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!

 

 

 

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.

8 Helpful Things About Social Media

somedSometimes it’s spit out like a curse: “Blame it on social media.”  But there really are some good points to texting, Twitter, Facebook, and the like.  Let’s take a look at eight good uses of social media.

1. Finding old friends. My first students knew me as “Miss Chan.”  Not long after my husband and I married, we moved to Washington.  I figured my first students wouldn’t remember my married name, so I wouldn’t hear from them again.  I don’t know how the first one found me on Facebook, but soon an avalanche of friend requests arrived from her classmates.  I was as taken aback to see them with spouses and children as they were to realize I was only 22 when I taught them.  High school friends, college buddies, parents of both (and of old boyfriends)–almost everybody is out there somewhere, and if they’re not, you can be sure one of their family members is!

2. Keeping tabs on family.  When my children were in college, I’d use Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr to know what was going on in their lives–not just so I knew when to be concerned, but also because it gave me a starting point for conversation: “Who were you talking about in that tweet?”  Facebook now helps me keep tabs on my aging mom, because when I see her like someone’s post, I know she’s up and moving.

3. Sending short messages.  Whose day hasn’t been made by a text or a message saying, “I’m thinking about you; have a great day”?  This is a great way for parents of teens to communicate their love without causing embarrassment.  If it’s a good day, you’ll even get a “Luv u 2” text in return!

4. Sharing pictures. While we may tire of selfies and food pics, some pictures can be worth far more than 1000 (typed) words.  When my math students need help, they send me a picture of the offending story problem along with what they’ve already tried, and I know where to start my tutorial.  When my mom has an error message on her iPad, she texts my son a “screenshot” (taken with her phone), and he knows how to help.  Every year I have 8th grade girls text me photos of their outfits, asking if they’re within dress code (though I usually tell them if they have to ask, it probably isn’t).

5. Creating peace of mind.  In my family, we text somebody when we arrive home safely.  Again, this is a great way to keep track of my aging mom as well as my sons, the twenty-somethings.  When they were in  high school, I told my boys I didn’t care where they went (an untruth), but if they didn’t make it home, I needed their last known whereabouts so I’d know where to start my search.

6. Making appointments.  I love scheduling medical appointments online.  I also schedule parent conferences by emailing the first draft of my schedule to parents and letting them request changes as needed.  Parents will text me midday and ask to meet after school.  And sometimes my husband and I will plan a last-minute dinner date after work!

7. Finding important–and not-so-important–information.  When my husband and I wanted to install an auxiliary port in our new used car, I went to YouTube and learned how.  When I needed lesson plans to teach physical science, I went to Pinterest.  There’s a whole community of friendly strangers at your fingertips, just waiting to give you advice.

8. Knowing when to pray.  In the “old days” (think the year 2000), having an email prayer list was an awesome invention.  Now, with a single post I can set in motion a prayer chain of hundreds, some of whom I’ll never even know.  There’s great comfort in knowing so many prayers are being lifted so quickly.  On the flip side, when one of my friends or students needs my prayers, I hear right away.  It’s not unusual for a student to contact me on Facebook with a message: “My grandma’s in the hospital; can you pray?”

Social media has its limitations, and we all need to use it with discretion, but it can simplify our lives in many ways.  Today’s teens won’t remember life without it, so it’s our responsibility to teach them how and when to use it appropriately.

Want some tips on how to do that?  Check it out on Pinterest.

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.”

It Won’t Be Cute When She’s 13

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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!

Eggs Over Medium – and Hold the Phone

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We were out to breakfast one morning when I noticed two 12-ish girls sitting at their own table, near but not with their family.  As they chatted and giggled I realized what was unusual – neither had an electronic device in her hand!

When we go out to eat, most of the kids I see are either using their own phones, or – if they’re really little – their parents’ phones.  Or they’re playing on a Nintendo DS.  To see two girls looking each other in the eye while they talked and laughed was a nice change.

This may be one of the hardest skills for parents to model, because we’ve become so addicted to our smartphones that we check them every few minutes.  But table manners and restaurant etiquette can’t be taught just by talking about them; they have to be practiced.

The next time you take your family to a restaurant, try coming to an agreement before you leave.  Maybe phones are okay until the food comes.  Or maybe no phones out until after the meal.  Or turn it into a competition. . .

Have you heard about how college students will pile their phones in the middle of the table, and the first to give in and look has to pay the bill?  In a family, it might be whoever looks first has to do the others’ chores or put money into a family fund.  Awareness of the problem is the first step; agreeing on a solution is the second.

The bottom line:  technology should never be an excuse for being antisocial.