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 jedi mind tricks of raising teenagers

You've probably noticed that I'm practically a card carrying member of the life-with-teens-can-be-awesome club. We hope the blog kind of gives that overall vibe. Teens tend to get a bad rap and an exaggerated reputation for chaos and disobedience; we really wanted to counter that prevailing image here.

Still. That's not to say it's all sunshine and daisies or to deny that it's tough sometimes. Into every family a little conflict must fall. Arguments. Door slamming. Power struggles. Truthiness. Etcetera. We've all been there, stuck in a moment and you can't get out of it, as the Irish bard poet Bono likes to sing. Sadly, there's no magic wand to suddenly bring kids in line. As the purported adult in the situation, it's more up to the getting myself together side of things; I've gradually realized that I really only have control over my own response in these situations. So along the way I've collected a few jedi mind tricks to play on my own mindset in order to ease the moment and turn the compassion dial up a bit:

  1. Time travel forward to the week before they're leaving home. Instant perspective for the irritations of today, I'm telling you. Whatever's happening in this moment--difficult and irritating as it is, won't really matter then. (Or at least it will remind you there IS an end in sight in the middle of those double-strength tough moments.)  
  2. Time travel further forward to when you're watching them parent your grandkids. What do you want your teen to learn about parenting from this moment? What would you want him to say/do to those practically-perfect in-every-way future grandkids of yours in this situation?
  3. Time travel back to when your teen was 2, 3, 7, etc. and remember every age has its version of tantrums and developmental challenges. Teens just have their own tantrum language (which may or may not resemble the way they were when they were two). Look at your teen with the same kind of compassion you'd give a two-year-old in meltdown mode--or even better, an overstimulated infant. Aw, poor kid. She doesn't have the wherewithal to cope with everything that's being thrown her way right now. You may not have to swaddle her, pat her back and walk the floorboards for hours to support her in her misery but underneath the attitude or the misbehavior I guarantee you she still needs your support. 
  4. Time travel further back to when you were their age. Every once in a while G will tell me some story about when he was a teenager. He's a wise, kind, even-keeled, loving guy so when he describes the rushes of sheer anger and rage that used to flood him in the teen years as the testosterone kicked in--I'm pretty amazed at the power of puberty. Then I remember the dramas and emotions and friend sagas I experienced but didn't always talk about to my family and I recall that a slammed door sometimes has nothing to do with family or respect and everything to do with the uncomfortable proximity of hormones and a rotten day. Think about your own teen years. What was your world like, socially and emotionally? How much did your parents know about what was going on below the surface? How clueless were you to the goings on in the family? I was so clueless, I couldn't be bothered to admire and marvel at the Grand Canyon. Exhibit A:

And this one, sullen and impatient on a fun family trip (as well as many undocumented moments I cringe to remember but try to use here with trick number 4):

5. Adjust your expectations or reframe your role. I heard a talk on teen brain development once. The presenter, a developmental neurologist, gave a lot of technical explanations about brain maturity and frontal lobes and executive function, ending with the conclusion that the brain doesn't reach maturity until much later than you'd expect--more like mid20s than early teens--and the frontal lobe is especially slow, which is the part with all the planning, motivation, ability to choose right and wrong and anticipate consequences. One mom in the audience had a lightbulb moment. Her hand shot up and she said "OHHHHH! So I am my teen's frontal lobe during these years!" Yes. Exactly. They might look like adults and talk like adults but they still need parents helping to give feedback and support while they're waiting for their adult brains to kick in fully. And somehow that biological explanation helps add a measure of compassion now and then.

What about you? What mind tricks work to give you a little compassion and perspective in those horn-locking moments? 

Occupying small street

We said goodbye this morning to our French exchange student who stayed with us this week. It's an interesting experience having a stranger stay with your family around the clock and jump right into your routines with you. It made me look at our habits and our home in a completely different light. (Are our packed lunches up to par? Should we have more structured activities going on? Are we boring? Too busy?) Sure, we have guests and friends here quite often in short bursts but when someone stays with you for a week--and sees you in your pajamas, in your hurry-up impatient times, in your feeling-too-sleepy-to-get-up-and-make-breakfast times--that's another level of acquaintance and sudden closeness! As I told Sarah mid-week, it's tough to keep the shiny facade in tact for that long, haha! Margaux was terrific, though--smart, funny, easy-going--and a lovely guest who spoke English really well. Her visit was a great preview and example for Sam, who is excited to head to France on a school trip for the month of April, including two home stays--one in Lyon and one in Carcassonne. 

Margaux and Sam 03.jpg

Over the weekend we went to Enlighten, where Canberra illuminates some of the public buildings and museums with artistic light shows.

Old Parliament House

Old Parliament House

Then we happened upon a really cool project in the Museum of Democracy in the Old Parliament House. They had collected hundreds of toy figurines and invited everyone to choose a figurine, make a mini protest sign out of broken toothpicks and small cardboard squares for the toy to hold (either something you believe in or something the toy might advocate for) and add it to the masses assembled in the "Occupy Small Street" there in the hall (sorry for the grainy phone photos!). 

photo 3-5.jpg
photo 4-4.jpg

Some were silly, some were funny, some were serious. Sam chose to speak out on a crucial issue facing the world today:

photo 2-10.jpg
photo 2-9.jpg
photo 3-6.jpg
photo 4-5.jpg

It was a fascinating exhibit. I thought I'd mention it here because I think it's an activity that would appeal to most big kids and teens, since identity development in the teen years includes a very typical fascination with advocacy for causes. They are developmentally right in the process of piecing together what they believe in, what to stand up for, what advocacy means. I think this could work as an art installation, classroom or school or even city-wide project. I can also imagine the appeal of using this as an activity at home--a sort of animated version of a suggestion jar!

Okay, so what would your protest/advocacy sign say?  Mine was a little playmobil guy holding a sign that said "Educate me!" but later I thought of several other slightly more witty things I wished I had said.
Story of my life!

The end of swooping season

When we first moved here last September, we were amused by the crazy bicycle helmets we saw everywhere! Each helmet sported plastic zipties or pipe cleaners sprouting out of the vents, giving a vaguely punk rock impression.

We asked around and found out that September and October is Swooping Season, when magpies become especially territorial about their hatchlings in their nests and divebomb anyone who gets too close--school children at recess are even victims sometimes! Bicyclists are especially targeted so they go to great lengths to discourage being attacked, including putting eyes on the back of their helmets, doing the zipties or pipe cleaners, etc. (though many experts say the tactics don't actually work).

As annoying as it is to be swooped by those angry birds, I feel for those bird parents. I can identify! The protective instinct is strong in us. We want to swoop in, fix things, flap our wings and, yes, peck out the eyes of anyone who gets close to messing with our kids. I was completely prepared to write a post in praise of swooping magpies.


And yet.  

I think there's an even better lesson here. Swooping season ends when the young fledgling birds start making their own forays out into the world and our swooping has to ebb, too. It's one of the hardest transitions in parenting I've had to make, the gradual hand-off of responsibility and decision making for what is, after all, their lives.

Case in point: Once one of my kids had an issue at school with some social meanness. We talked about it at home and I really really really had the mama-bear urge  to go address it with the school faculty. But this kiddo said "no, I've got this" and decided to ignore it for a bit longer. Then, when it didn't seem like it was going to resolve itself, the kiddo made an appointment to discuss it with a teacher. Just like that. (And then I went and ate three Cadbury Cherry Ripe bars from the stress of sitting on the sidelines, but that's a different story entirely.) Epiphany.

I love Anna Quindlen's advice: "When we dropped off our daughter [at school] they gave us a card with the words "What are YOU going to do about that problem?" They suggested we put it by the phone and read it when our kid called complaining about the roommate/the courses/the food/the advisor. There's way too much parental involvement at a time designed for separation."  

But, really, if this is going to work well I think we actually have to start before college drop-off, right? Now, I'm the first one to admit that this can be so hard. Those high school years are rife with Important Decisions and Momentous Things. Just remember that you're raising not just a college freshman but a wonderful, functioning adult. Yes, it can be painful to watch but, if we can step back from solving our kids' problems and become a more distant safety net in those last few pre-launch years, our older teens will flail and fail and figure things out. They'll ultimately gain more confidence for the leap into adulthood. We end up gradually becoming advisory rather than decidery (which I'm deeming a word, by the way) and our kids learn to do some joyous/independent/instructive swooping of their own.

Fellow mid-stage parents, unite! All together now: What are you going to do about that?  


Off time

Please forgive me. I just now walked in the door from a wonderful, sleep deprived, dirt-between-my-toes span of days at a Girls' Camp. Yes, it's true that many of you northern hemisphere-ites are at this minute preoccupied with apple picking and pumpkin carving and cinnamon-scented baking (I know this because Pinterest and Facebook tell me so). I get it (and, hey, I miss it); you're hunkering down for the colder months. But here in southeast Australia, we're just perking up to spring. Since the schools are on a two-week spring break around here, our church group headed three hours away to the gorgeous coastal town of Narooma for the yearly Young Women's camp. 

So the only things rattling around in my brain tonight are: (a) how fast I can get myself into a shower, (b) how good my bed will feel tonight, (c) how long will my left eye stay bloodshot and (d) teen girls are pretty fabulous. Please humor me with a few photos as a companion to Sarah's great post on her Girls' Camp experience in Texas (and I echo every one of her lessons learned):

Teen girls + camp = braid fest

Teen girls + camp = braid fest

Quiet time on the beach. (Seriously. Check out that gorgeous beach. It's like Ireland and Hawaii had a love child and called it the Australian south coast.)

Quiet time on the beach. (Seriously. Check out that gorgeous beach. It's like Ireland and Hawaii had a love child and called it the Australian south coast.)

Amazing Race time (Or, really, an 8K hike disguised as a game. Brilliant.)

Amazing Race time (Or, really, an 8K hike disguised as a game. Brilliant.)

Happy campers.

Happy campers.

Sketching time on the beach.

Sketching time on the beach.

A ridiculously funny game where one poor member of each team is subjected to shaving cream, thrown cheeto balls, and squirted water. Maddy was a good sport.

A ridiculously funny game where one poor member of each team is subjected to shaving cream, thrown cheeto balls, and squirted water. Maddy was a good sport.

Bless you for sticking around through what is surely the online equivalent of subjecting you to a whole slide carousel of holiday photos. My brain will be up and working in a day or two.

I almost forgot--as a token of my appreciation, here's a fellow mid-stage mom's hilarious post about being the meanest mom on the block and drawing the line on being over invested in how your kids feel about every little thing. "We're on the same team but, dudes, that team has Captains and it's the parents."  I'd love to hear what you think about it.

All that glitters

Once upon a long while ago, one of my friends asked a group of us for help in solving a vexing parenting question. Her three-year-old son was constantly getting into her jewelry box. There was just something about all those chains and glittery things that was impossibly attractive to him and his three-year-old brain. She tried explaining to him, reasoning with him why he shouldn't get in there. She tried every discipline tactic she could think of--time out, taking away privileges, offering rewards, reminding him in advance, but still, no luck.

What to do, what to do?

After a moment or two, somebody piped up, "How 'bout moving the jewelry box?" 

Ah! Of course. Duh. Sometimes the answer is just to move the jewelry box. Problem solved. Instead of asking for more self control than his little three-year-old brain possessed, this way set him up for success rather than taxing his ability to comply.

. . . 

I think technology can be a little like that jewelry box for a lot of older kids and teens--so glittery and promising and accessible. Sometimes its attractiveness outpaces their developmental ability to exercise self control--it's hard enough for those of us firmly in adulthood!  There are times, especially in the beginning, when you've just gotta move the jewelry box now and then and set them up for success.


A few things we've tried at our house, admittedly with varying consistency and success:
 - Back a few years ago we came up with a simple and direct formula: music practicing = screen time. You want to go online? Let's see, did you practice today? You practiced for an hour? Congrats, sounds like you get an hour on the computer! That worked for quite a while, in fact, when they were a bit younger. And it mostly took me out of the equation, which I liked.

- We have a rule about phones, ipods, and computers in bedrooms. Before bed, all devices are out on the kitchen counter or in the hallway, no exceptions. 

-  Use good manners. For instance, if you're texting during family time (even in the car, hanging out in the kitchen, etc.), be prepared to be asked to share out loud the entire text conversation; siblings may or may not act out the scene. 

- No texting and driving, no excuses or exceptions. Put your phone in the glove compartment if you need help remembering this rule. 

- We know the passwords for the kids' devices.  We will definitely try to respect privacy but reserve the right to do checks now and then to make sure usage and apps, etc., are appropriate to our agreed-upon expectations. (Cell phone bills are also wonderful documents to check now and then for details of when and who and for how long.)

- We've tried turning off the wireless router completely at the kids' bedtime but that means the parents are out of luck, too, so we didn't keep that going consistently*. 

- We're a bit wary of iphones, through experience. Content is more difficult to monitor since it can be accessed (filterless) anytime, anywhere. 

Interesting ideas I've heard from others: 

- Changing the wireless password at bedtime every night; it takes a little extra effort (and knowing me, I would forget the new password all. the. time.) but it's a great way to give everyone a break from constant connectivity*.

- A technology contract.  You probably saw the viral post about a mom's contract with her son a few months ago. I like the idea of putting into writing the expectations and consequences so there are no surprises down the line. (I also really like her "slow tech manifesto.")

- A computer app that shuts off the computer after a pre-set amount of time. (I have friends who swear by this and who tailor the restrictions to each child's maturity by using unique sign-in and passwords for each child to get on the computer.)

Ideally, I'd say most of us try to balance our parental monitoring of content and screen time with gradually transitioning more of the responsibility to the kids. After all, they're eventually going to be out on their own with unfettered access so it's good to develop the skills and discipline to manage this themselves (i.e., bringing the jewelry box back into reach and letting them practice self control and decision making when they're ready.) Okay, enough with the metaphor already.
So, tell me, how do you approach technology use in your family? 

. . . 

* Here's a pie-in-the-sky idea!

Dear technology manufacturers, 

I have idea for a new kind of wireless router but have neither the know-how nor the means to make it happen. Plus, I want it now. Like yesterday. I can guarantee you will have many many takers. Ready? Here goes:

Please design a wireless router that has a dual-password system with programmable timers. One password would be timed to be in charge of the wireless network from, say, the hours of 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.  This would be the general family password that all members of the household would know and be able to use to access the internet (if we could also add a filter or something at the router level that would also be great, mkay?).  At a certain time,  the nightwatch password would kick in, known and used only by the parents in the house, making rogue after-hours internet surfing very difficult for the younger set.

Simple as that. 
Or does it already exist? Do tell.




Matinee dates and other riffs

G and I have found it increasingly tough to get out together on a Friday or Saturday night. Those precious weekend evenings seem to fill up with our kids' events & social lives and the accompanying chauffeuring they require. Or, now that there are just two kids at home, often one of the kids has plans and the other doesn't, which leaves us feeling awkward and loathe to leave just one kid behind all evening to fend for his/herself. (It makes me almost long for the days of yore when we just called a babysitter and the kids had no after-dark social lives--or, even better, when Candyland with the babysitter ranked high in their social lives. Almost. If it ever had been as simple as "just" calling a babysitter.)  

Anyway, we would go months without a just-us-two night on the town. Then we realized: who says it has to be a night? Who says it has to be on the weekend? 

Liberated from our stringent definition of a date, we've come up with really terrific work-arounds. Meeting midweek for lunch, for example. And Saturday afternoon dates. The luxury of spending midday hours with my guy! Decadent, I tell you. Last weekend we saw a matinee movie and went to Costco together to look for a patio umbrella (hey! It counts.). Two weekends ago we had lunch by the lake and headed to the National Gallery of Australia to see the visiting Roy Lichtenstein exhibit. 


I felt like I had a compatriot in Lichtenstein as I admired his innovative riffing and reinventing and reconceiving. The guy had no problem with changing things up, fusing images in unexpected ways, experimenting with printing techniques, and bringing pop art into the established art realm.

I left thinking about our changing, growing-yet-shrinking family and how we all have similar license to shake things up now and then as our families and our needs evolve. Of course there are non-negotiables: love, support, structure, and learning will always stay a priority no matter the family stage. But still. There are ways to riff, play outside the lines, and reinvent.

There's a prevailing concept in the business world of disruptive innovation. A new idea comes along, turns conventional wisdom on its head, and succeeds in a whole new way, usually by serving a whole new set of customers or finding novel ways to address new needs.  I think this happens in families, too, as we come up with new traditions sometimes accidentally) and hit new stages, with epiphanies like:

  • Who says I need to do all of the family laundry now that we're all old enough to understand how to do it well ourselves? 
  • Who says date night has to be at night or on the weekend?
  • Who says you have to have a big traditional Sunday dinner when Thursday nights work better? 
  • Who says (as Sarah mentioned yesterday) that you can't have a family night with teenagers?  Or that you can't reinvent the form into a weekly book group, cooking lesson, or dance party?

 . . .

What work-arounds or innovations have you made to better address your family's needs, philosophy or stages?  What "who says" epiphanies have you had (or do you want to make)?