The Lesson of the Orchid

Finally blooming

For my 50th birthday, a friend gave me a beautiful flowering orchid, which I placed on the kitchen windowsill.  Carefully reading the accompanying instructions, my husband and I were surprised to see how little care it needed.  No plant food?  No constant watering?    Everything we thought we knew about growing a plant was apparently wrong for this one.

The flowers soon shriveled and died, but the leaves appeared to be growing and happy.  We transplanted it to a bigger pot and held our breaths, hoping it wouldn’t be too upset.  To our relief, in a month or so new buds appeared on the stems.  They grew so slowly, weeks seemed to pass without any changes.  Even when they looked ready to pop, days went by and they didn’t open.

Finally, one morning I pointed and said, “Look!  It’s a flower!”  And my husband said, “About darned time!”

Raising an adolescent is like growing an orchid.  Just as too much water is bad for the orchid, so can too much control (or advice or rescuing) be bad for a teen.  A gentle touch, a neutral approach, a wait-and-see attitude are sometimes needed to balance the battles that must be fought.  And it might take a long time to see any results.

As you head into 2011, remember these key points about parenting teens:

  • Empathy will get you farther than threatening, every time;
  • Consequences should be delivered matter-of-factly, when everyone’s in the “blue zone;”
  • Teens live in a bubble of self-centeredness;
  • Treat your teens  like adults but don’t be surprised when they behave like children;
  • Make sure they know you will always love them, no matter what.

One day you will look over to see that somehow your prickly, unpredictable teen has turned into a responsible, delightful young adult.

And it will be your turn to say, “About darned time.”

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The Big G’s of Christmas (and Birthdays)

Christmas is a time for the big G’s – Generosity and Gratitude, but often parents are sorely disappointed by the lack of one or both in their teens.  Instead parents may find themselves on the receiving end of the big G’s evil twins – Grinchiness and Grumbling.

Before continuing, you might want to take a refresher course in The Bubble Syndrome , that unavoidable trait which causes teens to be thoughtless and inconsiderate.  Remind yourself that you haven’t raised a horrible child; it really is a phase and shouldn’t be permanent.

I say “shouldn’t be” because its longevity rests partly on your shoulders, and the big G’s – or lack thereof – are great examples of how you need to help your teen learn to be civilized and to use good manners.

“What?!” you cry.  “I taught them manners when they were barely old enough to speak!”  I’m sure you did, and I’ll even wager your toddler was very faithful with his Pleases and his Thank yous.  But how often do you hear them from your teen?  Somehow, the very fact that manners were learned as a toddler renders them childish, and “Please” and “Thank you” can be the first to exit a teen’s vocabulary.

Case in point:  I often hand out chocolate as prizes for games in my classroom.  As I wander from table to table, Ziploc bag in hand, I’ll ask what kind they want.  When the answer is, “Snickers,” I’ll stand and wait.  “SNICKERS,” the student will repeat loudly.  I’ll look her steadily in the eye until she revises the request to “Snickers, PLEASE,” sometimes at the prompting of a fellow student.  (The “Thank you” then follows without any reminding.)

Here’s an interesting concept:  the best cure for ingratitude is actually generosity.  Which, by the way, also has to be taught.  It’s only through giving that a teen will learn how much of yourself you invest in a gift, and why it’s important to know your gift was appreciated.  Give her a chance to spend her time as well as her money on a gift, and she’ll gain a new understanding of the value of a sincere “Thank you.”  She’ll also learn how good it feels to be the giver!

If you find yourself on the receiving end of ingratitude – as in, “Why’d you get me this?  I won’t use it!” – try not to overreact (and commit the teenland sin of “going off.”).  Respond civilly, through clenched teeth if necessary, with something neutral:  “Oh, sorry.  Hand it over and I’ll take care of it.”  Act like you don’t care, and resist the urge to respond sarcastically.  Later, hold a private conversation and explain how and why those kinds of responses are hurtful.  Then follow up with an education in receiving gifts graciously.  Teach your teen that there are certain things you never say, and that it’s okay to just say thank you and not express disappointment at all.  (If the hurtful words were spoken to someone else – Grandma, maybe – then an apology might be in order.)

Whatever happens, don’t give up.  Like driving, learning to behave as a civilized adult requires time and practice.  Whether your teen is rude intentionally or thoughtlessly, you should be consistent in your responses and view each incident as a teachable moment.

Eventually their cold little hearts will grow three sizes, just like that of the original Grinch.  (It just won’t happen in one day.)

All I Want for Christmas. . .is CASH??

I’ve always loved Christmas shopping for my kids.  One of my favorite years was when we bought a Little Tikes kitchen and a Fisher-Price Workbench.  Four-year-old Matthew strapped on his tool belt and grabbed his new power drill (which matched Daddy’s new drill), while two-year-old JonJon “cooked” stocking candy in a miniature frying pan.  (And Baby David, only three months old, sucked happily on a new teething ring.)

Fast forward twelve or so years and you’d find three teenagers who did not have make-believe toys on their wish lists.  In fact, they assured me they’d be happy with just cash and gift cards.  Cash and gift cards??  Where’s the fun in shopping for those?  I complained that I’d feel like an unimaginative, out-of-touch mother if all I could think of to buy them were gift cards.  And cash was out of the question.  “But you’d be giving us what we want!

What does a parent buy a teenager who would rather pick out her own gifts?  Gone are the days when you might have chosen something she didn’t even know she wanted.  Her tastes are changing so rapidly that the pink fluffy slippers you were sure she’d love might get you a disdainful, “Seriously?” while she dreams of something from Joe Boxer – maybe in a leopard print?

My advice is for you to pay attention to their interests and passions through the year.  For example, if his birthday gift is an iPod, then shop for accessories like a dock or portable speakers.  If she’s seriously into watching professional soccer, buy her a scarf or a hoodie with the team’s name on it.

If you can’t figure out they want, it’s certainly appropriate to ask for their wish lists.  My kids keep their lists on Amazon.com, and they update them as their interests change.  I don’t always buy something from there, but it’s a good resource for knowing what they’re into now.  (Though last year, when they were 17, 19, and 21, I bought them all luxurious bathrobes, which they hadn’t requested but thoroughly appreciated.)

Regardless of what you wind up buying, I encourage you to pick up a little toy just for old time’s sake.  I try to tuck a small Lego model or a game into their stockings, because I remember opening gifts when I was in junior high and realizing I had nothing to play with.  I’d received everything I’d asked for, but “everything I’d asked for” was either something to wear or something practical, like a hair dryer.

Besides, if they get something to play with, it means I get to play, too!