The Challenges of Parenting Teenagers

web.ae_.racetonowhere.picA_There’s probably not a day that goes by that I wonder if I’m doing the “right” things in raising my children. Am I too laid back? Am I too permissive? Do I not push hard enough?  Do I push too hard?  Do I not set the right expectations?

Last week I went to see the new documentary “Race to Nowhere.”  It is a documentary by a mom turned film maker about the heightened pressures on today’s youth (placed upon them by the school AND parents), and the resulting ill effects – stress disorders, depression, and ultimately suicide.  From the moment they enter high school (and for many kids this pressure has started years earlier), they are grooming themselves to be accepted by “the right” college.  They need to get straight As, they need to excel at a sport, which many times means year-round and multi-hour daily commitment.  They have to be involved in all the right extra-curricular activities, and hopefully have a leadership position.  They have to put in their community service hours every week, and at the same time figure out just what is unique about them that will capture an admissions officer’s attention.  A pretty tall order, even for the most motivated and accomplished kids.  Is there any downtime in these kids’ lives anymore?  Not much. Well, maybe their meals.

Everyone seems to be playing this game.  Unfortunately the passing of the No Child Left Behind Act several years ago has removed much of the creative oriented and problem solving curriculum from the schools.  Teachers have been forced to teach to the test, and in doing so need to forego styles and practices of teaching which would most likely be so much more beneficial.   A professor from a medical school was interviewed in Race to Nowhere.  She stated that the transition in the types of students coming in to school over the past 10 years is dramatic.  These students want to be told exactly what is going to be on the test.  They don’t know how to problem solve or apply critical thinking.  ”What’s going to happen with our future doctors when a patient walks in with obscure symptoms?”, she asks.  These students won’t know what to do.  That’s pretty scary stuff.

High Schools are in a race to offer more AP classes, and encourage kids to participate in more of these demanding courses. What once was an opportunity for seniors – (I remember taking 2 AP classes my senior year) – is now being pedaled to sophomores, and is dominating a good part of the Juniors and Seniors’ schedules. Now it’s a race to see how many AP classes you can have on your schedule or resume.  My children’s high school has a local business funded grant that pays for performance on AP exams.  Score a 4 or 5, and earn $100.  Is that a good thing or a bad thing?  My head and heart tell me it is a bad thing, but I know there are many that disagree.

Colleges too are playing the numbers game.  With the common application, annual applications are increasing by the double digits year after year, allowing the colleges to promote their lower yields.  This makes the importance of achieving high (near perfect) GPAs and SAT scores all the more critical, as these two measures serve as a sorting mechanism in the application process.

Another output of this “perfect storm” of pressure is that cheating is at an all time high.  In our school system, which is a completely integrated system, you see kids of all types.  There are children arriving at school who have horrific home lives – perhaps living in a shelter with one parent, while the other parent is in jail.  It’s hard to imagine how these kids can hold their lives together – and if anyone cheats, you would imagine it’s those that get no support outside of the school, and may lack any direction or motivation within the school.  But no, the cheating is happening at the other end of the spectrum.  And it’s rampant.  Kids passing along cheat sheets during an AP US History exam…. or someone pulling out their iPhone to google a question.  This drive to succeed, when there is little time to breathe, is backfiring.

Homework is another culprit.  I know parents who have pulled their children out of the public school system in elementary school because they weren’t receiving enough homework.  They would almost boast , on the sides of the Little League field, of the 3 to 4 hours of homework their 4th or 5th grader would get in the private school.  Homework, to some, serves as a marker for success.  However, research shows there is no correlation between homework and success.  In fact, studies show that homework can hinder success.   An AP Biology teacher  interviewed in the movie decided to reduce the amount of homework he was giving by 50%.  The result? More success on the AP exams.  As is true everywhere, homework dominates the nightly dynamic at home – kids sitting in their rooms, trying to get through pages upon pages of monotonous, dry text.  The time is being logged, but is anything sinking in to this exhausted mind and body at 10PM?  At least in college you don’t have to be up by 6, and put in a full day of class and athletics, which typically gets you home by 6 or 7, at which time you need to sit down for another 6 hours to slog through all the homework.

It’s interesting that this movie is hitting us at the same time we’re learning about the practices of the “Tiger Mom” – the lawyer from New Haven, Connecticut who didn’t allow her two daughters to have play dates or sleep overs, who demanded straight As, who would force a child to sit at a piano for hours until a piece was perfected (even foregoing dinner to do so).  What is the result?  Well, she has two very accomplished daughters, who have earned straight As all through school and are extremely talented musicians.  Yes, they most likely will be admitted to “the college” their parents have in mind for them.  But are they happy?  Were the sacrifices of having a normal, balanced childhood worth it?  It’s ripe for debate.

Contrast the Tiger Mom ‘s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother to another book that was just recommended – The Blessing of the B- by Wendy Mogul.  More interesting to me is the fact that this recommended book was offered up in a quick by chance exchange and not preceded by any of the foregoing discussion.  This whole dilemma is obviously front and center in so many of our minds.

It’s a baffling volleyball of emotions with no clear way to navigate.  So… do we push for the A, or settle for the B-?  Do we ask for their personal best, and be satisfied with the result, no matter what it is?  I don’t know what the answer is – and it’s a topic that takes up some share of mind on a daily basis.  I do know that it is worthwhile to keep a pulse on our children’s well being, help them keep all the craziness in perspective and find some downtime.

Politics: From the Declaration of Independence to Witchcraft

DOI-Hancocks-DefianceI took my two teenagers to see the musical 1776 last weekend.  While I had seen this show many years ago, watching it this time struck a whole new chord with me.  As it opens up with the Second Continental Congress in session with President John Hancock presiding, the first point made very clear is that decision making doesn’t come easily to this group of men.  Bickering, discourse and stubbornness prevail; some are motivated by doing things for the greater good, and others motivated by doing things that will drive personal prosperity … there really seemed to be little difference between today’s Congress and the initial Congress that guided the birth of America 234 years ago – at least on a macro level.

John Adams was not a popular man – but without him, July 4th would have never happened.  Starting with a divided split among the Congress (half voting for the Declaration, the other half not understanding why we would ever want to be divided from the great country of Britain), Adams, Franklin and ultimately Jefferson were the leaders that guided the very painful process of getting to a signed Declaration of Independence.  The curtains dropped, with an illuminated stage sized Declaration in view, and I was touched at witnessing all the work and effort that went into giving birth to our great nation.  As I was driving out of the parking lot, I turned to the kids and said “did that give you the chills at the end?”  They both looked at me like I was crazy and replied no.

That brings me to the present and the climate before the mid-term elections.  Witnessing what is going on in the political world, you either want to explode, or just sit down and laugh in disbelief.  Divisive is almost too nice a word to describe it – it’s downright domestic warfare.  Sometimes I wish we could blow up the political ideologies associated with the Democratic, Republican, and Tea Parties, and discuss the common goals for the country – as one.  Aren’t we all in this together?

I do feel sorry for Obama.  He inherited quite a mess, and we can all argue ‘til the cows come home about whether his policies and actions have been the right ones or the wrong ones.  He still has a 91% approval rating among African Americans, but across the rest of America, he’s languishing in the mid forties.  This of course spells trouble during the mid term elections, where historically, a President who has under 50% approval at mid-terms looses on average 36 seats.  The Republicans would need to take 40 seats to gain majority.  We are a country of discontent – and I really think at this present time, any President, whether Democrat or Republican would be struggling.

For all the public lashings that Obama is receiving, I do feel a little better when I look back at history.  First, the President’s party almost always looses seats in the mid term elections, regardless of how he is rated by the public.  And there are some pretty heavy hitters that have had low approval ratings at mid term, and in fact lower than where Obama’s rating stands today.  Reagan’s first term mid-term approval rating was only 42%; Clinton’s first term mid-term approval rating was 45%; and George W. Bush’s second term mid-term approval was 38% (the lowest ever mid-term approval rating, followed by Truman at 40% in 1950).

I guess only time will tell.  Maybe Christine O’Donnell truly is the magic bullet.  Witchcraft may be the only way to accomplish anything in politics moving forward.

Time Is Running Out …

off-limits-tvThe clock is ticking, and the ticks are sounding more ominous to me these days. We have only one more year to teach our daughter how to be self-sufficient before she heads off to college.

A friend of Caitlin’s (and new college freshman) recently posted that she had just done her own laundry for the first time ever. While Caitlin has that skill under her belt, it got me thinking: What life skills do I want my oldest daughter to possess before she leaves our house. Here’s my list:

Advocate for herself with authority figures. Phew. Caitlin’s had lots of practice at this. She’s been approaching her teachers, school counselors and coaches to plead her case since middle school. I have no problem seeing her speaking up as needed when at college.

Clean up after herself. Alas, this considerate behavior (most appreciated when living with roommates) is not automatic. Thus, we have a recently instituted policy of placing TV’s and computers off-limits if there are empty bottles, plates, other refuse left in that space. (Above pic is a result of yesterday’s infraction.)

Manage money. This skill is also a work-in-progress. Caitlin has a debit card with which to access her allowance and a portion of her wages. She’s learning how to text to get the current balance so she won’t be surprised when she goes to pay for Chipotle and discovers she only has $3.50 in her account (not a hypothetical scenario).

Get up in the morning with no parental prompts. Another skill Caitlin’s been practicing since middle school. Vanity (gotta have time for that beauty regimen) and a desire to get a nearby parking spot are sufficient incentives for her to wake up on time without my help.

Anything else Caitlin should be able to do before going off on her own?  Suggestions are welcome!

Tick. Tick. Tick. (And I’m doing my best to ignore that ticking noise …)

One Word: Spain!

IN08_SPAIN_141129fToday is a good day. My 16 year old son, David, is homeward bound from Spain, after spending just over two weeks there in Cadiz, living with a host family, and attending school.  What a lucky guy – first to have the ability to take advantage of such a trip, a trip offered through our high school, with three Spanish teachers in the lead.  Second, to travel with good friends and enjoy another culture.  He and his friends are residing in the seaside town of Cadiz, and after a “hard” morning at school, an afternoon on the beach seems to be the matter of course.  He has been living with his host Mom, who is reportedly a great cook (“much better food than what you can get in the restaurants”), and also has a teen room mate from France and one from Germany.  Spanish, of course, is the mode of operandi.

And how lucky is he to be in Spain when the country wins the World Cup for the first time in history!!  As my Dad said yesterday, “if Spain wins the World Cup today, people will be drinking for a week.”  Hope they’re conducting sobriety tests on the pilots today!

Our conversations with David have been brief, but reveal that he is having an amazing time, is totally enthralled with his surroundings and pace of life, and I know this experience will mark one of the “greats” of his life.

I also know he is truly lucky.  After sharing a conversation with David with my family, my sister in law wrote about how wonderful it would be if every American could spend some time abroad.  I loved a quote that she shared from Mark Twain:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”

Luckily, given our kids have navigated through a very diverse public school system, I believe they approach life with a very open mind.  But I’m sure this trip has been an eye-opener, even if it is to realize just how small this world really is.  While we all come from different places and may speak a totally different language, we all achieve grounding in realizing our core is very similar.

Congratulations Spain!

Finding the Time to Say What Means the Most

parentsMy husband and I attended a friend’s daughter’s Bat Mitzvah this weekend.  We always enjoy these services, but the most meaningful and special part for me is toward the end of the service when each parent tells their child how special they are and what a fine person they are growing into, and retells special family moments.  It almost seems like a private moment between this trio of individuals, which an entire temple full of people get to observe.

It’s what we all say we should do often with all of those around us who are special – expressing just how and why each individual in our lives is so meaningful to us.  But when it comes down to it, it just doesn’t always happen for whatever reason. I think we’re all good at handing out praise when our children have done well, and saying “I love you,” but the deep heart felt prose that takes some reflection probably does not happen easily or often enough.

Sure, I try to write a few special and meaningful sentences in birthday cards and Valentine cards, but still, it’s just not the same thing.  So as I sit here, I try to figure out how I could incorporate, in a most special way, a more regular practice of letting my children in particular know just how much I love them and how special they are.  It strikes me that around the Thanksgiving table might be a wonderful way of creating a new tradition that gives thanks to those around us.  We certainly do that now, but not in any specific, personally touching way.

What about you?  Has anyone had the occasion to prepare in great depth special commentary about their children?  Graduations and weddings are certainly ample opportunities, but how nice to be able to do it as they’re growing.

Let me know if you have any thoughts.

A Kick In The Family Jewels

jewelsMost families have certain traditions and values they believe in. As parents with noble intentions, we often try to instill these important values – family “jewels” if you will – in our children.

At some point, our children inevitably do or say something that runs counter to or challenges those family beliefs. For unsuspecting and well-intentioned parents, these confrontations over values can be like a proverbially kick to the family jewels. For example, I remember the first time a child of mine lied to me.  With my values of honesty and open communication, I was devastated and convinced that I had failed as a parent.

Such were the thoughts that swirled in my head as I read the dilemma of Slate columnist Emily Bazelon: her elementary-aged sons were rebelling against their family tradition of hosting a birthday party book swap.  Early in their children’s lives, Bazelon and her husband decided to take a stand against the excess of material possessions which is true for so many American kids. So, for birthday parties, guests were asked to bring a wrapped book instead of a gift for the birthday boy; at the end of the party, each person left with a new book (plus a party favor).

Curious how my children (now teens) would react to the idea of party devoid of presents, I read Bazelon’s piece to Caitlin and Jackson. “That’s ridiculous,” Jackson sputtered, alternating between anger and sympathy over the lack of birthday presents. “It seems like the parents are trying too hard to make the point,” said a slightly chagrined Caitlin.

Bazelon received lots of feedback on Slate.com about her family tradition (much of it could have been written by my kids). A few offered alternatives on how to pass along the anti-consumption message to children.

As for me, I think the book swap party was a terrific idea whose time had passed. I salute the Bazelon parents in their efforts to teach their kids values and hope they come up with other nifty ideas that are a better fit for the kids’ stage in life.

I’d love to beg, borrow or steal others’ ideas about passing along values to our children. (And that last verb is NOT a family value in our house – really!)

Thoughts?

It’s All About the Small Things…

fs_985330It’s the forties curse.  I remember when I had just turned 40, a slightly older friend told me that I would not pass through this decade without the probable loss of a parent.  An eerie predicition, and I am sad to say, my wonderful mother passed away unexpectedly on January 28th.  While her health and ability to enjoy the simple pleasures in life were on the decline, her voice was still strong and cheerful on the other end of the phone line.  How awful to lose someone so dear, and to suppress the pain, I find myself rationalizing her passing:

  • She lived a full 75 years – touching and shaping many lives, full of smiles and wonderful experiences
  • Despite declining health, she had no pain and was quickly taken away from us in a peaceful passing; we were truly lucky to not witness suffering or the loss of independence that a nursing home would have subjected her to down the road
  • I feel grateful that she celebrated momentous milestones in her life – the marriage to a wonderful, “always fun around the corner” type husband, the birth of two daughters and six grandchildren, and the celebration of 50 years of marriage.

While she will be sorely missed, I am so grateful she lived a long, meaningful and giving life. Her posititive and loving imprint is on all of us that she knew.  In reflection, as a mother, it makes you think about what it is that your children will remember about you – what are the most meaningful imprints you can impart?

I find the imprints of the fabric my mother wove for me are comprised of many of the small things in life – whether it is the late night snacks of anchovies on butter and saltine crackers (yes, weird I know), her bravery to take teenage girls abroad on extended travel (I would never have the guts to do so), her ability to make everything so nice with her special little touches (even down to the way she folded the bath towels), making me steak and egg breakfasts on the days of my swim meets, the monthly package of newspaper clippings from our hometown paper that she sent my sister and I to keep us informed of local news and happenings after we left home, her meticulous way of writing thank you notes, mentioning every gift, how much she liked it, and how she was using it.

These memories are just the tip of the iceberg of the many small things that you can almost take for granted when they are happening, but upon reflection you realize that it’s the small things that make the big lasting imprint and tell the greatest story of love and caring.

Here’s to Nancy Garfield Rice – one truly fantastic lady.

A Mother is Born

A dear friend who has two sons adopted from Korea forwarded a video starring ten moms (including herself) who have adopted children.  The lead-in line to the video is – “When a child is adopted, a mother is born.”

It’s very heartwarming and I thought it was worth sharing, especially with so many children around the world in need of a family.

For the short clip on you tube, click here.

To see the full five minute video, click here.

If adoption is something that you have been considering, I think this just may inspire you to take the next step.

High School – Now vs. Then

the_lodger_1-731699I received this email the other day about the differences between how we handle situations in high school today vs. the 1950′s, and found it thought provoking. Many of the comparisons ring quite true in my mind – although some are exaggerated for effect. It makes me wonder what the true cornerstones of this societal shift have been over the years – that have made us arrive at such a different style of parenting and administering to our kids.  It’s hard to imagine that as a whole, kids are that significantly different now vs. then, although I do agree that the elements that our kids are exposed to (via music, reality television and internet) puts them in a much different domain than kids of the fifties and sixties.

I think this certainly plays into the now established norms of helicoptering parenting as well.  Any ideas on what has driven this major societal shift?

HIGH SCHOOL — 1959 vs. 2009

Scenario  1:

Jack  goes quail hunting before school and then pulls into the school  parking lot with his shotgun in his truck’s gun rack.

1959  -
Vice Principal comes over, looks at Jack’s shotgun, goes to his car and gets his shotgun to show Jack.
2009  -
School  goes into lock down, FBI called, Jack hauled off to jail and never sees his truck or gun again. Counselors called in for traumatized students and teachers.




Scenario  2:

Johnny and Mark get into a fist fight after school.

1959  -
Crowd gathers. Mark wins. Johnny and Mark shake hands and end up buddies.
2009  -
Police called and SWAT team arrives — they arrest both Johnny and Mark. They are both charged with assault and both expelled even though Johnny started it.




Scenario  3:

Jeffrey will not be still in class, he disrupts other students.

1959  -
Jeffrey sent to the Principal’s office and given a good paddling by the  Principal. He then returns to class, sits still and does not disrupt class again..
2009  -
Jeffrey is given huge doses of Ritalin. He becomes a zombie. He is then tested for ADD. The school gets extra money from the state because Jeffrey has a disability.


Scenario  4:

Billy breaks a window in his neighbor’s car and his Dad gives him a whipping with his belt.

1959  -
Billy is more careful next time, grows up normal, goes to college and becomes a successful businessman.
2009  -
Billy’s dad is arrested for child abuse. Billy is removed to foster care and joins a gang. The state psychologist is told by Billy’s sister that she remembers being abused herself and their dad goes to prison.  Billy’s mom has an affair with the psychologist.




Scenario  5:

Mark gets a headache and takes some aspirin to school.

1959
- Mark  shares his aspirin with the Principal out on the smoking  dock.
2009
- The police are called and Mark is expelled from school for drug violations. His car is then searched for drugs and weapons.



Scenario  6:
Pedro fails high school English.
1959
- Pedro  goes to summer school, passes English and goes to  college.
2009
- Pedro’s cause is taken up by state. Newspaper articles appear nationally explaining that teaching English as a requirement for graduation is racist ACLU files class action lawsuit against the state school system and Pedro’s English teacher.  English is then banned from  core curriculum. Pedro is given his diploma anyway but ends up mowing lawns for a living because he cannot speak  English..


Scenario  7:
Johnny takes apart leftover firecrackers from the Fourth of July, puts them in a model airplane paint bottle and blows up a red ant bed..

1959  -
Ants die.
2009 -
ATF, Homeland Security and the FBI are all called. Johnny is charged with domestic terrorism. The FBI investigates his parents  – and all siblings are removed from their home and all computers are confiscated. Johnny’s dad is placed on a terror watch list and is never allowed to fly again.


Scenario  8:
Johnny falls while running during recess and scrapes his knee. He is found crying by his teacher, Mary. Mary hugs him to comfort  him.

1959  -
In a short time, Johnny feels better and goes on playing..
2009  -
Mary is accused of being a sexual predator and loses her job. She faces 3 years in State Prison.  Johnny undergoes 5 years of therapy.


Tips for Acing the College Interview

CollegeCampusWhat’s that smell in the air? Not chestnuts roasting on an open fire … No, it’s the smell of college angst creeping up and swirling around high school juniors and seniors (and their parents!). Wise Woman Susan wrote today’s post to help quell the anxiety of students facing the dreaded college interview.

As a follow-up to Anne’s recent posts regarding the college admissions process, I wanted to share some thoughts regarding the admissions interview. For the past 8 years, I’ve conducted over 50 admissions interviews on behalf of Georgetown University. Admittedly, not every college uses the interview in the same way, but I do feel that there are some basic concepts that can be applied to the process.

Too often, I meet with students who don’t seem to have a clear understanding of the goal of the interview, and so arrive unprepared (and very anxious). While everyone understands the importance of the other elements in the admissions process (grades, SAT scores, extracurricular activities, etc.), I often feel that the admissions interview is not given as much focus. (I’m actually not sure why this is – if anyone has any thoughts on this, I would love to hear them!)

Put simply, an admissions interview can be equated to a job interview. As adults, we’ve learned just how much preparation is required. But since high school students generally haven’t had the opportunity to experience this type of interview, we need to clue them in.

First, it is important to understand the goals of the admissions interview:

  1. Help the college to make a personal connection with the applicant
  2. Provide the school with an opportunity to gather additional insights into the student’s background, motivations and goals, and assess how well they would fit with the school’s academic environment and culture
  3. Provide the student with an opportunity to gather additional information about the school that they were not able to learn through the website (i.e., school culture, student experience), so that they can better determine if the school is right for them

While it is true that the admissions interview is used to evaluate a student, I try to convey to the student that it should be viewed as a “friendly” process – that the goal is not to find faults, but to assess fit.

In preparation for the interview, the student should take some time to think about the following (it may be helpful for the student to write down their answers, in order to clarify their thoughts):

  • What are their educational goals?
  • What are their career goals (these can be specific goals if known, or just general thoughts if the student is still undecided)
  • What do they want to communicate:  strengths, accomplishments, unique aspects of their background, etc.

Basically, they should come to the interview with a “point of view” about who they are, and where they would like to go in the future.

I also suggest that the student learn as much about the school as possible beforehand through the school’s website. This will show the interviewer that they have a serious interest in the school, and are not just applying on a whim, or because their parents want them to (this may actually be the case, but there is no need to shout it out). I confess that when a student doesn’t have at least a basic understanding of the school, a red flag is raised, and this does factor into my overall assessment.

Finally, the student should put together a list of any questions that they may have. As I mentioned earlier, this is also their chance to collect as much information as possible about the school so that they can decide if it would be the right choice for them. I encourage students to ask about anything — and I’ve gotten some REALLY interesting questions – but I appreciate curiosity, and am always happy to answer them.

When it comes time for the actual interview, the best advice that I can give the applicant is the following:

  1. RELAX!
  2. “Be Yourself” (i.e., don’t try to be who you think the interview wants you to be).
  3. This is your chance to shine – so don’t be afraid to talk up your strengths and accomplishments (I actually tell the students I interview that it’s okay to brag).
  4. Remember that a good interview will be a 2-sided conversation, so be ready to participate:
  • Elaborate on answers
  • Give examples when possible
  • Ask questions

When a student has prepared for their interview, the conversation flows more easily and ultimately I am able to get a much better understanding of their background, qualifications and goals. They also reflect a positive attitude, interest in the school, and most importantly, confidence. As you can imagine, this tends to translate to a better assessment. And while I won’t necessarily take points off when a student is unprepared, I always come away feeling that it was unfortunate they did not receive guidance and insight into the process ahead of time.

Hope this helps!

I don't want to be a passenger in my own life.
Diane Ackerman

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