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.

Don’t Be a Helpless Parent

Daughter looking a phone and ignoring her motherFor some reason, parents who have survived the skirmishes of toilet training, toddler tantrums, and bedtime battles lose their backbone when faced with a sulky or defiant teen. Parents of middle schoolers express helplessness when it comes to dealing with cell phones, sassiness, social media, and chores. The authoritarian parenting days are gone  (think Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins), but parents should still be bosses in some critical areas, even if it means being on the receiving end of angry outbursts.  I’ll tackle the first two topics in this blog and continue with the others in the next.

1. Cell Phones  Teens with smartphones have access to the whole world, yet many parents have no idea of what they’re seeing or whom they’re chatting with.  Parents say, “She’s always on that thing, and I don’t even know how it works” or “I can’t get him to put it down long enough to have a conversation.”  They worry about invading their child’s privacy, and they don’t feel they have the right to insist on a No Phone Zone.  I like to ask parents if they would let their teens entertain strangers behind closed bedroom doors, then I point out that allowing them unmonitored access on their phones is no different.  Too much privacy for teenagers is not a good thing.

Setting ground rules before handing over a phone is a must–some parents even use a contract (click here for a sample).  At the very least, let your teen know that you will randomly pick up the phone and look through it.  That knowledge alone will prevent some bad choices.  And don’t be afraid to take away the phone for a few days when you’re not happy with how it’s being used, or for other disciplinary reasons.  As I’ve said before, no teen has actually died from being grounded from phone use, and being kept away from their friends and social media is a consequence they’d rather avoid.

2. Backtalk  If you’ve ever said, “I wasn’t allowed to talk to my parents the way my kids talk to me,” it’s time to make some changes.  You deserve to be respected, but respect isn’t something you can demand.  Begin by checking your tone of voice when talking to your kids.  If phrases like “Who do you think you are?” or “You’d just better watch yourself,” spoken in harsh or sarcastic tones, are part of your repertoire, you aren’t modeling the respect you expect to receive.  Lower your voice, add please and thank you to your requests, and keep your tone as neutral as possible. Then expect the same.

When your teen is being hostile, don’t engage in a battle of words and defensiveness.  If I’m facing a disrespectful student, I hold up one finger and say, “Not feeling very respected right now.  Care to try again?”  When my sons had snarky attitudes, I would gaze patiently–but silently–at them until their tone changed.  If it didn’t, I’d tell them we’d talk later. If it did, I didn’t shoot myself in the foot by mentioning it (as in, “Oh, I see you can be nice when you want something”), I just let the conversation continue in civil tones.

Teens are masters at the art of deflection.  A  question: “Why do have to do all the chores?” or complaint: “You never let me do what I want to do!” can derail a parent from the original request and set up a scenario of defensiveness and arguing that quickly escalates into anger and hurt feelings on both sides.  It’s better if you don’t engage in the battle.  In fact, if you can smile, shrug, and say something infuriatingly calm like, “It’s my job to drive you crazy” or “You’re right,” your teen may just huff off in frustration and do whatever was asked.  Complaints and questions aren’t always genuine; often they’re just a way of expressing displeasure.  Ignore the huffing and do some deflecting of your own, and there will be far fewer battles.

You are the parent, and your job description includes times where you have to make your teen unhappy.  Be calm, be respectful, be firm–but whatver you do, don’t be helpless!

 

 

 

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!

 

What Middle Schoolers Don’t Need (and What They Do)

I recently read an excellent blog titled  Four Things Children Do Not Need, and it got me thinking about what middle schoolers do not need–and what they do.  :

What they don’t need:

  1. Belittling–they’re hard on themselves already, and they spend the day feeling like they don’t measure up to their peers.  Instead of focusing on their flaws, look for what’s going well in their lives, and point it out in an offhanded way:  “I noticed you were patient with your brother.”
  2. Pressure–Grades don’t matter as much in middle school as work habits do.  Students who experience too much pressure are tempted to cheat or develop anxiety.  Help them to figure out how to organize in a way that makes sense to them and encourage strengthening skills such as writing, mental math, and critical thinking.  Such skills will help build success in high school.
  3. Overcommitment–If your middle schooler can’t start homework until 8 or 9 o’clock every night, it may be time to drop an activity.  Experimenting at this age is great, but more than one or two teams or commitments is too many and often interferes with their sleep schedule.  Making choices is an important life skill!
  4. Interrogation–This came straight from a 7th grader and was echoed by her peers:  “Every day my parents ask the same question: ‘How was school today?’ Then they get upset when I say it was fine!” I asked how parents are supposed to know what’s going on, and the response was unanimous–assume everything’s normal until you hear otherwise.

What they do need:

  1. Honesty/Openness–Again, this came from the middle schoolers.  If Grandma is really sick, they want to know.  Shielding kids from adult troubles is not a bad thing, but do speak the truth, even if it’s only a portion of the big picture.  In the words of an 8th grader, don’t “sugarcoat” everything.
  2. Unconditional Love–Teens who know they have this from their parents won’t have to make them prove it.  If your middle schooler fails a class, or gets caught smoking, or sends a bullying text, will your forgiveness be a given?  Of course there will be consequences, but is your continued love a no-brainer in your middle schooler’s mind and heart?
  3. Boundaries–They already have friends their own age; what they need from you is parenting.  Sometimes they will get mad, and they may even hate you, but they will get over it.  Be firm but fair, stay as calm as possible, but do hand out consequences and then stick with them.  No teen ever died from having a phone taken away, and no parent yet has been hospitalized from a fierce glare or a cold shoulder.
  4. Value–People of all ages want to be listened to, taken seriously, and understood.  Teens especially feel this as they begin the transition to adulthood.  Let your middle schoolers know they matter by pocketing your phone, listening without interrupting, and responding with empathy–the same as you want them to do for you.  Follow some of their suggestions and speak well of them within their hearing.  Hug them when they’ll let you, and send them understanding looks when they won’t.

These years are intense, but they will pass quickly and leave you with a high schooler.  Invest in your relationship now.  Stay connected and supportive, and you may find the last half of the teen years to be easier than the first!

 

 

 

Sometimes You Get It Right

youwin

A friend with sons ages 12 and 15 recently told me this story:

I had a good parenting moment this morning.  My son lied to me and tried to brush it off,  so I told him I was disappointed with him.  I pointed out that he wants respect and trust from me, but then he lies to me.  I said, “That’s not how it works,” and I walked away without delivering a lecture. 

After he’d showered, we were in the kitchen together when he actually said, “Sorry I lied to you, Mom.”  I said, “Thanks, Bud,” and went on with my morning routine.  I am always shocked when it turns out like that.

Three things this mom did right:

  1. Delivering an “I” message (“I’m disappointed”) instead of making an accusation;
  2. Making her point in only a few words and then walking away;
  3. Accepting his apology with grace and ending it there.

She also managed to avoid some of the pitfalls of parenting teens, such as yelling or belittling, which only lead to more issues like disrespect or defensive attitudes.

Sometimes parents feel that there’s no avoiding hostility and anger when confronting teens, but it doesn’t have to be that way.  If you can take a deep breath and keep calm, you’re more likely to get the results you want–and avoid those that you don’t want!

 

The Art of Understatement

Right in the middle of my lesson, a student stood up and walked across the room, heading for the trash can. He was pretty much oblivious that I was still talking, so I had to do something to let him know he was a distraction.  I could’ve said, “Excuse me?  Where do you think you’re going?” or “I’m teaching here!  Go back to your seat!”

Instead, I stopped talking and gently cleared my throat.  He froze and stared at me, then sheepishly crept back to his seat.

I deal with a dozen or so incidents each day where I have to choose between making a big deal out of it or being more low key.  If I can handle something in a way that gets what I want while saving a student from embarrassment, that’s the direction I’ll take.

Some of my favorite understated reactions:

  • Raising my eyebrows and shrugging, in a silent “What the heck?” gesture
  • Chuckling and shaking my head
  • Saying, “No-no” in a light tone
  • Wagging my finger
  • Pointing to the student and then to where she should be
  • Saying “Sh” in a gentle tone
  • Using my fingers to pantomime sitting or walking
  • Making eye contact and giving a subtle shake of my head

Teens are self-conscious, insecure, and easily embarrassed.  Put them on the spot and/or make them uncomfortable, and you can expect defensiveness in return. Then you get to deal with what parents like to call “attitude.”

But if you can get the desired behavior, or change in behavior, without calling unwanted attention to your teen, you’ll not only get cooperation–you’ll get huge amounts of appreciation.

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?