Tell Me A Story

Getting a tow at LAX

Getting a tow at LAX

I woke up this morning to find pictures on Facebook of my son’s car being towed from LAX.  Later I will call him and say, “Tell me a story about your car,” and he will begin, “Okay, so I was at the airport. . .”  And pretty soon I’ll have all the details this mother’s heart craves.

It’s a habit that began years ago.  Instead of demanding that he tell me what happened, or peppering him with a dozen questions, I simply spoke the neutral, non-threatening words, “Tell me a story.”  That told him that I already had some info, so he might as well come clean.  If he didn’t know–or pretended not to know–I’d add “. . .about the broken light fixture” or “. . .about the email I got from your teacher.”  “Oh, yeah that,” he’d say. “Okay, so here’s the deal. . .”

I use this technique in my classroom when I come across two students fighting, or when I have a student whose homework looks suspicious.  “Tell me a story about why I saw you kicking him.”  “Tell me a story about why there’s no work shown on these math problems.”  If I meet resistance, I may give a little shrug to show it’s not that big of deal and add, “I was just wondering what happened here.”  Most students will capitulate at that point , and then we can move on the the next step.

But I don’t use it only for problems or negative situations.  It works just as well if there’s good news to share.  Quiet or shy students are put at ease because they’ve been invited to tell their stories in their own way.  I keep interruptions to a minimum, maybe just giving an encouraging “wow” or “mm-hmm” to keep them going.  Chatty, boisterous storytellers are excited to have a captive audience (though they don’t need much encouragement to tell their stories).  Whether they’re eager or reluctant, they get to be heard and I get to hear what’s on their hearts and minds.

Parents of middle schoolers sometimes complain that their kids don’t talk to them.  This can be due to a fear of parents “going off” (overreacting) or frustration because they can’t finish their story without being interrupted.  Students sometimes tell me they don’t think their parents are all that interested in listening to them.  Try taking a more relaxed approach and simply saying, “Tell me a story.”  You may be surprised at all you can learn, especially if you listen until the very end without interrupting.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a (Facetime) call to make.  My son has a story to tell me.

Speaking in the Second Person


ptc-3I hold student-led conferences, where I expect students to talk about their accomplishments and their plans to improve.  Most parents appreciate this, but sometimes they will address questions to me as if the student weren’t present:  “What do you think he could do to raise his math grade?”  “How is her behavior in class?”  I always direct the question to the student: “How do you think you’re doing? What’s your plan for improvement?”

This disappoints parents at first, but after I let the students speak and then chime in afterward with my input, they’re usually satisfied.  Sometimes I remind students of conversations we’ve had; other times I offer suggestions.  But I never talk about them with their parents as if they aren’t present at the table.

It’s a habit we get into when our children are babies, too young to understand what we’re saying.  As they get older, we adapt by s-p-e-l-l-i-n-g or using half sentences: “Did you take care of his. . .?”  There comes a point, however, when it’s just not okay to talk about them as if they’re not there, and that time arrives somewhere in elementary school.

If it’s a conversation about your kids that you don’t want them involved in, hold it when they’re not present.  If they’re in the room and it’s actually about them, include them in the conversation.  Allow them to tell their side of the story, and then involve them in seeking solutions where needed.

At the beginning of every conference, I remind my students that they’re in charge.  Since every conversation is about them, doesn’t it make sense that every conversation should include them?

Super Bowl Weekend: A Good Time to Teach Sportsmanship

Here in Seahawks territory, Blue Fridays are a big deal, and the students in our school proudly wear their Seahawks gear every week.

But there are a few dissenters, who also proudly–and bravely–wear their team shirts.  They know that while they may take some ribbing, they won’t face out-and-out hostility, because our rule is:  You can support your team, but you can’t bash anyone else’s.

Bad sportsmanship is good entertainment in today’s society, which is why it’s so important to teach emotional middle schoolers and teens what good sportsmanship looks like.  Whether it’s the team they’re on, or a college or professional team, teens need to know the difference between being a fan and being a bully.  Cheering for one’s team, “repping” their colors, and flying the team flag are all acceptable ways to show support.  Trash talking about the other team, defacing their posters, and calling the players names are not.

Teaching good sportsmanship goes right along with teaching common courtesy (holding the door for the person behind you), using manners (not burping loudly in a restaurant), and apologizing appropriately.  And it’s not enough to just teach it; adults need to model it as well.

As I always say, it’s part of our job to civilize ’em–and a big weekend filled with Super Bowl parties is the perfect time.

After we took the (staged) picture above, the nose-thumbing young man behind the Broncos fan patted his back and said, “Poor guy!  You know we love you–even if we don’t love your team!”

I’m pretty sure Russell Wilson would approve.  (Go, Hawks!)

A New Year With Your Teen

I’ll say it again:  I love spending my days with teen-agers.  Maybe I am a little crazy (which helps when dealing with teens), but there are so many things to enjoy about them!  Here are some helpful resolutions to get your new year of parenting teens off to a good start:

Remember that they’re halflings.  They’re starting to look like adults in a taller, gangly, hairier way.  Sometimes they even sound like adults, especially when they question you in unexpected ways (“Why do we even go to Aunt Lulu’s house when you complain about her all the time?”)  And they certainly want to be treated like adults, except on their birthdays or when there are chores to do.  But the reality is they’re still a work in process, and a good portion of what you see is still a child, clinging to childish behaviors and attitudes.  You and I know some of those never go away; admit it—you still want your own way as often as possible.  It’s how we deal with those attitudes that changes, and that’s what you need to teach and model to your teen.

Have more Seinfeld moments.  In other words, laugh about nothing, but laugh together.  We laugh often in my classroom.  Sometimes it’s me being funny, like when I respond to a cry of “Unfair!” with “That’s MRS. Unfair to you.”  Sometimes it’s the students: “Your grandpa is in rehab?  Is he a drug addict?” (No—he had a hip replaced.)  Think about your best memories with good friends and how many involved laughing—possibly until you couldn’t breathe.  Create some of those memories with your kids, and you’ll treasure them long into their adult years.

Make more eye contact.  Check your own screen time before ranting about your teen’s.  When you’re in a conversation and your phone buzzes, ignore it and maintain eye contact.  You’ll make a huge statement about how much you value what’s being said—and who’s saying it!  Close your laptop, put your tablet to sleep, or mute the TV when your teen is talking to you, and you’ll get better results when you expect the same behavior.  Require some meals be device-free, whether at home or in a restaurant, and be the first to model turning your phone off (not just silencing it).

Dethrone the homework god.  No, I don’t mean your teens should stop doing schoolwork (all of my teen readers just groaned), but do try to keep it from becoming the Most Important Topic, the one all your conversations center around:  “You’ve been home for seven minutes; why haven’t you started your homework?” or “You’re just sitting there doing nothing; don’t you have any homework?”  Yes, grades do matter, but everyone needs balance in their lives, including students.  Make an effort to communicate that you care about more than just homework.

Do more. . .and less.  Listen more, play more, negotiate more.  Nag less, criticize less, yell less.  In short, practice more positive responses and fewer negative ones.  Your teen is watching you and learning from you how to be an adult.  It’s more important than ever to model respect, kindness, patience, manners. . .all the behaviors you hope to see in your child as an adult.

Listen with your heartphones.  When your toddler threw a tantrum, you knew whether she was mad, scared, or just tired, despite what she said.  Tune into that frequency with your teen and try to see what’s behind his outburst.  There’s a good chance that the attack (“Why do you always pick on me?”) is masking embarrassment, frustration, or just a horrible, no good, bad day.  For best results, under-react:  say nothing for several seconds, give a non-committal “Huh,” or offer food.  Often whatever it is will blow over, but if you suspect there’s a bigger issue, allow some recovery space and then gently make your presence known.  Be ready to listen without interrupting or judging.  Communicate how much you care.

Stop and smell. . . whatever.  From the time your child was a toddler, you’ve been dreading the Adolescent Years, and now that they’re here you can’t wait for them to pass.  Teens are impulsive, loud, moody, smelly (Axe Spray can be even worse than sweat), unpredictable, exasperating—and fascinating.  So much change happens so quickly—both inside and out—that you’ll want to take mental snapshots to remember it all when they’ve gone off to college or moved out.  Because when that day arrives, you’ll wonder where the time went.

A Sticky Gift

As I handed out the envelopes on the last day before Christmas break, I cautioned my students, “Everybody has the same gift, so don’t open yours until everyone has theirs.  You will, however, find a personal message inside, so be sure you read it.”

They dutifully waited until I gave the word, and then the room grew quiet as they read their cards. A few looked up and grinned at me without saying anything, but one girl said, “I kind of want to cry now.”  Another girl echoed her agreement.  One student jumped to his feet and gave me a quick hug.

Inside their cards they’d found just a few specific lines about what I appreciated about them personally.  For one, it was how quickly he volunteers to help; for another, it was how hard she works to improve.  I told one that while some days he makes me crazy, his sense of humor always makes me laugh.  And I told another that even though she still has loud days, I appreciate how hard she is working to be more quiet.

I wrote 29 cards this year, but I’m pretty sure you have fewer teens than that in your life.  What if you took the time to write a few thoughtful, meaningful words and give it to them?  You don’t have to be eloquent; just mention one or two qualities or actions that you appreciate.

It’s a gift that will stick with them long after the gift cards are spent and the electronics are obsolete, and one that could make a real difference on those days when they feel unlovable.

Talking Back

chbrThis week I had to get after a student for two things in P.E.:  messing around on the chinning bar and goofing off with a friend.  He protested, “But my friend came over to me and was bugging me!  Is that my fault?”  I reminded him he was also in trouble for the bar, and he said, “Oh.  You didn’t mention that the first time.”

The fact was I had mentioned it, and I would’ve preferred his response to be, “Okay, sorry”  in a respectful tone of voice.  In my book, he was talking back to me.  He, however, would see it differently.

I saw a T-shirt that perfectly expressed the feelings of teens:  “To you it’s talking back, but to me it’s just explaining.”  This is also what students told us when we wrote our middle school book.  The reality is that we all want the chance to explain ourselves and there are right ways to do so–but teens often choose the wrong way.

Keeping in mind that adolescents are trying to figure out how to be adults, take the time to teach the proper way to explain.  Start by modeling an acceptable tone of voice and comparing it to one that makes the listener defensive.  Then explain the value of the words “Sorry” or “I’m sorry,” especially as a lead-in for what comes next.  Finish up with the difference between making accusations and explaining one’s actions  Suggest a better response: “Sorry for messing around on the chinning bar, but my friend was the one who came over to me.  Guess I should’ve just told him to go away.”  All spoken respectfully, of course.

It’s a lesson I teach every year, and it takes lots of patience (for me) and practice (for the students), but it’s an important step in learning to be a considerate adult.

I’ve always said it’s part of my job to civilize them. . .

 

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?

“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.

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.

“Hey! Why’d You Punch Me?”

scrthndsk

While working with a student one afternoon, I heard a voice behind me exclaim, “Hey!  Why’d you punch me?”  This is what I refer to as a “tattle voice,” designed to alert the nearest adult that trouble is afoot (or a-punch, as the case may be).  This time,  knowing the tattler probably had punched first, I chose to pretend I hadn’t heard.

There’s something inside of middle schoolers that compels them to punch, poke, and smack (boys), or hug, link elbows, and walk with their arms around each other (girls).  This is partly because their needs for physical affection haven’t diminished, but their means of meeting those needs have changed.  When they’re 5, their parents will still pick them up, kiss them good-night, and hold their hands as they cross the street.  When they’re 10, changes start to happen, some of them initiated by themselves.

When they’re 13, they may still crave parental hugs, but they’re not sure if that’s okay with their peers.  At an age where affection from parents may or may not be welcomed,  punching and hugging meet basic needs for affection in a socially acceptable manner.  I’ve had students decide punching me might be a good way to connect, and I’ve had to suggest we switch to fist bumps instead.

Parents who aren’t allowed to hug (at least in public) can meet physical needs in subtle, more middle-school-approved ways, like a friendly shoulder bump when walking, or a high five.  Side-arm hugs are tolerated more than full-on body hugs, and developing a “secret handshake” can be a fun way to connect.  Just don’t do it if they’re afraid their friends will see it and laugh!

There will be those days when your middle schooler may seek you out for a big hug.  Don’t ruin it by saying, “Oh, so you DO still need me.”  Just open your arms and enjoy the moment.

And in between those times, keep practicing your secret handshake.