Don’t Be Helpless (Part 2)

In my last blog we discussed how to avoid being helpless when dealing with teens and their cell phonesOn her phone or talking back. (See Don’t Be a Helpless Parent.)  This time we’ll tackle two more issues that cause parents to throw their hands up in despair: social media and chores.

1. Beyond Twitter and Snapchat Be aware: most teens do not use Facebook as their primary contact with friends.  They use Instagram to keep up with friends’ activities (fewer words, more pictures), and Snapchat for conversations.  They also use apps like Kik, or Yik Yak to chat with friends–or strangers.  Apps such as Kiwi and Whisper go even further and allow users to communicate anonymously.  Think of the power that gives middle schoolers to hurt–and be hurt by–one another.

If your teen owns a smartphone, tablet, or iPod (which connects via wi-fi), you need to keep on top of how they’re using it (also see When Is a Calculator Not a Calculator?).  Ask your teen to open the apps and show you how they work, and require that they give you passwords (you can open most accounts from you computer).  Tell them you won’t be checking all the time, but they should expect you to look in once in awhile. You need to weigh the awkwardness of invading your teen’s privacy against the possibility of them falling victim to–or being tempted to start–cyberbullying, or striking up a relationship with a (possibly dangerous) stranger.

2. Doing Their Share  While it’s nice to have your kids help around the house, the benefits go beyond having clean dishes.  Children who do chores at home do better in school and grow up to be more successful adults (check out Why Children Need Chores in the Wall Street Journal).  You would think that by adolescence, chores would have become a habit, but most parents find themselves in a daily battle to get their kids to do even the most basic of tasks.  

After years of being frustrated with my children and tired of hearing myself nagging and complaining, I called a family meeting with my sons (then 10, 12, and 14).  I laid out which chores needed to be done daily and let them decide on a fair division.  They determined each job would be done for a week, switching on Saturdays.  We discussed consequences for not doing chores, and they agreed that being grounded from all screens (computer, TV, video games) for three days was appropriate.  For a second or recurring offense, they came up with the Chore Slave, who would be at the parents’ beck and call for an entire Saturday.  The key was to involve them in coming up with a plan.

I in turn agreed that if chore didn’t get done in a timely manner, I would do it myself and calmly issue the consequence.  This resulted in me sometimes preparing to load the dishwasher, only to be nudged aside by a desperate boy.  I never refused his offer, nor did I make a snarky comment like, “About time you showed up.” My goal was for them to do chores without being yelled at, so I graciously left the kitchen without a word.

Just as it was worth your while to teach your preschooler how to tie a shoe or ride a bicycle (both struggles I remember well), it is also critical that you hold your ground on major issues in adolescence.  Parents of 13-year-olds have about five years before they graduate from high school.  That may seem like a long time to fight the good fight, but you will be preparing them for decades of responsible adulthood.

Hang in there.

Do You Think He Has ADD?

alanWhen I am asked this question, I always answer with, “Maybe, but it doesn’t matter to me if he has an official diagnosis.  There are things we can do now to help him improve his focus and organization.”  (I then refer them to their pediatrician for a formal evaluation if they’re still concerned.

I am the person who walks into a room with my coffee cup in hand and loses track of it one minute later, with no recollection of it ever leaving my grip.  Consequently, I have huge empathy for the student whose pens and pencils disappear during the first week of school, or who finishes every assignment on time but can’t find it when it’s time to turn it in.

“I bought her a planner, but she won’t use it!”  This complaint indicates an organized parent who would be lost without her own planner.  Fact is, some of us just aren’t “planner people.”  (Cynthia Tobias calls us “piles and files” people.)  I suggest students try a variety of methods for keeping track of assignments, including sticky notes, digital devices, and a wipe-off board at home.  Some students just keep a blank sheet of paper in their binders and list assignments as they go (then hope the binder goes home with them).  I also encourage students to make use of school websites to find homework due dates.

Sometimes what looks like a focus problem is just a learning style.  In her book The Way They LearnCynthia says that visual learners need to picture the lesson, so they look like they’re daydreaming.  Auditory learners need to talk about the lesson, so they look like they’re interrupting.  Kinesthetic learners need to move, so they look like they’re just fidgeting and not paying attention.

Once students know their own learning style, they can take steps to adapt in the classroom. For example, visual learners might draw picture notes instead of writing words; auditory learners might make up rhymes inside their heads; kinesthetic learners might have a (quiet) fidget toy.

For both focus and organization solutions, experimentation and proving it works are the keys to finding a good system.

Does he have ADD? Perhaps. . .but the more pressing question is – “Does he have the coping skills he needs?”

The Help Button

hlpbtnA friend who wants to change jobs asked me to teach her how to use Microsoft Word.  I considered all that she needs to know, from creating  a document to using tables and lists. . .and I decided the best thing I can teach her is how to use the Help Button.  When she can’t remember how to insert a picture, she can use the Help Button to find the instructions–because the reality is that I won’t always be available.

Students come to me and tell me what’s wrong:  “My pencil broke.”  Though they obviously expect me to fix it for them, I respond, “You can complain about the problem or seek a solution.”  And then I wait.  Eventually, and sometimes with prompting, they figure out that they need to borrow or sharpen a pencil.  Parents of middle schoolers should do the same–teach their children to solve their own problems.  This begins with not jumping in to provide an immediate solution but asking instead, “What are you going to do about that?”

One of the most important skills parents can teach their children is how to think and speak for themselves.   By age 11, middle schoolers should order their own food in restaurants, tell the hair stylist how they want their hair cut, and describe to the doctor what the pain feels like.  When they’re unhappy with a grade, they should be the ones to talk to their teachers.  If they can’t find something, they should stop and consider where it might be instead of being told by a parent where to find it.  If they’re trying to use something new, they should be the ones to read the directions.

Independence is an important skill learned only by experience.  The next time your middle schooler asks for your help, don’t answer right away.  Instead, reply with a comment such as, “Hmm. . .sounds like a problem.  How do you plan to solve it?”

It’s like pointing to the Help Button.


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!

Inaction is Safer Than Wrong Action


Last night our school held its annual Fall Festival, and several middle school students volunteered as helpers.  One of their jobs was to keep the candy prizes stocked from the stash in the storage room.  An adult helper was amused at how the students would hold their empty buckets over the large candy-filled bin and state, “I need more candy.”  “They didn’t see the pile of candy right in front of them!” he exclaimed.

They saw it, all right.  But they are still on the threshold between the worlds of children and adults, and in a child’s world, you can get yelled at for taking the initiative.

In class last week, Abi asked for my closet key so she could securely store her phone.  As she returned the key, I noticed the closet door was standing wide open.  “Abi,” I said, “your phone isn’t very safe if the door isn’t closed.”  “I know,” she said, “but that’s how I found it.”

Middle schoolers appear to have no common sense because what passes as “common sense” to adults is actually wisdom that comes from experience.   For most middle schoolers, it’s safer not to do anything and take the consequences.

A 7th grader was sent to my room by his teacher early in the day.   As my students rose to their feet to pledge to the flag, the 7th grader started to stand up, hesitated, and sat back down.  He was torn between standing – and risking the 8th graders telling him to sit because he’s not part of our class – or sitting and appearing disrespectful. He chose the latter.

Instead of yelling at middle schoolers when they choose not to do something, parents should first ask why, and then use it as a teachable moment.  Abi now knows that security is the best choice, and the 7th grader knows that standing is always respectful.

As far as the candy goes, it doesn’t matter.  It’s long gone!



“I Know He’s Immature. . .”

Photo Credit to Flickr User dieselbug2007

Photo Credit to Flickr User dieselbug2007

“. . .but what can I do about it?  I can’t just tell him to be mature!”  This was the cry of a former parent during a conference.  After observing and pondering for years, I’ve narrowed it to three things:  expectations, responsibility, and accountability.

If parents don’t expect teens to behave like adults, they won’t.  Immature teens don’t help with household chores, hold doors open for those behind them, order their own food at a restaurant, or use table manners.  They interrupt conversations and sulk or throw tantrums to get what they want.  They are not considerate of others, nor do they think about how their behavior impacts others – because nobody expects them to.

Increased responsibilities allow parents to communicate trust and respect for their teens as they grow older.  When I survey classes, I usually learn that about half of them don’t do regular housecleaning or yardwork; a handful don’t even make their own lunches or clean their own bedrooms.  Such students miss out on the personal satisfaction of turning chaos into order, and the self-confidence that comes with completing “grown-up” work.

Parents who hold teens accountable don’t let them blame teachers for low grades or use friends as an excuse for poor choices.  They allow teens to face the consequences of their actions, while assuring them of their love and support.  I compare it to letting a toddler fall when she’s learning to walk – it’s the only way she learns that she can get back up and try again.

Set expectations, teach responsibility, and hold teens accountable – and you will find yourself facing a mature young adult.

No Need to Up the Stakes

I could see the frustration in the 8th grade mom’s face:  “I tried taking away her phone like you said, but she didn’t care.  She just shrugged, said, ‘Okay, fine,’ and handed it over.  I guess next time I’ll have to think of something worse!”

I assured her she wouldn’t have to do that if she just kept taking the phone away whenever the undesired behavior (or attitude, in this case) occurred.  Parents forget that the purpose of a consequence is to curb behavior; they aren’t trying to make the teen mad.  Of course this will happen (often), but it shouldn’t be the goal.

It’s like a driver who receives 3 or 4 speeding tickets in the same neighborhood, or on the same stretch of freeway.  Eventually he’ll get tired of paying the fines and slow down as he approaches that area.  The consequence doesn’t have to change; it just has to happen consistently.

Besides, some teens will use their non-anger as a power ploy, refusing to give their parents the satisfaction of making them miserable – at least on the surface.  Rest assured, however, that if the consequence is appropriate, the teen will be upset enough to want to avoid it happening again.

In the above situation, I heard about it at school every day. “I’d text you, but I don’t have a phone!”  “Only 10 more days until I get my phone back!”   “I’d better not, or my mom won’t ever give me back my phone!”

I’d say that consequence was painful enough!


Just a Word (or Two)

At our Jr. High Fun Night last Friday, I was coaching some parents on using one-word reminders.  “You need to write me a script,” requested one mom.

I use these reminders because they are less likely to make the hearer defensive, and because they aren’t direct orders.  They also don’t sound like nagging, nor do they have an “or else” message.

Here’s  a sample list of words and how I use them:

“Language” – Whenever I hear something inappropriate (including the popular phrase “That sucks”)

“Manners” – When “please” and “thank you” have been forgotten (e.g., “I need a new paper”)

“Walk” – Much gentler than “Don’t run!”

“Homework” – When someone is talking instead of working (usually accompanied by pointing at their paper)

“Volume” – When voices get too loud

“Hostile” – When they are being unkind

(Often I will tag on another word to make it a polite request, as in “Walk, please.”)

I get a kick out of hearing the students use the same phrases with each other – and with great success!  Spend just half a day in my classroom, and you’ll hear all of these at least once.


Loading. . .Please Wait

While waiting for an update to load on my computer, I find myself staring at the numbers that show me how much progress it has made.  It starts out at a good clip: 15%. . .28%. . .35%. . . and then it sticks.  I cheer when it starts moving again – and then it stops at 88%.  Finally it makes it all the way to 100%, and I am relieved.  Until I remember there will be another update coming along soon.

Waiting for a middle schooler to develop adult traits and habits can be just like that.  They progress in fits and starts, and sometimes it seems they stall altogether.  For example, consider being responsible for one’s own stuff.  After months of nagging and complaining, parents might be delighted when their son remembers to take all of his basketball gear to school for two weeks in a row.  But then in the third week he may leave an important assignment at home on the day it’s due.

Or there’s the issue of being accountable for one’s own actions.  This week you may be surprised when you ask, “Who was supposed to feed the cat?” and Lori says, “Oh, sorry, I was.  I’ll go do it now.”  But next week the same question may cause her to reply, “I forgot, but it wasn’t my fault!”

Don’t expect every step forward to be permanent.  But don’t get discouraged either when they fall back into old habits just when you thought there was reason to hope.  It may be uneven progress – but it’s still progress!

Out and About

As I listened to the three little girls chatter with their mom and dad, I thought to myself, “Those are parents who won’t have big problems with their teenagers.”

While I was at Disneyland this past week, I played my usual game of Observing-Parents-And-Making-Predictions.  It’s  not something I do intentionally; I just catch myself at it.  In this case, I was at a nearby table watching the family finish a meal in the afternoon heat, a time of day which can bring out the worst in anyone.

But these girls, who were in the 5-to-9-year-old range, were smiling at their dad, teasing him: “Can we leave now?” the oldest asked with a grin. “Who ARE you children?” Dad blustered, “and why are you following me around Disneyland?”  The girls burst into giggles.  As they left, both parents listened with interest as the oldest laid out a plan for their afternoon.

So what is that easily-spotted trait that implies an easier adolescence?  I’ve boiled it down to respect.  Parents who treat their children with respect – who listen seriously to their children and speak reasonably to them when they’re still little – will keep doing so when their kids are teens.

And those teens will respond the same way.