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?

Try this: Family team chores

It's a truth universally acknowledged that big kids (as in pre-teens, teens, and young adults) don't love to be cross examined, eyeball to eyeball. But get them in a car or sitting shoulder-to-shoulder and they're more likely to open up. A good road trip--or even a long errand together--will likely yield way more information and connection than 100 face-to-face sitdowns.

With that in mind, here's an idea: make a few chores family ones where you all pitch in together on the same task as a group. Make a plan--a pact, even--to all show up in the yard at the same time and put in 30 minutes of work. Or have a night where you all make dinner together and all clean up rather than divvying up the chores individually. Sure, individual assignments are efficient and teach responsibility and accountability, which is great, but collaborative chores have their strengths, too--including that shoulder-to-shoulder dynamic that invites conversation and (dare I say it?) maybe even teamwork.

And there's another benefit: In his recent book, When, Daniel Pink makes the point that there's a particular magic to doing something together and syncing as a group. As I read his book, it occurred to me that group chores cultivate a sense of belonging and provide the opportunity to synch on all three of the levels Pink describes: boss syncing (where we benefit from picking up cues about expectations), tribe syncing (where we learn to coordinate alongside others), and heart syncing (where a common purpose brings meaning and connection).

As Daniel James Brown wrote in The Boys in the Boat the book about the rowing team from Washington that won the gold medal at the 1936 Olympics:

"...he came to understand that those almost mystical bonds of trust and affection, if nurtured correctly, might lift a crew above the ordinary sphere, transport it to a place where nine boys somehow became one thing--a thing that could not quite be defined, a thing that was so in tune with the water and the earth and the sky above that, as they rowed, effort was replaced by ecstasy."

I'm not promising ecstasy, mind you! I'd settle for a response somewhere between reluctant, foot-dragging presence and somewhat cheerful achievement, ha!  Let us know if you give this a try--we'd love to hear where your experience lands on that spectrum.

p.s. By the way, the same goes for doing things as a couple. PItching in on household tasks together can turn chores into practically-dates. (Cue charming video montage of playful dinner making and splashy collaborative car washing etcetera.)

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?”


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 scout binder revisited

Sarah and I had a skype meeting yesterday, catching up on life and wedding planning and re-energizing our blogging batteries. It's been almost exactly three years since we started this Nest & Launch venture and we started reminiscing on our early days. Remember how we used to post every weekday for the first year? There's a lot of content back in those archive stacks so we thought it would be fun to revisit and update some of the posts each week in a Throwback Thursday kind of way.

One of the very first posts I wrote (three years ago tomorrow, funny enough) still brings a lot of people here daily via Pinterest and various other mysterious-but-much-appreciated-pssst-pass-it-along social platforms. (Welcome, pinners!)  It was based on some some sage advice from a friend. She said, as I wrote in the original post:

"Start a Scout Binder. Now. She lamented how difficult it had been to prepare the Eagle scout application because all of the little signed badge cards and badges and earned rank cards and other sundry items had long been shuffled to the back corners of random drawers and pockets. She had no idea that they would need those again. So they had to gather it all up and, in some cases, track down old scout leaders for dates and signatures (or do some things over) to get a complete application submitted."  

Three years later, Sam's 7/8 of the way through his Eagle Project and the end is in sight. He's collected books for a women's/family shelter and built bookcases to hold them. I'm really glad we did our scout binder;  it really was a friendly, brilliant hint and it worked so well for us...

So much for organized foresight and the illusion of control! Oh well. Sometimes you put systems and prevention tactics into place and still end up with not a patch nor card in hand. Because bestlaid plans and teenage boys. And moving. Maybe there should be a merit badge for that.

But there IS an app for that if you'd like to avoid our old school quandary and add a failsafe: The Scout App. (And apparently there's no equivalent for Girl Scouts besides an app for the handbook and a girl scout cookie finder. Get on that, Girl Scouts!)

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

Applying Season

This weekend Maddy sent her first of what feels like will be 3469 university applications (but is really more like 8-12, which is typical for her friends in the states). She chose one school to submit her application for their early consideration and the rest will be regular decision, due in December/January. 'Tis the season! 

I have to admit that this is a totally different process than with Lauren a few years ago (though not as different as when I applied and typed each application on a typewriter!). This probably stems from their different personalities, our level of experience with the process, and even their ages at application--Lauren was a barely-17 high school senior during the application process and Maddy is almost 19, thanks to the delay brought by our move to Australia. Lauren looked at her scores and GPA, chose a few schools, and was hopeful of her chances (she didn't really choose any long shots) and she ended up just where she wanted to be. However, I think partly because this was all so new to all of us, she also needed a bit more nudging and reminding throughout the process (read: harassing and non-stop nagging). We didn't do any of it for her; she was the train conductor and engineer of the enterprise but I definitely felt like the guy standing on the platform tapping his foot with a stopwatch in hand. The stakes just felt so high and uncertain! 

Maddy's been approaching it a little differently. She's motivated to blaze her own trail and has been looking longingly at a handful of schools for a few years now. (Let's just go ahead and call it the Gilmore Girls Effect, shall we?) She's applying at a range of schools--a mix of public and private, large and small, selective and less so.

Because of the unknowns related to applying from an international school (not to mention no college admissions counselor at her school), she doesn't really have a real sense of her chances. She's worked hard to put herself in the possible zone but who knows what the admissions offices are looking for or what they'll decide? Not me, that's who. 

Along the way, Maddy found a few resources that were really great in helping her to understand how to put together a college application:

General advice:
Yale has some great resources and advice for applicants to any university:
Advice on choosing where to apply
Advice on putting together your college application

Letters of recommendation:
Maddy found MIT's Guide to Writing Letters of Recommendation really helpful for explaining to her teachers and recommenders what the US admissions offices are expecting and how their letters are evaluated. (In Australia, admission to university is based not on extracurriculars or teacher recommendations but on your ATAR score so teachers don't write many recommendations at all.) She just included a little description and linked to it in her note to her recommenders. A nice email like this sample note to recommenders helped update her recommenders, orient them to the process, and refresh their memories about her contributions and achievements.

College admissions essays:
Khan Academy has a great new series on applying to college. Maddy thought their series of articles and videos on  writing a strong college admissions essay was especially helpful. 

Also, the website Medium has a contest called "Extra Credit" that awards scholarship money for excellent college application essays. They've posted a handful of winners and it's great reading to see the diversity of responses and get inspired for your own essay.

For parents:
Let it go, let it go. (Easier said than done, I know. I should have absorbed this four years ago!) Tufts's excellent admissions blog offers this advice:
"Often our concern, suggestions, insights, and shared wisdom are seen as an intrusion, or provide added stress.  Your daughter needs the independence and the knowledge that you believe she can do this on her own.  Your son will thrive knowing you trust him to succeed. Our job as parents is to support and provide a safe haven for our children in the midst of a crazy, pressure filled senior year.  Encourage your son or daughter to establish an earlier deadline in order to complete the application(s) in a timely fashion so the process doesn’t hijack the entire family parents we need to let our children sink or swim.  The application process is theirs and they will feel a wonderful sense of accomplishment once they have completed the applications and have met the deadline."

More Resources:

  • Most universities use the Common Application, which is a great time saver for the applicant and the recommenders. Still, many colleges either do not use the Common App or add on extra essays or elements. Even if your student won't be applying for a year or two, it's not a bad idea to glance at the applications now to see what's expected. Here are the essay questions for this year
  • NACAC (National Association for College Admission Counseling) has extensive information and advice on the college application process
  • The US Department of Education's College Navigator is a one-stop resource for information about universities and colleges.

Now that I've spent a whole post on college applications, I need to add that I'm actually a big believer in de-escalating the craziness around this process. I remind my kids (and myself) that there are many great places to go and learn and that while we'd be happy for them if they land at one of the places toward the top of their list, what we really celebrate is the work they've put into their education so far and their continued quest for learning--not where they go. I think the philosophy of "fix it and forget it" fits here: Sure, do your best on tests/applications but don't obsess or worry. This application is just a blip in your life. Do it and then move on!

Do you have a child applying for college this year or in past years? What's the experience been? Any advice?

It's a chipper

Do you know how I wrote about losing my Fall mojo? Part of my reticence to JUMP right into Fall is this certain and unalterable knowledge that the school year is LONG and it's a big commitment. I feel like I've been running a marathon for oh, let's say, fifteen years, and I'm approaching another big hill. Except my previous experience of fifteen years of running is screaming at me, "NO MORE BIG HILLS." And then my previous experience whispers in my ear, "You just can't take the hills honey."

Am I being unclear? It's simple. I'm loathe to wake up every morning at 5 AM, and make the lunches, and monitor the grades, and keep everybody hopping and happy. It's a big job, and right now . . . momma is tired.

Also happening right now? Momma is relearning a handy little mode of operation known as THE CHIPPER.

THE CHIPPER is nothing revolutionary. It's good, plain common sense. Also? It's from Crossfit.


Don't click away. I'll be quick with the Crossfit portion of this public service announcement.

You see, in Crossfit, from time to time, we get a workout known as a 'chipper.' It's usually a long laundry list of exercises -- like 25 pushups, then 25 air squats, then 25 pushups, then 25 sit ups, then 25 push ups, then 25 goblet squats, then 25 pushups, then 25 med ball sit ups. On the surface it seems terrible. (And underneath the surface? It is terrible.) But the reason it's called a chipper is because in order to make it through YOU JUST CHIP AWAY AT IT.

One push up at a time. One movement. Then another. Then another. Every movement takes you one step closer to being DONE. Keep going. JUST CHIP AWAY AT IT.

My Rebecca, a high school junior, is taking a heavy course load this year. She has mountains of homework which, when piled up each evening, are overwhelming. I tell her, "Just chip away at it. One set of notes at a time. One reading assignment at a time. Fifteen minute blocks of studying. Each movement brings you closer to being DONE."

It's not a magic pill, but it's something. And it works.

For me? I'm chipping away at the new school year. One early morning at a time. One track meet. A day of lunches made. A chapter read. Two pages written. Three loads of laundry folded. 

My favorite new saying? When I come across a difficult task (or something I plain don't want to do), I just think to myself, "It's a chipper." And somewhere, back in the foggy recesses of my mind, I remember that I can do hard things if only I'll take a step forward.

The chipper method is akin to Anne Lamott's bird analogy, which I love. Annie wrote about that here.