Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Art of Teachable Moments

Have you heard of “quality time” from the 1980s?  There was a myth that if you weren’t spending enough time with your child, you could make up for it by orchestrating special, “quality” experiences with them.  We thought it was a silly idea from the start.  We recognized that we wouldn’t always spend as much time with our children as we’d like, even with Becky staying at home, so instead of pursuing “quality time,” we looked for opportunities to seize what we called teachable moments.  Teachable moments are times, however long or short, when the child is curious and receptive to being taught or trained.  Teachable moments are determined by the child, not fabricated by the parent.  You can provide an environment conducive to teachable moments, but you can’t force them to happen.
There are several ways to foster teachable moments, and several places where we consistently discover teachable moments.  We find many of our teachable moments when we are alone with one child; on a walk or bike ride, driving, eating in a restaurant, tucking them into bed, or working together on a project or task around the house.  Remember that you can plan time alone together, but if the child is tired or emotional, they won’t be teachable.  Some of our best teachable moments have come while driving one of our kids to a social, sports, or music event, because they didn’t have to compete with the other siblings.  The kids are more teachable when they aren’t distracted by, or competing with, siblings, parents, or friends, but not all teachable moments are one-on-one.  We’ve had many teachable moments around the dinner table, playing in the yard, driving on trips together, or squashed into a hotel room on a vacation.  If you’re not sure what a teachable moment looks like, borrow someone’s 6th grade boy for 20 minutes, listen to everything they say, and answer their questions with as much depth as you can – 6th grade is the maddening time when children have an unquenchable curiosity about absolutely everything, but lack the social graces to keep most of it to themselves.
Teachable moments can involve physical training, like how to throw a football, hammer a nail, or play a chord.  They can be academic, moral, or social learning opportunities. Teachable moments are not lectures, they are conversations or practice activities.  They often start with a child’s question, and are more about understanding and encouraging the child than they are about driving home the parent’s point.  Teachable moments are a chance to train the child in how to think or do something for themselves, with some guidance and clarification from the parent.  A well used teachable moment will endear your child to you like no other activity can, but they are rare, special and elusive, so you have to grab them when you see them.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Lost Art of Friendship

For kids to bond, they need time together doing an engaging activity.  For toddlers and pre-school children, we arranged  times for friends to meet with our children, either by joining “play groups” where parents and their children meet weekly at parks or other child-friendly locations, or by inviting children over to our house for “play dates.” As our children entered school, there were many more opportunities to meet with friends in addition to play dates, including parties, organized sports, and clubs.  The key was to make sure that our children were spending time with their friends in engaging and positive activities. 
After we’d planned a meeting for our kid’s friends, we’d start planning engaging activities for them.  Engaging activities are activities that interest and engage the children, while allowing them an opportunity to interact with each other.  To set up the best environment to attract friends, we wanted to create play times with our child unique from their friend’s other play experiences.  While we didn’t need to have all of the latest and greatest toys and resources, we did try to purchase one or two unique and age appropriate activities that kids might not have at their own home. For instance, we were the house that had swings and a slide, or the toy with all the fascinating parts and little people, or the house with the finger paints and other art supplies.  When we didn’t have the resources to purchase unique toys, we provided novelty by hosting creative activities.   We took the kids to the park to teach them outdoor games, hosted dress-up parties (nail polish is a big draw) and allowed the entire family room to be turned into a giant blanket fort.  For a while, we were the only household that allowed rubber band gun fights, and we couldn’t keep the boys away.  They key is to provide an engaging activity that will consistently draw your kid’s friends to them.
Not all engaging activities are pure “fun” or “play.”   Our kids formed stronger bonds over activities with a purpose than they did with entertainment activities.  Some of our kid’s strongest bonds of friendship have been formed while helping us with chores and projects around our house, or with community service like landscaping our high school, building houses for the homeless, or serving at our local church.  It’s not unusual for our children to tell their friends that they have to spend 2 hours on a Saturday landscaping before they can play, and have the friend offer to come over early to dig in the yard or haul wheelbarrows.  Other parents are amazed that their children are eager to join us in “work,” but we find that children get deep gratification from activities that have a purpose, or that teach them a new skill.  When we take a group of teenagers to Mexico each year to build houses for the homeless, we work them all day like adults, but then they tell us things like, “this is the hardest I’ve ever worked, and the most tired I’ve ever been, but it’s also the most fun I’ve ever had.  I’d rather do this than take a vacation at an amusement park.”  In that week, those teenagers form permanent and inexplicable bonds with our children that go much deeper than the normal disruptive forces of teenage life.
For friendships to grow, friends need to know they are physically and emotionally safe, and that they are valued and cherished.  Physical safety means that toddlers and pre-school children don’t bite, grade school children don’t hit, and teenagers, especially girls, never feel physically threatened in our home. Children feel emotionally safe in our house because toddlers don’t scream, school children don’t call each other names, middle school children aren’t cruel to each other, and teenagers aren’t duplicitous.  Since we value physical and emotional safety for both our children and their friends, we intentionally trained each of these negative behaviors out of our children, through modeling, instruction, and discipline.  We’ve even caught them being champions of physical and emotional safety (“You shouldn’t call her that mean name.”).
Because we value people, we trained our children to value and cherish their friends and acquaintances.  We’ve all met the socially inept child that struggles to make friends, but what was it about that child that kept them from forming friendships?  It’s often that they don’t value other children with their time, respect, conversations, and resources.  We’ve noticed that children who love others are generous: they listen to their friends instead of dominating the conversation and always talking about themselves.  They share their toys and games, and concede their opinions and desires to their friends; they don’t insist on doing their favorite activity every time they play.  This is not to say that generous children are pushovers or doormats, because our children have very strong opinions and personal presence; but we’ve trained them to consider their friend’s preferences and desires when choosing their activities.  When we’d invited an artistic child over to play, our kids didn’t expect an athletic experience, so they’d offer up a couple of their favorite artistic activities, like drawing or making crafts.  With their more athletic friends, they’d suggest riding scooters or playing ball.
Friendly children often have strong personalities, which attract other children, but they are also polite and kind to the children who gather around them.  As we train our children to be loving and kind, which is a difficult and ongoing endeavor, we can’t just instruct them at home alone in a vacuum.  When they play with friends, we monitor their activities, correcting and directing them to be safe, kind, and generous.  Especially when they were very young, it was tempting to drop them into a group of children and run to another room so we could take a break with other parents. Instead, we found that if we wanted to train our children to be good friends, we had to be actively involved with them while they played.  If they were being selfish with toys, or reacting to conflict physically, or being mean and rude, we had to be there to correct them or even discipline them, taking an active role in their social development.  

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Art of Natural Consequences

When adults are foolish, they receive the natural consequences of their actions.  For instance, when they act dangerously, they are physically injured.  When they are rude, mean, or hurtful to others, they lose relationships.  When adults act stupidly, they suffer financially.  Because life has these natural consequences, we do our best to make the “punishment fit the crime,” making the discipline as close to the natural consequence of breaking the rule as possible. When a child wouldn’t share their toys, we took away a favorite toy.  When they threw a fit (which is a demand for attention), we gave them a time-out away from other people.  When older children broke something through disobedience, (“don’t slam that glass door, or it will break!”), we had them participate in the repair work, either financially or as a helper.
When our teenage daughter violated our “only use nail polish remover on the bathroom counter” policy, she learned how to refinish Becky’s brand new kitchen table the hard way (did you know that nail polish remover dissolves Styrofoam cups in a really cool way, but doesn’t stop when it hits varnish?).  We weren’t always able to make a good fit, but were always searching for creative discipline to match the infractions.  Surprisingly, when we asked the kids for their suggestions, they often came up with very creative disciplines, especially when it was for their siblings!
Each child is different, valuing different objects or freedoms.  For our introverted pre-teen, we found that just the threat of removing his bedroom door was enough to correct a serious behavior problem.  For our extroverted teenager, one day’s restriction from the cell phone was much harder than a week’s restriction from any other activities or objects.  Some children’s personalities will only require a stern look and the threat of discipline, while others will require draconian measures before they will change a bad behavior.  Make sure to study your child to see how they’re built, so you’re administering a discipline that is personalized and appropriately restricting to cause a change in behavior.
At first, we were concerned that removing a favorite toy or object would bond the kids tighter to that object, and make it a problem in the future.  However, our experience was just the opposite.  When they received the security blanket or plush toy back at the end of the discipline, they bonded to it for a short time, but then abandoned it in the long term.  They learned that no object is truly secure, and began to find their security in other, more appropriate places.  In our materialistic society, we’re surprised to find that none of our teenagers are tightly bonded to any of their possessions.  They may value what an object represents, like the communication from a cell phone, the enjoyment of a video game console, or the freedom of a vehicle, but they don’t mourn the loss of any of these objects if they are broken.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Art of Group Dating

The first part of our plan was to encourage our children to have positive interactions with the opposite gender, as early possible.  In pre-school, they were happy to engage in play activities without regard to gender.  By grade school, they seemed to have a natural draw to spend time within their own gender, but we still encouraged them to form cross-gender groups and partnerships for school projects, and to interact with family friends of the opposite gender in social situations.
Once our kids hit the pre-teen years of middle school, we began encouraging them to participate socially in what our friends called “group dates.”  We wanted them to learn how to interact with other kids of the opposite gender, and begin to assess which personality traits they valued in people of the opposite gender, without the intimacy of one-on-one dating situations.  Group dating allowed our kids to have the kind of social interaction that allows exploration in an emotionally safe environment.  It gave them opportunities to become familiar with a new boy or girl by interacting with their group of friends, outside of the pressure and awkwardness of a formal date.  Here are some guidelines to help your kids with successful group dating:
All events should be adult supervised.  For pre-teens, this means parental supervision.  For teens, it can also include other adults at supervised events like school socials and dances, church youth gatherings, and birthday parties.  Your supervision shouldn’t be suffocating, but you’ll want to keep an eye on what’s going on.
Parental planning and facilitation. In the pre-teen and young teen years, parents should be involved in the planning, to help orchestrate a successful social event. You may also need to host in your home or drive all the kids to an event.
It’s best to start with large groups.  Even if the boys and girls stay grouped by gender for most of the social activity, they will at least begin to get comfortable having each other around.  As your kids get more comfortable breaking the ice and interacting, you can reduce the size of the groups.
Odd numbers are best.  You want to avoid pairing off, so an odd number of kids are best, but not required.  For special events, like formal school dances, this may not be possible, but the goal is to avoid the pain of adolescent infatuation.  Double-dating is OK for teens, as long as the goal isn’t to begin a “steady” relationship.
Have them bring a friend.  When inviting friends of the opposite gender to a social event, the most common question is, “who else is going to be there?”  No awkward pre-teen wants to be the only boy or girl at an event.  We recommend all invitations to mixed social events always either extend an invitation to bring a same-gender friend, or clarification that a close friend is also being invited.  Don’t be surprised if everyone needs a separate phone or text message conversation with all of their friends to make a group decision before accepting the invitation.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Art of Building Self-Esteem

Parents build self-esteem in their children by affirming who they are and what they’ve achieved.   Hollow praise does not build self-esteem, and neither does an unrecognized achievement. If we woke up every morning and told each of our kids, “Wow, you are the most amazing child!  You are just wonderful!” they would turn into conceited praise junkies, but wouldn’t truly have strong self-esteem, because we wouldn’t be giving them specific affirmation, just vague feel-good flattery.  On the other side, if we were critical of every achievement, always pointing out how they could have done better, or where they should have improved, they would never have a positive self-image or confidence in their abilities.  In order to build self-esteem, you have to affirm an actual achievement, no matter how small it was.

The first time our kids made the bed by themselves, they looked terrible; lumpy, with the sheets showing and the covers all skewed.  We told them, “You made the bed all by yourself.  I’m proud of you for making your bed.”  Instead of criticizing their work, or re-doing it to our adult standards, we affirmed them for making the bed themselves.  Then the next day when it was time to make their bed, they weren’t thinking, “I’m not sure if I can make the bed good enough,” they were thinking, “I made my bed by myself yesterday.  I think I can do it again today.”  They had high self-confidence about making beds.  Their self-esteem had grown, and in a few days they would be ready for more bed-making instruction, along with a new affirmation for their increased skill level.

We complimented our children on small achievements, and celebrated with them on large achievements.  We kept our eyes open for each new athletic skill, song learned, school project completed, or social skill practiced, and then complimented them on their successes.  And when they failed, as they often did, we affirmed them for trying, because it takes courage to try new things.  Our daughter has always been tall for her age, finally growing to just under six feet tall as a pre-teen.  So when she expressed interest in gymnastics, we signed her up, and took her to practices, where she towered head-and-shoulders above the other girls her age.  She worked hard at it for months, but her constantly growing arms and legs kept her from having the coordination and strength to be successful.  Even though she failed to become a gymnast, we still see her attempt at gymnastics as a positive experience.  Since we affirmed her adventurous spirit, she went on to try many other athletic options, with varying success, and she now has the self-confidence to try new sports that appeal to her, without fear of failure.

We also built our children’s self-images by affirming them when they made good choices, especially choices that lead to emotional or moral victories.  When our children demonstrated good character qualities, we were quick to affirm them.  If they were kind, or generous, or patient, we would compliment them on their achievement.  After they shared a toy with a visitor, we’d tell them, “That was kind of you to share.  You are a generous boy to share your toys with others.”  By affirming character qualities, we gave our children a self-esteem that went outside of skills or performance.  We gave them a sense of self-worth that was based on who they were, not just what they could do.  While affirming a child’s skills builds confidence, it can also lead to a feeling of conditional love, where the child only feels loved by the parent if they continue to gain new skills.  By affirming their growth of character, our children gained a sense of being loved unconditionally, because they were affirmed for who they’d become, not just what they’d accomplished.  For this reason, we try to affirm the character demonstrated as well as the skill when a new goal is achieved, saying, “I’m proud to see the hard work and sacrifice you’ve put in to become a better piano player, because you played with very few mistakes at your recital.”

So, how does a parent intentionally build self-esteem in their child?  By setting small, achievable goals, and affirming or celebrating the achievement of those goals.  These goals should be for their physical, musical, mental, emotional, and character development, and should be shared with the child, so they know they are working toward something, and can enjoy the feeling of accomplishment.  For example, you teach and affirm sports to small children by setting goals to kick a ball, then throw it, then catch it, then catch it a number of times in a row, then use it to score.  Each of these activities should be a separate goal, with a mini-celebration when the child achieves them. 

During puberty, most kids will experience a crisis in self-esteem, and will need a different kind of support from what they needed in grade school.  For the first time in their lives, they will hit brick walls, and they will also start experimenting with new personalities and identities.  As competition increases, they learn the cold hard truth that no matter how hard they try, they’ll never have the raw talent to be the professional athlete, musician, or scholar they dreamed of being in grade school.  They compare themselves to others around them, including successful siblings, and get the feeling that, “I’m not good at anything.” When they realize that they either can’t be who they wanted to be, or don’t want to be who they are now, they start experimenting with new personality traits and identities.  In all this hormonal confusion and uncertainty, they’re trying to build their self-esteem in new areas, and have a deep need for affirmation.  They need to know that their parents love them and accept them, even if they dress funny and act differently.  If their parents are critical of these experimental changes, but their friends affirm their experimentation, they will continue to drift toward their friend’s influence, and become more open to experimentation with sex, drugs, stealing, or vandalism.  Because of these radical changes, some parents of pre-teens become overwhelmed and abandon their previous efforts to build self-esteem in their children.  However, at this age, they need very intentional development of their self-worth from their parents to survive their self-identity crisis successfully.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Art of Clean Bedrooms

Our house doesn’t have a lot of clutter, and our teenagers don’t have anything on their floors except furniture and musical instruments.  It’s not because we’re cleanliness fascists, or that we keep our house like a museum.  On the contrary, we have a steady flow of friends visiting, having a meal, or staying overnight, and it is a constant chore to stay ahead of the little things that collect around the house.  But when parents come to pick up their children from our house, they are always commenting on how “clean” the house is, and begging for our secret to keeping the kid’s rooms clean.  In fact, many parents sheepishly admit to us that they’ve given up the battle over room cleaning, and just close the kid’s bedroom doors while pretending that they don’t actually have bedrooms.  Since we value personal responsibility, we have intentionally trained our kids to be responsible for the upkeep of their rooms.  We’ve accomplished our uncluttered state using three important guidelines: we don’t let our kids collect too much stuff, we trained them by cleaning alongside them, and we make them responsible for their personal possessions.

From the beginning, we’ve worked hard not to collect extra, unnecessary possessions. In our house, we don’t cover every horizontal surface with “knickknacks,” and we think that garages are for parking cars, not collecting unused junk.  If we had an extra attic or basement room, we would use it for people, by making it a game room or a guest room, instead of letting junk collect in it, and that’s the philosophy we’ve passed on to our children.  About twice each year, usually in preparation for Christmas, birthday gifts, or back-to-school shopping, we go through each child’s room with them, and clear out the old detritus.  If a toy has worked its way to the bottom of the toy chest or the back of the closet, it leaves the house.  We figure that if we aren’t using something, we should make it available for someone else to use.  For teens and adults, we use the 1 year rule, “if you haven’t used this for a year, you don’t need it anymore.”  We usually do this in teams of two or more, for emotional support, and to make sure that items don’t stay because “I’m going to use it now that I remember it’s here.”  In the end, we still hold on to one or two unused items, for sentimental value.  Becky is brutally efficient at this process.  When things are misplaced, she gets accused of throwing them out (she denies that she would throw anything out without permission, and that’s almost always true, except for the sentimental items that should have been cleared out, and will never be missed anyway).  On the other hand, Rick and the kids have a tougher time throwing away perfectly good stuff, so we got into the habit of giving away the more valuable objects. 

We have an agreement that Becky can get rid of perfectly good stuff, as long as she gets accurate receipts and takes pictures of items for the taxes before she gives them away.  As you can imagine, the closet where we stage donations is somewhat contentious.  Becky would rather get rid of it right away, but she’s waiting for a child to spread it out and take pictures before she can donate it.  Plus there’s always the risk that Rick with dig through the donation closet, and save some treasure from being donated for at least another year. 

When it was time to give away our daughter’s Barbie® doll collection, we had a long talk about how she hadn’t played with them for a long time, how dad would probably not get around to listing them on eBay, and how much another girl would enjoy them.  It was a great joy for all of us when we delivered two large boxes of Barbie® dolls to a local neighbor girl, and watched her light up over the gift.  They are probably still living in the back of that girl’s closet today. When we can’t find a suitable neighborhood child, we give away our older possessions to local charities (Rick makes sure we get a receipt for tax purposes).  Perhaps the best experience we had giving away our possessions was when our pre-teen daughter finally parted with her cherished plush toy collection, including those collectable little bears, by personally giving them to poor children in Mexico.  For many of those children, that new plush toy became the only toy they owned.  Their expressions of gratitude touched and impacted our daughter deeply.

For most children, cleaning their room is paramount to being locked away in the high castle tower, with no hope of pardon or success before they are distracted.  Parents send them off to their rooms, where they must complete a tedious task alone and poorly equipped.  When our children became old enough to start cleaning up their toys, we bought giant toy boxes, and picked up toys alongside them.  We would ask them to put a toy in the toy box (which had enough room, thanks to our anti-junk policies), at the same time that a parent was also putting a toy in the box.  Since it was always our goal to make responsible adults, not compliant servants, we worked alongside them, teaching them what it meant to clean a room.  This started with picking up toys and putting them in the box, and moved on to putting books on shelves and making beds, and eventually to putting away laundry and other complicated cleaning tasks like dusting and vacuuming.  We provided adequate storage space, and helped the kids get rid of junk once they ran out of storage.  This approach didn’t always go as planned, but it always remained a priority in our family.   

Each time we asked our kids to clean their rooms, we worked alongside them, training and assisting them, progressively working them into doing more of the job.  Whenever we started training on a new cleanup skill, we had to lower our expectations dramatically for a season.  At first, toys would hang over the edge of the toy box, books wouldn’t be straight, bedcovers wouldn’t be even, and closets wouldn’t close.  We felt the freedom to do extra parental cleaning before receiving important guests, but the rest of the time we just recognized that we were teaching inexperienced cleaners, with less-than-perfect results. 

By taking this approach, room cleaning was an opportunity for our children to spend time with a parent, not a sentence to the dungeon, where they would probably get distracted by a toy, and eventually get caught playing with it when they should have been putting it away.  As much as possible, we tried to have the children put one set of toys away before they started with another, and clean everything up before bed time, but we also tried to leave enough freedom for the creativity that only comes from leaving a major project, like a blanket fort, or a formal tea party, set up for more than one day.  Once our kids hit the “I need my space” pre-teen years, they didn’t really want our help cleaning up their rooms anymore, and have only needed occasional reminders that something is sitting on the floor that shouldn’t be, or that their desks and dressers needed cleaning off.  Sometimes we help them clean out the junk, and sometimes they just want to do it on their own.  This doesn’t mean that our system is perfect, because Becky will still make a tour of the bedrooms every few days, collecting the odd dirty dish or ice pack, just for her own sanity.

What about laundry, the ultimate impediment to clean rooms?  We handle laundry with a couple of processes and rules.  At the end of the day, all clothing either goes into the laundry hamper, or in the case of sweatshirts and jeans that will be worn the next day, either on a hook on the back of their door or into a bin in their closet.  Normally, no one goes to go to bed with dirty laundry in their room.  This generates more laundry for us, but the kids eventually took over the laundry chores anyway.  If any child starts going through multiple outfits per day, they ended out doing one load of laundry per day as part of their chores.  Whichever child was doing the laundry was responsible for putting shirts and pants on hangers, and dumping everything else on the master bedroom floor, although the trip from the laundry room to the master bedroom often requires a reminder. 

At the end of the day, as part of the bedtime routine, each child sorts out their laundry from the master bedroom floor and the hung clothing, and puts it into their room.  If we’ve washed their sheets or towels, they also deal with those.  We started this nightly routine by carrying clothes with them before tucking them into their toddler beds, and now they do it themselves.  In a perfect world, this would happen smoothly every night, but in reality, most nights someone overlooks a shirt or pair of socks in the master bedroom, and we have to call them back to reclaim their clothes. Unless we’re packing for a trip, we don’t fold any of the kid’s clothes; things that shouldn’t be wrinkled, including T-shirts, are on hangers, and everything else gets stuffed into drawers without folding, including the boy’s pants.  When we’ve been short on drawer space, we’ve provided the kids with bins for their closet floors, where they can dump pants or shorts, and close the closet door.  It’s not perfect, but we’ve got the closet space, so we might as well use it, right? This approach can make it a little tougher to find their only pair of black socks for band concerts, and the boy’s school pants may be wrinkled, but there are never any clothes in view inside our kid’s bedrooms.

This doesn’t mean that everything is always perfect, or that we don’t have to enforce a few rules around personal possessions.  Part of respecting each other’s privacy is not inflicting our messes and possessions on each other.   When one of the kids spreads their stuff out in a common area of the house (tables, floors, cabinets or chairs), they need to clean it up when they are done.  This means that homework is cleaned off the kitchen table in time for dinner, game controllers are put away in the cabinet, snack containers are put back, and snack dishes are put in the dishwasher.  Kids have an amazing ability to see the smallest bug in the back yard, but miss perfectly obvious dishes, so they often need parental help “seeing” what still needs to be put away while they are cleaning up. When our kids were young, we worked with them to clean their toys and crafts out of the common areas of the house.  Now they don’t want us messing with their stuff, so they do it themselves (with the occasional reminder).  If we find the kid’s unattended stuff laying around in plain view, like shoes blocking a hallway, or dirty dishes on an end table, we discipline them.  When the kids ask for a special privilege, like inviting a friend over, or having a “pajama Saturday,” (where they don’t have to get dressed or ready until noon), we review whether any of their stuff is in plain sight, the status of their room (is your bed made and your floor clean?), and the progress of their chores, music practice, and homework before making a decision.  Minor infractions will have to be resolved before they get a privilege, and major infractions will cost them computer game time or time with friends.

Our kid’s responsibly for personal possessions includes any trash they generate.  The kid’s wrappers, empty container and other trash can be a problem in many places, but we find that it is worst in vehicles.  Parents are amazed that with all of the kids we drive around, we don’t have a blanket of trash on our car floors all the time, but it all comes down to one policy, “give me your trash.”  As soon as our children could unwrap or use up packages, we insisted that they give us all of their trash.  For each item we gave them, we’d ask to have the trash back. This worked especially well in the car, where we always kept a small, reusable trash bag in the front of the car, but it also applied in the store, or around the house.  Whenever our kids found themselves with trash, they knew what do to with it – give it to mom or dad.  Even if there was a trash can close by (that wasn’t too disgusting for a small child to touch), we would have the kids give us their trash.  Over time, we began passing the car trash bag back to them, so they got into the habit of putting their trash into a trash bag.  Now when we drive, the kids either pass their trash forward, or ask for the trash bag, and we almost never have trash lying around in the car.  We might have pulverized crackers or the odd French fry, but usually not any wrappers or containers, unless we’ve been on a long driving trip, when we usually have to do a thorough post-trip cleaning of the car anyway.

What often surprises parents picking up their children is that we’ve successfully applied our rules to guest children while they’ve been in our house.  We insisted that our kid’s guests help put away one set of toys before getting out another (with adult help and encouragement, as needed), and that they put away what they were playing with when their parents arrive to pick them up.  The kid’s dinner guests have to clean up toys before dinner, and put their dirty dishes in the dishwasher before getting out any other toys.  We don’t worry whether overnight guests have brushed their teeth or combed their hair, but we won’t feed them or let them get toys out until their bags are packed and their bedding is put away (with adult help, if they’ll accept it).  When parents pick up their kids after a major slumber party, the luggage and sleeping bags are piled up in the kid’s bedroom, where there is nothing on the floor except furniture, and the breakfast dishes are put away.  Somehow, however, we always seem to have one lone sock that goes unclaimed each time.  If they left a pair of socks, we’d launder them and donate them to charity, but since it’s always one lone sock, Rick places it in the rag bin after all of our guests are gone, where it stays until Becky finds it and dutifully throws it away.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Art of 12 to 14 Year Olds

We take keen interest when we observe other parents transitioning their children into the early teen years.  We’ve found the age of about 12 years old through about 14 to be a pivotal time in parenting, and see many families struggling during this transition.  In the same way that toddlers challenge barriers during the “terrible twos,” young teens will have an awakening to their surroundings, and initiate intense challenges to their existing barriers.  They will begin to ask for more privacy and unsupervised time both inside and outside the home.  They’ll want to make their own choices about social activities, clothing, and peer groups.  They’ll want to coordinate and plan the logistics for their activities by themselves (leaving their parents to fill any gaps at the last minute!), and will push against curfew and bedtime restrictions.  They’ll want to have more control over how money is spent on them and their friends, and more influence over shared resources like the family room television and car rides to activities. Boys who worshipped their mother will suddenly reject her and demand time and attention from their fathers.  Conservative girls will suddenly desire makeup and revealing clothing.  This “social growth spurt” seems to catch confident, successful parents of grade-school children off-guard, and because they haven’t anticipated the change, or planned a strategy for dealing with this change, it throws them for a loop.

At this critical time in childrearing, we often see parents take one of two unhealthy approaches.  They either decide that they’ve done enough parenting, and essentially let their teens run wild, or are afraid to let go of the grade school years, and exercise tight control over their children.  Either out of parenting exhaustion, or overconfidence in the foundations they’ve laid, some parents of young teens will collapse under the onslaught of demands for new freedoms and privileges, and give their young teens or pre-teens far more unsupervised freedom than they’re equipped to handle.  When these teenagers start making really poor decisions and getting into trouble, the parents are forced to back up and assert more authority and control.  This reversal creates a crisis where parents have to add unpopular new rules and limits, and the teenagers rebel against the changes and loss of their previous freedoms.  Their rebellion requires more draconian restrictions, and the relationship between the parents and teenagers spirals downward.

Alternatively, some parents will resist teenage growth by staunchly limiting their teens to the rules and freedoms established in grade school.  The parents will continue to exert unwavering control over clothing choices, social activities, friendships, and family resources.  They treat their teenagers like young children instead of adults-in-training, and the teens will often rebel against their parents, sometimes as late as young adulthood.  We’ve seen a number of “good” kids go off to college or a career unprepared to establish self-discipline in their lives, and make disastrous, life-changing errors in judgment.

We didn’t see either of these approaches as healthy, and instead choose a planned, guided approach to training our teenagers how to handle the responsibilities that come with pre-adult freedoms.  Each time one of our teens pushed against an established boundary, we reviewed with them the skills and experience adults used to manage that freedom, and built a plan to help our teen grow into successfully managing that new freedom.  Sometimes, they would be ready to take on a new freedom or expanded boundaries right away, and we would release them with a plan for managing their progress.  Most times, we would review what would need to change or improve before our teenager could take the next step.

For example, our pre-teens began asking to join friends at local parks without supervision.  Because they had demonstrated their ability to resist peer pressure, and to make good decisions with groups, we gave them some new rules around park visits (know who the friends are and get parental approval in advance, travel to and from the park with friends, establish a time they’re expecting to return, plan to be home before dark, and carry a cell phone), and expanded their freedom around park visits.  Because they were still children, they occasionally violated the new rules, or made some bad decisions, and we either discussed the ramifications of their actions, or disciplined them by temporarily restricting their park visits, as appropriate.