Letter to a Young Parent: Guest post

We're happy to have Christie guest posting again today, back by popular demand for an encore after her terrific week of posts last year. This one goes out to all of our readers whose kids aren't quite at the teen stage, especially the parents who may have a bit of fear and dread about those looming and mysterious years. In the tradition of Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, we occasionally try to bring insights and reassurance from other parents who are slightly further along the parenting path. (For instance, remember this post about going easy on the oldest? Or this one about show me who you are?) I love hearing what works for different families. Christie has seven great insights to reassure you that things are going to be fine...maybe even magical. I wish I had read them about ten years ago!

I occasionally get asked by mothers of young children what the secret is to raising great teenagers.

My initial response is that I have absolutely no clue.  My kids are who they are IN SPITE of having me as a mother. [The young moms don't find that answer too helpful.] The next thing that I will tell you is to disbelieve the myth that teenagers are sullen, angry creatures who slam doors and hate their parents.  Some do that, but the overwhelming majority do not.

Every one of my kids' friends are just as happy and fun as they are, so I know that it's not just us.

Teenagers are incredible.  They are funny, smart, eager to please, and up for just about anything as long as food is involved.  They have the most generous hearts and want desperately to be loved and validated.  They are quirky, and messy, and have the best sense of humor.

I would say my number one rule is to love them fiercely.  Love everything about them, even the annoying stuff.  Love them for their actions AND their intentions.  Let them know in word and deed how much you adore them.  Daily.  Love their wrinkled shirts and Axe-body-spray-covered selves.  Love their bad handwriting and pimpled cheeks.  Love their scattered brains and long limbs.  All these seemingly insignificant details are an amazing, magic process at work.  It's like being witness to the miracle of a diamond mid-formation.  All this imperfection is going to one day yield a responsible, serious adult.  A loving husband and father.  Or a wonderful wife and mother.  It's a privilege to be witness to such glorious growth.

Feel that way.  See your teenagers as a privilege.  Don't see them as a burden.  They're more perceptive than you can imagine.  How you feel about them will be no secret.  So just love 'em.

Number two:  Listen and pay attention.  When they walk in the door after school, you have a precious few minutes that they will divulge the secrets of their day with you.  Be excited to see them.  Put down that cell phone.  Don't waste this time making dinner or taking a phone call.  Look them in the eye and hear what they are saying.  Make their victories your victories.  Be empathetic.  It is really hard to navigate high school and middle school.  Don't offer advice at this time unless they ask for it.  Don't lecture.  Just listen.  It makes them feel important and valued. We all need to feel that way.

Number three:  Say yes more than you say no.  The world is forever going to tell them no.  For the rest of their lives, they will be swimming in a stormy sea with wave-after-wave of you're not good enough and you can't do this crashing down on their heads.  If nothing else, I want to be the opposite voice in their lives for as long as I can.  I want to instill in them the belief that they are not limited, and that they can do anything if they're willing to work hard enough for it.  I want to be the YES, YOU CAN in their life.  I want them to leave my house every day feeling invincible.

Number four:  Say no often.  You need to say no to experiences and situations that will set your child up for harm or unhappiness.  Don't let them go to the parties where they will be forced to make a choice at age 16 in front of their peers about alcohol.  Don't let them stay out until three in the morning with a member of the opposite sex.  Be the parent.  Set up rules for their safety, both physical and moral.  You would think this rule goes without saying, but we have known a shockingly large number of parents who don't.  

Number five:  Feed them.  A lot.  And not only them, but their friends, too.  These bodies are growing and developing at an astonishing rate, and need fuel to do so - most of which they prefer to be loaded with processed sugar and hydrogenated-something-or-others.  When their friends know your pantry is stocked to the gills with treats, they will beg your kid to hang out at your place.  This allows you to not only meet and know their friends but to keep an eye on your teen as well.  Make your house the fun house...Your return on investment will be greater than any other options out there.

Number Six:  Don't sweat the small stuff.  When living with teenagers, it can be so easy to see the backpack dropped in the middle of the living room as laziness.  Or the bedroom scattered with dirty clothes as irresponsible.  Instead, and before you open your mouth to yell at them, put yourself in their shoes.  Find out about their day first.  Maybe they are feeling beaten down, and they just need to unwind for a minute and tell you about it.  Maybe they're tired from all that growing, learning, working, and hormone-ing.  If you waste your chance and yell at them about the backpack or shoes or [insert every other possession they own], they will not open up to you.  Breathe.  Ignore it for a bit and put your arms around that big, sweaty kid and give him a hug.  Talk to him about his world.  Find out what he did, wants to do, and dreams of doing.  THEN ask him to pick it up and put it away.

That being said, do I completely ignore the state of my boys' bedrooms all the time?  No, I do not.  But I pick my battles, and I pick the appropriate time to fight them.  Once every seven to ten days or so, I tell them their bedrooms need to be picked up.  Which they do happily, because it's not the running loop of a nagging mom.  They know when I ask, it needs to be done. 

I will not have a bad relationship with my kid over a pile of clothes on the floor.  It's. Not. Worth. It.   I love my kid more than I love a clean house.  I am confident that I am raising humans capable of picking up after themselves, and I know as they mature and grow up, these things will sort themselves out.  I have taught them how to do it.  They will not be in college and literally unaware of how to bend down and pick up their socks.  

Number Seven:  Last, but not least, stand back and watch the magic happen.  If you let them, these glorious creatures will open their hearts and love you more fiercely than you could possibly imagine.  They are brilliant, capable, strong spirits who bring with them a flurry of happiness.  They are hilarious and clever.  They are thoughtful and sensitive.  They want us to adore them.  They need us to adore them.  They love deeply and are keenly in touch with the feelings of others.

Certainly every family's different--unique personalities, different needs. What would be on your list of insights about parenting teens to pass along to other parents just starting to think about those years?

You can find Christie at her blog Stie's Thoughts, where she's been keeping track of her family's adventures and hilarious sagas since 2006. She and her family have lived in Utah, Minnesota, Seattle, Boston (where thankfully my path crossed with hers), San Diego, St. Louis, and now lucky Dallas gets them for the foreseeable future.

Last year she posted about Grandma June's apple bars, being new in town, and all that I can give.

"Life begins to divulge a steadier destination"

I inherited a copy of The Letters of EB White at some point. The copy I have is satisfyingly tattered, a book that my parents gave to great-Grandma Brockbank in 1977 (the inscription is on the inside cover) and then later, meandering down through the line, it was given to me.

I'll admit I've harbored a little long-held literary crush on Elwyn Brooks White. It started, of course, with Charlotte's Web and The Trumpet of the Swan. I can’t get enough of his New England wit and quick humor, his ease with sentiment and words. I knew he could write well but his letters provide this open window to his personal relationships and reveal much more of his warm soul and side glancing winks.

On Being* recently posted the following letter that re-sparked and reminded me of my EB White fangirlhood. Mr. White wrote it to his young niece, Judy, in the midst of her uncertainty about her life's path. Who hasn't been there at some point? Who wouldn't love to get a letter like this? 

"I know just how you feel, Judy. Frustration is youth's middle name, and you mustn't worry too much about it. Eventually things clarify themselves and life begins to divulge a steadier destination. In a way, our lives take form through a simple process of elimination. We discard what we don't like, walk away from what seems to inspirit us. My first job was with the United Press, but I knew within half an hour that my heart was not in it and that I would never be any good at gathering straight news under great difficulties and with the clock always running out.

Your majoring in English was no mistake, even though you do not become a critic or a publisher's assistant or a playwright or a novelist. English and English literature are the rock bottom of our lives, no matter what we do, and we should all do what, in the long run, gives us joy, even if it is only picking grapes or sorting the laundry. 'To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.' I agree with Mr. Thoreau himself a victim of youthful frustration. You seem to me a girl whose head is on straight and I don't worry about you, whether you are majoring in English or in bingo. Joe, my son majored in English for two years at Cornell, then realized that what he really liked was boats. He transferred to M.I.T., took a degree in Naval Architecture and now owns and operates a boatyard in Brooklin — hauling, storing, and repairing and building boats. Keeps him busy 24 hours of the day, and keeps him outdoors, where he prefers to be.

We've just had three great gales here and are still picking up the pieces and sawing up the fallen trees. Aunt K. is not well, and there isn't much the doctors can do for her, as her trouble is in her arteries.

Thanks for your nice letter — I wish I could write you a better reply, but your question is essentially unanswerable, except by yourself, and you supplied the answer when you said you wanted to live fruitfully and honestly. If you truly want that you will assuredly bear fruit and be an adornment to the orchard whatever it turns out to be.

With love,
Uncle Andy

*Have you discovered the wonderful radio show/podcasts/blog called On Being with Krista Tippett? The conversations and interviews with interesting people mostly center on belief (it was originally called "Speaking of Faith") and "what does it mean to be human and how do we want to live." It's a gem.

Wisdom -- it's a funny feeling

So, I had this moment recently which was both an incredible moment of deja vu AND one of those brief and fairly rare instances in parenthood where I knew exactly what to do. Sure, it was just a momentary flash of wisdom, but I wrote it down anyway in my exceedingly thin book of parenting knowledge.

Jordan at 13.

Jordan at 13.

Here's the backstory: For those of you just tuning in, my oldest, Jordan, is 20 years old -- a daughter. Despite my ambitious-mommy intentions during her childhood to expose her to lots of tastes and textures and healthy foods, she was resistant to pretty much any form of nourishment except McDonald's chicken nuggets and Kraft macaroni and cheese. I worked diligently to offer her healthy choices and avoid turning mealtime into a power struggle -- because that's what my parenting books told me to do. But, being the neurotic-type person that I am, I continued to try to get her to try new foods -- because, obviously, if she only ate chicken nuggets she would never grow to be a successful adult. Right?

"Hey! How about a vegetable?"




"Mommy is going to take a small time out in her bedroom."

Even though I rarely forced the issue (meaning I often walked away -- not that I continuously fed her chicken nuggets), there was the occasional "issue." For instance, when we would go out to eat, she would peruse the menu, and if there wasn't some form of chicken nugget, chicken finger, chicken strip, or popcorn chicken, she'd flat out refuse to order anything. And she'd pout. I'd cajole her.

"Hey! They have pasta. How about that?"


"Hey! You like quesadillas. We could get some of those."


"How about a plain hamburger patty?"


Essentially, she'd become very cross and hurt that we'd dared to venture into an eating establishment that denied her the inalienable right to consume only chicken nuggets. And so she'd set up a mini protest. I tried ordering FOR her. I tried insisting she try something new. Generally, there were tears (on both our parts).

Now, many years later, this darling girl is a twenty-year-old missionary living in France -- eating baguettes by the dozen I'm sure. The other day she reported that she'd recently come to love FRUIT. She craved fruit even. So, basically my work is done.

The end of the story is that she survived. I survived. And she seems relatively unharmed by her childhood love affair with fake chicken (and my anxiety over her absolute stubbornness).

Here's the crux -- even though Parker (my 4th kiddo) isn't quite as picky an eater as his sister, he does have whole groupings of foods that he refuses to try. Like sandwiches. The very idea of meat touching bread is utterly repulsive to him. (Unless it's a taco, and then he'll have nine. Thank you very much.)

Parker at 13.

Parker at 13.

On our Spring Break trip, we happened to be in Monticello, Utah during lunchtime. The only place even open was this tiny, new-age-y cafe, and we were all starving. Once inside we began perusing the menu board.

Uh oh.

Sandwiches and salads.

I saw Parker's eyes narrow. He immediately piped up with, "I don't want anything."

Okay, except we were a couple of hours from the next possibility of a meal, so I went down the old cajoling road. "How about a hamburger? We could order it with no bun."


"Why not try a panini? It looks fantastic."

Double no.

And then DING DING DING -- I was transported back in time to restaurants of yore with Jordan. 


And then I collapsed on the floor.

Not really. Actually I had this relatively surreal moment of "Aha!" And then, "I've got this." I stepped up to the counter, ordered him a cookies and cream shake, and watched the dawning of approval pass over his face. His belly was filled for another couple of hours. I ate my panini in relative peace, and worried not even one little, tiny bit over his general health or potential of becoming a productive citizen in the face of one ice cream luncheon. 

Guys! I'd done this before! And it all worked out fine! I guess what it boils down to is that I knew (because of my intense training) that this "sandwich standoff" was relatively inconsequential. So much of the uncertainty and unease of parenting is not knowing exactly what's important or what delimmas to address when. Should I force this issue and instill a strict sense of discipline? Or should I back off and let the situation breathe? Do I let child #3 sleep in my bed every night even though she's eight? Or is it okay to march her back to her own bed even though she's crying? There are hundreds upon hundreds of difficult decisions to be made in this process of parenting, and I guess I'm here today to tell you that it's going to be okay. Trust your gut. Go with your heart. Parent with love -- that's really all we can do. Also? Order ice cream.


In defense of the old lady in the market

Okay, it's the first day of the school year here and Sam just surpassed me in height and Maddy's leaving home at the end of the year and Lauren's half a world away. So I feel like one of those ladies in the market: time passes so quickly! Sunrise! Sunset! and every other true and cheesy platitude about time and passing and children.

I'm chatting with a friend who will be moving back to the States this year. When you've got a big move like that in your future, it's easy to start feeling wanderlusty and impatient to just do it already--to spend your time scouring real estate listings and researching schools for the kids and thinking about all the nexts.

"Are you getting anxious to go?" 

"No, not really. I'm trying to think more about making the most of every day since we probably won't get the chance to live here ever again, not full time. I don't know, maybe we'll visit. There's so much we wanted to do and haven't yet."

Later, the conversation turns to our kids, motherhood, parenting angst and awe. She asks about my plans in the coming years (so tactfully and delicately dancing around the inquiry “so are you done with your graduate work yet?”) and I land on the awareness once again that I am in the final three years of in-residence motherhood.

I know it's kind of a thing to vent about old ladies in the supermarket who offer their inevitable and insistent advice to “enjoy every moment” and “time goes so fast.” And I get it, I really do. I laughed in recognition with that whole post and others like it! When you’re stuck in the trenches of what amounts to mommy boot camp with sometimes mercurial little sergeants to answer to—well those days, as Glennon hilariously articulated in that post last year, the last thing you want on your exhausting Everest climb of parenthood is “people stationed, say, every thirty feet along Mount Everest yelling to the climbers—“ARE YOU ENJOYING YOURSELF? IF NOT YOU SHOULD BE! ONE DAY YOU’LL BE SORRY YOU DIDN’T! TRUST US!! IT’LL BE OVER TOO SOON! CARPE DIEM!”

The Back Room, Kim English

The Back Room, Kim English

But what I’m beginning to understand is we might have it all wrong with that analogy. Maybe they’re not perky, oblivious little cheerleaders, these ladies in the market. Maybe instead they're exhausted, exhilarated, battle-scarred climbers that we meet in passing as they descend from the peak while we trudge upwards. Their wisdom isn’t meant to shame us, it’s meant to guide us and avoid some rocky regrets and unnecessary falls. If I met early-mama Annie now, do you know what I’d tell her? Take it easy. Enjoy the 3-year-old tyrants and the talkative 4s. Snuggle those babies every second you can. And future Annie would probably tell me to get up from my desk and go play a game with the lounging teens downstairs. Or tuck them in bed like I used to. The closer I get to the summit (whatever, wherever, whenever that is) the more I can confirm the old lady market advice as wisdom. It does go so fast; it’s just a fraction of our years. As Gretchen Rubin put it, the days are long but the years are short:

There were years, early on, when I might have felt wanderlusty and impatient about getting to the finish line but I find I'm more like my friend, trying to savor the last moments in Motherland. I probably won't get the chance to live here ever again, not full time. There's so much I wanted to do.

I do hear Nanaland is absolutely spectacular, though I'm not booking that trip for quite some time. But I am practicing my old lady market technique, as you can tell.