Three Things Parents Shouldn’t Do

I heard on the radio that parents of successful kids have three things in common:

  1. They have high expectations;
  2. They teach their kids social skills;
  3. They require their kids to do chores.

It made me ponder what families without these three things might look like. . .

Low Expectations  Parents who’d say, “It’s no surprise he can’t do math; I was horrible at it,” would not only communicate low expectations, but they’d also give their kids permission to put forth little effort. The same would be true for parents who didn’t ask about homework, especially if they knew there was a problem with getting assignments turned in on time.  Parents with low expectations might also blame each other or the teacher for their child’s lack of responsibility instead of holding their child accountable.

No Social Skills Parents who don’t teach manners and etiquette would allow their children to interrupt and get their own way by whining. Their children would have a lack of consideration for others’ feelings or needs, and they’d isolate themselves at social gatherings by wearing headphones or spending time on their phones.  Such children would not express gratitude, nor do they offer to help with cleaning up or carrying items.

No Chores  These parents would find it easier to do it themselves than to fight chore battles. Kids have many ways of dodging responsibility: they deflect “Why am I the only one does all the work!”; they delay “In a minute!”; they deny “I never heard you ask!” Parents who back down rob their children not only of the satisfaction that comes with a job well done, but also of some important life skills.

Want successful kids? Keep your expectations high enough that your child has to rise to the challenge. Teach and model proper behavior and common courtesy. Develop a list of chores and insist they get done. Never forget that you aren’t raising a child–you’re raising an adult!

The No-No List for Parents

Parents tell me their teens won’t talk to them, but teens tell me their parents don’t listen to them. There’s a desire on both sides to communicate, so where’s the breakdown? While it can be frustrating to hear “Fine,” “I dunno,” and “Whatever,” it’s not all the teenagers’ fault.  Here are ten mistakes parents make when trying to hold a conversation with their kids.

  1. Interrupting. Cutting them off before the end of their story.  Or predicting how the story will end and finishing their sentences.  Even worse – interrupting an emotional story with questions about chores or homework.
  2. Downplaying feelings. Saying something like, “You think that’s a big deal?  You should try living my life!” when middle schoolers are excited about something or really angry at someone.
  3. Yelling.  Considered “going off” by middle schoolers, it usually causes them to just stop communicating.  Note:  to a middle schooler, “yelling” has less to do with volume and more to do with attitude and tone of voice at the time of delivery.
  4. Using “Always” and “Never.” Pointing out faults with language about how he always forgets to be responsible or how she never treats you with respect.  As with most adults, the moment “always” or “never” are inserted into a discussion, the listener gets defensive and starts looking for ways to justify the behavior.
  5. Criticizing. Complaining frequently about such things as clothes, hair length or style, and friends.  Expressing disappointment in behavior, attitude, grades, etc.
  6. Using half an ear. Saying “Uh-huh” and “Mm-hmm” to make it sound like they’re listening even though they’re not.   Not making eye contact while the middle schooler is speaking (after all, how many adults will allow their kids to get away with that?)
  7. Belittling in front of others. Telling friends and family members about their children’s faults and past mistakes when they’re standing right there.  Or describing a situation that really embarrasses them, and then expect them to laugh along.
  8. Being judgmental.  Asking “What were you thinking?” or “Why are you so. . .?” or pointing out how immature they’re being.  Assuming it was their middle schooler’s fault before getting all of the facts straight. Or continuing to blame the middle schooler even if it wasn’t his fault – “You must’ve done something to make him act that way toward you.”
  9. Solving their problems. Making them feel inferior by telling them what they should do.  Interfering with the growth in self-confidence that comes with persevering through a problem on one’s own.
  10. Being sarcastic. Using a tone of voice that sounds serious, but using words that are confusing so that their meaning is unclear: “Sure—buy anything you want. I’ve got plenty of money.”  “Really?”  “No—I’m kidding.” Saying words designed to belittle a middle schooler in front of others.

If you recognized yourself in this list, don’t despair. Pick one or two and make a change.  Remember that your teens want the same things you do:  to be listened to, to be taken seriously, and to be understood.

Maybe they’ll even return the favor!

Sue Acuña is a middle school teacher at Concordia Christian Academy in Tacoma, Washington. Visit her classroom and you’ll find a room filled with lamps, carpets, comfortable chairs–and some pretty chill middle schoolers.

Five Etiquette Rules for Teens


On Grandparents’ Day at school, I expect my students to greet their guests at the door, lead them to their seats, offer them refreshments, and serve them.  They don’t do this naturally; their inclination is to stay seated, let their guests come to them, and get treats for themselves only. Yet every one of them will rise to my expectations because we’ve discussed proper manners beforehand.

Teenagers are notoriously self-centered and often seem rude, but it’s usually due to lack of training rather than blatant selfishness.  Adults who work with teens should expect them to be courteous but should also keep in mind that these behaviors need to be modeled and taught.

These are what I consider to be bare-bones basics for all teens:

  1. Use please and thank you.  At some point during puberty kids think saying “please” sounds childish.  Teenagers don’t realize how demanding they sound when they begin a sentence with “I need. . .”  Rather than reminding, “Say please” or asking “What’s the magic word?” (both guaranteed to cause eye rolling), I go deaf or say, “I’m sorry?” to requests without manners.  That way they have to think of it on their own.  In my classroom this often leads to students repeating demands in a louder voice, but I just smile and wait until they catch on.
  2. Look new people in the eye, shake hands firmly, and say, “Nice to meet you.”  We practice this in 8th grade, and the students express gratitude: “I never knew what to say when my mom introduced me to people, but now I do!”  I also point out that they make a great first impression as a confident, friendly teenager instead of a sulky or awkward one.
  3. Offer your seat to adults.  On public transportation, in a restaurant waiting area, or at a family gathering, teens should stand up and say, “You can have my seat.”  Some adults may prefer standing or sitting on the floor, but at least the offer has been made.
  4. Hold the door for anyone coming behind you.  First they have to be taught to check behind them and see who’s back there.  Lost in their adolescent bubbles, they aren’t always aware of people outside their spheres.  It doesn’t matter whether they open the door and hold it to let someone pass in front, or just reach behind to hold it until the next person grabs it, as long as they don’t slide through and let it close behind them.
  5. Disagree with tact.  I tell my students that in the Adult World (a phrase that gets their attention), we don’t say, “You like that?  Gross!”  Instead we say, “Oh, really?  I don’t much care for it” and agree to disagree.

If you encounter a young person using any of these manners, don’t overreact by being gushy, “Aren’t you the nicest young man?” which will embarrass him, nor by giving a backhanded compliment, “Well, what do you know–there are some polite teenagers in the world!”  Instead, just smile and say, “Thank you.”  It’s what we do in the Adult World!



Communicating with a Look

When my husband and I are at a party, there comes a point where he catches my eye and gives me a look.  I know exactly what that means: he’s ready to head for home. No words are needed.

Stuff happens in my classroom every day.  Students tap on their desks, talk when they’re not supposed to, blurt out answers, make jokes at wrong times.  My first response is to give them a look. It sounds simple, but the behavior usually stops (sometimes with a guilty grin).

This wouldn’t be the result if I had an antagonistic relationship with my students.  Instead of a positive response, I’d hear, “What? I wasn’t doing anything!” or “Why are you always looking at me?”  Maintaining a good relationship with teens is the key to better behavior and less defensiveness.  When teens feel loved (or even liked), they can put up with necessary admonishment.  But when they feel that an adult is out to get them, their default response is hostility, either outright or in a more passive-aggressive form.

A look can communicate more than one message.  From my husband it means “Let’s go.”  To my students it can say, “Cut it out,” or “Seriously?”  But it can also be a form of positive interaction: “You get it, don’t you?” “Are you okay with this?” or even “Thanks.”

Teens appreciate the nonverbal communication because it’s less embarrassing than calling them out in front of their peers. It’s also relationship-building; it’s how they communicate with one another during class!

If your look is misunderstood or taken the wrong way–“I thought you were mad at me!”–just laugh and explain.  That experience in itself can be another relationship builder: “Remember that time you were trying to tell me something and I was scared that I was doing something wrong?”

In order for looks to be effective (and understood), there first has to be a good relationship.  Do what you can to stay connected, and you’ll find you can use your eyes more than your voice!


September 11

SofLTTIn my 8th grade class we spent a little time today discussing the events of September 11, 2001, a day on which none of them were any older than 2.  I led off by asking what they knew, only to discover some of them had their facts wrong:  “Some terrorists blew up the Twin Towers.”  “A couple of terrorists crashed their planes into the Twin Towers.”  A few of them knew the correct story, and most of them knew that the Pentagon was hit and another plane “crashed somewhere else.”

As I described my experiences that day, I strove to get them to feel what I felt – the fear, the uncertainty, the disbelief.  They were attentive, listening closely and asking good questions throughout, and I could see understanding dawning in some of their faces, especially when I pointed out that we didn’t know for days – weeks, really – where the next target might be.  I also described for them the eeriness of having no airplanes fly overhead for three days, as well as the wave of patriotism that swept the country.

But I know they don’t really grasp the significance of “9/11,” nor how it turned the world upside down for most of us who experienced it.  It was the same when I was their age and my mom would try to tell me about December 7, 1941.  It wasn’t until the events of September 11 took place that I could fully understand what our country went through when Pearl Harbor was bombed.

It’s a little disappointing that I can’t make my students comprehend on an emotional level what that day was like for me, but I have to admit – my prayer is that they never find out from firsthand experience.

Are They Deaf?


One afternoon Cynthia and I were out walking when we heard loud voices coming from somewhere nearby.  Concerned and wondering if we were coming up on a fight, we spied three freshman-aged boys about two blocks away. Definitely not fighting, they were having a good time laughing and talking – or rather yelling – at each other.

Teens are loud.  That could be the end of the blog right there, but let’s chat about why.

Like many activities that bother adults, being overly loud is part of The Bubble Effect (see “Wait. . .What?” for more on The Bubble).  Teens are still young enough to get louder as their excitement grows, and they forget others nearby aren’t sharing their enthusiasm.  This actually starts when they were four or five, but then they have higher, cuter voices.  By age 13 or 14 their deeper and stronger voices can really carry – and annoy.

When I observe this in the lunchroom, I’ll hold my hands about a foot apart and say, “She’s only this far away; you don’t have to yell at her.”  The response is always, “I wasn’t yelling!”  But the voices will be quieter as I walk away – for about seven seconds.

Sometimes I use a one-word prompt – “Volume!” – to let students know they’ve gotten too loud.  When out in public, I’ve been known to stare across the lobby with my best teacher face until a group of noisy teens figures out why I’m looking their way.  A look that says, “Really?” can be very effective.

Because until that moment, they’ve had no idea how high their volume is.

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!

Whining Allowed. . .






. . .but only on Whinesday in my classroom.  If they whine on Tuesday, I’ll respond with, “It’s not Whinesday!”  If they whine on Wednesday I’ll say, “It’s not – oh, rats.  It is Whinesday, isn’t it?”  I’ll sigh heavily, say, ” Whine away,” and listen to a chorus of ‘Mrs. Acuuuuuuunnaaaaaa!  Do we haaaaaaaave to do this homework?  It’s soooooooo haaaaaaaard!'”

Whining is annoying, whether it comes from a toddler, a teen, or an adult.  Humor is a helpful tool when you’re faced with whining, as my friend discovered when dealing with her daughters.

When they were out for a walk and her youngest kept asking, “How much loooooongerrrr?” and complaining of tired feet, Mom made a deal with her.  She said she was free to whine whenever they crossed a street, but not anywhere else.  Every time they stepped into a crosswalk, this clever mom would say, “Here’s your chance – better get started before it’s too late!”  Her daughter tried to whine, but she kept interrupting herself with laughter.

On another occasion, this same mom gave her daughter permission to whine for three whole minutes.  As you might guess, she  found it difficult to keep it up for that long.

Of course, there’s always the direct method:  “I’m sorry, but I can’t respond to that tone of voice.  Would you care to repeat yourself in a calmer tone?”  That approach usually works for me.

Unless, of course, it’s Whinesday.