Eye Contact

20140509_183930628_iOSI know a trick for making friends with shy babies – I look at their chins or cheeks and allow them to study my face, because even babies as young as 3 or 4 months understand the powerful intimacy of making eye contact.

Thanks to cell phones (and other screens), we’re losing the art of making eye contact when we talk to each other.  When I talk to teens about this social issue, they admit their own guilt and vow to do better.  At least their intentions are good!

But then another issue invariably pops up – their parents‘ use of cell phones.  Common complaints include: “Why is it I can’t use my phone at dinner, but my parents can?”  “My mom won’t look up from her phone when I’m talking to her, but I get in trouble if I do that!”  “It really scares and frustrates me when my dad talks on his phone while he’s driving.”

As with most parenting issues, you’ve got to model the behavior you expect from your children.  If you’re new to smart phones, you’ll find it’s tempting to stop and read every email and reply to every text.  If you’ve had one for a while, you might be a constant phone-checker.  I recommend setting your email to “manual,” so that your phone doesn’t notify you every time you have a new message, and beware of obsessively checking weather or game scores or when it’s your turn to make a move.

Not too far down the road is the day your only communication will be via electronic means because of college or adult obligations.  Take advantage of your chance to make eye contact today.  Put down your phone, look up from your tablet, turn away from your computer.  Look your teen in the eye, because even if you don’t say the words, the message is still there – “I love you and I care.”

Are Your Chores Done Yet?

“My mom figured out how to get me to do dishes,” announced my teen-aged friend.  “She pays me!”

Whether  parents connect an allowance to chores or believe they should  be done as a member of the household, most parents struggle with getting their kids to do them.  “Nag, nag, nag, that’s all I do,” complained one mom.  “And half the time I wind up doing them myself because I’m tired of fighting.”

Here are a few ideas parents have used to get chores done with less nagging:

  • Popsicle Sticks:  Instead of a chore chart, one parent writes them on popsicle sticks and lets her kids choose them.  This eliminates bickering over whose turn it is to do what, or complaints of “I always have to do that!”  (Trading is allowed.)
  • Password Hostage:  The same mom changes the wi-fi password daily and only reveals it when chores are finished. (Phones, controllers, and power cords can also be held as hostages.)
  • Earning Opportunities:  In our house, extra money could be earned by doing chores that were harder than the weekly ones.  Washing windows, cleaning  the fridge, and weeding were paid chores.  However, regular chores had to be done before any money-earning chores could be started.
  • Stick the Parents:  I  used to make a list of 8 chores that needed to be done.  Our 3 sons would sign up for 2 chores each, leaving the last 2 for Mom.  They enjoyed sticking me with cleaning toilets and mopping floors – but they also realized we all had to do our part!
  • Love and Logic®:  Instead of threatening – “If you don’t do it, you’re in trouble!” – Love and Logic teaches saying it differently – “When you’re finished, feel free to play!”

Doing chores will help your teen be a better citizen, student, and adult.  Don’t give up!

Whose Room Is It Anyway?

msroomMy friend was embarrassed as we passed the door to her son’s messy bedroom: “See that pile of clothes on the chair?  Those are his clean clothes that he won’t put them away!  Drives me crazy!”

It’s a common complaint from parents, followed by the common reaction from teens, “It’s my bedroom; why can’t I keep it the way I want it?”  My response to my sons was that their rooms were part of our house, so they had to keep them the way we wanted them.  However, I was realistic enough to know they wouldn’t always be tidy, so every so often I would warn them that it was a “Room Cleaning Weekend.”  Taking a page from Love and Logic, I would tell them, “As soon as your room is clean, feel free to play your video games.”

Some teens actually enjoy the time spent cleaning their rooms,  moving their stuff around while blasting music.  Others are overwhelmed and don’t know where to begin.  One of my sons would sit on his bed in despair, so I’d sit with him, tablet in hand, and ask him to look around the room.  Together we’d make a list of what needed to be done:  pick up clothes, put away toys, sort through papers, etc.  Once he had a checklist in hand, he could get to work.

Keeping bedrooms clean is a battle that won’t go away, but there are things you can do to increase your chances of winning: avoid threatening, give fair warning, help when needed – and say thank you when it’s done!

A New Year of Parenting Resolutions


Christmas – with all its stresses and joys – has come and gone yet again.  If it feels like it passed quickly, take heart – so too will your years of parenting an adolescent.  It’s an important transition time, one to enjoy and explore rather than merely to endure.  That could be your first parenting resolution!   Here are three more to consider:

Respect your kids.  No matter how much you tell them to respect you, they’re not going to learn how unless you’re modeling it.  Parents show respect when they make requests with “please” (and follow up with “thank you”), when they don’t interrupt,when they speak in calm voices, and when they make eye contact.  Look back over that list – aren’t those all behaviors you want from your children?

Listen with empathy.  When I tell my husband about my bad day, I want him to say, “Wow,” or “That sounds awful.”  I do not want him to tell me that I shouldn’t be so upset, or that his day was worse.  Nobody feels the need to be understood more than an emotional, moody teen.  If parents won’t listen, there’s always somebody else who will.

Praise your kids more.  And in public, even if it makes them squirm.  But be low-key about it:  “Hey, I noticed you picked up your dirty clothes” will be more appreciated than, “Wow, you picked up your clothes?  Good for you!  Thank you so much!”  (And by all means, don’t sneak criticism into your praise, as in “Maybe there’s hope for you yet.”)

Enjoy, respect, listen, praise.  And have a happy New Year!

Christmas in Adolescence

grIt may sound like a Hallmark movie, but anyone who’s experienced Christmas in Adolescence with an adolescent knows the mushy, feel-good happy ending isn’t likely to happen.  For some, just having a non-UNhappy ending would be nice.

If you’ve got the teen who hugs herself and gushes, “I just love Christmas!” then you’re among the blessed.  But some teens are more like my son at 16 who complained about listening to Christmas music, refused to part with a penny of his own money for gifts, and on Christmas morning seemed uninterested in any of his presents (which had been carefully chosen by his loving mother).  How can you keep moody teens from ruining the holiday for everyone else?

First off, you can’t change the attitude.  If they’re choosing to be difficult, they’re going to hang on with all their might, leaving you two options: ignore the prickliness and pretend they’re happy, or excuse them from the festivities.  A direct confrontation would only make everyone tense.

Secondly, have a little compassion.  It’s a transitional time; middle school often marks a big change in how Christmas (often disguised as Winter) is celebrated at school.  The magic and wonder of childhood Christmases is waning, and they’re trying to figure out what’s considered too childish at their age and what’s still acceptable.

One way to encourage a little Christmas spirit is to steer their focus away from themselves.  Get them involved in baking, wrapping (messy packages are okay), addressing Christmas cards, or being helpful to someone in need.  Secret Santa deliveries to neighbors or relatives can give them warm feelings while teaching the virtue of generosity.

Like the Grinch, adolescents need to learn that Christmas isn’t about their own happiness.  Christmas – perhaps – means something more. . .

Emergency Info


An informal poll of 7th and 8th graders confirmed what I’d suspected: many of them don’t know important emergency information, such as home numbers or parents’ cell phone numbers.  Even more don’t know their complete addresses. Some wrote the house number and street but neglected to list the city, while a few didn’t know any part of the address.

The phone number issue is an easy one to explain:  to reach home or their parents, most of them just bring up the number on their cell phones.  My question is always, “What happens when your battery’s dead and your friends don’t have your mom’s number in their phones?”  Being resourceful techno kids, they assure me they’d borrow a smart phone and look up whatever they needed.

So is it still important for 21st century teens to memorize phone numbers and addresses?  I vote yes.  Phones get lost or damaged, cell service isn’t always reliable, and internet strength varies from location to location.  In a crisis or an emergency, the only way to reach home or parents may be to give pertinent information to a helpful adult – information that can’t be given if it isn’t memorized.

It’s a skill expected of most 7-year-olds; shouldn’t it also be expected of kids twice that age?



Baby Talk

baby talk

I was chatting with  parents who were concerned about their 5th grader’s use of baby talk:  “Is she immature?  Do you think it means she has emotional issues?”

It’s such a part of my life that I don’t realize how odd it is for others to hear it.  Middle schoolers will resort to using a babyish tone of voice when they are embarrassed or self-conscious.  Put them in front of the room for a speech or a presentation, and many of them will speak with it – especially at the beginning of the year.  It can happen when they raise their hand and are called on, too.

I went straight to the source and asked my 7th and 8th graders why it happens.  They were split between two explanations.  The first camp said that when little kids talk, everybody thinks it’s cute, so middle schoolers do it to try to be cute.

The second camp (the one I lean toward) said that they don’t want to be taken seriously in case people think that what they’re saying sounds dumb.  If it’s spoken like a baby, they can always back out and say, “I was just kidding.”

When it happens in class, I stop the speaker and ask for a repeat without the baby voice.  The tone of voice changes almost every time.  As the weeks go by, all it takes is a one-word reminder, “Voice,” for the speaker to stop – and then start over in a normal tone.

(Though I’ll be the first to admit that “normal” in middle school is hard to define.)


Huh? Are You Talking to Me?

ImageI read a book recently that had too much dialogue.  To me it felt like “Blah blah blah,” and I finally started skipping over the dialogue (and ignoring it in the process).

Parents of middle schoolers sometimes try to engage in too much dialogue.  Or they deliver long monologues, which are worse.  Remember how the adults sounded in the old Charlie Brown cartoons?  That’s what middle schoolers hear after the first few words.

Keep in mind that when you lecture a teenager, you are the only one listening after the first minute or two.  At some point you’ll figure that out and ask a question like, “Are you even paying attention?” or “You’re not listening, are you?”  Such questions will cause defensiveness and “attitude” in the teenager – and now you’ve got a whole new problem to deal with.

You’ll get the best results by keeping your speeches short and to the point.  Skip the questions altogether, especially the ones doomed to make things worse: “What were you thinking?” or “Did you think I wouldn’t find out?”

Name the problem, issue the consequence – and include a sincere apology, if it’s appropriate: “I’m sorry, but since you didn’t call last night when you were going to be late, you won’t be allowed to go to tonight’s birthday party.”  No need to raise your voice, point your finger, or make the teen look remorseful.  Just say your piece and walk away.

Because at that point, both of you will still be listening.

How Bad Could It Be?


When I finally got around to reading Wicked (sort of a back story to The Wizard of Oz), I was surprised by the sexual content in the first few pages.  Surprised because I’d borrowed it from a 7th grader, and because I’d seen several students reading it in years past.

Another book  that surprised me was The Lovely Bones (also loaned me by a student).  I’d expected some gruesome parts, but there was a fair amount of sex in it, too.

Is this appropriate reading for 12-to-14-year-olds?  Some would argue that it’s no worse than what they see on TV or YouTube, but that’s not a strong argument, because if it’s inappropriate in one form, it’s inappropriate across the board.

It’s hard to predict how middle schoolers will respond to graphic content.  Even without seeing pictures, highly visual people will be unable to get certain images out of their minds after reading detailed descriptions.  Many students have told me of sleepless nights because they were kept awake thinking about scary or disturbing stuff.

Wise parents will keep in touch with what’s in books and movies being viewed by their young teens.  Previewing content before allowing a middle schooler to read/see it is a good idea.  Having a discussion after reading or viewing is a must, because if it’s sexual, a 12-year-old will wonder if such behavior is normal.

When I see books about vampire lovers and futuristic mass murderers in my classroom, I ask, “Do your parents know you’re reading this?”  The response I hear most often is, “They wouldn’t care.”

I hope that’s not true.  I hope most parents care enough to protect their middle schoolers until they’re old enough to handle inappropriate content in a mature and discerning manner.

Faking Nice

Be Nice

I’ve always said that civilizing students is part of my job.

While discussing how to improve classroom relationships, one of the girls said she didn’t feel the need to be friendly to girls she didn’t like.  “That would be like faking nice,” was her argument.  I explained that the world revolved around people “faking nice” to each other.  In the adult world, “faking nice” is another term for courtesy, tact, and manners.

For instance, when a senior citizen meanders down the supermarket aisle ahead of me, I wait for an opportunity to smile and go around.  It wouldn’t do either of us any good if I yelled at her to move faster.  And when someone greets me with a cheery “Good morning!” before 10 a.m., I refrain from biting his head off and instead reply with a terse “Morning.”

Learning to be genuine without hurting others’ feelings is an important social skill, despite what teens may see on reality TV.  But “faking nice” doesn’t come naturally; parents have to teach – and model – appropriate social behavior.  It’s helpful to point out to your teen when you’ve said something contrary to what you were thinking, and then have a discussion about why tactful responses are kinder than hurtful ones.

(By the way, if you run into those judges from American Idol, please tell them I’d like to talk to them.  Thanks!)