Persuade; Don’t Push

When I rented a car in Arizona last week, the lady at the desk was pretty persuasive.  She asked me how much insurance coverage I wanted, and when I declined any, she said, “Okay, no problem.  Of course, our $12 per day charge is far less than what you’ll pay for a deductible.”  Only $12?  I was tempted – but I resisted.

“We’ve got you down for a standard car – would you like to upgrade to a full-sized car for only $11.99 more per day?”  Again I declined, citing better gas mileage as a factor  “You know, there’s not really much difference between the mileage of a standard Nissan Cube and a full-sized Ford Taurus,”  she said, not looking up from her computer.  A Nissan Cube?  I knew my husband wouldn’t like that, and I was tempted to switch, but I held firm one more time.

Then she hit me with the prepay-to-refill question.  I’d heard the spiel before:  buy a full tank now and save about two dollars a gallon over what I’d pay if I returned it less than full without prepaying.  I always refuse this offer, promising to refill before returning, but this time she almost persuaded me when she said, “You probably know that because of safety issues, there aren’t any gas  stations within a mile of the airport.”  With great resolve I turned her down one more time, but as I walked away from the counter I was second-guessing myself.

This woman used no pressure, no scare tactics, no threats.  I was disarmed by her offhand manner, her attitude of  “It doesn’t matter to me either way, but you should know. . .”  What a great technique for dealing with teens!

Suppose your daughter has a big science test this week.  You could try nagging and threatening:  “You’d better be studying for that test!  If you get another low grade, I’m going to ground you until the end of the quarter!”  Or you could try a less pushy, more subtle approach:  “How are you going to celebrate when your science test is over?” or maybe “Guess I’d better start saving my dollars for your A in biology, huh?”

By using a less threatening approach, you may not get the immediate response you’d like – “Hey!  I’m off to study for my biology test!” – but you will have planted a seed and provided a way for her to saunter off and pretend she was planning on studying all along.   Mission accomplished; conflict avoided.

My rental car wasn’t a Nissan Cube; it was a Nissan Altima, which is what I drive at home.  I didn’t get into any accidents, and I was able to fill up the tank only ten miles from the airport.  It was a good thing I hadn’t let her change my mind.

But I did hear her voice in my head all weekend long. . .

Give It to Get It

We’ve been discussing respect in class this past week.   I asked my 7th graders to give examples of when they DON’T feel respected by adults.  They replied without hesitating:  “When they don’t trust me” and “When they treat me like a 3-year-old.”

We adults expect – even demand – respect from the teens in our lives.  I’m no exception; at least once a week I point out to a student that I’m not feeling respected by her tone of voice or by her arguing with me.

But how much respect do you give to your teens?  I often say that my secret to getting along with middle schoolers is that I treat them like young adults – but I’m not surprised when they behave like children.  When I use the same tone of voice I’d use when speaking to adults, I get less whining and defensiveness.

Imagine the response if you used any of these phrases with the adults in your life:

“What is wrong with you today?”

“What were you thinking?”

“Could you think of someone else besides yourself just this once?”

“Maybe you need to go to bed earlier!”

The next time you start to complain about your teen not respecting you, stop for a moment and check yourself.  It could be your teen is simply responding to the way you are addressing him.  Use a calm, reasonable tone, and don’t forget your  manners.  “Please take your dishes to the kitchen” will get better results than “Why do you always leave your dishes on the couch?”  The latter is just begging for a less-than-respectful response, or a maddening “I dunno.”

The picture at the beginning of this post is of a poster that is found in our 8th grade classroom.  It seems too easy, but give it a try and see what happens.

Aretha spoke for teens everywhere:

“All I’m askin’ –  is for a little RESPECT. . .”

Don’t Tell the Acorn Too Much!

A parent sought me out at church a couple of weeks ago, wanting advice on how to get her daughter to be more polite.  “She interrupts me all the time, and she never says ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ unless I remind her to.”  She continued, “My husband just laughs and says she’s me all over again.  Which is actually true!”  I cautioned her not to say that in front of her daughter, because she would be giving her permission to continue being rude.

I’ve heard it often at the conference table:  “Of course, I was never very good in math, either, so I can’t expect him to do any better.”  “I’m afraid there’s not much hope for her; I always got in trouble for talking, too.”  I may smile and nod my head, but I really want to put my finger to my lips and hiss, “Shhhhh!  Stop staying that!”

A parent’s motive behind saying such things may be to reassure the teen that he understands because he’s been there, but such comments can have a negative effect.  A student who is struggling in math, or who doesn’t like math, has just been given license to stop trying.

In the same way, a student whose constant talking is disruptive has no reason to stop.  In fact, the pleasure gained from being “just like Mom” may lead to more talking.

It’s often amusing to see how much your children are like you (it’s even more amusing for their grandparents), but it’s important to stop and think about the consequences before mentioning the flaws you share.  Even if you qualify your observation with, “. . .but that doesn’t mean you have to act like me,” you’re still offering an excuse for undesirable behavior.

A better idea is to notice the similarities but comment about them to another adult, out of your teen’s hearing.  You can shake your heads and share a laugh together about the acorn not falling far from the oak tree without granting permission to repeat your mistakes.

And then you can call your mother and tell her that her wish came true – you did wind up with a child just like you!

Living By The Code

Somebody took my chocolate.  I keep it in the bottom drawer of my file cabinet, and I dole it out as prizes or rewards.  After Christmas, I had a good stash, because I’d brought in stocking candy from home, and I’d bought a couple of bags of Christmas clearance candy.  Last Thursday I opened the drawer and was shocked to see how little was left.  Unfortunately, I hadn’t opened the drawer in the past week, so I have no idea how long it has been missing.  All I know is that a few days before, I had a full bowl and a couple of almost-full bags, and now I only have a handful of Hershey’s miniatures.

I’ve asked the students (and their parents) to keep their ears open for any leads on the perpetrator(s), but I’m not sure how much good it will do.  Even though I’m on good terms with all the students, it’s hard to fight The Code.

The Code, which is observed by students of all personality types and abilities, simply says “You do not get your friends – or people you like – into trouble.”  I used to be surprised at how even class leaders and straight-A students would adhere to this code, until I figured out something critical:  most junior high students see it as a moral obligation, right up there with offering to share your lunch when your friend doesn’t have one.  It’s a sign of your loyalty, a test of your friendship – you just don’t rat out your friends.

In the past, when the truth has come out, I’ve gone back and asked friends of the guilty party why they didn’t tell me what they knew.  Looking distressed, they’ve all answered the same way, “I knew I should tell you, but – I didn’t want to get my friend in trouble!”

It’s easy for adults to write it off as succumbing to peer pressure, or as an attempt to gain popularity.  But it isn’t always fear of repercussions that is the motivation.  Teens at this age are at an interesting moral place; they’re examining what they’ve been taught and taken for granted as a child, and evaluating its worthiness in their own worlds.  At the same time, they’re measuring their moral codes against those of their peers.  In the spectrum of moral maturity, they’re somewhere in the center – no longer doing what’s right because they’ve been told it’s right, but not yet able to decide for themselves based on internalized principles.

To put it more simply, they do what seems right based on what their friends will think.  In this case, even though they know it would make me happy to discover who took my candy, in their hearts they feel it’s wrong to turn in their friends.  This isn’t the same as being a snitch; they’re often more than happy to snitch on those who are outside their circles of friendship (as long as they can remain anonymous)!

In fact, I’m hoping it’s that snitch who solves the crime for me.

Dear Helicopter Parent. . .

I saw you last night in the restaurant.  When the waiter came to your table, you ordered for your daughter, who looked about 12 years old.  I found it amusing that when the waiter asked if she wanted it plain or with chicken, she piped up, “Chicken, please,” thereby making her presence known.  I see many similar incidents in your future.

I’ve also seen you on campus.  You’re the one with arms full of your child’s backpack, jacket, and musical instrument – while she skips ahead with her friends.  You’re the one who unpacks all of your son’s school supplies and organizes his desk for him, telling him where everything should go (he’s not listening, by the way; he has no ownership in what you’re doing).

I’ve seen you at the school office, delivering a Burger King lunch because your child forgot her lunch at home (it had a boring sandwich anyway), or a homework assignment that was left on the printer, or an athletic uniform because it’s a game day.

I’ve disagreed with you when you complained that “the students” (by which you meant “the parents”) weren’t given enough printed details about an assignment, which meant you they were unable to complete it correctly.

I know that you clean your child’s room, make her lunches, and do her chores because a) it makes you happy to take care of her, b) it’s easier than arguing with her, and/or c) by the time she gets home from her activities, it’s too late.

I’ve heard you complain that your child doesn’t pick up after himself, can’t think for himself, has little self-confidence, and doesn’t respect you.  To the latter I say, why should he, if you’ve let him use you as a personal butler/valet/maid?

I wanted to let you know you are under a Storm Warning, and the storms ahead are going to be big. You can expect either a rebellious child who rejects you in order to stand on her own two feet, or a dependent child who has learned that you will take care of everything for him.

It’s never too late to land your helicopter.  Provide a map and a first-aid kit – and let your child learn through mistakes and natural consequences!

Doing the Dance

I had a student once named Ryan, who’d been diagnosed with “Firecracker ADD,” which meant he had a short fuse and a strong stubborn streak.  Since I am not a morning person and neither was he, we were most likely to clash before 10:00.  I spent a lot of time avoiding engaging him in battle, a feat I referred to as “doing the dance.”

But one morning he arrived in pajama pants, a blatant violation of the school dress code.  He walked into class and looked directly at me, daring me to challenge him.  The classroom grew quiet as other students waited to see what I would do.   I smiled, raised one eyebrow, and asked, “Aren’t those pajama pants?”  “Yeah,” was his surly reply, “they’re no different than the warm-ups I wore yesterday.”

Up to this point Ryan and I had had a good relationship – tenuous at times when we were both in bad moods, but overall we got along well.  This was a critical moment.  Whatever I said next would pretty much set the tone for the rest of the day, possibly the rest of the year.

Parents of teens will face many such critical moments.  Their first reaction may be to “show him who’s boss,” an attitude which will lead to a power struggle where no one will win.  “Doing the dance” means not getting caught up in the power struggle. This means not using threats, coercion, physical contact, shouting, or bad language to force your teen to do what you require.  Using any of those tactics will actually hand the power over to the teen, because he has made you “lose it.”

Before incidents like this arise, parents need to think about what is most important.  In the long run, the most important thing is keeping the relationship between parent and child intact.  Severe punishments will damage that relationship, resulting in anger and resentment and probably not much change in the teen’s behavior or attitude.  At least – not a change for the better.  It’s certainly important to set rules and standards and expect your teen to live up to them.  But there are better ways to get that to happen than by angry outbursts.  Rule number one is STAY CALM. This really will give you the upper hand!

On that fateful morning with Ryan, I kept an amused look on my face and invited him to please step into my “office” (the hallway).  Without waiting to see if he would follow, I headed out there, because talking to a teen one-on-one is more productive than talking in front of peers or siblings.  When he joined me, I said calmly, “You know I can’t let you wear those in class.”  Predictably, he asked, “What can you do about it?  I don’t have anything else to put on!”  Shrugging, I told him he had only two choices:  find something else to wear or wait in the office until he could be picked up.  I held his gaze as he clenched his fists and huffed in frustration, but I didn’t say anything more.  “There’s no reason I can’t wear these!” he said loudly.  I repeated myself in the same tone of voice, “You have two choices: You can change your clothes or you can go home.”

He glared at me for a few more seconds, then spat out, “Fine!  I’ll go change!”  A pair of jeans mysteriously appeared from his backpack and he went down the hall to the bathroom.  Heart pounding, palms sweating, I returned to the classroom, taking deep breaths to try to feel as calm as I hoped I appeared.

Ryan’s out of high school now, married and raising a little daughter of his own.  We keep in touch, and I get a hug every time I see him.  Had I handled him differently, that wouldn’t be the case.  The next time you’re faced with a hostile, angry teen, take a few deep breaths – and prepare to do the dance.

Putting Some “Stick” in “Sticktoitiveness”

“She’s always been good at math, but this year she’s really struggling.  I don’t know what to think – should I get her a tutor?”  About this time of year some parents of middle- and high-schoolers grow concerned at the escalating frustration exhibited over homework.  Complaints of “I can’t do this!” and “I give up!” come from students who used to get A’s and B’s without exerting much effort.

And that’s where the trouble lies.  Unlike students who face challenges with reading comprehension or with tricky math concepts, students who’ve had an easy time in elementary school haven’t developed perseverance.  They’re used to seeing the answer immediately, or arriving at the correct conclusion without any difficulty.  When they have to spend more time analyzing or even making some failed attempts before solving a problem, they get frustrated and “hit the wall” – a term teachers use when students can’t seem to go any farther.

How can a parent help?  With empathy (you knew I was going to say that), encouragement, patience, and some negotiating skills.  First, try calling it what it is:  “You sound really frustrated.  I’m thinking that’s because you’re so smart, school has always been easy for you.  You haven’t had to work very hard to keep up your good grades.”  (See how that came out sounding like a compliment?)

Next, offer an encouraging word or two (but don’t go overboard):  “Try reading it over again and thinking about it differently.”  Of course, this won’t be met with, “Gee, thanks, Mom.  I’ll do that!”  Instead, be prepared to hear irritation:  “No matter how many times I read it, I’m NEVER going to get it!”

This is a good time for me to mention the red zone and the blue zone.  The red zone is when tempers are short, exasperation is high, and the potential for an explosion is at its peak.  Nobody can be reasonable when feeling this way, so it’s best to save “helpful speeches” (aka lectures) or even gentle advice for a time when everyone’s calm, reasonable, and more ready to listen.  In other words, when they’re in the blue zone.

After you’ve spoken encouragement, be prepared to witness more anxiety and frustration.  Sit back, be patient, and let the struggle happen.  When you hear another threat of giving up, switch to negotiation mode:  “Tell you what – try it for 10 more minutes, and then let’s (call your teacher) (phone a friend) (see what we can find on the internet).”  Or go for a bigger prize:  “Well, if you’ll at least work through every problem, we can take a break and run to Starbuck’s.  When we get back, (I) (your mother) (smart neighbor Steve) can take a look and see how you’ve done.”

Perseverance is a lot like swimming; it can only be taught with practice and experience.  When given a chance to work through the struggle and come out successfully on the other side, teens learn it’s worth their while to hang in there until they’ve conquered the task.

And when you’re tempted to jump in and rescue your teen, consider the story of the man who “helped” the butterfly out of its cocoon.  Because it missed the opportunity to battle its own way out, the butterfly was unable to fly – it had no strength in its wings.




Proactiv(e) – It’s Not Just For Your Face

This past Friday night we held Junior High Fun Night at our school – around sixty 7th and 8th graders spent 2 1/2 hours playing volleyball, basketball, ping-pong, foosball, video games, and board games.  Of course, they spent lots of time just eating, talking and laughing together, too.

Some readers are thinking that sounds like a nightmare – all that time with junior high kids?  I’m happy to say the biggest “problems” we had to deal with were kids trying to walk out of the “food room” with drinks in their hands, because they’d forgotten the rule about keeping all food and drinks in one classroom.

The evening’s success was due in no small part to the awesome kids and parents we have at our school.  But there’s another reason for the lack of behavior problems, and it’s a technique I often used with my own sons when they were younger:  being proactive about expectations for the event.

In the week before the Friday event, we teachers spent time with the students going over what the rules were for the evening, as well as reminding them that they needed to behave appropriately (and take responsibility for cleaning up their own messes).  We do this before every field trip, as well.  We’ve found that when we take the time to make very clear our expectations and standards for their behavior, they are much more likely to behave appropriately.

In my own home, my husband and I did this before family outings or big family gatherings.  We let the boys know that they were expected to smile and shake hands when they were introduced, that they were to use their best manners at all times, that after spending a few minutes with the adults they were free to go off with each other (or with their cousins) and do “kid stuff,” etc.  When the event was over, we’d tell them how proud we were of them.

Too often we adults expect the kids to automatically know how to behave, when the reality is that we’ve never taught them what they need to know.  By making the effort to clarify ahead of time what your expectations are, you can head off many problems before they ever arise.

And maybe then you can relax and play, too!

Humor. Always Humor.

Issues with teens are international and cross-cultural, as my experience last week with a young man I’ll call “Eric” demonstrates:

When it was time to pass out juice and a snack at VBS, one of my adult co-leaders came to me and announced in frustration, “We aren’t having snack today.”  When I asked why, she replied, “Eric took the box of crackers and won’t give it back.”  When I asked where he was, she directed me outside.

I’d spoken with Eric earlier in the week, asking him to take his soccer ball outside.  We were holding VBS in the gym in a small village in Northern British Columbia, and some of the kids had been kicking soccer balls around in the half of the gym that we weren’t using.  This added quite a bit of noise to an already noisy situation (70+ kids in a gym), especially when they bounced them off the wall (BLAM!).  My team and I had agreed we’d ask the kids to keep the balls outside.

When I’d approached Eric I’d first had to wait for him to remove his earphones.  I then asked him if he could please juggle the ball outside.  He said, “Dude!  I was just about to break a record, and now you messed me up!”  I chose to assume he was kidding, patted him on the shoulder, said, “Sorry, Dude,” and walked away.  A few seconds later he and his ball were juggling out in the parking lot.

I decided to assume he was kidding again as I headed out the door to retrieve the snack.  “Hey, Eric,” I said, “are you going to eat all those crackers, or were you wanting to help hand them out?”  He grinned and said, “I’ll hand them out!”  We checked out how many crackers there were and found cups to put them in, and he got busy counting crackers.

Eric is about 19 years old, tall and a little edgy – a “loose cannon” is how one person described him.  Yet by approaching him with humor and giving him a chance to save face while assuming a position of some importance, I was able to maintain a good relationship with him.

So good, in fact, that he and his brother hung out with us back at camp for many hours at a time.  Such is the power of a sense of humor.

Chore Chart

When the boys were younger, I knew they should be doing more chores, but I didn’t know how to make them do what I asked.  If I nagged and threatened enough, things would get done, but more often than not Dad would wind up doing them.

I finally called a family meeting (boys and Mom at the table; Dad in the kitchen cleaning and listening in).  I explained that while they were pretty good about doing Saturday chores (that’s another blog), we needed a system to make sure daily chores got done.  I listed for them the tasks that needed to be done on a daily basis:  unloading and loading the dishwasher, setting and clearing the table, and taking care of the kitty’s food and litter box.   We discussed how often they wanted to switch off (every week), and I let them choose which day to switch (Saturday is the first day of the new Chore Week).

Next we discussed consequences for failure to comply.  Grounding from screen time was an obvious choice, but the boys also came up with the idea of a “Chore Slave.”  The Chore Slave would have to be at the beck and call of Mom and Dad for the entire weekend, and Mom and Dad would be sure they worked really hard.   (I only remember enforcing this once.)

The chore chart lived on the refrigerator; I made it by printing out a simple chart and strengthening it with adhesive photo laminate.  I bought some little wood pieces and painted them, then glued them onto strong magnets.  Every Saturday somebody (usually the guy on dishes) switched the magnets.  Later we revised the list:  the table guy also did trash and recycle, and the guy on cat duty also helped with food prep.  After washing his hands, please.

This system has worked so well that it’s still in use.  When the college boys come home, their magnets are put back on the chart and the rotation begins again.

It’s also led to one of those family-bonding inside jokes.  At least once a week Dad will stand right in front of the refrigerator and yell, “Who’s on dishes?!”  And somebody will yell back, “Look on the chore chart!”