Eye Contact

20140509_183930628_iOSI know a trick for making friends with shy babies – I look at their chins or cheeks and allow them to study my face, because even babies as young as 3 or 4 months understand the powerful intimacy of making eye contact.

Thanks to cell phones (and other screens), we’re losing the art of making eye contact when we talk to each other.  When I talk to teens about this social issue, they admit their own guilt and vow to do better.  At least their intentions are good!

But then another issue invariably pops up – their parents‘ use of cell phones.  Common complaints include: “Why is it I can’t use my phone at dinner, but my parents can?”  “My mom won’t look up from her phone when I’m talking to her, but I get in trouble if I do that!”  “It really scares and frustrates me when my dad talks on his phone while he’s driving.”

As with most parenting issues, you’ve got to model the behavior you expect from your children.  If you’re new to smart phones, you’ll find it’s tempting to stop and read every email and reply to every text.  If you’ve had one for a while, you might be a constant phone-checker.  I recommend setting your email to “manual,” so that your phone doesn’t notify you every time you have a new message, and beware of obsessively checking weather or game scores or when it’s your turn to make a move.

Not too far down the road is the day your only communication will be via electronic means because of college or adult obligations.  Take advantage of your chance to make eye contact today.  Put down your phone, look up from your tablet, turn away from your computer.  Look your teen in the eye, because even if you don’t say the words, the message is still there – “I love you and I care.”

Blame It on the Brain

dcmntosYour 12-year-old jumps off the roof and onto the trampoline, heedless of the danger of broken bones.  Your 14-year-old experiments with dumping six rolls of Mentos into a gallon of Diet Coke – inside your kitchen.  For years I have explained to parents that this kind of behavior is due to unbalanced brain development.

The back part of the teen brain, the part that says, “You know what would be cool/fun/exciting?” is much more active than the front part, which says “Not a good idea – you could get hurt/paralyzed/dead.”  Asking your teen “What were you thinking?” after the fact will get you the same results as asking your dog why he chewed up the couch:  a blank stare and shoulders hunched in guilt.

I read an article this week on the website of one of my favorite magazines, Mental Floss, which gave brain-related explanations for other teen behavior, including giving in to peer pressure (it actually activates the reward center of their brains), being overly emotional (they have a hard time reading faces and may mistake your look of confusion for one of disgust), and spaciness (their brains are rearranging themselves, much as they did when they were toddlers).

Knowing that much of what they do is caused by their goofy brains, can make their annoying behavior a little more tolerable.  It doesn’t give them an excuse to be lazy or disrespectful or irresponsible, but it may help the adults who deal with them to be a little more patient and understanding.

At least – every other day or so.

You can read the entire article by clicking here: 5 Reasons Teenagers Act the Way They Do

1.  When we hear you say, “My kid tells me everything,” we shake our heads with sadness, because we know you are being seriously manipulated.  Your child tells you 1) what makes him look good; 2) what he thinks you want to hear, and 3) whatever will push your buttons to make you mad at the school or teacher and let him off the hook.  Seriously, what teen ever tells a parent EVERYTHING?

2. We wish you’d help us fight the dress code battle.  I had a parent once who, after I pointed out in front of her that her daughter couldn’t wear that at school, turned on her daughter and said, “See?  I told you!”  If she’d already told her, then why was her daughter at school in that outfit?  Why had she been allowed out the door in it?  I know why – because Mom wanted us to fight the battle instead of her.

3. It’s time to stop cutting the crusts off your teenager’s sandwiches.  This speaks volumes to us about your parenting style; you’re not ready to scrstls sndee your child as an adolescent.  You might also still be picking out his clothes, ordering for him in a restaurant, and cleaning his bedroom.  While you say you’re doing it because you love him, what you’re really doing is delaying his independence.  He won’t wake up one day and suddenly be a mature and responsible adult; you have to give him a chance to practice.

4. What seem like little things to you – chewing gum or texting at school – are big issues to us because they mean a student does not respect the rules.  “You’d really suspend my daughter for texting at school?”  No – we’d suspend her for repeated acts of defiance, because if she’s continually breaking one rule, chances are we’ve caught her breaking others.  When you downplay the situation, it only encourages her to keep seeing what she can get away with.

5. When we tell your child “No, you can’t,” and he gets angry and argues with us, we know he’s doing so because it works with you.  The same goes for whining – we know he’s using it on us because it gets him his way at home.  Hold your ground in the face of arguing and whining, and you’ll help your child to be more socially acceptable at school – and eventually in the workplace.

6. When we hear your teens use “please” and “thank you” without prompting, and we see them holding the door or letting others go first, we know you have taught them to be polite and considerate of others.  This is also true when they apologize, clean up after themselves, and refrain from interrupting.  It makes us think good thoughts about them – and about you!


They Don’t Think Like We Do


Last week we went on a field trip.  One student arrived at school late and was literally the last one to board the bus.  About 15 minutes down the road, my phone rang and a confused parent on the other end asked, “Did you forget me?”  Oops – it was the mother of my late student, and I had, indeed, forgotten her.  When I questioned her daughter about why she hadn’t asked me to wait for her mom, she said, “Because you told us that you wouldn’t wait for anybody who was late!”

Later that same day, I stood outside in a huddle of 8th graders who were trying to stay warm in 45-degree weather.  I reminded them that I had encouraged them to dress warmly, and one of them replied, “I did! I’m wearing my sweatshirt!”

The next day I stopped a 7th grader and asked him why he was walking down the hall like a penguin.  “It’s my new shoes,” he explained.  “If I bend my feet, they’re going to get creases above my toes!”

I see and hear this kind of thing every day.  Despite what they think, teens don’t yet have the world figured out.  They lack life experience, and they haven’t developed much of what we adults call “common sense” – but what is really wisdom gained from living and learning.

Sometimes they make us laugh, sometimes they make us stop and question ourselves, but if you listen carefully – they’ll always give you a glimpse into how their unfolding brains work!

They never cease to surprise me.

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!”

Are Your Chores Done Yet?

“My mom figured out how to get me to do dishes,” announced my teen-aged friend.  “She pays me!”

Whether  parents connect an allowance to chores or believe they should  be done as a member of the household, most parents struggle with getting their kids to do them.  “Nag, nag, nag, that’s all I do,” complained one mom.  “And half the time I wind up doing them myself because I’m tired of fighting.”

Here are a few ideas parents have used to get chores done with less nagging:

  • Popsicle Sticks:  Instead of a chore chart, one parent writes them on popsicle sticks and lets her kids choose them.  This eliminates bickering over whose turn it is to do what, or complaints of “I always have to do that!”  (Trading is allowed.)
  • Password Hostage:  The same mom changes the wi-fi password daily and only reveals it when chores are finished. (Phones, controllers, and power cords can also be held as hostages.)
  • Earning Opportunities:  In our house, extra money could be earned by doing chores that were harder than the weekly ones.  Washing windows, cleaning  the fridge, and weeding were paid chores.  However, regular chores had to be done before any money-earning chores could be started.
  • Stick the Parents:  I  used to make a list of 8 chores that needed to be done.  Our 3 sons would sign up for 2 chores each, leaving the last 2 for Mom.  They enjoyed sticking me with cleaning toilets and mopping floors – but they also realized we all had to do our part!
  • Love and Logic®:  Instead of threatening – “If you don’t do it, you’re in trouble!” – Love and Logic teaches saying it differently – “When you’re finished, feel free to play!”

Doing chores will help your teen be a better citizen, student, and adult.  Don’t give up!

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!

A New Year of Parenting Resolutions


Christmas – with all its stresses and joys – has come and gone yet again.  If it feels like it passed quickly, take heart – so too will your years of parenting an adolescent.  It’s an important transition time, one to enjoy and explore rather than merely to endure.  That could be your first parenting resolution!   Here are three more to consider:

Respect your kids.  No matter how much you tell them to respect you, they’re not going to learn how unless you’re modeling it.  Parents show respect when they make requests with “please” (and follow up with “thank you”), when they don’t interrupt,when they speak in calm voices, and when they make eye contact.  Look back over that list – aren’t those all behaviors you want from your children?

Listen with empathy.  When I tell my husband about my bad day, I want him to say, “Wow,” or “That sounds awful.”  I do not want him to tell me that I shouldn’t be so upset, or that his day was worse.  Nobody feels the need to be understood more than an emotional, moody teen.  If parents won’t listen, there’s always somebody else who will.

Praise your kids more.  And in public, even if it makes them squirm.  But be low-key about it:  “Hey, I noticed you picked up your dirty clothes” will be more appreciated than, “Wow, you picked up your clothes?  Good for you!  Thank you so much!”  (And by all means, don’t sneak criticism into your praise, as in “Maybe there’s hope for you yet.”)

Enjoy, respect, listen, praise.  And have a happy New Year!

Christmas in Adolescence

grIt may sound like a Hallmark movie, but anyone who’s experienced Christmas in Adolescence with an adolescent knows the mushy, feel-good happy ending isn’t likely to happen.  For some, just having a non-UNhappy ending would be nice.

If you’ve got the teen who hugs herself and gushes, “I just love Christmas!” then you’re among the blessed.  But some teens are more like my son at 16 who complained about listening to Christmas music, refused to part with a penny of his own money for gifts, and on Christmas morning seemed uninterested in any of his presents (which had been carefully chosen by his loving mother).  How can you keep moody teens from ruining the holiday for everyone else?

First off, you can’t change the attitude.  If they’re choosing to be difficult, they’re going to hang on with all their might, leaving you two options: ignore the prickliness and pretend they’re happy, or excuse them from the festivities.  A direct confrontation would only make everyone tense.

Secondly, have a little compassion.  It’s a transitional time; middle school often marks a big change in how Christmas (often disguised as Winter) is celebrated at school.  The magic and wonder of childhood Christmases is waning, and they’re trying to figure out what’s considered too childish at their age and what’s still acceptable.

One way to encourage a little Christmas spirit is to steer their focus away from themselves.  Get them involved in baking, wrapping (messy packages are okay), addressing Christmas cards, or being helpful to someone in need.  Secret Santa deliveries to neighbors or relatives can give them warm feelings while teaching the virtue of generosity.

Like the Grinch, adolescents need to learn that Christmas isn’t about their own happiness.  Christmas – perhaps – means something more. . .

I Don’t Want to Brag

Outstanding EvaluationWe were in the middle of a student-led conference, looking over the 8th grader’s self-evaluation, when I asked the toughest question of all:  “What do you think you’re doing well?”  The student froze in anxiety and stammered, “Um, I dunno.  Like, turning in my work, I guess?  I’m not sure, really. . .”  

Here was a student who had many A’s on her report card and high marks in behavior, yet she panicked when asked to say something nice about herself.  This scenario was repeated several times at other conferences, so I asked my 8th graders why it was such a hard to question to answer.

“We don’t want to sound like we’re bragging on ourselves” was the reply.  I tried to explain that being honest about your abilities and accomplishments wasn’t the same as acting superior to your classmates or putting someone else down.  They weren’t convinced.  It’s the same problem they have when they’re paid a compliment.  “It’s so awkward,” they say.  “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”  When I tell them they just need to thank the speaker, they complain, “But then it’s like I’m agreeing, like I’m saying, ‘Yeah, I know.  I am that good.'”

When you say something nice to teens, or you speak well of them in their hearing, don’t be surprised if their response is less than gracious – if, for example, they shrug or downplay it.  I sometimes supply them with the correct answer – “Just say, ‘Thanks, Mrs. Acuna'” – to let them off the hook.  

To which they’ll (un)graciously reply, “Thanks. . .I guess?”