Friday, April 4, 2014

Raising a Winner?

It’s an interesting thing, going to the gym on a Saturday to run on a treadmill.  You are pretty much at the mercy of whatever TV show is on when you happen to go there. 

A couple weeks ago, I watched a soundless infomercial and ended up with a vacuum / steam mop that, shockingly, did not fulfill my dreams of a device that could dispose of Cheerios, whole grapes and a pint of spilled Hershey’s syrup in one handy step.

This week, I watched a show that that was possibly even more manipulative: Young Sports Stars of Tomorrow.  On this one, you get to see all kinds of teenage sports wunderkinds. All well and good– I love me a good champion story.  But guess who takes up more than half the screen time on this show? That’s right, the parents. They’re interviewed about how they produced this prodigy and both the moms and dads have plenty to say.

Just in case you were writing yourself a free pass by thinking, “Well, God didn’t give me much to work with in the sports department, given my kid’s lack of coordination and being in the third percentile on height and all,” along comes the next show, Young Icons. It’s the exact same show, except on this one, the kids are entrepreneurs!  And yup, there are the parents again explaining how they raised this superstar.

I tell ya, it took the wind right out of my 4.7-mph-run-pace sails. And really, aren’t we parents bombarded all the time with this? We have Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and Training a Tiger: A Father’s Guide to Raising a Winner.  A big part of me is saying, “Thanks, man. Thanks for completely wrecking the parenting curve.”  But another part of me is staging a massive revolution against the whole “raising a winner” concept. Whenever I get sucked into this dynamic, I have to ask a few questions:

  • Raising a winner at what, exactly?  Is excelling in this area your child’s dream, or yours?
  • Is your child a puppet and you pull the strings?  Who owns the credit here, you or your kid?
  • Just how involved is your ego here? Is this about you?
  • Do you seriously think that it’s your parenting that makes all the difference, and not your kid’s own innate talent, motivation and hard work?
Am I raising winners? I hope not, because children are not rosebushes or prize pumpkins. They are people.  What I hope I’m doing is raising children I am proud of.  I hope they are pursuing their own dreams, not mine.  I hope I’m seeing what they love to do and clearing the path. When they’re conspicuously successful, I hope they own every bit of that success. I want to just stand there and say, “They did that. Good for them!”  When success looks like a 4.7-mph run pace instead of winning the Olympics, I hope I am just as proud. 

Raising a winner? No thanks. Raising self-directed, authentic, and independent human beings who own their own successes and failures is good enough for me.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Are Your Kids' Pants on Fire?

Are your kid’s pants on fire?  Well, yeah, probably.  We all lie to our parents throughout childhood. Then, when we get to be adults, we switch over to lying to ourselves.  To me, lying and immaturity are almost the same thing, so it’s no wonder that kids lie. Nothing to get shocked and appalled over.

Our job as parents, though, is to try to build that maturity to take the place of the lying – and produce an adult with a strong, straight-talking, no-BS conscience.  Here are some stock scripts to use for different kinds of lies:

·         That sure would be funny /weird if that happened.  This script is a gentle response to the Storytelling Lie, for when you are pretty sure that your kid’s friend does not in fact have a parrot that dresses as a pirate and came to soccer once and scored three goals.  This kind of “lie” is a childish way to solve the problem of “I want to be included in this conversation.”  Acknowledge the desire to connect and either steer the conversation into reality, or just go with imagination and think of other hilarious things that “could” happen at a soccer game.  You want to teach the line between real and imaginary that marks adult conversation without killing the imagination.

·         Are you saying you wish that didn’t happen?  The I Screwed Up Lie, for example, your kid ate all the cookies or broke the lamp, is super common. Kids lie because they lack problem-solving skills to repair mistakes.  They really do have the wish that the situation would just go away and the easiest route that occurs to them is to deny everything or to blame someone else.  Use this to lead into a conversation about why they wish the lamp hadn’t broken, and what they can do besides wishing to make things right. 

·         Are you really saying “get off my back”?  The Go Away Lie is often absurdly transparent. It’s a way to get your kids to be straight with you (and themselves) about whether they are meeting their obligations for homework or chores. Use it as an entrĂ©e to a problem-solving process of how they’re planning to self-manage the task. In general, lying about homework means that the child can’t solve one or both of the following problems: how to do the homework, or how to get you to stop micromanaging them. Working on those problems together builds honesty, self-honesty, and time-management skills.

·         Is it time to come clean here?  Sometimes kids get trapped in an Elaborate and Deceptive Lie, for example, a teen lying about where they were last night.  They don’t have any idea how to escape. Asking if it’s time to come clean gives them that script to begin to repair the relationship with you.  After that, you can have the conversation about why lying seemed like the right solution, whether they are lying only to you or also to themselves about the wisdom of their choices, and what a more mature approach would be.   That might look like “Comply with the rules even though I don’t agree with them,” “Ask for five minutes to present my case why the rules should change,” or “Be more honest with myself about whether my choices are wise or healthy.”  With teens especially, you’re teaching them to “come clean” with themselves as much as with you. All too soon, they will be the only ones who can call BS on their lies.

Kids lie because they lack problem-solving skills. Instead of focusing on the “lie as lie,” use it to teach the kind of mature problem-solving that doesn’t require lying to yourself or to others.  If successful, at least your adult children won’t suffer from “pants on fire.”

Friday, January 31, 2014

School Project Hell

A friend of mine from Boston recently posted, “In school project hell.  It’s midnight and my daughter is still drawing elaborate cards and a board to learn vocabulary that could have been taken care of with some flash cards, or perhaps nothing, since she already knows all the words.”

Hoo boy!  Now that unleashed a firestorm of parental angst.  From Minneapolis: “Silly Dad!  Don’t you know the parents are supposed to do the project?”  From San Diego:  “When my daughter was in fourth grade she (i.e., moi) had to do a forty-foot timeline of the history of China with all its dynasties, etc. She's thirty and I'm still pissed.”   I immediately flashed back to Kid #1 in eighth grade, who, through gritted teeth, mashing the crayon into his paper, snarled, “When do I get to stop coloring?”

Ever since then, “coloring” has been a metaphor in our house for any activity whose educational merit is vastly out of proportion to the time and effort required. Now, I don’t want to say that no school projects have value. If the project reflects genuine artistic or intellectual choices and can realistically be done by a child who can take ownership and feel proud of it, I’m good with it.  Even when it’s a great project, however, there’s no doubt that school projects can feel like a horrible millstone around a parent’s neck. Here are some survival tips:

Prepare for the inevitable.  Buy trifold displays, now. Also markers, clay, and every kind of tape.

Grill your children.  When you are signing the school planner, ask daily, “Do you have any papers I need to sign or see?  Is there anything I need to buy? Do you have any long-term projects?”  You will at least open the door to an “oh yeah!” moment.

Grill the teacher.  The one question I always ask at Parent Curriculum Night is, “What are the big projects for this class, and what might I need to buy?”

Don’t wreck the curve.  Your child needs to do the project, not you. I just recently attended an inventor’s fair where all the inventions and displays were clearly made by the children.  It was adorable, and the kids were proud of their work. Self-esteem comes from doing things by yourself.  Don’t steal your kid’s ownership; don’t make other people’s kids compete with your adult skills. Find other outlets for your own artistic or scientific talents. Let your kid bring in something that looks lame to you but good to them.

Play your role.  The hardest part of projects is getting started. Focus on helping your child get excited about his or her own great idea as early as possible.  Provide decent materials, within reason. Remind your child 45 times that projects always take two to three times longer than you think they will. Hold things together while they tape. Help them get the project to school and back.

Embrace the MacGyver spirit.  Last minute panic? This is a lesson in resourcefulness. What stuff do you have in the house?  I remember doing a visual aid of plate tectonics consisting of the globe from our living room and masking tape colored red with washable markers that beaded up and looked terrible. Hey, it worked.

In the end, kids do remember their school projects, so it is probably worth it in the end. Do your best to keep it painless for yourself, vent to friends on Facebook or over wine, and keep ownership in your kid’s corner to make it through school project hell.