When Is a Calculator Not a Calculator?


If you were to pick up your teen’s phone and see the above icon, it wouldn’t raise your suspicions.  It’s designed that way, to look innocent and practical.  And while it can be used as a calculator, its actual purpose is to hide pictures and files from prying parental eyes.  All the phone user has to do is enter a secret code to access whatever has been hidden from the regular photo app.

There are many similar apps available to download.  I googled “Apps for Hiding Photos” and received quite an education.  Some of the apps have more obvious names like Photo Vault or KeepSafe.  Others have ambiguous names like KYMS or Fotox.

How can parents find out if their teens have hidden apps?

  1. Have full access to any electronic devices, which means either knowing passcodes and passwords or getting them upon request.  Just the possibility of parents checking up on them will keep many teens from using phones for inappropriate activities.
  2. Take steps to insure apps can’t be downloaded without a password known only by the parents.  Change the password occasionally.
  3. Monitor your teen’s phone or tablet.  Occasionally ask about apps, especially new ones.  Go to the App Store on an iPhone, Google Play on an Android, or Microsoft Store/Marketplace on a Windows phone and check out the purchased apps.  If it says “Open,” that means it’s on the phone.  If there’s a picture of a cloud with an arrow pointing down, it’s been downloaded but is no longer being used.    If it says “Get,” it hasn’t been downloaded.

Some parents are afraid of invading their teen’s privacy by taking such steps.  I like to ask if they’d allow their teen to have a stranger in the bedroom with the door closed.  Allowing unmonitored use of any device with internet access carries the same risks.  Wise parents will engage in a little privacy invasion to protect their teens.

And just FYI, most – if not all – smartphones come with built-in calculators.  Real ones.

Middle School? Challenge Accepted! 5 Helpful Tips for Parents

clsrmOn the first day of 7th grade my English teacher declared, “I hate 7th graders. They’re whiny, immature, and just generally unpleasant.”  As I listened to scary Mrs. Gunderson lay down her classroom rules in a no-nonsense, don’t-you-dare-interrupt voice, I was terrified.

The first weeks of middle school can be harrowing both for students and for their parents.  Here are five things parents can do to ease the transition.

1. Use the Technology

Most middle schools offer parents the opportunity to check schedules, view the school calendar, and look at homework assignments online.   The office and the teachers will probably send regular emails. Familiarize yourself with how these work, and learn to use them regularly.  Don’t rely on your middle schooler to be your main source of info.

2. Keep Calm and Don’t Overreact

When I ranted about my Truly Awful Teacher, my mom advised me to wait and see.  Today’s parents might complain to the principal or fire off an email to Mrs. Gunderson, but it’s better to wait.  Middle schoolers experience many new things in those early weeks, some scary and some awesome, but their first impressions aren’t always correct.  Listen with empathy, keeping comments to, “Wow, that does sound tough,” or “Bet that made you happy.”  Their emotions are going to be all over the place, and they’ll need you to be the stabilizer in their lives.

3. Expect Exhaustion

No matter how well it’s going, adjusting to new schedules, teachers, classmates, and buildings is going to wear out your middle schooler.  Sports, music, honors or remedial classes, and getting up earlier will also take a toll.  Consider lightening up on chores and be prepared to attribute moodiness to fatigue.  Insisting that phones be parked outside of the bedroom can head off late-night texting which would cut into sleeping hours.

4. Take a Step Back

Teach your middle schooler to stop in the doorway every morning and think, “Do I have everything?”  Middle schoolers are notorious for forgetting obvious items like homework, lunches—and even backpacks.  Rather than doing their thinking for them, give them the chance to check themselves.  After school, instead of saying, “Better get your homework done,” ask, “What’s your homework plan for tonight?”  Again, this allows self-monitoring rather than parental ruling.  If the answer is, “Not doing it,” just laugh and wait.  If the plan is unrealistic, calmly offer better options:  “Really?  Starting at 10 o’clock might not work, since you have band at 7:00 tomorrow morning.  Maybe you want to do some now and some later?”  Remember, middle schoolers still need helpful suggestions but they’ll resist being told what to do.

5. Ask the Right Questions

If your first words to your middle schooler are, “How was school?”  you’ll probably just hear “Fine.”  Wait a while and allow some processing time, then ask more specific questions:  “What was the best thing that happened at school?”  “Whose class do you like best?” “See anything strange or funny in the hallway?”  Beware of asking too many questions, though, because middle schoolers don’t like to be interrogated any more than you do.  Extroverts will want to tell their story in their own way, but introverts will want to tell you in their own time.  Watch for openings and don’t commit the sin of interrupting before they finish.

By the end of the first month, Scary Mrs. Gunderson was one of my favorite teachers.  She wasn’t really a tyrant; in fact, she had a great sense of humor and made learning interesting.  Many middle schoolers will experience similar turnarounds in their thinking, so ride out their changeable feelings and be the source of calm and comfort.  Even if the beginning is rocky, things will soon smooth out as your middle schooler settles into the new routine.

Just in time for progress reports.

Tell Me A Story

Getting a tow at LAX

Getting a tow at LAX

I woke up this morning to find pictures on Facebook of my son’s car being towed from LAX.  Later I will call him and say, “Tell me a story about your car,” and he will begin, “Okay, so I was at the airport. . .”  And pretty soon I’ll have all the details this mother’s heart craves.

It’s a habit that began years ago.  Instead of demanding that he tell me what happened, or peppering him with a dozen questions, I simply spoke the neutral, non-threatening words, “Tell me a story.”  That told him that I already had some info, so he might as well come clean.  If he didn’t know–or pretended not to know–I’d add “. . .about the broken light fixture” or “. . .about the email I got from your teacher.”  “Oh, yeah that,” he’d say. “Okay, so here’s the deal. . .”

I use this technique in my classroom when I come across two students fighting, or when I have a student whose homework looks suspicious.  “Tell me a story about why I saw you kicking him.”  “Tell me a story about why there’s no work shown on these math problems.”  If I meet resistance, I may give a little shrug to show it’s not that big of deal and add, “I was just wondering what happened here.”  Most students will capitulate at that point , and then we can move on the the next step.

But I don’t use it only for problems or negative situations.  It works just as well if there’s good news to share.  Quiet or shy students are put at ease because they’ve been invited to tell their stories in their own way.  I keep interruptions to a minimum, maybe just giving an encouraging “wow” or “mm-hmm” to keep them going.  Chatty, boisterous storytellers are excited to have a captive audience (though they don’t need much encouragement to tell their stories).  Whether they’re eager or reluctant, they get to be heard and I get to hear what’s on their hearts and minds.

Parents of middle schoolers sometimes complain that their kids don’t talk to them.  This can be due to a fear of parents “going off” (overreacting) or frustration because they can’t finish their story without being interrupted.  Students sometimes tell me they don’t think their parents are all that interested in listening to them.  Try taking a more relaxed approach and simply saying, “Tell me a story.”  You may be surprised at all you can learn, especially if you listen until the very end without interrupting.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a (Facetime) call to make.  My son has a story to tell me.

Speaking in the Second Person

ptc-3I hold student-led conferences, where I expect students to talk about their accomplishments and their plans to improve.  Most parents appreciate this, but sometimes they will address questions to me as if the student weren’t present:  “What do you think he could do to raise his math grade?”  “How is her behavior in class?”  I always direct the question to the student: “How do you think you’re doing? What’s your plan for improvement?”

This disappoints parents at first, but after I let the students speak and then chime in afterward with my input, they’re usually satisfied.  Sometimes I remind students of conversations we’ve had; other times I offer suggestions.  But I never talk about them with their parents as if they aren’t present at the table.

It’s a habit we get into when our children are babies, too young to understand what we’re saying.  As they get older, we adapt by s-p-e-l-l-i-n-g or using half sentences: “Did you take care of his. . .?”  There comes a point, however, when it’s just not okay to talk about them as if they’re not there, and that time arrives somewhere in elementary school.

If it’s a conversation about your kids that you don’t want them involved in, hold it when they’re not present.  If they’re in the room and it’s actually about them, include them in the conversation.  Allow them to tell their side of the story, and then involve them in seeking solutions where needed.

At the beginning of every conference, I remind my students that they’re in charge.  Since every conversation is about them, doesn’t it make sense that every conversation should include them?

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. . .


In Praise of Parents

1939604_10204899660594615_5063056642471817184_n“I know I need to let her be more independent in middle school, but it feels like she needs me now more than ever!”

When Cynthia Tobias and I speak with parents of middle schoolers, we often hear the above sentiment.  While there are “helicopter parents” on one side of the continuum and “don’t care” parents on the other, most parents fall right in the middle as they try to find the balance between too much control and too little.

The frustrating part of parenting is you don’t know if you’re doing it right until many years later.  The reality is that sometimes you’re going to do it wrong: you’re going to be too controlling or too lenient.  Getting into a big ugly argument about how high your 14-year-old’s heels are?  Probably a mistake.  Dropping her off at the movies with a group of friends and no adults?  Also probably a mistake.

Here’s the good news:  no single situation is going to determine the outcome of your child’s life.  You will have many opportunities to try again, and it’s perfectly okay to admit to your child that you messed up and need to apologize (which is good modeling).  You may even need to revise the penalty you handed down.  Don’t give up–hang in there and make the effort to have a good relationship with your teen or pre-teen.  At this age kids still need their parents (even though they may not admit it or act like it), and it’s important for parents to communicate their love and support, no matter what.

Today I sat in conferences with 8th graders and their parents, none of whom acted disappointment in their kids.  Instead, they said, “What’s your plan to improve?” and “Looks like you’ve got a good handle on things!”  It’s my experience that the majority of parents are doing the best they can to figure out how to help their teens (and themselves)cope with all the changes that middle school brings.  In my opinion, these are the best type of parents.

(Along with the ones who come to conferences with Starbucks for the teacher. . .)

You Can Complain about the Problem. . .

brknpncl“I broke my pencil.”  The student looked expectantly at me.

“I see that,” I said.

“I can’t do my assignment with it.”

“You know, you’re right.”  I waited.

Finally she asked, “May I borrow a pencil, please?”  And I directed her to the cup full of lost and found pencils on my desk.

In our family we raised our kids with this saying: “You can complain about the problem, or you can seek a solution.”  We wanted our boys to be able to think their way out of a dilemma, because we knew we wouldn’t always be around to come to their aid.  I use this in my classroom to help students think for themselves when they approach me about issues such as a locked door, a missing notebook, or a forgotten combination.

In today’s busy world, parents sometimes just solve their kids’ problems because they have neither the time nor the patience to wait for them to figure out what to do.  This keeps kids dependent on Mom or Dad to rescue them while robbing them of the self-confidence that comes fromfiguring it out for themselves.

Independence and responsibility don’t magically happen after high school graduation.  Teens need opportunities to practice along the way, and chances to suffer the consequences if they don’t think things through.  The next time your teen comes to you needing help, stop yourself from giving an easy answer and ask a question instead:  “What do you want to do about that?”

Because you solving all the problems is not the best solution.