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?

“You Know What Would Be Funny?”

jasvcoSee that middle schooler?  He’s a nice kid, as is the one next to him–and the one on the other side of him.  On their own, none of them gets into much trouble.  But put them together and leave them unsupervised at, say, the mall?  Now you’ve got huge potential for trouble.  Somebody asks that fateful question–“You know what would be funny?”–and suddenly they’re trying things as a group that they’d never do alone.

Part of it is physiology (see Blame it on the Brain), but another part of it is a version of “gang mentality.”  Notorious for acting first and thinking  later,  two or more teens hanging out together without adults around will gather courage from each other.  I’ve heard students tell of stealing bowls of Halloween candy from porches, throwing popcorn in movie theaters, and riding bikes off roofs.  I’ve seen photos of girls dressed in goofy outfits in dressing rooms and heard their confession of running out and leaving the mess behind, laughing at how angry they’d made the store personnel.

While sometimes it’s just harmless fun, at other times it can be outright dangerous.  Young teens have been know to sniff, drink, or ingest dangerous substances, as well as set fire to, blow up, or even microwave crazy items.  Afterwards, of course, they suffer remorse (and possibly bodily harm), but at the time it seems like such a great idea.

Parents who drop off their young teens without staying with them–or at least tailing them at a discreet distance–are putting their kids at risk.  Hang around and be available, and you’ll find that your presence is often enough to head off trouble.

Think of yourself as a cross between Jiminy Cricket and the Secret Service.

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.

 

“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.

 

“So I’m Never Supposed To Have Any Fun?”

CAParents like to call it attitude; I’ve dubbed it exaggerated sarcasm.  Call it what you will, it’s designed to push our buttons – and it’s usually successful!

Last week we instituted a seating chart for 7th and 8th graders in the lunchroom, which caused the expected whining and complaining.  One angry young man approached me and said,  “So we can’t sit by whoever we want?”   Such phrases don’t translate well in print, but anyone who’s heard them will be familiar with his tone of voice.

As my blood pressure rose, I was tempted to take the bait, replying defensively with, “Look, you brought this on yourself.  If you could just behave appropriately, you wouldn’t have to suffer.  I’m not the bad guy here.”  However, experience has taught me that my response would not be met with, “Oh, you’re right.  Thank you for explaining it to me.”  Instead, the door would be opened for arguing and proclaiming of innocence and accusations of picking on people for no reason.

So instead I just said, “Yep, pretty much,”  accompanied by a small, sad smile and a shrug.  The young man looked frustrated, shook his head in disgust, and walked away muttering.  I wisely did not ask him what he was muttering, as that would have started a fresh conflict, and my goal was to defuse this one.

In the 1983 movie War Games,  a young Matthew Broderick teaches a computer about the futility of thermonuclear war by having it play several games of tic-tac-toe.  In the end, the computer comes to an important conclusion – one every parent would be wise to adopt when faced with teenage attitude:

“The best move. . .is not to play.”

Speaking in Teen Code

gmi_87_09Politicians and diplomats could take a lesson from teenagers when it comes to being noncommittal.  Translating the hidden meaning behind the words teens speak is like an art form.   Here’s what parents need to know:

Question:  “Are you doing (homework) (chores) (the weeding)?” Answer: “I was just about to start!”

Translation: No.

Question:  “Are you finished with (homework) (chores) (the weeding)?” Answer:  “Almost!”

Translation: No.

Question:  “Did you kick your brother?” Answer: “He spit at me!”

Translation:  Yes.

Question: “Did you wear that to church?” Answer:  “Dad didn’t say anything about it.”

Translation:  Yes.

Question: “Who broke this glass?” Answer: “It was an accident!”

Translation:  I-did-but-please-don’t-be-mad-at-me.

Question: “Do you love me?”  Answer: <shrug> “I guess.”

Translation:  Yes-of-course-I-do-but-I-just-can’t-say-it-back-to-you-right-now.

Question:  “Will you do this job for me just because you love me?”  Answer:  “You’re the best mom ever!”

Translation:  No

When I get responses like these in my classroom, I always respond the same way, calling out, “I know that means ‘No’!”  The speaker laughs, admitting nothing but amused that I get the joke.

Translation:  “Thanks for understanding me!”

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!

It Won’t Be Cute When She’s 13

bip

As we walked into the restaurant, I glanced down at a baby in a car seat – and took a second look.  There she was, iPad in both hands, watching a preschool video and tapping on the cutesy characters in it.  She couldn’t have been more than 8 or 9 months old, but her parents had given it to her to keep her entertained as they waited for a table.

I could see the future: 12 years from now they’ll enter the same restaurant, and she’ll have her head bent over her phone.  As he walks through the door, her dad will look over his shoulder and snarl, “You’re always on that thing!  Can’t you put it away for once?”  And she’ll shrug and continue what she’s doing.

The Academy of Pediatrics (AAP.org) recommends zero screen time for children under two years old, but that’s not the main point.  What bothers me is that this baby’s parents are starting her obsession with electronics so early  The good news is that it’s never too late to make changes.  If you see more of the top of your teen’s head than his or her face, you have every right to set some limits, such as “No phones at the table” or “No phones while we watch this movie together.”  It’s a form of courtesy, which isn’t shown nearly enough in modern society.

Just be sure to practice what you preach!

Inaction is Safer Than Wrong Action

candy

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!