Five Ways My Teenager Has Influenced My Parenting Style

So, my oldest son Elijah, is nearing his 18th Birthday, which means he is almost an adult. In many ways, he is already like a little adult. He drives himself to work & school, manages his own schedule, and has an active social life outside of the family. In addition to this man-child, I also have three younger children who are 12, 8, and 4 years old. Basically, I have children all over the developmental spectrum. But the manner in which I parent the younger three has gradually shifted as my eldest grew and taught me a thing or two about mothering. Things that once seemed important to me when Elijah was little, are trivial matters to me now. Over time, I’ve also learned to place more importance or other aspects of parenting that I didn’t give much thought to when I started this journey some 18 years ago. When you have an almost-adult at home, it changes the way you view your other children. Elijah is a walking reminder that my little ones will only be little for so long. That’s an obvious clique, I know, but one that is hard to comprehend in it’s entirety when you are cradling your first newborn and time seems to be standing still. Here some are the things I’ve learned as a parent of a teenager:

1) Our children do not belong to us.                                                                                      When my Elijah was little, I spent a lot of time dressing him up, showing him off, and delighting in the fact that he showed interest in the fads and hobbies I introduced him to. I can’t say I thought of him as a possession, but I certainly felt a sense of ownership over the little guy. Not so much anymore. Though I can see that many of his attitudes and beliefs about the world are a reflection of the home in which he was raised, he also has a mind and will of his own. As he should. Soon, very soon, he’ll venture on out of the nest and into adulthood. The days in which he was my default sidekick are a thing of the past. This realization is constantly on my mind as I watch my younger children grown into their own unique personalities, and it gives me the patience & perspective to deal their increasing bursts of autonomy. Yes, they are in my keeping now. But someday soon they’ll be independent of me with lives of their own. Last week, Elijah randomly text me during the middle of the day asking me if I was busy that evening & if I’d be willing to accompany him to his friend’s soccer game. I wistfully remembered the days in which I made all his plans and accepted invites on his behalf. Then I smiled, and cleared my schedule for the evening. When your teen invites you somewhere, you accept. Graciously.

2) No matter how cool you think you are, you’ll never be one of them.                         I had Elijah when I was 17. Which now makes me 34 years of age with a 17-year-old kid. Which means I sometimes fool myself into thinking I’m still kind of hip in terms of pop culture & trends. But boy, do teenagers have a way of humbling us. Soon after Elijah entered middle school I realized I will always be ten steps behind in terms of what’s “in”. Though we largely share the same taste in music, fashion trends, and some aspects of pop culture, my son still views me as out of touch & jokingly refers to my friends and I as “old.” He cringes every time someone asks if I’m his sister. In his own subtle way, he has reinforced the fact that he values me more as a parent than as a friend. Because I’m not his peer, nor does he want me to be. I’m here to enforce rules, impart wisdom, and provide guidance. And every now and then, he’ll hint at how grateful he is for the relationship we have.

3) Be mindful of your screen time. What are you reaching for?                       Teenagers are really into their electronic devices. But I’m sure you already know that. I preach moderation, and have always put limits on screen time though it’s sometimes difficult to enforce, especially as they get older. I’ve filled their days with a multitude of alternative activities including outdoor excursions, trips to museums, libraries and other such places in an attempt to show them the world beyond screens. But still, when he’s not playing baseball or at work/school, that teen of mine has his smartphone in hand almost always. A while back, we were talking about what a clingy toddler he was, and I quipped that he now reaches for his phone more than he reaches for me. Minutes later, the profoundness of the statement hit me. What do my younger children see ME reaching for? Am I more likely to be holding a device, or their hand? I’m already self-conscious about this, as I work with families on a daily basis, and I constantly see parents with faces in screens while their children attempt to get their attention. But this conversation prompted me take a hard look at my own behaviors, and make a concerted effort to put the problematic ones in check. Have you reached for your child today?

4) YouTube can be a great teaching tool.                                                                          Speaking of screen time and technology, I’ve noticed that Elijah and his brothers use YouTube for all sorts of things besides watching pointless viral clips for entertainment. They’ve taught themselves everything from how to repair a bicycle, to updating smartphone software, to creating their own incense holders. After watching my son plunk away at the piano keys using a YouTube tutorial video, I got an idea. That week, my toddler suddenly developed an aversion to teeth brushing. After a few nights of literally holding her down while struggling to clean her teeth amidst thrashing and flailing limbs, I decided to take a more logical approach to her dental hygiene. The next evening, right before bedtime, I sat her in front of the computer and searched for images of  “toddler tooth decay.” Video after video popped up of children with teeth in varying states of decay. I explained to her why it’s important to brush her teeth, and showed her the cavities that form when we don’t. She was cured. That night, she willing opened her mouth for her nightly brush, without a peep. I’ve used this method for other things as well, including the time my two youngest began complaining about seat-belts and booster seats during a long road trip. After watching a video of crash-dummies being ejected from cars during an accident, they smartly made the decision to stay buckled, noting that it’s far more comfortable to be strapped in than to be injured in an accident. Kids are pretty logical. When we began to show them the reasons behind our rules, you’d be surprised at how well they cooperate.

5) In the end, your influence does matter (but there is no magic formula).                                        Just as we spend 18+ years watching over them, they are observing us as well. As Elijah enters adulthood, I can clearly see the way he is a product of his parents, step-parents, and extended family. All of our collective habits, hobbies, conversations and attitudes are downloaded into our children’s brains during their formative years, and they without a doubt influence the people they become.  Here’s the catch: it does not necessarily mean  they are doomed because of certain circumstances or redeemed due to others. I’ve been working in the field of education for 15 years, and during that time have worked closely with hundreds of families. I’ve met children who have come out of “broken homes” to become grounded, whole, and productive young adults. On the flip side, I’ve seen children from affluent two-parent, religious households slide into depression and addiction. And in between those extremes I’ve witnessed a wide array of stories play out which have lead me to believe that there is no magic formula to raising a child. But there is one thing that continually arises as I hear the individual accounts of children and their families: we internalize the realities of our childhood. We absorb the environments we are raised in. But we come out of them with our own unique understanding and strength. And no one, not even our parents, can predict what that will look like when all is said and done.                                                         

Aside

Weathering the Storm; Education, Empowerment & other thoughts on a Weekday Evening

                                                                     Image

The makings of literacy. My mother & I. (1983)

I was sitting there on a Monday night, sipping coffee like it’s nobodies business, trying to maximize what little time was left in the day when I came across a Daily Show interview with Nobel Peace Prize nominee Malala Yousafzai. Instantly taken by the youthful hopefulness of her responses, despite the heavy nature of the conversation, I closed out the evening by watching the interview in it’s entirety.  If you have not yet heard about this young woman, there’s a good chance you will in the near future.  Malala began blogging for the BBC when she was just 11 years old. In her writings, she told of her life under Taliban rule, and denounced their attacks on the schools, teachers and students of northwest  Pakistan. As a direct result of her activism, Malala was shot in the head and neck during an assassination attempt while on a bus with her classmates as they returned home from  school. She survived the attack, and has become an international advocate for women’s educational rights. I went to bed that night thinking about Malala, the motives behind her fierce determination, and the idea that it’s not necessarily a political agenda that makes her voice so threatening to the Taliban, but the fact that she’s pressing for girls to be educated in a country where women are afforded few freedoms, and are subjected to astonishing rates of violence and institutional discrimination. I remembered the way my grandfather proudly wore a “Knowledge is Power” shirt for as long as I can remember while I was growing up, though I didn’t quite grasp the significance of that power until early adulthood. Clearly, Malala understands it, as she has literally risked her life in order to contribute to the chorus of voices demanding educational equality in that region of the world.

The following evening, I lay on the floor of my son’s bedroom, feet propped up on the edge of the bunk bed, with book in hand. My 6th grader’s required reading for this month is Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry. As usual, I’ve been coerced into a group read-aloud, as my little ones have grown accustomed to bedtime chapter books in place of standard bedtime reads such as Goodnight Moon.  Anyhow, I wasn’t about to get off easy with a simple board book, because on this particular evening, the author of the day was Mildred Taylor, not Dr. Seuss.  My toddler’s eyes fluttered closed as I read from a passage describing how it was once necessary for some children to walk miles each day in order to get to school.  Whereas the children in Roll of Thunder would depart from the house while it was still dark in order to arrive in the classroom by sunrise, my kids can easily leave the house 10 minutes before the start of school-on foot- and still have time to chat with their friends before the tardy bell rings. We talked a bit about the dedication it took for children to make that kind of daily trek- in many cases, without shoes- just to take part in their right to an education. I told them about the black students in Little Rock, Arkansas who had to be escorted by the national guard into their classrooms because they were under threat from  violent protesters who seethed at the idea of integration in schools. I reflected on just how precious our right to an education is, and the lengths we’ll go to get one.

Educational empowerment was the theme of a discussion my children and I had weeks ago when—out of nowhere— my 8-year-old posed this question: “Mom, what was the happiest moment of your life?”Clearly, the births of my four beautiful children are in the top five of my life’s happiest highlights. But narrowing “happiness” down into one single moment is tricky.  I thought long and hard. And a memory surfaced…

It was Autumn. I was 25 years old and had recently been accepted into grad school at Sacramento State University, Sacramento. It was my first day of courses. Perhaps it was the cool fall breeze that seemed to carry with it an air of nostalgia and possibility. Maybe was the way the carpet of red & orange leaves covered the campus walkways like a gloriously seasonal variation of the yellow brick road. It might have been the smell of the new textbooks I cradled in one arm, or the pumpkin latte I held with my free hand. But as I bustled along with the crowd of other students, backpacks slung over shoulders and syllabi in hand, I realized I was insanely happy. I kid you not, I was literally trembling with energy to the point that I had to keep my teeth from involuntarily chattering.  In all my life, I have never felt so radiantly alive. It was a mixture of pride, freedom, wonder, and hopefulness beyond measurement. Less than a decade before, many people openly told me I’d never complete high school, yet there I was on the cusp of obtaining a Master’s degree.  I love that memory. And when I get lost in the recollection of it, I feel as if I catch a small glimpse of the passion present in the spirit of Malala, the Little Rock Nine, and countless other young people who have  fought for their right to an education.

As of present, the Western world has co-opted Malala’s message for educational equality and paraded her across every major news outlet, and all the while public schools across The United States are struggling under the pressure of shrinking funds and a battle against educational privatization. It bothers me that the talking heads will sing the praises of education when it serves their agenda, but regularly ignore the fact that we have a serious crisis on our hands as services such as school counselors, libraries, physical education, and enrichment curriculum are being slashed as educators struggle to compensate for the losses. Yesterday, the district I work for in Sacramento, California, announced that our superintendent, Jonathan Raymond will be resigning from his position come December, in part due to the difficult nature of the last few years in which the state of California made drastic cuts to education spending , and declining enrollment prompted many school closures and teacher layoffs.  Meanwhile, the district’s child development program that I teach for has run out of funds for the year, and I am left trying to find ways to maximize supplies while keeping the quality of my classroom curriculum high. It’s going to take a small miracle.

There are few things more empowering than an education. My dad used to encourage my sisters and I with this mantra, “Once you get your education, no one can take it from you.” There are few things in life in which  that is the case. Homes can be lost, health deteriorated, loved ones grown apart….but an education, once earned, remains. And maybe that’s what drives us to pursue it with such relentlessness, despite the odds.  Whether it’s a young mother in search of a better life for herself and her child, or a girl in Pakistan with a dream of liberation, young people across the globe face major obstacles when it comes to achieving their goals. Many of us in the States feel suffocated under the weight of inadequate funds, school closures, lack of resources, ever-changing standards, and the cost of higher education. Around the world, the barrier between a student and their education may be as small and deadly and as a bullet.

Here at home I fight my own small battles- as a teacher, the parent of three school-age children, and a community member who is truly concerned with the state of public education. It is, at times, daunting. As I walked up to my classroom this morning,  I heard my dad’s voice, “Do what you can, where you are, with what you’ve got.”

 In the face of the current educational climate, I can only hope to be a warm front in this brutal chill.

Bundle up, young ones, we’ve got a storm to brave.

Coaches & Critics

2444619448_99914bcfcf

Early this year I had the opportunity to accompany my 7 & 11 year-old-sons to their  annual baseball tryouts. The tryouts take place over the course of two weekends, and land in the  middle of January which means parents  & players alike withstand the bitter northern California chill for several hours as coaches draft their teams. Though my boys have been playing little league for years, this was the first time I’ve ever attended tryouts. Typically, this task has been delegated to their father, however circumstances had it that I was the chaperone to what my children claim is one of the most nerve-wracking parts of the season. My boys were excited but jittery as we arrived at the field that day. Nerves aside, the overall energy of the place was infectious. Clearly, everyone in attendance that morning was excited to be kicking off yet another season of baseball, even if it was at an ungodly morning hour in the biting cold. As the young players formed lines and greeted friends from seasons past, I found myself hanging back a bit (partly due to the fact that I was one of only a handful of mothers in a sea of dads). As I sat on the bleachers inhaling my warm coffee, I quickly fell into observation mode. 
I watched as each child took their turn at the designated drill and quickly began to notice a pattern of interaction and reaction from the parents of the players. Save for a few outlying personality types, I had the overwhelming sense that the parents on the sidelines fell into two categories: the coaches, and the critics.
The coaches were pleasant to watch. These were the parents who, even after their child missed a pop fly, struck out, or failed to field a grounder, maintained a positive approach to their young player. Encouraging, and reassuring, they offered constructive criticism & instruction without being demeaning.
The critics, however, were by far more difficult for me to observe. If you have ever attended a children’s sports events, you’ve seen this parenting style, and perhaps, like me, find yourself cringing at the tactics used. Critics can be ruthless. Rather than pointing out the players strengths, and acknowledging the effort, they go straight into attack mode. 
My grouchy, judgmental self got the better of me that morning, and I found myself silently criticizing the “critic” parents for their lack of understanding and encouragement, and their failure to praise their youngling’s accomplishments before offering suggestions for improvement. As I ushered my kiddos into the parking lot after tryouts had ended, I felt smugly confident in my superior communication skills, and was sure my children were better off for it. 
That high-and-mighty phase lasted all of five minutes because as soon as I returned home, I was greeted by a hungry toddler who was literally throwing herself against the fridge in a desperate attempt to find a juice box and a teen complaining about how his brothers are constantly finding ways to break into his bedroom in search of gum, money, pocket knives, and anything else  that might be of value to them. It was there that my refined parenting skills were forgotten. In frustration, I swooped up my blubbering toddler and stuffed a banana into her mouth (to take the edge off her hunger, of course). Then, I went after the boys. I began this completely disjointed tirade about how I remember how maddening it was to have a younger sibling rummage through my stuff and how-ironically- at one point I was ALSO the younger sibling who had complete disregard for her older sisters things and because I was a middle child I could relate to BOTH ends of the issue BUT that the bottom line was that everyone needed to shut up & relate to MY needs as a mother whose only desire was to come home from a long morning at tryouts to a quiet home, free of bickering and screeching 3-year-olds. (*deep breath*) When I had finished yelling, I realized my kids were staring at me blankly as if I’d gone mad. (I had). My 6-year-old then politely offered me some sunflower seeds as my toddler smeared banana onto the back of my neck.
For the rest of the month, I unintentionally analyzed each and every conversation I had with my children to see if I was coaching or criticizing. I found that, especially when the stress levels were high, my tendency to be a critic was more frequent than I’d like to admit. Not only that, I took notice of how my children reacted to each style of communication. When I was even-tempered and fair in my reactions to things such as unfinished homework assignments, botched attempts to load the dishwasher, and sibling warfare, my children were infinitely more receptive to my intervention & instruction. When I was short and critical, they quickly shut down and we’d get no where. 
 This is true of almost every interaction we have in family life–whether it’s with a spouse, co-parent, or stubbornly autonomous two-year-old–we are generally  able to accomplish more through warmth & constructive feedback than we are with aggression & criticism.
Not long after the tryouts, my 11-year-old pulled his favorite Aesop’s fables book from his shelf and brought it to me for bedtime readings. By coincidence, I opened to the story of the The Wind & The Sun. For those of you unfamiliar with this tale, it begins with the wind and sun arguing over who was most powerful. As they are bickering, they take notice of a man strolling along the road below dressed in a heavy winter coat. They decide to see who will be able to persuade him to remove his coat. The wind blows with all his might, but the man only draws the coat tighter around him in an effort to fight off the cold. All at once, the sun shines her warm beams upon the man, and he quickly takes off the jacket. In short, the moral of the story is “gentle persuasion is stronger than force.” As I finished reading the fable, my 7-year-old turns to me and says, “We sure are lucky you are warm like sun. The wind is cold-hearted!” 
And there you have it. The wind blows.
Pass the sunflower seeds. 🙂