Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A Different kind of Badass Parent

Most of the time, it’s pretty gratifying being the tough parent. You know what I mean. Maybe you make your kids do four hours of yard work every Saturday. Maybe they have to practice their instrument for an hour every day. You get to brag to your friends and display to the world how in control of your kids you are.  You might even go viral for taking your kid’s door off the hinges because she wouldn’t clean her room, or slapping your hoodie-clad teenage boy upside the head on the public streets for being involved in a riot. You will get a ton of generic societal approval for parenting this way. Badass parents! Woo!

Except for, when being a combative superhero isn’t really the best metaphor for parenting.

You notice that we get neither the backstory nor the end result in these strangely attractive parenting stories. What the heck was going on that house where a dispute over a messy room got to the point where somebody took out the tool box and started dismantling doors? Did that kid actually clean her room? Or did she just run away, or maybe clean it and two weeks later it’s a pit again?  Why was teenage Riot Boy on the streets in the first place, and after that maternal beat-down, did he become a straight-A student who volunteers at the soup kitchen?  

The thing that is great about these kinds of parenting stories is that the parents are involved and trying, seemingly bold and brave.  These stories are incredibly seductive, but they can also take us in the wrong direction as parents. When parenting is about power and control, that is going to become a problem for you and your child eventually - during the teenage and adult years for even the most craven and dominated child, as soon as preschool if you get one of those strong-willed types. Those kinds of kids require a kind of parenting that isn’t a battle.

Are you brave enough to ensure your kid is physically and emotionally safe?  Your kid needs to know you can be trusted to help, not to harm. When you knock on their door, you will wait for a reply because everyone needs a space. If they make a mistake, you will help work through it, not berate or mock.

Are you determined enough to spend two to ten times as much time in non-judgmental, non-directive shared activities and conversation with your kid as you do in telling them what to do? Will you build that relationship so that when you have to correct your child, they’re 100% sure that you care?

Are you bold enough to prioritize choice and control for your kid? Are they confident that you won’t just ride roughshod over them? Are you courageous enough to let them make their own absurd, frustrating and totally asinine mistakes without mockery or scolding?

Are you heroic enough to collaborate with your kids because they need both their own ideas and yours? Are your kids certain that you’ll listen and actually care enough to get their buy-in and draw out their own ideas?

This kind of parenting won’t get you a million likes on Facebook, but I think most kids respond to it, and some won’t respond to anything else. If you’re trying as hard as you can and not getting anywhere with your rebellious child, try being this different kind of badass parent:  one who is persistently, heroically present, involved, safe, trustworthy, respectful and collaborative. It takes as much guts as anything, and it works.

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.