The Jedi mind tricks of raising teens, part 3

Back in 2014 I wrote a couple of posts that I (admittedly pretty ambitiously) called the Jedi mind tricks of raising teens. Unlike the Jedi mind tricks in Star Wars, these tips are not about tactics to get the behavior that you want from the teenagers in your midst but instead ways of changing your own mindset so that you look at them differently and maybe understand them from a different angle, especially in tough times.

To review, here are the previous tricks (the full descriptions are posted here and here):

  1. Time travel forward to the week they are leaving home.
  2. Time travel further forward to watching them parent your grandkids.
  3. Time travel back to when your teen was 2, 3, 7, etc.
  4. Time travel further back to when you were their age.
  5. Adjust your expectations or reframe your role ("oh, I'm my child's external hard drive!").
  6. Think of yourself as a curious anthropologist.

For your consideration, here's another Jedi mind trick to add to your quiver (which is probably not where Jedis keep their mind tricks. Hmmm, I sense that the metaphor is falling apart...) ANYWAY.

I was thinking of the coming-of-age novels I love and how we consistently cheer for the protagonist, no matter how many immature, stupid, hubris-y decisions they make. I wondered what my own kids' coming of age novel would be like, which led me to the next Jedi mind trick of parenting:  Imagine that your teen is a character in a book, a character that you're cheering for, a character who's sympathetic, charming, spunky but flawed. Compassion.

More to the point, if you are the parent to the protagonist, how would you want to be written? I would love to take a cue from Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird), Mrs. Weasley (Harry Potter), Kate Murry (A Wrinkle in Time), Marmee (Little Women), Ma & Pa Ingalls (Little House books) and the Cuthberts (Anne of Green Gables). I think their common characteristic is that they seem to know the hearts of their flawed protagonist children--they understand their kids' sometimes outrageous flailing is essentially a feature of good kids figuring out life.  

I mean....who wouldn't want to be looked at with this kind of benevolent amusement/compassion? 

I mean....who wouldn't want to be looked at with this kind of benevolent amusement/compassion? 

Okay, what's your favorite coming of age novel? Which fictional parents are missing from the list here?

Practicing Parenthood: Paying Attention

Most of the time we think about parenting as something we do to influence someone else—it's what we do to raise baby humans into responsible, contributing adult humans. We scour articles that promise “pro tips to get your child to behave” or “how to produce a [kind, responsible, smart, superstar] child in ten easy steps.” Me too! I get it--I study and teach parenting for a living—the fascination is strong there and we want to crack the code for how to produce happy, adjusted people.

Lately, though, I’ve been mulling over how parenting and parenthood has changed—sometimes “raised,” other times lowered—me

When I’ve let it, motherhood has been a spiritual practice—and I mean that in the sense of my spirit imperfectly practicing difficult, soul-stretching-and-spraining things.

That’s not to say it’s always transcendent or that I float around in nirvana but rather that when I hit the most difficult (yet oh-so-frequent and mundane) times of being the allegedly mature grown up in a family, those moments invite me to learn to be a better human in general and get better at the things that matter.

Now and then I’d like to chat here about some of those parenthood practices that make us stronger people—the equivalent of doing those annoying scales and arpeggios when practicing the piano. What are those things? I don’t know. Or rather, I’m trying to figure it out.  Tell me yours: what quality or change has the practice of parenthood brought you?  What specific parenthood moments have helped stretch and deepen you as a person? Please chime in, I’d really love to know.

. . .

Here’s one I’ve been considering: attention. More specifically: paying it.  In the movie Lady Bird one of my favorite parts is a scene between Lady Bird, this teenage girl who lives in Sacramento (though is aching to leave it), and her Catholic School counselor, Sister Sarah Joan. After reading Lady Bird’s college entrance essay, Sister Sarah Joan remarks that Lady Bird clearly loves the city. “You write about Sacramento so affectionately, and with such care,” she tells her. This surprises Lady Bird, who replies that she just pays attention. Then Sister Sarah Joan notes, “Don’t you think they are the same thing? Love--and attention?”

payattention_small1.jpg

French philosopher Simone Weil wrote about attention as a kind of spiritual discipline: “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Parents know this. We gaze at our newborn’s faces for hours, memorizing the slopes and angles and reading their features and their cues like tea leaves. Somewhere along the line this level of attention becomes inappropriate and/or unwelcome (“Why are you staring at me like that?!”) so our attention takes covert, underground forms.

I got out of practice of really paying attention as the pace, competing priorities, and sheer number of people in our family increased. But I’m keen to build that muscle again. If you are, too, here are a few ideas for our attention practicing:

  • Write a description of each of your big kids/teens/YAs as they are now. Details. What do they look like, who do they remind you of, what pushes their buttons and makes them happy? Baby books are great and all but this is when things get really fascinating. Pay attention and document, even if just for your own eyes.
     
  • Look family members in the eye. Don’t make this creepy; try for at least once or twice a day when you stop what you’re doing, turn to them and talk face to face, no interruptions. Notice what it feels like to really see and be seen.
     
  • Pay a sincere compliment about something you’ve noticed. Or write a note. I remember once when I was an awkward, 15-year-old I took a ballet class. Short limbed and long bodied with legs more muscular than lithe, I didn’t feel graceful. I felt self conscious and internally lamented I didn’t look like the twiggy lean dancers in the class but I did love going to class, moving to the music, expressing myself that way. My mom came to one of the open house classes and said in the car on the way home something offhanded like “It was so beautiful to see you move like that. You have such a lovely figure.” I probably said “oh, Mom.” I might have even rolled my eyes. But guys. I took that compliment and tucked it into my soul pocket for years. I felt seen.

We are here to abet creation and to witness it,
to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed.
Together we notice not only each mountain shadow
and each stone on the beach
but we notice each other’s beautiful face
and complex nature
so that creation need not play to an empty house.

Annie Dillard

The Hard Thing rule

I've been a bad blogger lately. I just need to fess up and own it. Sarah's happily picking up Jordan in France this week and I pledged to cover for us both here but I've also been diving deeply into my dissertation research and forgetting to come up for air. Because deadlines.

Bike to the top of a mountain, 1900  via

Bike to the top of a mountain, 1900 via

In a moment of giving in to my well-seasoned delay and distraction tactics, I clicked over to read a National Geographic profile of persistence/grit researcher Angela Duckworthrationalizing that it was oh-so-faintly related to my research on mindset. Her focus and work ethic inspire me and I'm motivated by the description of her passion for her work and lab--not to mention the fact that she went back for a PhD later in life, too. (Let's hear it for mama grad students!) On another level, I appreciated the glimpse of her family life and how some of her research findings are showing up in the way she and her husband Jason parent:

Angela and Jason have two daughters—Amanda, 13, and Lucy, 11—who attend a public magnet school in Philadelphia. Angela says she of course wants them to have grit, in addition to kindness, generosity, honesty, and gratitude. "I think kids are not able to just spontaneously grow up to be gritty people without being supported in that," she says.

...Back at the Duckworth household, meanwhile, Angela and Jason have instituted something called the Hard Thing Rule as a way of familiarizing their young daughters with the experience of grit. The Hard Thing Rule is that all members of the family have to be doing a hard thing. It should be something they have an interest in, of course—ballet, a musical instrument, archery—but the corollary is that it also has to require deliberate practice almost daily, and they're not allowed to quit just because they're bored or feel no good at it. They can revisit their interest at the end of the tuition period, say, or semester, or school year, but not before.

"I believe kids should choose what they want to do, because it's their life, but they have to choose something," she says, "and they can't quit in the middle unless there's a really good reason." There are going to be peaks and valleys. "You don't want to let kids quit during a valley."

The girls' "hard thing"s right now are the piano for Amanda and the viola for Lucy. For Angela and Jason, it's their jobs. Jason's a real estate developer who creates compact, mixed-use, pre-World War II-type traditional neighborhoods you feel safe letting your kids walk around in alone. Angela, of course, has enough challenges to sustain her through multiple lifetimes. How she can be a better mentor. How to solve that measurement problem. Which school district is going to do which study.

"It's all incredibly hard."

I like the framing of persistence and grit into the Hard Thing rule. I know many families have adopted the battle cry "We can do hard things!" and that grit is a popular word these days. But it's another thing to build that stretching and, yes, discomfort into the fabric of the family rules. As someone who tends more to the "flight" (=give in, find an escape hatch, move on) in the fight-or-flight response, I probably should have enacted this years ago! Darn. 

And so, even though I'm pretty well acquainted with these ideas theoretically, I think I needed this reminder as much as anyone: "children [and grown 45-year-old women] need to be taught to appreciate that they're supposed to suffer when working hard on a challenge that exceeds their skill. They're supposed to feel confused. Frustration is probably a sign that they're on the right track and need to gut it out through the natural human aversion to mental effort and feeling overwhelmed so they can evolve." 


What do you think? Do you have something like the Hard Things rule at your house? What's your own Hard Thing right now?

p.s. Here's a TED talk on grit by Dr. Duckworth

The angsty-ness & the awesomeness

A few weeks ago, we were all sitting around the kitchen table playing music for each other from our playlists. Somehow G and I started sharing all of our old adolescent 80s music, complete with accompanying interpretive lipsyncing, when we hit on a virtual musical time capsule. Has there ever, in the history of music, been a more teen-angsty song than "Somebody" by Depeche Mode?! It catapulted me back to my little dark basement bedroom in Logan Utah, hugging a pillow and wringing out every overwrought emotion that lead singer Martin Gore evoked. I'm telling you, that guy knew his audience.  And I wasn't even especially angsty in my regular, daylight hours.

After working with teenagers for the last 10-15 years, I've realized that every last one feels different at some point: outside of the perceived crowd, other-than, left out. As Robert Sapolsky noted in his awesomely titled recent article "Dude, Where's my Frontal Cortex?": "One brain-imaging study reveals the neural depths of adolescent pain in not belonging. Put someone in a scanner to play a video game with two other individuals, and manipulate things so that the subject believes they are being ostracized. In adults, this social exclusion activates the amygdala along with other limbic regions associated with pain, disgust, anger, and sadness. But then the frontal cortex kicks in—“Come on, it’s a stupid game”—and the limbic structures quiet down. Do the same with an adolescent and the frontal cortex remains silent and that agonized limbic network of teenage angst wails."

But this hyper-awareness has a positive side, too. Sapolsky goes on to note that "adolescence isn’t always as dark as it’s made out to be. There’s a feature of adolescence that makes up for the stupid risk-taking and hideous fashion decisions. And that’s an adolescent’s frenzied, agitated, incandescent ability to feel someone else’s pain, to feel the pains of the entire world, to want to right all its wrongs. Adolescents are nature’s most wondrous example of empathy, where the forcefulness of feeling as the other can border on nearly being the other.

"This intensity is at the intersection of so many facets of adolescence. With the highs higher and lows lower, the empathic pain scalds and the glow of having done the right thing makes it seem plausible that we are here for a purpose. Another factor is the openness to novelty. An open mind is a prerequisite for an open heart, and the adolescent hunger for the new readily presents opportunities to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes."  

Case in point: when Sapolsky's young daughter performs in a heavy play about Bosnia, he notices the effect the performance has on some teens in the theatre:

"Some high school kids had come to a performance as a group outing for an English class. About halfway through the play, my daughter’s character appears for the first time, cautiously emerging from a ventilation duct in her kitchen where she’d been hiding, unaware that the soldier who had just left the apartment after killing her mother was going to return. Up until that point, she had only been hinted at as a character. The soldier had his ethnic-cleansing to-do list of names of Bosnians in the building to kill, and kept demanding of the mother, “Where’s your daughter? It says you have a daughter.” “I don’t have a daughter,” the mother repeated up until her death. So as the girl begins to emerge from the ventilation duct, the realization sweeps through the audience: there is a daughter. As my daughter began to crawl out, the teenagers in the audience did something you’re not supposed to do in a theater, something no adult with a developed frontal cortex would do. After a moment of hushed silence, two or three voices called out, “No!” Another called, “Go back in, it’s not safe!,” another, “He’s coming back!” After the play, the teenagers clustered around my little girl when she came out of the stage door, hugging her, reassuring themselves that both she and her character were OK. 

Oh, the feels, as the kids say. I try to remember how powerful and vivid those emotional rapids felt and that they're intensified by brain development and hormones and just...life. The teen behaviors might keep screaming Dude, where's my frontal cortex? but we parents have enough to spare and share until our kids find their own.


 The whole Sapolsky article is a good read on teen brain development. (Thanks, Tona!)

Okay, friends. Here's what I need to know: What were your go-to angsty songs as a teenager?

14 x 14

In social work and public health, there's a well-known parable (sometimes attributed to community organizer Saul Alinsky) that goes something like this: A group of friends are having a picnic by a river when suddenly they see someone caught in current, flailing down the river on the verge of drowning. Someone leaps up, jumps in, and brings the swimmer to safety. And then another drowning swimmer goes by. And another. Increasing numbers of struggling swimmers keep coming down the river, clearly in trouble, and the friends do their best to keep up in helping them to shore. All of the sudden, one friend gets up and takes off running along the riverbank.

"Where are you going?! We need you here!" his friends yell.

He responds, "I've gotta go find out why everyone's falling in!"

In that spirit of running upstream, a recent Cincinnati Enquirer piece caught my eye. After a string of deadly incidents in Cincinnati involving 14-year-olds as both victims and perpetrators, journalists Krista Ramsey and Cara Owsley turned their attention to understanding more about what it means to be 14 in Cincinnati. The resulting longform article is a heartbreaking and illuminating and educating look at life from the perspective of fourteen 14-year-olds from the area. 

Photo credit: The Enquirer/Cara Owsley

Photo credit: The Enquirer/Cara Owsley

As the article's preface notes, "In some neighborhoods, 14 is the sweet spot between childhood and adolescence, a time of unguarded emotion and untempered enthusiasm. In others, it's an abrupt introduction into a complex, confusing and sometimes even violent world...We don't have the answers to the violence and hopelessness that has taken hold of some young people in those neighborhoods. Neither did the 14-year-olds we interviewed. But as they opened their lives to our questions, we understood that we will never find answers unless we listen better to them." 

It's a worthwhile and (I think) important read--I'm bookmarking it to use the next time I teach adolescent development. Read the article here and watch a clip of some of the interviews here. (By the way, I first discovered the article via Longreads.)

The power of grit

As we ramp up to the World Cup's opening ole-ole-ole-ole starting next week, we were really excited to catch a glimpse of a familiar face featured in a Powerade commercial. 

Nico was a talented and, yes, hard-to-miss fixture on the soccer fields in our community back home. He was a fellow student alongside our kids in Concord schools and frequently a ref for Sam's soccer games. But even if we didn't share a hometown, I'm fairly certain we'd still replay the video over and over and find his story--captured from videos his dad filmed over the years--powerful and inspiring.

You only have to glimpse the video a few seconds to see that his parents set an empowering, get-on-with-living-life mentality with no excuses. In an interview with Coca-Cola, Nico said "People usually think I was trying to make a statement by playing soccer with able-bodied people and not giving up, but really...I just love playing soccer." Although he had a prosthetic as a child, when he was 5 he decided to ditch it and use forearm crutches instead as he competed on the soccer field and wrestling mat. At 13, he raised $100,000 for Free Wheelchair Mission and was the first person to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro on crutches (and was invited on Ellen to talk about it). These days he's the youngest player to land a spot on the US national amputee soccer team.

Recent research has posited that a good predictor of future success is not necessarily unending talent but rather a combination of curiosity, character, and grit, or in other words the drive to persist through failures and challenges.  Nico? He's the king of grit.

In another video interview a while ago he said, "Some people when they look in on my life, they think that, oh, what a crappy hand of cards this kid got dealt. I look at it in a totally opposite way. I've got a community that's completely accepted me for the person I am. I have parents who went through all this trouble to find the right mobility device for me after a prosthetic. And I've just, and I've got athleticism...you're not defined by what you have. You're defined by the things you make of what you have."

"Youth are not vessels to be filled but fires to be lit"

I love this TED talk where the late Peter Benson shares his vision and research on how youth thrive. (Thanks and hat tip to my friend Aerika for sharing this. She shows it to her adolescent development class each semester.) 

I highly recommend watching the whole thing but if you don't have 20 minutes right now, here are a few takeaways from his talk based on the youth research that the Search Institute has analyzed and assembled over the last decade:

Petrarch said "youth are not vessels to be filled but fires to be lit." When we ask youth "what animates your life, brings you joy and energy? What is your spark?" 100% of them get it--and most can name at least one thing that brings them meaning and joy. Some name a skill or talent (e.g., music, writing, leading), some a commitment (e.g., social justice, environment), and others a quality (e.g., empathy). 

Thriving = spark + 3 champions (at home, school, or community) + opportunity

Sadly, we don't often pay attention to spark, finding 3 champions is rare, and opportunities for many youth are scarce. When a young person names their spark to you, they are inviting you to be a champion. You can:
- say it back to them
- tell them you see it in them
- thank them for sharing it
- find opportunities and resources for them to kindle the spark

The spark may or may not be a part of their future work, but human development is about today, about now. The best development is from the inside out. Helping youth find their spark helps teach a life orientation for discovery. It's a way of being present and nurturing and naming what's internal.

In families we can ask our young people "What is your spark? Who knows it? How can I help?" And wouldn't it be amazing if parent/teacher conferences began with a conversation about the student's particular sparks first?!

"You shall know them by their sparks." Changing the focus of youth development to kindling their sparks will reframe how we, as a culture, view our young people and will help support them in developing from the inside out. 


Much more about sparks here. And there's a book: Sparks: How Parents Can Help Ignite the Inner Strengths of Teenagers.

What was your "spark" when you were 16? What is it now? 
Do you know the "sparks" that energize the young people you know?