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.

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.