Yes, They Can!

“Oh, no!  Look at the RAIN!”  Evan and Tessa, two of my 8th grade girls, wanted to go running but decided to wait out the downpour.  When the rain let up fifteen minutes later, they waved as they jogged past me in the parking lot.  They’ve been running after school every day since Ash Wednesday, as part of their preparations during the season of Lent.  They’ve also both given up desserts.

With no encouragement from me, some of my students decided to practice both self-discipline and self-control for Lent.  Giving up something for Lent is a fairly common practice, but the idea of adding something is relatively new to me.

I took a quick survey, and my students are giving up Facebook, Twitter, tomatoes, soda, sweets, salty foods, and sugar.  I had to laugh at Ashtyn and Amber, who are best friends.  One gave up Facebook; the other gave up Twitter.  They still text each other, but they were laughing as they shared how the other night they had actually talked on the phone!

When I asked what kinds of activities students had added (or pledged to do more often), the answers were working out, walking the dog, stretching and pushups, spending more time with the family, helping Dad more in Sunday School, and being active for at least an hour every day.  I was so inspired, I decided to spend 30 minutes on my treadmill every night – a goal I’ve only managed to hit about 50 percent of the time thus far.  (I also gave up Starbucks, which meant the other day I had to give away an Americano brought to school for me by a thoughtful student.)

We’ve had discussions in class about the difference between self-DISCIPLINE and self-CONTROL, and we came up with this:   self-discipline is when you make yourself do something you don’t want to do, while self-control is when you stop yourself from doing something you shouldn’t (or don’t want to) do.

I share this not to show you how holy my students are (they’re not, though sometimes they can be holy terrors), but to show how thoughtful and committed teens can be when the motivation comes from inside themselves.  Often adults don’t give them enough credit for being able to stick with a plan, especially when it becomes difficult.  I’ve been praising my students for their maturity and encouraging them to begin again when they slip up, and I can see how the whole experience is building character.

But that doesn’t mean they aren’t counting down the days until Easter. . .

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Four Simple Rules

I taught one of my favorite workshops yesterday – “Talking to Teens” – and was so surprised  by the enthusiastic response of the parents who attended that I’m going to repeat some of the main points here:

Speak Respectfully.  Once your child reaches the age of 11 or 12, your relationship will be better if you start speaking to him as you would to an adult.  Of course he won’t respond like a full-grown adult for another 10 years or so, but he will appreciate you for treating him with so much respect (and you’ll get better results).  For example, if your neighbor came into your house and left the front door open, you wouldn’t yell, “Hey, shut the door!  What’s the matter with you?  Are you trying to heat up the whole outdoors?”  You’d say, “Would you mind shutting that door, please?  We had a high heating bill last month.  Thanks so much!”  It will work like a charm with your teen, too.

Use Empathy. Being understood by the people who love us is a basic emotional need.  As adults, we are frustrated by people who try to fix our problems when all we want is for them to listen and let us vent.  If your friend called you to complain about her boss making her work extra hours, you wouldn’t say, “Well, you’d better get used to it.  There will always be people in your life that you won’t like!”  You’d say, “That seems unfair!  How about getting together for coffee and you can tell me all about it?”  In the same way, when your daughter complains about how much homework she has this weekend, instead of saying, “Well, you’d better get started on it then,” have a little empathy:  “Homework on the weekend always stinks.  Tell you what – how about if you work for an hour or so, and then we can go out for ice cream to cheer you up?”  Instead of avoiding Nagging Parent, your teen will look forward to sharing with Understanding Parent.

Don’t Downplay. Many of us have had the experience of complaining about how tough our day was, only to have the listener respond with, “You think that’s bad?  Let me tell you about my day.”  After which, very few of us will say, “You’re right – your day was worse than mine.  I’m sorry I complained.”  Most of us will walk away in disgust and go find someone who will commiserate with us.  If you won’t take the time to acknowledge that your teen had a hard day, she will go find someone who will listen to her misery.  To adults, teens seem to have it pretty easy, but think for a moment about how little control they have over their own lives.  Adults get to tell them when to get up, how to dress, what to eat, when to leave (or be ready to be picked up), when to do homework, when to go to bed – leaving many teens feeling like they have little control over their lives.  While it may not compare to losing your job or your house, the stress your teens feel is very real to them.  Take them seriously and let them know you do care about their problems.

Never Embarrass. There’s playful teasing, and then there’s downright embarrassing.  As your teen reaches puberty, he will feel self-conscious and anxious about appearing stupid.  Parents who know their kids’ sensitive issues but still bring them up in front of others are just asking to be excluded from their teens’ lives.  In the same way that I don’t want my husband to mention certain secrets of mine at a party, your teen doesn’t want you to share that he still uses a nightlight or was homesick at camp last summer.  Even if it seems silly to you and not worth getting upset over, listen to your teen’s requests and don’t bring up those embarrassing secrets.  This is also an age where public hugging and kissing might become an issue.  If your teen or pre-teen objects, strike a bargain:  “How about if I only kiss you in the car (or at home), where nobody can see?”  Or maybe you can settle on a high five or a fist pound with the understanding that you both know it means “I love you!”

If you want your teens to both listen to you and open up to you, follow these four rules:  Speak respectfully, use empathy, don’t downplay, and never embarrass.  They’ve always worked for me!