Years ago when I wrote my very first book, someone read it and was quite dismissive. I didn't mind that the person didn't like it. That's life, and I don't begrudge anyone their opinion. I did, however, bristle a bit at what I thought was a patronizing response. This was especially true because this person didn't have any particular credentials or expertise other than that they considered their opinion to be that of an expert.
Some time later, this person published a book. I was a judge in a competition in which the book was entered. I read it and thought it was pretty good. Not great, but good. But there were some very basic mistakes I thought this author had made--the kind of things many first time authors (myself included) do early on.
Other works in that contest were stronger and so I honestly voted for one of them.
Still, it reminded me of a basic lesson in life that applies to parenting. Be kind to others. Don't judge too quickly. You may well be in the same situation someday.
One of the points I try to make often is that middle school kids are kids. By definition, they are not very mature or experienced.
Adults have experience to draw on. They have perspective and what I call emotional depth perception. Kids have none of these things. They are currently making the mistakes that will give them experience and help them learn perspective.
That process is much like walking. You simply have to learn on your own. No one can do it for you. There are no short-cuts.
So, it is important to remember that children, yours and others, will do stupid things. They will act in ways that hurt others. They will embarrass you. They will do things that will be totally in opposition to what you have taught them. They will.
They will go to school with others who are in this same phase. Other children who will do stupid, mean, ill-advised, thoughtless, careless things that will mortify their parents too.
It is easy to sit and judge another person's child as being deficient, malevolent, or poorly brought up. Resist that urge and show the forbearance you would like when your child does the same thing.
I say "when" and not "if" on purpose. If your child never messes up then something is seriously wrong and he or she is not progressing or maturing in a normal way.
Sometimes being tolerant is easy. Perhaps another person's child just does something immature or silly, but no harm is done. That's easy.
However, what if that child does something that hurts your child's feelings? Or causes them to lose an important ball game? Or get a bad grade on a project? Or any number of other things.
Now it's harder. Anytime our children experience difficulty, those incidents trigger the mama/papa bear instincts in us all. However, I strongly suggest resisting the urges to get involved. Absorb the drama, don't feed it.
Don't talk about it with other parents, don't form a negative opinion. Just let it go--and give your child the gift of learning how to let go as well.
Life tends to change the roles we play often. It's best to establish a merciful standard of judgement, not knowing when we will need it applied to ourselves or our children.
Note: I'm not talking about allowing your child to be in danger. I'm not talking about bullying. But don't conflate bullying with garden-variety, plain old immaturity. Bullying generally involves a few criteria: 1) A power imbalance; 2) An element of intentionality, and 3) A continued, consistent pattern. Bullying is a real problem and it needs to be dealt with as it has harmful complications. But it's important to make sure that it's really bullying. Most of unkind, hurtful, immature things I see are not bullying.
Assuming we are not talking about bullying, show the same forbearance that you would hope someone will show your child when s/he does something stupid or mean--as they most assuredly will.
Some time ago, I had a wild and unruly kid in my theatre program. A parent (not the parent of the child) asked me why I didn't come down on him harder. I demurred and said something non-comital, but I didn't tell the whole story.
I directed my first play at the age of 15, and did the second and third in close succession. Like most 15 year olds, I was immature. This meant that I had insecurities masked as a large ego, and was prone to be impatient.
My plays met with some success, which made me even worse. I was terrified of not meeting the expectations I'd established.
During one of the plays, The Wizard of Oz, one of the stage crew made a mistake. He was supposed to move a rolling platform out on-stage during a blackout, before the backdrop came down. The platform that held the Scarecrow who was not supposed to be mobile yet.
Well the kid forgot. I don't remember if it was an honest mistake or goofing off, but I was livid. The lights went up and there's a cornfield backdrop, but no platform and no Scarecrow.
The resourceful actor playing the Scarecrow realized his platform wasn't coming on, so he lifted the backdrop and crawled out underneath it and then stood as if he was on a post.
I was livid. Furious. Enraged. Seething. I ran backstage and pulled that stage crew kid out in the hall and let him have it. I don't know what I said, but I was furious and out of control.
It took me a few years and some hard lessons to realize that during a performance, I get tense and can get very, very angry.
Eventually, I realized that I needed to allow for this. So, I made a few rules for myself. I don't wear a head-set during the performance since I don't want to be in the position of yelling at the light tech if they mess up, or screaming at the stage manager if a set change goes awry.
I always calm down after a few minutes, so I've learned to not allow myself to act until that happens. This provides a buffer that keeps me from making a mistake I'll later regret.
The reason I didn't come down on this crazy kid in the past was because I didn't trust myself to do it in a rational way. I felt that my tendency would be to be too harsh, and I had to adjust accordingly. In my mind, it was better to not come down on the kid in question than to come down in disproportionate anger.
Some people who read this post will be surprised. I am known, I think, as being fairly patient and kind. But that was not my nature and not how I started. By knowing my weaknesses I was able to develop rules for myself that helped me compensate for and work around the weaknesses. These habits served me well, allowing me the time to develop patience. The habit became a stand-in for the actual trait.
I find that when I check my temper, I do err a bit on the side of indulgence. However, and this is important, I don't error nearly as far on that side of the spectrum as I would if I were erring on the temper side. I am closer to where I want to be, even though I'm not perfect. A good teacher is both loving and strict, right in the middle of those two attributes. But my natural tendencies might pull me ten or fifteen degrees too far towards strict. If I compensate, I might end up four degrees on the kind side. I'm much closer to the ideal, even though I'm still not perfect.
We are all going to make mistakes. No parent will be perfect. No teacher will be perfect. In my mind, the trick is understanding where we are likely to make our mistakes and then adjusting. Sometimes we might adjust a little too much. But I would argue that in those cases we are still more likely to be nearer the ideal than we would with no adjustment.
I've met some parents who are, by nature, helicopter parents. Their every instinct and trait pushes them to that extreme. They need to figure out some rules and guidelines, and develop some habits that will check them in this tendency. They might go too far to an extreme sometimes, but their child will be better off, I think since that extreme will be closer to the gold mean than the helicopter parenting.
I've met other parents who are the exact opposite--Tiger parents who could stand to mellow out a bit, for their children's sake.
All of us have natural weaknesses, areas where we are likely to make mistakes.
I've come to believe that, as parents, we don't get to choose whether we'll make mistakes. But we can, I believe, choose which mistakes to make, understanding that some mistakes may actually get us closer to where we want to be.
I think in the next few weeks, I'll do some blogs about figuring out where our weaknesses and blind spots are, and how we go about this process.
I thought I'd post a follow-up to my post last week about the long-term value of disappointment. There are a few important essentials to remember when dealing with disappointment. While I'm coming from my experience as a middle school theatre director, I think most of these principles are applicable in many different areas and endeavors.
First of all, remember that you are seeing this in very subjective terms. You are focusing on your child and how they feel. That's fine, and it's your job as a parent.
But the teacher/coach/director/whomever does not have that luxury. That person has too look at the general welfare of everyone involved. S/he cannot consider personal feelings, dreams, or ambitions.
And the truth is, you wouldn't want him or her to do this. Seriously, you wouldn't.
I will assume the reason your child wants to be in the play, on the team, squad or club is because they enjoy the activity. Keep that in mind. But I will also assume that they want to be in this play/team because the program is pretty good and the child feels that the program can offer them something.
But the program is only good because the person in charge focuses on the good of the program. The moment he or she starts letting personal considerations be the basis of decisions, the quality of the program begins to decline. And then, the very experience you had wanted for your child begins to suffer. Or, should the director/coach make decisions for your child based on personal reasons--but assess everyone else on merit?
So, don't be angry that the person who built a program good enough to interest your child continues to run the program with the same standards and approach that helped build that program. Also realize that if you are upset, you are the one who is breaking the tacit agreement. They've done their job--and unless they insulted your child somehow or were rude, then they've done exactly what they were supposed to do. Note: not casting/playing your child does not count as insult.
If your child gets a smaller role or doesn't start, or whatever, put your natural resentment away. Be grateful your child gets to have an experience they ostensibly love and be a part of a program they want to join. If they don't even get on the team or in the cast, then I have a few suggestions. Talk to the person in charge and find out if there was a reason. Maybe there is something your child can learn and improve in--a particular weakness or deficit that can be made up with time and attention.
Or perhaps not. And that's okay too. Maybe this isn't the hobby or pursuit that is best suited to your child.
But let me give a caveat with that. Every year, I have people come talk to me after auditions and ask for feedback. Some of them are sincere and want to hear what they can improve. Others just want me to give some compliments or to promise them that they'll do better next time. I don't have much patience for the first, and cannot promise the second. Only ask if you truly want feedback. And, also realize that there may not be much you can do.
I can't speak much about athletics, but in theatre, sometimes it's not that a person has a deficit. Sometimes it's just a matter of "fit." One person clicks in the role better than the other. It's just the way it is and it has nothing to do with talent or anything. Think Will Smith and Will Ferrell. Both are talented, highly-paid professionals. But they are not interchangeable. Different roles would fit them in different ways.
Here are a few more thoughts.
It's almost never personal. You and your child might experience it personal terms, but for the director or coach, it seriously isn't. All my life I've heard people say that some coach, some director, some choreographer, some authority figure played favorites. They cast so-and-so because they liked her better, or gave such-and-such more playing time because his dad is their friend, a donor--whatever.
I'm not saying this never happens. But in my experience, it happens far, far less than I hear people say it does. The truth is that most coaches want to win games. Most theatre directors want the strongest cast. It's really pretty simple. I suppose all of us are subject to human error, but I am convinced that these sort of things happen far, far less than I hear people mutter. They might make mistakes, their plans and strategies might go amiss. But I really think most people in these positions are trying to do the best you can.
More likely is that the teacher/coach/director is simply balancing a myriad of factors that most people have absolutely no idea about. And, it may be that your child's best interests are one of those factors. I have had students in the past who had nice voices or good acting skills--but crumpled under even mild pressure or difficulty. Giving such a child a lead would be incredibly cruel
I've learned from long experience that the best way to get through this kind of thing is to trust the good intentions of the person who made the decision--and then move on. My son wanted badly to be the Drum Major in his high school marching band. He did not get that position. I still think he would have been good. But he had a wonderful experience his senior year anyway. What he really loved was marching band. And that is what he got to do.
We just finished our fall production. As always, I am amazed at what adolescents can do. When I watch these plays every year, and watch the students perform, watch students manage complex scene changes, run light and sound boards, I'm blown away.
However, when I look at the final product and compare it to the dress rehearsals that came immediately before I am even more blown away.
When I first started directing, I got very nervous because dress rehearsals were awful. But somehow the performances always worked.
It took me a few years but I finally realized that I didn't need to panic if the dress rehearsals were bad. Actually not "if"--rather, "when" the rehearsals were bad.
What do I learn from this?
A few things.
First of all, when things seem bleak with your adolescent child--and they will--keep going! Keep hope. Things may yet work out.
But there's another lesson. The question I've come to ask is why it always works out. Is it magic? Lots of prayer? Just luck?
I would not rule any of those out (especially the prayer--something I tend to do a lot of the week of a play!). But I think the answer is more mundane and less exotic. It's the process.
After years of experience and education and most of all--trial and error, my colleagues and I came up with a process that works. It takes a cast of students who have never done a particular play before and moves them from point to point until they are ready to perform. They learn the choreography to one song at a time. They learn the lyrics line-by-line. They memorize their dialogue. We teach them where to stand and when to move. We layer in props, scenery, lights, microphones, music--and boom! The play happens, as if by magic. But it's not really magic. It's the end result of a carefully planned process, honed over years of experience.
It's also not something I dreamed up myself. It's the way plays have been rehearsed, basically forever. I made some adaptations to fit my students and our particular situation. Our process isn't the same as on Broadway. But it's not vastly different, either, and they are differences in degree, not in kind.
Here's where I'm going with this. Humans have raised adolescents for a long, long time now. There is a basic process. It varies from culture to culture and time to time, but there are general patterns to this process. Don't throw it out. Don't reinvent the wheel. Make some adjustments if needed--but don't start from scratch.
Most parents that I see really struggle with raising their children tend to have bought into two philosophies that I think are damaging. The first is that they feel that it's the 21st century and everything is new, so why worry about the traditions of the past? They seem to feel that they can, by dint of their greater enlightenment, figure out how to raise their kids without all the silly old ideas, strictures, and patterns of the past. In my experience, this doesn't work. The collective wisdom of the past is a great asset. There is a reason that we evolved social and cultural norms. Maybe some of them are outdated--but not all of them. And I think we can benefit from considering them carefully.
The worst play I ever directed was when I threw out the tried and true rehearsal format and came up with all manner of clever new ideas. They were brilliant--and they should have worked. But they didn't, and the play was terrible. Happily I no longer live in that state. It was a painful experience, but I learned my lesson. Don't tamper with what works.
The second mistake I see is the opposite of the first--it's making no adaptations at all. It's clinging completely to the past without any regard to unique situations and people. It woud be analogous to me using the same rehearsal schedule they use on Broadway with my middle school kids.
So, I suggest not raising your kids like it's 1956 or even 1983. But I also strongly suggest not buying into all the social changes and conventional wisdom around. I very strongly suggest not getting caught up in trends and following along in contemporary currents.
Create a process. Look at people you admire. Look at people who have children you admire. Look at people with children you don't admire (but do this kindly, not in a judgmental way. You never know how kids will turn out). Look at the way you were raised, look at how cultures have raised kids for thousands of years.
Create a process and then stick to it. Don't panic when, in dress rehearsals, things fall apart. Tweak and adjust as necessary. Do what it takes.
One more thought.
One of the reasons the dress rehearsals always seem to go so badly is because it is the first time the kids have every aspect of the play all at the same time--they are trying to use props while worrying about costume and set changes, handle their microphones and lighting cues and on and on.
There's an old saying in the theatre: Bad dress rehearsal, good performance. It's not always true. But there's a reason it became a cliche--there is a lot of truth in it.
It is often the falling apart in dress rehearsals that provides the impetus and the experience necessary for them to succeed in the performance.
I think adolescence is like that dress rehearsal. There is a lot going on. Lots of layers, many different complex tasks. So it makes sense that there will be some failures. It may be that it is the failures and challenges of adolescence that will provide the impetus and experience for success as and adult.
So, if the dress rehearsal isn't going too well, don't panic. Don't despair. Your child is probably pretty normal--and you have to trust the process.
There are days when I look at myself and wonder how in the world I manage to tie my shoelaces and drive to work. You know--the days you start to wonder just how dense you can be?
Today was one of those days. I realized something and wanted to kick myself. Let me explain.
Last week, my MSM post was about rewarding and reinforcing good behavior rather than trying to change less-desirable actions. And I really believe that. But you have to be careful with what you reward.
Last spring, during March Madness, I came up with an idea I thought was pretty good. You see, the boys in my middle school chorus classes tend to grumble and growl instead of singing. They don't want to sing high notes and so they try to sing everything an octave too low. But their voices don't really go that low. So it ends up in a sort of monotone growl.
We working on a song and I was at my wit's end. Could not get them to sing the right notes. They weren't even high--just higher than the growls they were doing.
In a flash of inspiration, I had them line up in my classroom and take turns shooting foul shots in the basketball hoop I keep there. They each did and then we talked about baskets. Some shots miss completely, so barely make it, and some arc up over the rim drop down through the hoop and swish through--nothing but net.
We talked about singing like that. Singing up and over and landing down on the note. Going high if it needs it, but not shooting too low on our singing. Nothing but note (see what I did there?).
Well, I felt like it worked. We did that exercise and then sang and it got better. I developed a specific conducting motion to remind them of this idea.
The next day things were bad again. So I had them line up and do the same thing. And again it improved a little.
Do you see the problem? Do you see what I did without meaning to?
I rewarded their bad singing. Everytime they did this badly, they get to shoot a basketball.
I stand by the initial idea. It was a good idea, I think. A way to help them translate a concept into something familiar and kinesthetic.
But to be more effective, once we'd had the initial lesson, I should have let them shoot hoops whenever they did it well--not when I wanted to remind them of what to do. Without meaning to, I set up a powerful incentive to not sing the way I wanted them to.
So, I believe in rewarding good behavior and positive actions.
However, you have to be careful with the way you do it!
And now I have learned and will be changing this situation tomorrow.
Many years ago, when my wife and I had three small, active, and headstrong children, we turned to a parenting book for help (link here. I know the cover looks dated, but it had good stuff in it).
I don't remember everything I read in that book, but there was one point that the author made over and over and over. In fact, he ended every chapter with a quote to this effect: "It is far easier to reinforce good behavior than to change undesirable behavior."
I have come to believe that. Granted, there are times when a parent or teacher must correct bad behavior. You just have to. But I also believe that for many of us, this is our default. That is, we take good behavior for granted while disciplining for bad.
I'm not arguing that we should just ignore bad behavior. There are times when consequences are necessary if a child is going to grow in a healthy, happy functional adult.
Still, I maintain that we spend far more time focusing on the "dont's" than we do reinforcing the "do's."
This summer my family and I attended a sea lion show at the St. Louis zoo. It was really delightful. One thing I noticed is how often the trainers rewarded the sea lions. Every time the sea lions did something good, the trainers reinforced it with a handful of fish.
I understand that students are not sea lions. They have to learn to do the right thing for the right reasons. In life, we don't get rewarded every time we do the right things.
But, think for a minute about why you do the things you do. I would guess that much of what you do during the day is done because you want a reward. You go to work because you want a paycheck. You exercise because you feel good or want to lose weight. Etc. etc. Most adults, I believe, act more out of the hope for a desired reward than they do out of fear of punishment.
How many people do you know who speed? The potential punishment does not modify behavior. And yet, I think most of us expect kids to just be good because they should be. We act because we want rewards, but we expect adolescents to just do the right thing--or be punished.
This has changed the way I work with kids--my own and those I teach. Instead of setting rules and punishing them if they disobey, I now try to find ways to reward good behavior. I still do give out consequences, but I give them out far less than I used to, and the whole energy and dynamic of my classroom has changed. Allowing them to earn rewards draws on a number of powerful human tendencies and
Middle School Mondays: When Your Child Lies, Cheats, or Steals and Otherwise Does Something That Conflicts With Your Values
First of all, please note that I said when your child does something wrong. Not if. When. The chances are very remote that they never will do something wrong.
Over the years I can't count the number of times I've had a conversation something like this:
"Mr./Mrs. X, your child did such-and-such a thing."
"What? But how could he do that? We've taught him/her better than that!" The thing is, the parent is completely truthful. They have taught them better.
The sort of incidents I describe here are usually moderate infractions. They are a little more serious than very minor things, but not terribly major either. For example, someone taking something small from another person, destroying some small object, or showing disrespect.
For example, I once had some students who were rehearsing in another teacher's room. They saw some candy in the room and took it. When I told their mom, she was appalled. "I've taught them not to steal!" She was angry with them, and a more than a little embarrassed.
This actually happens quite a bit. Kids see something laying around and since it doesn't apparently belong to anyone, they take it.
Or, they ruin something, some property belonging to someone else. This is almost always thoughtless, rather than malicious. Parents respond to this like the issues of minor stealing. "I can't believe he would do that! We respect other people's property in our house..."
The list can go on and on. Kids do things all the time that adults consider to be stealing or cheating or destruction of property and on and on. The parents are baffled because they feel they have taught their children to be honest, to respect property, to not cheat, and so on.
The children, however, are often baffled as well.
Here's the thing to remember. Adults are able to generalize and apply to specific situations more than kids. We hear "don't steal" and know that means you don't take anything that doesn't belong to you. Kids hear that and agree with it--but it doesn't necessarily translate down to the micro level of taking some candy from an empty desk. The same kids who would never consider robbing a bank or taking an iPod from someone simply don't connect the dots to less dramatic
The basic principle to remember is that, as far as the kids can see, they haven't done anything all that wrong. The adult sees that they've stolen. They see that they were hungry and a jar of candy was sitting there. And, being a bit egocentric, they sort of just assume it was there for their use. Or, even more likely, they simply didn't think about anything at all.
My suggestion in cases like this is to not overreact. The child needs to be taught. You can help them connect the dots. They will inevitably say something like, "But I didn't know that was Mrs. Z's candy!" To which you reply, "Yes, but you know it's not yours, right? It doesn't matter who it belongs to you when you know it's not yours. That's stealing. I know you didn't think it was, but that's the definition of stealing." And so on. The child made a mistake, but did not mean to go against your teaching. There was just a connection that didn't happen.
Try not to react out of embarrassment. I have done this as a parent, and I have seen other parents do it. In cases such as these, it's easy to overreact. You are upset at the child, and you are also embarrassed. There can be a temptation to show everyone that you are appalled by really coming down hard on the kid. This is the time to remember that it's really not about you.
There should be discipline of some kind, but it should be a chance to learn, not to be punished or humiliated. Paying for the stolen or damaged item and a sincere apology can go a long way.
Middle School Monday: "Why Do These Things Always Happen to Me?" Understanding Your Adolescent's Tendency to Pretty Much Destroy the World.
Welcome back to school! Here at Mockingbird Cottage, the air is getting less humid, the nights are cooler, and we get just a hint of a whiff of smoke in the air (the farmers near us are drying tobacco in their barns by smoking it for several weeks). It's all very picturesque and lovely. Of course, with all that autumnal picturesqueness comes a few other things. Mostly much earlier alarm clocks as we head back to school.
As I look on Facebook, most of my friends are either back in school--or going soon. So, I thought it might be good to start (cue the big radio announcer voice) Middle School Mondays again! (Confetti, applause, cowbells, etc.)
Today's post comes from a reader comment. As she started reading Penumbras, she said, "Conner just doesn't have the best luck, does he?" She's referring to the fact that when he's around, all kinds of mishaps occur. Conner is a little confused by all of this stuff--wondering why these things just happen. He didn't mean to set a bullie's gym shorts on fire or blow up a school bus or destroy the bathrooms. This stuff just happens as he lives his life and tries to get away from the bad guys.
While there is some definite tongue-in-cheek in the books, they are based on a true pattern I've observed over the years. Adolescents are often surrounded by a maelstrom of destruction. They ruin shoes, they lose clothes. They misplace homework, they crack the screen of the laptop. Their grades burst into flames and end up in tiny ashy heaps. Their friendships might do the same, and it's not uncommon for a minor encounter with a parent to turn into a full-fledged fight.
Suddenly, that kid is looking at the charred remains of his or her life thinking, "I didn't mean to do that" and, something I have heard dozens, perhaps hundreds of times over the years: "Why do these things always happen to me?"
Nearly every adolescent I know is convinced that he or she simply has the worst luck in the world. Bad grades just happen. Property is mysteriously damaged when they use it. Valuable items vanish. Teachers and parents have it in for them. Unseen forces, as malevolent as they are omnipotent, seem to search for ways to make their lives miserable.
It's easy for adults to see these kind of things and roll our eyes. Bad grades "just happened"-- because the kid didn't do his homework, or because she insists on texting while studying for tests. A teacher "hates them"--meaning they were disciplined for talking in class. Expensive shoes "disappear" because no apparent effort is ever made to pick them up. And so on.
Here is what we need to remember. They don't see it. They just don't. I'm not a neuroscientist so I can't tell you exactly what parts of their brains are not firing on all cylinders, but as someone who is around kids all day, every day, I can tell you that their brains definitely do not fire on all cylinders. They don't discern cause-and-effect like we do. It's like they are color blind and you are not. You are staring at something glaringly, obviously red and they just don't see it.
They definitely can't anticipate cause-and-effect, and they even struggle to see it in retrospect. With coaching, I've found you can get to the point where they will sometimes acknowledge leaving a laptop out in the rain wasn't a good idea. However at that point, they'll jump in with, "But, it's your fault for not reminding me!" or something similar. They will usually remain convinced that their part of the whole mess was one teeny-tiny factor, regrettable, but unavoidable, and completely insignificant in light of many other things. "How was I supposed to know it was going to rain? It's not like I tried to leave it out all night. Sheesh, I didn't call up and order a rainstorm!"
So, what do you do about it?
First realize this is a something almost every kid pases through. Your child is very normal.
That being said, I believe you still have to talk to them, specifically discussing how their small choices ended up causing a big thing to happen. They won't often get it, but if you do this enough over the years, you'll help create a habit for them. When their brains do start firing on all cylinders again, they have both the habit and the capacity to use it. If you neglect to build the habit, simply having the mental capacity will not make a difference. It will be like a car with no gas (lots of metaphors, similes, and images today).
I also believe that they really need non-punitive, natural consequences--if they break it, they buy it. Or as close to it as they can. That will also help them when the brain starts working again.
Mostly, you grit your teeth and love them. And you realize that they are usually very, very frustrated. They feel keenly the fact that everything they touch seems to turn to ash and mud. Nothing goes well. They ruin everything they touch. They feel that. And they hate it--absolutely hate it! It makes them feel bad. It really does. But they just don't see the connection between lack of judgement and negative consequences. They need so much love and understanding.
Every child will vary with this, both in terms of how severe it is, and when it starts and how long it lasts. In my experience, this tendency begins around 5th grade or so. It's mild at first. But it grows pretty steadily. It seems to hit rock bottom in about 7th grade and then things start to slowly improve.
Another generalization: most often, I think boys tend to have external chaos. At least that's where it's most visible. Rooms, grades, angry outbursts. Part of this is their growing size. They are larger than they used to be. Their actions suddenly have a lot more velocity and strength behind them. So instead of just thumping the wall, they put a hole in it ("Stupid wall! This house is a piece of junk! Who built this thing anyway?").
Girls may seem to hold things together a little better, at least outside the home, but their chaos seems to me to be more internal. They tend not to be so destructive of property, but may be slashing and burning through fields of friends. They may also lose all manner of clothing items. This seems exacerbated by the fact that at their most thoughtless mental stages, they want to have the most accessories they've ever had before. Where boys seem to get angrier, I feel that girls will often feel that they are being unfairly persecuted. Here's one other thought, again, a generalization. Most times, boys existing habits simply seem to get louder, and bigger, and more destructive (and much, much smellier). In my experience, many (but not all) girls seem to actually change in terms of their personality.
These are generalizations, though, and your boy may burst into tears about his friend situation just as quickly as your girl throws her lunch box through your antique stained-glass window. Previously organized, neat, and motivated students of both sexes may suddenly be imitating the worst cliches of lazy, messy teenagers you've ever seen.
Both boys and girls may demonstrate a stunning lack of common sense or the ability to think through even the most simple steps. "Why didn't you put the ice cream away?" You ask, upon arriving to a floor covered with a quart of sticky, ex-ice cream. "You didn't tell me to!" Your teen replies with an icy contempt that withers your soul, as if you are the world's biggest fool and knave.
My observation is that they start to grow out of this by being a little more mindful of physical or external things. They leave things out less frequently and are more responsible with their belongings. And they also seem to manage their peer relations better. Their room may still be a disaster and they may not seem to be maturing much in their relationships with you, but outside of home, things seem better. Maturity at home does come, I promise! But in my experience, that is a lagging indicator. I think that has to do with the fact that they prioritize social situations and peers outside of home--so their best efforts start there but eventually spill over into domestic life.
But, things will improve. I promise.
In many places, it's the season of graduation and year-end celebrations, so I think it might be valuable to talk about the giving of awards. Specifically, what to do when your child doesn't get one.
Last week, our school had an awards assembly. During this awards assembly several awards were given. My Kindergarten son did not receive one, although several of his good buddies did.
As we drove home, we had an interesting conversation. At first he mentioned the awards ceremony (I didn't bring it up), assuring me that he hadn't really wanted an award. But as we talked, he opened up enough to admit that he was struggling with the fact that he didn't get an award and his friend did.
Here's the thing: he had a wonderful, wonderful year. I'm talking so wonderful that he cried on weekends and was discouraged over Christmas and spring breaks because he couldn't be in school.
He loved his year! But at this moment, all those happy memories and all the fun he had were quickly minimized because he didn't get an award. Hold that thought for a minute.
Back to the story: I assured him that his feelings were very natural and normal, and then we talked about the choice he had to make. He could focus on feeling unhappy for himself, or try to be happy for his friend. I explained that each of these feelings were sort of like living things. Whichever one he fed with his thoughts and feelings would get bigger. I asked him which one he thought was the better thought, which one he wanted to encourage.
Happily, he decided he wanted to try to focus on being happy for his friend.
It's funny because as soon as he made that conscious decision, it didn't seem to matter to him anymore, and his good memories of the year are back.
Awards are kind of a mixed blessing, aren't they? They are wonderful when you get one. When you don't? Not so much. People really struggle with this. I've found that myself. I have been in many situations where I was nominated for an award that I didn't end up winning. Let's be honest: it stings. It can even hurt. The human response is to be mad at the winner, or the givers of the award. Or both.
But this is the wrong response! It's wrong because it's unfair to the others involved. It's wrong because it's arrogant and narcissistic (why do we assume we deserved the award? Perhaps there were factors of which we aren't aware).
But mostly it's wrong because it will bring misery to the person who indulges in this kind of response.
Here's the point I think is important to consider: if your child is being nominated for an award, chances are it is something they like and are good at. Chances are they have fun or draw some satisfaction from this activity. Focus on that, not the award! Focus on the intrinsic value, focus on what they learned and did. Don't focus on the award--or the lack thereof. If you do, then you run the risk of tainting those happy memories. And that would be a huge shame. It is the definition of being penny-wise and pound-foolish if you think about it.
Over the years I've noticed something. The people who don't get awards are tempted to let the lack of the award make everything that came before suddenly have no value. In other words, someone might have years and years of happy memories from an activity--a sport or plays or something else. They might have had fun with their friends, learned and grown, and had all kinds of other benefits. The day before the award was given, these were good and happy memories, and their recollection of their time in this activity was positive.
But then they don't get the award and suddenly it all changes. Those happy memories fade and hurt and bitterness appear. And that leads to unhappiness. Don't let that happen!
It's not only that memories can be ruined. I've also seen relationships ruined over the lack of an award. Teacher-student relationships that were close and wonderful, or the relationships between two friends or colleagues that became strained. What a shame!
Honestly, short of a Nobel Prize or Pulitzer Prize, most awards don't really tend to mean as much as life goes on. Seriously, how many adults are still all that excited about the awards they won in elementary or middle school--or even high school?
However, it is a sad mark of the times that parents and students are driven to quantify every activity by achievement. We can no longer simply enjoy doing something. We have to be the best--and prove it. I have seen students collect awards and accolades like some people collect stamps. But they get no joy from these awards. Only misery if they don't get one. It's the 21st century equivalent of being a miser; these are adolescent Silas Marners.
Which is my son going to treasure more in the long run? A really great Kindergarten year or getting that award? Chances are, had he received an award, he would have forgotten in a week or two. A year and it would be ancient history. But his good and happy memories of his year? Those can last a lifetime.
So--when your child doesn't get the award, stop a minute. Acknowledge the real sting, but then re-direct. Focus on what they got from the experience. And give them the gift of memories and growth that will last for the rest of their lives.
I learned, or rather re-learned, a couple of important lessons about working with adolescents recently and I've been thinking about them quite often.
The other day, I received a wonderful, detailed three-page thank-you letter from a student in which she very sweetly detailed the things she and other students appreciated. (Incidentally, this was one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me and I relished every word! But that's a different story).
Besides being really wonderful on a personal level, this also gave me the opportunity to get some insight into the kinds of things that adolescents value and appreciate.
As I read and re-read this letter, I was fascinated by something. Almost everything she thought significant enough to mention was something that most adults would probably consider to be on the smaller, less-significant side of what a teacher does for students. In fact, I was a little surprised by the things that she remembered and noted.
This dear student didn't mention the big, life-changing sort of thing. Rather, she mentioned things like buying the students pizza at the end of a long dress rehearsal, or keeping a cabinet of snacks they can access during after-school rehearsals. Calling them silly nicknames or just being cheerful. Being patient and not angry when someone makes a mistake--even a big one. Laughing along with them at things they think are funny
Of all the things she listed, there was only one thing that an adult would have considered to be terribly serious or significant.
That's the first lesson. When I teach kids, I am going into their territory, trying to get them to follow me to mine. I'm not one of these romantics about kids--I don't think they are superior to adults and I don't think the world would be better if we acted like kids. I think our job is to lead them to adulthood.
That being said, we have to start where they are. We have to respect what is important to them and we have to try to speak their language, so to speak (not literally. Nothing is worse than an adult who tries to use cool teen vernacular. In fact, I do this as a way to annoy my daughter. It's so grating)
The second lesson I learn comes from looking for the common pattern in all these things she mentioned. I see a few things, and they teach me a great deal.
There is a line Dickens wrote in A Christmas Carol that I really like. Scrooge, seeing his first employer says, "He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil."
It occurred to me that adolescents spend their lives in a situation where they are always the subordinate. They are (and should be!) under the direction of adults--parents, teachers, coaches.
But when I think of how completely we adults control their world, I consider the quote from Dickens. We, the adults, have tremendous power to make their lives happy or unhappy. I find that quite sobering and need to remember that. It is so easy to snap when I'm in a bad mood or to act irrationally. And being human, this will happen. And sometimes I think it needs to, honestly. But it makes me consider very carefully whether I make them happy or unhappy when they are under my authority.
I think perhaps that is why this student, and presumably, her peers, responded so much to these ostensibly little things. I suspect that getting pizza made them feel cared for and valued--that they were important. I don't know that they really sense that a lot. They may hear it, but I'm not sure how often we model that they really are important.
Third lesson: I also really believe that most adults (myself included) do not fully realize just how much adolescents value fun, nor how important fun can be.
There is an old quote that one hears often about children and play: "The work of childhood is play." The idea is that children learn what they need to learn by engaging in play, that they develop in important ways by playing--physically, socially, emotionally, cognitively and so on.
I am coming to believe that the work adolescents is fun. I'm serious about that. I believe that in many ways, adolescents learn and develop by having fun. Adolescents are under so many pressures--social, physical, academic--and I think fun helps relax that pressure temporarily. I really believe it is the language they speak.
This reminds me that if I really want them to learn something deeply, to remember something, that I need to make it fun.
I believe that some day my students will also realize that I taught them some bigger, more serious things. I've certainly been trying to do that.
But this letter reminded me that when I'm trying to teach adolescents, when I want to reach them, I need to meet them on their terms--and those terms involve fun, snacks, and laughter. And if I meet them there, they might listen to me when I want to speak. And I would do well not to minimize the things that get me on their ground as trivial.
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Thoughts about raising and teaching adolescents. You can read the complete series here. (What in the world are Middle School Mondays?) Click here.
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