like the teen in your house has multiple personalities?   Once puberty hits, teens (and preteens) can go from giddy to despondent to furious to serene – all in the space of an hour or less.  We know hormones are partly to blame, but brain development and growth spurts also play a part.

Just a few years ago, my sons were ages 17, 15, and 13.  That year I also had 30 8th graders in my class, and 30 more across the hall.  I’ll do the math for you:  that’s 63 moody teens that I had to face almost every day.  Empathy certainly was helpful (see “E is for Empathy,” posted 1/28/10), but it was also important not to get sucked in.

Here’s the problem:  as parents, we’ve devoted our lives to our children’s comfort and happiness from the day of their birth.  It’s a hard habit to break, so when your adolescent is upset, you want to DO something about it.

Imagine your daughter arriving home in tears, wailing about how she and her former best friend had a fight, and her former friend said some mean things.  She heads off to her room to change her clothes, and you begin to seethe about how awful her friend’s behavior was.  About the time you’re ready to pick up the phone and call her mother, your daughter comes out of her room.  You announce your intention, and she is aghast.  “Geez, Mom, I don’t know why have to go off like that!  I just texted her, and we both said we were sorry, and now she’s coming over in a little while so we can work on our science project.  Can she spend the night?”

“Y-y-es, I guess so,” you stammer, as you try to figure out what just happened.  Your daughter happily heads off to the kitchen while you figure out what to do with your frustration over what has turned out to be a non-issue.

Certainly you need to get involved in serious issues, like bullying or unfairness at school.  But in many cases, all you need to do is to remain calm – to be the anchor in the storm of adolescent emotions.  Don’t spend too much time analyzing the cause, nor dwell too long on solving the problem (your help might be unwelcome anyway).  Instead, practice empathy, remain interested but neutral, and ride out this mood.

Then brace for the next one!

Save the Pieces!

That’s what my parents used to yell when a crash would come from the kitchen.  You may be hearing such crashes  frequently if there’s someone in your house between the ages of 11 and 16.  Around this age teens seem to be all elbows and shoulders and really big feet.  They knock over glasses at the table, careen off the walls, and trip over shadows on the floor.  Parents cry out in despair, “Why must you be so clumsy?!”  And the teens themselves writhe in embarrassment.

The good news is that it’s a temporary condition with a sound physiological reason.  (Then again, isn’t that true of most of adolescence?)   The same growth spurts that keep you buying new clothes and shoes every six months (and groceries every other day) are  responsible for the clumsiness.

When teens hit a growth spurt, it begins in their hands and feet.  The arms and legs soon follow, and then the torso stretches.  This is a very good thing:  if the middle section grew first, their centers of gravity would be too high for the size of their feet, and – splat!  Face plant!

The difficult part is that they can grow as much as half an inch in 24 hours, so they can literally wake up with new hands and feet.  Want to know how difficult that makes things?  Try spending tomorrow in oversized gloves and shoes, and you’ll get the picture.  They crash into things because they do not know where their bodies end anymore.

This all happens at a terribly self-conscious age, making it all the more mortifying for your teen.  Each year I survey my class:  “Anybody finding you can’t clear a doorway without smashing your shoulder into the frame?”  Hands go up.  “How about bashing your hip on tabletops and furniture?  Falling down unexpectedly?”  This will lead to cries of “Yes!  That happens to me ALL the time!”  – and stories – “Last night I fell UP the stairs!”  When I explain the physiological reason for this, there is great relief, followed invariably by pleading:  “Would you PLEASE tell my parents this?  They just think I’m clumsy!”

My advice:  put away the valuables just like you did when they were toddlers.  In a few years they’ll get used to their new bodies, and you can return Aunt Bertha’s Swarovski  swan to its place of honor.

Don’t Say That!

In a conversation with some 8th grade girls this week, I casually mentioned that I was “looking forward to meeting my son’s new gf.”  My comment was met with disapproving silence.  One girl turned to the other and asked, “Did she really just say ‘gf’?”  The other nodded her head sadly.  One of them then turned to me and said, “Mrs. Acuna, you can NOT say ‘gf.'”  “Why not?” I asked (knowing full well the answer).  “Because!”  she replied.  “That’s OUR language, and you’re not allowed to speak it!”  “So,” I said, “I’m supposed to KNOW your language but not use it, is that correct?”  “Exactly” was her response, and all the girls nodded.

Today I explored the topic a little more with a whole roomful of 8th graders.  They couldn’t really tell me what was so bad about parents speaking their language; they only knew it was “embarrassing” and “just wrong.”  I heard complaints about parents who say “S’up?” or “Fo’ sho'” or “Suh-weet!”

This is not a new concept for teen-agers.  The words have changed – you might remember “cherry,” “groovy,” “far out,” and “cool” – but the rules have not.  Teens want – no, make that DEMAND – the right to speak their own language.  It’s okay for the adults to be familiar with the words, but actually using them is unacceptable.

That’s not to say the adults can’t have some fun with the language.  By last summer I had grown weary of hearing “I know, right?”  When we went on vacation in June, I began saying it constantly in response to my sons, until I drove them bonkers.  “Mom, you do realize you’ve totally ruined that phrase for us, don’t you?” they complained.  Smugly, I acknowledged that was my intention.  I hardly heard it for the next several weeks, which was actually very amusing.

Sociologists call it “differentiating.”  It’s all about adolescence being that transitional period when teens are trying to leave childhood behind.  To do so, they have to get out from under the direct influences of the adults in their lives and begin relating more to their peers.  After all, their peers are the people who will enter adulthood with them.  When the adults in their lives try to speak like them, it violates a crucial boundary.

Language isn’t the only thing teens reserve for themselves.  Clothing, music – even certain foods or drinks – can be considered off-limits to the adults in their lives.  It’s okay to be in touch with what’s going on in their world, but don’t expect to be allowed to play.  We’ll just have to be content with speaking like adults, at least when there are teens within earshot.

Let’s all say it together:  “I know, right?”