Monday, January 12, 2015

Get Used to Disappointment

Like all geeks everywhere, I love the movie The Princess Bride. There’s a scene in it where the master swordsman Inigo Montoya is fighting the mysterious Man in Black. Montoya just can’t believe how good this mystery man is and curiosity consumes him.  The following conversation ensues as their blades clash in an amazing virtuoso display:

Inigo Montoya: Who are you?
Man in Black: No one of consequence.
Inigo Montoya: I must know . . .
Man in Black: Get used to disappointment.
Inigo Montoya:  (shrugs) Okay.

I love to think about this related to kids, because teaching them that they can handle disappointment is one of best gifts we can give them.   Kids are definitely not born with this ability. Babies cry insistently because they actually can’t survive being disappointed of their simple eating and sleeping needs. Toddlers and preschoolers are even worse because their expectations are higher. The disappointment of not having the right shape of chicken nugget, or the trauma of having a corner broken off the NutriGrain bar might kill them.  The result of disappointment is a tantrum.  Learning not to have tantrums is partly learning better ways to get what you want, but mostly a lifelong “get used to disappointment” process.

I got a glimpse into how this works this past summer. We were at the lake with a big group of extended family. One morning, my brother, sister and a couple of cousins decided to canoe over to Diver’s Rock, the site of fondly remembered yet perhaps ill-advised adolescent jumping adventures. Kid 5 wanted to come along. In my normal foggy-headed way, I guess I didn’t really think this through:   that everyone would revisit their childhoods and actually jump off this thing. But there we were with an intrepid four-foot-high girl, with inadequate footwear, who really wanted to race down this slanting rock face and launch at the perfect moment like her parents and aunts and uncles and teen cousins and – I was not okay with it. I could feel my cousin, who is still parenting toddlers, tensing up next to me. I could feel the “walking on eggshells” feeling still inside me as well, carrying over from ancient days, plus simple sadness at how she was going to feel.  But after explaining why she couldn’t jump this year, I just said, “You can handle disappointment.”  And miracle of miracles, she didn’t fly apart. She even rationalized, “I guess I didn’t even know we were going to a place we could jump until just now.”  She put her disappointment into perspective for herself. 

“You can handle disappointment” is something we parents need to say to and believe about our kids. Kids are not made of glass. When their problem-solving fails . . .when they don’t get their way. . . their emotions won’t kill them. They may never really “get used to disappointment,” but with coaching, modeling, and practice in the school of hard knocks, they can learn to shrug and say, “Okay.” That’s the gift of resiliency we can give our kids for life. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

When Kids Pass You By

There comes a time in every parent’s life when you realize that your kid is better than you.
I can clearly remember the first time one of my kids started beating me at board games.  And I’m not talking Candyland either. I’m talking about games with actual strategy. It’s gotten to where I expect to lose. It works out for everybody because I seldom cry or quit when I’m losing. I’m pretty sure my kid is smarter than me. (Than I, as that kid would probably say).

Or how about faster and stronger?  That’s another one that’s certainly long gone.  Off I go, lifting weights and running three days a week, and yet all the kids are pretty much better than me. I can still beat the former preemies at arm wrestling, but that’s about it. The kids I used to have to agonizingly wait for on our walks now run straight out of my sight and forever to the horizon.  Even our couch potato kid managed, in just ten weeks of gym class, to run at a pace I’ve been trying to achieve for three years.  I know for a fact that the kids are stronger and faster than me.

Do we even need to talk about technological superiority? Not even a question there. We all know who is going to set up the wireless network, fix the computer, and hook up the TV, right?  Not only are the kids better than us, we can barely even understand them. That’s not because we’re proud Luddites either. We’re trying, and we actually can’t understand them. In fact, I’m pretty sure we’re a trial to them when we repeatedly mix up “microprocessor” and “microcontroller.”

The kids’ superiority isn’t limited to the universal talents of the young, either.  We’ve known for more than a decade that one of the kids is far, far better at remembering what’s on the calendar than I am. There’s another who I’m pretty certain has more spiritual depth than I do.  Probably four of them write better, which is pretty much my wheelhouse, so what do you do with that?  Others are clearly kinder and even wiser.  One of the kids is practically Yoda and regulates the emotions of the entire household.   Then, just last week, I overheard a conversation where the kids were “sib-parenting,” correcting some behavior, and thought, “Dang, they’re better parents as well.” 

Having your kids pass you by has to be one of the greatest feelings in the world.  It makes me grateful that our kids don’t have to get all their qualities and talents from us. They draw from so many different people and experiences to become who they are. They also come into the world with unique qualities that I can only understand as gifts. When you look at your child and think, “They sure didn’t get that from me,” it’s humbling and amazing and gratitude-inducing all at once.  Take time to appreciate and savor the ways in which your kids are better than you.  Humanity depends on their surpassing us, after all.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Teaming with Teachers

What would you say if I asked you to fill in this blank: “My child’s teacher  . . . “ ?

I asked Google about this, and do you know what the top three searches were?  “Is mean,” “Is incompetent,” and “Doesn’t like me.”  It’s natural to feel defensive when your kid is having behavioral problems or issues with a teacher at school. 

I’ve felt that dread in the pit of my stomach when I see “Eden Prairie Schools” come up on the Caller ID. It’s normal to feel protective of your kid or want to blame the teacher, the school, the district, the world. 

What’s not okay is to stay in that emotional space. When the school calls, it’s not about you or about the teacher. It’s about your kid. You need to get your head in the game before you open your mouth or hit “compose” on an email. Overall, I’ve had overwhelmingly positive experiences with my kids’ teachers and the district in general, even when we’ve had significant issues to work on. Here’s how I settle myself down and team with educators in a productive and helpful way:

Pick up the phone. You can really get into trouble over email. If you're having any trouble being positive, or if you have written a 100-page response, delete all that and just write a short email asking when the teacher can talk. Remember that their availability for this is limited because they have a roomful of kids most of the day.

Position yourself as the rational and engaged parent.  Remind yourself and directly state at the outset that you share any concerns the teacher may have and that you do want your child to behave in school, improve academically, or whatever the problem may be. Your child, functional and successful at school, is the shared dream for both you and the teacher.  You both want the same thing and you are going to solve the problem together. You appreciate their support in helping your child learn and develop in a healthy way. Just the assurance that you are not crazy and that you do expect your child to behave goes a long way.

Bring solutions to the table.  Anytime you criticize, bring an alternative solution to the table. If the consequences the teacher is using aren’t working, tell what works at home and help adjust it to school. If an assignment isn’t appropriate for whatever reason, suggest an alternative that you think meets the underlying educational goals. Keep in mind restrictions on the teacher’s time and what’s practical in a large classroom setting. Do the grunt work of writing things out including a timeline to try out new solutions and circle back to see if they’re effective. Be the idea person who brings both hope and actionable steps to the table.

Share what you’re doing outside school to help your child. Let teachers know all the concrete steps you are taking: anything and everything from restricting video games until after homework is done to taking him to therapy, a reading tutor, or whatever else. The more effort you are showing toward working on the problem, the more special effort teachers will be willing to make for your child. Again, this is part of your “parent cred.”

Teach your child to do the same. Help your children focus on problems, not personalities, when they have issues with a teacher. As they age, help them go through the same steps of finding shared goals with teachers, bringing solutions, and sharing what they’ve done to solve the problem anytime they’re asking teachers to change something on their behalf.

Not every teacher is great, any more than we parents are always great. It's good for both sides to remember - "that person across the conference table, or at the other end of the email or phone is my partner in helping this child improve.”  That is our best odds for teaming with teachers to help our kids have a successful year.