Raising Teens

A month or so ago, a local teenager made a reckless decision and the decision had dire consequences. The story was on the news and all over social media, and the accompanying images were horrific. On social media, the responses to the story were brutal.

“Serves him right!”

“Where are the parents?”

“I have a 15 year old, and I always know where my teen is.”

I experienced such a visceral response to these comments that made it difficult for me to write anything for a time. Some time has passed, but this story still claims a large chunk of my emotional energy. There are a couple of points on which I remain stuck.

First of all, what’s up with the bullying among adults? Is it any wonder that we have bullying issues in our schools? When children see their parents making comments like these, they must begin to believe this is the way to respond to other people. And with the exponential growth of social media, there is no question that children see what their parents post—even their responses to news stories. After all, the parent’s name is attached to the comment, so anonymity… it’s not really a thing in an online community.

Perhaps these comments are born out of the need to uphold one’s own superiority, but it seems we have become so competitive that we have lost sight of compassion. The I am better than you mentality has taken over society, and we are unable to reach out to those who are suffering without claiming some imaginary trophy and keeping score. Bullying starts at home. It starts with adults who see no problem with posting brutal responses to tragic stories because they need to feel that they are better than others—just as a school-yard bully would do; they need to claim the position as better parents, better guardians of their teens, more efficient workers, etc. This competition is so destructive to society.

This situation reminded me of another horrible accident a year or so ago in which five teenagers were killed in a head-on collision on the highway. It was late at night and they were driving home from a concert. A man with a mental illness and a commitment to destruction of everything around him was driving the wrong way on the highway after a failed mental health visit to the ER. Now, if you have ever encountered a wrong-way driver on the highway in the dead of night, you understand how extremely disorienting it can be. You will likely not even realize what is happening until the other driver has passed, at which point you slam on the brakes and think, “Wait, what just happened??” If I’d been on that road that night, I wouldn’t have stood a chance just as these kids didn’t stand a chance. Yet, in the comments of this news story, responders blamed the parents for letting their teenagers attend a concert. I’m not sure when it became irresponsible to allow a teenager to attend a concert, but I digress.

As for the commenter who always knows where her teenager is…. I can pretty much guarantee that she does not. I have worked with teenagers for thirty plus years, I have three teenagers of my own, and I (sometimes) understand how teenagers think. It’s not necessarily that they disobey, but rather, they omit. History and literature are rife with examples: Rapunzel, Romeo and Juliet… these parents thought they knew what their teens were doing, as well. But in truth, try as we might, we don’t always know where our teens are and what they are doing. Maybe it’s okay not to always know. In fact, maybe it’s healthy to give our teens an increasing amount of space to make their own choices and decisions as they grow and mature. How are kids supposed to learn responsibility and how to face tough decisions if they are not given the room to do so?

Over the years, I have worked with some practically independent kiddos, and I have worked with others who still need a good deal of guidance; I have taught A students and F students; I have worked with wonderful young leaders and painfully shy followers. And I have seen everything in between. All of the teens I have worked with over so many years have one thing in common: they all have a still-maturing teenage brain that is not fully able to think through all of the consequences of a decision, and therefore, they are prone to making the occasional bad decision. It is through these questionable decisions that teens grown and learn how to make better decisions.

Maybe we could all work together to encourage our teens—and all the teens we come in contact with—to make smart decisions. And maybe we could work together toward healthier reactions and less judgment. If our first response is to have compassion rather than to chastise, we might be able to build some mighty bridges and educate our children in the process. After all, our children learn far more from our actions than they do from our words.

{Image is a photo taken by my daughter}

Road Rage Cure

If everyone was required to drive around with something silly in—or on—their car, people might be less angry as they drove around. And after a couple of recent incidents with road rage, that would probably be a good thing.

Most recently, over the weekend, we suddenly—and unintentionally—took a detour into the creepy and frightening land of road rage. I’m not exactly sure what set off the driver who was behind us at a stoplight. It had something to do with my oldest child, in the backseat at the time, who made eye contact with the driver of the other vehicle. She was a middle-aged woman.

Now, I don’t want to meddle in her life, but perhaps she had bottled up too much of the week’s negativity. Whatever it was that set her off, it was very clear that she had a profound need for attention, and she was willing to compromise the safety of everyone else on the road in order to get it.

At the next light, she pulled up beside us and tried to get me to roll down my window. But thank you anyway, I know better than to engage with a crazy stranger. Through the window, I could hear her screaming and cursing, and my peripheral vision was catching her wild gestures.

The light turned green. “Go!” I instructed the fifteen-year-old driver (who remained amazingly calm), and he turned left around the corner. The woman swerved her black Mercedes from a non-turning lane, and that’s when it was clear we weren’t going to lose her any time soon. At the next light, she again pulled up beside us, this time on the left, her hands still waving as her passenger window lowered.

I picked up my phone. We had just passed a cruiser, so I knew there were police in the area. I debated calling 9-1-1, but opted instead for the non-emergency number. But this was not my town, so I had to go through directory assistance, all the while, the woman was in hot pursuit and my son continued to drive.

In the back seat, my daughter was audibly hyperventilating at the same rate that I was silently hyperventilating. As the adult in the situation—and clearly the only adult despite the middle-aged woman in the car beside me screaming obscenities—I was responsible for displaying an impression of utmost calm.

“Police Department, can you hold?” the voice said.

“Uh, not really,” I responded, my heart pounding in my chest. “I’m in a road rage situation.”

Bit by bit, he took pieces of information, and I updated him on my location. One mile. Another. Finally, as the woman pulled up beside me, I was able to read her license directly to the dispatcher, and I think she realized what I was doing. It was at this light that I heard her scream, “Is that your son? You should teach him some manners!”

I have never been more relieved than I was when she turned right onto the side street at that light. She was probably trying to disappear before the police caught up to us.

But the police had her license number and a description of her car. I really hope they found her. It seems she might benefit from a lengthy discussion on, well … manners.

And I would definitely benefit from carrying a silly inflatable animal in the back of my car.

Don’t Say Anything…

When I was a kid, my mother made sure I was kind and polite, and she often repeated the adage, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” I will admit that even as a young girl, if I wasn’t careful, I would easily tumble into a snarky comment before I could catch myself. But with my mother’s frequent reminders, I learned to think before I spoke—most of the time, at least.

These days, it seems “If you can’t say anything nice…” has gone by the wayside. More and more frequently, it seems people on social media sites are posting comments specifically to pick a fight. I am not naïve enough to think there are so many full-grown adults who are incapable of recognizing inflammatory remarks when they are posting to social media. Kindness just takes a bit of forethought.

If we are trying to discourage our children from engaging in cyber-bullying, why are so many adults modeling the opposite behavior? Why are we so quick to be nasty to others behind the shield of our computers? In the early days of the Internet, online comments were made under a guise of anonymity. Nowadays, people on social media post their comments—anything from nice and complimentary to mean and judgmental—attached to their full names.

The lack of kindness has grown tiresome, and with everything else that’s going on in society, I have decided I am going to opt out of all this negativity. I am going to create a blog exercise designed to promote positivity. The Positivity Project. Now, I’m not going to argue life is all sunshine and rainbows. Not even close. But I am going to suggest that if we look hard enough, we can find something positive in [just about] every situation. And if we get in the habit of looking for the positive, eventually, it will become second nature, and we will notice the positive without looking.

I would like to puncture the bubble of negativity that threatens our society and instead, start a wave of positive feelings, thoughts, and ideas that can carry us forward from here.

Today was positively productive for me. I completed some necessary work, and I was able to do some cleaning and organizing. And now, I invite you to join me! In the comments below, or on your own blog, write about one positive thing from your day.

Middle School #atozchallenge

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My youngest child is finishing up middle school this year and moving on to high school. I have to say that I couldn’t be happier. Overall, middle school has been my least favorite parenting experience. And it was my least favorite childhood experience, as well. Middle school is the time when children are forming their own identities away from their parents, moving into cliques, discovering what they might like to do, what they are good at, and realizing that they can project the things they don’t like in themselves onto others.

When my oldest entered our town’s middle school, I distinctly remember sitting in a parent meeting in the cafeteria with a large group of parents. The principal stood on stage giving her spiel, and finally, she proudly stated, “There is NO bullying in our school. None.” And then she turned to the students she had coerced to be on stage with her and said, “Isn’t that right, students?” To which they all nodded, looking like deer in headlights.

As a teacher, a parent, and a long-ago middle-school student, I remember thinking that principal must have buried her head so deeply in the sands of self-created utopia that she had no idea what was happening in the halls she walked each day. And in fact, I was correct.

There was plenty of bullying at our middle school. But there was also much opportunity for growth. Middle schools are tough places, and so I offer some thoughts to help prepare for this experience.

1. You will not find “your people” in middle school. There will be a lot of people there, but they might not be people that you want to hang out with. They might not even be people you like. Don’t be discouraged. You are more likely to find them your people high school, but you might not find them until college. You will eventually find people with whom you have much in common.

2. Don’t work on being popular. From my experience, middle school popularity (even high school popularity) is fleeting. The people who are popular now will find themselves in amongst people who are older and smarter and more popular than they are, and they won’t know how to fit themselves in with those people. Besides, the focus on popularity holds you back from true success in life.

3. Those people who look like they have it all together? The people who don’t accept you because you don’t play a sport or you don’t live in the right part of town? They are just as insecure as everyone else. If someone doesn’t accept you, that is a reflection on who they are, not who you are.

4. Middle school is just a brief period of time. I know it may seem like it lasts forever, but it will be over before you know it. Keep your focus on your school work and on developing the best you that you can be, and you will come out stronger and more amazing than when you started. You are enough, and you are exactly what this world needs. Develop your talents and figure out who you are becoming.

I am quite happy that we are reaching the end of our middle school experience. For all of you who are not, I wish you the best of luck. Remember: this too shall pass.

Perspective

Every now and then, we catch a glimpse of our children’s lives through reflection on our own experiences, past and present. Recently, I had one of those moments… when my thoughts on my children’s attitudes suddenly clicked into place in a new and unexpected way. It was an “ah-ha” moment, of sorts.

Over the weekend, I was introducing my sister to some people who grew up one town over from our own hometown. Since it was a small town in a rural area, growing up in the next town implies that we shared a fair degree of history. We knew some of the same people, competed as rival schools in sports, hung out at some of the same places, frequented the only local movie theater, and shopped in the same stores.

As we briefly discussed the fact that my sister graduated from a different high school, my mind wandered back into the past. My sister and I had different teachers. And just like any school, a handful of teachers were known to be “difficult,” more in their behavior and attitudes toward students than in their educational expectations.

For the most part, I had teachers who were memorable in positive ways: they wanted to teach, and they genuinely liked working with students. However, there were exceptions. There were teachers for whom unflattering nicknames had been passed from one class to the next for near generations. And it was one of these teachers with just such a nickname that I stumbled over while I was taking my ‘mind journey’ down memory lane over the weekend.

And after stumbling, I sat sprawled on memory’s path, realizing that we hadn’t been very nice back in high school. And then, I was pulled to the present, to the words I had recently said to my son when he called one of his (male) teachers a diva. “You shouldn’t be disrespectful to your teachers, C. They have a tough job teaching you guys all the things you don’t think you want to know.”

Gulp!

There I was, stuck straddling a line. As a teacher myself, I would normally advocate for the teacher in this instance. Getting up in front of a classroom full of apathetic, sometimes ungrateful (insert year here: sophomores, seniors, you name it) day after day is not an easy task. It can be brutal.

Then again, being a kid in a class with a teacher who has forgotten what it is like to be a teenager—a teacher who hasn’t updated his or her approach to teaching since the age of the dinosaurs, and chooses not to (ever) smile—is not easy, either.

Suddenly, I realized that what I perceived as “disrespect” was really something of a rite of passage. As we work to figure out our relationship with the world and how to deal with people we don’t necessarily want to get along with, but need to get along with, we seek to find a comfortable place to fit them into our experiences. We use nicknames to diminish these people so they are slightly less intimidating and they fit more neatly into our experience. For teens, this can be the way they survive the classes that otherwise threaten to bore them, annoy them, or terrify them.

And straddling this line between kid and teacher is the constant battle I face as a parent. This is the battle that determines if I am successful or not. I am constantly faced with the need to remember what it was like to be in my children’s shoes—whether they are teenagers or toddlers, while still teaching the skills necessary for them to function in a world which requires an ever changing mix of diplomacy, sensitivity, and candor.

For the most part, my children are respectful and polite when they walk out my door and into the world. Perhaps then, they really are learning what they need to know to make their way in the world. Perhaps a little name-calling, in the right context, can help to put relationships in perspective.

Bullies

This week, the final week of the semester, the hot paper topic seems to be bullying. I have read papers on bullying and suicide, the role of bullying in school shootings, bullying and Asperger’s, and bullying in prisons. So today, I am revisiting an experience we had with bullying….

My daughter was in kindergarten—riding the bus with elementary students through fourth grade—when she experienced bullying for the first time. It was the first year of public kindergarten in our town, and some important guidelines hadn’t yet been established. In fact, not long after this incident, one of several incidents on our school busses that fall, kindergarteners would be restricted to seats in the front of the bus, so the driver would be able to keep an eye on them….

Because my tiny daughter had a big, second-grade brother on the bus, she rode toward the back to be near him. But one day, not long into the school year, a fourth grade boy got on the bus and sat in the seat with her. He was big and tough and willing to use his size and age to exert his power wherever he could. On this particular day, he exerted his power over my five-year-old daughter.

When the bus stopped to let the kindergarten, first, and second graders off on their playground at school, this fourth grader turned his back, talked to his friends, and refused to budge, purposely blocking my daughter’s exit. By the time the bus drove around the school to the “big kid” playground, my daughter was scared and in tears, knowing she was in the wrong place. When she got off the bus, a fourth-grade safety patrol student came to her rescue, walking her around the building and depositing her with her class.

Not long after, I saw this young bully playing with his friends near our house. “You should really pick on people your own size,” I told him as I walked by. Interestingly, he knew exactly what I was talking about.

“The principal believed me when I told him I didn’t do it,” he responded, his eyes wide and purposefully innocent.

“That’s fine,” I said calmly, still walking. “But my daughter doesn’t know enough about busses and bullies to make up a story like that,” I shrugged, letting him know I knew the truth, and I continued on my way.

His response came about 15 minutes later when the boy’s mother knocked on my door, trembling with anger. “If you ever speak to my son again,” she said, but she didn’t have an end to her threat—you know, the part that is the actual threat. As she went on about the virtues of her son and the fact that she believed his side of the story, her continued threats of “Don’t you ever…” kept trailing off into emptiness. Her son stood behind her, smug and satisfied that his mother was putting me in my place.

When I finally had enough, I turned around, stepped inside, and calmly closed the door, shutting her out and sealing in my family, my home, my peace. I turned to see my children—all three of them, then three, five and seven—wide-eyed and stunned, looking to me for reassurance that this wasn’t as scary as they thought it to be.

“Well,” I said with a sigh and a wink. “Now we know where that boy learned to be a bully, don’t we?” Their little bodies relaxed as they nodded their agreement in unison.

Indeed, children who watch their parents bully others are at risk of becoming bullies themselves. On the other hand, children who have good role models at home… they can change the world for the better!