Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Why I Love Having Five Teenagers

As of July, I have five teenagers in the house. This won’t last long before Kid #1 turns twenty, but still it’s got me thinking about parenting teens. I think the most culturally typical reaction would be to say something like, “You can’t scare me. I have five teenagers!”  It also reminded me of what one of the kids said when turning 13. We asked how Kid felt about this milestone, becoming a teenager! Kid looked faintly crushed and said, “I’m sad because no one likes them.” 

What a great reminder to be careful how we talk about teens. Our kids tend to become the roles we assign to them. Even if they don’t, they have to fight against those roles and that takes a lot of energy. I personally love teens. Here are just a few of the things I love about them.

They can help our family and community. They are able-bodied, smart, capable and creative. I can’t even believe how fast household tasks go with five teens working vs. five preschoolers freeloading. I see teens helping all over the neighborhood. They’re mowing the lawn, troubleshooting the Wi-Fi, starting dinner before their parents get home from work.  They’re helping the old lady at the Home Depot heave bags of mulch into her van. (Thank you so much, polite and helpful teen from the car behind me yesterday.) They actually think up and carry out projects that make our lives better, like networking the printers or planning a fun Halloween dinner.  You don’t have to have a farm to know that having five capable teens is a huge asset to a family or community. I see teens all over the place being productive, hardworking, capable and kind.

They can have an adult conversation. Remember the craving to have an adult conversation when the kids were toddlers? Teens can have an adult conversation. In fact, having five teenagers is like having an awesome dinner party, all the time. They’re curious and outspoken and fun to talk to. Other teens I see at school or church are just as delightful. I will seek out a teen to talk to any day.

They have incredible emotional depth. When I used to teach junior high school, I was blown away by the poetry kids would write. Teens haven’t been ground down by The Man like us adults. They feel deeply: great feelings like love, loyalty, hope, and beauty. My teens see things and have insights that I’ve gone numb to. They’re like an anti-cynicism prescription.

They have great energy. Teens work hard and play hard. Seeing a crowd of teens dance, do a service project, play sports or just have a chicken fight at the lake is a thing of beauty. I love to see their zest for life. Even if I’m busy writing a grant, I can hear my five in the background laughing about something and it lightens my spirits.

All these benefits make me grateful that I stuck it out when they my kids were young.  My T-shirt should say, “Congratulate me, I have five teens.” Whether you have your own or not, start seeing teens. They’re really pretty awesome and they’re all around. 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Work Crew

If you’ve been reading this column for any time at all, you know my preoccupation with getting the kids to do the chores around here. The chore wheel, the points auction, the list goes on. So many systems that the kids say: “Well, that’ll last about a week before you forget all about it.” Well, this time is different.  I give you: the work crew.

The work crew came about from actually listening to the kids.  I noticed I was getting a lot of “feedback” anytime they were working alone.  Let’s say I asked Kid #3 to empty the dishwasher.  Rather than this being a fairly simple task that literally takes 2.5 minutes, I had to hear speculation about what everyone else was doing. It was better when there were a couple of kids at work, but then I had to make (improbable) assertions that I would get to those others who were currently sleeping “later in the day.” I was hunting down people multiple times a day to do things and still doing way more than anybody else. 

So now, we have the work crew. We started with yard work. I rounded up the kids and announced we would all be working outside. One person would mow the lawn while the others did other things. When the lawn was done, we would be done. This magically got Kid 1 to mow the lawn cheerfully because the other jobs were even worse. Even better, we got so many other things done. One kid scraped the cottonwood seeds off the air conditioner. A couple others tag-teamed trimming the birch tree that was practically blocking the garage. A couple others weeded.  The weeding was so unpleasant that I think I’ve actually gotten them excited to mulch next week. The total whining was less and the work accomplished was more.

I’m going to deploy the system for inside chores too. Forty minutes (the amount of time it takes to mow) seems like a good amount, so I’ll set a timer and we’ll all work together to take care of the house. 

I think the work crew is better for both parents and kids.  One, the kids like it better. We are all doing it together so it feels “fairer.” It concentrates the work so they feel like they have more free time. We can make a dramatic difference because there are so many of us working. It’s gratifying to see things actually look substantially different in a short amount of time. Two, it’s better for me. I only have to detach the kids from their reading or video gaming and get them working one time. It is much better than having to nag all day. I don’t have to deploy the work crew on any set schedule or keep track of anybody’s work. I just have to hands-on supervise and direct the work for the 40 minutes we are working and motivate any slackers, which is much easier with the co-workers looking on. I can expand the number of jobs that the kids do and they actually kind of like some of the new jobs. Finally, I think I may have finally found the way to ensure that I don’t do more than my fair share of the work. Yes, I have to sit on my hands sometimes with a dirty kitchen while others are still sleeping, but by saving work for the “crew,” I too can feel like I’m getting a fair shake. Frankly, this feels like genius. 

I really hope it lasts more than a week before I forget all about it.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Late Blooming Sap

Most of the time, I’ve been pretty firmly on the non-sentimental end of the Mom spectrum. While others cried putting their babies on the kindergarten bus, I waved with a bright smile then went inside and had a virtual margarita. (Not a real one - I’m not much of a drinker - but I like to have mental drinks to celebrate things.)  Generally, the older my kids get, the better I like them. I love seeing them move on in life, become more mature, learn new things and leave me behind for new interests they’re excited about. My babies not needing me anymore is a good thing in my book.

So what a surprise to find myself crying at the Forest Hills 6th grade final Parade through the Halls.

This was new one on me – though my first kid started at Forest Hills some thirteen years ago, I don’t remember this event happening before. Sure, my first year there, I went to the outdoor Celebration of Learning, which very soon became known in our house as Baking on a Hill While Not Caring about Box Tops for Education (I told you, we’re not so sentimental here). I noticed that only the other first grade parents were there (suckers) and figured I could skip that one in the future. But as my final kids were preparing to exit Forest Hills, I heard about this 6th grade procession and I thought, hey, I can get away from my desk for that.  The younger kids and any parents who could make it would line the hallways and cheer the sixth grade classes as they walked through.

So, I got there on time, said hi to a couple of moms and dads and grabbed a spot along the route. As usual, I didn’t have a camera so I got out my phone, figuring this showed at least some sense of the significance of the occasion. I wouldn’t want the kids to think I didn’t care about their milestone. The intercom system that normally only sends out barely intelligible crackling messages from the principal started to play Pomp & Circumstance.

And then, I blubbered.

It wasn’t about the kids at all – many of whom I knew from years of being in the school. Most of them looked self-conscious or bored, alarmed at my occasional attempts to high-five them. I used to teach 7th grade, and I recognize the signs. They were ready for middle school for sure. Somehow it was about the school itself. Just thinking I wouldn’t have any reason to come here anymore. Gratitude to all the teachers who guided and taught and cared about all my children for more than a decade. Long after the shuffling, awkward parade was over, I stood in a line to hug the principal and cried again. What the heck?  I guess I’m a late-blooming sap.

You always learn the most from the parents who are maybe five years ahead of you. And there’s one thing they’re always saying. Pay attention, savor these moments, because you will miss them later on. I never did regret the ending of the dubious joys of toddlerhood, but I think I’ve finally arrived at my sappy threshold. I guess it’s time to get the camera and the Kleenex for the final lap of parenting. I am going to miss these moments, after all.